Veterans news update for Dec. 5

Veterans news update for Dec. 5

Veterans news updateDeported veterans seek support (NBC-San Diego)
A group of deported veterans, now living in Tijuana, served honorably in the military but are now banished from the United States. “I didn’t realize that they could deport me,” said Oscar Pacheco Leyva. “Since I served my country honorably, I had an honorable discharge. I didn’t think there was any chance of them deporting me.” Pacheco lives in a tiny apartment in Tijuana with several other deported veterans. He was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, grew up in Las Cruces New Mexico and served six years in the Army. Pacheco said he has lasting hearing impairments from gun fire, not to mention diabetes and nerve damage, and he feels the U.S. government is not treating deported veterans like him with respect. “Well, I feel like they abandoned me. I think that they should at least give me the VA treatment for my health. You know, doctors or whatever I need to solve it,” Pacheco said. A felony conviction for possession of cocaine for sale got the veteran deported, so Pacheco found refuge at the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana.

Veterans march on Capitol Hill to bring suicide bill to the floor (Roll Call)
A group of veterans marched with American flags in hand to the Hart Senate Office Building Thursday to urge the Senate to act on a bill to prevent veteran suicides. “Now we’re looking at December, the session is almost over and we’re trying to get this bill passed now before we have to start back at square one in January,” Kristofer Goldsmith of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America told CQ Roll Call. Goldsmith, a 29-year-old Long Island native and Iraq War veteran, was among the group of veterans who rallied at the White House earlier on Thursday and then marched from Upper Senate Park to the office building. The American flags hoisted on their shoulders were visible from the Capitol. The veterans were calling on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to bring the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, named for an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who committed suicide in 2011, to the floor of the Senate. On Nov. 19, Hunt’s mother testified in front of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and pointed to problems with mental health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Despite [Clay’s] proactive and open approach to seeking care to address his injuries, the VA system did not adequately address his needs,” said Hunt. “Even today, we continue to hear about both individual and systemic failures by the VA to provide adequate care and address the needs of veterans.”

IG Probe: VA spends $10 million on TV ads that did little to raise awareness of services (Washington Times)
The Department of Veterans Affairs effort to make a splash with veterans by advertising in high-profile venues like the Super Bowl was a superflop that set back taxpayers by millions, according to the latest internal investigation exposing the agency’s flaws. The VA inspector general says the $5.2 million that the department paid a Vienna, Virginia-based advertising firm called Woodpile Studios for TV ads that aired during the Super Bowl and the Country Music Association awards a few years ago did little to increase awareness about the government’s services for veterans. The agency “could not demonstrate that Woodpile’s services resulted in significant improvements in awareness and access to VA healthcare, benefits and services,” investigators reported. Despite the low return on investment, the VA gave the ad firm another $5 million, which also apparently provided little value for taxpayers, the investigative report concluded. Joshua Taylor, the assistant secretary of the VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, told the IG that the investigative findings were accurate and the criticisms were fair. He promised that the VA was now committed “to a more rigorous and effective contract management and oversight process.” For throwing away as much as $10 million on a TV ad campaign that brought little benefit while thousands of veterans struggled to get timely services and benefits, the VA earns this week’s Golden Hammer, presented by The Washington Times to highlight examples of misspending and government.

Bill would help veterans complete STEM studies (Military Times)
Two congressmen are sponsoring legislation to give students additional GI Bill benefits if they are working toward degrees in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. Students who use the Post-9/11 GI Bill would receive an extra nine months of benefits if they pursue a degree in one of the STEM fields, according to congressional documents and a news release. Reps. David McKinley, R-W.Va., and Dina Titus, D-Nev., introduced the legislation Wednesday. The impetus for the bill came from meetings McKinley had with student veterans in West Virginia who discussed the difficulty in completing certain degrees in the 36 months allotted by the GI Bill, according to a release from Titus’ office.

VA caught in costly lawsuit after teaming with shady contractor (Washington Times)
The Department of Veterans Affairs pushed ahead on a construction project even after learning that its project manager was under FBI investigation and had been fired from a previous job for embezzlement — a decision that’s now entangled the agency in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. VA officials eventually issued a stop work last year, and the project manager, Robert Berryhill, is now serving a prison sentence for impersonating an FBI engineer and embezzlement stemming from a previous job on an FBI construction project in Tennessee. Meanwhile, the $75 million Butler Healthcare center, located about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, is mired in delays and the contract scandal that has attracted the attention of Congress and resulted in scathing reviews by the VA Office of Inspector General. The VA’s construction office has been under scrutiny for years, but the saga surrounding Butler stands out as a case study in bungled procurement. On Tuesday, a company that financed part of the project charged in U.S. Federal Claims Court that VA officials had been warned about Berryhill’s background, including a notification from an FBI agent. “The government had complete knowledge of the investigation of Mr. Berryhill,” attorneys for AmeriServ Trust & Financial Services Company wrote in court papers.

House OKs Purple Hearts for Fort Hood shooting victims (Dallas Morning News)
More than five years after the Fort Hood shootings, Congress is paving the way for victims of the rampage to receive Purple Hearts. Under a major defense-spending bill the House passed Thursday, the victims would also be able to tap benefits available to those wounded in combat. The Senate is expected to take up the legislation next week, capping off a push for a policy change long sought by Texas lawmakers. “This legislation acknowledges that the people who lost their lives and were wounded at Foot Hood … were victims of a domestic terrorist attack,” Sen. John Cornyn said. “They are entitled to this recognition and these benefits, no less than our military deployed overseas fighting in the war on terror.” The legislation calls for Purple Hearts for “members of the armed forces killed or wounded in domestic attacks inspired by foreign terrorist organizations.” Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, was in close contact with a cleric with ties to al-Qaeda and has said he was acting against U.S. soldiers to protect Islamic insurgents abroad.
Memphis VA hands out more than $100,000 in bonuses despite scandals (The Daily Caller)
Despite a series of scandals, the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital in Memphis has approved bonuses totaling more than $100,000 to several top executives over the last eighteen months, The Daily Caller has learned. The Memphis VA was the subject of four exposés by TheDC over the summer and a VA inspector general report found the hospital to have among the worst wait times in the nation. On top of that, there have been a series of scandals that have received local coverage: contaminated dialysis machines, multiple patient deaths due to inadequate patient care and complaints about unsanitary working conditions. Despite all this, the hospital’s chief executive officer, C. Diane Knight, was given a $7,500 bonus in December 2012 and another $5,000 bonus in December 2013 approved by the Veteran Integrated Services Network (VISN) 9 chief medical officer Dr. Vincent Alvarez. More troubling is a retention bonus given to the Memphis VA chief operating officer, James McGlawn. In January 2014, McGlawn filed formal papers for his retirement — only to be brought back at the urging of Knight. Knight coaxed McGlawn back with a retention bonus which increased McGlawn’s compensation from $126,359 to $201,700.