Veterans news update for April 28

Veterans news update for April 28

Veterans news updateU.S. nerve gas hit our own troops during Gulf War (Newsweek)
During and immediately after the first Gulf War, more than 200,000 of 700,000 U.S. troops sent to Iraq and Kuwait in January 1991 were exposed to nerve gas and other chemical agents. Though aware of this, the Department of Defense and CIA launched a campaign of lies and concocted a cover-up that continues today. A quarter of a century later, the troops nearest the explosions are dying of brain cancer at two to three times the rate of those who were farther away. Others have lung cancer or debilitating chronic diseases, and pain. More complications lie ahead. According to Dr. Linda Chao, a neurologist at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, “Because part of their brains, the hippocampus, has shrunk, they’re at greater risk for Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases.” At first, the DOD was adamant: No troops were exposed. “No information…indicates that chemical or biological weapons were used in the Persian Gulf,” wrote Secretary of Defense William Perry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs John Shalikashvili in a 1994 memo to 20,000 Desert Storm veterans. Strictly speaking, they were right: No weapons were used. The nerve agent sarin was in the fallout from the U.S. bombing or detonating of Iraq’s weapons sites. Perry and Shalikashvili knew. As Alan Friedman wrote in The Spider Web: The Secret History of How the White House Illegally Armed Iraq, the Reagan and Bush administrations, which backed Iraq in its 1980-1988 war with Iran, approved of U.S. companies selling chemical agents and equipment to Iraq, including “a huge petrochemicals complex called PC2. Western intelligence also knew that PC2 was capable of generating chemical compounds to make mustard and nerve gas.” During January and February 1991, when the U.S. bombed Iraq’s weapons plants and storage sites, poisonous plumes floated across the desert to thousands of U.S. troops based on the Saudi border. Sirens wailed daily, but officers in charge announced that the chemical-detection alarms were faulty. They were not. A Czech chemical-weapons detection unit found “trace concentrations of sarin, a nerve-paralyzing substance” drifting into Saudi Arabia. French, British and U.S. intelligence units found similar evidence. In a 2012 Neuroepidemiology article, Jim Tuite, a Gulf War illness expert, and Dr. Robert Haley, an internist/epidemiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, wrote that “large numbers of U.S. and Coalition military personnel were exposed to levels of sarin … high enough to cause irreversible or other serious, long-lasting adverse health effects.” Because the DOD and CIA still claim troops weren’t exposed to high-enough doses of sarin to hurt them, the VA has denied full disability status to 80 percent of veterans seeking help. Why must the DOD, CIA and VA lie? Patrick Eddington, a CIA analyst from 1994 to 1995 who wrote Gassed in the Gulf, resigned when superiors aborted his attempts to reveal the facts. He explained that, “If you’re DOD, you’re admitting your policies contributed to the veterans’ illnesses. If you’re the VA, you’re admitting you don’t know how to treat the vets. If you’re the CIA, you blew another estimate and that’s not something you want on your resume.”

Senators press VA on Agent Orange (The Hill)
Seven senators are pushing Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Bob McDonald to grant benefits for Agent Orange exposure to a group of post-Vietnam veterans.   Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said that justice “is long overdue” for veterans who crewed C-123 aircraft after the Vietnam War. “We write to urge you to utilize the Department of Veterans Affairs’ existing statutory authority to quickly begin providing care and benefits to veterans who were exposed to toxic herbicide residue while serving on Fairchild UC-123 Provider (C-123) aircraft after the era when those aircraft were used to transport Agent Orange in Vietnam,” they wrote in the letter Friday, which was released Monday. “Justice for these veterans is long overdue and you have the authority and the ability to finally right this wrong.” C-123 veterans have struggled for decades to get the VA to grant benefits for their illnesses, which they believe are tied to Agent Orange exposure.  An Institute of Medicine report earlier this year found that at least some of the post-Vietnam veterans who served on the C-123 aircraft were exposed to the toxin, and were at risk for developing illnesses. Agent Orange exposure has been tied a range of diseases including cancer. But the senators said they have heard that “a question has arisen” since the report was released about whether or not C-123 crew members — typically Air Force reservists and National Guard members — qualify as veterans under the VA’s guidelines for benefits. “We fundamentally disagree and believe VA’s precedential interpretations of the relevant statute and the policy principle and legal precedent of construing statutes in favor of veterans requires VA to find these reservists eligible for benefits,” they said. “We ask that you stand by those interpretations, which we outline in this letter, and which show that no additional statutory authority is necessary for you to immediately begin providing care and benefits to the C-123 veterans.” The senators said the VA was requiring that a C-123 veteran must have injured themselves and that “his or her injury must manifest itself into a disability during the period of training.” “This not only contradicts VA’s previous interpretations of the same statutory language, but also leads to absurd results,” they said. “For instance, a reservist who contracted Ebola while flying patients during training but shows no symptoms until they are in civilian life would not satisfy VA’s newfound interpretation.”

Vietnam War’s Agent Orange legacy exceeds 40 years (Arizona Public Media)
The Vietnam War ended during the last week in April 1975, but the effect of the chemical known as Agent Orange continues to impact war veterans and Vietnamese villagers alike. Some long-term health issues that are only now being realized, 40 years later. Tucson resident and U.S. army veteran Dennis St. Germaine remembers a moment in South Vietnam. It was the first time he saw U.S. planes spraying a chemical that was supposed to help soldiers find the enemy in the dense jungle. “Within two days all the leaves in the jungle had turned brown and fallen off, and basically opened up a field of fire,” St. Germaine recalled. “We could see out there a mile, rather than 50 yards.” After he returned home, St. Germaine began to learn more about the chemical, a dioxin called Agent Orange. Some of his research came on assignment while working as a reporter for a Texas newspaper in the 1980s. “I interviewed a fellow veteran who had what must have been Chloracne, because he had huge boils all over his body, his cheeks, and it had really affected him a lot,” says St. Germaine. “That was my first experience meeting someone who was affected by it.” Since then, researchers have linked 14 diseases to Agent Orange exposure, citing health problems in the children and grandchildren of Vietnam veterans in the U.S., including spina bifida, cleft palate, and intestinal problems. Investigators discovered the same kinds of health problems on the other side of the world, in villages near where the chemical was used 40 or more years ago. Charles Bailey served as the Ford Foundation’s representative in Vietnam between 1997 and 2007. “The best estimates were that 3 million Vietnamese have suffered health effects,” he said. “About 150,000 of today’s children have suffered birth defects and severe illnesses later in life.” Two decades after the war ended, Bailey joined the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based organization specializing in resolving difficult international policy issues. His job in Vietnam was to break a logjam over the U.S. government’s responsibility for Agent Orange contamination, at the air bases that Americans built, and in the villages where health effects lingered.

Senator unveils bill to help vets’ caregivers (Military Times)
Nineteen-year-old Alexis Courneen was a new seaman serving on the Coast Guard buoy tender Katherine Walker when she was struck by a several-ton buoy as it was being lifted onto the cutter deck for repair. The massive maritime marker hit her with brute force, crushing the nerves of her right arm, breaking her hip and slamming her head into the deck. She lost consciousness for an extended time and was evacuated from the boat for medical treatment. Courneen received care for her physical ailments but got no treatment for what turned out to be persistent symptoms, such as migraines, vision problems, tinnitus and balance issues. The year was 1998, and Courneen’s command did not recognize the signs of a potential traumatic brain injury. “My military doctors wanted to keep me for testing. But I was remanded back to the boat. It was bad,” said Courneen, wincing at the memory of struggling to maintain job performance while her cognitive abilities were in a tailspin. Courneen eventually left the Coast Guard and sought treatment through Veterans Affairs. There, she was diagnosed correctly and able to access services that helped her recovery. She and her husband, Jason, moved to the Boston area to take advantage of the extensive services offered by the VA Boston Medical System. But throughout Courneen’s recovery, the couple struggled. Jason Courneen said he often was forced to choose between going to work and helping his wife, who has mobility issues, memory lapses and speech challenges. With two children, Jason also said he often felt torn between meeting his wife’s needs and his children’s care requirements. Today, there are several programs to support spouses and parents who care for injured service members from the post-9/11 era. But for the families of Alexis Courneen and countless other veterans injured before Sept. 11, 2001, there is no help beyond medical services. For the second straight year, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has introduced the Military and Caregiver Services Improvement Act to extend benefits to those who help injured or ill veterans of all eras — not just post-9/11, Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans. Murray’s bill also would remove restrictions on who is eligible to receive benefits as a caregiver — to include siblings and friends — and would allow veterans to transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to dependents and make the DoD’s compensation tax-exempt, among other changes. “These caregivers don’t necessarily wear uniforms or go overseas but they serve our country nonetheless. … They are a critical support system for our veterans yet they ask for very little in return,” Murray said.

Whistleblower says San Antonio VA still manipulating wait times data (
In mid-January, scheduling clerk Phillip Brian Turner received a call from a veteran looking to make an appointment with his doctor for the following day at the Department of Veterans Affairs North Central Federal Clinic in San Antonio. Turner scanned the appointment software, but couldn’t find an opening for 35 business days, until Feb. 24. Turner says that sometime after he made the appointment, which would have qualified the veteran to seek private care because it was more than 30 days away, a lead clerk went back into the system and rescheduled the appointment, again for Feb. 24. But this time, the system showed the new wait time: zero days. “This is exactly the same issue we had last year,” Turner, an Army veteran who has worked at the VA since 2011, wrote in an email to his supervisor. Turner should know. His 2014 allegations of wait time data manipulation in San Antonio and Austin sparked a series of investigations into Texas VA facilities and have been repeated by at least four other clerks. But a year after national calls for a VA culture overhaul, Turner says little has changed in San Antonio, where officials deny Turner’s allegations. “They are doing everything they can to make the numbers look good,” said Turner, 40, in an interview with the American-Statesman. “They don’t care about the law or a national mandate.” It’s a complaint echoed by veteran advocacy groups and lawmakers, who say the VA hasn’t acted quickly enough to root out data manipulation in the department. Following last summer’s scandal, internal VA auditors, inspector general investigators and even FBI agents descended on VA facilities around the country as VA officials pledged to clean up their numbers. The results have yet to be released.

Proposal would cut military pension and add a 401(k) (
As it stands today, servicemembers who advance through the Department of Defense are entitled to a pension of 50 percent of their income at retirement after 20 years of service. But a new proposal making its way through Congress would lower that to 40 percent and add a 401(k) savings account.  Some veterans’ groups, like the Military Officers Association of America, oppose the change and say the 20-year pension is an incentive for top officers to stay in the service. “We’re concerned that the commission’s blended retirement benefit would fail to provide the necessary draw to retain those service members,” says Col. Mike Barron, deputy director of government relations for MOAA.  But the report from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission suggested this plan as a way to both save costs and increase incentives for servicemembers who don’t make it to 20 years. Other, more controversial proposals—like overhauling the TriCare health system used by servicemembers—are stalled. Todd Harrison, Senior Fellow for Defense Budget Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says it’s clear that the 20-year pension isn’t a good incentive, because only 17 percent of servicemembers get to that point. “They are pushing out some of their best people with this inflexible, industrial age career model,” Harrison says. Harrison also notes that not all veterans’ groups oppose the change; others, like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, support it.

Federal rules support employee incompetence (Politico)
Opinion by Rep. Jason Chaffetz: “Just what does a federal employee have to do to get fired? At the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal employee who does no work is paid a full salary plus a performance award. This despite having no building pass, no computer connected to the EPA network and no evidence of having completed any work in at least five years. In addition to being paid roughly $600,000 by the American taxpayers during this time period, this employee was allowed to retire with a full pension. In Phoenix, 40 veterans died waiting for lifesaving care. Instead of addressing the urgent health care needs of our nation’s heroes, Veterans Affairs employees spent their time manipulating records to qualify for bonuses. As a result, more than $10 million in performance bonuses were distributed to VA workers. Another EPA employee, who reportedly had been viewing pornography from a government computer, was caught doing just that at the moment investigators entered that person’s office. The high-ranking employee subsequently was found to have had 7,000 pornography files stored on an EPA computer and a history of spending two to six hours a day viewing pornography. Astonishingly, that employee continues working at EPA today as the agency continues its years-long administrative process to fire that person. Given the reluctance of executive branch agencies to hold themselves accountable — and the reluctance of the Justice Department to do it for them, House Oversight investigations are a critical check and balance on executive power.”

Group urges IG oversight of service academy sexual assaults (Stars & Stripes)
An advocacy group for female servicemembers on Monday urged the White House to create new oversight of sexual assaults at the U.S. service academies. The proposal by Service Women’s Action Network is modeled on oversight at civilian colleges and would allow students to file assault and harassment complaints with the Defense Department inspector general, according to the group. It was the latest push by SWAN for reforms that could help rein in sexual assault in the military and its five elite learning institutions including West Point, the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy in Colorado, which are charged with training the future crop of officers and leaders. “This duty is difficult to fulfill when half of all female cadets and midshipmen at the service academies report being sexually harassed annually, but less than two percent of those female cadets and midshipmen feel confident enough in the system to report that harassment,” Arielle Humphries, a law student intern in the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School that represents SWAN, said in a released statement. SWAN and Yale sent a proposed executive order to President Barack Obama on Monday, asking that the inspector general take oversight of the cases similar to how the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights handles sexual harassment and assault cases. The department office recently investigated Harvard Law School and found it in violation of federal law for its response to such cases. The White House said it was looking into the proposal but did not immediately comment Monday.