July 27 Veterans News Update

July 27 Veterans News Update

Veterans news updateAiling vets sue, say toxic burn pits cost them their health (Santa Fe New Mexican)
Hundreds of soldiers who’ve come home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now are battling the very companies that helped operate their base camps, claiming constant exposure to toxins from open-air burn pits has wrecked their health.David Montoya, 44, of Farmington, N.M., is one of newest litigants suing the companies. Cancer that started in his colon has spread to his lungs, and his doctor told him in February that he had about two years to live. Montoya says the cause of his cancer was contaminated water supplied by the military contractors, and from breathing in smoke from the burn pits. Montoya filed his lawsuit last week in state District Court in Santa Fe against Halliburton Co., KBR Inc. and Kellogg, Brown & Root Services LLC. In doing so, he joined almost 250 other former and active military personnel who are suing the companies, which provided water treatment and waste disposal services in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two other soldiers from New Mexico, both in poor health, jointly filed a suit against the companies six years ago. At one point, a federal judge in Maryland rejected suits against the military contractors, but an appeals court reversed that decision. With the case alive, soldiers who are dying say they have a chance to shed light on wartime actions that placed profits over people. Burn pits were part of the American war effort as a means of keeping bases functional. Afire constantly, they burned plastics, metals, chemicals and every form of waste, say soldiers who served at the outposts. Contaminated jet fuel often ignited the burn pits. The companies being sued say their work was critical to America’s war effort, not a detriment to American soldiers. One company summed up its position in an email last week: “KBR provided a critical service to the Army under dangerous conditions, and to the exacting standards of the Army’s guidelines and contract for waste disposal. KBR personnel performed admirably under extreme conditions to safely and effectively dispose of tons of waste material. We will vigorously defend any allegations to the contrary.” The company has argued in court that it can’t be held liable for wartime decisions made by the U.S. military, and that it was essentially following orders given by the government when it created the burn pits.

Editorial: At the VA: The waiting dead (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
In yet another black eye for the Department of Veterans Affairs, an internal report documents that a third of veterans waiting for medical care from the VA already have died. Equally disturbing is the agency’s response to its own disregard. Based on a review of veteran death records (as of April), 238,647 deceased veterans were among the 847,822 awaiting care, The Hill newspaper reports. A VA spokeswoman blames the agency’s antiquated electronic health record system. But tossing in a positive spin, Walinda West also pointed out that more than 80 percent of veterans who come to the VA already “have either Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare or some other private insurance.” So some veterans in “pending status” might have used other health care options “instead of completing their eligibility application.” How reassuring. This is but the latest in a series of scandals at VA facilities, including the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, where at least six veterans died and 16 others were sickened during a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak from February 2011 through November 2012. At last week’s national convention of military veterans in Pittsburgh, President Obama said patient safety is a top priority at VA hospitals, although he also acknowledged that “wait times are higher than they were last year” in some places. For all the talk about a renewed focus on veterans’ care, a waiting list occupied by dead people is inexcusable.

House leaning toward VA Choice vote, but with strings (Roll Call)
Lawmakers appear ready to ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs has access to the money it needs to prevent a shutdown of its hospitals this August, but there will probably be strings attached. Before the House and Senate leave for a month-long August recess, they will need to act to patch a $2.5 billion gap in the agency’s budget, the result of higher than anticipated demand for veterans health services and a lack of flexibility to shift money within the budget, VA officials say. To cover the gap, Secretary Robert McDonald has requested lawmakers allow the VA to divert $3 billion from the so-called Choice Program, an emergency fund set up in the wake of last year’s wait-time scandal to subsidize non-VA care for veterans and help trim the time it takes to get medical appointments. It is not the preferred method of funding for House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, but the Florida Republican said on July 23 he was inclined to grant VA’s request to divert money from the program, albeit reluctantly. “I don’t see any other way at this point, and given the information that VA has finally provided us, I don’t know if there is anywhere else to get the money that’s necessary,” said Miller, who pointed out Choice funds were already appropriated. In lieu of funding, McDonald warned lawmakers at a House Veterans’ Affairs hearing on July 22 that hospital services would shut down in August. “Without flexibility, we will have no option at the end of July but to defer all remaining non-Choice, Care in the Community authorizations until October, provide staff furlough notices and notify vendors that we cannot pay them as we begin an orderly shutdown of hospitals and clinics across the country,” McDonald said. “These are unfortunate conclusions to an otherwise productive year of progress.” The VA is forecasting a $2.5 billion shortfall for the current fiscal year because of increased demand for Care in the Community programs, which permit veterans to obtain medical care outside of the VA-run system. The programs are separate from the Choice Program, which was authorized for three years and funded through $10 billion in emergency appropriations that roll over into the next fiscal year if left unspent.

New study finds many vets live with war trauma throughout their lives (NPR)
A new study of veterans from the Vietnam War has troubling implications for troops who fought much more recently — in Afghanistan and Iraq. The study suggests that 40 years since the Vietnam War ended, hundreds of thousands of those vets still struggle every day with mental health problems linked to the traumas they experienced. It was published in the latest issue of JAMA Psychiatry. “This study is officially called the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study,” NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling reports. Daniel says that researchers have been studying Vietnam veterans longer than they’ve studied any other soldiers. Congress ordered the studies to be done to understand how war affects soldiers over most of their lives. The good news they found is that between 70 and 75 percent of the Vietnam veterans they’ve studied have never suffered from mental illness linked to war — no PTSD, depression, alcoholism or drug addiction. Charles Marmar of NYU’s medical school, who led the latest look at nearly 2,000 veterans, says that the lack of mental illness “doesn’t mean they haven’t been affected by their experience. For sure, to go to war is a profound experience and changes you forever in many ways, but they didn’t break down with psychiatric illness.” But there’s bad news, too: “Roughly 11 percent of the vets they studied are in serious trouble,” Daniel says. “They still suffer from PTSD, or from a disorder like it. That’s around 10 times the rate among veterans who didn’t serve in Vietnam. The Vietnam vets still get flashbacks, they’re irritable, depressed, they can’t sleep well.” Many “are quite alienated from family and friends, and have trouble either in the workplace or in their family environments,” says Marmar.

VA union submits report to McDonald alleging ‘hostile work environment’ (The Washington Post)
Several months into his job as Veterans Affairs Secretary, Robert McDonald visited the subbasement in the agency’s main Washington office to meet with the leaders of the workers’ union. Bill Preston, president of AFGE Local 17, which represents VA employees who work in the D.C. central office, told McDonald that if he wanted to achieve his objective of turning around the embattled agency, he would have to fire a lot of executives and managers. “ ‘Bill, I agree,’ ” Preston recalled McDonald saying that October afternoon. “ ‘I need your help. Tell me who those managers are.’ ” After a several-month internal review, Preston sent McDonald a 39-page report Thursday, detailing accounts from hundreds of VA workers of dysfunction and insensitivity by their superiors. If the report were a “perverse ‘how-to’ book,” Preston wrote in an e-mail to McDonald, it would be a “guide to terrible management for the purpose of systematically destroying the ability of the United States government to function effectively.” Preston declined to give a copy of the report to The Washington Post. He said he wanted to give McDonald time to read it and respond first. But two union sources broadly described its contents. Nearly three dozen managers were mentioned in it, and each was the subject of at least three separate employee complaints, said the two people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the union. They said the report alleges that there are institutional problems with how employees, many of them veterans, are treated when dealing with a range of personal or professional issues. “Morale is very low,” one of them said. “It creates a very hostile work environment. People can’t do their work.”

VA whistleblowers, punished for revealing excessive opiate use and infestation, are exonerated (The Washington Post)
After he reported a fly and pest infestation in the kitchen of a veterans hospital in Philadelphia, Troy Thompson was assigned to janitorial work and investigated for stealing stale sandwiches. Joseph Colon Christensen was told he was being fired after he notified Washington that the director of a dozen medical centers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands was arrested. And in Tomah, Wis., Ryan Honl was stripped of his duties and locked out of his office after he disclosed that veterans were prescribed excessive prescription opiates. These whistleblowers have now been exonerated by the office that investigates claims of retaliation against federal employees. The Office of Special Counsel announced this week that it has smoothed the way for the Department of Veterans Affairs to make amends to Thompson, Christensen and Honl with monetary settlements, reinstatements to their jobs and by purging their records of negative claims.  “Rather than silencing the messenger, supervisors can use disclosures as opportunities to address problems,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement. “It’s an important sign of progress that the VA settled these cases and provided relief to the employees who suffered retaliation.” The employees, who shared harrowing experiences with investigators of being ostracized, harassed and punished for reporting their concerns about mismanagement, have plenty of company. The special counsel’s office says it has helped more than 45 whistleblowers with claims of retaliation by VA in the last two years, by getting their jobs back and, in some cases, securing compensatory damages. Many employees have came forward in the aftermath of last year’s scandal over delays in patient care and fraudulent waiting lists disclosed by a whistleblower at VA’s hospital in Phoenix. Across the country, other employees have said they faced reprisals for reporting a range of concerns, including accounting irregularities, nursing shortages and mishandling of health-care funds, according to the special counsel.

Pentagon wants individuals to stop guarding recruiting stations (Fox News)
The Pentagon asked Friday that individuals not stand guard at the military recruiting offices in the wake of the deadly Chattanooga terror attack. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter “is currently reviewing recommendations from the services for making our installations and facilities safer – including our recruiting stations” following the July 16 attack that left four Marines and a Navy sailor dead. “While we greatly appreciate the outpouring of support for our recruiters from the American public, we ask that individuals not stand guard at recruiting offices as it could adversely impact our mission, and potentially create unintended security risks,” Cook added. In the days following the attack, citizens groups, veterans, local law enforcement and the National Guard have stood watch outside of recruiting offices across the country. It’s also raised questions over a 23-year-old federal policy that leaves service members unable to defend themselves on Pentagon property. James Elmore, a Florida Army veteran who has standing watch outside his local recruitment office armed with a handgun, says he has no intention of standing down. “I no longer take orders, and I will continue to protect the recruiters when I can. It is my duty as an American,” Elmore told Fox News. “I will be back out there Monday morning. So if you are asking me if I will stand down according to the Pentagon’s wishes, no, not a chance.” The governors of Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma,  Texas and Wisconsin have all signed orders in the last several days to allow National Guard troops to carry loaded guns on bases and at military recruiting centers in their states.

VA secretary: More money needed to meet vets’ increasing health care needs (The State Journal Register)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald told delegates to the Vietnam Veterans of America convention Friday that the VA is making progress in eliminating a backlog in its medical treatment of veterans but that more money is needed to meet an increasing demand. McDonald said that although the total number of veterans is decreasing, the number of those needing VA care is skyrocketing. “Not because of Iraq or Afghanistan but because of the aging of the veterans of our era — Vietnam and Korea,” he said, noting that there are 10 million vets over the age of 65. He said that in 2009 the VA completed 980,000 claims. That number rose to 1.4 million claims completed in 2014, a 43 percent increase. “As we grow older, our medical needs become more acute,” McDonald said. In addition to aging veterans, other factors contributing to increased demand for services include going through more than a decade of war, Agent Orange claims, higher battlefield survival rates, and more sophisticated methods for identifying and treating medical issues. He said that last year the VA completed 880,000 appointments on nights and weekends and added 38,000 medical employees. McDonald said 97 percent of VA medical appointments now are completed within 30 days of the veteran’s preferred date, and 88 percent are completed within seven days of that date.

Cost of war: Veterans remember USS Indianapolis, shark attacks (NPR)
Next week marks the 70th anniversary of one of the worst disasters in U.S. Naval history — and one of the worst shark attacks on record. But it’s a story that many people don’t know. In the summer of 1945, World War II was almost over, but in the shadows of that moment comes a story of survival that changed lives forever. If you’re a movie fan, you may recognize this line from the 1975 blockbuster, Jaws: “Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was coming back from the island of Tinian to Leyte. Just delivered the bomb.” That’s Robert Shaw’s monologue about a wartime ship sinking and shark attacks. It’s a story that World War II veteran Dick Thelen knows all too well. “July 26, we delivered the bomb. And July 30, the ship was sank,” Thelen says. Thelen’s living room is full of memorabilia from the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis. The bomb he’s referring to is the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima a week later. Thelen is 88 now, but in 1945 he was just an 18-year-old sailor.  After the bomb had been delivered, the Indianapolis headed to Guam to prepare for the upcoming invasion of Japan. The date was July 30. “It’s evening. It’s hot,” says Doug Stanton, author of In Harm’s Way, which details the survivors’ experiences. “Nearly 1,200 young men are asleep on this cruiser, which is about two football fields long.” A Japanese submarine surfaced not far away, saw the silhouette of the ship on the horizon and began tracking it. Torpedoes were fired and the ship sank in just 12 minutes. “Everybody asked me, ‘Where was you when you jumped off the ship?’ I didn’t jump off the ship, the ship left me,” Thelen says with a laugh. There hadn’t been time to get enough life boats into the water, so the survivors clung to life jackets, makeshift rafts and debris, thinking they’d be rescued within a few hours. But after two and a half days in the water, they realized help wasn’t coming.

Manhattan Project veteran had unique view of atomic bomb work (The New York Times)
Benjamin Bederson turned past the page in the diary from long ago, the page he had burned a hole through, and mentioned things he had done since that summer of 1945. “Was an experimental atomic physicist,” he said. “Worked as a professor at New York University, taught almost every course in physics, was editor in chief of the American Physical Society and helped usher physics journals into the electronic age.” He left out the part about helping to usher in the atomic age — the part about testing the ignition switches for the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. The part about having been one of the lowest-ranking soldiers assigned to the Manhattan Project, the huge research-and-development effort that delivered the first atomic devices, and as a corporal or a private in his early 20s, one of the youngest. The part about having been one of the few soldiers sent to key spots at key moments as the work progressed. “That makes it sound a little grandiose,” Dr. Bederson, now 93, said modestly. He did not even have his bachelor’s degree then, having suspended his undergraduate work at City College of New York to join the Army Signal Corps as a civilian. Before long, he was drafted, and after three days of basic training in Atlantic City, the Army sent him to Illinois and Ohio — and then canceled the program it had put him in to learn electrical engineering. His commanding officer had heard that something called the Manhattan Project was looking for soldiers, and told him to apply. “He knew I was a loudmouthed New Yorker,” said Dr. Bederson, who grew up in the Bronx. “He said, ‘Here’s your chance to get back to New York.’ ” But it turned out that was not the case. “The next thing I knew,” Dr. Bederson said, “I was in Oak Ridge, Tenn. I was nonplused.” Oak Ridge was booming, with as many as 45,000 people living and working there, and — according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation — consuming just over 14 percent of all the electricity generated in the United States.

Veterans named as Trump supporters say they were not consulted (Raw Story)
Several people listed as part of the “Veterans for Trump coalition” formed by Donald Trump following his incendiary comments about John McCain’s war record have denied they are part of the group, the Guardian has learned. Trump’s campaign announced the formation of the New Hampshire-based group in response to criticism of the business mogul’s labelling of McCain, who spent five and a half years in a North Vietnamese jail, where he was tortured, as “ not a war hero ”. A number of people were named as members of “Veterans for Trump” on Trump’s election website . “These veterans have pledged their support to Mr Trump in the primary, and they will be advocating for him,” a press release said. But when the Guardian contacted several claimed Veterans for Trump members on Friday, three said they had never heard of the organization and had not signed up as members. “I don’t know anything about it,” said Ernie Fusi, an 88-year-old second world war veteran from Atkinson, New Hampshire. His name was among 51 “Veterans for Trump” whose details were sent out to the media and listed on Trump’s website. “I haven’t told anyone I want to get in on that,” Fusi said. “I’m not going to do any campaigning.” On Saturday, the Trump campaign disputed the accounts of those interviewed by the Guardian. In an email, a spokeswoman said: “The campaign has written confirmation of support from each of the individuals listed as part of the New Hampshire Veterans Coalition, including those quoted in this story. We are extremely proud to have their support.”

Poll: Veterans prefer Trump over McCain by double digits (Breitbart News)
A YouGov poll conducted through Wednesday not only shows that Donald Trump’s support has surged among Republicans in the wake of the backlash against unfortunate comments the billionaire businessman made about Sen. John McCain’s war record, veterans currently serving in the military view Trump more favorably than McCain. Among current veterans, a full 53% view Trump favorably compared to just 41% for McCain. McCain’s unfavorable rating with this group is also higher than Trump’s, 49% to 42% respectively. Among all Republicans, Trump still ties McCain with a 57% favorability rating. Only 3 points separate their unfavorable ratings with McCain doing a little better at 36% while Trump sits at 39%. Trump’s favorability ratings have taken a hit since the McCain comments. Nevertheless, his support from GOP primary voters has jumped from 15% to 28% — double his second place rival, Jeb Bush, who sits at just 14%.

How University of Phoenix woos vets and their GI Bill Funds (Reveal)
In 2012, President Barack Obama issued an executive order banning deceptive and aggressive recruiting practices by for-profit colleges, which had been targeting veterans and members of the active-duty military in an effort to capture their GI Bill money. But an investigation by Reveal’s Aaron Glantz found that by cultivating a cozy relationship with the armed forces, the school that receives the largest share of GI Bill money – the University of Phoenix – has circumvented the rules Obama put in place. The for-profit school’s strategy has included engaging in recruitment drives disguised as résumé workshops and utilizing military insignias in school marketing without the required permissions. The strategy also has led the company to pay the military to sponsor hundreds of events on military bases across the country, from rock concerts to Super Bowl parties and father-daughter dances.

Free Clover payment devices for veteran entrepreneurs (Military Times)
Maker of “point-of-sale” business management tools First Data Corp. is giving away free payment devices to veteran and military entrepreneurs. “We hope it’s hundreds of thousands,” said the company’s Dan Charron, executive vice president of global business solutions — also a West Point grad and veteran of the first Gulf War. First Data is giving away Clover Mini or Clover Mobile devices worth $350 along with First Data software Perka Punchcard, a loyalty rewards program, and Insightics, a business intelligence program for small businesses. Known as First Data Salutes, the initiative will be staffed by business consultants — who are also veterans — who will work over the phone to get military and veteran small business owners set up with the kit. Additional offers include discounts on services and an upcoming fee-free processing day on Veterans Day. The Clover devices accept all the latest payment methods, Charron said, including swipe, mobile and chip. They run stand-alone software along with third-party, subscription-based apps. “We have over 100 third-party apps that are running on this platform,” he said. Entrepreneurs should have a business banking account. First Data’s consultants can help you understand the details.