September 23 Veterans News

September 23 Veterans News

Veterans news updateVeterans stung by Mabus comments on Camp Lejeune water (Military Times)
Ill veterans and those whose family members died from diseases related to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune are outraged by recent comments from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in which he discounted a link between chronic disease and service at the North Carolina Marine Corps base from the mid-1950s to 1980s. At a forum in Cleveland on Sept. 14, Mabus responded to a question from an audience member regarding the safety of the current base water supply. Mabus assured the man that the water has been safe to consume for nearly 30 years and blamed the original problem on an off-base dry cleaner illegally dumping solvents near two military housing areas. He also said that while there have been “allegations that there is a higher incidence of illness with people who had gone through as Marines,” studies conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry “can find no correlation.” The remarks have upset former troops who fought the Marine Corps and Defense Department to release all documents related to the problem and lobbied for recognition of their illnesses or losses. According to four reports produced by the ASTDR, the population, including Marines and civilian employees, do appear to have higher rates of diseases related to exposure to compounds found in the water, including volatile organic compounds, benzene and vinyl chloride. The documentation also notes that the problem was related to industrial dumping and leaking storage tanks in addition to the illegal solvent dumping by ABC One-Hour Cleaner. Mike Partain, who was born at the Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune in 1968 and diagnosed as an adult with breast cancer, called Mabus’ comments “insulting” and said they show the secretary is out of touch with the problem. “There have been several congressional hearings about this issue. Congress passed a law to help affected veterans. VA provides medical care for these problems,” Partain said. “The time for deflecting and whitewashing is over. The science is in.”

New Camp Lejeune water study shows potential link to male breast cancer (Jacksonville Daily News)
A new study indicates the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune and the development of male breast cancer in Marines exposed to it may be connected. The study published last week in the Environmental Health journal by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease (ATSDR), a research team under the Center for Disease Control, looked at 444 male Marines born before 1969 who were treated for specific cancers by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Scientists found that 30 of them were stationed at Camp Lejeune during the worst water contamination case in U.S. history and would later be diagnosed with male breast cancer. “We observed an accelerated onset of male breast cancer among those stationed at Camp Lejeune compared to other bases,” the study said, adding that seven other cases involving male breast cancer were found. However, the scientists could not identify where those Marines were stationed during the timeframe of contamination; and they were not included in the final analysis. Scientists noted that the study was limited in its research due to the small number of cases available. Noted also was the challenge of tracking down Marines diagnosed with male breast cancer since only 25 percent of veterans reported using VA health care facilities, an approximation that ultimately reduced the sampling size of the experiment. In the United States, male breast cancer is not very common: only about 2,000 men a year are diagnosed, with approximately 400 dying from the disease, according to the CDC. To put this into perspective, when compared to the more than 151 million males in the U.S. population, according to a 2010 U.S. Census report, only 1 in about 76,000 males would be diagnosed with breast cancer and 1 in 5 of them would die from the disease. For men born during the timeframe of the Lejeune water contamination — 1953 to 1987 — breast cancer development is significantly uncommon. According to more recent 2011 CDC statistics, only 1 in 100,000 males will be affected. For ATSDR scientists, the rarity of breast cancer in men is what underscores the importance of the study and continued research. “The takeaway from this study is that there is a possible association,” said Lori Freshwater, a member of the CDC’s Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Community Assistance Panel or CAP. “But since it is a very small study, more research is being called for in order to better establish the link. “What we do know, which is important, is that this first step did not come to the conclusion that there was no apparent association,” Freshwater said. “The Department of Defense needs to start dealing with chemical exposure as part of their mission of force protection.”

VA watchdog shelves 36,000 complaints, draws whistleblower ire (Military Times)
The chief watchdog at the Department of Veterans Affairs investigates less than 10 percent of the nearly 40,000 complaints it receives annually about problems at the agency, even when they concern potential harm to veteran health, Deputy Inspector General Linda Halliday said Tuesday. The Office of Inspector General, which is responsible under federal law for rooting out mismanagement and abuse at the agency, simply doesn’t have the resources, Halliday said at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “There is a serious discrepancy between the size of our workforce and the size of our workload,” Halliday said. She said her office has roughly 650 professional staff members while the agency they investigate has more than 350,000 employees and a budget greater than $160 billion. “The OIG is not right-sized to respond to all the complaints that we currently receive.” But that explanation was not good enough for VA whistleblowers at the hearing, who said that even the investigations her office does conduct are cursory and often target the VA employees who report problems — rather than the problems they are reporting. “VA OIG investigations have been half-assed and shoddy,” said Shea Wilkes, a social worker at the Shreveport, Louisiana, VA who was criminally investigated by the inspector general after he reported hidden wait lists for care at the facility. “The VA OIG has not been independent, but is working with the VA to do damage control, white wash and intimidate truth-tellers and potential whistleblowers.”

Senator wants names of VA officials who ‘retaliated against dead man’ (
The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is demanding to know who at the Veterans Affairs Department’s Inspector General’s office put together a report that was allegedly more bent on destroying the reputation of a dead whistleblower than looking into the claims he had made. Rep. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, raised the “white paper” report during a hearing Tuesday attended by VA whistleblowers as well as the acting head of the IG’s office. The report, released in July, called attention to the fact that marijuana was found in the apartment of Dr. Christopher Kirkpatrick, a psychologist at the VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wisconsin, who committed suicide on the day he was fired. At the time, Kirkpatrick was a whistleblower trying to focus attention on over-medication of veterans being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. The IG’s white paper, Johnson said, recommended that officials look into whether Kirkpatrick was a drug dealer, noting that there was marijuana in his apartment and a scale. “So instead of helping a whistleblower, it sounds like reprisal against a dead person to me,” Johnson said Tuesday. “I can only conclude from this white paper … that [the VA] could care less.” Johnson told Acting Inspector General Linda Halliday that he wanted the names of everyone who had a role in writing up the report. Halliday, who has been in the top IG job only since July, said she had no part in it and did not know who did. She told Johnson she would get the names for him.

Whistleblowers: VA inspector general ‘a joke’ (The Virginian Pilot)
The Department of Veterans Affairs continues to retaliate against whistleblowers despite repeated pledges to stop punishing those who speak up, a national group said Tuesday. One called the department’s office of inspector general a “joke.” VA whistleblowers from across the country told a Senate committee that the department has failed to hold supervisors accountable more than a year after a scandal that broke over chronic delays for veterans seeking medical care and falsified records covering up the waits. Shea Wilkes, a mental health social worker at the Shreveport, Louisiana, VA hospital, said agency leaders are “more interested in perpetuating their own careers than caring for our veterans.” Wilkes, who helped organize a group known as “VA Truth Tellers,” said “years of cronyism and lack of accountability have allowed at least two generations of poor, incompetent leaders to plant themselves within the system,” isolating the VA “from the real world of efficient and effective medical treatment” for veterans. “Until we are able to protect whistleblowers and potential whistleblowers, the true depth of the corruption within the VA will not be known,” Wilkes said, calling the VA’s office of inspector general a “joke.” The office has not had a permanent leader since December 2013. Republicans and Democrats on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee called the testimony appalling and urged President Barack Obama to appoint a permanent inspector general at the minimum. Sen. Ron Johnson, the panel’s chairman, said the appointment would be a “basic first step” to help ensure the office is transparent and independent. Johnson, R-Wis., said the VA “has a cultural problem” of retaliating against whistleblowers that must be fixed.

VA culture of reprisals against whistleblowers remains strong after scandal (The Washington Post)
It’s been about 17 months since revelations over the cover-up of long patient wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities exploded. It’s been about 16 months since former VA secretary Eric K. Shinseki resigned as the scandal reached a boil. It’s been about 14 months since the Senate confirmed Robert McDonald to replace Shinseki. It’s about time things changed. But testimony at a Senate hearing Tuesday demonstrated that despite vigorous efforts from the new VA leadership, the department remains a dangerous place for whistleblowers who report wrong doing. “The VA has a culture problem with whistleblower retaliation,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The “culture of fear” Johnson spoke of is evident in the number of VA cases handled by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent body that deals with whistleblower retaliation among other things. Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said her small staff is “truly overwhelmed” by the number of cases it gets from the VA. VA whistleblower reprisal cases received by OSC has been rising quickly, from 405 in fiscal 2013 to a projected 712 for fiscal 2015 – a 75 percent jump. Lerner expects approximately 35 percent of the possible 4,000 prohibited personnel practice cases filed from across government this year to be from VA employees. “In 2014, for the first time,” she said, “the VA surpassed the Department of Defense in the total number of cases filed with OSC, even though the Defense Department has twice the number of civilian employees as the VA.”

Blue Water Navy vets still fighting for Agent Orange compensation (Pacific Standard Magazine)
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 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.”

VA pledges to scrutinize unaccredited schools getting GI Bill funds (
The Department of Veterans Affairs has vowed to increase scrutiny of unaccredited schools that received federal funds through the GI Bill and to review state criteria that allow such schools to benefit financially from the country’s largest educational program for military veterans. The move came in response to an investigation by Reveal, which found that as many as 2,000 unaccredited institutions – including schools that teach  blackjack, dog grooming and masturbation – have received GI Bill funds at a cost of more than $260 million since 2009. Compliance reviews have been performed on three of the schools highlighted in Reveal’s July investigation: the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, Vitality College of Healing Arts near San Diego and Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas. The VA said a fourth school, the Oklahoma Baptist College and Institute, was not reviewed because no VA beneficiaries had been enrolled in “several years.” Christina Mulka, a spokeswoman for Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the senator would press the VA to report back on what it found during those reviews. But even as the agency tries to assure elected officials that it will do more, its undersecretary for benefits, Allison Hickey, has suggested that the VA’s authority could be limited. “There is no legal basis to refuse to approve or to disapprove a previously approved program solely on its non-accredited status,” Hickey wrote in a Sept. 4 letter to Durbin. As vice chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on defense, Durbin was among eight Senate Democrats who signed a letter in July urging the VA to respond to the Reveal investigation. The group said the story had exposed “a number of educationally questionable, and in some instances morally repugnant, institutions that have inexplicably received VA education benefits.” They said that the VA’s oversight was especially needed to protect taxpayer money and the country’s military veterans from “unscrupulous entities.” Hickey responded in her letter saying the VA is taking several actions, including increasing its focus on unaccredited schools during the next round of compliance surveys in 2016 and reviewing the criteria states use to evaluate course offerings and the “good reputation and character” of administrators, instructors, directors and owners of a school.

Veteran accuses American Airlines of keeping him, service dog from boarding flight (ABC News)
A Marine Corps veteran says he and his dog were stopped from boarding an American Airlines flight after gate agents accused the man of pretending the animal was a service dog. Jason Haag, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was wounded in action and later received service dog Axel to help him manage post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, he told ABC News today. Haag, 35, said Axel “saved my life.” “He can take me out of anxiety attacks, he can pull me out of flashbacks … my dog is my lifeline,” he said. Haag now tours the country explaining how service dogs help wounded veterans. Sunday’s dispute with American Airlines occurred on Haag and Axel’s way home from California, where Axel was named the winner in the Service Dog category at the 2015 American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards Saturday night, the American Humane Association said. Haag said he, his wife and Axel made it through security in Los Angeles just fine Sunday. But later, a gate agent pointed to Haag and told him to come to the desk, he said. “The first thing this guy asked me is, ‘Is that a real service dog?'” Haag said. “I just find that question kind of odd because nobody at the airport has asked me that and I fly all the time. I said, ‘Yes.'” Haag said the agent then asked him to identify his disability, which Haag said, “Is the question that you’re not allowed to ask … The next thing out of his mouth is ‘Where is your paperwork.’ That’s another thing they can’t ask. “The next thing they ask me is, ‘What does the dog do for you?’ I tell him the dog does a bunch of stuff for me. He didn’t really like that answer,” Haag said. “I tried to start telling him the tasks; he starts to tell me that I’m noncompliant and my dog can’t fly because I can’t produce any paperwork. “He didn’t let me answer my questions. At that point I started to produce my ID that I have. He picks up the ID and says it’s fake.” “I then tell him I called eight days ago, registered him with your disabilities department. I flew out here three days prior on the same airline and I didn’t have any issues,” Haag said. Haag said his wife was crying during the ordeal, which was in front of about 200 people at the American Airlines desk. He said a manager for the airlines told them to go home and come back with paperwork, so Haag and his wife spent another night in Los Angeles and took another flight Monday. American Airlines spokesman Victoria Lupica confirmed to ABC News today that Haag, his wife and Axel did travel with American Airlines and ultimately reached their final destination in Virginia. American Airlines said in a statement, “We are happy to say that Capt. Haag, Axel and his wife traveled with us earlier yesterday. We have apologized to both Capt. Haag and his family for the confusion with Sunday’s travel plans.”

Pa. governor challenges communities to reduce vet homelessness in 100 days (WPMT-Harrisburg)
Governor Tom Wolf, along with officials from the Pennsylvania Departments of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA), Labor and Industry (L&I), Community and Economic Development (DCED) and Human Services (DHS), today challenged all commonwealth agencies and communities to reduce veteran homelessness by 40 percent in the last 100 days of 2015. The challenge, which kicks off on September 22, means that 550 veterans will achieve housing stability by the end of the year. “Veterans are national heroes and I’m proud to join governors and mayors across the country as we work toward the goal of ending homelessness among our military veterans,” said Governor Tom Wolf. “In order to achieve this goal, Pennsylvania’s veterans and their families who are in need of permanent housing must have access to the programs and services that will help rebuild their lives, acquire meaningful employment, and successfully establish themselves in our communities.” The challenge, officially known as the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that was launched in June 2014. It was conceived as a means for local leaders to create and coordinate strategies to curb veteran homelessness. In early 2015, HUD conducted a point-in-time count which identified approximately 1,300 homeless veterans in Pennsylvania, down from over 1,400 in the 2014 count.

1st all-female Honor Flight takes veterans to Washington (Military Times)
A group that offers older veterans free flights to the nation’s capital to see war memorials says its first all-female trip was organized with help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. WCPO-TV reports more than 140 people were on the roster for Tuesday’s Honor Flight daytrip to Washington from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Honor Flight’s regional director, Cheryl Popp, says the organization long wanted to arrange an all-female flight but had difficulty tracking down participants. She says a VA office helped by mailing information, and 250 applications were submitted. Ninety-one-year-old participant Dorothy Kist said she was a Navy radio operator during World War II and hoped to see the memorial for military women at Arlington National Cemetery. It was among several memorials on the agenda for the trip.

Proposed tax cut for Georgia veterans would raise cost of tobacco (WRBL-Columbus)
Veterans who retire and live in Georgia could be getting a tax cut soon. That is, if a bill proposed by State Representative Jesse Petrea passes. This is good news for Georgia veterans, but bad news for Georgia smokers. If the bill passes, all military retirement income will not be taxed. The way for this to happen, though, is to increase the Georgia cigarette tax by 28 cents per pack. increasing the tobacco tax from 37 cents a pack to 65 cents a pack makes this bill revenue neutral. “About 28 cents is what it should take to get about $120 million to raise the revenue that we will lose by eliminating Georgia income tax on all military retirement income,” Rep. Petrea said. Petrea said the current tobacco tax raises about $200 million a year, but it costs the state over $500 million a year in Medicaid costs for smoking-related illnesses. “So right now, 18 percent of Georgians smoke, and so the 82 percent who don’t smoke, quite frankly, are subsidizing those who do to the tune of $300 million a year,” Petrea said. Petrea said Georgia veterans deserve this perk and it would strengthen the Georgia workforce. “We need to incentivize veterans who have the skills and the discipline to take good jobs in Georgia,” Petrea said. “We need to incentivize them to stay here when they retire.”

Marine hit by car after Phoenix VA discharge sues for $15.1 million (KTAR-Phoenix)
A Marine who was hit by a car after being discharged by the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital has filed a $15.1 million lawsuit against the facility. The suit accuses the Carl T. Hayden Medical Center of medical negligence after Jonathan Cooper, a Marine, was left with life-threatening injuries in when he was hit by the car in 2013. The suit said Cooper — a VA-diagnosed schizophrenic — arrived in Phoenix on Nov. 29, 2013, via bus from San Diego. His caregiver, Thumbelina Hinshaw, filed a missing person report. He was found in a neighborhood by police officers who were advised to take him to the closest VA hospital by Hinshaw. Cooper was taken to the hospital near Seventh Street and Indian School Road, but staff allegedly discharged him shortly after despite him being disoriented, in a psychotic state and knowing he suffered from mental illness. In the early morning hours of Nov. 30, 2013, Cooper was hit by a vehicle in front of the facility “as a result of the callous and reckless conduct of the VA medical center putting him back out on the streets when he needed them most,” Cooper’s attorney, Jason Patton, said VA spokesperson Jean Schaefer said she cannot comment on pending litigation, but the hospital has added more staff — specifically social workers — to its emergency department since it was at the center of a nationwide scandal.