Honor to serve: People and programs supporting Miami veterans

While media like the Oscar-nominated American Sniper refocuses popular attention on the struggles of veterans, great things are growing in our community to honor and serve military service members. Meet three Miamians and some of the many organizations that are leading efforts to support Miami veterans.

Bobby Hannat
Bobby Hannat

Bobby Hannat is a business litigation attorney with Roig Lawyers who served in Iraq from April 2003 to July 2004.  He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Presidential Unit Citation for his service with the Army’s 1st Armored Division during the Iraq war. The Purple Heart is awarded to those wounded or killed while serving with the U.S. military. The Presidential Unit Citation is awarded for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy, demonstrating gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions. But adjusting to civilian life presents great challenges, even for heroes.

“Disabled veterans have life expectancies that are significantly shorter.  The fact that I managed to go after I got back and get an education and can hold down a job is sadly not reality for so many of my brothers and sisters … the search for peace for me was not easy.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way.  And not a day goes by, not a day, that I don’t face my own challenges. But you can’t quit.  Each and every day you’ve got to remain aware of yourself and keep pushing and strive to stay balanced,” Hannat said.

After his service, Hannat pursued his dream of becoming an attorney. Today he represents veterans through pro-bono work. Hannat’s mission-oriented encouragement is infectious among his colleagues and friends, and it is a special quality that he shares with women and men from our community who have served abroad.

Jonathan Flores
Jonathan Flores

Jonathan  Flores, a graduating senior in FIU’s political science and international studies program, shares Hannat’s commitment to service. Flores deployed to Afghanistan from January 2010 through February 2011.  After seven years in the Army reserves, he served on a humanitarian assistance team of six in charge of a district, which he explained is similar to a county. He returned home and started school, and he discovered his delayed-onset PTSD.

“Everyone gets it,” he said. “If you’ve been shot at or not — just being there. Mental reconstruction.  You don’t notice it until later. Anger, slurred speech. They don’t screen for this. It’s just a questionnaire. You say yes to being okay because you don’t want to stay any longer at the processing station away from home, and sometimes you just don’t know you have it.” Before coming back to Miami, Flores was at a processing station in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Had he and his colleagues instead been processed at home, with friends and family, he said, it would have felt easier to ask for and receive more help — beyond medication.

“All the VA does is medicate. DOD, Navy, Army — they’re trying to find other ways,” he said. PTSD can have dire consequences. More than 20 veterans a day commit suicide. Flores needed a way to cope, so he turned to yoga, nature and art.  “It’s worked so far and I know a lot of other veterans and it’s worked for them.” At the University of Miami’s UMindfulness programming, some speakers, including Rep. Tim Ryan and Dr. Daniel Goleman, point to mindfulness and yoga as a benefit to soldiers. It’s an innovative idea that is gaining ground Miami. Department of Defense grants are funding cognitive neuroscience research at UM on how mindfulness can serve our military.

Flores has also found help through Mission Continues. “It’s an opportunity for veterans to continue to serve their country,” he said.  “It’s very tough to transition from military to civilian life. It gives us a new mission — to give back to the community.” Serving at home has helped Flores feel connected to his community and active in civilian life. “It’s a perfect combination because I have all these skills from the military that I can use every day in the community to bring positive change. I’m involved with local organizations, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Miami, Junior Chamber International Miami, and Hands on Miami, that have allowed me to do that. ”

Some veterans are turning to the arts for help, he said.  “There’s a group of ten to fifteen veterans I know trying to start a non-profit to use arts as therapy — put veterans into the arts scene since it’s growing so much in Miami and to use it as therapy — visual, poetry.” Programs like the Wounded Warriors Project and Outward Bound are also helping veterans to stay physically active and connect with nature. The Connected Warriors program offers free yoga classes for veterans. And Team Red, White & Blue organizes runs and physical fitness activities. Flores said there’s a “different mentality” in many veterans and a “stigma” against them, and all of these efforts can help lessen that effect. It’s not easy to, fully integrate veterans back into civilian society, but Flores and others are closing this gap.

Leah Weston
Leah Weston

Civilians are also helping veterans get the benefits they need. Leah Weston, an attorney serving as an Equal Justice AmeriCorps Legal Fellow for the Veterans Rights Project, housed within the University of Miami School of Law’s Health Rights Clinic, handles around forty cases at a time to help veterans receive their benefits.  Weston and fellow attorney, Ryan Foley, work full-time with the support of a team of law students and research assistants, and they have secured nearly a million dollars in benefits for their clients.

Weston explained that the government can be slow to respond to veterans’ needs. Attornies’ emails are systematically ignored in favor of snail mail, and the DOD often fails to release military records in a timely manner. The difficulty to obtain information is “monumental,” she said. And while the VA attempts to catch up, there’s need for technology to help the government process and distribute the plethora of information veterans and attorneys like Weston need. Some of her clients wait two years to get decisions from the VA about their benefits. “The VA isn’t designed for and doesn’t have the resources allocated for people coming back from war,” Weston said.  “So many are entitled to help but the VA isn’t adequately resourced or tooled to deal with the volume.” Weston said she admires many at the VA for their sense of mission. But many of them, she said, don’t feel empowered to speak up about change within their organization either.

“Two ten-year-long wars would mean billions, if not trillions in healthcare costs for combat veterans,” Hannat said. “I would even say that number has shot up because of factors such as advances in body armor and more injured soldiers making it to a doctor within that golden hour. But this was overlooked. Or ignored.  The VA blames many of its shortcomings on the wars. Politicians will always say they care, but even bills that favor veterans did not make it past our partisan Congress in 2014. The VA is a big problem. It hasn’t been a year since General Shinseki resigned and we’re already hearing that Secretary McDonald is making false claims about the improvements in VA care. I’m concerned. I only hope that he can achieve what he’s promised to do. We can all be very proud of that.”

Daniel Palugyai is an attorney and writer in Miami.