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Warrior Call: Serving Those Now Suffering After Serving Us

It was a day Frank Larkin will never forget. In April 2017, his son Ryan F. Larkin, a Navy SEAL who was struggling following his return to civilian life, committed suicide in the basement of the family’s home.

“He was wearing his SEAL Team 7 T-shirt, red, white, and blue board shorts, and illuminated a shadow box next to where he was,” said Larkin as he choked up while talking with DCJournal.

He had just recounted how his son fought a losing battle not only inside his own head but with the Veterans Administration. “He says… ‘All they do is keep writing me prescriptions and these drugs, I don’t even feel like I’m in my own body.’ And he said to me, ‘I’m banged up inside.’”

Government statistics say there were 6,146 veteran suicide deaths in 2020, almost 60 percent higher than non-veteran adults. The next year, 519 active-duty members of the Armed Forces took their own lives.

Larkin, a former Navy SEAL and Secret Service agent who also served as the 40th U.S. Senate Sergeant at Arms, used his son’s death to form Warrior Call. It connects veterans and former first responders with resources to help them get past isolation and thoughts of suicide.

“In many cases, it’s because the time they spent in service to our country is not well understood by our society,” Larkin said. “So, when they come out of their service, or while they’re still in uniform, there’s kind of a translation challenge with folks who are on the outside that have not served to understand what life is in uniform.”

Visible injuries sustained while on duty may be one reason why veterans and first responders have trouble adapting to civilian life. But invisible injuries also exist, mainly in the form of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). In March, researchers from the Naval Health Research Center discovered a combination of high-level and low-level blasts may increase the chances of military members later developing migraines and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is a recipe for disaster in the brain, the researchers noted, when combined with injuries from either contact sports or a car or vehicle accident.

Their conclusion was there is a need for “public health surveillance initiatives for blast exposure and or safety recommendations for training and operational environments.”

The good news is Congress seems to be getting on board. The Senate has passed a resolution making November 12 National Warrior Call Day. It encourages Americans to call active duty military members, veterans, and first responders and talk with them about how they are feeling. The resolution implores people to connect veterans with support, knowing that it could save their lives.

“Those who have taken the oath to defend our country deserve our appreciation and support long after their service ends,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) in a statement. She and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) co-wrote the Warrior Call Day resolution. “I’m glad the Senate passed my bipartisan resolution that, if signed into law, would designate a National Warrior Call Day to help raise awareness and strengthen the relationship between veterans and civilians.”

The House has yet to vote on National Warrior Call Day, something that has caused Larkin to feel frustrated. He wants veterans and first responders to realize that they are not alone. “Much of this work, at least the advancement of the knowledge of what’s going on, especially with regard to brain health, is occurring in the nonprofit and the private sector with a lot of the universities and research institutions that are not aligned with the government,” he said.

He hopes people will start checking up on veterans that they know. “If you sense that they’re not in a good place, then get them tied up with some resources that potentially can help pull them out of the darkness and get them to a better place.”

Larkin vows to not stop until veterans get all the help that they can get. He sees Warrior Call as part of the solution. “That became my mission… After [my son’s] death, I knew what he wanted, and I picked up that baton, and I’m just leaning forward.”

Rediscovering America: A Quiz for Veterans Day

November 11 is both Veterans Day and the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the solemn landmark at Arlington National Cemetery honoring military personnel killed in action who have never been identified. Since 1999, a vacant crypt on the grounds has honored missing service members from the Vietnam War.

The quiz below, from the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio, provides an opportunity for you to test your knowledge of Veterans Day and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

1. What was Veterans Day originally called?

A. Armed Forces Day

B. Remembrance Day

C. Soldiers Day

D. Armistice Day

2. In what year was the name changed to Veterans Day?

A. 1938

B. 1945

C. 1954

D. 1962

3. Starting in 1971, after the Uniform Holiday Bill was passed moving federal holiday observances to Mondays, Veterans Day was observed on different dates. What president signed the legislation returning the annual observance to its original date?

A. Richard M. Nixon

B. Gerald R. Ford

C. Jimmy Carter

D. Ronald Reagan

4. Why is Veterans Day always observed on November 11, rather than on a Monday, like other national holidays?

A. The World War I ceasefire was signed on the 11th day of the 11th month

B. The Allies won the First Battle of Ypres on November 11

C.  The last World War I soldier returned home on that date

D. The Battle of the Somme ended on November 11 after 141 days

5. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are approximately how many veterans living in the United States today?

A. 7 million

B. 12 million

C. 19 million

D. 46 million

6. Which U.S. state is credited with being the home to the most Medal of Honor winners?

A. New York

B. Pennsylvania

C. Ohio

D. Texas

7. In proposing legislation to create the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1921, which congressman said, “It is hoped that the grave of this unidentified warrior will become a shrine of patriotism for all the ages to come, which will be a source of inspiration, reverence and love of country for future generations”?

A. William A. Ashbrook of Ohio

B. Champ Clark of Missouri

C. Hamilton Fish III of New York

D. Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts

8. Which U.S. president officiated at the ceremony dedicating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?

A. Woodrow Wilson

B. Warren Harding

C. Calvin Coolidge

D. Herbert Hoover

9. In addition to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery also houses a Tomb of the Civil War Unknowns. Of the 2,111 unidentified soldiers buried there, 1,800 were recovered from which battlefield?

A. Antietam

B. Vicksburg

C. Gettysburg

D. Manassas (Bull Run)

10. Which former general said, “The highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country”?

A. George Patton

B. John Pershing

C. George Marshall

D. Douglas MacArthur

ANSWERS: 1-D, 2-C, 3-B, 4-A, 5-C, 6-A, 7-C, 8-B, 9-D, 10-A

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DelVal Veterans Struggle to Get Promised Services

Shaking with adrenaline, Robert McLaughlin was “raging” when he went to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Philadelphia for help.

It has been five years since that harrowing encounter, but the Air Force veteran, now 32 and living in Bensalem, recalled the day with striking clarity, in an interview ahead of Veteran’s Day.

It changed his life for the better — and could have altered it for the worse if a caretaker hadn’t intervened.

McLaughlin, who served for five years starting in 2007, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder when he came home after spending time working in the burn pits in Iraq and doing tours of  duty in Afghanistan and Qatar.

Courtesy of Robert McLaughlin

He was stressed about his future and struggling financially. He had quit a job as an assistant manager at Wendy’s to start a fledgling dog-training business.

Tired of fighting with Veterans Affairs officials to honor his benefits, he was agitated and suicidal, having put a gun in his mouth several times before the visit.

The nurse at the front desk of the emergency room ran McLaughlin through standard intake questions. When she got to the last question, asking whether he was homicidal or suicidal, McLaughlin almost snapped.

“No, not right now. But I’m getting there,” he responded, prompting the nurse to reach under the table and hit the panic button, alerting security at the facility. “It was like the bell went off in a [boxing] ring.”

Unfortunately, McLaughlin’s horror story isn’t unique.

In 2015, a year before McLaughlin’s visit, another veteran, Gary Dorman, jumped to his death from the VA parking garage after seeking psychiatric treatment at the facility.

And area veterans who spoke with the Delaware Valley Journal recalled similar struggles as McLaughlin in gaining access to adequate healthcare, housing, employment, and services that would help them reintegrate into society after their tours of duty.

Philadelphia ranked as one of the worst major cities to live for the more than 19 million veterans in the U.S., according to a recent survey examining 100 of the nation’s biggest cities along several socioeconomic factors.

Cities were graded based on the number of skill-specific job offerings for vets, income levels, overall “veteran-friendliness,” and other factors. The results were less than lovely for the City of Brotherly Love, which came in 91st with a score of 44.1, ahead only of places like North Las Vegas, Newark, Jersey City, Baltimore and Detroit — which finished dead last.

The top three cities, respectively, were Tampa Bay, Austin, Texas, and Scottsdale, Arizona. They all provide significant opportunities for employment, better healthcare, and overall quality of life for vets, according to the survey. One expert cited in the report, Kevin Griffith, an assistant professor who teaches health policy at Vanderbilt University, said veterans are at higher risk for certain health disorders, such as PTSD and hepatitis C, than the rest of society.

Finding cities with robust healthcare facilities, either through the VA or private medical networks, that can address combat-specific issues such as “survivor’s guilt” can be the difference between life and death for veterans.

McLaughlin found that out the hard way, saying he undoubtedly would have come to blows with VA security if his wife hadn’t called a hospital coordinator who called off the officers.

“Pain kinda engages me. When you rage you have all this power that they build up in our bodies for warfare, and you come home and you have no way to get this out. I think they want us to lose our sh*t. If I go to jail, I don’t get my veterans benefits,” said McLaughlin, who has visited the Philly VA so many times in recent years that he’s memorized the address —3900 Woodland Avenue.

“If I had a genie who said, ‘What do you want?’ I’d say ‘I want 3900 Woodland Avenue to go away.’ It would take away a leg of their facade [of help],” he said.

Growing up in the “Black Bottom” Mantua section in West Philadelphia, Rodney Wyatt, a 67-year-old veteran who served in both the U.S. Marines and Army, said he joined the armed forces in the 1970s to escape poverty during times of great racial strife and get away from neighborhood gangs.

He was initiated into the “grandfather of all gangs” when he was 10 years old.

“It was a way of life at the time,” he said.

Knowing what it’s like to suffer from his own injuries after getting out of service, Wyatt started a Bristol-based nonprofit, Salute to Veterans, in 2014, helping veterans, some in their 90s, get “basic necessities” they need to live, to offset unmet gaps from agencies in the area.

In 2015, Philly officials claimed the city’s homeless veteran population was “functionally zero,” but The Philadelphia Inquirer reported this year that many veterans are still living on the streets. The Philly VA in 2020 reported that it found housing for at least 935 local veterans.

And with the suburban shelter overrun, Wyatt said some homeless vets were forced to live in the woods while others were waitlisted for services. While his organization helps between 10 to 25 veterans a week, Wyatt lamented a 94-year-old who died before the organization could clear the red tape to get the man his benefits.

“They take them through the ringer,” Wyatt said. “There’s so many disparities here. We’re the most overlooked population in the county. We need to be spotlighting veterans every day.”

Wyatt regularly fields calls from frustrated veterans who try to get help at the Philly VA, which has faced some bad publicity over the years.

In 2020, the feds charged a manager at the hospital with accepting thousands of dollars in kickbacks to steer contracts to a Florida couple, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Federal prosecutors indicted another 15 VA employees and business owners in Florida the year before, for alleging they schemed to bilk millions marked for veterans’ care through inflated or unfulfilled purchase orders.

Money like that could have been funneled to help disabled veterans like 63-year-old Darryl Williams, of Bristol Township, who served in the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg in North Carolina between 1975 and 1979. Before being diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, six years ago, Williams drove big rigs across the county, up and down the West Coast and as far away as Canada.

His condition has worsened, making it nearly impossible for him to drive and difficult to even fill out paperwork to get his benefits. He now gets along in a motorized wheelchair and must be hooked up to a half-dozen machines to keep him alive.

Williams requires in-home care but said the VA has fought paying for certain services, like housekeeping. It took him a year to get the financial assistance to make his Bristol home handicap accessible, requiring floors to be redone and entrances widened.

The VA will only cover expenses for someone to come out to his home and make up his bed and cook his meals, wanting Williams to transition over to hospice.

“When I die, I plan to die in my home,” said Williams, who has been hospitalized at least twice in the last few months with breathing complications. “It’s hard to find assistance because people expect you to do it on your own. And then they tell me to go to some website. I do have a computer but it’s not easy to operate when your hands are shaking.

“I just stay close to God. And just deal with the situation and try not to get angry. It does get frustrating because I didn’t ask for this. It just happened. Bad things happen to good people. It’s just a roll of the dice.”


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Wreaths Across America Honors Fallen Soldiers and Keeps Their Sacrifice Alive

This December marks the 30th year that Wreaths Across American has placed wreaths on the graves of veterans in cemeteries around the country, including Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. It honors those who have served our country.

Joe Regan, director of military and veteran outreach for Wreaths Across America and an army veteran, said the international organization’s mission is to remember fallen veterans,  honor the sacrifices of military members, living veterans, and their families, and teach the next generation of Americans the value of freedom and about the sacrifices that are made on their behalf every day.

On Sunday, December 12, a convoy will go from the group’s Columbia Falls, Maine headquarters to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, arriving on the 18th. That is national Wreaths Across America Day. Nearly 3,000 cemeteries will participate in wreath events. Thirty years ago the organization began with 5,000 wreaths. Now it’s up to 2 million, with an army of volunteers all over the country. Sponsorship is $15 a wreath.

The organization began as a tradition for the Worcester family. In 1992, Morrill Worcester and his wife, Karen,  found themselves with about 5,000 extra wreaths that they didn’t sell during the holiday season. Morrill thought back to when he was about 12 and had won a competition to get a trip to Washington, D.C. One thing that always stuck with him about that trip was his visit to Arlington National Cemetery and he had the idea of laying those wreaths there as a thank you to veterans.

Now with over 3,000 cemeteries in every state of the country, it has also expanded into Guam and Puerto Rico. Before COVID, it was also in Europe, honoring veterans who are buried overseas.

“And so that opportunity to lay that wreath on the headstone of that veteran, to say the name of that person, it sounds so simple,” said Regan. “But at that moment, when you say that name, and you’re standing there, it creates that connection and that bond with that veteran, and that’s tremendously powerful.”

For Regan, who has several friends who were killed overseas, it is maintaining that connection with fallen brothers. For others, it could be a complete stranger. Many veterans had no living relatives to recognize them.

“One thing I’ve heard from a couple of different places: They say that everyone dies twice. First, when your heart stops, and then there’s the last time that someone says your name,” said Regan. “Through this program, regular citizens can keep that individual’s memory alive. The visible part of what we do is the wreath-laying. But it really is a powerful expression of our commitment to living up to the legacy of those men and women who have served our country and are the ones responsible for all the amazing things that we have.”

With about 500 partnerships with individual American Legion and VFW posts across the country, volunteers and donors come together to make this event possible every year. For every two wreaths sponsored, the third wreath will help support living veterans in communities.

“And if you look at Hollywood, there are several very notable folks there who served in the United States military. And one, in particular, my great-grandfather who served in World War I was the iconic Walter Brennan, one of only a few actors who won three Academy Awards. One thing that made him distinctive was his unique voice. And I learned from my great-grandfather that he had been in several gas attacks,” said Regan.

“That was why Walter Brennan’s voice was higher pitched, a result of damage to his vocal cords because of a gas attack. A guy like Walter Brennan, who, despite being wounded, used that and it helped define his career. And he found tremendous success. So I go back to the last portion of our mission, the teaching component. We share those stories of how our veterans who are living in communities across the country continue to give back and use the skills and the experiences they had in the military, to bring back to their civilian lives and create a tremendous amount of value,” he said.

Regan encourages everyone to find a cemetery and witness the wreaths for themselves on December 18.

You can also hear the stories of our veterans on the iHeart Radio platform, where they have a Wreaths Across America radio station, not only to highlight patriotic music but information about activities, interviews with location coordinators but also issues impacting veterans.  One of the programs, “Mission Matters,” is one that Regan hosts along with co-founder and executive director Karen Worcester explains why its mission is important.

Prior to joining Wreaths Across America, Regan ran a nonprofit that focused on supporting homeless veterans and veterans with chronic mental health issues, giving them hand-ups, not handouts.

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