Senate takes up bill to lower suicide rates among veterans (Associated Press)
A bill aimed at reducing a suicide epidemic among military veterans appears headed for the president’s desk. The Senate is expected to take up a bill on Monday named for Clay Hunt, a 26-year-old veteran who killed himself in 2011. The bill is in response to suicides that on average claim the lives of 22 military veterans every day. The measure, which passed the House last month, would require the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department to submit to independent reviews of their suicide prevention programs and make information on suicide prevention more easily available to veterans. It also would offer financial incentives to psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who agree to work for the VA and help military members as they transition from active duty to veteran status. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he expects overwhelming approval of the bill, which passed the House unanimously and has the support of major veterans groups. “When you have 8,000 veterans a year committing suicide, then you have a serious problem,” Isakson said, noting that more veterans have died by suicide in recent years than have died in battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Possible relief for vets sick from war zone burn pits? (The Daily Beast)
Commentary: “In 2008, I received a memo from an Air Force bioenvironmental flight commander, Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, saying that the troops at Air Base Balad were being exposed to “an acute health hazard.” At that point, no one had reported on the burn pits, which were used by the military and its contractors to dispose of trash at almost every base in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reporters figured everyone could see them—flames from Balad’s pit rose so high pilots used it as a landmark—so they must be OK. But the troops were worried. Commanders feared for their own health. And nobody wanted to see the dog who wandered the base with amputated body parts in his mouth that he had dug out of the burn pit. At Balad, fire consumed 240 tons of trash in an open pit every day. Black smoke billowed across the base. Tinier bases had tinier pits, but those pits burned everything from Styrofoam to old computers to unexploded ordnance. I talked to hundreds of people who believed they were sick from the burn pits. Airmen who had been stationed a mile up the road from Balad’s pit returned with respiratory diseases, immune-system issues and cancer. One hopeful young combat vet died within weeks of my conversation with her. The reporting led to Congressional hearings, a ban on burn pits and a burn pit registry. But it’s not enough. Recently, the Supreme Court found that lawsuits against the American contractor that operated the burn pits, KBR, could move forward. KBR had argued that it couldn’t be sued because it had operated the burn pits for the government. The Court issued no statement, but the lawsuits will go back to trial courts. This brings me hope for all of our veterans—not just those involved in this case.”
Study examines impact of service dogs on veterans with PTSD (Stars & Stripes)
Retired Marine and lifelong New Yorker Matthew Raible knows that service dogs save lives. On a cold January night, the disabled Vietnam veteran fell while transitioning from the driver’s seat to his wheelchair inside his specialized van. He lay on the floor as temperatures plummeted; the door handle and his keys with an automatic door opener were out of reach. Raible — who was wounded in the feet, abdomen, hands, shoulder and neck when a mortar round exploded during Operation Allen Brook on May 27, 1968 — said it was likely he would have frozen to death. But that’s when his service dog, Agatha, sprang into action. The golden retriever he received in 1992 from Canine Companions for Independence Inc. snatched the keys from the ignition at Raible’s prodding and brought them to him. Raible then was able to open the door to the van and call for help. Agatha’s actions likely saved his life. Doctors from the Department of Veterans Affairs say that the benefits of service dogs working with the physically disabled are well-documented. However, there is no scientific literature that supports the theory that they are equally beneficial to those with mental scars. The VA and several new groups, including Canine Companions, launched a study in December. The study is big, comprehensive and tightly controlled, VA officials said. They have vowed to answer the question: Can service dogs improve activity and quality of life in veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress? “This is a very large and complex study. We just can’t rush it,” the VA’s chief veterinary medical officer Michael Fallon said. “We’re going to do it right.”
Marine veteran seeks benefits for Afghan interpreters (USA Today)
Andrew Biggio leaned heavily on local interpreters during his time in Afghanistan — and now the Marine veteran wants to repay those who resettle in his home state of Massachusetts. Afghan and Iraqi translators who flee to the U.S. after working with the military during nearly 13 years of war receive some assistance upon arrival here, similar to other refugees. But Biggio believes they deserve more — even as much as a returning veteran, he said. The former sergeant with 1st Battalion, 25th Marines, who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, knows intimately what benefits former warriors are owed. After leaving the Marine Corps Reserve, he took a job as a veteran service officer in the Boston suburb of Saugus, Mass. It’s a position that sees him guide local veterans to state and federal resources. But Biggio’s interest in helping translators and linguists took center stage when one of his former interpreters unexpectedly popped up in Boston in December. “I had another Marine reach out to me and say, ‘hey man, interpreter X, he showed up in Boston; the guy doesn’t have a nickel to his name. He’s pretty much ready to live in church with a bunch of other refugees,'” recalled Biggio, who declined to identify his former translator out of safety concerns for the man’s relatives in Afghanistan. He and other vets sprang into action, trying to find a temporary home for the translator as well as other necessities, like food stamps and health insurance. Still, until one of Biggio’s friends agreed to put the man up with his family, the former interpreter looked destined for a shelter. Biggio said he realized while veterans have a slew of transition assistance or benefits when they return from war, the interpreters they worked with often fled to the U.S. empty handed.
Wisconsin investigating doctor, two others in VA ‘candy land’ hospital case (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
The state has opened an investigation of a doctor dubbed the “Candy Man” and two other individuals tied to the death of a patient at the Tomah VA Medical Center. An official confirmed that the state Department of Safety and Professional Services is investigating David Houlihan, chief of staff at the troubled Tomah facility. Houlihan had been given the nickname “Candy Man” by some vets for his supposedly easy and widespread distribution of painkillers. He wrote at least some of the prescriptions for a 35-year-old Marine Corps vet who died at the medical center in August. A nurse and pharmacist who worked with Houlihan are also under investigation by the state. State officials have the authority to issue reprimands or suspend or strip the state licenses of medical professionals in Wisconsin. The state could also refer the matter for criminal prosecution. “We do have investigations ongoing against them,” said Hannah Zillmer, spokeswoman for the state agency. “Because there is an alleged death, it is on an expedited process,” Zillmer continued. “So we are currently investigating, but I can’t give you a completion date.”
Missouri bill offering Medicaid to veterans generates new debate (The Columbia Daily Tribune)
Ryan Gill has big plans. In the long-term, the University of Missouri senior hopes to enter law school and, when finished, work representing veterans. In the short-term, Gill hopes to persuade state lawmakers to do something for veterans and their families that they won’t do for the public at large — expand Medicaid eligibility. The main groups who would benefit from a bill proposed by Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, Gill said, are students and veterans struggling to find their place after life in the military. Department of Veterans Affairs benefits are good for the veterans able to use them, he said, but don’t cover dependents and suffer from bureaucratic inertia. “If we don’t cover these individuals while they are young, or the ones that have fallen down to get them back on their feet, what a squandered opportunity we have lost to contribute something to our economy, especially the young veterans,” said Gill, president of the Mizzou Student Veterans Association and a board member of Welcome Home Inc., a homeless shelter for veterans. Gill is a native of Portageville in southeast Missouri and a six-year veteran of the Missouri Army National Guard. On Monday, Gill was in Jefferson City with former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond and other student veterans to organize support for Silvey’s bill with the Missouri Association of Veterans Organizations.
Solutions to VA problems are stories yet to be told (AZCentral.com)
Commentary: “Veterans, their families and anyone interested in the well-being of former servicemen and -women breathed a sigh of relief last August when President Barack Obama signed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 into law. After a long summer of horrific disclosures about how the Department of Veterans Affairs had cooked its appointment-scheduling books, Congress finally had the momentum it needed to pass bipartisan VA reform legislation. What turned the tide? It was hair-raising stories across the nation about veterans lingering in illness, even dying, while waiting months to get appointments for basic testing and treatment of their ailments. The culprit, as we now know, was a bureaucratic malaise that enveloped the VA like a dense, malignant fog. Nothing could penetrate it — not years of cautions about the problem from federal auditors and investigators, not repeated warnings from internal whistle-blowers, not the plaintive calls for assistance from veterans and their families. Yet when the media focused a bright and prolonged national spotlight on the problem, it lit the way for Congress to act. Americans became justifiably angry at how veterans were being treated, and suddenly bipartisan legislation to fix age-old problems didn’t seem like such a stretch. Lawmakers who’d fenced with the VA for some time over these very issues found support like never before. That’s the story so far … but where will we be at this time next year?”