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Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide

In Our Community

Gabriela Sanchez in the role of a soldier that has been sexually assaulted in the military in the play 'She Wore Those Boots' by Erlina Ortiz (Photo courtesy of Power Street Theater Company)

‘She Wore Those Boots’ confronts military sexual assault, on base and in the family

BY ELISABETH PEREZ-LUNA In a small theater at the edge of Northern Liberties, a play is taking on sexual assault in the military. On stage a mother, her grown son and daughter, are torn apart by their devastating experiences in the army. The play traces the journey of this Puerto Rican family from despair to recovery and a measure of hope "She Wore Those Boots" starts in a New Jersey beach town where a brother and sister are talking about her plans to follow him to boot camp. She's filled with pride at the sense of duty and adventure that led her to enlist. He promises to protect his little sister even if their mother objects to her decision. The mother tells them in a mix of Spanish and English that's it's a crazy thing to do "You do not have my permission" she says, while her son argues that his sister has been trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. "I think it's great," he said to which his mother responds "this kind of stuff is not for young women!" The spark for this play, says writer Erlina Ortiz, was relatively simple "I have a cousin who went to the military I remember he was so fun loving and easy going when we were growing up and he came back from the military very different. So I became interested in exploring how the military affect people," she said. Ortiz decided to put herself in the shoes (hence the title) of an imaginary young Puerto Rican woman. She also researched the staggering statistics about sexual trauma in the military. For instance a recent VA survey found that one in four women experienced sexual harassment or assault while in the service. With the increase in population of women veterans the problem is bound to grow. At one point in the play, the daughter called Judaica, played by Gabriela Sanchez, tries to tell her brother she had been raped. She explains that a group of her fellow soldiers had met at a bar on base . Feeling a bit dizzy and tired she was heading towards her dorm when a fellow soldier offered to accompany her. On the way she said, he offered to let her rest a bit in his room and then assaulted her. He accuses her of provoking the situation and when she says she wants to report the assault , he turns from brother to sergeant and tells her to forget about it. His reaction is all too common says Camille Turner-Townsend, a Marine veteran, and a member of the Warrior Writers collective, who was consulted to make sure the play is authentic. She says the play captures the feeling of isolation and alienation that come when rape accusations are dismissed. The ending of the "She Wore Those Boots" works well because there is an apology and Judeica's brother openly supports her when she wants to tell her story at a military meeting. Turner-Townsend said  that "when you are struggling through this transitional phase and want your mind to be clear and for someone to come back in uniform that's a service member, that's a man and that's strong and he says 'I'm sorry.'" "That has a meaning to it," she said, "because they understand the residual impact of war and trauma.....that was the turning point, because OK someone believed me."

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Veterans reflect on their service during day out at The Adventure Aquarium

BY ELISABETH PEREZ-LUNA What's the worst question you can ask a veteran? "Did you kill anybody?" As part of the Veterans Coming Home project WHYY held an event at The Adventure Aquarium in Camden on September 17th.  The goal was to offer veterans an opportunity to reflect on their service in a way that could help other veterans and civilians better relate to those who are in the military. We met at the NJ Aquarium in Camden to talk and to catch up about life after service. Some spoke of the surprise of having to do everything themselves without having a strict schedule controlling all their time.  They shared experiences in finding jobs , some more successful than others, and fighting common stereotypes about veterans. Jason Mays and Kenneth Conklin commented on the worse question to ask. "I used to be a jerk about it and asked if they killed anyone," Mays said. Conklin said he would respond, "not unless they died from a paper cut."  Conklin was assigned to human resources duties during his time in the service. Missing the camaraderie they found in the military was a major topic of conversation, so was finding another sense of purpose and mission that had had given focus to their life in the military. Negotiating the demands of family , work and health took a lot of their time in civilian life. Christina Kinlaw and Jonathan Kinlaw both went through Marine Training at Parris Island, South Carolina. They suggested to veterans the best way to handle their return to civilian life is by remembering what you went through in basic training. As for that "question" both Kinlaw's just remind everyone to be respectful.  They understand why the question is asked, but think about that impact on someone who was involved in combat.

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It’s all about the training; veterans take to the soil and learn to farm

BY ELISABETH PEREZ-LUNA Veteran training covers may aspects once military service is over.  But farming? 44 percent of the men and women who enlist come from small towns and rural areas.  It just might be that a career in farming might be the ticket for employment. The Rodale Institute has partnered with Delaware Valley University to create the Veteran Organic Farming Project.  The to this program is how hands on it is. From a national perspective it is also a way to revitalize farming by attracting younger people into the business.  What makes these farms different?  Think organic farming.  The video explains.  

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For vets who end up in prison, military service doesn’t always lead to good jobs

BY LAURA BENSHOFF Shaff Randolph went to prison in 2008. He says his crime was less of a misstep and more the result of a bad environment. He had hoped serving in a skill-building, non-combat roles would become his ticket out of a rough neighborhood, or an alternative to college. But some veterans, like Randolph, say that experience didn't translate back into their old lives — leaving them to explain gaps in employment to civilian bosses and vulnerable to committing economic crimes. "After completing the service, there wasn't no real jobs for the trade that they taught me," he said. According to reports by the U.S. Department of Justice, veterans make up less than 10 percent of all inmates in the United States — and what those veteran inmates did in the military doesn't seem to matter. According to the Department of Justice report, two-thirds to three-quarters of veterans in prison or jail did not serve in combat roles, similar to the breakdown of non-combat posts in the Armed Forces.

A way to grow

Randolph, who is from Philadelphia's Logan section, spent four years on a United States Navy aircraft carrier, working as an electrician who serviced fighter jets. After receiving an honorable discharge, he said went to Philadelphia International Airport to see what it would take to get hired on. "They look at you and say, 'How much experience you got?' I can tell them, four years I did it, but they want certification for that," he said. "You don't get no type of certification." The Armed Forces do market military experience as a stepping stone to a career, but in Randolph's case he needed over 1,000 hours of additional training to work in the private sector. Randolph, who had no criminal record prior to serving, said school was not in the cards for him. After the service, he worked odd jobs but never fell into steady work. Over 10 years, he accumulated a few small drug charges before landing in prison in 2008. He served eight years for possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, and carrying a firearm while selling drugs.

Familiar story

Like Randolph, veteran Bill Cobb hoped more doors would open for him after he served in the military. "I had no intentions of ever joining the military but as I felt my options for doing something to escape the inevitable outcomes that most people in my neighborhood are forced to deal with, I enlisted in the Air Force," he said. At 20, while working part-time and taking classes at La Salle University, he signed up for the Air Force reserves. A few months later, his unit was called up to serve in Germany. For Cobb, whose family had been homeless for part of his childhood and who was struggling to put himself through school, the service was a huge departure from the life he knew. "It was the most serious job that I ever had. It was the most structured job than I ever had. It was an opportunity to make the more money than I ever had," he said. Cobb wanted to be a nurse and so worked as a medical specialist at a M.A.S.H. unit, unloading hundreds of patients from C-130s aircraft carrying wounded from Iraqi battlefields. He was quickly promoted to head of a small team. "It felt really good to be a leader and I took it seriously," he said. That flush of responsibility and leadership ended when his unit deactivated after a few months. Cobb went back to school and his part-time jobs, including one as a delivery man. When he got his first paycheck, disappointment set in when he realized his co-workers were making much more than he was. "Dude, I went away for war. That's not fair. I want a promotion, I want to be where my friends are. I can't help that I got sent to war," he said, While he was serving in the military, some of his co-workers had put in enough time to earn full-time, union jobs. But for Cobb, the clock had stopped running. Cobb describes the next period as stressful and aimless. He was in school, working and trying to take care of his alcoholic mother with his part-time earnings. Hoping to make a quick windfall, he agreed to be the driver for a local drug dealer who was planning to kidnap a rival's girlfriend. And they got caught. He said his friends — both in and outside of the armed services — couldn't believe it. "'What the hell happened?' "What are you doing?' 'How are you here?' Realizing how incredibly stupid — it was just a horrible series of decisions," he said. Cobb, who had no previous criminal record and spent six years in prison.

'Prison life got me more ready for society than the service.'

Both Cobb and Randolph were convicted of felonies they committed after serving in the Armed Forces. Both also say they could have done a better job taking advantage of military benefits after service, like money to pay for school. For his part, Randolph said he joined the Navy because he knew college would not be a good fit. After serving, he resented that his experience fixing jets wasn't recognized outside the military. "I'm bitter because I think — I thought — that when I came home from the service, I really thought that the doors was going to be open," he said. Randolph earned his release in April, and is taking job-training classes at the Veterans Multi-services Center in Philadelphia, a nonprofit that helps veterans of all stripes reintegrate into society. "As I was in the prisons, I did learn little trades," he said. Those trades included how to start a commercial trucking company, an idea that stuck with Randolph. After finishing his computer skills class, he plans to get a commercial driver's license. "It's kind of strange to say, but I think prison life got me more ready for society than the service." After getting laid off twelve times when employers found out about his criminal record, Cobb became a professional advocate for ex-offenders, starting a nonprofit called Redeemed PA, aimed at 
"eliminating systemic discrimination aimed at people living with arrest and convictions." In that role, researchers and public officials call on him to give his opinion on criminal justice policy questions, like the usefulness of criminal background checks.

Seeking justice

Cobb and Randolph both spent less than a decade behind bars and are now focused on the future. For vets still serving time, Vietnam-era Marine Corps veteran Melvin Dill uses his position as a civilian advocate and head of Veterans' Legal Foundation, Inc, to talk to lawmakers about lessening their sentences. "I believe 45 or 50 years for a crime, that's enough time," said Dill, sitting among pictures of his family and inmates he helps in his Claymont, Delaware. "I believe treatment is much better than incarceration. Dill received mental health treatment and a lenient sentence for a crime he committed after serving in the Marine Corps. To give other veterans the same opportunity to mend and enjoy civilian life, his organization is promoting a bill to change Pennsylvania law. The working draft of a bill, which has received some support from state reps such as Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia), proposes shortening time spend in prison for veterans whose war-related injuries may not have been considered during sentencing. California, Minnesota, Illinois, and New Hampshire already have similar laws — which also make sure war-related psychological injuries count in court. Since Dill served time, many areas have instituted special veterans courts to work with veterans who commit crimes, and a handful of prisons even have their own veterans' wings, structured like a military unit. In addition to his lobbying work, Dill visits veterans in prison and helps them with benefits paperwork. He's connected around 200 veterans to services, mostly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, so far. He sees his role as being a face and voice for veterans who are invisible to the general public. "The reason that we help, because the veterans that we do help, that are in prison, they never got an opportunity to share their story, their real story," he said. "Why are they locked up?" Bill Cobb said he also feels like his service is invisible — out of necessity. "I don't frequently identify as a veteran. There's a negative stigma with certain industries, like employment," he said. "Government jobs, you get veterans preference points, But for the private sector, they don't want to hire a 'crazy vet.'" What was hard with only military service on his record becomes harder when combined with a felony conviction, so Cobb said he leaves his time in the Air Force Reserves off of his resume. Cobb and Shaff Randolph both say they are thankful for veterans' support services now, but wish that their time in uniform stood for more in their neighborhoods — and with employers — after they served.

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Hiring veterans and keeping them

BY SHIRLEY MIN A recent study found more than 50 percent of post 9/11 veterans will find themselves out of work within a year of leaving the military. Hundreds of companies across the country have pledged to hire veterans. And many states, including Delaware, reward companies in the form of tax credits for hiring veterans. But it appears hiring veterans isn't the problem, it's keeping them. A key finding from a 2015 U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs employment report found, "Approximately one out of two (53%) separating post-9/11 veterans will face a period of unemployment. While national unemployment rates have declined, the on-the-ground reality is that half of our veterans enter a period of unemployment upon transition." To put it plainly, one out of two vets will leave that first job within the first year of getting out. The report is of particular interest to Ross Brown, director of Military and Veterans Affairs at JPMorgan Chase & Co. The New York-based bank launched its "100,000 Jobs Mission," in 2011, with the goal of hiring 100,000 veterans by the year 2020. At the time, veteran unemployment was already in the double digits and with the U.S. set to withdraw troops from Iraq that year and Afghanistan a few years later, that meant thousands more troops would be coming home from war, only to have to then fight for jobs. "Jamie Dimon and the senior leadership of JPMorgan Chase wanted to do something on behalf, and for, the nation. And so they stepped forward with an idea to establish a coalition. It was initially made up of 10 companies, it has now grown to over 200 companies," Brown said. As of June this year, the coalition has collectively hired close to 350,000 veterans in 5 years, prompting Brown to redub the initiative, the "Veteran Jobs Mission." "We set a goal to hire one million veterans and we didn't put an end date," Brown said. Renamed and reenergized, the VA report's findings prompted Brown to sanction a retention study on behalf of the coalition. "We've expended a lot of resources bringing them into the organization and we value the work that they do and so naturally we want to keep them," said Brown.

Retention study

The Center for a New American Security conducted the study. CNAS is a non-partisan, defense policy think tank in Washington, D.C. The full report is due to be published in November, around Veterans Day, but Phil Carter, director of the Military, Veterans and Society program at CNAS shared some of his initial findings about why the VA report and other, similar surveys, all arrived at similar conclusions. "When we asked veterans why they moved, they tended to cite very positive reasons: more money, better job, more responsibility, better location," Carter said. "The implication of that is that transition for veterans isn't just about finding the first job, it's about finding the fit, which could take a first job, a second job or a third job -- it's a process." Brown and Carter can speak to this process, both having served long careers in the Army, where life is controlled and predictable. One's career path is clearly defined, but this is not how the rest of the world works. "I was comfortable with a culture, I understood the rules and now I was transitioning to a whole new world," Brown said. "If I'm a transitioning service member and I don't know what I want to do, it's possible that I'll take a paycheck, a job, just so I have a paycheck while I figure out what I want to do." "I think it's a very natural thing that you'd expect to see turnover in that first year," Carter said. "[Service members] don't acquire the same labor market skills that their civilian peers would. You're not interviewing for jobs ... you're not networking in order to move up and over. You're essentially following orders." Consequently, they have not developed the so-called soft skills critical to success outside of the military, which plays a part, Carter said, in why veterans don't necessarily excel that first year out. However, once veterans figure out how the system works, he said vets tend to outpace their civilian peers. "For companies, they might think about not just hiring veterans right out of the military, but also about hiring veterans from other companies," Carter suggested. The CNAS study also found a large minority of veterans were underemployed after leaving the service, meaning they were overqualified for what they were hired to do, either by education, experience or some other reason. "On the one hand, it makes total sense that a company wouldn't trust a veteran with exactly the same management responsibility as when they were in the service because the two are very different things," Carter explained. "That said, over time that can produce disillusionment and disenchantment ... And it also represents a missed opportunity for the private sector to the extent that they're not fully leveraging the potential of veterans with a great deal of leadership or management experience." Carter said companies the findings, so far, show that veterans are people too, and that they generally behave in the workforce just like any other person.

Pathfinder program

Whether they're just out of the service, or years out, Brown and his team at JPMorgan are developing a mentoring program addressing some of the common pitfalls new vet hires face, when trying to fit in in the private sector. Brown calls it the "Pathfinder Program." Through it, a new hired vet will be paired with a sponsor, also a veteran, over the course of a year. "One of the things that all veterans can relate to is when you move from one duty station to another, once you're issued orders, you generally receive a letter and a package from your sponsor. And your sponsor then, upon arrival to your duty station, kind of shows you where to go, where not to go, what to do, what not to do," Brown said. "That's kind of the mental model, if you will, that we applied to this Pathfinder Program." The new employee and his sponsor will go over topics including:
  • Communication – How do you write emails, how do you talk to people on the phone
  • Behavior – Soft skills
  • Networking – How to create opportunities
Brown said networking is an especially important topic, since networking is considered a bad thing in the military. "In the military, the focus is on mission and your teammates. And if you're out networking beyond the scope of your platoon, squad, company, battalion, then you're politicking. And if you're politicking, that has a negative connotation in the military," Brown explained. "So what I say to veterans is, there's nothing wrong, in fact, I encourage you all to network on behalf of the mission that you've got. And I think when I talk about it in that way, it's much more palatable for the veteran and therefore they'll create more opportunities for themselves." The Pathfinder Program is still in the works, but Brown said he'll provide the model to the coalition in hopes of executing it next year.

Veterans in the workforce

Former Marine Clifton Johnson works for New Castle, Delaware-based Waste Masters Solutions, a commercial trash hauler. The environmental waste coordinator is responsible and accountable for all of the waste, hazardous and non-hazardous, at the PBF Energy refinery in Paulsboro, New Jersey. "I had no idea what an environmental coordinator was three years ago. Now, I run the whole show," said Johnson, who oversaw as many as 90 Marines in his 22 years. "It's just that Marine thing in me. This is mine, I got it, I'll take care of it." That "Marine thing," is what Waste Masters CEO Steve Masterson was banking on. His business is almost 20 percent veteran. "They bring leadership, they bring discipline, there's a lot of things that they bring to the table that maybe someone right out of high school or college doesn't necessarily have until they're a little bit more mature and maybe been in difficult situations that some of the soldiers have been in," Masterson said. Yes, there's a slight learning curve, but Masterson said that's expected from any new hire. The son of an Army colonel, Masterson served six years in the U.S. Air Force. His commitment to veterans is personal, but it's also smart. "[It] helps us greatly within the community as well, because I think the community really supports those who are supporting the veterans," he said. Chris Choi hopes he'll be one of JPMorgan Chase's new veteran hires. After five years in the Army, the West Point grad is now part of the bank's 3-year military officer executive development program in Wilmington. "It recruits junior military officers coming out of the military with 4 to 10 years active duty service, across all of the different branches of the military, and places us in positions that provide us broad exposure to the business," Choi said. One year, he'll work in data analysis, the next, client relations. The Idea being that maybe Choi will find his niche, and he's up for the challenge. "In the military as an officer, you switch roles rather quickly, and so being able to adapt and overcome and tackle a very steep learning curve, wasn't something that I wasn't used to and so that's how I approached this position here," Choi said. That adaptability demonstrated by Choi, and Johnson at Waste Masters, is what many employers said makes hiring veterans worth the investment, period.

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Philly-area groups for veterans and created by veterans provide community, mission

BY JOE HERNANDEZ It's no secret that many returning service members feel like the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has struggled to adequately care for them. In recent years, the bureaucracy has been plagued by highly publicized lengthy wait times, a health care philosophy some see as overly reliant on medication, and a scourge of suicides, among other problems. But instead of waiting for the government to improve, some veterans in the Philadelphia area have started groups for their fellow service members that help ease the transition to civilian life and provide the sense of community and mission they had in the military. "A civilian is not gonna know what to do. They're not gonna know how to talk our language," said Marty Kenny, a 30-year Marine Corps veteran who retired in 2015. "I'm glad you care and you wanna help, but, you know, money's not the problem. Medication's not the problem. It's community, mission, and getting these guys feeling important again." A mission back home Every Sunday before many of us have had our first cup of coffee, area veterans are already gathering at CrossFit Inspire in Malvern, Pennsylvania. They're there for a grueling, 25-minute workout offered free of charge to vets and their families. Kenny started the group called The Weekly Fight late last year, after a Marine who'd served under his command overseas committed suicide in New Jersey. "It really hit me hard, because I knew the Marine. I knew the Marine's family. I knew the Marine's kids," said Kenny. "All I could think of was, 'This is the kid's Christmas from now on. This is what they're gonna think about every time this time of year comes by.' And I was like, 'I gotta do something.'" Kenny began hosting the free CrossFit workout for local vets and their families earlier this year, after the owner of CrossFit Inspire agreed to open his doors to the service members at no charge. (One Sunday a month the group goes on a hike instead.) "When I bring these guys together, we get 'em here, and they get to sweat a little bit, they get a little pain, there's a little suffering, and there's a lot of jabbing back and forth about putting out max effort and everything else," said Kenney. "It brings some of that community and that sense back to what they're missing. And I that's the beauty of what we do." After warmups, but before the full-throttle workout, the group dedicates its routine to a veteran who, as attendees say, "lost their battle with combat PTSD." It creates a mission out of what would otherwise be another day at the gym. "There are some little things that I'm working through. But the reason I say little is because I'm not gonna let 'em be big, because what we've got going on is bigger," said Marine Corps veteran James O'Flaherty, who first attended The Weekly Fight at the suggestion of a friend. O'Flaherty, who continues to struggle with combat PTSD after several combat deployments to Afghanistan, said attending The Weekly Fight helps him manage the stress. "Yeah. Without a doubt. No question about it. No question about it." Weekly gatherings help with daily struggle Marine Mark Abbott, who attends the weekly workout with his wife, HaLeigh, said sweating through a CrossFit workout reminds him of some of his worst days facing combat PTSD. "Having come from a period in my life when I was having some really dark thoughts and I was really low and just grinding through that, a lot of that reminds me of these 25-minute workouts, as silly as that sounds," said Abbott. "But just that drive to keep your head down, focus on the mission, don't focus on anything else, you're not focusing on your hands hurting or your arms burning ... I want to get comfortable there. I want to push myself to the point where I'm dying inside and just look up and smile, 'cause I can. You know? "Say, whatever it is, whatever that deep-down, dark, scary, nasty thought is, just look at it and go, 'nothin. I've done worse. I've seen worse. I've been through worse. I've had worse days.'" The Weekly Fight is part of a growing number of groups for vets and created by vets to provide an outlet for service members who struggle once they return home, some of whom have combat PTSD. Winden Rowe, a Kennett Square therapist who specializes in trauma, said the VA can too often rely on medication when many vets simply crave the feeling of usefulness they had in the military. "The question always is: How do we support veterans? Is it that we give them money? Well, not necessarily, you give them purpose and task. Something to do. And something that has meaning," she said. Some vets who struggle once they return home often isolate themselves, Rowe said. But others begin to thrive once they've found a community of fellow service members or a mission worth their dedication. "But it doesn't happen with, 'Here's your pill. Take it. Everything's gonna be OK,'" she said. "It's not working." 'You've done things that aren't normal' According to its most recent data, the VA estimates that about 20 U.S. veterans commit suicide each day. Previous estimates put that number at 22 veteran suicides per day. That statistic was one of the reasons that motivated Joe Dimond, a Marine Corps Staff Sergeant who oversaw security for the bomb squad in Fallujah, Iraq, to start a video series on combat PTSD. When Dimond first returned from a tour in Iraq, he got divorced, started drinking, and briefly lived out of his truck until a friend took him in. "When I moved in with him, I started talking about things. I started having discussions and [wasn't] feeling judged," said Dimond, of Mullica Hill, New Jersey. "Almost immediately after, I started feeling better, because once I started talking, I could actually start analyzing the feelings I was having." With no media experience, Dimond decided to start a low-budget video project, "The Stain of War," to interview other veterans with combat PTSD. He wanted vets to share their stories and coping mechanisms, but he also hoped the stigma around combat PTSD would erode if the public could better understand it. "PTSD, in some form or another, goes back to the beginning of man. It goes back that far. War changes you. I don't care how strong you are. I don't care how tough you are," said Dimond. "You've seen things. You've don't things that aren't normal." "The Stain of War" has grown in popularity and scope since its inception. Dimond hopes to eventually create a documentary film. Veteran to veteran While the project gives the public a chance to learn about combat PTSD from veterans who have it, it also gives the interviewees the opportunity to discuss their experiences with a fellow service member — veteran to veteran. "It was actually very easy for me, because it was just like me and Joe shooting the breeze," said Marine Corps veteran Brian Fisher of Upper Darby, who surprised even himself by opening up in a "Stain of War" Interview. "It wasn't like just somebody — no offense — just asking questions," he said. "It was one Marine who had been there talking to another Marine." When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Fisher and his fellow Marines were among the first Americans to cross the border. "Because of my vivid memory of the Iraqis burning on the side of the road, anything burning kind of triggers something in me," he said in an online video. Fisher said that participating in the project helped him open up to friends and family. He added that it also made one of his friends, a fellow Marine, realize that he needed to talk about his experiences, too. "He came up [from Maryland]. We had lunch. We sat there for about two and a half hours just talking about old times — good times, bad times, everything," said Fisher. "And he said 'thank you. It really helped me out.' And it helped him deal with it a bit better." Fisher hopes that projects such as The Weekly Fight and "The Stain of War" will help combat vets and civilians better understand each other, so that talking about and dealing with combat PTSD will one day not be taboo. "We've come so far as a country in the past 20 or 30 years, as far as veterans dealing with PTSD, that in the next 20 years, I can only imagine that there won't be that bridge," he said. "It'll be all connected." Correction: This story previously stated that Joe Dimond was a bomb squad technician in Iraq. Actually, he oversaw security for the bomb squad.

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Veteran says military gave him the strength to stand up to gentrification

BY KIMBERLY PAYNTER United States Marine Corps and Army veteran Michael Miller believes the military gave him the strength to stand up to gentrification of his beloved hometown, Chester, Pennsylvania. The combat veteran has seen money from outside investors start to come into Chester, and he's afraid for the members of his community who could be displaced. While many may not think of the community as desirable, considering Chester possess one of the highest violent crime rates per capita in the state, Miller, who owns Open Mike's Internet Cafe, defends his city. He says that he's been approached by investors since opening the cafe in June of 2014. They suggested he raise his prices, but Miller didn't want to shut out the poorer members of his community. "Being in the Marine Corps is probably one of the bigger reasons why I would rather work with what I have. They teach you how to do more with less," said Miller. The cafe is located on a commercial corridor on the Avenue of the States. In the evenings comedy shows, musical acts, and poetry slams take the stage. There are a few general stores around, and another entertainment venue and restaurant across the street, but there are as many empty storefronts. For no commission, Miller sells and displays paintings and photographs on the cafe's walls, and on a hot summer day, he lets young men from the city sell smoothies in front. On Sundays, a church undergoing renovations holds services at the cafe. On the last Friday night of May 2016, there's a line in front of Open Mike's before doors open up to a showcase of local talent, including Miller. He starting writing poetry in fourth grade. He loves to write about relationships, and his time in the service, but he admits on stage to the audience that there's stigma to being a veteran. "Even when I came back from Afghanistan, my daughter was like, 'Oh, my friends said you gonna be crazy now.'" Miller blames the media for portraying vets, "flipping out and taking KFC hostage." Since returning from deployment he's not performed his service poems often, but he's now starting to, especially since he performed at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center as part of acclaimed jazz pianist Vijay Ayer's "Holding it Down: The Veteran's Dream Project," a production that aimed to create understanding of minority veterans returning from the Iraq and Afighanistan wars. So at his own cafe in front of his community, he begins: "It's 3. a.m. I sit alone in darkness looking out of my bedroom window. It's happened again. Every time I close my eyes horrifying nightmares begin. All over again I find myself losing my friends. Gunfire. Explosions. You see I've tried praying for my sins. Sanity's taken for granted ..." On Sept. 22, 2011, Miller was driving a mission from Forward Operating Base Lightning in Paktia province, to F.O.B. Shank Logar province, when an improvised explosive device catapulted the vehicle into the air. Miller smashed his head on the driver vision enhancer, or D.V.E. "I got a little bit of a brain injury," said Miller. "You come back with your little issues. You may have PTSD, anxiety, a little bit of depression. But I can say that I'm thankful that I'm still here because I've got friends that aren't still here, and the same thing happened to them. It's wild. I think when you come home, you try to do stuff. Good stuff." Lakesha Logan, or "Lady Essence", is a singer and friend of Miller who performs at Open Mike's. "He's always looking out for everyone else, he's always looking out for our community. He's very passionate about the community and about the arts," she said. RoGene Northern has known Miller since he was 10 years old. Northern is a veteran of the Marine Corps, and says he was inspired by Miller's service to join the military, and he now bartends part-time at Open Mike's, and works for XFINITY. He deployed to Iraq in September 2005, and returned home in March of 2006, and he struggled to work some of the jobs he's held after that time. He said Mike makes it easy to work for him, because of their shared experience. "He's very positive. He keeps things together, and tries to help out everybody," said Northern. Beneath the Commodore Barry Bridge on a pier jutting out into the Delaware River in Chester, Mike looks at the Talen Energy Stadium, home to the Philadelphia Union soccer team, opened in 2010, as a sign of changes coming to the city, and hopes his community will see some benefits. "I'm never going to get rich here," Miller said. "When Open Mike's is a success, I'll be in a different neighborhood, just like this one, doing Open Mike's 2."

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Veterans Coming Home: Cookie cutter soldiers

BY SHIRLEY MIN Whether you're a soldier, a Marine, a sailor or an airman, our service members are unique individuals. But those tearjerking videos of military members coming home from deployment and surprising their kids at school or news videos of those struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder have created, for many civilians, a narrative that doesn't ring true for all service members. I introduced you to Army veteran Cassondra Flanagan in last week's story. She currently works in Philadelphia for the Veterans Multi-Service Center. She applauds the military's efforts to increase awareness about PTSD, period. But, she said that awareness backfires sometimes. "I've actually had some staff at [Philadelphia] City Hall say to me, 'Well, we can't allow soldiers to work in the office because you just never know what they'll do,'" Flanagan recounted. "I guess the idea is that you're so fragile that at any moment you'll just turn into Rambo." Flanagan admitted that scenario is possible, but said it's not fair to assume anyone who comes home from a deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan and is trying to transition to life back home is automatically experiencing PTSD. "It could just be experiencing a major life transition, which is what [the case] would be for anybody who's served in a long career and now has to figure out a new career." Patrick Edouard was active duty Army and then joined the New York Army National Guard. When he worked with the Guard, which is part-time, he said his coworkers in the corporate world expected him to be stoic, like a robot, because that's how they perceived soldiers. "They don't understand why you can't keep your composure. At the end of the day, I'm still human," Edouard said. People also assumed since he was Army, that he was a workaholic. Much like everyone else, he explained that he too needed a healthy work-life balance. But certain aspects of the veteran stereotype -- early-riser, hard-working, strong leader -- did work in Edouard's favor. He said sometimes his veteran status would bump his resume up to the top of the pile. Sometimes. "When you're in [the National Guard], it's difficult because people don't want to hire you. And I've had a guy tell me that, 'You had everything we needed, the reason I couldn't hire you was because you're still in.'" National Guard training typically requires one weekend a month and two weeks a year, but your unit can be deployed at any time. And that employer, Edouard said, didn't want to take that chance.

Happy homecoming... sometimes

I admit, I'm a sucker for those soldier homecoming videos. You think, "Awww, mommy/daddy is home and they lived happily ever after." But those videos only give a brief glimpse into these families' lives. What happens after the tears are gone, what happened during that year or more when their soldier was deployed? My husband, Neal, was active duty Army for 10 years before joining the Delaware Army National Guard. He was stationed overseas in S. Korea, deployed to Afghanistan twice and most recently deployed with his Guard unit to Kuwait, about 18 months after our son Levi was born. Neal was gone for about a year during his last tour. When he came home, we immediately went to my son's daycare to pick him up. The school administrators and teachers knew we were coming, so there were hand-painted banners everywhere, children from the other classrooms were standing at their doors waving American flags and all eyes were on Levi, waiting for him to presumably run into his father's arms screaming, "Daddy, Daddy," because that's what kids do, right? That didn't happen. When we walked in and Levi saw his father for the first time, he just stood there, looking confused. He didn't run to him or hug him. He didn't do anything. He just turned back around and almost seemed to be ignoring Neal. It was the craziest thing. But I think this scenario might actually be the rule, and those tearjerkers are the exceptions. Neal wasn't surprised though. He said more often than not he's seen kids crying, trying to get away from their deployed parents at homecoming ceremonies because after having been gone for 12 to 15 months at a time, they're practically strangers to them. For us, it took several weeks for Levi to figure out how daddy got out of the phone (we kept in touch through Facetime during his deployment). I was trying to fit Neal into my routine and I know Neal had to adjust to life in "slow motion." It wasn't hard, it wasn't easy, but it was this unspoken transition that we had to work through. "A lot of people do not understand that when you marry somebody in the military, you marry the military," said Robin Linton-Turner, whose husband is Pennsylvania Army National Guardsman Jonathan Anthony Turner. The couple was married in March 2008; Turner deployed to Iraq six months later in September. "[People] don't understand all the sacrifices you make when your husband or your spouse is getting deployed, or goes away for annual training or gets sent away to school for six weeks and you have to hold everything down," Linton-Turner said. But she knew that marrying a soldier meant that his other spouse was the military, "So when they call, there's nothing I can do about it." Even though she knew what she was getting into, the life of a military spouse, she said, can be lonely at times. I can vouch for that. It can also be stressful because you might hear about a helicopter crash or a firefight on the news in the Middle East and not know if your loved one is safe. During Jason Hassinger's third deployment he was critically wounded. A sniper ambushed his unit in Afghanistan and he was shot five times in the chest. When it happened, Hassinger's wife Amanda was his girlfriend at the time. The military doesn't recognize girlfriends, only family members and spouses. So when Hassinger was hurt, Amanda never would have known, but for the fact that her brother-in-law was deployed too. "Before the phones went down, [my brother-in-law] was able to call my sister and tell her that Jay got hit. So then I'm, 'Oh my God, what's going on, how is he?' You know, the worst goes through your mind." Even if Amanda and Hassinger were married, details would still be scant, especially at first, and the worry is the same whether you're a girlfriend, fiancee or spouse. I wouldn't expect the general public to know these aspects of military family life. And that's because even though life can be lonely and scary when your soldier, sailor, airman or Marine is deployed, most loved ones just muddle through. They serve on the homefront so their spouses, who have enough on their plates, don't have to worry about that too. Next week, the final theme that emerged from my discussions with these veterans deals with service.
On July, 9, 2016, WHYY and NewsWorks invited Philadelphia-area veterans and their families to a day of fun at the Please Touch Museum. Seven took us up on our offer and spoke frankly with me about their service, what life was like when they came back home and the challenges they faced after putting away their uniforms for good. This article is part of a web series looking at how some Philadelphia-area 9/11 veterans readjusted to life back home after serving in the U.S. military.

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Veterans Coming Home: Vets serving vets


  Fewer than 1 percent of the population signs up for the U.S. military, serving on behalf of the remaining 99 percent. What drives that 1 percent to choose to sacrifice so much? This need to serve keeps coming up. I interviewed a retired pastor in Wilmington named Tom Davis in May. He started a group called Interfaith Veterans' Workgroup, a Wilmington-based organization for all veterans. Its mission is to deploy veterans on community-based service projects, recreating that sense of camaraderie and purpose many veterans miss after leaving the service. Some miss it so much, they find other ways to keep serving, whether they know it or not. For example, several Delaware Army National Guardsmen in my husband's unit work as police officers, MedEvac helicopter pilots or EMTs. They're still serving their communities, but in different uniforms. After Elinton De Los Santos left the Navy, he had a hard time finding work. The airplane mechanic's father, who also served in the Navy, helped him navigate the transition to civilian life. With his father's help, De Los Santos was able to take advantage of the resources available to him, like getting paid to go to school. And now, the sailor is giving back. De Los Santos currently works for the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, helping other transitioning service members figure out their next steps. Jonathan Anthony Turner enlisted in the Marines in 1989, right after he graduated from high school. He deployed to Iraq during the first Gulf War through Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He left the Marines in 1993. "I think I served my country honorably," Turner said. "I just wanted to give the civilian life a chance, see what I can do in the civilian world." In the Marines, Turner was a unit level circuit switch operator. Simply put, he dealt with high-tech telecommunications and security lines. He said after he got out of the military, he was offered several jobs in that field. But there was something missing. Turner missed the camaraderie and family aspect of the military so much so that he joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in late 2000 and has not looked back since. He said he feels a tremendous sense of pride serving his country. Former Marine Jason Hassinger works for veterans service organization, Disabled American Veterans, helping veterans file for VA or Dept. of Defense benefits. Before the military bug bit him, Hassinger always thought he would be a cop. He said service just runs in his blood. Army veteran Cassondra Flanagan's day job also revolves around serving veterans. Flanagan coordinates a women's veterans center at the Veterans Multi-Service Centerin Philadelphia. "We are focusing on alternative treatments...that kind of softening or other ways of coping with some of your stresses, until you feel like you can trust yourself," Flanagan said of the stresses female veterans face coming off of deployment and after leaving the military. Flanagan had a tough time getting into mommy-mode after two back-to-back, year-long deployments. When she first left, Flanagan's daughter was an infant. When she came home after her second deployment, her daughter was walking and talking. "That is a lot to take in at one time in your life at once. It will cause a whole upheaval inside," she explained. "Where my brothers-in-arms could easily go sit at a bar for three years...until they get themselves in a better place, I have so many responsibilities that I can't do that." She would also like to establish a veteran-specific shelter in Philadelphia for women veterans, specifically women with children. Lastly, New York Army National Guardsman Patrick Edouard is working with theNational Federation of Black Veterans Network. "They're connecting veterans to resources, especially veterans that are minorities," Edouard said. For example, the Philadelphia-area nonprofit helps veterans of color with their resumes, social media accounts, housing and informs them about various retail discounts offered to vets. The organization's mission is to help veterans become economically self-sufficient. When I asked Flanagan about this recurring theme I noticed of vets serving vets, she explained it this way: "I think you feel a certain civil duty, it's just embedded in you," Flanagan said. "There's a certain identity that you pick up from wearing a uniform and the longer you wear it, when you no longer have to wear it, you still feel that identity is yours, even though other people can't see it. So, it's almost like you do the other things that people can recognize, and see the serviceman in you in other ways."

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Veterans Coming Home: I’m home, now what? [photos]

By Shirley Min The veterans with whom I spoke talked about feeling a little lost after leaving the military. Mostly, they didn't know what they wanted to do next, or how they fit in. Cassondra Flanagan didn't have much of a life plan after she finished serving 8 years in the U.S. Army. "On a whim, I just applied to a bunch of colleges because I knew, not because I wanted a degree at the time, specifically because I knew I could have income from my G.I. Bill," the Army veteran said. After receiving an Associate's Degree in forensic science, Flanagan said she felt more motivated to get her Bachelor's. She graduated from Temple University and started working at Philadelphia's Veterans Multi-Service Center (VMC). But Flanagan's transition wasn't just about finding a job, it was also about finding herself and figuring out how and where she fit in. In 2003, not long after she joined the Army, Flanagan deployed to Iraq. But before she deployed, she gave birth to a baby girl. Her daughter wasn't even 3 months old when she left; Flanagan's mother looked after the baby while she was gone. "At the time, I really just wanted to serve my country because we did just have the towers fall ... I really felt invested in the idea of let's help my country," Flanagan said of her mindset at the time when she deployed with her Army unit from Fort Hood. The supply clerk for the engineering brigade came home a year later in 2004. Just a couple months after returning home, she hopped on another plane back to Iraq for her second year-long deployment. When she came home the second time, it was 2005 and she was in New York, stationed at Fort Drum, subsequently deployed to Afghanistan again for just 30 days and she finally left the military in 2006. "It's now 2016 and I'm just able to package everything up and verbalize it, in my head, to myself," she said. Flanagan did not suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but the soldier said a big challenge, if not her biggest, was coming home to her now 3-year-old daughter. "As a mother, you're supposed to be loving and caring and like, 'Awww,' you're the soft place for your family, but there's nothing soft about me when I returned home," Flanagan said frankly. "My patience is thin. You know, if i said, 'Put it down,' put it down, thank you. Like when I tell my soldiers put it down, they put it down and they close their mouth." But toddlers don't always follow orders. Parents know the toddler years are hard, to put it lightly, but most parents didn't just come home from what was essentially a 2-year deployment. Flanagan, who barely knew her child, had only been home for two weeks and all of the changes just got to be too much. "I called my mom crying because it was just me and my daughter in my apartment," she said. "I had just kind of let her do whatever she wanted, just as long as she didn't kill herself, because I recognized so much anger inside of me, that I was scared." Flanagan asked her mother to come and help. "It gave me a chance to transition my own self into mommy-mode. That is hugely scary and it's one of my major fights for women in the military because everyone wants to talk about women in combat and women deserve equal rights [in the military], but nobody addresses the role that we play for our families," Flanagan said. Now, the Army vet helps coordinate the Women's Veterans Center at VMC. "I thought for a long time that it was me trying to find myself again, but then when I really looked at it, I joined the military when I was 17, I don't think I ever found myself to begin with," Flanagan said. *** Realizing he didn't have to patrol his street from Muslim extremists was the hardest part of readjusting to life stateside for Jason Hassinger, the decorated Marine in last week's story. "It's definitely a different mindset. You're still all hyper-alert with everything," Hassinger said. "Not trusting individuals, not trusting people, not being sure of who they are, what they're going to be doing, what their intent is, what their plan is, what they're thinking, what they're scheming." Like Flanagan, Hassinger did not have PTSD. He just had to get used to the significantly slower tempo of life back home after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and after he left the military in 2011. "I just dealt with it," he said, of reconciling his new role at home while thoughts of his time in the Middle East ran through his head constantly. On the job front, Hassinger filed for unemployment. He was a stay-at-home dad for about a year, all the while he was sending out job applications. He eventually landed at the veterans service organization, Disabled American Veterans. *** "In my experience, I think everybody that goes [overseas], you see life from a different perspective when you come back," said Elinton De Los Santos, who joined the U.S. Navy in 2000. "You learn to live with it, you learn to kind of manage those emotions ... Sometimes you experience or feel it more at times. To me, personally, I don't think it goes away, I think it stays with you at least at an unconscious level." De Los Santos served with the Navy for over five years. Originally from the Dominican Republic, he joined because his father was also a sailor. The aircraft mechanic was on an aircraft carrier during his first two deployments in the Middle East and was stationed on the ground in Kuwait and Iraq for his third tour. "When you're in the military, you have a specialty. Then, when you're out of the military, it's hard to find something that matches exactly what you used to do," De Los Santos described. "It's like going back let's say when you got out of high school and you're starting college. Which way do I go, do I try this or try that? But now you have bills and a family, so that makes it more difficult." De Los Santos said jobs fixing planes on the outside were scarce. Consequently, he ended up picking up odd jobs here and there to make ends meet. His father, meanwhile, helped him navigate through the transition process and De Los Santos said he took advantage of the resources in place to help him re-assimilate to civilian life, chief among them his G.I. bill. *** Three generations of Patrick Edouard's family were in the service. Tradition is why Edouard enlisted in the U.S. Army. "My dad kind of drilled it into your head. Either you were going to go to college or go into the military because no slouches in this house, very big on that," Edouard recounted. The Marines and the challenge of getting through recruit training at Parris Island attracted Edouard, but he already knew he wasn't interested in pursuing a career in the military. That's why he ultimately chose the Army because he said the Army provided the easiest transition to civilian life. "It's a means to an end. I got what I needed. Boot camp was great for me. I was already an athlete in high school and college so it wasn't a hard thing for me. But what I think it brings is, it teaches camaraderie, it teaches you how to deal with difficult people," said Edouard, who added being a veteran can also help to bump up your resume to the top of the pile. That being said, Edouard reminded me that when you leave the military, whichever branch, you still need to be proactive especially when seeking out what help the military offers to veterans returning to civilian life. He also thinks some type of physical and mental therapy should be mandatory post deployment and post service. *** Jonathan Anthony Turner was only 18-years-old when he enlisted in the Marines. He was a unit level circuit switch operator, in other words, he dealt with telephone and communication lines. He deployed through Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm during the first Gulf War in 1990-1991. "I was a kid, I was scared, but I knew I had to serve my country. I was up for some good times and adventure," Turner said. "Coming back, I was more concerned about how people would react to us coming back because i had friends who served in Vietnam." Unlike many Vietnam veterans, Turner was welcomed home warmly and respectfully. He has served his country honorably, and instead of re-upping, Turner said he wanted to give the civilian life a shot. "I had top secret clearance. I was dealing with high-tech telecommunications lines, security lines, so I was job-ready. I was offered several jobs in that field as well." No, he didn't have problems finding a job. Where he did struggle was finding his niche. With time, he realized his niche was back in the military, this time with the Army. Turner joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in 2000. He was working strykers (an armored combat vehicle), other large vehicles and generators. He deployed to Iraq in 2008. His unit went on a lot of recovery missions for vehicles that were attacked. He recalled one such mission. "It was a stryker and everything was black, it was burnt out. You could smell the burnt electricity, burnt equipment, burnt flesh. And that was just one mission. And to this day, I can still smell it." The law of inertia states something in motion stays in motion and it can be applied to many 9/11 veterans. After working almost nonstop for months on end in Iraq, Turner, like Jason Hassinger, had a hard time slowing down his mind when his deployment ended. Turner said he exercised a lot to work off some energy, he went fishing and attended church as ways to help him readjust and reintegrate. And while he admits he still thinks about his missions often, he doesn't dwell, but rather acknowledges them and moves on. "I know I'm back here, I know my family needs me, I know my community needs me." The next installment in this series will focus on stereotypes civilians have about 9/11 veterans.

On July, 9, 2016, WHYY and NewsWorks invited Philadelphia-area veterans and their families to a day of fun at the Please Touch Museum. Seven took us up on our offer and spoke frankly with me about their service, what life was like when they came back home and the challenges they faced after putting away their uniforms for good. This article is part of a web series looking at how some Philadelphia-area 9/11 veterans readjusted to life back home after serving in the U.S. military.

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U.S. Marine Corps veteran and PA Army National Guardsman Jonathan Anthony Turner with his family (Daniel Burke/for NewsWorks)

Veterans Coming Home: Camaraderie [photos]

BY SHIRLEY MIN On July, 9, 2016, WHYY and NewsWorks invited Philadelphia-area veterans and their families to a day of fun at the Please Touch Museum. Seven veterans took us up on our offer and spoke frankly with me about their service, what life was like when they came back from deployment and the challenges they faced after putting away their uniforms for good. I conducted back-to-back interviews with each of the veterans and a couple spouses over the course of six hours. In that time, certain themes emerged; threads connecting the veterans across military branches, race and gender.


Jason Hassinger of Hatfield, PA served in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years and 10 months. A stout man with a shaved head, Hassinger looks like what you'd expect a Marine would look like. He also has lots of tattoos, everywhere. On his inner and outer left calf, are the names of all of the Marines from his unit, who were killed in action. Hassinger deployed three times; once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan between the years of 2007 and 2011. He saw and experienced a lot in those years, but there's one moment that stands out. "My pop seeing me off at the airport and just telling me that if anything happened, just dig a hole and hide," said Hassinger, fighting back tears. This was just before he deployed for the first time to Ramadi, Iraq. Hassinger was infantry. That means he was patrolling on the ground, kicking in doors and engaging in firefights. He said after a while, he grew numb to all of it and you, "just do what you got to do for the left and the right, and that's that," he said, referring to the guys in his unit on either side of him. He extended his 4-year contract with the Marines so he could deploy that last time to Helmand Province. The battle-tested infantryman and leader felt compelled to shepherd, by his account, an inexperienced battalion made up mostly of guys who had just joined the Marines. "So they would've been pretty much going over to be slaughtered, basically is what would've happened," Hassinger said. It was during this deployment when Hassinger was hurt. According to the official record, a sniper shot him in the chest four times, but Hassinger clarified it was actually five times. "I was the first one that he got and then he just went from there and took out about eight more guys after me." The Marine corporal's actions and bravery during the ambush, in spite of his own injuries, earned him a Silver Star, the nation's third highest award for combat valor. And in spite of his injury, in spite of the danger, Hassinger said he would be go back in a heartbeat for his brothers-in-arms. "You just do it for each other," he said. "It has nothing to do with fighting for your country. It's not the right word for putting it. It's the guys that you're with, you know they're going, you know the duty that you're going to be called upon to do, so you go to help each other out, cover each other's sixes." Thomas Dwyer joined the Marine Corps Reserve when he was 18. "I've always wanted to be a Marine, my dad was in the Marines and then after Sept. 11, I really wanted to sign up," Dwyer said. The diesel mechanic's unit was training to deploy to Iraq, but Dwyer was left behind because he hurt his knee during a training exercise. "I wanted to go, I was kind of upset that I couldn't go because I did all that training, and all them years in preparing to go to war, and all my friends were going and I had to stay back here. I kinda felt like I was letting them down a little bit," said Dwyer, who left the Reserves in 2004. "That one weekend a month, I used to look forward to it," Dwyer said. "I just enjoyed the whole lifestyle, the brotherhood that you have." Brotherhood, camaraderie, family - these were words military members used time and again to describe what they missed about their service. When I asked former Marine and Pennsylvania Army National Guardsman Jonathan Anthony Turner to explain how one can forge such a close bond with someone you just met, this burly soldier softened as he choked back tears. "If you were going through a battle in your life, and they would be there to pick you up and go through it with you," was the best way he could describe it. Looking at Jason Hassinger and Jonathan Anthony Turner, they are not men who you would think could be moved to tears. But they broke immediately when I brought up this aspect of camaraderie experienced in the military. It was like the mere mention of brotherhood unlocked all of the memories they had since sequestered. Next week, I explore how these veterans navigated their way in the civilian world, after leaving their structured lives in the military.

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Delaware legislators aim to increase awareness on veteran suicide

  BY ZOË READ Political leaders in Delaware exchanged their suits and heels for T-shirts and sneakers. Led by members of the military, State Senators and Representatives—and even Gov. Jack Markell, D-Delaware—knelt to the ground and made their best attempts at pushups. The goal was to bring awareness to mental health challenges facing veterans.  According to state officials, 22 U.S. veterans take their own lives each day. Now Delaware legislators vow to do 22 pushups or another physical activity, every day for 22 days to symbolize the statistic. “It’s not just a number,” said House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, who hosted the event. “They’re actually people and we need to start working with those people, and what better way to bring attention than here in the Delaware Assembly?” The “22 in 22” challenge was created last year by St. Mark’s High School senior Jacob Di Sabatino, who plans to join the army after college. “As an Army lover and USA lover it’s something that really touched my heart and something I knew I had to touch on,” he said. Last fall, Delaware Technical Community College members pledged to run or walk 22 miles in 22 days. "Last year I thought it would be a small group, me and my coach and five buddies doing laps on the track but it exploded into this huge event last year,” Di Sabatino said. “We were able to carry it over to this year and it’s something I’m very proud of.” Many soldiers struggle with the horrors they witnessed at war, and others are challenged by the stresses of integrating back into family life, said Maj. General Frank Vavalva of the Delaware National Guard, which participated in the event. Providing behavior health support can be the difference between life and death, he said. Last year the Delaware National Guard lost two members to suicide, which traumatized the organization, Vavalva said. “Trying to piece it together as to why, and what we may have missed in a way of seeing the telltale signs around suicide,” he said. "That’s why this is so important. It heightens awareness, and hopefully it will bring more people to understand, and to anyone who knows a veteran to be able to bring it to someone’s attention to get them help they need.” Di Sabatino said he hopes his campaign will help decrease the veteran suicide statistics to zero. “Even though it’s sad to say it, we might have to stop doing the ‘22 in 22’ because there’s going to be zero suicides,” he said.

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Author and Army Veteran Matt Gallagher on his debut novel ‘Youngblood’

Guest: Matt Gallagher [From the Radio Times archive] MATT GALLAGHER was an army platoon leader in Iraq in 2007-2008, the height of the war. He started writing a popular and irreverent blog called Kaboom that had a big following among troops and civilians. It also got him in trouble with the brass. Gallagher has written his first novel, Youngblood, about an Army platoon lieutenant dealing with a hot head and trigger happy sergeant, a mysterious murder, and the ambiguities of a war that’s winding down. He joins us today to discuss his new novel and his experiences in the Middle East.

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Sebastian Junger on ‘Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging’

    WHYY's Radio Times - Guest: Sebastian Junger In his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, journalist and documentary filmmakerSEBASTIAN JUNGER explores the important and protective role that  tight-knit communities play for soldiers during their deployment and how the absence of tribal life effects them when they return home. Junger argues that our increasingly divided society harms veterans’ health and may explain the high rates of PTSD among service members.  Junger has covered a number of combat zones and has made a series of documentaries following a U.S. platoon in Afghanistan, the first directed with his late friend Tim Hetherington is “Restrepo.”  He also wrote The Perfect Storm.  He talks with guest host Mary Cummings-Jordan this hour about the human impulse for tribalism.

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Delaware group softens reentry for veterans through camaraderie


More than 200,000 U.S. military members transition from active duty to civilian life each year, but returning to life back home is sometimes easier said than done."I don't believe that there's a recognition that there needs to be a transition from a battle-consciousness to a civilian one," said Tom Davis, a retired pastor in Wilmington.Davis said while the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs does its best to deal with "the most egregious cases of hurt," like PTSD or traumatic brain injury, softening the reentry for veterans back to life at home is low on the priority list. "Our armed services, I think, have not been quite aware that that's important, to have some transitioning rituals to come back," Davis said. That's why he started the Interfaith Veterans' Workgroup, a Wilmington-based organization Davis hopes will fill the void. IVW is modeled after the national nonprofit, "Mission Continues," which helps veterans readjust to civilian life by deploying them on different community-based service projects. "A good many vets don't have PTSD, classic symptoms of flashbacks and perhaps domestic violence and that sort of thing. But they do miss the service, they miss the sense of purpose that they have, the camaraderie that they have in the service and the excitement as well," said Davis, who speaks from firsthand experience. He served in Vietnam in 1970 with the Naval Reserves. "If you've been in a battle, theater of war, that tension and responsibility to do your part to help your fellows survive is such a strong human feeling," Davis said. "That kind of camaraderie is, I don't think one finds it in anything else." Almost a year old, IVW currently has 35 members, mostly Vietnam vets. But with the VA predicting the post 9/11 vet population to grow to 3.5 million by 2019, Davis hopes that, by then, IVW will not only be a built-in community for returning veterans seeking out that camaraderie, but that it will also become the Wilmington chapter of "Mission Continues." One of IVW's initial service projects is the Veterans Freedom Mural. The project is one of Wilmington Creative District's public art initiatives to revitalize downtown Wilmington and engage the community at the same time. Philadelphia-based Eric Okdeh is the artist. "The larger image is a scene of two soldiers. And the one is just returning home, he's decorated with medals. And then there's an older veteran from previous wars that's there's to greet him. And then they're literally positioned in front of the world, the community," Okdeh described. "The title is 'Getting Back to the World.'" The 31 panels hand-painted by volunteers, including veterans, will color the north wall of Marcella's House at 9th and Washington Streets in Wilmington. Run by Connections, Marcella's House is a residential facility for formerly homeless veterans. The mural is scheduled to go up next month.

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Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer is the composer and co-creator of Holding it Down: The Veteran’s Dream Project. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Weaving the dreams of veterans with music, poetry to translate experience of war

BY ELISABETH PEREZ-LUNA War has always been part of our history, and stories about the war experience have populated our culture as long as we can remember. The challenge for today's artists is to find a  way of conveying the complexity of deployment — and return — and the impact on individuals in a fresh, compelling way. It took almost four years for jazz pianist Vijay Iyer and writer Michael Ladd to create a performance that reflects the experiences of post-9/11 soldiers. Sleep is a rare luxury among veterans. With sleep come dreams, and dreams often take the shape of nightmares. Still, to write  "Holding it Down,"  librettist Ladd decided to talk to dozens of veterans and ask them only about their dreams — not their experiences, nor rank or weapons, nothing else. "By focusing on dreams, we would both share a space shared by vets and non-veterans," Ladd said. "We all have dreams, and in those dreams everything happens. It becomes its own dimension. Dreams also provide a very surreal landscape with no limits." It becomes a canvas,  so to speak, to weave a textured performance based on intense collaborations. And not all the dreams were nightmares fueled by trauma, said Ladd. “A lot of people insisted of talking about the other definition of dreams, dreams of aspiration, so  that also fused into the project," he said. To build the performance, Ladd and musician Iyer looked for the individual stories, carefully staying clear of generalizations about veterans. So they did a lot of listening. It was not about setting stories to music, but spending time, three years in fact, with veterans of color,  talking about their experiences and creating a sense of community, Iyer said. “Also, the act of making music,”  added Iyer. "Building a song cycle is a therapeutic one, it's one where you have  to listen in a new way to the  stories and give them the space they need — to be heard." A musical journey The result is the "The Veterans' Dream Project." For its only presentation at the Kimmel Center, the stage  transformed into a dark clublike atmosphere with musicians and performers sitting on high benches. They took turns telling their stories, led by Iyer's driving rhythms and compositions and guided by Ladd's dynamic libretto and his own texts.  Videotaped interviews with veterans peppered the performance. Veteran Lynn Hill ends her poem “Capacity”  this way:   I have a capacity to remember             A capacity to forget             A capacity to cope             To Deny             To Hold It Down. Poetry and hip-hop narratives became the common language of the shared experiences because they reflect our times. In the end, it is a musical journey. Iyer and Ladd found the stories less told, less known and focused on what interested them, the experiences of people of color before and after the military.  For instance, one of the veterans speaks about often identifying  with the barren poor neighborhoods where families lived in Afghanistan . In his poems “On Patrol,”  veteran Maurice Dacaul, one of the collaborators in the project writes:                  Wake up, look down at the left boot dog tag, make sure they’re there,                                                         and jingling around your neck, black silencers wrapped in black matte electrical tape.                               They will help ID, the remnants of you turning to dust in the desert; stand up left foot first …   "Holding it Down: The Veterans' Dream Project" was recorded on CD in 2013, but by its own improvisational nature and the addition of Philadelphia veterans, the performance keeps changing. In the long run for Iyer and Ladd, the idea is to create a deeper conversation and a sense of community. Yet, it's even more than that, said Ladd. “After every war, there's a memory that lasts as long as the cerebral cortex keeps working in that population," he said. "But even if the war did end, it would not end in the minds of veterans on either side of the conflict ... nor would it end for those who have shared space, intimate and public space, with these veterans. "So if we don't find as many diverse ways to keep talking about these experiences, there's nothing to better the situation." And that works as much for the veterans coming home as it does for us,  the people who want to bridge that civilian-military divide.  

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This Memorial Day, take a moment for the ‘Body at War’

May 5, 2016, was a sunny, if chilly, day in South Philly, and Wooden Shoe Books in Philadelphia was still full of light as the small but passionate crowd trickled in. Most were veterans of one of America's recent wars; I knew quite a few of them. We had all come to remember another veteran, who died in 2014, 10 years after a bullet pierced his brain in Sadr City, Iraq. We came because of a new book about that vet, "Tomas Young's War." The book's author, Mark Wilkerson, is also an Army veteran, having served for eight years in the early 1990s as a AH-1 Cobra & UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crew chief. Those years included three months in Somalia with the 101st Airborne, which ended a few days before the atrocities depicted in the movie "Black Hawk Down." Wilkerson told me that he learned a lot about the fragility of human lives like his own: "One minute you're looking at a [peaceful-looking] market through a scope of a helicopter, and, flying back, there's a hole the size of a beer can in the roof of the helicopter. Then, the guys  who follow you are dead, and their bodies dragged through the streets. Those guys were crew chiefs, same job as mine: It really could have been me." Wilkerson went home to Kentucky, got a job as an aircraft mechanic for a big airline, and started "writing for therapy." A blog and decades of research into musician Pete Townsend eventually became "Who Are You: The Life of Pete Townshend" (Omnibus Books, 2008), with a foreward by Eddie Vedder of the band Pearl Jam. "And it was Eddie Vedder who first made me aware of Tomas Young," Wilkerson said Wilkerson told the group at Wooden Shoe Books that he had read to over 100 people the nght before in New York City, accompanied by Phil Donahue and Eddie Vedder. "And I couldn't finish — I just choked up," he said. Then Wilkerson began to tell the story of Tomas Young — starting with the part that first made the young soldier famous. The son of a single mother and grandson and great-grandson of Army veterans, Young enlisted after the terrorist attacks of Sept., 11, 2001. He spent that morning with two close friends watching the twin towers fall, and three days later he saw President George W. Bush at Ground Zero, and called an Army recruiter. "I'm normally not that type of guy," he told Wilkerson, "but I'm sure there are a lot of people who weren't 'that type of guy' in December of 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor." Afterward, Young's friends told Wilkerson, Young "saw himself as a GI Joe-type character." Sure that he was going to Afghanistan to fight those who'd attacked the United States, Young enlisted in the infantry, becoming part of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment (2-5 Cav). Wilkerson then described Young's disappointment in 2002, after he arrived at Fort Hood for  infantry training and seemed to be training for a very different war — in Iraq. Enraged, Young got out of the infantry, securing  a transfer to a communications post. "I thought I had a plan that would keep me safe," Young said later. "It was a horrible plan."  The 2-5 Cav arrived in Iraq just as the insurgency was beginning. Wilkerson described in detail April 4, 2004, also known as "Black Sunday." Young was riding in an open truck, that day, "not a Humvee or [a mine-resistant, ambush-protected truck)."  When the platoon was ambushed, he was hit by AK47 "from above and to the left. The bullet had entered below [Young's] left collarbone, tearing through his lung and spinal cord .... He had been in Iraq for five days and had never discharged his weapon." Young returned to the U.S. paralyzed "from the nipples down," and had to re-learn how to eat and speak. While he was still recovering at Walter Reed Hospital, Young met TV producer Phil Donahue, who was so struck by his condition that he decided to make a movie about it. "Body of War," released in 2007, follows Young in his daily physical struggles — and as he joins Iraq Veterans Against War, becoming a nationally known spokesman for the group. The film, with a soundtrack including Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen, was screened nationwide. That was the Tomas Young most familiar to the audience at Wooden Shoe that day. We knew about the movie and Young's activist days. Vietnam War veteran Bill Perry said, "Did you see the picture of me and him at the [2006] Veterans for Peace conference in Seattle? I was pushing his wheelchair, and I'll tell you, he was pumped. He wore me out — he wanted to go everywhere!" Wilkerson said, "I became aware of Tomas Young when that film was being completed .I felt a little reassured by the film's ending — he seemed to have it all figured out." With his mother, Cathy Smith, by his side, Young felt like he'd found his life's calling, and started looking into how he could finally go to college on the GI Bill. But in 2007, Young's condition worsened, though he had trouble getting help from the Veterans Administration. "He never saw an actual doctor, always an emergency doctor," said Wilkerson. "His mom told me, 'There's never been a medication review, of all the pills he takes.'" "When he went to the doc with a swelling in his forearm, they told him it was carpal tunnel. He went back, and they gave him Coumadin [a blood thinner]," Wilkerson said. Then, on May 30, 2008, a blood clot burst in his brain — turning Young from a paraplegic to a quadriplegic, and nearly silencing his speech. "In medical terms he had an embolism, resulting in anoxic brain injury," Wilkerson said. After that, nothing — not even meeting and marrying his second wife, Claudia Cuellar — could mitigate the constant pain and humiliation Young was experiencing. And in 2013, Young decided he would refuse all life support — but first he wrote a "last letter" to the architects of the war that had taken him. "I was blown away by that letter to Bush and Cheney," Wilkerson told the crowd at Wooden Shoe. "I looked at pix of Tomas two years after, he looked 20 years older. That's when I realized — "Body of War" was Act One. This book is Act Two." Wilkerson contacted Young in Kansas City, and learned that he had wanted to write a book. "But now he couldn't use voice-to-text software, he couldn't use his hands to write. I said 'I'll tell your story. And he agreed." Wilkinson began meeting with Young, driving to Kansas City for hours of interviews. "I wanted to know more — about how he got here, the coma, the bed sores. That first day he asked, "Do you want to see me eat?" The resulting narrative unflinchingly describes some of the oft-hidden realities of a patient with anoxic brain injury: the pain pump that shoots scores of medications; the feeding tube that provides nutrition; the catheter and colostomy bag needed for all his excretions, the latter process taking hours of work by his caretaker. Wilkerson includes these details because they're part of the realities of war, less glamorous than combat but just as devastating. "I don't think anyone would join the army if they thought, 'My mom might have to handle my poop for the rest of my life!'" said Young's mother to me this week. Wilkerson talked long enough to Young that he was able to watch him change. "I soon became quite sure Tomas did not want to die," he said. "Finally, after one long conversation, I asked why he changed his mind. 'I bought a new PlayStation. A shame to waste it,' he said. That was Tomas — funny and sweet to the last." After he chose not to end his life, Young moved to the Northwest, where he could access medical marijuana and be closer to Eddie Vedder, now a close friend. "He was excited about the book project, and planned to write some essays for it," Wilkerson said. He was therefore shocked to get a call, not long after Veterans Day 2014, with the news that Young was dead. "That combination of meds that got him through — it was just too toxic, and his body gave out." After he finished at the Wooden Shoe, Wilkerson folded the pages and smiled: He hadn't cried that night. In the after-show discussions, some of the veterans in the room then offered their own memories of Young. "The first time I met Tomas there was a transit strike in NYC," said Perry. "And the church we saw him in was cold, cold, cold, 'cause he couldn't take the heat." "I remember seeing Tomas at Camp Casey," said peace activist Carol Ezell, meaning the gathering that had confronted President Bush in Texas in 2006. The "Body of War" filmmakers had followed Young there, interviewing hundreds including actor Martin Sheen. "Once you went there you were transformed," Ezell added. "So many people had connections to Tomas," Wilkerson said. "At Camp Casey, he met so many like-minded people. Before the embolism, he also loved going to high schools, to speak before they meet with military recruiters." A young Marine Corps veteran spoke softly. "I joined in high school, but at boot camp they couldn't make me want to kill Afghans," he said. "So I got out." He said he liked the statement from Phil Donahue in his foreword to Wilkerson's book: "Before another commander in chief swaggers before the news cameras and declares 'Bring it on,' I want him to read this book." The reading was long before Memorial Day, but the day was certainly on Wilkerson's mind. "Tomas' family has a great big hole in them now," he said. "Will people pay attention to this book? Before we send anybody's children overseas?" — Chris Lombardi lives and writes in Philadelphia. Her book, "I Ain't Marching Anymore: Soldiers Who Dissent, from the French and Indian War to the Forever War," will be published by The New Press in 2017. Until then, you can find her work at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Guernica Magazine, Women's Voices for Change, and her book's working WordPress site.

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