Coming from a retired Army Noncommissioned Officer who wore a green beret and a drill sergeant hat, it may seem weird, but I don’t look forward to Veterans Day. However, there was a time that I got excited about this holiday.
Growing up in small town USA certain holidays were big deals, it meant we’d have a parade. Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Veterans Day brought the community together and honored our nation and its heroes. Not growing up in a military family, my parents made sure we attended these events. I believe it was a large part of my desire to be a soldier from a young age. I would see the old American Legion veterans marching in their uniforms and standing proud through speeches made by local leaders. I’m certain these old veteran’s dedication had an impact on many youth, not just me.
Nov. 11 was a special day for me when I didn’t understand the cost of freedom and service. I was too young to realize that we were honoring these veterans because they chose to put themselves through hardship on our behalf. It was more than a cool factor and an aura of professionalism.
Now, I don’t have the same sentiment toward Veterans Day. It’s one of those days that makes me feel uncomfortable. Memorial Day, the official day to remember our fallen, is another one.
While well-meaning Americans reach out to shake my hand and say thank you for my service, I feel uncomfortable. I’m not sure what they’re thanking me for. Additionally, I don’t feel a need to be thanked for my service. It was my choice to serve and I wouldn’t have changed that for the world. Aside from being a father, serving this great nation is the biggest honor I’ve ever had.
Yes, this may get uncomfortable. With this discomfort we can grow. I wonder what people are thanking me for. For following my dreams? Again, it’s what I always wanted to do. I got to live out my dreams. For signing up when they didn’t? It’s okay, I made my choices and they made theirs, no animosity. The military isn’t for everybody. For making it home when others didn’t? We don’t get to pick and choose who survives. I’m lucky to have served with the most outstanding people on earth who sacrificed their lives so that we may live ours. Are they thanking me because they feel societal pressure to acknowledge my service? I always assume positive intent, but I’m a realist that knows the world isn’t all roses and rainbows.
The reality is I think of my service every day of the year. Sometimes with a smile and other days with tears for brothers who are no longer with us. I’m proud to have served and not a day will go by that changes that feeling.
I appreciate the recognition of my service on this special day and I’ll answer like I normally do when I’m thanked. “No need to thank me. It was my privilege to serve and if I had a choice, I’d do it all over again.” However, like a lot of veterans, this day will give me mixed emotions.
“The cannabis industry needs more veterans, not just because they’re high quality people but because they can get sh*t done.” – Dan Tobon, founder and board member of American Fiber
James Brobyn and Dan Tobon are two veterans with a passion for hiring and helping veterans through their company, American Fiber Co.
Brobyn, CEO of American Fiber Co. served with the U.S. Marine Corps for 13 years with multiple combat deployments and is a Purple Heart recipient. As enlisted, he worked on hueys before commissioning as a mobile infantry officer. James is the former Executive Director of the Travis Manion Foundation, rated 4-Stars by Charity Navigator. He also has experience as the Co-Founder of CauseEngine, which provides on-demand capacity building for the Modern Nonprofit. He attained a B.S. from the United States Naval Academy and M.S. from the University of Pennsylvania in NGO and Non-profit leadership.
Tobon is a founder and board member of American Fiber. U.S. Army veteran who served a combat tour in Iraq. As an 11B, from mounted reconnaissance to light recon, to full-blown sniper reconnaissance for the last five years of his career. He is also the CEO of iVIK Holdings Ltd., an international cannabinoid company. His experience in the cannabis industry stems from his experience as the former CEO & COO of Franklin Labs, a licensed PA producer; Operations and Regulatory Consultant for CannaPharmacy. A successful entrepreneur, his business experience includes several tech start-ups. He also served as an attorney with Latham & Watkins in London and holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois, and J.D. from University of Chicago Law School.
CBD stands for cannabidiol. Although found in many other plants, CBD occurs in higher concentrations in the Cannabis Sativa L. (hemp) plant. CBD is just one of the over 113 cannabinoids found in hemp and is known for its therapeutic and healing properties, but without the THC mind-altering effects or “high” for the person using it.
WATM: How did you come up with this business idea?
Dan: James and I actually met back in Philadelphia back in 2013-2014. My wife took a fellowship at a children’s hospital in Philadelphia so we moved from Chicago. At the time I was the CEO of a company called Starchup. We are currently one of the largest mobile app providers in the laundry delivery space. James and I were part of the first cohort of BunkerLabs Philadelphia chapter. It was a group of about six veterans, all entrepreneurs. James was working on his company at the time, CauseEngine, and we just started paling around with similar interests. We have very similar personalities as go-getters and self-starters. We both took on a mentorship role for the other veteran entrepreneurs at BunkerLabs. After a year, year and half, of knowing each other, Pennsylvania was going to go medically legal. We realized we had both been tapped as prospective applicants for the Pennsylvania medical marijuana licensing initiative. We talked about how much we believed in cannabis, not just CBD, but cannabis in general and the benefits to the veteran community.
My brother happened to be a pain management doctor and saw firsthand the [negative] effects that opioids were having on his patients. He took a very strong interest in cannabis for pain management. Seeing my friends coming back from Iraq, some resorted to prescription medication or alcohol to deal with some of their issues. They faired poorly compared to the veterans who leaned more toward CBD and other cannabinoids. My personal experience is from a back injury in Iraq. I went through treatment, physical therapy, VA, private, all that stuff. Cannabis was a much better solution for me personally. I got back from Iraq and went to law school two months later. Cannabis was really the only thing that helped me concentrate on a first-rate education and improve my quality of life.
I became the CEO of a company called Franklin Labs after winning one of the licenses in Pennsylvania. I knew James had a strong interest in the industry, so, I asked him to join the company as the CEO of their Delaware operations. James took over and ran with it. Subsequently, we both left that company and started our own series of companies called American Fiber and iVIK. iVIK is an international cannabis company — it’s one of the companies we source our CBD from. It’s part of an operation out of Colombia called NuSierra. James, another partner, and I were the initial founders of American Fiber, which James is now the CEO and runs.
That’s where the Ambassador and Valorcraft brands are being launched. The use of cannabis is a strong proponent for the treatment of PTSD, chronic pain, back pain and other afflictions our generation of veterans deal with. I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I’ve been raising money for early-stage ventures and have launched a couple of successful companies. I met James and he had a shockingly similar profile as me. We found we shared a lot of the same beliefs in regard to cannabis and CBD. It’s been a dream working together because we’ve done a lot of really cool stuff in the space and we’re really excited for the future of these companies.
James: I think one of the cool things here, especially for the readers of We Are The Mighty, is Dan and I found each other through Bunker Labs. Without these local organizations connecting veterans that is not going to happen. To me, if you take the advocacy and all the work we do, the most important thing we can do is get veterans together and working with each other. Dan and I share values on how we want to approach business, same work ethic, and it seems to make a lot of sense to go after it. The opportunity to interact and work with other veterans – creates these other opportunities.
A lot of vets who have been deployed, especially grunts that have been in combat, are perfect to be entrepreneurs in cannabis. The best entrepreneur training is to stick some dudes in a little town in Iraq and say, ‘figure it out.’ There is literally no other better entrepreneurial training better than that. When I worked with Dan and the other partners I realized, ‘holy sh*t, these guys are really smart.’ All these smart people working together is going to make me smarter and better. Everyone has a similar background where no one settled. Everyone is looking to improve, innovate. Push the envelope, work with each other, collaborate and drive teams to succeed.
Cannabis is a very hard business. Navigating it requires great partners and laser focus otherwise it won’t work. We hire a lot of vets, spouses, and families because we share a lot of the same viewpoints we do. Initiative-based decision making is the value veterans bring to the community.
WATM: America is moving closer to nationwide, federal legalization of cannabis products. What myth would you like to dispel regarding the stigma of CBD products?
Dan: That’s a good question.
James: There’s a lot.
James: I think it is very well accepted. In my experience, people see it and generally accept it. There is a misconception around its efficacy, what it does, people can feel like it’s snake oil on the medicinal side. Some people think it’s just an awful drug on the other side. The more I learned about the plant and the endocannabinoid system that is in everyone’s body. They just found the endocannabinoid system like 15 years ago – literally scientists have recently discovered that cannabinoids connect with different receptors in our bodies. That’s where the anti-inflammatory piece comes from [regarding] cannabinoids. That’s why it is specifically so hard to dial in what cannabinoids do what because different cannabinoids react differently to the endocannabinoid system in our body that produces the positive, medicinal effects. That and euphoria. In a lot of ways, it is an incredibly complex, incredibly useful plant on so many levels. Honestly, whether you make rope with it or turn it into a T-shirt or help a kid with his epilepsy. I’ve seen all those things in real life.
Dan: I think the biggest stigma is misplaced. When we were kids, people from our generation were told ‘pharmaceuticals are good but other drugs are bad,’ without any real discussion about the benefits that could be had that have been around for thousands of years. I think we are moving past the stigmatization as more and more people from our generation use these drugs to medicate. One of the things we are fighting is that this is not a placebo. There are real effects that this plant has and real benefits if it is used responsibly. What we really need to do now is call for more scientific research into these molecules to make sure we’re getting the greatest benefit out of them with safety and efficacy. If anything is going to destigmatize the use of this plant it’s going to be learning about it, to have real scientific research done on it. It is truly a shame that veterans are losing benefits in the VA because they are choosing to self-medicate with something that is less harmful than the drugs they’re being given – and it works.
WATM: How do CBD products help veterans?
Dan: When I got back from Iraq I had an adverse reaction to something called Strattera because of my PTSD and inability to concentrate. I wasn’t getting more than four hours of sleep a night. It was wrecking me. I was going to start grad school in one of the most competitive schools in the world and I literally could not shut my eyes without vehicles exploding. When they put me on that drug, Strattera, I couldn’t sleep for four days straight. It got to the point where I almost had a psychotic episode. Luckily, the people around me noticed I was a little more twitchy than normal. It turned out the psychiatrist had been wrong. The person I was interacting with had zero experience with PTSD patients. That drug is specifically cited to have adverse effects with people going through type of episode. That’s when my brother approached me and said, ‘you should try something a little less intense. Maybe take some gummies I brought from Colorado and see if you can get some sleep.’
I slept like a f**king baby.
I slept almost 24 hours after not having slept for four days. Granted, I was coming down from Strattera and being exhausted contributed to sleeping for that long. That was my introduction using this type of medicine as a medicine to self-care. I was taking a huge risk. Possession of an ounce of cannabis was a felony in the state of Illinois at that time. It was crazy that as a decorated veteran that I couldn’t find a way to be treated with the normal tools were available to the psychiatrist I was seeing at the time. Also that I had to do something illegal to find a medication to help me deal with the issues I was dealing with at the time. The U.S. has come a long way since 2006 in terms of legalization, but I still think we have a ways to go to get the people at the VA healthcare system realize there is a lot of potential to do a lot of good. We have to be responsible with what products people are using, researching efficacy, and safety which is the stage we are at now.
If veterans want to come to you for their medical needs, how would they go about that?
James: Well, don’t come to Dan and I personally because we’re not doctors!
I think it is one of the challenges. We own some dispensaries in Michigan, we’re opening new ones in Delaware, we have access in Nevada. There are two different ways to get medicine, let’s focus on CBD, the state based regulatory systems are what they are. Dan’s oil at NuSierra, one of the easiest ways we recommend to most people is how your body reacts to cannabis. A lot of it is personal, we need to do more research into therapeutics so people take them and have an exact result. [The industry] is years from that. [The industry] needs to spend money and do it. Dialing into your medication, such as for sleep, the CBD we import from Colombia is USDA certified organic from NuSierra. We place it in glass bottles, it’s mixed with coconut oil to make it easier to digest. If you got to AmbassadorCBD.com you can dive through that eCommerce site and you’ll get our USDA organic oil straight from the mountains of Colombia, crafted by another veteran, straight to your door. Field grown, single origin, beautiful.
That’s the way you want to try CBD right now, honestly.
Look for the highest quality product you can get as someone new to CBD. Start from the top and dial it in from there. You want quality, clean products. We’re super transparent and above board but that’s not everybody. Customers can get access to testing and quality assurance information. It helps people narrow down what their CBD dosage is. For example, I take 3ml a day, so, three droplets in my smoothie in the morning and I’m good to go. I take it every day, it helps me stay even all day, stay focused. That’s what I found has been most successful for me. A lot of people use it in the evening for sleep. Everyone is a little different but taking the leap like,‘I want to give this a try,’ will change your life. We also work with SierraDelta, a non-profit organization that provides working dogs to vets. They’re actually one of the best non profits out there from what I could tell. As we deploy our ValorCraft brand is both a medical marijuana cannabis flower product but it is also going to be a veteran focused CBD line of products. One of our first initiatives is ValorCraft/SierraDelta co-branded products, one focused on the vet and one focused on his dog.
Basically the consumers would buy it for themselves and something like $5 or other portion of the proceeds would go to SierraDelta directly. We give back part of our sales, we already do in Michigan, that’s very valuable. As we get our operations up an running, we encourage and retain veterans as high quality people. Living by our values by supporting veterans. We don’t want to be like other companies who say they’re going to give a percentage of their proceeds and never do it.
We’re going to do it by giving them money based off of every sale. We want to help vets by putting our month where our mouth is by supporting great charities like SierraDelta. Near term one of the most important things we have coming up is launching our AmbassadorCBD line. We’re very excited about having people trying high quality, imported CBD oil from Jamaica and Colombia. Especially the NuSierra line, which is the only USDA 100% certified organic oil coming in from anywhere overseas – we’re the only people that can import it. We have a lot of exciting stuff going on.
WATM: Is there anything you would like to say to the readers of We Are The Mighty?
James: When it comes to the cannabis [industry] I say take the risk and jump in. It’s an awesome industry. Professionally, how people are trained, the industry needs you.
I want to hire veterans because they’re bad ass. Not because somebody feels bad for them. No! You get some meateaters sitting at the table, you’re going to get a lot of stuff done. You’re going to do it and you’re going to have a lot of fun doing it. You can trust that they’re going to deliver because they told you they were going to do it. That’s the advantage of hiring vets [as a vet] because you have this common starting place. They still have to earn their spot but if I have a former grunt platoon sergeant or 0369 that doesn’t know how to get out after it, I’m going to know pretty quick. There are a lot more of the guys who do know how to get out after it and get it done responsibly with high integrity. Tons of opportunity there.
The raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the “Three Servicemen” Vietnam statue, and the “Vietnam Women’s Memorial” are just a few examples of how our great country has commemorated our nation’s fallen heroes through art.
These monuments represent self-sacrifice and the outstanding pride of being an American.
Unfortunately, when a service member falls in combat, their memory is all their family and friends will have left of them. But for Cliff Leonard, a Marine veteran, his mission is to honor his fallen brothers as he creates their images into realistic sculptures free of charge for the grieving families.
In his younger years, Leonard attended the Georgia Military College before joining the Marine Corps, serving for two years including a tour of duty in Vietnam. He started flexing his artistic skills some years later and allowed his talent to develop.
After Leonard joined a small group called the “Semper Fidelis Society of Jacksonville,” his new team managed to contact a fallen Marine’s grandparents. He received a few photographs from them and decided to put his unique crafting skills to work.
“I have a lot of honor and respect for everybody that served.” — Cliff Leonard
Spending nearly 70 hours creating each sculpture, Leonard carefully carves out the finest details his fingers will allow, making each piece a real work of art. The Jacksonville native searches online for the names of his fallen Marine and Navy Corpsmen brothers and funds each piece out of his own pocket.
Check out the video below to see how Cliff Leonard brings his fallen brother’s memories back to life through art for yourself.
You see and hear this term all the time: “former Marine.” And, wherever you see it, you’ll also see Marines telling you (and everyone else) why we hate it. Sure, there are a few folks out there who agree with it, but those of us who hold the title near and dear to our hearts will tell you a different story.
In my opinion, there’s a damned good reason for the expression, “once a Marine, always a Marine.” Others disagree.
To be fair, this is not a mentality exclusive to Marines. Just because you “get out” doesn’t mean you’re no longer a Marine, soldier, airman, coast guardsman, etc. You don’t just instantly forget everything you’ve learned and experienced over the past few years once you get your DD-214. Joining the military makes you a part of a fraternity and you’ll find that you resonate better with other veterans than you do with people from any other walk of life for one simple reason: You became a part of something much larger than yourself.
Your membership was paid for in blood, sweat, and tears, along with the countless hours you spent dedicated to the cause. To say a veteran is an “ex-” anything is highly inaccurate.
However, there are certain qualities (mostly conscious choices) that define a former Marine. These are just a few of those qualities:
Maybe you just need some new Drill Instructors…
(U.S. Marine Corps)
Severe lack of discipline
It’s easy to fall into the trap of letting your discipline slide when you get out — in fact, a lot of us are guilty of this. But at some point, we pick it back up and we reintegrate it into our lives. To allow this discipline to drop off entirely is most definitely a conscious choice — one that can lead to the discontinuation of other hard-earned qualities.
Forgotten core values
No matter which branch you join, you’ll first learn the core values and then you’ll embody them. Those values shape your personal code and you live by them while you’re in the military. When you get out, if you aren’t still using them to find some direction in life, you’ve earn the “ex” in front of your title.
Just remember what you learned.
(U.S. Marine Corps)
Lack of leadership
Almost everyone comes out of the military with some type of leadership capabilities. Something you hear often in the military is, “in the absence of leadership, be a leader.” This applies heavily to civilian life because there’s often severe absence of leadership. If you get out of the military without learning how to take control from time to time, you likely didn’t learn much else.
Lack of punctuality
We’re all guilty of being late to something at some point. It just happens, it’s the way of life. But, those who learned anything from time in service will remember the factors that played into that tardiness, both self-inflicted and external, and ensure it doesn’t happen again.
If you’re choosing to be late because you just don’t care — you’ve given up your title.
If you define yourself as an “ex-Marine,” by all means.
(U.S. Marine Corps)
A conscious decision to no longer be a Marine
There’s a common belief among those who served that states you should always work to justify the fact that you’ve earned the right to be called a Marine (or solider, or airmen, etc). You should continuously employ the values learned in service in forming your civilian life.
There is, however, another side to this — and it’s simple. If you decide you’re no longer fitting of that title because you’ve grown a beard or whatever other, arbitrary reason, then you aren’t.
Many of us still believe in our titles and we’re willing to continue to honor it. It’s a lifetime effort and, if you’re not willing to make the commitment, nobody else will make it for you.
Already planning that special family getaway for next summer? If you’re thinking Disney World might be a little too expensive for your family, think again. Not only does the Magic Kingdom want more visits from more troops, but they’ve even created a special VIP place inside the kingdom just for American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and yes, Coast Guardsmen.
It’s a place for all shades of green and as a matter of fact, they call it Shades of Green.
Situated between two golf courses, now everyone who stays at Shades of Green can feel like they’re really in the Air Force for just a little while. Military members and their families can get discounts on food, stays, and park admission while staying here too – and it’s all just a stones throw away from the Disney World parks. The newly-renovated hotel area even has a direct walkway to the park. It is the only Armed Forces Recreation Center located in the continental United States and room rates are based on rank, starting with the lowest rates for E-1 to E-6 military personnel.
Before you start booking, be sure to check the resort’s eligibility requirements. To stay at Shades of Green, you must be an active duty service member, a retired service member, a surviving spouse, or a 100 percent service-connected disabled veteran. There are more categories to list but if you’re unsure, check out the eligibility requirements before you book. Sorry, regular vets with an honorable discharge. That’s not enough to stay on the Disney World AFRC any time you want. But through the Salute to Veterans program, honorably discharged vets can stay during the months of January and September.
Sure beats Minot in September.
If you’re wondering if January and September are worth the wait, keep in mind that Shades of Green has a great place in the area near Walt Disney World, very close to Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort and sits right between two PGA-level golf courses. Besides the pools, spas, and restaurants that one would expect at a Disney World Resort, the Shades of Green Resort also boasts Princess and Pirate Makeovers for the kids, arcades, tennis courts, and playgrounds (just in case the kids have a lot of extra energy to burn at the end of the day).
For the adults, the resorts boasts world-class bars and restaurants, along with a giant outlet mall filled with 50 different retail brand names. To top it all off, the resort even has an AAFES Exchange store, where you can still use your military benefits to get tax-free items for every day as well as Disney souvenirs.
Since the Shades of Green is a DoD Morale, Welfare, and Recreation facility, all proceeds from the resort go right back into keeping the facilities up and expanding its offerings.
Aside from the usual military discounts and benefits, the reasons for staying at Shades of Green are many. The resort’s rooms are larger than most other resorts on the Disney World Complex and the rooms are exempt from the Hotel Tax imposed on all other rooms in Florida and beyond. The best part is, the agreement between the DoD and Disney means that the rooms’ quality must meet Disney standards, so you aren’t staying in some forgotten lodging room somewhere. Also included are access to Disney FastPass services and Extra Magic Hours, and the monorail is just a short hike away from nearby Polynesian Springs.
So now there’s no excuse not to go to Disney World. You don’t even have to leave behind the comforts of the base or post when AAFES and MWR are traveling with you.
Food pantries are cropping up at various VA medical centers across the country. VA providers screen patients during clinical assessments for signs of food insecurity. If Veterans are in need, food pantries supply them with a week’s worth of groceries before they leave the medical center.
This screening takes place whether the visit is for inpatient or outpatient services. In some cases, Veterans are connected with an on-site coordinator to explore other available resources.
This food pantry program is making it easier than ever for Veterans to obtain and sustain comprehensive support for their whole health. It also extends VA’s commitment to former service members beyond the point of care and takes into account the environmental contributors to a person’s well-being, known as the social determinants of health. Food security is one example of a social determinant of health. Some others that VA supports for Veterans include education, employment and housing.
Food insecurity is not only about grocery supplies. It’s also about planning, social dynamics and the competing demands that many families face.
“I remember one 32-year-old Veteran who worked at a gas station. You could just tell he was malnourished,” says Mary Julius. Julius is a registered dietitian. She also is the program manager for diabetes self-education and training for the Northeast Ohio VA Health Care System.
Ate his kid’s leftovers
“At first, he denied that he was having trouble, out of pride,” Julius said. “But when I asked him what he ate, he said he was eating whatever was left over from the food he bought his kid. We were able to provide him groceries and instructions.”
The pantry project is a public-private partnership between VA and Feeding America, which has a nonprofit network of more than 200 food banks nationwide. There are 18 sites in operation, and Feeding America collaborates with VA to identify potential sites with the need and capacity for enrolling in this program.
Local facilities work through their VA Voluntary Service to make the arrangements for outside donations. As of January, the program has served more than 710,000 meals to Veterans nationwide, including options that account for dietary and health restrictions, such as diabetes.
Partnerships support Veterans’ health and well-being
This innovative resource is an example of what is possible when VA partners with community resources.
“Offering food on-site, when the Veteran is there for a visit, makes it convenient and safe for the Veteran to receive quality food and explore options to meet future needs,” said Dr. Tracy Weistreich. Weistreich is the Office of Community Engagement (OCE) acting director. “These partnerships are essential to the well-being of Veterans and support programs available through VA.”
The OCE team helps build relationships with community and national organizations that support Veterans’ health and well-being.
“When you come into the ER with an open wound, we stitch it up right away,” says Julius. “When you come in and need a bag of food, we can provide that too.”
A heavily armed man is patrolling the hallways of a Florida school. His only job? Prevent a mass shooting.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports that Harold Verdecia, a 39-year-old U.S. Army veteran who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan has been hired as the first guardian at the Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto, Florida. Verdercia wears body armor and carries a Glock 19X handgun, but it’s his Kel-Tec “Bullpup” rifle, loaded with exploding rounds, that’s raising eyebrows.
MSA Principal Bill Jones outlined to the Herald-Tribune a specific scenario — shooter armed with a rifle, clad in body armor, looking to cause maximum damage — in justifying the unusual move of arming his school’s guardian with a rifle.
Verdercia completed 144 hours of training facilitated by the Manatee County Sherriff’s Office. He also went through extra training to carry the rifle on school grounds.
Palmetto’s Manatee School of the Arts Ramping up more Safety and Security
Security experts, however, seem skeptical of Jones’s insistence that a semi-automatic rifle is appropriate for the job. Walt Zalisko, a retired police chief and police management consultant, told the Herald-Tribune that the school would be safer with its rifles locked away and its guardian building relationships with students, not singularly focused on a mass casualty event.
Michael Dorn, president of a company that has performed security assessments of dozens of school systems in Florida, told the New York Times that a long gun is a more dangerous weapon for someone to take from an officer and that it’s harder for an officer to subdue and handcuff a suspect when he’s carrying such a gun.
Jones doesn’t seem to mind the criticism. He’s currently reviewing applications and hopes to hire a second rifle-toting guardian soon.
This article originally appeared on Fatherly. Follow @FatherlyHQ on Twitter.
Jake Larson, a World War II veteran, will be returning to Normandy, France June 2019 after 75 years. Jake is the last surviving member of a unit that stormed Omaha Beach. Many men died during World War II, and Jake often questioned why he had survived.
Jake, 96, told the New York Times, “I never thought I’d be alive 75 years later. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and had only returned to France in his mind. His humble salary at a printing business never afforded such a luxury.
However, with the help of two women and an online fund-raising campaign, Jake can now return to France for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.
“I can’t believe people would donate to me — they don’t even know me,” Jake stated.
Jake is planning to write a memoir and calls his trip to France the final chapter.
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.
Arla Harrell, a 90-year-old Missouri veteran who was intentionally exposed to mustard gas during World War II, has been awarded his backdated benefits from the VA, following a decades-long fight and legislation from US Senator Claire McCaskill on behalf of Mr. Harrell and his fellow service members.
The VA’s decision cited McCaskill’s legislation, and her testimony on the family’s behalf, in the awarding of Mr. Harrell’s benefits.
McCaskill testified in July at Mr. Harrell’s Veterans Affairs claim appeals hearing after the VA’s repeated denial of his benefits-asking the judge to take a careful look at his case and grant him the right to hear that his government believes him.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled for Arla and his family, that after so many decades being told ‘no’, so many claims denied, so many bureaucrats refusing to believe he had been mistreated by his own government-the VA is finally saying ‘yes'” said McCaskill, herself the daughter of a World War II veteran, and a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. “This law, that so many folks put party aside to pass, is already getting results: long-overdue justice and the simple recognition of what Arla and so many of his fellow soldiers, sacrificed for their country. And three simple words that the government should have said to Arla decades ago, ‘we believe you.'”
In August, President Trump signed McCaskill’s Arla Harrell Act into law after it was approved by the Senate, capping a two-year battle and paving the way for decades-overdue relief to veterans intentionally exposed to mustard gas.
As the document granting Mr. Harrell’s claim states, the reversal comes after McCaskill, who is listed as a witness for Mr. Harrell, passed her legislation. “During the pendency of the Veteran’s appeal, the President of the United States… signed legislation [the Arla Harrell Act] that directs the VA to reconsider previously denied claims for disability compensation for veterans who allege full-body exposure to nitrogen mustard gas, sulfur mustard gas, or Lewisite during World War II… [ Arla Harrell’s claims] will be reconsidered in light of this new legislation.”
During World War II, thousands of US servicemen were exposed to mustard agents through secret US military experiments. By the end of the war, 60,000 servicemen had been human subjects in the military’s chemical defense research program, with an estimated 4,000 of them receiving high levels of exposure to mustard agents.
For decades, these servicemen were under explicit orders not to discuss their toxic exposure with their doctors or even their families. The US military did not fully acknowledge its role in the testing program until the last of the experiments was declassified in 1975. The military did not lift the oath of secrecy until the early 1990s.
Following her investigative report, McCaskill battled what she called a “decades-long record of ineptitude and failure” at the VA, and enlisted the support of Republican and Democratic colleagues, including Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Congresswoman Jackie Walorski of Indiana, who introduced companion legislation in the US House.
McCaskill also rallied veterans service organizations in support of her bill, and successfully pressured President Trump’s Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin in support of the legislation.
The law required a re-examination of Arla Harrell’s claim for VA benefits, and the inclusion of Camp Crowder on the list of sites where full body testing took place. It also mandates a quick review of previously denied claims, places the burden on the VA (instead of the veteran) to prove or disprove exposure, revamps the VA’s application and adjudication process in the future, and mandates an investigation by both agencies to determine what went wrong with this process and officially acknowledge the horror these servicemen endured.
1977 was a big year for Chicago’s Walter Payton. After two years in the NFL, he was the league’s leading rusher and was selected to play in the 1977 Pro Bowl, where he was named the Pro Bowl MVP. His on-the-field performance turned the struggling Bears franchise around, but his off-the-field performance would earn him the NFL’s Man of the Year Award, an honor that would later bear his name.
Throughout his 13-year career, Payton was an exceptional member of his team, the example by which all team members should follow – in any kind of group, setting, or sport. He only missed one game in that entire span and, despite being the league’s premier running back, he was able to do anything the team asked of him, throwing eight touchdown passes and even setting a game rushing record with a 101-degree fever.
“Heck, he wanted to kick,” Bears Head Coach Mike Ditka told ESPN. “We wouldn’t let him kick.”
“Never Die Easy” was Walter Payton’s motto.
But it wasn’t his football performance that prompted the NFL to name its prestigious award after him. What he did in his spare time left a legacy of humanitarianism and generosity that prompts NFL players to use their high earnings to good works within their local communities to this day.
As a young black man in Mississippi, Payton helped integrate his local high school and its football team. From there, he would go on to play at tiny Jackson State University, but his determination at running back caught the NFL’s eye, earning him his spot in the 1975 NFL draft. He didn’t make waves in his first season with the Bears, but he would soon be one Chicago’s — and professional football’s — most legendary athletes.
He founded the Walter Connie Payton Foundation to give back to the city that gave him so much. Though Payton died of a rare liver disorder that led to bile duct cancer, his legacy lives on through his foundation.
Walter Payton with beneficiaries of his foundation’s support.
What began as an effort to help Chicago’s children now includes Chicago’s homeless veteran population. The foundation works with the Northlake, Ill. Concord Place Assisted Living Community in providing veterans with everything they need to live with dignity and pride.
Concord Place Assisted Living is a 55-and-older community, but homeless veterans can live there thanks to Walter and Connie Payton’s foundation. The new homes include food, health care, and physical activities. It keeps them off the cold streets of Chicago while offering them a chance to build new lives. The project is so close to the foundation’s heart that 100 percent of donations for vets will go to the project.
The foundation is now run by Payton’s widow, Connie, to whom he was married for 23 years.
“I had no idea how many veterans had no place to go,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “They serve us knowing there might be a chance that they’ll never come home. … I wanted to find a way to do something to help.”
They turned the entire 15th floor of the assisted living community into veteran housing. A mere ,500 funds a room for a vet, complete with bed, TV, food, health care – the works. Once the 15th floor was filled, they started on the 14th. The foundation continues to fund the rooms using its other charitable works.
“[Walter] was a kind, genuine person, and the foundation was important to him,” Payton said. “We always felt that when you’ve been blessed, why not learn to give back to other people and bless them, and hopefully someday they can bless someone else.“
Walter and Connie Payton Foundation President Connie Payton oversee the renovation of the Northlake, Ill. Concord Place Assisted Living Community.
(WLS ABC 7 Chicago)
Today, the NFL’s Man of the Year Award is named for Payton, honoring players who display Walter Payton-level excellence in every aspect of their lives. The award for 2017 went to the Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt, an outstanding defender who raised million for those in Houston affected by Hurricane Harvey.
The frontrunners for the 2018 award are the Vikings’ Kyle Rudolph, the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, and Robbie Gould of the San Francisco 49ers.
Twists and turns, bumps and bruises, the occasional crash. For many Veterans, the sport of bobsled is a metaphor for life.
Army Veteran Will Castillo’s story began on April 27, 2007. Castillo – then a staff sergeant – was riding along with Spc. Eddie Tamez and Pfc. David Kirkpatrick on patrol in Fallujah, Iraq, when their Humvee struck an improvised explosive device (IED).
The aftermath was a blur. When Castillo awoke, his sister and mother were by his bedside.
“I could hardly talk I was so heavily medicated,” he said. “I was just trying to survive.”
He was 27 years old, and his injuries had cost him his left leg – but he was alive. Tamez and Kirkpatrick did not survive.
Castillo spent the next two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recovering and learning to navigate life with one leg. Visitors came by to give him hugs, handshakes and well wishes. The Director of Homeland Security even offered him a job.
In 2009, he was discharged from Walter Reed, and he moved to Orlando to start anew. But life wasn’t good.
“I had survivor’s guilt. I thought about my guys, what had I done wrong. I was depressed. I was suicidal.”
His marriage crumbled, and his mental health deteriorated.
“All the struggles I was going through. I was Baker Acted,” Castillo said, referring to the Florida law that allows for emergency or involuntary commitment for mental health treatment.
He recovered, remarried and again tried to rebuild. But his struggles continued and, in 2015, he divorced for the second time.
In 2017, Castillo returned to Walter Reed for a follow-up operation to his injured leg. His life took an unexpected turn.
“A friend of mine was there and said to me, ‘You should try bobsled.’ I was extremely overweight, but I figured it would be something to keep me busy.”
Army Veteran Will Castillo displays his gold medal from the Empire State Winter Games para bobsled competition. Castillo is one of the world’s top ranked sledders in the sport. (Courtesy photo)
His first attempt was skeleton, a sport where the slider rides face down and head-first on a small sled down an ice track at speeds of more than 80 mph.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “I was 260 pounds. I was crashing into the walls. Those little sleds are not made for that weight.”
After a year at skeleton, he switched to monobob, a one-person bobsled that looks like a rocket on ice skates. He knew instantly he’d found his sport.
“Everything just slowed down, I was able to see everything. There was danger, but I did it. There’s no disability on that ice. For that one minute, it’s awesome.”
Veterans like Castillo are dominating the sport in the United States, thanks in large part to camps like the ones at Lake Placid. From 2015 to 2020, VA’s Adaptive Sports Grant had funded 16 camps for Veterans at Lake Placid and Park City, Utah, the only two bobsled track sites in the country.
Thanks to the VA grant, Veterans’ only cost to attend is travel to and from the camp.
Camps are typically five days and allow Veterans to stay on site at the Olympic Training Center. Once there, Veterans receive training from strength and conditioning experts, physical therapists and sports psychologists. After completing initial training, they head to the ice track where they learn the fundamentals of para-bobsled and skeleton.
“With bobsled, things are pretty expensive,” Seevers said. “To get the ice time and the bobsleds is a lot. Each of the bobsleds is ,000. For us to rent the sleds and pay for track time is typically between ,500 and ,000, dependent on the number of Veterans sliding.”
Veterans among world’s elite
At the 2019-2020 Para World Cup competition, all five U.S. team members were Veterans. They finished the season ranked 7th, 16th, 18th, 21st and 24th in the world.
Castillo is the number one ranked para-bobsledder in the U.S. and will pilot USA 1, the name of the monobob designated for Team USA’s top slider, in upcoming competitions. It’s an opportunity he humbly accepts.
“It all starts with VA and those camps,” he said. “Then you really have to put the work in and you start seeing the rewards. You get to put that uniform on again (and) represent the USA with integrity and honor.”
Para bobsled and para skeleton are relatively new sports with the first international competitions having taken place in 2013. Still, neither sport is recognized as Paralympic eligible. But that may soon be changing.
Marine Corps and Army Veteran Sarah Frazier-Kim is hoping her success can help the sport and other Veterans advance to the pinnacle of international competition.
Marine Corps and Army Veteran Sarah Frazier-Kim is one of the United States’ top para bobsledders. Athletes are hoping the sport will become one of the newest Paralympic competitions. (Courtesy photo)
“I always liked winter sports, even though I don’t like the cold,” she said. “I’d watch the Olympics on TV and bobsled and skeleton were sports I always loved.”
In 1995, Frazier-Kim was injured in a training accident in the Marine Corps. In January 2019, after years of complications, pain and suffering, doctors at Ft. Sam Houston amputated her right leg above the knee.
“(My doctor) asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I want to make Team USA. And he said, ‘We’ll get you there.'”
In November 2018, in anticipation of her surgery, she was sent for physical therapy to get her into shape.
“I changed from a mom body to an athletic body.”
After the surgery, she continued physical therapy with her therapist, an ex-football player.
“He worked me out like I was on the football team. I was working out like a beast, doing balancing exercises, strength training, and someone there knew Kim Seevers.”
Like Castillo, Frazier-Kim says she was invited to one of the camps at Lake Placid. She completed her first camp in October 2019.
In less than a year, Frazier-Kim has become one of the top female sliders in the sport. Para bobsled is gender neutral with men and women competing together.
“There’s nothing like it. It’s the most exhilarating feeling. The excitement, the adrenaline rush, you’re going so fast. It’s crazy,” she said.
But her rapid success did not come without bumps and bruises along the way.
“Your legs and shoulders are hitting the sides of the bobsled. It’s not for everyone,” she said. “You have to think about every curve while you’re being slapped back and forth.”
Despite the challenges, she says her goal now is simple – to be the best.
“I plan on doing it for as long as I can – as long as my body can take it. And being a Marine, I don’t know any other way.”
“A few years ago I heard about the treatment from my friend in Washington state. I went on the computer and I checked a few things out, and I thought, ‘Why not? It’s time that you do something.'”
For Jerry, that time came 48 years after he had returned from Vietnam…
“Bullets are flying everyplace…”
“It was quite an experience coming back from ‘Nam, and I could tell I had changed an awful lot. And I think the biggest thing in my behavior was the fact that I was so jumpy. I would wake up in the middle of the night, and I’m in the middle of Vietnam, and bullets are flying everyplace, and my bed is ringing wet.”
“What they didn’t know is I was scared of myself.”
Something was wrong. He didn’t know what it was or what to do about it. And Jerry didn’t want to jeopardize his career in the military by speaking up. He went on to finish two tours in Korea, then was stationed in Germany where he met his future wife and started a family. “I just felt that if I said there’s something wrong with me the Army wouldn’t need me.”
Instead of asking for help, Jerry buried himself in his work. “I was working around the clock. I was trying to control my mind, and I was trying to block it. I was in control most of the time.”
But he also lost control. Stupid mistakes felt intolerable, and they could easily set him off. “I can talk like a sailor, and in talking like a sailor, I could take your head off and put it in your lap, and you’d never know it.”
These types of outbursts affected his work-life. He later learned that his colleagues didn’t like to be around him because he was too unpredictable, too volatile. One called him a loose cannon, another told him years later that people were afraid of him. “What they didn’t know is I was scared of myself.”
Time passed. Jerry’s two sons grew into men. And more recently, his beloved wife became ill and passed away. For all those years Jerry had wanted to ask for help, but he didn’t know where to go. He couldn’t trust anyone.
Then one day a friend told him about the treatments at the VA. Treatments for PTSD. Eager to get help, but still skeptical, Jerry went in for an appointment.
“She was just that good.”
“I’ll tell you right now, as I sit here, when I walked in that room and saw that petite little thing sitting there, I said there is no way in hell this young lady has any clue about what I’ve been through, what I’ve done, and she can’t help me. I feel like an ass now but it didn’t take long for me to change my mind. It didn’t take long. Within 30 minutes I knew I wanted to come back for my next appointment. I could have probably stayed there the rest of the week and talked to her. She was just that good. She was ready for me. I wasn’t ready for her, but she made me ready. She was good.”
Jerry finished his therapy, an evidence-based therapy called Prolonged Exposure, in nine weeks.
“I felt that the treatment helped me in the fact that I can control myself a lot better. I control my anger. I can do a lot of things that I couldn’t do before. I still have moments where I don’t know, something snaps or something build’s up or whatever [but] I accept life a lot easier. I’m more tolerant of people.”
“I’ll just say it this way. It takes a lot to piss me off. I’m so proud of that.”
Suicide is one of the most challenging societal issues of our time, and sadly, one that affects those who served our Nation at alarming rates. For Veterans, the suicide rate is 1.5 times higher and the female Veteran suicide rate is 2.2 times higher than the general population.
There is good news: suicide is preventable and working together, we can create change and save lives.
On March 5, 2019, President Trump signed Executive Order 13861 establishing a three-year effort known as the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS). Under the leadership of The White House and VA, the PREVENTS Office and cabinet-level, interagency task force were created to amplify and accelerate our progress in addressing suicide. The roadmap was released on June 17, 2020.
In July, PREVENTS launched a centerpiece of the initiative: the Nation’s first public health campaign focused on suicide prevention, REACH. This campaign is for and about everyone because we all have risk and protective factors for suicide that we need to recognize and understand. REACH provides the knowledge, tools, and resources that we need to prevent suicide by educating ourselves so that we can REACH when we are in need – so that we can REACH to those who feel hopeless. REACH empowers us to reach beyond what we have done before to change the way we think about, talk about, and address emotional pain and suffering.
As a member of the VA community, you are in a position to REACH out to Veterans who may be at risk during this difficult time. We all need support – sometimes we need more.
How can you get involved?
Take the PREVENTS Pledge to REACH: Make a commitment to increase awareness of mental health challenges as we work to prevent suicide for all Americans. Visit wearewithinreach.net to sign the pledge and challenge your friends and colleagues to do the same. PREVENTS is planning a month-long pledge drive during September, Suicide Prevention Month. Please join us!
Veterans can also help lead the way as we work to change the way we think about, talk about and address mental health and suicide. Veterans can give us their perspective and provide guidance as we reach out to those in need. To that end, the PREVENTS Office is launching a first-of-its kind, national survey on Sept. 2, 2020, that will give us invaluable feedback from Veterans and other stakeholders, including Veterans Service Organizations, Veterans’ families and community organizations. The survey will help us learn what are our Veterans’ most pressing needs. In addition, the answers we receive will help us understand how Veterans want to receive important information on mental health services and suicide prevention.
Please help us by taking the survey at PREVENTS Survey and encourage everyone you know to take it. Filling out the survey takes less than 5 minutes! The PREVENTS survey will be available from Sept. 2-30.