Veterans news update for Feb. 24

Veterans news update for Feb. 24

Veterans news updateVA secretary falsely claimed he was in special forces (The Huffington Post)
Robert McDonald, the secretary of veterans affairs, wrongly claimed in a videotaped comment earlier this year that he served in special operations forces, the most elite units in the armed forces, when his military service of five years was spent almost entirely with the 82nd Airborne Division during the late 1970s. U.S. special operations forces (SOF) are composed of exhaustively trained and highly capable troops from each military service, including the Green Berets, Army Rangers, Delta Force and Navy SEALs — but not the 82nd Airborne. They are certified to undertake the most dangerous and delicate missions, including, famously, the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Special operators are a close-knit community deeply hostile to outsiders who try to claim the coveted mantle of special operations. McDonald, a retired corporate executive who took over the VA last June as the agency was sinking in scandal, made the claim in late January as he was touring a rundown Los Angeles neighborhood during a nationwide count of homeless veterans. He was accompanied by a CBS-TV news crew, which recorded an exchange between McDonald and a homeless man who told McDonald he had served in special forces. “Special forces? What years? I was in special forces!” McDonald told the homeless man. That exchange was broadcast in a Jan. 30 CBS News story about the VA’s efforts to find and house homeless veterans. In fact, McDonald never served in special forces. “I have no excuse,” McDonald told The Huffington Post, when contacted to explain his claim. “I was not in special forces.” “It was wrong,” said retired Army Col. Gary Bloomberg, a former senior special forces commander who had not seen the video before being contacted by The Huffington Post. When he first watched it, Bloomberg said, “I thought, ‘What a boneheaded statement — is this what we want from our senior government officials?’ ”

VA secretary apologizes for embellishing military record (The New York Times)
VA Secretary Robert McDonald apologized on Monday for falsely claiming last month that he had served in the United States Special Forces. Mr. McDonald, a 1975 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, where he completed jungle, arctic, desert warfare and Ranger training, according to his official biography. But his assertion to a homeless veteran in Los Angeles that he was in Special Forces — captured on camera for a CBS News report — was false, he acknowledged on Monday. McDonald said in a statement that his claim “was inaccurate, and I apologize to anyone that was offended by my misstatement.” “I have great respect for those who have served our nation in Special Forces,” McDonald said. “They, and all veterans, deserve a Department of Veterans Affairs that provides them the care and benefits they have earned.” White House officials said they accepted McDonald’s explanation. “Secretary McDonald has apologized for the misstatement and noted that he never intended to misrepresent his military service,” the White House said. “We take him at his word and expect that this will not impact the important work he’s doing to promote the health and well-being of our nation’s veterans.”

VA manager’s vulgarity not directed at disabled veterans, agency says (The Denver Post)
The Department of Veterans Affairs has disciplined the supervisor of a VA program in Denver that provides wheelchairs to disabled veterans after he used vulgar language in an e-mail to describe a group of people he was scheduled to meet. Christopher Buscema, a physical medicine and rehabilitation service manager for the VA medical center in Denver, wrote in an e-mail dated July 24, 2014: “Meeting with (expletive) next week.” In the same e-mail, he noted an August deadline “for WC schedules,” an apparent reference to the wheelchair program. Artie Guerrero, a disabled Vietnam veteran, gave a copy of the e-mail to The Denver Post, saying it came from an employee who told him Buscema was disparaging veterans. The VA denies that. After locating the e-mail and questioning Buscema and a recipient, spokesman Daniel Warvi said both agreed that Buscema was referring to an upcoming meeting with other program supervisors, not veterans. “We have officially interviewed both VA staff members, and they have acknowledged that the language used in the e-mail was inappropriate and unacceptable,” Warvi responded by e-mail. The VA office is preparing a message to all chiefs and supervisors that using profanity under any circumstances “is unacceptable and disrespectful to our staff and veterans,” Warvi said.

Caregivers converge to push for expanded benefits (Military Times)
Donna Barton doesn’t know exactly how much money she has saved the Department of Veterans Affairs, but it’s in the tens of millions of dollars. “It could be in the billions by now,” the 65-year-old registered nurse said, laughing. “When you take in all the services I’ve provided for free for decades … there’s just so much involved.” For the last 40 years, Barton has served as primary caregiver for her husband, Brad, whose spinal column was severed by a mortar round in Vietnam in 1968. The Marine Corps veteran has been confined to a wheelchair since, but not confined to a nursing home thanks to the medical and emotional support from Donna. Now, she wants some relief from VA — and Congress. Barton will be on Capitol Hill this week with other representatives from Disabled American Veterans pushing for caregiver assistance for veterans of all eras, arguing that the cost would be just a small fraction of the valuable service they have provided. VA currently awards monthly stipends of around $2,300 to around 7,000 spouses and loved ones who provide health care assistance to injured veterans, but all of them are to troops injured in the wars after Sept. 11. Congress approved the program back in 2010, in response to the financial stress being put on families of young wounded service members returning from war. But Joe Violante, national legislative director for DAV, said the move has caused a rift within the veterans community among those who have been providing that care for decades, usually with no training or assistance. “We need to find a way to expand those benefits at least incrementally, taking care of the veterans [from earlier wars] who are the most severely disabled,” he said.

New VA claims process called detrimental to older veterans (
While the new Department of Veterans Affairs claims process uses forms that are simpler than income tax return forms, they have similar names and designs. More importantly, they represent a shift that puts more of the burden on veterans for starting a claim and will end up hurting older veterans and those with traumatic brain injuries, spokesmen for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans said. “In the end, the changes are being implemented for the convenience of the VA and not for the benefit of the veterans,” said Gerald Manar, deputy director of the VFW’s National Veterans Service. The policy, which will take effect March 24, eliminates the informal claim process that allowed veterans to start a claim simply by making a written request. Under the existing policy, the veteran then had one year to file a completed claim. Any benefits awarded would be backdated to the day of the request. The new policy requires veterans to fill out a standardized form to start the claims process. “They’re not going to do anything until they receive the correct form, completed correctly,” said Jim Marszalek, the DAV’s National Service Director. Consequently, veterans could lose months of benefits while waiting for the VA to notify them that they need to send in the correct form, and some are likely to simply give up, he said. “There’s nothing (in the regulation) to specify how long the VA has to respond to someone who doesn’t use a standard form,” Marszalek said.

VA office agrees to change ‘wanted’ poster for workers (The Washington Times)
Managers at a Department of Veterans Affairs office in Florida are changing an employee-of-the-month “wanted” poster graphic, complete with bullet holes, after the employees’ union complained about the image. The management at the St. Petersburg regional office said Monday that the graphic in a monthly email to employees will be removed from the bulletin next month, after appearing as a regular feature for about a year. The image was “intended to promote employee participation in the Employee of the Month program in a creative way,” VA regional spokesman Bruce Clisby said. “It was never intended to relay a negative message, such as terrorism, threats, or violence. …” Union officials said the image sent the wrong message to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and also violated collective bargaining agreements about workplace violence. The employees’ union sought the change “in the midst of our present environment of war, terrorism, workplace threats, and a not so friendly environment,” Valorie Reilly, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1594, wrote in her monthly email to union members. “Also, we strongly believe a positive and uplifting message and design better reflects awarding those that perform above the call of duty.” She said employees who are also veterans complained about the image.

Dorothy Ludden, survivor of VA lobotomy program, dies (The Wall Street Journal)
Dorothy Ludden, one of the last survivors of a government program that lobotomized mentally-ill World War II veterans, died on Monday. She was 94. During the war, Mrs. Ludden served as a Navy nurse in stateside military hospitals. She was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons soon after her discharge from active duty in 1946. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, she underwent a lobotomy at the Veterans Administration hospital in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Tuscaloosa facility was one of 50 VA hospitals that performed the controversial brain surgery to treat intractable mental illness among veterans. Some 2,000 veterans were lobotomized by the government before the first antipsychotic drug, Thorazine, came on the market in the mid-1950s. Mrs. Ludden married after her brain surgery and raised three sons. Her volatile temper, odd behavior and limited emotional range left scars on her family that lasted decades. Lobotomy, a procedure in which doctors severed connections between the frontal lobe and the rest of the brain, was intended to suppress excessive emotions. It often, however, left patients childlike and unable to care for themselves.

Tampa reservist’s suicide brings home tragedy (Tampa Tribune)
Why? That’s the question the family and friends of Air Force Reserve Capt. Jamie Brunette are struggling to answer. At 30, Brunette seemingly had it all. A vivacious and attractive athlete and scholar, she had been lauded by the Air Force for her work in Afghanistan, was a partner in a fitness center about to open in Largo and was known by her family and friends as being the strong one always ready to help others. But for some reason, Brunette, who left active duty after 11 years last June and joined the Air Force Reserve, couldn’t help herself. On Feb. 9, Tampa police found her slumped over in the back of her locked Chrysler 200 sedan outside a Harbour Island cafe near her apartment. Police say it appears she killed herself with her Smith & Wesson .380 handgun, which she purchased about six months earlier. Now family and friends are trying to come to grips with the pain behind Brunette’s effervescent smile that caused her to become one of the 22 veterans a day who take their own lives, according to a 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs study. It’s a problem that’s vexing both the military and the VA, which are struggling to find ways to prevent suicides. According to a study published this month in the medical journal Annals of Epidemiology, the nearly 1.3 million veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2007 had a 41 percent to 61 percent higher risk of suicide than the general population, with 1,868 committing suicide during that time period. And while female veterans were far less likely than men to commit suicide, when compared to those who never served, female veterans were more likely to commit suicide than male veterans.

Delivery devastates family of deceased Army veteran (KSDK-St. Louis)
The family of an Army veteran is devastated after getting a painful reminder of their son’s tragic death. The Army’s Wounded Warrior Program mailed a package to his former home in an attempt to reach him, even though he has been dead for 15 months. Captain Casey McCausland entered into the Wounded Warrior Program in 2011. An advocate was supposed to be reaching out to him every six months. However, the last time she spoke with him was May of 2013. Retired Army Captain Casey McCausland struggled with PTSD after his humvee hit an IED in 2008, killing the driver. His parents say McCausland, 33, died in November of 2013 after he was huffing a household chemical and fell down the stairs. They notified the Department of Veterans Affairs the day after his death. Last week however, the Army’s Wounded Warrior Program sent him a package. It contained a letter that stated that he had not responded to numerous attempts to reach him. McCausland’s father, James McCausland, says the package stirred up the pain they felt when they lost their son. He says it was like adding salt to a wound. “It creates a lot of hostility because the family is being brought back into the picture again, the loss is being made new and fresh,” he said. The Wounded Warrior Program has an office at the VA at Jefferson Barracks. The advocates in the Wounded Warrior Program communicate with the VA staff, but it is a separate organization that offers support to veterans.

Colorado senators request VA committee meeting at Denver hospital (Denver Business Journal)
U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner have requested a meeting of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee at the Denver VA Medical Center in Aurora, Colo. The senators sent a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the committee to request the field hearing in an attempt to highlight the issues at the facility. “The visit will provide an opportunity for the Committee to see first-hand the extensive management and financial issues that continue to plague this project,” the letter said. “The Denver Replacement Facility project and similar replacement projects in other states are vital to future care for veterans and, as such, require careful analysis before the VA undertakes construction on this scale in the future.” The Department of Veterans Affairs has been working on replacing the VA hospital in Aurora since 2010, but the project has been fraught with problems, resulting in hundreds of millions in cost overruns and project delays of more than three years.

Tomah VA: A trail of secrecy, missed opportunities (Wausau Daily Herald)
In meetings with independent inspectors last summer, Veterans Affairs’ officials from Tomah, Wis., and the regional office in Chicago that oversees them had a clear message. Clinicians were being monitored now. A pain-management committee had been revamped to prevent over-prescription of narcotics. Relationships between doctors and pharmacists were on the mend. Everything was under control. The independent inspectors had had “serious” concerns about “unusually high” amounts of opiates being prescribed to vets at the center. They took Tomah officials’ word that the concerns were being addressed. But less than seven weeks later, 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski died in Tomah’s care. He overdosed as an inpatient on Aug. 30. He had been prescribed 15 drugs, including muscle relaxers, tranquilizers, anti-psychotic medicines and an opioid pain killer. All at once. Before he died, the inspectors from the VA’s Office of Inspector General had closed a lengthy investigation of opiate-prescription rates in Tomah and did not release the findings publicly, deciding instead to just brief local and regional VA officials. That was one of many behind-closed-door decisions by a number of federal officials that left the issue festering and patients potentially in danger for months, if not years.

Man who posed as Air Force pilot gets probation (
A South Union, Pa., man who showed up at a Fayette County school in a disheveled military uniform the day before Veterans Day and falsely claimed to be an Air Force pilot will serve a year of probation. Jonathan M. Campbell, 23, in January pleaded guilty to impersonating a public servant. A charge of disorderly conduct was dropped. Senior Judge Conrad Capuzzi on Thursday imposed the sentence of probation and ordered Campbell to obtain mental health treatment. State police said Campbell went to Laurel Highlands Middle School in South Union on Nov. 10 wearing scruffy brown work boots and desert-camouflage fatigues. An “Air Force” name tape was sewn over Campbell’s left breast pocket, and each sleeve bore sergeant’s stripes. He had a cellphone tucked into a holster in the small of his back, with earphone wires running under the uniform shirt to his head, police said. Campbell told Principal Michael Rozgony, Vice Principal Jessica Davis and a security officer he was a member of the Army for the past month. He requested to talk to students about Veterans Day, which was the next day. “When asked why his uniform said Air Force, he stated he was in the Air Force, too, he was a pilot and flew jets and helicopters and set off bombs,” police said. Suspicious of Campbell’s appearance, Rozgony had him step outside and requested he leave the school. Rozgony asked Campbell for his name and phone number, which Campbell provided.