U.S. government stops veterans’ enrollment at 5 more helicopter schools (The Los Angeles Times)
The government has ordered at least five additional helicopter training programs to stop enrolling more veterans, part of a continuing crackdown to end GI Bill abuses that have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. The latest restrictions have been imposed on programs in Arizona, Florida, Texas and Washington that have trained dozens of veterans at a cost of up to $150,000 each for two years — all billed to the government. The action followed a halt on new enrollments at Southern Utah University in Cedar City and Yavapai College in Prescott, Ariz., two of the most popular and expensive programs, which routinely charged more than $250,000 for a two-year course. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs began clamping down in March after the Los Angeles Times reported that helicopter flight companies were exploiting a loophole in the newest GI Bill to train veterans entirely at government expense, with no cap on what they could charge. The programs were cited for violating a requirement that nonveterans make up at least 15% of students in VA-funded programs, a rule aimed at ensuring that programs don’t exist solely on GI Bill money. The VA hadn’t been enforcing the rule. The crackdown is expected to significantly reduce helicopter flight training for veterans. Even the least expensive programs have found it difficult to attract other students. At Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, Wash., where tuition and helicopter flight fees run just under $82,000 for two years, 11 of the 12 students were veterans. “We didn’t start the program for veterans,” said Doug Sly, a spokesman. “But consciously or subconsciously, you knew those would be the only people with the resources to get in.” He said the college is appealing the VA suspension.
An end to jobless vets? New VA jobs program raises hopes (Christian Science Monitor)
The US Department of Veteran Affairs has launched a new program which offers individualized assistance to the roughly 50,000 unemployed veterans living on the street. Through the Homeless Veterans Community Employment Services program, more than 150 community employment coordinators (CECs) will help veterans at VA locations across the country by identifying those who are job-ready and establishing relationships with community employers who may be able to find them jobs. The coordinators will also connect veterans with resources to help them succeed in their jobs once they find employment. CECs have been hired at approximately 120 medical centers nationwide, and it’s expected that all VA Medical centers will have access to CECs within the next year. The US has made significant progress in reducing homelessness among veterans since President Barack Obama pledged to eliminate the problem in 2009. In the past five years, the number of veterans living on the streets has been reduced by 33%, and several cities, including Phoenix and Salt Lake City, have completely eliminated homelessness among veterans by giving them places to live. This Housing First approach, which operates under the idea that it’s important to provide the homeless with a roof over their heads before tackling other issues such as addiction or mental illness, has proven effective thus far in getting veterans off the streets, and seems to make economic sense as well. A 2009 analysis commissioned by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which handles the largest population of homeless veterans in the country, found that the monthly cost of housing and supportive services for one person was $605, while the public cost of caring for a person living on the streets was roughly $2,900 a month. Once they have been provided with a roof over their heads, it’s important for employable veterans to start looking for work, says Dennis Culhane, who directs the VA’s National Center on Homelessness.
Tricare additions for urgent care, mental health in defense bills (Military Times)
House and Senate lawmakers hashing out a compromise on their respective defense policy bills will mull over several military health provisions as they finalize the legislation. Discrepancies to be addressed include access to urgent care and other medical appointments, mental health services for troops, family members and veterans, pharmacy fees and birth control. The Senate bill would allow Tricare beneficiaries up to four visits a year for urgent care without referrals, a move designed to reduce the number of emergency room visits for nonemergency treatment. Earlier this year, the Defense Department proposed fining beneficiaries who frequently seek care at emergency rooms rather than make a physician’s appointment or wait until normal office hours. Service members and their families use ERs both at military and civilian hospitals at rates that exceed the national average, costing the government millions each year, according to reports from advocacy groups. The average cost of an ER visit is $531, while the average urgent care visit costs $131, according to the Senate report on the legislation. The House bill does not include the urgent care benefit but also seeks to address ER overuse by requiring DoD to provide appointments for beneficiaries within the time standards and wait time goals set by the department.
Veterans’ vigil on Pasadena’s ‘Suicide Bridge’ ends (The Los Angeles Times)
A weeklong vigil to raise awareness of suicides by military members concluded Saturday morning near the Pasadena landmark also known as the “suicide bridge.” Veterans have taken turns over the last week standing a round-the-clock sentry on the Colorado Street Bridge, the site of more than 150 deaths, in what organizers describe as “a call for action on the alarming rate of military suicide.” The event called “Not On My Watch” was organized by the Glendale nonprofit Wellness Works to coincide with the national Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Week. About 100 people gathered at the Elks Lodge near the bridge Saturday morning for a closing ceremony, said spokeswoman Kathy Lynch. Family members of three veterans who took their own lives received flags, she said. “It was just very, very beautiful,” Lynch said, adding that organizers hope to make the vigil an annual event.
Survivors of last Vietnam battle go back to honor missing comrades (Military.com)
Forty years ago, scores of inexperienced U.S. service members waged a largely forgotten battle in a largely unknown place to rescue a mysterious ship from an unfamiliar enemy. Forty-one American service members were killed in the operation, including three Marines who were left behind, ending the dark chapter of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia — one that many seemed more than willing to forget. In May, veterans of the battle of Koh Tang, also known as the “Mayaguez Incident” or the last battle of the Vietnam War, returned to the small, jungle-blanketed Cambodian island in the Gulf of Thailand for the anniversary of the ill-fated mission. They disregarded persistent health problems, braved the unrelenting demons that have plagued their thoughts since 1975, and carried a message to the U.S. government and the American public at large: We will never forget. “The heroes are still over there on the island or have been returned in caskets,” said Clark Hale, who was a 27-year-old Marine platoon sergeant in May 1975. “We came to remember them.”
Military chefs square off in D.C.’s barbecue battle (Stars & Stripes)
The smells of cooking drifted up and down Pennsylvania Ave. Saturday as military chefs diced, sliced and minced the morning hours away in preparation for the 23rd annual Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle. Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard chefs manned four tents for their own Military Chefs Cook-off. For a $5 donation to the USO, visitors can sample the fare from each represented military service (the Marines weren’t taking part), and vote for the best. Saturday, the chefs were preparing chicken recipes; Sunday, it will be pork. “We’re here to support the USO and give back to those who always support us,” said Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Chad Adams. “We’re here to rock it out, and this year the Navy’s not going to win.” The Coast Guard team prepared Jerk Chicken Mango, made with chicken thighs, Jamaican jerk seasonings dry rub, and mango chutney. “You have spicy, a lot of sweet, a little bit of heat,” Adams said. “So bon appétit.” The Air Force also went sweet and hot, with grilled chicken with a blackberry barbecue sauce, a mixed medley of vegetables and a cilantro/lime/jalapeno sauce. “I’m absolutely excited to be here,” said retired Air Force Col. Jamie Manker, the chief financial officer of the Veterans Benefits Administration. “Any day cooking is a great day in my book.” “I don’t think we’ll win, I know we’ll win,” Manker said. The Navy was cooking traditional barbecue chicken. “Not too flat, not too spicy,” said Keith Evans. Everything was made from scratch. Evans is retired Army, but was representing his active-duty Navy son. Team Army was cooking a sweet and spicy chicken dish with roasted red potatoes on the side. “We’re working well together as a team and making sure the food is delicious,” said Sgt. 1st Class Kristen McPhee, who is stationed at Fort Belvoir.
Veterans want apology from Sheriff’s candidate (The Lafayette Advertiser)
Mark Garber, a candidate for Lafayette Parish Sheriff who was awarded the Bronze Star for his work as a civilian interrogator with the Air Force in Iraq, has angered a couple of local military veterans who say he is pretending to be one of them. The Southwest Louisiana Veterans Coalition board wants an apology, while one Lafayette veteran said Garber should withdraw from the Sheriff’s race. Garber is pictured in campaign material dressed in military gear with a gun; his Bronze Star medal also is shown. To make it worse, local veterans said, Garber stood up at a banquet recently when military veterans were recognized. “He slapped the face of every veteran in Lafayette by portraying himself as a veteran,” said Daniel J. Bentley, commander of American Legion Post 69 of Lafayette. “He is not a veteran.” Garber told The Daily Advertiser , “I have never, ever claimed to be a military veteran.” But the website for his private legal practice with attorney C. Ray Murry recently stated: “Mr. Garber and Mr. Murry are military veterans.” The statement was changed Thursday after The Daily Advertiser brought it to Garber’s attention. He said the statement was written long ago and was worded improperly because his law partner is a veteran of the military. While in Iraq, Garber wore a uniform and carried weapons like military personnel, and was deployed on missions with soldiers. He considers himself a veteran of Iraq, but not a military veteran, he said. According to the citation that accompanied Garber’s Bronze Star medal, from March 24, 2006, until July 26, 2006, Garber “distinguished himself by meritorious achievement as an interrogator, Special Operations Task Force, while engaged in ground operations against the enemy at Joint Special Operations Command, Iraq.”
Tennessee veterans angry over loss of tax benefit (Chattanooga Times Free Press)
Veterans groups across Tennessee are fuming over changes to a property tax relief program for totally disabled veterans and elderly residents that will double taxes for some homeowners this year. But local and state officials hope this will be the only year affected veterans and seniors will have to endure larger tax bills. Since 1973, veterans who were completely disabled during service, their surviving spouses and other Tennesseans who are elderly or completely disabled could get state help paying their property taxes. The state would pay tax on the first $175,000 of appraised value on veterans’ homes, and on the first $25,000 of homes owned by the elderly or disabled. But starting July 1, the subsidy limit will be capped at $100,000 for veterans and $23,000 for the elderly or disabled. And new enrollees will face income caps. Completely disabled veterans with household incomes of $60,000 a year or more and seniors with incomes above $28,690 will not qualify. Those already enrolled in the program are not subject to the income limit. In Hamilton County, the change will mean a completely disabled veteran who owns a $250,000 house in the unincorporated county will see his or her 2015 tax bill double, from $518 in 2014 to $1,036. A disabled veteran in Chattanooga with a similar home will go from paying $951 in 2014 to $1,902 in 2015.
Bernie Sanders’ surge is partly fueled by veterans (The Boston Globe)
Vermont’s Bernie Sanders railed against the Vietnam War. He voted against invading Iraq — both times. He wants to cut the defense budget. He might not be a friend to the military, but many veterans believe he’s gone to war for them. And that’s why they’re out there cheering for a socialist as he launches a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. There’s the former Marine who drove about six hours to hear Sanders speak in Des Moines. There’s another former Marine, this one a registered Republican, going door-to-door to collect signatures so Sanders’ name will appear on the ballot in Indiana. Entire Reddit threads are dedicated to how veterans can best pitch Sanders to other veterans. “He is revered,” said Paul Loebe, a 31-year-old who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan during eight years of active duty and spends three hours a day updating a Facebook page promoting Sanders to veterans. “He’s very consistent with where he stands. He’s the first politician that I’ve believed in my life.” Sanders battled over veterans issues as chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee from 2013 until early this year, giving him an easy pitch to a crucial voting bloc of veterans, particularly in South Carolina where veterans make up more than 11 percent of the voting-aged population. There’s stiff competition for these voters, with front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton wooing them this month during a round table in Nevada. Even the leaders of veterans groups who praise Sanders acknowledge that the 73-year-old Democratic socialist isn’t an obvious champion for the flag-waving set of former military officers and enlistees. When asked if the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which recognized Sanders with its Congressional Award in March, had ever bestowed the honor on a socialist before, the group’s Washington executive director, Bob Wallace chuckled a bit. “No. No. No,” said Wallace, a man who won three Purple Heart medals during Vietnam. “What you have to do is put aside his other interests.”
Vets find new purpose through farming with help of college program (The Miami Herald)
Mat Santos stands at the edge of seven acres of land, the field of his future, pondering what to plant, grow and harvest and sell. “Hmmm, maybe acai or some other fruits and vegetable that I can grow organically,” he says, shovel in hand, surveying the overgrown lot, once home to a fish farm and, in another life, crops of malanga and sunflowers. This time three years ago, Santos was finishing up a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy. After deployments in Central and South America, Santos returned to civilian life in Miami, his hometown, to begin the next chapter. For months, Santos and his father scoured the southwestern unincorporated corner of Miami-Dade County looking for the perfect place to start an organic farm, with tropical vegetables and, maybe, livestock. Together, they purchased the land in January. Now Santos, 26, is learning the world of agriculture, from the art of planting to the new technology to marketing, with the help Florida International University’s new Veterans and Small Farmers Outreach program. The idea is to give veterans, along with minority and women farmers, the opportunity to learn or expand their knowledge of the business. For veterans returning from duty, the program offers a crash course in the farming life, a way to explore a new career option. Before Santos began his journey, he knew little about agriculture. But like the other students, he felt called to the land and work regulated not by man but by the seasons. “I want to learn everything I can about farming and plants and livestock,” says Santos, an FIU student who grew up in Doral. “It is really hard to break into the business. I am learning working alongside the farmers who are already doing it.” The program, with 19 students, takes a ground-level look at farming through workshops, training and paid apprenticeships. The students work at four different farms or nurseries in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to get hands-on experience. They are presented with some of the real-world, real-time problems that small farmers face in South Florida. They also attend weekly classes and training to learn the other side: farm risk and business management and financial accounting. This month, for example, the schedule includes introduction to QuickBooks and a course on horse ownership. The students are also assisted with USDA applications for loans.
Firm gets go-ahead to build veterans state home in Arkansas (Arkansas Online)
A contract signed Friday between the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs and a contractor clears the way for work to start on a $24 million veterans home in North Little Rock. Steve Craig, a general contractor with Craig Custom Construction, said his workers are prepared to start on the 31-acre site Monday. With the contract signed, he’s now waiting on final approval from the architecture firm, Polk Stanley Wilcox. A construction administrator with the Arkansas architecture firm said he’ll give a notice to proceed after he receives permission from the Arkansas Building Authority. “Signing the contract today was a major step,” said Jim Thacker with Polk Stanley Wilcox. “They [Craig Custom Construction] would like to start working next week, and I’m not aware of any reason why they couldn’t.” Spirits were high Friday afternoon as Craig, Thacker and state VA staff members gathered in department Director Matt Snead’s office for the signing. It came about 120 days after Craig Custom Construction, a Little Rock firm, was awarded the contract for $19,104,443. Though he could have submitted another bid because the original was good for only 90 days, Craig said he and his subcontractors stood by the price. “We were a little concerned about the delay, but we’re ready to go,” Craig said. “We’re ready to start building and ultimately get the thing occupied by the veterans.” The Central Arkansas Veterans Home will be built near the Eugene J. Towbin Healthcare Center, a VA hospital, on part of what used to be Emerald Park Golf Course. The campus will have a community building and eight 10,000-square-foot residences with room for 96 veterans. It will be the second of two state-owned veterans homes. The other is located in Fayetteville. The $24 million campus will be paid for with $7.5 million in state surplus funds and a $15.6 million construction grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The remaining amount was raised through donations.