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Kucivers’ fight typical for veterans

Kucivers’ fight typical for veterans

“In the Army, we’re all brothers. We protect each other. Here, there’s no bond, it’s everyone for themselves.”

Dan Kuciver, retired Army staff sergeant

Stories and photos by ROBYN ZELICKSON

Retired Army Staff Sergeant Dan Kuciver sits quietly at the table in his dining room, hooked up to his oxygen machine. His wife Karen, the newly elected president of the Student Veteran’s Organization, is by his side.

He is also kept company by his favorite of the six family dogs, a black lab mix named Rocky. In the Arizona room, there are several birds and a well-loved guinea pig.

The military is a proud tradition in Dan Kuciver’s family, going back to the Civil War. His mother’s family fought for the South and his father’s family for the North.

In 1985, Dan Kuciver enlisted in the Army, and after eight weeks of basic training, went to Fort Benning in Georgia for Infantry School. From there, he was stationed in Colorado Springs.

Over the years, he was deployed to Somalia, Desert Storm in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Panama and some others he can’t mention.

He was responsible for four to six men, depending on the team. These men were 20-30 years old and, like Kuciver, were being asked to die for their country if necessary.

In 1997, Kuciver was honorably discharged from the Army.

Coming home was a difficult transition. Kuciver was drinking a lot, and he was arrested for fighting and DUI. He suffered from nightmares due to severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, so he self-medicated.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, PTSD is defined as follows:

“Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.”

At the time, there were no real resources from the Veteran’s Administration upon leaving the military, so Kuciver found himself on his own to try and resolve the issues he brought home.

“In the Army, we’re all brothers,” Kuciver said. “We protect each other. Here, there’s no bond, it’s everyone for themselves.”

Dan Kuciver stands with his wife, Karen Kuciver, in front of their Tucson Home. Dan
Kucivar needs a double-lung transplant, but has refused the procedure.

HEALTH ISSUES

Aside from PTSD, Kuciver had hearing loss. Later, there was lung trouble because of his time in Desert Storm.

He currently needs oxygen just to be able to breathe. His lungs have deteriorated to the point where he needs a double-lung transplant, which he has refused.

“It’s weird,” Kuciver said. “I couldn’t handle someone else’s organs inside my body.”

Kuciver, who is in his early 50s, also believes the younger soldiers coming home now need lungs more than he does so that they can grow old with their families.

“My kids are all grown now,” he said.

When his children reached age 16, he talked to them about his time in the military. He described to them the methods that he learned in training as a sniper – either kill or be killed.

“The first time, it’s hard,” Kuciver said. “The more you do it, it’s easier, but that bothers you later on.”

Only one of Kucivers’ boys joined the military. He fought for four to five years in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

Kuciver says that he’s proud of his son for defending his country. Although his son was deployed into dangerous combat missions, Kuciver wasn’t afraid for him.

“I respect him so much for fighting for his country,” Kuciver said. “Even if he died for his country, I would be more proud. And I would go again, if I could and they asked me.”

FINANCIAL ISSUES

Karen and Dan Kuciver were high school sweethearts. They parted ways, then reunited after 20 years. Now, she’s his advocate.

One of the promises made to Kuciver was that Japan would send money for U.S. soldiers, rather than getting involved in conflicts like Desert Storm. Instead of giving them the money, the U.S. government set up life insurance policies of $1 million for each soldier.

Unfortunately, the soldiers weren’t told they had to keep up the premiums when they returned from active duty. Those who didn’t had their policies cancelled. This was the situation with the Kucivers. No amount of fighting with the government could change it.

However, Karen Kuciver was successful in obtaining medical benefits for her husband. It took her three years and he was denied benefits twice. His lung issues were easier to prove, but he was told that his hearing could have been damaged before he deployed.

Because he was claiming disability insurance for his PTSD, Dan Kuciver had to undergo psychological testing. The Kucivers learned that if veterans are declared 70-100 percent disabled due to PTSD, the government can take over their finances and make decisions for them.

ONGOING BATTLES

The Kucivers both believe that veterans shouldn’t have to fight so hard or wait so long in order to receive medical or disability benefits.

“I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Dan Kuciver said. “I struggled with a loss of power and have to fight just to get through the day.”

When Karen Kuciver leaves the house for work, she leaves a list of chores for Dan Kuciver so that he is able to occupy his time while she’s gone. He can’t do much exertion because of his lungs, but he can get outside to water the garden, she said.

Dan Kuciver believes that PTSD is an even bigger issue for veterans returning from service now than it was in his time in Desert Storm or for veterans who fought in Vietnam.

“They aren’t given the coping skills that the guys were given before,” Kuciver said. “They used to be better prepared for combat than they are now. They’re not training them for sleep deprivation either.”

Kuciver’s unit had one-hour guard shifts in their barracks at night. They also did three-day training exercises in the woods where the soldiers were not allowed any sleep at all. That, he’s been told, is a thing of the past.

His advice for those recruits joining the military today?

“Don’t try to be a hero, everything will come naturally,” he said. “The only heroes are the dead ones that don’t come back. But, always have your buddies’ back. Always.”

Karen Kuciver new president of Student Vet organization

Karen Kuciver is the new president of the Student Veterans Organization at Pima Community College. Kuciver started as the East Campus liaison to the SVO, then became secretary. Recently, she was elected president.

The purpose of the SVO is to provide a stable, safe place for veterans. Although the group provides tutoring, its main function is to assist vets in dealing with everyday stresses.

“The sense of camaraderie that the SVO gives the student vets helps them in transitioning to student and civilian life,” Kuciver said.

There are 200 veterans at East Campus and 800 at PCC overall. While the Downtown Campus has a Veterans’ Center at RV-155 and the West Campus has a room at A-225, Kuciver would like to see the program expanded.

“Each campus should have an area like the Veteran’s Center at the Downtown Campus,” she said. “Soldiers write a blank check to serve us. Now, it’s our turn to serve them.”


Vet Services to honor graduates

Military and Veteran Services will host its first annual veteran graduation recognition ceremony and dinner on May 3 from 5-7 p.m. in the Downtown Campus Amethyst Room.

Graduating veterans were sent an invitation via PCC email.

For more information, call 206-2266 or email Hector Acosta at hacosta@pima.edu or Jorge Camarillo at jcamarillo@pima.edu.


SVO elects president

Karen Kuciver is the new president of the Student Veterans Organization at Pima Community College. Kuciver started as the East Campus liaison to the SVO, then became secretary. Recently, she was elected president.

The purpose of the SVO is to provide a stable, safe place for veterans. The group provides tutoring and assists vets in dealing with everyday stresses.

New SVO president Karen Kuciver.

“The sense of camaraderie that the SVO gives the student vets helps them in transitioning to student and civilian life,” Kuciver said.

There are 200 vets at East Campus and 800 vets at PCC overall. While the Downtown Campus has a Veteran’s Center at RV-155 and the West Campus has a room at A-225, Kuciver would like to see the program expanded.

“Each campus should have an area like the Veteran’s Center at the Downtown Campus,” she said. “Soldiers write a blank check to serve us. Now, it’s our turn to serve them.”

The Veteran’s Center is open 8 a.m.- 5 p.m., Monday – Friday during the Fall and Spring semesters.

Veterans want more 'safe spaces'

Veterans want more ‘safe spaces’

“It’s important for every employee at Pima to have an awareness and understanding of the veterans ”

Jorge Camarillo, veterans center coordinator


By ROBYN ZELICKSON

Will Wood was a 26-year-old Army sergeant when he deployed to Afghanistan in 2014. He was responsible for six or seven soldiers, many of them just 19 years old.

“It’s not like I was their father, but I had to teach some of them the basics, like how to do their laundry,” Wood said.

The young men were asked to put their lives on the line for their country. Wood spent two years away from his wife and children, and found it difficult to return home.

Noting the suicide rate among vets averages 22 per day, Wood said the military and government give soldiers little-to-no preparation for the overwhelming return to civilian life.

“We go to a meeting and get some pamphlets and contact information for the Veterans Administration,” he said. “It’s hit and miss, and there’s no follow-up.”

It was a mistake for him to jump back into college without any counseling or emotional support, Wood said.

“In the military, you’re directed all the time from the chains of command,” he said. “In the civilian sector, you have to pursue a lot of things on your own with no guidance.” He saw many differences in the college environment.

“At Pima, there’s a wide diversity of culture and age,” he said. “The training is different and it’s difficult moving from a military environment to a civilian classroom. We’re intense, aggressive and loud.”

Many soldiers come back from combat with PTSD or other physical or emotional issues. Some can’t be in crowds; others need to keep their backs against a wall to feel safe. Some have panic attacks.

Wood described transitioning from a military environment to civilian life as going from 100 mph to 25 mph.

“You’re perceived differently,” he said. “It’s hard to integrate and relax.”

Even studying in common areas may be difficult.

“It can be hard to apply yourself,” Wood said. “Never mind having panic attacks from being thrown into the general population.”

Veteran Will Wood and adviser Jorge Camarillo chat in Camarillo’s Downtown Campus office.
Robyn Zelickson / Aztec Press

VETERAN’S CENTERS

That’s why veteran’s centers are so important to returning soldiers, Wood said. They need a place where they can be safe, and receive guidance and resources. The concept is veterans helping veterans.

The Downtown Campus Veteran’s Center in RV-150 has existed in its current form since 2013. Jorge Camarillo has been the coordinator since last September.

“I like to work with veterans because I am a veteran,” Camarillo said. “I did 23 years in the Air Force. I think I have a good rapport with the students. I was a student myself here at Pima using my benefits.”

The Veteran’s Center falls under the umbrella of a nationwide organization called Student Veterans of America. Instead of being a chapter of that organization, Camarillo’s predecessors decided to call themselves the Student Veterans’ Organization.

Since the SVO is a Pima club, Camarillo serves as their adviser.

Club members can attend various leadership conferences, such as an Arizona Education Summit taking place in Phoenix on April 14. Any student-veteran interested in attending can contact Camarillo at 206-7017.

The SVO also took advantage of an annual grant awarded by Home Depot. The club received $10,000 last year and purchased furniture and fixtures for the Vet Center, along with a Christmas tree and ornaments.

Camarillo helps student-veterans in their transition from the military into the civilian community, and helps them obtain an associate degree or certificate to get them into the job market.

“It’s hard to transition,” he said. “In the military, they tell us where to go, where to eat. You don’t have to compete for a job. You don’t have to write a resume or cover letter.”

Both Wood and Camarillo believe there can be too many choices for career paths. Vets often need help to narrow their options.

Veterans also must learn how to apply the skills and knowledge they gained in military life to civilian jobs.

EXPANDING SERVICES

The SVO has several goals for the future. A primary goal is expanding vet centers to every Pima campus, so veterans have a place go for services and guidance.

“Among student-veterans, this is the No. 1 topic that we discuss: to have more of this type of support,” Wood said.

A room exists on West Campus in Santa Catalina 224 above the cafeteria but Camarillo would like to see improvements made.

The campus needs to install directional signs near building entrances, he said, and the room itself does not provide a comfortable environment for vets with PTSD.

“There’s no window and the way that the computer is positioned, you have your back to the door,” Camarillo said. “That’s difficult for people with PTSD.”

Camarillo works as outreach coordinator for the Arizona Coalition for Military Families, which has provided resources to the Vet Center. He works with the Red Cross and VA Hospital to assist veterans with treatment for mental and physical health issues.

He has created Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts but wants to get more electronic information and resources for students at East, West, Northwest and Desert Vista campuses.

Wood serves as the East Campus liaison to the SVO, and William Ward is the West Campus liaison. SVO vice president Alexander Centuori covers the Northwest Campus. The group hopes to find a vet to represent Desert Vista.

Wood plans to set up tables in common areas at each campus to gather feedback from veterans about their experiences at Pima.

“In the military, we had a process called After Action Review, or AAR,” he said. “We are using that same process, so vets give three sustains, or things they like, and three improvements.”

Using this familiar process, Wood hopes to gain information about what vets are not getting and what additional resources they might need.

Student-veteran Russell Salmond, a Marine, relaxes on a couch in the Downtown Campus Veteran’s Center.
Robyn Zelickson / Aztec Press

INCREASING AWARENESS

Camarillo believes Pima employees need more awareness and understanding of the hidden issues veterans face.

“It’s important for every employee at Pima to have an awareness and understanding of the veterans,” he said. “We as an institution need to provide that awareness and understanding.”

Wood would like to see workshops provided for staff, instructors and students on what to do when a panic attack occurs in the classroom. VA speakers and psychologists could be a key factor in educating faculty and administrators.

Both Camarillo and Wood said workshops would allow a more pro-active and positive approach to situations that may arise in a classroom.

“Right now, if that happens, the campus police are called,” Wood said. “That can escalate the situation and make it far worse.”

Camarillo said veterans want to play a part in solving their issues.

“In the military, we didn’t wait for things, we made things happen and that’s why we want to do that same thing here,” he said. “We want to be stakeholders and we want to be a positive change at Pima.”


VETERANS BY THE NUMBERS

Complied by Robyn Zelickson

 

528,000 *

Number of military veterans in Arizona

 

55,000 *

Number of female veterans in Arizona

 

263,000 *

Number of Arizona veterans age 65 and over

 

96,208 *

Number of Arizona veterans receiving disability compensation

 

226,053 *

Number of Arizona vets enrolled in VA health care system

 

7 *

Number of veteran centers in Arizona

 

3 *

Number of inpatient care sites in Arizona

 

31 *

Number of outpatient care sites in Arizona

 

76.7 **

Percentage of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD

 

75.7 **

Percentage of veterans with sleep problems

 

72.1 **

Percentage of veterans with back, neck or shoulder problems

 

70 **

Percentage of veterans with depression

 

Sources:

* va.gov/vetdata/docs/SpecialReports/State_Summaries_Arizona.pdf (as of 9/30/15)

** woundedwarriorproject.org/media/2641/2016-wwp-annual-warrior-survey.pdf

Student Veterans of America seeks reboot

Student Veterans of America seeks reboot

BY ARLAETH RAMIREZ

Student Veterans of America, a national veterans organization, is re-energizing the veterans center in room RV150 at Pima Community College Downtown Campus.

The organization, which started in 2008, has organized to protect the GI Bill from cutbacks. The bill benefits helps veterans cover costs of education or training.

Air Force veteran Kyle Hughes said there are close to 32 interested individuals willing to help the community including students, veterans, active duty and family members.

“The best advocate for you is the person next to you,” Hughes said. “Specially if they’ve been through the same things as you.”

Hughes said people know the veterans center mostly for its barbecues, which they plan to continue.

However he also mentioned education going along with it. The veterans center wants to inform everyone about the rights that they have and provide outlets if they have any grievances.

“The veterans center isn’t only for the leadership, but also for the community as a whole. The more people we have the better grasp we have about what is happening on the ground,” Hughes said. “If we can’t identify the problem, we can’t take the steps to fix it.”

Veterans are working toward a social media campaign and also hope to set up centers at every PCC campus.

The number of veterans accessing benefits to attend traditional class schedules over the past two years is close to a $2 million dollar enterprise, Hughes said.

“There’s a lot of money coming from the veterans administration and using the benefits, and it’s been somewhat discounted,” he said.

The group’s goal is to help others succeed and make their voices be heard, Hughes said.

“When people raise certain issues, they may have fell through the cracks and at the center we want to hear anyone that’s been disenfranchised,” he said. “If they feel like they’ve been wronged, need more information or just someone to listen to them.”

PCC is a community that helps each other out not only through school but also in life, he added.

“There’s guys that haven’t been to the hospital and have a lingering issue from when they were in and the big community of PCC helps overall with health wellness and brotherhood,” Hughes said. “If you got nobody to lean on, it’s going to be a tough ride.”

Vietnam-era veteran Jim Woloshin said having an organization like the Student Veterans of America would have made a difference for him.

“I wish we had this when I got out,” Woloshin said. “It’s wonderful.”

Student vets left in the dust

Student vets left in the dust

By PABLO ESPINOSA

Pima Community College student veteran George Burdelte, who spent 10 years in the Navy and Army, depends on his veteran’s benefits to make ends meet. He is still waiting for this semester’s Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

The delay in payments left him with a negative bank account balance. His car has been repossessed and he is behind on his light bill.

“Maybe the people at the top don’t give a shit about veterans,” Burdelte said.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill pays college tuition directly to student veterans, and provides a monthly housing allowance known as a Basic Allowance for Housing, or BAH.

PCC student veteran Luis Cuevas, a father of two who works 40 hours a week and attends school full time, is also waiting for his payment. He used a tax refund to stay afloat.

“I come here full time for the BAH,” Cuevas said. “Thank god for taxes or I don’t know what I would have done.”

Cuevas and Burdelte are among nearly 1,000 PCC student veterans who faced delays receiving payments through the GI Bill.

As of Feb. 23, approximately 200-250 student veterans had received benefit payments.

Problems persist almost six weeks into the semester, despite PCC passing a compliance audit from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

VA officials made a site visit Dec. 8-10, 2014 to verify the college’s compliance with federal regulations. The audit followed sanctions placed on PCC last April by the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services. The sanctions were lifted in May.

As part of a new emphasis on veteran services, Pima created an administrative position: director of veterans and military affiliated services. Daniel Kester, a veteran himself, was hired and began work last October.

Kester partially blamed the federal audit for the current delays in processing benefits paperwork.

“We had an audit shortly after I got here,” he said. “On Dec. 8, that was kind of an all hands on deck situation.”

PCC student veteran Joseph Cole criticized the delay in benefits. “The system may pass its audit but what about the veterans? They don’t care about our side,” he said.

Every PCC student veteran using the Post-9/11 GI Bill must be certified.

All necessary paperwork and requirements must be completed, reviewed and approved before the veterans or the college can get paid.

Certification delays occurred when veteran services personnel at PCC’s district office were tasked with passing the audit.

Vacancies at the veteran services office also contributed to the delays.

The office has four full-time employee positions to work on three primary tasks: customer services, the audit and certifications.

“These guys get beat up every day and I get beat up every day by veterans who I don’t think realize that we’re really on their side,” Kester said.

One of the four positions is currently vacant. Kester said that left him with one full-time employee to answer an ongoing flood of emails and calls from veterans.

One employee worked full time on the audit, and the other was responsible for certifying all PCC Post-9/11 GI Bill student veterans.

Every student veteran is now assigned a student veteran counselor. Those campus counselors support the district office certification effort by collecting paperwork and entering information into the college’s records.

Although they cannot certify students themselves, the counselors do a large part of the work.

The process has also been delayed because many student veterans did not know they needed to see a counselor to initiate the certification process.

Kester said 80 percent of certifications are waiting on veterans to fulfill their side of the requirements.

“There is an email being sent out and there is also a notification on the veterans tab,” he said. However, the only email Kester produced was one asking veterans to check their veterans tab.

He insisted the need to see a student veteran counselor for certification is not a new requirement, only “old rules that should have been implemented.”

Cole, the PCC student veteran who criticized the delay in benefits, heard about the need to see a veteran counselor from a fellow student veteran, but only after the semester had started.

“A student services counselor says to take a class, then the vet counselor says to take a different class after it’s too late,” he said.

The deadline has passed for Cole to drop the class for a refund and the GI Bill won’t pay for it because it is outside of his program of study.

With all veterans having a designated counselor to make sure they have paperwork and requirements completed, why have such a high percentage of veterans not fulfilled their side of the certification process?

The most obvious answer may be that most veterans have not seen their counselor, but another answer may be the counselors themselves.

Despite their best intentions, the veteran counselors are newly appointed to veterans, with no training required.

Kester said student veterans can look forward to a much smoother process next semester.

The school has a new database system, VA Once, to deal with certifications. It allows PCC student veterans to make sure they have all documentation needed to be properly certified.

“This has really helped the school in terms of compliance and it’s going to really help the veterans,” Kester said.

He also plans to eventually send every student veteran counselor to VA Once training.

Yet another change will be adding one student service specialist who can complete certifications at every campus.

“That will multiply our efforts quite a bit,” he said.

In addition, a new MyPima veterans tab will inform students what information and documentation they still need to complete certification.

“Next semester, the certification process is going to run super sweet,” Kester said.

Pg01-Veterans

Veterans from the five branches of the military are facing delays in receiving their GI Bill benefits. (Aztec Press photo illustration by Larry Gaurano)