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Monday, September 26, 2011

Dr. John Nagl, Opening Keynote Speaker

Setting the tone for the 2011 Defense Forum Washington: The Journey Back, in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 26, 2011 was Dr. John Nagl, the President of the Center for a New American Security. Nagl examined the evolution of the U.S. military and warfare from the end of the Cold War onward in his keynote address to the forum.

“This last decade of warfare has truly been a revolution for the United States military,” Nagl said. “We adapted to a very old type of warfare for which we were not prepared. We developed new tools to defeat terrorists and most of all, we’ve seen truly extraordinary determination and courage from a new great generation – I think the new greatest generation of young Americans, who for the first time since the Revolutionary War have fought an extended campaign purely as volunteers – truly an extraordinary accomplishment.”

Nagl explained that warfare changed after the Cold War – from Operation Desert Storm, through Sept. 11, 2001 and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and noted the amount of success considering these circumstances was remarkable.

“As impressive as all these accomplishments are, a learning Army and Marine Corps, an Air Force that increasingly relies upon unmanned aircraft to rule the skies and Navy SEALs and special operation s who conduct literacy dozens of operations every night – to me the most remarkable fact of the past decade of war is that every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine who has served has been a volunteer. When America created the all-volunteer force at the end of Vietnam, it could not have imagined that within a generation volunteers would fight for 10 years in two protracted irregular wars.”

And Nagl closed by saying that it is important that these veterans are not forgotten along the way, calling it a “solemn obligation.”

“We have a solemn obligation to these veterans who volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way – and to their families which also carry the scars of the war,” Nagl said. “While many are stronger for the trials they endure, all have been forever changed many with visible wounds , more with damage that is invisible to the naked eye but no less traumatic for being on the scene.”

The Honorable Terrie Suit, Keynote Speaker

While a lot of attention has been put on what the federal government can do to ease the transition of veterans from military to civilian life, what can state and local governments do on their end to help with the process?

Terrie L. Suit, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security for the Commonwealth of Virginia, has created somewhat of a template for other state government to follow. As the second opening keynote speaker at the 2011 Defense Forum in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 26, 2011, she explained how her role as a “Navy wife” led her to champion the cause as a politician in the Virginia state legislature.

“As a wife, I supported by husband through multiple conflicts – the Gulf War, Haiti, Kosovo,” she said. “America was supportive, but not completely united. I still felt that our voices were somewhat muted. In 1999, I ran for office as a Navy wife – never as a SEAL wife. That was very, very important in our community. You never exploited being a part of that special operations group. So publicly, it was just a ‘Navy wife,’ which is fantastic to be a Navy wife.”

Once Suit launched her political career, she explained some of the things she led the charge on for active duty military and veterans, including in-state tuition for active duty military personnel and their children, special considerations and treatment for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that have found their ways into the state judicial system, the ability to obtain state-issued ID cards and driver’s licenses and a sales tax exemptions in certain circumstances.

But despite these gains in her home state of Virginia, she explained that it will require a certain vigilance to maintain them and prevent them from being targeted in budget cutting processes.

“Remember, they cannot politically advocate for themselves when on active duty,” Suit said. “You are the voice. You truly speak for those to pay the ultimate price to protect the political freedom of America, yet are not positioned to speak out politically for themselves as the ranks of our disabled veterans grow, the financial burden to keep America’s commitment will grow.”

“Community Reintegration – The Challenges Back Home”

A component of the “Journey Back” from the battlefield to civilian life is reintegration into the community, which may not be as simple as it sounds.

At the 2011 Defense Forum Washington, the topic was discussed in detail and issues often overlooked were brought to the forefront. Fox News national security analyst K.T. McFarland moderated the focused on the specifics of reintegration. She began by framing the topic in its historical context.

“After the Vietnam War, we treated our veterans shamefully,” McFarland said. “It was an unpopular war as Secretary [Terrie] Suit just pointed out and didn’t end well. Instead of blaming ourselves, we blamed the military. When they came home in the 1970s, we did not honor them for their service. We did not adequately care for their families and we did not give them the support and medical attention they needed. It was a war we wanted to forget and so we forgot about them as well.”

She called the aftermath of Vietnam “a stain on the soul of America,” and, at that time, as an incoming member of the Reagan administration’s Department of Defense, McFarland explained that what she found was alarming – such as veterans with prosthetics that didn’t fit and active duty military personnel paid so little they qualified for food stamps. To her, that is a lesson that should be applicable to today’s military and asserted that it should never be allowed to happen again – including not only the physical effects from military service, but the mental ones as well. She went on to discuss how they can be overcome through the reintegration process.

According to McFarland, since only 1 percent of the U.S. population serves in the military and 10 percent of the population even know someone in the military, these issues are often overlooked.

First up on the panel was Major General James A. Adkins, the adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard.

“We’ve been at war a decade,” he said. “We’re using the Guard and Reserve at a level not seen since World War II. Tens of thousands of Marylanders have served in combat and continue to do that. There’s a lot of lessons learned that I think maybe we have not used and we need to capture the lessons we are learning now as we build systems for the future.”

One of those lessons according to Adkins can be learned from the face that America ran World War II on a system that was designed for World War I. Today, the country is running on system designed for World War II and trying to upgrade it. Adkins likened the process to working on a car as it is traveling 65 mph down the road.

“The war is not over until those folks are fully integrated back at home with their families, with their friends and their communities, back at work or on the college campuses,” Adkins said. “I think that we need to prepare for the next war. We need to look at our systems now identify those lessons learned and work on building that system that is going to support the needs of our nation and our veterans in the future.”

Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Todd Bowers, who served two tours in Iraq and was awarded the Purple Heart and Navy Commendation medal with “V” device for Valor, is a product of the current system.

Bowers has insight into the status quo for veteran reentry. In the 2004 battle for Fallujah in Iraq, he was hit by a sniper. The bullet exploded the telescope lens of his rifle. Then a month later, he was wounded in the knee by a mortar round. 

“I was lucky,” Bowers said for his bio. “The bullet stopped an eighth of an inch from my eye. It fouled up my face … and I lost 80 percent of the hearing in my left ear.”

Despite that traumatic experience, Bowers explained he was reluctant to go to the Vet Center for help and instead tried to “take care of himself.” Speaking from his experience, he said eventually circumstances forced him to seek help.

“We don’t focus on it and the general is correct in that it takes years for these things to start manifesting,” Bowers said. “You start questioning why you’re not sleeping correctly. You start wondering why you have a hard time getting along with my friends and it was literally two months ago where all these things came together at just the right time.”

Bowers explained that had he sought help early on while making the transition to civilian life, some of those the problems he faced might have been prevented, which was a lesson he said should be emphasized to anyone transitioning out of the military.

Nicole M. Keesee, a licensed clinical social worker from Little Rock, Ark. and a Behavioral Health Officer at the rank of Colonel in U.S. Army Reserve with 37 years of service under her belt, was one of the professionals at the Vet Center about which Bowers spoke. 

Keesee explained of some the differences that those transitioning out of military life often overlook, such as a system with rank and command that is closed and much different from civilian life. She explained that “emotional stoicism” is fostered in the military is one of the obstacles the veterans face when leaving military life. 

“You have to be tough,” she said. “You have to put your best face forward. Civilian life requires emotional investment, emotional relationships. It’s one of the challenges we face. It’s difficult for the military to provide community support, especially if you’re outside an installation.”

She added the complication of reaching those who might be in need of help is universal due to geographic constraints.

Dr. David G. Brown, a clinical psychologist and an expert on suicide prevention with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, echoed those concerns. He said that often, particularly overseas, the resources are scarce. 

He explained that poor nutrition and lack of rest often leads to deterioration in soldiers’ mental conditions. However, Brown touted an Army program called Soldier 360° taught them how to deal with these issues. 

The lesson: Humor is the best medicine and they are able to use the program as a laboratory in understanding how an active duty soldier is able to deal with any such demons and in recognizing how they viewed the world, their role and their sense of responsibility.

The next panelist, USAF Lt. Col. Rodney Lewis from Joining Forces, part of the Office of the First Lady, spoke about the initiatives put forth from the East Wing of the White House, including overcoming hurdles dealing with employment for vets and their spouses, education for military families and mental wellness, which he called “a tripod.” Since military duty may require some relocation, he offered one such example of what the Joining Forces program offers.

“Education for military families is an important piece we are trying to improve with great agencies like the National Math and Science Initiative,” Lewis said. “We work on Advanced Placement courses specifically for schools that support military members.”

Finally speaking on this panel was Mrs. April Marcum, the wife of Ret. USAF Sgt. Tom Marcum. Tom Marcum was a 14-year active duty member of the U.S. Air Force. 

In July of 2008 while getting a mobile armory ready for transition, Marcum was working outside by himself when there was incoming mortar which landed 35 yards away. He sustained a traumatic brain injury. However, the symptoms were not initially apparent and April Marcum told story of what she had to overcome in terms of her husband recognizing those symptoms and the bureaucratic hurdles she faced in attempting to get help from the government.

“The local medical community, including the Air Force medical doctor, seemed to be reluctant to help,” she said. “Tom’s primary care doctor implied that Tom was trying to get out of work. This felt like a slap in the face to both of us because he served almost 15 years active duty with never complaining of multiple deployments or shin splints or anything.”

Eventually the Marcums took it up with the medical command and he underwent a long, arduous process to evaluate his health. Only then was it discovered that Tom Marcum had suffered from trauma, and that was nearly a year after he returned from Iraq.

April Marcum said although the cost initially was burdensome and the process was slow, they eventually got the help he needed. But, it was a lesson in things that needed to be improved for military transitioning back to civilian life that might have sustained injuries in the battlefield.

Luncheon Keynote Speaker: Army Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli

Ensuring that veterans just leaving military life make a smooth transition back to the civilian world is important to the Pentagon, according to Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. 

During the luncheon keynote address, Chiarelli discussed that transition for those who have been injured in the line of duty, including the often unrecognizable PTSDs and other brain injuries.

“As of Sept. 1, 60 percent of our most seriously wounded soldiers were suffering from post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury,” Chiarelli said. “I frequently refer to them as the signature wounds of this war.  And the fact is there are many others effected that are not enrolled in our Army Wounded Warrior program, or are yet to be diagnosed. We must get a handle on this.”

Getting a handle on those injuries is difficult Chiarelli said. Although they are just as serious as bullet wounds or other war injuries, injuries involving psychological or mental abnormalities are not as easily recognizable.  

Identifying those injuries is only part of the problem. Getting those afflicted treatment by overcoming the bureaucracy is admittedly a huge problem for the military, Chiarelli said. He suggested that though there have been improvements, including more collaboration between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, it’s still on the minds of the leadership within the Pentagon.

“The partnership has never been better than it is today,” Chiarelli said. “I’m doing a video teleconference once a month with the VA, my mission commanders at all my posts and my medical commanders to ensure we’re all over this. But it’s a big problem. The problem is huge.”

Chiarelli noted there are structural problems with the current system that is geared toward rehabilitating those that have sustained injuries while serving their country - including a system that inadvertently rewards people not to get better and improve their condition. As one panelist had said to the forum earlier, the system was a World War II-era system that is ill-equipped to deal with a modern day all-volunteer military.

“We need to holistically, I think blow the whole thing up and start all over again,” Chiarelli said. “I really believe it is a system that is needed to be reformed.”

“Development to Deployment – Are We Really Committed to Hiring Wounded Warriors?”

One of the key goals according to many at the 2011 Defense Forum Washington was to imagine a method that would make it easier for those that served in the U.S. Armed Forces transitioning back into civilian society to find employment.

With a bad economy, however, accomplishing that may be more difficult than in other eras when the country was winding down a military build-up according to panel moderator Barbara Starr, the Pentagon correspondent for CNN.

“Younger male veterans, 18 to 24-years old face unemployment rates as high as 26 percent,” Starr said. “Nearly 2.5 million men and women have left the active duty military since Sept. 2001. That’s 2.5 million that need meaningful work.”

Those jobs tended to be construction, mining, manufacturing, transportation, utilities, information services, professional and business service, which she said were all sectors of the economy that have experienced employment declines.

Ret. Marine Corps Capt. Chris Ayres, a wounded veteran who is now part of Northrop Grumman’s Operation Impact Hire, a program that promotes the employment of severely wounded service members and their families, had some words of caution for employers. He relayed his own experience as a wounded veteran and his concerns with Northrop Grumman’s wounded veteran program as a lesson for others with good intentions.

“In my experience I’ve seen a lot of organizations that hold themselves out, ‘Hey we want to hire wounded vets,’” Ayres said. “And that’s great, but sometimes it’s like a trophy case. You know, I’m not a trophy piece. I don’t want to come into your organization. I want to work. Because I’m wounded, I’m not a rock star. I just want to get back to work and provide a functional aspect in society, contribute to the rest of society.”

Ayres added that even though some organizations have the best intentions, they tended to be “immature” once they had hired the individual and decide what they are going to do with him or her.

Paul Cofoni, president and CEO of CACI, Inc., communicated those same concerns, saying that these companies often attempt to work with the wounded veteran hospital facilities like Walter Reed and the Bethesda Naval Hospital. Those efforts are, however, sometimes greeted with skepticism.

“Initially those interactions were met with some suspicion because there are a lot of interactions that happen around wounded warriors that are as much about publicity or feeling good as there are real efforts to help the recovery process and the reintegration process,” Cofoni said. 

Ismael “Junior” Ortiz, the deputy assistant secretary of veterans’ employment and training services at the Department of Labor acknowledged the federal government has much work to do, especially with a 26 percent unemployment rate for veteran males 18-24. But he said that the Labor Department had other issues they were working on as well as it pertained to military vets. One of those was homelessness among veterans, which he claimed the Labor Department was making strides in solving.

“We’re doing that,” he said. “We’re working on it as hard as we can. Within DoL, we have certain programs, especially with the vets programs and veterans’ employment programs. We have HVRPs, which are ‘Homeless Veterans Reintegration Programs.’ Pretty successful programs, ladies and gentlemen, I got to tell you.”

Ortiz, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, said helping unemployed veterans wouldn’t be easy as it might seem.

“The fact of the matter is you have to be able to deal with all those issues if you will before you can actually get a person to move on before you can actually do anything,” he said. “And I don’t care if you’re the best employer in the world. If you don’t understand that, if you don’t understand that culture, if you don’t understand where they’re coming from – you can have the best employee in the world, but you’re not going to be able to retain him or her and going to be able to make them work effectively. You have to understand who they are first, whether they’re wounded or whether they’re not. Whether they were in combat or they never even saw a fire or something being shot at.”

Ret. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Kevin Schmiegel, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, emphasized importance of these veterans programs and made the case for them getting special attention.

“If you look at the numbers, there are 12 million veterans in the workforce,” Schmiegel said. “A million of them are unemployed. A lot of people say to me, ‘So what’s the big deal? That’s roughly the same average as the national average.’ I have to bite my tongue as a veteran myself I really want to give them an answer, ‘Are you kidding me? If someone leaves their family for a year at a time, you’re asking me why we should be doing a program for veterans? You got to be kidding me.’”

Instead Schmiegel said he doesn’t say that and says he makes the business case for hiring a veteran. But he added if something isn’t done – the 9 percent veteran unemployment level across the board, and higher for certain segments of the military population, will grow and be unmanageable. 

“If we’re drawing down the force and we have 100,000 Guard and reservist demobilizing this year alone, that 9 percent number will grow,” he said. “We have to do something about it now.”

Closing Keynote Speaker: The Honorable Allison A. Hickey

Ret. Brigadier General Allison A. Hickey, the Under Secretary for Benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs, wrapped up the event

Although she only just took the post in June, Hickey told the crowd about several of her early accomplishments. One of which has been improving access issues for veterans.

“If we get them on an E-Benefits account,” she said.” I get less people calling me from what we know our top issue is right now when they call us, which is ‘what’s the status of my claim,’ ‘explain this confusing letter I just got on my claim to me,’ and the third one is ‘what’s the status of my appeal.’ They can get the first and the third one right now today on their E-Benefits account. So that’s one of the ways from a benefit side we’re trying to increase access and we’re working on that hard.”

Hickey explained that when she originally started her role as undersecretary, there were 250,000 enrollees in the E-Benefits program. She claims they are now approaching 1 million enrollees.

“We’re working closes with DoD and I’m really appreciating the partnership they’re providing under the leadership if Gen. Chiarelli and others and I appreciate all that they do,” she said. 

Hickey went on to say that the VA is working on overhauling the transition assistance program with the Department of Defense.

“We’re going to revamp that thing and when we do, it needs to be not just a class or a course – it needs to be an entire experience and Sec. [Eric] Shinseki will tell you we need to gracefully take people out of the service into their new career with as much focus and as much process and as much dedication and deliberate action as we did with bring them on.”

Hickey also pointed out initiatives dealing with Agent Orange from Vietnam era and post-Sept. 11 G.I. bill funds as other accomplishments by the VA.

To see the complete gallery of images from the 2011 Defense Forum Washington, visit our Flickr set.


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