Veterans Benefits Information guide to VA benefits

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Veterans Benefits Information

Volunteering across borders

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Members of the Department of Mexico and Pahrump, Nev., Post 22 teamed up with the Pahrump Valley 4 Wheelers to replace 500 feet of water pipe at the Wheeler Well wildlife area in Nye County, Nev. The Legion members and much-needed supplies were transported to the remote Spring Mountain site by the 4 Wheelers. The well has been a concern of the county residents as it is a major source of water for wild horses, deer and elk.

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Legionnaire to recruit 10 women veterans for Heavy Construction Academy

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The total population of women veterans is expected to increase at an average rate of about 18,000 women per year for the next 10 years, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Although women have proudly served their country and made significant contributions, many of them feel like their military service goes unrecognized because of their gender. Women also experience more challenges when it comes to their needs upon transitioning into civilian life.

In a blog post at Task and Purpose, written by former active-duty Navy Officer Andrea Goldstein, she asserts that women veterans “do not want to be treated as if they are the same as male veterans, but rather have their specific experiences equally considered. But because women veterans have had a different experience than their male peers while wearing the uniform, this also affects their lives after military service.”

JoAnn Fisher agrees that post-military life for women is difficult because they aren’t given adequate tools and resources. However, she opposes the idea that women veterans in today’s society have to perform at higher standards just to get the same recognition as their male counterparts.

“When it comes to women, women do not self-identify (as a veteran). So when they die, nobody knows that they ever served,” said Fisher, a member of American Legion Randolph Furey Post 170 in Indian Head, Md., who served on active duty in the Navy reserves for 15 years. “There are more men who get honors when they die but fewer women. And their families don’t know because they don’t talk about it. We have to do more to make sure our women are recognized.”

As the founder and CEO of Women Veterans United Committee, Inc., Fisher’s motto is "women veterans invisible no more." She said her goal is to reach out to more women veterans and improve their quality of life by helping them obtain more opportunities in the workforce.

“I don’t feel like we’re given enough credit. I feel like we’re not recognized enough,” the former Maryland Joint Veterans Committee chairwoman said. “People will say, ‘Yeah ok, you’re a woman veteran. Good for you.’ But they’ll (disregard) a woman veteran and recognize a man, who could be a lower rank with less honors and medals, before they do her.

“That’s not giving us the respect that we deserve. We are intelligent. We have the capabilities and leadership skills to do all kinds of things. But women are not recognized in that way – that’s the issue that I see.”

In an effort to prove naysayers wrong, Fisher is seeking 10 women veterans who want to become heavy equipment operators and enroll at the Heavy Construction Academy (HCA) in Brentwood, N.H.

“We want to send 10 women up there using the Post-9/11 GI Bill,” she said. “The school itself will be doing all of the interviewing. They know the right questions to ask to get an idea about who’s sincere and serious. The school will take anybody but for women veterans, they want them to use their GI Bill benefits.”

HCA’s six-week training program provides students with real world skills, knowledge and certification necessary to succeed in the construction industry. The curriculum consists of classroom instruction, field demonstrations and other hands-on activities best suited for current economic states, weather conditions and industry demand, according to the academy’s website.

No experience with heavy equipment is necessary. Upon completion of HCA’s program, students will be certified to operate nine different pieces of heavy equipment: a front-end loader, skid steer, backhoe, off-road dump truck, vibratory compact roller, bulldozer, motor grader, excavator and rough terrain telescoping forklift.

“A lot of organizations now are saying that they can’t find women. But the truth is that they’re not looking hard enough,” Fisher said. “There are women veterans out there and all you have to do is just begin to ask. But you won’t get them overnight.”

For Fisher, it’s important for women veterans to view themselves on the same playing field as their male counterparts.

“I grew up during the women’s movement,” she said. “With my children, I raised my (two) daughters accordingly so that they could do anything they wanted to. Women can do this; it’s not even a question.”

By taking on levels of authority and responsibility that few get to experience, Fisher is optimistic that HCA will dampen the stigma regarding gender bias and encourage more women to display confidence in their abilities.

“Heavy construction equipment is different from the typical office job. This is really about sending women into a hardcore men’s environment,” Fisher said. “We can do anything. It’s just something that someone has to take it upon themselves and say, ‘Let me mentor and help you get there.’”

Fisher said the Legion has opened the door for gender equality within the civilian community by recently selecting its first female national commander whose primary focus is ‘Family First.’ Negative perceptions about women veterans will fade away as traditional gender roles become a thing of the past.

“I have found that The American Legion is extremely sensitive about women issues. When I look around and see other women in key leadership positions, that’s what it is about and that’s what I like,” Fisher said. “Family first – we have to strengthen our women veterans by supporting and strengthening their families. That’s very powerful.”

All women veterans interested in applying for HCA’s program are encouraged to do so here.

For more information about how to participate in upcoming activities with Women Veterans United Committee, Inc., call (240) 305-5516.

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Commander brings Legion Family message throughout Far East

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American Legion National Commander Denise H. Rohan finished a whirlwind tour of the Far East Sunday after visiting American Legion Family members at Post 123 in the Philippines. The military briefings in South Korea held special significance as they occurred just hours after North Korean despot Kim Jong Un’s latest missile launch on Nov. 29.

Still, the U.S. military in South Korea remain alert but calm. “The South Koreans have lived this way pretty much their whole lives,” said Col. Mike Borgert of the 7th U.S. Air Force. “What’s changed is what North Koreans can do, but I’m not sure we’re closer to war than before.”

Families as well as troops in South Korea can find local American Legion support through Posts 37 and 38. The posts hosted a lunch at Osan Air Base for Rohan’s delegation, which included American Legion Auxiliary National President Diane Duscheck, Auxiliary National Executive Director Mary “Dubbie” Buckler, and American Legion Washington Executive Director Verna Jones.

Duscheck was impressed with the concern for military families that was not just shown by the Legion, but by the military commanders as well. “Our military is doing the best that they can,” Duscheck said. “They understand that they have a job to do and for them that’s the most important thing that there is. But the concern that we show for their families is shared by their military leaders. They care that the spouses can get jobs and that the military and their families can enjoy a high quality of life with fun activities. But when you have fewer troops and they are expected to do more, it adds to their stress level.”

Rohan encouraged Borgert to use The American Legion as a resource to help with quality of life issues.

“We’re working with governors to make licensing and credentialing easier in all 50 states for veterans and their spouses,” Rohan told Borgert. “If soldiers and their spouses have any issues, let us know.”

Jones also emphasized the Legion’s work with the Department of Veterans Affairs, as an area of importance to military members who may rely on the system in the future.

“We’re the biggest advocates for VA, but we’re also their biggest critics,” she said. “We’ve been very successful in working with the current administration which has been signing important veterans legislation with lightning speed.”

On Okinawa, Air Force Col. Richard Tanner, vice commander of the 18th Wing, listed retention for younger airmen as a major challenge. “Our first term airmen are here for two-year assignments. They leave just as they are getting the skills that we really need," Tanner said. “Our military is stretched pretty thin. We are an amazing organization that can do anything, but we can’t do everything.”

Rohan was able to visit a site of amazing military accomplishment as she toured Hacksaw Ridge , a World War II battle on Okinawa that was graphically portrayed in a recent Hollywood film of the same name.

“To see where Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss bravely saved so many lives is just inspirational,” Rohan sad. “'Just one more. If only I could have saved just one more,’ is what he kept saying about the men he lowered down that cliff. It just says so much about the type of character of the men and women who not only serve in the military now, but who served throughout our history.”

Rohan also toured Tomari International Cemetery, a historic burial place for many U.S. veterans that is regularly maintained and cleaned monthly by members of Okinawa American Legion Post 28.

“Our post has adopted this cemetery as one of our main community service projects,” said Post 28 Commander Bennie Helton, an active duty Marine master gunnery sergeant said. “We usually get a dozen members or more to work on the fourth Sunday of every month.”

Further north in the Philippine Islands, Legion department officers expressed dissatisfaction with health care services offered by the Foreign Medical Program and bureaucratic delays for burials at Clark Veterans Cemetery. Rohan plans to bring back those concerns to Washington. She is currently visiting the Department of Hawaii where she will be participating in events commemorating the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7 and touring the VA Regional Office.

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'We just consider Boys State a part of our life'

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There’s an array of family photos in the living room of Helen Kennedy Ryan’s home in Walpole, Mass., a display of happy memories preserved in time.

Ryan cherishes those memories, and she cherishes the ones not on display, like the Saturday nights when she was a child and her father, Hayes Kennedy, came home from a week away at Boys State.

“Dad would go from Saturday to Saturday, then he’d come home late Saturday and we all sat in the kitchen and listened to his stories about things that went on, people that came in and talked (at the program). … The one thing we loved is when he came back on Saturday night, he brought extra candy from the commissary. We thought it was great,” she laughed.

Hayes Kennedy was one of the co-founders of The American Legion Boys State program. He and Harold Card organized the first Boys State at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield in 1935.

“It’s my understanding that both Harold Card and my father were on the National Americanism Committee, and they were at a meeting in New York, I believe, and driving back, they saw these camps set up, Young Pioneers, and they looked into it and found out it was basically the Communists, that gave them the thinking they could get the Legion to get involved in a program to teach our government to the students,” Ryan recalled.

The Young Pioneer Camps of the 1930s were aimed at teaching high school age boys that democracy had outworn its usefulness and should be replaced by Communism. Seeing those camps prompted Kennedy, the Illinois Department Americanism chairman and a law instructor at Loyola University Law School, and Card, the Illinois Department Boy Scout chairman and a high school educator, to come up with a program to counter the Young Pioneers.

The first Boys State program was held in Springfield in June 1935, with 217 young men attending. It’s since grown to include programs in every state but Hawaii, along the way spawning Girls State, sponsored by The American Legion Auxiliary, and Boys Nation and Girls Nation, which sends two representatives from each state program to Washington, D.C., for a week to learn about the federal government process.

“I do remember, for the first few years, my mother and my sister and I went down for a few days to stay at the home of Harold Card. And then we went in the day the governor of Boys State was installed, the governor of Illinois came and installed him, and we went down for that program and met him and watched that being done. That was probably in ’36, because ’35 was the first year and it was really just getting organized then,” Ryan recalled.

Only one of her brothers, Hayes, actually attended Boys State, but one of her other brothers, Dan, worked in the canteen at Boys State. And her third brother, Jim, would have gone, but he was planning to be a doctor and got a hospital job that prevented him from attending.

Still, the program had an impact. Ryan said Jim, who later worked in the admissions department at Loyola, would question prospects who included Boys State on their resume.

“He said, ‘If they put that down, I’d like to know what they thought about it,’” she said.

Ryan recalled the early years of the program in Illinois, when trains carried the attendees from Chicago to Springfield. The train would stop in Joliet, where the family lived, and Legionnaires would get off the train to say hi to Ryan’s mother.

“We just consider Boys State a part of our life,” she said.

It’s a tradition that’s continued. Ryan’s son, Bob, attended Massachusetts Boys State, and last spring, his son, Patrick, became the first great-grandson of Hayes Kennedy to attend the program, also in Massachusetts.

“I think it had to be a pretty sound program through the years to still have people supporting it and being interested in what’s going on. It’s evolved as those things are going to do,” she said. “I feel very glad that my father was able to be involved in something that could go this many years and is still going. …

“He would have been very proud to know it’s continued and know that his grandson and great-grandson had a chance to participate.”

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Legionnaire praises VA decision to allow hyperbaric oxygen treatment

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A recent Department of Veterans Affairs decision to begin offering hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) to some veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder has drawn praise from the chairman of The American Legion’s PTSD/TBI Ad Hoc Committee.

In a Nov. 29 statement, VA announced that HBOT therapies will be supervised by a physician, and that both VA and the Department of Defense are planning additional research to study HBOT’s effectiveness.

In a statement, VA Secretary David Shulkin said that his agency must “explore every avenue” and “be open to new ideas. There is nothing more important to us than caring for our nation’s veterans, and that care must include finding different approaches that work best for them.”

American Legion Past National Commander Bill Detweiler, chairman of the Legion’s PTSD/TBI committee, noted that the Legion has “urged the VA for years to allow the use of HBOT to treat veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries and/or post-traumatic stress. Using oxygen as a drug has been proven to be successful for many veterans, members of the military and professional football players. It's another tool in the physician's tool box.”

HBOT has been federally approved to treat such conditions as decompression sickness, carbon monoxide poisoning, and to treat wounds that won’t heal because patients are undergoing radiation or have diabetes. Though it’s been studied – 32 times between 2005 and 2015, according to a Government Accountability Office – HBOT hasn’t officially been proven to work for traumatic brain injury or PTSD.

But in November 2011, The American Legion Magazine featured a story on how HBOT was helping two veterans injured by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively. One of those, Ret. Army Sgt. Tim Hecker, shared that, “By the fourth treatment, I started feeling like a new person. I was more aware. I could see things. The deeper I got into the treatments, my cognition started to come back - my motor skills and my balance. My vision started to improve. The biggest benefit was my emotional control."

In 2013, The American Legion released a report that was a culmination of a study on current treatments and best practices for TBI and PTSD. The report, “The War Within,” noted that at the time both VA and DoD “have not done a lot of research on alternative methods. There’s no simple answer to what works as far as PTSD or TBI is concerned, but we found that the (DoD and VA) medical profession shied away from certain things which they considered to be alternative medicine."

An example of that was HBOT, which Detweiler said at the time "works for some people. It’s not the answer for everybody, but (DoD and VA) have shied away from putting any serious money into doing studies."

And at the Legion’s 98th National Convention in Cincinnati in 2016, delegates passed Resolution 165, which urged Congress to provide oversight and funding to DoD and VA for innovative TBI and PTSD research currently used in the private sector, including HBOT and other non-pharmacological treatments.

“(HBOT) is not additive, has no side effects, is inexpensive and readily available,” Detweiler said. “It's a win-win for America's veterans.”

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