Veterans news update for March 18

Veterans news update for March 18

Veterans news updateAir Force veteran charged with attempting to support ISIS (The Wall Street Journal)
A U.S. Air Force veteran tried to join Islamic State in Syria but was turned back by Turkish authorities before he could cross the border, federal authorities alleged Tuesday, the latest in a string of cases involving American sympathizers of the militant group. Tairod Nathan Webster Pugh, a 47-year-old U.S. citizen, allegedly flew in January from Egypt to Turkey, where authorities denied him entry and sent him back to Egypt, which deported him to the U.S. A federal grand-jury indictment in Brooklyn this week charged Mr. Pugh with attempting to join ISIS and obstruction of justice, which carry a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison. Pentagon officials said Tuesday that they weren’t aware of a previous case in which a U.S. veteran has been accused of trying to help ISIS. Mr. Pugh was arrested on Jan. 16 in Asbury Park, N.J., and has been in custody since then. He is expected to plead not guilty on Wednesday in Brooklyn federal court, said his lawyer. Mr. Pugh has been on federal authorities’ radar for more than a decade. According to a criminal complaint, he converted to Islam and became increasingly radical after moving to San Antonio in 1998. In 2001, when he was working as a mechanic for American Airlines, the Federal Bureau of Investigation received a tip from a co-worker that Mr. Pugh sympathized with Osama bin Laden and felt that the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa were justified. A year later, an associate of Mr. Pugh told the FBI that Mr. Pugh expressed an interest in traveling to Chechnya to engage in jihad.

VA watchdog overhauls policies on investigative reports (Indianapolis Star)
The chief watchdog at the Department of Veterans Affairs is overhauling its policies for making public the findings of dozens of investigations into veterans’ health care. Acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin announced Tuesday that all decisions about whether to release investigative reports will now be made by his immediate staff. His office previously had no standard for deciding when to release findings. “This process will ensure consistency in decision-making regarding when and how public release of related documents is handled,” Griffin’s office said in a statement. The move comes less than 10 days after USA TODAY reported that Griffin’s office has withheld from the public the findings of 140 investigations his office has conducted since 2006. Among them was a review that raised “serious concerns” about opiate prescription rates at a VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wis. A 35-year-old Marine veteran overdosed as an inpatient at Tomah last August, just days after doctors agreed to add another opiate to the 14 drugs he was already prescribed — and five months after the inspector general’s office declined to release its findings on opiates. Griffin also ordered his staff to review previously withheld reports and to release them with sensitive information redacted. His office released the first five of those Tuesday. They include substantiated complaints about the care of individual veterans in Palo Alto, Calif., and West Palm Beach, Fla.

Cost of Colorado veterans hospital leaps to $1.73 billion (The Denver Post)
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday revised its estimate of how much it expects a new hospital in Aurora will cost — and the updated figure is a doozy: $1.73 billion, more than five times its initial $328 million price tag. The new cost estimate, which VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson revealed to Colorado lawmakers in a late-afternoon phone call, is the latest headache for a project that has been in development for more than a decade and was suspended temporarily in December because of a dispute between the VA and its prime contractor, Kiewit-Turner. “I am completely shocked by the number,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden. “This is a number that took my breath away.” This new revelation comes about two months after no one — including the VA — could come up with a cost estimate for a project. At the time, a price tag of more than $1 billion was expected, but $1.73 billion is even outside of the range of what lawmakers and administration officials had considered likely. “It’s sticker shock,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora. “It is going to be a heavy lift to get this through Congress.” VA officials said the new figure is based on research provided by the Army Corps of Engineers, which was asked to assist the troubled project after the VA’s most recent fight with Kiewit-Turner. “The estimate includes the cost of construction, contingencies and Army Corps of Engineers costs, as well as VA’s cost to close out the original contract and continue construction until the Army Corps of Engineers assumes construction management duties this summer,” wrote Gibson in a letter to Congress.

Inside VA’s secret wait list system (
Shea Wilkes had a problem. The performance goals he faced as a Veterans Affairs employee in Shreveport, La., required him to meet rising demand for health care with an increasingly outnumbered staff. “I was legitimately trying to do that, going to the meetings and trying to figure out (how to meet the performance measures) with such a limited staff of doctors,” said Wilkes, a social worker who was formerly assistant to the director of the Mental Health Division at Overton Brooks VA Medical Center. The emphasis on performance goals was driven by a concern for patient care, but also by a bonus system that rewarded Wilkes’ superiors for the large numbers of patients who saw health-care providers. Many managers seemed to meet their goals. But Wilkes couldn’t see how that was possible. And then about 15 months ago, Wilkes says, he understood everything. He says he was making a photocopy near the hospital’s scheduling windows and overheard a conversation between a scheduler and a veteran. “We don’t have any providers,” Wilkes says the scheduler was telling the vet. “We don’t have ‘em right now. They are coming. We are going to put you on this list.” Wilkes says he vividly recalls that the scheduler did not enter the veteran’s name into the hospital’s computer system — where it could be tracked by federal officials — but instead used a pencil to write the veteran’s name on a piece of paper. Wilkes leaned in for a closer look. “There were a lot of names on there, I noticed,” Wilkes said. “I said, ‘What is that?’ They said, ‘Oh, this is the list they have us keeping because we don’t have (enough) providers.’ I started putting two and two together.” That’s when Wilkes recalled news media reports of an audit at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. Patients there had waited up to a year for appointments. Three who wanted to see psychiatrists committed suicide before they could. Veterans Affairs officials in Atlanta admitted that many of their 4,000 veterans simply “fell through the cracks.”

VA, Congress trade barbs over transparency, trust (Military Times)
A year after the Veterans Affairs Department was rocked by findings of hidden patient wait lists and manipulated records, House Republicans are accusing the department’s new leadership of doing little to fix the transparency problems. In a rare evening hearing on Monday, conservatives on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee accused VA officials and investigators at the independent VA Inspector General’s office of withholding information from Congress, evading elected officials’ requests and obstructing lawmakers’ efforts to uncover problems. “It’s uncertain whether VA understands the lessons in transparency it should have learned,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., committee chairman. “The committee is not a junior partner with VA in any respect, and certainly not when it concerns our obligation to conduct oversight,” Miller said. VA officials countered that they are trying to provide information to Congress, but without violating patient privacy and often with little guidance or assistance from lawmakers themselves. They also accused lawmakers of requesting information simply to leak embarrassing details to the media, rather than to try and solve the department’s problems. “Right now, we’re communicating through letters,” said Leigh Bradley, VA general counsel. “We need a healthy dialogue. … Right now, there is a lack of trust between us and the committee.”

Bill in Congress to recognize retired Guard members as veterans (LaCrosse Tribune)
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., joined two U.S. senators on Tuesday in introducing a bill that would honor as veterans National Guard and Reserve retirees who served more than two decades but don’t qualify under existing law. Walz, along with Sens. John Boozman, R-Arkansas, and Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, introduced the Honor America’s Guard-Reserve Act of 2015, a bipartisan, bicameral bill to provide the honor to both retired Guard and Reserve members who served honorably for at least 20 years but do not meet active-duty service requirements. The existing law defines a veteran as servicemen and women who have served on active duty. This legislation would amend this definition and allow these Guard and Reserve retirees to be recognized as a veteran. Due to the fact that no additional benefits beyond the title of veteran are extended to these retirees, there is no cost associated with this legislation. “These folks took an oath, and that oath was to defend our nation at any cost; to stand ready for decades, at a moment’s notice; to deploy anywhere in the world in defense of our great nation,” said Walz, the highest ranking enlisted soldier to ever serve in Congress, in a statement. “The very least we could do is to give them the honor and recognition they have earned and deserve.” The legislation is supported by the National Guard Association of the United States, the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, and The Military Coalition, a consortium of uniformed services and veterans associations representing more than 5.5 million current and former service members and their families and survivors.

VA wants retirement home resident to repay $47,000 (The Modesto Bee)
Debera Fathke said an adviser at the Standiford Place retirement center in Modesto, Calif., helped obtain veterans benefits for residents, including her mother, who was granted $1,100 a month in 2011 to supplement her retirement income. Fay Fernandez, 81, was eligible because her late husband served in the Navy in the Korean War. Fernandez lived in a pricey apartment at Standiford Place and eventually was spending all but $130 of her monthly retirement income for rent, Fathke said. They were unclear about the purpose of the “aid and attendance” benefit, but learned much later that it could not be used for rent on the independent-living apartments at Standiford Place on Shawnee Drive. The benefit is for home care or assisted living. Now, the Department of Veterans Affairs wants Fernandez to repay $47,000 to the government. “The VA said this is not a care facility and you are not getting care, so we are taking your benefit away from you,” Fathke said, referring to the letter received in November. The federal government could take 15 percent of her Social Security to start recovering the amount. Fathke said the adviser had an office at Standiford Place where he helped residents apply for veterans benefits, so she trusted his advice. According to Fathke, the man advised her to serve as caregiver for her mother, who would pay her $200 a month. When she was required to account for spending the benefits, the VA noted the “aid and attendance” benefit was not spent on a licensed caregiver or assisted living. The VA does not recognize Fathke’s care for her mother because she is not a state-licensed caregiver.

Alabama House passes bill making lying about military honors a crime (
The Alabama House passed a bill today that would make it a criminal offense to fraudulently claim to have been decorated or received a medal from serving in the United States Armed Forces. Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, sponsored the bill on behalf of the Lower Alabama Veterans Alliance, which is made up of veterans from all branches of the military. He said this group is concerned that some veterans or others who didn’t serve in the military would claim to be decorated in order to get a job, loan, financial aid for college or for other financial benefit. Clouse’s bill would make the offense a Class A misdemeanor, which is the most serious misdemeanor offense. It carries a penalty of no more than one year in jail and a fine up to $6,000. The House passed the second bill filed with session 89-0. The bill will now move on to the Senate for consideration. The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 made it a federal offense to illegally profit from lying about military honors. On the House floor, Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, a Silver Star recipient, commended Clouse on the bill. He actually thinks the offense should be a felony. “I really want to commend you for bringing this,” he said. “It is something that is needed.”

Army leader: BRAC could benefit military communities (
“The Army is in the process of conducting approximately 30 community listening sessions at all Army installations with military and civilian populations of 5,000 or more,” Lt. Gen. David D. Halverson told lawmakers, March 17. Halverson, commander of the Army’s Installation Management Command, provided oral and written testimony to the Senate Appropriation’s Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee regarding fiscal year 2016 military construction and family housing budgets. The community listening sessions “give communities an opportunity to contribute feedback that will be taken into consideration by Army leaders before decisions are made on force structure reductions for specific installations,” he said. The active end-strength reductions are the result of sequestration, putting the Army on a glide path of 570,000 active-duty Soldiers in 2010 to 450,000 by 2018, he said. Those troop reductions “will affect every installation in the Army” as well as the nearby communities. Halverson then described an inverse relationship where troop reductions correlate to an increase in excess capacity, making a strong case for a future round of base realignment and closure, or BRAC. “Our parametric analysis shows that the Army facility capacity is 18 percent greater than required for the [current] 490,000 active force. As end strength declines further, more capacity is created,” he said, meaning excess facilities. “There is life after BRAC for defense communities,” Halverson said, arguing for another round. BRAC-impacted communities have received planning grants and technical assistance from the Defense Department’s Office of Economic Assistance, or OEA, as well as BRAC property disposal authorities. These benefits would likely have not been possible outside of the BRAC process.

Marine vet held in captivity renounces Iranian citizenship (Marine Corps Times)
A Marine veteran imprisoned in Iran has renounced his dual-citizenship with that country. Amir Hekmati, an Iranian-American, former sergeant and veteran of the Iraq War, made the statement in a letter released by his family Tuesday. Iranian authorities arrested him while he visited relatives there more than three years ago and have held him ever since. Initially charged with espionage — an accusation his family and U.S. authorities adamantly deny — Hekmati was sentenced to death. Iranian officials later changed the charges, but the one-time Marine has languished in one of the country’s most infamous prisons, and in reportedly deplorable conditions, while negotiations over his freedom continue. Through his family, which lives stateside, he also has accused officials in Washington and Tehran of using him as a bargaining chip in ongoing talks about Iran’s nuclear program. In a letter to the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, the closest thing the influential Middle East nation has to diplomatic relations with the U.S., Hekmati described his initial pride of his heritage and his shock at how his captors treated him. He recalls the painful moment when an Iranian authority described him as just “Iranian by name.” “Hence it has become very clear to me that those responsible [for my imprisonment] view Iranian-Americans not as citizens or even human beings, but as bargaining chips and tools for propaganda,” Hekmati wrote. “Considering how little value the [Iranian] Ministry of Intelligence places on my Iranian citizenship and passport, I, too, place little value on them and inform you, effective immediately, that I formally renounce my Iranian citizenship and passport.”