Veterans news update for Jan. 21

Veterans news update for Jan. 21

Veterans news updateSupreme Court allows lawsuits over burn pits to move forward (Stars & Stripes)
The Supreme Court is allowing lawsuits involving open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and a soldier’s electrocution in a base shower to move forward against two of the largest American military contractors, according to wire reports. The lawsuits were filed against KBR Inc. and Halliburton Co., which had filed appeals saying the lawsuits should be thrown out because the company was operating as an arm of the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two of the lawsuits include claims that troops suffered health problems related to their exposure to burn pits and toxic chemicals on American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another claims that shoddy electrical work led to the electrocution death of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, who was killed in a base shower in Iraq. In general, the government cannot be sued in such cases, but private contractors working on behalf of the government have presented a legal gray area. Supreme Court justices offered no comment for their decision, according to the Associated Press. The Obama administration has sided with the contractors. Open burning of waste was commonplace at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many troops suspect respiratory problems they have suffered after their deployments may be linked the clouds of smoke that often hung over bases. The burn pit decision could open the door to thousands of troops who were potentially exposed to toxic chemicals and encourage more law firms to take up their cases, said Kelly Kennedy, a spokeswoman for Bergmann and Moore law firm, which focuses on veterans’ claims. “If there’s money to be made, people will investigate those claims more thoroughly,” said Kennedy, who reported on burn pit exposure for Army Times and USA Today.

New generation of veterans has higher suicide risk (Hartford Courant)
Justin Eldridge’s family will never fully understand why nothing seemed to ease the anguish of the young Marine and father of five, as he wrestled with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury after a deployment to Afghanistan in 2004-05. Despite stints in VA hospitals and an array of medications, he killed himself in his Waterford home on Oct. 28, 2013. He was 31. “He did his part – he followed the treatment they gave him,” said his widow, Joanna Eldridge, who is now raising their children alone. “It just wasn’t enough, in terms of following up with him and figuring out why he wasn’t getting better . . . We just have to do better at helping these guys after they get home.” A new study suggests that the suicide risk for Eldridge and other veterans who served in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is significantly higher – 41 to 61 percent higher — than for the general population. The study, led by Department of Veterans Affairs and Army researchers, is the most comprehensive look to date at the suicide risk for veterans who were on active duty during the recent wars. The analysis – to be published next month in the journal Annals of Epidemiology — found that the suicide rate was the highest among veterans during the first three years after leaving military service, and that the risk was elevated for both deployed and non-deployed service members. Suicide rates were not significantly different for those who deployed once, like Eldridge, and those who deployed multiple times. The study notes that before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the suicide rates among active duty and former military personnel had been 20 to 30 percent lower than the U.S. general population. But the recent wars are “substantially different” from Vietnam or the first Gulf War, with veterans serving longer tours, deploying multiple times, and suffering different kinds of injuries, many from blasts.

Obama touts progress on medical care for veterans (The Hill)
President Obama on Tuesday touted his work on behalf of the nation’s veterans, looking to move beyond a scandal over medical care that rocked his administration last year. “As a new generation of veterans comes home, we owe them every opportunity to live the American dream they helped defend,” the president said during his penultimate State of the Union address. “Already, we’ve made strides toward ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality care,” he said. Obama said his administration is “slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need.” The VA has vowed to wipe out the late cases by the end of 2015, though it remains unclear if the agency will be able to succeed in accomplishing that goal. It’s also unclear if Obama’s remarks will be enough to satisfy some of his GOP detractors. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said he hoped the president would use Tuesday’s speech to “pledge his personal involvement in helping the [VA] overcome its many challenges.”

Report: Wisconsin senator knew last summer about opiates prescription problems at Tomah VA (Green Bay Press Gazette)
Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s office received an inspection report last summer detailing high amounts of opiates prescribed at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah, but there is no indication her office took action on the findings until last week, when she called for an investigation after a news report revealed a veteran died from an overdose at the facility. The report by the VA inspector general, a copy of which was obtained by USA TODAY, noted that two practitioners at the center were among the highest prescribers of opiates in a multistate region — at “considerable variance” compared with most opioid prescribers. That, the report said, raised “potentially serious concerns.” A whistleblower who learned in November that Baldwin had had a copy for months and hadn’t acted, repeatedly emailed her office asking that she do something to help the veterans at the center, according to copies of the emails obtained by USA TODAY. In them the whistleblower — former Tomah VA employee Ryan Honl — asked that Baldwin call for an investigation, that she push colleagues on the Veterans Affairs committee to take action, and that she help bring the issues in the report to public attention. The report had not been made public, but Baldwin’s office received a copy in August. When she still had not taken public action in December, Honl sent a message to her staffer with the subject line: “Final plea for Help from Senator Baldwin.”

Arizona governor reverses plan to redirect nearly $1 million in veterans funds (KPHO-Phoenix)
Governor’s Doug Ducey’s administration reversed a proposal that would have redirected nearly $1 million in funds mean to assist veterans returning from overseas. In a statement from Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications for Ducey, Daniel Scarpinato wrote: “Governor Ducey is committed to ensuring our veterans receive the services and funding they have both earned and deserve. He appreciates the feedback from the veteran community and will be adjusting his budget so that we best protect this fund, while also ensuring our veterans who have lost their lives have a proper resting place.” The original plan called for taking $929,400 from the Military Family Relief Fund and using for maintaining at least three federally-built military cemeteries in Arizona. According to the agreement, the federal government provided the funds to build the state cemeteries, if the state agrees to maintaining them. Estimates put the yearly maintenance at $275,000. The Military Family Relief Fund, however, set aside tax-payer funded money to be used for returning veterans. Veterans or their families could use the money for home improvements or for transporting family members to hospitals to visit wounded warriors. “One of the things [the Military Family Relief Fund] does not do is bury veterans,” said David Lucier, a U.S. Army Special Forces veteran and veterans’ advocate.

VA settles more complaints by whistleblowers (Associated Press)
The Veterans Affairs Department said Tuesday it is offering relief to more than two dozen employees who faced retaliation after filing whistleblower complaints about wrongdoing at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide. The actions follow settlements reached last year with three employees who reported widespread problems at the Phoenix VA hospital, including chronic delays for veterans seeking care and falsified waiting lists covering up the delays. The resulting uproar forced the ouster of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and led to a new law overhauling the agency and making it easier to fire senior officials. The latest actions offer relief to about 25 VA employees, including a doctor who was reprimanded and retired after reporting significant errors at a Maryland clinic, and a nurse manager in Washington state who was fired after refusing to alter a performance evaluation for a subordinate. The doctor will have a negative appraisal removed and the nurse manager will keep her job while an investigation continues. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner applauded the VA for taking steps to protect employees who file whistleblower complaints. Lerner’s office, which is independent from any government agency, is investigating more than 120 complaints of retaliation at the VA following employee allegations about improper patient scheduling, understaffing and other problems at the VA’s 970 hospitals and clinics nationwide.

Female veteran shamed for parking in veterans-only spot (WECT-Wilmington, N.C.)
An Air Force veteran who served in Kuwait found a note on her car Friday criticizing her for parking in a veterans-only parking spot in Wilmington. Mary Claire Caine told WECT-TV that she returned to her car from shopping at Harris Teeter to find a note plastered to her front window from a person identifying themselves as a “Wounded Vet.” It read, “Maybe [you] can’t read the sign you parked in front of … This space is reserved for those who fought for America … not you. Thanks, Wounded Vet.” Caine, who served in Kuwait and on the flight line of the F-117 Nighthawk, said her heart sank. “The first thing I felt was confusion that there was a mistake, and that I had to talk to this person and ask them why they were so quick to assume I wasn’t a veteran and that I was taking privileges that didn’t belong to me,” Caine said. Caine said she got angry at herself when the note left her wondering, “Am I a worthy enough veteran to park in this spot?” So she waited by her car in hopes the “Wounded Vet” would return and she could ask why they felt the need to leave the note. She said no one returned. “I think they took one look at me when I got out of my car and saw that I was a woman and assumed I wasn’t a veteran and assumed I hadn’t served my country,” Caine told WECT. “They have this image of what today’s American veteran is and honestly if you’ve served in the United States military, you know that veterans come in all shapes and sizes.” Caine said she doubts she’ll ever find the author of the note, but hopes the person realizes their error.

‘American Sniper’ could complicate trial of Chris Kyle’s killer (Hollywood Reporter)
Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated American Sniper set off a $105 million box-office frenzy this weekend with potential ramifications in a capital murder case. On Feb. 11, Eddie Ray Routh is scheduled to stand trial for killing Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL played by Bradley Cooper in the film. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Routh, who confessed to shooting the deadliest sniper in American history and Kyle’s friend Chad Littlefield two years ago at a rifle range southwest of Dallas. Routh, a former Marine, plans to introduce evidence that he was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and mount an insanity defense, but the enormous profile of Kyle in the wake of American Sniper’s success could present some complications. The Warner Bros. film “is going to be an issue,” J. Warren St. John, Routh’s attorney, tells The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. “Can there be a fair trial?” Although American Sniper doesn’t depict Kyle’s death (it’s based on the best-selling book written by Kyle before he died), the movie presents its subject as a hero — one who is often referred to simply as “Legend” throughout the movie. The film traces Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq as well as his attempts to later counsel in-need veterans through the FITCO Cares Foundation. American Sniper also presents the fact that Routh’s mother reached out to Kyle. Without using names, the movie states right before the credits roll that Kyle was killed by a veteran he was trying to help.