September 21 Veterans News

September 21 Veterans News

Veterans news updateVA takes issue with accountability bills in Congress (Military Times)
The Veterans Affairs Department is pushing back against a legislative proposal to hold VA senior executives accountable by capping the number of top managers eligible for the highest performance ratings and cutting retirement pay for officials convicted of felonies related to their jobs. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., also seeks to protect whistleblowers and reduce cronyism by requiring that Senior Executive Service managers be reassigned to different locations every five years. Moran says the bill, S 290, is needed because the VA is “still not doing enough to hold those responsible accountable for their corrupt behavior,” according to a statement released by the senator’s office. But Thomas Lynch, the VA assistant deputy undersecretary for health clinical operations, told Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee members on Wednesday that a bill would hamper the VA’s ability to attract quality leaders. “VA already is challenged to recruit and retain highly qualified senior executives, in that many take a pay cut to join or stay at VA,” Lynch said. “This bill as currently drafted would compound the challenges facing VA.” Lawmakers have called for the department to improve its system for disciplining and firing employees who break the law, skirt regulations or fail to meet standards. The chorus has grown in Congress as administrative investigations into employee wrongdoing in high profile scandals — manipulated appointment scheduling, prolonged wait times for medical care, prescription mismanagement and $1 billion in construction cost overruns at a Denver medical facility — have dragged on, allowing executives responsible for the problems to retire from their posts without facing disciplinary action or collect salaries as they wait for results. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has sponsored a bill designed to improve accountability at VA that would allow for suspension and removal of VA employees for performance and misconduct, as well as further measures.

In a unit stalked by suicide, veterans try to save one another (The New York Times)
After the sixth suicide in his old battalion, Manny Bojorquez sank onto his bed. With a half-empty bottle of Jim Beam beside him and a pistol in his hand, he began to cry. He had gone to Afghanistan at 19 as a machine-gunner in the Marine Corps. In the 18 months since leaving the military, he had grown long hair and a bushy mustache. It was 2012. He was working part time in a store selling baseball caps and going to community college while living with his parents in the suburbs of Phoenix. He rarely mentioned the war to friends and family, and he never mentioned his nightmares. He thought he was getting used to suicides in his old infantry unit, but the latest one had hit him like a brick: Joshua Markel, a mentor from his fire team, who had seemed unshakable. In Afghanistan, Corporal Markel volunteered for extra patrols and joked during firefights. Back home Mr. Markel appeared solid: a job with a sheriff’s office, a new truck, a wife and time to hunt deer with his father. But that week, while watching football on TV with friends, he had wordlessly gone into his room, picked up a pistol and killed himself. He was 25. Still reeling from the news, Mr. Bojorquez surveyed the old baseball posters on the walls of his childhood bedroom and the sun-bleached body armor hanging on his bedpost. Then he took a long pull from the bottle. “If he couldn’t make it,” he recalled thinking to himself, “what chance do I have?” He pressed the loaded pistol to his brow and pulled the trigger. Mr. Bojorquez, 27, served in one of the hardest hit military units in Afghanistan, the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment. In 2008, the 2/7 deployed to a wild swath of Helmand Province. Well beyond reliable supply lines, the battalion regularly ran low on water and ammunition while coming under fire almost daily. During eight months of combat, the unit killed hundreds of enemy fighters and suffered more casualties than any other Marine battalion that year. When its members returned, most left the military and melted back into the civilian landscape. They had families and played softball, taught high school and attended Ivy League universities. But many also struggled, unable to find solace. And for some, the agonies of war never ended. Almost seven years after the deployment, suicide is spreading through the old unit like a virus. Of about 1,200 Marines who deployed with the 2/7 in 2008, at least 13 have killed themselves, two while on active duty, the rest after they left the military. The resulting suicide rate for the group is nearly four times the rate for young male veterans as a whole and 14 times that for all Americans.

Nearly 80 percent of veterans are overweight, obese (Oregon Public Broadcasting News)
Ray Spaulding is standing over a frying pan full of sliced green apples. He’s sautéing them in front of a cooking class at the Portland Veterans Affairs. “I feel like I’m on the Martha Stewart show,” he said. “You are!” said Jessica Mooney, a clinical dietitian at the VA, standing next to him. Spaulding is 85 years-old. He served in the Air Force from 1948 to 1952. “This is caramelizing!” he said. “Yeah, it’s going to be good,” Mooney replied. Spaulding is making cooked apples sprinkled with a little bit of cinnamon. Today’s class is about ways to make healthier desserts, like brownies made with cocoa, Splenda and pureed black beans — rather than flour and sugar. Mooney, the VA dietitian, said this class is part of a series. Veterans cooked healthier breakfasts, dinners and snacks. She said they also learned about portion control and how to read nutritional labels. Nearly 80 percent of veterans are either overweight or obese. Another quarter suffer from diabetes. Those numbers are higher than the national average for all Americans. Health workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs say many of the reasons for the higher rates stem from the time veterans spent in the military. “The majority of our veterans have some type of health issue that could be managed through – or improved through diet and exercise,” she said. Spaulding said he’s taking the course because he was hospitalized several times in the last few years before finally being diagnosed with diabetes. Spaulding and Croteau are among the 27 percent of veterans with diabetes — more than twice the national average for all Americans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. And that’s on top of the nearly 80 percent of overweight and obese vets. “There are a number of reasons,” said Michele Goldschmidt, who is Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Program Manager at the Portland VA. “Food, addictively, works exactly the same neurons in the brain as other addictive substances such as alcohol, and drugs.”

President nominates first openly gay Army Secretary (The Army Times)
Eric Fanning, formerly one of Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s closest advisers, has been nominated to be the next Army secretary, the White House announced Friday. Fanning has been serving as the acting under secretary of the Army since June. Before that, he served as Carter’s chief of staff. If confirmed by the Senate, Fanning will succeed Army Secretary John McHugh, who has said he will leave the post by Nov. 1 after six years on the job. “Eric brings many years of proven experience and exceptional leadership to this new role,” President Obama said in a statement. “I am grateful for his commitment to our men and women in uniform, and I am confident he will help lead America’s Soldiers with distinction. I look forward to working with Eric to keep our Army the very best in the world.” McHugh praised Fanning’s “sound judgment and insight.” “Our soldiers, civilians and their families will benefit greatly from his leadership,” McHugh said in a statement. “I commend President Obama on an outstanding nomination.” Widely viewed as one of the most capable leaders in the Pentagon, Fanning became Air Force undersecretary in April 2013. He served several months as acting secretary while the confirmation of now-Secretary Deborah Lee James was stuck in Congress. Before that, he was deputy undersecretary of the Navy and its deputy chief management officer from 2009-2013. In addition to his long resume, Fanning would also mark a milestone if he does become the Army secretary, as the first openly gay secretary of a military branch. Carter, in a statement, congratulated Fanning, calling him “an excellent choice.” “Eric served as my first chief of staff at the Pentagon, and it has been a privilege over the course of my career to work alongside him and watch him develop into one of our country’s most knowledgeable, dedicated and experienced public servants,” Carter said. “I know he will strengthen our Army, build on its best traditions, and prepare our ground forces to confront a new generation of challenges.”

Pentagon enlisting outsiders to help search for WWII MIAs (Chicago Tribune)
Justin Taylan has been to the remote Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea dozens of times over the past two decades, spending countless hours slogging through crocodile-infested swamps in his quest to document as many World War II airplane wreck sites as possible. Since 2013, he has conducted those missions for the newly reorganized Pentagon agency whose predecessor he and others had criticized for years for failing to recover and identify more remains of U.S. service members. Taylan’s hiring is part of the military’s plans to reach out to private groups and others to help with the search for thousands of American war remains scattered from Pacific jungles to the European countryside. Though he said he cannot comment on the details of the cases he’s worked on under his contract, Taylan said he has documented more than 80 wreck and war-related sites, including eight aircraft crashes associated with American MIA cases. “So many organizations have something to give and share,” Taylan, 37, told The Associated Press recently in between trips to Papua New Guinea. “It’s an incredible turn of events to support the mission and get more MIA cases resolved.” The Pentagon lists 83,000 MIAs as unaccounted-for from WWII and the Korean and Vietnam wars. More than 73,000 are from WWII, with many of those deemed not recoverable because they were lost at sea. In 2009, Congress set a requirement that the Pentagon identify at least 200 sets of remains a year by 2015. But less than half that number has been identified over each of the past two years. Earlier this year, the Department of Defense unveiled its revamped Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, a move that came a year and a half after the AP obtained an internal Pentagon study that criticized previous efforts as being in danger of spiraling from “dysfunction to total failure.” In a shift many critics say is long overdue, the new agency is working with nonprofit organizations such as Taylan’s Pacific Wrecks, Inc. and private firms to help with research and actual searches.

Disabled veterans in flux while nursing home exception is considered (Waco Tribune)
Disabled veterans living in private nursing home facilities could be forced to move if their centers choose not to renew their contracts with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, unless a federal bill that reclassifies nursing-home or adult-care facility contracts is approved.President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2014 that mandated any companies with new or renewed federal contracts signed after January 2015 pay their employees at least $10.10 per hour. Without contracts, the Veterans Affairs department can’t pay a nursing home for services and many veterans cannot afford the high price tag of extended care, officials said. Multiple Texas nursing homes have already chosen not to renew their federal contracts because of the wage requirements, effectively ousting veterans on full or partial disability benefits from the facilities. “We’re going to have to change the law to exempt the VA from being subject to federal contracting standards in certain circumstances, and this is one of those circumstances,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-College Station. Flores has already helped two veterans in Bosque County, Texas, find new funding for their care after their nursing facilities didn’t renew. Former West, Texas resident Louis Mynarcik also recently discovered he wouldn’t be able to return to West Rest Haven nursing home after it declined a contract due to the wage requirements. It would cost Mynarcik $4,700 a month to return to Rest Haven, not including his medical expenses.

VA whistleblower exposes problems at Washington state center (Seattle Times)
An administrator at a Veterans Affairs office in Federal Way, Wash., should have faced discipline when leaders learned she’d been falsifying records about her meetings with patients. Instead, she received positive performance reviews and kept her job, according to a federal VA whistle-blower investigation report sent to Congress and President Obama last week. The investigation by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel affirms a complaint brought by social worker Jonathan Wicks of University Place. He’s an Iraq veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and went to work for the VA in early 2013, hoping to make a difference in veterans’ lives. Wicks quit working for the VA in July 2014 when he felt ostracized because of his attempts to draw attention to mismanagement at the Federal Way Vets Center. “It’s been the worst year of my life,” he said Friday. “But this is a positive thing if we can bring things to light and hold people accountable.” Wicks’ case was one of several highlighted by the Office of Special Counsel this week in a report that assessed the VA’s treatment of whistle-blowers. It was ordered after employees at the VA hospital in Phoenix last year disclosed data revealing delays in patient care and preventable deaths of veterans. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote that the VA too often punished whistle-blowers while rewarding administrators whose actions drew scrutiny from employees. “The lack of accountability in these cases stands in stark contrast to disciplinary actions taken against VA whistleblowers. The VA has attempted to fire or suspend whistleblowers for minor indiscretions and, often, for activity directly related to the employee’s whistleblowing,” she wrote. Wicks reported his concerns about the Federal Way Veterans Center to the Office of Special Counsel. Later, the VA changed his security code, which barred him from going into his office after hours. He acknowledged that he was upset with a co-worker at the time. “People started to avoid me,” he said Friday. Lerner’s report credits Wicks with uncovering a manager who exaggerated the amount of time she spent with patients. Wicks also shined a light on one of the manager’s subordinates who failed to follow up on hundreds of patients’ requests for counseling services.

Texas veterans find mental health care difficult to access (Houston Chronicle)
Sabastian Vasquez survived three combat tours to Iraq in as many years. Then he entered another fight to subdue the predatory memories of war. A decade after his honorable discharge from the Marines, Vasquez remains plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder and the residual effects of a traumatic brain injury. In dark moments, he feels as if his mind has turned against him and is holding him captive. Earlier this year, he drove from his house in Tivoli, Texas, to the nearest Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic, 35 miles away in Victoria. He inquired about counseling and discovered that one-on-one sessions were not offered. For individual therapy, he would need to travel to a VA facility in San Antonio, 150 miles from home and a five-hour round trip. “It’s no wonder we have so many veterans offing themselves,” said Vasquez, 32, who grew up in Tivoli, an unincorporated town of fewer than 500 residents not far from Hynes Bay on the Gulf Coast. “You get kind of hopeless when you hit all these obstacles.” Vasquez, like thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in rural areas of Texas and across the country, is struggling to receive behavioral health treatment. Their plight persists almost a year after the VA launched the so-called Choice Card initiative to improve access to medical services for veterans living outside urban centers. Congress created the three-year, $10-billion pilot program to reduce long delays at the VA’s nearly 1,000 clinics and hospitals. The card allows former service members to seek health care from a private provider if they live at least 40 miles from the closest VA facility or face a wait of 30 days or more for an appointment. Since the VA began mailing the cards last November, however, the program’s ability to expand mental health services has proven minimal to the point of futility. Through late August, the VA had authorized 334 veterans in Texas – an average of barely one a day – to visit private behavioral health clinicians, according to the Veterans Health Administration. The VA had approved 4,589 veterans nationwide, or about 15 a day. More than 1.23 million of the country’s 9 million former service members enrolled in VA care are eligible for the program.

Some Airmen criticize decision to promote train hero from E-3 to E-5 (
Some Air Force members and veterans have turned to Facebook to vent their frustration with the service’s decision to promote the heroic airman of the European train attack and have him skip a grade. Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh this week announced that Spencer Stone, who along with his two childhood friends helped foil a terrorist attack last month on a Paris-bound train, would be promoted from airman first class (E-3) to staff sergeant (E-5). “He has represented the Air Force very well and very proudly and, basically, he has an instinct for saying and doing the right thing, which I think is going to be a very, very good attribute in a young NCO supervisor,” Welsh said. Stone was awarded the Airman’s Medal and the Purple Heart during a ceremony Friday at the Pentagon. His friends, Oregon Army National Guard Spc. Alek Skarlatos and civilian Anthony Sadler, were also recognized. Skarlators received the Soldier’s Medal and Sadler received the Secretary of Defense Medal for Valor. But some service members and veterans have criticized the decision to promote stone over the rank of senior airman — on Welsh’s Facebook page nonetheless. One poster, Eric Blanton, who identified himself as an Air Force veteran, wrote, “I respectfully disagree with him being step promoted. He did his job as a member of the armed service. We all took an oath, he was just in the wrong place at the right time. I applaud his actions and would like to personally congratulate him if ever I could but stepping him up to SSgt is not the right thing to do.” Another, Joe Richards, posted, “So tell ME General, Are you going to promote every SRA serving in Iraq and Afghanistan to SSgt fighting terrorists? Not saying anything bad about Airman Stone, BUT I was a SGT who had to TEST to get my rank to SSgt. I HAD to take my NCO Leadership School before I would be considered for promotion. You’ve made a mockery of the entire Air Force promotion system by doing this.”

Is Joni Ernst the next John McCain? (Defense One)
There were times, as Joni Ernst paraded the 1,200-pound steer down the dung-spotted road at the Iowa State Fair, that the diminutive senator seemed to lose control. But each time the big bovine tried to bowl her over, she’d drop her trademark broad smile, dig in her boots, and shove her shoulder into his glossy brown-and-white fur. Almost before you’d noticed it was gone, Ernst’s grin was back, and the steer kept plodding forward toward Gov. Terry Branstad’s annual auction, one of the fair’s most popular events. As Ernst and her charge, named Elvis, waited to enter the pavilion, a massive black steer ahead of them broke loose, snorting as he spun around in a panic, weighing where to burst through the human ring that quickly formed around him. For a moment, a rampage seemed imminent. But as Ernst looked calmly on, a hand caught the rival steer’s harness and wrestled it back in line. She and Elvis went on to win the “Showmanship Award” and $6,000 for charity. “You’ve got to follow that dream,” read the red t-shirts of “Team Elvis.” “Wherever that dream may lead…” On that August day, Ernst’s home turf seemed a long way from the shiny tables of the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington. But that’s precisely why her party is calling on her: to secure the support of the Iowa caucus in the 2016 drive for the White House, and to draw two key constituencies toward the demographically disadvantaged GOP: women voters and veterans. … It’s rare for a freshman to be selected to the powerful Armed Services committee, whose seats are often doled out by seniority, but Ernst was an obvious choice for the new Republican majority. Vietnam veteran and perennial national-security megaphone Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz, has taken to mentoring Ernst and two other Republicans who served in the military after post-9/11. Their experience in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lend the GOP an I was there credibility as the party criticizes the Obama administration for what it has deemed a feckless, unmoored foreign policy.

Mission Family: Mother and son transform vets’ lives (Military Times)
You don’t have to be a world leader to make a difference. It’s all in how you define leadership. What can you accomplish through personal relationships, listening to others and caring enough to follow up? This year’s recipients of the Newman’s Own awards offer solid examples of the possibilities. Laurie Phillips’ son Chris was in business school when several of his friends returned to Richmond, Virginia, from deployments in Afghanistan, and had trouble finding jobs. One of the friends was sleeping on others’ couches. Chris asked his mother whether there was something they could do to help, given her background in computers. They came up with an idea to refurbish computers donated by businesses — which normally must pay to have them recycled — and give those computers to nonprofits who work with veterans. Chris wrote a business plan outlining a proposal, fulfilling a requirement for a class he was taking in the entrepreneur program. His professor gave him a C on the proposal, and said it would never work. That didn’t stop Chris and his mother. Two years later, the nonprofit Tech for Troops is thriving, providing transitional jobs to veterans who transtion to higher-paying, more permanent positions. The program received a $30,000 grant from Newman’s Own, which will help expand the model to other areas of the country. “We’re at the point now where we are hiring veterans to help process computers,” said Laurie Phillips, who added that it’s a “thrill” to be able to give jobs to vets. Companies also are asking the nonprofit to send veterans to them, and they’ll train them and hire them. “It’s turned into its own ecosystem,” she said.