July 23 Veterans News

July 23 Veterans News

Veterans news updateReport: Lung disease, high blood pressure common in vets exposed to burn pits (Military Times)
Troops who worked at burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those exposed to multiple dust storms during war-zone deployments, have higher rates of common respiratory illnesses like asthma and emphysema, as well as rare lung disorders, according to data drawn from the Veterans Affairs Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry. Service members who experienced frequent exposures to dust and burn pits also report increased health problems like insomnia and high blood pressure. But they don’t appear to have higher rates of cancer when compared with troops who deployed but had little or no such exposure, according to a new Department of Veterans Affairs report. The findings, in a report posted online by VA in June, are based on questionnaires completed by more than 28,000 veterans. The database allows any former service members who think they were exposed to fumes from burn pits or other sources of pollutants, such as sandstorms or dust, to register their health concerns with VA. Nearly 46,000 veterans have opened accounts with the registry, with about 60 percent fully completing the questionnaire as of Dec. 31, 2014. Of those who finished the lengthy questionnaire, 27,378 said they were exposed to burn pits, and 24,782 said they had dust storm exposure at some point during deployment. According to the report, 30 percent of participants who said they were exposed to burn pits say they’ve been diagnosed with respiratory diseases other than allergies, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and chronic bronchitis topping the list. High blood pressure was diagnosed in about one-third of personnel who reported burn-pit exposure and one-third who said they were exposed to dust storms.

More than quarter-million Vietnam veterans still have PTSD (Smithsonian.com)
War is hell, and for many of the U.S. veterans who served in the Vietnam conflict, the psychological nightmare rages on even 40 years after the last Marine left Saigon. Psychological surveys suggest that some 271,000 veterans of the war may still have full post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. And for many vets, the PTSD symptoms are only getting worse with time. “Roughly 11 percent of Vietnam veterans, over a 40-year period, continue to suffer from clinically important PTSD symptoms, either having the full diagnosis or very strong features of the diagnosis that interfere with function,” says study author Charles Marmar, director of The Steven & Alexandra Cohen Veterans Center at the NYU Langone Medical Center. The latest study follows up on participants in the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study conducted in the 1980s. According to Marmar, who co-authored the original report, the work serves a dual purpose in assessing the long-term affects of wartime trauma: “We owe it to the Vietnam generation, it’s an amazing sacrifice that they made,” he says. “But it’s also the path ahead for the Iraq and Afghanistan generation, and we have to do better than we did for Vietnam.” Just over 1,800 participants of the original study were still alive when the followup was conducted between 2012 and 2013. Amazingly, 1,450 of those veterans participated again—nearly 80 percent of the initial cohort. The study assessed how many Vietnam vets suffered PTSD symptoms in four categories: re-experience and avoidance, withdrawal and numbing, arousal and emotional control and self-persecution or survivor guilt. Participants shared their experiences via a one-hour self-reported health questionnaire, a one-hour computer-assisted telephone interview and a three-hour clinical diagnostic phone interview. “It tells you something very profound about the commitment of these veterans, who are now in their mid- to late-60s and still really wanted to tell their story,” says Marmar.

House faced with VA budget fix or no health care for veterans (Stars & Stripes)
House lawmakers said Wednesday they felt forced to fill a $3 billion budget hole at the Department of Veterans Affairs that could halt outside health care treatment at the end of the month and shutter hospitals and clinics after Aug. 20. VA Secretary Bob McDonald said the agency is running out of annual funding for health care due to surging demand among vets and an expensive new drug to treat hepatitis C. It now needs to tap $3 billion from a fund created last summer by Congress as an emergency fix in the wake of its wait-time scandal, the secretary told the House Veterans Affairs Committee. The revelation that VA financial difficulties could suspend care in its health system of 9 million enrollees came just a day after President Barack Obama told a national gathering of veterans in Pittsburgh that the agency had made progress over the past year but faces a “huge challenge” ahead. “You’ve come in here basically demanding $3 billion or health care shuts down on Aug. 20,” said committee member Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Republican from Colorado. Congress would have to pass a bill by the end of July to avert the VA shutdown or face delaying its annual month-long August recess to find a fix. The House committee was notified of a shortfall last month but was not aware of the potential shutdowns. Staff said Wednesday that the House and Senate were working on legislation but that nothing had been introduced. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said lawmakers are reluctant to let the agency use the emergency funds passed last summer to cover basic budget costs. “I think that’s what you heard from the Republicans and the Democrats on the committee, that there is a lack of trust, so just to give them a blank check is not the direction we need to move,” Miller said.

Democratic senator withdraws veterans fertility bill, citing GOP attacks (Stars & Stripes)
With partisan battling over abortion on the rise, a Democratic senator withdrew a bill Wednesday expanding government fertility services for wounded veterans and blamed what she said was a Republican attack on women’s health care. A GOP senator said the changes he was pushing were designed to set priorities for an overburdened Department of Veterans Affairs. Meanwhile, the White House went further than it had since the uproar began last week over secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing how they provide organs from aborted fetuses for research. White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested President Barack Obama would veto legislation erasing federal funds for Planned Parenthood, as many Republicans want to do, and said the videos could have been “selectively edited to distort” Planned Parenthood’s procedures, as the group has claimed. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she had expected the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to easily approve her bill on Wednesday. But in a Senate floor speech, Murray said she was withdrawing the measure because Republicans decided “to leap at the opportunity to pander to their base” by offering amendments designed to “roll back the clock and take away women’s health care options.” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., author of amendments to the bill, said he wanted to make sure the VA improves existing programs for veterans before Congress burdens it with new duties. He said one of his amendments would prevent the VA from working with organizations that he said “take aborted babies’ organs and sell them.” Tillis cited a report by Congress’ nonpartisan Government Accountability Office on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal spending for family planning and other health programs by six organizations, including Planned Parenthood. In a footnote, that report said the VA had spent $900 on one of the organizations, but it did not say which one had received the money. Another Tillis amendment would bar the VA from genetically testing embryos it is providing for gender or disabilities. And another would block the department from providing new services — including those in Murray’s bill — until existing ones are delivered adequately.

Veterans: Renewable fuel law a national security issue (Des Moines Register)
Three retired military officers made the case Wednesday that development and use of renewable fuels is a key component of national security. Specifically, the officers argued that Congress should leave in place the current Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires that increasing amounts of alternative fuels be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply. The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed lowering the amount of ethanol and biodiesel that must be blended. “The RFS is a military issue,” said Jon Soltz, chairman of VoteVets.org, who served as a captain and major in Iraq. “Our message is simple: Don’t mess with the RFS.” The officers, meeting with the editorial board of The Des Moines Register, said the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels threatens national security on a number of fronts. And specifically the military is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, said Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, whose assignments included serving as commanding general charged with re-establishing Iraqi Security Forces in 2003-2004. One of the Navy’s main missions is keeping open shipping lanes for oil and other products, they said. And terrorists who kill U.S. troops are profiting off of oil. In addition, climate change will increasingly threaten to destabilize nations around the world, said Brig. Gen. Steven Anderson, who directed logistics in Iraq under U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus. At a practical level, maintaining the long supply chains needed to supply outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan led to thousands of casualties, they said. “I had a soldier killed delivering fuel,” Soltz said. Anderson, who cited statistics that one out of 24 fuel supply convoys in Afghanistan yielded a casualty, said Petraeus was constantly “bugging me” to get trucks off the road, to save lives and allow troops to be redirected to their main mission. Anderson, a conservative politically, said ethanol isn’t a perfect fuel but called it a needed bridge in developing alternatives. Maintaining troops in the field without long supply chains will require innovation in areas such as energy efficiency, solar technology, wind power and battery storage, the officers said.

VA struggling with promise to end long benefits waits this year (Reveal)
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has reduced its chronic backlog of veterans’ disability claims – deemed unacceptable by President Barack Obama when he campaigned for office – but so far, the agency is struggling to meet its self-imposed deadline of eliminating long wait times by 2015. And despite making inroads over the last two years in streamlining the system for compensating conditions such as service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer, the VA is back to square one in some ways. At the time of Obama’s 2009 inauguration, more than 400,000 veterans were waiting to learn whether they qualified for benefits. Four years later, their ranks had more than doubled. At the end of June, about 360,000 veterans were waiting. The official backlog, calculated based on the number of veterans waiting more than four months for a decision, also ballooned before declining to 122,000 at the end of June – about 25,000 fewer than during Obama’s first year in office. This is not the type of progress a campaigning Obama envisaged when he took the podium at a community college in Mason City, Iowa, in October 2007. Congressional hearings and damning news accounts had exposed wounded Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans ending up homeless while they waited for their disability checks. “As president, I won’t stand for hundreds of thousands of veterans waiting for benefits,” Obama told his audience. During Obama’s first four years in office, the number of veterans waiting more than a year for a decision increased by more than 2,000 percent, from 11,000 to a peak of more than 250,000 in March 2013. At the end of June, 15,583 veterans faced that lengthy delay.

Bill making it easier to fire VA employees heads to Senate floor (GovExec)
A Senate panel on Wednesday advanced legislation that would make it easier to fire employees at the Veterans Affairs Department. During an afternoon markup, the chamber’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved S. 1082, which would give the VA secretary much more flexibility to fire corrupt or poor-performing employees, not just top officials. The bill essentially would expand to the entire workforce the authority of the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which made it easier to get rid of senior executives engaged in wrongdoing at the department. The latest development continues the legislation’s momentum on Capitol Hill. The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved a companion bill by a party line vote last Wednesday. The full House could vote on the measure next week. The legislation would allow the secretary to remove any VA employee based on performance or misconduct; the employee could file an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board within seven days of his or her removal. MSPB would have to rule within 45 days of the appeal filing. Due process for most of the federal workforce now requires that agencies notify employees within 30 days of an adverse action (including removal), and provide them with seven days to respond and an opportunity to defend themselves. S. 1082 also would extend the probationary period for new VA employees from one year to 18 months, and allow the secretary to extend that even further. Most VA medical professionals already have a two-year probationary period.

VFW knows it needs to change to stay relevant (Stars & Stripes)
Change comes slowly for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the venerable group that has been advocating for America’s veterans for more than 100 years. It wasn’t until 1978 that the Veterans of Foreign Wars allowed women to join, and it took until December to change the wording in their charter referring to members from “men” to “veterans.” Just this week, the group voted to make its Ladies Auxiliary gender-neutral so spouses and families of female vets could be included. At the organization’s annual convention in Pittsburgh this week, though, commanders and rank and file said they realize that resistance to change needs to change, or the shrinking organization could lose the newest generation of veterans and risk withering into obscurity. “I’m a traditionalist, I’m a joiner,” said John Biedrzycki, 69, a former schoolteacher who, as the VFW’s incoming commander, will be tasked with persuading Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to join. “Young people today want to get their hands dirty, they want to get involved, they don’t want to sit in a meeting room all day, and that’s exciting.” Over the decades, the VFW’s accomplishments have been many, including being instrumental in getting benefits that newer combat veterans still receive, such as the GI Bill. And with 1.4 million members, they’re still a force among veterans and on Capitol Hill, where they lobby for veterans issues and testify in front of congressional committees. It’s the reason President Barack Obama chose the group’s annual convention to deliver a speech Tuesday on foreign policy and veterans issues on the heels of the historic U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. But the VFW has been losing members for years, as Vietnam veterans age and the number of World War II and Korean War vets dwindles. Many younger veterans gravitate to newer groups, such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and groups with a niche, such as Team Red, White & Blue, which focuses on physical and social activities. To reach younger veterans, it’s not enough for the VFW to rely on past victories, just as it’s certainly not enough to provide the dark canteens with dollar beer that so many people associate with the organization. “Depressing dive bars with sad old alcoholics” is how 29-year-old Iraq veteran Brittany Bartges described them, while proudly wearing her own VFW cap and addressing a roomful of skeptical members mostly 30 years or more her senior. Bartges is the senior vice commander of VFW Post 1 in Denver, the organization’s first and now one of its most cutting-edge posts. She and two other Post 1 cohorts gave a presentation Tuesday on how to attract younger members. A lot of faces in the audience scrunched up when Bartges, post commander Michael Mitchel and the post’s quartermaster, Tony Adams, explained the importance of a social media presence.

Congressman disputes Obama’s claim vets wait ‘just a few days’ for care (KFOX14-El Paso)
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke disputes President Barack Obama’s claims that veterans wait “just a few days” to get an appointment at Veteran’s Affairs clinics. Obama made the claim in a speech at the VFW National Convention on Tuesday. “Today the VA is handling millions more appointments inside and outside the VA and delivering more care,” Obama said in the speech. “On average, veterans are waiting just a few days for an appointment.” O’Rourke, a Democrat representing Texas’ 16th District, addressed the president’s remark in an interview with C-SPAN. “I think in this case, unfortunately, the president has some bad information,” O’Rourke said in the C-SPAN interview. “When I talked to veterans in my district in El Paso, Texas, they tell me it is very hard to get into the VA.” O’Rourke talked about the survey he released just last week that showed, on average, veterans wait more than two months to see a doctor. “At a time in this country when 22 veterans a day take their own lives, that’s simply unconscionable,” O’Rourke said in the interview.

Alaska veteran dies while disputing VA diagnosis (Juneau Empire)
A Juneau veteran who spent the last 15 years of his life fighting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over what he claimed was a life-altering misdiagnosis died last week in a Seattle hospital. George Messerschmidt, 59, who served on active duty from 1981 to 1985 as a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, claimed the VA had been treating him for the wrong disease for 15 years before they caught their mistake. In 1984, while he was stationed in northern Greece, doctors surgically removed 94 percent of Messerschmidt’s thyroid gland, an organ that produces hormones and regulates metabolism, when it was found to be overrun with calcium deposits and blood clots, he said in a June 5 interview at his home. “Unbeknownst to me at the time, (the VA) listed me as being hyperthyroid and I stayed that way until 1999,” Messerschmidt said. Hyperthyroidism, also known as over-active thyroid, is a disorder that causes weight loss, weakness and a fast heartbeat, among other symptoms. Hypothyroidism has the opposite cause and, largely, the opposite symptoms. It can cause massive weight gain. Messerschmidt, who was left with almost no thyroid gland after his 1984 procedure, should have been diagnosed as having low thyroid function, he said. Weighing about 450 pounds and suffering from a litany of health problems that kept him mostly immobile, Messerschmidt could no longer take care of himself on his own and relied on the help of his wife, who also has a fulltime job, and a nurse, he said. Messerschmidt’s weight climbed steadily while he was being treated for hyperthyroidism.

Omaha VA whistleblower claims she was fired for speaking out (WOWT-Omaha)
By all accounts, the Veterans Healthcare System is broken, and too often, letting down the very veterans it’s supposed to serve. In the past year, both the President and Congress have called for an overhaul, and here in Omaha, the VA Hospital has adopted reforms aimed to improve care. However, the system is still haunted by bureaucratic problems, according to a former employee who ways she was fired from her scheduling job at Omaha’s VA Health System after speaking out against a bureaucracy she believed left veterans vulnerable and under-served. After losing her job, the former employee hasn’t found a new one and fears more fallout, so she asked WOWT 6 News not to show her face, and to simply call her “Sarah.” According to Sarah, several administrative problems plague the Omaha VA Health System, including employees scheduling and canceling appointments for veterans without informing them. She said: “It disturbed me the way they were treated. Wrong is wrong, and it’s wrong.” Scheduling problems have left Marine Corps veteran Jonathan Robbins frustrated. He’s battling stage four throat cancer, and missed four appointments due to notifications that were mailed to him several days after his doctor visits were scheduled. After telling his story to WOWT 6 News, Robbins finally started receiving the treatment he needed. Sarah said Robbins’ case isn’t isolated, and even though VA protocol requires employees to call veterans like Robbins to inform them of their appointments, many employees simply send a letter instead — and often those letters are delayed. Sarah claims she took her concerns to the head of the VA Health System in Omaha, and in May she received a notice terminating her employment, citing typos and tardiness in her work. WOWT 6 News examined her termination notice, as well as several years’ worth of performance reviews, including her most recent review, in which she received satisfactory marks. Sarah believes she was targeted for being a whistle-blower. She said: “People are scared to speak out.”

‘Troubleshooter’ takes over at Reno VA office (Reno Gazette-Journal)
Sheila Jackson, a 20-year U.S. Army veteran, has been named the permanent director of the Reno Veterans Administration Regional Office, which has come under fire by many of Nevada’s top lawmakers for lagging service to veterans. Jackson was the former VARO assistant director in Los Angeles, although she is currently on temporary assignment as the acting director in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “When I was talking to the undersecretary, they said Sheila Jackson really is a troubleshooter for regional offices around the country and that is why they are bringing her in,” said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and one of the leading critics of the Reno VA Regional Office under-performance. “For a regional office that has trouble getting out of its own way, they really believe that if they bring in Sheila Jackson, she is the right person for the job,” Heller said. Heller said it was one of his “top priorities” to sit down and speak with Jackson. A 2014 investigation by the Reno Gazette-Journal showed that the Reno VARO has the longest average wait time for claims processing in the nation, citing information obtained from the VA and the offices of Nevada’s congressional delegation. Veterans served by the Reno office in 2013 waited on average more than 14 months — 433.9 days — to get claims initially processed, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Tomah VA medical center employee arrested, accused of trying to sell drugs (WITI-Milwaukee)
An employee of the Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center and two others have been arrested on charges of selling or attempting to sell illegal drugs at the facility. The Tomah Police Department and the veterans hospital announced the arrests on Wednesday, July 22nd. The Tomah VA has been the center of state and federal investigations for the over-prescription of narcotics, retaliatory behavior and other problems. Wednesday’s release says a 60-year-old Tomah man was arrested Monday after trying to sell illegal narcotics on the VA hospital property. Police say a 49-year-old Sparta woman who allegedly provided the drugs to the man was also arrested. A 61-year-old Tomah man was arrested Tuesday for allegedly attempting to sell medications to a veteran on the hospital grounds.

Couple used film school to defraud wounded veterans (CBS News)
A married couple defrauded wounded veterans, duping them into using their federal scholarship dollars for a film school that did not deliver, a federal court found earlier this month. The couple ended up using the money for personal expenses like vacations, a family laptop and groceries. Judith Paixao and Kevin Lombard embezzled federal funds through their non-profit Wounded Marine Career Foundation. They were convicted July 10 and will be sentenced in October. “In the beginning, everything was going great,” said wounded veteran Joshua Frey, who spent $90,000 of his veteran scholarship award at the film school. But he told CBS News that within weeks, the couple failed to deliver on their promises. “Each student was supposed to get a filmmaking package,” Frey said. The package included a MacBook Pro laptop, several types of digital cameras and a lighting system. Frey said that equipment never arrived. “They made it seem like it was crazy to question them. They promised to send us the equipment after we graduated from the course, but it never happened,” he said. Frey said he thought the jury came back with the right decision. “They took advantage of us in a vulnerable spot,” he said. The couple started the nonprofit in 2007 after beginning a documentary on wounded veterans. The course was ostensibly free and intended to provide the vets with the necessary film and cinematography skills.