September 17 Veterans News

September 17 Veterans News

Veterans news updateSenators join push to compensate Blue Water vets for Agent Orange exposure (The Virginian Pilot)
U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have joined the push to compensate Blue Water Navy veterans for ailments they associate with Agent Orange exposure off the coast of Vietnam. The Democratic lawmakers from Virginia have signed on as co-sponsors of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, they announced Wednesday in a joint statement. “I’ve heard from too many Virginia veterans who are suffering from illnesses that have been linked to Agent Orange, yet are unable to access health benefits or disability compensation simply because of where they served,” Warner said in the statement. The announcement comes days after a Virginian-Pilot and ProPublica report detailed the fight by Navy vets seeking benefits. They initially were deemed eligible for compensation under the Agent Orange Act of 1991, but in 2002, the Department of Veterans Affairs amended its policy to compensate only vets who can prove they set foot in Vietnam. There’s no way to prove it 40 years later, but the Institute of Medicine said it’s possible Agent Orange made its way into water used aboard Navy ships off the coast of Vietnam.

Senate and VA still trying to agree on accountability (Federal Times)
Recent scandals have put the Department of Veterans Affairs on the defensive when it comes to service and accountability. The trend seemed to continue at a Sept. 16 Senate hearing looking into proposed legislation to fix problems at the beleaguered department. In a testy exchange, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D.-Ct., called upon Thomas Lynch, the VA’s assistant deputy under secretary for Health Clinical Operations, to support two accountability bills to reform the department, after the latter expressed concerns that could have a chilling effect for providers. “We acknowledge that [S. 1856] is less onerous than other [bills],” Lynch said. “I think from a clinical standpoint, my concerns would be that these bills may impair our ability to attract and recruit and retain the best employees because of the more rigid accountability that VA is held.” Blumenthal was having none of it, though, “In Connecticut, and elsewhere, doctors welcome accountability. The good ones do, because they are far from fearful that they would be held accountable, and I would think managers are the same,” he said. “They don’t come to a place wondering what will happen to them if they do a bad job. The best people come to an opportunity hoping that there will be the flexibility so they can do a good job.” The debate centered around two bills, S. 1856—sponsored by Blumenthal— and Sen. Jerry Moran’s, R.-Kan., S. 290. S. 1856, known as The Department of Veterans Affairs Equitable Employee Accountability Act of 2015, would allow for suspension and removal of VA employees for performance and misconduct, as well as further accountability measures. S. 290 also calls for accountability measures within the VA, reducing annuities for any employee convicted of a felony that influenced performance while at the department. The bill also sets up a performance appraisal system for senior executive employees.

Senators push Obama to nominate VA watchdog (The Hill)
A group of senators are pushing President Obama to nominate an inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), saying the post must be filled after not having permanent occupant for more than 600 days. “This position is necessary to establish proper oversight and accountability at VA, as well as to start rebuilding the lack of confidence too many Americans have in the Department,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) wrote in a letter sent to Obama on Wednesday. “We urge you to ensure that oversight of VA is prioritized by nominating a permanent IG as soon as possible.” The department’s last permanent inspector general, George Opfer, stepped down at the end of 2013, while acting inspector general Richard Griffin retired in July. The lack of a Senate-approved inspector general comes as the VA has been rocked by repeated data manipulation scandals over the past two years. That culminated last year when then-Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned, though questions about systemic problems continue to plague the department. The senators pointed to a recent report finding that 307,000 veterans died while waiting to enroll in VA healthcare, saying it highlighted “disturbing failures” within the VA. The inspector general report couldn’t determine how many of the veterans died because the VA “lacked adequate procedures and management oversight,” but the senators said the “departmental shortcomings highlighted by these findings are shocking and inexcusable.” It isn’t the first the VA Office of Inspector General has been the subject of congressional criticism. Lawmakers accused Griffin of being too close to the department he was supposed to investigate.

Veterans’ group that hosted Trump event lost nonprofit status (Tampa Tribune)
The Internal Revenue Service revoked the nonprofit status of the veterans benefit organization that hosted and sold tickets to a foreign policy speech by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump aboard a retired U.S. battleship, The Associated Press has learned. The group’s endorsement of Trump at the event also could raise legal problems under campaign finance laws. Trump’s campaign did not respond to questions from the AP about whether it was aware that the IRS had revoked the nonprofit status of the Veterans for a Strong America, which sold tickets to Trump’s event for up to $1,000 as a fundraiser. The IRS issued its decision Aug. 10, citing the group’s failure to file any tax returns for three consecutive years, according to IRS records reviewed by the AP. The group’s chairman, Joel Arends of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said the organization was appealing the IRS decision. He would not provide AP with copies of any tax returns, which would show how much money the group has collected over the years and how it spends its money. By law, such records are supposed to be available to the general public for inspection. “We disagree with the IRS determination letter,” Arends told the AP in an interview. He appeared alongside Trump on Tuesday night on the ship. Regardless of its legal status as a nonprofit, Veterans for a Strong America’s endorsement of Trump on the deck of the USS Iowa may also raise campaign finance questions. Under federal law, corporations are restricted to donating $2,700 either in cash or in-kind contributions to a campaign. But the event, which Veterans for a Strong America paid for, involved 850 attendees, putting the cost at roughly $11,000.

Editorial: VA should improve treatment for female veterans (Tampa Bay Times)
Despite the decades-long influx of women into the military, too many hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs still cater to men. Female veterans find their care is often outsourced, or they struggle to abide treatment plans designed for men that fall short of meeting their needs. This haphazard approach to medical care is unacceptable in the age of modern medicine and disrespectful to female veterans who have a right to expect appropriate medical care at VA hospitals. The Washington Post reported recently that there are 2.3 million female veterans, who are the fastest growing population served by the VA. Yet the agency continues to lag in its efforts to provide medical care to women. Most VA hospitals outsource prenatal care, don’t have full-time gynecologists and don’t deliver babies. There also is an acute shortage of female mental health therapists, who are preferred by female veterans who have been victims of sexual assault. Retired Army Sgt. Brenda Reed of Tierra Verde fought with the VA for more than two years to get a prosthetic leg designed for a woman. Until this summer, when the VA finally honored her request, she used a leg made for a man. The prosthetic was so ill-fitting it repeatedly fell off. Other female veterans said their military service was demeaned by VA doctors who were surprised that women had been injured serving in dangerous roles during deployments. For too long, the VA has practiced a one-size-fits-all approach to caring for veterans with little regard for gender differences. While inappropriate, this mind-set would have been understandable decades ago when there were fewer women in the military. But it has no place in today’s armed services, where women take active roles in combat and seek health services at VA facilities in increasing numbers.

Eisenhower memorial backers say enough is enough (CBS News)
In the 1950s, everybody liked Ike. But 60 years later, a national memorial for President Dwight D. Eisenhower is in limbo, with funding withheld by Congress. Congress authorized the memorial to be built on four acres in Washington, D.C., but it is being held up because of a fight over the design, CBS News’ Julianna Goldman reports. Now backers are saying enough is enough, and they are pulling out some high-powered names. On Saturdays, 92-year-old former Sen. Bob Dole braves the heat to greet fellow veterans at the World War II Memorial. The former Republican presidential candidate raised $170 million to build the memorial. Now he wants to do the same to honor fellow Kansan, President Eisenhower. “Ike was our hero … I believe that there’s still millions of Americans, sons and daughters and few of us left from World War II, who consider Eisenhower as one of America’s greatest men. It’s time that we memorialize his efforts,” Dole said. But the delay is 16 years in the making. It centers on a controversial design by renowned architect Frank Gehry. Critics, including some members of Eisenhower’s family, say it’s modern and imposing and doesn’t represent the man from Abilene, Kansas, who went on to become supreme Allied commander and then the 34th president. Bruce Cole is the lone member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission opposing the Gehry plan. “The Gehry memorial is a bunch of columns and a huge tapestry in a giant space, which tells you really nothing about Ike but everything about Frank Gehry, who is a ‘starchitect,'” Cole said. The current design costs $150 million, but this summer lawmakers voted to withhold funding amid the fight.

A jail that helps veterans heal their mental wounds (CBS News)
A year to the day after his baby brother was shot dead in a Kansas prairie town, German Villegas’ best buddy in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Michael J. Palacios, was killed by a bomb he’d been ordered to find and defuse. “We were both on the list to search for explosives,” Villegas recalled. But it was Palacios who was ultimately dispatched that day in November 2012. “He got hit by a 200-pound IED,” two months before both men were slated to go home, Villegas said. Villegas returned stateside, a shattered man. “My number-one goal was to get drunk and just try to forget everything,” said the 23-year-old, who joined the Marines straight out of high school and spent five years in the service. Fired from the military police, he was shunted into what he calls “punitive duties” that had him cleaning up after battalion officers and picking up trash. But the worst were the funeral details. “(That) was the completely wrong thing for me to have to do,” he continued. “Every time I did one of these funerals, I’m seeing these families crying. I became pretty good at compartmentalizing — or so I thought.” As he spoke, Villegas was sitting in the communal area outside an all-male cell block at a San Diego County Sheriff’s Department jail, where he landed after being arrested for an assault on his fiancée. A few feet away, at the Vista Detention Facility, stood one of the armed deputy sheriffs, also a veteran, who asked to be assigned to that cell block. Just beyond that deputy was a Marine Corps retiree and correctional counselor who directs Vista’s almost two-year-old Veterans Moving Forward Program. One of a handful of such projects in the United States, the program makes available to convicted ex-military men and those awaiting trial — including those like Villegas who’ve been diagnosed with mental illness — counseling, peer-to-peer support and other amenities rarely extended to people behind bars.

Aviation groups ask Senate to protect flight training for veterans (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association)
Five general aviation organizations, including AOPA, are asking the Senate to protect flight training benefits for veterans. In a written statement submitted to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, the groups ask the Senate to make changes to pending legislation that would amend the Post-9/11 GI Bill by setting a funding cap for veterans enrolled in flight training as part of a college degree program. The cap is too low to cover the costs of flight training required for graduating veterans to be employable, the groups say. “The Post-9/11 GI Bill was created to give veterans the education they need to pursue the career of their choice,” said Jim Coon. “Veterans who wish to pursue a career in aviation should have that opportunity. It’s a commitment we made as a nation and we have to honor it.” In their statement submitted for a Sept. 16 hearing, the groups point to a Congressional Budget Office report that estimates 600 veterans would each lose approximately $30,000 in payments in the first year of the cap. The amount lost is expected to grow in each subsequent year. The Senate legislation would set a cap of $20,240 per year for flight training—the same cap currently in place for all degree programs at private colleges and universities. But in their statement, the groups note that the actual costs of flight training needed to obtain commercial pilot, certificated flight instructor, and instrument instructor certificates—the minimum qualifications needed to obtain an entry-level job as a flight instructor—far exceed those caps. The problem, they note, is particularly serious for veterans pursuing careers as helicopter pilots because the fixed costs associated with helicopter maintenance and operations are high while the margins for flight schools are low, making it difficult or impossible to substantially cut the cost of training. In their statement, the groups ask the Senate to allow market forces to determine the amount of funding available to veterans pursuing aviation careers.

Phoenix VA hospital cleaning up after monsoon storms (ABC15-Arizona)
The Phoenix Veteran Affairs Hospital is still drying out after storms rolled through the Valley earlier this week. About 50 rooms in the facility were damaged after storms brought heavy rain and wind gusts on Monday night. “We were hit pretty hard,” said Don Taylor, the facility’s acting associate director. “It’s been challenging to say the least.” Taylor said water leaked through window seals which damaged the walls. Adding insult to injury, the hospital is still cleaning up and making repairs after a powerful storm hit two weeks ago. “Not all the water damage is visible or even detectable,” he said. “It’s certainly not visible to us so we are actually testing each of the walls for percentage of water saturation.” The hospital set up plastic barriers to separate the wet walls from the rest of the damaged rooms. This is done for health reasons to allow the wet walls to properly dry out, said Taylor. The hospital’s emergency rooms remains on diversion while crews continue clean up efforts. Veterans will still be able to receive immediate care, they will just be taken to another healthcare facility. Taylor said he expects the clean up to be completed in 10 days.

Police: Caretaker hid vet’s death, stole benefits (
The body of a dead Air Force veteran lay buried for nine months beneath the basement of a Dayton, Kentucky, home while someone stole his military benefits, police said Wednesday. Dayton Police Chief David Halfhill identified the body found Sept. 5 inside a home in the 100 block of Sixth Avenue as Steven Reis, 55, who had lived at the residence briefly with his caretaker. The decomposition of the body made it impossible to determine the cause of death, Halfhill said. Further tests will be conducted to determine whether foul play was involved. “We need a determination of death to see where we move forward with this,” Halfhill said. “If we don’t get a cause of death, it is hard to prove whether a murder took place.” His caretaker, Christy Russell, has been arrested on charges related to using Reis’ credit/debit card to access his benefits. Russell knew Reis was dead and used his credit card to steal between $24,000 to $30,000 in Reis’ veterans benefits,  Halfhill said. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been notified and Reis’ benefits have been ceased. Russell is being held in Campbell County jail.