Her non-profit organization helps hospitalized veterans, sends gifts to deployed troops, and supports the spouses and families of service members.
Recently, that support went to Melissa Comeau, an advocate for military caregivers and wife of U.S. Marine and Purple Heart recipient Stephen Comeau.
As a full-time caregiver to her husband, Comeau had little time to focus on her own wellbeing. So Elise decided it was time for a little pick-me-up in the form of a full-fledged makeover in classic Pin-Up style.
“When I first met Melissa, I could tell she was very special, and I wanted to do something to show our appreciation to the caregiver of one of our Marines,” Elise told We Are The Mighty.
When Comeau’s husband Stephen left for his fourth combat deployment, she prepared herself for the worst — but it never occurred to her to prepare for him to come home with a brain injury.
When he returned, Stephen was diagnosed with multiple combat injuries including traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, osteoarthritis, and degenerative disc disease.
Together, Melissa and Stephen researched his diagnoses and soon discovered that there is a significant difference between being a supportive wife and being a caregiver.
“I didn’t know I was a caregiver. I just thought of myself as his wife, doing what anyone would do,” Comeau explained. “But once I learned about that word, it opened up a new world.”
After meeting Comeau, Pin-Ups for Vets’ Elise knew she wanted to do something to show her appreciation.
So Elise delivered a pin-up makeover for Comeau — complete with classic hair and make-up styling by Ana Vergara, vintage-inspired dresses by Voodoo Vixen, and a professional photoshoot by Jason Holmes of Retro Dolls.
Elise couldn’t wait to reveal Comeau’s pin-up look.
“It was a special moment when Melissa first saw herself in the mirror,” Elise said. “How we appear affects our confidence and this makeover brought out Melissa’s inner bombshell. I could see the shift towards happiness and excitement in that moment.”
According to Comeau, it’s tough to look after yourself when you’re focused on caring for others. As a mentor, she teaches, “If you take care of yourself, it makes you better for everyone. It all starts with you — and if you don’t nurture yourself, you’ll burn out.”
That’s why Elise was inspired to reach out to Comeau.
“I always want to bring awareness and attention to military families and the sacrifices they make,” Elise said. “Our military would be impossible without support from loved ones and it’s important to acknowledge that.”
For the longest time, the GI Bill was one of the most effective recruiting incentives. Even for recruits who had no intention of using some of the many perks, the ability to pass it on to their spouses or children was a huge factor in deciding whether or not to enlist. For some U.S. troops, that benefit is at an end.
A new policy reported by Military Times shows that the Pentagon sees the transferability benefit as a recruiting tool and that those military members with more than 16 years of service are closer to retirement than they are to being a recruit. As a result, the Department of Defense will place a cap on transferring those benefits, clearly believing the possibility of retirement at 20 years is a much better retention incentive than giving a free education to military children.
The current policy states that any member with six years’ time in service can transfer their GI Bill benefits to their spouse or children as long as they serve another four years. That will not change. Members with 10 years of service also received transferability benefits even if they were unable to extend their service for any reason. That provision will also go away – unless the member was forced out due to force-shaping policies.
“The fact that nobody was consulted about this is alarming,” Paul Frost, a retired Navy captain who serves as MOAA’s program director for financial and benefits education, told Stars & Stripes. “What else is being discussed on the changes of this bill, which is one of the key benefits that a service member gets?”
Current service members will have until that year to decide their course of action. The new Forever GI Bill does not affect this new policy and all transfer requests must still be made while the service member is on active duty.
“As a matter of principle, The American Legion is against the curtailment of veterans’ earned benefits,” said American Legion spokesperson Joe Plenzler. “We understand the minimum time-in-service for transferability eligibility, and that makes sense from a retention perspective, but the 16-year transfer or lose rule makes no sense to us as DOD has articulated it and disadvantages the veteran when it comes to the full use of this earned benefit.”
Prostate cancer is one of the most frequently diagnosed cancers among male VA patients. The disease is usually found in its early stages and often grows slowly. Most men live with the cancer for decades without symptoms and die of other causes even without early surgery. But some cases of prostate cancer metastasize and lead to death.
Millions of men have gotten a “Gleason score,” which is used almost universally to predict the aggressiveness of prostate cancer.
Dr. Donald Gleason, who served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, devised the scoring system in the 1960s while working at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. The Gleason score has long been considered the most reliable indicator of the potential for prostate cancer to grow and spread. It helps provide a prognosis and guide treatment and is a reference standard in clinical trials testing new therapies.
`Every prostate cancer patient knows his Gleason score’
“Every prostate cancer patient knows his Gleason score,” Dr. Bruce Roth, a professor of medicine and urological surgery at Vanderbilt University and an official of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, told The New York Times following Gleason’s death at age 88 in 2008. “It is remarkable that the Gleason score remains the standard test despite the millions of dollars spent on trying to develop molecular tests to displace it.”
To find a Gleason score, doctors take a biopsy of a patient’s prostate and look at the cells under a microscope. The pattern of cancer cells is ranked from 1 to 5. A score of 1 means cells resemble a normal prostate, with areas of cancer cells small and closely packed. Higher scores mean the cancer cells are more widespread and signal a worse prognosis.
Total scores range from 2 to 10.
Scores of 2-4 are usually considered benign or slow growing.
Those of 5-7 are the most common and are highly treatable.
Scores of 8-10 show an advanced stage of cancer and are unlikely to be cured.
Chief of pathology at Minneapolis VA
Born in 1920 in Iowa, Gleason earned his medical degree in 1944 in the Army Specialized Training Program at the University of Minnesota. He completed his internship at the University of Maryland Hospital and joined the Army Medical Corps in 1945, serving as a psychiatrist, transport surgeon, dermatologist, and venereal disease clinician before being discharged in 1947. He then pursued a pathology residency in a combined VA-university program in Minneapolis. After spending two years in France, he returned to Minnesota and passed his anatomic and clinical pathology boards in 1952. He served as chief of pathology at the Minneapolis VA Hospital from 1954 to 1975.
In 1962, Dr. George Mellinger, the hospital’s chief of urology, asked Gleason to develop a standard pathological testing system for prostate cancer. The American Urological Association (AUA) described the creation of the Gleason score:
Used for prostate cancer treatment around the world
“As chief of [pathology], Dr. Gleason joined the VA Cooperative Urological Research Group study of prostate cancer. With them, he devised a grading system based on the increasing disorganization of the histologic structure [microscopic anatomy] of the prostate cancers. The histologic grades were illustrated with photomicrographs and Dr. Gleason’s drawings, which were easily recognized by other pathologists. The histologic grades correlated with the varying degrees of clinical malignancy of the cancers. Because the Gleason grading system was easily learned from the drawings, it has been accepted and applied to the diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer around the world.”
Gleason retired from VA in 1976 and spent 10 years as a staff pathologist in the Fairview Hospital system in Minneapolis, before his final retirement in 1986, according to the AUA. The American Urological Association awarded him its prestigious Presidential Citation in 2002.
Click here to read about other VA researchers who served.
While the selection of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as Secretary of Defense drew a lot of attention, there are some other nominations at the Pentagon that are waiting in the wings — the service secretaries.
There is a Secretary of the Army, a Secretary of the Navy (who also is responsible for the Marine Corps, and depending on the situation, the Coast Guard), and a Secretary of the Air Force.
According to a report by the Washington Post, retired Army Col. James Hickey, is the front-runner to be Secretary of the Army. Hickey is best known as the commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, which executed Operation “Red Dawn,” the mission that lead to the capture of Saddam Hussein.
For the last two years, Hickey, who served multiple tours in Iraq, has been the senior advisor to the Senate Armed Services Committee. His awards include the Army Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Combat Distinguishing Device and Oak Leaf Cluster, and the Defense Superior Service Medal.
Hickey’s main competition for Army secretary is Van Hipp, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican party who has served in a number of positions in the Pentagon.
According to his LinkedIn.com profile, Hipp has been chairman of American Defense International, Inc. since 1995.
There are two U.S. congressmen being considered for SECNAV, including Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes, the current chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.
Forbes, who was defeated for a ninth term in the House of Representatives in the 2016 Republican primary by Scott Taylor, a retired Navy SEAL who served in Iraq and who founded the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund, Inc., faces competition from Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine Corps officer, according to his House web page.
Hunter, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, succeeded his father, Duncan L. Hunter, a Vietnam veteran who served 14 terms in the House of Representatives.
Oklahoma Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine is considered a likely possibility to serve as Secretary of the Air Force.
According to his campaign website, Bridenstine is a former naval aviator who flew the F/A-18 Hornet and E-2 Hawkeye in his naval service, then transitioned to the Oklahoma Air National Guard, where he flies the MC-12, an aircraft that specializes in the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
Bridenstine was first elected to the House in 2012.
The United States has a number of holidays meant to honor those members of the armed forces who are serving, who have served, and who have given their last true measure of devotion on the battlefield. There’s an organization now that seeks to make sure we remember everyone in uniform through its mission to “Remember, Honor, and Teach.” And it all starts one day in December, decorating for one of America’s biggest holidays.
Men and women in the U.S. military are putting their lives on the line for Americans back home every day of the year, says Wreaths Across America. The group aims to remember and honor those warfighters while teaching future generations to do the same. Their mission restarts every year on the third Saturday in December (this year, it’s December 15), when volunteers around the United States place a wreath on a veteran’s grave, say their name aloud, and thank them for their courage and sacrifice.
Wreaths Across America began with Morrill Worcester of Harrington, Maine, the owner of Worcester Wreath Company. As a young boy, he was sent on a trip to Washington, D.C. where he saw Arlington National Cemetery for the first time. The experience never left him and, after he became a successful entrepreneur, he decide to give back to the men and women who died so that he could make his fortune.
In 1992, the company saw a surplus in its product and he decided to use them in the older areas of Arlington National Cemetery, the ones that were receiving fewer and fewer visitors every year. When other companies got wind of the plan, they joined in. The local trucking company provided transportation to DC. Members of the local VFW and American Legion posts decorated the wreaths with red bows, all tied by hand.
Volunteers from Maine and in the nation’s capital helped lay the wreaths on the graves in Arlington. It even included a special ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. For 13 years, Worcester quietly and solemnly did the honored dead this service without advertising or announcement.
In 2005, at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, someone noticed the wreaths on the grave markers in Arlington and posted a photo of its snow-covered majesty on the internet. It quickly went viral and those who couldn’t make the trip to DC wanted to do versions of the same in their own hometowns.
Since the company couldn’t possibly make enough wreaths to give to every grave in every state, they instead send seven wreaths to each state, one for every branch of the military and one for prisoners of war and the missing in action.
The Clarion, Pennsylvania Civil Air Patrol has partnered with Wreaths Across America.
Since Wreaths Across America began in 2006, 150 sites across the United States hold simultaneous wreath-laying ceremonies. By 2008, that number doubled and wreath ceremonies were held in Puerto Rico and 24 cemeteries overseas. In 2014, the number grew to 700,000 memorial wreaths at more than 1,000 sites, including Pearl Harbor, Bunker Hill, and the September 11th sites.
Their volunteers managed to cover every grave in Arlington National Cemetery.
Representatives of each branch of military service salute behind wreaths in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Ivy Green Cemetery in Bremerton during the Wreaths Across America ceremony.
(U.S. Navy Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Charles Gaddis)
Now the ceremonies are held on the third Saturday in December, and the movement of the wreaths bound for Arlington from Harrington, Maine is the world’s largest veteran’s parade. The annual wreath laying goals are surpassed now by education programs and partnership programs with local-level veterans organizations.
To learn more about Wreaths Across America, donate, or volunteer to lay wreaths, visit their website.
Some ailing veterans can now use their federal health care benefits at CVS “MinuteClinics” to treat minor illnesses and injuries, under a pilot program announced April 18 by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The new program, currently limited to the Phoenix area, comes three years after the VA faced allegations of chronically long wait times at its centers, including its Phoenix facility, which treats about 120,000 veterans.
Veterans would not be bound by current restrictions under the VA’s Choice program, which limits outside care to those who have been waiting more than 30 days for an appointment or have to drive more than 40 miles to a facility. Instead, Phoenix VA nurses staffing the medical center’s help line will be able to refer veterans to MinuteClinics for government-paid care when “clinically appropriate.”
On April 19, President Donald Trump plans to sign legislation to temporarily extend the $10 billion Choice program until its money runs out, pending the administration’s plan due out by fall. That broader plan would have to be approved by Congress.
“Our number one priority is getting veterans’ access to care when and where they need it,” said Baligh Yehia, the VA’s deputy undersecretary for health for community care. “The launch of this partnership will enable VA to provide more care for veterans in their neighborhoods.”
Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., a long-time advocate of veterans’ expanded access to private care, lauded the new initiative as an “important step forward.”
“Veterans in need of routine health care services should not have to wait in line for weeks to get an appointment when they can visit community health centers like MinuteClinic to receive timely and convenient care,” he said.
The Veterans Health Administration said it opted to go with a CVS partnership in Phoenix after VA officials there specifically pushed for the additional option. They cited the feedback of local veterans and the success of a smaller test run with CVS last year in Palo Alto, Calif.
Shulkin has said he wants to expand private-sector partnerships in part by looking at wait times and the particular medical needs of veterans in different communities. Successful implementation of his broader plan will depend on the support of key members of Congress such as McCain, who chairs the Armed Services Committee.
The VA did not indicate whether it received requests from other VA medical centers or how quickly it might expand the program elsewhere.
The current Choice program was developed after the 2014 scandal in Phoenix in which some veterans died, yet the program has often encountered long waits of its own. The bill being signed by Trump seeks to alleviate some of the problems by helping speed up VA payments and promote greater sharing of medical records. Shulkin also has said he wants to eliminate Choice’s 30-day, 40 mile restrictions, allowing the VA instead to determine when outside care is “clinically needed.”
Despite a heavy spotlight on its problems, the Phoenix facility still grapples with delays. Only 61 percent of veterans surveyed said they got an appointment for urgent primary care when they needed it, according to VA data.
Maureen McCarthy, the Phoenix VA’s chief of staff, welcomed the new CVS partnership but acknowledged a potential challenge in providing seamless coordination to avoid gaps in care. She said a veteran’s medical record will be shared electronically, with MinuteClinic providing visit summaries to the veteran’s VA primary care physician so that the VA can provide follow-up services if needed.
The VA previously experimented with a similar program last year in the smaller market of Palo Alto, a $330,000 pilot to provide urgent care at 14 MinuteClinics. CVS says it’s pleased the VA has opted to test out a larger market and says it’s ready to roll the program out nationally if successful.
CVS, the biggest player in pharmacy retail clinics, operates more than 1,100 of them in 33 states and the District of Columbia.
“We believe in the MinuteClinic model of care and are excited to offer our health care services as one potential solution for the Phoenix VA Health Care System and its patients,” said Tobias Barker, chief medical officer of CVS MinuteClinic.
Intense humidity, leeches, and snakes were just a few of the dangers our Vietnam Veterans faced while in the jungle — besides getting shot by bad guys. In all, 2.7 million Americans suited up for The Nam, and the average age of an infantryman was just 19-years-old.
And every single one of them at one time or another claimed the title of “f*cking new guy,” or “FNG.”
Patton, Schwarzkopf, and Mattis didn’t start out on day one of their military careers by making all the right decisions, they had to learn from their mistakes time and time again, adapting to them before ultimately succeeding.
Like every story, every man whose served has a beginning — a seed.
“I didn’t know squat, I wasn’t prepared for this,” Larry “Doc” Speed, a Combat Medic from 173rd Delta Company, explains in an interview about his first few days in the bush.
Entering the grunt world as an “FNG” is a stressful time in every new infantryman’s life.
Having to prove your worth from the moment you step onto the battlefield was just as difficult as shaking off those first dramatic moments of being pinned down by accurate enemy gunfire. Until you prove yourself, you’re just another blood bag with a name stenciled on a uniform.
“It’s a different world when you’re brand new, you’re just scared,” Jesse Salcedo, an M60 machine gunner admits. “It took three or four firefights before I could function before I could see the enemy.”
Veterans In Residence program, a partnership of Bunker Labs and WeWork, is a six-month business incubator that is revolutionizing entrepreneurship for veterans — just ask Bryan Jacobs.
Jacobs never intended to join the U.S. Navy.
“When I joined the military, every male in my family had served,” the Tampa-based entrepreneur told We Are The Mighty. “There was a long line of service there. I wasn’t pressured into it, but it wasn’t my first choice. I wanted to be the first male in my family to go to college, but I was young and naive and it didn’t work out that way.”
When Jacobs left the military in 2005 after six years of service, he felt lost.
“When I got out of the military, I went through a lot of changes and became homeless,” he shared, saying much of his identity had been linked to his military career. “I wasn’t ready for anything that the outside world had to offer. In fact, I came out of the military rather quickly. I left Iraq November 5 and was out by November 25. There was no transition or support. It was a different world then.”
Inspired by the legacy of his grandfather, a chef, Jacobs leaned into his entrepreneurial spirit to navigate his newly-minted civilian life. Still homeless, he signed up for culinary school.
“I love to cook so much I took two cookbooks to Iraq that I could read. It took me out of the pain of life and the emotional struggles I was living in,” he shared. “I went to culinary school in 2008. I was couch surfing, sleeping in a garage and had a part-time job as a trainer, where I could take showers. I had made some bad choices and didn’t have a lot of knowledge and didn’t understand the power of knowledge.”
In May of 2014, Jacobs tragically lost his younger brother, who also served, to suicide. It was the wake-up call he needed to reevaluate his life and shift perspectives.
“I felt responsible as a brother in arms, but also as a brother in general,” he shared. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why am I still here?’ and ‘What is the light in the darkness?’”
Through personal growth and introspection, Jacobs launched Vets 2 Success, a nonprofit organization that supports homeless and displaced veterans in finding their passion and purpose through food and brew programs.
Jacobs shared an exercise in which he challenges veterans to think about the specific ingredients in their favorite foods and equates it to ‘bad ingredients’ in life.
“If there are bad ingredients in the recipe, would it still be seen the same? Of course not,” he shared. “So if you have all these bad ingredients in your life, that’s how you are going to be seen. That’s how easy it is to inspire them to see their personal changes. What we’re doing is helping them see the process that needs to be enveloped. And those ingredients don’t come overnight. They don’t come in a quick trip that can be solved tomorrow, but it’s a process to get to the plate. This is how we talk about retraining their minds to look at problems and find solutions.”
As his nonprofit grew, Jacobs continued to seek both personal and professional development, which is how he discovered the Veterans In Residence program. The program, a partnership of Bunker Labs and WeWork, is a peer-facilitated, six-month business incubator that provides military-connected entrepreneurs, including veteran small business owners, a networking community, business skills and a workspace to help launch and grow their business.
Currently operating in 23 major cities, Veterans In Residence helps entrepreneurs take their business ideas to the next level through facilitated accountability and connections.
“We look for the companies we select for these programs to be at a point where they can really leverage their time in the cohort as much as possible and also be a value add for their peers,” Ann Cardona of Bunker Labs, shared.
Jacobs took on the rigorous application process, was accepted and began the cohort in July 2020 for a new arm of his existing nonprofit. The entrepreneur and aspiring innovationist recommends that applicants come with direction, but be open-minded for that plan to shift.
“My plan has completely grown in different aspects and avenues than I ever thought,” Jacobs shared on his experience with the six-month program. “Be okay with good, constant feedback and be prepared to be challenged. That was something that took me by surprise. Of course everyone is in love with their own idea. You have to hear from others that they believe in your idea. It gave me a boost of confidence that other entrepreneurs believed in it. As an entrepreneur you feel crazy already. The program gave me the confidence to say – this is going to work, but it’s not going to be easy and that’s okay.”
The next Veterans In Residence cohort, set to begin in early 2021, will be the most diverse yet. Bunker Labs anonymized the applications in the selection process, ensuring they were blind to names, gender, location and ethnicity.
“There were three of us that looked at all 409 companies that had a legal entity set up to ensure consistency throughout the process,” Cardona said. “The IT team set up a comprehensive application process and rubric for applicants. We wanted to make sure there were no unconscious biases in the selection process. We broke them back up into locations after the initial screening and we did a virtual group interview with the top 20 candidates in each location to get to our final eight. We will have two virtual cohorts that are a conglomerate of entrepreneurs from across the nation where Bunker Labs does not currently have a coworking space agreement (such as with WeWork) already established.
Cardona stated that Bunker Labs aims to have the upcoming cohort be the most impactful yet by ensuring everyone has a legal entity set up prior to the cohort beginning.
For companies that are not at this point yet, Bunker Labs encourages them to join the Bunker Online community, focus on Launch Lab Online, and participate in workshop series that are designed to get prospective cohort applicants ready for the next Veterans In Residence cohort.
“Almost all of the companies are out of the ideation phase and most are already seeing some traction, which is different than past cohorts where we still had a good number that were very much in ideation,” Cardona shared. “We also chose companies that had more defined goals and were able to be vulnerable and honest about where they were in their businesses and what their true needs were. If the cohort members already have a good idea of where they are going and what they need from us, it is much easier for us to connect them with the correct resources and have a bigger impact on their business.”
“The best part of Veterans In Residence was the city leaders,” Jacobs said. “Just having people who cared about you, who are trying to run their own businesses, but they are there to help you. When they said they were going to get things done, they did. It was having that confidence. As an entrepreneur you hear all the time – hey I’m gonna hook you up – but everyone has an agenda. None of these people had a [personal] agenda.”
Nearly two decades removed from war, Jacobs still draws parallels to his time in the military with his current role as a founder and entrepreneur.
“Walking through life as an entrepreneur is like combat – you’re just hoping for success that you come out on the other side,” he said. “Veterans In Residence helped propel my confidence as an entrepreneur. It helped me realize there’s something bigger – it’s not a personal endeavor and I didn’t have that feeling going in, but coming out the other side there is a completely new perspective laid before me.”
He’s making a gear list. He’s checking it twice. Gonna find out who’s boot or grunt. Gunny Clause is coming on base. So stand at ease, kiddos.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And he’s a Devil Dog. First appearing in WWI Marine encampments throughout the Forests of Argonne in France, Gunny Claus’ new mission is to be there for the kids of Marines in harms way.
Each year, he comes throughout the month of December leading up to his big day. Gunny Claus’ “No Kid Left Behind at Christmas” mission has brought him to nearly every Marine Base, USO, and Veteran Hospital where you’ll find Marines and their children. To date, the 1st Reindeer Division out of Marine Corps Base North Pole have met with well over 100,000 children since 2002.
(We have a soft spot in our hearts for Marine Santas at We Are The Mighty.)
The details of his shall-we-call-them “Dress Reds” are very significant as well. Each stripe on his sleeve represents every four years Marines have been in a major conflict since WWI. On his chest are the victory medals for every conflict Marines have fought on Christmas.
“Being a part of something so small made it worth it to me because the family members and the kids need a little more,” said Gunny to the Camp Legune Globe. “Just being able to be a part of that, making sure that the kids get a present and get a chance to see Gunny Claus, seeing their smiles especially if their family member is deployed, we want to be able to give that to them as well.”
Gunny Claus works very closely with another yule-tide Marine tradition, the Toys for Tots.
For more information on him, the 1st Reindeer Division, or his schedule, please visit www.gunnyclaus.org
Today there are over 40,000 nonprofits that focus on military and veteran issues, according to Charity Watch.
Most of those registered as nonprofits are chapters of larger organizations, but some of them are single chapter projects that focus on specific needs within the veteran community.
Here at We Are the Mighty, we wanted to explore some of those advocacy groups you might not have heard of in a bit more depth.
The Military Health Project & Foundation is based in San Francisco and is run by Jacob Angel. Founded in April 2013, the nonprofit was originally designed to address mental health issues through pushing national legislation.
Angel tells us it took the nonprofit eight months to realize where it was failing.
“We were making the same mistake that the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense were making,” he says. “We were treating mental and physical health care as two separate areas of care.”
The nonprofit re-aligned itself to better connect mental health and physical health, and in March 2014 it went to work garnering support for the Excellence in Mental Health Act, a bill that Angel says eventually became law after a long battle.
“Thus far, the program is going very well,” Angel says. The law, according to Angel, makes counseling and other mental health service available to everyone “regardless of socioeconomic status or insurance coverage.”
In March 2015, The Military Health Project & Foundation announced the creation of the Military Support Fund, a dedicated financial resource to address coverage gaps for military and veteran families.
Angel tells that since its creation, the Military Support Fund has assisted 40 families in securing funding for specialized medical services and equipment.
Chief Petty Officer Carla Burkholder’s son was the recipient of a $2,500 grant for specialized medical equipment from The Military Health Project & Foundation.
“It feels like a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” she wrote.
The organization is focused on addressing both physical and mental health needs through direct assistance and legislation.
“We are now a hybrid organization,” Angel says.
The Military Health Project is the advocacy wing where the nonprofit helps to create policy that addresses the ever-changing needs of the military and veteran community through legislation.
The Military Health Foundation works to provide for military and veteran families in the interim.
“They should not have to wait for treatments that they require and frankly deserve.”
That satisfying “Ping!” of bullets on target is as regular as a metronome when former Green Beret sniper, Aaron Barruga, is running tactical marksmanship drills on his home turf in Santa Clarita, CA. With his company, Guerrilla Approach, Barruga trains civilians, military, and law enforcement in proper and effective tactical firearm deployment.
The man does not miss.
“Oscar Mike” host Ryan Curtis paid a visit to Barruga’s training facility to bone up on his sharpshooting and found himself in good hands, drilling shoulder to shoulder with this veteran entrepreneurial success story. Barruga’s advice?
“I would definitely say that, if they have the opportunity, use that G.I. Bill. Get that piece of paper that says, “I’m smart and employable.” And just grind away, basically. You gotta hustle.”
As the day progresses, the sweat beading on Ryan’s brow is a testament to his hustle, if not his dead shot accuracy. And when he challenges Barruga to an Old West-style duel, our host quickly learns what high noon looks like at the Less-than-OK Corral.
Watch as Barruga makes plinking targets look easy, and Curtis proves his monkey is definitely the drunkest, in the video embedded at the top.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
In early July, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center became the first VA facility to participate in an international clinical trial evaluating the therapeutic benefit of an immunomodulator drug, Tocilizumab (TCZ), as a treatment for Veterans with COVID-19 severe pneumonia.
“COVID-19 is known to cause extensive damage in the lungs,” said Dr. Lavannya Pandit, a Houston VA pulmonologist and critical care physician who is a co-investigator in the study. “This often leads to difficulty breathing and, eventually, pneumonia. Pneumonia triggers a hyperimmune response that we are seeing can be more detrimental to some patients than the original infection.”
Medical personnel have used TCZ successfully to treat hyperimmune responses in cancer patients. The trial results will help determine if TCZ has a similar effect in patients who are diagnosed with severe COVID-19 pneumonia.
The clinical trial is a randomized, placebo-controlled study. Both the investigator and participant are blinded to who is receiving the TCZ treatment. Eligible participants are patients who are in the hospital and who chest imaging has confirmed has severe COVID-19 pneumonia.
Veterans at Houston VA very willing to step up
Medical personnel will monitor Veterans in a clinical environment for their responses to the treatment. Responses may include disease progression, the duration of hospitalization and the need for critical care and other supportive treatments.
“VA offers cutting-edge treatments and top quality care for Veterans with COVID-19,” said Dr. Barbara Trautner. Trautner is a faculty member at the Behavioral Health Program, Center for Innovations in Quality, Effectiveness and Safety at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.
“Participating in this clinical trial allows our Veterans the opportunity to contribute to scientific progress,” she said. “So far, Veterans at the Houston VA have been very willing to step up and volunteer. We enrolled eight Veterans in the first three days of the study.”
Trial taking place in more than 50 locations
“The treatments we offer for COVID-19 three months from now will be very different than what we offer today because of scientific trials like this,” said Trautner.
In addition to Houston VA, the trial is taking place in more than 50 locations across the United States, Europe and Canada, including at the Baylor College of Medicine.
“I always find it an honor and privilege to care for our Veterans who have served our country,” Trautner said. “The Veterans we are enrolling in this study are eager to join the fight against COVID-19, and we are happy to provide them this opportunity and do our part.”