The Lost Graves of Tarawa: Hastily buried following one of World War II’s most horrific battles, the remains of missing Marines are coming home

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2017)

Tom Vosmer doesn’t recall exactly when he learned his cousin had been killed during the Battle of Tarawa. He might have been 6 or 7. The loss was nonetheless devastating. “Even at that age, I remember being deeply affected by the news,” he says. “The name ‘Tarawa’ was imprinted in my mind very powerfully.”

For decades, however, Tom didn’t realize the breadth of the tragedy his family had endured following the bloody assault on a key Japanese stronghold in the South Pacific in November 1943. Pfc. Ronald Vosmer and hundreds of other Marines who were killed in just three days of battle were hastily buried and then lost. By early 1949, a military review board declared many of the remains, including Vosmer’s, unrecoverable. Scores of families were deprived of the certainty of knowing what happened to their loved ones and the solace of bringing them home for burial.

“I can’t imagine how his parents must have felt,” Tom says.

Seven decades later, the family finally has closure. In October, Vosmer finally came home to rest in the Denver cemetery where his parents and sister are buried – thanks largely to the efforts of History Flight, a nonprofit group that has spent more than a dozen years and tens of thousands of hours finding the lost Marines of Tarawa. “Such a pity this could not have happened while his parents were still alive,” says Tom, who traveled from his home in Australia to attend the funeral in Colorado. “But at least it has happened, which gives us some comfort.”

OPERATION GALVANIC

Providing comfort to the families of the missing Tarawa Marines has been an excruciating challenge, emblematic of the price the tiny atoll exacted as the United States attempted to push back the Japanese.

The Battle of Tarawa was essentially the battle of Betio, a two-mile ribbon of sand and coral in the Gilbert Islands about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. Protected by a network of bunkers, machine-gun nests, anti-aircraft batteries and other armaments, Tarawa was the most heavily fortified atoll the United States invaded in the Pacific. A Japanese admiral reportedly claimed the United States couldn’t take it with a million men.

The U.S. invasion, known as Operation Galvanic, was crucial to securing a foothold in the central Pacific from which to launch assaults on the Marshall and Caroline islands. It was a near-calamity from the start. Most of the enemy fortifications survived intense pre-invasion shelling from U.S. warships. Aerial bombing runs were late or didn’t materialize, says Dean Ladd, then a 23-year-old first lieutenant and platoon leader. Lower-than-anticipated tides stranded U.S. landing craft offshore, making them easy targets for the Japanese.

On the first day of the invasion, Ladd’s battalion circled the island in open Higgins boats for 21 hours waiting for orders to land – orders that never came because of communication failures. When the battalion commander finally decided to go for it on the second morning, their fleet of landing craft ran aground on a reef 600 yards from shore, forcing the Marines to wade to the aptly named Red Beach 2 in the face of withering enemy gunfire.

“We got slaughtered,” says Ladd, who was shot in the stomach as he led his platoon to shore. A fellow Marine dragged him back to a landing craft that took Ladd and other wounded Marines back to USS Sheridan. An abdominal specialist on board saved Ladd’s life.

“Can you imagine the odds of having an abdominal specialist?” he says. “He had to patch up my bladder and take out part of my large intestine. I was called his wonder patient.”

Ladd recovered and went on to see action on Saipan and Tinian. Now 96 and living in Spokane, Wash., he has written three books, including “Faithful Warriors,” a vivid memoir of his World War II combat tour that included all of the 2nd Marine Division’s major campaigns.

AFTERMATH

U.S. losses at Tarawa were staggering. Vosmer and more than 1,100 other Americans were killed “during three days of the most concentrated combat of the war,” Ladd says. That’s roughly equivalent to the number of U.S. servicemembers killed in six months of fighting on Guadalcanal, according to the History Channel.

Another 2,500 U.S. troops were wounded, Ladd adds. All but 17 of approximately 4,500 Japanese troops died in the fighting or killed themselves.

The public outcry over the casualty count was intense. “FDR decided to let the general public know what war was really like,” he says. “Boy, did it hit the fan.”

While Ladd was recovering from the damage the machine-gun round had done to his gut, the Marines buried their dead in shallow graves. Construction crews quickly expanded the island’s airfield and built other infrastructure needed for Betio to serve the U.S. advance. And when the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company returned in 1946 and 1947, there was confusion as to where the American dead were buried.

In the end, the 604th found roughly half of the U.S. servicemembers who died on Tarawa. Of those, 471 were identified and buried in U.S. cemeteries, says Kurt Hiete, past commander of American Legion Post 283 in Pacific Palisades, Calif., who founded the Never Forget Our Veterans Foundation after visiting Tarawa in 2010.

Another 104 were buried as unknowns in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, aka the Punchbowl, in Hawaii. As many as 500 remained on the rolls of Tarawa’s missing.

Back home, families struggled to make sense of their losses and the lack of information about what happened to their loved ones. Vosmer’s family built a wall of silence around their grief. They were told he was missing in action and chances of finding him were slim, says Ron Harrison, Vosmer’s nephew and namesake. “My mother was a very emotional person. She never talked about it because it was pretty hard on her.”

That void remained until 2013, when Ron read a story in the San Jose Mercury News about a group called History Flight that was investing thousands of dollars and research hours on technology to locate American MIAs all over the world, including the lost Marines of Tarawa. He contacted Clay Bonnyman Evans, whose grandfather, Medal of Honor recipient Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, also died on Tarawa. Two years later, History Flight located the remains of 35 Marines and turned them over to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the branch of the Pentagon charged with recovering the more than 80,000 U.S. servicemembers who have gone missing in action since World War II.

Harrison and his sister, LuLane, were asked to submit DNA samples. And in March 2016, they learned that LuLane’s DNA was a match for the remains found next to Evans’ grandfather. “It was exciting to think that it had meant something – that it had come full circle,” says LuLane, who like her brother lives in California. Their uncle was coming home. “History Flight made it all happen,” she adds.

HONOR GUARD

Meanwhile, in Healdsburg, Calif., the family of another lost Tarawa Marine, Pfc. John Saini, contacted American Legion Post 111 finance officer Bob Taylor about using its hall for a small family funeral reception. Taylor reserved a larger building instead – the nearby Villa Chanticleer – and tried to convince Saini’s niece that it was the minimum amount of space needed to accommodate everyone who would turn out for the memorial service.

“Family members don’t always realize how big a deal it is to veterans to have somebody brought home after 70 years,” Taylor says. “They don’t think it means anything to anybody outside of the family.”

Post 111 contacted the local newspaper, and by the day of the service even San Francisco TV stations were covering the story. American Legion Riders escorted Saini’s casket 90 miles from the San Francisco airport to Healdsburg. Along the route, fire departments had their ladder trucks stationed on overpasses with U.S. flags hoisted from the top rung and firefighters saluting the passing motorcade. For Taylor, Healdsburg once again felt like the small town that adopted a U.S. battalion during the Korean War.

Both the funeral and reception were packed. Hundreds of people attended. “It’s about the Legion showing up and honoring a veteran,” Taylor says. “It’s who we are.”

Liz McDowell, Saini’s niece, was stunned.

“The American Legion got to work and sure enough, everything fell into place,” McDowell says. “They did so much more than we ever hoped for. I can’t put it into words how grateful we are.”

Hiete, who attended, was also impressed. And he knew that Post 111’s effort was a model for what other Legion posts should do to welcome the lost Marines of Tarawa home. “There’s no better way for the local community to know about The American Legion than to have it participate in these funerals,” he says.

Hiete put Vosmer’s family in touch with the Colorado American Legion. Service officer Robert Rhodes went to work doing everything from dispatching Legion Riders to escort Vosmer’s casket to organizing a luncheon and funeral reception and inviting Colorado’s congressional delegation to speak. Vosmer’s family took note.

“It was just something very special,” Ron Harrison says. “Nobody personally knew him. But they took the time to come and honor my uncle. It made me proud of the military services.”

The memorial was attended by Jill Henderson, the niece of still-missing Tarawa Marine John Taylor Burke. She found hope in the return of Vosmer’s remains. “I want that happy ending for my family,” Henderson says, “while my mother and (Burke’s nephew Tom McNeely) are still alive as both are suffering from melanoma cancer.”

Amite Post 76 in Liberty, Miss., went all out for the family of James S. Smith, a local boy who died on Tarawa and was returned home in October thanks to History Flight. Department of Mississippi Commander Murry “CQ” Toney, who is a member of Post 76, put out the word and the result was a tribute the family will never forget.

“The American Legion was the greatest thing,” says Carey Smith, nephew of the fallen Marine. “I can’t tell you how much they went out of their way to help us.”

Families in Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Kentucky are repeating those sentiments, as other American Legion posts step up to honor the lost Marines of Tarawa who are finally coming home.

For Vosmer’s family, this memorial service not only brought closure but deep gratitude for the military and History Flight, and a new sense of duty to his missing comrades.

“I really lost it when they played taps,” Ron says. “I felt very honored. And I made a promise to myself: if they identify any of the other Marines, I’m going to make it to the funerals of the people who died with my uncle.”

This story originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

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Growing Veterans: A Marine Corps veteran teams up with a trauma counselor to prevent suicides, through farming, fellowship and an effort to end the stigma of getting help

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved)

Last year, an Afghanistan war veteran who had decided to kill himself drove to a century-old farm in the evergreen foothills of Skagit County, Wash., as a final trip before he died. A friend had long encouraged him to visit the former dairy operation turned organic vegetable farm. No pressure. No expectations. Just a chance to hang out with fellow veterans as they planted seeds, pulled weeds and harvested produce.

That first visit was followed by a second, a third and then several more, until Collin McInnis was focused on bringing life out of the soil rather than taking his own. These are the fruits of Growing Veterans, a small but potent nonprofit in northwest Washington co-founded by a former member of the 2/7 Marines – which has the highest suicide rate among young male veterans – and a civilian mental health counselor who turned to farming to ease her own stress.

“I can say with absolute confidence there are at least two or three veterans who, because of their involvement with us – being out in the field,connecting with other veterans – were prevented from committing suicide,” says Marine Corps veteran Chris Brown, co-founder of Growing Veterans.

“I suspect there are a lot more. I wish all the veterans from my unit who are gone could have experienced this.”

Although Growing Veterans is barely five years old, it’s experiencing remarkable success helping combat veterans ease back into civilian life, in part by reducing their isolation and eliminating the stigma of getting mental health treatment.

“One of the biggest problems is that you are a badass,” says Navy veteran Kenny Holzemer, executive director of Growing Veterans and a member of American Legion Post 7 in Bellingham. “You don’t need help from anybody. You don’t want to be seen as weak. We make it OK for them to tell their story, OK to shed a tear, OK to seek help.”

“It’s not like sitting in a windowless office with a therapist asking, ‘How does that make you feel?’” adds Mike Hackett, who served on assault ships during a 14-month tour with the Brown Water Navy in Vietnam. “Out here, they can just be who they are.”

HOMECOMING

Brown had sustained substantial wear and tear by the time he left the Marines after three combat tours in 2008. He was wounded during his second deployment and has a mild traumatic brain injury, PTSD and other conditions. He struggled to find his identity in the civilian world. He struggled with anger. He drank.

Brown’s father intervened after he ended up in a fistfight with a childhood friend and told him how a similar incident in the Navy had prompted him to get counseling. “He didn’t leave that night until I promised to get help,” Brown says.

A counselor at the Bellingham Vet Center arranged to meet Brown on Veterans Day. “He could tell over the phone I was probably somebody he should meet with right away,” Brown says. “His desire to go above and beyond inspired my trust in him. The rapport with him was amazing.”

The counselor, a retired Army medic who had dealt with his own trauma, suggested Brown try growing plants as a means of reconnecting with the world around him. Because his apartment balcony was the only available space, Brown got a large flowerpot and planted mint, cucumber and other vegetables. It was a disaster. But rather than quit, he planted larger and larger gardens.

“You are bringing life into the world and using it to sustain your own life,” he says. “After being around war and death, it was pretty cool and therapeutic.”

A year later, Brown became a work-study student at the Vet Center, where another Vietnam veteran delivered a prescient warning. “He looked me in the eye and said that when he got home, a lot of his friends committed suicide,” Brown says.

In the seven years since that conversation took place, 16 men from his unit have killed themselves, including men he knew quite well. This on top of the 41 men of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment who were killed during Brown’s combat deployments. In 2012, VA reported that Washington state tied Idaho for the highest veteran suicide rate in the nation.

Brown’s original college plan – finish a computer information systems degree so he could avoid dealing with people and his PTSD – went out the window.

“I realized as much as it sucked to go overseas and lose a lot of people, I was fortunate to be here,” he says. “The way to honor that and honor the guys who didn’t make it back was to make a career helping others transition home.”

He switched his major to human services, then spent a year working on an organic farm after earning his bachelor’s degree. That persuaded him that farming was an ideal venue for coaxing veterans out of isolation and helping them complete their journeys home. He started searching for someone with sustainable-agriculture expertise, which led him to Christina Wolf.

FARMHAND

Like Brown, Wolf knows the devastating consequences of suicide. She had been a trauma and grief counselor whose clients included children of parents who had taken their own lives. After seven years of this emotionally intense work, she closed her practice.

“I had a client who was a Vietnam veteran who committed suicide,” Wolf says. “That really left a dent in my heart.”

Wolf found solace working on the Bellingham Food Bank’s organic vegetable farm. She got a call from Brown about the time that program ended. She immediately wanted to help.

“I thought, ‘This is what I was born to do,’” she says. “It made so much sense to get people out of their apartments and into the field nurturing life. It is deeply satisfying. It is good for the human spirit.”

Brown and Wolf co-founded Growing Veterans in early 2012 and rented the same acreage that Wolf had managed for the food bank. “I just knew veterans would take to farming,” she says. “They know how to set selfish needs aside, work as a team, focus on a mission.”

Preparing organic produce for the Farmer’s Market at the Seattle VA Medical Center.

Within a year, Growing Veterans started the first farmer’s market at the Seattle VA Medical Center. Open every Thursday between May and December, it is an ideal place to connect with veterans. And the demand for its organic produce is high. The first time Growing Veterans set up a booth at the Seattle VA, it sold out in two hours.

“We brought a lot more stuff the next week,” Wolf says.

TEAMWORK

Many of the servicemembers who first got involved with Growing Veterans knew Brown from Western Washington University, where he studied. Joel Swenson, a former airborne medic, had also struggled since leaving the Army in 2011. He was surprised by what he found here.

“It blew me away how much camaraderie there is,” says Swenson, who has gone from volunteer to manager of Growing Veterans’ Starbird Farm near Mount Vernon. “It’s kind of like being back in the Army. We pull each other’s weight. And just being able to interact with other veterans who have been through the same struggle helped me a lot.”

Scotty Irwin, on the other hand, discovered Growing Veterans while trying to find help for a friend who was struggling with PTSD. In the end, Irwin came to the farm instead. A former combat medic who had a career in emergency medicine, she had experienced significant personal loss, including the suicide of a veteran with whom she had trained.

“I liked the idea of working together collectively and working outside and doing something physical,” says Irwin, Growing Veterans’ market manager and a member of American Legion Post 181 in Lake Stevens. “You are reconnecting with your surroundings. And growing food is nothing short of a miracle.”

Growing Veterans’ small-scale approach to farming provides a safe and relaxed space for veterans to connect while planting and weeding. “(Here) they feel comfortable talking to someone else and they talk more,” Wolf says. “Some veterans probably find this setting more welcoming or less intimidating than a traditional support group.”

“If you share the deepest, darkest concerns of your soul when you are out among the rows of radishes and sweet corn, you know it will stay there,” Holzemer adds.

Getting your hands dirty also has significant physiological and psychological benefits. “Microbes in the soil exude a chemical that is absorbed through your skin, carried to your brain and causes your brain to release serotonin,” Wolf says. “It’s called dirt therapy. It’s as effective as Prozac.”

A Seattle University researcher who is studying Growing Veterans says the preliminary results are impressive.

“It has a significant impact on improving veterans’ emotional and social well-being,” says Arie Greenleaf, an assistant professor of counseling and a Marine Corps veteran. “Some veterans feel less isolated, less lonely and experience more hope about their future. What’s happening there is not due to chance and it’s not due to something random.”

PEER SUPPORT

As Growing Veterans flourished, its founders realized they needed to formally train employees and volunteers to assist veterans who are struggling. “Some of our people didn’t have the right listening skills,” Brown says. “Some didn’t have the comfort level or the confidence to use their own story to motivate change in another veteran.”

Brown worked with mental health professionals and veterans to develop a three-day peer support training that is now mandatory for Growing Veterans’ employees. “We learn to recognize the language of isolation,” Holzemer says. “We learn to recognize the language of self-harm.”

“Mental health counseling has a big stigma in the military and, to a certain extent, in society,” Brown adds. “With peer support, you can break it down. You can say, ‘Hey, I talked to somebody, and it helped.’”

Growing Veterans now provides peer support training to regional leaders of The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon. “We realized how needed peer support is,” Brown says. “If we can do this, maybe we can help other veterans service organizations do it as well.”

Today, Growing Veterans raises organic produce on three farms between Lynden and Auburn. They have nine paid staff, 550 members and draw volunteers from a 200-mile radius. They sell between 600 and 1,000 pounds of vegetables a week at the Seattle VA Farmer’s Market and provide produce to a half-dozen food banks. They have had requests for peer support training from individuals and groups in 30 states.

Brown earned his master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington and is seeking a job as a counselor at the same Vet Center where he first got help. He stepped away from day-to-day operations at Growing Veterans to become a licensed counselor but continues to serve as board president.

There are plenty of challenges: the constant need to find funding, concern for the veterans they might not reach in time. But there is no question that this cadre of veterans and civilian volunteers is a force of support for former warriors who are navigating their homecoming, whether they left the military in 1969 or 2016.

They see it in the veterans who go from reticent loners to effusive volunteers. They hear about it from men and women who quietly pull them aside to thank them for reaching out. They read about it in letters from people whose lives they’ve touched.

“It’s those moments when you find somebody who was seriously contemplating suicide but now has decided to live because they have a new purpose and a community of friends who care about them,” Wolf says.

“The bottom line,” Irwin adds, “is that we’re saving lives.”

This story originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

 

 

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‘Nothing wrong with you:’ Twenty-five years later, Gulf War Illness often treated as a mental condition

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2017, All Rights Reserved)

William Fuzi came home from the first Gulf War suffering from fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue, a mysterious rash and intense migraines. When he told the Marine Corps that every joint in his body was inflamed with pain, it diagnosed a bad knee and discharged Fuzi with a $3,500 severance check.

“They told me, ‘If you complain about anything else, it will just take you longer to get out,’” he says. “‘But don’t worry about it, because VA will take care of everything else.’”

Nothing could have been further from reality.

After making the rounds at 10 VA medical centers over the past 25 years, Fuzi is only getting mental-health checkups from a VA nurse practitioner despite the fact that he’s been diagnosed with physical problems long attributed to Gulf War Illness. The care doesn’t resemble anything therapeutic.

“They spend all their time trying to undiagnose me – and telling me Gulf War Illness is all in my head,” Fuzi says. “I’ve lost all hope.”

‘IT’S SO DISCOURAGING’

Fuzi’s story is typical of the approximately 200,000 veterans suffering from Gulf War Illness. Even today, VA appears to be less than accepting of research showing that exposure to pesticides, chemical weapons and an experimental medication inflicted debilitating diseases on a third of U.S. servicemembers, and a similar percentage of the British, Australian and Canadian troops who served with the multinational coalition that defeated Saddam Hussein. Instead, VA insists that Gulf War Illness is a psychological problem. Its latest clinical practice guidelines direct medical staff to send Gulf War veterans with complaints like Fuzi’s to mental health treatment.

“I am painfully reminded of the veterans of World War I who were exposed to mustard gas in the trenches of Europe,” says Roberta White, chairwoman of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health and former scientific director of the federal Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses. “These veterans did not receive support for their health problems or the hardships their families endured due to their disabilities when they returned from combat.”

“It’s so discouraging,” adds Anthony Hardie, who served in the Persian Gulf with the Army. “Gulf War veterans can’t get their claims approved. They are too sick to work. And if they go to VA, they are told they are conspiracy theorists and sent off as if they are children. Twenty-five years later, VA is still utterly failing Gulf War veterans.”

VA did not respond to questions for this story.

Gulf War veterans started experiencing excruciating joint and muscle pain, debilitating fatigue and gastrointestinal problems, rashes, respiratory issues, migraines and other illnesses during and soon after their deployment in 1990 and 1991. As the number of veterans reporting similar problems grew following the war, their collection of medical issues became known as Gulf War Illness. Scientists and servicemembers suspected the cause was chemical exposure. VA, and initially DoD, wrote it off as stress.

Hardie got a dose of this skepticism when he sought medical help for his “Kuwaiti cough” – he’d been expelling black sputum from his lungs for months – upon returning to Fort Bragg, N.C.,  after the war. “I heard my medic out in the hallway telling a doctor I was ‘another one of those Gulf War veterans who thinks he’s sick,’” he says. “I vowed to never seek treatment again until I was out of the military.”

His VA experience was equally discouraging, he says. “The designated Gulf War doctor at the Madison, Wis., VA told me, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you Gulf War vets. It’s all in your heads. You just need to forget about it … get on with your lives and get past it.’”

Research has consistently shown that Gulf War Illness was not caused by combat stress, which is not surprising given the circumstances. The actual conflict was short: a six-week air campaign followed by a four-day ground war. “Most veterans were never in battlefield areas and didn’t see combat,” says epidemiologist Lea Steele, who conducts Gulf War veterans research at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “And PTSD is far less prevalent in Gulf War veterans than in veterans of other conflicts.”

Multiple studies have reinforced the fact that Gulf War Illness wasn’t caused by psychological issues, adds Steele, who like White served as scientific director of the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses. That group reviewed the extensive research into the causes of Gulf War Illness. “The data were very consistent – wartime trauma, stress, service in combat, seeing dead bodies, were not associated with Gulf War Illness,” Steele says.

White was part of a team at the Boston VA that gathered health data on 2,000 Gulf War veterans who returned to the United States through Fort Devens, Mass. That data also showed the rate of PTSD and psychological problems related to the war to be quite low, she says. But veterans who reported pesticide exposure during their Persian Gulf deployment appeared to be sicker.

A few years later, White and her colleagues did more extensive examinations of some of those same Fort Devens veterans at VA’s request. They found that three types of neurotoxic exposure were common among veterans suffering from Gulf War Illness: pesticides, an experimental medication called pyridostigmine bromide (PB) given to troops to protect them from the effects of a possible nerve gas attack, and exposure to chemical weapons released when coalition forces blew up Iraqi ammunition dumps. DoD now estimates that 100,000 of the 700,000 U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf could have been exposed to nerve agents released after the cease-fire, when U.S. forces destroyed massive Iraqi munitions dumps at Khamisiyah, Iraq, in March 1991.

“It’s not an unexplained illness,” says White, referring to a catch-all used by VA to describe many of the medical issues associated with Gulf War Illness. “It’s a chemically induced illness.”

Steele agrees that Gulf War Illness was the result of chemical exposures. “This is the only war in which PB was given to many thousands of U.S. troops,” she says. “The evidence implicating PB is strongest – it’s a significant factor across all studies that have looked at this. Studies also link pesticide use to increased rates of Gulf War Illness.”

And a 2003 DoD investigation concluded that thousands of veterans were overexposed to pesticides during Desert Shield/Desert Storm, including more than a dozen that posed health risks. There’s also a list of other potential toxic exposures with a less definitive tie to Gulf War Illness, ranging from oil-well fires to the massive number of vaccinations given to U.S. troops.

‘TREATED LIKE TRASH’

The toll exacted by Gulf War Illness has been excruciating. Mary Baggett developed fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, persistent rashes and migraines. The painful egg-sized lump that appeared in her armpit during the conflict – characterized as harmless by a doctor she consulted during her tour – proved malignant and was finally removed when she was treated for stage 3 breast cancer three years ago.

Baggett’s oldest son, born two years after the Gulf War, has a rare bone disease and ulcerative colitis. Her youngest son has irritable bowel syndrome. She believes both conditions are linked to Gulf War Illness. Baggett’s former husband, John, also a Desert Shield/Desert Storm veteran, suffered from chronic fatigue, severe diarrhea and digestive problems that began during his Persian Gulf deployment. He fatally shot himself in 2008, weeks after a VA psychiatrist put him on Prozac – the only VA treatment he received.

Joel Krall likewise blames the Gulf War for the loss of his health and his wife, Renee, who was also a Gulf War veteran. She killed herself in December 1998, one of many Gulf War veterans in Krall’s circle who have taken their own lives. Krall also struggles. “I have suicidal ideation,” he says. “I think about it constantly.”

Most of Krall’s symptoms started while he was in the Middle East. The skin problems were the most obvious. “Nobody knows what the fungus is,” he says. “It does the whole-body migration thing. I had it in my crotch, my thighs. It’s not life-threatening, but it can be debilitating.”

Krall also suffered substantial gastrointestinal problems – “I was passing copious amounts of blood” – urinary tract issues and developed multiple chemical sensitivity in the Persian Gulf. Renee killed herself just as Krall was preparing his first VA disability claim. It took 10 years and a major health crisis before he could bring himself to restart the process. Today, he is considered 100 percent disabled by VA for damage to his spine and other problems, but nothing related to Gulf War Illness. That’s not a surprise given that VA rejects 80 percent of all Gulf War Illness claims, according to Veterans for Common Sense.

Like many Gulf War veterans, he believes the unusually high rejection rate is deliberate. “It goes back to what happened with Vietnam veterans and Agent Orange,” he says. “VA’s payout would double overnight.”

Money isn’t the point. “I feel disrespected … treated like trash,” Krall says. “I think most of us deserve to be taken care of if we were injured in the line of duty.” But he doesn’t have much hope for change. “I think we’re forgotten,” he says of Gulf War veterans. “You don’t see it in the news. Nobody cares that it’s been 25 years.”

During the darkest days of the past two and a half decades, Gulf War veterans such as Hardie and David Winnett have pressed DoD, VA and the medical research community to keep searching for causes and cures. Hardie started a website, www.91outcomes.com, to help Americans who served in the first Gulf War, and Krall and others credit him for helping navigate VA’s complicated claims system.

Winnett, a Marine who worked his way up from private to captain during his 20-year career, was a Gulf War Illness skeptic until bilateral muscle and joint pain, hand and arm tremors and other issues overtook him.

“I was reaching up to close the bed cover on my pickup and it instantly felt like someone hit my hands with a hammer,” Winnett says of the onset of his some of his worst symptoms. His chronic fatigue, joint pain and cognitive problems became so intense that he had to leave his six-figure job as fleet manager for a large city in Southern California.

Today, Winnett runs a Facebook support group that includes 10,000 Gulf War veterans and families. They help each other with claims, follow research developments and reach out when someone is in despair – which is common not only because VA rejects the majority of disability claims, but also because it insists that Gulf War veterans only need PTSD treatment. When Gulf War veterans gets PTSD ratings, Winnett says, their illnesses will be dismissed as psychosomatic. Worse, many of the medications VA prescribes for PTSD are known for side effects that include suicidal ideation.

Scientists say they are on the cusp of finding promising treatments. And VA’s recent five-year extension on the deadline for filing Gulf War claims gives them a welcome reprieve.

“Veterans don’t get their half of the deal,” White says. “I am so worried that this is going to go away and Gulf War veterans are going to die sick.” She and other scientists with decades of Gulf War Illness expertise say VA must recognize the evidence for the diseases and get behind the search for treatments.

“It’s still very important to find effective treatments and more definitive answers about why veterans became ill,” Steele says. “These veterans deserve to get their health back.”

This story originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of The American Legion Magazine.
 

 

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Home at Last: Seventy-five years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, men who died on USS Oklahoma are finally being returned to their families

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved)

John England was last seen heading back into the depths of the crippled USS Oklahoma to rescue a fourth shipmate on Dec. 7, 1941. The 20-year-old ensign had come topside after an order to abandon ship, then returned to the radio room three times to guide other sailors to safety even as the ship was capsizing. Ultimately, 429 sailors and Marines – including England – went down with their vessel minutes after it was struck by a barrage of Japanese torpedoes. Oklahoma’s losses were second only to USS Arizona on that day of infamy.

England’s family received a telegram from the Navy on Dec. 16, stating that he was “lost in action.” Helen England refused to believe her husband was dead. His mother, Thelma, likewise clung to a “thin thread of hope” that her son had been injured or picked up by an outgoing ship and would eventually get word to his family. England’s grandmother wrote that his disappearance was “the most bitter sorrow I have ever known.”

Sorrow is all they would ever know.

For more than 70 years, the family learned nothing more about England’s fate, including the fact that forensic experts identified partial remains of him and 26 other Oklahoma sailors in the late 1940s, then reburied them in an unmarked grave at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

England’s disappearance eventually splintered his family. His distraught widow cut ties with his parents. England’s daughter refused to speak of her biological father to her own children other than a vague reference to him being a Pearl Harbor hero – unavoidable in light of the fact that the Navy named two ships after him.

“It was such a sensitive subject,” says England’s granddaughter, Bethany Glenn. “We knew not to ask about him.”

Lifelong dream

England grew up wanting to serve on Oklahoma . As a young boy, J.C., as he was known, gathered the kids in his Oklahoma City neighborhood to launch a model of the battleship on a nearby pond. He moved to California with his family after eighth grade and became a standout at Alhambra High School, where he served as senior class president and swept more than one sweetheart off her feet. “His dance card was always full,” says Glenn, who eventually tracked down his high school classmates.

John and Helen England.

England met Helen at Pasadena Junior College and they eloped in January 1941. He received his Naval Reserve commission after earning his associate degree and sailed for Hawaii Oct. 3, 1941 – his pregnant wife’s 19th birthday. Their daughter, Vickie Lou, was born a month later and Helen made plans for them to join England after Christmas.

England was filled with anticipation. In his last letter home, he implored his family to send news of his daughter. “I wish you’d write me and tell me what everybody thinks about the new girl in the England family,” he wrote in late November 1941. “The only thing that gets me is that I’ll be the last one in the family that gets to see her.”

But England’s mother knew he had other worries as well. “He was the youngest officer on board and he was so ashamed of the fact he was an infant,” Thelma later confided in a letter. “But I was very proud of him.”

Missing

Oklahoma was anchored next to USS Maryland along Battleship Row when the Japanese attacked on that sleepy Sunday morning in 1941. The ship capsized 12 minutes after the first of several torpedoes ripped into its port side. A rescue team cut holes in the hull of the overturned ship and rescued 32 men. Thirty-five bodies were subsequently recovered and identified. Nearly 400 others were still missing.

The Navy righted Oklahoma and removed all the remains it could find beginning in July 1942. There were stories of fuel- and-oil-soaked bones stacked on the deck as the military cleared the holds, says Bob Valley, whose older brother, Lowell, was working in the port engine room when the Japanese began pummeling the ship. Those jumbled remains were buried in graves in two Honolulu cemeteries.

After World War II, the American Graves Registry Service disinterred the Pearl Harbor casualties and took them to a laboratory at Schofield Barracks with plans to identify skulls, femurs, hip bones and the like, and return them to the next of kin. The task proved daunting in an era when DNA wasn’t even a concept. Nonetheless, the Schofield laboratory team proposed identifications for 27 Oklahoma sailors – including England – based on comparisons of military dental records with teeth found among the remains, says Heather Harris, a historian with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Because they were unable to identify complete skeletons, the government quietly decided to bury the partial remains of the 27 in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific – called the Punchbowl – and declare the casualties unidentifiable. England and nearly 400 of his shipmates were placed in 46 gravesites marked “Oklahoma unknowns.” It became the single largest group of unidentified casualties from the Pearl Harbor attack. And England’s family, like all the other families, was never informed.

Adrift

A month after her husband was lost at Pearl Harbor, Helen England’s San Francisco apartment building burned, adding to a string of tragedies. Her mother had died when she was 12, her father when she was 16 and now her husband when she was 19. She left her infant daughter with her in-laws and drifted east.

Two years later, Helen married an heir to a prominent family she met while modeling in the New York City area. Once her new husband’s family discovered Helen had a daughter, they demanded she bring Vickie Lou to the East Coast and allow her to be adopted by their family to avoid the appearance of scandal, Glenn says.

Vickie Lou wasn’t told about her real father, nor did she meet England’s parents until the 1960s. Heartbroken at the loss of their granddaughter, England’s parents focused on USS England, which was christened by Thelma in 1943 and set a record for sinking six Japanese submarines in a 12-day period in May 1944. A second USS England launched in 1962.

“The Navy was very good about letting them know where the USS Englands were and what they were doing,” Glenn says. “J.C.’s parents visited the ships whenever they were in port. I think that helped stave off their sadness.”

Vickie Lou, however, almost never spoke of her biological father. “She only told us surface things – that he was a Pearl Harbor hero. That absolutely nothing of him had been recovered,” Glenn says. “There was a cloud of sadness over everything.”

Vickie Lou died in 2002. Two years later, Glenn’s cousin discovered a couple of boxes marked “J.C.’s stuff” while cleaning out her own father’s attic. She shipped the boxes to Glenn, who found everything from England’s high school yearbook to years of correspondence between his mother and two of his former girlfriends. Glenn subsequently learned that her grandfather’s death sent “a ripple of sadness” through his high school class. She also learned that her grandfather had been so well regarded, his high school had created the John C. England Award, the top honor given to a graduating senior.

The biggest discovery was yet to come.

A survivor’s crusade

By the time Glenn was combing through family letters and calling his high school girlfriends, a Pearl Harbor survivor named Ray Emory had been pushing for identification of unknown Pearl Harbor casualties for more than a decade. It started when he swung by the office at the Punchbowl on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack and asked where the Pearl Harbor unknowns were buried. No one had an answer. So Emory got a clipboard and began walking the Punchbowl, mapping all the graves. “It took a couple of years,” he says. “It was chaos.”

Emory also compiled lists of all the Pearl Harbor casualties by ship, along with their medical records, and started pushing DoD to identify the unknown sailors. In the course of his work, he discovered records of the 27 Oklahoma sailors whose skulls and jawbones had been identified – and then reburied. That led to disinterment of a grave containing five of the 27 in 2003.

That same grave, however, also had the remains of more than 100 other individuals. DoD needed money, medical records of the Oklahoma casualties, DNA samples from family members, and new practices and policies for dealing with large groups of commingled remains before it moved forward. Emory, Valley and families of other men who perished on Oklahoma came together to lobby Congress, DoD and every office that had anything to do with military remains. “They were fully engaged and committed to seeing the rest of the
Oklahoma unknowns disinterred,” Harris says.

The Navy eventually hired a forensic genealogist to gather DNA samples from the Oklahoma families, Harris says. More than 80 percent of the families who lost a loved one on the ship came through. Gerald Lehman, one of the first five sailors exhumed in 2003, was identified with the help of a DNA sample gleaned from the seal of an envelope that carried a letter home to his mother.

The email

Bethany Glenn holds a notebook of memories, including a photo of her grandfather, John C. England.

Glenn received an email from Bob Valley in 2008, after Emory recruited him to help locate the first group of Oklahoma families. She provided a DNA sample, as did her sister and her cousin, Katy Bemiss. Then Glenn and her cousin visited the grave where her grandfather’s partial remains were said to be buried, wondering if he would ever come home.

“We were in the midst of not knowing which way this would go,” Glenn says, because DoD hadn’t yet decided if it would continue to exhume the Pearl Harbor unknowns. “I thought, ‘I hope I don’t have to bring a shovel here and start digging.’ It was sobering.” All along, she was more worried about Valley, who is in his 80s. “I don’t want him to die before they find his brother.”

There’s hope. Thanks to the work of Emory, Valley and other advocates, DoD eventually committed to identify the men of Oklahoma and return them to their
families for burial by 2020. “This is the story of hundreds of people coming together to make this happen,” Harris says. But the work of one person – Emory – was crucial, Valley adds. “If it wasn’t for that, there never would have been any identification of the Oklahoma unknowns.”

Meanwhile, Glenn, her sister and her cousin started considering what they would do if England’s remains were retrieved. She told one of his high school
girlfriends that they were thinking of leaving him in Hawaii with his shipmates.

“(She) burst into tears and said, ‘Please bring him home.’ She urged me to see if we could bury him with his parents in Colorado Springs.” They discovered that England’s parents had purchased a plot next to their own, complete with a headstone, in the event their son was eventually found.

In June, the Navy visited Glenn, told her that they had identified England’s skull, and gave her the option of waiting until all of his remains were found to bring him home. Her family didn’t want to wait. England’s partial remains were flown to Colorado Springs in August. During a private moment at the funeral home before he was buried with full military honors, Glenn and her sister tucked their mother’s ashes into the casket, finally bringing father and daughter together in a gesture of peace.

“I know she struggled with the heaviness she was born into,” Glenn told the hundreds of people who gathered for England’s belated funeral. “And this is why my sister Lisa and I decided to include her ashes in her father’s grave – as a way to heal the past and to bring long-awaited closure to our family.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

 

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Thoroughbred Therapy: How Saratoga WarHorse rekindles life for soldiers dealing with PTSD

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved)

Rob Saavedra refused to acknowledge he had PTSD. The Air Force veteran and sheriff’s deputy worried the people around him – particularly coworkers – would consider him weak. And when he finally sought help from two different PTSD programs, he got no relief from the nightmares, panic attacks and exhaustive hypervigilance.

Seven minutes with a horse changed everything.

“It’s just amazing how all of a sudden you start meshing with the animal,” Saavedra says  as he tries to sort out how he just persuaded a hot-blooded thousand-pound thoroughbred to trust him. “They melt into you. I wish I would have come a long time ago.”

Saratoga WarHorse founder Bob Nevins calls this epiphany “the sacred moment,” often marked by a veteran burying his face in the horse’s neck and sobbing. “The veteran is relieving years of anguish and nightmares,” explains Nevins, a decorated Vietnam medevac pilot who knows both combat trauma and the power of the horse-human connection firsthand. “We just let it unfold.”

More than 400 veterans have had similar experiences at Saratoga WarHorse since Nevins quit his day job and exhausted his retirement savings to launch the program in 2011. The reward comes in emails and phone calls from grateful veterans who report sleeping for the first time in years.

“The soldier’s heart gets hardened in the war experience,” wrote Denny Sedlack, a 2015 graduate of Saratoga WarHorse who served as a Navy corpsman in Vietnam followed by 15 years in the Air Force. “The horse-human connection bridges the difference between the war world and the civilian world. And the horse-human connection tempers the pain of killing (and) being killed.”

Nevins also hears from spouses and therapists who are surprised by the dramatic change in veterans who attend the program. “They call me and ask, ‘What did you do with this guy?’” Nevins says. The most potent endorsements come from veterans like Clay Stanhope and Mary Kay McCollum, who saw suicide as their only remaining option.

Clay Stanhope at Saratoga WarHorse

Clay Stanhope at Saratoga WarHorse

“I owe my life to Bob and his crew,” says Stanhope, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and lost everything to divorce soon after returning home to Alabama in 2012. “The VA wouldn’t touch me. Nobody would help me. I was completely lost.”

McCollum, a Navy veteran and military sexual assault survivor, planned to jump off the Monroe Street Bridge in her hometown of Spokane, Wash., after years of traditional therapy failed to touch her night terrors. “You get stuck in the trauma and there’s nothing you can do to get out of it,” McCollum says. “There’s no amount of talking, cognitive therapy and drugs that can help.”

Unconditional acknowledgement

A map on a wall of Saratoga WarHorse’s modest office, just off a quiet, tree-lined street in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., tracks the places in the United States with the highest veteran suicide rates. The epidemic prompted Nevins to start Saratoga WarHorse after he researched the horse-human connection and tried it for himself . “Every bit of anxiety I had washed away,” Nevins says. “That’s why I started thinking this would work with other veterans.”

He recruited Melody Squier, a noted Vermont equine expert, to help him create a program in which veterans could have the same experience. Then he quit his job as an airline captain and emptied his retirement savings to get Saratoga WarHorse off the ground. “It was my dream job,” Nevins says of flying, “But it wasn’t as fulfilling as this.”

Saratoga WarHorse isn’t providing mental health treatment, counseling or therapeutic riding. “These veterans are so sick of people talking at them and writing them prescriptions,” Nevins says. “I don’t get into their trauma. I don’t give advice. I create an opportunity for them to have this experience.”

The experience is all about resetting the emotional circuit breaker. “Anytime a human being has a traumatic event in their life – from sexual assault to seeing your buddy blown up in combat – their emotional circuit breaker pops,” Nevins says “It’s like tripping the electrical circuit breaker in your house. The lights go out. You are walking around in the dark.”

Likewise, veterans with PTSD can’t sleep, can’t cope with their nightmares, can’t fully and functionally re-engage with civilian life. It takes a powerful positive experience, in this case bonding with a horse, to reset their emotional circuit breaker.

Horses have two biological attributes that make them the ideal animal to help , says Tim Hayes, Air Force veteran, horse trainer and author of Riding Home: The Power of Horses to Heal. Horses, like veterans with PTSD, are hypervigilant. Because they are also highly intuitive, horses sense that similarity, which makes it easier for them to bond with troubled former servicemembers.

In addition, horses have highly developed social skills – including tolerance, acceptance, forgiveness and compassion – that are critical to their ability to live in a herd. “If a horse gets with someone who is wounded, compassion immediately kicks in,” Hayes says. “That feeling that veterans get from a horse is unconditional acknowledgement. It’s a mental, emotional and physical shift for them.”

That shift enables veterans to open up to spouses and therapists and start rebuilding their lives. “The horse isn’t the end of the healing process,” says Hayes, who has attended Saratoga WarHorse. “It’s the kick starter.”

Legion support

Nevins, a member of American Legion Adirondak Post 70 in Saratoga Springs, makes it easy to attend Saratoga WarHorse. The program pays all expenses, including airfare, so there’s no VA approval process, insurance paperwork or financial barriers. Nevins receives support from community and fraternal groups in both New York and South Carolina, where a satellite operation opened with the help of horsewoman Anne Campbell. This includes Knights of Columbus, Rotary and the Elks as well as donors from the thoroughbred racing community such as Bob Baffert – trainer of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh – and his wife Jill.

Joseph E. Zaloga American Legion Post 1520 in Albany, N.Y., has raised money for Saratoga WarHorse. American Legion Whiteman Hull Snyder Post 1360 in Cherry Valley, N.Y., has donated half of the proceeds from its Veterans Day weekend 5K run to the program since Nevins sparked the interest of former post commander Alan Grover.

“Twenty active members of our post raised $10,000 for Saratoga WarHorse over four years, which shows what can be done by a dedicated group and great local businesses for a great cause,” Post Commander Dave Lamouret says. When Grover died in 2015, his family asked for donations in his memory to the program. “Alan’s family loved Saratoga WarHorse, loved that our race was raising money for a great cause,” Lamouret says. “Last year, all of Alan’s family came to help coordinate our 5K race and a couple of them ran the race.”

Word of mouth

Many of the veterans who come to Saratoga WarHorse have never touched a horse. Some are terrified of the imposing animals. Most are skeptical the program will help them.

Rich Keiser, past New York department commander, (left) with Saratoga WarHorse founder Bob Nevins.

Rich Keiser, past New York department commander, (left) with Saratoga WarHorse founder Bob Nevins.

“I would never have imagined this would have worked,” says Rich Keiser, past Commander of the American Legion Department of New York, who came to Saratoga WarHorse in early June. “I have PTSD and I got more out of WarHorse than I have my therapy at the VA and my group therapy. I hope a lot more veterans will try it,” adds Keiser, who was wounded on the infamous Hamburger Hill during his tour with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam in 1969.

Participants are often referred by veterans who have been to Saratoga WarHorse or by family members who persuade them to give it a try. A growing number of counselors are referring veterans as word of the program’s success spreads.

The application process is simple: A telephone conversation with Nevins. “I don’t want anything between me and the veteran,” he says, even though this sometimes means  midnight phone calls. Nevins can quickly assess if a veteran is in trouble. “When a kid tells me he hasn’t slept in 10 years, I don’t have to ask him any more questions,” Nevins says. “And they appreciate that. They don’t want to talk about it.”

Nevins and WarHorse Program Coordinator Janelle Schmidt also don’t describe the horse-human interaction in great detail to veteran who inquire about the program. They just try to make it feel safe for veterans to come and give it a try.

Saratoga WarHorse sessions are small, typically involving six veterans. Participants run the gamut from the Korean War era to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 30 percent are military sexual trauma survivors.

The first event is a low-key get-acquainted dinner that steers clear of war stories. The next morning the veterans head to a leased farm about a half-hour from Saratoga Springs. They learn the fundamentals of horse behavior – and winning the trust of a horse – from Squier. That’s key because, “As a prey animal, horses don’t immediately like you or accept you like most dog will,” Hayes says. “Before a horse accepts you, he has to trust you.”

By late afternoon, Squier selects a retired racing thoroughbred for each veteran. One by one, they lead their horse into the round pen for the critical encounter. And when horse and veteran connect, there’s a transformative moment that often moves the veteran and Saratoga WarHorse staff to tears. It’s difficult for veterans to articulate precisely what transpires. But they are all adamant about the life-changing power of the connection – and a resulting sense of relief they haven’t felt in years, if not decades.

“Most of the time when I talk about this, I lose it,” says 83-year-old Norman Seider, a Korean-era Army veteran. “There were several heavy moments with the horse, a bonding, then stuff began to pour out of me – not verbally – but it came tumbling out of my head. The anger and the stress just sort of flowed out.”

Universal connection

That encounter between human and horse is healing no matter the age of the veteran nor the reason for their PTSD. “There’s no difference with a 24-year-old veteran and a 68-year-old veteran. They have the same nightmares and the same issues,” Nevins says. “There’s no difference between military sexual trauma and losing your buddy on the battlefield. The trauma and the affect are the same. We give them the same experience, because the experience creates the change.”

Participants are enthusiastic about that change. McCollum found the strength to leave her abusive husband after 28 years and plans to start a blog to help other female veterans, particularly those who have suffered military sexual assault.

Clay Stanhope went from living in a homeless shelter and attempting suicide to a successful job as a long haul trucker. He’s gotten service connected with the VA since Saratoga WarHorse, a success he credits to Nevins and a fellow Alabama veteran – Glenn Knight – who recommended Nevins’ program.

Knight still isn’t sure how an encounter with a horse was powerful enough to penetrate the emotional walls he built in the wake of his tour as a crew chief and helicopter door gunner in Vietnam. “That horse told me, in a way I don’t understand, ‘It’s OK – you can trust people. You can come out of your foxhole.’” This from man who was consuming his seventh large glass of bourbon the night he first talked to Nevins on the telephone. “I’ve found new life,” Knight says. “I found faith in the church. I sing in the choir. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”

For Nevins, the payoff comes from veterans spreading the word about Saratoga WarHorse. “I know when a veteran shares this with another veteran who hasn’t been here that they get the same satisfaction from touching someone’s life.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

 

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ALASKA’S VANISHING CARE: How VA’s “Choice” program sabotaged a hard-earned network of local health care across the state’s vast and inaccessible wilds

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved)

Last fall, an Alaska veteran made the five-hour drive from Homer to Anchorage for macular degeneration treatment. But after eight phone calls to VA’s Veterans Choice program, Alaska Retinal Consultants couldn’t get authorization for an injection vital to maintaining his eyesight. Out of concern for the veteran’s health, the clinic provided the treatment free of charge – then told VA it was done with the Choice program.

“We were talking with people in five different states,” says Katie Reilly, former operations manager for Alaska Retinal Consultants. “It was not unusual to talk to four to eight people to get one thing authorized. There was no reliability, no consistency and conflicting information – things you fire people for in a normal business.”

That’s a common sentiment among veterans, families and health-care providers throughout Alaska who were suddenly forced to switch to Veterans Choice in mid-2015 after VA ran out of money in other programs. Advertised as a congressional solution for the patient backlog at Phoenix and other beleaguered VA medical centers, the Choice program sabotaged a successful multiyear effort to provide Alaska veterans access to health care close to home.

“All of the programs we were using to provide care to veterans in Alaska communities were gone,” says Verdie Bowen, director of the state’s Office of Veterans Affairs. “We were getting hundreds of complaints a day from veterans and family members.”

The ensuing health-care disaster was akin to a “five-alarm fire,” in the words of Marine Corps veteran and U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. Surgeries were canceled. Everything from chemotherapy to colonoscopies was delayed for weeks, if not months. Veterans were then forced to start from scratch, enrolling in a new VA health-care program and finding doctors and clinics willing to jump through the hoops to qualify as Choice providers. (The private contractor for Choice failed to sign up any Alaska physicians before it rolled out the program.) Not to mention enduring an onerous new process for getting approval for even the most routine medical care.

“Veterans Choice is like laying out the carpet,” says Frank Lazo, commander of Prince of Wales Post 26 in Craig, “and then jerking it out from 
under you.”

“This was a knee-jerk reaction by Congress to the Phoenix problem,” Bowen adds, referring to the patient backlog scandal that cost VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job in 2014. “They completely misunderstood how this would affect care in Alaska.”

BUREAUCRATIC BLUNDER

Alaska has long recognized the challenges of caring for veterans in a state more than twice the size of Texas but equipped with just five VA clinics and no VA hospital. Because roughly half of Alaska communities are not on a road system, seeing a VA doctor means traveling by airplane, boat or both. “It’s quite the traveling ordeal if you are going to have an appointment with VA,” Lazo says. And veterans with less than a 30 percent VA disability have to pay for that travel out of their own pocket.

In 2010, Alaska began working with DoD, VA, private medical providers and Native health centers to give veterans access to VA-reimbursed medical care in their local communities, Bowen says. The result was a trio of programs that made the best of what was available in different parts of the state: 
the DoD/VA Joint Venture agreement at the state’s military hospitals and clinics, the Care Closer to Home initiative – VA-reimbursed medical treatment from private physicians – and the VA/Alaska Native Healthcare program. The latter alone, brought to fruition by years of negotiation and 26 separate agreements, made VA-reimbursed care available 
to native and non-native veterans in 122 clinics across the state.

Volunteers coaxed reluctant former servicemembers into enrolling in the rural health programs, resulting in many Vietnam War veterans getting medical care for the first time, says Jan Storbakken, veterans service officer for Post 26. The Alaska VA worked with veterans to find the most logical way to see a doctor.

“It was fabulous,” Storbakken says. “If it was cheaper and easier, Southeast Alaska veterans could go to Seattle for care.”

Getting that approval was comparatively easy. 
“I could make one phone call and get an appointment quick,” says Korean War Navy veteran Budd Burnett, who lives on Prince of Wales Island in southeastern Alaska.

Veterans Choice turned all that on its head. A private contractor took over scheduling, and routed Alaska veterans’ requests for medical appointments first to a call center in Louisiana and later to one in Washington state. What once took a phone call became weeks-long scheduling marathons.

“They are completely ignorant of Alaska cities and distances,” Burnett says. “They think the Alaska Marine Highway System is a road you can drive on, not a ferry you take.”

Under Veterans Choice, Alaska veterans wait far longer for medical appointments and pay more out of pocket for that care. Take Burnett. After weeks of phone calls, Veterans Choice finally approved his finger surgery and gave him a date to have the operation at a civilian hospital in Ketchikan. He made the three-hour, $210 ferry ride from his home on Prince of Wales Island to Ketchikan, only to discover that the Veterans Choice call center had given him the wrong surgery date. By the time Veterans Choice straightened out the mess, the surgeon Burnett requested had retired and moved out of state.

It then took more than three months for the program to arrange for Burnett to get a colonoscopy after a clinic on Prince of Wales found evidence of bleeding in his lower intestinal tract. “It was ridiculous,” he says. “A person could have died if it had been more serious.”

“This new program is waste, fraud and abuse for Alaska,” Storbakken adds. “Millions of dollars that were going to care for veterans is now going to administration.”

PROTESTS AND PROMISES

Complaints from the governor, state officials and Alaska’s congressional delegation were so persistent that David Shulkin, VA undersecretary for health, restored funding to the VA/Alaska Native Healthcare program within days. But the Care Closer to Home program – which gave veterans VA-reimbursed access to private clinics – has been revived only on a case-by-case basis.

A VA spokesman maintains that neither the Native Healthcare partnership nor Care Closer to Home ever lost VA funding. But the agency does acknowledge that using a private contractor to run Veterans Choice “created some challenges and confusion for veterans and community providers.”

The disruption in veterans’ health care was so serious that Sullivan organized a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee field hearing in Alaska last August. The testimony included 35 pages of complaints submitted by Alaska veterans left in pain and limbo by the sudden switch to Veterans Choice, an untested program designed for Arizona, not Alaska.

By then, Alaska Retinal Consultants had walked away from Veterans Choice.

“I can remember somewhere around that time telling the VA that if they weren’t going to fix it then we weren’t going to deal with them anymore,” says Dr. David Zumbro, who served 20 years in the Army before joining the office in Anchorage. The process was onerous. “It resulted in one of our employees dedicating the majority of her day helping veterans navigate the confusing bureaucratic morass known as Veterans Choice.”

Alaska Retinal Consultants and its veteran patients – who are dealing with everything from diabetic retinopathy to macular degeneration – were fortunate. VA dropped the mandate that they use the Choice program.

“Since then, my staff has been dealing directly with the VA in Alaska and we have not had a problem taking care of Alaska veterans,” Zumbro says. That’s the kind of local control that makes VA health care work for Alaska veterans.

But Alaska Retinal Consultants has clout other physicians might not be able to wield, with the only fellowship-trained retinal surgeons in the state. Other medical practices are still struggling, particularly to get reimbursed under the Veterans Choice program, Storbakken says.

And veterans continue to fight to see the physician of their choosing. “There is often no choice in Veterans Choice,” says Dan Kosterman, a disabled veteran and Eagle River optometrist who has endured long delays getting treatment for everything from spinal pain to sleep problems. “It seems like it takes an act of Congress to get an appointment with my provider. It’s like they are trying to shove veterans out the door.”

At Sullivan’s urging, VA agreed to pilot a Veterans Choice call center in Alaska in an attempt to have people who are knowledgeable about the state coordinate Alaska veterans’ care. “He was originally told by multiple VA officials that the program would be rolled out in two or three phases,” says Mike Anderson, Sullivan’s press secretary.

That pilot program is still pending, VA says. Meanwhile, the private contractor running Veterans Choice has hired Alaska staff to make it easier for veterans to get authorization for care and improve the process for paying medical providers.

The combination of Veterans Choice and the Affordable Care Act has also created problems for veterans with private insurance. Veterans Choice makes VA the “payer of last resort” instead of the primary insurer. So veterans have to pay their entire private insurance deductible before VA coverage kicks in if they are being treated for an issue that isn’t connected to their military service.

“Most people can’t afford a good insurance plan, so they get stuck with high deductibles,” Bowen says. He and the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs are lobbying Congress to eliminate the payer-of-last-resort provision from Veterans Choice throughout the United States.

With this and other fixes, Bowen is optimistic that Veterans Choice can be salvaged.

“I think it will grow into something we can live with,” he says. “Is it better for the vet? I don’t think so. The networks we have in Alaska are great. I wish we could go back in time.”

Plenty of Alaska veterans think that’s the answer. “They should just eliminate the Choice program,” Burnett says, “and go back to the way it was – when we could just call VA and get an appointment.”

This story originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of The American Legion Magazine.

 

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Wrongful discharge? Board that corrects military records ‘stacked against servicemembers’ critics charge

By Ken Olsen

(Copyright 2016, All rights reserved)

Want to correct an unfair discharge or remove an erroneous mental health diagnosis from your service record? The Army or Navy board of last resort will spend five minutes on your case. Maybe less.

“The deck is really stacked against servicemembers at these boards,” says Thomas Moore, manager of the Lawyers Serving Warriors project at the National Veterans Legal Services Program and a former Army JAG officer.

“They go to great lengths to deny meritorious claims,” adds Raymond Toney, a former Army reservist and private attorney who specializes in these cases. “They see their role as defending the government.”

In other words, if a combat veteran with PTSD is wrongly discharged for a personality disorder, he or she has almost no chance of setting the record straight – a record that makes all the difference as to whether they receive medical care and retirement benefits or are able to make a career outside the military.

A personality disorder discharge is often also a significant blow to a servicemember’s personal pride.  “They feel like they have served honorably, gone to war, and then have been improperly booted without acknowledging the wounds they received as a result of combat,” Moore says. “They feel like it’s an indelible stain on their military record.”

A Board for Correction of Military Records was established for each service branch following World War II. Board members are civilian volunteers who also often work full-time jobs. They consider a wide range of issues, from promotion and pay to whether a servicemember should have received a particular commendation such as a Purple Heart. The boards also decide whether a servicemember should have been medically retired for combat injuries such as PTSD and TBI, rather than simply declared unfit for duty due to developmental issues such as personality disorders and adjustment disorders and cut from the ranks. They are the board of last resort for discharge upgrades.

However, the correction boards are overwhelmed with cases and do not have the resources to do the job Congress charged them to do. Toney analyzed the work of three boards after noticing that the Army and Navy boards often avoided addressing potentially meritorious claims, or simply dismissed such claims on the grounds that “the applicant has presented no evidence” when it was clear the applicant had, he says. He discovered that the Army board spent fewer than five minutes reviewing each case. The Navy board, which also considers Marine Corps issues, spent an average of two minutes. Only members of the Air Force board take cases home a week in advance so they have ample time to review the record.

In other words, “these cases are predetermined by staff,” and board members are simply signing off on those decisions, Moore says.

Mistakes are common. If key documents are missing from the applicant’s military personnel file, the boards assume that the service branches properly followed procedures and did the right thing. In situations where a servicemember was discharged for a personality disorder, for example, the National Veterans Legal Services Program often discovers that the mental status evaluation was not done properly, or the document that shows the doctor actually diagnosed PTSD instead of a personality disorder is missing from the file.

Veterans can appeal corrections board decisions to the Court of Federal Claims or a U.S. district court. Yet only a small percentage of cases reach the federal courts – most former servicemembers don’t have the means to appeal, Toney says. And while the court has severely chastised the boards, little has changed.

What’s the solution? A 1996 DoD report to Congress outlined recommended that all service branches follow the example set by the Air Force corrections board, Toney says. “Twenty years later, none of the recommendations have been implemented.”

The boards also need more resources in order to be able to take the time to make thoughtful decisions, as well as more oversight.

“There’s no consequences to the board or the board staff for these decisions,” Toney says. “You have a system of impunity for bad decision-making. It’s going to take (action by) Congress and the secretary of defense. It’s going to take people getting pissed off about it.”

This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of The American Legion Magazine. Check out this related story on involuntary discharges: Booted After Battle: Thousands of combat veterans have been kicked out of the military for misconduct without regard for PTSD, TBI or their right to medical retirement

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