VA official lashes out at Congress, media, during hearing (The Washington Times)
Fed up with more than a year’s criticism, the Veterans Affairs Department lashed out at Congress, the press and its own internal watchdog on Wednesday, saying calls to fire bad workers won’t change things at the troubled department. VA leadership said the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee was off base, the inspector general’s office exaggerated problems of mismanagement and poor treatment of veterans, and the media then “embellished” those reports — leaving the public with the erroneous impression of a department out of control. Sloan Gibson, the department’s deputy secretary, took particular umbrage at calls from Congress and veterans groups for bad employees to be identified and fired, saying that was a poor way to judge himself and other department leaders. “You can’t fire your way to excellence,” he said. But House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller said the problem was that the VA itself had no idea how to measure progress and is still struggling to admit its own problems after dozens of offices were found to have maintained waiting lists that left veterans unable to get timely care they deserved. “We won’t administer punishment based on IG reports, referrals to the Department of Justice, recycled and embellished media accounts or external pressure,” he told the committee. “It’s simply not right, and it’s not in the best interest of the veterans we serve.”
For Muslims in U.S. military, a different America than one they defended (Stars & Stripes)
U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Emir Hazdic was a Muslim refugee. “The way Americans welcomed us made such a huge impression on me that I felt like I owed something back,” said Hazdic, a Bosnian-Muslim who fled Sarajevo in 1995. Shortly after arriving in the United States, Hazdic joined the Marine Corps as an infantryman — hoping to help peacekeepers deploying to his homeland. “I thought I would sign up and pay my debt and on behalf of my family,” he added. Eight deployments later and still in the Marine Corps, Hazdic has become disturbed by the rising anti-Muslim sentiment in this country after the recent Islamic State attacks in Paris and last week’s San Bernardino shootings. GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump, a candidate Hazdic used to support, has called for barring Muslims from entering the United States. “We used to be a balanced people. We used to be true to our values, but now we’re willing to betray our values because of a sense of fear? That’s not American,” said Hazdic. “What the hell happened to that America I immigrated to?” Many American Muslims say they are living through a difficult time in this country. For the Muslims who are former and current servicemembers, the prejudice and anti-Muslim rhetoric is particularly painful. Those interviewed for this story said that hateful comments have driven a wedge between them and the country they swore to defend. There are roughly 5,900 U.S. service members who self-identify as Muslims — just 0.27 percent of both active and reserve components of the military. In many units, they number in the single digits and often find themselves acting as representatives for the religion in their platoons, answering basic questions about the tenets of Islam. Now they are finding a climate that is significantly worse than anything they experienced after the Sept. 11th, 2001, attacks.
First penis transplants in U.S. to go to wounded veterans (Mashable.com)
Doctors at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have announced that they will soon begin offering a life-changing experimental surgery to wounded military veterans: penis transplants. After several years of discussions with everyone from bioethicists to institutional reviewers, the Johns Hopkins surgeons have received approval to perform up to 60 of the transplants on veterans who have sustained severe injuries to their genitals, said Kate Knott, a nurse practitioner and transplant coordinator at Johns Hopkins. It’s a procedure that could give patients a new lease on life after experiencing arguably one of the most psychologically traumatizing injuries possible in the line of duty. “The psychological impacts of these injuries have obviously been huge for patients,” Knott said, noting that people who have experienced a genital injury are frequently reluctant to even talk about it. “To fully restore somebody…after such a devastating injury would be pretty great.” The doctors have already begun lining up candidates, which will undergo a rigorous physical and psychological screening process before being approved for the transplant. When the first one will be performed remains uncertain, although it could be a matter of months, according to the initial report on the transplants from the New York Times.
Senator’s bill on medicating veterans approved by panel (Wisconsin State Journal)
The U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs passed legislation Wednesday aimed at safer pain management treatment in the wake of revelations of improper prescriptions written at the VA Medical Center in Tomah, Wisconsin. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said in a press release she introduced the legislation after consulting with medical professionals and the family of Jason Simcakoski, a 35-year-old Stevens Point veteran who died in 2014 after receiving high doses of painkillers at the Tomah center. The legislation requires tighter opioid prescribing guidelines, education and safeguards. It now moves to the full Senate as part of a broader bill. Baldwin introduced the bill after she determined that her office staff failed to tell her of complaints against the Tomah facility.
Wounded veterans willing to move for medical marijuana access (Military.com)
Last month, the U.S. Senate passed legislation with a provision that would allow Veterans Affairs Department doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients in states where the drug is legal. The language, which hasn’t yet passed the House, would not change existing laws that prevent possessing or distributing marijuana on VA property, nor does it do anything for veterans in the states where medical marijuana is not legal. But for veterans and their caregivers pushing to make the drug a legal option for all, it’s a welcomed start. And for some, like the spouse of a retired Army Green Beret, it’s a reason to become a “marijuana refugee.” She and her husband plan to move in 2016 — after spending over a quarter century in North Carolina — to a state where they can get medical marijuana, solely because of her husband’s health. “We are marijuana refugees,” she said.
Lawmaker looks to sell VA property in Paris (The Denver Post)
The VA would be allowed to sell a piece of property it owns in Paris — now the site of a ritzy hotel — under legislation introduced this week by U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora. The Paris property has come under scrutiny since the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced earlier this year that it would need hundreds of millions of dollars more to pay for a new VA hospital in Aurora. Coffman and other lawmakers have wanted the VA to dig into its own pocket to help pay for it. “VA needs to get out of the overseas hotel business and focus on serving our veterans,” said Coffman in a statement. The VA building in Paris, known as Pershing Hall, was used by Gen. John J. Pershing during World War I and was later purchased by the American Legion before the VA took it over in 1991. The VA now leases it to a private company who runs the hotel.
Vet’s mom forced to auction Obama letter to pay son’s medical bills (Newsmax)
The heartsick mom of a maimed Iraq war veteran is being forced to auction off a handwritten letter of sympathy from President Barack Obama to pay for her son’s medical bills — even though the commander-in-chief pledged in the note to do “everything” he could to help out. The Washington Examiner reports that Cherry McKimmey’s son David suffered horrific burns to hands, arms and legs when an improvised explosive device detonated under his vehicle near Balad and he crawled through flames in a bid to rescue two fellow soldiers. The fearless Army vet — a single father of three who remains in danger of losing part of a leg from his injuries — was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor. But when the VA classified McKimmey’s injuries as minor, he was denied special care, forcing him to endure long drives to see specialists. That triggered McKimmey and his mom to begin campaigning for more care, and in 2009, the president finally responded with a handwritten note, reading: “Cherry – Thank you for your note. We are grateful for your son’s service, and Michelle and I intend to do everything we can over the next four years to support your family and other military families. God Bless, Barack Obama.” But with little happening since, and her son living solely on his disability benefits, McKimmey has turned to Alexander Historical Auctions of Maryland to auction off her Obama letter. It’s expected to sell for $3,000-$4,000, The Examiner said. “We just assumed everything would be taken care of. We should have known better,” Cherry McKimmey told the newspaper.
VA nurse still on payroll despite charge he beat 70-year-old vet to death (The Daily Caller)
A 70-year old U.S. military veteran, Charles Lee Johnson, died of an apparent beating by a Department of Veterans Affairs employee who continues to work in the hospital more than two years later as he awaits trial on manslaughter charges. Fredrick Kevin Harris, a nurse’s aide at VA’s Alexandria, Louisiana, hospital, is out of jail on bail and remains on the government payroll, reporting to work each day. His duties have–for at least significant periods after the death — included continuing to treat patients. A VA “internal investigation” absolved Harris, even though the local coroner, Francis M. Brian, Jr., said Johnson died of blunt force trauma to the head. Louisiana prosecutors also claim witnesses told investigators they saw Harris hitting the elderly patient. Left to VA officials, Harris would have faced no punishment at all since the department closed its investigation after concluding the death was accidental.
Rubio campaigns with brother to talk about veterans (ABC News)
Marco Rubio is using a real-life example to talk about his commitment to the Department of Veterans Affairs — his big brother. The Republican presidential candidate and Florida senator will appear in Iowa Thursday with his brother Mario, an army veteran. It’ll be his first time on the 2016 campaign trail for Mario Rubio. Rubio will offer his plans to reform a system plagued by long delays for those seeking care and allegations of falsified records, according to his prepared remarks. As a prime example, Rubio will point to his brother, who served in the Army from 1968 through 1971, and has been waiting on dental work for a service-related injury. “He’s had to file a claim and wait for a hearing, which could take anywhere from 18 months to three years. Meanwhile, he’s stuck waiting for the procedures he needs,” Rubio says in his prepared remarks. “Mario is going through the exact same bureaucratic nightmare every other veteran in his situation has to go through. And like so many of them, he will tell you how confusing it has been, how even the forms he has to fill out seem almost intentionally complicated.” Rubio said his brother was injured during training and taken to a dentist but the visit was never officially recorded. So far, the VA has not provided work he needs today. Rubio is seeking more transparency and accountability at Veterans Affairs, promising to get rid of underperforming workers and provide more public oversight. He would also make it easier for veterans to seek private care. Mario Rubio, 65, lives in Jacksonville, Florida where he works for the city.
Will veterans’ families have to pay Georgia to be buried together? (AJC.com)
The Georgia House Appropriations Committee asked auditors to review the state’s veterans services and figure out if there were ways the state could come up with more money to help Georgia’s Vets. At least one of the money-raising suggestions auditors offered is bound to get the attention of lawmakers, and veterans. And not necessarily in a good way. The state’s Department of Veterans Services spends about $40 million a year in state, federal and other types of funding. About two-thirds of it goes for nursing home services for veterans. Some of the suggestions auditors made involved getting more federally-funded or -subsidized health care benefits and getting counties and local service organizations to become more financially involved. And then there’s getting families to pay for the interment of veterans’ spouses and dependents at veterans cemeteries. Taxpayers cover the full burial cost for spouses and dependents of veterans at state veterans cemeteries. Auditors found that six of 10 states that they looked at charged interment fees to bury spouses and dependents. Interment fees ranged from $300 to $700 to provide cemetery services for a casket burial. In fiscal 2015, which ended June 30, about 21 percent of the 414 burials at the state’s veterans cemeteries were of spouses and dependents of veterans. The report said charging a $500 fee per burial would raise an additional $43,500 a year in revenue, a tiny fraction of what the agency spends. In a state with a long history of reverence for veterans, that would be a tough sell in the General Assembly, which would likely have to change state law to allow the fees.
Congressional Gold Medal goes out to two WWII veterans (KXRM-Colorado Springs)
Two World War II veterans were honored during a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony Wednesday afternoon in Colorado Springs. They were both part of the Civil Air Patrol that was created six days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. “It is patriotism in its purest form,” said Brigadier General Jerome Limoge. “Asking for nothing in return, getting very little but knowing just the satisfaction of taking care of their country.” Karen Madsen shared stories of her dad, Colonel Madsen, who was honored with the Congressional Cold Medal. “To be the child of this man who not only loved to fly, but who worked so hard to build to Colorado Civil Air Patrol is both an honor and a privilege,” said Madsen. Commander Siergiej was the second person to receive the medal. He got a little emotional during his speech and said he is deeply humbled for the recognition. “We were all first generation Americans, some of us, and we were taught a lot of things like discipline and honesty,” said Commander Siergiej. The Commander said although it’s an honor, none of it would have been possible without the woman he’s called his wife for over 60 years now. “When you’re an aviator and you kiss your wife in the morning she doesn’t know whether you’re coming back or not and she never complained, never, and yet I knew how she felt,” said Commander Siergiej.
4 Ohio WWII veterans honored by France (Military Times)
Four military veterans from Ohio who helped liberate France during World War II have been awarded prestigious medals by an official of that country. The combat veterans were presented with France’s Medal of Knight of the Legion of Honor in a ceremony Wednesday at the Ohio Statehouse. Vincent Floreani, the French Consul General for the Midwest States, awarded the medals to 90-year-old Neal Burdette of Lancaster; 91-year-old Bernard Eshelman of Columbus; 89-year-old Vernon Miller of Huber Heights; and 94-year-old George Zwahlen of Hopewell. The Legion of Honor was created by Napoleon in 1802, and is presented to “those who have achieved remarkable deeds for France.” People who have been named Knights of the French Legion of Honor include those in the military, government, industry and the arts.
George Sakato, WWII Medal of Honor recipient, dies at 94 (Military.com)
“Roly-poly” is how George T. Sakato described his teenage self. To hear him tell it, he was almost a parody of a heroic figure — small, round and none too fit. He was slimmer by the time he joined the Army but still so short that he had to march double-time to keep up. He had brio. He was funny — he got in trouble for jokes he cracked at his superiors’ expense — and he had volunteered for service during one of the bloodiest periods of World War ll. But he was too puny even to carry his own gear. When they marched uphill, buddies carried his pack for him. Even so “I’m always the last one up that hill,” he said. Six decades later, Sakato still appeared bewildered that his combat days ended as they did, with his belated receipt of the Medal of Honor for his actions in France in 1944. He received it, for, of all things, climbing a hill. “How I got the medal, I don’t know,” Sakato said in an interview with PBS. “Others deserve this much more.” Sakato, a private in Company E, Third Platoon, 442nd Regimental Combat Team — a segregated Japanese-American unit — died Wednesday in Denver. He was 94. He had earlier been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on Oct. 29, 1944. But 55 years later, he got a call from a general inviting him to Washington. The general said his cross would be upgraded to the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest honor, and he would receive it with nearly two dozen other Japanese-American serviceman — including U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.