How a 'zit-faced kid' transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans - We Are The Mighty
Veterans

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans

A meeting with Mikal Vega will surprise you. Upon first glance, he fits every vision one might have of a Navy SEAL veteran. He towers over most people in size and in energy. There’s a confident air about him which screams “military.” You might be surprised to find this SEAL was once the creative glee and drama club teen from a troubled home who never thought about joining the military until he joined the military. As Vega says, the amount of creative in you will attract an equal darkness.


“When I was six, I knew I wanted to be an actor. I would beg my grandmother to send me to acting school,” Vega says. “I started to make movies with an old Super 8 my grandmother gave me. All through Junior High and High School I performed. In drama and in glee club. I was a zit-faced, curly headed glee club kid. I was always into art, I draw and paint, anything creative.”

Vega joined the Navy at 17 as a kid with little or no direction. He went into Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) at first, but found he didn’t fit the EOD culture. Even though it took six years to get into the program, he knew he wanted to become a SEAL.

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans

“My Dad was a SEAL but he wasn’t around and wasn’t a good influence, to say the least,” Vega recalls. “So I had my grandmother and then these Navy EOD guys. They became that family for me. They played that role in my life. But once I put my package in to become a SEAL, the mood changed, friction started. They felt like I was a traitor.”

Without question SEAL training is difficult. Of the 183 men who went to Vega’s training class, only 11 of them graduated. Once he became a SEAL, his life began to change.

“We started doing personal security detail missions just to get into Iraq,” Vega says. “I was what you call a shit magnet. I attracted action and everyone wanted to be on my assignments because they were hungry, they wanted to prove themselves, to do what we trained so hard to do. I think everyone in the military is like that. Our task group was responsible for 143 missions over six months.”

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans

Everyone with Vega was happy to be in the fight but things didn’t always go as his team planned. One night, he was part of a convoy on a direct action mission on a black route (a route that hadn’t been cleared or is unknown since the last clearing) when his Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED), a signature attack of the Iraq War. As his convoy approached the IED in the dark, Vega remembers seeing the flash of the explosion. Luckily it was a low-order, which means it didn’t explode to its full capability.

“The IED didn’t function properly, luckily for me and for a lot of guys. What it did do was slam me over the top of the Humvee,” he says. “The next day, I started getting what I thought was muscle pain and ear issues. It would be another five years before I realized I had a cracked neck, and over the next few years, the symptoms were becoming unbelievable. I went to pain clinics and doctors offices here and there, but eventually they’ll pull you out of the fight if you go too often. Like a lot of the guys out there, I would try to go outside the military system, or get under the table help from the corpsman. No one wants to get taken out of the fight.”

When he returned home, he faced many of the issues experienced by many returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. He wouldn’t sleep for days at a time. He had trouble readjusting. All he could think about was getting back to Iraq.

“Five years later, I’ve lost 80 percent of my grip, my pecs atrophied, I lost full range of motion in right arm,” Vega says. But that was just the beginning “In the military system or the VA, the drugs they give you for post-traumatic stress don’t address the hormone imbalance post-traumatic stress causes in veterans. This makes us irritable, it makes it difficult to reach deep sleep or sleep at all, memory loss… these are the symptoms of PTSD! So I revolted against the system and started doing these things that unwittingly rebalanced my hormonal system. I didn’t realize until the doctors started asking me how I made so much progress. This is a scientific method of increasing the power of the central nervous system to offset the destructive powers of war.”

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans

Vega’s revolt took him on a healing alternative journey, starting with rolfing (a kind of structural body therapy) to acupuncture, to meditation, to Kundalini yoga, and finally to teaching Kundalini yoga — a class he gives to veterans and their families for free every Sunday at 11am at the Rama Yoga Institute in Venice, California.

That’s how Vega came to found Vital Warrior, a nonprofit veteran’s resource philosophy is to provide clients with non-pharmaceutical solutions to healing, including hands-on-therapy, knowledge and skills to regaining a re-connection from within through hormonal re-balancing. His goal is to develop decompression centers within close proximity to military bases to provide alternative therapies in an effort to address trauma on a brain-body basis. When it comes to post-traumatic stress, Mikal Vega does not associate it with a disorder.

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans

“Post-traumatic stress isn’t a disorder,” he says. “It’s a normal response to abnormal conditions. Any job or event that exposes you to high stress environment, you’ll develop these issues. But we as veterans have to take responsibility for our own experiences, we had to make sure we handle our symptoms and the deeper physiological and psychological issues we face.”

In 2014 Vega’s mission to get veterans off pharmaceuticals was recognized by the Citizen’s Commission on Human Rights as one of four outstanding individuals presented with the 2014 CCHR Human Rights Award.

Vega was also featured in a series of short films produced by Craftsman, We Are The Mighty, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), showing how IAVA empowers veterans as they transition back to civilian life.

“I want this to be the Starbucks of healing,” Vega says. “I want buses to bring this to remote areas. I want to visit men and women downrange. I want to teach these techniques in boot camp that they can use throughout their career. We can be proactive and not reactive.”

Vega is now an actor, producer, and President at AK Waters productions as well as working to get Vital Warrior where he wants it to be. Their next film, 9 Line, is set to release this fall. For any returning veteran, especially creatives like himself, his advice is to consider if you are where you should be.

“Why do you want to do what you do?” Vega asks. “Is it what you’re supposed to be doing? Do you know how to find out what youre supposd to be doing? No body teaches us how to look inside ourselves for this answer. We will pay other people a lot of money to tell us whats in our own mind. Consider how to get rid of the garbage and connect with yourself.”

To learn more about Vital Warrior or to volunteer, visit www.vitalwarrior.org.

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Veterans

The only 7 women to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross

Amidst the ongoing debate about whether female troops should be allowed to serve in combat positions, these women proved that girls have guts by earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.


1. Amelia Earhart

 

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
Photo of Amelia Earhart in flight cap and goggles as she awaits word as to whether she would be among those who were flying across the Atlantic in 1928.

Amelia Earhart was an early pioneer for women in aviation. She became famous for her numerous achievements in flight, and, unfortunately, for her mysterious disappearance in 1937 while attempting a circumnavigation of the earth.

In 1932, she gained notoriety when she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. This flight also garnered her a Distinguished Flying Cross from Congress — the first for a women and the first for a civilian.

2. 1st Lt. Aleda Lutz

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
Picture of Aleda E. Lutz, courtesy of her family.

Aleda Lutz served as a flight nurse aboard C-47 Medevac aircraft during WWII. In 196 missions, Lutz evacuated and treated some 3,500 casualties and was awarded the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters for her service.

On Nov. 1, 1944, Lutz flew on her last mission, evacuating wounded soldiers from the fighting in France, when her plane crashed in a storm. Lutz was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “outstanding proficiency and selfless devotion to duty.”

She is also believed to have been the first woman killed in action in WWII.

3. 1st Lt. Roberta S. Ross

Roberta Ross also served as a flight nurse in World War II. Her service took her to Asia where she flew “the hump”, completing over 100 missions. For her efforts, she was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster.

4. Col. Jacqueline Cochran

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
Jackie Cochran standing on the wing of her F-86 whilst talking to Chuck Yeager and Canadair’s chief test pilot Bill Longhurst. (Photo courtesy Air Force Flight Test Center History Office)

Jacqueline Cochran was a pioneer for women’s military aviation. Cochran had numerous accomplishments and firsts throughout her illustrious career.

During WWII, she flew aircraft between America and Europe and later directed all Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs).

She was the first woman to break the speed of sound, the first woman to take off and land from an aircraft carrier, and the first woman to exceed Mach 2.

For her exceptional skills and record-breaking flying Cochran was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses during her career.

5. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Lori Hill

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
Vice President Richard Cheney presents the Distinguished Flying Cross to Chief Warrant Officer 3 Lori Hill in a ceremony at Fort Campbell, Ky. on Oct. 16, 2006. (Photo via U.S. Army)

In March 2006, Lori Hill was flying Kiowa helicopters with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. She would be the first woman to ever receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor when she provided close air support to American troops engaged with the enemy.

Despite heavy fire, Hill made multiple gun runs against insurgents. On her final pass her helicopter received a hit from an RPG which damaged her instruments.

As she banked away, machine gun fire riddled the bottom of her aircraft and struck her in the foot. She managed to limp the damaged aircraft back to a nearby FOB, saving her aircraft and crew.

6. Maj. Mary Jennings Hegar

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
Mary Hegar, sitting in the cockpit like the bad ass she is. (Photo courtesy of MJHegard.com)

Mary Jennings Hegar would become only the second woman to ever receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2009.

While flying a medevac mission, Hegar’s Blackhawk helicopter was shot down by insurgents and she was wounded in a well-executed trap. According to an interview with NPR, she climbed on the skids of a Kiowa helicopter that landed to extract her and, despite her wounds, provided cover fire with her M4 while the aircraft flew off.

For her efforts, she received the Distinguished Flying Cross with valor and the Purple Heart.

7. Sgt. Julia Bringloe

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
Flight Medic Julia Bringloe. (Photo via U.S. Army)

Julia Bringloe was serving as a flight medic on a medevac crew when American and Afghan forces launched Operation Hammer Down in the Pech River Valley. Almost immediately, the units involved started taking casualties, and Bringloe and the rest of her dustoff crew were flying into fierce enemy fire.

While extracting one soldier of many she would rescue over the course of three days, Bringloe’s leg was broken. While ascending a 150-foot lift on a cable with her patient, she had swung into a tree. She refused to quit, however, and over the next 60 hours rescued fourteen soldiers from the battlefield.

Bringloe was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, as were both pilots of her helicopter. The crew chief received an Air Medal with Valor and their efforts were named the Air/Sea Rescue of the Year by the Army Aviation Association of America.

MIGHTY CULTURE

Losing my mind for America: A Veteran’s Thank You to Post Traumatic Stress

I have Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). There, I said it. Now I must be one of America’s “poor, broken warriors” that just doesn’t belong at home or in the workplace. I guess I should now explain how debilitating this injury can be or how no one is helping me. Maybe it was the time in the service that broke me. Yet, all those assumptions are untrue. In reality, I have never felt better.


Since my diagnosis, I’ve married, become a father and not only held a job but risen to a leadership role. I am far from broken and so are the rest of my military brothers and sisters. There is no doubt my path had ups and downs. There may have even been a few rock bottoms, but nothing was actually ever as bad as it seemed at the time. The bottom line is that PTS is scary. It’s terrifying, that for the first time in your life, you don’t have a say in what is happening within your own mind. As many of my fellow veterans already know, courage is rising above fear. In our own minds, we have to find courage every day.

My first panic attack was the most embarrassing. I was driving home a few months after my third deployment to Iraq. My little brother was in the passenger seat when the phone rang. I answered it and the impersonal voice told me, “you have duty on Monday.” It was Saturday. I hung up the phone and grabbed the steering wheel with a death grip. I just could not comprehend how my schedule two days in the future had changed. Slowly my vision narrowed. My breathing became labored. My eyes teared up. The look on my brother’s face turned pale white with terror. I slammed on the brakes and broke down. The years of deployments came flowing out. The phone call was just the tipping point for me. Duty didn’t matter. As veterans will attest, schedules change all the time. It was such an innocent call. Yet, this time was different. The circuits in my brain had reached capacity. There was just no more room left for even a minor change. I stared at my younger brother as he sat in silence. I knew I was not okay.

It took another two years before I did anything about my fractured mind. Frankly, I avoided my thoughts. I tried to hide my injury. I was convinced that I could fix myself just as I had done with every other challenge in my life. First, I tried working out. It helped a little. Then, I tried booze. It helped too much. Lastly, I tried writing. It was too painful. Not surprisingly, nothing actually worked until I went to see a doctor.

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans

I avoided seeking help for years because I was scared of what would happen to my body and career. Let me dispel any rumors right now. PTS treatment is designed to fix you. Not give you a scarlet letter for life. My family and the men with whom I served were nothing but supportive throughout the entire process. Despite my own fears, I was never pulled from a deployment or seen as weak. Once again, I learned that PTS was all about fear. My own fear of something that wasn’t real.

For six weeks, I went through Cognitive Processing Therapy. I was hesitant at first. I didn’t think that discussing old memories would help. It seemed like a lot of useless talk. I was wrong. I analyzed my memories over and over again. My doctor asked me to write about them even though they were painful. In the end, I came to realize the things I remembered had become like a bad game of telephone etched into my brain. These memories had changed over the years and my brain had rebuilt itself to survive them.

Over 10 years of service, my brain had changed. It had become a truly lethal muscle. I could sense danger and act faster than most, but I could barely process an email, endure a traffic jam or sit through a phone call. Only after seeking help, I learned that I could retrain my mind. I just needed to break down old nerve endings and create new ones. After many days and too many sleepless nights, I learned some truly important things about living with PTS.

First, invest in yourself. There was no one who could make me a Marine and a Green Beret. I had to do that myself. There is no one who could fix my brain but me. I had to commit myself to the task. Rebuilding your brain is like remodeling your house. You keep the stuff you like and knock down the stuff you don’t. I kept honor, sacrifice and pride. I threw out guilt, sorrow and anger. At first, my transformation moved slowly. But when I truly invested in me, my brain changed. I became a better soldier, husband and friend.

Second, it’s all about control. I gained a control complex in the military. Like most 20 year olds, I thought I could control the world. But in my reality, I actually did. People lived and some even died by the decisions I made. My brain thrived off of control. I craved it, demanded it and needed it. But true control is never possible. The only thing in this world we can control is ourselves. For almost a decade, I had it wrong. I thought I could control the world without concern for myself. The switch happened gradually, but became evident when I let my wife drive me to work on a Tuesday. For the first time in almost a decade, I let someone else take control. It felt amazing.

Lastly, and most importantly, you have to know your limits. There are some things that your brain can handle well and others it won’t. Everyone’s limits are different. For me, I don’t go into overcrowded places at night. Why? Am I afraid that I will have panic attack? No. I just know that my brain goes into mental overdrive in places like that and I won’t have fun. I did reteach myself patience. In war, patience can be lethal. At home, it is expected. I don’t get angry when I have to wait for things. Veterans, this one is the most important, especially for any of you who have just entered the daunting VA process. Waiting is just time and none of us can control it. There will also be some things that are difficult to get back and age doesn’t help. Sure, it is much harder to remember minor details or focus like I used to be able to, but I also don’t run six minute miles anymore. You learn to live with it.

I do know for certain that by committing to PTS treatment, I have explored places in my mind that I didn’t even know existed. You get to re-write your own personal story and you may find that the plot has changed. I am a Green Beret that likes poetry, statistics and even watching The Voice. Yeah, I am part nerd but I am also part warrior. I would have never been able to know both parts of me without PTS. I am thankful I lost my mind for America. For those of you who are suffering or lost today, I am confident you will find the way as well. Good luck with the journey my brothers and sisters. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Veterans

This veteran nonprofit creates insane custom vehicles

If a vehicle is a labeled “military grade” you can assume it was intended to take a beating. Or that it was built by the lowest bidder. If you see something labeled “Warrior Built,” know that it was designed and custom-made by a U.S. military combat veteran and probably some of his buddies.


But “Warrior Built” means more than that. It means “built by combat veterans for combat veterans.” It means “built with the cover values of honor, courage, and commitment.” It means “built with the unrelenting drive to make a difference.” And it means “built remembering the warrior ethos learned serving our country.”

“Warrior Built” is not just a standard of quality, it’s a real organization of veterans, founded by Nick Hamm, a combat-wounded Marine. As a retired First Sergeant, Hamm’s last military role was ensuring his people were taken care of. His people now extend beyond his Marines. They’re now his fellow veterans.

As a motorcycle enthusiast, he wanted to use the process of building a motorcycle from a handful of parts to an operational vehicle as a means of therapy. It develops vocational skills and brings fellow vets together, rebuilding the camaraderie they lost after leaving the military.

“Everyone possesses leadership traits — it’s about pulling those traits out of somebody,” says Hamm. “So Warrior Built reaches out to combat veterans. They’re all different, so we come together to accomplish the same mission, but we all have different things we bring to the table to accomplish that mission.”

Most importantly for the projects, veterans need to muster the imagination required to make a bucket of bolts roadworthy once more. This fuels their energy for other passion projects: dirt bike races, drag racing, off-road racing, concerts, and camping trips to spend time enjoying the fruits of their labor. Above all, vets get a chance to see if working in fabrication and mechanics is their calling.

One combat-wounded Marine named Gio lost an arm in an explosion while deployed. Now he’s riding a dirt bike with Warrior Built.

“I don’t put a limit on myself, because there isn’t,” Gio says. “People look at me like I’m crazy when I get on this bike. I look at them and I say ‘you’re crazy for not trying it.'”

MIGHTY TRENDING

SecVA: Veterans to see continued improvements in 2020

Veterans will continue to see improvements in VA services, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said at “State of the VA” speech Feb. 5 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.


These improvements for Veterans include increased innovation—including the VA’s first 5G hospital—along with decreased wait times for appointments and better overall care.

Increased innovation

The secretary pointed to several programs designed to provide better Veteran care.

The VA hospital in Palo Alto, California, is about to become one of the first 5G enabled health facilities in the world, with portions becoming operational this week. The secretary said will deliver is richer, more detailed three-dimensional images of patients’ anatomy. He added the resolution is so clear and consistent that it will give VA a reliable means of delivering telesurgery services to Veterans.

“That means we will have the capacity to allow VA’s best physicians to consult during surgery even if they’re not in the same room and are halfway across the country,” he said.

Wilkie also pointed to VA’s work on exoskeletons, which do the work patients can’t do on their own. The VA currently has a pilot program to develop exoskeletons that stimulate the spinal cord.

“Instead of the exoskeleton moving the patient around, the patient can increasingly control the exoskeleton as their own muscles are reactivated,” he said. With further research at VA, we are hoping to turn the exoskeleton from a mobility device into something that trains injured people to walk again under their own power.”

Other innovation

The secretary also pointed to a VA partnership to help Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and pain management.

The partnership is with the University of Southern California, a non-profit called Soldier Strong, and AppliedVR. Veterans with PTSD use virtual reality relive and reimagine traumatic events in a controlled setting, under the care of a clinician. The program gives Veterans a chance to process these emotions, which can be an effective treatment for PTSD. He said virtual reality can also help block pain signals from reaching the brain, and thus is a drug-free supplement to traditional pain therapies.

Veterans also see improved care through innovations such as telehealth, a new technology to identify potential diabetic foot ulcers and the precision oncology program. All these innovations help increase Veteran care, he said.

The secretary said this innovation carries on VA’s previous innovation, which includes inventing the cardiac pacemaker, inventing the nicotine patch, performing the first liver transplant and introducing a powered ankle-foot prosthesis. He said all these innovations have a direct impact on Veterans’ well being.

Better Veteran care

Veteran wait time is shorter at VA than compared to private sector. This decreased wait time is for primary care and two of three specialty areas. Wilkie said that’s coupled with a record-high 59.9 million Veteran visits in fiscal year 2019. That’s 1.7 million more appointments for Veterans than ever before. He added 90 percent of Veterans surveyed trust the care they get at VA.

When Wilkie took over, only 25% women vets were enrolled in VA care. Now, he said 41% receive VA care.

Overall Veteran care is improving, Wilkie said. He said VA will implement a provision of the MISSION Act in 2020. This will extend Caregiver benefits to Veterans who served before 1975.

Veterans also receive better mental health care, Wilkie said. This includes same-day mental health care and a universal screening process to identify Veterans who may be at risk. Since late 2018, VA screened more than 4 million Veterans. He said the Veterans Crisis Line is taking more than 1,700 calls each day, and VA takes emergency action on about 100 of those calls.

“I believe that Veterans can show the country the way on how to deal with this terrible problem,” Wilkie said.

Different approaches

Wilkie said the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End the National Tragedy of Suicide, or PREVENTS, task force is weeks away from releasing recommendations. The task force will include a community integration and collaboration proposal, a national research strategy and an implementation strategy. Wilkie said he will recommend that VA opens up financial support. This includes charities, local governments and non-governmental organizations to help Veterans.

Overall, the MISSION Act gives Veterans choice, Wilkie said. In the first six months, VA approved nearly 2.8 million referrals to private sector care for 1.5 million Veterans. Wilkie said just like the MISSION Act rollout, he expects the upcoming Electronic Health Records Modernization will improve Veteran care.

Veterans also see changes in how VA uses Whole Health, setting a standard for care. Wilkie said programs like yoga, aqua therapy, music therapy and art therapy were unheard of decades ago. Now, he said VA uses a Whole Health approach to develop a personalized health plan.

Wilkie also addressed Veterans stationed at Karshi-Khanabad base in Uzbekistan, better known as K2. U.S. forces occupied the old Soviet base shortly after 9/11. Wilkie had candid advice for any Veteran who served there.

“I want all Veterans who have been there and who feel they need to see us to come forward,” he said. He added all Veterans should seek out VA to use the benefits they’ve earned.

“Come see us. File the claims. Come speak to us. This is not your grandfather’s VA where the paperwork is going to take 10 years.”

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

Veterans

EOD veteran drops major bomb on retirement life – ‘Honey, we’re moving to Guam’

Steven and Katie Applegate never saw remote island living as part of their post-military life, but when the former EOD Sergeant turned unexploded ordnance (UXO) contractor saw a minefield of opportunity on Guam, he took it.

The south pacific island of Guam is a United States territory with a military history dating back to 1898. Home to Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force Base, the 212 square miles of shoreline have seen their fair share of military operations, leaving an estimated 10,000 plus undetonated ordnance in need of care under the exact expertise Steven Applegate possesses.

After retiring from a military career cut short by Guillain-Barré syndrome, Applegate made medical strides and returned to college, eventually taking a management position with Amazon near Ft. Knox, Kentucky. It was there he realized just how different the civilian workplace was, a culture that quickly proved draining and dull.    

Katie Applegate, who shared she had never traveled farther west than Kansas, didn’t immediately pack her bags when her husband took off for his first short-term contract position. “He left in early 2020. The plan was for him to scope out the job and island with trips back and forth.”

As most 2020 stories go, COVID changed their plans, but not all impacts were negative. “We realized the school year was going to be really different, and travel not so likely, so when his contract got extended it was easier to just say yes,” she shared. “The island is now home to our five-year plan.”

guam
The beaches of Guam are pretty idyllic. (Luke Ma, Wikipedia)

Fresh out of a resort-oriented quarantine, Katie Applegate’s first impressions were a bit mixed. Even with a large American population and influence, Guam has its unique quirks. “The roads can be unpredictable, and the grocery shelves are weirdly overstocked with all one item or completely lacking what you’re looking for. So, between the two base commissaries, I’ve learned the art of food shopping,” she explains.   

See why food on Guam is both funky and awesome.

As a veteran couple, coming to Guam outside of military orders meant figuring it out without a sponsor. Luckily for the Applegates, the military community in Guam is still rallying around its own.  

“Maybe it’s the small island bringing us all together, but I definitely still feel accepted by military spouses here,” she explained. “A lot of us (military) are here on contracts, as airline pilot families, active duty or permanent residents so there’s no reason for barriers.”

Steven Applegate explained the drastic difference in workplace satisfaction he’s experiencing here, “At work people get me, we speak the same language. It makes being direct that much easier.”

Contracting after service for organizations like the Department of Defense, often provides veterans with an atmosphere, team and skillset similar to what they did in the military. The Applegates feel fortunate his position on Guam does not come with the typical 3-1 rotation seen in other contacts.

“If you’re willing to travel, and in some cases relocate your family after retirement, this is really a good path,” he explains.

Guam definitely delivers on off-duty recreation opportunities. World-class hiking trails and once-in-a-lifetime snorkeling are keeping this couple plenty occupied and properly social-distanced.

Veterans

This Marine creates amazing sculptures to remember fallen heroes — free of charge

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.

Related: This is why General John Kelly could comfort families of fallen troops

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
The Three Soldiers statue in Washington D.C. (Source: Flickr)

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

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
HM3 (FMF) Julian Woods. (Source: Cliff Leonard)

Also Read: This is how the Patriot Guard escorted a fallen Marine home

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.

YouTube, Cliff Leonard
MIGHTY TRENDING

VA releases new findings on the connection between TBI and dementia

VA and the Kristine Yaffe Lab at the University of California, San Francisco, have taken a new approach to understanding the association of mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) — with and without loss of consciousness (LOC) — with dementia among veterans. Their recent study, one of the largest in the United States, included 178,779 veterans in the VA health care system who were diagnosed with various levels of TBI severity.

The study found that TBI with and without LOC are both associated with a heightened risk of developing dementia. Even mild TBI without LOC was associated with more than a twofold increase in the risk of a dementia diagnosis.

The study was part of the Chronic Effects of Neurotrauma Consortium (CENC), a federally funded research project devised to address the long-term effects of mild TBI in military service members and veterans. CENC is jointly funded by VA and the Department of Defense.


TBI overview

TBI is a complex physiological condition that can arise when a brain experiences trauma, either directly or indirectly, during any of a variety of moderate to catastrophic events. TBI has been researched and studied in-depth by some of the world’s leading neurologists, neuropsychologists, neuropsychiatrists and other leading mental health experts. Their goal is to develop treatments, tools and resources to help those affected by TBI return to their previous, or close to their previous, quality of life and cognitive ability. TBI among veterans is a key focus area of VA physical and mental health care, and VA conducts research every day to help unravel the intricacies of TBI’s symptoms and effects.

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Clayton Cupit)

In the past 10 years, researchers and clinicians have confirmed that TBI may be a risk factor for dementia, but they have yet to determine why. Some professionals think dementia may be related to the injury itself, while others believe that head trauma may cause toxic and abnormal proteins associated with dementia to build up over time.

Advice for veterans experiencing symptoms of TBI

Evaluation by a physician is critical to help identify and address symptoms of TBI. TBI can be difficult to diagnose because it has many causes, such as motor vehicle collisions, sports-related injuries and falls. Among veterans, TBI may be caused by a single event, such as an IED blast, but also may occur over time as a result of repetitive jolts to the head or neck. If you have had a recent head injury, or if you had a head injury in the past and are concerned about recent changes in your memory, consult your physician for a screening.

During a TBI evaluation, you and your doctor will discuss what caused your injury and ways to deal with any physical, cognitive and behavioral symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating and headaches. You also will explore how these symptoms affect your daily life. Your doctor may recommend counseling to help you learn ways to manage the effects of TBI. Because a TBI can affect the way the brain functions, medications may be needed or changed to assist in recovery and coping.

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans

To learn more about TBI symptoms and treatment for veterans, visit VA’s mental health page on TBI or go to MakeTheConnection.net, which features videos of veterans talking about their experience with TBI.

Understanding dementia risk factors

Although there is a slightly elevated risk for dementia among those who have experienced TBI, that does not mean everyone with TBI is at risk. TBI is only one of many risk factors for dementia, including genetic markers, that are being studied. No matter what risk factors you may have, it’s important to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle, monitor your heart health and try to remain mentally and physically active.

The future of TBI and dementia research

The VA health care system recognizes that more research is needed to further understand and provide the best health care to veterans with TBI. This study suggests that veterans with TBI — in particular, older veterans — should be monitored and screened at regular intervals for any signs of memory changes. Research collaboration among VA, universities and national organizations such as the National Institutes of Health will continue to expand our knowledge of TBI and related conditions and opportunities to prevent and treat them.

About the VISN 21 MIRECC

VA’s VISN 21 MIRECC is committed to improving the clinical care of veterans with dementia and with post-traumatic stress disorder through the development of innovative clinical, research and educational programs. This center’s approach is to identify risk factors for cognitive decline in older veterans and to develop and implement novel countermeasures to minimize this decline.

For more information on VISN 21, visit www.mirecc.va.gov/mirecc/visn21.

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

MIGHTY TRENDING

The VA needs Arizona veterans to tell their stories in Tucson

The Make the Connection team is looking for Veterans who want to share their stories about seeking support for mental health challenges and take part in a national mental health campaign.


The same obstacles that may at first seem insurmountable to an individual are much less daunting when faced by a team. More than 500 Veterans and military family members have already stepped up to be that team for their brothers and sisters by sharing their stories in videos on MakeTheConnection.net, a mental health website from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Make the Connection helps Veterans and their loved ones realize that reaching out for support and seeking mental health treatment is a sign of strength, and thousands of Veterans have found help to overcome their challenges.

The Make the Connection team will be conducting more on-camera interviews in Tucson, Arizona on Friday, April 20 and Saturday, April 21 and is looking for Veterans who want to share their stories about seeking help and overcoming mental health and other challenges. Veterans who participate in the video shoot will receive a stipend to offset their expenses for time and travel. When the videos are posted on the Make the Connection website, only the first names of participants are used.

Since its launch six years ago, the Make the Connection campaign has spread positive stories about Veteran mental health via Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Veterans featured on the website and in social media have served in every branch of the armed forces and in every U.S. conflict since WWII through today’s current military engagements. They also represent the full diversity of the military community. Each Veteran has coped with conditions such as addiction, anxiety, depression, serious mental illness, PTSD, and the effects of military sexual trauma and traumatic brain injury.

Veterans who want to tell their stories to help fellow Veterans should email their name, phone number, and email address to outreach@maketheconnection.net or call our outreach team directly at 1-520-222-7518 by Friday, April 13th in order to be considered.

To learn more, please visit www.MakeTheConnection.net/Outreach.

MIGHTY MOVIES

This veteran farmer will make you celebrate your meat

“When was the last time you actually met the animal you ate for dinner?”

Jon Darling, a former Army Ranger and scion of a long line of farmers and restaurateurs, now runs one of the most humane livestock farms in South Carolina, where he strives to be a shepherd to the sheep he raises and to the people who eat them.


When Meals Ready To Eat host August Dannehl visited Darling’s farm, he found himself in a world where things are done with purpose and uncommon care.

Though his family had always been in the food business, Darling turned to a new brotherhood after the attacks on September 11th: the Army. When he got out, he looked for peace in other places, and found it the moment he stepped on a farm.

Working with other people in that way gave him the same feeling of fraternity that being in the military did, and his interactions with the animals he raises brings him a calm sense of satisfaction as he delivers meat to restaurants with a humane guarantee.

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
(Meals Ready to Eat screenshot)

Darling raises his sheep to live free and happy lives, and professes to feeling no fundamental conflict when it comes time for him to bring one of those lives to an end.

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
(Meals Ready to Eat screenshot)

Unlike factory farming operations, which treat animals as commodities and people as thoughtless consumers, farms like Darling’s are working to reconnect people to an awareness of the sacrifice that keeps us humans at the top of the food chain. Through quiet leadership and outreach in the form of regular community dinners that center around the slaughter, preparation, and enjoyment of one of his lambs, Darling is reawakening the people he serves to the circle of life on Planet Earth.

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
A gathering of conscientious diners at Darling Farm. (Meals Ready To Eat screenshot)

Darling’s community appreciates the work he does, and agrees that the animal that dies for a meal should be celebrated. That’s why they join him for meals at his farm; to celebrate the animal that nourishes them. They attribute his ability to listen, rather than just to act, to his military service.

Small farming is both Darling’s family legacy and his way of healing—but his neighbors add that his style of farming is also therapeutic for the community, and society. Knowing the animal rather than only viewing it as meat makes a difference in the level of respect given to the earth. Darling points out that his method is healthier for the animals as well as the land he uses to farm them.

Here’s hoping that sharing his story and life’s work with Dannehl and Meals Ready to Eat will help spread the good word far and wide.

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
Have some respect, you baaahhhd boy. (Meals Ready To Eat screenshot)

Watch more Meals Ready To Eat:

These military chefs will make you want to re-enlist

This is why soldiers belong in the kitchen

What happens when a firefighter’s secret identity is revealed

This Galley Girl will make you want to join the Coast Guard

This is the food Japanese chefs invented after their nation surrendered to the Allies

Veterans

Vietnam Veterans Memorial showcases warriors instead of war


When people visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., they can see the 58,279 names on The Wall, The Three Servicemen statue, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, the In Memory plaque, and a flagpole that flies both the U.S. and the POW-MIA flag.

While the memorial and names provide an obvious visual reminder, Army Veteran Jan Scruggs wants people to know the story behind the memorial. It involves a poncho, a promise, PTSD, an Academy Award-winning movie and a focus on warriors instead of a war.

A poncho creates a promise

Scruggs landed in Vietnam as an Army infantryman after volunteering for the draft. He spent most of his time firing 81mm rounds at targets, also carrying an M-16 and M67 90mm recoilless rifle.

One day in May 1969, Scruggs was in his first battle. The next day, an armored unit came in to pull his unit out. Scruggs said an eerie feeling crept over him.

“You know what, I got a feeling I’m going to get hit today,” he said.

That day, he placed his poncho behind his pistol belt and tied it tight, like in basic training. That small tip was a lifesaver. Enemy shrapnel hit Scruggs in both legs and right arm, but the majority hit his poncho.

“It would’ve split my spine in half,” he said.

Severely injured, Scruggs made a promise: “As I was laying there, literally dying—I was bleeding out, I could see the blood pumping out—I knew, maybe a few minutes to go. I just said the Lord’s prayer and said, ‘Look, God, if you can get me out of this mess here, I’ll do something to pay you back.’”

An explosion that still resonates

While still in Vietnam, Scruggs experienced another life-changing moment. One morning, a huge explosion rocked his camp from multiple exploding mortar rounds. Scruggs ran from his morning shave with medical bandages to see a truck on fire.

“All these guys, they were all laying on the ground,” he said, choking back tears. “They weren’t moving. They were all dead.”

Panel 14W lists the 12 men who died, a day Scruggs still struggles to deal with 41 years later. One of those was John D. Pies, who happened to walk past as the mortars as they were exploding.

“I was with them. It’s very difficult for me,” Scruggs said, saying he’s only touched the name twice in 39 years and thousands of Wall visits. “These were all great guys.”Army Veteran Jan Scruggs touches panel 14W.

Army Veteran Jan Scruggs touches panel 14W at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial March 15. VA photo by Tass Mimikos.

A promise kept

While at American University, Scruggs said he realized he suffered from PTSD. After writing a few articles, he testified in front of Congress for the Vet Centers program. Congress established Vet Centers in 1979 because a significant number of Vietnam combat and era Veterans were not accessing VA services at the same levels as Korean and World War II Veterans.

After going to the movie theater to watch “The Deer Hunter” with his wife, Scruggs told his wife he learned how to keep the promise he made in 1969.

“I know what I’m going to do,” he told his wife. “I’m going to build a national memorial in Washington, D.C., and have all the names on it, and it will be great, and I’m going to do this.”

His wife told him to sleep on the idea overnight. He read Carl Jung about warriors and shared memories, which lead him to the idea of placing every name on the Wall. He sold a piece of land he owned in West Virginia for $2,800, which started “this crazy idea.”

Using West Point graduates who went to Harvard’s Business School, a team went to work. On May 28, 1979, Scruggs rented a room at the National Press Club and told the media in attendance that there would be a national memorial.

“In order to get this memorial, we had the largest architectural design competition in the history of Western civilization,” he said.

Over 1,400 teams submitted, with Maya Lin’s design chosen.

Two and a half years later in November 1982, Scruggs stood at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, opening it to a crowd of about 50,000.

“Because I was so tortured by what had happened in this incident, this created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” Scruggs said.

Names as a tribute

Scruggs said putting the names of the casualties on the wall was a befitting tribute, albeit with substantial controversy. Some Veterans advocated for a war memorial, while Scruggs and his team wanted a memorial for the men and women who died. The 58,279 names are by date of death, with names in alphabetical order if they died on the same date. The Wall is intentionally devoid of ranks or service.

“We decided that all were equal in their sacrifice, no need to pay attention to military rank,” Scruggs said. “It would distract from the experience.”

The intention was for visitors to remember each person who died.

“They remember him the way he was when he was 19 or 20 years old, before he got killed in Vietnam,” Scruggs said. “They think, ‘what would he have done in life?’ Doctor, lawyer, fireman – he would’ve done something, something good and had a family. But at a young age, he was robbed of his youth.”

Focus on the warrior instead of the war

Because of the unpopularity of the war, Scruggs said people wanted the focus on the warrior instead of the war.

“You got to remember how divisive that war was,” he said. “The guys who were killed, it was pretty obvious to us nobody was ever going to remember these guys. Many of the people who are related to people on The Wall, they know they didn’t die for nothing. This is where the living and the dead commune.”

That fact is not lost on those who served, said then-Secretary of Defense and Vietnam Veteran Chuck Hagel during a Veterans Day speech in 2014

“This Wall means many things to many people as it records the names of the past and reflects on our hopes for the future,” Hagel said. “It also offers a reminder, a message that carries across generations. The Wall reminds us to honor those who defend our country for making sure they’re treated with the dignity and respect and appreciation they deserve.”

More information

Read about the Vietnam memorial walls releasing schedules, with COVID restrictions.

This article originally appeared on U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.

MIGHTY TRENDING

Taking on veteran suicide, one pair of ‘Ranger panties’ at a time

Active-duty servicemembers and veterans share many common experiences which often sets us apart from civilians. We can come together over a tour-of-duty station, a shared commander or unit, or the unforgettable aspects of our training. But it’s often our dark sense of humor — stories about Jody, tales of ass-grabbing antics on and off post, and the ribbing of comrades and competing branches alike — which underpins military culture and unites the community. That’s why I was excited when I recently discovered a growing non-profit organization, Irreverent Warriors, whose mission is to bring service members and veterans together using humor and camaraderie. Their target is to improve mental health and end veteran suicide through humor.

I was intrigued.


Fortunately for me, Irreverent Warriors was organizing a very popular event that I could attend right in New York City: a Silkies Hike. The hike was designed to get veterans, active-duty soldiers, reservists, and retired servicemembers together (in Silkies shorts — also known as “ranger panties” or “Catch-Me-F**K-Me’s”) to be among friends and build new bonds. The New York City Silkies Hike was just one of five going on that day. The hikes were held throughout the country and drew hundreds of hikers.

“As of now, we have 65 hikes scheduled for 2021,” Irreverent Warriors CEO Cindy McNally said. “We doubled the number of hikes in two years!”

But the group does more than Silkies Hikes. According to McNally, the organization has put together “camping trips, Silkies Olympics, boat trips, community clean-ups, events to serve disabled and senior vets, and much more.”

And the events are strictly for the military. The purpose is to ensure that members know that everyone who participates either wears the uniform or has worn it before.

That was reassuring for me. I knew my dirty jokes and endless f-bombs would be welcomed — even encouraged. That toilet humor doesn’t always fit well with civilians, but a soldier, airman, marine, or seaman (quick chuckle) will always get it.

So I went for it, Silkies and everything.

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans

Warriors SP at 0830 hours led by event organizer, Marc Herzog, taking point and donning the black Irreverent Warriors flag.

As if sensing my newness, Irreverent Warriors New York Area Leader Marc Herzog told me that his first social event in 2017 “was the most amazing experience ever.”

“I found my people for the first time,” he added.

Another Irreverent Warriors member, a Marine named Kevin Bunn, assured me: “Many of us shared your experience… we’re not gonna push you. I know where you were and I know what you’re going through.”

In fact, I was quite comfortable around every hiker. I knew what type of people was around me: gritty, hard-working, selfless Americans who would jump at any opportunity to help a brother or sister in uniform.

Kevin confirmed what my gut knew: “[The vets] need these events to keep them from feeling isolated,” he said. “Just one or two events gets them through the year.”

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans

The Warriors report to formation for a photo in Times Square, NYC. (Photo courtesy of Arturo Martinez, Marine.)

I also knew they can party, as I have done many times before (probably too much). And some partying was the first thing I saw that morning.

As we mustered at the start point in Central Park, many Irreverent Warriors members cracked open beers. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous that this affair would get out of control. As a former officer, I knew the math: soldiers + booze = debauchery.

But it turned out to be everything but that.

No matter how many drinks some Warriors had, (and a few had a lot!) they knew what line not to cross. No one urinated on the street, left garbage behind, or damaged any property. With the exception of some slurring and a little stumbling, it was pure professionalism at its finest. I was impressed, a little relieved, and totally at home.

On many occasions, curious onlookers asked the Warriors about the purpose of the group. No matter who answered, the response was always the same: “We bring veterans together using humor and camaraderie to improve mental health and prevent veteran suicide.”

How a ‘zit-faced kid’ transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans

A small platoon-sized element poses for a picture at one of the checkpoints, Washington Square Park, NYC.

Another Warrior, “A.A. Ron,” was asked what the group meant to him: “I met a lot of vets through IW,” he replied. “Regardless of when you served, we’re the same. We’re here for each other to lift our spirits and to enjoy our lives and the lives of others lost.”

The New York City hike hit its climax at Ground Zero. As we rounded a city corner in the Financial District, we were confronted by the Freedom Tower. The direct view of the building and how it dominated the landscape captured everyone’s attention. The party atmosphere quickly dipped into a somber state. The group, whose mood had been one of partying and incessant chanting, became silent. We all felt the same way, we all knew what this meant.

As we mustered outside the Freedom tower, several Warriors took the stage to tell their stories of those lost and remembered. The message was clear: you are not alone!

After a moment of silence, a prayer, and warm hugs we gathered our belongings and carried on with the mission, as all Warriors do.

If you want to get involved or donate to support the Irreverent Warriors mission, go to their website, www.irreverentwarriors.com.

This article originally appeared on SOFREP. Follow @sofrepofficial on Twitter.

Articles

This is what happens when you give a Marine and a Ranger motorcycles

Sponsored by PenFed Credit Union


Wil Willis knows a thing or two about weapons. He was born into a military family, served as an Army Ranger for four years, then transferred to the Air Force to become a pararescueman for another ten years. Since his time in service, he’s found ways to utilize the skills he learned on active duty as both an entertainer and an instructor.

Now an actor and writer, Willis is perhaps best known for his work on Forged in Fire, a competition series where world-class bladesmiths compete to create iconic edged weapons from history. He also teaches veterans and members of the first responder community about tactical combat casualty care.

So, yeah, he’s kind of bad ass.

U.S. Marine Weston Scott met up with Willis to connect over a past-time they both love: hitting the road on two wheels.

In this episode of “Paving the Way,” Willis and Scott hang out in their favorite Los Angeles garage working on their bikes and chatting about what it means for them to ride.

“I don’t do anything illegal. It’s not out of control. But I definitely am more aggressive than a lot of other riders. I ride every day.”

His riding style might be “fast and loose” but Willis insists it helps him slow down.

“I think being left alone with your thoughts can be scary sometimes, especially when you’re talking about a transitional period. I’ve got through it a bunch of times. Everybody’s had rough times. For me, getting back on the back was a way of slowing everything down in my mind. I do believe there’s something spiritual I get out of riding.”

Check out the episode above to find out more about why Willis rides every day, but Scott sums it up nicely: “It’s just good for the soul.”

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