Manes and Reins: A Gold Star Sister’s Journey to Healing

Manes and Reins:  A Gold Star Sister’s Journey to Healing

By guest contributor Renee Nickell

I had heard the term PTSD as it related to war heroes, but I did not know much about its impacts on civilians. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental affliction that can cause one to be hyper-vigilant, aggressive, easily angered, subjected to nightmares, depression, anxiety and more. After my brother, Major Samuel Griffith, was suddenly and tragically killed in Afghanistan, I did not even realize I, personally, had PTSD.

After several years of traditional therapy without much improvement, I decided to pursue equine therapy. With the assistance of trained therapists who help military and combat veterans and their families heal from the effects of PTSD, I was able to face my own level of PTSD after years of struggling.

Horses are capable of mirroring human emotion, allowing the patient to become more self-aware when feelings cannot easily be put into words. While I was skeptical in the beginning of therapy, the connection with the horse quickly brought comfort I hadn’t found anywhere else.  I must admit: I was absolutely terrified at the start of my journey. I did not know what to expect from the horses or the sessions, and for me, that was scary. Over time, the bond that is formed with your gentle giant increases your confidence and ability to face painful circumstances in far less time than traditional therapy.

Equine therapy is now being used to treat various forms of illness, disabilities and medical conditions to include diabetes, autism, blindness, epilepsy, addictions and more.  Horses do not have the ability to lie, therefore, the patient cannot manipulate the horse beyond its true feelings. This is extremely beneficial when building trust between the patient and the horse.

Gold Star siblings, in general, tend to place our grief on the back burner so that we may help support the surviving spouse or our parents through the grieving process.  While each member of the family deals with their own grief separately, a sibling often postpones their grief, sometimes for years. This delay is to the detriment of the sibling and the family unit around them.  PTSD can last for years, even decades. I have spoken to siblings whose brothers were killed in Vietnam and there is still a level of PTSD.

Not only did I suffer from PTSD, but my teenage daughter did as well.  The day my brother was killed, she stepped into my role. The trauma was debilitating for me and it was my daughter that helped take care of everything that day, including protecting her younger siblings from the impact of the news.  The weeks after, from retrieving his body at Dover to the funeral and then trying to resume somewhat of a normal life, was incredibly traumatic for all of us.

Our family is fortunate that we were able to find the necessary help to move us forward in our grief journey. Not only myself, but my veteran husband and my daughter benefited from equine therapy. We were able to heal as a family and face issues from the past that otherwise weren’t being addressed. We are not talking about playing with horses here! Equine therapy is a lot of hard work and deep soul searching. It can be quite painful to face the things we long to forget, even childhood traumas.  This is why it is so important to find a reputable equine therapist who is skilled in treating PTSD and other mental health disorders.

There are many organizations that are non-profit and will assist a veteran and family for free or low-cost.  Many even take Tricare insurance. If you or a loved one struggle with PTSD and feel you can benefit from equine therapy, I would recommend searching your area for licensed equine therapists.  We are now in a 17-year war with countless veterans suffering from PTSD, and there are many organizations that are ready and willing to help them recover to live as best a normal and peaceful life as possible.

Sam cockpit

(Major Samuel Griffith, USMC, was an F/A-18 aviator and Forward Air Controller.  

He was killed December 14, 2011, in the Helmand Province, Afghanistan in support of OEF.)

Author Headshot

Renee Nickell is the author of “Always My Hero: The Road to Hope & Healing Following 

Her Brother’s Death in Afghanistan.” For more about Renee, go to

Pilots Can Control Multiple Simulated Aircraft Telepathically

Pilots Can Control Multiple Simulated Aircraft Telepathically

Contributed by Debbie Gregory

For the first time ever, the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced that it has demonstrated the use of telepathic thought from a human brain embedded with a specific kind of computer chip that allows a person to command and control simultaneously three types of drone aircraft by mental thoughts while watching the drones on a screen, as demonstrated in a DARPA simulator.

DARPA’s  interface enables a person to control everything from a swarm of drones to an advanced fighter jet using nothing but their thoughts and the special brain chip.

“As of today, signals from the brain can be used to command and control … not just one aircraft but three simultaneous types of aircraft,” said Justin Sanchez, who directs DARPA’s biological technology office, at the Agency’s 60th-anniversary event in Maryland.

The military has been leading interesting research in the field since at least 2007. A 2012 grant provided DARPA with $4 million to build a non-invasive “synthetic telepathy” interface that uses a skin-tight cap loaded with electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors to pick up electrical signals in the user’s brain’s motor centers.

In 2015, the technology enabled a paralyzed woman to steer a virtual F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with only a small, surgically-implantable microchip. In the last three years, the technology has further advanced.

“We’ve scaled it to three [aircraft], and have full sensory [signals] coming back. So you can have those other planes out in the environment and then be detecting something and send that signal back into the brain,” said Sanchez.  

This is another step forward in the rapidly advancing field of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) for a variety of purposes, including brain-based communication, control of prosthetic limbs, and even memory repair.

The technology has led to the development of the Luke arm, a prosthetic arm that connects to the motor cortex and functions like an actual biological arm. It has received FDA approval, and is going to be available for anyone who has suffered an amputation.

An Overview of the Post 9/11 GI Bill…

An Overview of the Post 9/11 GI Bill…

Contributed by Debbie Gregory

Since 1944, the GI Bill has helped millions of Veterans pay for college, graduate school, and training programs. Under this bill, qualifying Veterans and their family members can get money to cover all or some of the costs for school or training.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides education benefits for those who have served on active duty for 90 or more days after Sept. 10, 2001. The payment rate depends on how much active duty time a member has accrued.

Post-9/11 GI Bill tuition and housing allowance payments are based on the amount of creditable active-duty service after Sept. 10, 2001. Veterans who have been discharged for disability after at least 30 days of active duty automatically receive the 100% benefit tier. Active duty time for the Post-9/11 GI Bill can also include Title 10 mobilizations and some title 32 duty for reservists & guard members.

The GI Bills pays tuition and fees and provides a monthly housing allowance. The monthly Housing Allowance is based on the ZIP code of the location of the school, not the home ZIP code. This stipend averages $1,681 a month, but can exceed $2,700 depending on the location of the school. Students taking 100% of their courses online are eligible for a monthly stipend equal to half of the national average stipend, which is currently $825.

The GI Bill also provides for a stipend for books and supplies of up to $1,000 and gives veterans the opportunity to transfer their education benefits to their spouses or their children.

The newest version of the GI Bill, called the The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act (also known as the “Forever GI Bill”), was signed into law on August 17, 2017, and brings significant changes to Veterans’ education benefits over the next few years. The info sheet on the new version of the GI Bill can be found at the VA’s website.


AI May Enhance Tradecraft, Prevent Geopolitical Surprises

AI May Enhance Tradecraft, Prevent Geopolitical Surprises Says Military’s Top Spy

Contributed by Debbie Gregory

Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley Jr., the Pentagon’s “top spy,” hopes advances in artificial intelligence (AI) can get a jump on global conflicts when they ignite overnight.

“My core mission is to make sure that the secretary of defense is never surprised,” said Ashley.

Ashley became the 21st Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency on October 3, 2017. He formerly served as the Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-2, where he was the senior advisor to the Secretary of the Army and Army Chief of Staff for all aspects of intelligence, counterintelligence and security.

“AI and machine learning will be a huge enhancement” to tradecraft and other skills defense analysts use to avoid blind spots,” he said.

Using algorithms to sort through massive amounts of information can take some of the burden off defense analysts, but it doesn’t come without challenges, Ashley said.

“We look very closely at the technology development. Obviously, there’s some breakout things — we watch the AI side of the house, the hypersonics, counter-space, [and] what they’re doing with regard to subs, if you’re following the maritime piece of that as well,” he said. “They’re in the trials for their first carrier. They got an old one from the Russians; now they’re building their own.”

“When an analyst sits in front of a senior leader, they always say, ‘Based on reporting, based on sources, based on what I have seen I have a moderate [degree of confidence]’ or if you see a national assessment that says ‘I have a high-degree of confidence,’ it goes back to sourcing and analytic tradecraft,” he said.

“You never want to be in a position where you say, ‘Well, the computer told me so,'” he continued. “Part of the challenge we have now, and I think really the opportunity is, as we look at algorithms, as we look at machine learning and AI, is developing a degree of confidence within the AI, a degree of confidence within the algorithm.”

DIA will have to test these algorithms “to be able to prove that it can in fact come back with a high-degree of confidence that the analysis that it’s doing is correct,” Ashley added.

Ashley wants to ensure that the Machine-assisted Analytic Rapid-repository System, or MARS, is at initial operating capability before he leaves office in two years. MARS will take advantage of modern technologies in storage, cloud computing and machine learning to allow analysts to interact with data and information in a more dynamic fashion, rather than static.


Petition Calls Out Moving Industry on PCS Issues

Petition Calls Out Moving Industry on PCS Issues

Petition Calls Out Moving Industry on PCS Issues

Contributed by Debbie Gregory

Every year thousands of military service members and their families pack up and move on military orders. All of their valuables and household goods are packed up by contracted strangers, loaded onto a truck and driven across country. In a perfect world, everything would arrive at its destination, in the same condition it was in when it left. But a petition to “Hold Military Moving Companies Accountable,” started by a frustrated military family member, has over 100,000 signatures, a good indication that this is far from reality.

The story behind the petition is easy enough to figure out. With $2.3 billion spent on moving services, the Department of Defense might just be the single largest moving services customer in the world.

Many military families on the move have experienced hardships because of unexpected delays in pickup or delivery of their household goods. In late July, U.S. Transportation Command officials said about 10 percent of military members who had moved at that point had experienced delivery delays. There have been complaints about the quality of work, too, which has resulted in loss and damage for some families.

“Military families are tired of how things with the current moving system are being handled,” wrote the military spouse who runs the Military Spouse Chronicles Facebook page, in initiating the petition

Moving is a stressful activity under the best of circumstances. Officials at U.S. Transportation Command have urged families to reach out to their household goods/transportation offices to learn about their options for assistance, including reimbursement for expenses caused by delays in delivery or pickup.

Among the suggested solutions from Military Spouse Chronicles is to have move coordinators and quality assurance inspectors properly trained in being a mediator between the military family and the moving company and its crews. Another solution, long proposed by a number of advocates in the military community, is to have less frequent moves.

Navy Researchers Making Progress on a Vaccine for Malaria

Navy Researchers Making Progress on a Vaccine for Malaria

Navy Researchers Making Progress on a Vaccine for Malaria

Contributed by Debbie Gregory

Navy medical researchers are making progress on a vaccine for malaria, the number one disease that affects deployed troops.

In August, Capt. Judith Epstein, clinical director of the Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC) Malaria Department, presented findings on the malaria candidate vaccine, PfSPZ Vaccine, at the 2018 Military Health System Research Symposium.

During the breakout session called “What’s New in Infectious Disease Research in the Tropics,” Epstein gave an update on NMRC’s work with PfSPZ Vaccine, a whole organism vaccine comprised of aseptic, purified, radiation-attenuated, non-replicating, cryopreserved sporozoites. Sporozoites (SPZ) are one of the stages of the malaria parasite, which find their way to the liver after inoculation.

According to Epstein, the parasites induce a protective immune response without making copies of themselves. In other words, the weakened parasites do not replicate or get into the bloodstream, and thus do not lead to infection or disease.

Recent tests “bring us closer to having a malaria vaccine to prevent infection and disease in military personnel deployed to malaria-endemic regions, as well as vulnerable populations residing in malaria-endemic regions,” Epstein said.

Malaria can cause vomiting, fatigue, fever and headaches. In the most severe cases, Malaria can be fatal. Left untreated, there can also be recurrences months and years later.

No effective vaccine has ever been developed, but Epstein said that research on a vaccine using a purified form of one of the early stages of the malaria parasite has been encouraging.

“In all trials, the vaccine has been demonstrated to have a very good safety and tolerability profile and has also been easy to administer,” Epstein said. “Our focus now is to enhance the efficacy and practical use of the vaccine.”

In 2016, there were 216 million cases of malaria worldwide, resulting in an estimated 445,000 to 731,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Army Evaluates Drone Retrieval Device that Operates from a Moving Vehicle

Army Evaluates Drone Retrieval Device that Operates from a Moving Vehicle


Army Evaluates Drone Retrieval Device that Operates from a Moving Vehicle

Contributed Debbie Gregory

The Army is looking to integrate more robot technologies, from 3-armed super-soldiers to tiny drones that support squad-level surveillance. Recently, a new drone-retrieval system was introduced that could make it easier for Army units to collect their drones after a mission.

The Talon, a device made by Target Arm, sits on the back of a moving vehicle and is able to catch drones of all sizes. The prototype was presented at an industry day at the Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE) at Fort Benning, Georgia.

“Think of a drive-through Venus flytrap,” said Don Sando, deputy to the commanding general of MCoE. Currently, combat vehicles are limited to line-of-sight targeting and surveillance systems.

Talon is a very “simple design, applicable to any vehicle, wheeled or tracked. That’s very innovative in my judgment,” said Sando.

“I was like, ‘Hey, that is simple, yet elegant,'” he said. “The ability to launch and recover aircraft from a moving platform really helps our ground formations on a battlefield, where we know they have to move quickly. Anytime you stop, you become a target.”

While there were no demonstrations at the industry day event that was held in late August, many of the companies brought white papers to showcase new technologies that might meet the needs of the service’s new Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Initial Capabilities Document, said Col. Thomas Nelson, director of Robotics Requirements at Benning.

Many of the industry day attendees will take part in experiments scheduled for November and December in the United Kingdom, said Lt. Col. Nick Serle, commanding officer of the U.K. Infantry Trials and Development Unit.

“That really ties into the great partnership that we have between [Benning’s] Maneuver Battle Lab over here and the work that we do back in the U.K.,” Serle said.


Marine Will Serve Almost 3 Years for Stealing From Toys for Tots

Marine Will Serve Almost 3 Years for Stealing From Toys for Tots

Marine Will Serve Almost 3 Years for Stealing From Toys for Tots

Contributed by Debbie Gregory

A 33-month prison sentence and restitution to the tune of $534,044 is the immediate future of former Staff Sgt. Christopher Aragon.

Aragon used his position as a Toys for Tots program coordinator to make payments to himself and defraud the Marine Corps. Toys for Tots is a program run by the United States Marine Corps Reserve which distributes toys to children whose parents cannot afford to buy them gifts for Christmas.

The program was founded in 1947 by reservist Major Bill Hendricks.

Aragon, 32, served as a supply chief for 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company and was the unit’s coordinator for its Toys for Tots program. Aragon will also have to pay $20,044.70 in restitution to the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation.

According to court documents, between December 2013 and August 2016, Aragon conspired with his wife, Teneshia Aragon, and Dana Davis, owner of the Runway Café in Mobile, Alabama, to defraud the Marine Corps by using an issued credit card to make unauthorized payments to himself as well as submitting false documents, invoices and unit rosters.

But the Corps picked up on the bogus charges during an audit and found serious discrepancies.

An investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and Defense Criminal Investigative Service ultimately resulted in Aragon’s prosecution.

In May, all three defendants plead guilty to trying to defraud the Marine Corps.

Dana Davis was sentenced to six-months in prison in August and Teneshia Aragon was sentenced to five years of probation with six months of that as home confinement on September 10th.

Christopher Aragon was ordered to undergo “three years of supervised release after finishing his term of imprisonment, pay a $100 mandatory special assessment, receive mental health treatment, and undergo credit restrictions following his release”.

New Mission at the VA is Service

new mission at the va is service

New Mission at the VA is Service

Contributed by Debbie Gregory

There is a new plan in the works to make customer service at the Veterans Administration (VA) priority one.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said that he has the commitment of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to work together on developing a new electronic “patient-centered health care system.”

Wilkie referenced his late father, a severely wounded warrior, who had to hand-carry his 800 pages of medical records to ensure he received the proper care at the VA.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Leon Wilkie Sr. was severely wounded in the U.S. operation in Cambodia. The senior Wilkie had been a strapping 240 pounds before he was wounded in 1970. He returned home weighing 115 pounds.

“The VA is about serving veterans,” said Wilkie. “My prime directive is customer service.”

And customer service is what Wilkie is confident should improve under the VA Mission Act, which was recently signed into law. Increased funding as a result of the Mission Act, which is projected to cost more than $50 billion over five years, should alleviate many of the problems associated with the previous Choice Program.

Wilkie, a former assistant secretary of defense under President George W. Bush and former undersecretary for current Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, replaced David Shulkin, who was fired amid ethics charges and internal rebellion over the role of private care for veterans. Wilkie is tasked with delivering on President Trump’s campaign promises to fire ineffective VA employees and steer more patients to the private sector.

But Wilkie also realizes that veterans need care from providers who can speak “in the language of veterans” and who “know what you’ve been through,” an option that the private sector cannot provide.”

The private sector also “cannot replicate” what the VA does on spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries, prosthetics, services for the blind, and suicide prevention, Wilkie said.

Education Center at the Vietnam Veterans Wall Scrapped

Education Center at the Vietnam Veterans Wall Scrapped

Education Center at the Vietnam Veterans Wall Scrapped

Contributed by Debbie Gregory.

In a stunning move, the board of directors of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) announced that after a strategic review of the Education Center project, there will be a shift of focus to online resources, handheld technology, education staff, mobile exhibits and partnerships rather than continue efforts to construct a physical building on the National Mall.

The long-stalled plan to build the education center next to the iconic “Wall” is being scrapped for lack of funding and general interest.

Chairman John Dibble said in a statement that “funding simply has not materialized” for the project, which originally was to have dealt with the history, context and legacy of the Vietnam War.

The memorial, dedicated in 1982, was the brainchild of Vietnam Army Veteran Jan Scruggs, who founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and served as the president of the foundation until he retired in 2014. Scruggs spearheaded the VVMF’s legislative effort to get Congress to authorize the memorial and approve its location on the National Mall, and he shepherded the memorial’s controversial design past the United States Commission of Fine Arts and other federal and local agencies.

Scruggs announced the concept for the education center in 2000. At a symbolic groundbreaking in 2012, Scruggs said the center would also serve as a temporary memorial for the fallen of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The veterans of Vietnam know what it is like to wait for a memorial — a healing place — to be authorized and constructed. Today’s heroes shouldn’t have to wait. Our goal is to have the education center at the Wall open in time to welcome home our last troops returning from Afghanistan,” he said at the time.

With a projected cost of approximately $84 million, the funds raised were just a little more than half of what was needed.

In the statement released by Dibble, he said, “We know many veterans and supporters are disappointed in this outcome. We also are disappointed that the early enthusiasm and support did not result in a completed building. Since the idea was developed in early 2001, the world is a very different place.”