Veterans news update for May 21

Veterans news update for May 21

Veterans news updateDespite numbers, rural veterans lack attention, resources (Military Times)
About 5.6 million veterans are living in rural regions of America, but public planners still have too limited a view of their struggles to effectively reach them, advocates warn. Officials from the Housing Assistance Council held their annual summit on rural veterans issues Wednesday to push for more attention, outreach and resources for those individuals, who make up more than 11 percent of the total veterans population. Veterans in rural areas are generally older (median age 62) than the overall veterans population (median age 40) and more likely to own their own homes, but less likely to have easy access to a variety of federal health care and employment offerings, according to group research. That leads to challenges even for folks already focused on rural issues. Jon Dieter, director of community services at Washington Longview Housing Authority, said recent national efforts to solve veterans’ homelessness have led to a bounty of new housing resource partners in his state. But when officials tried to expand those efforts from cities to rural regions, the available partners suddenly disappeared. “Like so many other things, you’re just not going to find resources for rural veterans unless we push, pull and advocate for them,” he said. “A lot of the problems we normally face with helping veterans become so much harder when we’re in rural areas.”

Lawmakers push to let veterans use GI benefits for business, not just college (The Hill)
Members of Congress plan to put forward legislation that would allow veterans to use their benefits under the GI Bill to start businesses instead of attending college. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, is drafting legislation that would direct the Veterans Affairs secretary to establish a program that would allow qualified veterans to start or buy a business. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, will introduce companion legislation in the Senate. The tweak to the GI Bill, which will be attached to the Veterans Entrepreneurial Transition Business Benefit Act of 2015, has been a top priority of the American Legion for several years. The idea also has the backing of other military service organizations, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. One of the most prominent champions of the cause is Charles “Lynn” Lowder, a retired Marine Corps command sergeant major who is a Silver Star recipient and a Vietnam War veteran. Lowder is a retired CEO who says he plans to devote the “fourth quarter” of his life to helping veterans. He said he came up with a similar idea for GI Bill benefits when he met Shaun Garry, a former Marine. Garry survived five roadside bomb attacks in Iraq and suffered from traumatic brain injury. At the time he met Lowder, the Purple Heart recipient was suffering from depression and was in debt. Lowder and restaurateur Dale Eisenberg teamed up to help Garry turn his life around by advising him on how to run a restaurant and helping him become the owner of one of Eisenberg’s franchises. “We feel every veteran ought to have a shot if they want to be in business for themselves,” Lowder told The Hill. Lowder said only a little more than half of veterans — 54 percent — are actually using their GI Bill benefits, which could amount to as much as $260,000 for four years at a private college or university.

House leaders: Money for Colorado VA hospital unlikely (The Denver Post)
With only days left to act, negotiations over the troubled VA hospital in Aurora have hit a wall and Colorado lawmakers said they are pessimistic a deal can be reached before work is halted on the $1.73 billion project. Punctuating that point was a combative floor speech delivered Wednesday by House Speaker John Boehner. Amid a flurry of last-minute meetings on how to pay for cost overruns in Aurora, the Ohio Republican took aim at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Obama administration for failing to do enough. “The American people are seeing more of the same,” said Boehner, who added that “at this point, the VA can’t even build a hospital.” Lawmakers said they viewed Boehner’s speech as proof that talks had broken down between the VA and congressional leaders. Without a deal, the VA and the project’s prime contractor, Kiewit-Turner, will run out of money they can spend on the Aurora hospital — which is expected to trigger a work stoppage next week. “I think the floor speech shut the door on negotiations,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora. According to one congressional estimate, it would cost $20 million to shutter the site and $2 million a month to keep it safe from the elements — additional expenses that would increase the price tag of a project that has been called the biggest construction failure in VA history. That’s not all. There are concerns among Colorado legislators that another work stoppage would drive away subcontractors, who already had to live through one shutdown in December. That could further increase the price.

VA’s ‘Grand Challenge’: Open-source prosthetic limbs for veterans (Defense One)
The Department of Veterans Affairs wants to build better prosthetics. And it wants your help. Last week, VA’s Center for Innovation launched its three-month Innovation Creation Series for Prosthetics and Assistive Technologies. The aim of the series is to build a suite of special prosthetics and other state-of-the-art technologies to support wounded veterans in their day-to-day lives. The center chose a total of five challenges, including a “smart” medication pill box, a device for dulling tremors and a specialized gaming console to improve hand-eye coordination. The challenges selected were based on both the level of need among the veteran community as well as the potential for translating solutions for use by the public at large, according to Andrea Ippolito, a presidential innovation fellow who organized the crowdsourcing series. “We also want to … try to attract people to want to work in this arena — rehabilitation — to design the best possible services and technologies surrounding prosthetics and assisted technologies that can help not only veterans but patients at large,” Ippolito said in an interview with Nextgov. For example, even with the neuro- and muscular attachments in many of today’s upper extremity prosthetics, they often still can only be used for gentler tasks. So one of the series’ challenges is to develop a device that changes the grip strength and speed of a prosthetic. The use of competitions and challenges among agencies is a growing trend. In 2014, agencies held twice as many competitions as they did in 2012, according to a recent report by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Two of the VA challenges will be open to submissions this week on GrabCAD, an online platform for engineers to share ideas. Another opportunity will be available in June on InnoCentive, a crowdsourcing platform. The final two challenges are expected to be solved at an upcoming “make-a-thon,” which will be held at the VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, at the end of July.

Senator’s effort to expand military’s mental health options advances (The Indianapolis Star)
U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly’s proposal to provide more mental health options for active military servicemen is on its way to the full Senate. The Service Member and Veteran Mental Health Care Package — also referred to as “Care Package” — is a component of the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2016 fiscal year. The proposal is meant to help improve mental outcomes for service members by:

• Strengthening Department of Defense mental health services.
• Enhancing the ability for active military members to receive quality mental health care from community providers.
• Calling on the Department of Defense to train physician assistants to help meet the growing demand for mental health services

The bill in its current form provides these services to active military — but not veterans. However, Donnelly said he’s confident that language will be added later. Donnelly said the provision would allow private providers to take part in an online registry that would make it easier for active duty military and veterans to find care. “I would encourage any of our private providers to begin working together immediately with the Military Family Research Institute and other organizations where they can learn more each and every day and start to talk about themselves as being veterans friendly,” Donnelly said.

Mother spotlights military suicide in honor of her son (The Chicago Tribune)
Maureen Walsh spends every Thursday night in the dusky bar at the Tinley Park Veterans of Foreign Wars post – mainly to honor her son, who took his life in 2013. She uses the facility as a meeting space for her organization, Operation T.A.L.K., which aims to raise awareness about and help prevent military suicides. The organization, which started last year, is hosting its first daylong fundraiser May 30. “We wanted to help others in my son’s position,” Walsh said, sitting on the porch of the bar last Thursday night. “There isn’t a lot out there that addresses military suicide.” An estimated 22 veterans take their own lives each day, according to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs analysis of death records from 21 states. About 20 percent of all suicides in the country are veterans, according to an Arizona State University study. Male veterans younger than 30 – like Walsh’s son, who died at 22 – are three times more likely to commit suicide when compared to civilian men in the same age bracket, according to the same briefing, released in 2014. Walsh said she also hopes to help debunk some of the myths about military suicide, including the false assumption that deployment in combat zones and related post-traumatic stress disorder are the main reasons military members kill themselves. “Jimmy didn’t have PTSD and he didn’t see action,” she said, noting that he suffered from depression before he was found dead Feb. 9, 2013 his freshman year at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, where he was pursuing a double major in computer engineering and computer science. Walsh said her son wanted to attend the academy since 2006, when he visited the campus for a cousin’s graduation ceremony. He served in Maryland at Joint Base Andrews with the 744th Communications Squadron as a cyber systems apprentice. A study this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that deployment has no relationship with military suicide, but did not offer reasons why non-deployed members of the military have the same suicide rate as those who are deployed.

Most recent Phoenix VA whistleblower suffers retaliation (The Daily Caller)
A new employee whistleblower complaint coming out of the Phoenix Department of Veterans Affairs health care system alleges that after Lisa Tadano reported the problem of unqualified staff to a local news station, she became a prime target for harassment and retaliation. As a veteran and employee of the VA, Tadano originally filed a whistleblower complaint back in early March this year. Concerned about a lack of suicide prevention training, as well as the use of unqualified staff to assist nurses, Tadano figured that bringing the problem to the Office of Special Counsel was the correct course of action. More specifically, Tadano noted that sometimes house keepers—and even food workers—are given complete charge of suicidal veterans, a practice which began in 2013 to combat understaffing. Local news station ABC 15 confirmed this allegation. In response, the Phoenix VA claimed that food workers can always call for help from supervisors if needed. But the reality is that the use of untrained workers presents an extreme danger to suicidal vets. “I walked in and found a housekeeper perched back in a recliner snoring louder than the two patients he was supposed to be watching,” Tadano told ABC 15 in early March. A new addendum to her first complaint states that near the end of March, Linda Wieler, her former nurse manager, harassed her about deciding to talk to the media, repeating twice that her appearance on television was a “crack up.” Additionally, after she blew the whistle, Tadano requested a Sensitive Patient Access Report on April 24, 2015, which shows who accessed her patient records. “I found that my sensitive patient records were accessed by individuals who had no authority or connections to my treatment at this facility to view them,” Tadano stated in the addendum, after receiving the document on May 11. Penny Miller, a VA employee, accessed her records on Aug. 11, 2014. Miller never oversaw any of Tadano’s treatment for cancer in early 2014. This is the same Miller who accessed the records of Brandon Coleman, Tadano’s former therapist and also a whistleblower at the Phoenix VA.

Military vets find new mission: Stopping child predators (South Florida Sun-Sentinel)
Fresh from the battlefields of Afghanistan, three former soldiers from South Florida who once targeted Taliban fighters are learning computer forensic skills to help law enforcement agencies track down pedophiles and sex traffickers. To these cyber warriors, the new mission is much like their battles overseas: it’s all about bringing down “bad guys.” “Over there, we were dealing with bad guys in Afghanistan. Now we’re going to be putting away bad guys in this country, which is more important to me,” said Kevin Droddy, 31, a former infantryman from West Palm Beach. Droddy, his twin brother Jason Droddy and Steve Lumbert, of Miami, are among 23 veterans training in Fairfax, Va., to get into the guts of computer hard drives and software programs to find evidence of pornography, much of it marked by disturbing images of young children. Soon they will return home to put those skills to use for the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose mission includes curbing online child pornography and sex trafficking. South Florida, one of the world’s busiest transit points, is also a major hub for human trafficking, making it a focal point in the global battle against enslavement, prostitution and sexual exploitation of underage girls and boys. The training program, a pilot project that began two years ago to employ wounded veterans, is turning into a dedicated source of law enforcers known as the HERO Corps — Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Corps. A bill to curb human trafficking, passed by the U.S. Senate in April and the House on Tuesday, makes the HERO program a permanent part of Homeland Security and its budget. The program is partly funded by a five-year $10 million contribution from individuals and foundations through the National Association to Protect Children, a non-profit association. Corps members are unpaid volunteers during the year-long training, but most eventually take jobs with Homeland Security or with local or state enforcement agencies.

Traumatic brain injury in the military (Oxford University Press blog)
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has often been called the “signature wound” of the recent conflicts in the Middle East. While some tend to discuss TBI as an overarching diagnostic category, there is a plethora of evidence indicating that severity of TBI makes a large difference in the anticipated outcome. Since the year 2000, slightly less than 10% of all head injuries to service members around the world have resulted in moderate to severe TBI, while most TBIs (about 82.5%) have been categorized as mild in severity. As mild injuries are less obvious than more severe injuries in the acute phase—typically there is little or no loss of consciousness, for example—the US Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have taken action to try to prevent missing some of these more subtle injuries. The screening of returning veterans has become a mandatory component of routine care within VA facilities. Veterans who describe experiences with mild TBI (mTBI) often primarily endorse persisting symptoms like headaches and memory or concentration problems, among other symptoms. One challenge that VA providers face is that persisting symptoms of TBI, such as sleep disturbance, anxiety or depression, and cognitive difficulties, often overlap with those of other problems faced by returning veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Much of the research literature on mTBI in returning veterans has focused on the interplay or distinction between mTBI and PTSD. One of the more interesting frequent findings has been that individuals with mTBI report more distressful psychological symptoms than do individuals with more severe injuries. One potential explanation for this is that individuals with more severe injuries have extensive neurological damage affecting their self-awareness. Another explanation, though, is that persisting mTBI results from a complex array of biological, psychological, and social contributions that are rooted less in neurological damage than in factors specific to the individual and his or her environment.