Military Veteran, Now a Congressman, Fighting Veteran Suicides

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U.S. Congressman Brian Mast (R-FL) has seen, first-hand, the impact that war can have on soldiers returning home.

The military veteran served as an explosive ordnance disposal technician with the elite 28th Ordnance Company in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. On September 19, 2010, while clearing a path for United States Army Rangers in Kandahar, Mast took a wrong step into an IED along the road. The explosion resulted in the amputation of both his legs and one of his fingers

Mast is committed to doing all that he can to increase mental health resources for veterans and to reduce veteran suicide rates. To that end, he is promoting the unique idea of a pledge to combat suicide among the nation’s veterans.

Troops leaving the service could take a voluntary oath to “to preserve the values I have learned, to maintain my body and my mind, and to not bring harm to myself without speaking to my fellow veterans first.”

The “Oath of Exit” passed the U.S. House of Representatives on July 14th as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. Part of the pledge would also commit troops who are being discharged to “continue to be the keeper of my brothers- and sisters-in-arms” in addition to the United States and the Constitution.

After his injury and during his recovery, Mast’s father was the one who inspired him by telling him to ensure that the greatest service he gives to the country is still ahead of him.

After his retirement from the Army, he continued working in counter-terrorism and national defense as an Explosive Specialist with the Department of Homeland Security.

His service now continues in the political arena.

Mast is in his first term representing the 18th Congressional District of Florida.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Veterans: What You Need to Know About Glaucoma and Cataracts

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By Debbie Gregory.

Two recent studies reveal that the rate of eye disease may be increasing in the VA system.

One study showed that VA patients with serious mental illness have an even higher rate of dry eye, cataract and glaucoma than the general veteran population. Both glaucoma and cataract are leading causes of blindness worldwide.

The other study found that the rate of eye disease, specifically glaucoma and cataract, increased in veterans 50 years old and up.

Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases in which the optic nerve, a bundle of over 1 million nerves that convey vision from the eye to the brain, slowly becomes damaged over time. In many cases, blood flow to the optic nerve is reduced, and may be further reduced by increased fluid pressure inside the eyes slowly rising, leading to vision loss or even blindness. Glaucoma usually starts without any symptoms.

Because there are no symptoms of the disease early on, eye screening is needed to detect it. However, if the disease is caught early, treatment can prevent vision loss.

African-American Veterans should especially get their eyes checked regularly as glaucoma is six-to-eight times more common in African-Americans than Caucasians. Also, among Hispanic populations, Glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness.

Cataracts happen when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy over time. This happens in all individuals with aging, and it is estimated that half of all people age 80 or older will have had cataract surgery or need cataract surgery.

Cataract symptoms include blurriness of vision at distance, or glare that may be most bothersome when driving at night. Diabetics or those on long-term steroids for medical conditions may develop cataracts earlier in life. Cataracts can be removed with a relatively simple surgery that often takes 20 minutes or less.

VA patients, particularly those in high-risk groups, should get eye exam screenings to identify any eye problems as early as possible.

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Retired Soldier Blasts Canada for Payout to Ex-Gitmo Detainee

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By Debbie Gregory.

A former Guantanamo Bay prisoner who killed a U.S. soldier and injured another in Afghanistan recently received an apology and an $8 million check from the Canadian government.

Retired U.S. Special Forces soldier Layne Morris was blinded by a grenade thrown by Canadian-born Omar Khadr during a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002.

“I don’t see this as anything but treason,” Morris said. “It’s something a traitor would do. As far as I am concerned, Prime Minister Trudeau should be charged.”

Khadr was 15 years old when he was captured by U.S. forces following a firefight that cost Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer his life and Morris the sight in one eye.Khadr had accompanied his al Qaeda fighter father to Afghanistan. He was convicted of killing Speer in 2010 by a U.S. military commission

Morris has always maintained that Khadr threw the grenade that wounded him as well.

Khadr was allowed to return to Canada two years after his conviction to serve out the remainder of his sentence there, but was released in May 2015 pending an appeal.

Now it appears that Khadr, who is now 30, will receive a formal apology as well as an $8 million settlement from the Canadian government for allegedly conspiring with the U.S. to violate his constitutional rights.

The Canadian Supreme Court ruled twice — the first time in 2010 — that Khadr had been interrogated  under “oppressive circumstances” at Guantanamo and that Canadian officials were complicit in his mistreatment. An anonymous source familiar with the case told the Canadian Press wire service that the Trudeau government wanted to “get ahead of an attempt by [Morris] and [Speer] to enforce a massive U.S. court award against Khadr in Canadian court.”

Trudeau recently defended the deal saying, “When the government violates any Canadian’s charter rights, we all end up paying for it.”

Lawyers for Morris and Speer’s widow, Tabitha Speer, will ask a Canadian court for an urgent order to have Khadr’s payout frozen pending the outcome of a request to recognize a 2015 $134.1-million US Utah judgment against Khadr.

What do you think?

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Linkin Park Frontman and Vet Advocate Chester Bennington Dies in Apparent Suicide

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By Debbie Gregory.

Chester Bennington was one of those guys: enormously talented but deeply troubled. The 41-year-old father of six struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, and had previously talked about suicide as the result of childhood trauma and abuse.

Linkin Park bandmate Mike Shinoda said that the band had always felt “a special bond with the military.”

In 2014, the band teamed up with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America to call attention to the suicide crisis that dramatically affects American service members and veterans.

“It is an honor to meet with you guys, the men and women of the armed forces, who protect our freedom every day,” Bennington told fans during a performance in Denver during the band’s Carnivores tour. “The greatest country in the world and it’s because of men and women who go out and risk their lives for all of us … no matter who we are or what we believe in.”

To give a startling visual impact, the group displayed 22 American flags to symbolize the estimated number of U.S. veterans who take their own lives on a daily basis.

Bennington’s death occurred on what would have been his good friend Chris Cornell’s 53rd birthday. Cornell, best known as the lead vocalist for the rock bands Soundgarden and Audioslave, committed suicide on May 18th.

“My whole life, I’ve just felt a little off,” Bennington said in an interview. “I find myself getting into these patterns of behavior or thought – especially when I’m stuck up here [in my head]; I like to say that ‘this is like a bad neighborhood, and I should not go walking alone.’”

Our sincere condolences go out to Bennington’s wife Talinda Bentley and his six children.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Is Colonel “Big Nasty” Too Much of a Hardass?

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By Debbie Gregory.

The Arizona National Guard is trying to oust one of its top officers, Col. Christopher Lambesis, based on charges that he has been insubordinate, as well as a toxic leader who committed and communicated threats to the state’s military commander, Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire.

Col. Lambesis, nicknamed “Big Nasty,” has been accused by his superiors of being too much of a hardass.

With his 24-year Army career on the line, the combat veteran with two Bronze Stars contends the case against him is really about his complaints of improper promotions, unethical leadership and inaccurate data that could endanger troops scheduled for deployment.

Col. Lambesis said he found evidence that many Guard units, soldiers, and airmen had falsified readiness documentation, calling into question their skill certifications and fitness evaluations.

As recent as February 2016, Lambesis was promoted to O6, running operations and training for Arizona’s 8,300 part- and full-time guardsmen.

But by October, he was being shown the door.

At age 49, Lambesis is an imposing figure with a shaved head and starched uniform — an officer who greets people with direct eye contact and a firm grip.

“He has a very rigid picture of what an effective leader looks like, and that picture is Chris Lambesis,” one junior officer told investigators.

In a written statement, the National Guard said Lambesis came under investigation last year when several subordinates lodged complaints alleging the colonel “was a toxic leader and a bully who created a hostile work environment.”

Those charges, and other accusations of hostility, led an administrative tribunal to discharge Lambesis honorably from full-time duty. He is now a “weekend warrior,” being told to drill part-time, or retire his commission.

But Lambesis is not giving up, and he still wants an independent investigation.

“We’re taught to hunker down and take on the charge,” he said. “I’ve been under fire in the fox hole, basically shooting at anything that jingles my wire for the past year. … I believe the institution of the Army is at risk.”

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Proposal to Cut Housing Stipends For Dual-Military Couples

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By Debbie Gregory.

When it comes to finding ways to save money, the last place Congress should look is at military families, especially when both spouses are active duty service members.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is considering a proposal that would require dual military couples to receive Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) stipends at the “without dependents” rate, regardless as to whether or not they have children.

Currently, dual military couples without dependents each receive their respective BAH.  In dual military families with dependents, the higher ranking service member receives BAH at the with-dependent rate and the lower ranking service member receives BAH at the without-dependent rate.

The BAH allowance is determined by geographic duty location, pay grade, and dependency status. It provides uniformed Service members equitable housing compensation based on housing costs in local civilian housing markets within the United States when government quarters are not provided. For servicemembers stationed outside the U.S. who are not furnished with government housing, there is Overseas Housing Allowance (OHA).

If enacted, this change would affect approximately 6.4% of active duty service members in dual-military marriages.

The proposed plan would save roughly $300 million over the next five years.

The Senate believes that the current BAH is too high, since the payout rates are typically higher than the cost of living in the areas where service members are stationed. But the Pentagon argues that BAH is a necessary part of military family compensation.

“While there would be some monetary savings in the BAH program achieved through implementation of a limitation of BAH payments for dual-military couples, the department objects to any limitation based solely on housing or marriage choices,” a DoD spokeswoman said.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Should Ex-Army Officer Serving Prison Sentence Be Freed?

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By Debbie Gregory.

Ex-Army officer Clint Lorance is serving a 19-year prison sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for his role in the slayings of two unarmed Afghans.

In July 2012, Lorance found himself newly installed as the leader of a combat platoon in Afghanistan. Just three days into his tenure, three Afghan men on a single motorcycle approached his platoon’s position. A rifleman called out the threat and fired, but missed. Based on the rifleman’s threat assessment, Lorance radioed troops stationed in a nearby watch position to open fire. Two of the Afghan men were killed, while the third escaped.

In 2013, a court-martial jury found the 32-year-old Oklahoma native guilty of two counts of second-degree murder after nine members of the platoon he’d led in Afghanistan testified against him at his trial.

A campaign to free Lorance includes retired Army lieutenant colonel and former congressman Allen West, Marine veteran and Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, and talk show host Sean Hannity. They contend that Lorance is the victim of a miscarriage of justice.

Was Lorance a hero who did what he believed was necessary to bring his men home alive or an

overzealous leader who was eager to get his hands?

One point that Lorance’s critics and supporters can agree on is that he was deeply suspicious of the local population. Whether Lorance was justified in addressing that perceived threat with violence is the question at the heart of his case.

No weapons were found on the two dead Afghans.

Lorance remains publicly optimistic, and he and his supporters have made it clear that the fight for his exoneration will continue.

Functioning in a combat zone requires rapid decision-making in situations with low or poor information. Making the wrong call can be dangerous, even deadly, for an officer and his men.

Did Lorance make the right call? What do you think?

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Female Wounded Warrior BadAss Makes Cover of ESPN

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By Debbie Gregory.

On June 23, 2012, Kirstie Ennis was critically injured in a helicopter crash while serving as an aerial door gunner in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Just six years into her planned 20 year career, the young Marine suffered a traumatic brain injury and severe damage to her face, spine, left leg and shoulders.

The wounded warrior is not one to let setbacks stand in her way. In spite of having endured 44 surgeries, including the above knee amputation of her left leg, the all-around “badass” recently made the cover of ESPN Magazine’s annual Body Issue, the first veteran to grace its cover.

Produced each year, the special Body Issue features nude and semi-nude photos of male and female athletes from all sports.

Ennis posted a photo of the new cover on her Instagram, saying, “If a little one-legged lady can climb rocks and chase mountains, I promise you, you can do whatever it is your heart desires.”

She added, “Any man, woman, or child facing some sort of adversity has a potential to be inspired by these pictures and seeing somebody who only has been missing their leg for a few years go out and do things that she wasn’t doing with two legs.”

A lifelong athlete, Ennis completed Prince Harry’s Walking with the Wounded charity event, where she and a group of fellow veterans walked 1,000 miles, starting in Northern Scotland, stopping in Wales, and finishing in London.

Ennis also competed in the 2016 Invictus Games, and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro this past April, one of the first female above-the-knee amputees to ever do so.

“Forty-four surgeries, years of therapies, years of learning how to use my brain and body again, but I’ve yet to let it beat me down.”

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Women Veterans Summit Registration Now Open

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By Debbie Gregory.

It’s been six years since the VA held its last national-level event for women veterans, and a lot has changed since 2011.

Registration is now open for the Women Veterans Summit, which will take place at the Hyatt Regency Downtown in Houston, Texas, August 25-26, with an opening reception on August. 24. Focusing on the issues important to women veterans, the event will provide training and guidance in navigating VA resources, as well as the resources that are available at the state, local, and partner level.

One of the keynote speakers, Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho (Ret.) was the first woman and first nurse to serve as the Army’s surgeon general.

Additional speakers will include senior VA leaders who will be on hand to share information regarding employment, mental health, entrepreneurship, military sexual trauma, reproductive health, culture change and more.

Who should attend? Of course, women veterans, but also public sector partners, including military, federal, state and local agencies; Veterans service organizations, non-profits that serve this populations; academics; representatives and corporations from the tech industry; community partners; and VA employees, including women Veteran program managers and women Veteran coordinators

To keep current on the event, there is a dedicated summit webpage for updates. For more information, read the VA VAntage Point Blog or Register for the Summit.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Names Released of the Servicemembers Killed in Crash

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By Debbie Gregory.

The Marine Corps has identified the 15 Marines and one sailor who were killed when their Marine KC-130T tanker-transport aircraft crashed in the Mississippi Delta.

The plane was carrying seven members of the Marines’ elite special operations 2nd Raider Battalion, including six Marine commandos and a Navy hospital corpsman attached to the unit stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The other nine killed in the crash were crewmembers from the Marine Aerial Refueling and Transport Squadron 452, Marine Air Group 49, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, N.Y.

Early indications in the crash investigation point to some type of massive mechanical failure while the four-engine cargo aircraft was at cruising altitude. Eyewitness said they saw the plane break apart in midair before crashing in a field in western Mississippi.

The 16 brave men who perished were:

  • Daniel Baldassare: The 20-year-old fixed wing aircraft crew master was from New Jersey He joined the Marine Corps in 2015 and had yet to deploy. The active duty Marine had earned a Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and a National Defense Service Medal.
  • Staff Sgt. Robert H. Cox: The 28-year-old from Ventura, CA, joined the Marine Corps in 2007. He held the job of critical skills operator, the standard title for a Marine who has completed the months-long pipeline to become a Marine Raider. The active duty Marine earned two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals; Combat Action Ribbon; Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal; Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal; three Sea Service Deployment Ribbons; two Afghanistan Campaign Medals; two Armed Forces Reserve Medals; Iraq Campaign Medal; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and other awards.
  • Sean E. Elliott: The 30-year-old aircraft commander from Orange County, CA joined the Marine Corps in 2009. The active-duty Marine earned a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal, two Sea Service Deployment Ribbons, Korean Defense Service Medal, two Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medals, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and National Defense Service Medal.
  • Caine Goyette: The 41-year-old active-duty Marine was the highest ranking service member aboard the plane. He earned numerous awards, including three Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, four Sea Service Deployment Ribbons, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Marine Corps Recruiting Ribbon, two Humanitarian Service Medals, and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
  • Gunnery Sgt. Mark A. Hopkins: The 30-year-old tactical systems operator and mission specialist was from Chesapeake, VA., and served in the Marine Corps since 2001. The active-duty Marine earned the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal; two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals; five Marine Corps Good Conduct Medals; a Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal; four Sea Service Deployment Ribbons; four Humanitarian Service Medals; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and numerous other awards.
  • Chad E. Jenson: The 25-year-old Marine Raider from Los Angeles joined the Marine Corps in 2010 and picked up the rank of sergeant in just over four years, an impressive achievement for any enlisted member of the military. The active-duty Marine earned the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation and other awards.
  • Gunnery Sgt. Brendan C. Johnson: The 46-year-old fixed wing aircraft crew master was from Chittenden, VT. He had served in the Marine Corps since 1994. Johnson earned three Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals; Air Medal-Strike/Flight; four Marine Corps Good Conduct Medals; two Armed Forces Reserve Medals; three Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medals; two Sea Service Deployment Ribbons; Iraq Campaign Medal; Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; two National Defense Service Medals and more than a dozen other awards.
  • Julian M. Kevianne: The 31-year-old fixed wing aircraft crew master was a Detroit native who joined the Marine Corps in 2009. He earned two Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medals, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon; Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal; Armed Forces Reserve Medal; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and a National Defense Service Medal.
  • Staff Sgt. William J. Kundrat: The 33-year-old critical skills operator from Frederick, MD was the most senior Marine Raider aboard the plane. The active-duty Marine earned the Defense Meritorious Service Medal; Combat Action Ribbon; four Sea Service Deployment Ribbons; four Marine Corps Good Conduct Medals; three Afghanistan Campaign Medals; five Iraq Campaign Medals; Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; and numerous other awards.
  • Talon R. Leach: The 27-year-old Marine Raider from Callaway, Mo., joined the Marine Corps in 2010.The active-duty Marine earned the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal; Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal; Sea Service Deployment Ribbon; two Marine Corps Good Conduct Medals; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation and other awards.
  • Owen J. Lennon: The 26-year-old fixed wing aircraft crew master from Rockland County, N.Y., joined the Marine Corps in 2010. He earned two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal; Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medal; Sea Service Deployment Ribbon; Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; Armed Forces Reserve Medal; and a National Defense Service Medal.
  • Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan M. Lohrey: The 30-year-old sailor was a special amphibious reconnaissance corpsman, a coveted class of sailors with special training to help their wounded comrades in some of the most austere conditions. Before joining 2nd Raider Battalion, Lohrey did time with Marine Recon units where he earned a reputation in Afghanistan as being one of the best in his field.. Hailing from Middletown, IN, the active-duty sailor earned a Purple Heart; two Combat Action Ribbons; three Good Conduct Medals; two Sea Service Deployment Ribbons; Afghanistan Campaign Medal; Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal; NATO Medal; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal and other awards.
  • Joseph J. Murray: The 26-year-old Marine Raider was from Duval, FL. The active-duty Marine earned three Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals; Combat Action Ribbon; two Marine Corps Good Conduct Medals; two Sea Service Deployment Ribbons; two Afghanistan Campaign Medals; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal and other awards.
  • Collin J. Schaaff: The 22-year-old aircraft ordnance technician was from Pierce, WA. He joined the Marine Corps in 2013 and had yet to deploy. The active-duty Marine had earned a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; and National Defense Service Medal.
  • Dietrich A. Schmieman: The 26-year-old critical skills operator from Benton, Wash., joined the Marine Corps in 2010. The Marine Raider earned two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals; two Marine Corps Good Conduct Medals; three Sea Service Deployment Ribbons; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation and other awards.
  • Staff Sgt. Joshua M. Snowden: The 31-year-old fixed wing aircraft crew master was from Dallas, TX and joined the Marine Corps in 2004. The active reserve Marine earned the Navy and Marine Corps achievement medal; Air Medal-Strike/Flight; Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal; Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal; Sea Service Deployment Ribbon; two Armed Forces Reserve Medals; Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal; three Selected Marine Corps Reserve Medals; Global War on Terrorism Service Medal; National Defense Service Medal and others.

Our heartfelt condolences go out to the families of these brave men.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.