VetTix to hold nationwide virtual talent show, ‘America’s Hidden Talent’

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VetTix promo poster announcing the upcoming talent show

Vet Tix & 1st Tix, a non-profit organization is working to capture the spirit of America. The veteran organization is holding a nationwide virtual talent show, ‘America’s Hidden Talent’ in partnership with Law Enforcement Today.

Kids and adults are able to show off their talents in this online competition. Those participating have to be a veteran, emergency responder, active military member, or have a household family member who is.

The top 3 videos will be voted on by the public.

Celebrity judges including Kurt Bush, NASCAR Cup Champion, Eli Crane, CEO of Bottle Breacher, former Navy SEAL and Shark Tank contestant and model Jessica Rafalawski will then pick the winner who will receive a $500 gift card to Amazon.

The deadline for this competition is Sunday, May 3rd. Don’t miss out! Share your special talent today.

Here is how it works:

There are three categories:
• Kids 12 and under.
• Kids 13-19.
• Adults

Competitors need to create a video that’s five minutes or less showcasing their talent. They will then need to upload it onto YouTube. Once uploaded they will need to add in the description a written paragraph about who they are, what their talent is, and what America means to them.

Competitors must post the link to their social media pages and tag either Vet Tix or 1st Tix and include #VetTixTalentShow when posting online.

To be officially entered into the contest contestants MUST email the YouTube link to media@lawenforcementtoday.com between now and Sunday, May 3, 2020.

Once submitted, the public will be able to vote on their favorite competitor for each age group. The voting will take place the following week.

The top three videos that get the most votes from each age group category will then be sent to the panel of celebrity judges. Once the judges have given feedback on all the finalists’ videos, a winner will be chosen and announced on a Facebook watch party.

The winner in each category will receive a $500 Amazon gift card.

“Our goal has been, and will continue to be, to serve first responders as a way to thank them as they keep our families and communities safe each and every day.” Michael Focareto, Veteran Tickets Foundation founder, CEO and Navy veteran stated.

More details can be found at lawenforcementtoday.com/americas-hidden-talent-competition

FATHER SOLDIER SON—WATCH THE TRAILER!

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FATHER SOLDIER SON promo poster featuring three side views of a child, teen and father in uniform

Duty. Country. Family. From The New York Times comes a documentary 10 years in the making. FATHER SOLDIER SON releases globally on Netflix this month.

This intimate documentary from The New York Times follows a former platoon sergeant and his two young sons over almost a decade, chronicling his return home after a serious combat injury in Afghanistan.

Originating as part of a 2010 project on a battalion’s yearlong deployment, reporters-turned-filmmakers Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis stuck with the story to trace the longterm effects of military service on a family.

At once a verité portrait of ordinary people living in the shadow of active duty and a longitudinal survey of the intergenerational cycles of military service, FATHER SOLDIER SON is a profound and deeply personal exploration of the meaning of sacrifice, purpose, duty and American manhood in the aftermath of war.

FATHER SOLDIER SON releases globally on Netflix July 17.

Directed and Produced by:
Leslye Davis & Catrin Einhorn

WATCH THE TRAILER!

USO Celebrates Military Service Members this 4th of July with Series of Virtual Events Including “Four on the 4th” and Annual Comedy Radiothon with K-Earth 101

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USO virtual Fireworks display with a US Flag flying in the foreground

USO is celebrating military service members and their families during “Four on the 4th – Ruck, Walk & Run for Independence” this 4th of July. The virtual fun run, presented by Delta Air Lines, includes USO music playlists, rise and shine warm-up featuring Robert Killian, National Anthem sung by the USO Show Troupe and a virtual celebration.

Participants will also receive a USO branded t-shirt, downloadable bib, face mask and medal to show their support for America’s military service members. Whether you ruck, walk or run, participating on the 4th of July will directly benefit deserving military service members and their families. “Four on the 4th – Ruck, Walk & Run for Independence” is our opportunity to celebrate our nation’s heroes as a united patriotic community while social distancing.

Invite family, friends and co-workers to participate in this celebratory event and tag USO on FacebookInstagram or Twitter to share your support.

Ahead of “Four on the 4th,” tune into The Annual Bob Hope USO Radiothon event on Thursday, July 2, 2020 from 6 – 10 a.m. as comedians bring laughter and entertainment all morning long broadcasted live on the Gary Bryan Morning Show on K-Earth 101 featuring co-host Lisa Stanley. The annual program is reimagined this year to virtually bring together our nation’s troops, the funniest comedic talent, and Bob Hope USO’s dedicated community partners including the Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) and Delta Air Lines.

WHEN: 

The Annual Bob Hope USO Radiothon with the Gary Bryan Morning Show on K-Earth 101
Thursday, July 2, 2020
6 a.m. – 10 a.m.

“Four on the 4th – Ruck, Walk & Run for Independence”
Saturday, July 4, 2020
7:30 a.m. Rise and Shine warm-up on Facebook Live featuring Robert Killian

WHERE:
The Annual Bob Hope USO Radiothon will be broadcast live with the Gary Bryan Morning Show on K-Earth 101 from the Bob Hope USO at LAX.
“Four on the 4th – Ruck, Walk & Run for Independence” will take place virtually, whether it be your favorite trail, park or around your neighborhood!

DETAILS: 

Text “Freedom” to 90990 to donate in support of the weekend long festivities. Sign-up for “Four on the 4th” as an individual, team or sponsor. Registration is $35 per person. All proceeds go to USO’s mission of strengthening America’s service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country. Interested parties are encouraged to register before Friday, June 26 and can sign-up at goneforarun.com/uso. Sponsorship opportunities are available for those interested in generously sponsoring free races for USO military families to join, as well. For sponsorship opportunities please visit cvent.com/d/bnqyj6 or contact Gaby Coyle at gcoyle@uso.org for more information.

MORE FROM THE USO:

The USO’s annual T-shirt campaign will run throughout July and is a way for military supporters to express their thanks to service members and military families who are serving around the world to keep us safe, protect the country and answer the call when emergencies and natural disasters strike.

With a donation of $29 or more, military supporters will receive a limited-edition patriotic shirt. Donations to the USO go toward programs and services that strengthen the Armed Forces and keep them connected to family, home and country. The USO carries out its mission through reading and food programming for families, transition resources for service members and military spouses, care packages and entertainment that reach troops in the most remote places of the world and more.

The public can visit USO.org/tshirt to donate and get their exclusive shirt.

“At the USO, we focus on being the Force Behind the Forces. This campaign is a way for Americans to join in and be part of the effort to support our military,” said USO CEO and President Dr. J.D. Crouch II. “When each of us takes action, the collective impact is tremendous. Donations raised will help the USO continue to provide care, comfort and connection to keep our military and their families strong.”

Each year service members select the T-shirt design by voting at USO locations around the world. The chosen design becomes the limited-edition shirt of the year, known as the “Official Uniform of the Military Supporter”.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the campaign. USO tour veteran and multiplatinum, GRAMMY Award-winning artist Zac Brown developed this year’s patriotic design and printed the shirts through his own brand, Atlanta-based Zac Brown Collective. Longstanding USO partner Kroger provided the shirts made of recycled material.

“We can’t overstate our appreciation and gratitude for our military service men and women around the world and the USO which is there whenever and wherever our troops need some of the familiar comforts, connections and tastes of home,” said Keith Dailey, Kroger’s group vice president of corporate affairs. “Since 2010, the Kroger Family of Companies has provided more than $33 million to the USO. And in keeping with our long-standing commitment to the organization, we are matching up to $250,000 to support this year’s USO T-shirt campaign, uplifting service members and their families.”

Coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the T-shirt campaign is the USO’s first-ever Fourth of July special. This will be the first of a three-part summer series airing through Labor Day. It will provide both military and military supporter audiences the chance to tune in to see musicians and personalities share their support for the military community.

The Fourth of July concert will air on the USO’s Facebook, YouTube and Twitch channels at 12 a.m. ET and 12 p.m. ET to accommodate time zones around the world. The event will include a variety of segments from USO tour veterans comedian Iliza Shlesinger and actor/musician Craig Robinson along with “America’s Got Talent” world champion Shin Lim. It will also include a special nod to American surf music by the iconic Mike Love and The Beach Boys, featuring special guest John Stamos. Country music legend Clint Black will headline the first concert, and the series will continue through August with artists such as Florida Georgia Line, The Chainsmokers and more.

“Providing high-quality entertainment for our military and their families is in the USO’s DNA. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are still meeting our entertainment mission – virtually, reaching thousands of people globally,” said Christopher Plamp, USO senior vice president of operations, programs and entertainment. “This virtual concert series is one example of the programming that positions the USO as the premier military entertainment provider. The concerts will also express the nation’s gratitude and help the American public gain an understanding of the critical ways the USO strengthens service members and their families.”

The summer series is a continuation of the recently launched USO MVP series, providing virtual delivery across USO operations, programs and entertainment activities during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. Since April 1, the USO’s entertainment division has hosted 30 virtual engagements across 24 countries and 37 states and territories. View more of the USO MVP virtual playlist at USO.org/MVP.

About the USO:
The USO strengthens America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home and country, throughout their service to the nation. At hundreds of locations worldwide, we are united in our commitment to connect our service members and their families through countless acts of caring, comfort and support. The USO is a private nonprofit organization, not a government agency. Our programs and entertainment tours are made possible by the American people, support of our corporate partners and the dedication of our volunteers and staff. To join us in this important mission, and to learn more about the USO, visit USO.org or at FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Foundation Trains Shelter Canines as Service Dogs for Disabled Veterans

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service dog trainer pictured with service dog in his arms

Miracles happen every day at CAMO Foundation, and the angels who perform them are the 4-legged variety. Dedicated to providing service dogs specifically trained for the unique needs of disabled veterans, the nonprofit organization in Palm Beach Gardens, FL is the only organization in the country that uses mature dogs rescued from local pounds.

The brainchild of Mike Lorraine, a professional dog trainer with 20 years experience, the foundation is located on a picturesque farm in south Florida, co-owned by Lorraine and a local area businessman, Joe Mullings. Their mission is simple: Provide military veterans who are physically or emotionally challenged with shelter dogs who have the right qualities—intelligence, focus, drive—to be service animals.

Yes, shelter dogs! Most service dogs are raised as puppies. However, Lorraine believes that there’s a certain fearless, stoic quality that makes select shelter dogs the perfect match for injured combatants. You might say that they’ve both seen conflict and survived.

One of CAMO’s biggest success stories so far is 26-year-old Matt Kleemann, a former Navy diver who specialized in underwater repairs on submarines. While driving home along a snowy road, he swerved to avoid a deer and plunged over a cliff. When he awoke, he was paralyzed from the chest down. Wheelchair-bound, he says, “The original plan was for me to just get my dog, Charlie Brown, but Mike saw potential in me. So, I started to come down every day.” Today, Matt serves as a mentor to visiting veterans.

Continue on to CAMO Foundation to learn more.

Meet the Active Pearl Harbor Veteran that Just Turned 100

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veteran witha huge grin in a shriners hat waving with U.S. flag in the background

On the morning of December 7, 1941, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Adone “Cal” Calderone had just finished his breakfast aboard the USS West Virginia, when his ship was attacked by eight torpedoes and four bombs from a Japanese air raid.

The 21-year-old soldier was trapped and wounded on the ship from the attacks, taking shrapnel to the face along with other injuries. “The doctors wanted to keep me longer,” Calderone said of his injuries, “I wanted to get back out there.”

Calderone would go on to serve the Navy for a total of six years.

Now a World War II veteran and a survivor of the Pearl Harbor bombings, Calderone resides in Stark County, Ohio, where he just celebrated his 100th birthday.

Calderone enjoys music, driving, staying active, and sharing his experiences from the war. “Dad really gets around,” Calderone’s son, Greg, told Stars and Stripes. “It’s amazing that he’s 100 years old.” Calderone’s 100th birthday officially makes him the oldest known living Pearl Harbor survivor.

“If feels good to be 100,” Calderone said, “It’s so nice, very nice.” Calderone spent the day celebrating with about a dozen of his family members and friends, including his wife of 75 years, Carrie, at a surprise birthday gathering in front of his house.

When asked what the secret was to his 100 years, Calderone gave a smile and reported without hesitation, “Good wine.”

Navy Veteran Receives Financial Support from the Gary Sinise Foundation in face of Foreclosure and Cancer Battles

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Allyson Petersen sitting in a hospital bed

By Brandon Black of the Gary Sinise Foundation

The first time it happened caught Kimberly Petersen off guard when she was watching her daughter, Allyson’s softball game. Seconds had passed, yet Allyson still had a blank stare, if not, unconscious look on her freckled face. Episodes like this kept repeating on and off the softball field, with each instance lasting for between 20 to 30 seconds.

Allyson, 11-years-old with long brown hair that matched the color of her piercing hazel eyes — the spitting image of her mother at that age — had something wrong going on inside of her. From what her daughter was exhibiting, it appeared to Petersen to be a type of epilepsy known as absence seizures, which are common among children.

Petersen spent eight years in the Navy as a corpsman. Her grounding in medicine came from advanced placements at clinics and hospitals. She and her “Ally” thought nothing more of the seizures. Allyson, unsuspectingly thought she was merely spacing out.

Appointments were scheduled with her regular doctor but problems arose with her insurance provider, preventing necessary scans being done. The alarm bells slowly began to ring as the length of each seizure Allyson experienced began to intensify, and were now accompanied with facial grimacing and her right-hand curling inwards during each episode. The noise finally hit a crescendo one summer evening in June 2016, when Allyson experienced several prolonged seizures in the same day, including a terrifying moment unlike anything before.

“We were out on the front deck when she collapsed on the flowers,” Petersen said of the startling scene that took place at their home in Sturgis, South Dakota.

Allyson’s body draped over the broken pots.

“I rolled her over, and she had stroke-like symptoms on the right side of her face.”

Allyson needed immediate medical attention and was soon after taken to the emergency center at Regional Hospital in Rapid City, a 30-minute drive from their home. After undergoing several tests, including a CT scan, it revealed that a tumor had massed over a section of Allyson’s brain that controls for speech and motor functions. Scared and frightened by the revelatory news, Allyson looked at her mother and said, “Am I going to die?”

Nearly 5,000 children and adolescents are diagnosed each year with a brain tumor, according to the American Cancer Society. As the second most common form of cancer in children, very few drugs exist in the marketplace to treat brain tumors, making traditional methods of radiation, chemotherapy, and invasive surgery typical medical care options that supplement clinical trials.

Days after visiting the emergency room, Allyson was admitted to the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she underwent an open craniotomy to remove the brain tumor. The procedure didn’t go according to plan.

Allyson Petersen's headshot
Allyson Tedder was diagnosed with brain cancer when she was 11 years old and continues treatment to this day.

During the surgery, the pediatric neurosurgeon recognized that the tumor had embedded itself deep in the brain. In the best interest of Allyson’s quality of life — ensuring she has full ability of speaking and motor functions — the decision was made to leave a fraction of the tumor in her brain to avoid any permanent damage.

In the three months that had passed since the procedure, it was discovered that the tumor had begun to regrow. With limited treatment options, Allyson was placed in a clinical trial to mitigate further growth of the tumor. The treatments didn’t work as Allyson developed complications that resulted in her leaving the trial. Chemotherapy became the next preventive measure to quash the tumor’s growth.

“She started developing cells behind her cornea which can cause blindness and irreversible damages,” explained Petersen about the dangerous side effects Allyson experienced from the cocktail of drugs that had been pumped into her body.

Several years had gone by since Petersen and her husband divorced. She wasn’t just taking care of her sick daughter and keeping her family afloat. She was also midway through a master’s degree program. The balancing act came at a high cost.

“Even though I have good insurance,” she said, “the out of pocket expenses, the food, the hotels, gas, time away from my other kids, putting the dog in the kennel, it felt like I was robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

She and Allyson frequently commuted more than 600 miles from Sturgis to Masonic Children’s Hospital so that Allyson was able to receive critical follow ups and MRI scans each phase of her cancer treatment. Depending on how much time Petersen was able to take off from the Meade School District, where she serves as a special educator, she wasn’t left with many options.

Flying to and from Minneapolis wasn’t in the cards. Petersen would either have to book it to Minneapolis in one day or spend the night at her parent’s home in Watertown, a six-hour drive from Sturgis, before spending the next four hours getting into the city.

Bills began piling up. Those that could be paid were done in piecemeal. Other bills weren’t paid at all. Downsizing expenses and making ends meet became the survivalist mentality she and her family adopted under the sole income she was bringing in. They had no other choice. It got to the point where she had to seriously ask herself, “do I pay the credit card bill, or do I pay the water bill?”

In the pecking order of priorities, Petersen was stretching every dollar she could to ensure her children had food on the table, a roof over their heads, and that she had gas in her car. She even picked up a summer job to supplement her salary by working nearby Black Hills National Forrest at an RV resort in Spearfish, South Dakota. Yet for all that she was doing to make ends meet, she was delinquent on her monthly mortgage payments.

Five months overdue, her home loan provider gave her notice that if she were unable to pay the balance and associated late fees in full, she would face foreclosure on her home.

“I have four kids looking up to me. I can’t quit, and I can’t sit there and wallow about it and have a pity party,” she said of finding any ways to deal with her financial circumstances.

While there were plenty of times, she admits, where she broke down and cried out of sight of her children, sometimes in the car or the backyard, she was resolved to seek help. Her mother, Linda, insisted she look into the Gary Sinise Foundation as a few years ago, the organization had helped her younger brother with the purchase of a new suit for his wedding. Perhaps the Foundation could help another veteran in financial need.

Through the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Relief and Resiliency program, the urgent financial needs of those like Kimberly Petersen are addressed through an initiative called heal, overcome, persevere and excel or H.O.P.E.

Petersen was hesitant at first but eventually relented, and in early February of this year, she submitted an initial inquiry seeking mortgage assistance. Within days of her submission, the Foundation’s Outreach team contacted her, requesting additional information to supplement the initial application. Not long after, she received a phone call from the Foundation with an update on the status of her application.

“She was taken aback and almost relieved of her stress,” said Nick Wicksman, who handled Petersen’s application from the start, and who was on the phone with her as the bearer of good news.

The Gary Sinise Foundation was going to cover the last four months of her mortgage and associated late fees. Petersen, having struggled tooth and nail year after year supporting her family as a single mother, was overcome with gratitude.

“She’s able to no longer worry about what is owed but to focus on the present and future by focusing on the health of her family,” said Wicksman. Had she not received financial assistance from the Gary Sinise Foundation, Petersen said matter of factly, “We would’ve lost the house.”

familytrip
Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Allyson, her three brothers, and Kimberly were able to take a family trip to London in June 2019.

While they’re not out of the tunnel just yet in Allyson’s cancer treatment, they can see the light. Despite setbacks in her regiment of treatments, Allyson was able to compete on the freshman girls’ volleyball and softball teams during the school year while also participating in the school newspaper as a photographer and journalist.

She fights the fight as oral chemotherapy treatments continue as do visits to Masonic Children’s Hospital. Looking back on the last four years and thinking about the question Allyson had asked her late in the night while at the emergency center, Petersen said, “In some ways, the tumor and her cancer diagnosis have brought us closer together because we’ve learned that you don’t know what’s going to happen from day to day.”

“Between Masonic Children’s Hospital and the Gary Sinise Foundation, I know I wouldn’t have my daughter.”

USVCC, NFL Hall of Fame Host Service & Sports Heroes

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A military veteran sitting in a wheelchair in his uniform, looking at the camera

By Rich Dolan

On March 9, the United States Veterans Chamber of Commerce (USVCC)—in conjunction with the Pro Football Hall of Fame—hosted a benefit dinner to support the U.S. Invictus team. The event was hosted at the historic New York Athletic Club, whose athletes have won 271 Olympic medals since the inaugural Modern Olympic Games in 1896.

The night was dedicated to the bravery and commitment of the wounded military veterans who make up the U.S. Invictus team and featured a silent auction of NFL memorabilia to benefit the team. Kevin “Red Eagle” Brown, president and CEO of USVCC, opened up the night, explaining the mission of the USVCC and the organization’s dedication to helping veterans successfully transition from the military to civilian life.

“Underneath the umbrella of support for all veterans, we have a laser-focused look at our wounded warriors that are participating in adaptive sports,” said Brown.

Brown also recognized the late Pro Football Hall of Fame member Chris Doleman for his contributions to USVCC and the veteran community. “It was his original inspiration that identified the similarities between transitioning ball players and transitioning service members.

“Both of them leaving behind a team, both of them leaving behind something bigger than themselves—a higher calling, a mission, a victory,” said Brown.

Medal of Honor recipient Paul “Bud” Bucha also spoke to the attendees, defining what it meant to be an adaptive athlete. “An adaptive athlete is a competitor who uses the modification in sports to meet the challenge of their disability,” said Bucha. “Basically, an adaptive athlete is an able-bodied athlete with all the problems mankind can think of being thrown in their way.” He went on to thank the many corporate sponsors of the night, the athletes and the veterans who he added, “have gone to the gates of hell and back to serve their country.”

Retired Army Master Sergeant and U.S. Invictus team co-captain George Vera also spoke to the attendees. Vera shared his personal story of the events that led to him become an adaptive athlete. In 2015, Vera’s base in Afghanistan was attacked by terrorists using a Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) and assaulters with suicide vests in an attempt to overrun the outpost. Vera led part of a counterattack that successfully defeated the terrorists inside the base.

However, in the process Vera was shot four times in his legs and back, leaving him paralyzed below the waist. Vera experienced a rollercoaster ride of emotions throughout his recovery, and he explained how adaptive sports helped save his life. “Although I couldn’t be a regular Special Forces guy, Istill had the ability to help lead,” said Vera.

He also discussed the bond that adaptive sports bring to the wounded warrior community. “Although it’s great to bring home the gold medal, I don’t really think that’s what it’s about—it’s more about overcoming adversity and helping others overcome adversity,” Vera said.

Among the other honored guests of the night were Pro Football Hall of Fame members Kevin Greene, Curtis Martin, Mike Haynes, Curly Culp, Harry Carson, Morten Andersen and Rickey Jackson. Greene also held a fireside chat for the attendees, where he spoke about his time serving in the U.S. Army and his reverence for the wounded warriors playing on the U.S. Invictus team.

“They volunteer, first of all, to serve our country in the combined armed forces, and then despite all the adversity that they’ve experienced and are presently experiencing they’re now becoming heroes of the field of sports,” said Greene. “They’re being heroes for us now on a different stage, on an international stage, representing this country in these sporting events.” The fireside chat came to a playful close as Greene was asked if he would take Tom Brady on his team, to which he replied, “does a fat baby fart?”

The main event of the night featured a fireside chat between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker. Baker opened up the discussion by reciting “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. Henley wrote the poem in in the late 1870s after losing a leg to tuberculosis. The poem was meant to define fortitude in the face of adversity, and strength in the face of permanent disability.

Throughout the fireside chat, the long relationship between the NFL and the military was discussed, as well as the fact that three NFL players—including an NFL commissioner—have received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Goodell then touched on his 2008 United Service Organizations (USO) tour that brought him to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait to visit deployed soldiers, saying, “I was just amazed at what these people do for us. The men and women in our military are just extraordinary,” added Goodell. He went on to say that the 10 days he spent on the tour were some of the most inspiring days of his life, adding that the debt which is owed to U.S. soldiers for what they sacrifice could never be repaid.

The two also discussed Goodell’s contributions to the veteran community, including his support of the Merging Vets & Players (MVP) organization, which helps transitioning service members and professional athletes navigate life outside of uniform together. When asked about his thoughts on the Invictus Games, Goodell told Baker that he didn’t think there was anything more inspiring.

“I don’t think that there’s anything more important in the world to show people that you do overcome those problems, you do overcome those challenges, and you’re doing something really positive in the world and inspiring people who are watching you as athletes on the world stage,” Goodell said. “When you combine football, athletes and our veterans, that’s a magical combination in my view.”

The night ended with the silent auction of NFL memorabilia and VIP picture opportunities. Over $150,000 was raised by 256 attendees and all proceeds will fund the U.S. Invictus Team Training Camp at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Campus in Canton, Ohio. Official sponsors of the event included Caliber Home Loans, Seeger Weiss, World’s Greatest Videos, Aetna, CVS Health, GEICO and Loews Hotels.

Due to COVID-19, the 2020 Invictus Games have been postponed until 2021. For more information, visit invictusgamesfoundation.org

2 WWII veterans who are lifelong friends celebrate 96th and 97th birthdays together

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WWll veterans pictured smiling lifelong friends celebrate birthday together

World War II veterans and lifelong friends celebrated their 96th and 97th birthdays together in Whittier, California on Sunday. U.S. Army Veteran Randel “Randy” Zepeda Fernandez is turning 96 this week. His best friend of nearly 90 years, U.S. Coast Guard veteran Salvador “Sal” B. Guzman, just turned 97.

Fernandez’s son, Steve Fernandez, decided a major event was in order to mark the momentous occasion.

So he organized a massive celebration that drew a parade of community members, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies and even mariachi musicians.

“This is amazing. I didn’t expect it to be this big,” Steve Fernandez said.

Both veterans said they were surprised by the outpouring of gratitude.

“I knew nothing about this,” Guzman said.

The men’s friendship dates back to childhood.

“We’ve known each other since the second grade,” Randy Fernandez said. The men attended elementary school and junior high together, before they both attended Garfield High School, they said.

Randy Fernandez helped liberate concentration camps and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which helped organize the event. Guzman patrolled the Northern California coastline on horseback from 1943 to 1944.

“Both veterans reunited in the 1950s and bought their first homes on the same street in Montebello, raising their families together,” the sheriff’s department said in a written statement.

Continue on to CBS News to read the complete article.

How the Gary Sinise Foundation Helped a National Guardsman and Special Education Teacher

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Renee Villareel holding her daughter, Natalie, above her head.

By Brandon Black of The Gary Sinise Foundation

At the start of the year, one semester separated Renne Villareal from earning a degree in Special Education. One semester stood between her and starting a career teaching kids and adolescents diagnosed with physical and mental learning needs.

Her years-long endeavor started in high school, fueled by what she saw as malicious attacks on the boys and girls whose impediments made them targets of harassment. They were teased and bullied because of how different they looked and spoke. Some were called “stupid,” while others were called “lazy.” Villarreal was not one to stand idle and watch. She felt the instinct to charge to their defense. It was the right thing to do, no doubt, and it came as second nature.

Both her parents served in the military, which is how Villarreal inherited their values and sense of duty. Standing up for the rights of others, and advocating for kids with disabilities became her mission ever since her time as a student at Lyman Hall High School.

“I realized this is what I’m going to be good at. I want to be a teacher,” she said. “I want to help and stick up for these kids that need me.”

At Southern Connecticut State University, where Villarreal is currently an undergraduate, her fieldwork in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy puts her side-by-side teaching children with autism. Under the guidance of an accredited therapist, she develops individualized lesson plans focused on improving her client’s interpersonal behavior and learning skills.

At the same time, for the last two years, Villarreal has been serving part-time in the Connecticut Army National Guard, attached to the aviation unit of the 1109th Theater Aviation Sustainment Maintenance Group. Joining the National Guard was her way of fulfilling her patriotic duty and honoring her parents’ service. The pay isn’t much, she admits, so to make ends meet, she supplements her income from the army and therapy by working a few days a week at the neighborhood PetSmart.

Up until the second week of March, she was living paycheck-to-paycheck. But the 23-year-old single mother, the sole breadwinner with a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, was unprepared for the public health pandemic sweeping across the country.

A crisis loomed on the horizon.

On March 8, Governor Ned Lamont announced the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. The dominos fell right after with COVID-19 infections popping up in counties throughout the state.

Southern Connecticut State University closed its campus, opting to deliver the curriculum online for the next semester, which pushed Villarreal’s fieldwork courses from the spring term to the fall. It also pushed back her graduation date to later in the year.

One by one, her primary sources of income started drying up. The National Guard reduced her service hours, and with that, a drop in her monthly paycheck. Parents of her clients canceled ABA therapy sessions for the foreseeable future. And a number of part-time employees at PetSmart, including Villarreal, were furloughed.

Her life was upended in a matter of weeks. “How am I going to pay rent?” she asked herself. “How am I going to put food on the table?”

Sleepless nights beget sleepness nights. Alone and caring for her daughter with limited resources at her disposal, Villarreal was overcome by a cruel mixture of stress and depression. Standing amongst the throngs of people waiting in line at the local food bank one day, Villarreal felt she had hit rock bottom.

“I felt like a bad mom because I wasn’t able to provide,” she said. “No mom wants to feel that way.” As her finances started dwindling, Villarreal had her reasons for hesitating in asking for help.

“In my mind, I’ve always done everything by myself,” she said while ticking off a list of life decisions she made independently of others from enlisting in the army and working multiple jobs to paying for her bills and education.

By the time she contacted the Gary Sinise Foundation at the end of March seeking financial assistance, Villarreal said her situation was making her “drown with worry.”

“I put in all my effort to try to make the best life for my daughter and me that I can. I felt like it was all about to go down.”

To keep her afloat, the Foundation paid two months of her rent through the Emergency COVID-19 Combat Service fund. Villarreal also received a Walmart gift card to cover the costs of groceries and other out of pocket expenses, such as buying diapers.

“The foundation literally changed my life,” she said. “I don’t know how I would have made it without them.” In a matter of days after receiving help from the Foundation, Villarreal has experienced an about-face in her life.

No more waiting in line at the food bank with her fingers crossed that staples such as milk and eggs will be available, and more importantly, not past their expiration date. No more stressful days and sleepless nights that mired her for weeks on end.

Renee Villareal's daughter, Natalie, smiling up at the camera
Renee Villareel’s daughter, Natalie, who will be three in September.

“It’s scary to think that I could have lost everything I’ve worked so hard for,” she said about being embarrassed and afraid to ask for help. In short order, she and her daughter, Natalie, have become glued at the hip.

“I’m able to really take advantage of my time now and just catch up with myself,” she said about having time to relax and read a book or take Natalie outdoors to go fishing and to the park.

When Villarreal graduates this fall, she will be among a growing number of professionals nationwide who are entering an in-demand occupation. Projections from the Connecticut Department of Labor show a dearth of special education teachers at the primary and secondary school levels. Increasing numbers of children over the years have been diagnosed with a physical or mental disability that adversely affects their ability to learn in the classroom, explained Villarreal.

In the 2015-16 school year, more than 70,000 students in kindergarten to 12th grade in the state of Connecticut required special education. That number has since ballooned in the last five years to well over 79,000 students representing 15.6% of the state’s student population.

Despite the uncertainty of what lies ahead for her and Natalie with the state yet to see a bend in its curve of coronavirus cases, Villarreal remains focused on becoming a special education teacher.

Blue Water Navy Act Helps Veterans Achieve the American Dream

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Bryan Bergjans with his family at an awards ceremony

By Bryan Bergjans, Navy reservist officer

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 was passed in January, and with it came a lot of changes for military and veterans that they may not know about. As a Navy veteran, I am extremely thankful that this Act carries with it long-awaited benefits to those Navy Vietnam veterans.

The law also brings with it a host of other benefits that changes the landscape of the VA Home Loan benefit as we know it. The new law exempts Purple Heart recipients currently serving on active duty from the VA Home Loan Funding fee. In 2019, you couldn’t receive exemption status unless you were receiving VA disability, and as it stands today, we have a lot of active duty still serving but who were injured in combat and received Purple Hearts that would have had to wait until discharge to be exempt.

Prior to the Blue Water Navy Act, the VA Home Loan Benefit provided entitled military and veterans an opportunity to purchase a home up to, but not limited to, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) conforming loan limits with zero down payment.
For example, to buy a home in St Louis, Missouri, a qualified veteran or military member could purchase with no down payment up to the conforming loan limit, which in 2019 was $484,350. Now this sounds great, and it has been a great benefit no doubt, but what about the high cost areas? What about folks who live in the coastal regions where housing prices have sky rocketed over the last 5, 10, 15 years?

These folks would have to bring in sizable down payments in a market like today, where the supply is low, most options are new construction and the prices are extremely high. So, our military members were forced to rent, or even worse, settle for substandard housing options (we won’t get into those).

Then this little miracle showed up on January 1, 2020, and changed everything! VA Guaranteed Home Loans will no longer be ‘limited’ to the FHFA conforming loan limits. Military and veterans who are entitled to the benefit will now be able to obtain a no-down-payment home loan in all areas of the United States.

The caveat to this is that every lender has established specific caps or max loan amounts they are willing to lend on this program. This actually gives our men and women of the armed forces and veterans the opportunity to purchase their dream home, in their dream location, across the US without having to worry about a substantial down payment. The VA Home Loan is the best performing loan in the mortgage play book.

Every servicer would like to have these types of loans in their portfolios because they have very low default/foreclosure rates. This is a testament to the folks who get VA Loans, who have shown such as honor, courage and commitment! Those who are eligible for this program have all raised their right hands and said they are willing to give it their all for our freedom! This change was long overdue and an exciting new chapter for military and veteran home buyers.

Strange Days, Indeed

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Headshot of Scoba Rhoades

By Scoba Rhodes

Like you, I have been cooped up in my apartment for almost two weeks. For me, the lifestyle hasn’t changed all that much, except when I head outside, the experience is very different.

Since being confined to a wheelchair, I’ve had to adjust to working more from home. It took me over ten years to adjust to my situation, so to expect anyone to do it overnight is a really tall order. Everything is closed except for the huge lines waiting to get inside the grocery stores. No one is hanging out at the coffee shop, the malls are either empty or closed all together, and even the pool at my apartment complex is locked due to “an abundance of caution.” I agree with these measures since they are meant to save lives. But in the meantime, I can’t help but wonder if the lives the government is hoping to save aren’t going stir crazy wondering when this will all be over.

During my voluntary internment, I’ve been catching up on my reading. Much has been work-related, with some personal development mixed in, and quite a few have been articles advising us on how to best cope with the current crisis. My current book is titled, “How to break the habit of being yourself.” It’s quite a read.

I have read articles providing ideas on working out inside your home, new recipes to try, even ideas on making movie and music lists. There have been articles on the power of positive thinking during this crisis, and that may be the most misused concept yet. I’ve heard many state and federal government briefs stating over and over that this is a temporary condition, yet I’m pretty sure when this article is published, we may still be in our homes waiting out this wave.

I am part of a group of neighbors that get together every Wednesday and share some good wine and conversation and catch up with each other in our neighborhood clubhouse. It has been closed for a few weeks, so we decided to meet outside today, keeping our six-foot distance and each bringing our own wine. We were having a great time until one of the complex managers said we had to go back to our apartments. I complied, as did everyone else, and I cannot say the manager was wrong to do it. In fact, looking back, I can say it was the correct decision. I just felt like a 54-year-old man being told to go to his room.

I can’t help but wonder once this is all over, will everyone have adjusted to the new habits, and will shaking hands will have become a thing of the past? When these thoughts enter my mind, I immediately find a book I’ve been putting off reading, place a Blu-ray on I’ve been thinking about, or just sit down with my wife and have a cup of coffee together, something we haven’t done in a long time. Thanks to the current level of technology, I can meet with clients and friends using Zoom or Skype, something I am quite used to. I actually did my first year at USC from my hospital room, and it was the Skype application that allowed me to be in the classroom. This was in 2012, long before the schools went online. Necessity is always the mother of invention it may seem.

I am part of the population with compromised health issues. Being paralyzed, having bronchitis as a child has left me with scar tissue on my lungs, and being in my mid-fifties all means I cannot afford to be cavalier about the current situation. Now when my wife says to make sure I take a jacket, or don’t forget my hat, I no longer say “I’ll be fine.” Now my answer is “Thank you sweetheart. I got it.” I head out, collect what I need, and return home.

I am attempting to build relationships online, in the hopes that when we are allowed to congregate again, we will still be somewhat familiar with each other, and have a newfound appreciation for the joys of personal connection. There are networks on LinkedIn and Facebook for every group you can imagine. Nextdoor.com is also a great place to find and connect digitally with your neighbors. If you’re in Orange County, I relish the day when we can meet in person, share a cup of coffee at my favorite coffee shop, or grab a nice lunch (or martini) at my favorite hangout at the District Mall.

I can’t pretend the current situation is not happening (which it is), nor abandon hope that it is temporary (which I know). I realize by taking these steps now, I am participating in a practice that will benefit our nation, and possibly save a life. I remind myself that I am not being sent to my room, I am doing this willingly in support of a greater health effort. When I feel frustrated or cooped up, which happens more than I’d like to admit, I find a lesson online and learn something new, or take time to reconnect with my wife.

One thing is for sure: Our habits and attitudes will be forever altered. Some for the betterment of society, some for the safety of ourselves and our families. Let’s attempt to make those changes out of diligence, and not fear.

To quote author John Shedd, Admiral Grace Hopper, and Albert Einstein, “Ships are safest when in port. But that’s not what ships are for.”

Be safe and healthy everyone, and remember, “This too shall pass.”

Providing Business, DVBE. Employment & Educational Opportunities For Veterans