Agent Orange pressure mounts on VA (The Columbus Dispatch)
As a young man, Ralph DeSanto Jr. took apart the valves in front of him, valves that had come from C-123 aircraft that had repeatedly sprayed Agent Orange over Vietnam. Each time he popped a rubber seal, he said, a tiny plume of red dust rose up. Inside each valve was the crystallized chemical from the herbicide that was widely deployed to kill the vegetation that concealed the enemy in the jungles and forests during the Vietnam War. DeSanto never once thought that he should be worried, that he may be putting himself in danger, that with every touch of those airplane parts or with any swipe of residue he might have been increasing his risk for diseases. But pressure is increasing by the day for the Department of Veterans Affairs to heed its own commissioned report released in January by the Institute of Medicine that said flight and maintenance crews such as the one that DeSanto was part of were exposed to high levels of dioxin. Advocates say the VA should expand the list of those eligible to receive benefits and care for Agent Orange-related claims to include them. Until now, because those crew members were Air Force reservists and not classified as active-duty personnel, the VA has denied them veteran status and has not allowed their claims to any Agent Orange-related illnesses. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and six other senators last week sent a bipartisan letter to VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald, urging him to immediately use his executive authority to clear the way for the reservists’ claims. “The VA’s position has been disappointing,” the letter reads. “It is our desire to see that C-123 veterans who suffer today because of service-related exposure to Agent Orange receive the help they need.”
VA crisis line under investigation (Military Times)
Amid concerns that the Veterans Affairs Department’s suicide hotline has left veterans stranded during high-volume call periods, a senator has asked VA to investigate the service to ensure it is meeting veterans’ needs. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., recently sent a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald asking for data on the Crisis Line’s call volume, hold times, and average wait times between when a call is made and the caller can see a VA therapist or counselor, or a community provider, in person. Nelson’s request was made in response to a news report by Tampa television station WFTS that Air Force veteran Ted Koran was placed on hold repeatedly for up to 10 minutes at a time as he fought off suicidal thoughts. According to the report, Koran’s wife died of cancer last year and he was despondent the day he made the call. But when he dialed, he was placed on hold numerous times. After he reached a counselor, he said he did not feel comforted, according to the report. “They had me on the [verge] of saying to hell with it,” he said, according to WFTS. Since its creation in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has fielded more than 1.6 million calls and is credited with 48,000 rescues, according to VA. The line, based at a VA center in Canandaigua, New York, receives about 1,400 calls a day and can handle about 1,000, with the rest sent to five backup centers across the U.S. that are staffed by VA-trained contractors.
Veterans Affairs makes the government’s ‘high-risk’ list (The Fiscal Times)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald is trying desperately to convince the public that his embattled agency is on the road to reform. Investigations last year revealed the VA had engaged in cover-ups over hidden wait lists that kept veterans’ from getting the medical attention they needed for months—sometimes longer. While the VA chief says his agency is turning around, two federal auditors have issued new reports blasting the VA health system for huge gaps in oversight, serious management issues and IT failures that put facilities “at risk of not fulfilling their mission.” The auditors voiced their concerns during a hearing this past week before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, where they explained why the VA’s health system was placed on the Government Accountability Office’s annual “high risk list” that flags the most troubled federal programs. “Risks to the timeliness, cost-effectiveness, quality and safety of veterans’ healthcare, along with other persistent weaknesses GAO and others have identified in recent years, raised serious concerns about VA’s management and oversight of its healthcare system,” GAO Healthcare Director Debra Draper said. She went on to describe the most troubling areas that she said put the VA health system at “risk of failing to serve its mission” including inconsistent management policies and processes, inadequate oversight, major problems with its information technology systems and inadequate training for staff.
Cordial no more: Lawmakers unhappy with VA’s McDonald (Stars & Stripes)
As subpoenas fly, the once cordial correspondence between lawmakers and VA Secretary Bob McDonald is turning ugly. A letter that House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Florida, sent to McDonald on Friday and obtained by Stars and Stripes, starts with a reminder of what happened to the secretary’s ill-fated predecessor, Eric Shinseki. “This Committee exposed the Department’s delays-in-care scandal at an April 9, 2014, congressional hearing, setting in motion a sequence of events that essentially forced the resignation of your predecessor and led to you becoming Secretary,” Miller writes in response to a McDonald letter protesting a threat to subpoena records related to the Philadelphia VA Regional Office that the veterans committee has sought for months. On Thursday, the Committee members voted without objection to issue the subpoena. That came one day after Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, subpoenaed documents from an investigation into the Tomah (Wisconsin) VA Medical Center that the VA’s inspector general has long refused to release. McDonald says the VA sent the committee what it had requested, but with some personal information redacted, a step he says was necessary given leaks from the committee. “I am confused by the need for a subpoena given that on multiple occasions, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has offered to make available the full, unredacted information you sought,” McDonald wrote in his letter to Miller. “Had the Committee staff agreed to certain reasonable privacy conditions, your staff would have seen all relevant and applicable files.”
VA Secretary McDonald: “Caring for Veterans: A Higher Calling (Federal Times)
Commentary: “Living a life driven by purpose is more meaningful and rewarding than meandering through life without direction. My life’s purpose has always been to improve lives. That’s why I became a Boy Scout, a West Point Cadet, and a U.S. Army officer. That’s also why I joined Procter & Gamble, where I worked to improve the lives of people through P&G brands, and why I joined the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), where we work every day to improve the lives of the 22 million men and women who are America’s veterans. At VA, we’re reminded every day of veterans’ outsized contributions to our country. It’s our pride and privilege to care for those “who shall have borne the battle,” in Lincoln’s famous words. Without question, it’s the best, most inspiring mission in government, serving for the best, most deserving people in the nation.”
Another view of Vietnam veterans (The New Yorker)
Commentary: “From time to time during the American war in Iraq which began in 2003, aging Vietnam veterans wearing baseball caps and khaki jackets emblazoned with pins, patches, and the names of their units gathered at the small commercial airport in Bangor, Maine. A few older vets of more noble wars were sometimes among them, frail men from the Second World War and Korea, as they assembled in the passenger lounge to greet returning troops when their planes touched down for refuelling. Bangor would be the arrivals’ first contact with American soil since they left for the zone of combat. At the gate, the Vietnam vets usually formed two lines—as an avenue of welcome, of course, not a gauntlet. They were giving something that many of them felt they had not received decades earlier. Eventually, the strapping young men and women, looking vibrant in fatigues of desert colors, filed in, with heads high and backs straight, as the rows of bent and paunchy veterans applauded, shook hands, and patted backs. The lounge quieted down as other passengers realized what was going on and joined in a wave of appreciation. “Thank you for your service,” they said. I saw this many times, while dropping off and picking up relatives in Bangor, and the faces of the returning warriors always seemed too flat, too expressionless for the occasion. You might have expected some observable relief, at least, and grins as well. Perhaps flying home made the transition from seeing and doing the unthinkable too short compared with the journey back by ship from the Second World War and Korea, with too “little decompression time,” as the historian James E. Wright, who is finishing a book about those who served in Vietnam during the late nineteen-sixties, puts it. “There were no waiting crowds or bands at the airport for the Vietnam guys,” Wright told me recently. “Most of them had been warned to expect a hostile reception.” The animosity was probably less widespread than had been predicted, or than is now remembered, but “there was no ‘Welcome home,’ ” he said, “and in some cases there were protests and even outright hostility. So the veterans hurried home, often changing out of their uniform at the airport.”
Study: Veterans using VHA services have declining suicide rates (MedicalXpress.com)
Veterans who used services provided by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) had much lower suicide rates than veterans who did not use those services, according to a new analysis of a decade of suicide data. The research was published today in Psychiatric Services in Advance, a publication of the American Psychiatric Association. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and veterans are at a high risk for suicide – every day roughly 22 veterans commit suicide. This study directly compared veteran and nonveteran suicide rates while for the first time also looking at veterans who had used VHA services and those who had not. Researchers analyzed data from 23 states on more than 170,000 adult suicides over a 10-year period (2000-2010). During that time frame, the age-adjusted veteran suicide rate increased by approximately 25 percent while the comparable nonveteran rate increased by approximately 12 percent. The analysis found that the rate of suicide decreased significantly for veterans who used VHA services, while it spiked for veterans not using those services and increased for nonveterans. The suicide rate for all veterans is significantly higher than for nonveterans.
Why a trend of veteran suicide? (Philly.com)
Commentary: “Are we doing enough to help those who have served in uniform to integrate successfully into the civilian world? The answer appears to be a decisive “no.” It’s hard to determine precisely how many veterans commit suicide, but the most frequently cited figure comes from a 2013 Veterans Affairs study that found 22 veterans die by their own hands each day. Experts warn that the number may be significantly higher, as there is no centralized data source of veteran suicides, and the numbers must be extrapolated from state-level estimates. The challenges of returning from combat are not new. But the sheer numbers of veterans’ suicides today is cause for alarm. One troubling aspect of this trend is that it occurs against a backdrop of more extensive support and prevention resources for veterans than ever before, thanks to substantial funding at both the federal and state levels. Moreover, less social stigma surround mental-health issues today. A century ago, the psychological and physical symptoms diagnosed as “shell shock” among World War I veterans were recognized as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, but dismissed by many as manifestations of cowardice or weakness. Fortunately, that’s not the case today. Most Americans view PTSD as a condition to be treated and managed. As an Afghanistan combat veteran, I’ve experienced those struggles firsthand, as did many of the men who served with me. Virtually everyone who has served in combat understands those challenges and works to overcome them. In response, policymakers have boosted funding to veterans’ suicide prevention and have given the problem more attention. Earlier this year, for example, Congress passed and the president signed a law aimed at improving VA psychiatric services and suicide prevention. So why, when mental-health issues are better understood and there are more resources, would veterans continue to attempt and commit suicide at such a high rate? Part of the problem may be the manner in which we’ve bureaucratized diagnosis and treatment through the VA.
U.S. military is failing its canine veterans (Yahoo! Politics)
Something was wrong with Baddy. It had been eight months since Charlsie Hoffman adopted the handsome 10-year-old Belgian Malinois, and together they had gotten used to taking long, uneventful walks around the neighborhood. Today started out the same. The sun was shining. The palms were swaying. And then, suddenly, Baddy stopped. Hoffman tugged on his leash, but Baddy wouldn’t budge. “We didn’t even walk that far,” Hoffman says. “I knew it was a hot day, but…” Her voice trails off. “Baddy tried to pee. He couldn’t. And then he lay down. I could just tell.” Hoffman was right. After a series of tests, the veterinarian confirmed that Baddy had prostate cancer. “I dropped to my knees and broke down,” Hoffman says. “It was like I had been hit by a car. I was like, ‘Why? Not only does Baddy have to die, but he has to suffer?’ It seemed so wrong.” The doctor reviewed Baddy’s treatment options. They could experiment with chemotherapy, which is hit-or-miss and would probably make Baddy feel even worse. They could remove his prostate altogether, which would make him incontinent. Or they could try something called IMRT — intensity-modulated radiation therapy. Fewer side effects, a better chance of shrinking the tumor. Without IMRT, Baddy would probably be dead in four months; with it, he could live another two years. They both agreed that it was the best option. The only drawback? The treatment would cost Hoffman $12,000. But there was a difference: Baddy wasn’t just any dog. He was a retired military working dog, or MWD. As a member of the Marine Corps’ HMX-1 canine squadron, Baddy had been responsible for safeguarding the presidential helicopter, Marine One, on roughly 200 domestic and international missions. Hoffman, a Marine herself, had been Baddy’s handler on more than 25 of those missions. Trained to sniff for explosives and attack assailants, Baddy had spent eight years of his life personally protecting both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, and he had received the finest 24-hour veterinary care while doing it — at no cost to Hoffman or any of his other handlers. But as soon as Hoffman adopted Baddy, the government stopped supporting him — the same as any other retired MWD. No transportation from the HMX-1 kennel in Quantico, Va., to a base closer to his new home in Los Angeles. No medical coverage to defray the cost of treating the hip dysplasia he’d developed while in the Marines. And certainly no $12,000 for combating the cancer that was now killing him.
Wounded Warrior Project takes on other veterans groups (The Dailly Beast)
For a charity supposedly devoted to helping veterans, the Wounded Warrior Project spends an enormous amount of time suing or threatening to sue small non-profits—spending resources on litigation that could otherwise be spent on the vets they profess to serve. At issue is the Wounded Warrior Project’s brand: the charity has become particularly litigious over the use of the phrase ‘wounded warrior’ or logos that involve silhouetted soldiers. At least seven such charities have discussed their legal problems with The Daily Beast. The Wounded Warrior Project has become, in the words of those they’ve targeted for legal action, a “bully,” more concerned about their image and increasing the size of the organization than actually providing services to wounded warriors. “They do try to bully smaller organizations like ourselves… They get really territorial about fundraising,” said the president of one charity with the name “wounded warrior” in their title. He asked to remain anonymous out of fear that the Wounded Warrior Project would launch legal action against his group if he spoke out. His group hasn’t been sued, but he said individuals from the WWP had pressured him to change their name. “They’re so huge. We don’t have the staying power if they come after us—you just can’t fight them.” The Wounded Warrior Project’s latest target is the Keystone Wounded Warriors, a small, all-volunteer charity based in Pennsylvania. How small? Keystone Wounded Warriors had a total annual revenue of just over $200,000 as recently as 2013. That’s less than the $375,000 that Wounded Warrior Project executive director Steven Nardizzi was personally paid in 2013.
State Senate bill could trim benefits for Texas veterans (KXAN-Austin)
Texas veterans are battling a bill that would trim their benefits. Since 1923, the Hazlewood Act has provided educational benefits to qualified veterans. A “legacy provision” in 2009 allowed them to pass unused credit hours to their kids, but that has resulted in lost revenue for state schools. Army veteran Rick Schumacher served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. He’s been relying on the legacy provision of the Hazlewood Act to help put his girls through college. “It’s been a real, big burden lifted to have that in my back pocket for them,” said Schumacher. “To lose it, is pretty substantial to me.” That help is in jeopardy if Senate Bill 1735 passes. Proposed by Sen. Brian Birdwell, the measure would require six years of service for a veteran to be eligible to pass hours along to their children, and implement a 15-year time limit on use of the exemption from the veteran’s end of time in service. It also reduces the number of hours a veteran may pass to their children from 120 to 60, limits the use of the Hazlewood exemption undergraduate programs for legacies and requires veterans and legacies to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).