Veterans news update for May 22

Veterans news update for May 22

Veterans news updateMore money, fights for VA in Senate budget plan (Military Times)
Senate appropriators approved plans for nearly a 3 percent increase in the Veterans Affairs Department’s budget next year, slightly above what House lawmakers approved earlier this month and slightly below what White House officials had asked for. The move all but guarantees the department will see yet another money boost next year, despite tightening budget and spending caps on most other federal agencies. Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, VA’s budget has risen by almost $100 billion, nearly triple the department’s total spending in the late 1990s. But the Senate plan also sets up a potentially contentious summer conference fight over next year’s VA budget. Hill conservatives want to curb some of that growth and have pushed for reductions in VA construction funding until high-profile problems with the program are resolved. VA officials insist the White House’s full budget request is critical to keep outreach and reform efforts on track. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a total VA budget of $163.7 billion for fiscal 2016 operations, about $500 million above the House plan and $850 million below the Obama administration’s request. The differences in the plans all come in discretionary spending, which totals $69.2 billion in the Senate version. The House plan would trim hundreds of millions in requested spending from major and minor construction accounts, while the Senate’s would trim about $100 million in requests for nonrecurring maintenance at medical facilities.

U.S. vets who fought for Ramadi angry about its fall to ISIS (Fox News)
U.S. veteran Sgt. Ben Rangel remembers fighting to secure the city of Ramadi when he first arrived in Iraq for a tour of duty in 2004. He also recalls the bloodshed. Now, like other veterans who fought Iraqi insurgents for the capital city of Iraq’s Anbar province, as well as the loved ones who died in fierce battles there, Rangel bristles at the sight of the ISIS flag-waving above the government complex. Many are wondering why their hard-fought gains were so easily surrendered when Iraqi forces, following the U.S. pullout, were unable to stand up to the black-clad terrorist army. “We lost a lot of men,” Rangel, a former infantryman with the 2nd battalion/5th Marines Fox Company, told “The fighting in Fallujah got a lot of attention in the news, but Ramadi was a very important city because of the supply route that ran through it to Baghdad. “We were fighting non-stop for three months,” he said. “Our mission was always to make sure that the supply route was secure.” Ramadi, once a city of 750,000, lies some 70 miles west of Baghdad in the Sunni-majority province. During the Iraq War, which raged from 2003 to late 2011, nearly 5,000 coalition forces were killed and more than 32,000 wounded. Some of the war’s fiercest fighting occurred in Anbar province, including in Falluja and Ramadi. Rangel’s battalion lost 23 men during the fighting, and the veteran lost a close friend when that man’s unit struck an IED along “Route Michigan,” the military’s name for the supply road that leads from Baghdad into Syria, passing through Fallujah and Ramadi.

Purple Heart recipient and Vietnam vet among bikers killed in Waco shootout (Stars & Stripes)
One of nine bikers killed at a shootout outside a Texas restaurant was a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient whose family members dispute police claims he was in a criminal group. An Associated Press review of Texas court records and a database maintained by the state Department of Public Safety turned up no criminal history in Texas for Jesus Delgado Rodriguez, 65, of New Braunfels. And his son Vincent Ramirez told the San Antonio Express-News that he was not violent. Rodriguez was one of nine bikers killed Sunday when gunfire erupted at Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, where motorcyclists had gathered for a meeting. Authorities have said the shooting began during an apparent confrontation between two rival motorcycle gangs, the Bandidos and the Cossacks. Military records show Rodriguez was a Marine on active duty from 1969 and 1973 and received the Purple Heart, given to those wounded or killed in action. He also received a Navy commendation medal and other awards. Family members said Rodriguez was a biker and had belonged to two now-defunct motorcycle clubs, one of which allowed couples. But he was not part of any club when he was killed at Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, they said, though he had friends who were Bandidos. “If he thought there was going to be violence, he wouldn’t have gone,” Rodriguez’s son-in-law, Amado Garces, told the Express-News. Video footage reviewed by AP shows that when gunfire erupted in the parking lot of the restaurant, most of the leather-clad motorcycle riders watching the confrontation from the patio or inside immediately ran away from the shooting. A few tried to direct people to safety, crawling on all fours heading for cover.

Senate bill would let veterans’ doctors talk about medical marijuana (Bloomberg)
Once again a congressional spending panel has waded into the marijuana debate, this time backing the ability of ailing veterans to ask about medical marijuana. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to allow that kind of doctor-patient conversation at the Veterans Health Administration, voting 18-12 in favor of an amendment that would allow VA medical providers to make recommendations about trying pot to relieve patients’ symptoms. The amendment was offered by Senator Steve Daines, a Montana Republican who successfully argued that forbidding VA doctors from discussing medical marijuana is unconstitutional. Daines said such a prohibition could violate the 10th Amendment, which states that powers not granted in the Constitution to the central government are reserved for the states, as well as patients’ 1st Amendment right to discuss matters with their own doctors. “They can’t discuss all the options available to them that they could discuss if they literally walked next door to a non-VA facility,” Daines said. “I don’t believe we should discriminate against veterans just because they are in the care of the VA.” A similar amendment by California Democrat Sam Farr was rejected by the House Appropriations Committee and the full House passed its pot-free version of the appropriations bill last month. It’s unclear whether any members of the Senate will attempt to excise the medical marijuana provision from the bill. If the full Senate approves an appropriations bill that leaves the amendment intact, it will be up to a House-Senate conference committee to decide whether VA doctors can talk pot.

House passes $20 million plan to allow Colorado VA construction work to continue (The Denver Post)
With only hours left to seal a deal, the U.S. House on Thursday passed legislation that would keep work going temporarily on a troubled VA hospital in Aurora that has seen its price tag balloon to $1.73 billion. The measure passed by unanimous consent after less than 15 minutes of floor debate, an anticlimactic end to a flurry of negotiations in the lower chamber. The bill now heads to the Senate, where supporters are hopeful — although not overconfident — it can pass in a similar fashion before the project hits a critical deadline this weekend. Under the agreement, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Kiewit-Turner, the prime contractor for the project, would be allowed to spend about $20 million more on the Aurora facility. The extra cash is critical because the VA project is set to hit its spending cap next week — which would stop work at the site. Congressional sources said the $20 million would be enough to continue work at the Aurora site for about three weeks. That gives lawmakers and the administration a little breathing room to hash out a long-term funding deal. The two sides have been deadlocked for weeks on how to pay for cost overruns at the hospital campus. The VA has said it needs $830 million to finish it.

Documents: NASCAR driver’s ex-girlfriend used veterans’ charity as a bank (ABC News)
A group of Armed Forces Foundation co-workers is trying to finalize plans for an event honoring troops at The Venetian on the Las Vegas Strip when an email from Patricia Driscoll arrives. She is already out West and wants her then-7-year-old son to join her. Which one of them would be so kind as to pick him up from school and fly with him cross-country to Vegas? At least one co-worker questions the request, but Driscoll is insistent: “He is a good kid that has a bag full of toys and games to play … IF this is such an issue then Josh please get one of the other staffers to bring [him] out to Vegas. If you are questioned [by airport security], the answer is simple. This is my bosses [sic] child and I am bringing him to her.” A separate email string — without Driscoll included — begins, this one about the notion the nonprofit foundation might, again, be paying for the youngster’s airfare. Writes one staffer: “That is unacceptable. We cannot pay for his travel. Period.” Another chimes in: “I’m sure donors would love to know that fact … Not a good trend if there was ever an external audit.” Driscoll, the subject of these March 2012 office darts, is the former girlfriend of NASCAR driver Kurt Busch and president of the Armed Forces Foundation, a charity aligned with NASCAR and various sports-related entities that aims to help veterans in need. Documents show the Armed Forces Foundation has, in effect, been repeatedly used as a bank to lend money for or pay various personal expenses, including bills for a private company Driscoll owns. In one example, the foundation credit card was used to pay a bill that included what appear to be Driscoll’s personal state and federal taxes. In another, the foundation was effectively used as a lender, advancing money for Busch to buy $22,438 in Moroccan rugs. The nonprofit’s federal tax filings and audit reports in some instances fail to match, resulting in unexplained discrepancies about the amount of cash on hand, the mismatches totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Montana Senator: VA Choice Card program needs work (Montana Public Radio)
Senator Jon Tester says the Veterans Administration’s new Choice Card program got off to a  “shaky” start. The Choice Card is a new program that lets veterans use private medical care if their nearest VA facility is too busy or too far away. Speaking to reporters Thursday in Washington, the Montana Democrat said the VA hasn’t done a good job of working with veterans’ groups and health care providers to make sure vets know how to use their Choice Card. “They need to utilize the veteran service organizations that are out there, whether it’s the Disabled American Veterans or the American Legion. And then we need to a better job building partnerships with the local hospitals and care providers in the different communities that the VA outsources some of their work to.” Tester also criticized the Republican-led Appropriations Committee for proposing a VA budget that, he says, under-funds the agency by close to a billion dollars. Republican Senator Steve Daines Thursday took credit for adding “important reforms” to the VA budget, such as instructing the Veterans Affairs Secretary to give higher priority to rural states deciding where to place new veterans’ homes.

New York mayor says absence of POW-MIA flag at City Hall a ‘stupid mistake’ (New York Daily News)
Mayor maxima culpa. After the Daily News reported the required flag commemorating missing and captured military personnel had not been flown at City Hall for nearly a year, Mayor de Blasio took the hit Thursday, apologizing for the omission. “Yeah, it was a stupid mistake, and obviously it’s been rectified,” de Blasio said after emerging from a morning roundtable with military leaders at City Hall. “It was absolutely a stupid mistake, and that sure won’t happen again,” the mayor said when asked about the POW/MIA banner by the News. The News inquired Tuesday about the black flag’s absence from the Hall despite a city statute which requires it to fly above the building until every U.S. servicemember is accounted for. That day, a city spokesman said the flag had been removed for roof repairs, and that flag protocols would be reviewed. Shortly after 10 p.m. Tuesday, a workman ran the POW/MIA banner up on the plaza in front of City Hall, displaying it beneath the Stars and Stripes on the same pole, as it is flown at other government buildings and in parks. Veterans’ advocates — already angry about the government apparently forgetting to fly a flag that promises missing and captured troops, “You Are Not Forgotten” — had mixed reactions to the dead-of-night flag-raising. The heads of those groups, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America lead Paul Rieckhoff and NY MetroVets founder Joe Bello, had called the missing flag another indicator of the mayor’s lack of interest in veterans’ issues.

VA report for Pittsburgh office shows error rate down, but costly delays (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
A Department of Veterans Affairs office in Pittsburgh cut its error rate in processing veterans’ benefit claims, but federal inspectors found room for improvement, according to a report from the VA Office of Inspector General. The Pittsburgh office incorrectly processed 12 percent of the 84 sample claims reviewed by the Inspector General, which cost about $496,000 in improper payments, the report said. That’s down from the 41 percent error rate that inspectors found at the Downtown office in 2011, but inspectors cautioned that the latest review checked only some of the most difficult types of claims to process and the overall error rate might not be 12 percent. But the error rate is still alarming, the report said. “Accountability for public resources is not reasonably assured without timely and accurate actions,” inspectors wrote. The report covered the period from February 2008 to September 2014. The four other VA offices inspected this year showed worse results, with error rates of 21 percent in Indianapolis, 23 percent in Boston, 24 percent in Fargo and 40 percent in Manchester, N.H. The Pittsburgh VA Regional Office processes federal benefits for more than 500,000 veterans and dependents in 27 Western Pennsylvania counties and four counties in West Virginia. The director of the Pittsburgh benefits office, Jennifer Stone-Barash, highlighted the improvements noted in the report. The office cut its overall claims processing backlog from 7,171 claims in March 2013 to 1,210 in April, she said. Investigators looked at only three categories of benefits claims: temporary 100 percent disability evaluations, traumatic brain injury claims and special monthly compensation and ancillary benefits. VA workers correctly processed all 30 traumatic brain injury claims that inspectors reviewed and all but two of the 24 special monthly compensation claims.

For many veterans, real battle begins when shooting stops (Forbes)
Commentary: “In my travels in support of the Hiring Our Heroes program, I’ve had the privilege of meeting with many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some continue to serve in uniform; others have successfully transitioned back to civilian life, while others are still struggling to complete that move. Some of latter have a larger leap to make than others. I’ve met some of them – recovering warriors who have lost limbs, suffered spinal cord wounds and/or traumatic brain injuries. While we mourn the high price they have paid to keep us free, we rejoice in the miracle of their survival. In fact, their survival is one of the bright spots in the carnage of these recent wars. Many more members of America’s military are surviving wounds today than ever before. In World War II, 1.7 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines were wounded for everyone who died. In Vietnam, the ratio was 2.6 to one. By comparison, 7.5 of America’s warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan have survived being wounded for every one who has died. That’s a four-fold improvement over World War II and nearly a three-fold gain over Vietnam. Thanks to advances in medical science, battlefield care and protective equipment, many of our fighting men and women are now recovering from injuries that used to be fatal. While this is certainly a welcome development, it also means that many of these veterans are now facing huge new physical, mental and emotional challenges, and so are their families and caregivers. Given the sacrifices these veterans and their families have made for us, we cannot allow them to confront these challenges alone. Fortunately, efforts are being made to help our recovering warriors deal with their dramatically altered circumstances.”

What veterans really think about on Memorial Day (CNN)
Commentary: “As a wounded veteran who served two tours in Iraq, I’ve been asked to give speeches at Memorial Day celebrations. It’s one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done. Veterans Day is easy. Fourth of July, a piece of cake. But Memorial Day, that’s a tough one. Service members like me think about the soldiers we lost pretty often. I remember when he was alive, all the stuff we did — the training, combat and even just hanging out together off duty. Then my mind usually goes to the day of his death. I remember where I was when I heard about it, or what it felt like to see him catastrophically wounded. I picture their faces. They’re young; they never get old. I remember where I was when I learned that Sgt. 1st Class Jason Bishop died. I had heard the explosion; I just didn’t know it was him. … I found out later that intelligence indicated three vehicle-borne IEDs, suicide bombers, in the city. An Apache helicopter had located two and eliminated the threat. They put a roadblock in place to catch the third, and that’s where Bishop was working. The bomber tried to run it, but Bishop stood his ground. He shot the driver, so the vehicle exploded early, which meant fewer deaths and injuries. But Bishop paid with his life. He went down shooting. When soldiers die, they don’t just roll over and quit like in the movies. They fight like hell. They do whatever they can to stay alive — sometimes that’s their hardest fight. And sometimes they lose.”

Why military veterans make great entrepreneurs (Huffington Post)
Eli Crane, a former Navy SEAL, wanted to spend more time with family after three combat tours in Iraq. He founded Bottle Breacher in his garage after his brother, a Marine Corp helicopter pilot, brought home from his deployment a bottle opener made from 50 caliber ammunition and gave it to Eli as a gift. He liked it so much that he began making similar products by hand for friends and after starting to sell them with success, he was able to secure financial backing in the Shark Tank from Mark Cuban and Kevin O’Leary. While investing in veterans and active duty military personnel is a great way to give back to those who have served, there is also an important business case to be made related to investing in entrepreneurs who are veterans of the military. In fact, military experience helps prepare would-be-entrepreneurs for business battles as well. Kevin O’Leary, who has invested in a number of veteran-owned businesses, says that military training emphasizes many of the same traits that make great entrepreneurs. “Specifically, military veterans have the three Ds: desire, drive and determination”, says O’Leary, who likens business to being — in its own way — a battlefield. “In my experience,” he says, “entrepreneurs who are in the military or have been in the past are able to problem solve their way through the business battle field with much more ease than most.”

Texas House mulls cutting popular education benefits (CBS-Dallas)
The Texas House is to discuss slashing a free college tuition program for veterans and their children amid conservatives’ calls that its costs are too high to be sustainable. Republican Sen. Brian Birdwell’s proposal hits the floor Friday after already clearing the Senate. Only veterans with six years of active duty who have lived in Texas for eight years and their children would be eligible for the so-called Hazlewood Exemption under Birdwell’s bill. It also cuts the number of free tuition hours available while requiring veterans to use them within 15 years of their military service ending. Hazlewood’s cost to Texas public universities has climbed from $24.7 million in fiscal year 2010 to $169 million last fiscal year.

Tom Hanks to head ‘Hidden Heroes’ caregivers campaign (Military Times)
Actor Tom Hanks will lead a national campaign that will launch this fall aimed at raising public awareness of the service, needs and value of caregivers of wounded, ill and injured troops and veterans. These caregivers “live all across America, and in all of our communities,” Hanks said Wednesday, speaking in a videotaped message at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation’s 2015 Hidden Heroes Coalition Summit. “They never had any real preparation for the job as caregiver, but they became so in an instant with little warning other than a phone call or email that changed their lives and defined the great challenges that had been thrust upon them,” Hanks said. “The public is aware that our veterans experience these issues, but most are unaware of the impact on caregivers,” said Brian Vines, who has been caring for his wife, Natalie, since 2010 after she was wounded in Iraq, and struggled to find resources to help her. “Caregiver resources are appreciated, but limited,” Vines said, noting that he had to rely on word of mouth to learn what was available. “It’s a challenge to care for our veterans, run the house, manage the finances, and set aside some time for us to recoup,” he said, adding that the lack of information about these resources can lead to feelings of isolation, helplessness and depression. “As the public becomes more informed, more resources will be directed to help caregivers,” he said. “Public support contributes to a greater appreciation for the work of caregivers, and how they are essential to the mental, emotional and physical health of their veterans.” The awareness campaign was one of several announced initiatives aimed at helping strengthen military and veteran caregivers, who often feel frustrated and overwhelmed with their multiple responsibilities.