Tag Archives: veteran

Wounded soldier makes comeback using adaptive sports

Retired Army Staff Sergeant, Alfredo “Freddy” De Los Santos awarded the 40th Marine Corps Marathon, 1st place hand cyclist trophy.  (Angela G. Barnes/Medill NSJI)

Retired Army Staff Sergeant, Alfredo “Freddy” De Los Santos awarded the 40th Marine Corps Marathon, 1st place hand cyclist trophy. (Angela G. Barnes/Medill NSJI)

WASHINGTON— When retired Army Staff Sgt. Alfredo “Freddy” De Los Santos won 1st place in the Hand Cyclist competition at the 40th Annual Marine Corps Marathon in mid October, his victory showed the importance of adaptive sports in helping veterans deal with the loss of limbs, an expert said.

De Los Santos, born in the Dominic Republic and now a resident of Hopewell, New York, was one of 200-hand cyclists, who showed their strength and determination in the marathon. He said his victory wasn’t easy.

“I trained six days a week, between 40 and 60 miles every day,” said the 44-year-old champion. “…to be able to compete in the Marine Corps Marathon despite my disabilities…I love it.”

Elsie Moore, a licensed clinical social worker and program manager for the Transition and Care Management Program at the Washington VA Medical Center, said specialty hand bikes have helped many maimed soldiers.

“Adaptive sports have been around a long time,” she said. “But it certainly made a boost when these soldiers came back severely wounded and couldn’t do things the way they normally use to do.”

Hand cycling, an adaptive sport, is a human-power tricycle operated by the arms instead of the legs. This allows lower-body disabled persons the same functionality as on a two-wheel bike. This unit has three wheels to support the cyclist: two-rear wheels and one powered steerable front wheel.

De Los Santos lost part of his right leg below the knee on Oct. 20, 2008, when his Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while he was serving in a Special Operations Command in Iraq.

“It’s kind of weird…I always feel like this is the best thing that ever happened to me,” said De Los Santos. “It never crossed my mind to get into sports and now I’m in the best shape of my life.”

De Los Santos used the adaptive sport to deal the pain of losing part of his right leg, but said the service prepared him for this new journey.

“Somehow as being military you’re mentally prepared for something like this,” De Los Santos said. “So all you have to do is transition.”

Moore, who has worked with the VA more than 20 years, said while the VA’s Transition Care Management program provides a variety of services to wounded soldiers; many of them have a difficult time dealing with a loss of this magnitude.

“Some people can feel very bitter toward the losses that they have,” Moore said. “Those who are going to do best are those who are more flexible and open to therapy, treatment, counseling and mentorship.”

Although De Los Santos still has physical problems, he said his injury has not defined him.

“This is so rewarding,” he said again, “to be able to incorporate myself in society, physically, mentally and socially…I love it.”

“A large majority of amputees that I come in contact with, they’re often very positive,” Moore said. “They are “gun-ho” about what their goals are.”

“This is a way of life,” De Los Santos said. “Life is what you make out of it.”

De Los Santos hopes to qualify for next year’s 2016 Marine Corps Marathon. He finished the 2015 race in one hour-thirteen minutes.





Swords into ploughshares: Veterans find opportunities in farming (video)

WASHINGTON – Dan Mikulecky had an epiphany during his 2004 deployment to Iraq with the Montana National Guard.

He had joined the Guard for college, but wasn’t sure the direction he wanted to go in life post-deployment. Being out in the Iraqi countryside, however, it became clear to him: he wanted to return to rural Montana and become a farmer.

When he got back to the U.S., Mikulecky received a preferential veteran’s loan, agricultural training and financial advising through Northwest Farm Credit Services. He purchased land in Rudyard, Montana and grow it into a thriving wheat and grain farm.

“The hours from the service and the hours that you put into agriculture are very closely related,” Mikulecky said. “Yeah, it’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, but we’re self-starters, always trying to go the extra mile.”

For military veterans like Dan Mikulecky, turning swords into ploughshares – both literally and figuratively – is becoming an increasingly attractive option.

With the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan and thousands leaving the military, America’s veterans are facing over 20 percent unemployment. With 45 percent of armed service members coming from rural America, the draw to agriculture is a natural solution, according to the USDA.

“We should hope for all veterans to be able to come back and assimilate in the way they can, but we also need a lot of new, young farmers,” Mikulecky said in an interview. “Someone has to grow the food.”

The average age of farmers in the U.S. is currently over 58 years old, according to 2012 Census data.

For America’s aging farmers and ranchers, worried over who will take the reins in the next generation, an infusion of veterans into American agriculture would be a welcome relief.

“Almost half of those that have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have come from small, rural towns,” said Farmer Veteran Coalition founder and director Michael O’Gorman.

“We’ve become a disproportionately rural military, so we feel the health and prosperity of our rural communities is important to our military, and agriculture is an important and exciting avenue for those that are leaving the military,” O’Gorman said.

Since founding the Farmer Veteran Coalition in 2008 to guide veterans’ transition into agricultural careers, O’Gorman has seen the organization grow from 10 veterans to over 4,500 members, with over 200 joining each month.

The Farmer Veteran Coalition provides small grants, livestock and used tractors for veterans, and also helps them navigate the world of finance through coordination with the USDA, and Farm Credit, which is a national network of lending institutions – including Northwest Farm Credit Services – tailored to agricultural and rural America.

The skills and ethos of military service directly translate into agriculture, according to O’Gorman.

“There’s a lot of the same sense of determinedness, the same sense of hard work, taking on a mission, standing up when you’re knocked down, and [being] really purpose-driven,” O’Gorman said.

The barriers to entry into farm life, however, may be daunting to many veterans. Obtaining land, seeds, equipment and training in cultivating crops or raising livestock present enormous challenges to those considering a career in agriculture.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Kory Cornum, who owns a 690-acre farm outside of Paris, Kentucky advises vets to start small and expand over time.

“It can look like a big hill when you’re young, but if you want to do it, you can make it happen,” Cornum said.

According to Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Tex., Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, taking advantage of the assistance and guidance provided by the Farmer Veteran Coalition and Farm Credit helps veterans survive the tough early years and “build the capital to allow them to then expand their businesses.”

“We’ve asked them to do things way too often, too many repetitive deployments,” Conaway said. “So we owe them our gratitude, and one of the ways we can help their post-military service lives is to get them into agriculture.”

Conaway made the remarks at a Capitol Hill reception last week honoring farmer veterans. The event showcased agricultural products grown by veterans with the Homegrown By Heroes label.

The Homegrown By Heroes label identifies products sold in grocery stores and farmers’ markets which are grown and raised by U.S. veterans. Since its 2014 national launch by the Farmer Veteran Coalition and Farm Credit, it has expanded to 165 farmers and ranchers in 43 states and brought in over $15 million in sales for veterans.

Calvin Riggleman, a Marine Corps veteran with two deployments to Iraq and now owner of Bigg Riggs Farm in Augusta, West Virginia, was the first veteran in the Mountain State to use the Homegrown By Heroes label and sells his produce at farmers’ markets around Washington, D.C.

“I think it makes a big difference,” Riggleman said. “People walk up to my stands and they know I’m a veteran without me having to say anything.”

For Dan Mikulecky, becoming a farmer has offered a stable career doing what he loves.

“Farming is something that we’ll only need to do a better job at as the population of the world increases,” Mikulecky said. “It’s an industry that never runs out of demand.”

His wife Adria Mikulecky agreed, adding that their success was due to the support they received through organizations like the USDA, the Farmer Veteran Coalition and Northwest Farm Credit Services.

“That’s what veterans need when they come home and try to transition: a lot of support.”

Obama to wounded warriors: ‘We’ve got your back’

  • President Barack Obama speaks with spectators after the cyclists have set off on the Soldier Ride. (Nick Kariuki/MEDILL)
    President Barack Obama speaks with spectators after the cyclists have set off on the Soldier Ride. (Nick Kariuki/MEDILL)

WASHINGTON — Under clear skies, President Obama blasted an air horn Thursday to start the Wounded Warrior Project’s Soldier Ride from the White House’s South Lawn.

Speaking before the bikes rolled out, Obama said the event was “a chance to say to all the returning heroes that you’re not alone. That we’ve got your back. We’re going to be with you every step of the way.”

The nationwide, annual ride offers wounded service members and veterans the chance to salve the physical, mental and emotional wounds they may have suffered through cycling and the common bond of military service.

Over 50 riders from all branches of the armed forces signed up for the three-day, 60 mile challenge, many riding on adaptive bicycles.

Obama was joined by Vice President Joe Biden and Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald. This year marked the sixth time that the event was welcomed to the White House.

The first Soldier Ride was in 2004 when Chris Carney, a Long Island, New York, bartender, biked across the country to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that supports injured troops.

The WWP claims over 68,000 alumni and more than 10,500 family members involved, as of April 1.

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo

Hard-luck vets find therapy partners in rescue dogs

CHICAGO — For many in the armed services, valor means courage against impossible odds. But for one group in Chicago, valor has a different meaning. Veterans Advancing Lives of Rescues, VALOR, is the name of a new program created by Safe Humane Chicago. The nonprofit organization pairs veterans working through tough times with dogs that have been confiscated in criminal cases for abuse or neglect and are now property of the city of Chicago.

“They are a little on a parallel track, in the sense that they have suffered some setbacks in their lives emotionally and sometimes physically,” said Janice Triptow, manager of behavior and training at Safe Humane Chicago. “So the marriage of these two populations is interesting and I think heartwarming.”

VALOR’s eight-week pilot program finished in November, when five veterans from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps learned training techniques and socialization skills to help the dogs become more adoptable. All of the veterans in VALOR are part of Thresholds, a Chicago-based provider of recovery services for people facing mental health challenges.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, “more than 1.3 million veterans received specialized mental health treatment from VA for issues related to mental health.” The 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress estimated that 49,933 veterans were homeless in the U.S. on a given night in January 2014.

Christa Velbel, VALOR co-founder and a Safe Humane Chicago volunteer, said the goal of the program is “to use this magical but scientifically documented human-animal bond to take people and dogs who have been through a lot of difficulty and a lot of pain and make their lives happier again.”

Donald Birdsong discusses why he joined the Army in the 1970s.

Army veteran Donald Birdsong, who suffered setbacks after losing his job, participated in VALOR’s second session along with four other veterans and graduated from the program on March 23. Of the 19 dogs that went through his session, seven have been adopted, nine are in foster homes, two remain in city custody and one was returned to its owner, according to Velbel.

VALOR’s next eight-week training session begins Monday and will include five more veterans. Learn more about this endeavor here.

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo

Western Pa. veteran suicide spurs questions about safety of VA mental health treatments

The recent suicide of a Marine Corps veteran from Brentwood, Pennsylvania, has inspired his father, a former politician in Allegheny County, to push for an investigation into a possible link between veteran suicides and VA-prescribed mental health drugs, writes Adam Smeltz of Trib Total Media. Read the full article, which does a great job of localizing the issue of military suicides by contextualizing it through a local lens and marrying DoD data with insights from regional and national sources, here.

Colorado VA hospital’s completion contingent on congressional intervention after budget is blown

A Veteran’s Administration hospital being built in the city of Aurora, Colorado is predicted to go $1 billion over budget, according to a March 18 report from 9News.com, the website of Colorado’s KUSA broadcast station. Since covering the extra cost requires congressional approval, the local medical center’s future depends on federal approval. Check out the story by KUSA’s Melissa Blasius and Brandon Rittiman (an exciting intersection of federal VA funding and local veteran’s affairs and health care infrastructure) here.