With VA’s latest failing, change is necessary (Reading Eagle)
Commentary: “More than 300,000 veterans died while on the waiting list for care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that’s more than just the latest failing from an agency saddled with problems. U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent said that revelation, released in a report from the VA Inspector General’s Office this month, underscores the need for sweeping change.”It’s obvious that major reforms are necessary at VA,” the Lehigh County Republican said in an interview with the Reading Eagle last week.The VA’s shortcomings have drawn the attention of Congress for years. The Philadelphia regional office of the VA has endured well-deserved criticism for delays in processing claims for veterans.Now, the VA Inspector General’s Office said that among the VA’s 867,000 pending applications, 307,000 veterans had died (that’s 35 percent of those on the waiting list). Most died more than four years ago.The inspector general’s office said it’s difficult to determine how many of those who had died were actively awaiting health care benefits, but it speaks to the VA’s inefficient record keeping.Dent, the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the VA, argues for a new approach to providing care for veterans. He wants the VA working with the civilian health care system to offer better care for veterans, closer to home.The VA will always be providing health care for veterans, Dent said. But he envisions a different model, with the VA focusing on health issues specific to the military, including mental health.When veterans are battling health issues, especially those that aren’t tied to their military service, Dent said they should be able to get care outside the VA. A Berks County veteran should be able to go to Reading Hospital or Penn State Health St. Joseph for cancer treatment, Dent said.”Why shouldn’t veterans who chose to serve their country be able to choose their hospital and doctor?” Dent asked. Dent stressed he knows there are plenty of good people working at the VA.”I have great respect for the people who work in the VA system,” Dent said. “They are dedicated. This is about a structure that is in need of serious reform.”
These Navy vets are still fighting for Agent Orange compensation (Bangor Daily News)
To the best of his knowledge, Jim Smith never saw or handled Agent Orange on the Navy ship he served on during the Vietnam War. “I never sprayed the stuff, never touched the stuff,” said Smith, 65, who lives in Virginia Beach. “I knew later, vets started getting sick from it, but I didn’t think it had any impact on me.” It turns out, he might have been drinking it. The realization came in 2011 — almost 40 years after his one-year tour aboard the ammunition ship Butte — when Smith was diagnosed with prostate cancer and started doing some research. He learned that he and other so-called Blue Water Navy veterans may have been exposed to Agent Orange and other herbicides even though most of them never set foot in Vietnam, where the spraying took place. That’s because the chemicals, used to kill vegetation and deny enemy cover, could have washed into rivers and out to sea, where patrolling Navy vessels sucked in potentially contaminated water and distilled it for use aboard the ships—a process that would have only concentrated the toxin. Every member of the crew would have been exposed: Distilled water was used in showers, to wash laundry and to prepare food. It was used to make coffee, as well as a sugary beverage known as “bug juice,” which flowed from fountains in the enlisted mess. “Of all the hazards we faced at sea, I don’t think the drinking water registered on anyone’s list,” said Smith, who’s among thousands of former sailors now seeking compensation from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for their ailments, which the Institute of Medicine says could plausibly be related to Agent Orange exposure, though there’s no proving it. “I was there,” Smith said. “Agent Orange was there. Would I have gotten cancer anyway? Maybe. But maybe not.” Agent Orange contained the toxic chemical commonly known as dioxin, which has had harmful effects on Vietnam veterans. The VA presumes any vet who served on land in Vietnam or on boats in its inland waters was exposed to the herbicide, and it compensates them for a litany of associated illnesses, including diabetes, various cancers, Parkinson’s Disease, peripheral neuropathy and a type of heart disease. But the agency has repeatedly argued there’s no scientific justification or legal requirement for covering veterans who served off the coast. The group of Blue Water vets — so named to set the sailors apart from their Brown Water Navy counterparts, who patrolled the murky rivers of South Vietnam — has been fighting the VA for more than 10 years. They were initially deemed eligible for compensation under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, only to have the VA change its interpretation a decade later.
Military brain bank donor explains why it’s the right thing (Military Times)
It’s been 54 years since Navy storekeeper Richard Fournier was knocked on the head and robbed by three Marines in Honolulu — an assault that left him with a lifetime of psychological and physical problems. Fournier, now 72, has a telltale dent in his skull and, according to medical imaging, small vessel disease in the frontal lobes and base of his brain. With that traumatic brain injury and related post-traumatic stress disorder, he is rated 100 percent disabled by the Veterans Affairs Department, has been unable to keep a job for any length of time, is impulsive, moody and, for more than 20 years after the incident, abused alcohol and drugs. But during that time, he also founded a nonprofit aimed at educating the public on head injuries. And he now hopes his misfortune will eventually benefit science. In August, Fournier filed paperwork to donate his brain to the VA’s Leahy-Friedman National Brain Repository for PTSD, and he hopes other veterans will follow suit. “This isn’t just about studying PTSD,” Fournier said. “It’s about looking for clues and finding cures for a host of neurological diseases.” The VA’s new PTSD brain bank and the Defense Department’s brain tissue repository at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences are dedicated to studying neurological diseases common in troops and veterans, including concussion, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s and epilepsy, as well as psychiatric disorders. Researchers say that while they can learn from brain images, there’s no substitute for examining the actual grey matter, neurons and white matter of the brain.
Lawmaker unveils plan to fix El Paso VA (El Paso Times)
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke unveiled a plan Saturday that he hopes will help improve the quality of care provided by the El Paso Veterans Affairs Health Care System, which is ranked third worst in the nation. His plan, which would cost $20 million in El Paso, involves offering veterans different places to get care and offering incentives to doctors to treat veterans. While veterans were happy with the proposal, they have little hope it will have an impact. “I think it is a good plan and it addresses a lot of the issues we are facing right now with the VA system,” said an Army Gulf War veteran who did not want to be identified. “I like the parts of offering incentives to keep doctors here, I like the option of allowing vets to go to more places to get treatment, but it is a drop in the bucket.” O’Rourke, D-El Paso, discussed his proposed plan with about 50 veterans at a town hall meeting Saturday held at the El Paso Community College Transmountain Campus. The proposal includes increasing the number of places veterans can receive health care and provide the VA with more qualified medical providers, especially in the mental health field.
Veterans’ home eases some restriction after deadly bacteria (The Southern Illinoisian)
The scent of chlorine permeates an Illinois veterans’ home where nine elderly residents have died from a recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. Although a ban on showers has been lifted, hand-written signs still warn against drinking from fountains and stacked cases of bottled water line the hallways. Amid the heightened concern about the water-borne bacteria that can cause a severe form of pneumonia, a semblance of day-to-day normalcy has returned to the sprawling complex founded in 1886 in the Mississippi River town of Quincy for veterans of the Mexican-American and Civil wars. Disinfecting the home’s drinking water with chlorine, cleaning its air conditioning system and hot water tanks and shutting down decorative and drinking fountains likely have stopped the spread of the disease, Gov. Bruce Rauner told The Associated Press. But he also acknowledged that “we’ll probably have more deaths” given the illness’ two-week incubation period. The arrival of special filters to treat shower water has ended the requirement that residents only take sponge baths. “From everything I can tell all appropriate steps have been taken and there’s no further risk of further contagion,” Rauner said Thursday. “The issue is who’s been exposed.” Officials say it may still be several weeks before they can definitively pinpoint the source of the bacteria, which has sickened 45 people at the home — including five workers — in addition to the nine who died. Another four people, one of whom died, were diagnosed with the disease elsewhere in Quincy.
U.S. vets’ wheelchairs will roll on with Israeli tech (Jewish Business News)
Wheelchair-bound U.S. army veterans will be among the first users of the revolutionary Acrobat Wheel created by Israeli company SoftWheel to increase their mobility significantly. As described in ISRAEL21c’s previous coverage, SoftWheel literally reinvented the wheel by incorporating a patented selective suspension mechanism that kicks in when impacted above a certain threshold. Riders can go over a rocky or uneven terrain, get down a curb or down stairs, while the shock is absorbed by the wheel rather than by the chair or the user’s body. SoftWheel CEO Daniel Barel tells ISRAEL21c that the company is “very veteran-oriented in Israel and abroad,” and therefore contacted the US Veterans Administration (VA) to initiate a working relationship. Human Engineering Research Laboratories, run by the VA and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, has tested and approved the Acrobat wheel. “We are in advanced talks with the VA now; these things take time. Meanwhile, there are some private funds in the United States that support veterans,” says Barel. “If someone was turned down by the VA, they can get equipment through these organizations. “A few months ago, we contacted the Independence Fund, a $15 million fund that buys medical equipment for veterans. They were very excited to provide vets with the SoftWheel Acrobat until the VA partners with us officially.”
Editorial: Gay vets deserve discharge upgrades (Columbus Dispatch)
“Good luck to Columbus resident Donald Hallman, 82, who is seeking to have his “undesirable” discharge from the U.S. Army upgraded to “honorable.” Hallman was kicked out of the Army in 1955 for being gay. He is one of an estimated 100,000 service members who were cast out between World War II and 2011 for the same reason. In 2011, the Obama administration enacted a policy that grants an honorable discharge to any gay service member who was kicked out, as long as there weren’t any aggravating circumstances. Several hundred veterans have been granted discharge upgrades since. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, especially for someone such as Hallman, who tried to erase all evidence of what happened to him by destroying his military documents after being kicked out. He now has to track down copies of those records before he can apply for discharge upgrade. A bill in Congress would expedite matters for such veterans by granting a blanket upgrade for most, but the measure hasn’t moved for two years. Congress should dust it off and get it moving. Nothing can undo the decades that Hallman and others have lived with the memory of how they were treated, nor the denial of veterans’ benefits to which they should have been entitled. So the least the nation can do is to provide them with this small solace. They tried to serve their country and that should be recognized an honorable act.”
Veterans seek to create new military group in north Georgia (The Washington Times)
Some military veterans who were wounded in combat often try to move on from their experience in the military and get on with their lives, said Mike Pilvinsky. “They have their lives, they have their education, they’re raising families, so they don’t have time for a lot of this veterans stuff,” said Pilvinsky, of Ellijay. “They don’t have time to march in a parade or go to meetings and stuff like that.” Pilvinsky wants to create a new chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH) in north Georgia. The MOPH is a congressionally chartered veterans organization for those who received the Purple Heart award while serving in the military. “Unfortunately, the closest chapter (located in Rome) to Dalton, Chatsworth and Ellijay is at least 50 miles away,” said Pilvinsky. “This is inconvenient for many people and for that very reason there are a number of Purple Heart recipients in the area who never join the organization.” The Purple Heart is an award given to those who were wounded in combat while serving in any branch of the U.S. military. Pilvinsky said he hopes to reach out to all veterans in the north Georgia area who have received the award. “I think it’s important that they know about the organization because there might be some benefits for them that they aren’t aware of,” said Pilvinsky, such as dealing with paperwork from the Veterans Administration. Pilvinsky said once founded, the chapter will focus on assisting all veterans in the area. “We would be helping all veterans, not just wounded veterans,” he said. “We would participate in community events, provide visitations for veterans in retirement homes and even go to schools to talk to students.”
Chicago restaurant apologizes to vet asked to leave because of service dog (Chicago Tribune)
A restaurant has apologized to a military veteran visiting Chicago after asking him and his service dog to leave. Maj. Diggs Brown, who said he was retired from the Army Special Forces and a former city council member in Colorado, intended to eat breakfast Saturday at Cochon Volant. He said he was told he could not be in the restaurant with Arthur Barker Black, the black Lab he said helps with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and asked to leave. Instead of the salmon eggs Benedict he had ordered, Brown, from Fort Collins, Colo., said he ate a microwave hot dog and Pepsi at the O’Hare International Airport USO. “I have no animosity toward this restaurant,” Brown said. “It’s just a fact of life that a lot of people are not aware of the ADA laws and how they pertain to service dogs or service animals.” The restaurant apologized in two Facebook posts Saturday evening and Sunday morning. Both posts received a slew of comments, some positive but most outraged. The restaurant’s general manager, Josh Schatan, said in a statement that restaurant staff had spoken with Brown, and the situation had been rectified. The restaurant also made a donation to Puppies Behind Bars, the organization that trained the almost 5-year-old Arthur. “Yesterday’s circumstance was not a true representation of our company policy and we have begun immediate internal review of protocol, training of staff and ADA regulations to ensure this will never happen again,” the statement read in part. Brown said he was in Chicago for the first time to participate in a walk hosted by the organization No Barriers, a group that works with veterans with disabilities. He said as he was being seated for breakfast, a woman who said she was a manager, told him he could not have a dog in the restaurant. After he explained the Americans with Disabilities Act allowed him to bring a service dog into public places and had ordered breakfast, he said he again was told his dog could not be in the restaurant. He again explained the federal law and recalled the woman responding, “I don’t care.” Brown said he wasn’t happy and was “a little bit humiliated” by the incident.
Meet the Marine veteran behind Disney’s Bambi (USA Today)
Retired Marine Maj. Donnie Dunagan nearly made it through his 25-year career in the Corps without anyone knowing his secret. But in 1977, Dunagan read some alarming news: Disney announced that “Bambi” would once again be released in the theaters — and for the first time ever, it was possibly going to include credits. He instantly began picturing Marines taking their families to the base theater to see the cartoon about the beloved deer — and when they did, they’d see his name next to the words, “model and voice of Bambi.” “If Disney does this to me, I can just see gunnery sergeants and captains writing home and saying, ‘Dear Mom, guess who my [commanding officer] is?’ ” he recalled in an interview with Military Times. Dunagan, a mustang, served in a host of billets during his time in the Marine Corps. He was once the youngest drill instructor in the history of the service when he was assigned to remain at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego as a young private first class as part of an experiment. In 1967, he deployed to Vietnam with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. Over the course of his career, Dunagan received three Purple Hearts. And he was tapped to serve as a counterintelligence specialist in the heart of the Cold War. But before any of that, Dunagan was Bambi.
Veteran works 30 jobs in 30 days (KPHO-Phoenix)
An Arizona veteran is in the middle of a unique campaign to draw attention to the ongoing problem of unemployment among vets. Lance Whitford founded the nonprofit Vets2Work.US, with the goal of putting homeless and unemployed veterans to work. He is on day 20 of what he has dubbed his “30-30 Campaign.” Whitford is working at 30 different jobs, for one day each. Whitford spent Saturday working at a community garden in south Phoenix. Howard Fleishmann, who owns Community Tire Pros, paid Whitford’s wages for the day. The money raised will employ 10 veterans for five workdays leading up to Veterans Day. Whitford is still looking for a few more employers to hire him for a day of labor. Contact information can be found on Vets2Work.US.