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Holiday lights go high-tech

in News/Community/military
Christmas Lights
2567

By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

No one really can remember when the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center, built in 1934, began displaying its impressive holiday lights and decorations. It’s just been something Cheyenne and Laramie County residents, as well as regular tourists, expect every winter. 

Whether you’re driving by on Pershing Boulevard and just happen to catch a glimpse of the lights or you take a stroll through the campus, you can see the VA’s extensive collection of decorations, from Santa guiding his reindeer to a nutcracker saluting incoming and outgoing guests. 

For many years, the decorative display was unique in Cheyenne because it was considered more “high-tech” than displays seen across the rest of the city. In recent years, the community has begun to step up the size and scale of its decorations and lights, but that doesn’t mean that the VA is going to fall behind. 

“The grounds guys actually came to me this year and were pretty insistent that we needed to get some more lights and decorations for the display,” said Sam House, VA public affairs officer. “We’ve built new additions along the campus, but we hadn’t expanded our holiday display and they wanted to change that.” 

Some of the new decorations included inflatable characters that are shown every evening — as long as it’s not too windy — more lights, a new wreath and pop-up sculptures. 

Since the VA is a federal building, the decorations also reflect the Jewish and Muslim faiths, featuring a menorah for Hanukkah and a painted sign with Islam’s crested moon symbol. 

While not decorated, there is also a sacred area on the property for Native Americans that features a traditional medicine wheel that people can visit.

Since the VA expanded its decorations for the entire campus, House noted that there has been an uptick in visitors this winter. 

“We put those there for the community, so we definitely want them to come onto the campus and take a look around,” he said. “They’re also great for the veterans who stay in our nursing homes, because they love to look out their windows and see these gorgeous lights.” 

The groundkeepers begin looking over the lights and decorations in early November, ensuring none of the lights are broken or burned out and checking to see if any decorations need repair. After Thanksgiving, they get to work setting everything up, stringing lights and posting the decorations all over the campus. 

It’s a lot of work for a display that’s seen for a little more than a month, but House said it’s worth it because the community loves it so much. 

“Cheyenne is a very traditional community and these decorations are a part of our tradition,” he said. “There are so many federal entities that kind of peel away and don’t take part in their community. The Cheyenne VA has been an integral part of the city since the 1930s. Some of our patients were mayors of the community. We want to make sure people know it’s OK to come onto the campus and that our VA hospital belongs to the community.”

But the VA isn’t the only place you can see beautiful lights or stunning decorations. Little America is another location with a sprawling campus with a breathtaking display that guests or community members can walk through.

Cheyenne’s City Hall on O’Neil Avenue is covered with around 3,000 LED lights, with more being added every year. The building is decorated on Thanksgiving and the lights will come down in January. 

There are also lights displayed along the streets downtown, which are put up by the city’s traffic division. These will also be up until January. 

The Cheyenne Community Recreation and Events Department also placed more than 70,000 lights on the Cheyenne Depot Plaza this fall. The white lights that hang on the trees downtown will stay up until April 1. 

But if you’re looking for some more home-spun decorations and lights, the Cheyenne Trolley Tours offers the chance to bundle up in one of the city’s classic trolleys, sip hot chocolate and cruise the streets in search of the best Christmas displays at private homes throughout town. 

The buses depart every evening from the west end of Frontier Mall, 1400 Frontier Mall Drive., at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for children.

Military experience translates well into civilian life, say vets

in News/military
2347

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

On day one of boot camp, every recruit is taught the values of punctuality, personal grooming and working together, but some lessons gleaned from military experience aren’t as immediately obvious.

Ret. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Luke Reiner, formerly the Wyoming Military Department’s adjutant general, joined the army in 1982 to experience something new, but stayed in as the service reforged his sense of duty.

“I thought it would be fun,” Reiner said. “The local (Army National Guard) unit was a combat engineer unit, and they would do cool things with explosives.”

He didn’t intend to become a career soldier, but the military became an integral part of his life.

“Initially, you stay because it’s cool, and you have a purpose,” he said. “But, in my mind, the purpose is what grows on you over the years. In the end, you stay because that becomes your calling in life.”

In March, Reiner hung up his uniform and accepted a new leadership role as director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation. The helmets changed to hardhats and the uniforms switched from green suits to orange vests, but he said most of his experience translated easily. 

“My job as the adjutant general was very helpful in transitioning to WYDOT,” Reiner explained. “I oversee roughly the same number of people. But whereas in the guard, there were lots of part-time positions, at WYDOT, there are more full-time positions.”

Both entities break down into divisions or districts, each with their own needs and specialties. 

Whether soldier or civilian, he said employees have the same needs.

“Personnel issues don’t change,” Reiner said. “You still have to ensure your men and women get paid, have good health care and a place to live.”

Reiner still rises early to for physical training, but he has plans to grow out his beard eventually and settle into civilian life.

“The military was a phenomenal job,” he said. “It was an opportunity to serve the state and nation and be part of the backbone of this nation. I feel like I have the opportunity to continue doing that here at WYDOT, and for that, I am thankful.”

Managing relationships

In Iraq, David Sheppard, a former U.S. Army staff sergeant, learned to balance the needs of a village with the demands of a nation at war.

“Our job was to remove the temporary bridges that were installed (on a primary traffic route) and build permanent roundabouts and culverts,” Sheppard explained. “Part of that mission was not only construction, but there was a small village right off the road we needed to maintain a positive relationship with.”

Many Iraqi citizens viewed the coalition forces as foreign meddlers with no understanding of local politics and customs. Relationships between the local populace and soldiers were often tense. 

“In the military, you’re forced into a group, a unit, regardless of race, religion or economic factors — it’s a kind of melting pot — and expected to work together as a team,” Sheppard explained. “You become very effective at making it a productive situation despite your differences.”

After working with the Iraqi town’s leadership to ensure their needs were also represented in the project, Sheppard’s unit finished the roundabout and moved down the road without incident. 

About a month later, a coalition forces patrol rolling through the town discovered and seized about 160 tons of explosive materials intended for use as improvised explosive devices that could have been used against Sheppard and his unit.

“I always circle back to how effective it was to take care of people and manage those relationships — it saved my life,” Sheppard said. “I try to translate that experience to my own everyday life in just being a productive human.”

Sheppard joined the guard in 1999 at 18 and served for about 12 years. Nowadays, he manages 911 Roofing Solutions Inc. in Cheyenne and uses the leadership skills he learned as a soldier to guide his management style.

“In the civilian world, you may encounter a handful of leadership styles over the course of a career,” Sheppard said. “But in the military, you’re exposed to so many different leaders at so many levels, that it really gives you a good perspective. It gives individuals the opportunity to take the good and throw away the bad in forming their own leadership style.”

Arena of beliefs

Christy and Andrew Stigen met while stationed at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. 

Not long after they started dating, they encountered their first major hurdle as a couple — dual deployments to separate areas of operation. 

“I think it was a lot easier for us to transition back than it was for others,” said Andrew Stigen, who exited the U.S. Air Force as a staff sergeant in 2011. “Both of us came back with the same experience. Other couples, where one stays behind and the other deploys, can have differing expectations when they are reunited, but we knew what we needed from each other.”

Serving together was not only the foundation of their marriage, but it allowed them to cultivate their world view as a couple.

While Andrew Stigen grew up in Casper, Christy Stigen was raised in a small Texas town. 

“Being in the military exposed me to a lot of cultures,” said Christy Stigen, who left the U.S. Air Force as a staff sergeant in 2012. “I’m more open to new experiences now.”

Andrew Stigen said serving alongside people from every walk of life helped him understand viewpoints he might have disregarded otherwise.

“Everybody has a different mindset growing up in the world,” he explained. “Until people are thrown into an arena of beliefs, they really don’t know where they stand.” 

After Andrew Stigen finished his enlistment, Christy Stigen was stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base and the couple moved to Cheyenne, where they decided to stay. After the military, both decided to use their experiences to help veterans. Andrew Stigen manages contracts for Veterans Affairs, and Christy Stigen processes claims for the Veterans Benefits Administration, a division of the VA.

They have a 3-year-old daughter and a son on the way.

“Joining the military was the best thing I ever did,” Andrew Stigen said. “I’m not going to encourage or discourage my kids from serving, but if they come to that decision on their own, I’m certainly going to paint in the best light.”

No matter the era or branch of service, Reiner said one thing binds all veterans together and drives them long after their time in the military is done.

“At some point, every veteran raised their right hand and swore to protect the Constitution,” he said. “That has no expiration date.”

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.

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.”

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
1357

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.”

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