June 23 Veterans News Update

June 23 Veterans News Update

Veterans news updateVA’s broken promise to thousands of vets exposed to mustard gas (NPR.org)
In secret chemical weapons experiments conducted during World War II, the U.S. military exposed thousands of American troops to mustard gas. When those experiments were formally declassified in the 1990s, the Department of Veterans Affairs made two promises: to locate about 4,000 men who were used in the most extreme tests, and to compensate those who had permanent injuries. But the VA didn’t uphold those promises. NPR interviewed more than 40 living test subjects and family members, and they describe an unending cycle of appeals and denials as they struggled to get government benefits for mustard gas exposure. Some gave up out of frustration. In more than 20 years, the VA attempted to reach just 610 of the men, with a single letter sent in the mail. Brad Flohr, a VA senior adviser for benefits, says the agency couldn’t find the rest, because military records of the experiments were incomplete. “There was no identifying information,” he says. “No Social Security numbers, no addresses, no … way of identifying them. Although, we tried.” Yet in just two months, an NPR research librarian located more than 1,200 of them, using the VA’s own list of test subjects and public records. The test subjects who are still alive are now in their 80s and 90s. Each year more of their stories die with them. “We weren’t told what it was,” says Charlie Cavell, who was 19 when he volunteered for the program in exchange for two weeks’ vacation. “Until we actually got into the process of being in that room and realized, wait a minute, we can’t get out of here.” Cavell and 11 other volunteers were locked inside a gas chamber with mustard gas piping inside. Inside the chamber, Cavell’s skin started to turn red and burn in the places where he sweat the most: between his legs, behind his neck and under his arms. Blisters that eventually increased to the size of half dollar coins started to grow in the same places. At the end of the second hour, the officer ordered Cavell back to his barracks and to continue wearing his gas-saturated uniform. Cavell, now 88 years old, says the officer threatened him and the other test subjects: If they told anyone about their knowledge or participation in the experiments, they would receive a dishonorable discharge and be sent to military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Former CIA Director Porter Goss says the VA has mishandled these claims. Goss was a Florida congressman when he was contacted by a group of constituents who were used as test subjects and spoke out on their behalf. “This should have been ancient history by now,” he told NPR. “And these people should have long been appropriately provided for.” Goss says he thinks the VA never delivered on its promises because this issue has been disappearing on its own for years. About 500 World War II veterans die each day, according to data maintained by the VA. “I do think there is a little bit of that attitude of: ‘This is today’s problem, it will be gone by tomorrow,’ ” Goss says. “But this is a bargain we made. And this goes to the essence of ‘Can you trust your government?’ And in this case I’m afraid the answer is not yet.”

Supreme Court to rule on veterans’ rights in business (SCOTUSblog)
The Supreme Court on Monday stepped into the years-long controversy over whether federal agencies are doing enough to assure that government contracts go to businesses run by military veterans, especially those who were wounded during their service.  The Justices accepted a case from a Maryland small business which has repeatedly protested that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has not been doing its part. The case of Kingdomware Technologies, Inc., v. United States was the only case in which the Court granted review in a new round of orders.  It will be argued and decided in the next Term. Congress, frustrated by little success in getting federal agencies to give work to businesses owned by veterans, decided in 2006 to try to make the VA a model for other parts of the government to follow.  The new case before the Justices is a test of whether, under the 2006 law, the VA has a mandatory duty to set aside business for veterans’ firms, or has a wide measure of discretion whether to do so. Raising that issue is Kingdomware, a firm based in a suburb of Washington, D.C., that provides government and private customers with a range of information technology services.  It is owned by Army veteran Timothy Barton, who is disabled from wounds suffered during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when the U.S. military forced Iraq to back out of its invasion of neighboring Kuwait. The firm has been carrying on a running legal battle with the VA, in protests over its claim that the VA is failing to carry out its obligations to veteran-owned contractors.  Kingdomware won a series of protests to the Government Accountability Office, but decided to sue the VA when the GAO rulings did not have the kind of impact that it believed the 2006 law required. At the center of the legal dispute is the meaning of the word “shall” in a congressional mandate to VA to use a “rule of two” in deciding whether to award agency contracts to small businesses owned by veterans.  The law says that the VA “shall” award contracts to veteran-owned small businesses if at least two such firms bid for a contract at a fair price for the government.

Congress to examine fraud in VA’s vet-owned business goals (Military.com)
Lawmakers on Tuesday will hear allegations of manipulation and fraud by Veterans Affairs Department employees into the agency’s goals for serving veteran-owned and service disabled-owned small businesses. Heading up the scheduled witnesses is Jan Frye, VA deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics — and a high-ranking whistleblower since last month, when a March 19 memo he sent to Secretary Bob McDonald claiming widespread mismanagement, fraud and waste came to light. “VA small-business goal accomplishments have been and continue to be vastly overstated,” Frye told McDonald in the 35-page memo, a copy of which was acquired by Military.com. “We have announced each year since 2008 that we have exceeded our directed goals for [veteran-and disabled veteran-owned] small businesses. “The stated percentages touted are absolutely false,” he said. According to Frye, the numbers VA uses to compile the data for Congress comes from the Federal Procurement Data System, where all information on federal contracting is stored. But agency purchases millions of dollars in goods and services each year without contracts, often through agents using purchase cards – with no contract required.  This data is not entered into the FPDS, so that what Congress sees is not an accurate of reflection of how and where VA buys, according to Frye. “Sadly in my opinion, in addition to our illegal acts, we’ve duped the veteran-owned business community we are required by law to advocate for,” Frye told McDonald in the March 19 memo.

Haley VA: Dead rats show pest control is working (Tampa Bay Times)
The dead rats falling from the kitchen ceiling of one of the nation’s busiest veterans hospitals show the facility’s pest control efforts are working. That is what officials at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, Fla., said Monday in the wake of a Tampa Bay Times report that revealed the hospital is battling a severe infestation of rats and cockroaches. Haley spokeswoman Karen Collins provided some detail about the hospital’s “vermin control” efforts that include rat traps placed on ceiling tiles in a kitchen that prepares food for hospitalized veterans and a canteen kitchen that serves veterans, staff and visitors. “It’s important to remember that the rodents found deceased means our efforts are working,” Collins said in an email statement to the Times. “Patients should be confident in our efforts to ensure their health and safety. We remain diligent in our pest control efforts.” Somebody sent Haley’s infection control chief Thursday color photos showing three dead rats that fell from the ceiling of the hospital’s main kitchen, according to internal Haley emails obtained by the Times. A dead mouse also was found. “I have … been made aware that there is a major roach problem in the kitchen and that some roaches have been found on patients’ trays,” the infection control director, Miriam Ruisz, wrote in an email Thursday to the Haley “enviro team,” which handles pest control at the hospital.

Senator asks VA chief about ‘continuing culture of chaos’ that fails vets (The Washington Post)
In the five weeks since an explosive memo from the top procurement official at Veterans Affairs went public, the major contracting abuses the document alleged are pervasive throughout the agency have angered veterans and members of Congress. But Secretary Robert McDonald, to whom Jan R. Frye addressed a 35-page letter in March accusing VA of running afoul of federal acquisition laws, has said publicly only that he has referred Frye’s concerns to the inspector general’s office. And that means it could be months before a full investigation is done. Apparently frustrated with the slow pace of the investigation, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has written to McDonald to ask what he is doing to change the practices Frye brought to light, among them the widespread use of purchase cards — usually meant as a convenience for minor purchases of up to $3,000 but used routinely to buy billions of dollars worth of medical supplies without contracts. “Prior to your confirmation, you pledged to me that you would clean up the VA,” Grassley wrote to McDonald on June 19. “Unfortunately, time and again, news reports highlight instances that illustrate a continuing culture of chaos at the VA that fails our veterans.” Grassley is a longtime advocate for whistleblowers. Frye, deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics, is an unusual whistleblower in that he is a senior leader at the agency he’s accusing of mismanagement. But he certainly has blown a whistle. Grassley’s letter follows two hearings held by the House Veterans Affairs Committee, during which Frye testified about a culture of “lawlessness and chaos” at the Veterans Health Administration, the health-care system for 8.7 million veterans. VA senior leaders were berated by Democrats and Republicans and hard-pressed to explain whether they are making changes to put contracts in place for medical supplies and services for veterans who are served by private doctors.

Congress presses VA to identify high-risk colleges (Stars & Stripes)
Could tweaking the Department of Veterans Affairs website have saved some veterans from suffering through the collapse of Corinthian Colleges? A group of congressional Democrats think so and on Monday asked the VA to give veterans researching the best use of the education benefits a heads up about for-profit colleges under investigation for suspicious activity. Thirteen House and Senate lawmakers wrote a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald urging him to add a list of high-risk institutions to its online GI Bill education benefit tool as a way to arm veterans against what they say can be unscrupulous and predatory institutions. “Veterans using the GI Bill comparison tool should be made aware that a school is under investigation by or has settled with federal or state enforcement agencies for misleading students or predatory practices,” the lawmakers wrote. “While an investigation does not amount to a finding of guilt, it does indicate that there are serious concerns with a school that warrant law enforcement action.” The VA did not immediately return a request for comment Monday. Corinthian Colleges ran into financial troubles and various investigations last year before shuttering all of its locations in April and leaving about 16,000 students — many who were veterans using GI Bill benefits — in the lurch. The for-profit college collected $186 million in taxpayer dollars through Post 9/11 GI Bill education benefits before its collapse, according to the lawmakers.

Warrior Games lifts spirits of wounded veterans (The Washington Times)
Marine Lance Cpl. Duncan Mathis rolled to the sidelines of the basketball court in his sport wheelchair, sweat dripping from his face after a hard practice, slipped on his prosthetic leg and then walked out of the gym at Quantico. The 21-year-old lost his left leg after falling to the bottom of an 80-foot well during a night raid in 2013 in Helmand province, Afghanistan. “Love that place,” he joked. “Thinking about getting a time share.” While Lance Cpl. Mathis slipped in and out of consciousness at the bottom of the well, a firefight broke out above ground that made it too dangerous for the medical evacuation helicopter to land. Pararescuers finally came down to get him four hours later. He tried to save his shattered leg for more than two years before deciding to amputate. Participating in last year’s Warrior Games prior to having his leg amputated and getting involved with the wheelchair basketball team showed him that life would go on even with one less limb. “I thought, ‘This isn’t going to be so bad, I’m still going to be able to live my life and do stuff,’” he said. The Warrior Games, which began last week at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, is an annual competition between military branches for wounded service members that encourages competition, camaraderie and getting back in shape after a major injury. Now in its fifth year, about 200 service members and veterans will compete in teams from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Special Operations and British military. The athletes will compete in various sports including sitting volleyball, cycling, track and field, rugby, swimming and wheelchair basketball. This is the first year that the Pentagon is organizing the games, which were previously run by the United States Olympic Committee and held at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “Each of you is a testament to the healing power of sport,” said Defense Secretary Ashton Carter at the opening of the games Friday. “Sports provide a place to come together, to learn, to grow, to rehabilitate — sports keep us going. They can fuel a sense of purpose, and they remind us that we can get back up, dust off our uniforms and push ourselves to our limits once again.”

N.Y. vets push bill on treatment for trauma-related crimes (Albany Times Union)
Military veterans gathered at the Capitol on Monday to share stories and garner press for a bill that continues to fall short of passage in both the Senate and Assembly. The “Justice for our Veterans Act” would ensure that former members of the armed services are given the chance to receive consideration in court if they suffer from mental illnesses — including post-traumatic stress disorder or any of the neurological problems caused by traumatic brain injury — as a result of their service.  “We as a nation put our veterans in a very difficult and dangerous situation,” said Art Cody, Navy captain and veteran of Afghanistan, “and now it’s time to give back to them.” The bill would allow veterans accused of most crimes to receive treatment for their mental illnesses instead of being incarcerated, but only if they were eligible for the program. The screening process for the Alternative Disposition Program is extensive and includes several steps to determine if the defendant should get treatment rather than jail time. Bob Becker, a Marine veteran, said “the very core of the bill is that every veteran gets an evaluation.”

Charlotte Hornets join in service projects to help veterans (The Charlotte Observer)
The NBA’s Charlotte Hornets joined on three separate projects Monday to benefit military personnel as part of its annual day of service. The team worked with broadcast partner FOX Sports Carolinas/SportSouth and Bank of America in its “Swarm to Serve” effort. The Hornets and FOX Sports Carolinas/SportSouth also donated $200,000 to CPCC’s veterans employment fund. The service projects consisted of refurbishing the veteran’s center at Central Piedmont Community College, packing care kits for local veterans in need and helping make home repairs for a local veteran in the community. Hornets Chairman Michael Jordan joined to announce the addition of a fourth pillar, military, to the Charlotte Hornets Foundation. Military support adds to the foundation’s three current pillars: education, hunger and wellness.

Consultant expects longer Omaha VA hospital funding delay (KETV-Omaha)
A consultant’s report says funding to build a replacement for Omaha’s aging Department of Veterans Affairs hospital may be even further away than expected. In 2011 the VA unveiled plans for a 1 million-square-foot replacement in Omaha to serve Nebraska and western Iowa veterans. Congress approved $56 million to start the project planning, and it tentatively was scheduled to open in 2018. The analysis by Omaha-based Booz Allen Hamilton released Monday says funding now could be delayed until the late 2020s. The analysis points to a $9 billion backlog of approved projects and VA infrastructure needs that could reach $60 billion. “There never really was any real chance there was going to be a new hospital here,” said U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford, D-2nd District.

Fort Hood pushes jobs for soldiers entering civilian life (Army Times)
Each year about 11,000 soldiers depart the post at Fort Hood, stepping back into the civilian life and the private workforce. Some have little trouble transitioning into jobs. Others tap their GI Bill benefits, head to college and pursue a degree. Yet many of them stumble over the first few steps off-post. The skills they picked up in the military often don’t translate well to corporate America, and many return to hometowns with few opportunities. So Col. Matt Elledge has set himself a lofty goal: to help every one of Fort Hood’s transitioning soldiers line up a job or a slot in school before they leave the Army. It’s an impossible target, he admits, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying. Elledge, the garrison commander, has launched four new initiatives to help smooth the path between military service and the civilian workforce. Last month, he met with members of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce to pitch one of those efforts — a program that will place soldiers, mostly officers, with local companies for intensive, 13-week fellowship programs. “It’s kind of like test-driving a new car,” Elledge said of the Heroes Corporate Fellowship Academy. “If we can get the transitioning soldier into a company, they’ll like what that soldier brings to the table.”