Relationship a Little Rocky? Time to Retreat

A wife smiles at her husband seated facing her.

Tammy Adams and her Veteran husband Gary share a light moment during the couples retreat.

Whether you’ve been a couple for six months or 60 years, whether your journey together has hit a few bumps in the road or some really deep potholes, sometimes it’s good to just slow down, take a break, and get to know each other again.

“We designed our ‘Warrior to Soul Mate’ couples retreat to be a relationship enrichment experience,” said Dr. Susan Stanton, a psychologist at the Salisbury VA Medical Center in North Carolina. She was one of four facilitators at the two-day event, held recently at a hotel in nearby Concord. About 20 couples attended.

“Our goal,” she continued, “was to teach Veterans and their significant others how to communicate better, how to become a stronger team. We found that when couples put in the effort, they can make tremendous changes in their relationship.”

Just ask Gary Adams, a Navy Veteran who served in Iraq for the better part of 2009. He had good reasons for signing up for the retreat with his wife Tammy.

“I had some issues and I wanted to work on those,” he explained. “Plus I think being in Iraq for a year put a strain on things. Being gone is what strained it all. When I came back Tammy was a lot more self- sufficient and independent. I was having trouble adjusting to that.”

From Glad to Mad

“He’d been gone for a year,” said Tammy, “so what do you do? I had two teenagers to take care of and a father with heart problems. I was running a household, and it was running smoothly. So when he finally came home, he came home to something he didn’t expect. I was different now. And he was different because of the things he’d experienced in Iraq.”

She paused a moment to collect her thoughts, then added, “When they first come home you’re just glad. You’re glad they’re home, you’re glad they’re safe. And because you’re so glad to have him back, you’ll put up with a lot. It’s not until months later that things start hitting the fan. That’s when you start having the hard conversations.”

At the Salisbury VA’s Warrior to Soul Mate retreat, the couple learned how to have those hard conversations in a respectful, constructive way.

Women Like It

“We learned something called the Leveling Position,” Gary Adams said. “They taught us that you always want to be eye-to-eye when you’re having a conversation. You want to be facing each other. It’s very uncomfortable for me to do that, but I think women like it.”

He added: “I think for a man it’s a little uncomfortable having a conversation when the television isn’t on. But at the retreat I learned how to be present during a conversation. It’s still hard for me, though.”

“That was a big step for him,” Tammy said. “Of course all our problems aren’t going to go away overnight. But we definitely learned some things that will help us have better communication. Before, when we had an issue, we’d just get to a certain point and hit a wall. But now we’ve learned how to talk things through and not just leave stuff sitting there.”

Her husband of 25 years agreed. “Communication is a lot easier now, after the retreat,” he observed. “We definitely don’t talk around each other like we were doing before. Now it’s more of a conversation instead of a tennis match.”

The Great Escape

Ryan Wagers, chief chaplain at the Salisbury VA, said investing just a few days in your relationship can make a profound difference.

“Our Warrior to Soul Mate retreat created an opportunity for these couples to escape the normal, everyday pressures of life and concentrate on each other,” he explained. “And you can see the impact. When they first get here on Friday evening, many of them are very reserved and quiet. There’s no hand-holding, no smiling, no laughing. No connection. But by Sunday morning you can see that something remarkable has happened. The body language is all different. They’re looking at each other, smiling, kissing and holding hands. That’s very gratifying to see.”

Army Veteran Will Curry said the retreat definitely brought him and his wife closer. “My wife and I just got married in November, so we’re still learning about each other,” he said. “And we learned a lot at the retreat. I learned there were some things I was doing that I didn’t know disturbed her. Little things…”

Really? What kind of little things?

“Sometimes I’d go off by myself and I’d forget to bring my cellphone,” he admitted. “I don’t think she liked that. Until the retreat I didn’t know how bad of a thing that was, because I didn’t realize she would worry about me if she couldn’t reach me.”

His new wife, Xzavier, smiled. “He’ll be out washing the car, and I’m trying to call him, and his cellphone is sitting here in the house ringing!” she said, laughing. “He wasn’t doing it intentionally. He’s just not a cellphone person.”

What’s the Temperature in Here?

Besides proper cellphone etiquette, was there anything else useful Will discovered during the retreat? “I liked the Daily Temperature Reading exercise,“ he said. “It’s where they have you sit and talk to each other, face-to-face. Now we do our Temperature Reading over breakfast, even though my wife doesn’t like to talk when she first gets out of bed. I’m a morning person, and she’s not. But she’s making an effort.”

“He’s right. I’m not a morning person,” Xzavier said. “I would cook breakfast for him, but I wouldn’t sit down and eat with him. I’d go right back upstairs and begin my morning routine showering, getting dressed, or whatever. But during the retreat, I realized how important these Daily Temperature Readings are for us. So now I sit down and we eat breakfast together every morning. We talk, laugh and share. We’re both morning people now.”

The Daily Temperature Reading was apparently a big hit with a lot of other couples at the retreat as well. “I found it to be very useful,” said Marine Corps Veteran Shane Doyle. “They want you close together, looking at each other.”

“They also want to make sure you’re physically touching each another, holding hands while you’re talking,” said Shane’s fiancée, Michelle. “You say nicer things to someone when you’re touching them.”

She added: “They also teach you how to talk through an entire topic. They teach you how to break down a problem and talk it through. The conversation becomes much easier, much more productive. That was big for me. Shane and I did a lot of talking during the retreat. I had his undivided attention all weekend!” “And I was glad to give it,” Shane said. “She’s my best friend and I want her to know she can rely on me, that I can take things off her plate when she has too much going on.

“I’m helping her plan our wedding,” he added proudly. “We’re getting married on September 12. I’m getting the reception hall for us and I’m helping her with the invitations, and I’m doing other things. I think we’re a great team.”

Learn more about Warrior to Soul Mate retreats.

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Wheelchair Vets Roll into Dallas for Annual Games

men racing in wheelchairs around a track


It’s time for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. This year, in Dallas.

The Games are presented each year by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) with additional support from numerous corporate and community sponsors.

VA North Texas Health Care System (VANTHCS) is hosting the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in and around Dallas from June 21 through June 26.

Benefits to the Mind

The purpose of the NVWG is to provide Veterans with physical disabilities an introductory experience to a variety of wheelchair sports, and expose them to the numerous organized wheelchair sports and recreation activities available nationwide.

The Games serve to encourage Veterans to become aware of their abilities and potential while promoting a spirit of healthy activity and camaraderie.

Benefits to the Body

The NVWG clearly demonstrate the therapeutic value of sports and competition. As presenters of the event, PVA and VA are committed to improving the quality of life for Veterans with disabilities and fostering better health through sports competition.

While past Games have produced a number of national and world-class champions, most importantly, the event provides an opportunity for newly-injured Veterans to gain the knowledge and experience necessary for active lifestyles at home “free” from the perceived confines of their wheelchair.

Benefits to the Spirit

Since the Wheelchair Games began in 1981, thousands of disabled Veterans have enjoyed the health benefits provided by sports participation and have revitalized the spirit of competition within themselves. Veterans new to the Games realize quickly that they are part of a large and supportive community and through these relationships are encouraged to go further than they think they can.

Began After World War II

The NVWG are an outgrowth of VA’s historic involvement in wheelchair sports. Wheelchair sports had their beginning in the aftermath of World War II, when young disabled Veterans began playing wheelchair basketball in VA hospitals throughout the United States. Interest in wheelchair basketball soon spread to other sports such as track and field, bowling, swimming, and archery, spawning the formation of several associations devoted to new and innovative wheelchair sports.

While the participation of paralyzed and other disabled Veterans continued to flourish during the intervening years, it was not until 1980, when VA established a Recreation Therapy Service, that VA’s efforts brought about an enhanced awareness of the rehabilitative value of wheelchair athletics. Since then, VA therapists have used wheelchair sports as a therapeutic tool for treating Veterans with disabilities.

The first National Veterans Wheelchair Games was held in 1981, the “International Year of Disabled Persons,” at the VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va. That year, 74 veterans from 14 states competed in sports ranging from table tennis and billiards, to swimming and weightlifting. Over the next 35 years, the event has grown to be the largest annual rehabilitation and wheelchair sports program in the world.

Strong Sense of Common Identity and Camaraderie

Those first Games established an enduring trait that has characterized the event ever since, a strong sense of common identity and camaraderie among the participants. The hundreds of Veterans who choose to compete in the games each year demonstrate their continuing popularity.

In 1987, 12 British military Veterans were invited to participate in the Games and a team from Great Britain has come every year since. After that first year, the British athletes formed a new disabled sports group, The British Ex-Services Wheelchair Sports Association. This group extended the philosophy behind the NVWG to the rest of the world, hosting International Veterans Wheelchair Games in Great Britain in 1994, 1996, and 1999.

At the Games, Veterans compete in:

  • 9-Ball
  • Air Guns
  • Archery
  • Basketball
  • Boccia
  • Bowling
  • Handcycling
  • Field Events
  • Motor Rally  Power Soccer
  • Quad Rugby
  • Slalom
  • Softball
  • Swimming
  • Table Tennis
  • Track
  • Trapshooting
  • Weightlifting

Thanks to Our Volunteers

To accommodate the needs of the athletes, more than 3,000 local volunteers are required to assist with all aspects of the Games, from helping with transportation, event setup, water distribution, assistance with meals, and numerous other activities that will help guarantee a successful event.

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Tips to Keep Veterans from Falling Down

Two people walking with nordic walking sticks

Over 60% of falls happen at home and 30% happen out in the community.

You can help to prevent falls by making your health a priority.

Health problems, and changes in your vision, walking, and even balance are a few reasons why you may become more likely to fall. Taking certain kinds of medications may also increase your risk of falls. Improving your health, exercising, and taking safety precautions can help you avoid a fall. Talk to and work with your health care provider to manage health problems and to review your medications. If you have your health under control, your risk of falling is lessened.

How health problems can increase your fall risk.

Health problems like low blood sugar, high or low blood pressure, muscle weakness, low endurance, and joint pain are examples of symptoms that may result from chronic health conditions or diagnoses that you are living with. They can be managed, but they don’t go away. Chronic health problems put you at greater risk of a fall. This is because they can affect many parts of your body. They may cause problems with movement, balance, or vision.

Do you get weak or dizzy? Tell your health care provider.

Your health care provider can work with you to help prevent a fall. Notify your provider if you have symptoms such as leg weakness or dizziness that could raise your risk of falling. Have your provider or pharmacist review all the medicines you take, even over-the-counter medicines. As you get older, the way medicines work in your body can change. Some medicines, or combinations of medicines, can make you sleepy or dizzy and cause you to fall.

Discuss your concerns, health practices, nutrition, and exercise routine with your health care provider. And ask whether you need any tests to assess your risk of falling.

Any medication, even an over-the-counter medication, could increase your risk of falling.

Medications — even ones you buy over the counter — can cause side effects that lead to a fall. Common medications that can cause these kinds of side effects include blood pressure, heart, pain, and sleep medications, and antidepressants. Also, the way your body reacts to medications can change as you age. So certain medications that were fine in the past may cause side effects now. Your health care provider (such as your doctor or pharmacist) can help review your medications and make changes if needed.

Old glasses and inner ear problems can affect balance.

Problems with vision or hearing can lead to falls, so do the following to reduce your fall risk:

  • Get your eyes checked at least once a year. You may be wearing the wrong glasses or have a condition like glaucoma or cataracts that limits your vision. Poor vision can increase your chances of falling. Take time to adjust to new glasses.
  • Get your hearing checked at least every other year.
  • Have your doctor check your inner ear for problems that may affect your balance.

Over 60% of falls happen at home and 30% happen out in the community.

To make your home safer:

  • Remove things you can trip over — like papers, books, clothes, and shoes — from stairs and places where you walk.
  • Remove small throw rugs or use double-sided tape to keep rugs from slipping.
  • Keep items you use often in cabinets you can reach easily without using a step stool.
  • Have grab bars put in next to your toilet and in the tub or shower.
  • Use non-slip mats in the bathtub and on shower floors.
  • Improve the lighting in your home. As you get older, you need brighter lights to see well. Hang light-weight curtains or shades to reduce glare. Consider night lights or motion sensor lights.
  • Have handrails and lights put in on all staircases.
  • Wear shoes both inside and outside the house. Avoid going barefoot or wearing slippers.
  • Consider padding sharp edges of furniture to prevent fall-related injuries.

Eat breakfast and drink plenty of water — unless you are on fluid restrictions.

If you don’t get enough to eat or drink, you can become dizzy and fall.

  • Your sense of thirst decreases with age, so drink water throughout the day.
  • Eat breakfast. Plan regular meals.
  • Ask your provider whether you need supplements. These can help strengthen your bones and muscles to help prevent falls. They can also help prevent fractures if you do fall.

Call your health care provider if you have these symptoms.

Be sure to call your health care provider if you fall and are hurt. Also, call if you have any of these signs, symptoms, or concerns:

  • Worrying about falling.
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy more than once a day.
  • Falling suddenly without getting dizzy.
  • Losing your balance often or feeling unsteady on your feet.
  • Having osteoporosis (brittle bones), which puts you at increased risk of fall injuries.
  • Taking blood thinners.
  • Feeling numbness in your legs or feet, or noticing a change in the way you walk.

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U.S. Army Celebrates 240th Birthday on June 14

Eleven soldiers wearing different uniforms depicting the history of the Army


Two hundred and forty years ago, our nation’s leaders established the Continental Army.

VA joins the Army in celebrating its 240th birthday. The Army continues to demonstrate its competence, its commitment, and its character in defense of our nation.

Learn more about the history of the United States Army.

Every day VA cares for thousands of Army Veterans. Here are just four of their stories.

Vietnam Veteran Helping Other Veterans

Vietnam Army Veteran Larry Werst is the Chief of Community Affairs and Voluntary Service at the Walla Walla, Wash., VA. He is very passionate about the service he and his volunteers provide this nation’s heroes. Werst says the Walla Walla VA saved his life, and he is very thankful for that help.

Two men standing in front of a tent
Army Veteran Larry Werst (left) in Vietnam

In Vietnam, he was part of the 86th Transportation Company and drove a five-ton truck hauling small arms ammunition into fire bases and landing zones to support the ground troops.

Back home, Werst started out working as a cross-country truck driver but struggled as he attempted to integrate back into civilian life. When he became homeless and needed help, he came to the Walla Walla VA seeking treatment and assistance, carrying everything he owned in two large plastic garbage bags.

Werst completed a substance abuse treatment program and credits the VA for his sobriety. After earning a degree in Alcohol and Drug Studies, he began his new job as an addiction therapist at the Walla Walla VA. He expresses great satisfaction in being able to help his fellow Veterans who also may be struggling with sobriety and other issues. He says that he “just wanted to give back.”

Since 2004, Werst has led the volunteer program, and in 2012 his role expanded to include Community Affairs. Deborah McCormick, Walla Walla associate director, says his ability to be empathetic to the Veteran experience makes him shine as a VA leader, adding, “Knowing Larry’s story is humbling for me, and he serves as a constant reminder to me why I work at the VA. Larry is a VA success story.”

Army Veteran Receives Top-Notch Care at VA Community Living Center

When Army Veteran Darren Jones left the military in 1999 the last thing on his mind was signing up at the VA for health care. Jones served in the Gulf War and says joining the Army was one of the best decisions of his life.

Two men standing in front of a tent
Army Veteran Darren Jones works on his rehab at VA.

“It enabled me to get very good training, travel and learn valuable life lessons,” Jones said. Upon leaving the Army, he got a good job and settled into the community, but it wasn’t until 15 years later that VA came into his life.

“I was working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and was having a few medical problems. And it wasn’t until that moment did I realize that I had this whole package of benefits available to me that I had totally forgotten about.” Three years after he enrolled in the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System, his hip, which had been causing him problems for as long as he can remember, began getting steadily worse.

His VA physician suggested that he request his military medical records which showed a continued dialog that Jones had with his doctors when he was on active duty about aggravated pain in his hip after long marches and extended periods of standing.

“I didn’t even realize those notes were documented in my military record,” Jones said. “I had dealt with this hip pain for so many years. It was time to do something about it.”

Earlier this year he underwent a full hip replacement and checked in to the Biloxi VA Medical Center’s Community Living Center (CLC) for short-term rehabilitation. His recovery went extremely well, thanks to the excellent care and treatment he is receiving at the CLC.

“Everyone at the Biloxi VA has just been great,” Jones said. “From the housekeeping staff, to the nurses, physical therapists … they have all been so helpful. The therapists push you, but not too hard. They want to make sure you are strong enough to get around on your own before you go home. I am very thankful that there is a place like this for us Veterans to come for rehabilitation. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to recover.”

Army Veteran Teaches Tai Chi for Visually Impaired Veterans

Tony Vignali was an infantryman in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1966 assigned to the 116th Assault Helicopter Company, part of the 25th Infantry Division. He flew in Dustoff helicopters, the air ambulance of Vietnam, evacuating casualties from the battlefield.

Army Veteran Alvin Spears gets advice on a stretching exercise from Tony Vignali (right), volunteer instructor.

His time in Vietnam was a traumatic chapter in his life which he has great difficulty talking about, but Vignali looks back on his Army experience as an important path in his life’s journey. “For where I am right now, the experience was worth it.”

Jump forward half a century from Vietnam and Vignali stands barefoot on the wooden floor of the recreational hall at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque, N.M.

He has a long gray beard, his hair braided in a waist-length ponytail, and wire-framed glasses. Facing him are four visually impaired Veterans, standing an arm’s length apart from each other. The men exhale slowly as they bring their arms up over their heads.

Vignali, a Tai Chi instructor and medical center volunteer, exhales with his students, then asks the group to slowly bring their arms back down to their sides. He conducts the hour-long class with the help of two Veteran volunteers. A VA patient himself, Vignali says Tai Chi is an excellent form of exercise for these Veterans who may have limited recreational opportunities.

“They take walks and that’s about it, but Tai Chi gets their shoulders, hips and backs moving,” Vignali said. “It also gives them a better sense of balance, which they really need. They’re fast learners, they love it and it makes them feel good.”

Dr. Darel Siebert, a U.S. Air Force Veteran, attends the regular Tai Chi classes and volunteers to assist his blind comrades during this class. He said taking three years of Tai Chi classes at the VA has changed his life. “I’ve got Parkinson’s and Tai Chi has really helped me with my balance. Three years ago, I was walking around with a cane. Now I don’t use a cane anymore.”

Vignali has been teaching Tai Chi at the VA rec hall for 10 years. His dedication in volunteering to help his fellow Veterans is evident by his commute as he lives 67 miles south of Albuquerque. He said teaching this class for visually impaired Veterans has been an education for him.

“I’m learning a lot,” Vignali said. “I’m learning how to teach them.”

World War II Army Veteran Gets High School Diploma – 60 Years Later

World War II Army Veteran James Plummer entered the military as part of the Greatest Generation to serve his nation when it needed him — before he had a chance to finish high school. After his service, Plummer never had the chance to go back to finish and graduate.

man in wheelchair next to woman
Angela Williams, Grand Island VA site manager, presents James Plummer an honorary high school diploma.

In 2015, his day finally arrived on January 16, nearly 60 years after the war, when he received an honorary high school diploma at the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System Community Living Center, Grand Island, Neb.

“A program called “Operation Recognition” enables Veterans from World War II and the Korean War to receive honorary diplomas in place of the ones they missed out on when they left to fight in these wars,” said Ken Ward, recreation therapist.

Angela Williams, Grand Island VA site manager, presented Plummer his diploma in a ceremony that featured him wearing a graduation cap and gown, a procession with the traditional pomp and circumstance music and led by a VA employee carrying the U.S. flag. VA employees joined in the celebration, with each personally shaking Plummer’s hand after the ceremony.

“It means a great deal,” Plummer said, as he looked at his diploma. “It was a surprise to me. I never did think I’d get it.”

Operation Recognition is a collaboration between the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs and the Nebraska Department of Education. Since the program was implemented in 1999, more than 1,700 honorary diplomas have been awarded to eligible Veterans.

The Army continues to demonstrate its competence, commitment and character in defense of our nation.

Happy Birthday U.S. Army

US Army logo

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Veterans Adding Life Story to Medical Records

doctor taking notes as patient relays his story

VA’s Thor Ringler interviews Army Veteran Darrell Krenz, a POW in the Korean War, for the “My Life, My Story” program.

When you’re meeting your new doctor for the first time, do you want her to know that you were wounded during the Tet Offensive in 1968 while trying to pull a wounded comrade out of harm’s way? And that a month later you accidentally shot that same guy in the leg and crippled him for life?

Do you want her to know you fell out of a tree when you were 11 and broke your arm? Or that it was your best friend who actually pushed you out of the tree, and that you’ve had a hard time trusting people ever since?

Well, if you want that kind of stuff in your medical chart, the nice people at the VA in Madison, Wis., will be happy to accommodate you. With your permission, someone will come into your hospital room and spend an hour or so listening and writing, while you tell them your life story.

Stories R Us

“We give you our undivided attention,” said Thor Ringler, a writer and therapist with the Madison VA who spends his days listening to patients tell their stories. “We’re there to be a listening presence. You talk. We write.”

Once he has your story written up, Ringler will give you a chance to look it over and make any changes you want.

“Then it goes into your medical chart,” he said. “The next person who reads it will be your doctor, or maybe your nurse, or your respiratory therapist, or any other member of your medical team. It gives them a glimpse of who you really are, all the different things in your life that formed you, as well as the events and circumstances that brought you here to the Madison VA”.

Over and Over

“With an interview like this, you’re able to get so much more information,” said Jennifer Sluga, a 26-year-old Army Veteran who served in Kosovo in 2006-2007. “A provider can’t get that when they talk to you for 10 minutes.”

“I’ve had so many different primary care doctors through the VA over the years,” Sluga continued. “Even if you do get asked about your story, you get tired of telling it over and over. You hold back information. With this interview, I get it out and it’s in the record. I don’t have to talk about the hard stuff if I don’t want to. I don’t have to be strong and put on the soldier face. I know it’s there for the provider to read.”

“With an interview like this, you’re able to get so much more information” Jennifer Sluga, Army Veteran

Sluga said that for anyone who hasn’t served in the military, it can be hard to imagine what some Veterans have been through.

“There are a lot of younger providers who don’t have the life experience to know what it means,” she explained. “You might be sitting across from an 89-year-old Veteran but you don’t know what experiences he has under his belt. If you have his story in the record, you might realize that he isn’t just an old man, but a hero.

“Anything you can do to make a Veteran feel special is worth it,” she added. “Interviewing them and writing their stories does that.”

On Being Human

“Doctors don’t generally have time to listen to your life story,” said Eileen Ahearn, a psychiatrist at Madison who launched the “My Life, My Story” program in March 2013. “But they do have time to read a one or two page summary in your medical chart. It helps them understand who it is they’re treating. You’re no longer just a collection of symptoms. You’re a human being.”

Ahearn remembers reading the life story of a patient she was about to begin treating for chronic depression.

“I was able to obtain a world of valuable information about this patient before I even met him,” Ahearn said. “He had started a woodworking program for troubled teenagers at the local high school. It was very important and meaningful to him, to help these kids. Then he suffered some physical setbacks, and wasn’t able to continue his work at the high school. It was devastating for him.”

“Knowing all this ahead of time was a big help to me when I sat down to talk with him,” she continued. “I already knew his story. I felt like I already knew him, to some degree. I knew why he was sad. Heck, if I was no longer able to do something I really loved, I’d be depressed too.”

She added: “When I read these life histories, I’m not surprised by the terrible hardships and adversity some of these patients have endured in their lives. What surprises me is their resilience. I’m continually amazed at how resilient people are. I find it inspiring.”

Doctor take notes as woman relays her story

Thor Ringler interviews Army Veteran Jennifer Sluga

Let it Ride

Thor Ringler, the Madison VA’s in-house story writer, said things can sometimes take an unexpected turn while you’re listening to someone talk about their past.

“This one patient was very near the end of his life,” he explained. “He had cancer. He had already given me his story; I was sitting there reviewing it with him so he could make his edits. For some reason we started talking about other things … big-picture things. He asked me if I thought there was anything he should do before he died. He asked if I believed in God. It got pretty deep.”

“These were questions I wasn’t prepared for,” Ringler continued. “I got a little uncomfortable, and realized he should probably be talking to someone other than me … a psychologist, maybe, or a chaplain, or a palliative care specialist. But I was the only one there, so I let it ride. We just talked.”

For a while, Ringler and two other people, a nurse and a counselor were the only ones going from room to room, quietly collecting stories from patients. Now things have changed.

“An article about our program ran in the local paper,” Ringler explained. “Now we have 16 volunteers that we’re training. These are people from all walks of life — physicians, teachers, nurses, lawyers. The response from the community has been tremendous.”

Community Volunteers Participating

The program has trained over 26 community volunteers and has a waiting list for new volunteers. Since the program started in 2013, 619 Veterans at the Madison VA have been interviewed and 353 of these interviews were conducted by community volunteers.

The “My Life, My Story”program was expanded to six other VA hospitals around the country in March. They are White River Junction, Vt., Asheville, N.C., Bronx, N.Y., Iowa City, Iowa, Reno, Nev., and Topeka, Kan. The Madison, Wis. VA is also working with three other VA facilities to supply them a “My Life, My Story” toolkit and project support so that they can launch the project there.

Another interesting approach is a pilot study at a Madison Community Based Outpatient Clinic where the staff interviews VA primary care providers and writes up their stories. When the stories are complete, the providers share the stories with their Veteran patients while they are waiting for their primary care appointments.

Veterans who have read their provider’s story think it’s a good idea:

“More organizations should do this.”

“I enjoyed reading my provider’s story. Knowing additional and personal information about her puts me at ease to share my own story and build a trusting relationship with her.”

The concept is also being introduced to the private sector. According to Ringler, “We are collaborating with the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to offer a two-week “My Story” elective to fourth year medical students during the spring of 2016. Med students will be trained and ‘embedded’ full-time in the program for two weeks as interviewer/writers.”

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How Do You Save Someone’s Life?

Two women working in an office setting.  One woman is talking on the phone.

Calm, Cool and Collected — Krista Mechling (on phone) and Veronica Lucious make a good team at Pittsburgh VA’s Suicide Prevention Office.

The phone rings. You answer it. The Veteran on the other end of the line tells you he’s alone in his garage, and he’s about to put a handgun in his mouth and pull the trigger.

What do you do? What do you say?

“You always have to remain calm at this job,” said Veronica Lucious, a suicide prevention case manager at the Pittsburgh VA. “You want to keep them on the line, you want to keep them talking.”

A Navy Veteran, Lucious has been working at the suicide prevention office since 2009. “You also want to find out where they are,” she added. “That’s important. I can’t send someone out to help you if I don’t know where you are.”

Once she pinpoints your location, Lucious contacts the VA police, who then coordinate with local police to get officers to your location as quickly as possible.
But not all the calls are quite that dramatic.

“One Veteran called us to report that his utilities had been cut off,” Lucious said. “But you have to realize it’s not just the utilities. There’s other stuff happening in this person’s life, and now his utilities are cut off and it’s the last straw. You need to listen to what he’s saying, and you need to ask the right questions to determine if he’s feeling suicidal. Some of these calls can go two or three hours.”

Losing Hope

Krista Mechling, Pittsburgh’s suicide prevention coordinator, said the loss of a relationship seems to be the number one factor in pushing someone over the edge.

“We had a 28-year-old Veteran who killed himself because he and his cyber girlfriend broke up,” Mechling reported. “He sent her money so she could come see him. He was convinced he’d found the love of his life. She was the one. But she took his $10,000 and he never heard from her again. He was devastated.

“It’s sad, because he was lonely, and suddenly there was some hope being dangled out there in front of him. Then it was yanked away. This happens more than you think. A lot of these younger Veterans look to the Internet for their support. It can be a dangerous place for them.”

But depression and despair play no favorites when it comes to age.

“We had an 84-year-old Veteran who had to put his wife in a nursing home,” Mechling said. “They had been sweethearts in high school. But she got brain cancer, and he couldn’t take care of her anymore. One day he went to visit her in the nursing home and she didn’t recognize him. He went home and shot himself. He felt like he had failed her. He felt like he had abandoned her.”

Mechling said it’s the success stories, however, that keep her going.

Landing in Mud

“I had one guy calling me from his balcony, ready to jump,” she said. “His wife was there with him and she knew what was happening, but she didn’t care. She thought he was just crying wolf again.”

So was he just crying wolf? Was this particular Veteran addicted to drama, or was he serious?

“This guy had called me before, so I knew him,” Mechling said. “He’d actually jumped off a bridge six months earlier. But the river mud he landed in cushioned his fall. Still, he had jumped, so I knew he was a doer and not just a talker. He told me he had gone off his meds, that he and his wife had just had a terrible fight, and that he was frustrated. Then he told me he was jumping now — right now — and that’s when his phone went dead.”

“My philosophy is to be kind to everyone, because everyone is going through some kind of battle.”Veronica Lucious

As it turns out, the Veteran had hurled his cell phone off the balcony, not himself. But thanks to Mechling, first responders arrived minutes later and took him to a local hospital.

“Now he’s at our VA in Clarksburg getting treatment,” she said. “I don’t know if I saved his life. Maybe I did. Maybe something I said kept him from jumping. I don’t know.”

Veronica Lucious, who sits right next to Mechling at the suicide prevention office, has no doubt her friend saved the Veteran’s life that day. “He called your direct line,” she reminded Mechling. “He wanted to talk to you.”

Down to Business

Lucious noted that every call is different, and that sometimes different tactics need to be used if a suicidal Veteran isn’t responding well to what you’re saying.

“One suicidal gentleman called me and told me he wasn’t at home, but he wouldn’t tell me where he was,” she said. “He called me about four or five different times, but refused to give me his location. I was getting frustrated, because I was trying to encourage him to come in. Finally, toward the end of the day, I said to him: ‘You tell me where you are right now!’ I didn’t say it mean, but he could tell I meant business. Right away he told me exactly where he was.”

Recalling the incident, Lucious laughed. “I had the police go out and pick him up. He’s okay. He still calls me. He calls me at least once a week.”

Then there are the calls that don’t go so well, the calls that end tragically.

“Those are the ones that haunt you,” Lucious said. “We had a young woman, an Army Veteran, commit suicide. I had talked to her twice that morning, on the day she died. First her friend called and told us this young woman was having trouble. Then the young woman herself got on the phone and we talked.

“A little later that morning I called her back to see how she was doing and to encourage her to come here to get help. She didn’t make it. She killed herself, and I’ll never know why. My heart broke. Everyone’s heart broke.”

She added quietly: “I’m still processing that one.”

The Bottom Line

Lucious said that in the realm of suicide prevention, you have to accept the fact you have only so much control over what another person might do.

“You always ask yourself, what else could I have done? What else should I have done? But the bottom line is, you never really know what a person is feeling, what they’re going through.

“My philosophy is to be kind to everyone,” she concluded, “because everyone is going through some kind of battle. You never know, maybe just giving someone a little compliment, or a smile, or a hug. That might be the one thing that makes all the difference to somebody. It might be the one thing that gives them some hope.”

Are you a Veteran in crisis or know someone who is? Call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1) or visit

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Designing Clothes for Veterans with Prosthetics

womann in wheelchair talking to another woman in a consultation room

Erika Morales-Hernandez, a senior student in clothing engineering, consults with Air Force Veteran Judy McCombs

Photo by Claudie Benjamin

She was asked the question, “How do you put on pants?” Air Force Veteran Judy McCombs answered with a laugh, “In bed with a lot of wiggling. It’s like putting on skinny jeans.”

The question was actually quite serious and her response was significant to Erika Morales-Hernandez, a senior student in clothing engineering, completing her capstone project at SUNY’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).

Morales-Hernandez and four other students are working together to engineer clothing that is comfortable, fashionable, and easy to put on for Veterans with disabilities.

McCombs, a patient at VA’s St. Albans Community Living Center, was enthusiastic in sharing her experience with clothing with Morales-Hernandez, who took notes and made sketches during their meeting in McCombs’ room. McCombs has multiple medical problems and has been wheelchair-bound for the past three years.

Even during their first meeting, McCombs was able to make meaningful design suggestions to Morales-Hernandez, who describes her designs: “I had designed a cape to be shorter in back to avoid bunching in the back of the wheelchair, but now I understand it has to be shorter in front as well to ensure freedom of movement,” she says. This garment, as with others engineered by the group, uses magnetic snaps or Velcro to make closing and fastening the garment easier.

“Fashion can make a huge difference in your demeanor, self-esteem, and even your personality.”

During a meeting with Anna Smith, also an Air Force Veteran who uses a wheelchair, Morales-Hernandez discussed the challenge of designing something that is both functional and attractive.

Another FIT student, Nastaran Eghtesad, met with Army Veteran Pamela Winfield, who was attacked by a man wielding a samurai sword. Acting as a good samaritan, Winfield lost her arm while saving the life of an elderly neighbor. Winfield and Eghtesad discussed the daily struggles of getting dressed as an amputee.

“It was very helpful to my research to see how I could develop clothing that is amputee and overall disability friendly. Struggles of fastening closures such as zippers and buttons we take for granted, but are challenges that amputees must overcome every day. With the feedback from the interview, I am able to come up with alternate closures for garments and certain functions that amputees would appreciate,” said Eghtesad. She is designing a button-up shirt with interchangeable sleeves, and also slacks.

two women discussing designs
FIT Student Erika Morales-Hernandez meets with Army Veteran Anna Smith

Eghtesad adds, “There will be trials of samples and fittings using muslin and the final fabric to make sure the clothing fits and functions properly. Most importantly, the clothing will not lose style integrity, because fashion can make a huge difference in your demeanor, self-esteem, and even personality. Winfield was a great inspiration, I am honored to work with her on this project.”

The students are still debating fabrics and color choices. “As of right now, we are considering crepes, knits, and wool fabrics for a fall/winter line. Color-wise, we were thinking of blacks, navys, whites, red and camel. We want these clothes to be appealing in a wide range of age.”

Eghtesad has also met with occupational therapist Roxanne Disla, prosthetic and orthotic technologist Ed Sliwinski, who wears a left leg prosthesis, and prosthetist Christopher Fantini, to discuss details such as which fabrics are least likely to catch on prosthetic devices that are made of thermoplastics and acrylic resins, and often incorporate metal.

All the students in the group had a charge from their professor, Luz Pascal, to engineer garments that will improve someone’s life. The students are consulting with individuals who have neurological problems that create difficulties when they get dressed and present challenges when they are looking for variety in clothing.

The students had multiple meetings with the Veterans until the garments were designed, fitted and produced, and presented at a final session for FIT professors, other students in this class, and the Veterans they consulted.

Fashionistas at the Final Presentations

Air Force Veteran Anna Smith proved herself to be a model who engages with her audience, at the capstone presentation held in April at SUNY’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Smith hammed it up a little for an appreciative group of students and staff, but the presentation of garments especially engineered for people with disabilities was all serious.

two women discussing designs
Army Veteran Pam Winfield (L) and clothing engineering student Nastaran Eghtesad

Army Veteran Pamela Winfield attended as part of the audience. Smith modeled an outfit designed for ease in dressing and undressing featuring a blouse design inspired by Winfield, who wears a high-tech prosthetic left hand. The garment has interchangeable sleeves attached with velcro that allows for versatility and ease of wear.

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Biloxi VA in Most Beautiful Hospital Competition

View of the Biloxi facility from the front flag pole


All photos by Wayne Alley

VA’s Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System in Biloxi, Mississippi, has been nominated in an annual search to find the Top 20 Most Beautiful Hospitals in America.

Here’s one reason why:

aerial view of the Biloxi VA campus with Mullet Lake in the background

The Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System is the only VA hospital chosen in the final group of hospitals nominated from across America. Anyone can vote for the hospital of their choice. Voting takes less than one minute. Biloxi has a beautiful facility with a noble mission, so let’s spread the word.

The annual competition is sponsored by Soliant Health, one of the largest health care staffing companies in America.

Healing is Beautiful, and Vice Versa

The link between beautiful hospitals and pleased patients has been observed by Soliant staff as they work in facilities around the country. “There is a special feel to hospitals with inviting public spaces and soothing private rooms,” said one nurse. “Patients who feel satisfied with the facility may recover faster and have shorter stays, which is good for both hospital and patient.”

“Patients who feel satisfied with the facility may recover faster and have shorter stays.”

According to David Alexander, president of Soliant Health, “As a provider of health care professionals for hospitals, we recognize that staff morale and attention to patients’ needs are critical to patients’ happiness, but our surveys also show that another factor in satisfaction was how the hospital actually looked.”

Homelike Atmosphere

The Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System has fully embraced cultural transformation in all new construction and renovations. Their interior designers have taken the lead for VA nationwide in developing interiors that help create a comforting homelike atmosphere.

From Medical/Surgical and ICU units to Community Living Center, Residential Rehabilitation, and inpatient behavioral health, a homelike atmosphere has been integrated into all patient care areas without compromising infection control standards or interfering with state-of-the-art medical care.

Design Promotes Exercise and Fellowship

Outside the bricks and mortar, the Biloxi medical center incorporates cultural transformation and patient-centered care philosophy through landscapes and areas of recreation. The Central Lawn and meandering sidewalks encourage more walking and the new basketball court invites activities promoting exercise and fellowship.

Sprawling campus on Bay Back Biloxi with magnificent moss-laden oak trees.

The fishing pier provides an opportunity to relax and enjoy the view or veterans can try their luck at fishing with gear and bait provided at the nearby bait shack.

Bicycles are provided for those that enjoy a nice leisurely ride around the sprawling 105 acre campus that includes scenic views on Bay Back Biloxi and magnificent moss-laden live oak trees.

The Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System is accredited by the Joint Commission to serve Veterans across three states.The VA Medical Center is located in Biloxi, Miss., with four Community Based Outpatient Clinics located in Mobile, Ala., Pensacola, Fla., Fort Walton Beach, Fla. and Panama City, Fla.

The VA Medical Center in Biloxi and the Florida CBOCs are located in close proximity to Department of Defense military installations.

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VA Remembers America’s Fallen on Memorial Day

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