Veterans news update for May 15

Veterans news update for May 15

Veterans news updateVA secretary: VA employees need to be ‘exalted’, not undervalued (
Serving veterans is the No. 1 priority for the Veterans Affairs Department, but empowering employees is equally important, said the VA secretary on Thursday. “When a crisis occurs, what organizations do is, they stop training, they stop investing in employees,” said Bob McDonald during Government Executive Media Group’s Excellence in Government conference on Thursday. “We have put together a program now where we are going to overinvest in employees. We have no hope of improving the veteran experience if we don’t improve the employee experience.” At the event, McDonald outlined his departmentwide management reform effort, launched late last year after the debacle involving data manipulation and excessive patient wait times at the Phoenix, Ariz., VA facility surfaced. With his “MyVA” approach, the former chief executive officer of Proctor and Gamble is bringing the business world’s laser-like focus on the customer to a government agency known for intractable bureaucracy. At the top of the agency hierarchy is the veteran, not the secretary, McDonald said Thursday, emphasizing his effort to change the culture and way of thinking within the department. Empowering and training employees comes after the veteran, and is just as important, he said. “The people who then serve those customers should be exalted, they should be trained,” McDonald said. The Office of Personnel Management “had downgraded many of our positions that interfaced with the customer because we had descriptions of those positions that were 20 and 30 years old.  [The employees] were undervalued, whereas those people should be exalted.” McDonald told the audience of government leaders that VA has created an intranet, encouraging employees to share their ideas of “how we can improve.” He also talked about an initiative dubbed “VA 101” which is “a training program designed by employees for employees to improve the veterans’ experience.”

Florida funeral workers fired after hearse spotted at Dunkin’ Donuts (
A Florida funeral home said two employees were fired after a video posted online showed a hearse parked unattended with a veteran’s body inside while the workers got coffee. Rob Carpenter, a customer at the Dunkin’ Donuts store in New Port Richey, took video when he saw the hearse parked unattended in the store’s parking lot with a flag-draped casket inside. Carpenter shared the video with the Veteran Warriors group on Facebook, which brought the video to the attention of Jim Rudolph, president of Clearwater-based Veterans Funeral Care. Rudolph said two employees, a driver and a licensed funeral director, were transporting the body of Lt. Col. Jesse Coleman from Clearwater to Lecanto, a nearly 90-mile distance, and they violated protocol when they went into Dunkin’ Donuts to buy coffee. Rudolph said at least one employee is supposed to remain with the hearse at all times during restroom breaks, and procedure for veterans’ funerals stipulates no stops are to be made at all. “When a car leaves the funeral home with a flag on it, it’s on a stage… and we’re in ceremony mode,” Rudolph told ABC News. “Going into buy a doughnut with a flag-covered casket in your coach was a terrible lack of judgment.” Rudolph said both employees were fired. He said they were remorseful about the incident.

Veterans get partial explanation about chemical exposure in Iraq (The New York Times)
Since last fall, the United States military has acknowledged that U.S. soldiers found thousands of abandoned chemical weapons in Iraq, and that hundreds of troops notified the military medical system that they believed they had been exposed to them. The military acknowledged the exposures after years of secrecy – and of denying medical tracking and official recognition to victims – only after an investigation by The New York Times. Even then, the affliction of the members of the 2nd Platoon of the 811th Ordnance Company had quietly remained one of the unsolved mysteries of the Iraq war, and a parable of what several of the victims describe as the corrosive effects of the government’s secrecy on troop welfare and public trust.  Since the incident, several of the sickened soldiers have complained of health effects that they say may be linked to handling leaking barrels. But instead of finding the Army concerned or committed to their well-being, they faced years of shifting stories about what exactly had made them ill. And last week, after repeated requests by The Times, the Army declassified a two-page document that appears to answer the veterans’ first question: What was in the barrels? The document, a site survey report written after liquid samples were tested by the Iraq Survey Group, the task force organized by the Pentagon and the CIA to examine Iraq’s special weapons programs, identified the contents as benzenamine 3,4 dimethyl, an organic compound with multiple industrial uses. In boldface letters, the report called the compound “a carcinogen and poisonous chemical.” When asked why the Army had not shared its information for more than a decade, Brad R. Carson, an acting undersecretary of defense, who led the Pentagon’s review of chemical casualties, said he was at a loss, beyond the fact that the Iraq Survey Group was not in the Army’s chain of command, which may have limited the information flow. “All I can do is level with them with now,” Carson said of the veterans.

Senator testifies on Blue Water veterans Agent Orange bill (
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. , on Wednesday testified before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on legislation she introduced to establish “presumed coverage” for so-called “Blue Water” veterans for treatment of Agent Orange exposure. “The current VA rules exclude the thousands of Navy veterans who were stationed on ships just off the Vietnamese coastline,” Gillibrand said, according to a transcript of her remarks. “This doesn’t make any sense and isn’t fair to these men and women.” Gillibrand is the main sponsor of S681, the Senate companion bill to HR 916, which U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook introduced. The legislation would clarify existing law so veterans would be automatically covered by the federal Veterans Administration for treatment of Agent Orange exposure if they served within the “territorial seas,” approximately 12 miles off the shore of Vietnam.Currently, veterans only have presumed coverage if they were actually on the ground in Vietnam.  Others are decided on a case-by-case basis, which can be a lengthy process.

Lawmakers: Future of over-budget Colorado VA hospital unclear (The New York Times)
The chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans committees said Thursday the future of an over-budget VA hospital under construction in Denver is unclear because the Veterans Affairs Department hasn’t come up with an acceptable plan for funding it. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida also criticized the VA for not punishing those responsible for the overrun. The rare joint statement shows how unhappy Congress is with the project and with the VA’s response. The hospital is expected to cost more than $1.7 billion, nearly triple an estimate the VA gave last year. Medical equipment, furniture and staff training will cost an additional $340 million, the VA has said. The new facility in suburban Aurora will replace an aging and crowded hospital in Denver. During a hearing in Colorado last month, Isakson said it “would be a stupid mistake” not to finish the hospital, but his joint statement with Miller contained a warning. “Because of a near complete and total lack of focus on the project at the highest levels of VA and the department’s disregard for congressional oversight, the future of the Denver replacement hospital is unclear,” they said.

Study: Depression intensifies anger in veterans with PTSD (
Veterans who suffer from both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) tend to experience significantly higher rates of anger, compared to those with only one or no disorder, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory Research, Practice and Policy. One reason the researchers chose to focus on anger is that it is given insufficient attention as a clinical problem among combat veterans and trauma populations in general. “PTSD and depression dominate the landscape, but these, of course, are formal psychiatric disorders,” he said. “There is no diagnostic category for anger, nor do I think there should be, so anger slips from research attention,” said lead author Raymond Novaco, Ph.D., professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine. “Our study findings should draw attention to anger as a major treatment need when military service members screen positive for PTSD or for depression, and especially when they screen positive for both.” For the study, researchers looked at the behavioral health data of 2,077 U.S. soldiers (1,823 men and 254 women) who were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and who later sought behavioral health services at a large military installation. The participants were screened for PTSD and major depressive disorder (MDD) and placed in one of four groups: PTSD-only, MDD-only, PTSD and MDD combined, or neither. The researchers also measured the veterans’ anger and whether they said they were considering harming others. Anger and self-rated risk of harm were both significantly higher in the group with both PTSD and MDD compared to the other three groups. The researchers also found that PTSD was commonly paired with depression. Approximately 72 percent of veterans who screened positive for PTSD also screened positive for MDD.

NYC mayor’s new plan to combat inequality ignores veterans (The Daily Beast)
New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio was in Washington, D.C., this week to unveil his “Progressive Agenda to Combat Inequality” and to continue his climb from new guy in City Hall to national political figure. The progressive policy proposals put a spotlight on de Blasio’s ambitions outside New York but back in his home city, veteran’s advocates were calling foul, noting that, once again, they’d been left out of his sweeping proposals. “He’s talking about a progressive platform all across America. But I guess it doesn’t include veterans,” said Paul Rieckhoff, who heads the New York based Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a veteran’s service organization with 2.8 million members nationally and 10,000 in New York City. “He’s a progressive who talks about health care and housing all the time—two of the biggest issues facing veterans—but for some reason he never mentions veterans by name,” Rieckhoff said. In de Blasio’s silence towards veterans, Rieckhoff suspects there’s a discomfort that’s partly ideological. “There’s a legacy of progressive politics having a problem with veterans,” he said. New York City Councilman Eric Ulrich, who chairs the council’s committee on veterans, expressed a view similar to Reickhoff’s. “I don’t think veterans fit into the equation anywhere in the mayor’s progressive agenda,” Ulrich told The Daily Beast. “And that’s a shame because veterans issues aren’t partisan, they are American issues that cut across all divides.”

Family rallies for Army veteran facing deportation (Hartford Courant)
The family of Army veteran Jorge Luis Salcedo of Glastonbury, Conn., is appealing for help to keep him from being deported by immigration authorities. Immigration activists and Salcedo’s family rallied outside the Legislative Office Building Thursday to protest the planned deportation. Salcedo was picked up Thursday morning by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Salcedo, who immigrated legally to the U.S. at age 14, has a wife and two young daughters who are citizens. A man with admitted alcohol problems and multiple arrests for driving under the influence and other offenses, Salcedo was released this week after serving a 15-month prison sentence for driving under the influence. His wife and supporters say he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and should be treated for his problems, not deported. “This case is very painful,” said John Lugo, an activist with Unidad Latina en Accion, a New Haven-based worker and immigration advocacy group. “This guy is a veteran, and he has post-traumatic stress syndrome.” After leaving the service, Salcedo developed PTSD and became an alcoholic, said his wife, Cindy Salcedo-LaPointe. She said he has multiple convictions for driving under the influence and pleaded guilty in a 2003 case that involved his spitting on a police officer. His supporters say he pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer and has apologized. “He’s not a bad person, he’s a very good person,” Salcedo-LaPointe said. She said her husband, who has worked for the same construction company for nearly 16 years, has always been good to her and to their two daughters. Salcedo-Lapointe said her husband was diagnosed by a private therapist as having post-traumatic stress disorder, but has not seen U.S. Veterans Health Administration doctors about his problems. She said his alcoholism is a result of the PTSD.

Woman says VA harvested husband’s organs without consent (The Tennessean)
A Murfreesboro, Tenn., woman says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and another agency harvested her husband’s organs after his death last year — including the blind man’s eyes — even though he was not a donor. Wanda Frierson is now suing the troubled federal department, claiming poor care led to her husband’s death and that the agency allowed Tennessee Donor Services to take her husband’s organs without authorization. She is seeking $2.5 million in damages. The federal agency, charged with caring for military service members, became the subject of scrutiny last year following allegations of substandard health care at its facilities nationwide and long wait times that led to deaths. “They do need to be accountable,” Wanda Frierson said of the VA, “because he was full of life. … These are men and women who served their country. My husband trusted them.” Now she wishes he had not. Her lawsuit claims the VA hospital in Murfreesboro provided substandard care and released Kevrek Frierson days before he died even though his health was worsening. He was readmitted because of his family’s concerns, and a day later hospital staff found him without a pulse. He died despite resuscitation efforts on June 18. He was 54. Medical records obtained by The Tennessean show prior to his death, Kevrek Frierson confirmed to hospital staff he was not a donor. But records dated the day after he died say he was listed as a donor. A spokeswoman for the VA said she could not comment on the pending case.

Promise of free tuition could vanish for some veterans’ children (Texas Tribune)
During Troy Reynolds’ 24-year post-Army career, he has risen from teaching theater to overseeing curriculum at a Houston-area school district. But he has never sought the top job in his field, superintendent.  That’s because he’d probably need a doctorate for that position, and doctorates are expensive. Reynolds would rather give one of his kids the free tuition that Texas promises him and other veterans. “I made a career decision,” said Reynolds, 47. “I decided that I would rather have my child get a bachelor’s degree than have a doctorate for me.” His sacrifice could soon be for naught. Reynolds has been counting on free school for one of his kids since 2009, when the Legislature began allowing veterans to pass unused tuition benefits on to a dependent. But costs of the tuition program, known as Hazlewood, have spiraled out of control. And legislators now are working on peeling back those benefits. That means Reynolds may have to find a new, last-minute way to pay for his daughter’s school. Other veterans across the state could experience the same problem – all because of what critics see as poor financial planning by the state. “That seems absurd to us,” said Jim Brennan, legislative director of the Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations. “That is grossly unfair.”

Veterans in Hot Springs protesting closing of VA campus (
Veterans and residents of Hot Springs are marching through the town to protest what they see as the inevitable closure of the historic Veterans Affairs medical campus. The Save the VA group is organizing the march that begins at 8 a.m. Friday. They’re dubbing the event the “Keep the Promise; Stop the Lies” rally. The group argues that the VA has planned to close the 108-year-old campus for some time and will eventually do so. The VA denies it has made any decisions and has hired an independent contractor to conduct an environmental assessment before taking any action. The protesters plan to start at Centennial Park in Hot Springs and march to the main entrance of the VA to picket and demonstrate. They plan to continue picketing through next week.