Veterans news update for Jan. 26

Veterans news update for Jan. 26

Veterans news updateVeterans study links PB pills, genetic variations to Gulf War illness (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
A government-issued pill intended to protect troops from nerve agents may have made some troops more vulnerable to a chronic condition marked by headaches, cognitive problems, pain and fatigue, researchers say. People with certain genetic variations were 40 times more likely to contract Gulf War illness if they took pyridostigmine bromide, or PB, pills that the Defense Department issued to protect them from soman, a nerve agent, during the 1990-91 war, researchers concluded in a study funded by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and published this month in the journal Environmental Health. The study of 304 veterans provides compelling evidence that the illness has a physical rather than mental origin, experts said. Veterans with Gulf War illness share symptoms such as persistent headaches, cognitive difficulties, widespread pain and fatigue. Although that profile overlaps symptoms from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, Gulf War illness produces symptoms such as musculoskeletal problems that combat-stress illnesses don’t, and relatively few Gulf War veterans saw combat, said Lea Steele, a researcher with Baylor University Institute of Biomedical Studies and lead author of the study. “The only possible conclusion is that something else caused it,” Steele said, though she cautioned that “you don’t want to say it’s definitive with one study.”

Senator defends, apologizes for reaction to Tomah VA ‘Candy Land’ allegations (Wisconsin State Journal)
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said she could have done more to force action on serious problems at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Tomah before they were exposed by the Center for Investigative Reporting earlier this month. But in a not-yet-published column submitted to the State Journal, Baldwin said the VA did not reveal in April and June — when she reported a constituent’s allegations of faulty narcotic prescription practices at the Tomah facility — that its Office of Inspector General had already uncovered similar problems. USA Today reported last week that a whistleblower who learned in November that Baldwin had had a copy of the report for months and hadn’t acted on it repeatedly emailed her office asking that she do something to help the veterans at the center. The emails show former Tomah VA employee Ryan Honl asked Baldwin to seek an investigation, push the Veterans Affairs committee to take action and bring the problems to public attention. In her op-ed piece, Baldwin writes that her office got the OIG report in August after requesting it under the Freedom of Information Act, then sent it to the constituent, who in turn sent it to whistleblowers who gave it to the media. “We should have done a better job listening to and communicating with another constituent with whom we were working on problems at the VA,” Baldwin writes. “I take full responsibility for any mistakes we made because I not only share his belief that the report’s conclusion fell short, but I also share his commitment to exposing problems at the VA and working on solutions.”

VA settles for nearly $1 million with family of Puget Sound vet who died after delays (Tacoma News-Tribune)
The Department of Veterans Affairs this month agreed to pay $900,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of a Washington man who died in late 2012 after a VA scheduler failed to refer him promptly to specialized care for melanoma. A VA scheduler who was supposed to refer him to surgery at the University of Washington did not make the call and the cancer spread for three months until Douglass made his own appointment. The settlement between the family of Cliff Douglass and the VA appears to be the largest payout for a wrongful death claim related to a case at VA Puget Sound since 2001, according to records obtained by the Center for Investigative reporting and The News Tribune through the Freedom of Information Act. “I’m happy for the family that they have some closure,” said Tacoma attorney Jessica Holman Duthie, who represented the Sammamish man’s family. “But it’s nothing (compared) to the pain and suffering he went through.” Douglass’ sister said the lawsuit led to an internal investigation and helped her understand that the incident led to changes at the VA. “I don’t think we can ask for more than that,” Connie Olberg said. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle confirmed the settlement but declined to comment.

World War II nurse’s VA lobotomy takes toll on the family she raised (The Wall Street Journal)
When Paul Ludden visits his mother in the nursing home, he sits on her bed and sings with her. Dorothy, 94 years old, remembers words to 1940s ditties. But she struggles to find memories of her days as a Navy nurse during World War II. When she grows quiet, Paul strokes her gray head, passing fingers over divots in her skull—tangible reminders that the war left his mother with profound mental illness and that government doctors treated her by cutting into her brain and giving her a lobotomy. This is the woman who raised Paul and his two brothers, patching their scrapes, cooking their dinners and seeing them through to adulthood. But she is also a mother who could be childlike and emotionally distant, prone to humiliating public displays of hostility, and who once chased a friend out of the house with a butter knife. Dorothy is one of the last survivors among roughly 2,000 psychiatrically ill veterans the Veterans Administration lobotomized in the 1940s and 1950s. The Wall Street Journal in 2013 first detailed the VA lobotomy program and profiled the troubled life of World War II pilot Roman Tritz, 91, the only living lobotomized veteran the newspaper could locate at the time. Lawmakers then asked the VA to find other surviving lobotomized veterans. VA headquarters, which says its files on such old cases are archived and difficult to access, hadn’t found any other survivors when Dorothy’s family contacted the Journal. Following the war’s end in 1945, hundreds of thousands of veterans swamped VA hospitals with psychological wounds ranging from what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to schizophrenia. VA mental wards were crowded with veterans, sometimes violent and out of touch with reality. But psychiatrists had few tools to treat them. Lobotomies, in which doctors sliced brain fibers thought to transmit excessive emotions, seemed a promising surgical solution to the VA.

Independent assessment gives VA’s cybersecurity a positive mark (Federal News Radio)
The Veterans Affairs Department’s computers and networks got a clean bill of health from third-party experts. The analysis comes 18 months after VA came under intense scrutiny at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing for having major cybersecurity vulnerabilities. VA hired Mandiant, the cybersecurity company, to examine its networks and systems, specifically looking at domain controllers and Internet gateways. Steph Warren, the executive in charge of VA’s Office of Information and Technology and chief information officer, said the report’s finalized findings were consistent with what he said during a November hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “They assessed where things were. They assessed the entire network in terms of looking at what the threats were with a primary focus on our domain controllers and they worked our perimeter. We run through Trusted Internet Connects or four gateways so they also looked at the traffic on the gateways,” Warren said Friday during a briefing with reporters. “The results of their conclusion — that final report — was that none of the domain controllers had evidence of compromise and they did not see evidence in the logs they reviewed or anything around those devices.”

Iraq veterans in Michigan legislature want to protect PTSD dogs (Lansing State Journal)
He did two tours in Iraq, but it wasn’t until he came home that Sen. David Knezek lost a buddy from his unit. The man committed suicide. The transition home is too hard for some veterans, Knezek said, and we’re not doing enough to help. As one of only two Iraq veterans in the Michigan legislature, Knezek hopes to change that by making it easier for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to get well-trained service dogs and all the protections that go along with them. A first-term senator on the Veterans, Military and Homeland Security Committee, Knezek — a Democrat from Dearborn Heights — wants to standardize the training and licensing for PTSD service dogs. He also wants to change Michigan law to provide the same protections for veterans who use service dogs for PTSD and traumatic brain injury as any other person who uses a dog because of a physical disability. “We came across a number of stories across the country dealing with veterans who utilize service dogs on college campuses, in different businesses, in restaurants, and unfortunately a number of them were being asked to leave,” said Knezek, a former Marine. “Folks look at the veteran with the dog, and they don’t see any missing limbs, don’t see them having any difficulty hearing. They very clearly have the ability to see. So folks think that veterans are being disingenuous with the use of these service dogs.”

VA’s treatment of veterans’ trauma (The New York Times)
Opinion: Since 2006, the VA has trained over 6,000 clinicians in two of the most effective treatments for PTSD: prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy. Both treatments are strongly recommended in the practice guidelines of the Veterans Affairs and Defense Departments and in other PTSD guidelines around the world. A 2013 study found that over 60 percent of veterans who received prolonged exposure therapy from the VA in the national training initiative experienced clinically meaningful improvement. Although feeling worse in therapy can happen, a standard VA protocol for prolonged exposure informs patients of this and the option to discontinue…. The VA. welcomes criticism but also needs constructive ideas to succeed. The VA is actively engaging community partners, academia, advocates, the private sector and, most important, veterans and their families, to improve services.

Labor Department takes a data-driven approach to veteran hiring (The Washington Post)
Contractors will have to start collecting annual data on their veteran hiring practices in 2015, according to an updated Labor Department regulation. The rule, released last fall, is a significant modification to a 1974 rule related to the hiring of veterans after the Vietnam War and an example of the government’s push to use data to study industry trends. The new rule requires companies that hold government contracts worth $100,000 or more to submit annual reports about veterans in their workforce, with the first report due between August 1 and September 30 this year. The department will assess whether contractors are compliant with the new ruling or at least have a plan in place to increase their veteran hiring initiatives, and could use yearly data to spot patterns in veteran employment. The update also streamlines reporting requirements for contractors by cutting in half the number of categories for which companies have to collect data. The Labor Department estimates that this will save companies more than $18 million over the next decade. In addition, the rule introduces the concept of a veteran hiring benchmark. Companies need to eventually show that the percentage of veterans in their workforce is the same as the total share of veterans in the national population — about 7 percent.

Montana veterans: Choice Act can’t overcome poor communication (The Missoulian)
Opinion: At a town hall meeting held by the Montana VA Health Care System two weeks ago, a man asked the state’s acting VA director about a law passed in November that allows veterans to be treated at non-VA facilities. The Choice Act, co-authored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., permits veterans to receive care at a non-VA clinic if they live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility. As written, that 40-mile stipulation was defined “as the crow flies” and not necessarily the driving distance, which can often be much further in a state like Montana. At the meeting, acting state VA director John Ginnity suggested a fix was in the works. He was right. This past week, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Tester announced a solution when they joined Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and a host of others in introducing the Veterans Access to Community Care Act. The act fixes that “as the crow flies” loophole by allowing local care if a veteran lives more than 40 miles “driving distance” from the closest VA facility. Such are the nuances of federal legislation. For non-veterans, visiting the doctor seldom requires a trip out of town, but for veterans living in rural areas of Montana, receiving VA care often requires a long-distance trip to the nearest VA facility. But as things often go, a breakdown in communication between the local, state and federal agencies responsible for carrying out the legislation dropped the ball by either not paying attention to the requirements of the act, or not passing those requirements on to providers.

Texas train crash that killed veterans on parade float goes to trial (San Antonio Express-News)
Union Pacific and military veterans involved in the deadly collision of a freight train with a parade float on Nov. 15, 2012, will each make their legal case in front of a jury starting Monday. Veterans and family members sued UP on Nov. 28, 2012, alleging that the company was negligent in operating the railroad crossing where its train slammed into the parade float. Four veterans were killed, including retired Army Sgt. Joshua Michael, 34, of the San Antonio area. Michael served two tours in Iraq, was struck by two IEDs and suffered traumatic brain injuries, earning him two Purple Hearts. One of his last acts of heroism was throwing his wife, Daylyn Michael, off the flatbed float as it was struck by the train. She was one of a handful of people to escape injury, or worse. The San Antonio-area couple had been invited along with the others to participate in the annual Hunt for Heroes, sponsored by Show of Support, an organization that selects injured veterans to participate in a traditional West Texas hunt. The parade was on its way to a special banquet at Horseshoe Arena in Midland. There originally were 43 plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but plaintiffs’ lawyers announced Jan. 16 that eight families had reached a settlement with the railroad. Lawyers for the remaining 17 plaintiffs will be arguing that UP had short warning signal times at the crossing and did not properly maintain it.