Sunday, November 29, 2009

Military divorces edge up as war takes its toll

Divorce rates among Army enlisted soldiers continued a gradual and steady increase for the seventh straight year with nearly 10,000 married G.I.s ending marriages during fiscal 2009, according Pentagon figures released Friday.

Four percent of marriages among enlisted soldiers failed. The trend mirrors findings by Army battlefield researchers earlier this month that revealed a similar year-by-year increase in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq who complain of failing marriages.

The evidence shows that long and multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan are damaging military marriages, says Lt. Col. Paul Bliese, a research psychologist.

"The pressures are most evident for the younger soldiers," says Army Lt. Col. Paul Bliese, a research psychologist. "(But) we are starting to detect some of the affect on (senior enlisted soldiers), particularly in terms of marital satisfaction."

The divorce rate within the Army is not the highest among the services — Air Force enlisted airmen registered a 4.3% divorce rate this year. But the Army is the largest service, with 100,000 more married troops than the Air Force, and is the only service that has shown a steady increase in divorce among enlisted service members for several years.

Air Force and Navy enlisted rates have fluctuated. And the rate among enlisted Marines stayed steady at 4% from 2008 to 2009, numbers show.

Soldiers and Marines have done most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The overall divorce rate in the U.S. military increased from 3.4% to 3.6% this year. The civilian divorce rate in the USA for the 12 months ending in January 2009 was 3.4%, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Army researchers have focused special attention on the marriages of troops at war, completing six field studies and surveys in Iraq and three in Afghanistan since 2003.

They found evidence that soldiers with more electronic access to their families are having more marital problems.

In Afghanistan, one in four married soldiers working support or logistic jobs and confined to combat installations, where there is greater access to telephones and the Internet, reported marital problems. By contrast, 16.4% of married soldiers who regularly leave installations to engage in combat, convoys or other missions said their relationships were failing.

Army Maj. Jeffrey Thomas, a research psychologist, says this may be due to some soldiers becoming too involved in their family lives via the Internet or telephone.

"It's a great thing to have that set up there and the ability to reach out and talk to family and be involved," Thomas says. "But you can also get dragged into minor squabbles and things that are probably best resolved by the spouse."

You … get dragged into minor squabbles and things that are probably best resolved by the spouse," Thomas says.

Researchers also found a strong link between multiple deployments and failing marriages among soldiers fighting in Afghanistan this year, Bliese says. Some 14.3% of married soldiers on their first deployment and 12.6% of those on their second deployment complained of marital problems. But nearly one in three married soldiers on their third deployment said their marriages were in trouble.

In Iraq in 2003, 12.4% of married soldiers surveyed in 2003 in Iraq said they planned to divorce or separate after returning home. This year, nearly 23% of soldiers fighting in Iraq made those claims, according to Army data.

The percentage of soldiers in Iraq who say they have a good marriage has declined from about 80% in 2003 to about 60% in 2008.

All military services offer programs aimed at strengthening marriages in order mitigate deployment stresses, says Air Force Lt. Col. April Cunningham, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Holiday Mail for Heroes

Holiday Mail For Heroes is here again! This year, we are teaming up with our friends at Pitney Bowes for the third time to send holiday cards to service members, veterans, and their families. This is a great way to give back this holiday season - by sharing your kind words and thanks with those who have given a great deal to their country.

We will begin accepting cards on November 2nd. Send in your cards to the address below, and please read the guidelines carefully!

Holiday Mail For Heroes
P.O. Box 5456
Capitol Heights, MD 20791-5456

All cards must be received no later than Monday, December 7th. Cards received after this date will unfortunately be returned to the sender. This deadline ensures enough time to sort and distribute cards before the holidays.

After the mailbox closes, the cards we received will be screened for hazardous materials by Pitney Bowes and then reviewed by Red Cross volunteers working around the country. Then, the cards are sent out to recipients in time for the holidays.

This year, we are excited to partner with the talented Amy Grant. Amy is also a member of our celebrity cabinet. In her words,

“I am honored and thrilled to be a part of the Holiday Mail for Heroes program. […] The service that our military men and women provide this country year-round is invaluable and I feel it is especially important to give thanks for their sacrifices during the holiday season.”

Amy will be joining us for our special kick-off event on November 11th, Veteran’s Day- watch this blog for updates.

We’ve had great turnouts the past two years, and look forward to another great year!

You can also do more than send in cards. Our holiday gift catalog lists several different contributions you can make to provide much-needed items for service members, such as phone cards and “comfort kits”.

If you are a blogger or website owner who is interested in showing your support this year, below are some resources you can use and follow. There is also a Holiday Mail for Heroes resource page up on our website that will contain more news and information as it happens.

Watch the #holidaymail hashtag on Twitter, and use the hashtag when you talk about the program!

Contact us at @RedCross and Pitney Bowes at @Mail4Heroes with questions or comments! We will be posting information and news on Twitter.

We will be updating our Youtube channel regularly. Check out our Services to the Armed Forces playlist in particular for videos from our Holiday Mail for Heroes events!

Our Holiday Mail 2009 set on Flickr will also be continuously updated as we gather more photos from our chapters and official events. Click here to see last year’s photos. All Flickr photos are available for you to use for personal (not commercial) purposes - just make sure to link back to our Flickr page!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Vets get aid with legal problems

Marshall Callahan had $300 in his pocket and a powerful craving for booze when he got stranded in Lee's Summit, Mo., on a cross-country drive two years ago.

The former Marine Corps aviation mechanic says he drank until he was broke, blacked out and woke up in jail. It wasn't the first time. Callahan, 47, has been homeless on and off for 15 years.

"I've been in all the jails here. I've been in all the detoxes. Any life I had that I could ruin, I ruined," says Callahan, who served in the Marines from 1981 to 1985 in Cherry Point, N.C.

Now Callahan, sober since Oct. 15 and living in a Salvation Army shelter, is eagerly awaiting Dec. 9, his day in a Kansas City, Mo., veterans court, where a volunteer lawyer will assist him with his thicket of nuisance citations, such as sleeping in public.

"This is a big deal for someone used to living on the street and not having any money," Callahan says. "This is a golden opportunity."

Special courts aimed at helping veterans with legal problems are emerging around the country as servicemembers return from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spurring efforts to help them and others who served in the military.

In the past two years, 22 cities and counties, such as Buffalo, Chicago, Tulsa and Pittsburgh, have opened courts with dockets reserved for veterans. Kansas City held its first session in August. At least 39 others are planned for next year, Department of Veterans Affairs records show.

The courts coordinate with the VA and other service providers so veterans such as Callahan charged with minor infractions can opt into services such as drug treatment or job training to avoid jail or fines and ultimately have their cases dismissed. The VA estimates that veterans account for 10% of the people who have criminal records.

"In most instances, the folks in need of this special service are people who are suffering or have had legal issues as a result of their military service," says Brian Christensen, a former Navy lawyer who helped organize the Kansas City court and will represent Callahan for free at the once-a-month veterans docket. "They deserve a little bit extra from society."

The special courts began after judges and lawyers saw a growing number of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or substance-abuse problems, says Paul Freese, a Los Angeles attorney who advises the American Bar Association's Commission on Homelessness and Poverty.

Many veterans who come to the courts are homeless and have amassed citations for minor, non-violent offenses, such as sleeping in public or loitering. They could not pay the fines or get to court, so judges issued warrants that prevent them from getting jobs, housing and benefits, Freese says. Neither the ABA nor the VA tracks how many of these veterans successfully completed their programs.

"Communities want to help these soldiers come back without the outcomes we saw after the Vietnam War," such as homelessness, unemployment and substance abuse, Freese says. "I think we're at a critical juncture where these courts can exponentially increase."

This month, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a five-year goal to end homelessness among veterans. The VA estimates 131,000 veterans are homeless, but Shinseki said homelessness could increase by 10% to 15% over the next five years without aggressive steps to help veterans.

In May, he directed every veterans center to designate a staff member to work with the courts to ensure veterans in the criminal justice system can tap into VA services, says Jim McGuire, who manages the agency's Health Care for Reentry Veterans program.

"The VA in the past hasn't been as aggressive about reaching out to the courts. We want to ramp that up," says Sean Clark, national coordinator for Veterans Justice Outreach at the VA.

Callahan, after eight months sober, went on a drinking binge two days before his first scheduled court date in October and missed it. He returned to the Salvation Army shelter to detox. Then, "in through the Federal Express mail comes a letter saying the lawyer went to court and got a continuance," giving him a second chance to show up at court. "I couldn't believe it," he says.

Callahan vows not to miss his December hearing. He wants to finish cosmetology school, get a job in a salon and learn to play the cello.

"I have a chance," he says.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Eight Fort Hood wounded will still deploy

Pool photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez

WASHINGTON — Many more mental health specialists were wounded in the Nov. 5 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, than previously reported, decimating the two units deploying to Afghanistan and Iraq, a commanding general says.

Despite their wounds, however, eight of the specialists were still willing to deploy, says Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Lie-Ping Chang.

The units are rebuilding quickly, Chang says. Eight of the wounded have returned to duty, and 14 other mental health reservists have volunteered to fill vacancies and go to Iraq or Afghanistan, he says.

Two reservists have volunteered to immediately deploy with the units in December. Another 12 said they will be ready by early January, Chang says. "I think we can do it," Chang says, referring to replenishing his ranks. "The response was so overwhelming, and the people wanted to do the right thing."

Two vacancies remain, says Chang, who is a family physician and commands the 807th Medical Command, under which the two combat stress control units are assigned.

Five mental health workers were among 13 people shot to death when Army Maj. Nidal Hasan allegedly opened fire at a Soldier Readiness Center at Fort Hood. Another 19 behavioral health specialists were wounded, Chang says. Members of the 467th and 1908th Army Reserve Combat Stress Control detachments were at the center preparing for deployment.

"They happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time," Chang says.

Hasan was charged last week with 13 counts of murder.

He was one of three regular Army soldiers who had been assigned to the 467th Combat Stress Control Detachment deploying to Afghanistan next month, Chang says. The unit is slotted for 46 soldiers.

The Army last week said there was a dire need for more mental health workers in Afghanistan, where the terrain and distances make it difficult to provide behavioral health support to soldiers in far-flung outposts. With the surge in troops to Afghanistan this year, mental health support was lagging, Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker said last week.

The Army typically strives to provide one mental health clinician for every 700 deployed soldiers. That ratio slipped to 1-to-1,123 last spring.

The 467th Combat Stress Control Detachment was to help fix that problem by December, Army Lt. Col. Ed Brusher says.

Chang had each mental health worker undergo a psychological assessment to determine whether they are fit for combat. "I want to make sure when we deploy this unit they have been thoroughly vetted and checked," he says.

"I told the soldiers, 'I understand how stressful being in that room (where the shooting occurred) was. You see people get killed.' You think of 13 killed and 30 injured, that's 43 people laying there (wounded and dead)," Chang says. "That's a pretty strong psychological shock."

He says one mental health worker suffering psychological problems from the attack was excused from deployment, and he anticipates there may be a few other such cases.

This was not the first tragedy for the 1908th unit heading for Iraq, Chang says. One of that unit's psychiatrists, Matthew Houseal, 54, volunteered this year to deploy to Iraq with another Reserve unit, the 55th Combat Stress Control Team. Houseal was working at a clinic on an installation outside Baghdad on May 11 when Army Sgt. John Russell allegedly opened fire, killing Houseal.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Female Troops Gets Unique Care Package

Army News Service

WASHINGTON -- The United Services Organization has sent out a lot of care packages over the years, but they've never put together a "for women only" kit -- until now.

Congressional staffers and members of Congress participated in a USO-sponsored event Nov. 18 on Capitol Hill to build some 2,000 care packages that contain items specifically targeted at female servicemembers.

"We're going to do something different today, something that's never been done before," said USO President Sloan D. Gibson. "We're going to assemble USO care packages explicitly for our women -- for servicewomen that are serving in forward-deployed locations around the world."

Sloan said as many as 15 percent of servicemembers in the active component and 18 percent in the reserve component are women.

"They have needs and interests that are very unique and we are going to meet many of those needs with these new care packages that we have designed just for women," Sloan said.

Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, said when Americans perform small acts like assembling a care package, that kindness does not go unnoticed by servicemembers.

"As a military mom, I have seen first-hand how acts of kindness and service, like today's effort, can improve the life of a servicemember," she said. "These are small acts, but like the veterans and volunteers who greeted my son when he touched base on U.S. soil after a year's deployment in Iraq -- they mean so much to our servicemembers."

Biden also said that women serving today are continuing in a long tradition of women supporting the armed forces.

"Women have always played a critical role in supporting our nation's defense and security and their role will only continue to evolve and grow in the future," she said. "I want to salute all the women around this country and the world who are doing their part to keep our country safe."

The care packages contained many items typical in care packages for servicemembers: hand wipes, sanitizer and food products for instance. But the packages also contained some items specifically targeted at female servicemembers, including two cosmetic products courtesy of Maybelline and a copy of the November issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Deborah Marquardt, vice president of integrated marketing communications for Maybelline New York & Garnier, said even in a war zone, women like to be themselves.

"We want to support the brave women in uniform and we know how important the little things in life are -- beauty," she said. "Women intrinsically understand beauty and it can change their whole outlook to get a new lipstick or a mascara. Women like to feel like women no matter where they are and what context. I think anything that helps you feel like yourself and reminds you of back home and gives you confidence ... is important, no matter what the context."

Donna Kalajian-Lagani, publisher of Cosmopolitan Magazine, said female servicemembers epitomize the magazine's credo.

"We're so thrilled to be here for the female troops," she said. "Cosmo's whole credo is about being fun, fearless and female, and I can't think of a better word to use for our troops around the world than to say they are the most fearless and most brave."

Kalajian-Lagani also said she doesn't think female servicemembers will have a problem finding time to enjoy the little slice of home being sent abroad specifically for them.

"There's always time for Cosmo, and there's always time for being fun, fearless and female and giving yourself a little treat," she said. "Whether that little treat is putting on a lipstick or opening up your favorite magazine, like Cosmo."

Muggers Show Respect for Army ID

Associated Press

MILWAUKEE - A Milwaukee Army reservist's military identification earned him some street cred Tuesday, when he says four men who mugged him at gunpoint returned his belongings and thanked him for his service after finding the ID.

The 21-year-old University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student said he was walking home from work about 1:15 a.m. Tuesday when he was pulled into an alley and told to lay face down and with a gun to his neck. Four men took his wallet, $16, keys, his cell phone and even a PowerBar wrapper from his pants pockets, he said.

But the hostile tone quickly changed when one of the robbers, whom the reservist presumed was the leader, saw an Army ID in the wallet. The robber told the others to return the items and they put most of his belongings on the ground next to him, including the wrapper, the reservist said.

"The guy continued to say throughout the situation that he respects what I do and at one point he actually thanked me and he actually apologized," said the reservist, who asked not to be identified Tuesday because the robbers still had his keys.

The reservist said he asked the men, who all had hoods or hats covering their faces, if he could get up and they said he could before starting to walk away.

"The leader of the group actually walked back, gave me a quick fist bump, which was very strange," he said.

Milwaukee police spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz said the reservist is credible and that officers still were looking for the suspects Tuesday.

The reservist didn't realize until later that his keys were not with him and he doesn't know if the robbers intended to keep those, he said. Still, he said he feels lucky.

"I'm just kind of awe struck that everything was given back to me due to just being in the military, " he said. "I realize in pretty much every other situation that wouldn't happen."

He said he's never been deployed, only having signed up for the Army Reserves about a year ago. He said he is the first person in his immediate family to join the military.

Schwartz said there were two other incidents within 40 minutes in the same area and police suspect the four men were involved in all of them. The robbers were unsuccessful at 12:35 a.m., when the 39-year-old man they approached ran into the street and started screaming.

Schwartz said within 10 minutes of that they approached a 47-year-old man - a convicted burglar who had a Department of Corrections inmate ID in his wallet - ordered him to the ground and pointed a gun at him. They took his wallet, apparently unfazed by that ID.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Oprah Winfrey to greet returning Fort Bragg soldiers via satellite

Oprah Winfrey on Wednesday is scheduled to speak via satellite with Fort Bragg soldiers recently returned from deployment.

Winfrey will address the soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, who will be gathered at the York Theater on post.

About 700 people including soldiers and their families are expected to attend the broadcast, said Maj. Brian Fickel, spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg.

Crews from Winfrey's talk show started setting up for the broadcast today. Winfrey's address is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. Wednesday and is open only to members of the 3rd brigade and their families.

Winfrey is expected to thank the soldiers for their service and welcome them home. The segment is scheduled to air on Winfrey's television show Nov. 24.

A representative with Winfrey's Harpo Productions couldn't be reached immediately for comment.

The soldiers for the 3rd brigade have been returning from Iraq since the start of the month.

About 3,500 paratroopers are coming back from the overseas deployment.

IAVA Veternas Day

Third Annual Heroes Gala

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Post Office Deadlines For Holiday Packages to Troops

The U. S. Postal Service today issued a table of deadlines for mailing holiday gifts to troops stationed overseas.

The recommended mailing date for the most economical postage to overseas military installations, including Iraq and Afghanistan, is November 13. Mail sent to overseas military addresses is charged only domestic mail prices. The domestic mail price for the Priority Mail Large Flat Rate Box is $13.95, but for packages to APO/FPO addresses overseas the price is reduced to $11.95.

Additional discounts are available for customers printing their Priority Mail postage labels online at Click-N-Ship. Flat-Rate boxes are free at any Post Office, or can be ordered online at Postage, labels and customs forms can be printed online any time using Click-N-Ship.

The Postal Service continues to show support to those serving in the armed forces by offering free Military Care Kits, designed specifically for military families sending packages overseas. The mailing kits can be ordered by phone by calling 1-800-610-8734 and asking for the Care Kit. Each kit includes two “America Supports You” large Priority Mail Flat-Rate boxes, four medium-sized Priority Mail Flat-Rate boxes, six Priority Mail labels, one roll of Priority Mail tape and six customs forms with envelopes.

To ensure delivery of holiday cards and packages by Dec. 25 to military APO/FPO addresses overseas, the Postal Service recommends that mail for service members be entered no later than the mailing dates listed below. Mail addressed to military post offices overseas is subject to certain conditions or restrictions regarding content, preparation and handling.

Maine Troop Greeters See Service Members Off and Welcome Them Home

10 November 2009

Wednesday, Nov. 11 is Veterans Day in America. It's a day set aside to honor those who

These three
These three "Maine Troop Greeters" are profiled in the "The Way We Get By" documentary
have served in the armed forces, especially in wartime.In that spirit, a small group of senior citizens in the northeastern U.S. city of Bangor, Maine, has been working around the clock at the local airport to say thank you to troops leaving for, and returning from, Iraq and Afghanistan. A new documentary film profiles three of these elderly greeters and examines how their tributes have enriched not only the troops' lives, but also their own.

Group has been greeting troops at airport since 2003

Filmmaker Aron Gaudet's new nationally broadcast documentary, "The Way We Get By," shows a common scene at Bangor Maine's international airport, as members of a group called Maine Troop Greeters and other local citizens gather to cheer the troops. They come to Bangor International because this easternmost major U.S. airfield, with its 3.5 kilometer long runway and isolated security, is the preferred stop for military planes transporting troops to and from Iraq and Afghanistan.

A core group of about 25 mostly elderly volunteers has received and sent off nearly one million service members since May 2003, shortly after the start of the Iraq war.

The documentary reveals that delivering this simple kindness gives the greeters a sense of purpose. Many say that prior to volunteering they felt they had outlived their usefulness.

World War Two veteran Bil Knight is one of a dedicated core of about 25 Maine Troop Greeters
World War Two veteran Bill Knight is one of a dedicated core of about 25 Maine Troop Greeters
Bill Knight, 87, is a World War Two veteran with prostate cancer. His wife died several years ago and he is facing financial hard times.

"Life is pretty strange when you're alone. You never know what it's gonna drive you to. My life don't mean a hell of a lot to me, but if I can make it mean something to someone else, well, that's my endeavor," Knight says.

A welcome by Knight and his fellow volunteers certainly meant a lot to two servicemen who expressed appreciation for the display of support and appreciation.

Joy is not the only emotion returning troops feel

Greeter Jerry Mundy, 74, a burly ex-Marine who faces health challenges, encourages arriving troops to use available free cell phones at the airport to call their loved ones.

Greeter Jerry Mundy, a jovial ex-Marine, loves to welcome home the troops, especially with free mobile phones with which to call their loved ones
Greeter Jerry Mundy, a jovial ex-Marine, loves to welcome home the troops, especially with free mobile phones with which to call their loved ones
"I come home, I feel good. I feel better. That's the best part of the whole deal is handing them the phones. It's so rewarding for us to give them the chance to make the calls. It's just amazing to see it," Mundy says, recalling joyful phone exchanges he often overhears.

But the film also shows that happiness is not the only emotion returning troops experience as they deplane. Many are still grieving for their fallen buddies.

"I mean you can't get somebody to feel what it's like when you are sound asleep and the whole world explodes. I mean, how do you explain that to somebody? I mean it's over. We're home," one soldier says. He tells the filmmakers the nightmare of war is still with him.

Seniors and soldiers grapple with mortality and isolation

It may seem at first that these troops and their elderly greeters have little in common. But director Aron Gaudet finds poignant parallels.

Director Aron Gaudet found powerful similarities between the challenges faced by the troops and the older greeters
Director Aron Gaudet found powerful similarities between the challenges faced by the troops and the older greeters
"Like the troops that were heading over to war, they were really thinking about their own mortality and what they were heading into. And when you are 87 years old and have prostate cancer, you're thinking about a lot of those same things. And then the troops that were coming back, they were kind of going through that same thing. When they were over there, they were providing this great service, and when they come back a lot of times they were worried they are going to get pushed aside or marginalized and forgotten about. That's another thing those greeters were going through as well," Gaudet says.

The film inspires audiences as it pays tribute to those who serve

The documentary's producer, Gita Pullapilly, who is also filmmaker Gaudet's wife, says she was inspired by the combination of vulnerability and strength shown by the elderly greeters.

Greeter Joan Gaudet (the director's mother) had her own personal goodbyes to make; her granddaughter and grandson were both being deployed during the making of the film
Greeter Joan Gaudet (the director's mother) had her own personal goodbyes to make; her granddaughter and grandson were both being deployed during the making of the film
"They'd go through enormous obstacles and find their way out and talk about how everybody has to go through life in their own way. You push through and you find your way through it and when Aron and I would go home and we would be struggling through these intense issues, it would actually help us," Pullapilly says.

As greeter Bill Knight knows well there will be more casualties and more veterans before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over. Aaron Gaudet's "The Way We Get By" is a timely reminder of the sacrifices made by those who serve, and the value of honoring that service with public and personal tribute.

L.A. project Strawberry Flag helps veterans through a rough patch

Artist Lauren Bon and Dr. Jonathan Sherrin, center, confer next to the Strawberry Flag as others involved in the project ride backs that pump water to the reclaimed strawberry plants.

Veterans and artists are raising a new flag at the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Administration Healthcare Center: a Strawberry Flag.

Part therapy, part art installation and part fundraiser, the project has created a raised strawberry field in the shape of an American flag. Veterans tend the strawberries, transplanted from abandoned fields, and sell preserves they make from second-harvest fruit.

The project, spearheaded by artist Lauren Bon and psychiatrist Jonathan Sherin, associate chief of mental health for the center, aims to promote recovery and reintegration for the veterans. It also is helping revitalize a campus that housed recovering Civil War soldiers and now serves the more than 500,000 veterans in the Los Angeles area.

The flag and its surroundings, about the size of a football field, holds red-berried plants growing in rows of raised white pipes in a ground coconut mixture. Reclaimed trees and other plants outline the flag's blue upper left corner, creating an open-air teahouse, where visitors can sit and drink tea, relax or meditate.

Supporting patriotism

The veterans and teahouse guests are the "stars" on the American flag, says Bon, 47, granddaughter of diplomat and philanthropist Walter Annenberg. She is one of three directors of the private Annenberg Foundation and heads Metabolic Studio, an art studio and charitable activity of the foundation, which supports the Strawberry Flag project.

Bon estimates Metabolic Studio has spent about $100,000 to cover veterans' salaries, events and materials. But many of the resources were free. The reclaimed plants and the water from the Los Angeles river and rooftops came without a cost, and the VA is letting the project use the space rent-free.

"We're doing this sculpture as a way to activate the site and a way to promote resources that support patriotism," Bon says.

The grounds where the Strawberry Flag sits, and most of the surrounding buildings, were empty and only used occasionally as sets for movies or TV shows, before the project arrived, says site historian Janet Owen Driggs of the Metabolic Studio.

A pond filled with fish and watercress sits at the end of each pipeline, cleaning and adding minerals to the water. Veterans and visitors pedal solar-powered stationary bikes next to the flag to pump water into the tubes.

Bobby Shelton, 75, a Korean War veteran, carefully checks each strawberry plant and the pond every day.

The project is a "wonderful idea," Shelton says. "It's creative. I like the purpose of it. I'm proud to be a part of the organization. It gave me a new energy, a new source in life, motivated me to do more."

Every weekday afternoon, tea and bread with treats including strawberry jam or sausage rolls are served at the flag. Twice a month, high tea is held, and veterans and visitors come together to talk and enjoy – literally – the fruits of their labor.

'It raises my self-esteem'

Deborah Peterson oversees the kitchen where veterans make the preserves and prepare for daily teas. Weekly "jam sessions" are social gatherings as well as a chance for veterans to learn how to make jam, she says. Until the flag's own strawberries are mature enough to harvest, the veterans are using berries from the VA farmers market, and getting help from a local jam company.

Jerome Larson, 40, a veteran of the first Gulf War, is developing the print studio that makes maps of the VA campus and will supply the jam jars with labels featuring vets.

"A lot of us (veterans) are in recovery, and we're just trying to move forward to getting established in the community, and this is a great way to do that," Larson says. "It raises my self-esteem and helps me focus on positive things in my life."

Back at the flag, Charles Warren, 55, a Vietnam veteran, leads spin classes on the eight stationary bikes. The flag is a "pretty big deal," Warren says, and reminds him of the military, where everyone works together to accomplish the mission. "For them to come in with smiles and open arms and befriend us, it means the world to me," he says.

The flag began with a few veterans in the VA's compensated-work-therapy program and has expanded to more than a dozen, plus volunteers, says project coordinator Rochelle Fabb. She notes the parallel between the flag and the veterans: The workers are reclaiming the flag's strawberries, and the veterans are reclaiming their lives.

"For me, it's been about the people and the rejuvenation that I've seen," she says.

•For a virtual tour of the Strawberry Flag, visit

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Nature aids vets' healing

Army Spc. Brett Wolf is one of those sportsmen who says hunting is about relaxing and hanging with other hunters, not just bagging a prize.

Still, he gleefully describes the spoils of his Halloween weekend hunt in Texas Hill Country: a wild hog – the first he'd ever seen – and a 200-pound whitetail buck. No matter that the terrain was rough on his wheelchair, or that his shooting arm has been operated on three times in 18 months.

Wolf, 26, lost both legs above the knee and suffered head and elbow injuries in Iraq when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded under his Humvee on Sept. 11, 2007.

"Just because you can't walk around and do everything everybody else can, it doesn't mean you don't need to go and still enjoy yourself," he says.

Like many veterans hurt in Iraq or Afghanistan, Wolf is turning to rugged activities such as hunting and fishing to help heal physical and mental wounds. Groups such as the Armed Forces Foundation organize outings to get a growing number of veterans out of hospitals and sterile rehabilitation centers and into the therapeutic embrace of nature.

"There definitely has been a surge" in the number of programs and participation by veterans, says Patricia Driscoll, president of the Armed Forces Foundation. Outdoor activities help them cope with challenges from amputations and post-traumatic stress disorder to social isolation, she says.

Her group's programs are gaining popularity as hunting ranches offer free services, she says. Special equipment, such as hydraulic hunting stands that move up and down and accommodate wheelchairs, helps hunters overcome physical limitations.

"These guys start out very glum. They think, 'I can't do this. I'm not the way I used to be,' " Driscoll says. "Once we get them out there, they realize, 'I can still do this. This is exciting.' You just see their whole attitude change."

Sandy Trombetta, program director at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Grand Junction, Colo., has been working with disabled veterans outdoors for 30 years. He is director of the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.

Rafting, fishing, hiking and skiing provide exercise, fresh air, weight control and other benefits, he says. "It's health care outside of the hospital."

Wolf grew up on a Missouri farm, fishing and enjoying his favorite pastime, hunting.

Last weekend, he joined an Armed Forces Foundation group on a hunt at RecordBuck Ranch, west of San Antonio. Hunting can be physically taxing. He describes a previous outing when he climbed 10 feet up into a deer blind – a camouflaged structure – using prosthetic legs but he says the benefits are mostly mental.

William White, 48, of Southport, N.C., lost his 23-year-old son, Christopher Neal White, in Iraq in 2006. He decided to memorialize him by buying 170 acres in Farmington, Mo., naming it Chris Neal Farm and dedicating it to wounded vets.

White believes the best healing comes after the deer and turkey hunts he hosts for wounded veterans, when they gather around the campfire to share experiences – "the camaraderie of being together, of being able to discuss some of the issues in their lives, being able to forget what's going on."

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing has taken 2,000 disabled veterans fishing since 2005, founder Ed Nicholson says.

Fishing gives injured veterans an alternative to alcohol or other destructive behavior, says program manager David Folkerts, who uses a customized reel that allows him to cast and crank with one arm and one hand. Shrapnel from an IED in Iraq caused nerve and artery damage in his left arm.

"It played a big part in changing my mind-set from thinking about all the things I couldn't do to thinking about all the things I could do," he says.

Army Sgt. Keniel Martinez, 27, struggled with nightmares and panic attacks after returning from a tour in Iraq in 2006. A motorcycle accident last December tore all the ligaments in both of his knees.

Last month, he went fly-fishing with Healing Waters on the western shore of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. He hooked a rockfish, but it got away.

He says fly-fishing practice got him out of his hospital room and helped his body – and his mind – heal.

"They're teaching us to be independent again," he says. "My self-confidence has definitely gotten a boost out of it."

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Spinal injuries up among troops

By Dima Gavrysh, AP
A U.S. soldier unloads 50-caliber rounds from an MRAP vehicle after an IED attack in Wardak province on Aug. 3 in Afghanistan.

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — Afghan insurgents are using roadside bombs powerful enough to throw the military's new 14-ton, blast-resistant vehicles into the air, increasing broken-back injuries among U.S. troops.

Doctors at the U.S. military hospital here say more than 100 U.S. servicemembers have suffered crushed or damaged spinal columns from being thrown around inside armored Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles in the last five months.

This "significant increase" in spinal injuries was not seen in the Iraq war, says Air Force Col. Warren Dorlac, director of trauma care for both conflicts. One in five wounded service members evacuated from Afghanistan this summer and early fall suffered a spinal injury and at least 14 were left paralyzed or with loss of sensation, says Air Force Lt. Col. Dustin Zierold, a surgeon and the hospital's director of trauma care.

"Whatever the G-force (of the roadside bombs), it is very high and very destructive," Zierold says.

Medical officials here are concerned about whether seating, harnesses and flooring in MRAPs adequately absorb the force of blasts, Zierold says. He says a doctor in Kandahar is trying to design a seat that would guard against spinal injuries.

More research is needed to improve seating and flooring designs, said Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Brogan, director of the Pentagon's MRAP program. "In future vehicles, that will be the key to survivability," he says.

The MRAPs are the military's chief response to the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops in Iraq and now in Afghanistan — roadside bombs. More than 3,500 of the $1.4 million vehicles are in Afghanistan. Brogan said that insurgents are building larger bombs to overcome the MRAP's armor and the V-shaped hull, which carries the force of an explosion away from the center of the vehicle.

In Afghanistan, fewer paved roads make it easier for insurgents to bury large explosives that can launch these heavy vehicles several feet into the air, Army commanders and doctors say.

A lighter, all-terrain MRAP version arrived in Afghanistan last month with improved shock-absorbing seating and more complex harness designs, Brogan says.

Doctors here are gathering data matching spinal injuries with vehicle types, position of the occupant, surgical treatment that followed, incidence of paralysis and other factors. They are giving the data to engineers to help improve designs, Zierold says.

Air Force Reserve Col. Paul Dwan, a neurosurgeon here, held up his forefinger and thumb in the shape of a flattened letter "C" illustrating how the service member's back is affected by the blast inside the MRAP. "They getting clammed up, they're getting scrunched down," Dwan says. Insurgents are " using bigger IEDs (improvised explosive devices). We're seeing the nature of the injuries change."

The back injury is "like bending a stick by pushing at both ends toward the middle," Zierold says. "The stick first bends, then will break."

In addition to spinal injuries, physical damage often includes shattered bones in the feet and ankles, and a concussion from the servicemember's head hitting the MRAP ceiling, say Dwan and Zierold. In some cases, soldiers and Marines are being blown out of their harnesses by the blast.

Brogan says MRAPS have saved countless lives, but as bombs get bigger, unanticipated problems arise. He says that improved seating, harnesses and flooring can mitigate the bomb affect to some degree. But, "eventually armor loses. … You can only build so much defense and eventually, with enough explosive, it can be overcome."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Sending care packages to the U.S. Military

<<<< class="wrap">

We thank you for keeping us in your thoughts

Posted: 10-14-2009

I wanted to thank you very much for the care package I received from you. From the DVD to the lotion, Beef Jerky, snacks and everything else, it was all a welcome and appreciated treat that I as well as others appreciate. We thank yo ...Read More

Contact Us

For general information: or
Media Inquiries:
For product donation information:
For product delivery information:
For financial donation information:
For volunteer information:
For Girl Scout Cookie information:
To request a speaker:
Report website problems: or
Phone Information: 818-909-0039
Operation Gratitude
16444 Refugio Road
Encino, California 91436 USA



TRICARE Offers New and Improved Pharmacy Benefits

Nov. 3, 2009

FALLS CHURCH, Va. – The TRICARE Management Activity is introducing significant new enhancements to beneficiaries as it combines its mail-order and retail pharmacy contracts into one new contract called TRICARE Pharmacy.

The improvements to the TRICARE Pharmacy program include the Specialty Medication Care Management program in the mail-order pharmacy; expansion of the Member Choice Center providing assistance to help beneficiaries to switch their military treatment facility prescriptions to mail-order; and one call center phone number: 1-877-363-1303.

To view the full release, please visit:

About TRICARE Management Activity and the Military Health System
TRICARE Management Activity, the Defense Department activity that administers the health care plan for the uniformed services, retirees and their families, serves more than 9.5 million eligible beneficiaries worldwide in the Military Health System (MHS). The mission of the MHS is to enhance Department of Defense and national security by providing health support for the full range of military operations. The MHS provides quality medical care through a network of providers, military treatment facilities, medical clinics and dental clinics worldwide.

Bill to ease residency hassles for military spouses

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress on Monday sent President Obama a bill that allows military spouses to claim residency in the same state as their wives or husbands.

Under current law, servicemembers can choose to keep their original residency as they relocate.

Spouses who lobbied for the change said having that same right would prevent hassles associated with every move, such as obtaining a new driver's license and reregistering to vote. In some cases, it also eliminates the need for couples to file separate tax returns and lowers the income taxes that some spouses pay.

Moving is a ritual repeated nearly every three years on average for military families.

The House passed the legislation on a voice vote. Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, a bill sponsor who represents Fort Hood, said it would give "invaluable relief to numerous military spouses who regularly uproot their entire lives to accommodate our Armed Forces."

Carter said in a statement that he expects Obama to sign the legislation into law in the next few days.

The legislation had already won approval in the Senate, where it was sponsored by Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill's financial impact would be minimal.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

You saw this on TV and in the Newspapers, right????

This was the largest re-enlistment ceremony ever held in military history. The ceremony was held on the 4th of July, 2008 at Al Faw Palace, Baghdad , Iraq . General David Petraeus officiated. This amazing story was ignored by the 'mainstream' media.

For those who have been in the Al Faw Palace, you'll have a better appreciation of the number of people crammed around the rotunda supporting the re-enlisting soldiers.

American men and women volunteering to stay longer in Iraq, so that when we leave, the new democracy will have a chance of surviving, is the exact opposite of what the media wants you to think about Iraq. If only a bomb had killed 5 civilians in a marketplace - now that's the kind of news the media is eager to tell you about.

A pizzeria in Chicago donated 2000 pizzas that were made and shipped to Baghdad , and were delivered on the 4th.

The media did report that 2000 pizzas were sent to Iraq on July 4th... The only part they left out of the report was the event for which the pizzas were sent.

I can't help but wonder...

What would the opinion of Americans be if they weren't getting such obviously biased 'news?'

Pass this on and we will do the work for the Media.

My Kind of Girl