VA benefits chief Allison Hickey resigns (Military Times)
Allison Hickey, the Veterans Affairs Department’s top benefits official and arguably the most polarizing figure in the VA leadership ranks in recent years, stepped down from her post Friday amid praise from her colleagues and renewed attacks from her critics. As under secretary for benefits, Hickey oversaw more than 20,000 VA employees and the delivery of benefits to more than 12 million veterans and their families. She is one of the last holdovers from former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s tenure, frequently praised by top officials for her efforts to modernize the department and her dedication to veterans. “She has been an exceptional colleague and an even better friend to me,” VA Secretary Bob McDonald said in a statement. “Her commitment to excellence and service to our country is unquestioned.” But her work also drew intense criticism from conservatives on Capitol Hill and some veterans advocates, who blamed her for management failings within the Veterans Benefits Administration. In March 2013, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called for her resignation as the number of backlogged disability claims from veterans ballooned to more than 600,000. A year later, officials from the American Legion began an ongoing dismissal petition not only for Hickey, but also for Shinseki and former VA Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel, for problems related to lengthy patient wait times and data manipulation throughout the department. Last month, those same critics renewed those calls after reports emerged about abuse of the VA’s employee relocation bonuses. A VA Inspector General report suggested Hickey should be investigated for negligent oversight of the program, and Miller’s committee has scheduled an Oct. 21 hearing on the issue. A senior VA official said those repeated requests have taken a toll on the 57-year-old Hickey, who worried she had become a distraction to further reform efforts.
American Legion on Hickey resignation: ‘No joy, only optimism’ (PRNewswire)
American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett issued the following statement regarding today’s resignation of Department of Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey: “Under Secretary Hickey is to be commended for her dedicated career as a member of the Air Force and her commitment to veterans. Although we called for her resignation, we take no joy in it. The widespread problems at the VA are not the fault of one person. She is one of three leaders that we asked to step down when the problems were first exposed last year. Now that the three senior officials that were in place at VA have left office, The American Legion is optimistic that Secretary McDonald can finally make the cultural changes that he needs so VA can be worthy of the veterans that it serves.”
Vets dismayed at VA payback rules on separation pay (Military Times)
Stephen, a Marine Corps staff sergeant, agreed to leave service a few years ago when the Corps offered him voluntary separation pay in an effort to trim its personnel ranks. They gave him about $80,000 to leave, and at the time it seemed like a good deal. The money helped him buy a house in Texas and get started with a job as a financial planner. But now the government wants that money back. That’s because Stephen, who asked to be identified by his first name only, recently went to the Veterans Affairs Department and secured an 80 percent disability rating for a combination of post-traumatic stress, tinnitus and a jaw problem. The VA said he’s due an $1,800 monthly stipend. But the VA won’t send him any checks until 2018 because federal law requires veterans to pay back any separation pay received before becoming eligible for disability benefits. “I wasn’t aware of that, and that could have changed my decision altogether” about whether to accept the voluntary separation pay in the first place, Stephen said. The 30-year-old former platoon sergeant, who deployed twice to Iraq, is now battling bureaucracy at the Pentagon and the VA in an effort to keep the money, which he has already spent. About 17,000 troops each year have been granted involuntary separation pay in 2014 and 2015, mostly soldiers and Marines, according to Pentagon data. Thousands of such vets likely face recoupment of separation pay, although the VA was unable to say precisely how many veterans currently have benefits blocked for this reason. And getting any relief from the Pentagon or the VA will be an uphill battle because the payback requirement is written into federal law. Specifically, the law affects both voluntary and involuntary separation pay. VA payments are withheld, or offset, until the full amount of separation pay is repaid. In the case of voluntary separation pay, the law allows the military service secretaries to waive the debt, but such waivers are rare.
How an elderly vet saved 16 children from knife attack (Christian Science Monitor)
An elderly Army veteran was leading a chess club at a public library in Morton, Ill., when a man burst into the room holding two hunting knives and threatening the roomful of children. In dramatic move, James Vernon, 75, employed his Army knife-fight training to stop him. “He actually ran into the room yelling, ‘I’m going to kill some people!; ” Mr. Vernon told the Pekin Daily Times. The septuagenarian confronted the 19-year-old attacker, Dustin Brown, as the children hid under tables. “I tried to settle him down,” Vernon told the Daily Times. “I didn’t [succeed], but I did deflect his attention.” “I said, ‘This can’t be happening,’ ” Vernon told the Associated Press. His second thought: “I can’t let this happen.” The 16 children, aged between 7 and 13, escaped the room after Vernon put himself between Brown and the door. “I gave them the cue to get the heck out of there, and, boy, they did that! Quick, like rabbits,” Vernon said. Mr. Brown slashed the knife at Vernon, who blocked the blade with his left hand. “I should have hit his wrist,” Vernon told the Daily Times. “That’s how you’re trained, but it’s been half a century.” “I failed my mission to kill everyone,” Brown reportedly told police after his arrest. Brown, who was out on bail in connection with a child pornography case, is now being held on $800,000 bond pending a Nov. 5 court appearance. He’s charged with attempted murder, armed violence, and aggravated battery.
VA delays skyrocket in San Antonio (San Antonio Express-News)
Delays at the Veterans Affairs health care network based in San Antonio have risen sharply since spring, with one in five patients waiting 30 days or longer for an appointment, the nation’s second-highest rate. Figures published online by the Veterans Health Administration show that, as of Oct. 1, more than 12,300 patients in the South Texas Veterans Health Care System waited 30 days or more for primary, specialty or mental health care appointments. The number represents an almost sixfold increase since May, when 2,121 veterans faced comparable delays, and the largest jump of any VA network in the country. The total number of appointments scheduled each month during that span remained relatively flat, averaging 60,116. Only the VA network in Gainesville, Florida, had a longer wait list at the start of this month, with nearly 14,200 veterans. But that system scheduled more than three times as many appointments as the San Antonio network. The South Texas VA also had the second-highest rate of veterans waiting 30 days or longer, at 20.25 percent. More than a quarter of the patients in the VA network in Fayetteville, North Carolina, encountered similar delays. Local VA officials attributed the increase in delays to national VA policy and budget changes that limit the network’s ability to contract with outside medical providers. They asserted that the providers helped hold down wait times by easing the burden on the system’s full-service hospitals in San Antonio and Kerrville and 13 outpatient clinics. Regardless of the explanation, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, called the wait-list surge “unacceptable.” “There was a lot of attention brought to wait times a year ago and the need to bring the numbers down,” said Campbell, who chairs the Senate committee on veteran affairs and military installations. “Now that there’s not as much attention, the wait times are up again.”
Iraq War vet facing hearing after stolen valor argument (Army Times)
Former Spc. Ryan Lonergan enrolled at Milwaukee’s George Williams College in part, he said, to help the school become more veteran-friendly. He never planned on becoming a case study. Lonergan, who served in Iraq during his time with the Wisconsin National Guard, will face a hearing early next week with GWC officials resulting from an Oct. 6 incident in the school’s dining hall, where the 28-year-old graduate student confronted another student who’d allegedly claimed to have served as a Marine infantry officer. Witnesses notified school officials of the incident — first reported by the Wisconsin Daily Independent — and the next day, Lonergan received notice that he was expected to attend a hearing in six days and would not be allowed on campus, except to attend class, until the matter was resolved. Lonergan got a lawyer. His story made its way to military-themed blogs, including those focused on stolen valor claims. He appeared on radio and local television. School officials said the limited campus ban is part of the code of conduct and isn’t influenced by Lonergan’s service, and that all sides of the confrontation are being treated equally as disciplinary measures are considered. The former soldier said that response is part of the problem, and while he doesn’t approve of critics tearing into the school online over the issue, administrators at GWC “just don’t know how to handle veterans.” “This is the epitome of why they need to have a veterans organization and a veterans infrastructure,” he said. ” ‘Oh, well he’s just a normal student’ — no, no, no. You don’t throw a veteran off campus. Have they lost their minds?”
Senator pushes to expand veteran mental health care (WFSB-Hartford)
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wants to expand a mental health program for veterans, and he’ll be drafting legislation following a meeting on Monday. He said he’ll be meeting with veteran peer specialists and mental health professionals to hear first-person accounts of their life-saving mental health program that pairs veterans with trained veteran peers to help promote and guide their recovery. He’ll also hear from experts leading Connecticut’s program as he drafts legislation to expand the use of that model. “Vets helping vets, peer to peer, can be pivotal to treating post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues, and my legislation will expand promising programs like Connnecticut’s,” Blumenthal said. “This simple but stunningly successful program shows how veterans can help each other battle out of the black hole of post-traumatic stress and depression, and other invisible wounds of war.” Blumenthal also said that pear specialists can give critical support and guidance, particularly in moments of crisis. He said peer programs should be a key component in comprehensive efforts to provide more mental health care to veterans and all Americans. “My legislation seeks to assure veterans that every asset is deployed in the fight to address post-traumatic stress and mental health,” Blumenthal said.
Sanders: No COLA for disabled vets is ‘unacceptable’ (NJToday.net)
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday called it “unacceptable” that millions of seniors will get no annual cost-of-living adjustment in their Social Security checks in 2016. The announcement on Thursday by the Social Security Administration also means there will be no boost in benefits for disabled veterans. Next year will be only the third time in 40 years that there will be no increase in benefits tied to the consumer price index. The way COLAs are calculated “is clearly broken and must be fixed,” Sanders said. “It is unacceptable that millions of senior citizens and disabled veterans will not be receiving a cost-of-living adjustment to keep up with their rising living expenses,” he said. “At a time when senior poverty is going up and more than two-thirds of the elderly population rely on Social Security for more than half of their income, our job must be to expand, not cut, Social Security.” Sanders has faulted the formula used by the Social Security Administration to determine how much benefits should go up each year in order to keep pace with rising living expenses.
Veterans work to repair USS Omaha submarine (KETV-Omaha)
A group of veterans are working to bring the USS Omaha submarine back to life after it has sat in pieces in an Omaha-area construction yard for years. Commissioned in 1978, the USS Omaha served in the Pacific during the Cold War. It was decommissioned in 1995. “It’s in pieces here. It isn’t alive,” veteran Jeff Green said. But thanks to the veterans’ efforts, the submarine’s past will be on display into the future. Later this year, the Omaha Parks Department plans to install the submarine’s sail and rudder in Levi Carter Park after initial work is complete. “Hundreds of man-hours and there’s probably a thousand more to go. It’s a lot of work,” Green said. “I’ll probably be closer with my submarine friends than I am with my own family.” All of the grinding, reinforcement and repairs will be completed by veterans who have worked on different submarines. “It brings back a lot of good memories, a lot of really good memories,” Mark Thompson said. After installation at Levi Carter Park is complete, the city will still need to raise $750,000 to finish the memorial in its entirety. City officials hope the work will be done in two or three years. “She’ll be proud,” Green said. “We want (the USS Omaha) to be looking good.”
Price tag for Illinois Legionnaires’ fix tops $2 million (Pantagraph.com)
Illinois is spending at least $2.3 million to fix a water system linked to a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at its largest veterans nursing home. A review of contracts awarded in the wake of the incident at the Quincy veterans home shows the state has hired companies to monitor the water supply and design and construct a secondary water treatment facility at the facility. Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman Ryan Yantis said installation of a temporary water treatment system is underway. “This automatic water treatment site will add additional disinfectant chemicals to the campus-wide water system to improve water quality,” Yantis noted. “A permanent water treatment plant will be constructed while the temporary site functions.” The work comes a month after the outbreak killed 12 residents. More than 50 individuals from the nursing home tested positive for the disease, which is transmitted by breathing vapor or mist from contaminated water systems. No new cases of Legionnaires’ disease have been reported since Sept. 11 and no additional deaths have been reported since Sept. 15, Yantis said.
A VFW post in Denver trades beers for a sun salute (The New York Times)
At a weekly meeting in the country’s oldest Veterans of Foreign Wars post, a Marine began by asking members to close their eyes and inhale. “Bring your hands to your heart center,” he said. “Notice all the air that is moving around you.” It was Tuesday at V.F.W. Post 1: yoga night. Wednesday is meditation. Friday is photography class — unless it is open gallery night, when hundreds of civilians peruse veteran artwork while a D.J. spins records. The post hosts a monthly film series. And meetings often have as many backward ball caps as V.F.W. hats. Do not come expecting a bar. There is none. “We didn’t want a dark dive bar,” said the senior vice commander of the post, Brittany Bartges, a 29-year-old veteran of the Iraq war. “We wanted a healing place where veterans could come together and bring their families.” By abandoning the traditional model of a dim, members-only tavern in favor of a bright gallery space, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Denver have transformed the V.F.W.’s oldest post into one of its youngest. Once a dying post like many others, Post 1 began recruiting aggressively among veterans at nearby colleges and threw open the doors, welcoming other veterans’ groups to use the building. It is now a hub for volunteering, exercise and art, where the focus is on camaraderie and community service. And the membership is thriving. Before, some meetings drew only five people. Now, more than 40 regularly attend. Post members say they hope to create a model for attracting young veterans that could be adopted across the country. And just in time for the 116-year-old V.F.W. The nationwide network has lost more than 500,000 members in the last decade, tracing the declining number of veterans from World War II and Korea. More than 1,000 posts have closed. The average age of its 1.3 million members is now 68.