Warrior Wire: Stolen Valor

0113 Stolen Valor

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 & StripesThe 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.

Warrior Wire: Health-Care Scare

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.

Warrior Wire: Tip of the Arrow

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 carlblum@tipofthearrow.net and bobdeissig@tipofthearrow.net.

Warrior Wire: War Songs

Sometimes I write things that have nothing to do with porn or sex. Recently I wrote an article about Tricare and the Veterans Affairs health care system. That won’t be out for a while, but it reminded me of this article that ran in the March 2009 issue of Penthouse. It was supposed to be a short blurb, at most, but it grew into a two-page article that I think tells a pretty cool story about the everyday lives of our soldiers. It was such a great topic to immerse myself in for a few weeks, and it’s a piece I’m extremely proud to have in my clip book.

While researching and interviewing, I got to talk to a lot of really great people. Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America was a wonderful resource and such an enjoyable interview. It’s always nice to interview people who are not only brilliant, but who you want to talk to after the interview is over. Paul is definitely both, and I’m thrilled every time we get to chat. (I’ve also read his book, Chasing Ghosts, more than a few times. It’s an amazing story and so well written. Everyone should check it out.)

Another guy I interviewed for the story was David Ratcliff, a soldier I found on MySpace. I messaged him through the site and got a phone call the next day. He didn’t believe I really worked at Penthouse, and he couldn’t understand why I would want to get in touch with him. Once I sent him my credentials, though, he was a really fun guy to talk to. He was smart and had good taste in music (key for the piece, obviously), and he gave me more than a few good quotes.

All the soldiers were great, and I can’t say enough about them. There were some I didn’t get to use in the article, and some who I didn’t expect to use but who ended up surprising me. One of the surprises was Joe DeRidder, who happens to be my cousin. Joe’s a really smart guy, and I love hanging out with him and talking to him when he’s home. But he’s not the most verbose person. I didn’t think he’d give me much material to work with. He surprised me, though, and had a lot to say. (My dad, who swears he’s “never heard the kid say more than three words at a time” thought maybe there was another Joe DeRidder. He was impressed.) The article made for a fun show-and-tell at our next family get-together.

One of the coolest things, though, was interviewing the musicians who were involved. Bryan from the Bouncing Souls was awesome, and the band’s publicist/manager was really cool. We didn’t get to do the interview in person, because the band was on tour, but Bryan’s emails were great, and he cracked me up when we discussed doing the interview via BlackBerry.

Serj Tankian was another great interview. His manager called me within five minutes of my sending an email requesting an interview, and said she’d already spoken to him and he was very interested in talking to me. I was blown away, and we set up a phoner for later that day. I don’t think I’ve ever set up an interview so quickly, even with my friends! I didn’t get to use his quotes in the story (they just didn’t fit with the tone of the article), but we chatted for 45 minutes, and he was super cool. He told me a great Sarah Palin joke, and then made my day (probably my entire year) by telling me that the story I was writing mattered, and he thought that I was a smart, savvy journalist, which, in his book, made me the cool one. I saved the recording and listen to it every now and then when I want to feel like a rock star.

I’ve been fortunate in that I only have to write the stories I want to write, and I work with people who are as excited about the topics I cover as I am. It means my clip book is full of great stories that double as really great memories.