Veterans news update for April 10

Veterans news update for April 10

Veterans news updateLawmaker pushes legislation for veterans ID card (Tampa Tribune)
Because the Department of Veterans Affairs only issues ID cards to those who served at least 20 years or receive medical care for service-connected injuries, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-FL, has introduced legislation that would enable all veterans to get ID cards at no cost to taxpayers. The Veteran’s ID Card Act (H.R. 91) has bipartisan support, according to Buchanan’s office, and won support from AMVETS and Veterans for Common Sense immediately. “Over the years I have heard from countless veterans who have expressed frustration over their inability to prove their military service in our Armed Forces,” said Buchanan, who represents a congressional district home to more than 70,000 veterans, in a media release. “A simple, affordable, standardized ID card will make life a little bit easier for our veterans and serve as a reminder to folks that these brave men and women deserve all the care and respect a grateful nation can offer.” Under current law, veterans who do not qualify for a VA-issued ID card must carry around a paper DD-214 document to prove their veteran status. This form contains sensitive personal information including social security numbers and service details that put veterans at needless risk for identity theft. H.R. 91 would minimize this threat. A standard identification card would also provide employers looking to hire veterans with an easier way to verify an employee’s military service.

Lawmaker: Broken VA still suffers from ‘widespread lack of accountability’ (The Blaze)
The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said Thursday that a full year after the extent of the Department of Veterans Affairs health care scandal was revealed to Congress, the VA is still a total mess when it comes to holding its employees accountable for that scandal. “VA’s chief problem – a widespread lack of accountability among failed employees – is as prevalent today as it was a year ago,” Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said Thursday. “In fact, in the wake of the biggest scandal in VA history, which centered on appointment wait time manipulation, not a single VA senior executive has been fired for wait time issues.” Last year, Congress gave the VA the authority to fire corrupt or negligent officials. But in the several months following the passage of that law, only a handful of senior officials have actually been fired, and none were let go specifically because of their role in the health care scandal. Several others have been allowed to retire, and Miller pointed out that some officials, including those in Phoenix, are still on paid leave. “Everyone knows accountability is a major problem at VA, and right now the department needs to work with Congress to ensure VA has every tool possible to swiftly hold problem employees accountable,” he said. Miller added that while no one believed the change would come quickly, the VA has refused to hold officials accountable, and is still having problems protecting whistleblowers. Miller’s committee will hold a hearing next week to discuss the record number of whistleblower retaliation claims that have been lodged recently. “It’s simply naïve to think these issues will subside in the absence of the thorough housecleaning the department desperately needs.”

Vet says program shut down by Phoenix VA saved his life (ABC15-Phoenix)
A life-changing program has been shut down after a Phoenix VA whistleblower broke his silence about the scandal plaguing the hospital for a year now. The hospital denies retaliation, but whatever the reason, Valley veterans are pleading with the Phoenix VA to bring the program back. ‘Motivation for Change’ was started in 2012 by Director Brandon Coleman. Since its start, the substance abuse program has helped 51 veterans. One of the program’s graduates, Mitchell Weedman just found out the program was shut down. “I called Brandon to thank him for everything he’s done to help me get my life back and I couldn’t believe it when he said it doesn’t exist anymore,” said Weedman. Weedman was court ordered to go through the 52-week program in 2013 after getting charged with DUI. When he was arrested, Weedman was looking at an eight year prison sentence. But once he finished the program, the charges were downgraded to a misdemeanor and he was placed on probation. Weedman has been clean for 18 months. “I’m thankful for the VA and the program.” But he is disappointed other struggling veterans won’t be able to benefit. “This program saved my life and a lot of other lives,” said Weedman. Seventy-one veterans were enrolled in Motivation for Change when the VA canceled it. Coleman is currently in negotiations to get it reinstated and hopes to expand it to a regional and national level.

Duckworth failed to comply with Illinois laws as state VA director (Washington Free Beacon)
Senate hopeful Tammy Duckworth is touting her record on veterans issues, but an audit of her time at the helm of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA) shows veterans were underserved due to widespread mismanagement. Duckworth, herself a U.S. Army veteran, announced her Senate run last week and stated in a press conference that she will “stand proudly” on her record as director of IDVA. Under Duckworth, who was director of the agency from late 2006 to early 2009, the IDVA failed to manage affairs, leading to wasteful spending and a decrease in aid to veterans, according to a compliance examination carried out by William Holland, Illinois’ auditor general. The report, which examined a two-year span from June 2006 to June 2008, found that employees took advantage of travel expenses, lost equipment, and failed to comply with basic duties designed to protect veterans. Furthermore, the report found that the department became less efficient under Duckworth. The number of claims processed for veterans by the IDVA decreased in each year she was director, with 2,305 fewer claims processed in 2006 than in 2008. The audit listed 16 findings during the two-year period, double the number of findings in the audit of the two years preceding Duckworth. Only three of the findings found in the previous audit were corrected under Duckworth.

Fort Hood’s mentally wounded soldiers don’t qualify for Purple Hearts (The Washington Times)
As victims and families are honored Friday for the sacrifices they made in the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, some say the Department of Defense is ignoring soldiers who died from invisible wounds suffered that day. The Defense Department is awarding 47 Purple Hearts and Defense of Freedom Medals, the latter being the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart, to victims and the families of those who were killed in the shooting. The event holds special meaning to some, as it ends a years-long battle to classify the shooting as a terrorist attack, not workplace violence. But for others, the battle is far from over. “I will always have an empty chair at my table,” said Harold Berry, the father of a solider stationed at the Texas base at the time of the shooting. “A Purple Heart isn’t going to bring him back, but it would help my family have some closure.” Mr. Berry’s son, ArmyStaff Sgt. Joshua Berry, committed suicide in February 2013. While he suffered a shoulder injury in the shootout on that November day in 2009, his father said it was the mental wounds sustained during the shooting that left a lasting impact and led to his death from PTSD. The younger Berry won’t be honored at tomorrow’s ceremony. A little more than five years ago, Army Maj. Nidal Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood, killing 13 and wounding more than 30. While the Obama administration classified the shooting as workplace violence for years, victims and their advocates in Congress pressed the administration to recategorize it as a terrorist attack since Hasan shouted “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” during the attack. An FBI investigation also found Hasan had been communicating with al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki prior to the attack.

NYC Mayor defends appointees to veterans board (Capital New York)
Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday he stands by his administration’s new appointments to the Veteran Advisory Board, despite criticism from some in the city’s veterans community. Capital reported that community advocates and former members of the board were surprised by the news of their removal, and disappointed by what they described as a lack of transparency from the administration, which they said did not include them in the vetting process. Speaking at an unrelated press conference in Brooklyn, de Blasio defended the process. “The proposal was generated by former brigadier general Loree Sutton, who is the head of our Office of Veterans’ Affairs, she has an extraordinary record of serving veterans’ needs, and my charge to her was put together a group that would both advise and give different perspectives on the things we need to do to help veterans, but also help us get more resources for more veterans, and the group she has put together I think will do just that,” de Blasio said. De Blasio’s appointments come a year and four months after he took office—a lag that members of the veterans community said had rendered the board irrelevant and inactive. One of the members replaced by de Blasio told Capital he did not learn about the new appointments until reading it in the news this morning.

Maine politicians seek answers for vets who cleaned up after nuclear testing (Bangor Daily News)
All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation on Wednesday sent letters raising concerns and seeking clarity from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs about the veterans who served on Enewetak Atoll between 1977 and early 1980. The men deployed there — including some from Maine — were tasked with cleaning up the atoll, which had been the site of more than 40 nuclear tests, before it could be returned to the people of the Marshall Islands. Many of them are now connecting the cancers and other illnesses they and their army buddies are suffering with their stint cleaning up radioactive material from the atoll. “We believe the Department of Veterans Affairs should take a closer look at this issue to determine if the veterans’ exposure to radioactive material during this timeframe in the Enewetak Atoll has, in fact, made them more susceptible to certain diseases, including certain cancers that some of these veterans have and continue to suffer from,” U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin said in a joint letter to Robert McDonald, the secretary of the department. U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King wrote to Allison A. Hickey, the under secretary for benefits at the VA, asking her for additional information about the cleanup mission. Their questions included:
• How many Enewetak Atoll veterans have sought a service-connected disability for cancers known to be associated with exposure to radiation?
• To what extent was radiation exposure measured and if unsafe levels of radiation were ever detected in those measurements?
• Were safety precautions taken to protect service members from exposure to radiation throughout the cleanup process?

Study: Former troops at high risk for suicide (Military Times)
A massive study of post-9/11 service members show that troops at the highest risk for suicide are those who serve less than a full enlistment and, in particular, those who leave after less than a year — personnel whose discharges may be related to mental health issues but normally are ineligible for Veterans Affairs Department health care. The study, conducted by the Defense Department’s National Center for Telehealth and Technology, or T2, found that among the 3.9 million troops who served from 2001 to 2007, the suicide rate for those in the military less than 12 months was 2.5 times that of troops who completed enlistments or obligations. While the rate among personnel who stayed on active duty was 15 suicides per every 100,000 troops, the average rate for those with less than four years of service was 44 per 100,000. The rate for those who served less than a year was 48 per 100,000. The difference is significant, said Phillip Carter, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, because many of these service members received discharges that make them ineligible for veterans’ health care benefits. “We have a high-risk population that we actively deny care and services to,” Carter said. The study, which appeared April 1 online in JAMA Psychiatry, found that of 3,945,099 personnel in the study, 31,962 people died, with 5,041 documented suicides. Of those, 1,080 had served less than four years. In that group, 662 received honorable discharges; 403 received discharges that were “not honorable,” and another 380 received “uncharacterized discharges,” meaning they left service with less than 180 days remaining on their enlistments but did not have disciplinary problems. Another 312 suicides were among those whose discharge status was “unknown” or not applicable, according to the study. For those who received “bad paper” — other-than-honorable, bad-conduct or dishonorable discharges — accessing VA health care is challenging.

Utah study: Veteran suicide risk related to death exposure (KUER-Public Radio)
A new University of Utah study provides insight into suicide risk among veterans and military personnel. Psychologist Craig Bryan authored the study. He says he wanted to clear up mixed results from other studies which looked at whether deployment had an impact on suicide risk. “The mistake that has been made, I think, in our society as a whole but amongst many researchers, is assuming that deployment in and of itself is the same thing as exposure to, you know, traumatic events and combat-related traumas while deployed,” he says. Bryan, who is executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies and who previously served as an Air Force psychologist, says it’s important to recognize that it’s veterans’ experiences during deployment that contribute to the risk. “Although deployment in and of itself does not seem to have a strong relationship with suicide, studies that look at  whether or not a service member or veteran has been exposed to killing or exposed to death while deployed, there’s a very clear relationship with suicide,” says Bryan. He says this knowledge can help psychologists recognize and take better care of veterans who could be at risk for suicide.

To meet LA veteran housing goals, governments go into action mode (The Los Angeles Times)
After decades of neglect of L.A.’s homeless veterans, federal, state and local officials are pulling together to try to get them off the street by the end of the year. In a groundbreaking legal settlement, U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald in January promised to open the agency’s long-contested West Los Angeles campus to homeless housing as part of a broader campaign to end the county’s long, dubious reign as the nation’s homeless-veteran capital. At City Hall, Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged to ensure that every veteran in Los Angeles has a place to live by 2016. And in February, housing officials in Sacramento released the first $75 million of a $600-million bond issue, authorized by California voters through Proposition 41 in 2014, to fund housing for low-income and homeless veterans. The multi-governmental efforts dovetail with the Obama administration’s vow to end veteran homelessness nationwide this year. Reaching the finish line in Los Angeles will be tough: The county counted 4,200 homeless veterans during 2013’s official tabulation, more than twice the number in New York City. Some of these veterans have lived outdoors for years. But the national goal cannot be reached without Los Angeles, which explains the big push. At a town hall meeting Friday, VA officials and lawyers will deliver a progress report on their efforts and call for community response and suggestions.