Deported Marine Veteran Comes Home in a Casket

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Deported Marine Veteran Comes Home in a Casket

By Debbie Gregory

Persian Gulf War veteran Lance Cpl. Enrique Salas put his life on the line for the country he called home since he was a six year old boy. How unfortunate for him that his adopted country was unsympathetic to his plight when he brought the after-effects of military service home with him.

Like many of his fellow service members, Salas was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he also struggled with drugs. But it wasn’t war, suicide or drugs that killed him; Salas died on April 12th at age 47, succumbing to complications stemming from injuries suffered in an auto accident.

In 2004, Salas was convicted for possession of a controlled substance for sale, an aggravated felony that made his deportation mandatory. He was deported to Mexico in 2006.

After the accident, Salas received an emergency humanitarian parole visa to cross the border to access better medical care at the University of California, San Diego. While waiting, he suffered the first if two heart attacks, the second while en-route to San Diego, where he was pronounced brain dead. Salas was buried with military honors in a Reedley cemetery beside his younger brother, another fallen Marine.

In 2002, Hector Barajas was deported after pleading guilty to felony charges resulting from issues with alcohol and drugs. He founded the Deported Veterans Support House, known as the Bunker, a shelter for former U.S. military servicemembers who find themselves in the same situation. Last year, Barajas received a pardon from Gov. Jerry Brown, and recently became a U.S. citizen. Barajas though that Salas was headed in that direction as well.

Salas met other deported veterans through the Deported Veterans Support House. Like many of them, Salas learned that had he applied for citizenship anytime prior to his conviction, he could have received U.S. citizenship through his military service. But he was never given that information.

Homeless Veterans Fastest Growing Segment Is Female Veterans

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By Debbie Gregory.

When most people picture a veteran, it’s a male. And the same holds true for homeless veterans. But the truth is that the Department of Veterans Affairs has found that female veterans, including those with children, are the fastest-growing share of homeless veterans.

Female veterans are two to four times as likely as their civilian counterparts to experience homelessness.

Most of these women, especially those with kids or histories of trauma, don’t sleep on the streets or find shelter placements. They prefer to couch-surf with friends and relatives, which more often than not, leaves them left out of the homeless count.

Far from being a well-understood phenomenon, most people would be hard-pressed to even include women veterans in the overall picture of veteran homelessness — or recognize their unique risk factors and survival strategies.

Many homeless women veterans were victims of military sexual trauma and feel resentment towards the military and the VA, and as a result do not identify themselves as being a veteran.

According to VA’s National Center for PTSD, data from VA’s military sexual trauma screening program show that about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 100 men respond “yes,” that they experienced sexual trauma or assault while in the military.

Female homeless veterans are nothing like their male veteran counterparts in how and why they experience homelessness. Sadly, women veterans are frequently left out of the picture, intentionally or otherwise. One woman veteran in the series described it as “always being an afterthought,” whenever veterans issues are discussed.

Social health is more important to a woman’s healing process than it is to a man’s. The VA is realizing that and tailoring treatments as necessary.

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.

Former Forest Ranger Ordered to Pay Judgement to Disabled Vet

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By Debbie Gregory.

U.S. District Judge Judith C. Herrera has ordered a former U.S. Forest Service ranger to pay nearly $600,000 to a disabled Army veteran and another camper for violating their civil rights by using excessive force during their 2014 arrests at the Juan Tomas campground in the mountains east of Albuquerque.

Former U.S. Forest Service Ranger David Chavez confronted Adam Griego, who served in the Army during two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fellow camper Elijah Haukereid, advising them that the road to the campground was closed and that Griego would have to hike into the area to retrieve his belongings.

Griego found another route to rejoin his friends, which apparently angered Chavez, who handcuffed Griego and slammed his face into the hood of Chavez’s truck, and his head into the door frame of the truck.

Griego was forced to remain in the backseat of the truck for several hours without water despite the heat. Once Griego was secured, Chavez focused on Haukereid, who was recording his friend’s arrest on his cellphone.

Chavez slapped the phone out of Haukereid’s hand and threatened him with a taser. When Haukereid questioned Chavez’s order to get on the ground, Chavez commanded his dog to attack Haukereid.

Griego, a Purple Heart recipient, is 100 percent disabled veteran and suffers from both post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Herrera awarded Griego $450,000 in compensatory and punitive damages after finding that the beating he suffered made his combat injuries worse. Haukereid was awarded $140,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

Although the judgement is directed at Chavez, normally his former employer would have to pay the judgment for his actions.

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.

Tragedy at the Yountville, CA VA Claims Four Lives

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By Debbie Gregory.

Albert Wong was a veteran with demons. And last week, those demons surfaced as Wong gunned down three mental health clinicians at a residential program for traumatized veterans at the Yountville VA before taking his own life.

Wong shot and killed Pathway Home executive director Christine Loeber, staff therapist Jen Golick and Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba, a psychologist with the San Francisco Department of Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, who was  pregnant.

Wong was a former resident of the facility. Besides suffering from bipolar disorder, Wong had various physical ailments due to back and leg injuries, as well as anger issues.

Although Wong had been kicked out of Pathway for having knives, making threats and “not getting along with people,” caregivers had been working with Wong to provide transitional treatment after he left Pathway Home.

“The goal is never to leave somebody outside of the safety net,” said Pathway spokesman Larry Kamer.

Jennifer Golick was a clinical director who also served as the staff psychologist at The Pathway Home. A former employer characterized Golick as always having a big, warm smile and just the right words to say. She leaves behind her husband and high school sweetheart Mark, and a daughter, Makena.

Christine Loeber was the executive director of The Pathway Home, and from all accounts, she was passionate about serving veterans.

Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba was a clinical psychologist with the San Francisco Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care System. She also served as a trainer with non-profit PsychArmor, which will be working to set up a memorial fund in her name.

Gonzales Shushereba’s family said in a statement that she and her colleagues “died doing the work they were so passionate about — helping those in critical need.

We extend our sincere condolences to the loved ones of the victims, good people who were doing wonderful work and helping so many.

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.

Army Veteran Facing Deportation on Suicide Watch

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By Debbie Gregory.

Miguel Perez Jr. discovered the hard way that two tours of duty in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, a green card and PTSD are no shield from U.S. immigration laws.

Because of a 2010 felony drug conviction, Perez has been placed in a Kenosha, Wisconsin detention center, awaiting a possible deportation. Military service is no guarantee of citizenship, and although he has a green card, Perez never applied for citizenship, despite being eligible to.

Perez though he had become a U.S. citizen when he took the military’s oath to protect the nation, a misconception he discovered after he was released from prison and was called to immigration court. A native of Mexico, Perez hasn’t lived there since the age of 8.

Perez has been placed on a suicide watch as he has gone on a hunger strike to protest his situation.

“I’ve been talking to him for over a year now and I haven’t heard him sound like this,” said supporter Sara Walker. “He sounds anxious, depressed and confused.”

Perez has said that he fears deportation would do more than separate him from his family in the United States, including his two children who were both born here and are U.S. citizens. He thinks it could kill him.

In Mexico, he would not have access to substance abuse counseling or mental health resources to help him deal with his PTSD. He also fears being recruited by the drug cartels since he has combat experience.

According to his attorney, Chris Bergin, Perez served in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003, and he left the Army in 2004 with a general discharge after he was caught smoking marijuana on base.

“If you’re going to put your hand on your hearts every time at a game, you’re going to say thank you for your service and wear American flag lapel pins and you’re going to criticize football players for taking a knee during the national anthem, it seems that’s all superficial and false patriotism if you’re not caring about an actual military veteran,” said Bergin.

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.

Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against the Navy for Unfair Discharges

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By Debbie Gregory.

A marine veteran has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Navy, alleging that post-traumatic stress disorder and other traumatic mental health issues were the reason he and veterans like him received less than honorable discharges.

Due to these “bad paper” discharges, the veterans have been denied VA benefits and other support.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Connecticut by Tyson Manker, seeks class-action status for thousands of Navy and Marine Corps veterans.

“The American public needs to know that hundreds of thousands of military veterans with service-connected PTSD and [traumatic brain injuries] are being denied support and VA resources because of an unfair discharge status,” said Manker.

The plaintiffs are being counseled by the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic.

“In 2017, the Army and Air Force Discharge Review Boards granted approximately 51 percent of discharge upgrade applications involving PTSD, while the NDRB [Naval Discharge Review Board] granted a mere 16 percent of applications during the same period,” said Samantha Peltz, a law student intern in the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic. “The disparity is staggering.”

Manker is joined in the lawsuit by the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress, a Connecticut-based organization whose members include marines and other veterans with less-than-honorable discharges.

In a statement released by the plaintiffs, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) said  that the unfair discharge status is “based on antiquated policies that fail to recognize invisible wounds like post-traumatic stress.”

“Systemic failures of the military departments have led to widespread legal rights violations of our most vulnerable men and women in uniform, myself included. It is a national disgrace,” Manker said. “By taking this action with the courts we intend to restore the rule of law along with honor for thousands of patriots who were treated so poorly by the nation they served.”

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.

Pairing Pups and Veterans with PTSD

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By Debbie Gregory.

With an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnoses within the veteran community, the Department of Veterans Affairs is joining forces with non-profit Canine Companions to study how service dogs might be able to aid those struggling with the disorder.

The joint pilot program is launching at Canine Companions’ Northwest Training Center in Santa Rosa, CA, with the initial participants being chosen within 90 miles of the Santa Rosa facility.

The dogs will be trained in tasks including nightmare interruption, turning on lights, retrieving items, and supporting their handler in crowded public situations that might provoke anxiety for individuals with PTSD.

In the future, Canine Companions hope to expand the program to include first responders (police, fire and emergency medical personnel) with PTSD. They also hope to expand the program geographically.

The study will piggyback on a less formal program the VA kicked off in 2014, although this study will be more comprehensive and more tightly controlled.

“We believe that dogs can be trained in tasks that can help mitigate aspects of PTSD and help someone in their process of recovery along with other resources that exist already,” said instructor Sarah Birman.

Canine Companions will choose the dogs that will participate in the program based on their temperament, confidence and energy levels. They will need to be able to resist reacting to outside stimuli. The organization hopes to place some 20 dogs during the first year of the study.

“Service dogs are another tool that is available to veterans,” she said. “I think the more options that we make available to people the more people will be able to hopefully find something that works for them. PTSD can be an incredibly debilitating condition and really tremendously isolating, and so, if through these dogs we can make a difference in the lives of even just a handful of veterans, then it will absolutely have been worth it.”

Canine Companions has been providing service dogs for people with physical disabilities since 1975.

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.

Can Transition Stress Be A Bigger Problem Than PTSD?

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By Debbie Gregory.

Stress is the enemy of mental and physical health. It is believed that most veterans experience high levels of stress during the transition to civilian life, however transition stress has received very little attention in the shadow of post-traumatic stress disorder.

While PTSD has become a much-discussed affliction, transition stress, a seemingly more prevalent problem, is going largely overlooked.

The crucial role of transition stress in the lives of military veterans is examined in a recent essay by George A. Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia Teachers College, and former Army officer and Ph.D student Meaghan Mobbs.

In their abstract, Bonanno and Mobbs say that the wider range of challenges, rewards, successes, and failures that transitioning veterans might experience contribute to transition stress, which can be mistaken for PTSD.

While serving, there is the mission, the job, the camaraderie and the bonds. When servicemembers transition to civilian life, that sense of purpose and fulfillment can be lost, leading to anxiety, depression, and other behavioral difficulties.

“For our generation of veterans, for us being an all-volunteer force, we all go in during a period of emerging adulthood,” said Mobbs. “We’re typically asking ourselves the existential questions: Who am I? What do I want to do? What’s the meaning of life? And the military provides a really ready answer for that. They tell you: You have purpose. What you’re doing is meaningful. You matter.”

The Transition Assistance Program (TAP) provides information, tools and training to ensure service members and their spouses are prepared for the next step in civilian life whether pursuing additional education, finding a job in the public or private sector or starting their own business.

But often times, this week-long class doesn’t check all of the boxes.

Bonanno thinks that a mentor-based approach, with mentors assigned to veterans as they leave the military to just help with the daily things of life and understanding the transition process would provide great value.

“Some of the difficult things are just reintegrating with friends and families and managing those relationships.”

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.

More Veterans Need to Opt-in to VA’s Test Plan To Fix Appeals

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By Debbie Gregory.

Any time a veteran files a claim for disability that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) rejects, they have the right to appeal. But the average wait before a final decision is six years — and one service member has even waited 25 years. As a result, the number of pending appeals has increased sharply, rising in the past two years alone from 380,000 to now 470,000 pending appeals.

The first pilot program of the new law, the Appeals Modernization Act of 2017 called the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program (RAMP), is off to a slow start.

A lot of veterans have received information about, or invitations to join RAMP. The new law will be fully implemented in 2019, but in the meantime, the pilot program allows the VA to test how appeals will be handled in the future.

The law is meant to jump-start appeals reform within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), with an eye toward ending the backlog.

To date, VA has sent veterans 15,000 invitations to try out the new RAMP process. About 3 percent of those who have been contacted opted into the program.

But members of Congress and GAO said they were concerned that VA’s sample size for the pilot is too small.

“If you can’t gather and analyze the data, we’re just going to be whistling in the wind,” committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said. “When we start this RAMP up full, essentially a year from now, this is a massive change in how things are done at the VA. With so few people … how do we encourage more veterans to switch to a system they know to one right now that’s new and untried?”

VA said it would continue to work with veterans service organizations and Congress to help encourage their members and constituents to consider trying the department’s new system.

So far, VBA has been processing those appeals within 37 days, and 61 percent of veterans have won their appeals — significantly higher than the 25 percent of veterans who typically earn a positive decision.

Once VA fully implements RAMP,  veterans with high-level claims will have a decision in 125 days and cases that go to the Board of Veterans Appeals will be finished within about a year.

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.

Vet Suing VA for Therapist’s Sexual Advances

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By Debbie Gregory.

Ami Diane Phillips, a Department of Veterans Affairs therapist, is at the center of a $500,000 lawsuit against the VA.

Luke Kirk, a veteran who was being treated by Phillips, alleges that he suffered emotional distress due to sexual advances, and that Phillips punished him when he refused to marry her.

In January, 2017, Phillips was convicted of two misdemeanors for making up a story that Kirk was going to kill her, warning hospital staff that Kirk was either coming to the facility or going to hurt her family. But in fact she was seeking retribution against Kirk for saying that he was going to report her sexual advances.

Phillips began treating Kirk in November 2015, according to the lawsuit. But she’d begun forming a social relationship with Kirk by late April 2016 while still providing care to him.

“Phillips engaged in behavior that fell below the professional standards for a social worker, including physically touching, hugging, and kissing during mental health treatment sessions,” according to the lawsuit.

“Phillips used her position and influence to induce (Kirk) to trust her enough to agree to a personal relationship with (her) that ended only when Phillips tried to kill herself and/or (him) during a social outing to the beach,” the lawsuit claims.

They exchanged 4,000 text messages between their personal cellphones, went out for drinks and Phillips would even visit his home.

At one point, she asked Kirk to marry her and raise an adopted child together, the court documents claim, but he rebuffed her advances.

Kirk claims the VA should be liable for his therapist’s misconduct.

Kirk has suffered “from fear of criminal prosecution, interference with his progress in therapy, loss of trust in other medical or mental health providers” along with a slew of emotional issues because of the ordeal, according to the lawsuit.

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.