Veterans news update for Dec. 11

Veterans news update for Dec. 11

Veterans news updateVeteran groups call for action on wounded soldiers’ harassment complaints (Dallas Morning News)
Two of the nation’s largest veterans organizations are calling for Congress and the Pentagon to address the mistreatment of wounded soldiers in the Army’s Warrior Transition Units — a problem that came to light in a joint investigation by The Dallas Morning News and KXAS-TV. Congress and the Pentagon need to do more to protect those assigned to special units to treat injured service members, said spokesmen for both the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “These are guys and gals who put their lives on the line to defend their country, so they need to be treated with respect, and they need to be treated with a certain amount of compassion,” said Brendon Gehrke, senior legislative associate with the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of current or former soldiers have complained of harassment and intimidation by leadership at three Texas-based Warrior Transition Units, or WTUs, according to hundreds of documents and interviews with soldiers and medical experts.

Miami VA enrolls 10,000 veterans in gene research program (Miami Herald)
For three years, the Miami VA Healthcare System has recruited volunteers for a national project to build a genetic database to help research how genes affect health and develop new treatments for both veterans and non-veterans. So far, 10,000 veterans in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have donated blood samples as part of the Million Veteran Program. Nationally, more than 330,000 have participated, representing about one-third of the goal of 1 million samples for the largest Department of Veterans Affairs research program in history. Launched in 2011, the data gathered from genetic analysis, surveys and medical records and presented in a single database will provide researchers with a valuable collection of health and military-exposure material. “When we are finished, this is going to be the world’s largest repository for genetic information,’’ said Dr. Hermes Florez, director of the Miami VA’s Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center. “With this data, we can make critical links of genetics to chronic conditions.” The collected data is stored at a Boston facility and will be made available for studies by authorized researchers. Safeguards are in place to protect veterans’ identities and private health information. Researchers from the VA, federal health agencies and academic institutions are able to use the data to help answer questions about health conditions including military-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, traumatic brain injury and even exposure to Agent Orange. In Miami, researchers will focus on several illnesses including diabetes and heart disease, which are common within the local veteran population.

White House pushes to help prevent veteran suicides (The Hill)
The White House on Wednesday pressed the Senate to adopt a House bill designed to help bolster suicide prevention programs for military veterans. Press secretary Josh Earnest said the administration was “encouraged” that the House passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, and urged the Senate “to do the same to support our veterans.”  The bill, named after a Marine who committed suicide after a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder following tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, would require a third party to conduct an annual evaluation of suicide prevention programs at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and Pentagon.  The bill would also create a pilot program that pays psychiatrists’ student loans if they work at the VA for two years, and frees the agency up to work more with mental health nonprofits. “This is a crucial issue and we owe it to our veterans to do everything we can to give them the support and resources they need,” Earnest said. “Ensuring veterans have access to timely and effective mental health care is a top priority. This bill moves us a step in the right direction, and will complement the Administration’s efforts, including the President’s Executive Actions to improve mental health care for service members, veterans, and their families.”

Grenade! Police warn of finding veterans’ explosive memorabilia (
Some families of veterans from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars are discovering their loved ones left behind more than keepsakes. Those who sort through a relative’s belongings and come across old military ordnance – such as hand grenades, smoke grenades and flash-bangs devices – may be left puzzled. Is it explosive? How do they dispose of it? The Grand Rapids police bomb squad is responding to those calls more frequently these days, as the oldest veterans had a relatively easy time walking away with items after their time in the service. “We’re discovering this more,” Lt. Mike Maycroft said. “Families are going through their belongings and finding this stuff and they don’t know what to do with it.” While the bomb squad stays busy with these calls from relatives and estate agents, it’s not common that military ordnance make their way into donation centers like the Grand Rapids Home for the Veterans, where staff found five training Mk 2 grenades in a shoebox on Tuesday. Someone likely forgot the 50-year-old grenades were among the items they donated, and police determined there was no criminal intent, Maycroft said.

Congress is about to lose its last World War II veterans (Associated Press)
As this session of Congress ends, it is saying farewell to its last two veterans of World War II. Rep. Ralph Hall is the oldest-ever House member at age 91. Hall, who lost his Republican primary in May, missed attending his colleagues’ tributes this week because he’s recovering from injuries suffered in a car accident in his home state of Texas. Rep. John Dingell, 88, has served in Congress longer than anyone in history: 59 years. The Michigan Democrat was elected to Congress in 1955 after his father died in office. The seat will once again stay in the family, because Dingell’s wife, Debbie, won it in November.

Army Corps of Engineers will oversee abandoned VA hospital project in Colorado (Denver Channel)
The Army Corps of Engineers, not the Department of Veterans Affairs, will continue to oversee the new hospital construction project in Aurora, according to a spokesperson with the office of Republican Congressman Mike Coffman. The Colorado Delegation met with the VA on Wednesday prior to the VA agreeing to hand over responsibility for the project to the Army Corps. Contractor Kiewit-Turner asked for a few things to continue: (1) The Army Corps had to oversee the project. (2) Kiewit-Turner had to immediately get paid for all past due costs — the funds they have been asking for since August. (3) A new delivery model had to be adopted based on Federal Acquisition Regulation cost reimbursable principles. On Tuesday, construction stopped at the hospital after it was determined the VA breached its contract with Kiewit-Turner, when estimated completion costs exceeded $1 billion.

VA San Diego to look at how repeated blasts affects troops (San Diego Union-Tribune)
A pilot study in San Diego will look at how Navy SEAL brains are affected by repeated blasts, research with possible implications for other Americans who suffer brain injuries. Two U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs researchers will use $30,000 in privately raised funds for what’s being called the “SEAL Breacher Study,” referring to the military term for using explosives to blow open a door. VA researchers Dewleen Baker and Josh Duckworth will study 10 former Navy SEALs who recently left the service. Using specific brain-scanning equipment, they hope to be able to see for the first time how neural connections are broken by injury to the brain, according to a news statement from the Veterans Research Alliance.

Marine describes losing comrades in Iraq in moving animated film (Marine Corps Times)
Marine veteran Travis Williams doesn’t try to hide the way his voice cracks when he describes the day he lost 11 teammates to a single roadside bomb in Iraq. Williams, a former lance corporal with the Reserve unit 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, out of Columbus, Ohio, told his story this fall for StoryCorps, an organization that records and archives interviews with participants across the country. StoryCorps recently turned Williams’ interview into a short animated feature, one of three made in honor of Veterans Day this year. In the three-minute, 45-second account titled “1st Squad, 3rd Platoon,” Williams describes the events of Aug. 3, 2005, and their aftermath. The 12-man team set out on a rescue mission to find a missing Marine in Barwanah. Williams said he feels a responsibility to his fellow Marines to honor them in his own life. “I am most proud of not blowing my head off right now. It’s just a whole lot easier if you’re dead,” he said. “But that shouldn’t be your tribute to your dead friends … you made it, you got home. You should honor their memory by living the life they didn’t get to live.”