June 17 Veterans News Update

June 17 Veterans News Update

Veterans news updateSenate rejects military sexual assault proposal (USA Today)
The U.S. Senate voted Tuesday for the second time in two years to reject an effort to change how the military handles sexual assault cases. Under a bill proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., decision-making power over which cases to prosecute would shift from commanders to military prosecutors. Gillibrand’s proposal received support from 50 senators, well short of the 60 she needed to pass her amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a supporter of the proposal, predicted the shift in decision-making power would eventually occur, perhaps after a new president is elected in 2016. Cruz is among the many Republicans seeking the GOP nomination for that election. “Change is coming in January 2017 when a new commander in chief will be sworn into office,” Cruz said. “And whoever that commander in chief is, he or she has an obligation to protect all of the men and women serving in the military.” Gillibrand’s proposal drew five fewer supporters in Tuesday’s vote than it drew last year. Although two Republicans who opposed the proposal last year — John Thune of South Dakota and Mark Kirk of Illinois — now support it, only three of the 10 new senators elected in November voted in favor. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., noted that reporting of incidents has risen 70% since 2012. “Incidents are down — that’s meaningful progress,” she said. “Victims are coming forward because they have renewed confidence.” But Gillibrand said retaliation against people reporting sexual assaults did not drop from 2012 to 2014. And the military did not prosecute a single retaliation claim last year, she said. She agreed that the reforms enacted last year are significant. “We’ve made a lot of changes to the military justice system that are going to make the reporting of these cases easier for survivors,” Gillibrand said in an interview. “They are now going to have special victim’s counsels. But I don’t see 20,000 rapes, sexual assaults and unwanted sexual contacts in a year as progress. I think it’s outrageous. It’s the same number we had as in 2010.”

Sinise warns of divide between American public, veterans (U.S. News & World Report)
Gary Sinise, the actor, singer and veterans advocate of “Forrest Gump” fame, is urging the American public to maintain awareness of veterans issues at a time when supposed war weariness following 14 years of U.S. conflict abroad is further distancing Americans from the problems facing those in uniform. “There is a major epidemic within the military community,” he said Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington. Sinise – founder of the Gary Sinise Foundation, a partner of groups like TAPS and a frequent performer at USO shows – pointed to conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries as among the mental and physical wounds suffered by U.S. veterans of protracted and bloody wars. The effects of these treatment-intensive conditions have been magnified by the highly publicized dysfunction within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, he said, along with dwindling enthusiasm for supporting service members. “This is where the challenge becomes greatest as we do draw down, as we leave the battle spaces, as we leave the front pages,” Sinise said. “That’s where somebody like me can come in and be useful.” Sinise cited the findings of a 2012 Pew Research Center poll, which found 84 percent of modern-era veterans did not believe the American public understood the problems they faced. In turn, 71 percent of Americans felt the same distance from the troops. “The need is enormous – there is lots of unmet needs out there and we continue to face these challenges,” Sinise said. “The American people, we’re tired of war. We’ve been at war for 14 years. “Yet our military continues to serve,” he added, “they continue to have challenges.”

Legion to VA: Find the missing $54 million documentation (BusinessWire)
“Unbelievable,” was how American Legion National Commander Michael D. Helm described a report that more than $54.4 million of prosthetics were purchased by VA employees in the Bronx using government credit cards. “Nothing here passes the smell test,” Helm said. “Each time the government cards were used for this purpose, it was for $24,999. This is just under the limit for the contracting guidelines. It’s either a remarkable coincidence or an orchestrated effort to get around contracting requirements. The president promised to preside over ‘the most transparent administration in history.’ Apparently VA didn’t get the memo.” Helm pointed out that for the total to be so high, the Bronx VA must be providing an extraordinarily high amount of prosthetics. “By my math it comes out to 2,177 transactions. Moreover, we hear that VA officials wanted to tell Congress that documents were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy when the dates don’t even match up. What next, the dog ate my homework? The American Legion has long supported the Department of Veterans Affairs because we believe the government has a solemn obligation to care for our veterans. But every day – with each scandal – it becomes more and more difficult. This is not just a slap in the face to our heroes who need prosthetics, but a complete disregard for the taxpayers who fund such purchases. We call on Congress and the administration to insist that VA document how this money was spent or refer this case to the Justice Department for possible prosecution.”

What are the best cities for veterans to live? (USA Today)
For years, maybe decades, members of the military have lived where the U.S. government has told them to live. So when that discharge paperwork comes through, how do they decide where to go? Among large cities, Virginia Beach, Va., ranked No. 1 for best places to live, with Colorado Springs, Colo., and San Antonio, Texas, in second and third place, respectively. Whereas Alexandria, Va., ranked No. 1 for medium cities and Arlington, Va., followed in second place. Centennial, Colo., came in third for vets in medium cities, according to the rankings. And as far as small cities, Glen Burnie, Md., topped the list. Bethesda, Md. and Ellicott City, Md., were named second- and third-best destinations. Many veterans don’t stray far from the military bases they were assigned to, government data indicates, and some will return to cities they were previously stationed. That’s probably a big factor behind a veteran population in San Antonio, Texas, at more than 100,000, said Bob Murdock, director of the city’s Office of Military Affairs. “When they were assigned here at one time or another, they had a very positive experience with the community,” Murdock said. “We are very proud of the moniker that we are Military City USA.”

Obama signs bill buying more time for beleaguered Colorado VA hospital (Military.com)
The nightmare construction project that is the veterans’ affairs medical center in Aurora, Colorado, has been saved from shut down with President Obama’s signing of legislation Monday directing more money to the construction. The legislation gives the VA “limited, one-time authority” to move about $150 million from 10 budget items and funds in order to continue work on the facility through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. The bill is the second one that Congress passed within the last three weeks to permit work to keep going on the Denver-area project, which has become the poster child for VA cost overruns and program delays. The White House said nothing beyond announcing Obama had signed the bill, nor has the VA commented. Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said last week when the full Senate had passed the bill that “Congress has now done everything that it can to ensure the continuation of this project. The VA and the administration must now clean up the mess they’ve made.”

Former Navy SEAL talks ‘resilience’ at Bush Center event (Dallas Morning News)
A former Navy SEAL spoke about resilience and helping people — specifically veterans — find their purpose while discussing his new book Tuesday night at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Eric Greitens’ book, “Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life,” has become a New York Times best seller since its March release. It details Greitens correspondence with a friend of his, a fellow Navy SEAL, who had reached out to Greitens after falling on hard times while transitioning home. “He called me after he had been arrested,” Greitens said. “So my buddy — who was once a Navy SEAL, war hero, entrepreneur, good father — was now an unemployed alcoholic on disability who was looking at the prospect of having his kids come to visit him in jail.” He said after his friend’s arrest, he began writing him letters about “resilience — about how you deal with pain and build wisdom.” The book aims to help people move past hardships and grow from it, he said.

Editorial: Trust and the VA (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
Trust can be lost in an instant — and take years to restore. So, when David Macpherson, the departing interim director of the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System, says restoring local veterans’ trust could take a decade, that’s a realistic view of his successor’s challenges. Destroying veterans’ trust in the Pittsburgh VA were the systemic management problems — per federal investigators — behind its 2011-12 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak. Killing at least six veterans and sickening 16, it led to Terry Gerigk Wolf’s ouster as director, Dr. Macpherson’s yearlong interim tenure and his succession as interim director by Barbara Forsha, deputy director in Pittsburgh and a former Erie VA Medical Center acting director. Also eroding trust was the wider VA scandal of phony waiting lists falsely indicating veterans were getting medical appointments within 30 days when hundreds locally and thousands nationwide weren’t. New federal data show such long waits down by half in Pittsburgh. Ms. Forsha must continue that trust-restoring effort along with town hall meetings, regular sessions with veterans advocacy groups and greater transparency. Having so egregiously breached the sacred mission with which it is entrusted, locally and nationally — ensuring the best care for those who have worn our nation’s uniform — the VA must do all in its power to rectify its failings and restore veterans’ trust, however long it takes.

Pennsylvania American Legion calls for changes at Pittsburgh VA (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
The Pennsylvania American Legion called Tuesday for “a complete culture change” in the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System, where several workers were put on paid leave because of a co-worker’s harassment accusations. “At a time when VA desperately needs to attract smart problem-solving professionals, it cannot tolerate juvenile behavior such as this,” state American Legion Commander Dennis Haas said in a statement. “Those involved in this type of boorishness need to grow up or get off the VA payroll.” VA Pittsburgh officials have confirmed placing five employees on paid administrative leave because of several incidents of harassment alleged last week. Workers reportedly used duct tape to subdue a co-worker in the VA hospital in Oakland — a scene that Haas likened to “a college frat house prank rather than the professional environment” veterans expect. VA Pittsburgh interim Director Barbara Forsha said the health system will be “as thorough as possible” in investigating the matter and will evaluate the overall workplace environment. She said the VA has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment.

Traumatic brain injury increases unemployment rates in veterans (Neurology Advisor)
Veterans who suffer from deployment-related traumatic brain injury (D-TBI) are more likely to be unemployed than veterans without traumatic brain injury (TBI), according to data presented at the American Headache Society Annual Scientific Meeting in Washington, D.C. TBI is a common issue for deployed soldiers, affecting 15% to 20% of soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. In this study, the researchers investigated if the psychosocial effects of TBI affected employment and marital status of veterans with D-TBI. “In addition to the medical and headache aspects that TBI produces, we sought to determine if TBI produces psychosocial problems that may impair employment and marital relationships,” said study researcher James R. Couch, MD, of the University of Oklahoma Medical School. The study included 67 veterans with D-TBI and 67 matched controls without TBI who were part of Operation New Dawn (OND), a VA program for deployed veterans. The researchers interviewed each participant about their marital status, employment status, post-concussion symptoms, headache status, depression symptoms, and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

NHL’s Sabres, nonprofit agency team to help female vets (Buffalo News)
A friendship sparked after two Pennsylvania State University alumni met at a college football game years ago has brought the Buffalo Sabres together with a local nonprofit housing agency to convert a former YMCA on Buffalo’s East Side into affordable housing for single mothers who are military veterans. The Buffalo Sabres Foundation, the team’s charitable arm, is teaming up with Saving Grace Ministries and True Community Development Corp. on a $2.7 million renovation. It will feature 16 low-income apartments for veterans, plus a first-floor community center and recreational space for inner-city youth that will be operated by the Resource Council of Western New York. Rents will be set on a sliding scale, based on income. The one- and two-bedroom units are designed for families at or below 60 to 80 percent of the area’s median income. “This project represents a historic partnership between the Buffalo Sabres and two agencies that have long-standing ties to Buffalo’s East Side,” said the Rev. Terry J. King, CEO of Saving Grace Ministries. “We are grateful for this opportunity to provide affordable housing to those who have served our country, as well as their families.” The new Patriot Heights Apartment Project at 347 E. Ferry St. will take the historic former Humboldt YMCA – one of the earliest African-American YMCAs built in the city – and put it back to a neighborhood use. “We are proud to be a partner in this important project that will help Buffalo’s military veterans in such a profound way,” said Clifford G. Benson, the Sabres’ chief development officer, and president of the Buffalo Sabres Foundation.

ESPYs to honor basketball star turned wounded warrior (Military Times)
A college basketball star turned wounded Army veteran will be the second recipient of the Pat Tillman Award for Service at next month’s ESPY Awards ceremony, designed to honor the year’s best sports moments and personalities. Danielle Green, an Army specialist who lost an arm in a 2004 attack in Iraq, will receive the award for inspirational service and patriotism at the July 15 awards ceremony, being broadcast nationally on ABC. Hers will be among the first awards presented at the event, before a crowd of professional athletes and celebrities. In an interview with Military Times, Green called the award a surprise and an honor, especially given its namesake. “Pat Tillman was an extraordinary human being,” she said. “I remember reading about him 11 years ago, I was hurt a month after he was hurt. So I just feel honored and grateful to be part of his legacy.” Green was a scholarship guard at Notre Dame University in the late 1990s, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She took those skills back to her hometown of Chicago to become a teacher and basketball coach for a few years, but enlisted in the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. As a specialist in the 571st Military Police Company, she lost her lower left arm in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Baghdad in May 2004. Green was one of the first female service members injured in Iraq, and was medically retired from the service about seven months later. Since she was left-handed, the injury forced her to relearn thousands of everyday tasks with her nondominant hand. At the same time, she went back to school to earn a master’s degree in counseling. Today, the 39-year-old works as a readjustment therapist at the South Bend Veterans Center in Indiana.

Athletes warming up for 2015 Warrior Games (Military Times)
More than 250 injured or disabled troops and veterans are arriving at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, this week for the sixth annual Warrior Games, a 10-day sports competition that pits the nation’s best Paralympic-style military athletes against each other. For the service members, the games are an opportunity to show off their athleticism while sparring with troops on the battlefield of sport. For spectators, the events offer the fierce excitement of competition with a chance to “know their military a little better,” Warrior Games spokesman Marine Corps Capt. James Ferguson said Friday. “It’s a wonderful opportunity … for the American public to see those who have served in a time of war and overcome incredible challenges … to see the true definition of courage,” Ferguson said. The games, which kick off June 19, will be the first hosted outside Colorado Springs, Colorado, since they were established in 2010. Teams of 45 athletes from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Special Operations Command and the United Kingdom will compete in eight events, including wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, archery, track, field, cycling, shooting and swimming. In a new event this year, U.S. troops will take on a U.K. contingent in exhibition wheelchair rugby, a sport Ferguson promises will be as exciting as “Murderball,” the 2005 documentary on the sport. “It can be pretty brutal. These athletes are here to win,” Ferguson said.

VA watchdog agrees to brief relatives on vet’s death (Green Bay Post Crescent)
The chief watchdog at the Department of Veterans Affairs rebuffed a request this month to brief family members on an investigation into their veteran relative’s death at the VA Medical Center in Tomah, saying it would be “inappropriate” given legal action brought by the family. But on Tuesday, after complaints from the family, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, and Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, and inquiries from USA TODAY, the VA inspector general relented and agreed to share findings with family members of 74-year-old Thomas Patrick Baer, who died after treatment at the Tomah facility in January. “We extend our deepest sympathy to the veteran’s family, and will provide the Baer family with our final report prior to the time it is provided to Congress and VA,” said Catherine Gromek, a spokeswoman for interim Inspector General Richard Griffin. She declined to say if Griffin’s office would extend the same courtesy to family members of 35-year-old Jason Simcakoski, who died from mixed drug toxicity as an inpatient at Tomah last August. “We have not completed our final report regarding Jason Simcakoski’s care and it is premature to discuss plans for briefing either Congress or the family at this time,” Gromek said. Both the Simcakoski and Baer families have expressed frustration with the lack of information they have received about investigations into the deaths of their loved ones, which have been ongoing for more than four months. For the Baer family, that frustration boiled into anger earlier this month when they learned the inspector general had reached out to members of Congress from Wisconsin offering to brief them on findings before they are publicly released but refusing to allow the Baers to attend.

Brooklyn VA hospital closing 25-bed inpatient unit in July (SILive.com)
The VA New York Harbor Healthcare System has decided to close one of the inpatient units at its Brooklyn campus effective July 1. The closure of the 25-bed wing will leave the VA hospital with two inpatient units, totaling 46 beds; a 10-bed intensive care unit, and a mental health unit, said Martina Parauda, director of VA New York Harbor Healthcare. Parauda said the administration decided to close the wing due to a budget shortfall. The closure is expected to save $2 million, mostly in staff salaries, she added. “With my management team, we pulled data and said, ‘We don’t want to cut any program we provide to veterans.’ … Last year when we looked at the occupancy rate on any given day, 65 percent of the 71 beds in the three units had a patient in them. … And this year it’s been 62 percent,” she said. “This tells me that I have the ability to not affect patient care, and still provide all the services on the inpatient side, as opposed to outpatient.” All employees currently assigned to the unit will be placed in other vacant positions; no employees will lose their jobs, she said.

Nebraska vets, homeowners express concerns about VA campus plans (Lincoln Journal Star)
Veterans will have a new clinic in Lincoln. That message was clear during a public discussion Tuesday about the future of the Veterans Affairs campus, near O and 70th streets. But the clinic, which serves about 15,000 veterans, may not be at the VA campus. There are two processes underway relating to the VA clinic and the VA campus. The nonprofit Seniors Foundation and six partners have plans to add veteran and senior housing, including apartments and single-story four-plexes, plus medical office buildings to the campus. They would also like to build the new VA clinic at the northwest edge of the campus. The development group is unveiling its plans this week and hope to have a final contract with the federal government this fall for using the land under a 75-year lease agreement. Veterans Affairs is also in the middle of selecting a site and developer for a 100,000-square-foot clinic in Lincoln. Officials are looking at potential sites this week and should have a selection by the end of the year, according to information provided at Tuesday’s meeting. “I guarantee you 150 percent that you are going to get a new clinic (in Lincoln),” said Will Ackerman, with Veterans Affairs. And veterans will lose no services, said Duncan Fallon, site manager for the VA campus. Veterans, who attended a meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday, worried about whether they will keep clinic services in Lincoln, and some said they didn’t want to share the campus with seniors. But neighboring homeowners, who attended a 7 p.m. meeting, worried about how the changes will affect their homes and their backyard view. They objected to plans for a four-story apartment building for homeless veterans and a medical office building with parking, both to be built near their single-family homes.

Hillary Clinton to speak with vets during Reno campaign swing (Reno Gazette-Journal)
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will hold a roundtable discussion with local veterans during her first Reno visit of the 2016 campaign on Thursday. Clinton, fresh off her official announcement that she’s seeking the Democratic nomination for president, is scheduled to spend Thursday in Nevada. She will first give a speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officers in Las Vegas before traveling to Northern Nevada. According to her campaign, she will talk with veterans about “how best to serve those who have served our country.” The meeting will occur at VFW Historic Post 9211 off Moana Lane in Reno. Veterans from Northern Nevada will be invited to participate in the event, which won’t be open to the public at large.