Veterans news update for Feb. 20

Veterans news update for Feb. 20

Veterans news updateVA watchdog finds California office mismanaged thousands of disability claims (The Wall Street Journal)
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ internal watchdog determined that an Oakland, Calif.-based regional office mismanaged more than 13,000 disability claims found tucked away in a filing cabinet over two years ago, according to a report released Wednesday. The report from the VA’s Office of Inspector General showed consistent lack of accountability and record keeping at the regional office, resulting in some veterans not receiving benefits. The inspection showed no current mishandling of informal claims or improper storage of those documents, but inspectors are still uncertain of the total number of past claims or of their ultimate resolution because of poor record-keeping, the report said. “We could not confirm that [regional staff] processed all of the informal claims found in October 2012, nor could we confirm the initial list contained 13,184 informal claims because of management’s poor record-keeping,” the report said. Thousands of claims, some dating back to the 1990s, were first found in a filing cabinet by a VA support team in 2012. The VA then created a special project to address the unaddressed claims, though poor management led to more than 500 claims remaining unprocessed by June 2014. When representatives of the inspector general audited the facility in July 2014, an estimated 21% of the claims still remained unprocessed.

Scandal-plagued VA fires more feds in fiscal 2014 (Federal Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department fired about 2,572 employees in fiscal 2014 – up from 2,264 in fiscal 2013, according to numbers from the Office of Personnel Management. The 13 percent increase comes as the agency works to improve accountability in the wake of a wait list manipulation scandal. Veterans groups and lawmakers have said the VA has not done enough to punish VA employees who manipulated wait lists and scheduling systems to boost performance numbers – putting veterans at risk. The fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. The Veterans Health Administration makes up the vast majority of VA firings with 2,426 in fiscal 2014 – about 94 percent of all agency employees fired that fiscal year. But while overall firings did increase in fiscal 2014 none were members of the Senior Executive Service, while only two were fired in fiscal 2013. The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 passed by Congress Aug. 7 gave the VA secretary the power to more easily fire and demote senior execs and shortened the waiting period for a Merit Systems Protection Board review.

Researchers investigate respiratory health of deployed personnel during operations (
Military personnel who deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom, or OIF, Operation Enduring Freedom, or OEF, or Operation New Dawn, or OND, were commonly exposed to airborne hazards such as dust and smoke, Army Medicine researchers say. Some may have developed respiratory diseases and still have medical consequences as a result.  Army Medicine researchers are continuing to investigate possible long-term effects of this exposure, and need your help.  Col. (Ret.) Michael J. Morris, M.D., San Antonio Military Medical Center, is the lead investigator for the Study of Active Duty Military for Pulmonary Disease Related to Environmental Deployment Exposures, also known as STAMPEDE. Dr. Morris and his team need volunteers who deployed to OIF, OEF, or OND, developed respiratory symptoms while deployed, and who still show these symptoms to assist with a research study. The STAMPEDE team aims to enroll 300 patients (from any branch of military service). The following are study eligibility requirements for individuals who would like to be considered for STAMPEDE:

  • 1. Deployment to OIF/OEF/OND on active-duty status;
  • 2. Developed chronic respiratory symptoms during or soon after deployment;
  • 3. Can exercise on a treadmill;
  • 4. Had no history of pre-existing lung disease before deployment;
  • 5. Are able to spend a week in San Antonio for testing procedures;
  • 6. Can provide civilian or Veterans Affairs, or VA, medical records (if available).
Participants enrolled in the study will undergo a standardized testing protocol to include: surveys, blood work, chest imaging, echocardiography (examination of the heart), several different breathing tests, exercise testing, laryngoscopy (vocal cord examination), and bronchoscopy (airway examination). While there is no guarantee of benefit from joining the study, it is possible that participants will benefit from identification and evaluation of shortness of breath and learning if any lung disease related to deployment is the cause of this shortness of breath.

Air Force Reservists say Agent Orange residue damaged their health (NPR)
At the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, a looping video shows off C-123 planes — aircraft used to spray the chemical defoliant Agent Orange and pesticides during the Vietnam War. The only actual C-123 you can still see here, nicknamed “Patches,” has been on display inside this big hangar since the mid-1990s, when it was decontaminated. It’s a wide, clunky-looking cargo plane. “They’re big and slow, and they’re extremely noisy,” says Ed Kienle, laughing. For most of the 1970s, he was a flight mechanic on a plane just like Patches at Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Columbus. “We know that most of the airplanes we flew had done duty in Vietnam.” An unknown number of U.S. troops and Vietnamese civilians were exposed to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant the U.S. used in Vietnam. And it turns out that some Air Force reservists may also have been exposed to the chemical after the war — not in Vietnam, but in the U.S. That’s because the planes used to spray Agent Orange were used for another decade by the Air Force reserves at Rickenbacker, the Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts and the Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station. Vets who worked in those planes have been pushing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for recognition — and they’re starting to get it.

Study: 61 percent of veterans have trouble adjusting to civilian life (ABC7-Los Angeles)
A newly released University of Southern California study finds many veterans, especially combat veterans, in Orange County face major challenges when adjusting to civilian life.  “The state of the American Veteran: The Orange County Veterans Study,” was conducted by the USC School of Social Work Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families. The Orange County Community Foundation helped commission the study. In the study, 1,227 veterans were surveyed. Of those 1227, 61 percent of post 9/11 veterans reported having difficulty adjusting to civilian life. Seventy-four percent did not have a job when they left the military, and 44 percent of veterans screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder. “It took a long, long time for my PTSD to really just start causing a lot of problems,” said Stephen Young, a 32-year-old former Marine who served in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. After returning home, Young found himself among the nearly 1,400 homeless veterans in Orange County.

Criticism of senator’s war record rankles veterans (Military Times)
No one disputes that Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, served with the National Guard in a combat zone. So the recent round of questions about whether she counts as a “combat veteran” has made more than a few former service members uncomfortable and upset. But they aren’t necessarily surprised. “This kind of stuff has been going on for generations,” said Phil Carter, director of veterans programs at the Center for a New American Security. “We’ve seen conversations about peacetime service as opposed to wartime service. We’ve seen veterans from different wars trade stories about who had it tougher. “But so few people have an appreciation for what military service is that these arguments start to take on a controversial quality about what ‘counts’ as service.” Earlier this month, the Huffington Post questioned Ernst’s characterization of herself as a “combat veteran,” noting she had not been involved in a firefight during her 14-month Middle East deployment. The Iowa Guard lieutenant colonel commanded the 1168th Transportation Company during the 2003-04 deployment, overseeing transportation runs in Kuwait and southern Iraq and running a protection detail in Kuwait. She touted her “combat veteran” status in numerous campaign stops during the mid-term elections last year, and noted in response to the recent criticism that both Veterans Affairs and Defense Department guidelines classify her as one. Fellow Senate Armed Services Committee colleague Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — himself a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war — called Ernst a combat veteran “by any definition.” “Malicious claims to the contrary denigrate not only her service, but that of countless current and former service members who served honorably in a range of roles in our military,” he said in a statement.

Air Force veteran accuses 2 Auburn football players of harassment (Stars & Stripes)
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has apologized for the behavior of two players who allegedly harassed a military veteran and her service dog as she walked to class. Shari Duval, president of K9s for Warriors, said Thursday that Malzahn called the Air Force veteran after the incident on Tuesday. The woman, 25-year-old Ashley Ozyurt, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Duval said she has not returned to class. Ozyurt posted on the Service Dog Memes Facebook page that she was left in tears and “hurt, angered, and very humiliated. Duval said the two players, whose names have not been released, used profanity toward the veteran. “Why they did that, I have no idea,” Duval said. “I guess they thought it was a good idea at the time, but it was not a good idea.”” University spokesman Mike Clardy did not immediately return phone messages or emails seeking comment Thursday but released an earlier statement to media outlets saying the university was investigating the incident “and will take all appropriate action once all the facts are known.”

Arkansas veterans want tax exemption on military retirement (KATV-Little Rock)
Veteran’s groups from all over the state and state leaders gathered at the state capitol on Thursday to talk about veteran’s issues. While veterans are honored for their service to our country, some veterans in Arkansas say they’re not being honored with their money. “A veteran can give themselves a pay increase simply by packing up and moving to another state,” said Will Beams, director of the Arkansas Veterans Coalition. Veteran’s in Arkansas receive a $6,000 dollar exemption on taxes from their military retirement pay. But neighboring states like Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Tennessee don’t tax military retirement pay at all. Missouri will stop taxing it in 2016. “One thing we’re trying to do is attract viable working veterans. Working age veterans to come to the state of Arkansas by offering them benefits that are offered to other partners. Arkansas ranks 48th on where veterans choose to go to retire. What we need to do is give them a reason to come here,” said Beams. An exemption bill is something lawmakers are planning this legislative session. Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin says it’s a much needed change. “When people are deciding where to go, they look at that. They say wait a minute, I can go to this state and pay nothing in taxes or I can go this state and be poor by $5,000 a year or whatever it is,” said Griffin.

Veterans advocates push for on-campus support (Military Times)
Veterans groups say the Post-9/11 GI Bill has given hundreds of thousands of veterans a chance to go to college. Now, they want to make sure those students are also getting the resources they need to succeed. Advocates lobbied congressional staffers Thursday for federal grants to build college campus veterans centers, ensuring an extra level of scholastic and emotional support for transitioning service members. “We know this kind of support can have a big impact on student degree completion and [college] retention rates,” said Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of the American Legion’s education division. “It’s not just a place on campus for veterans to vent. It can become a one-stop shop for all the services they need.” For the last four years, the Education Department has given limited grants to college campuses for the launch and upkeep of veterans centers at colleges and universities, but those authorities expired in December. Supporters want to renew and expand those programs. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., last session would have allowed 30 new grants of up to $500,000 each for the work, but the bill failed to gather enough support to become law. Staffers said she’ll introduce similar legislation in the weeks to come. Walter Tillman, program manager at Student Veterans of America, said schools and private-sector groups have helped fill some of the void. Last month, The Home Depot Foundation announced plans to expand their vet center assistance grants to 50 more campuses, at a cost of about $400,000.

IG report on Wilmington VA still pending (Wilmington News Journal)
The director of the Wilmington Veterans Affairs Medical Center says she has been briefed on the findings of a long-awaited VA Inspector General inquiry into patient scheduling issues at the center but has not been told when the report will be released. “I have gotten a verbal outbrief,” Wilmington VAMC Director Robin Aube-Warren said following a town hall-style meeting at the center Thursday night. “In fact, I just asked today if they could give me a report number so I could request a copy. I don’t know if it’s been published, but I have not seen a written report.” The wait time issue came to a head last year. A nationwide scandal erupted when long delays in care and manipulation of appointment schedules at the Phoenix VA hospital were publicized, leading to the forced resignation of the VA secretary, VA IG investigations of more than 90 facilities and a halting start to firing complicit workers. The Wilmington VAMC was among those singled out. Wilmington-system staffers told The News Journal last summer of practices such as shifting patients from one doctor’s caseload to another’s, making those patients lose their places in line, so to speak. Numerous patients told The News Journal of lengthy delays they said made their conditions worse. Members of Congress and other critics have demanded accountability for the delays. Aube-Warren said Wilmington takes disciplinary action against workers for “various reasons” but added, “I have no first-hand knowledge of any misconduct … associated with scheduling at the Wilmington VA.”

Contractor gets prison for Texas VA swindle (
A Navy veteran was sentenced Thursday to a year and a day in jail for lying about his company’s qualifications to the Veterans Affairs Department to get $1.5 million in contracts for work at one of its hospitals. Colorado resident Jonathan Patrick Saunders, 71, was president and co-owner of Saunders MEP Inc., which has been awarded government contracts around the country. They included one for building construction projects at the VA Hospital in Kerrville, which was at the center of his criminal case. “I did lie on my resume, but I wasn’t sitting around (plotting) to do some kind of scam like the government claims,” Saunders told U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in January, after pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud. He also said the government is partly to blame because he disclosed that he had a pre-existing medical condition that was not part of his military service, which would have kept him from getting government work. But rather than dismiss his company, a contracting officer told him it was too late to re-solicit bids, Saunders said. Saunders also said the feds kept giving him contracts long after opening an investigation of his company. In January, he admitted that when he applied for the Kerrville contract in 2008, he claimed that his company qualified as a “service disabled veteran-owned small business.” He also acknowledged claiming that certain people with engineering or architectural qualifications worked for the company and that the company had done work on a previous project. In reality, his plea deal said, none of that was true.