Veterans news update for May 27

Veterans news update for May 27

Veterans news updateAmerica’s secret weapon against cyber attacks: U.S. veterans (Fortune)
As we come off of a Memorial Day holiday weekend, Americans reflect with gratitude on the countless times our veterans have stood firm in the face of danger. We appreciate the valor, strength, and sacrifice our troops show in facing down enemies at home and abroad. We thank our men and women in uniform for preserving liberty and freedom for the millions within our own shores, and for billions across the globe. But as we honored the most sacred of holidays, a new threat lurks, one for which our veterans again offer the best hope of crafting an adequate defense: cyber security. It is no longer science fiction or the preserve of Hollywood to envision cyber attacks damaging our nation’s critical infrastructure. Recent events demonstrate the vulnerability of our air traffic control systems, power grids, industrial controls and financial networks to web-based warfare. Just as the threat posed by cyber attacks is accelerating, the level of trust between government and business is deteriorating, particularly in the tech sector, with debates over encryption and the Patriot Act’s looming expiration widening the gulf between Washington and Silicon Valley. As government and business move further apart on the cyber security issue, our veterans can serve as the bridge that brings them back together. Many of the top cyber experts in our country come from the military. Examples include Kevin Mandia, the chief operating officer of FireEye, and General Suzanne Vautrinot, now on the board of Symantec, both of whom are ex-U.S. Air Force. Veterans not only have the technical skills needed to bolster cyber defense systems, their experience in uniform equips them with knowledge of government that would help businesses strengthen ties with policymakers. There are two issues in the cyber security puzzle where these strengthened ties are badly needed: sharing cyber threat indicators and unifying breach notification regimes.

VA plans for ‘doomsday’ cyber scenario (Federal News Radio)
The Veterans Affairs Department already is facing more than a billion attempted cyber attacks a month. But as the complexity and volume of cyber threats increases across the government, VA IT officials are starting to prepare for a worst case scenario. At VA, or for that matter any agency, a doomsday or worst case scenario would occur if there are so many cyber attacks, so many attempts to penetrate the networks and steal the data, that the infrastructure would either shutdown completely or the bad actors would get through and have free will inside their network. Now VA is pretty far from facing that kind of attack or consequences, but IT officials see the rate and volume of attacks building monthly and must prepare for the what-if scenarios. Steph Warren, the VA chief information officer, said attacks against VA’s networks increased to more than one billion in March and just under a billion in April after being at 300 million as of November. Warren said while the number of attacks did decrease in April as compared to March, the signs are clear that any IT networks no matter the organization must prepare for the future. Warren said Tuesday in a call with reporters that VA sits at an elevated state of cybersecurity, so he asked his security team what would happen if they had to go to severe or even critical because of cyber attacks. “They will look at all the different controls, all of the additional enhancements we would put in place as we cross those thresholds. The team has already had its first meeting on that last week, and then we are having an internal cybersecurity summit on the [June] 3, 9 and 10 starting with the internal IT workforce across the leadership to make sure what the boundaries are,” he said. “Then, we will bring the customers in to talk about what are the potential mission impacts as we continue to strengthen and build on the protections we have. The team is working through that and once they are done, they will lay out to core leadership where do we need to take this so that we are prepared for whatever happens out in the environment as that level of risk goes up, as the threats continue to increase, what are the additional protections we can put in place recognizing we are an organization that has the day-to-day operational mission.”

VA construction fight damages ties with Congress (Military Times)
Construction of the embattled Denver Veterans Affairs hospital is safe for now, but the goodwill that VA officials have tried to build with Congress over the last year appears to be in ruins. On Friday, the Senate finalized emergency legislation to increase spending authority for the overdue and over budget Colorado medical center, allowing work to continue for a few more weeks while the search for a long-term fix continues. It was a partial victory for VA officials, who had pleaded with Congress for spending relief to keep subcontractors from walking off the job for the second time in six months, a move that at best would have added millions more in new costs and at worst could have shuttered the nearly $1 billion unfinished project. But the move came only after a weeklong flurry of heated exchanges between VA officials and Republicans on Capitol Hill, each group accusing the other of imperiling health care for tens of thousands of Colorado veterans. Both House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., accused the VA (and White House) of failing to accept responsibility for the project ballooning more than $1 billion over budget. VA Secretary Bob McDonald issued multiple statements saying that veterans “deserve better” than the political games of lawmakers. Now, with only enough budget flexibility for a few weeks, the two sides will have to come together again and negotiate a solution for the project, despite the acrimony. McDonald promised a better working relationship with lawmakers at his confirmation last July, and worked in the early months of his tenure last fall to build up better communication between VA and Capitol Hill. But since late 2014, much of the communication between the two has been adversarial, with lawmakers hammering the department on ongoing wait time issues, a lack of employee firings and questionable bonuses for VA executives.

Government investigation finds troops not overcharged on student loans (The Washington Post)
Government officials say they have found little evidence of student loan servicers, the middlemen who collect and apply payments to debt, unlawfully charging active-duty servicemembers high interest rates on student loans. The findings come a year after the Justice Department fined student loan servicer Navient Solution $60 million for charging members of the military more than the 6 percent interest permitted by the law. At the time, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the department would comb through the records of all of its loan servicers to make sure the violations were not widespread. On Tuesday, the department said less than 1 percent of the troops’ files it reviewed from 2009 to 2014 contained violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a federal law that extends legal and financial protections to military personnel. The department only reviewed files from the four largest servicers — Navient, Great Lakes, Nelnet and American Education Services. A review of the records from the seven remaining loan servicers is expected to be completed later this year. “For all of the sacrifices they have made on behalf of our country, our brave servicemembers have the right to the benefits provided to them under federal law and should not be subjected to additional red tape to manage their student loans,” said Education Undersecretary Ted Mitchell. In the wake of the Navient case, the department said it has streamlined the process for servicemembers so that their loan rates are adjusted when they are called to active duty. To date, more than 141,000 members of the military have benefited. Prior to that, men and women in uniform had to apply for the lower interest rate and provide proof of active-duty status. The Education Department outsources the management of about $818 billion in federal student loans to 11 private debt servicers, with American Education Service overseeing the largest portion of the portfolio. Consumer groups have complained that servicers fail to make people struggling to repay their loans aware of the options available to them, leading some to fall behind or wind up in default. A series of reports have questioned whether these companies intentionally mislead borrowers to maximize their profits. Critics say the department, which paid loan servicers a total of $804 million in 2015, has been slow to clean up abuses in the market. The agency has renegotiated its contracts with the companies and offered bonuses to those that reduce delinquencies or defaults. The Education Department has been under pressure from lawmakers and consumer advocates to release the findings of the review, which was supposed to be completed within 120 days of the Navient complaint.

Congress looks to erase telemedicine barriers for veterans (
Three years after pushing through a bill to enable veterans to receive telemedicine services across state lines, two Congressmen are launching another bill aimed at removing even more barriers. Introduced on May 22, the “Veterans E-Health and Telemedicine Support Act of 2015″ (H.R. 2516), would enable the Department of Veterans Affairs to push needed telehealth services – particularly behavioral and mental health services – to veterans no matter where they are. Current laws mandate that both physician and veteran be at a federally-owned facility. “When our service men and women are called to duty, they do so selflessly with only the country in mind,” U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., who co-sponsored the bill, said in a press release. “When they return home, it is our shared duty to be there for these heroes, by making lifesaving resources readily accessible. (This bill) will eliminate multiple layers of bureaucracy, allowing our veterans to have greater access to mental and behavioral health services, especially in rural areas.” “I am proud to introduce this legislation that is really about fulfilling our duty to our veterans who so valiantly served our nation,” added co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., in the release. “Allowing veterans easy access to the care they need is the least we can do. Until veterans truly have full access to the proper care they need, we have not yet fulfilled our duty to repay our service members for their bravery and heroism.” The bill would allow VA providers, including those contracted by the department, to practice telemedicine across state borders as long as they’re qualified to do so. It would also enable them to treat veterans wherever they’re located — including their homes, clinics and community health centers — relieving veterans of the burden of traveling to a VA facility.

Senator: Wait times for Colorado Springs veterans unacceptable (Colorado Springs Gazette)
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said he’s pushing for a permanent deal to fund completion of the troubled Veterans Affairs hospital in Aurora before a three-week funding accord expires. Bennet, who stopped at the future site of a veteran-aimed charity in Colorado Springs Tuesday, said the deal passed last week leaves the $1.73 billion hospital project teetering on the brink of collapse. He warned that unless Congress quickly comes up with cash to pay for the over-budget facility, they’ll face months of delays and millions of dollars in increased costs that could accompany a work stoppage. “We need a long-term solution,” he said. The hospital has been in the crosshair from lawmakers who cite its ballooning cost as an example of VA bungling. Department of Veterans Affairs officials initially set aside $660 million to pay for the facility despite contractor warnings that it would cost much more due to repeated change orders. Bennet came to Colorado Springs to tour a facility being built for the Mount Carmel Center of Excellence off South 8th Street. The charity hopes the new center will offer one-stop help for veterans when it opens next fall by consolidating the work of other nonprofits and government agencies under a single roof. Bennet is pleased that charities are pitching in, but he’s worried about how VA cares for Pikes Peak region veterans. The senator has quizzed the agency about long wait times for health care in Colorado Springs, citing an April Gazette investigation that showed more than 11 percent of local veterans wait more than 30 days for care. “The waiting times are unacceptable,” he said. “They are too long.” VA told Bennet that officials will hire more staff in Colorado Springs to ease the backlog. “We’ll wait and see,” Bennet said.

Orlando VA hospital opens years behind schedule (WESH-Orland0)
Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald is among the dignitaries who attended the dedication of a new VA medical center in Orlando. The medical center was dedicated Tuesday, years behind schedule. The center’s groundbreaking was in 2008 and it had been expected to be completed in 2012. The VA blamed the delays on problems with contractors. “We need to build the infrastructure of VA care and community care today that we need when the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan age. If we don’t close the gap now, we could be facing another crisis in VA care 20 to 30 years from now,” said McDonald. The complex has 134 inpatient beds, 120 beds in a community living center and a 60-bed rehabilitation facility. The $665 million dollar facility is expected to employ 3,500 workers and serve as many as 115,000 veterans each year.

Pa. bill aims to keep convicted vets from being interred in military cemeteries (Harrisburg Patriot-News)
Thirty years after being convicted of killing a woman, George Emery Siple was given a full military burial in an Indiantown Gap National Cemetery. Now the woman’s family is working to keep other convicted veterans from being buried in military cemeteries. On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, unveiled “Bertie’s Respect for National Cemeteries Act.” The bill, inspired by Siple’s murder of Bertha “Bertie” Smith in Harrisburg in 1969, seeks to accomplish a number of objectives. First, the bill would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Administration national cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery to search records to ensure veterans are eligible to be buried in military cemeteries. Secondly, the bill would allow for the disinterment of veterans convicted of capital crimes and buried after 1997. And lastly, the bill would allow for the disinterment of Siple from Indiantown Gap National Cemetery. “Our national military cemeteries are hallowed grounds and they ought to be treated that way,” Barletta said. “Our VA National Cemetery is a place of honor and I don’t think it’s too much to say that murderers should not be buried next to true American heroes.”

Veteran, service dog turned away from restaurant; manager fired (
Memorial Day is a time to remember our nation’s veterans, those who have gone to war to help keep the country free. But Sunday, a north suburban vet had an experience that shows not everyone remembers. And what happened to him at an Algonquin restaurant should serves a reminder to us all. Garrett Loughran of Huntley has served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. And like a lot of veterans, Garrett uses a service dog to help with his PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Hershey, a 5-year-old labradoodle, helps keep him calm in crowds and adjust to civilian life. He’s no ordinary canine. In fact, he’s specially trained for this. By law, he’s allowed to go where Garrett does— no questions asked. But yesterday, Garrett’s mom wanted to take him to a pre-Memorial Day lunch at the Houlihan’s in nearby Algonquin.. And that’s when things got a little touchy. The veteran, his mom and his dog were turned away. “He had his red cape on that said he was a ‘service dog,’” said Laura Wills, Garret’s mother. “We have the papers with us but she just said ‘Well, we don’t allow dogs in the restaurant. What type of service does he provide?’ And my son said ‘You’re not allowed to ask that.’” “I expected that by this day and age that everybody knows what service dogs are and they should be more accepting of veterans like me who have to have a service dog to acclimate themselves to this new world again,” Garrett said. When the family complained about the treatment they received, the restaurant chain wasted no time in responding. They apologized profusely. Houlihan’s says the manager involved in turning Laura, Garrett and Hershey away has been fired and it’s donating $2,000 dollars to the organization Pets for Vets. That’s the cost of training one service dog for a veteran who needs one.