July 17 Veterans News

July 17 Veterans News

Veterans news updateVirginia recognizes vets in atomic tests with Atomic Veterans Day (Richmond Times-Dispatch)
For nearly 50 years, Gillie Jenkins was sworn to secrecy about his job in the Navy.Jenkins and nearly 200,000 others who were involved in the nation’s nuclear weapons testing couldn’t tell their wives or even their doctors about their exposure to radiation while serving their country. Thanks almost entirely to the efforts of the 85-year-old Jenkins, Virginia for the first time is recognizing those veterans by declaring today — the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico — Atomic Veterans Day. “Ask anybody what they know about atomic veterans and you know what they’ll say? ‘Never heard of it,’ ” said Jenkins, Virginia’s state commander for the National Association of Atomic Veterans. “I just think it’s good for people to know there is such a thing as atomic vets. We’re the forgotten group.” For 16 months in 1948 and 1949, Jenkins worked as a sort of security guard aboard the USS Independence while others gutted the radioactive vessel off the coast of San Francisco. The Independence had been in a fleet of ships taken to Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands for atomic testing. Two bombs were detonated, sinking 15 ships, damaging the Independence and soaking it with radioactive water. The secrecy of the job made it difficult for many of the atomic veterans to prove that their ailments later in life were tied to the radiation they encountered. One of Jenkins’ best friends, Haskell Watts of West Virginia, was sent to the Pacific on a ship in the 1950s for a mission called Operation Red Wing. He’s been diagnosed with cancer six times and had various other health problems since. “When the bombs went off, we would steam under the fallout and collect the radiation numbers,” Watts said. “I just want people to know that there was another bunch of veterans out there that gave their life and health for their country.” Watts and Jenkins said some atomic veterans were advised not to have children for up to 10 years after their service ended. Jenkins, blessed with good health, sees his mission these days as identifying and helping other atomic veterans. His state chapter had close to 200 members a dozen years ago. That number has dwindled close to 20 now.

Study shows relief for tinnitus, debilitating ringing in ears (The Oregonian)
Imagine dealing with stresses of every day, juggling the demands of family life and deadlines at work, with a constant ringing in your ears? That’s just what millions of Americans who suffer from tinnitus face. Hope could be on the way. New research by the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Oregon Health & Science University found that a noninvasive technique involving stimulation of the scalp can help. The study involved 70 patients suffering from tinnitus, a condition that affects up to 15 percent of adults in the United States. Patients hear sounds that have no apparent source. It can be a buzz, hum or whistle that they hear in one ear, both ears or in their head. Some of the study participants received a placebo treatment and the others underwent a repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, or rTMS, which involves delivering electromagnetic pulses through a coil to the scalp. Researchers have proposed low frequency rTMS, which reduces brain activity in the stimulated regions as a treatment for medical conditions associated with increased cortical activity, including tinnitus. Those who received the treatment were zapped with 2,000 pulses per session on 10 consecutive workdays. Others got a placebo treatment. No one withdrew from the study because of adverse effects. Assessments were done at successive intervals. At 26 weeks, those who had received the treatment reported about a third reduction in the ringing. The placebo group reported a 7 percent reduction. Robert Folmer, the lead investigator, said researchers hope to conduct a larger, multi-site clinical trial in the future. If effective, the stimulation should be adopted as treatment for chronic tinnitus, the authors said.

VA not saying how many clinics operate at capacity (Military Times)
Veterans Affairs Department officials say a veteran’s experience in June at two VA clinics that turned him away for appointments should not have happened, and added that they resolved the problem by getting the patient an appointment and providing training for employees at those north Georgia facilities. Officials cannot say whether other veterans have had similar encounters at VA’s other 817 outpatient clinics, even while insisting that this is not happening elsewhere. Former Army Spc. Chris Dorsey walked into a VA clinic in June to make a mental health appointment. He was told the clinic was not accepting new patients. He went to another clinic near his home, and, still frustrated by the earlier response, switched on his phone’s video recorder. “We’re not accepting any new patients,” the receptionist says in the video Dorsey posted online. The video drew quick attention from the media and Congress, whose members remain concerned that VA is failing to care for veterans, despite a $10 billion inflow last year to expand veterans’ access to health care. After the incident, VA officials, including VA Secretary Bob McDonald, said Dorsey was given incorrect information and should have been provided options for care, either within the VA system or through a private doctor. According to VA, when one of the 819 clinics is operating at capacity, patients are “seen elsewhere until there is an opening at their desired clinic.” But when asked how many other clinics in the VA system besides the two that Dorsey attended may be turning patients away, VA headquarters officials did not seem to know. A VA spokeswoman said July 13 that headquarters staff would have to call each clinic individually to determine whether they are full and cannot accept new patients. VA regions, called Veterans Integrated Service Networks, maintain reports on capacity and usage for its medical centers and community-based outpatient clinics, according to Scott Davis, a VA employee and whistleblower who works at the VA’s health eligibility center in Atlanta. West did not mention the existence of such reports to Military Times and continued to insist that VA administrators would have to call each clinic to determine whether they can accommodate new patients. “VHA can communicate with our many clinics in the field, but we do not have that information immediately available to offer at this time,” West said.

Obama to attend VFW convention next week (Military Times)
President Obama will keynote the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ annual membership convention in Pittsburgh next week, marking the start of the annual convention season for veterans organizations. It will be the commander in chief’s first appearance before the group since 2012, when he attended its annual convention amid his re-election campaign. He’ll deliver his remarks on Tuesday, July 21. Obama is expected to address not only continued problems facing the Veterans Affairs Department but also recent major foreign policy moves, including the new nuclear monitoring deal with Iran. His speech launches seven weeks of similar meetings across the country by most of the nation’s major veterans groups, bringing together their top leaders and voting members to map out priorities for the coming year. Here’s a look at where to follow each of the conventions online:
• Veterans of Foreign Wars, July 18-22, Pittsburgh
• Vietnam Veterans of America, July 21-25, Springfield, Illinois
• Military Order of the Purple Heart, Aug. 4-9, Las Vegas
• Disabled American Veterans, Aug. 8-11, Denver
• AMVETS, Aug. 15-23, Birmingham, Alabama
• American Legion, Aug. 28-Sept. 3, Baltimore

Bill would let gay vets clear service records (The Hill)
A group of Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday proposed legislation that would give troops that were kicked out of the armed forces solely because of their sexual orientation the chance to clear their record. The Restore Honor to Service Members Act, introduced by Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz (Hawaii) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Reps. Mark Pocan (Wis.) and Charles Rangel (N.Y.), was originally proposed in the last Congress and referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee but did not receive a vote. “From the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ to the Supreme Court’s historic ruling on marriage equality, we have made great strides in the fight to end discrimination. But there is still more work to be done to protect and promote full equality and ensure we help right our past wrongs,” Schatz said in a statement. “Today, thousands of brave men and women who served our country are still denied the benefits and honorable service record they deserve,” he added. “It’s long past time we honor our commitment to all our service members and finally restore the dignity of gay and lesbian veterans who were unjustly discharged from our military.” An estimated 100,000 service members have been discharged from the military based on their sexual orientation. They may have left with discharge statuses of “other than honorable,” “general discharge” or “dishonorable,” depending on their circumstances. As a result, many of them may be disqualified from certain benefits and may not be able to claim veteran status.  Other consequences include preventing some veterans from voting or making it more difficult for them to obtain civilian employment.

Vet groups warn lawmakers not to impose age factor on unemployability benefit (Stars & Stripes)
Representatives of The American Legion and Disabled American Veterans have warned lawmakers to reject calls to impose an age ceiling or other new cost control on VA compensation payments to veterans whose service-connected disabilities leave them unemployable. An age ceiling is perhaps the most tempting cost-control option discussed in a new Government Accountability Office report that examines weaknesses and inefficiencies in the way the Department of Veterans Affairs administers Individual Unemployability (IU) benefits for 318,000 recipients. Bradley Flohr, a senior advisor on VA compensation for the Veterans Benefits Administration, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday that VA is adopting more measured GAO recommendations to improve its process of monitoring IU pay and deciding future IU recipients. These steps include fielding improved guidance for VA claim reviewers on determining IU eligibility, and better quality assurance screens so that IU claim decisions are more consistent across VA regions. VA also promises to launch by January long-delayed software that will allow electronic verification of income reported by IU recipients, by matching it with earnings on file at IRS and the Social Security Administration. The department also promises to study whether it should use age or vocational assessments to tighten eligibility for new IU claimants. More than 316,000 veterans see their monthly VA disability compensation enhanced by IU eligibility. These are veterans with service-connected disabilities rated below 100 percent by the VA rating schedule. But the department verifies that the same disabilities prevent these veterans from working, at least in jobs that pay wages above federal poverty guidelines. Given IU status, veterans draw compensation at the 100 percent level despite having lower-rated disabilities. To qualify, they must have at least one service-connected disability rated at least 60 percent, or two or more disabilities with a combined rating of 70 percent with at least one disability rated 40 percent. They also must be “unable to maintain substantially gainful employment” as a result of their disabilities.

Commentary: Retirement reform needs troops’ input (Military Times)
“Our country requires capable armed forces in defense of our security and interests abroad. As former service members, we understand how critical pay and benefits are to our troopers and their families. The military’s compensation and retirement systems are integral to maintaining the most professional and competent all-volunteer force the world has ever seen. While we applaud much of the thoughtful work of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, specifically “grand-fathering” any significant changes, we have serious concerns surrounding the retirement recommendation and its expedited implementation authorized in the Fiscal Year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. The commission’s retirement recommendation replaces the current military retirement system which rewards and incentivizes 20 years or more of service with a 401(k)-style plan with vested benefits at three years of service. While the commission may well be right in this recommendation, we don’t have the data nor the broad input from troops needed to back it up. All we have is one poll, completed by the commission, about its own recommendations. We need broader input from troops on the ground. Without it, we won’t know or be ready to deal with any consequences of changing the retirement system, which some have said could affect retention of the midgrade noncommissioned officer and officer corps, the military professionals who achieved an expert level of proficiency at their profession.”

Ex-girlfriend of Kurt Busch resigns from military charity (Tucson.com)
NASCAR driver Kurt Busch’s ex-girlfriend has resigned from the military charity that she headed amid an investigation of her finances. A spokesman for the Armed Forces Foundation said Thursday that Patricia Driscoll tendered her resignation Tuesday night after 12 years as president. The foundation posted a statement on its website thanking Driscoll for her work but not explaining the reason for her resignation. The site also includes a statement from Driscoll, who said she was proud of what the group achieved under her tenure but also offered no explanation. Dan Hill, an outside spokesman for the foundation, said the charity is conducting an internal investigation into published reports alleging that Driscoll used foundation funds for her personal expenses. “We take it seriously, and the foundation is committed to its mission,” he said. Hill said the investigation is being led by the Washington, D.C., law firm of Wiley Rein and will examine the foundation’s policies and practices, finances, audits, and filings. In a year-end financial statement for 2013, the tax-exempt nonprofit listed revenues and expenses of more than $14 million, including almost $12.5 million in “volunteer” and “in-kind” expenses. The foundation says its mission is to promote the morale and welfare of active duty, reserve and retired military personnel and their families. It is a fixture on the NASCAR racing circuit, and Busch formerly served as a “celebrity ambassador” for the group.

Vets react to Colorado denial of PTSD classification of medical marijuana (CBS-Denver)
Many military veterans are upset after the Colorado Board of Health failed to approve Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, as a condition for medical marijuana. “I’m angry, I’m upset and I’m confused,” said U.S. Army veteran Rusty Guenard who expressed his disbelief after Wednesday’s vote. Board members voted 6-2 against adding PTSD to the medical conditions approved for medical marijuana treatment. After two hours of often times emotional public testimony, the vote was announced and shouts of outrage filled a packed house at the Colorado Board of Health.  “You’re a bunch of liars and you all gotta sleep with yourselves!” said one medical marijuana supporter. “You should all be tried for treason!” said another. If it would have been approved, Colorado would have been the tenth state to include PTSD in its medical marijuana program. Colorado’s Chief Medical Officer Larry Wolk recommended the state approve the condition. “I’m sure we will continue to see this and continue to debate how to best treat patients with PTSD,” said Wolk. Board of Health President Tony Cappello said he voted against the measure because of the lack of scientific research regarding PTSD and marijuana. “I as an epidemiologist have a hard time supporting that without adequate research that has been presented to us,” said Cappello. Guenard said even though recreational pot is legal in Colorado, most veterans can’t afford it so approving medical marijuana for PTSD would be a Godsend. He said he and his fellow veterans will continue to fight to make it happen.

U.S. military veterans to aid war against ISIS (CBS News)
In this tiny West Virginia town, nestled deep in the mountains, 35-year-old Army veteran Charlie Keaton is preparing for war. He’s about to return to Iraq to fight against ISIS. The people of Pineville have given his plan a mixed reaction. There are those who understand and others who question his sanity. For Keaton, the mission is anything but crazy. He did two tours in Iraq as a frontline medic where he watched Americans die in places like Ramadi and Fallujah. Seeing ISIS take control of those hard-fought towns made it deeply personal. “I can’t believe that a group that has beheaded Americans, they kill innocents daily by the hundreds, and I just cannot believe that I saw them driving down the streets flying their flags in a city that American soldiers died to secure,” said Keaton. “I don’t even know the words to describe that.” So Keaton joined Veterans Against ISIS. He’s one of about two dozen elite warriors selected from hundreds of applicants across the country. They’ve raised thousands of dollars in their communities and online for airfare and supplies. They plan to join Kurdish militia fighters based in Northern Iraq. “We’ve got Marines, we’ve got Air Force guys, we’ve got Army guys and each of us can pass on the knowledge that we learned,” said Keaton.

Federal officials ask Omaha vets what they want in a VA hospital (Washington Times)
Federal officials will meet with Omaha veterans Friday to discuss what they want in an eventual replacement for the aging Department of Veterans Affairs hospital. The Chief of Staff of Veterans Affairs Robert Nabors will meet with veterans at two events along with Rep. Brad Ashford. A 2007 study found the hospital was plagued by problems in its electrical system, heating and cooling systems. It is on a list of VA facilities to be replaced, but it is behind a number of other projects. A new VA hospital in Omaha is likely still years away. On Friday morning, Nabors will meet with veterans at the Veterans Affairs Dental Clinic. A second event will be held in the afternoon at the Great Plains Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Ohio senator: VA police need broader authority (Washington Times)
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown has requested that Veterans Affairs police be designated as law enforcement officers with authority beyond VA property, citing an Ohio case in which a shooter fled a medical center. Ohio’s Democratic senator asked VA Secretary Robert McDonald for the change in a letter Thursday. Brown says VA police currently have no authority beyond VA property and that could hinder their ability to respond to threats. Last year, a former VA employee responsible for a shooting at the Dayton VA Medical Center fled the facility, with VA police unable to pursue him off the property. He was arrested later by other law enforcement officers and eventually pleaded guilty to an assault charge. The VA says it will review Brown’s letter and respond directly to the senator’s office.

Oldest U.S. veteran, “Big Mama,” prepares to meet Obama (New York Post)
A 110-year-old woman believed to be the nation’s oldest veteran is preparing to visit Washington on an honorary trip that includes meeting President Barack Obama. There’s just one glitch: She wants a jacket to wear with her official trip T-shirt, because she doesn’t have “Michelle Obama arms.” Emma Didlake, a longtime Detroit resident and veteran of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II, is scheduled to leave Friday. The visit is being arranged by Talons Out Honor Flight, a southwest Michigan chapter of a national nonprofit that provides free, one-day trips for veterans to visit Washington’s monuments and memorials. Didlake is especially excited to see the memorial honoring her other favorite president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Known to family as “Big Mama,” Didlake was a 38-year-old wife and mother of five when she “wanted to do something different” and signed up for the WAAC in 1943, said her granddaughter, Marilyn Horne. She served stateside for about seven months during the war, as a private and driver. After she was discharged, she and her family moved to Detroit in 1944 — and she quickly joined the local NAACP chapter. She marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, and received a lifetime achievement award two years ago from the chapter. Dan Moyle, co-founder of Talons Out Honor Flight, said his group is awed by her life story. “She’s really forged a path for women and minorities,” he said.

Military pensions now fully exempt from Connecticut income tax (Hartford Courant)
The recently passed budget gives another reason for 9,000 Connecticut veterans to continue living in the state: Military pensions are now fully exempt from the state income tax. Fifty percent of the income from military pensions had already been exempt from the income tax. Legislators have now extended the benefit to the remainder of the pension income, which is paid to veterans who served for at least 20 years. The change will cost $10 million over fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The exemption applies to pension payments retroactive to Jan. 1, 2015. The revenue reduction is in contrast to the principal focus of the past legislative session — finding ways to increase revenue. Legislators serving on the veterans’ affairs and finance committees praised the change as a way to both honor military service and keep Connecticut economically competitive. More than a dozen states, including neighboring New York and Massachusetts, already exempt military pensions from state income taxes. Veterans must still pay federal income tax on their pensions. Legislators said they were aiming to prevent an exodus of veterans to neighboring states. “It’s keeping us competitive with our neighboring states that are already offering this benefit,” said Rep. David Alexander, D-Enfield, who served in the armed forces, although he said he’s not eligible for a pension.

Lake Baldwin VA sitting empty too long, congressman says (Orlando Sentinel)
The nursing home and domiciliary at Lake Baldwin VA in Orlando, Fla., have been sitting empty or serving as temporary homes for different services since its residents were transferred to the new Lake Nona campus last year, and U.S. Rep. John Mica wants to see them full and functioning again. The two buildings sit adjacent to the four-story Lake Baldwin hospital – a former Navy hospital – and can house about 100 elderly and 60 homeless veterans, “but everything takes time,” said Mica during a recent tour of the campus along with VA’s medical director and an entourage of about half-a-dozen. “We have to deal with bureaucracy and VA is very slow,” said Mica, R-Winter Park. While services have been opening up in Lake Nona, parts of Lake Baldwin have been acting as temporary staging areas, but the five-year plan is for it to become the hub for veterans’ basic medical care. There were fears last year that the Lake Baldwin campus would be closed, but with the push of local officials such as Mica, the VA decided to keep it open. During a tour in October, U.S. VA Secretary Robert McDonald said his federal agency wants to build up as much veterans’ health-care capacity as possible in Orlando. Tim Liezert, director of the Orlando VA Medical Center, stressed again during a recent tour that there are no plans to close the Lake Baldwin campus. The campus will house four primary care teams (20 providers), same-day surgery and pharmacy services. It will maintain basic dental, optometry, radiology and audiology units. Veterans Benefits Administration will also have a stronger presence there. And the top two floors, which will undergo renovations starting next year, will provide mental health services.