October 12 Veterans News

October 12 Veterans News

Veterans news updateWar vets suspect burn pits causing thousands of serious illnesses (Philly.com)
The smoke sometimes turned from black to green, like the olive drab of an old military uniform, as it rose from a pit of smoldering trash. The color depended on what was burning. There was refuse from chow halls and latrines at Camp Al Taqaddum in Iraq. But contractors also bulldozed in broken computers, wrecked humvees, and medical waste. Chris Lang, a Marine from Doylestown, Pa., slept in a tent downwind from the inferno. “We always joked about it,” he said of the Olympic-pool-size burn pit. “Like, we’re going to live through this [war] but not that thing over there.” Six years later, doctors diagnosed Lang with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the immune system. Lang, 34, is among thousands of veterans who blame an illness on open-air trash burning at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. They believe the U.S. government has failed to take responsibility for the consequences, likening the issue to Vietnam vets’ exposure to Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide. Lang and others have fought protracted battles to win coverage, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has declined to declare a cause of their illness or acknowledge that burn-pit smoke may have played a role. The agency has denied thousands of burn-pit exposure-related health claims, veterans advocates say. The VA maintains that research has so far failed to prove a link between exposure and long-term disease. “In general, the VA needs some scientific basis,” explained Paul Ciminera, director of the agency’s Post-9/11 Era Environmental Health Program. Major burn-pit studies are underway. In the meantime, vets are waiting for answers.

Five Wyoming veterans sue KBR over toxic burn pits in Iraq (Casper Star Tribune)
Five Casper military veterans filed a federal lawsuit Friday alleging they were exposed to toxic fumes when a Houston-based corporation improperly burned waste during the war in Iraq. Ochs Law Firm filed the suit against KBR Inc. in the U.S. District Court of Wyoming. The suit is believed to be the first toxic burn pit case filed in Wyoming, according to the Casper-based law office. The suit states KBR was hired to handle waste disposal for American operations in Iraq. KBR failed to take necessary safety precautions and incinerated unsorted waste, including chemicals, in burn pits, exposing the soldiers to health-damaging toxins, the suit claims. The veterans named in the suit are Terrance Sordahl, Keith Jones, Laura Jones, James W. Savino III and Julia Savino. “It is imperative that our Wyoming-US soldiers be given the voice and legal remedies they deserve,” attorney Jason Ochs said in a news release. A phone call to KBR’s headquarters in Houston, Texas, was not returned Friday. The veterans are suffering from respiratory health problems including bronchial infections, upper respiratory infections, shortness of breath, wheezing, inability to exercise for extended periods of time and gag-reflex issues, according to the suit. Several soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with tumors, the lawsuit claims. The Veteran Affairs Medical Centers have created a burn pit registry, which the Casper veterans are a part of. The lawsuit asserts no limitations were put on the waste that was dumped into the burn pits. The waste included human corpses and body parts, medical supplies and waste, metals, hydraulic fluids, munitions boxes, paints, solvents, polyvinyl chloride pipes, plastics, pesticides and batteries. According to the lawsuit, the smoke from the burn pits was sometimes blue or green and very thick. The suit alleges KBR’s managers knew the dangers of the burn pits. The lawsuit requests monetary relief from KBR for medical expenses, pain and suffering and emotional distress.

Disabled veterans can expect no benefits COLA increase for 2016 (PBS NewsHour)
For just the third time in 40 years, millions of Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees can expect no increase in benefits next year, unwelcome news for more than one-fifth of the nation’s population. They can blame low gas prices. By law, the annual cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, is based on a government measure of inflation, which is being dragged down by lower prices at the pump. The government is scheduled to announce the COLA – or lack of one – on Thursday, when it releases the Consumer Price Index for September. Inflation has been so low this year that economists say there is little chance the September numbers will produce a benefit increase for next year. Prices actually have dropped from a year ago, according to the inflation measure used for the COLA. “It’s a very high probability that it will be zero,” said economist Polina Vlasenko, a research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. “Other prices – other than energy – would have to jump. It would have to be a very sizable increase that would be visible, and I don’t think that’s happened.” Congress enacted automatic increases for Social Security beneficiaries in 1975, when inflation was high and there was a lot of pressure to regularly raise benefits. Since then, increases have averaged 4 percent a year. Only twice before, in 2010 and 2011, have there been no increases. In all, the COLA affects payments to more than 70 million Americans. The COLA also affects benefits for about 4 million disabled veterans.

Military savings plan aims to get troops thinking about finances (Tampa Tribune)
“I have a lot of friends who got out with me in 2013 who are still trying to keep their heads above water,” says Robinson, 28, who lives in Seminole Heights. “They didn’t have a lot of money in the bank and fell into meaningless jobs to pay the bills.” The fiscal 2016 defense spending bill, approved by Congress last week and now awaiting action by the president, includes a provision to help men and women like Robinson in the future. The bill creates a 401(k)-type retirement program called a Thrift Savings Plan that allows service members to contribute money, with the government matching up to 5 percent over 26 years. Unlike the current Thrift Savings Plan, this one offers government matching contributions. Proponents say the new system is aimed at the 83 percent of troops who don’t make it to retirement. The goal is to help attract and retain “the best and the brightest” to an all-volunteer force, says U.S. Rep. Joseph Heck, a Nevada Republican and chairman of the Military Personnel Subcommittee. “This goes a long way to meeting recruitment and retention goals of the force,” says Heck, who also is a brigadier general in the Army Reserve and a physician. “After 15 years of war, we have folks who would like to stay 20 years, but they have been deployed so many times that we broke them,” he says. “We just broke them, and even if they wanted to stay, they can’t, and under the current system, we tell them, ‘Yeah, thanks for coming and leaving with nothing.’ ”

Navy surgeon general touts gains in concussion protocols, treatment (Military.com)
The U.S. Navy’s top doctor says the service has made gains in developing new screening protocols and treatments for concussions, but acknowledged more research is needed. Vice Adm. Matthew Nathan, surgeon general of the Navy, recently discussed the issue with Military.com here during the city’s annual Fleet Week celebration of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. “We’re still a way’s away from finding that one magic test that can tell you just how severe it is, but we’ve change the game,” he said. For example, in Afghanistan and in other combat zones, troops who get a concussion are now given a series of tests in which they have to answer questions and react to blinking lights, Nathan said. “We now know, based on how they respond to those tests, whether or not they’re fit to return to duty or need to take a timeout for a few days or take a timeout and be relieved from duty,” he said. “And we have some pretty objective criteria now that can tell us what a concussion has done.” He added, “We have a ways to go, but our situational awareness is much better now.” Interestingly, the vast majority of traumatic brain injuries that occur in the military come from non-combat injuries, such as motorcycle and motor vehicle accidents, Nathan said. Indeed, of the 316,341 incidents of traumatic brain injury recorded across all branches of service from 2001 through the first quarter of 2015, just 47,925 — or about 15 percent — were combat-related, or “deployment associated,” according to statistics recently provided by the Pentagon’s Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center in Maryland, which oversees TBI research. During the height of U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the percentage climbed as high as 26 percent in 2007, and dropped below 23 percent only once through 2011, reaching 19 percent in 2009, the statistics show.

Army pressured to boost transition programs for separating soldiers (Military.com)
With many soldiers expected to leave the ranks in coming years amid the continued downsizing of the Army will only add to the pressure on programs to ease the transition to civilian life, according to Army Human Resources officials. “We see ourselves as a retention and a transition tool both,” said Mark Brown, Human Resources director at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. Part of the transition program there is meant to help the soldier gauge whether he or she is financially prepared for separation, Brown said. “In many cases, the soldiers will realize that they’re not ready and decide to stay in,” he said. Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, commander of I Corps at the base, recently told Military.com that the base has worked hard to partner with local businesses, schools and unions on transition and he now considers the transition programs there “the best in the Army” under the rubric, “Once a soldier, always a soldier.” Transition programs will be a focus of several panels at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual three-day exposition and conference beginning Oct. 12 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. The Army and the other services stepped up their programs under the Defense Department’s Transition Assistance Program as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq grinded on and unemployment rates for veterans regularly exceeded civilian rates. The Pentagon’s job programs have also been bolstered by the Joining Forces initiative of First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden. At a Veterans Initiative Summit Thursday sponsored by the private equity industry, Obama asked the audience of hedge fund managers and other high-powered executives to get more involved. When Joining Forces started in 2011 with the goal of hiring or training 100,000 vets and military spouses, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 vets was more than 12 percent, she said. “And today, just four years later, American businesses have hired or trained not just 100,000 veterans and military spouses, not just 200,000 or 500,000 — no, folks like you across this country have hired or trained more than 850,000 veterans and military spouses,” Obama said.

Korean War Veterans Memorial gets $1 million donation from Samsung (Military Times)
The Forgotten War’s forgotten U.S. memorial is getting a big financial boost from one of South Korea’s biggest corporations. Samsung Electronics announced today that it will donate $1 million to the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation’s Maintenance Fund in Washington, D.C., in an effort to help keep the site a lasting tribute to troops who fought in the conflict. The money will be kept in an endowment, with interest from the donation helping to defray yearly costs for the memorial. U.S. National Park Service officials pay for much of that work, but budget cutbacks have forced some maintenance work to be delayed, said William Weber, chairman of the memorial foundation. “Most of the grouting in the pool is gone,” he said. “The walls need to be washed two times a month. The statues need to be treated twice a year. And there isn’t enough for all of that upkeep.” The foundation helps with that, but Weber admits the Korean War Memorial is less known and less supported than the nearby World War II and Vietnam War memorials on the National Mall. Part of that is due to the lack of public knowledge of the Korean War itself, even though more than 36,000 U.S. troops died and more than 103,000 were wounded in the conflict. Samsung was a major donor when the memorial was first built and endowed the American Legion’s scholarship fund for families of Korean War veterans. In a statement, company officials called the donation a chance to help visitors to the site remember U.S. service members’ “defense of freedom” in the conflict. Workers from the electronics firm also will take part in cleaning the memorial grounds on Oct. 16, as part of the company’s national day of service.

Opinion: Veterans could get caught in wi-fi crunch (Miami Herald)
Donald Trump’s nasty attack on John McCain’s heroic war record earlier this year had one positive effect — it shined a renewed spotlight on how our nation treats its veterans. As the Veterans Administration reels from scandal, veterans languish for months, or years, on waiting lists before receiving the treatment they need and old systems for claims and benefits creak under the weight of the massive influx of post-Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Virtually everyone agrees we must do better for those who have given our country so much. One vital path to improving conditions for our vets is quick adoption of new technologies. And here the Department of Veterans Affairs deserves kudos for rolling out powerful new web and wi-fi based systems to connect with veterans and bring them the benefits and services they have earned. The VA provided remote care to more than 690,000 veterans last year — more than half of whom live in rural areas with limited access to VA facilities. Wi-fi and mobile-connected telemedicine saves visits to overcrowded clinics and allows veterans to book appointments and fill prescriptions online or receive home healthcare in a more timely and cost-efficient way. Claims processing, education and job aid are all rapidly moving online for vets, especially the tech-savvy post-9/11 generation And the promise of new tools that are just coming online is even greater. The VA’s Health Buddy systems, for example, use Internet-linked data communications to monitor chronic and life-threatening conditions such as diabetes, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. And veterans can find a host of similar tools tailored to their needs in VA’s own online app store, such as the information one-stop-shop app 311Vet or the Preconception Care app designed to support female vets’ sexual and reproductive health. However, a new threat is emerging that puts their promise at risk. All of these tools depend on high-speed Internet and powerful, widely available wi-fi connectivity.

Texas Army veteran finds a way to beat the VA runaround (Dallas Morning News)
Sometimes in the middle of the night he wakes with excruciating seizures in his legs. Marty Leewright tries to walk off the searing pain. But deadly poisons left in his body from Agent Orange are slowly killing him. He served in the Army in Vietnam. The Fort Worth lawyer is a sharper cookie than most. He can navigate a bureaucracy as well as anyone I know. But until he pulled his latest stunt, he was another lost soul of the VA, moving backward, in slow motion, as he tried to get medical treatment. Medical care? How about canceled appointments, altered and lost records, runarounds, delays, denials, misinformation, poor treatment and misdiagnoses? Now he’s calling out the VA for using him and other vets as part of a public relations show to satisfy the new U.S. secretary of veterans affairs.  Feb. 18. A “Veterans Town Hall.” Fort Worth VA Outpatient Clinic. Veterans gather in a room to tell their stories to area VA officials. A video crew records the event. Leewright takes the microphone and shares his problems. Afterward, VA officials promise to help. Weeks go by. Crickets. “I realized that it was all a horse and donkey show documented for the higher-ups in Washington, D.C.,” he says. “Once again, I felt betrayed by my own government and once again abandoned as a Vietnam Agent Orange combat veteran.” … Here’s how a few weeks ago lawyer Leewright handled his problem. “I wrote to the president of the United States, and I copied the secretary of veterans affairs,” he says. “Then boy, things started happening, I mean, within five or six days. I’ve had more appointments and examinations in the last three weeks than I had in the last three years. One worker at the VA pulled up his file and told him, “This came from the president’s office and also the secretary of the VA.” And it’s easy enough. Something that others can do. Leewright says, “The VA is like an insurance company today. They are looking at any reason they can come up with to deny your claims.” So go over their heads.

Lawmaker: Completed Colorado VA hospital is in sight (The Denver Post)
Commentary by Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.): “Finally, a completed Aurora VA hospital is in sight. In early October, Congress voted to fully fund its construction, and the president has signed the legislation. This was no small feat. Despite the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) gross mismanagement and negligence, I look forward to celebrating the completion of the VA hospital in Aurora thanks to a bipartisan effort from the Colorado delegation. The road to this event is a long one. More than a decade ago, the VA announced plans to replace the aging Denver VA hospital. Five years later, the VA broke ground on the current stand-alone hospital facility with an initial estimated cost of $583 million. Fast forward to April 2013. The Aurora hospital was nowhere near completion and mired in protracted dispute between the VA and the contractor. … Shortly before Christmas 2014, contractor Kiewit-Turner agreed to restart work only after the VA met its demands to turn over all construction management responsibilities to the Army Corps of Engineers and to pay all the subcontractors for their work on the endless number of change orders that the VA had them do. The first thing the Corps did was to re-estimate the project’s total price: a whopping $1.67 billion. Since then, I have worked with House leadership, the Veterans Affairs Committee, the Colorado delegation, and others to secure funding to finish the hospital. An abandoned, half-completed structure would stand as a monument to our nation’s inability to meet its obligations to the men and women who have sacrificed so much in defense of our freedom.”

Danville VA medical building infested by raccoons, fleas (Danville Commercial-News)
The Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System has been working to eradicate a flea infestation, most likely caused by raccoons. The problem first was noticed in August, said Wade J. Habshey, health system specialist/public affairs officer to the director. Since then, he said, “Staff and local pest control companies have conducted flea abatement activities to eradicate a flea infestation and to ensure patient safety in Building 58.” The flea abatement process involves a series of repetitive measures, which includes re-treatment of the affected area over a period of time, he said. As a result, some services of the Imaging-Radiology/CT/MRI/Nuclear Medicine areas were impacted. For example, he said, the ultrasound service temporarily was relocated from the first floor of Building 58 to the fourth floor of Building 58 in Room 405. “All urgent radiology tests unable to be performed during this time period were fee-based out to our local community hospital (Presence United Samaritans Medical Center),” Habshey said. Patients were notified by Imaging Service staff of these modifications during the flea abatement activities. Habshey said the source of the flea infestation is believed to be raccoons that were found living in the ceiling above the first floor in Building 58 in late July. Construction to the entrance of Building 58 building disturbed the exterior of the building, allowing several raccoons an avenue to enter the building. A live animal pest control company placed traps in that area and several raccoons were caught and removed.