VA supervisor resigns after email controversy (USA Today)
The supervisor at Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center who sent an email that appears to mock veteran suicides has resigned. Robin Paul, who managed the Indianapolis hospital’s transitional clinic for returning veterans, submitted her resignation on Tuesday. “Even though I have had an excellent work history with the VA, my career with the VA is effectively over as a result of this incident and the resulting public and political pressure,” she said in a statement provided to The Indianapolis Star through her attorney, Barclay Wong. Paul said she and her family have been subjected to “harassment and hostility” as a result of the email’s publication. “I received death threats, my minor child was harassed, and we had to seek police protection,” she said. Paul said the email was taken out of context and was never intended to mock veterans. “The ‘elf’ email I sent in December 2014 was to an internal staff email group following a clinic holiday lunch party,” she said. “I take full responsibility for sending the email; however, the intent of the email and pictures has been misrepresented. My intent was not to mock Veterans; the intent was to thank the team for their work in dealing with tough issues on a daily basis. The elf did not represent a Veteran; it was a toy elf — nothing more.” The Dec. 14 email, first disclosed in The Star, includes photographs of a toy Christmas elf pleading for anxiety medication and hanging itself with an electrical cord. Paul sent the email to employees of the hospital’s Seamless Transition Integrated Care Clinic, which provides mental health and readjustment services for returning veterans.
For one VA whistleblower, getting fired was too much (Wausau Daily Herald)
He left a note for the mailman: “Please call 911 — tell them to go to red barn building.” There, officers found the body of Christopher Kirkpatrick, a 38-year-old clinical psychologist who had shot himself in the head after being fired from the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Kirkpatrick had complained some of his patients were too drugged to treat properly, but like other whistleblowers at the facility, he was ousted and his concerns of wrongdoing were disregarded. Retaliation against whistleblowers has become a major problem at VA facilities across the country. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating 110 retaliation claims from whistleblowers in 38 states and the District of Columbia. After Bob McDonald took over as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs last year, the agency created a special office to investigate whistleblower claims and retaliation. But VA officials concede more needs to be done to prevent retaliation and embrace criticism that can improve veteran care. The Kirkpatrick family wants that to happen sooner rather than later. His relatives are speaking publicly for the first time about what happened to him to try to pressure the agency to do more to protect whistleblowers. The following account is drawn from police records, personnel meeting notes, interviews with family members and documents preserved by the family and provided to USA TODAY. “What happened to Chris is outrageous,” brother Sean Kirkpatrick said. “My hope and my family’s hope is that people will take action so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.” Whistleblower advocate Tom Devine, the legal director of the Government Accountability Project, said the Washington organization is “flooded” with retaliation complaints from VA employees. There have been more, per capita, from the VA than from any other federal agency in the 36 years he has been helping whistleblowers, he said. “There’s lots of pockets of ugliness at the (VA),” Devine said. And it has earned the agency a dubious distinction: “It’s really set the standard for whistleblower retaliation. It’s set the pace.”
WWII vet’s remains abandoned at Florida VFW hall (WFLA-Tampa)
On Wednesday the commander at VFW post 2420 in Lake Wales, Fla., made an unsettling discovery. “It was a bag of ashes with a note, ‘Please take care of my friend with full military honors,’” post commander Gary Gose said. Gose snapped pictures of the bag, which resembles a canvas grocery tote. A tag had the name Willard Holbert. Holbert was an 87-year-old World War II Navy vet from North Carolina. He died on Memorial Day – almost 5 years ago. Andrea Ross was with Gose when he made the discovery. She said it shocked her. “And like he said he thought it was something somebody just dropped or left or something, and come to find out, it was ashes of the guy,” Ross said. Turns out, Holbert’s sister, who died two years ago, checked the remains out from a crematory in North Carolina. It’s not clear how they ended up in Lake Wales. Perhaps that sister knew someone or even lived near here. “We figured out someone had bought the property, may have been related to Mr. Willard Holbert,” Gose said. Gose called the police and later took the remains to the Lake Wales Post Office to be sent to the National Cemetery in Arlington Virginia. “I’m glad (to) get the people to where they belong,” Ross said.
Troops who leave service early at high risk of suicide (USA Today)
A massive study of post-9/11 service members shows that troops at the highest risk for suicide are those who served 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, 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.
Vet receives Purple Heart from Fort Hood attack, but no benefits (The Bend Bulletin)
A man who survived the 2009 shooting at the Fort Hood, Texas, U.S. Army base was honored with a Purple Heart on Friday but has still been denied benefits for his injuries. Then-Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning was at the Fort Hood base Nov. 5, 2009, when a fellow soldier, Maj. Nidal Hasan, entered the room with a pistol and opened fire. Manning was shot six times in the attack; 31 others were also wounded and 13 more were killed. He still has two bullets in his body and near-constant leg and back pain. Manning was grateful to have survived but in recovery was surprised by the Army’s classification of the incident. The mass shooting was called “nonpolitical workplace violence” instead of a terrorist attack, even though the Army knew Hasan was an Islamic religious extremist before the mass shooting. The classification meant Manning and other victims could not receive the benefits they would if the shooting had been considered a terrorist attack. Manning and his wife, Autumn, have been fighting for years to change that. The act authorizing the 2015 defense budget reclassified attacks inspired by foreign terrorist groups, including the Fort Hood shooting, as terrorist attacks. This meant military victims would receive the Purple Heart and civilian victims would receive the equivalent, the Secretary of Defense Medal for the Defense of Freedom. Manning filed an appeal to get benefits, but it was denied two days before the Purple Heart ceremony in Fort Hood. His injuries were decided to not be combat-related. “When I found that out, it was obviously pretty upsetting,” Manning said over the phone Friday. He believes he’s lost at least $60,000 in compensation and said it’s unheard of for a Purple Heart recipient’s injuries not to be deemed combat-related.
Hold the VA accountable for hospital debacle (The Denver Post)
Commentary: “For more than two decades, Rocky Mountain veterans have waited for a new facility to replace Denver’s aging Veterans Affairs hospital, which is overcrowded and cannot fully serve the health care needs of our veterans. The goal of the new VA hospital in Aurora is to serve the hundreds of thousands of veterans in Colorado and across the Rocky Mountain region with services to meet service-specific needs such as a spinal cord injury unit, a PTSD clinic, and research capabilities. Through the years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has started, stopped, delayed and changed the replacement project more times than we can count. Then, finally, in August 2009, the VA broke ground at the Fitzsimons medical campus on a state-of-the-art medical center for our veterans. Since then, the VA has grossly mismanaged this project to the point where we were recently informed that the project is now almost $1 billion over budget and years away from completion. Suffice it to say, we are shocked and appalled at the incompetence and mismanagement by the VA on this project. We need an independent investigation to determine what exactly went wrong and who at the VA needs to be held accountable. For far too long, the VA has brushed its problems under the rug and refused to make serious changes. We won’t let that happen with this project. We are committed to real accountability and structural changes within the VA to ensure it does not recklessly spend taxpayer dollars on this or any other project and that it provides the highest quality of care and service for those who served us.”
VA backs solar project after concerns from Congress (Stars & Stripes)
The Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday that a Little Rock solar panel project is “operational and working well” despite reports of troubles and an inquiry by an Arkansas lawmaker. The $8.2 million solar panels were planned to provide energy to the John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital and were nearly completed in 2013. But contract issues have since held up the project, and the VA is now moving the panels to build a parking garage. The department is struggling with construction and health care access issues, which have caused a series of national scandals over the past year. It relinquished control of a massive hospital project in Denver earlier this month after the price tag jumped $830 million to a total of $1.73 billion — one of the most expensive projects of its type in the United States — due to contract fiascoes and mismanagement. “The North Little Rock solar panels are operational and working well with $107,000 in energy savings through October 2014,” VA spokeswoman Jessica Jacobsen wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. However, only about 95 percent was completed in 2013 and the total cost of the project has increased by nearly $200,000, which was added to study the system’s connectivity, according to Jacobsen. “Completion of the North Little Rock solar PV project is being delayed due to ongoing contract issues,” she wrote. Now, the VA is planning to build a new parking garage on the same site, meaning the panels must be moved and reinstalled by a contractor.