The official blog of American Veteran Magazine, the national quarterly publication of AMVETS.

Friday, May 29, 2009

VA launches Web site for college mental health counselors

This week, the VA launched a new Web site offering teaching aides for college mental health counselors to address the issues student-veterans may face.

The new site notes that VA has recognized mental health issues among recently-returned Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. As more veterans seek to take advantage of their new G.I. Bill benefits this fall, college mental health counselors must be prepared to properly address the issues for which student-veterans may seek counseling.

Currently, the site offers links to presentations on suicide prevention, PTSD training, and alcoholism.

The suicide prevention PowerPoint presentation is quick and matter-of-fact, and the PTSD 101 course is a mutli-faceted, in-depth analysis of the disorder, its causes, its prevalence among veterans, and potential treatment options.

The new Web site is a key first step in ensuring college campuses are able to meet the needs of veterans once the new G.I. Bill takes effect August 1. Hopefully, mental health counselors on college campuses will take advantage of these resources in order to provide adequate, timely assistance to veterans who need it.

(Image: Bridge from the VA's new mental health counseling page for student-veterans. Image is within the public domain.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

This (Short) Week at American Veteran

This week at American Veteran, we will bring you up to speed on National Convention and the upcoming Symposium for 21st Century Veterans.

Recently, AMVETS unveiled the logo for the 65th annual AMVETS National Convention, which reflects the traditions of New Orleans. We hope you will be able to join us this summer in the Big Easy as we tend to the business of the organization.

Congress is on a brief recess after holding numerous hearing on veterans' bills last week. Next week, we will resume our coverage of AMVETS' work on Capitol Hill.

(Image: Official logo of the 65th annual AMVETS National Convention designed by AMVETS graphic designer Luis Jimenez.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reflections on Memorial Day

Yesterday afternoon at 3:30 p.m., Americans from coast to coast paused to reflect on the sacrifices of those who lost their lives in service to our nation.

Memorial Day is one of our nation's most revered holidays; a day specially reserved to acknowledge the brave men and women who lost their lives in service to our great nation.

Since its inception as "Decoration Day" following the Civil War, Americans have continued to show pride in their country each Memorial Day, and this year was no exception.

AMVETS across the country gathered to pay tribute to their fallen comrades at hundreds of events large and small, alongside community and national leaders. Countless other AMVETS at more than 1,400 posts nationwide paid tribute in silence to the brave men and women who laid their lives down to preserve our way of life.

President Obama dedicated his weekly address to the men and women continuing to serve in our military, hosted Gold Star families and veteran leaders, such as AMVETS Ladies Auxiliary, for a special brunch at the White House, and solemnly laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

At Major League Baseball games around the country, players on all 30 teams donned red, white and blue caps in honor of the national day of remembrance. Teams playing in the afternoon also paused at 3:30 p.m. to observe the National Moment of Remembrance.

In my home town of Philadelphia, the community gathered around the village of Roxborough's veterans' memorial in Gorgas Park to pay tribute to our fallen heroes, immediately followed by the annual Memorial Day parade, leading to the nearby Wissahickon War Memorial.

When the day's events had drawn to a close, one image stuck out to me: I saw a family crossing the street with two small children in a stroller, and another skipping alongside, waving her American flag. It was inspiring to see this young family take the time out of their long weekend to pay tribute to our nation's fallen heroes, and to visibly instill a spirit of Patriotism in their children that is sure to last well beyond May 25.


(Photos, Top: Families visit the graves of their loved ones on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad McNeeley. Bottom: President Obama laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad McNeeley.)

AMVETS discusses veterans' issues on CNN

Here is video from this weekend's coverage of Memorial Day and the Obama Administration's work on veterans' issues.

(Video: News package from Saturday afternoon courtesy of CNN.)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Live from Capitol Hill: AMVETS testifies on House legislation

Yesterday afternoon, AMVETS Legislative Director Ray Kelley testified before the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity on seven key pieces of veterans' legislation.

The bills included:

H.R. 1037, the Pilot College Work Study Programs for Veterans Act of 2009.

H.R. 1098, the Veterans' Work Retraining Act of 2009.

H.R. 1168, the Veterans Retraining Act of 2009.

H.R. 1172, the Pat Tillman Veteran's Scholarship Initiative.

H.R. 1879, the National Guard Employment Act of 2009.

H.R. 1821, the Equity of Injured Veterans Act of 2009.

H.R. 2180, which would close gaps in care for members of the Guard and Reserve caught between DoD and VA.

AMVETS supports these bills, with some minor concerns, such as the delimiting period proposed in the Equity of Injured Veterans Act. While Kelley is encouraged that Congress hopes to extend the period of time for which service-disabled veterans would be eligible for vocational rehab programs, AMVETS would prefer to see Congress eliminate the time restrictions altogether.

Also, AMVETS would like to see the Veterans Retraining Act extended to cover vocational training beyond the proposed six month limit. While the legislation as-written is a marked improvement, allowing for more veterans to take advantage of valuable vocational training, AMVETS believes that veterans would be better served to have at least one year of eligibility to use their education benefits for vocational schools.

To read Kelley's testimony, Click Here.

To view a list of panelists from the hearing, Click Here.

(Photo: AMVETS Leglislative Director Ray Kelley testified before the House VA Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. Photo by Ryan Gallucci.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Live from Capitol Hill: AMVETS Ladies Auxiliary testifies on women veterans' issues

This morning, AMVETS National Ladies Auxiliary President Charlene Kee testified before a special session of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs to discuss the unique issues facing women veterans. To listen to audio from the roundtable discussion, Click Here.

During her testimony, Kee highlighted shortfalls in the current VA health care system such as treatment options for conditions that present unique challenges to female veterans like osteoporosis, breast cancer, sexual trauma, and cardiac care.

Kee also noted that the VA needs a concerted outreach effort to female veterans, ensuring that they know what is available and how to take advantage of their earned health care benefits.

"Male servicemembers use VA health care at a rate that has averaged 22 percent. Female veterans have just recently increased their usage to 15 percent," Kee said. "AMVETS suggests that the VA take immediate action to increase outreach that specifically targets women veterans and silmultaneously study the other barriers, including availability of care."

Kee also suggested that the VA offer child care services for veterans who are the primary care givers for children. Though this kind of program would be available to both male and female veterans, studies show that women are disproportionately affected by the lack of adequate child services when they seek care from therapeutic programs requiring privacy and confidentiality, such as PTSD or military sexual trauma.

As the committee decides on appropriate courses of action to best serve our female veterans, committee chairman Bob Filner indicated that more hearings would take place in the near future.

(Photos, Top: AMVETS National Ladies Auxiliary President Charlene Key testifies before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on Wednesday, May 20, 2009. Photo by Ray Kelley. Bottom: Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, asks questions to the panel of women veterans and veterans' advocates gathered on Capitol Hill to discuss women veterans issues on Wednesday, May 20, 2009. Photo by Ryan Gallucci.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

An open letter to the ACLU

Dear ACLU,

I just finished reading your attorneys' commentary on regarding President Obama's decision to fight the ill-conceived release of additional detainee mistreatment photos.

In your commentary, you attempted to berate the current President and the previous administration for, "widespread and systemic" abuse. As a veteran who served in Iraq and handled detainees from time to time, this couldn't be further from the truth.

While my unit trained at Ft. Bragg and upon our arrival in Kuwait, we were briefed repeatedly on the rules of engagement, our general orders, and the laws of war to ensure that we would know how to responsibly handle enemy combatants and detainees once they were neutralized on the battlefield. Unfortunately, we had to put our training into practice our first day after crossing the berm.

We encountered about 50 military-aged men looting weapons from an Iraqi military installation in Taji, just north of Baghdad. The unit I was attached to managed to gain control of the situation, took possession of the arms, and built a cordon around the detainees near one of the facility's perimeter walls. We would now need to wait for military police and intelligence units to join up with us to properly vet and process the detainees.

As nightfall rolled in, my teammates and I entered into the equation to pull security on the group. Once Intelligence was on site, they began to speak with each detainee individually. The conversations were often brief and even-tempered. Most of the men were immediately released. However, a handful of the answers didn't satisfy the interrogators, and these men remained in our custody.

Only having a vague knowledge of how to handle detainees from our earlier briefings, the intelligence soldiers pulled us aside and gave us another hasty--albeit critical--briefing on how we needed to handle these men. Time and again they reiterated that we could only use proportional force to ensure they stayed put, until the unit commander decided the best next course of action.

"Proportional" meant that we were only authorized to keep watch over the men and ensure they didn't try to escape or, worse, attack us. Intelligence was very clear that the ONLY circumstances under which we could draw our weapons is if we were in imminent danger of personal harm, meaning that the men somehow gained control of a weapon and turned to use it on us.

Next, we were obligated under international law to feed them, provide them with water, allow them to sleep, and render medical aide, if necessary. We were a little taken aback, since our rations were now on the line to ensure that these potential criminals were treated properly. But we did it. We field stripped a box of MREs, took the matches, hot sauce, and heaters, then demonstrated how to properly eat them with the help of our interpreter.

Contrary to popular belief, we weren't instructed to beat, harass, or otherwise "screw" with the detainees. In fact, Intelligence made it clear that we would face dire consequences if we even thought of mistreating them. The night came and went, the detainees stayed put, and we handed them off to another unit the next day.

We carried the lessons of that day with us throughout the deployment and dozens of other encounters with detainees. Does this sound like "widespread and systemic" patterns of abuse?

Over the years, stories have come to light regarding overseas rendition camps and detainee abuse incidents from troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither I nor the Pentagon seek to refute incidents of abuse, but the mischaracterization of the actions of all American troops is what troubles me. As I pointed out in my last posting on this issue, enemy combatants will always choose American custody over their local criminal justice system, or the killing houses of Al Qaeda. This should serve as a testament to the professionalism of our troops tasked with handling enemy combatants today.

Unfortunately, from your commentary I've gathered that you believe American troops are actually trained to harass and mistreat detainees as a matter of policy, which is patently false. The Pentagon (especially under the new Administration) has been very candid in its responses to illicit detainee abuse incidents. Today, very stringent measures are in place to assure that detainees are treated equitably, as evidenced by numerous independent reports on American detention facilities, which is why Obama has decided to fight the photos' release.

The Pentagon has taken corrective action. Dated photos from incidents for which justice has been meted out will not provide anything of value to the public discourse.

In your commentary, you also purported that the President's directive lacked a "limiting principle," meaning that blocking the release of these photos would only further the presumption that the Executive enjoys the ability to censor information at will.

The limiting principle to this decision is obvious: These particular, old, subpoenaed detainee photos, which have been used in old investigations that have since been closed do not need to be released publicly. To me, this seems like a clear limit. The Administration has already demonstrated considerable consideration for transparency, even lifting the decades-old ban on filming flag-draped coffins returning from the battlefield. In this individual case the President has chosen national security and the safety of our troops over your voyeuristic desires.

Some have argued that releasing the photos would demonstrate that the United States has changed its "old habits," somehow ensuring that the extremists we're fighting would see it as an olive branch from which we can move forward. We already know this is not true. No sooner had Obama been elected that Al Qaeda released an inflammatory statement seeking to defame him and the nation he now represents. Al Qaeda and its operatives will not respond to symbolic gestures.

However, Al Qaeda will seize on opportunities to use our own transparency against, as we've seen in the past. When the Abu Ghraib incident came to light, violence in Iraq spiked dramatically--from 52 U.S. deaths in March 2004 to 135 U.S. deaths in April 2004 after "60 Minutes" aired the photos.

In the commentary you noted that, "To give the government the power to suppress information because it might anger an unidentified set of people in an unspecified part of the world and ultimately endanger an ill-defined group of U.S. personnel would be to invest it with a virtually unlimited censorial power."

I have already refuted the "unlimited censorship" idea, now I want to refute your remaining ambiguous assertions. The "unidentified set of people" is Al Qaeda and its network of operatives. The "unspecified part of the world" is Southwest Asia, particularly Iraq, Afghanistan and the Peshwar region of Pakistan. Finally, the "ill-defined group of U.S. personnel" is the more than 300,000 American military men and women who have selflessly volunteered to serve in harm's way across the aforementioned regions, as our lives go on tonight. Your argument is not salient, and, as a veteran, I take offense to being labeled as an "ill-defined group of U.S. personnel."

I guess I just don't understand why you want to possess these photos so badly. To generate more hits for your Web sites and blogs? To set in motion a complete reversal of all progress in Iraq? To compromise our latest surge of forces in Afghanistan? To further malign the selfless acts of our military men and women?

I'm appalled and offended by the proposition of releasing these photos, and I'm happy to see that Obama has listened to his top military minds on this issue. I hope these photos never see the light of day, giving our enemies another opportunity to kill or maim Americans fighting to keep us safe.


(Photo: Members of my unit discussing what to do with military-aged Iraqi men caught looting a military installation north of Baghdad in 2003. I am the second soldier from the right, pulling security. Photo courtesy of Ryan Gallucci.)

Freedoms Foundation National Awards Deadline Approaching

Submissions for the national awards of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge are due June, 1, 2009. To learn how to submit individuals or groups in your area and to learn about the awards' criteria, visit the National Awards page on the Freedoms Foundation Web site.

Every year, the Freedoms Foundation gives out awards to citizens and organizations around the country who exemplify the American spirit. The awards recognize contributions in six categories, ranging from community action to youth achievements.

In 2008, the AMVETS Americanism program at Gloucester Township Elementary School in Camden County, N.J., earned the Meritorious George Washington Honor Medal from the Freedoms Foundation in recognition of their sustained commitment to teaching the tenets of patriotism and community service.

AMVETS leaders, including National Commander John C. Hapner and New Jersey National Executive Committee Representative Barbara Horowitz were on hand to recognize the achievements of Gloucester Elementary. Hapner presented the principal of the school with a special proclamation on behalf of AMVETS, recognizing the school's sustained committment to Americanism.

To recognize the contributions of those in your community, send your submissions to the Freedoms Foundation before the June 1st deadline, which is approaching fast.

(Photos, Top: Students from Gloucester Township Elementary School's Americanism program take part in a special ceremony where Freedoms Foundation honored the school with its prestigious Meritorious George Washington Honor Medal. Bottom: AMVETS National Commander John C. Hapner presents Gloucester Elementary School principal Joseph Gentile with a proclamation from AMVETS, recognizing the school's Americanism program. Photos courtesy of Barbara Horowitz, AMVETS Department of New Jersey.)

Rep. Coffman joins the fight for USERRA equity

In April, Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.-6) introduced a piece of legislation that would close a loophole in the Uniformed Servicemembers Employment and Re-Employment Rights Act (USERRA) protections for members of the National Guard and Reserve called the National Guard Employment Act of 2009 (H.R. 1879).

Under current USERRA laws, members of the Guard and Reserve only have recourse against employers if they are mobilized for active duty under Title 10 orders. However, in recent years, members of the Guard have been increasingly activated for Homeland Security missions, which fall under Title 32. Current law provides no employment protections under Title 32, which Coffman hopes to correct.

"The soldiers and airmen serving in the National Guard must have the same reemployment rights irrespective of where they are ordered to serve. We need to recognize that those who are called up for a homeland security mission can face the same hardships and challenges in trying to get their civilian employment back as someone who has been away from their civilian occupation due to an overseas assignment or some other mobilization to active duty," said Coffman in a recent statement.

On Thursday, AMVETS National Legislative Director Ray Kelley will testify before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs in support of Coffman's bill. American Veteran will be on hand to cover the hearing.

Coffman is the latest veteran serving in Congress to call for action on USERRA. Last month, Ohio Congressman John Boccieri introduced the Servicemembers Employment and Re-Employment Rights Act of 2009 (H.R. 1474) alongside Alabama Congressman Artur Davis and Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, which would allow veterans to pursue their USERRA claims on accelerated dockets within state court systems.

Both Coffman and Boccieri are featured in the latest issue of American Veteran magazine, which highlights veterans of the Iraq war elected to serve in the 111th Congress.

Monday, May 18, 2009

This Week at American Veteran

This week at American Veteran, we will follow AMVETS Legislative Director Ray Kelley to Capitol Hill for Thursday's hearing before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, where AMVETS will discuss seven key pieces of veterans' legislation, such as Colorado Congressman Mike Coffman's National Guard Employment Act of 2009.

We will also introduce an online "Keeping Posted," thanks to the recent influx of content from the field. Thank you to everyone who has submitted your photos. In order to best serve you, we ask that you submit early and often. The best delivery method is via email to either Isaac or Ryan. We're here to help you tell the story of AMVETS' work in communities around the country, and we look forward to seeing more and more submissions down the road.

AMVETS is also continuing to muster support for student-veterans' "centers of excellence" on college campuses nationwide. To send a letter of support to your representatives in Congress, see the latest legislative alert on the AMVETS Capitol Hill Web site.

Planning for the 2009 AMVETS Symposium for 21st Century Veterans rolls on, with more details to come in the next few weeks.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Rep. Duncan Hunter questions Medal of Honor criteria

During yesterday's House Armed Services Committee hearing on the FY2010 Department of the Army budget, California Congressman and Marine Corps combat veteran Duncan D. Hunter (R-52) questioned Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey on troubling trends in today's Medal of Honor awards process.

Video from yesterday's full hearing can be viewed Here. Hunter's question on the Medal of Honor can be found at 1:06:30 into the video.

Since 9/11, the U.S. military has only awarded five Medals of Honor, all posthumous, raising some eyebrows within the veterans' community. At this year's AMVETS Medal of Honor Inaugural Breakfast, several living Medal of Honor recipients expressed concerns over the lack of living recipients from the present conflicts, sparking AMVETS to ask the same questions as Hunter.

Hunter asked Gen. Casey directly whether or not the criteria for the medal have changed, or whether our troops simply had not committed any acts of valor over the last eight years of close-quarters combat.

After seemingly avoiding the issue of characterizing valorous acts or acknowledging a overt change in policy, Casey assured Hunter that he would look into the awards process.

As this story develops over the next few months, check back with American Veteran Online for updates.

Rep. Hunter was recently featured in the spring issue of American Veteran magazine, highlighting Iraq veterans recently elected to Congress.

Pa. Congressman Joe Sestak Discusses Combat Stress

Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a retired vice admiral and an inactive member of Morton AMVETS Post 118, discussed combat stress Tuesday on CNN in the wake of the tragic Baghdad stress clinic shootings.

During the interview, Sestak pointed out that veterans are under constant stress in today's combat environment, and that repeated, long deployments only exacerbate the situation. He said that proper identification is paramount to treating veterans who struggle with combat stress, and that the U.S. military needs more mental health practitioners working in the field to identify potential issues.

Sestak also pointed out the absurdity of the current self-identification which DoD and VA require for troops at risk for PTSD.

"If 25 percent of veterans coming home had cancer, we would not be having self-referrals to treat cancer," he said. "We don't have a mandatory, systematic approach that includes the families...We can be doing better, and we must do better."

On Monday, Sestak hosted his annual veterans' summit in Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, with leaders from the national veterans' community on hand, including representatives from AMVETS Department of Pennsylvania and National Headquarters.

During the summit's first panel on health care and benefits, veterans in the audience raised questions about the military's approach to identifying and treating combat stress issues, citing personal experiences where family members had faced overwhelming obstacles in treating combat-related mental health issues.

Sestak took these issues to heart when he returned to Washington, pointing out that we must not repeat the mistakes of the Vietnam era when veterans are coping with combat stress.

(Video: CNN video of Rep. Joe Sestak courtesy of the Office of Congressman Joe Sestak, used with permission.)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama fights to keep detainee photos secure

Yesterday, President Barack Obama took a strong stance against the ACLU, which is demanding the release of alleged detainee abuse photos from Iraq and Afghanistan.

After speaking with his generals on the ground, Obama decided that releasing the photos would only embolden our enemies, endangering American troops around the world.

Obama noted that there was nothing particularly compelling in the new images, and that it would only provide fodder to our enemies at a time when we have made tremendous strides in Iraq and during a pivotal transition period in Afghanistan.

Personally, I applaud the President's decision to keep our troops' best interest in mind.

Today, our men and women in uniform are fighting against a brutal enemy that has never demonstrated consideration for international law or compassion for battlefield detainees.

To the contrary, our troops have shown considerable care and compassion for enemy combatants. Troops who have served in the combat zone know first-hand that Iraqis and Afghanis caught up in the fighting would rather spend some time in an American detention facility with three hots and a cot, than be turned over to the local criminal justice system, or worse, Al Qaeda.

Naturally, there have been flaws in our system, as we saw through the Abu Ghraib debacle. Fortunately, troops and leaders who have violated our standards of conduct have been held accountable. Releasing these photos would not serve the public interest. Rather, it would be dangerous for our troops on the ground. The President has made a responsible decision to fight their release.

Al Qaeda and its global network of extremists are surely chomping at the bit for the U.S. government to release more photos of someone defacing the Koran or verbally dressing down a detainee. We should not seek to satisfy their need for increased propaganda against our troops.

I am proud of the stand President Obama has decided to take and his reasoning behind it. Our military has made tremendous progress over the last couple of years in our global contingency operations. Why would we jeopardize that progress and the safety of our volunteer forces to placate the ACLU?


(Media: Video: President Barack Obama addresses U.S. troops on a recent visit to Iraq. Official White House video. Photos, Middle: Detainees at a detention facility i Iraq participate in voluntary religious discussions with an Iraqi Imam. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Michael V. May, released. Bottom: A detainee receives medical care at a hospital in Guantanamo Bay. U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Sarah Cleveland, released.)

Live from Capitol Hill: AMVETS to testify on VA contracting

At 1:30 this afternoon, AMVETS Deputy Legislative Director Christina Roof will testify before the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity on VA contracting procedures.

For details on today's hearing and to see who will be testifying alongside AMVETS, Click Here.

Roof's testimony will focus on VA's auditing procedures and recommendations AMVETS feels will make the process more equitable for veterans.

Roof testified at an earlier hearing before the subcommittee, outlining key shortfalls AMVETS had identified within the VA contracting system in relation to veteran-owned small businesses (VOSBs) and service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses (SDVOSBs).

A live link to video from this afternoon's hearing is unavailable, but to read Roof's written tesitomny, Click Here.

(Photo: House VA Subcommittee Ranking Member John Boozman (R-Ark.) asks questions to panelists from last month's VA contract hearing. Photo by Ryan Gallucci.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tragic Baghdad Shooting Rekindles Combat Stress Debate

Yesterday's tragic shooting of five mental health counselors at Camp Liberty in Iraq has reopened the national dialogue on combat stress. Immediately following the news out of Baghdad that a U.S. service member took the lives of five of his fellow troops, speculation began as to the causes of such a heinous act. This morning, we learned that the soldier was a patient at the clinic struggling to cope with combat stress.

On CNN and the BBC yesterday, I reiterated the fact that combat stress and traumatic stress are germane to the combat experience. Where a veteran's reaction to combat stress develops into "post-traumatic stress disorder" is when a veteran becomes overwhelmed by the stressors, or cannot put experiences into the proper context, leading to patterns of self-destructive behavior.

When I returned from Iraq, I faced my own hurdles in coping with combat stress running the gamut from self-medication, to panic attacks, nightmares, anger and avoidance issues. However, I was able to quickly enroll with the VA health care system and sought proper counseling.

Don't get me wrong. This was by no means a "cure-all" to coping with combat stress. Anger issues still crop up, as do bouts with insomnia and avoidance. However, by working with the VA, I have been able to adapt properly.

In the military, we are taught to be tough, to be strong. These are necessary character traits when faced with the dangerous situations and difficult decisions that come in the heat of battle. When you're deployed to the combat zone, your body is at a chemically heightened state of alertness. Recent studies have even demonstrated that thought patterns may literally change to respond to now commonplace life-threatening situations.

When troops return home, this heightened state of alertness does not simply "go away." In fact, it's the natural reaction to such a profound experience. In this state, returning veterans may find that what had been commonplace in civilian life can now trigger thoughts and reactions reminiscent of combat--whether it's adverse reactions to crowded situations, unexpected loud noises, traffic, or even something as benign as traditional Muslim garb.

For troops who seek proper counseling and discuss their experiences, reintegration after combat often goes smoothly. However, troops who are unwilling to admit that they have gone through a life-altering experience, or who choose to self medicate as a coping mechanism will often degrade into patterns of self-destructive behavior, as I did in the beginning. In fact, the VA has acknowledged that PTSD is the leading cause of substance abuse and homelessness among veterans.

If you are a veteran who has had difficulty readjusting, the responsible course of action is not to "suck it up and drive on." The responsible course of action is to seek counseling from the VA.

Over the years, AMVETS has fought to dispel the negative stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental health issues. Many troops believe they are tough enough to face these challenges on their own and that seeking treatment will somehow have a negative effect on their military or private sector careers. Many times, this is not the case.

Today, the Department of Defense has made significant strides in identifying potential combat stress issues and implemented new policies designed to encourage troops to seek treatment, rather than punishing those who admit they have trouble coping with combat-related issues. The department has also acknowledged that long, repeated deployments only exacerbate the situation, and Defense Secretary Gates has taken steps to alleviate the strain on service members and their families.

Recently, AMVETS testified before Congress on PTSD and pointed out the importance of proper implementation of the VA's recommendations outlined in the Uniformed Mental Health Services Handbook.

Over the last five years, VA has looked into discrepancies across the board in their treatment of combat stress, and a recent report suggests that progress has been slow coming. AMVETS hopes that the implementation of a new uniformed service and health record for DoD and VA will help alleviate some of the enrollment shortfalls for VA, but AMVETS also reiterates the need for additional counselors and increased access to services for rural and remote veterans.

We've heard all sorts of horror stories from veterans around the country in regards to enrollment with the VA, difficulty in scheduling appointments, and frustration over paperwork inconsistencies and bureaucracy. Many of these complaints are quite valid and have driven the work of AMVETS National Headquarters to demand systemic change.

Fortunately, we have made significant progress and leaders in Washington seem to recognize the gravity of this issue. Plus, AMVETS offers a cadre of national and state service officers who stand ready to assist veterans at VA Regional Offices across the country. An up-to-date list of service officers and contact information can be found by Clicking Here.

Some people think that PTSD is a new issue and have attempted to discredit those who seek treatment through the VA. However, I want to point this out: I've noted several times that simply discussing your experiences and placing them into the proper context is often the best step in alleviating combat stress issues.

When the WWII generation returned from war, not only were they the majority of the adult male population in the United States, but they were organized. AMVETS developed out of WWII with posts all across the country where veterans could gather socially and discuss their time overseas.

Organizations such as AMVETS provided an acceptable outlet for veterans to place wartime experiences into the proper context and our country became considerably stronger for it.

Today, AMVETS and our 1,200 posts nationwide have the unique opportunity to offer this kind of support once more to our newest generation of war heroes. So to find a list of AMVETS posts near you, Click Here.

Sometimes all it takes is a sympathetic ear who can tell you that everything is just fine.


If you are a veteran in immediate need of counseling, call the VA's 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Press "1" for veterans.

If you have any questions or comments for AMVETS on the issue of combat stress, please post below. We read every comment and we do our best to respond to every question in a timely fashion.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Cmdr. Hapner Greets Northern California Honor Flight

On Saturday, the Northern California hub of the Honor Flight Network brought 35 WWII veterans to Washington on its inaugural visit to the National WWII Memorial.

AMVETS National Commander John C. Hapner was on hand at the memorial, along with former Sen. Bob Dole.

The Northern California hub of Honor Flight was founded in Yountville, Calif., by a group of AMVETS members who wanted to bring veterans from our nation's Greatest Generation to see their memorial before it is too late.

Honor Flight Network, the national non-profit dedicated to bringing WWII veterans to the memorial, set an ambitious goal of helping 35,000 WWII veterans see the nation's capitol in 2009.

(Photos: Top: AMVETS National Commander John C. Hapner addresses Northern California AMVETS who helped to organize the regional hub of Honor Flight during their inaugural visit to the National WWII Memorial on Saturday, May 9, 2009. Bottom: Cmdr. Hapner poses for a photo with former Sen. Bob Dole at the National WWII Memorial for the Northern California Honor Flight. Photos by Beryl Love.)

Phil Packer's Marathon for Britain's Wounded Warriors

Last week, AMVETS received a media inquiry from, asking about American troops who had been wounded serving in Iraq. The story, which ran throughout the last week on CNN International and highlighted the journey of British Maj. Phil Packer, who was seriously wounded in Iraq and told he would never walk again. Here is video courtesy of CNN.

Packer set out to complete the 2009 Flora London Marathon to raise one million pounds for Britain's wounded warriors. At the steady pace of two miles per day with the assistance of crutches, Packer completed his marathon over the weekend. He was greeted with cheers from his fellow service members, and wounded warriors from around the world.

The marathon was the second piece of three physical challenges for Packer in his quest to raise one million pounds for the non-profit Help for Heroes. He has already successfully rowed across the English Channel, and next month, he will attempt to climb the El Capitan rock formation in California's Yosemite National Park. Packer remains about 170,000 pounds short of his goal. Those interested in donating to the cause should visit Packer's official Web site to learn more.

Packer's story is a true inspiration for the thousands of American and allied troops seriously injured in Iraq, and it was an honor to be included in the dialogue.

(Video: CNN package about Maj. Phil Packer's accomplishments and his new goals. Used with permission.)

This Week at American Veteran

This week at American Veteran, we will continue to muster support for student-veterans' centers of excellence on college campuses nationwide. Check back shortly for links to a draft letter you can send to your representatives voicing support for provision in the FY2010 budget.

We will also finally catch up with Congressmen Hunter, Boccieri and Coffman on vital issues each representative has pursued for the veterans' community since taking office.

We will also post photos from AMVETS National Commander John C. Hapner's visit with WWII veterans as part of the inaugural Northern California Honor Flight over the weekend.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Student-Veterans' Centers Remain Unfunded in Latest Department of Education Budget

Yesterday, the Department of Education released an itemized budget proposal for FY2010. However, the budget did NOT include the proposed $10 million provision to assist schools in commissioning student-veteran "centers of excellence."

To view the department's summary of Higher Ed provisions, Click Here.

Last summer, AMVETS played an integral role in passing a provision in the Higher Education Opportunity and Affordability Act allowing the Federal Government to commission grants to colleges and universities to open student-vets' centers.

The provision can be found in Title VIII, Part T, Section 873 of the bill entitled, "Centers of Excellence for Veteran Student Success"

Here's a GovTrack link to the text of the Higher Ed bill.

It was the hope of AMVETS that the Department of Education would view this as an important step in ensuring the academic success of our student-veterans, with the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill set to roll out in August.

AMVETS started to muster support in Congress to include funding for Title VIII Part T in the FY2010, and even circulated a "Dear Colleague" Letter with the support of Texas Rep. Ruben Hinojosa and Delaware Rep. Mike Castle.

Now more than ever it is important to let our representatives in Congress know that we support student-veterans' centers of excellence on campuses nationwide. AMVETS asks that you write to your representative and tell them that we support funding for Title VIII Part T of the 2008 Higher Education Act, Centers of Excellence for Veteran Student Success.

This is a small investment in our nation's future leaders, and will prove to be a TRUE stimulus in a time of economic strife.

With passing the new G.I. Bill, we ensured that our newest generation of veterans could go to college. Student-vets' centers will ensure that they graduate.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Reps. Buyer, Walz Introduce Bipartisan Bill for Surviving Spouses

Yesterday afternoon, Congressmen Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.) introduced their bipartisan bill to increase VA survivor's benefits for spouses of those killed in the line of duty, the Surviving Spouses' Benefit Improvement Act of 2009 (H.R. 2243).

AMVETS Legislative Director Ray Kelley and Deputy Legislative Director Christina Roof were on hand to show their support for the bill.

If enacted, the landmark bill would eliminate the inequity in survivors' benefits payments between military widows and the widows of civilian federal employees. Today, surviving military spouses only receive 43 percent of their deceased veteran's disability payment, compared to 55 percent for deceased federal employees.

"This new legislation will ensure that survivors receive that due compensation," said Walz during the press conference. "We cannot bring their loved ones back, but at least we can live up to the words of Abraham Lincoln that serve as the motto for the VA, 'To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.'"

The bill would also eliminate the current offset between Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) and the Suvivor Benefit Plan (SBP). Walz and Buyer clarified that DIC is intended as compensation for service-connected death, while SBP is a pay-in life insurance policy. However, beneficiaries today cannot receive the benefits concurrently, which Buyer and Walz see as a gross misinterpretation of the benefits' intent.

The Gold Star Wives of America were also on hand to voice their support for the bill, with America's oldest Gold Star Wife speaking her mind on the inequities of the current benefits.

Buyer is the ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve who served in Operation Desert Storm. Walz is a retired Command Sergeant Major in the Army National Guard who deployed to Italy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

The official release regarding yesterday's press conference can be viewed by clicking here.

(Photo: America's oldest Gold Star Wife speaks in support of the Surviving Spouses' Benefits Improvement Act of 2009 during yesterday's press conference on Capitol Hill. Photo by Christina Roof.)

UPDATE: Army identifies remains of Staff Sgt. Vile

Late yesterday, The Department of Defense identified the remains of Army Staff Sgt. William Vile of Philadelphia who was previously listed as "whereabouts unknown" following a firefight in the Konar Province of Afghanistan. Our condolences go out to Vile's family in Pennsylvania and his colleagues in the 1st Infantry Division.

DoD officially updated Vile's status in a release after the Armed Forces Medical Examiner positively identified his remains.

One soldier remains missing in action in the Global War on Terrorism, Army Sgt. Ahmed Altaie. AMVETS continues to call on DoD to do everything in its power to ensure the return of all our service members listed as POW/MIA.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Philadelphia Soldier Listed As "Whereabouts Unknown" in Afghanistan

Yesterday, The Department of Defense issued an official release regarding an attack on U.S. forces in the Konar Province of Afghanistan where two U.S. soldiers were killed and another is now listed as "whereabouts unknown."

The two soldiers killed in the attack were Sgt. James Pirtle of Colorado Springs, Colo., and Spc. Ryan King of Dallas, Ga. Both were assigned to Special Troops Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division out of Fort Hood.

Following the attack, Staff Sgt. William Vile of Philadelphia, Pa., assigned to 1st BCT, 1st Infantry Division out of Fort Riley, Kansas, was listed as Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown (DUSTWUN).

The thoughts and prayers of AMVETS and the editorial staff of American Veteran go out to the families of Pirtle, King, and Vile, and we implore DoD to do everything in its power to ensure the safe return of Vile to his unit.

We will keep tabs on this story as it develops. As of today, two U.S. troops are listed as missing or "whereabouts unknown." AMVETS calls for action on the part of our nation's military to ensure the safe and timely return of Staff Sgt. Vile and Army Spc. Ahmed Altaie.

Monday, May 4, 2009

This Week at American Veteran

This week at American Veteran, we will follow up with Congressmen John Boccieri, Mike Coffman and Duncan Hunter, each of whom was featured in the spring issue of American Veteran. The three newest Iraq veterans elected to Congress have kept busy since we had an opportunity to sit down with each of them shortly after taking office. American Veteran will highlight some of the key veterans' issues each congressman has sought to address early in their term.

We will also launch the first Battle Stripes story, highlighting the Army's 1st Infantry Division, the oldest continually active unit in the U.S. military.

We will also follow developments on Capitol Hill as AMVETS pushes to fund last summer's provision in the Higher Ed bill to commission student-veterans' centers on college campuses nationwide.

As a reminder, the VA continutes to accept applications for Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits (Chapter 33), and the Department of Defense has published the criteria for transferability of Chapter 33 benefits. Check out last Friday's post for futher details.

By now, all copies of the spring issue of American Veteran magazine should have reached your mailboxes. Please let us know what you think of the latest issue by posting your comments to this blog.

Friday, May 1, 2009

G.I. Bill Update: VA to accept apps TODAY, DoD clarifies transferability

This morning, the VA will begin to accept applications for Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits, or Chapter 33. Eligible veterans should visit the VA's new G.I. Bill Web site,, to print out an application form and to learn more about the new benefit.

Last week American Veteran reported that veterans eligible for Chapter 33 should play close attention to their usage of any previous G.I. Bill chapters, as this will effect your eligibility for the new benefit. Veterans with fewer than twelve months remaining on their previous G.I. Bill entitlements should completely use their old benefits before enrolling in Chapter 33. Veterans who have any time remaining on their old benefits will only be eligible for that limited amount of time under the new benefit. However, if a veteran has completely exhausted their previous G.I. Bill benefits, they will automatically be eligible for an additional 12 months of Chapter 33.

For example, I have only three months remaining of my Chapter 1607 Reserve Educational Assistance Program (REAP) G.I. Bill benefits. If I chose to enroll in Chapter 33 today, I would only be eligible to receive three months worth of Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits. However, if I use my remaining three months of Chapter 1607, I will then be eligible for another 12 months of Chapter 33 benefits.

The decision to enroll in Chapter 33 is IRREVOCABLE, so be sure to understand your personal entitlements before filing for the new benefit.

In regards to transferability, service members who wish to pass along their Chapter 33 benefits to dependents must be on active duty on August 1, 2009, when the new benefit takes effect. Service members must also have at least six years of service on active duty with a commitment to serve an additional four.

However, DoD has also outlined special rules for service members who are slated to retire before August 1, 2012 or who have a minimum of 10 years in service, so that they will also be able to take advantage of Chapter 33 transferability. These special criteria only apply to service members up to 2012 and will not be extended. To view a DoD fact sheet on transferability, Click Here.

Service members who opt to transfer their Chapter 33 benefits may transfer any or all of the benefit to eligible dependents for up to 36 months worth of schooling.

Check back regularly with American Veteran Online for further updates on this summer's implementation of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, and, as always, please let us know if you have any specific questions.