70 years later, Veterans share their stories from the Battle of the Bulge


Early on the misty winter morning of 16 December 1944, over 200,000 German troops and nearly 1,000 tanks launched Adolf Hitler’s last bid to reverse the ebb in his fortunes that had begun when Allied troops landed in France on D-day. Seeking to drive to the English Channel coast and split the Allied armies as they had done in May 1940, the Germans struck in the Ardennes Forest, a seventy-five-mile stretch of the front characterized by dense woods and few roads, held by four inexperienced and battle-worn American divisions stationed there for rest and seasoning….

-The U.S. Army Center for Military History

On that cold December morning, U.S. and Allied forces in Europe found themselves under attack from the German army.  The German counteroffensive was designed to divide the Allied forces, giving Hitler an advantage in the war.  The Ardennes campaign came to be known in the U.S. as The Battle of the Bulge.

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“We attacked the woods. Thank God, we are still alive.” – The Battle of the Bulge, 70 years later

Soldiers with the U.S. Army’s 347th Infantry Regiment line wait for a meal on their way to La Roche, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945. — Courtesy of the National Archives photo no. 111-SC-198849

Soldiers with the U.S. Army’s 347th Infantry Regiment line wait for a meal on their way to La Roche, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945. — Courtesy of the National Archives photo no. 111-SC-198849

He never talked about war. At least not to me.

It’s been ten years since my grandfather passed away. A career Army officer, he served in three wars: World War II, Korea and Vietnam.  It was only after both he and my grandmother died and I began to dig through the old photos, the faded newspaper clippings and award citations that a fuller picture of his service came into view.

My grandfather, then Lt. Joseph Brigandi from Syracuse, New York, served with Company L, 134th Infantry Regiment, 35th Infantry Division.  Seventy years ago, in December 1944 and January 1945, he was one of thousands of soldiers engaged in battle in the Ardennes forest. Today we know that campaign as the Battle of the Bulge.

While I never talked with my grandfather about what happened in that forest, a month ago, I sat down with four Veterans to learn about their experiences. Mike Levin, Douglas Dillard, John Schaffner and Al Shebab were there in December 1944. They experienced the battle from different perspectives: artillery, airborne, infantry, cavalry. The stories they shared were harrowing, heart breaking, and yet inspirational.

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Employment: Most Veterans doing better; VA offers online assistance tools.

The November 2014 unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Veterans as a whole are doing better than non-Veterans. Gulf War II Veteran unemployment rate decreased this month, but is still .2 percent higher than non-Veterans.

Veteran unemployment rolling average

Veteran unemployment rolling average

The 12-month rolling averages show that Veterans and non-Veterans overall are doing better than they were a year ago. Compared to last month, Veteran unemployment rates decreased by .183 and non-Veteran unemployment rates decreased by .075.

Analyze the data yourself at http://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/resources/unemployment/ Read More »


Three VA employees honored with OSC “Public Servant of the Year” Award

osc-seal-logoToday, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) honored three VA employees with its Public Servant of the Year award. The VA whistleblowers worked directly with OSC to uncover issues with patient care at the Phoenix, Arizona, and Jackson, Mississippi, VA Medical Centers.

The three awardees are:

  • Dr. Katherine Mitchell, who disclosed critical understaffing and inadequate triage training at the Phoenix VA medical center’s emergency room and other problems.
  • Dr. Phyllis Hollenbeck, who blew the whistle on chronic understaffing at the Jackson VA medical center, problems with the supervision of nurse practitioners, and other issues in early 2013.
  • Dr. Charles Sherwood, who brought forward concerns of improper practices in the Jackson VA medical center’s radiology department.

The OSC wasn’t alone in recognizing the efforts of the three physicians. VA’s Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson was on hand during the award ceremony to acknowledge their contributions to Veterans by bringing to light improper practices and conditions that were affecting patient care.

“While we still have vast work to do, I believe that it’s because of Dr. Katherine Mitchell that access to care in Phoenix is beginning to improve,” Gibson said. “I believe it’s because of Dr. Phyllis Hollenbeck and Dr. Charles Sherwood that Veterans are beginning to receive better care in Mississippi.”

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner echoed Gibson’s remarks and highlighted VA’s determination to listen and protect its whistleblowers.

“Although there is still work to be done, the new leadership at the VA has swiftly taken corrective actions to improve access to care and to hold individuals accountable,” Lerner said. “The VA has also renewed its commitment to listen to employees who speak out.”

Gibson also expanded on MyVA the largest department-wide transformation in VA’s history – and the importance of “building an organization defined by Veteran outcomes and the satisfaction of those we serve.”

“So to all three of you, on behalf of the entire Department and all the Veterans we serve, thank you for living our values and being an example to all of us,” he said.

You can read Deputy Secretary Gibson’s remarks here.


VA National Cemeteries: Honoring Veterans, caring for families in their time of need

Dallas Fort Worth National Cemetery memorial service.

VA is dedicated to ensuring our nation’s Veterans and eligible family members receive a timely and dignified burial in honor of their service and sacrifice.  Due to our dedicated workforce, VA’s National Cemetery Administration (NCA) has been recognized repeatedly for outstanding customer service on behalf of Veterans and their families.  Unfortunately, the recent Stars and Stripes article from November 21, 2014, “Burial Delays Prompt Push for VA Oversight in Congress” leaves an incorrect perception about interment delays at VA national cemeteries.

There is no wait time for burial in a VA national cemetery beyond a day or two depending on demand at each cemetery.  Once VA establishes a Veteran or family member’s eligibility for burial, the Veteran’s next of kin or authorized representative can schedule an interment service with us.  Establishment of eligibility and scheduling of burials takes approximately 10 minutes if the requestor can provide discharge documents, or if VA can find discharge documents in our electronic systems.  If necessary to help establish eligibility, VA conducts research to retrieve the discharge documents that usually takes no more than 48 hours.  There are instances when eligibility determinations for the Veteran’s burial in a national cemetery are requested but the burial is not scheduled. In this instance, NCA follows up every 30 days in an effort to ensure scheduling of the interment.  In no instance has a Veteran or eligible family member waited to be buried because of an untimely response from NCA.

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Veterans share what it’s like to be deployed for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a time to gather with family and friends to reflect on the past year. While this normally takes place at a family home, for many Veterans, Thanksgiving was celebrated in a foxhole, a submarine, flying combat patrols over enemy territory or wherever they hung their Kevlar at night.

Deployed Servicemembers might not be able to be home for the holidays, but often go to great lengths to bring the holidays to them, even if its just for one meal.

Last week we asked you to share your deployed Thanksgiving pictures and stories with us. Below are some of what was shared with us on email and on Facebook. Please continue to share your deployed Thanksgiving stories with us in the comments.

The VAntage Point staff wishes you a very happy Thanksgiving! Thank you for your service!

Dan Burke of the 2nd ID 3rd SBCT 1-23INF BCO celebrates Turkey Day 2009 in Iraq. Photo by Nathan Marques.

Dan Burke of the 2nd ID 3rd SBCT 1-23 Inf. B Co. celebrates Turkey Day 2009 in Iraq. Photo by Nathan Marques.

Anthony Schmiedeler: “I spent two Thanksgivings in Fallujah and they weren’t bad at all. You had your brothers to the left and right which might as well be family. And the leadership did everything they could to give us a proper Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings. I’m grateful.”

Stu Seashols: The Navy cooks made sure Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were extra special back in the 60s, and we did have our buddies that were just as homesick to share that, too! I SURVIVED!”

Valerie Boyle O’Connell: “I spent many Thanksgivings away from home, either state side or overseas. Sure, it wasn’t like home, but you make the best of the situation and enjoy it with others in the same situation as you are. I always enjoyed spending them with my military family!”


HM2 Reyes submitted this photo and told us, "These photos were taken on Thanksgiving Day. We had a tech volunteer to stand the watch for 24 hours and couldn't have dinner with us so we brought dinner to him. We didn't mind having Thanksgiving dinner in the hospital just as long as we all had dinner together. That's what camaraderie is all about."  Surgical Techs Main Operating Room, MMU Role 3, Kandahar, Afghanistan Thanksgiving 2012

Thanksgiving 2012, Kandahar, Afghanistan: HM2 Reyes submitted this photo of the surgical techs for the main operating room, MMU Role 3, and told us, “These photos were taken on Thanksgiving Day. We had a tech volunteer to stand the watch for 24 hours and couldn’t have dinner with us so we brought dinner to him. We didn’t mind having Thanksgiving dinner in the hospital just as long as we all had dinner together. That’s what camaraderie is all about.”

Brian Steere: “It sucks, horrible food, you miss your family, and although you’re proud to be there, the conditions you’re under usually suck too. Overseas a holiday is just like any other day.”

Richard Palmieri: “I spent two in Iraq. The guys next to me are more family than my family. The chain of command did everything to give us a great meal. It was probably some of the best Holiday memories I have. Good times.” Read More »


Center celebrates 20 years of serving women Veterans

The VA’s Center for Women Veterans celebrated its 20th anniversary today at the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Sec. Bob McDonald visits Phoenix and Las Vegas VAMC“Our Nation has 359,000 women serving right now – about 16 percent of the Active, Guard, and Reserve force,” said VA Secretary Bob McDonald during the ceremony. “Women Veterans represent 10.5 percent of all Veterans in the United States. They have earned the title of Veteran and we’re proud to honor them all.”

VA’s Center for Women Veterans team is led by women Veterans, who understand the needs of Veterans and are working day in, and day out, on their behalf.

Women are the fastest growing group within the Veterans population. According to the 2011 Veteran Population Projection Model, in 2014, women comprised 11 percent of the total Veteran population in the United States. By 2040, women are projected to comprise 18 percent of all living U.S. Veterans, with 58 percent of women Veterans coming from the Gulf War era (Source: Veteran Population Projection Model, 2011).

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Warriors to Workforce Program Graduates First Intern Class

W2W group

The first 26 graduates of VA’s Acquisition Academy Acquisition Internship School’s Warriors to Workforce (W2W) Program flank Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson who officiated the ceremony; celebrating three years of hard work.

It all began three years ago when Veterans from across the country began a journey with the VA Acquisition Academy (VAAA) Acquisition Internship School’s Warriors to Workforce (W2W) Program.  Twenty-six Veterans decided to continue their service to America as federal acquisition professionals.  Between them, they have seven Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, more than 190 years of military experience and represent three branches of service.

“The program offers new hope and a career path for our wounded warriors and provides a critical source of talent for the federal workforce,” said VAAA Chancellor Melissa Starinsky.  “It’s a win-win.”

The W2W Program was created to provide returning wounded Veterans with an opportunity to apply military experiences and skills to a new professional field. Thursday, Nov. 6, marked the culmination of their journey as they graduated and transitioned to full-time federal contract specialists.

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DATA: VA making progress in access, accountability, other areas

VA released five new fact sheets today updating progress in the key areas of access to care and benefits, accountability, implementation of the Choice Act and hospital quality care measures.

The fact sheets are titled:

Some key findings in these fact sheets include:

  •  Access to Care
    • 1.1M authorizations for Veterans to receive care in the private sector and other non-VA health facilities (May-Oct.1)—a 46.6 percent increase
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Team RWB carries Old Glory across America

Team Red White & Blue completed its’ first Old Glory Coast-to-Coast Relay Friday – carrying the American flag from San Francisco to Walter Reed Hospital Bethesda in less than 60 days with the flag being carried every mile.

The 3,800 mile relay that began on Sept. 11, would be a logistical nightmare for most organizations, but Team RWB is not a normal organization – with exception of its Tampa chapter, the rest of the 54,000 members are spread across the country in 120 cities without a brick and mortar location. They are used to communicating digitally and meeting up when and where they are needed.  This flexibility allowed 700 of its members to participate in the Olympic torch style relay without any major glitches.

The Old Glory Coast to Coast relay finishes at Walter Reed Hospital

The Old Glory Coast to Coast relay finishes at Walter Reed Hospital

Still, there were some spots in America’s heartland that didn’t have Team RWB members on hand. Volunteers flew out to those areas to carry Old Glory until they reached another chapter.

Team RWB board member Will Reynolds, a former U.S. Army infantry officer, who was wounded in Iraq carried the flag on the last leg to Walter Reed Military Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland – a hospital he knows well as he has undergone 25 surgeries there. Read More »