MIGHTY CULTURE

This Marine Veteran is pioneering a new VA program to help veterans and their families

This post is sponsored by the UCLA/VA Veteran Family Wellness Center (VFWC).

The UCLA/VA Veteran Family Wellness Center is honored to continue to serve and support the military-connected community during COVID-19! For appointments call (310) 478-3711 x 42793 or email info@vfwc.ucla.edu

Every Marine knows the saying, “Pain is Weakness leaving the body.” It’s the motto that drill instructors use to encourage recruits to dig just a little deeper during boot camp and it’s often repeated when physical training takes a turn from hard to brutally hard. The military, especially the Marines, know that pain is the beginning of resilience, our ability to bounce back from difficult situations and complete the mission. But while some pain often prepares our servicemen and women for strength in war, we are often at a loss for what to do when our families or even children are challenged with pain and stress once we return. So when the VA wanted to start helping veteran families they smartly turned to one of the few and the proud.


Marine Veteran Tess Banko is no stranger to pain. By twenty three years old, she had survived homelessness, a massive back injury (for which she was medically discharged) and the suicide death of her husband, also a Marine. When her world seemed to be coming apart, Tess did the opposite of what most of us would do. Instead of allowing her pain to overwhelm her, she fought back. She dug into her pain both physically and mentally. Along the way, she volunteered to empower and assist others, went to college (she was crowned homecoming queen), and ultimately, found the tools inside to help her (and her family). Tess is the epitome of resilience and now she’s bounced back to take on a new mission.

Today, Tess is the executive director of the UCLA/VA Veterans Family Wellness Center, a one of a kind partnership between UCLA and the West Los Angeles VA system. Tess and her team are part of the first VA program specifically designed to help not only veterans, but their families. To support their work, the team is relying on cutting edge research from UCLA just a few blocks from the VA campus. UCLA, the university which revolutionized kidney transplants and invented the nicotine patch, is now offering veterans and their families a state of the art resiliency program. Families Over Coming Under Stress (FOCUS) is a resiliency training regimen for individuals, families with children and couples facing adversity or issues like traumatic stress.

With Tess at the helm, she’s not only pioneering a new way of thinking for the VA, she’s also helping others find their path through trauma. Tess sat down with We Are The Mighty to discuss her work, passion and journey into resilience.

WATM: First things first, thank you for everything you do for military families. How do you describe yourself and your work here at VFWC?

Tess: Well it’s really easy to give a title. I’m the executive director of the UCLA/VA. Veteran Family Wellness Center. But really, I’m a social worker and public administrator.

WATM: And a Marine? What made you join the Corps?

Tess: I think it was really a lot of wanting to be part of something that made a difference. When I was younger I used to go to the [El Toro] airshow with my grandfather and that’s the first time I ever laid eyes on a Marine standing there in the uniform. You know guiding people, I mean it was airshow duty. I didn’t know at the time probably how much fun that wasn’t, but they were motivating and just really interacting with the public, and there were are all these exciting machines and demonstrations. So, it really made an impact on me as a little girl. The wider world was calling.

WATM: Did your family have a history of military service?

Tess: I didn’t find out until many years later that my own grandfather was actually in the Army. He never told those stories to the family because I think he was embarrassed. He said that a lot of his friends were being sent off to war but he served two years in a non-combat role, got out and went into aerospace engineering and he was one of the first Mexican-American designers of bomb and missile systems at White Sands, NM. I personally saw the military as one of the only places that you could go as far as your own two feet would take you basically or your hard work that you put into it. That’s one of the reasons why I was excited to join.

WATM: Wow.

Tess: And I like a good challenge. The Marine Corps seemed like a good fit. So I joined [as] an engineer.

WATM: Did you find the challenge you were looking for? Especially as a female Marine in the engineers.

Tess: When I joined it was very idealistic. I wanted to be just one of the guys and I saw myself in that way. I never saw myself in terms of being a woman, only a Marine and that actually caused a lot of problems and disappointment at the time as we have only just begun to move more fully into gender integration among the services. And it was really challenging for me because as I said I never saw myself as anything other than a Marine. I always just wanted to do my job.

WATM: What made you transition out of the Marine Corps?

Tess: I got hurt.

WATM: You got hurt?

Tess: Yes. We were training and I noticed that there was something wrong with my back because my leg had stopped functioning. I was in my early 20’s and the command atmosphere gave this impression that you had to white knuckle it through anything. I was told, ‘There’s no problem, there’s no problem. You just need to keep going.’ It turned out that I had a herniated disc in my back and it was it was crushing the nerve to the point where it began to permanently kill the nerves. I was standing there on the rifle range and I just fell over on my side because my leg finally gave up. They called an ambulance and rushed me into emergency surgery in Japan.

WATM: Did you feel like you had the resiliency skills that prepared you for that experience?

Tess: My life growing up was challenging. My parents were very young when they had children. I was the only person in my immediate family to successfully graduate from high school. My parents had dropped out at 17, which kind of spells disaster for a young couple with four children. And so it was really a life of learning to adapt, moving from place to place, experiencing homelessness as a child, living between motels and being chased by bill collectors. You know all that bad stuff for [a child] but even from a young age I adopted a viewpoint of life that was more curious than anything. It was less ‘Oh my God, why is this happening to me?’ and more ‘huh this interesting.’ It was just a minor shift of perspective. I developed that curiosity and a different way of looking at problems and I think that’s a key part of resilience.

WATM: Did you know what resilience was growing up?

Tess: I did not. I think it was something that I saw modeled by example. My grandmother was a very kind and giving woman, she taught me so much. She always went out of her way to help people in the community even when she seemed in the midst of a lot of uncertainty in life. So, paying that forward, even on active duty I was volunteering in the local community teaching English to Okinawan children. I’ve always been so curious about other people and their lives. It’s a great education.

WATM: And then you lost your husband (also a Marine). How do you process all of that?

Tess: It was a surreal experience having the casualty assistance team knock on the door. I can remember I opened it a crack. It didn’t make sense in my mind what was happening so I opened the door a crack and a Marine stuck his foot to keep me from shutting it. Then I saw the Colonel. And then it finally hit me that it was real. My husband wasn’t coming home. When you’re actively experiencing shock, pain or trauma it’s less thinking about resilience and more survival mode kicking in. It was one second, one minute at a time. The days blurred together. I mean being emotionally injured is much like being physically injured, it can take a long time to wrap your head around. There’s no linear pathway. Also, processing trauma is not just about moving through pain but about overcoming fear. There’s the fear that you as a person or things in your life will never be the same. Sometimes you don’t know what other people are going to think. Usually some of the fear ties back to being afraid that people are going to judge you if you feel broken. And I think that really was hard for me to overcome, but it was necessary. I think that being gentle with yourself is a skill.

WATM: You not only survived but thrived? You went back to college and grad school and now you literally work with Neuroscientists.

Tess: The science behind the brain fascinates me because people that are in pain sometimes seem to think, ‘I’m damaged forever and I’m never gonna be able to do or be anything. There is no coming back from this.’ I understand where you’re at if it’s crossed your mind, I’ve been there too, but there’s so much possibility. We can’t change what happened but our brain is essentially plastic and able to rewire. The body and mind actively try to repair themselves, and we can support our own process through building resilience. There are a lot of tools for that belt, resilience isn’t just a buzzword.

WATM: Is that thesis behind your team’s work at the VFWC?

Tess: Exactly. The center is a place of hope and healing. We teach tangible skills, identifiable tools, for veterans and their families to be able to overcome challenges and build better relationships. The FOCUS model that’s our cornerstone is pretty incredible.

WATM: Is there anybody else out there that’s focusing on families like this?

Tess: Not in this way. From a wellness-based resilience perspective this is the first center of its kind, especially paired with the VA which traditionally only sees individual veterans. They took a huge step to open their doors to couples and families too. When you think about it, though, our families, friends and communities are on the front lines supporting after military service.

WATM: So this is a groundbreaking VA partnership all based in science?

Tess: Yep. That’s why UCLA is such an amazing partner because the VFWC is just blocks away from world class researchers. The Center falls under the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and the Nathanson Family Resilience Center which focus on resilience for all families, not just veterans. The research behind our programs is about understanding what drives human behavior and growth. Based on that, VFWC programming is tailored to veterans and their families with really firm research and evidence backing it up.

WATM: Classic, intel drives operations model. But you have specific model for your programs as well. What is FOCUS?

Tess: FOCUS is Families Overcoming Under Stress. It’s a holistic model that was co-created between UCLA and Harvard University and currently in use on over 30 active duty military bases around the world. Our center represents the first wider translation of FOCUS from active duty into the veterans community, which are distinctly different populations. It’s a departure from traditional therapy models.

WATM: What can veterans and their families expect when they come to the center?

Tess: When somebody comes into the center in general we start with a consultation that helps us to really guide veterans and family members to the resources that they might be needing. It’s starting where the individual is. We have individual, couples, early childhood, military sexual trauma, and combat veteran adaptations, plus group sessions and special workshops and events. We keep our doors open for veterans and family members regardless of discharge, benefits or when they got out. The building we’re housed in also offers veterans with VA benefits massage, reiki, mindfulness and yoga. There’s even a drum circle and Taichi.

WATM: And children?

Tess: Especially children. Research that was done as far back as the Holocaust indicates that trauma can be passed down from generation to generation. In cases of post-traumatic stress, suicide and even repeated deployments, the effects of secondary trauma is a very real thing. A lot of the times we see families with children who don’t know how to talk to them about certain issues or there’s not a huge understanding of the developmental piece of what’s behind behaviors. Kids aren’t just mini-adults, the human brain is still developing until the age of 25! So, we support both the parents and children to find a closeness and ability to communicate more as they move through the journey.

WATM: That sounds pretty awesome especially for the VA. How would you describe starting the center?

Tess: It’s been a lot of pioneering. Improvising. Being resilient. There are so many people who care in the VA system and a whole lot of need. Offering another avenue for assistance is important to the team here.

WATM: What is your vision for the center and the future of resilience in the VA?

Tess: I would love to see the VA expand the VFWC’s holistic wellness model to include centers in every facility, especially coupled with a research institution. Veterans and their families would really benefit. Both our families, and wider communities for that matter, are really impactful in our individual wellness. One of the great things about the VFWC is our ability to seek additional community resources. It’s a long table and there is no one size fits all for wellness, reintegration, and healing.

WATM: So now you you’ve gone through your own experience gone through two years here. What does resilience mean to you?

Tess: I think the Marine Corps says it really, well you adapt and you overcome. Sometimes it seems like pull-through comes from out of nowhere because we’re born with it, but sometimes life can bring those levels low. Resilience is that wellspring that allows for course correction and being able to bounce back. Resilience to me also means working on saying, “hey something’s wrong here” and being open to assistance. First step for me personally of breaking the cycle was my own acknowledgment of what I was facing. For instance, I couldn’t talk to my family being sexually assaulted on active duty and I now know that’s common to those who have experienced trauma. I simply didn’t have the vocabulary, I had to organize the words in my own mind. We really need each other to get through hard times, so it’s crucial to develop.

WATM: What does 2019 look like for you and VFWC?

Tess: We’re working on piloting a new transition program, TEAM, for those at any point after active service based on the core FOCUS model paired with the ideas of identity ,mission, meaning and purpose. These are four essential elements of transition. Your perception changes along the transition to civilian life just like my perception changed of myself when I got out of the Marine Corps. It really was a rediscovery of who I was, where I was. I had to find a new mission. For me that happened to be serving people, but it could be different for others. It can be challenging to figure these things our while also providing for yourself or a family. We want to offer veterans and their families the resilience tools before they even need them.

WATM: Do you have any advice specifically to the families

Tess: There is no one size fits all to happiness, health and healing. If one thing doesn’t work, move forward. No matter what you face, keep reaching out and moving forward. Families, you are vital to service. You’re heard and seen. You matter.

Marine Veteran Tess Banko is the executive director of the UCLA/VA Veterans Family Wellness Center (VFWC). To learn more about the center’s work or begin your own resilience training please contact familycenter@nfrc.ucla.edu or Phone 310-478-3711, ext 42793.

MIGHTY HISTORY

We just missed horse day, so here’s hero Sgt. Reckless

Apparently, December 13 was National Day of the Horse, thanks to the 108th Congress, so we want to take a second to talk about one of the military’s most heroic horses: Marine Corps Korean War hero, Sgt. Reckless.


Reckless began life as Ah Chim Hai, a racehorse owned by a Korean man, but the man sold the horse in order to buy a prosthetic for his sister who had lost a leg to a landmine. The Marines who bought Reckless initially treated her a little like a pet, giving her portions of their food and bringing her into the barracks when she was cold.

But she was destined for service and began running ammunition into combat and wounded Marines out.

And this is where Private Reckless distinguished herself. Most horses are skittish, and it takes a resilient horse to operate under fire in any circumstances, but Reckless could ferry rounds into combat and wounded Marines out.

Then-Pvt. Reckless operating under fire in Korea.

(U.S. Marine Corps)

And she could do it unsupervised.

Once she knew where the supply post was and where her Marines were fighting, she could make trips back and forth quickly, efficiently, and without further guidance. Ask any gunnery sergeant in the Corps, and we guarantee they’ve had at least one Marine that couldn’t be trusted like that.

Reckless’s most significant contribution came during the Battle for Outpost Vega in 1953 when her Marines were manning recoilless rifles under heavy enemy fire. Reckless made her back-and-forth trips, even continuing after an enemy round caused two shrapnel wounds, one of which nearly blinded her.

Marines pose with a statue of Staff Sgt. Reckless during an October 2016 ceremony where the statue was unveiled.

(U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Dylan Overbay)

Despite the enemy fire and potential distractions, Reckless carried 386 rounds of ammunition to the front in a single day. The rounds weighed 24 pounds each, enough to exhaust even a horse.

For her heroics, Reckless was promoted to sergeant, awarded two Purple Hearts, and sent to America a short time later. She went on to give birth to four children and enjoy retirement as a Marine Corps celebrity and staff sergeant.

Camp Pendleton now celebrates her life with a statue erected in her honor. Camp Pendleton even released a graphic for Reckless on National Day of the Horse. It’s available here.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The first Native American woman to die in combat was also the first female military death of the Iraq War

American women risk their lives for their country every day. In fact, women have served alongside men in combat long before they were legally “allowed.” That being said, women didn’t have the option of joining the military in fields outside of nursing until after the Vietnam War. With such a history, it’s important to tell the stories of the women who served and lost their lives while defending our country.


Pfc. Lori Piestewa waiting for deployment at Fort Bliss, Tex., on Feb. 16, 2003. (U.S. Army photo)

Honoring our fallen warriors is a longstanding, sacred traditional in our military. It’s part of our DNA to recognize the sacrifice of those that die in combat.

Let’s take a moment to remember Pvt. Lori Ann Piestewa, who was not only the first woman in the U.S. military to lose her life in the Iraq War, she was also the first Native American woman to die in combat with the United States Armed Forces. Piestewa was a Native American of Hopi descent with Mexican-American heritage.

Her native name was White Bear Girl.

Piestewa is the first American Indian woman to die in combat on foreign soil. (U.S. Army photo)

Hailing from her hometown of Tuba City, Ariz., Piestewa was from a military family. She was the daughter of a Vietnam veteran and the granddaughter of a World War II veteran. Her own interest in the military began in high school, where she participated in a junior ROTC program. Piestewa enlisted in the Army and was attached to the 507th Maintenance Company in Fort Bliss, Texas and deployed to Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Her company, the 507th, was infamously ambushed near Nasiriyah, Iraq, on March 23, 2003.

Piestewa was driving the lead vehicle in a convoy when one of their vehicles broke down. They stopped to make a repair, then continued north to catch up to the rest of the convoy. Along the way, they made a wrong turn and were ambushed by Iraqi troops.

The missing numbered 15 total.

A few days later, Pfc. Jessica Lynch was rescued from an Iraqi hospital. Nine members of the 507th were killed in action, including Piestewa. A rocket-propelled grenade hit the Humvee she was driving.

Piestewa with her best friend, Pfc. Jessica Lynch. Lynch was also in the convoy ambushed by Iraqi forces in March 2003. (Piestewa Family photo)

Piestewa left behind a son, a daughter, and a mother and father, Terry and Percy Piestewa, who toured the country attending memorial services held in her honor.

She was posthumously promoted to Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa and Arizona’s offensively-named “Squaw Peak” was renamed Piestewa Peak. It was “given the name of hero,” as her tribe described it.

Lori Piestewa will live forever in our memory and in the memory of her fellow soldiers as the Hopi woman warrior that gave her life for her country: White Bear Girl.

MIGHTY TRENDING

China prepares forces in contested waters for war

China’s commander-in-chief has ordered the military command overseeing the contested South China Sea to “concentrate preparations for fighting a war,” according to the South China Morning Post.

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspected the Southern Theater Command Oct. 25, 2018, again stressing the need build a force that can “fight and win wars” in the modern age. “We have to step up combat readiness exercises, joint exercises and confrontational exercises to enhance servicemen’s capabilities and preparation for war,” he explained, adding that the command has a “heavy military responsibility” to “take all complex situations into consideration and make emergency plans accordingly.”


“You’re constantly working at the front line, and playing key roles in protecting national territorial sovereignty and maritime interests,” Xi said, according to the China Daily, “I hope you can fulfill such sacred and solemn missions.”

The powerful Chinese leader has made strengthening and modernizing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a top priority.

As Xi delivered his speech in Guangdong province, Chinese Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe warned that China will not give up “one single piece” of its territorial holdings, adding that “challenges” to its sovereignty over Taiwan could lead China to use military force.

Chinese President Xi Jinping.

(DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

The US Navy recently sent two warships through the Taiwan Strait, a move that, like the US military’s frequent bomber overflights and freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, angered Beijing.

Tensions have been running particularly high in the South China Sea in recent months, with regular US B-52 bomber flights through the region and Chinese PLA Navy warships challenging American military ships and aircraft that venture too close to Chinese-occupied territories in the disputed waterway.

US Navy Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, said Oct. 29, 2018, that the US Navy will continue to carry out freedom-of-navigation operations and challenge “illegitimate maritime claims.”

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

MIGHTY TRENDING

Mattis may see himself as the president’s ‘babysitter’

Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly views himself as President Donald Trump’s “babysitter,” and his efforts to restrain the bombastic leader apparently created tensions with former White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

McMaster sought to provide Trump with an array of military options against North Korea, but the defense secretary allegedly refused to put all the options on the table in front of Trump, McMaster aides told The New Yorker. Meanwhile, the president reportedly did not pick up on Mattis’s alleged attempts at stonewalling, and McMaster declined to expose his colleague.


One senior National Security Council official told The New Yorker that Mattis felt like he had to play “babysitter” to Trump.

What’s more, McMaster’s aides claimed the widespread reports that he was specifically pushing for a so-called “bloody nose” strike against North Korea were false. A bloody nose strike would involve an attack against North Korea strong enough to intimidate and embarrass Kim Jong Un’s regime, but not serious enough to spark a full-blown conflict. Many experts have warned such a strike could have catastrophic consequences and would not go as smoothly as its proponents believe.

H.R. McMaster
(U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl)

There is limited intelligence on the location of North Korea’s military assets — including its nuclear weapons. Moreover, in November 2017, the Joint Chiefs of Staff determined that a ground invasion would be necessary to fully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program. In short, a bloody nose strike would risk allowing North Korea to retaliate against the US or its allies with any number of military options, not excluding its nuclear arsenal.

The Trump administration’s discussions surrounding military options against North Korea largely came as the rogue state conducted a series of long-range missile tests in 2017. These tests — part of Pyongyang’s larger goal of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the mainland US — resulted in harsh economic sanctions being leveled against the reclusive nation and led to a war of words between Trump and Kim.

But North Korea’s relationship with the US appears to be shifting in 2018 as Trump and Kim are set to hold a historic meeting about denuclearization. On April 20, 2018, North Korea announced it would cease its long-range missile and nuclear tests and close its primary nuclear testing site. Trump celebrated this development on Twitter, describing it as a sign of “progress being made for all!”

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

MIGHTY CULTURE

Gina Elise knows how to make a first impression

I’m in an Uber driving north, passing by the Hollywood Sign. I am supposed to be headed south. My driver swears he knows a shortcut. Ok, Raffee, we’ll see, bro — but my land nav skills are telling me we’re headed towards a disaster and I’m late.


Really late, and this is not the impression I want to send to the woman waiting for me at the famous Hollywood American Legion. I’ve just arrived, thanks to Raffee’s shortcut. He earned his 5 stars today. As I rush to the entrance of the historic building that rightfully looks like a bunker defending the Hollywood Hills, I realize that I’ve just traveled back in time.

Before me is a marvelous Pin-Up model posing before a row of flags and one large cannon. She’s got it all. Hair perfectly curled, a vintage-inspired 1940s dress, and a smile that is making our cameraman blush. This is an image that could sell war bonds or find its way onto the nose cone of a B-24. Wow, I just learned that Pin-Ups For Vets‘ Founder, Gina Elise, really knows how to make a first impression.

Pin-Ups for Vets Founder Gina Elise at the Hollywood American Legion.

(Photo courtesy of @markharper147)

Here I am, nervous and fumbling with my bag as Gina takes photo after photo almost effortlessly. She’s a pro. It’s been 13 years since Gina founded Pin-Ups For Vets, a non-profit organization that supports active military and veterans by producing an annual fundraiser pin-up calendar. The Pin-Ups For Vets Ambassadors visit ill and injured veterans in VA hospitals across the country (Gina’s volunteered in 31 of the 50 states). The organization also purchases thousands of dollars of rehabilitation equipment for VA therapy departments.

The photoshoot is coming to end when Gina tells me she has a surprise. She’s baked an eight-layer brownie for me and the cameraman. Seriously, is there anything that Gina can’t do? Right now, she’s off to change before our chat. As I bite into the absolutely delicious snack, it hits me that Gina, like the brownie, has many layers that only get sweeter and sweeter.

Pin-Ups for Vets Founder, Gina Elise, at the Hollywood American Legion.

(Photo courtesy of @markharper147)

I’m downstairs at the American Legion. It’s dark and the smell of cigars lingers. This is definitely a place for veterans and is home to some pretty amazing movie history. Just out of the corner of my eye is the long bar where Jack Nicholson had a conversation with a ghost bartender in The Shining. And, just like old Jack, I wonder if my eyes are playing tricks on me as Gina approaches in a fresh new dress.

Pin-Ups for Vets Founder, Gina Elise, at the Hollywood American Legion.

(Photo courtesy of @markharper147)

You ready?

GE: [She smiles]. Yes.

So, what were you doing before you came here?

GE: Today?

Totally. I am curious about what you do when you aren’t owning photoshoots?

GE: I was wrapping up some details for our upcoming visit with hospitalized veterans! I was also trying to see if our CBS News clip was up online yet, so I could share it on our Facebook page. I like to keep our supporters up-to-date about things that we’re doing.

And baking Brownies?

GE: I wanted to bring dessert for you guys. These bars have seven ingredients with a chocolate glaze on top.

Thank you. [I can still taste the glaze]

GE: I was also planning a morale-boosting pin-up makeover for a female Air Force veteran. We have multiple projects going on all the time. I have to be a multi-tasker.

Makeovers?

GE: It’s one of the things that we’ve been doing for a while. We do makeovers for female veterans and military wives as a fun way to give back to them and pamper them. I also just released a casting call for our 2020 calendar. It’s our 14th edition! We’ve received more submissions this year than ever before!

What does it take to be a Pin-Up in the calendar?

GE: Well, we look for female Veterans who have great stories to share. We ask them to submit their picture, tell us a bit about their military service and why they would like to be in our next calendar and what that would mean to them.

Last year’s calendar at the Queen Mary was amazing. It’s still hanging in my office. How do you find these places?

GE: The 2019 Pin-Ups For Vets calendar was photographed on the Queen Mary. Producing the calendar every year is like making a film — from location scouting to casting to styling to pre-production to photography to post-production to editing and printing. It takes months. I want it to be top notch so people want to order it year after year. Many of our supporters collect them, and some have the entire calendar collection — all the way from 2007, our first edition.

And you do this all yourself?

GE: I have a lot of amazing volunteers, many of whom are female veterans.

Pin-Ups pose on the Queen Mary for the 2019 Pin-Ups for Vets Calendar.

(Photo courtesy of @pinupsforvets)

Really? Are you recruiting an army of Pin-Ups?

GE: It’s really a sisterhood of volunteers. They are coming together, after their military service, to give back to their brothers and sisters. One of our volunteers recently told me, “I came for the service. I stayed for the sisterhood.” I think that having images of female veterans in the calendar is a starting point to tell their story. Images are powerful. People want to know, “Who is she?” Then, they find out that she is a veteran. It makes people think twice, as it is a common assumption that veterans are only men. The ladies constantly tell me that they are often mistaken for being a military spouse. They are not assumed to be a veteran because their gender. I think that the calendars have started changing peoples’ minds on what a veteran is.

You’ve definitely changed my mind. What’s the craziest place you’ve seen your pictures?

GE: They’ve gone all over the world. We are constantly shipping care packages to deployed units.

I have to ask: has anybody painted you on the side of their Humvee?

GE: Soldiers put my name on a helicopter!

Ok, that’s pretty cool. I mean, not a lot of people get their name on a helicopter.

GE: It was a great picture.

Yeah, I have to get that picture. OK?

GE: Of course.

Gina Elise painted on the side of an AH-64 Apache Helicopter.

(Photo courtesy of @pinupsforvets)

It’s pretty amazing that you’ve used an iconic 1940s fashion style to embrace femininity within the military culture. How do the ladies even start to learn how to be a Pin-Up?

GE: The ladies who volunteer with us have adopted the 1940s style so well. They watch YouTube tutorials about how to do their hair and makeup. There’s something about presenting yourself in this vintage style that makes you feel really confident. It’s a beautiful celebration of a woman. It’s really about embracing our femininity. I love how I feel when I get dressed up. It gives me confidence.

Really? Confidence doesn’t seem to be hard for you at all. You’re a natural leader.

GE: I was shy growing up. Being involved in leadership classes in junior high and high school were life-changing for me. They gave me a sense of responsibility at a very early age, and showed me what I was capable of doing. Maybe that is why I connected so well with the military community — because there is such a focus on strong leadership.

A little bird told me that you are a Colonel?

GE: Honorary. The American Legion made me an Honorary Colonel. It was incredible. We are so grateful to the American Legion. They’ve been so supportive of what we do.

Pin-Ups for Vets Founder, Gina Elise, at the Hollywood American Legion.

(Photo courtesy of @markharper147)

Roger that, Colonel. So, when do we get to see the book of all the Pin-Up pictures?

GE: A coffee table book? I’ve thought about that! Our supporters have asked me to do a coffee table book before. I would love to see that!

Have the fans asked for anything else?

GE: Yes! I actually have an idea for a television show.

Oh really? Let’s talk about that later after I finish this amazing brownie.

GE: Any time.

Be sure to visit www.pinupsforvets.com for more info.

MIGHTY HISTORY

Why the real Forrest Gump was far more impressive

It’s a touching scene that even the most stoic of us will get choked up over. The titular character runs into enemy fire to save his brothers-in-arms. Without hesitation, he carries each wounded soldier to safety — all while being severely wounded.


That fantastic scene earned Forrest Gump‘s place in cinematic history. What makes this and the rest of Forrest Gump’s Army scenes so great is that they were entirely based off the career of Sgt. First Class Sammy L. Davis, to include the Medal of Honor ceremony.

Unlike Gump, Davis was an artilleryman. His fateful night began around 2AM when the enemy engaged Davis’ unit with a 30-minute barrage of mortar fire. The moment he got the all clear, he showed them what his 105mm Howitzer could do. He fired the first beehive shot and the enemy returned fire with a recoil-less rifle that hit eight inches from his head.

After recovering from an insanely close call, he grabbed his M-16 and fired on the advancing enemy. When he fired all but three rounds, he then turned back to his Howitzer to get off that beehive. The weapon had taken a heavy beating and much of the powder was scattered. But he loaded what he could find. Under normal circumstances, seven bags of powder is fine. Davis loaded nearly 21. It almost destroyed the cannon but also devastated the enemy.

The Howitzer blew up and rolled over Davis and nearly 30 fragments of the beehive were in his back. Davis, just like Gump would in the film, took the shrapnel in the buttocks. His body and his cannon were in terrible condition.

That’s when he noticed some American G.I.s on the other side of the river.

He had been shot in the leg and was partially deafened, his ribs were broken and his spine fractured, and there was still plenty of beehive in his back — yet he grabbed his Army-issued air mattress and swam to his brothers without even a second’s thought.

Surrounded by enemies, he had to sneak around with nothing but an air mattress until he found the soldier waving at him. There, he found three wounded men in a foxhole — two were ambulatory but one was shot in the head and somehow still holding on. Davis grabbed the soldier with the head wound and placed him on the mattress and the four of them headed back across to safety.

Much of the film touches on Sammy L. Davis’ life, which he openly embraces. Every military scene is based off Davis, including the scene where President Lyndon B. Johnson bestows the Medal of Honor upon Forrest Gump. That was literally Sammy Davis under Tom Hank’s CGI face. Granted, Davis is a much more eloquent speaker.

For more about Sgt. First Class Sammy L. Davis, please watch the American Legion video below.

MIGHTY CULTURE

Evan Williams puts the American spirit into American spirits

This post was sponsored by Evan Williams.

There’re few things in the United States that are as American as Kentucky Straight Bourbon. How American is it? In 1964, the United States Congress actually declared Bourbon to be a “distinctive product of the US,” therefore protecting its name and production methods from foreign knockoffs.

There are also few things as American as helping each other out in times of crisis. And right now, as we all know, these are incredibly challenging times. Thankfully, folks all across the United States are working hard to help each other out.

You’ll find this same American spirit in companies like Evan Williams. During a global pandemic, Evan Williams is introducing their veteran-focused American-Made Heroes Foundation. This new foundation is designed to support nonprofits who work with the veteran community, helping the brave Americans who have served our country — especially the ones who may be further struggling due to this ongoing health crisis.

Evan Williams has grown into one of the biggest Bourbon brands in the world, known for its smooth taste and value. They’ve shown the world that you don’t have to pay outrageous prices or deal with obnoxious gimmicks to enjoy a great Bourbon. And as they’ve grown, they’ve made a great effort to give back — the American-Made Heroes Foundation is Evan Williams’ way of giving back to those who served.

With the COVID-19 outbreak, a lot of things in life have been put on hold. A lot of nonprofits that support veterans and their families have had to cease operations while figuring out their next steps. Now, more than ever, these nonprofits need support, and Evan Williams is committed to providing that support. The American-Made Heroes Foundation Fund provides grants of up to ,000 to support nonprofit community organizations in the United States that provide services to US military veterans and are impacted by COVID-19.

If you work for a 501c3 nonprofit that supports veteran causes, apply for funds here.

Each year, they also honor six inspiring veterans who have dedicated their lives to serving our country and its citizens. After choosing veterans to honor, Evan Williams features these Heroes and their exceptional stories of honor, bravery, and service to their community on a special edition bottle.

This year, they honored six amazing Americans and donated to the charity of choice of each veteran. Here’s a small sampling of the selected heroes. We encourage you to go check out the other stories, which are just as inspiring:

Eduardo “Eddie” Ramirez

Eduardo “Eddie” Ramirez hails from San Francisco, California, where he studied electrical engineering and worked at NASA’s Research Center. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1981 when he was 21: kicking off a decorated 22-year career that would take him to Japan, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Along the way, he served in the Persian Gulf War, earned five advanced degrees, and had two children-both born overseas.

There are so many different opportunities the military has to offer,” says Eddie, who took full advantage of the training and education programs that taught him persistence, determination and attention to detail. He worked as an aerospace ground equipment mechanic, a radio communications maintainer, and a professional military education instructor, before retiring as Flight Chief of the Airmen Leadership School in 2003. But his record of service continued.

Leveraging his master’s degree in Public Administration, Eddie went to work for the Department of Labor, before moving on to the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.). As an Administrative Officer for Mental Health, he spent nearly a decade advocating for veterans and strategizing ways to improve the V.A.’s processes. “I’ve always had a sense of ownership and giving back to my fellow veterans,” Eddie says. His friends describe him as a “big guy with a big heart.”

After 35 years of federal employment, Eddie returned to the Bay Area to pay it forward. He is the founder and CEO of OneVet OneVoice: a non-profit organization that assists some of California’s 1.8 million veterans with healthcare, education, housing, and job opportunities. He also established the American Legion Cesar E. Chavez Post #505, the San Francisco Veterans Film Festival, and the Veterans Town Hall Collaborative.

Eddie has chosen OneVet OneVoice as his charity for this year, and you can learn more about their mission at https://onevetonevoice.org/

Jonathan Hiltz

Missionary. Marine. Advocate. There are many ways for a person to serve, and Jonathan Hiltz has done them all. Jon grew up helping the poor in Mexico, then enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after the events of 9/11. He deployed to Fallujah with the 8th Marine Regiment as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he spent a year working as a Nuclear Biological Chemical Defense Specialist.

The Marines was kind of countercultural to what I did [before],” Jon explains. As a missionary, “I was serving people, helping people-and then I went to war.” In reality though, the military was just a different kind of service. He did a bit of everything: weapons detection, interior guard, convoy security-even distributing ballots to Iraqis to help facilitate their first elections.

Upon completion of service, Jon chose to exit the Marines and return to his missionary roots. He enrolled in St. Louis Christian College and began volunteering to help the homeless. “It was just a progression,” Jon says of his work. “What are the needs? I’m going to start checking off the boxes.” He is the founder of the Arise Veteran Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri; and Love Goes: a non-profit working to alleviate poverty in Southern Illinois.

Today, Jon lives with his wife, Amber, and three children in Marion, Illinois, where he also works as a Peer Support Specialist at the VA Medical Center. There, he helps other veterans cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse. “I use my story a lot to help other people,” he says, referring to his own struggles with PTSD. “I’ve been in combat, too. You can still do better. You can have a good career. You just need help sometimes.

To learn more about Love Goes, where Jon has chosen to donate, check out their website: lovegoes.org

Mary Tobin

Mary Tobin grew up watching her mother do everything in her power to help those in need-even when her own family didn’t have much. She left Atlanta, Georgia, at age 17 to join the United States Military Academy at West Point. It was in her third year of training that 9/11 drastically altered the trajectory of her career. She deployed to Iraq six months after graduating: the only woman and black officer in her unit.

Everything I ever learned about leadership, I learned in that first deployment,” Mary says, which also earned her the Combat Action Badge. She completed a second deployment to Iraq with the Combat Aviation Brigade, before becoming a senior leader of a military intelligence unit in South Korea. It wasn’t long after that the injuries she sustained in Iraq caught up with her: putting an end to her 10-year career. For the first time, Mary was a soldier without a mission.

Driven by the commitment she made at West Point-to fulfill a lifetime of selfless service to the nation-Mary began working with volunteer organizations that supported veterans, women of color, and the homeless; including USA Cares and Community Solutions. “I had to feel like I was having a positive impact on someone or something,” she explains. “I served with some pretty amazing people. I want to live a life worthy of those who gave their lives for our freedom.

Mary has chosen The Mission Continues as her charity, where she currently serves as the executive director. The Mission Continues: is a national nonprofit that empowers veterans to become leaders in their communities and supports neighborhood transformation efforts. “I am a product of what happens when you no longer call me broken and you tell me I’m strong,” she says. “There are millions of ‘little Marys’ out there who need THIS Mary to remind them that they can be whatever they desire. It’s the least I can do.

To learn more about The Mission Continues, visit https://missioncontinues.org/.

In addition to giving grants to these veterans’ nonprofits of choice, Evan Williams has also given over 0,000 to 501c3 organizations that serve veterans and the greater military community over the last five years. And while that is generous by any means, they aren’t done yet.

Visit American-MadeHeroes.com to learn more about the Foundation.

Thank you, Evan Williams for not just throwing up a patriotic image on your bottle. Thanks for honoring veterans by putting them right next to your brand and giving to those organizations that serve those who served.

This post was sponsored by Evan Williams.

MIGHTY HISTORY

5 things you didn’t know about the Pony Express

It’s hard to imagine days without Prime delivery, instant downloads and fast food. But 160 years ago, things like mail took a really long time. The Pony Express changed delivery forever.

Here are 5 facts you probably didn’t know about the Pony Express:


It actually was pretty fast

Before the Pony Express, if you sent a letter from somewhere on the east coast to California, it would take upwards of 25 days. If it had to go by ship, it would take months. The Pony Express men began their deliveries in April of 1960 and their average delivery time was only 10 days. The riders set a record when they delivered President Lincoln’s inaugural address to California in just seven days and 17 hours! But that speed came at a price.

Here’s what it cost

Each delivery initially cost around , which would be well over 0 today. So, suffice to say, the average person wasn’t utilizing this service. Instead, things like newspaper and government reports or even business related material was sent on the Pony Express. The cost to send mail was high and so was the risk of those involved.

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There were some serious logistics to it

When the owners started the company, they set up around 200 posts or relief stations across frontier country. Each rider would switch mounts every 10 to 15 miles at one of these stations and pass off their delivery to a new rider after about three or four days. Although history may talk about the dangers of being a rider, these posts were set up in very remote areas and often attacked or ambushed by Indians. More men who manned these stations died than riders.

Your weight was a qualifying factor

Not just anyone could be a Pony Express rider. They had to be between 100 to 125 pounds, brave and expert riders. One such advertisement for riders went even further. They specifically asked for men not over 18 who were willing to risk death daily and stated that orphans were preferred. All riders also had to sign an oath, promising not to drink, curse or fight.

It lasted less than two years

Although this was an incredible advance in delivery for its time, it didn’t last. Western Union developed the transcontinental telegraph line and launched it in 1861 — rendering the Pony Express useless. Despite the fact that the Pony men only operated for 19 months, they would go down in history as legends. The Pony Express stories of bravery while racing across the Wild West have been retold a thousand times over, even if many of these stories have been exaggerated and are considered folklore.

The Pony Express trademark is now owned by the United States Postal Service and its history is richly celebrated. To learn more about the Pony Express, check out the website for their national museum.
MIGHTY CULTURE

Borne the Battle: Marine veteran Dan Duitsman, Camp Valor Outdoors

Previously in episode 152, Borne the Battle’s guest was Denise Loring from Camp Valor Outdoors. She gave a brief overview of the nonprofit, Camp Valor Outdoors – which included the competitive shooting program. Camp Valor Outdoors’ shooting team competes in professional matches all over the country.


CMP National Matches at Camp Perry Promo

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This week’s interview is Dan Duitsman. He is a Marine veteran and Camp Valor Outdoors’ Shooting Sports Program Director. His role is to get disabled veterans into competitive shooting – no matter the disability.

Camp Valor Outdoors Shooting Team at the Civilian Marksmanship Program Nationals, Camp Perry, OH.

(Photo Courtesy of Camp Valor Outdoors Facebook Page)


While in the Marine Corps, Dan worked in security forces, counterintelligence and the infantry. Prior to his role at Camp Valor Outdoors, he was a weapons instructor with the U.S. State Department. In this episode he talked about his career, his transition, the recreational-therapeutic benefits of the shooting and how to get involved in Camp Valor Outdoors’ shooting program.

2019-11-20 Full Committee Hearing: Legislative Hearing on HR 3495 and a Draft Bill

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This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.

MIGHTY TRENDING

The USS Intrepid will muster its old crew for its 75th anniversary

The USS Intrepid is now permanently moored in New York City, where she’s been a museum ship since 1982. But her career stretches way back to World War II, where she was one of 24 Essex-class carriers built to fight the Japanese.


USS Intrepid burning after taking two Japanese kamikaze strikes.

Since then, she’s supported operations in the Atlantic Ocean, the Vietnam War, the Mercury and Gemini Space Programs, the U.S. Bicentennial Celebration, NATO operations, and — as a museum ship — an FBI operations center for responding to the September 11th attacks on New York City.

A lot of men and women have graced the decks of the “Fighting I.” Now, the Intrepid is calling them all back. Below is an announcement video of former crew members, calling their fellow shipmates back to the ship.

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Aug. 16, 2018 will mark the 75th anniversary of the commissioning of the Intrepid, now home to the Intrepid Sea, Air, Space Museum in New York City.  To mark the occasion, the Intrepid Museum is putting out a coast-to-coast “all call” for former crew members to reunite for its 75th Commissioning Anniversary Celebration Weekend from Thursday, Aug. 16 to Sunday, Aug.19, 2018 aboard the vessel.

For some, this will be the first time they’ve been aboard their ship since they left the service.

Intrepid was actually scheduled to be scrapped after its decommissioning in the 1970s, but a campaign, led by wealthy NYC real estate developers (and devotees of the U.S. Armed Forces) Larry and Zachary Fisher (who also founded the Fisher House Foundation), raised millions to refurbish the ship and establish the Intrepid Sea, Air, Space Museum.

The Intrepid moving to New York City.

The museum is a non-profit, educational institution that also features the space shuttle Enterprise, the world’s fastest jets, and a guided missile submarine. Through exhibitions, educational programming, and the foremost collection of technologically groundbreaking aircraft and vessels, visitors are taken on a journey through history to learn about American innovation and bravery.

To learn more about this weekend and for registration information, former crew members and their family members can visit www.intrepidmuseum.org/75 or email fcm@intrepidmuseum.org.

MIGHTY CULTURE

A storied Delta Force leader just suddenly died this week

One of U.S. Special Forces’ most legendary figures died suddenly and tragically on April 29, 2019. Eldon Bargewell, a 72-year-old retired Major General, was killed after his lawnmower rolled over an embankment near his Alabama home. His 40-year military career saw him serve everywhere from Vietnam to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and probably every hotspot in between.


Bargewell as an enlisted recon troop in Vietnam.

He first joined the military in 1967, going to Vietnam for a year, going home, and then volunteering to return to Vietnam – in the same recon outfit he left a couple of years earlier. He was working areas outside of Vietnam, technically in Laos, monitoring NVA supply routes.

In an action for which he received the Distinguished Service Cross, he was hit by an AK-47 round in the side of his face but still managed to carry on the fight. Deep inside enemy territory, his unit was hit with two RPG rounds as a hail of enemy bullets overcame them. In minutes the entire recon team was wounded. Bargewell, carrying a Russian-made RPD machine gun (because he wanted to ensure he killed the enemies he shot), broke up an onslaught of charging NVA soldiers, numbering anywhere from 75-100 men.

“Very few people come through the path Eldon Bargewell did,” said Maj. Gen. William Garrison, commander of the Special Forces effort to capture a Somali warlord in 1993. “Starting out as a private, working his way as a non-commissioned officer, and then getting to the highest levels of leadership. Very few people can do that. He is the type of man, soldier, leader that we all want to be like.”

Major General Eldon Bargewell, U.S. Army.

The NVA sent wave after wave of men toward the Army Special Forces’ perimeter, and each was gunned down in turn by Bargewell and his 7.62 RPD. With the dead and wounded piling up, including Bargewell himself, the Americans needed to get out of the area in a hurry. They anxiously awaited the helicopters that would lift them to safety. When they finally arrived, Bargewell refused to be evacuated.

“He wouldn’t go up,” said Billy Waugh, Bargewell’s then-Sergeant Major. “He had the weapons that was saving the day… he was the last out and that’s what saved that team.” And it really was. Bargewell went through half of his 1000 rounds protecting the perimeter and defending his fellow soldiers as they boarded the helicopter. That’s when 60 more NVA bum-rushed him.

Bargewell went up with the next helicopter.

“His selfless sacrifice touched so many,” said Lt. Gen. Lawson MacGruder III, one of the Army Rangers’ first commanders and a Ranger Hall of Famer. “In just about every conflict since Vietnam.”

After returning from Vietnam, he went to infantry officer candidate school, earning his commission. From there he commanded special operations teams in Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam, the Middle East, El Salvador, Panama, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, and Afghanistan. In his last deployment, he was the director of special operations at Headquarters Multi-National Force-Iraq in Baghdad. He retired in 2006, the most decorated active duty soldier at the time.

MIGHTY CULTURE

5 ways marksmanship simulations can improve your fire teams

The fire team is the most important unit of the Marine Corps’ infantry. The Corps is always looking for new ways to make its fire teams more effective on the battlefield. From equipment upgrades to weapon replacements, there’s always room for improvement. But one thing they have yet to figure out is what Marines at the lowest levels can do during their free time. Well, why not reserve some time at the Indoor Simulated Marksmanship Trainer?

At the bottom of the Marine Corps task organization is the four-person fire team and they are, by far, the most critical asset in the entire hierarchy. The more lethal each individual team, the more lethal the unit as a whole and the ISMIT gives troops the opportunity to practice their shooting skills without firing real bullets on a live range. It’s like playing Nintendo Duck Hunt with military guns and honestly, it puts a lot of current virtual reality gaming to shame with its fun factor.

But beneath that, there’s a deeper level of training value that can make a unit much more effective and especially more lethal, given the right prompt and simulation.

Here are some ways the ISMIT can improve your unit at the fire team level:


Unit cohesion will keep your troops motivated.

(U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Sgt. Takoune H. Norasingh)

Build unit cohesion

The best thing you can get out of going to the ISMIT is bringing your troops closer together. You can start with some simple, basic simulations and move on to having full blown shooting competitions where the winners are rewarded. It really gives your team a chance to put their money where their mouth is.

Meanwhile, everyone is growing closer as they talk more sh*t.

You want your team to have deadly precision.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Yamil Casarreal)

Train accuracy

The air rifles you get to use at the ISMIT aren’t going to be adjusted for you so their shots will be all over the place. This helps you refine your ability to adjust your aim based on shot impact since you’re going to spend the first few rounds figuring out where your shots are hitting.

The more you train these positions, the better you’ll become.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jamean Berry)

Practice solid shooting positions

This is key for basic marksmanship and you can practice this without having to shoot but it’s extremely helpful for a shooter to learn how their position affects their accuracy and the ISMIT does just that.

Instead of the laughing dog, you get actual people who will make fun of you after the game is over.

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Practice on moving targets

There are simulations that take you into a city or a desert where you get to shoot at enemies. Whether it’s zombies or insurgents, you get a feel for having a target that’s maneuvering and you can practice using a bullet as a stop sign.

You want to be able to retain as much ammo as possible without sacrificing your aggression.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Taylor W. Cooper)

Practice ammo conservation

One competition you can have with your fire teams is seeing who can get the highest number of hits with the lowest amount of shots. This really puts you to the test and makes you focus on taking your time with each shot to ensure a solid hit. This becomes a valuable lesson because your team will be able to save ammo they might need for follow-up missions.