Veterans news update for March 11

Veterans news update for March 11

Veterans news updateDisenchanted by civilian life, veterans volunteer to fight ISIS (The New York Times)
Last fall, Patrick Maxwell, a 29-year-old Iraq war veteran now selling real estate in this bustling city, saw something in news footage of Islamic fighters in Iraq that he never saw as an infantry Marine there: the enemy. “We patrolled every day, got shot at, mortared, hit by I.E.D.s, one of my friends was killed,” said Mr. Maxwell, a former sergeant who deployed in 2006 to Anbar Province. “But I never saw the enemy, never fired a shot.” With the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, hoisting its black flag above many Iraqi cities that United States troops spent years working to secure, he saw a second chance. He connected with a Kurdish military officer online, packed his body armor, some old uniforms and a faded green ball cap with a Texas flag patch on the front, and flew to Iraq. Within days, he was on the front lines as a volunteer fighter with Kurdish security forces, known as the pesh merga, in northern Iraq, peering through a rifle scope at ISIS fighters as bullets whizzed past. “I may not be enlisted anymore, but I’m still a warrior,” said Mr. Maxwell, who left the Marines with an honorable discharge in 2011. “I figured if I could walk away from here and kill as many of the bad guys as I could, that would be a good thing.” Mr. Maxwell is one of a small number of Americans — many of them former members of the military — who have volunteered in recent months to take up arms against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, even as the United States government has hesitated to put combat troops on the ground. Driven by a blend of motivations — outrage over ISIS’s atrocities, boredom with civilian life back home, dismay that an enemy they tried to neutralize is stronger than ever — they have offered themselves as pro bono advisers and riflemen in local militias.

VFW: Fire VA manager who sent email mocking vet suicides (Indianapolis Star)
One of the nation’s largest veteran organizations — the Veterans of Foreign Wars — is demanding the ouster of the Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center supervisor, Robin Paul, responsible for an internal email that appears to mock veteran suicides with depictions of a Christmas elf pleading for medication and hanging itself from an electrical cord. “There is nothing amusing about 22 veterans committing suicide every day and it is absolutely inexcusable that a VA supervisor would make light of any issue that veterans face,” VFW National Commander John W. Stroud said in a statement. “Ms. Paul might be the most caring and dedicated employee the VA has, but this senseless attempt at gallows humor has caused her to lose the respect and trust of veterans. It is for that reason that the VFW demands she be replaced as program manager. Trust within the military means everything; it should mean no less inside the VA.” Despite knowing for at least two months about an internal email that appears to mock veteran suicides, administrators at Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center never investigated, fired or demoted the manager who sent it — and now some members of Congress are demanding action. “This inappropriate email needs to be taken very seriously,” said U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. “An immediate independent investigation should occur to determine proper disciplinary action.” Others called on the VA to fire the manager who sent the email, echoing previous demands from veterans groups such as the American Legion.

Choice Act fails to ease burdens of vets who must travel to receive care (NPR)
Veterans who need to see a doctor often have to travel long distances – 40 miles or more – to get to a Department of Veterans Affairs facility. So last year, after scandals involving long wait times for vets, Congress tried to make getting care easier. The Veterans Choice Act gives veterans the option of using a doctor outside the VA system if VA facilities are more than 40 miles away, or there’s more than a 30-day wait for an appointment. While the rule seems simple, making it work hasn’t been as easy. In Indiana, for example, veterans are still having to go far to get the care they need. John Birdzell is a retired Army vet who volunteers to pick up other veterans at their homes and bring them to the Adam Benjamin Jr., VA Medical Clinic in Crown Point, Ind. On this cold, early morning, Birdzell waits in the facility’s empty parking lot while 30 mile-an-hour wind gusts swirl the lake effect snow coming off of Lake Michigan. “I guess I’ve driven in worse conditions,” he says. “It just gets to be a challenge on days like this.” It sounds odd, but for 30 to 40 veterans a day, the clinic in Indiana is actually a bus terminal for vets to catch a shuttle to the Jesse Brown Medical Center in Chicago. It’s more than 40 miles and at least an hour away – a lot longer depending on city traffic. One of the people Birdzell was scheduled to take home called while she was still in Chicago. She needed an X-ray and was running late; she asked if he could pick her up on a later shuttle. Birdzell said yes, though it meant more than a 10-hour day for both of them. “It’s kind of mind boggling to me that they get on a bus to Chicago to have things such as blood work or simple X-rays done,” he says.

Obama to visit Phoenix VA on Friday (The Washington Post)
President Obama is planning to visit Phoenix’s troubled Veterans Affairs hospital, the site of a scandal last year that caused the largest shakeup in the history of the VA. White House officials confirmed Tuesday that Obama and Secretary Robert McDonald plan to meet Friday with administrators at the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center. The president’s visit comes two months after he was criticized by Congress and veterans groups for not talking with Arizona veterans during a visit to the state, where he previewed his housing policies. Some members of Congress slammed Obama because he drove right past the hospital without stopping during that visit. In a background statement, a White House official said the VA “has made progress in accelerating care to veterans and addressing instances of unacceptable wait-times nationwide.” The Phoenix hospital is still mired in controversy, and several employees who work there said they were looking forward to the visit. “I hope that the visit by the president along with the VA secretary will help ensure that the administration at the Phoenix VA hospital will be held to the highest standards when it comes to caring for suicidal and intoxicated veterans,” said Brandon Coleman, a therapist and decorated veteran who said he was suspended in January for urgently warning that there was a problem with how suicidal veterans were being treated. “It’s my hope that this visit will help promote a workplace free of whistleblower harassment.”

Pills from Wisconsin VA hospital showing up on street, police say (Fox News)
Jason Bishop, a former patient at the Veterans Affairs facility in Tomah, Wis., says doctors there pushed drugs on him as a solution to virtually all his problems. “They would want you to take more drugs instead of finding something that would work. They would just give you something to basically say, ‘shut up,’” Bishop said. He disliked returning for treatment because the sight of fellow veterans lining the hallways with “empty eyes” depressed him. “They’re breeding drug addicts,” Bishop said. Bishop’s claim is now backed up by two reviews. The latest, released March 10, found unsafe practices at the Tomah VA in pain management and psychiatric care. The review found extensive use of opioids (synthetic opiates) and benzodiazepines (tranquilizers). The report also found no evidence that prescriptions were changed if patients hurt themselves by falling or displayed “aberrant behaviors.” Patients were two and a half times more likely than the national average to be prescribed a high dose of morphine. Tomah was double the national average when it came to the risky practice of using opioids and benzodiazepines at the same time. However, the pill problem doesn’t end in the Tomah, Wis., VA. Some say those overprescribed pills were also ending up on the street. Mark Nicholson, police chief in Tomah, said powerful, taxpayer-funded meds have been showing up in busts. “We can tell they are from the VA, either because the person tells us or we can see that they are in the pill bottles from the VA,” Nicholson said.

Veterans at center of medical marijuana legalization push (Military Times)
A trio of senators pushing for nationwide legalization of medical marijuana are putting veterans at the center of that effort, saying the law today prevents war heroes from getting all the care they need. The measure, which would reclassify marijuana to allow more medical use and research, is a long shot to pass the Republican-controlled House and Senate. But supporters — Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; and Cory Booker, D-N.J. —called the idea overdue and sorely needed, given the potential medical benefits. “Right now, veterans are prevented from getting the treatments they need to get relief from their suffering because of (federal marijuana) laws,” Booker said at a press conference Tuesday. “Enough is enough.” Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, and 12 additional states have laws regulating oils made from marijuana plants. But federal law still treats use and possession as a crime. Even in states where use is permitted, Veterans Affairs Department physicians are prohibited from discussing its use with patients, or from studying its potential benefits in treating problems such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule II drug — the same as medications such as methadone or oxycodone — would allow more of that scientific research, especially among universities that currently won’t consider experimenting with the illegal substance, Paul said. Some veterans advocates have pushed for wider research of marijuana use, given past studies on its effects in preventing seizures and pain.

Family sues over Des Moines VA hospital death (Des Moines Register)
A negligence lawsuit has been filed by family members of a Pomeroy man who died at a Des Moines hospital after a nurse with a history of disciplinary problems purposefully shut off alarms monitoring patients’ conditions. Michael Deal, 65, died in March 2013 at Veterans’ Administration Central Iowa Healthcare System one day after he went to the hospital for treatment of a foot infection caused by diabetes. Deal’s body was found around 11:45 p.m. after oxygen levels in his blood dropped undetected for three hours. In a hearing for unemployment benefits, nurse Bernard Nesbit admitted that he turned off alarms that night that would’ve alerted staff to Deal’s condition. The Veterans’ Administration fired Nesbit, and he’s also named as a defendant in the lawsuit. During the hearing, Nesbit told an administrative law judge that he turned off the alarms because they always went off, even when patients didn’t need help. Brian Galligan, a Des Moines attorney representing Deal’s wife and three children, is confident that a federal judge will be convinced of the hospital’s negligence if the case goes to trial, he said. Nesbit was working on a “last chance agreement” at the time of Deal’s death due to past disciplinary actions, and the hospital failed to appropriately supervise him, Galligan wrote in the lawsuit. “I think the government was clearly in the wrong here, not only in the conduct of the nurse but in their supervision of this nurse and retention of this nurse,” Galligan said. “I think that there is a very high likelihood of success.”

VA spent $3.3 billion on agency’s buildings as vets died awaiting care (Washington Free Beacon)
The Department of Veterans Affairs under President Obama has spent billions making improvements at VA centers across the country as veterans have waited months for care, in some cases dying before receiving treatment. The VA’s budget has increased every year under the Obama administration. In its budget fact sheet for FY 2015, the administration pointed out that “total VA funding has grown in 2015 by nearly 68 percent from 2009.” Records reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon suggest that the VA has not neglected its facilities. A review of records available the official government spending website shows the VA spending $3.3 billion on facility upgrades and expansions between 2010 through 2015, the budgets for which the administration is responsible. The nearly 12,000 contracts filed under the “construction/hospitals & infirmaries” code shows that the VA found funds for numerous projects, from building new facilities and parking lots to installing and upgrading light fixtures. The cost and number of contracts issued for facility construction has ballooned under Obama. For the ten fiscal years prior to Obama’s taking office, a total of $2.2 billion was spent on a total number of 2,733 contracts issued under the same NAIC spending code. The fiscal years included in the review were from 2000 to 2009. Since he took office, over 2,000 such contracts have been issued each year. By comparison, there were only 117 in 2000, 162 in 2003, and in 2008.

Scientists link genes with PTSD, before and after the war (KPBS-San Diego)
Gene activity related to the immune system may predispose certain soldiers to post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a new study. Researchers at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System and the UC San Diego School of Medicine were part of a team that studied 188 Marines before and after deployment. Using blood samples, the researchers compared gene activity in a group of Marines. Some went on to develop PTSD after deployment, while others did not. The researchers noticed that certain genes involved in preparing the body for an immune response were more active in Marines who ended up getting PTSD. Wanting to know if the same pattern would play out a second time, they tested a new batch of Marines before and after they were shipped off to war. “If you look before deployment, they also serve as a predictor of who goes on to get PTSD,” said VA psychiatrist Dewleen Baker, co-author of the new study identifying these genetic differences. The research was published Tuesday in Molecular Psychiatry. “This study is unique in that it uses pre- and post-deployment samples trying to detect genomic predictors of vulnerability and resilience,” said Icahn School of Medicine psychiatrist Nikolaos Daskalakis in an email. Baker says the goal of this research is to help the military design a simple screening test for PTSD risk in new recruits. For now, she hopes to see more research on exactly why this immune response would be associated with PTSD.