At a shooting range near Daytona Beach Wednesday, a group of veterans and ex-cops stood in a line and took aim, firing rounds into paper targets while instructors walked between them and offered tips. Some missed, but most made their mark. They’re the new school guardians — hired by the Volusia County, Florida, school district to protect elementary schools around the county this fall against possible active assailants. They’ll be at the range for more than two weeks, training with firearms to be ready for the first day of school on Aug. 13. “We will be ready to answer the call if it’s necessary,” said Gregg Bastian, 55, a former fire department lieutenant and SWAT team medic training to be a guardian. Bastian is one of more than 40 new hires who will go through the 132-hour training course in the coming weeks. So is Ernesto Rowe, 59, a veteran and a retired state probation officer who also worked for the Daytona Beach Police Department. Deltona City Commissioner Mitch Honaker, 64, and Angel Ortiz, 34, are veterans going through the program, along with former corrections officers Damon Sansom, 44, and Frank Hayward, 73. Now they’ll all be at the district’s elementary schools. Their instruction began Monday, after a rigorous application process and, before that, months of debate at the district level about how to best meet a new state mandate on security at schools. After a mass shooting in February at a Parkland high school left 17 dead, the state responded by tightening gun laws and requiring school districts to increase security measures at schools. State dollars didn’t cover the cost of fulfilling those new requirements, so district officials began working in April to find a solution that wouldn’t break the bank. Part of that solution is putting guardians — district employees being trained by the Sheriff’s Office — in elementary schools. Sworn law enforcement officers will staff middle and high schools in the county, but guardians are a little different. They’ll carry weapons but won’t have arrest powers. Guardians are paid about $38,500 annually, and Volusia’s price tag is nearly $2 million. The district is seeking help from the cities to help fund the program. “I think it’s a great idea to use the resources you already have in the community,” said Lou Wolf, a 60-year-old retired police officer. “Guys that already have experience, who know something about what they’re doing.” That’s been the plan all along. The school district has been collaborating with the Sheriff’s Office to dig through nearly 200 applications and find people who had law enforcement or military backgrounds. It was a lengthy process that delayed the start of training. Each applicant had to go through a process that included fingerprinting, drug screening, a background check, a polygraph test, an evaluation of character references and a psychological examination. The new hires called the application process “thorough” and “rigorous.” “You want to have the right kind of people in our schools,” said Sansom, a father to five kids in Volusia County schools. “If I could’ve retired, I would have volunteered to do it.” The training process is just as rigorous. Even though almost all of the new hires have experience with weapons, they said the training is technical and they’re learning new things each day — like how to draw your gun correctly, what to do in case of a misload and how to react in high-stress situations. RELATED: HERE’S EVERYTHING WE’D NEED TO MAKE ARMED TEACHERS EFFECTIVE SCHOOL DEFENDERS » “When you’re under pressure, it’s a totally different world,” said Hayward, who has grandkids who go to school in the district. “If you have to think about it, it’s too late.” Parents and teachers in the community and across the state have questioned whether programs like this will prevent school shootings. Some people believe increased access to mental health services is the way to go — something the district is working on as well. “We have to start somewhere,” Rowe said. Honaker agreed: “Right now your children are in a safer environment until we come up with a better solution,” he said. Overall, there will be more than 40 guardians. That includes some to staff select charter schools that opted into the program, as well as provide some alternatives. The first group is training now, and a second class will begin next week. The guardians must complete the training with an 85 percent pass rate. “We will be ready to answer the call if it’s necessary,” Bastian said while he watched his classmates practice shooting. “I hope that we never have to.”
Today the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that it has formed a partnership with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) which will provide more access to the latest treatment options for VA patients with cancer. “Strategic partnerships, such as this one with the National Cancer Institute, allow VA to leverage the strengths of both organizations to the benefit of all stakeholders, especially our Veterans,” said VA’s Acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke. “By increasing enrollment in these trials, VA and Veterans will contribute to important cancer research — this will not only help our Veterans, but also advance cancer care for all Americans and people around the world.” The NCI and VA Interagency Group to Accelerate Trials Enrollment, also known as NAVIGATE, is launching at 12 VA sites: Atlanta, Georgia; Bronx, New York; Charleston, South Carolina; Denver, Colorado; Durham, North Carolina; Hines, Illinois; Long Beach, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Palo Alto, California; Portland, Oregon; San Antonio, Texas; and West Haven, Connecticut. Boston, Massachusetts, will also serve as a coordinating center for the effort. NAVIGATE will build infrastructure at VA sites to enable more Veterans to take part in cutting-edge clinical trials sponsored by NCI. Such trials typically test innovative experimental treatments, such as precision-medicine therapies based on patients’ genetic profiles, or immunotherapies that harness patients’ own immune systems to bring about cures. The NAVIGATE network will also establish best practices and share insights to help other VA Medical Centers nationwide enroll more Veterans in cancer clinical trials. Special attention is being given to minority patients, who often have less access to new treatments and are not as well represented in clinical trials in the U.S. While VA has a robust research program — including clinical trials on cancer and other diseases — at more than 100 sites nationwide, VA facilities often face challenges initiating and completing trials, including ones conducted through the NCI National Clinical Trials Network. Local VA research staff, for example, may lack adequate support to handle certain regulatory and administrative tasks involved in these studies. NAVIGATE will help remove those barriers. NAVIGATE will also seek to enroll Veterans in trials sponsored by NCI’s Community Oncology Research Program, which focuses on cancer prevention and symptom management. VA’s involvement in NAVIGATE is being managed through the Cooperative Studies Program (CSP) part of VA’s Office of Research and Development. CSP has a long history of running impactful clinical trials focused on Veterans’ health needs.
After learning that 1 out of 8 Americans doesn’t have enough to eat and that 27 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets face hunger daily, VFW is working to put an end to food insecurity. Along with After the Harvest, Harvesters—The Community Food Network and Humana, the VFW launched the campaign “Uniting to Combat Hunger” on June 6 in Kansas City, Mo. “Some 25 percent of military households and 27 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan vets are affected by food insecurity,” VFW Commander-in-Chief Keith Harman said. “This is something VFW won’t tolerate. That’s why we are teaming with others to do something tangible in our Kansas City community.” Food insecurity doesn’t necessarily mean just being hungry. It also means not knowing when or where the next meal will come from or how a person will feed his or her family. In Kansas City alone, 15 percent of the community faces the issue of food insecurity. The goal of “Uniting to Combat Hunger” is to provide 50,000 meals in Kansas City and the surrounding areas.“The VFW assault against food insecurity takes place fittingly on D-Day,” VFW Adjutant General Brian Duffy said. “Let the assault begin.” To kick it off, volunteers will participate in an After the Harvest “gleaning” on June 6 to gather fresh produce. According to Lisa Ousley, executive director for After the Harvest, gleaning is hand picking edible crops that remain in the fields or orchards after a harvest. Typically, the produce isn’t visually appealing for selling in grocery stores, but tastes the same. Located in Kansas City, After the Harvest aims to provide fresh produce to food banks, pantries, shelters and community kitchens in Missouri and Kansas. “We are honored to join forces with the VFW, Humana and Harvesters to elevate the issue of food insecurity, especially among vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars,” Ousley said. “The rate of food insecurity among this population surpasses the national average.” In addition to gleaning, Harvesters also will provide a food-packing opportunity during convention. Harvester volunteers will place food collection barrels at various businesses around Kansas City through the end of July. VFW Quartermaster General Debra Anderson encourages convention attendees to bring canned goods to put in the Harvesters barrels around the Kansas City Convention Center. The Harvesters Mobile Pantry will be on site if attendees would rather purchase there. For those who want to volunteer while in Kansas City for the convention, they can pack and sort food July 21-22 at the convention center. “It’s an honor for Humana to raise awareness and fight food insecurity in Greater Kansas City and across the country,” said Jeff Fernandez, Segment Vice President for Humana. “Together, with the VFW, Harvesters, After the Harvest and hundreds of volunteers, we can help feed veterans and their families while increasing their ability to achieve their best health.” “We are grateful to our community partners, like the VFW and Humana, who recognize the need in our community and step forward to help us fight hunger,” said Valerie Nicholson-Watson, president and CEO of Harvesters—The Community Food Network. “Hunger knows no season and is found in every county in both urban and rural communities. It takes all of us working together to end hunger.” In addition to the other efforts, “dip jars” will be strategically placed throughout the convention center for those wishing to donate money to Harvesters. “This collaboration adds to the many ways that the VFW assists and advocates for veterans, military service members and their families,” Anderson said.
Post Commander Luddie Austin, an Army veteran and retired Trenton police officer, said he is glad to finally have “VFW representation” in his hometown. “After I came back from Iraq, it came to my attention that Trenton didn’t have a VFW,” Austin said. “I thought it was best for me and like-minded veterans to start a Post charter in our hometown.” Austin, who served in Iraq in 2004 with C Co., 759th MP Bn., 89th MP Bde., originally joined a nearby Post, but wanted to have a Post in his community. He said it is important for Post members to represent VFW at community events. That is why he participated in the Trenton’s annual half marathon, 10K and 5K event. Austin and Joe Thorpe, Post 12165 trustee, ran in the event – Austin the 10K and Thorpe the half marathon. Both represented their VFW Post along the way. Austin said Thorpe and he crossed the line at the same time “as a sign of unity.” Austin also said Post 12165 will be represented at Trenton’s upcoming Litter March in June. “We have Post members that are eager to participate in beautifying our city,” Austin said. “All of this helps promote the brand of VFW.” Austin said one of the reasons he and others started the Post was to work with schools in Trenton. “None of the schools were even aware of the Voice or Democracy or Patriot’s Pen scholarships,” Austin said. “We are also in the process of starting a community breakfast program that gives members of the community and their families a chance to mingle with veterans of the Post. The goal is to get people out in the community instead of enclosed in their home.” Another activity that Post 12165 members participated in included donating Christmas presents and a meal to a needy family, as well as to Capital Health in Trenton, N.J., on Christmas Eve. “We donated toys to the pediatric ward of the hospital to children who were not going to be home for Christmas,” Austin said. “We also provided meals to the nursing staff who were away from their families that day.” Austin said members currently are in the process of obtaining a building for the Post. But, a Trenton restaurant, 1911 Smokehouse Bar-B-Que, allows the members to meet at its facility for meetings until the Post finds a permanent home. “They allow us to do it at no cost,” Austin said. “We really appreciate them and everyone else in the community that has supported us.”
Amanda Landwehr, 26, of Prior Lake, Minn., joined the Army National Guard at the age of 20. “I wanted to do something beyond going to college, and the National Guard allowed me to pursue my education and serve at the same time,” she said. Landwehr was deployed to Djibouti, Africa, where she worked base security. She recently completed her six-year service with the National Guard. Landwehr is currently working toward her Doctorate of Psychology with an emphasis in Clinical Psychology at Nova Southeastern University. After she completes her doctorate, she plans to work at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs where she can be a support system for struggling veterans. “Veterans are a population that I can truly empathize with and I would like to do what I can to help.” As she pursued her dreams, she realized she needed help to fund her education. Landwehr discovered the VFW’s “Sport Clips Help A Hero Scholarship” while she was researching potential scholarships. “I would like to say thank you to the people who made this scholarship possible as it really helps to relieve the financial burden of graduate school,” she expressed. Landwehr’s advice to veterans considering pursuing their dreams through education is, “There are a lot of scholarships available. You should seek out whatever resources necessary to help you succeed."
Nick Guerrero was behind on utility bills — the electric company shut off power — and car payments until the VFW stepped in to help. Guerrero, who deployed four times during the Iraq War, said support through VFW’s Unmet Needs program helped him get current on bills and purchase groceries. “The grant saved us from falling further down the rabbit hole,” Guerrero said. “I was in a point of my life where everything was collapsing around me, and if it wasn’t for the existence of this program, I don’t know where my family and I would be in this very moment. I cannot fully express my gratitude in words for this nonprofit to be there when we needed the help desperately.” Guerrero served with the 1st Bn., 17th Inf. Regt., 172 Stryker Bde. (2005-06 and 2006-07) as an infantryman and with the 1st Bn., 18th Inf., 2nd Armd. Bde. Combat Team, 1st Inf. Div., (2008-09 and2010-11) as a combat medic. He was medically discharged March 27, 2015, for PTSD, anxiety, depression, psychosis, anger disorder, paranoia and TBI. Guerrero said his wife, Ana, found out about the program from a veteran who had received an Unmet Needs grant. He applied in September and was awarded the grant in December. To anyone in a similar situation, Guerrero said, “Don’t hesitate to give the VFW a call and ask for the help.” “It’s wonderful to know people out there care and are willing to spend a couple of minutes of their lives to do something special for a veteran…Our families are very grateful for the assistance you provide when the veteran is in a crisis,” Guerrero said. VFW’s Unmet Needs program helps America’s military families who have experienced unexpected financial difficulties. The program, supported by Burger King franchisees, provides financial aid to assist those with basic life needs in the form of a grant — not a loan. Since 2004, Unmet Needs has given $10 million to more than 8,800 military and veteran families. In the current fiscal year alone, the program has assisted nearly 4,000 service members and veterans.
After serving over a year in Iraq as an Army police officer, Ashley Meiss came back home to Ogden, Kansas in June 2010. She had been honorably discharged after becoming pregnant with her first-born child, a son. Six years and a second child later, Ashley was in college and working a part time job while living with her husband Chris Meiss in Ogden, Ashley’s father Tom Lewis told Dateline. Everything seemed normal, Tom said. He lives in North Carolina, but spoke frequently to his daughter on the phone. In November 2016, Tom and his wife began to sense a shift in their daughter’s personality. “We started to see signs of stress, depression and anxiety,” Tom said. “[Ashley’s mother and I] were talking to Ashley every other day to see how she was doing. Ashley thought it may be signs of PTSD.” Just one month later, the signs became more apparent when Ashley called her mother, panicked, saying she thought someone was in the backyard stalking her. “The police responded and said they thought she was having a nervous breakdown,” Ashley’s father Tom told Dateline about the December 2016 incident. Ashley was admitted to a hospital in Manhattan, Kansas for observation while her parents drove from North Carolina to pick up her and her kids. “As we are driving back to North Carolina, Ashley was in the car behind me. We are going through Topeka, Kansas, and we stop at a stoplight and Ashley gets out of her car and starts banging on my SUV saying, ‘There is a bomb in there,’” Tom told Dateline. “She was admitted to the VA hospital in Topeka for about two weeks. Then in January, I picked her up from there and drove her to North Carolina where her kids had been staying with us.” Tom says that during her stay in North Carolina, Ashley, 31, had shown signs of improvement. She had been seeing a therapist, her father said, and was regularly taking her medications. She seemed to be on the mend. Tom says his daughter and the children stayed in North Carolina until July 2017, when they returned to Ogden to be reunited with Ashley’s husband Chris. Chris, a recently retired Master Sergeant in the Army, was returning from his own deployment in Iraq. “But in February of 2018, Chris and Ashley had a bit of a falling out,” Tom told Dateline. “Ashley pushed Chris, and he called the police and he put a protection order in place and filed for divorce. She didn’t fight it, and she allowed Chris to have full custody of the two kids.” Tom told Dateline that Ashley was admitted to the hospital once again for observation, but was released on February 24 to stay with friends. The following day, the family later learned, Ashley believed she heard gun shots and sirens coming from her former home, and she went over and went into the house to make sure her children were OK. “Chris, who had an order of protection against her, called the police and Ashley was arrested for violating the protection order,” Tom told Dateline, adding that he drove to Ogden to get her out of jail. She stayed with some friends in town for a few weeks before getting her own apartment on April 1, 2018, only a few blocks away from the house where Chris and the children still lived. “She started to recover and got some visitation rights with the kids,” Tom said. “Her husband was being supportive and I was talking to her every other day.” It was on May 16, 2018, during one of their frequent phone calls, that Tom says Ashley told him “she was upset with Chris, because he was planning on leaving the state to go see his parents with the kids,” and “she didn’t like that idea.” Tom says Ashley also went to see her therapist that day, and witnesses have since told him they saw her in town, alone, around 6:00 p.m. that evening. The next day, Thursday May 17, around 6:00 p.m., witnesses would later tell police they saw Ashley leave her apartment in running gear. This would have been normal, Tom told Dateline. What wasn’t normal, however, was that Ashley didn’t take her bulldog, Flicker, on the run with her. “Flicker is basically her service dog. It’s very, very odd that she didn’t take her dog,” Tom said. Ashley left her cell phone, I.D., and car at her apartment. She never came back to get them. Authorities and family members tell Dateline it’s unclear where Ashley stayed the night of Thursday, May 17. The next morning around 9:30 a.m., surveillance footage shows her walking into a nearby post office and picking up her mail. “The lady hands her the mail -- one letter. Ashley opens it, and all of a sudden her demeanor changes,” Tom told Dateline. “She becomes depressed. She is normally upbeat and social.” Riley County Police Department Detective Steve Tucker told Dateline that later that day, Ashley was also seen at a nearby community center, and then again at night at a local bar. Det. Tucker said police have spoken with two men who Ashley spoke with at the bar, but they told authorities Ashley didn’t say where she was going when she left the bar. “Nobody know who she came with or who she left with,” Tom told Dateline. Ashley has not been seen since leaving the bar, but police tell Dateline she did make a brief call to a friend the next day. “Ashley calls an old Army friend of hers -- a female friend of hers -- and says she is feeling depressed and that it’s hard going through the divorce and not being with her kids all the time,” Tom said, adding that Ashley did not say where she was or who she was with during that phone call. Detective Tucker told Dateline police began their investigation that day, May 19, after receiving calls from family and friends that Ashley was missing. Through their investigation, police tried to trace the call Ashley made to her friend on the morning of the 19th. Detective Tucker said when they attempted to do so through Verizon, they found out the call had been coming from an application that blocks the caller’s location. “We’ve interviewed anybody and everybody who has information to go along with this case. At this time, we don’t have anything to put her in a critical missing persons case,” Det. Tucker told Dateline, a classification he explained would require evidence that Ashley was putting either herself or someone else in danger. “I’ve looked through some letters that she has left and I’ve looked through her phone. While she seems desperate and frustrated, it does not seem that she would harm herself or anyone else,” he told Dateline. “She clearly had some mental health issues that could be consistent with going off somewhere. We don’t have anything to say she was taken against her will.” Detective Tucker added that authorities are “definitely still concerned about her and about her safety.” Ashley’s case is currently listed as a missing persons case at the Riley County Police Department. “Initially we thought maybe she took off for a couple of weeks. Now it’s looking like that may not be the case,” Ashley’s father Tom told Dateline, adding that she would never leave her children. “Ashley’s world revolved around her children. More than anything, she wanted to be the best mother for them.” “Ashley is the kind of person who has a huge heart. Quite literally, she would do anything for anyone,” Tom said of his daughter. Ashley’s older brother, Chris Lewis, who was on the call with Dateline and his father, echoed his father’s sentiments about his “outgoing” little sister. He added that the family is offering a $5,000 reward for any information leading to Ashely’s safe return. For more information on Ashley Meiss’s disappearance, visit the Bring Ash Home Facebook page run by the family. Ashley was last seen in Ogden, Kansas on May 18. She is about 5'4" tall and weighs about 140 lbs. Ashley has short brown hair that is shaved on the sides. If you have any information on Ashley's whereabouts, please contact the Riley County Police Department at (785) 537-2112 or Crime Stoppers at (785) 539-7777. If you or someone you know is struggling with PTSD or thoughts of suicide, please call 1-800-273-8255 or visit the Veterans section of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
An Air Force veteran was in serious condition on Tuesday after he set himself on fire in front of the Georgia Capitol to protest his treatment by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, according to state and local law enforcement officials. John Watts, 58, arrived at the government building before noon wearing a vest lined with firecrackers and flammable devices, then doused himself with flammable liquid and lit the fireworks, according to the Georgia Department of Public Safety. A Georgia trooper witnessed the event and put out the flames with a fire extinguisher, the department said. Watts was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, where he told officials that he was an Air Force veteran and had immolated himself to call attention to the VA system, which had apparently failed him, the department said. In a tweet, the Atlanta Police Department said he was in serious condition. “I’m not sure what his history is there, but he is disgruntled with the VA system and is trying to draw some attention to that. He stated something to the effect that he was looking for some help,” Mark Perry, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, told The Associated Press. In an email to NBC News, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs said, “While we can’t comment on the specifics of this veteran’s case due to patient privacy laws, the department is ensuring he receives the VA care that he needs.” The Capitol and Judiciary buildings were evacuated while the Atlanta police SWAT team and bomb-detecting robots swept the buildings for any explosives, law enforcement agencies said. Watts' vehicle was also inspected as a precaution. A recent VA study showed that veterans are twice as likely as civilians to die by suicide. While the reasons are not clear, psychiatrists and suicide experts say they could be a combination of lack of access to mental health care, feeling a sense of disconnection from society, and financial and relationship problems. On June 6, President Trump signed legislation allowing veterans to receive VA-funded medical care from the private sector to minimize the waiting time that many veterans face seeking health care through the VA.
An Army veteran in hospice care with a terminal illness asked his wife recently to hold his phone for him in case anyone calls. After no one called for two hours, Lee Hernandez, 47, told his wife, Ernestine, "I guess no one wants to talk to me." "It broke my heart,'' Ernestine told The Arizona Republic. “(Lee’s) speech is not very well, so many people didn’t take much interest or want to talk to him.” To help cheer up Lee, Ernestine is asking people to give him a call or send him a text because it helps to lift his spirits. She first put the message out on Tuesday to the Arizona Veterans Forum on Facebook, which asked fellow veterans to help brighten Lee's day with a simple gesture. He soon was receiving an outpouring of prayers, phone calls and uplifting text messages that Ernestine read to him. Lee has gone blind and suffers from continuous strokes despite three brain surgeries from an illness doctors have been unable to determine, she told The Arizona Republic. The 18-year Army veteran, who served in Iraq, has been in hospice care at their home in New Braunfels, Texas. Ernestine suggests those who want to call or text should do so between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Central Daylight Time at 210-632-6778. "Thank you everyone for your calls and support,'' she told The Arizona Republic. "I am trying to give him the best life I am able to with the help of my mom."
A ribbon-cutting ceremony took place March 1 for the new Veterans Information Center in Warwick, N.Y. The center, open to all veterans, offers and will host special events, which, Post 4662 Commander Dan Burger said will address issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress and continuing education. It also will be a place where veterans can receive counseling. “At the Veterans Information Center, we took over what were doctor’s offices, and we converted them into private counseling rooms – whether it’s for helping with benefits or giving actual counseling from the VA,” Burger said. “This is our Post, but it’s set up like a professional office building.” Burger, a 1991 Persian Gulf War veteran and former Army captain who served with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, said the information center also will offer veterans a computer lab and basic computer courses to help veterans apply for benefits. “Some people that have difficulty accessing information, because they are not comfortable with computers, for instance – so that is something we thought we could help with,” Burger said. “We triedto identify some of the challenges people are having with their transition from the military, and help them in those areas.”