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veterans

Cheney Dedicates First National Cemetery in Wyoming; “Veterans Most Important Part of Her Job”

in News/Liz Cheney
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In dedicating Wyoming’s first national cemetery last week, Congresswoman Liz Cheney said the work done on behalf of veterans and current members of the armed forces is the most important work she does as a member of congress.

“We all know and recognize that the freedoms that we enjoy, the freedoms that we are able to exercise every single day, we only are able to do that because of brave men and women like you who had stepped forward and answered the call,” Cheney said.

Cheney was joined by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and Gov. Mark Gordon at the ceremony dedicating the new cemetery which is located about five miles northwest of Cheyenne.

Recalling a statue of a union solider at the Antietam National Battlefield, Cheney cited the inscription on the monument which says: “Not for Themselves, but for Their Country.”

“I think that is something that we all need to pause every day and particularly on a day like today when we’re here to commemorate to dedicate the cemetery,” she said. “That it is because of the selfless service of all of you that we live in freedom.”

She went on to say that the “task and responsibility” of representing Wyoming’s constituents is to make sure that she and others in elected positions “conduct ourselves in a way that is worthy of the sacrifices that so many have made and continue to make.”

“I am very honored to be here. pleased to be able to be here on such an important day and such an important moment,” she said.

Cheney later posted a photo of World War II veteran Gerry Meyer who attended the ceremony. The 100-year-old vet served in the Navy during WWII & later as Dean of Wyoming’s College of Arts & Science.

“We owe Gerry our gratitude for his patriotic service to our state & country,” she said,.

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400+ People Attend Funeral for 101-Year Old WWII Veteran in Casper

in News/Veterans
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By Tim Mandese, Cowboy State Daily

A capacity crowd attended the Oregon Trail State Veteran’s Cemetery on Friday to bid farewell to a man most of them never knew.

101-year-old Marine Cpl.  Remigio ‘Ray’ Barela died with on Feb. 11, with no known family. 

He was buried Friday at Oregon Trail State Veteran’s Cemetery, where a capacity crowd of more than 400 people gathered to pay their respects. 

Ray Barela was born in 1918, and  joined the Marines at age 23, serving in the Pacific from 1942 to 1946. Joey Casada, manager of Bustards Funeral home, was told by friends that Barela said he had “outlived everyone”.  

During Friday’s service, every seat and every standing spot in the cemetery’s chapel were taken, as Rev. Fr. Stephen Ziton spoke to those attending. 

“Cpl. Ray was a man of love, because he made himself vulnerable. He was willing to sacrifice himself, give himself to the country he loved.” said Fr. Stephen.

Casper Police Chief Keith McPheeters read a letter from Gov. Mark Gordon, in which the Governor said “Wyoming is proud to remember amd honor one of our own. We don’t know a lot about Mr. Barela, but what we do, is that he was one of those souls, an individual that embodied the spirit of our cowboy heritage through and through.” 

As attendees exited the service, many were taken aback by the number of people who, unable to fit inside the cemetery’s chapel, stood outside. The parking lot was at overflow, and the street leading to the Oregon Trail Cemetery was lined with cars. 

Wreaths honor fallen Wyoming veterans

in News/military
Wreaths
Volunteers lay wreaths on the graves of Wyoming veterans during the “Wreaths Across America” ceremony Saturday at the Oregon Trail Veterans Cemetery in Casper. (Photo: Tim Mandese)
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By Tim Mandese, Cowboy State Daily

Volunteers placed wreaths on the graves of 4,200 Wyoming veterans on Saturday as part of a national drive that saw more than 2 million volunteers similarly decorate the graves of service members across the country.

Members of Wreaths Across America were joined by members of the Natrona County Republican Women and Patriot Guard Riders in placing the wreaths on graves during ceremonies at three Natrona County cemeteries.

As part of Wreaths Across American, an estimated 61,000 volunteers laid 400,000 wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery alone. Nationally, more than 2,000,000 participants placed wreaths in 1,640 locations.

In Wyoming, ceremonies were held at the Oregon Trail Veterans Cemetery, the only veterans cemetery in Wyoming. Later in the afternoon, ceremonies were held at Highland Park and Memorial Gardens cemeteries. Dignitaries and participants packed the chapel at OTVC to pay their respects, including U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi.

“Per capita, Wyoming’s volunteering at this event is greater than even those at Arlington,” Enzi said. 

Letters from U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, in which both expressed their gratitude for Wyoming’s fallen veterans, were also read. 

Casper broadcaster Bob Price served as master of ceremonies for the event, instructing those laying a wreath that as the wreath is placed at the foot of the grave, the person laying the wreath should speak the veteran’s name aloud. 

“A person really dies twice,” he said. “Once when they pass away, and once when their name is spoken for the last time.”

Victoria Lockard, the co-chair for Wreaths Across America’s Natrona County chapter, estimated that 1,000 volunteers took part in the wreath laying in Casper.

She added 3,000 wreaths were placed on graves at the Oregon Trail Veterans Cemetery, 1,000 were placed at the Highland Park Cemetery and 200 were laid at Memorial Gardens.

Each year the number of wreaths placed grows and the number of volunteers grows, Lockard said.

“Each year it continues to grow, and we are so happy with the turnout of our crowd and their generosity,” she said.  

Powell man part of team to row across Atlantic

in Recreation/Community
FightOrDieTeam
The members of Carl Christensen’s “Fight OAR Die” team, from left to right: John Fannin of San Antonio, Texas, Luke Holton of Juneau, Alaska, Christensen of Powell and Evan Stratton of Denver, Colorado. (Courtesy photo)
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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Fight OAR Die.

No, that’s not a typo. It’s the slogan for a group of military veterans who next week will begin a weeks-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean… in a rowboat.

Powell resident Carl Christensen is part of a four-man team of former military servicemen who will take off from La Gomera in the Canary Islands next month in their “Woobie” to raise awareness and support for the mental and physical health of U.S. veterans. 

The team will take part in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, rowing 3,000 miles from the Canary Islands to Antigua. It’s a symbol of the hardships faced by veterans, and the steps that can be taken to overcome them.

Christensen is a 2001 Cody High School graduate who attended the Naval Academy, then served as a submarine officer and an instructor until his service was over in 2014. He said he watched last year’s team, which boasted members from both Powell and Cody, and was inspired to join the movement to support fellow veterans in their struggles with both mental and physical health post-service. 

But the task he’s facing is no small feat, either.

“Last year’s team did it in 54 days. 40 days is the average, the world record is 33 days,” he said. “We do have 60 days’ worth of food on board.”

Fight OAR Die map
This is a map of the path to be followed by Powell resident Carl Christensen and the other three members of his “Fight OAR Die” challenge to row across the Atlantic Ocean.

Christensen’s team represents more than just the Navy, however. Two Marines will be in his boat – one from San Antonio, Texas, and one from Denver, Colorado – and an Army veteran from Juneau, Alaska will round out the crew. It’s the first time for each of them. 

“The goal is to put four new veterans on the team each year,” he said. “We’re showing other veterans that they can row their own ocean, overcome their challenges.” 

He said the Fight OAR Die team has one mission – they want veterans to stop taking their own lives, and start living them instead.

Training is a must for a physical feat such as this. Christensen said he’s been staying in shape as a member of the Park County Search and Rescue volunteer crew. In addition, his wife, who is a personal trainer, purchased a rowing machine to help him train specifically for this journey.

In August, Christensen said the team did a month of training on an actual rowboat in Mobile, Alabama. There, the city’s mayor presented team members with a key to the city for their efforts in raising awareness of post-traumatic stress and post-combat hardship, as well as raising funds for treatment and research.

Part of the team’s mission is to raise support for other organizations that assist veterans, according to Christensen. The Sturm Center at the University of Denver and the Marcus Institute for Brain Health in Aurora, Colorado, are both working on ways to help veterans adapt and heal after their combat missions. 

“We are actually research subjects,” Christensen said. “They’ll follow us for a year.” 

In fact, he says the Sturm Center is now offering students the opportunity to follow a new specialized path – professional military psychologist – specifically to help veterans. 

Christensen pointed out that people who want to support their team’s mission financially can donate to the Sturm Center and the Marcus Institute to further their efforts.

Of the upcoming challenge, Christensen said it’s important to him to continue to serve his brothers and sisters in arms. With 60,000 veterans dying by suicide over the last decade, he said he is proud to be a part of a group that is working to raise awareness – and funds – to help support those who can perhaps end that trend.

“We’re trying to turn the tide,” he said.

Military experience translates well into civilian life, say vets

in News/military
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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.”

Wyoming veterans weigh in on celebrating Veterans Day

in News/military
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Gravesite flowers on Memorial Day, barbecues on Labor Day, social media outrage on Columbus Day — most holidays have their traditions.

But Veterans Day tends to elude veterans and civilians alike.

Despite numerous veterans in my family, including myself, I can’t think of a single instance we even acknowledged Veterans Day.

Perhaps our family is an outlier? So I dialed up some of my old army buddies and asked how they planned to spend Nov. 11. 

“What’s that on — a Monday?” asked Victor Varela, a former U.S. Army sergeant who served with me in Iraq. “Yeah, I’m working. I might go have a beer after, I guess.”

All the calls ended similarly and I was left asking what it is we are supposed to celebrate and for who.

Veterans Day is widely viewed as the day to honor the living, while Memorial Day is reserved for honoring the dead, according to the Veterans of Foreign Wars website.

Originally dubbed Armistice Day, the holiday was created to honor the conclusion of World War I, which ended Nov. 11, 1918. 1n 1954, Congress renamed the event Veterans Day to honor veterans from World War II, the Korean War and future wars.

Vietnam-era veteran and Laramie resident John Hursh, a former U.S. Marine Corps captain, said celebrating Veterans Day can be as simple as a couple words and a quiet moment.

“Just walk up to a vet and say thanks,” Hursh said. “I think it’s best when someone comes up, looks you in the eye and thanks you for your service.”

Although he doesn’t have plans for anything fancy, Hursh said he has his own way of celebrating.

“I’m going to take a moment for myself,” he said. “It’s time to pause for a while and remember your buddies and think about how you got where you are and be thankful for our country.”

Tim Sheppard, executive director of the Wyoming Veterans Commission, is a retired Army colonel who also served during the Vietnam War. Sheppard has seen many behavioral trends come and go since the late 1960s, but one receiving increased attention in recent years is “Stolen Valor,” the act of lying about military service to garner sympathy or respect.

The fraudulent acts could make some people hesitate before thanking a vet, not knowing if the person’s experiences were genuine. Sheppard said people should look past those rare cases and honor the spirit of the holiday.

“Take the risk and thank the vet,” he said. “Let us police ourselves and we’ll do our best to safeguard the integrity of military service.”   

If people don’t know a veteran to thank on Veterans Day, Sheppard suggested observing a moment of silence at the “eleventh minute of the eleventh hour.” 

As for me, I still struggle with how best to honor the holiday. I was lucky to serve at a time when soldiers were well-received and have been thanked on numerous occasions for my service. It’s a good feeling, but an awkward one.

My peers were volunteers. We served because we felt it was our duty or because we needed a way out of our situations or for the educational opportunities afforded by the G.I. Bill and sign-on bonuses. 

Our country didn’t call on us as much as we stepped forward and asked for the privilege. 

It feels self-aggrandizing to celebrate that experience with a national holiday, especially a holiday created to honor those who, in many cases, were not given a choice. 

So, I plan to spend this Veterans Day focusing on the experiences of my fellow veterans and what their service has afforded future generations. 

Whether you visit your local war memorial, thank a veteran in person or share a quiet moment of reflection, your efforts are what make this country worth serving. 

Thank you.

Honoring the unclaimed: US Veterans’ remains laid to rest In Evansville

in News/military
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By Tim Mandese, Cowboy State Daily

Evansville — The unclaimed cremated remains of 23 United States soldiers were interred with full military honors at the Oregon Trail State Veterans Cemetery in Evansville this week. 

Bagpipes played as members of the Wyoming chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders escorted the soldiers’ remains to the Tom Walsh Chapel, where services were held. Greeting the fallen were members of local military, police and firefighters. Along the entrance to the cemetery, more than a dozen people stood at attention, holding flagpoles. 

The services were organized by Tammy Mansfield, state president of the Wyoming State Society Daughters of 1812, a volunteer women’s serviced group dedicated to promoting patriotism. Also helping to organize the event was the Missing in America Project, a group formed to locate, identify and inter the unclaimed cremated remains of American Veterans.

Officials attending the services included Gov. Mark Gordon, state Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Casper, and a representative from the office of U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney.

The names of the 23 soldiers being honored were read aloud as the attendees who filled the chapel sat silently. Upon the completion of the reading, and with military precision, a solemn soldier presented a folded American flag to Mansfield. The ceremony ended with the bagpipers playing “Amazing Grace,” followed by a 21-gun salute. 

Following the services, organizers and dignitaries gathered outside to speak with the public.

“For me, this is personal, and it’s especially personal when you see people who we honor this way, who have their remains been unclaimed.” said Gordon.

Gordon praised organizer Mansfield and the Missing in America Project.

“It shows that this country has a love that somebody would have the initiative to say, ‘We need to find out who these people are, and properly honor them,’” he said.

To organize the day’s honors it took “…less than a year, and MIAP kicked in about June.” said Mansfield.

The Patriot Guard Riders is a national group formed to show respect for fallen members of the military by escorting their remains to funeral services. According to Wyoming Patriot Guard Riders’ Sr. Capt. Richard Parks, the riders have escorted remains to 88 services throughout Wyoming this year.

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.”

“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.

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.”

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