Veterans used in secret experiments sue military for answers (NPR)
American service members used in chemical and biological testing have some questions: What exactly were they exposed to? And how is it affecting their health? Tens of thousands of troops were used in testing conducted by the U.S. military between 1922 and 1975. As one Army scientist explained, the military wanted to learn how to induce symptoms such as “fear, panic, hysteria, and hallucinations” in enemy soldiers. Recruitment was done on a volunteer basis, but the details of the testing and associated risks were often withheld from those who signed up. Many of the veterans who served as test subjects have since died. But today, those who are still alive are part of a class action lawsuit against the Army. If they’re successful, the Army will have to explain to anyone who was used in testing exactly what substances they were given and any known risks. The Army would also have to provide those veterans with health care for any illnesses that result, in whole or in part, from the testing. The law firm representing the veterans estimates at least 70,000 troops were used in the testing, including World War II veterans exposed to mustard gas, whom NPR reported on earlier this summer. Bill Blazinski has chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which he thinks may have been caused by the military tests. He was 20 years old when he volunteered in 1968. “There would be a guaranteed three-day pass every weekend unless you had a test,” he says. “There would be no kitchen police duties, no guard duties. And it sounded like a pretty good duty.” What sounded more like a vacation than military duty quickly changed, he says. In one test, doctors said they would inject him with an agent and its antidote back to back. “We were placed in individual padded cells. And you know the nurse left and I’m looking at this padded wall and I knew it was solid but all of a sudden started fluttering like a flag does up on a flag pole,” he recalls. To learn about what substances made him hallucinate, in 2006, Blazinski requested the original test documents under the Freedom of Information Act. “It showed an experimental antidote for nerve agent poisoning with known side effects, and another drug designed to reverse the effects of the first,” he says.” Researchers kept information about which agents they were administering from test subjects to avoid influencing the test results. A lawyer representing the veterans, Ben Patterson of the law firm Morrison and Foerster, says that’s a problem. “They don’t know what they were exposed to. You know, some of these substances were only referred to by code names,” Patterson says.
Outed as gay, aging vets battling again for honorable discharges (The New York Times)When the Army discharged Pvt. Donald Hallman in 1955 for being what it called a “Class II homosexual,” the 21-year-old was so scared of being an outcast that he burned all his military records, save for a single dog tag he hid away. Mr. Hallman, a coal miner’s son who sang in a church choir in rural Alabama, says he never mentioned his military service again. He married a woman he had met at work, had children and wore a suit and tie to work each day. “I hid it because it would have ruined my life,” Mr. Hallman said in an interview at his home here. But this summer, Mr. Hallman, now 82, retrieved the dog tag from a keepsake box and began working through an application to the Department of Defense, asking that his decades-old discharge be upgraded from “undesirable” to “honorable.” “I’ve gotten to a point in my life where no one can hurt me now,” he said. “I don’t care who knows, and I want to show I was an honorable person.” He is one of a steady march of older veterans who were kicked out of the military decades ago for being gay, and who are now asking that their less-than-honorable discharges be upgraded. By some estimates, as many as 100,000 service members were discharged for being gay between World War II and the 2011 repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Many were given less-than-honorable discharges that became official scarlet letters — barring them from veterans’ benefits, costing them government jobs and other employment, and leaving many grappling with shame for decades. Now, emboldened by the gay soldiers serving openly in the military and the same-sex couples finding broad acceptance in civilian life, they are increasingly seeking amends. “After all these years, I want to tie up loose ends,” said Jim Estep, 80, a retired professor in Buffalo, who was given a less-than-honorable discharge in 1964. “It’s a way of getting the government — that faceless entity — in some way to acknowledge the authenticity of my life and my contribution to the country.” A 2011 Obama administration policy generally grants an honorable discharge to any veteran who was kicked out for homosexuality unless there were “aggravating” factors, such as misconduct. Records from the Department of Defense show 80 percent of the nearly 500 requests submitted since 2011 received an upgrade.
One female veteran’s epic quest for a ‘foot that fits’ (The Washington Post)
Every morning for more than two years, retired Army Sgt. Brenda Reed had the infuriating chore of screwing on what she calls her “man foot.” The prosthesis was given to her by the Department of Veterans Affairs after her left leg was amputated in 2013, but the replacement was so bulky and ill-fitting that it kept falling off in public. She pleaded with VA officials for “a foot that fits, a female foot,” only to be told repeatedly that the agency doesn’t carry that kind of customized prosthesis, which is available on the private market. Reed tried to have a sense of humor about it. So she put bright red press-on nails on the wide “man” toes. “I just wanted to get this man’s foot off of me,” she said.“Does it really have to be this hard for female veterans to get the right kind of care?” Women are streaming home from war and through VA doors in record numbers. But a health-care system that for generations catered almost exclusively to men has been slow to recognize that the 2.3 million female veterans represent the fastest-growing population turning to the agency. In myriad ways, VA is struggling to address the urgent needs of these women for medical and mental health services. VA hospitals and clinics don’t offer prenatal care; instead they outsource it. And they don’t deliver babies. Dozens of VA facilities don’t have full-time gynecologists, and some don’t have any gynecological staff. Even for basic female wellness services, such as mammograms, some facilities have to refer women elsewhere. There is also a severe shortage of VA mental health therapists who are women, an especially pressing problem for female veterans trying to come to terms with sexual assaults suffered in the military. While some VA hospitals have premier women’s clinics, others offer women little privacy, forcing them to share rooms with men and separating them at most with a curtain. Even recently, as VA Secretary Robert McDonald has acknowledged, some hospitals didn’t have separate restrooms for women. “Look, the VA is great if you are a 65-year-old guy with a prostate problem. But if you are pregnant or a woman with breast cancer, I would run the other way,” said retired Air Force Col. Kimberly Olson, former president of the women’s veterans group Grace After Fire.
Protestors slam McCain on veterans issues outside Phoenix office (AZCentral.com)
Over 40 demonstrators rallied outside Sen. John McCain’s Phoenix office Saturday afternoon to demand a citizen’s arrest of the longtime politician. They were met by Phoenix police, who denied them entry to the vacant suite. At about noon, the group of 45 protesters gathered in the area of 22nd Street and Camelback Road to express their frustration and opposition toward the senator’s approach to addressing veterans issues such as homelessness. The event was organized by Internet radio host Pete Santilli, who said the GOP senator should be convicted for treason because he has aided and abetted the terrorist organization Islamic State in addition to covering up evidence in the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty. “I want him in handcuffs,” Santilli said. “He needs to be held for his account.” Santilli also took issue with McCain’s “abandonment” of veterans who have become homeless and are “targeted by other homeless” for money. He added that the senator has an obligation to veterans that has not been met and called him a “criminal.” Passing drivers honked horns in support and verbally sparred with demonstrators in opposition. Many participants wore anti-McCain T-shirts with the slogan “End the reign of John McCain” while waving American flags and holding signs in protest. “I believe Phoenix is ground zero for veterans’ issues, veterans’ homelessness and the failure of the Veterans Administration in taking care of our veterans. That happens to fall in John McCain’s jurisdiction,” Santilli said. Santilli said he contacted the senator’s office last week about the demonstration and was met by barricades and police officers when he arrived at the central Phoenix office. “We gave him plenty of notification. … He (McCain) works on Saturdays; he knew we were coming,” Santilli said to the crowd of protesters. “He just spit on me right here and spit on the United States of America.” Last week, McCain said at a town hall meeting in downtown Phoenix that he and his staff have advocated for 3,500 veterans in the past year alone. McCain has also taken a key role in recent congressional investigations into shortcomings at Veterans Affairs hospitals.
Watchdog report critical of St. Cloud VA was quietly shelved (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
Prominent Minnesota lawmakers are demanding to know why a 2013 investigation that found serious problems with the work environment at the St. Cloud Veterans Affairs hospital was quietly shelved. The investigation validated complaints of a hostile work environment created by senior managers and problems with canceled appointments for patients because of insufficient staffing. But congressional committees responsible for monitoring the VA were never informed that it existed and the report was never made publicly available. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said he’s disturbed that the VA inspector general, supposedly the independent watchdog of an agency under increasing criticism, may be keeping important information from finding the light of day. GOP Rep. Tom Emmer, whose district includes the St. Cloud VA, said he is considering drafting legislation that would require the VA to release all similar inspector general (IG) reports to the public in the future. “The thing I find absolutely unacceptable is when we have completed IG reports they basically enter into a black hole,” Walz said. “Its just maddening to me that it feels like I am on some super sleuth mission to go find these things.” The VA Inspector General’s Office is responsible for investigating allegations of wrongdoing at the VA, the country’s second largest federal agency. But, as was the case in the St. Cloud investigation, the inspector general routinely farms out inquiries to local and regional VA officials and closes the case if it believes the problems have been addressed. Walz said many of the report’s findings warranted further review from outside the VA. He’s asked the Inspector General’s office why the report was not made public and whether there appears to be a pattern of whistleblower suppression and retaliation within the agency.
VA claims backlog, signature problem, frustrate Nevada veterans (Fox News)
Nevada veterans with questions about delays in processing their disability claims and the ever-growing backlog say they’ve hit another roadblock. Veterans in the Reno area received letters about the status of their claims from a manager at the city’s Veterans Benefits Administration Service Center who no longer works there, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Willie L. Smith, a 30-year career Air Force veteran from North Las Vegas, said he’s received a total of three letters from Allen Bittler, who hasn’t worked at the agency’s Reno regional office since he retired nearly two years ago, according to the newspaper. Smith received a letter dated March 30 and signed by “A. Bittler,” informing him, “We are still processing your application for COMPENSATION.” Smith told the paper he wants to know why months have passed without his receiving a disability rating decision, when the Department of Veteran Affairs recently announced the wait time for such decisions was down to 95 days from 357 days at the peak of the backlog in February 2013. Smith receives VA health care for other disabilities, but submitted a claim for a heart condition and spinal, neck and shoulder injuries in September 2014. “All I want is a final determination,” Smith told the paper. “Based on what they’re saying about 95 days, why isn’t mine resolved?” VA officials said they do not comment on individual cases, but a spokesman for the Veterans Benefits Administration in Reno told the newspaper its office has “identified a computer glitch that continued to use Mr. Bittler’s name on some outgoing correspondence.” The mistake was caught in March, according to spokesman Nathanial Miller.
Veterans group wants presidential candidates to address issues through town halls (The Washington Times)
Pentagon spending cuts. U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State. VA clinics in disarray. A conservative veterans advocacy group is providing presidential candidates an opportunity to address these issues and other hot topics in the 2016 campaign season. Concerned Veterans for America has invited many of the major candidates in both parties to town hall meetings designed to give voters in early primary states a chance to meet and query the politicians. “We wanted to get these individuals on the record on the issues that matter to veteran and military families, as well as active service members. The national deficit, spending, national security, the VA — ask them to articulate their visions for fixing the VA, their national security beliefs,” said Dan Caldwell, CVA’s legislative and policy director. “That’s just the goal, get them on the record talking to families in key states about the issues important to them.” Among the Republican candidates, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida have all done town halls, but billionaire businessman Donald Trump has yet to accept an invitation, the group said. “What’s at stake for veterans is what’s at stake for all Americans: the future of this country,” Mr. Caldwell said. “It’s more personal for veterans, because they’ve sacrificed in uniform to protect this country and ensure freedoms are preserved.”
Political parties already targeting veteran voters for 2016 (Military Times)
Republican leaders still don’t know who will be their standard bearer in the 2016 presidential race, but they’re already recruiting an army of veterans to support that candidate. Officials with the Republican National Committee recently launched a push to bring former service members into their Republican Leadership Initiative, an effort to train GOP supporters for field organizer work in next year’s campaigns. “Eight years of failed leadership in the White House has devastated military readiness, slashed military pay and retirement benefits, decimated morale among the troops who don’t trust their civilian leadership, and left veterans to die while waiting for the health care their service and sacrifices earned,” the group says on its veterans outreach website. “And yes, your country needs you, America’s veterans, to fix this.” The move is the latest indicator that veterans issues could play a larger role in the 2016 elections than in past recent election cycles, and that veterans will have more opportunities to have their views highlighted and dissected in the months to come. Bob Carey, RNC military and veterans engagement director, said the goal is to have several hundred veterans working on the front lines in battleground states to talk with undecided voters and apathetic peers about issues related to national security and Veterans Affairs Department reform. “A lot of the key states have large veterans populations, so that’s a demographic that needs to be considered,” Carey said. RNC research indicates that younger veterans vote at a lower rate than their civilian peers and are less likely to be registered to vote. Small increases in either measure could pay large dividends to the political party that can rally veterans to their candidates.
VA to launch a solution to its 1,000 websites problem (Federal News Radio)
The Veterans Affairs Department will launch a digital front door to its approximately 1,000 websites on Veterans Day. Called Vets.gov, the new web portal will address one of veterans’ most common gripes, said Chief Veterans Experience Officer Tom Allin in a speech Thursday to the industry-government group ACT-IAC. “I’ve never met a veteran who knew what their benefits were and I’ve talking with some really smart veterans,” he said. “A young man who works with me in Veterans Experience—Rhodes scholar, Ph.D. from Harvard, West Point number one in his class—has no idea what his benefits are.” Going online probably would not help. Even VA Secretary Bob McDonald has bemoaned the labyrinth of websites. By its name, Veterans.gov would be the logical place to start. But that site features the Labor Department’s job-training programs for vets. To apply for VA benefits, one must go to eBenefits.gov. Another VA site, My HealtheVet, is for health care information and appointments. Navigating within websites poses its own challenges, Allin said. “The worst case was a website that required 17 clicks to reach a PDF file that you have to print, fill out and mail,” he told Federal News Radio. It might seem like a new website, with a name similar to the Labor Department’s site, would only add to the confusion. But in his speech, Allin likened Vets.gov to a “harbor” that would take in information from the VA’s other websites. Eventually, it would function as a one-stop shop for VA services. “Veterans can go in, check on a claim, add a dependent, sign up for an education benefit, change their address—get all that done—on Vets.gov,” he said. Getting there will be a year-long process. When the site goes live on Nov. 11, it will have the content. But it will not have the single, secure sign-on function necessary for veterans to do the things that Allin described. VA will add new items to the site as they are ready. Everything should be there by this time next year, he said. Vets.gov is part of a broader plan to simplify the department’s digital services. The other efforts include a complete client database and a national call center. “We want a unified experience in terms of Web, phone, chat, email—where a veteran can get what they want to get done the first time,” he said.
VA’s ongoing problems started at the top; they can end there (Federal News Radio)
Commentary: “Taxpayers pay for two Veterans Affairs Departments. The good VA diligently reduced its backlog of disability claims, chipping a backlog of 611,000 cases down to 90,000 and still going. The bad VA has 900,000 veterans waiting for health care services. The latest Office of Inspector General press release headline reads: “VA OIG substantiates whistleblower’s claims of extensive, persistent problems in veterans’ health enrollment records.” But investigators say they’re not sure. Because of bad record-keeping, the number could be as low as a mere half million. Employees accidentally deleted some records. Some veterans – nobody can figure out how many – died but their electronic traces live on. What a mess. The good VA hires an chief “experience” officer from the fast food industry. Tom Allin is trying to change employees’ mind sets so they don’t think of themselves so much as bureaucrats or operators of complicated machinery as rather service representatives. He’s got an ambitious challenge on his hands. Lots of VA employees are dedicated to their mission. Veterans receive great care in millions of cases. But it doesn’t take many to spoil the system, both in reality and in the political and reputational repercussions. The bad VA operates 1,000 web sites where veterans can head to try and find what they want. It continues with a patient scheduling system that’s old as the hills. The good VA tries to get past these bottlenecks with a veterans.gov portal now in beta testing. It schedules deployment for this coming Veterans Day. It starts putting appointment requests in order of how urgent they are. The bad VA builds – or tries to build – a gilded palace of a medical center in Aurora, Colorado only to have the project sink into a schedule and cost overrun scandal. The Army Corps of Engineers attributes the problems to the Integrated Design and Construction methodology the VA chose to use.”
At 100, a Doolittle Raider recalls WWII suicide mission (Dallas Morning News)
They took off knowing they wouldn’t be able to land. When a Japanese fishing boat spotted the American aircraft carrier April 18, 1942, the Doolittle Raiders had to start their flight early. They had to strike back against Japanese assaults in the Pacific, even though they wouldn’t have enough fuel to reach landing strips in China. On his 100th birthday Monday, sitting under a Frontiers of Flight Museum replica of the B-25 bomber he flew that day, Lt. Col. Dick Cole remembered everything. “I was scared the entire time,” Cole said, noting that he knew he might die but “you’d hope you wouldn’t.” Despite his apprehension, he was in awe serving as a co-pilot next to Jimmy Doolittle, “the greatest pilot in the world.” As a kid, Cole would ride his bicycle to a levee above Ohio’s McCook Airfield, where he sometimes caught a glimpse of the famous pilot. The eastern coast of Japan was peaceful the morning of the raid that changed the course of World War II, Cole recalled. Japanese citizens waved, mistaking the plane for one of their own. Over Tokyo, Cole and Doolittle dropped incendiaries to light fires so the 15 planes behind them could see what to bomb. Back over the water, sea spray and fog made it impossible to navigate. Doolittle guessed a direction toward China, and they flew until they ran out of fuel and bailed out.