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USDA helps veterans turn from swords to plowshares

in News/military/Agriculture
USDA helps veterans turn from swords to plowshares
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Young people are losing interest in the agriculture industry, but the United States Department of Agriculture is hoping low-interest loans could attract a different demographic — veterans. The USDA’s loan program has been around in one form or another since the 1930s, said Rob Weppner, a USDA Farm Service Agency farm loan manager based in northeastern Wyoming.

“There’s always been a bit of preference toward veterans,” Weppner explained.

The department, however, is ramping up efforts to attract veterans, spending about $64.5 million in direct and guaranteed farm operating loans for veterans in 2018, a USDA news release stated.

Grant Stumbaugh, a USDA spokesperson for the Wyoming branch of the Farm Service Agency, said incentivizing veterans was about more than simply slowing labor force leakage.   

“Veterans have served our country and risked their lives,” Stumbaugh said. “The least we can do is give them every possibility to do what they want to do.”

The USDA offers veterans more than 40 loan, grant and technical assistance programs to support the purchase and development of land and facilities, purchase equipment and supplies, refinance job expansion and finance energy efficiency improvements.

“Nearly one-quarter of veterans, approximately 5 million, live in rural areas,” Bill Ashton, USDA Military Veteran Agricultural Liaison, said in a news release. “(The) USDA is committed to making our programs accessible to help veterans start or grow a career and maximize the potential talent of this population.” 

Low-interest loans

Starting out in the agriculture industry can be challenging and risky, Stumbaugh said.

“A lot of younger folks don’t really want to go out there and work that hard,” he explained. “And to be honest, sometimes the return isn’t that good — you’re not making a whole lot of money, plus there’s the risk of running into natural catastrophes.”

Add that to the rising cost of real estate and the future of ag workers in America starts to look gloomy, he added.

“(USDA loans and grants) give vets a leg up in the industry,” Stumbaugh said. “Plus they can use that money for operating expenses to give them some help to get started.”

Weppner said the loan programs provide people with a low-interest option for funding family-sized farm operations.

“The interest is based on the loan type,” he explained. “But, the (Farm Service Agency) rates tend to be lower than the commercial rates.”

While Weppner said he’s worked with veterans in the past, neither he nor Stumbaugh were aware of any Wyoming veterans currently enrolled in USDA loan programs.

Despite reports of downward labor force trends, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services reported the industry has experienced a recent uptick in its agricultural workers category.

In 2008, Workforce Services recorded 2,558 people in the sector. In 2013, 2,798 people were employed in ag industries. And by 2018, the workforce grew to 3,016, said Aubrey Kofoed, a Workforce Services administrative assistant.

The growth, however, does not necessarily reflect the number of people taking jobs on ranches and farms in the state, because the department’s agriculture category also includes forestry, fishing and hunting jobs, Kofoed added.

Neither the USDA Farm Service Agency or Rural Development office had data immediately available on the number of ranchers and farmers in Wyoming.

Working the land

Programs like USDA loans are a key component to helping veterans reintegrate into the civilian workforce, a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesperson said.

“The VA focuses on attempting to get veterans jobs and the federal government is one of the largest employers in America,” said Sam House, the Cheyenne VA public affairs officer. “It’s great we have agencies that are willing to partner with us to achieve those goals.”

Every veteran’s experience differs, but for some, returning to the bright lights and constant noise of city life isn’t as attractive as an opportunity to become part of a rural community.

“There’s no greater feeling than being out on the farm and seeing land that needs to be worked and knowing you can do it yourself,” House said. “But it’s a dying industry, and I think veterans could help turn that around.”

For more information about USDA loans, contact your local USDA Field Service Agency and ask to speak to a loan officer. Visit www.fsa.usda.gov for a list of offices in Wyoming.

‘Veterans Portrait Project’ photographer visits Cody

in Community/military
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A U.S. Air Force veteran who is traveling the country to photograph veterans stopped in Cody recently to add several portraits to her collection.

Stacey Pearsall, a former combat photographer, was in Cody this week to add Wyoming veterans to the “Veterans Portrait Project,” a program she launched in 2008 while recuperating from injuries she suffered in Iraq.

Pearsall has been photographing veterans for more than 11 years, traveling to 35 states on the way to her goal of taking pictures of veterans in all 50 states by November of this year. Her work has hung in the Smithsonian, the Pentagon and at Arlington National Cemetery.

The project has helped with Pearsall’s healing process from her injuries, she said.

“It’s been cathartic, both physically and emotionally,” she said. “The doctors said I couldn’t do photography any more, but here I am 11 years later, still doing it, still telling stories and on my own terms.”

So far, Pearsall has taken pictures of more than 7,500 veterans from all branches of the military.

Among her subjects in Cody were Sandy and Jim Pederson, both former master chiefs in the U.S. Navy, who endorsed Pearsall’s project.

“I think it’s important that veterans tell their story,” said Sandy Pederson. “No matter what war, or if they never were in combat, that they tell their story for future generations.”

“They need to know what we went through, both good and bad, and share some of our stories with these young people,” said Jim Pederson. “Some of them, unfortunately, have only been in combat in Afghanistan or Iraq. They’ve never had a chance, like we have, to stay in the military, make a career and see the world.”

Bob Richard, a historian in Cody, agreed with the Pedersons.

“It’s the history that’s so important, for everybody to be aware of what has happened in the past,” he said. “And we build on the past for the future.”

Pearsall said her project has been a journey of discovery.

“Getting to know my own veteran community a lot better and in the process also educating those who have never served,” she said. “To be able to continue to keep the veterans’ dialog in the forefront of people’s minds and those issues that impact us.”

Missile systems upgrade could bring billions to SE Wyoming

in Economic development/News/military/Business
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If the missiles under control of F.E. Warren Air Force Base are made part of a massive upgrade program, Cheyenne could see challenges in managing the resulting growth, according to the former head of the Wyoming Business Council.

Bob Jensen, now part of Wyoming Entrepreneurs, said F.E. Warren’s involvement in the Ground Based Strategic Missile Upgrade program could generate growth among existing businesses and bring in new businesses as well.

“So this is going to be a big change and managing that change is as big a deal as having the opportunity in the first place,” he said.

Boeing and Northrop Grumman are in competition for a project to upgrade the nation’s Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, about 400 of which are deployed in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming, at an estimated cost of $90 billion.

Jensen said if the missiles in Wyoming are made part of the project, opportunities for growth would be seen throughout Cheyenne.

“People that are already here will have an opportunity to grow their businesses in relation to this if they want to,” he said. “But there will be new businesses that will come in and new workforce that comes in.”

To take full advantage of the program, Wyoming and Cheyenne will need to be able to look ahead and act on the opportunities it provides, said Eric Trowbridge, the founder of Cheyenne’s Array School of Technology and Design.

“We must have ‘leapfrog’ moments,” he said. “Wyoming does something that no one else has done before. We have to have that courage to be able to say we’re going to do it and leapfrog ahead of all the other states to do it.”

Boeing and Northrop Grumman have been awarded three-year contracts for the preliminary design phase of the upgrade.

An upgrade to Wyoming’s nuclear weapons system could be coming to Cheyenne’s FE Warren Air Force Base — but is Cheyenne ready?

VA to implement Mission Act, cutting wait times, enhancing healthcare programs

in Health care/military
File photo
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

A congressional act going into effect June 6 could make it easier for Wyoming veterans to access the health care providers of their choice. The Mission Act will replace the Choice Act of 2014, which was adopted as the congressional response to extreme wait times experienced by veterans seeking medical care through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The Choice Act was a three-year law, which was intended solely for the purposes of pulling the VA into a newer era of community care,” said Sam House, a Cheyenne VA Medical Center spokesperson. “Then, President (Donald) Trump extended it for a year. The Mission Act, however, does not have a sunset, so it will be in place until Congress decides to remove it.”

With the Choice Act, veterans could seek primary and mental health care services from a local health care provider rather than from a VA facility if they lived outside a 40-mile radius of a VA medical center or could not schedule an appointment with their primary care provider at the VA within 30 days.

The Mission Act reduces those standards to a wait time of 20 or more days or a drive time of more than 30 minutes.

“They are not using specific matrix to look at drive times, but rather looking at the average drive time and taking into account heavy traffic periods,” House explained. “A guy living in Denver could live 5 miles from the VA, but it might take him 45 minutes to get there.”

For specialized care, the new act reduces the veterans’ wait time to be eligible for services at non-VA facilities from 30 days to 28 and changes the 60-mile radius requirement to a 60-minute radius.

“Congress is focusing on ensuring our vets are getting the best possible care as quickly as they need it,” House said.

Enhancing programs

In addition to easing access requirements, the Mission Act seeks to improve services already in place such as tele-health options, caregiver programs and VA infrastructure.

“The Mission Act streamlines and improves community care,” House said. “It establishes a new urgent care benefit for our veterans, and it expands caregiver eligibility.”

When the Choice Act was implemented, veterans were given the opportunity to seek healthcare providers outside VA facilities, which is referred to as community care, he said.

The VA’s internal software, however, did not communicate with the myriad programs used by health care providers outside its facilities. Simple tasks such as transferring medical records and authorizing payments required mountains of paperwork as well as numerous case-worker hours, House explained. The Mission Act seeks to streamline the process through installing new software, HealthShare Referral Manager (HSRM).

“HSRM is an end-to-end healthcare referral system,” said Josh Benavente, Cheyenne VA Community Care supervisor. “That’s where the VA will build our authorizations for payments and providers can submit medical records.”

The new system goes live in June.

“The biggest problem it’s fixing is previously we were relying on too many outdated programs to get information to and from community providers,” Benavente said. “It allows the VA to communicate with community providers faster and easier.”

Eligibility for the VA’s caregiver program is also slated to expand to include veterans from all eras of service. The expansion is scheduled to roll out during the next two years, starting with veterans who were injured on or before May 7, 1975.

On the tele-health front, the act could facilitate community partnerships in rural areas to increase long-range, video and phone healthcare-conferencing accessibility, House said.  

“What the Mission Act will do is strengthen our ability and reason for going into communities to establish a centralized tele-health port,” he explained. “We have a number of veterans that don’t have internet capability, but they want to stay with the VA and can’t make the trip to the Cheyenne VA every time.”

One such program could soon provide veterans living near Saratoga an opportunity to use equipment at the Saratoga Care Center to access Cheyenne VA tele-health programs, House added.

Bureaucracy

As June 6 rounds the corner, House said the VA is racing to ensure the transition is smooth. 

“It’s been a mad rush for all of the VA to be trained by June 6,” he said. “There are so many pieces and parts to the act.”

Despite more programs and enhanced services, House said the act will not likely lead to an increase of staffing at the Cheyenne VA.

Cowboy State Daily talked to several veterans who were unaware of the changes coming to the VA, but most said they would like the Mission Act to make it easier for veterans living in rural Wyoming to enter the community care program.

“The Choice Program didn’t work too well because of all the bureaucracy,” said John Hursh, a Laramie resident and former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. “So, I’m hoping the Mission Act can fix some of that.”

“And they were proud to do so”: A moving Memorial Day tribute to the fallen

in News/military
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Start your day with gratitude and patriotism.

Watch this moving report from Monday’s Memorial Day service in Cheyenne. The ceremony offered a moving tribute to those who gave all in service to our country and a great reminder to share with our children and grandchildren of the blessing of being born in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

“These people gave their lives,” said Air Force veteran Floyd Watson. “Eighteen, nineteen, twenty-year-old kids gave their lives in sacrifice to this country. And they were proud to do so.”

The event was held at Cheyenne’s Beth El Cemetery and attended by area active duty military, veterans, local families and elected officials including Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr.

War is Hell: A Memorial Day remembrance

in News/military
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As we reflect this weekend on the sacrifice of those who have given of themselves in our armed services, our Robert Geha visits with his Uncle Eddie “Goose” Gazel, a World War II veteran, about the battle of Tarawa in the Japanese archipelago.

Thank you to all who have served and serve today. We honor your sacrifice.

Standing room only crowd bids farewell to National Guard members

in News/military
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Frank Gambino for Cowboy State Daily

A standing room only crowd filled the Natrona County High School auditorium on Wednesday to bid farewell to 130 members of the Wyoming National Guard who are being deployed to the Middle East.

Friends and family members of the 130 guardsmen departing for a stay of nine months to one year filled the high school’s auditorium to take part in a farewell ceremony.

The guardsmen are part of the 2nd Battalion of the 300th Field Artillery.

Jason Lutz, a Natrona County Sheriff’s Office employee who was leaving for his third deployment, said the farewell ceremony Wednesday was emotional.

“But it’s good to be emotional with them,” he said. “Once we get deployed and get into a groove, and it’s the same with the family, once they get into adjusting, I think everything goes fairly well. It’s going to be a hard time, but we should be able to communicate very well.”

Guardsman Greyson Buckingham is departing for his first deployment and is looking forward to marrying his fiancee when he returns.

“My fiancee is not too thrilled I’m leaving, but she understands,” he said. “She knew what she was signing up for.”

The unit headed first to Fort Bliss in Texas before heading to the Middle East for its sixth deployment.

Cheyenne VA services remain intact a year after administrative downgrade

in News/Health care/military
Cheyenne VA services remain intact a year after administrative downgrade
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Services at the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center remain largely intact a year after the Department of Veteran Affairs downgraded an administrative ranking for the facility, a VA spokesperson said.

“Our lower complexity level has not affected the quality or services we provide,” said Sam House, the Cheyenne VA public affairs officer. “It didn’t affect our funding. The only thing it did was should we get a new director, they would be hired at a lower pay rate.”

According to the department, VA facilities are categorized by “complexity levels,” which are determined by characteristics of the patient population, clinical services offered, educational and research initiatives and administrative complexity. 

“It’s a system of looking at hospitals, and what they are capable of doing,” House explained. “They assign numbers to them, and they base the hospital director’s pay off that number. That’s all the complexity level means.”

The complexity system consists of three levels with level one and its subcategories being the highest and level three being the lowest. The Cheyenne VA, with a budget of $185 million in 2018, was downgraded from level two to level three early in 2018, which House said signifies no research is being conducted at the facility.

“We don’t have a focus on research,” he added. “Our focus is on mental health, primary care and geriatric care.”

House said one service was changed by the downgrade — orthopedic repairs. While the facility still provides othorpedic surgery, its staff no longer repairs orthopedic implants.

Wyoming Veterans Commission Director Steve Kravitsky said he was initially alarmed when he heard about the downgrade, but his fears were allayed after talking to Cheyenne VA Director Paul Roberts.

“(Roberts) assured me not only were they not going to decrease any services, but they were still bringing more services online,” Kravitsky said. “As director of the veterans commission and a veteran myself, I receive care at the VA, and I haven’t seen anything to the contrary.”

Built in 1934, the Cheyenne VA originally employed 100 staff members and provided 100 beds for primary care.

Nowadays, the facility’s area of service, also known as a “catchment” area, stretches from Rawlins to Sydney, Nebraska, and from Douglas down to north of Denver.

About 79,000 eligible veterans live in the catchment area, House said, but only 29,000 used the facility’s services in 2018, a 3 percent reduction from 2017.

House explained that the VA is made up of three entitles to administer three areas: Healthcare, benefits and the national cemetery.

Most of the services offered at the Cheyenne VA are centered around primary healthcare, but all three divisions of the department have offices on the grounds. 

“Recently, we’ve expanded our nursing home and hospice care facility,” House said. “The average age of Cheyenne VA users is 61. Our youngest user is 19, and our oldest is 102.”

A large portion of the facility is dedicated to offering primary care, including physical therapy, orthopedic surgery, cardiopulmonary lab work, audiology and otorhinolaryngology, or ear, nose and throat care.

The Cheyenne VA also provides some emergency services through its emergency room.

“Our ER is open and staffed 24/7, 365,” House said. “But we’re not a trauma center.”

Because of this, ambulances do not deliver patients to the Cheyenne VA, but rather, veterans are transported to Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, and the VA reimburses the medical center for the care provided.

“Because we have CRMC, we don’t have a trauma care unit in our ER,” he added. “We are in partnership with our community, not competition.”

Additionally, the facility offers limited dental care and was the first in the region to install a women’s clinic.

“The need for women-specific care is something I think the VA has really realized in the last nine to 10 years,” House said.

Laramie County is home to the largest concentration of veterans in Wyoming, and as such, the Cheyenne VA is well-placed to provide them with vital services, Kravitsky said.

“There are 12,085 vets living in Laramie County, according to the VA,” he said, “which is about 25 percent of the 47,472 living throughout Wyoming.”

Without the Cheyenne VA, veterans would need to travel to Denver or Sheridan for veterans services, Kravitsky added.

“With 20 veterans committing suicide every day, quality care close to home is essential to potentially reducing that number,” he said.

The veterans commission files veteran claims with the VA benefits division and is occasionally charged with reviewing inquiries into the VA’s quality or frequency of care. 

“Those inquiries are infrequent,” Kravitsky said. “We don’t get a lot of negative feedback about the Cheyenne VA.”

Traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall Comes to Casper

in News/military
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Frank Gambino for Cowboy State Daily

A traveling 80 percent replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington D.C., made a stop in Casper recently. The wall’s exhibition in Casper gave veterans the opportunity to reflect on their service and the friends they left behind.

“I appreciate it so very much,” said Vietnam veteran Kenneth Vroman. “It is a homecoming for myself and for other people.”

Wyoming lost 123 natives in Southeast Asia. At Casper College American flags waived for each Wyoming serviceman lost during the conflict.

USS Cheyenne submarine returns to Pearl Harbor, proud of Cheyenne name

in News/military
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Late last week, the USS Cheyenne submarine, known affectionately by its crew as “The Legend” and “God’s boat” returned home to Pearl Harbor after a six-month deployment. Cowboy State Daily attended the emotional ceremony and spoke to sailors and spouses about the homecoming and about the boat that bears Cheyenne’s namesake.

COMSUBPAC‘s Cheyenne sailors, members of the United States Pacific Fleet Submarine Force, returned safely to their families, thankful to be home, grateful for the support of American patriots, and resounding in their affirmation that “God’s boat does God’s work.”

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