I don’t really remember when I first heard about burn pits, though I know I started researching for this article at least a year before it was published, maybe even earlier. I keep a file on my desk of research for stories I want to write, if I ever have the time or opportunity, and when I went through it last fall, I found a printout of a short article about burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Next thing I knew, my editor had approved my pitch and I was knee-deep in research.
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Having written a handful of Warrior Wire columns, I was beginning to think that I’d always end up a little depressed from the work, and that my readers would always be a bit down after reading my articles. Of all the articles I’ve written—both those that have been published and those that are with my editor right now—I’m fairly certain that this is the only one with a truly upbeat tone. Writing about unemployment, poor health care, and burn pits is obviously not cheerful work, but even writing about veteran artists and writers has its down moments. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about their post-traumatic stress, physical injuries, difficulties adjusting to civilian life, and the myriad other problems that come from serving in the military and going to war. That’s not to say there haven’t been bright spots in all my reporting, because there certainly have been, but there’s a lot of pain, too. Writing about Gina Elise and Pin-Ups for Vets, however, was the most cheerful experience I could have imagined.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Pin-Ups for Vets first came to my attention when a coworker spotted a video about the project on AOL. After watching the clip, I was a fan, and I knew I had to interview Gina. I was lucky enough to get a response within minutes of sending my request, and I had Gina on the phone first thing the following Monday. And while Monday-morning interviews can easily go bad, there was nothing but cheer coming through the wires when I talked to Gina.
The thing about Gina is that she’s happy. She’s smart, funny, sweet as peaches, and genuinely excited by the work she does. And the work she does is truly inspiring. If you read my article, you’ll get a good idea of why I’m so smitten with Gina and her Pin-Ups for Vets project, but I’m not the only one. In the course of writing the article, I asked for quotes from Gina’s fans, and I was bombarded. Everyone who’s had the pleasure of meeting her or receiving one of her calendars has something nice to say. I don’t think I’ve ever read so many positive comments about anything, ever. So rather than say anything further, I’m going to let Gina’s fans do the talking for me:
Nick Palmisciano, founder and CEO, Ranger Up: “What makes Pin-Ups for Vets special is Gina’s personal touch. When our troops are injured, especially when they are away from friends and family, it’s important for them to know someone cares. Without that human link, it’s very easy for a guy to start thinking no one cares, and this can lead to depression, which is a pandemic right now. When they see Gina and how genuine she is, they light up. The calendars she leaves with them are reminders that there is someone out there who not only cares about them but is working to make their lives better. For some guys, that spark of humanity can make all the difference. Plus, you know, the pictures are really hot.”
Retired Master Sergeant Jim Majors, US Air Force: “Pin-Ups for Vets is such an amazing program! The way that our veterans have been treated, mistreated and even forgotten is appalling and embarrassing, to say the least. The smiles Gina leaves behind at every VA hospital she visits are truly heartwarming. Having met her in person, I saw a tiny piece of what the hospitalized vets must see during those visits. That she is so devoted to helping our vets is . . . well, there are not enough words for it.”
Technical Sergeant Chris Short, US Air Force: “Any piece of home is a morale boost. When you’re away from not only your family and friends but the entirety of your culture for months upon months, you long for reminders of what and who you’re fighting for. Pin-Ups for Vets provides a healthy reminder of why you’re out there doing what you’re doing. Gina always supported me and my teams, and she continues to support me now that I’m out and in the VA system.”
Sergeant First Class Toby Nunn, US Army: “Sometimes the most simple gestures can have the most profound impact. A picture from home can transport a soldier mentally and emotionally and remind them why they are in the fight. Gina’s Pin-Ups for Vets does this exact thing, whether she is sending her awesome calendars overseas to us when we’re at the top of our game or visiting us in the hospital when we’re hurting and at the bottom. The calendars and visits are tokens of her support and make our lives better. She’s a vision of beauty, and her taking the time to make our lives better and brighter reminds us why we’re in the fight and gives us a reason to believe in our country and the great folks back home.”
Retired Master Sergeant Phillip M. Parker, US Air Force: “Gina is every bit as beautiful inside as she is on the outside, and she is quite possibly one of the kindest, most caring people I’ve ever met. The Pin-Ups for Vets program has brightened the lives of countless vets and troops downrange. I feel greatly privileged to have been able to meet and help someone who has made such an impact on the vets in the VA hospitals, and I feel blessed to be able to call her my friend.”
Retired First Sergeant Troy Steward, US Army: “Pin-Ups for Vets is a great example of patriotism at its best. Gina is a great American who took the gifts God gave her—her looks and personality—and is using them to not only lift the spirits of sick and wounded veterans, but also using her popularity to raise money to provide rehab equipment for their long-term recovery. Pin-Ups for Vets not only helps veterans from all generations, but it plays on the sexy but tasteful nose art of World War II. I think that’s why Gina’s style is appealing to such a wide range of veterans, including women.”
Retired Sergeant First Class Michael Schlitz: “With the War on Terror going on for the last 11 years on multiple fronts, I feel the American people sometimes forget about veterans of past conflicts. We have tons of World War II and Vietnam veterans receiving care in different VA hospitals, but often times, “support the troops” non-profits only focus on wounded Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans like myself. Gina and Pin-Ups for Vets focus on all veterans from every era, location and branch. This is a worthy organization giving back to those who deserve so much more. I am not the only person she has touched through her organization. If you really want to see the good she is doing, then follow her on Facebook, go to her webpage or sign up for her newsletter. Look at the pictures of the smiles on veterans’ faces. This will show the true impact of what Pin-Ups for Vets is doing. Look at the photos of the deployed troops and you can see that, for a moment, at least, they don’t care about the war, they’re just happy that someone at home is thinking about them. I wish more Americans were like Gina and were doing work like Pin-Ups for Vets. Most of all, I hope people continue to support her and the organization. I know I appreciate the hard work and effort she puts into it. It’s a great feeling to know that there are people who care that you served your nation. Not all heroes wear uniforms, and Gina is a hero in my book for everything she has done for my brothers and sisters in arms.”
It’s not often I get to combine my love of pretty ladies with my passion for covering veterans’ issues. In fact, until now, those two topics have remained entirely separate in my clip book. The problem, it seems, is that I hadn’t met Gina Elise.
Gina is a classic pin-up beauty, complete with pin curls and pencil skirts. But she’s a hell of a lot more than that, too. She’s also a sweet young woman with a heart of gold and a philanthropic endeavor that I hope everyone reading this will go out and support. Gina, the granddaughter of a World War II soldier, produces pin-up calendars to raise money for wounded warriors. She works tirelessly, year-round, to put together gorgeous photo shoots for her calendars and posters, and then visits military hospitals and bases to meet with the troops her fundraising efforts serve.
I discovered Gina after a coworker sent me a video she’d shot for AOL talking about her project. “This might be fun for Warrior Wire,” my coworker (also a classic pin-up beauty) suggested. The project sounded interesting, and after watching the video, I knew that I had to talk to this woman who looked like she’d stepped straight out of the 1940s. My editor agreed that we needed to share Gina’s story, and off I went.
When I first contacted Gina, she sent me the above photo (shot by Mark Menchaca), an outtake from one of her first calendar shoots. She hadn’t been able to use the photo in her calendar, but when I told her I worked at Penthouse, she dug it up for me. It seemed like kismet that we were finally connecting—and like a good luck charm, too, since our connecting resulted in a four-page cover story.
I want to tell you so much more about this wonderful woman, but I think you should read my article, Calendar Girl, which appears in the May 2013 issue of Penthouse—on sale April 16th—instead. It has all the backstory on Gina’s fundraising efforts and some great words of praise from some important men and women.
And don’t forget to head over to PinUpsForVets.com to buy a couple calendars. You can buy one for yourself or donate one to an active-duty or wounded soldier. Gina will even autograph your purchase if you ask nicely. So go on, get shopping! After all, it’s for a good cause.
While my inbox contains dozens of emails from adult industry companies and publicists, I also subscribe to an equal (if not greater) number of military- and veterans-affairs newsletters. I read Stars & Stripes, The Military Times, and get updates from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Veterans Today Network, and Military.com, to name a few. And I read each and every one of those updates from top to bottom. I’m always on the lookout for stories, of course, but mostly, veterans affairs are a pet passion of mine, thanks to my Vietnam vet dad and my Iraq vet cousin. Still, the story ideas never hurt.
I was reading The Military Times one day when I came across a story about Doug Sterner, a Vietnam vet who was building a database to track medals of valor handed out within the military. No official list exists, and Sterner saw it as an important bit of historical record-keeping that needed to be done. His story inspired me, and I began learning more about the issue of stolen valor.
A few months after I read that first article, an email came through announcing that the Stolen Valor Act was on the verge of being passed, having been approved by the House of Representatives. It was something that my editor and I both thought warranted coverage, and I saw it as a great opportunity to interview Sterner, whose hard work utterly intrigued me. Not many people would put in the hours he does simply because they feel it’s the right thing to do. And I can’t imagine anyone giving up their retirement to work, for free, on a project that will likely get little national attention.
When I emailed Sterner to ask about scheduling an interview, he said he’d be happy to talk with me, but wanted to make sure I did all my research first. So he sent me several chapters of a book he’s working on about stolen valor and suggested I read it before our interview. I spent that weekend curled up on the couch with a printout of his book-in-progress, and I learned so much more than I’d ever imagined. Like the fact that Sterner’s wife, Pam, was almost entirely responsible for getting the Stolen Valor Act written in the first place. I was blown away by just how much the Sterner family had done for the cause, and it only made me want to talk to Doug all the more.
My interview with Sterner was as enlightening and inspiring as I’d imagined it would be, but it was a hell of a lot of fun, too. At one point, before cursing (I think he may have said “hell” or “shit”), Sterner asked if, since it was Penthouse he was speaking to, he could be a little loose with his language. I assured him he could say whatever he wanted to me, and he did. He may not have cursed like a sailor on leave, but he had a few choice words to share, and it made me happy to hear the passion come through as he spoke. If he was going to curse, it was going to be for a reason. I was honored that he was willing to speak so freely with me, and if I could have, I probably would have just printed the text of our interview and called it a day.
To read my article about the Stolen Valor Act, which appeared in the January 2013 issue of Penthouse, click here.
I’ve mentioned before that my dad is a Vietnam Vet. He’s also in poor health. A good amount of the medical attention he receives comes from Veterans Affairs hospitals and doctors. I grew up taking trips to these hospitals with him, hanging out in gift shops and waiting rooms and cafeterias while he had tests done and blood drawn. Because of where we lived, the hospitals were usually a few hours away, and going with Dad to the doctor was just an excuse to hang out with him and finagle a trip to the mall out of him after. (Hey, if you want me to go to the hospital, I expect a reward. Hospitals freak me the fuck out.) They always treated my father well, though, and everyone I came into contact with was pleasant and helpful.
Although my father is well taken care of now, when he came back from Vietnam, it was another story. My father suffered from PTSD, and in the late ’60s and early ’70s, that wasn’t something people talked about. Vietnam Vets were shunned because they were fighting a war most civilians didn’t believe in, and getting treated for a mental health issue was something shameful and embarrassing. And lest you think PTSD was hard to get treated for, my father was also sprayed with Agent Orange, and may or may not have health problems related to Agent Orange poisoning. (I say may or may not because in the past 40 years, the government has flip-flopped on whether US soldiers were affected, and depending on the day and the doctor, my father is or is not one of these soldiers. Confused yet?)
The point of all this is to say that how veterans are treated, medically, has been one of the most important issues in my life, and I’ve followed it closely. Last year I wrote about a potential cost increase for a specific military insurance plan, and part of the discussion about the fee hike related to the Veterans Affairs hospital system. When the proposal was first announced, not a lot of people were talking about how Tricare and the VA system were related and how they played off each other, but that was my first thought. If veterans can’t afford Tricare, which operates like a standard civilian insurance plan, more of them may need to turn to the VA for care. The famously backlogged VA. Doing interviews for my article, I asked about the connection, and I remember people being surprised that I was bringing it up. No one expects the civilian pornographer to know these things, I suppose. But when you grow up hearing something enough, it kind of sticks.
To read my article, “Health-Care Scare,” which appeared in the May 2011 issue of Penthouse, click here.
Writing about sex (and sexy things) is my primary gig, but the articles I’ve been most passionate about are those that discuss issues facing military veterans. My father is a Vietnam Vet, and I grew up watching war movies and learning all about the army, good and bad. Most of the men in his family were in the military, and even my mom’s family has a history of military service. Currently, my cousin is in the USMC Reserves, and he’s served three or four tours in Iraq and Kuwait. So it’s always been important to me to see people looking out for our veterans or at the very least showing an interest in what happens to them.
In this economy, where jobs are so scarce, vet unemployment has been a main concern of veterans’ groups. There are a lot of organizations out there trying to help employ our nation’s vets, but one of the most incredible is Tip of the Arrow. It started with just two men, both veterans themselves, who wanted to serve their country in a new way. It hasn’t placed nearly as many vets as larger national groups, but when you consider the size of their organization, what they’ve done is damn impressive.
To read my article about Tip of the Arrow, which ran in the September 2011 issue of Penthouse, click on the link below.
ALTHOUGH THE NATIONAL UNEMPLOYMENT RATE HAS BEEN SLOWLY FALLING, newly demobilized Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are still facing hard times. In fact, there are as many jobless young veterans as there are troops currently deployed in the Middle East—veterans in their early twenties face an unemployment rate of up to 27 percent—and their job searches are often as challenging as their deployments had been. That’s where Tip of the Arrow comes in.
Founded by Carl Blum, who has 32 years of experience running an employment agency, and Bob Deissig, a highly decorated Vietnam vet, Tip of the Arrow offers free one-on-one job assistance to returning troops, especially our “citizen soldiers”—members of the National Guard and Army Reserves. “Those soldiers face multiple tours, and that ends up destroying their families, destroying their lives, and making employment difficult,” Blum explains. “Employers use many tricks to avoid hiring these men and women—even though it’s against the law—because they know they’re going to get called up.”
Blum was inspired to start the organization after reading about a soldier who’d re-enlisted after having no luck finding work as a civilian, only to be killed serving overseas. “The military pays better than a civilian job would, especially for a high school–educated person, and the bulk of the military is made up of such men and women,” Blum says. “Particularly in the National Guard and Reserves, soldiers re-up because they can’t afford to feed their families otherwise.”
Tip of the Arrow attempts to keep soldiers from re-enlisting out of desperation, and tries to show them there’s more they can do if they know how to network and sell themselves. Justin Tressler, for example, who returned from a yearlong deployment in 2009, says learning how to market himself to potential employers was the most beneficial part of working with Tip of the Arrow.
“I learned to list the aspects of my job that people don’t necessarily associate with being in the infantry,” Tressler states. “I did security for our company command while overseas, so personal-security experience is there. I have a high attention to detail, willingness to work odd hours. These are the kinds of things people would probably overlook unless told to look for them.”
Tressler’s problem is common among veterans looking to return to the civilian job force. In addition to having been away for months on end, many soldiers are not sure how to translate their military experience into terms their potential employers can easily understand. “Much of the military talks in acronyms,” Deissig says. “You have to get the soldiers away from that and make them explain what things mean.”
But it’s not just the technical jargon that causes communication problems, as Blum explains. “We’re working with a sniper now who’s been applying for police jobs,” Blum says, “and part of the interview process includes a psychological evaluation. When he was asked what his job was while serving in Iraq, he told the psychologist that he was supposed to ‘terminate the enemy.’ It cost him the job. We had to teach him that he’d done more than fight. We had to point out that he’d been there to gather intelligence and build a relationship with the community, too. Combat was only a small part of his job.”
“The civilian population doesn’t understand what soldiers are capable of,” agrees Matt Selvage, a veteran from the Army National Guard. “Without a little bit of practice and maybe some guidance, soldiers aren’t very good at communicating what they can do. And for the most part, they can do anything they put their minds to. But that experience doesn’t translate without practice.”
Some companies, however, have learned the value of having veterans on staff. Jeff McFeeley, a regional manager for Comcast, has hired nearly 30 candidates sent to him by Tip of the Arrow. “Military folks have some natural skill sets that we look for at Comcast,” McFeeley explains. “They all come with some technical training, whether it be specifically in electronics or any number of other fields. In addition, they come with some great intangible skill sets. They’re extremely dependable, they’re hardworking, and they’re motivated.”
But being a veteran can be a double-edged sword during the job hunt, Iraq veteran Paul Peng says. “On paper, employers should favor them because of their experience and discipline, but when they have combat experience, it carries certain negative stereotypes as well.”
McFeeley says that these are not valid concerns. “First and foremost, hiring veterans is the right thing to do,” he says. “These are folks who are overseas defending the United States, and when they come back and are looking for employment, it’s only proper that we consider them for openings.”
For many soldiers, the problem doesn’t always seem to be caused by a lack of available resources, but by their own absence. “It’s easy to forget about people when they’re not right in front of you,” Tressler says. “I don’t want to say our country forgets about the vets, but [people] don’t necessarily go out of their way to help them, either, and coming back can be a daunting task.” What soldiers need, he says, is someone to guide and encourage them, especially because it takes so much for the average soldier to ask for help.
It’s common, Selvage agrees, for soldiers to put off asking for help, particularly during the job hunt. They feel, he says, that as grown men and women they should be able to handle such a task on their own. He admits that he was once skeptical of asking for help himself, and that it wasn’t until he found out a soldier he’d deployed with was working with Tip of the Arrow that he decided to give it a try. “Now, my first piece of advice to the guys in my unit is, ‘Here’s Carl Blum’s number. Here’s his email address. Contact him. He will help you,’ ” Selvage says. (See info below.)
The assistance Tip of the Arrow offers benefits not just the soldiers, but the companies they partner with as well. For McFeeley and Comcast, the work Tip of the Arrow puts in with the soldiers helps them fill more positions with veterans, something they’re committed to throughout all levels of the corporation. “We give them feedback on where folks fall short and what they need to work on, and they take it back to the troops to help them improve, and it’s worked really well,” McFeeley says. “Their candidates are coming to us highly prepared for the interview, professional, with well-written résumés, and they’re ready to work.”
Blum and Deissig’s dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed by the men and women who come to them seeking job assistance, either. “They’re probably the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever run into outside of high school cheerleaders,” says Tressler. “They’ll put a stool under your ass whenever you’re feeling kicked to the ground, they’ll pick you up, dust you off, and set you back on your course. And they will help you.”
Blum and Deissig can be reached at 973-265-8790 or firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
In May 2011, Penthouse ran a special burlesque section, featuring a collection of articles and interviews with top burly-q performers, most of them from New York. I contributed a series of short blurbs about how non-performers could learn the art of the tease. The first one focused on a project by former stripper Lily Burana, called Operation Bombshell.
To read my blurb about Operation Bombshell, which appeared in the May 2011 issue of Penthouse, click here.