July 16 Veterans News

July 16 Veterans News

Veterans news updateReport: Vets’ disability claims ended up in shred bins (Military Times)
A pair of California lawmakers want to know why paperwork required to finalize veterans’ disability claims ended up in a Los Angeles shredding bin. The latest embarrassing episode for the Veterans Affairs Department comes alongside questions surrounding 240,000 deceased veterans on agency medical waiting lists and worries from senators that physician credentialing problems in Arizona may stop cancer treatments for veterans there. Staffers for Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., said officials from the VA’s Inspector General’s Office confirmed they found key pieces of paperwork from veterans’ claims files “inappropriately placed in shred bins” at the department’s Los Angeles Regional Office. VA officials said only 10 files were misplaced in the bins, and the items would have been subject to additional review before being destroyed. They downplayed the problem as a one-time mistake from a small number of workers, not “malicious intent.” Full details of the findings won’t be released for several more weeks, and the exact number of cases affected has not yet been released by the VA Inspector General’s Office. But Brownley and Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., have called for hearings and an immediate review of how the regional office handles documents. “Such misconduct could have a devastating impact on the affected veterans and their families, resulting in the loss of critical information and adversely affecting the adjudication of veteran claims,” the two lawmakers wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald. “Simply put, this is unacceptable.” Seven years ago, after similar allegations of improper document shredding hit the department, the Inspector General recommended a host of new controls to ensure critical paperwork was not being lost in the system. Brownley and Ruiz questioned whether those suggestions have been properly implemented and whether new rules are needed.

Did VA’s internal politics create a massive health care backlog? (Washington Examiner)
Did the Department of Veterans Affairs’ own bureaucracy and internal politics lead to the huge backlog that denied many veterans care? Officials at the VA did not advise veterans to turn in their discharge papers when applying for health care benefits, documents show. That’s because the VA, faced with a mounting backlog of pending applications, may have sought to blame some of the delay on incomplete paperwork rather than its own failure to address the applications, a whistleblower alleged. Scott Davis, program specialist at the VA enrollment center in Atlanta, said the agency’s enormous backlog of applications for healthcare benefits is a self-inflicted wound. “This is something that VA was aware of and allowed to happen,” Davis, who has repeatedly blown the whistle on misconduct at his agency, told the Washington Examiner. “They just chose to ignore it.” At issue is whether VA officials told veterans not to submit their DD-214 forms, or discharge papers, when filling out applications for health care benefits. Emails obtained by the Examiner suggest the VA’s reason for avoiding the discharge papers was politically motivated. VA officials did not return requests for comment. In a Dec. 2013 email exchange, Lynne Harbin, deputy chief business officer of member services, discussed her intention to dodge questions posed by the American Legion about how many veterans were waiting to learn of their eligibility for VA health care. “Note that I am skirting the issue of the numbers of pending records and instead focusing on what it means and what we are doing about it,” Harbin wrote to colleagues. In an earlier email, Harbin expressed the VA’s need to resist asking for veterans’ discharge forms. “Interested in hearing what the data shows, but know that politically informing veterans to give us their DD214 would be unacceptable,” Harbin wrote in a June 2012 email exchange. A memo sent July 10, 2014 reminded VA network directors that “as a general rule, veterans will not be advised to furnish a DD-214 with their application for health benefits.”

Iran linked to deaths of 500 U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan (Military Times)
At least 500 U.S. military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were directly linked to Iran and its support for anti-American militants — a newly disclosed statistic that offers grim context for the Obama administration’s diplomatic deal with the Iranian regime aimed at curtailing the rogue nation’s nuclear ambitions. That figure underscores the controversy surrounding Washington’s deal with Tehran, a long-sought goal for the president — but one that is fiercely opposed by many Republicans in Congress and other critics. Many of those estimated 500 deaths occurred during the so-called surge in Iraq, when President George W. Bush ordered an influx of tens of thousands of troops to confront what had devolved into a sectarian civil war. Scores of American personnel were killed or maimed by highly lethal bombs, known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, that Iran manufactured and supplied to Shiite militias across the border in Iraq. Many EFPs were powerful enough to destroy U.S. Humvees and breach tank hulls. The startling number emerged last week as Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and Army veteran who served as an infantry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, pressed the issue at a confirmation hearing for Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, who is Obama’s nominee to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Senator,” Dunford responded, “I know the total number of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines that were killed by Iranian activities, and the number has been recently quoted as about 500. We weren’t always able to attribute the casualties we had to Iranian activity, although many times we suspected it was Iranian activity even though we didn’t necessarily have the forensics to support that.” The Defense Department does not specifically track casualties linked to Iran. The 500 estimate is a ballpark figure based on intelligence assessments, according to a Pentagon official familiar with Dunford’s remarks.

House panel OKs new rule for firing VA workers (Military Times)
A key House panel on Wednesday advanced plans to make it easier to fire Veterans Affairs Department employees and harder to punish whistleblowers, despite accusations from Democrats that the legislation tramples on the Constitution. The bill — which still has a long path through Congress and the White House before becoming law — would give the VA secretary the authority to punish any department employee “if [their] performance or misconduct warrants such removal or demotion.” That would streamline the appeals process to under one month and limit how long employees could sit on paid suspension. House Veterans Affairs Committee members said the legislation builds off similar employment authorities passed by Congress last summer that applied only to top-level department officials. It’s also designed to address frequent complaints from lawmakers about the VA’s inability to dismiss workers at the heart of several high-profile scandals. VA leaders have said that the process is complex and time-consuming, but also necessary to make sure employees’ rights are being respected. But bill sponsor and committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., accused those officials of too often opting for paid suspensions and job transfers over real solutions. He noted that one infamous recent case in which an employee was found guilty of taking a VA hospital patient to buy drugs took more than a year to resolve. “There are some rotten people in the department who need to be fired,” Miller said in an emotional speech at Wednesday’s hearing. “This is about doing what’s right. Are you going to stand with bureaucrats or veterans?”

Can the Agent Orange Act help those exposed to mustard gas? (NPR)
To understand the predicament of World War II veterans exposed to mustard gas, take a look at what happened to another set of American veterans who were exposed to a different toxic chemical. Last month, NPR reported that some of those World War II vets are still fighting for disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs because the agency says they don’t have enough proof to substantiate their claims. Alan Oates says that’s the same response Vietnam War veterans started receiving from the VA in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Owens was exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange, and he assumed it was harmless to humans. But years after coming home, he noticed a tremor in his left hand. “I had one finger that just one morning started moving back and forth,” he says. Oates made an appointment with his doctor and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He’s one of thousands of Vietnam veterans who came down with similar diseases — such as type II diabetes, skin disorders and rare cancers — after returning from the war. But when veterans first began reporting their illnesses, the VA said they didn’t have enough evidence to qualify them for service-related compensation. One of the problems was that the veterans couldn’t prove they were exposed to Agent Orange because it wasn’t recorded in their personnel records. So advocates for Vietnam veterans launched a lobbying campaign to change the way the VA treated their cases. Congress passed the Agent Orange Act in 1991, which required the VA to presume that anyone who served in and around Vietnam was exposed. The law now allows Oates and thousands of others to receive disability benefits for their diseases. Leaveck says a similar piece of legislation could help the World War II veterans who were exposed to mustard gas in secret military experiments. Thousands of enlisted men were tested. Like Agent Orange, those exposures were not recorded in military personnel records. NPR reported that some of the few World War II veterans who are still alive — now in their late 80s and early 90s — are still fighting for disability benefits because the VA says they don’t have enough proof.

Were nasty tweets aimed at VA whistleblowers? (Philly.com)
Officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs have opened an inquiry into allegations that a ranking manager posted derogatory and possibly threatening tweets aimed at whistle-blowers from the Philadelphia regional office. The first tweets were posted on the same day last year that investigators arrived at the Germantown facility to probe employee claims of mismanagement and misconduct. “So all you need to do is make false allegations and suddenly it’s gospel,” one tweet read. “You know who you are you piece of s-. You & your accomplice.” The Twitter account does not identify who maintains it. Its handle, @lina_g148, appears to match the name of Lina Giampa, the VA office’s longtime human resources manager. Public records suggest that Giampa’s house number is 148. A handful of other tweets on the account reference the VA, including one with the message #VAdrama. The VA would not discuss the details of the inquiry or the affected employees. When The Inquirer asked a spokesman if the agency was looking into the tweets and mentioned Giampa by name, he responded with a two-sentence statement: “The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) places a priority on the well-being of all employees. VBA is aware of the situation and is looking into the matter.” Some of the controversial tweets match dates when the office first found itself in the spotlight. On June 19, 2014 – the day that VA inspectors launched their probe with an unannounced visit to the office – @lina_g148 posted the tweet regarding “false allegations” and one other. “Your accomplice is a piece of s- too,” it read. “Say it to my face. Oh wait – that would require guts which you don’t have you coward. #coward.” The user posted again on July 15, 2014, one day after the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held an investigative hearing at which Kristen Ruell, a whistle-blower, testified about problems at the office. “You think you’re honorable,” the tweet reads. “You’re a disgrace. Shame on you!” Contacted late Wednesday afternoon after the VA confirmed its inquiry, Ruell acknowledged she was aware of the tweets and was “greatly bothered” by the timing.

Bill would let service dogs come home with veterans (USA Today)
Only Ellen could give Army veteran Josh Tucker the motivation to recover. The two served together in Afghanistan, where Tucker endured a traumatic combat brain injury in 2011. But it took about two years and the intervention of a congresswoman to get Ellen, a bomb-sniffing black Lab, back to Tucker. “How would you deny someone this?” asked U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat who helped return Ellen to Tucker, who is from Chandler but now lives in Virginia. “It makes no sense to have a talented dog like this sit in a runner (enclosure) when she could be helping a serviceman cope with PTSD.” A bill introduced last month is intended to make such reunions between soldiers and the dogs they served with more common. Inspired by her experience helping Tucker, Sinema along with Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn, sponsored the Military Working Dogs Retirement Act, which would require military working dogs retired overseas to be sent back to the States at government expense for their handlers, other servicemen and -women, or American families to adopt. Since her return, Ellen has helped Tucker cope with his PTSD. She alerted his wife when he had a seizure, which Tucker said saved his life. “As far as PTSD goes, she’s good with detecting when I start to get upset by either distracting me or forcing me to leave,” he said. “A lot of people go into combat and seek out other people who have been in combat because they can relate to them. Having Ellen around … she’s the only one that understands. That’s been kind of a comfort.” Doug Miller, military working dog program manager at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, said if a working dog can no longer pass tests related to its job or has medical issues, the military keeps the dog at the place of its last assignment. Currently, military working dogs are adopted from the base where they are retired, either overseas or abroad, he said. Most of the time the dog’s handler, a member of the kennel staff or another person in the unit will adopt it.

Colorado rejects giving PTSD patients access to medical marijuana (The Huffington Post)
Colorado rejected adding post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of conditions that qualify for treatment with medical marijuana on Wednesday. After hours of emotional testimony from researchers, veterans and others who suffer from PTSD, the state Board of Health voted 6-2 not to include the disorder on the list of eligible conditions, citing a lack of science supporting marijuana’s medical efficacy in treating PTSD. Had the board approved the amendment, PTSD would have been the first new ailment added to the list since Colorado’s medical marijuana program began about 15 years ago. The board has rejected including PTSD twice before. “We’ve let down our veterans today, and [the Board of Health] should be ashamed. I really believed that this year it would pass, especially since it only failed by one vote last year,” said Sean Azzariti, an Iraq War veteran and marijuana policy reform activist. “It’s truly a sad day in Colorado.” The state is one of 23, along with the District of Columbia, that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, and it was the first of of four states and D.C. to legalize recreational cannabis for adults. It would have been the 10th state to add PTSD as a qualifying condition to obtain medical marijuana. Colorado’s constitution already allows medical marijuana to be recommended by doctors for eight conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, seizures and chronic pain. The Board of Health had been expected to approve the change after Dr. Larry Wolk, the state’s chief medical officer, recommended it. Wolk had testified against the move in 2014, but changed his mind earlier this year in light of evidence that many people with PTSD who identified severe pain as their ailment were already registered to receive medical marijuana.

Veteran recalls role in the A-Bomb program (Albany Times-Union)
Living on a quiet, tree-lined street that backs up to the Poesten Kill is one of the last surviving Americans who developed the first atomic weapon at Los Alamos, N.M., as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project during World War II. Richard C. Johnson graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1942 and joined the Army to fight Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. As the United States raced to build the world’s first atomic bomb, Army brass noticed Johnson in training and assigned him to the clandestine effort at the research laboratory in the mountains of New Mexico. It was there that Johnson helped fashion component parts for plutonium bombs. Seven decades ago, at 5:29 a.m. July 16, 1945, the U.S. detonated the first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert 200 miles from Los Alamos. As an engineering aide, Johnson also led a small team of workers who helped produce the exterior casing of “Fat Man,” a nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, that hastened the Japanese unconditional surrender three weeks later. Now 94, the decorated Army veteran recently sat in his living room and discussed for the first time what it was like to work on the front lines of history. “We were dealing with the top intellectuals in the country,” said Johnson, who carries a professorial air but can quickly switch to straight talk. “I felt that I had accomplished something positive for America.”

Two-step treatment approach decreases pain in wounded vets (HCPLive.com)
Pain severity in veterans was reduced and function was improved after implementing a two-step treatment program, according to findings published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Researchers from Indiana University School of Medicine observed 241 veterans recruited from Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Darn with chronic and disabling musculoskeletal pain in order to determine whether a stepped care intervention is more effective than usual care. The researchers hypothesized that this two-step program would be effective in reducing pain-related disability, pain interference, and pain severity. The veterans’ pain was located in the cervical or lumbar spine or extremities (shoulders, knees, and hips) and was monitored from December 2007 to June 2011. A 9-month follow-up period was concluded by April 2012. The patients received treatment at a post-deployment clinic and 5 general medicine clinics at a Veterans Affairs medical center. The first step in the program was 12 weeks of analgesic treatment and implementation of pain self-management strategies. The next step was 12 weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy. All of the intervention steps were delivered by nurse care managers. After 9 months follow up, the patients who received the two-step intervention (121 patients) demonstrated decreased pain severity and pain interference (how pain interferes with mood, physical activity, work, social activity, relations with others, sleep, and enjoyment of life), as well as an improvement in overall function.

The social health of post-9/11 veterans (American Enterprise Institute)
Despite cautioning from Psychology Today that military veterans are less warm and friendly than their civilian counterparts — experiencing a greater difficulty in getting along with friends and coworkers due to the “subtle lingering effects” of their military experience — post-9/11 veterans happily aren’t enduring the perceived effects of such stereotypical behavior. It’s civilians, rather, who might be on the verge of some begrudging feelings, going by the just-released “Profile of Post-9/11 Veterans: 2012” and “Profile of Veterans: 2013” prepared by the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics (NCVAS). Veterans in the post-9/11 cohort, the NCVAS studies reveal, turn out to be younger, more likely to be insured, less likely to live in poverty, and earn higher personal incomes than non-veterans. Comprising a current population of 2.6 million individuals that’s expected to increase 45% between 2012 and 2017, the post-9/11 veterans are the youngest cohort being served by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). About 80% are under age 44; the median age of male post-9/11 veterans in 2012 was 32 compared to 41 on the non-veteran side, while the median age of female post-9/11 veterans was 31 compared to 46. (As for the age of all other veterans outside of this grouping, however, in 2012 upwards of 80% were over the age of 55. According to the 2013 American Community Survey data, the median age of all male veterans was 64, while male non-veterans’ median age was 41.) Given the age range of post-9/11 veterans, it’s fairly unsurprising that among men, 54.6% are married while 48.5% of their female counterparts are. These numbers pale a little in sight of the 65.8% of all male veterans who are married or the 49.1% of all female veterans, but they still overshadow the 48.7% of married male non-veterans. But while male veterans are more likely to be married and less likely to have never married compared with non-veteran men, female veterans are more likely to be divorced than non-veteran women or male veterans are: Female veterans are almost half as likely as their civilian sisters to be divorced. The NCVAS studies don’t elaborate or attempt to explain the larger number of veteran divorcées, but perhaps it has something more to do with the high dual-military marriage rates among military women (48% of all married military women, compared to 7% of married military males) than their gender specifically.

New policy paves way for WWII Filipino vets to reunite with family (NBC News)
The Department of Homeland Security will create a new program to help reunite Filipino veterans of World War II with family members in the Philippines stymied by 20-year immigration logjams, according to a White House report on immigration reform. In what is seen as a way to “strengthen the humanitarian” aspects of our nation’s immigration system, the new program hopes to honor the wishes of elderly Filipino veterans who are now US citizens and need the aid of their adult children. In 1941, more than 260,000 answered the call of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to fight in World War II. They were promised citizenship and benefits. But that promise was rescinded in 1946. Since that time, the veterans have battled to restore their rightful benefits bit by bit. But family reunification efforts have been elusive for the 6,000 remaining vets who could be eligible. “It’s a breakthrough,” Arturo Caleda, 91, a disabled vet who resides in Hawaii, told NBC News. “I think the president realized that because we are too old now, that we need the help of our children…so that somebody can take care of us while we’re residing in the United States.” Celada has three children who could be able to join him once the program is underway.

VA care provider suspended pending investigation (Lafayette Journal & Courier)
A care provider at the West Lafayette Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic attached to Indiana Veterans’ Home has been put on leave pending an investigation. Wade Habshey, a public affairs officer for the VA Illiana Health Care System, said he could not confirm whether the woman put on leave was involved with the care of patient Alexander Vancel, an Iraq war veteran who was misdiagnosed at the clinic and went public with his story. “With respect for the patient’s privacy and due to the ongoing investigation, we’re not able to provide further information at this time,” Habshey said. Vancel, 29, went to the clinic in January, complaining of pain in his lower back and buttocks. Vancel said he thought he had hemorrhoids, and the care provider affirmed the diagnosis without performing a physical exam. “She didn’t actually take a look at me, even though I’d requested, ‘Can you at least take a look?’ ” Vancel said. “She flat out told me, ‘No.’ Vancel said his care provider was gruff, uncaring and “barely looked at him” during two visits to the clinic. As his condition worsened, Vancel said he began taking up to 24 painkillers a day to cope with the pain. Vancel eventually was sent to a veterans clinic in Danville, Illinois, and later the veterans clinic in Indianapolis. In April, he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. He also became septic due to a related infection that had been the cause of his pain. “Indianapolis is who’s treating me right now,” Vancel said. “They are doing a wonderful job. They are taking very, very good care of me. It’s the West Lafayette clinic (that’s the problem), and it’s that specific doctor.”

Unclaimed Connecticut veterans receive proper burial (NBC-Connecticut)
Four veterans whose remains have sat unclaimed since their deaths years ago received a proper burial Wednesday in the State Veterans’ Cemetery. Howard Daniels died in Old Saybrook in 2011, Joseph Trantino in New Haven in 2004, David Kendle in Clinton in 2002 and William Buell died in 2003. The Missing in America Project found their remains at Swan Funeral Home in Clinton. The funeral home’s director organized a procession and ceremony to present the veterans with the final honor they deserved. Patriot Guard Riders carried cherry-wood urns containing the veterans’ ashes out of the funeral home to waiting hearses prior to a funeral service in Old Saybrook.  “We make them our family. We become their family to take them to their final rest,” said the Mac McArthur, state captain of the Patriot Guard Riders. Four hearses carried each of the veterans to Middletown, where Patriot Guard Riders led the procession into the State Veterans’ Cemetery.  An honor guard from the Army retrieved the urns for Daniels and Trantino, who saw combat in World War II, while a guard from the Navy did the same for for Kendle and Buell. The Missing in America Project has found in funeral homes across the country the unclaimed remains of more than 2,600 veterans.

Clinton reaching out to military veterans (The Hill)
Hillary Clinton is seeking to bolster her credentials among military veterans. Clinton visited a  Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Nevada last month, something highlighted in a Wednesday op-ed by a Democratic state senator and Army veteran in the Reno Gazette-Journal. “There is one presidential candidate who has made clear that she understands the sacrifices of veterans, military families, and service members: Hillary Rodham Clinton,” wrote Sen. Pat Spearman (D-Nev.), a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel. Spearman said Clinton “made clear that veterans are (and have always been) a priority for her” and that her grandfather was a World War II chief petty officer based at the Great Lakes Naval Station outside of Chicago. Clinton also discussed working on the Armed Services Committee to address traumatic brain injury, predatory lending, expanding healthcare and other issues that affect veterans. “Hillary showed us that she’s ‘got our 6,'” Spearman wrote, using military lingo for having one’s back. Spearman said Clinton came out against privatizing and outsourcing VA services, but “understood choice should be part of the solution,” and discussed expanded access to VA expertise on brain injury and prosthetics. Clinton “forcefully defended the GI Bill … as it has helped millions join the middle class,” Spearman said. Clinton also discussed removing the stigma around post-traumatic stress disorder and working to prevent veteran suicide. She also discussed fighting predatory lending and for-profit colleges that take advantage of veterans.

SeaWorld offering complimentary admission to veterans and families (ABC15-Arizona)
SeaWorld San Diego is honoring America’s veterans by offering them free entry into the park from July 16 to November 11. As part of the deal, each veteran may bring up to three additional guests for free. Veterans must register for the program online at WavesOfHonor.com. They must then verify their proof of service through the ID.me qualification process before printing out e-tickets for themselves and their guests. Tickets must be obtained and redeemed by Veteran’s Day 2015. SeaWorld has honored active duty service members through complimentary ticket programs since 2003. More than two million members of the U.S. and allied armed services and their families have visited the park for free.