Justice Dept.: Number of veterans behind bars continues to fall (Military.com)
Veterans account for fewer inmates in US prisons and jails today than a decade ago, according to new federal statistics. An estimated 181,500 veterans are incarcerated, including 131,500 in prison and 50,000 in jails, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics said in a release this week. That figure is down 9 percent from the 206,500 veterans locked up in 2004. Overall, veterans represented about 8 percent of all federal and state inmates. The figures are based on a 2011-2012 survey conducted by the department. “This decrease has been happening for a while,” John Rowan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, told Military.com. A growing number of so-called veterans courts emphasize treatment over incarceration for those with drug problems, he said. “Vet courts have done a great job of keeping vets out of jail and the population [of those incarcerated] is shrinking,” Rowan said. Also contributing to the decline is the fact many Vietnam veterans have been paroled or died while in jail, which has led to his organization closing a number of prison chapters, he said. Veterans doing time are more likely to be white, older and more educated yet more violent than their non-veteran counterparts, according to the figures. They’re also more likely to have a mental health disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. More than half, or 55 percent, of imprisoned veterans told department researchers they’d been told they had a mental health disorder at some time, compared to 43 percent of non-vets. What’s more, veteran prisoners were twice as likely as non-vets to have been told they suffered post-traumatic stress disorder — 23 percent compared to 11 percent.
Veterans wait longer under new program (Orange County Register)
A $9.5 billion effort to slash wait times for military veterans seeking medical care in many cases has had the opposite effect. To schedule a doctor’s visit, some vets in and around Orange County are waiting two to three times longer than what had been promised by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Government data show the number of pending VA appointments that are more than 30 days away has roughly doubled to 3,400 since mid-December 2014 in the Long Beach region, which includes Orange County and the VA Long Beach Healthcare System. That system serves veterans in Orange and Los Angeles counties. The largest portion of that multibillion-dollar initiative is the Veterans Choice program – an answer to a scandal last year that revealed the agency was concealing a massive patient backlog. Top VA brass resigned and lawmakers pledged to make things right. Veterans Choice was designed to connect those needing faster appointments with a network of private sector doctors. Vets can enroll if their appointments are more than 30 days away, or if they live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility. On its face, it’s a simple process. But now, a year in, the relatively unknown initiative has been blasted by patients for longer wait times, conflicting information from different parties and ill-equipped appointment staff members. “Their frustration is not lost on us,” said Rich Beam, spokesman for the Long Beach VA. The legislation that spurred the program was written with great intentions but suffered from a “bumpy implementation,” Beam said. Carlos Fuentes, senior legislative associate at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, is hopeful that tweaks to the Choice program eventually will get vets speedier care. “It has a lot of benefits and has improved access” for many, he said.
Poll: Millennials want to send ground troops to fight ISIS, don’t want to serve (The Washington Times)
A majority of millennials across the U.S. say they support sending ground troops to fight the Islamic State terror group but do not wish to join in the fighting themselves, according to a new poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics. Researchers surveys individuals between age 18 to 19 and found 60 percent said they support putting boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria to fight the terrorists. But almost and equal number, 62 percent, said they would not personally want to join the fight, even if the U.S. needed additional troops. Support among millennials for putting boots on the ground to fight the terror group had been declining in recent months, according to the study. Polling conducted before the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris revealed 48 percent of millennial supported putting troops on the ground to fight the Islamic State. When asked again after the attacks, the number jumped 12 percent. When asked how likely they would be to serve if the U.S. needed more troops to fight the jihadists, 62 percent said they “would definitely not join,” and 23 percent said they “would probably not join.” Just 15 percent of millennials surveyed said the have already joined or would consider joining the military campaign to fight the Islamic State. The disconnect in joining the fight comes down to how millennials feel about the government writ large, according to Harvard IOP Polling Director John Della Volpe. “I’m reminded of the significant degree of distrust that this generation has about all things related to government,” Mr. Della Volpe said, NRP reported. “And I believe if young people had a better relationship with government … they’d be more open to serving.”
VA Pittsburgh hospital reopens intensive care unit (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)
The Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Healthcare System reopened an intensive care unit at its University Drive campus six days after finding mold in a ventilation system. Third-party test results cleared the way for the opening, the VA said in a statement Friday. “VA Pittsburgh employees pulled together, worked together and focused on getting this unit back into action as swiftly as possible — and getting on to what we do best: caring for veterans,” said Dr. Timothy Burke, the health care system’s interim director. Technicians initially found the mold in an air handler during routine maintenance, and doctors at the hospital have not diagnosed any mold-related illnesses. The hospital closed the general medical ICU, along with a sleep lab and administrative offices that are part of the same ventilation system, as a precaution. “Patient safety is our top priority, and mold — while it lives everywhere — just doesn’t belong and most certainly isn’t welcome in our hospital,” says Dr. Brooke Decker, VA Pittsburgh director of infection prevention. “In this instance, we knew there was no risk to patients, but we acted anyway. This is because we are committed to taking the right steps every single time the situation calls for it.”
Tucson VA launches clinic for transgender veterans (Tucson.com)
Tucson’s veterans hospital has new help for military veterans who not long ago faced discrimination from their doctors. The Southern Arizona VA Health Care System will soon become the fourth in the country with special clinic hours for transgender veterans, those who were born male but identify as female, or vice versa. It’s a population that’s booming in Tucson, having grown from about 50 to 130 in the last five years, local VA officials said. A similar trend is occurring at VA hospitals nationwide, they said. The new clinic is the latest of many changes that began in 2011 when the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs ordered all its medical facilities to take better care of such patients. Before that, discrimination was not uncommon, said Dr. Sonia Perez-Padilla, who heads the local VA’s transgender treatment team. Most VA employees had no training in the needs of transgender patients, and some felt uncomfortable being around them, she said. Today, many training sessions later, the situation is much better, she said, but there still may be some employees who don’t understand that being transgender “is not a choice. It’s something innate.” Tucson’s veterans hospital is now recognized by the VA as a national center of excellence for transgender care, she said. The VA now routinely provide treatments such as hormone therapy, mental-health care and pre- and post-operative care for sex-change surgery. The surgery itself still isn’t covered, though Perez-Padilla thinks it will be eventually.
Fort Hood creates first-of-its-kind treatment court (Austin American-Statesman)
Fort Hood and federal prosecutors are creating a specialized court for veterans charged with misdemeanors while on the post as part of what officials believe is the first veterans court on a U.S. Army installation. Similar to a growing number of veterans courts in Texas and around the country that prioritize treatment over punishment, the program is aimed at veterans “whose deployments led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress manifesting in substance abuse,” according to a statement from Fort Hood officials. The court, which will be run by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey C. Manske, won’t be open to active duty soldiers at Fort Hood, who are governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, though such an expansion “could be looked at down the line,” said Daryl Fields, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office. The court will funnel veterans through counseling and treatment for issues involving substance abuse, mental health, finances and other difficulties related to their military service. It will also match up veterans with mentors to help them through the 12- to 18-month process, after which they would avoid a federal conviction. “After they graduate, hopefully some will also become mentors themselves,” said Maureen Jouett, executive director of the Killeen nonprofit Bring Everyone In The Zone, which, in partnership with the Military Veteran Peer Network, is helping provide mentorship training. “They are like a battle buddy.”
Very much alive WWII veteran declared dead by government (Richmond Times-Dispatch)
Joseph Mendez remembers days so cold during the Battle of the Bulge that his fingers wouldn’t bend to squeeze a trigger. The numbness in his legs is a constant reminder of the morning he and another young soldier had to be pulled out of a frozen foxhole. Mendez, then a 19-year-old Army private, somehow survived the frosty hell that left 19,000 Americans dead.“I’m hard to kill,” said Mendez, 89. But an errant mouse click by some low-level federal worker swiftly accomplished what German gunfire in the bitter cold couldn’t. Mendez, days after burying his wife of 68 years in July, learned that he was legally dead. A letter from the Social Security Administration — dated July 23 and addressed to Dorothy Mendez, who died July 12 — was the first sign of a mix-up that has taken months to correct. “We are sorry to learn of your loss,” the letter describing the end of his benefits begins. “Please accept our sincere sympathy.” Mendez’s daughter, Doddydell Green, opened the letter and shrugged it off. She and her husband, John, were busy helping Mendez sell his house in New York and move in with them in Powhatan. She’d call the number on the letter, explain the problem and they’d all laugh about it later, Green thought. But resurrecting the dead wouldn’t be so easy. The Social Security Administration’s erroneous declaration triggered a cascade of notifications. Mendez’s veterans benefits, his Medicare, his General Electric pension and his credit cards would stop. And every phone call seemed to lead to another, with no one on the other end sure when government computers would accept the simple truth that Joseph Mendez is alive. The ordeal appeared to be over soon after Green and Mendez visited the Social Security office in Albany, N.Y., his presence seeming like absolute proof. Once the receptionist directed them to a cubicle at the end of a long hallway, Mendez swung his arms as he strolled down the hallway. “Dead man walking, dead man walking,” he announced. By September, Mendez had received back pay and an apology from the government. But last week, the exaggerated reports of his demise resurfaced. A note from Mendez’s bank in New York explained that because of his death in July, it had removed $6,399 from his accounts to send back to the VA and the Social Security Administration. The Social Security Administration corrects about 9,000 mistaken death reports each year, a tiny fraction of the roughly 2.8 million deaths the agency handles annually. A regional Social Security Administration spokeswoman said in an email that her office contacted Mendez on Friday to fix the mistake after a reporter asked about his case.
Veterans remembered with Wreaths Across America (Chicago Tribune)
Operating with the belief that late veterans who served their country should be remembered and honored during the holiday season, hundreds of volunteers on Saturday placed wreaths on thousands of graves at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois. As part of a national effort, Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit, organized the laying of wreaths in more than 900 cemeteries nationwide, according to Debbie Smothers, of Joliet, who served as the location leader for Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. Smothers is co-founder of the Manhattan-based Operation Care Package, a nonprofit that sends gifts to active military personnel. “Every veteran should have a wreath on their grave, every veteran, no matter what,” Smothers said. “It’s a small price to pay, a $15 wreath and to come out here and to place it on their grave. That’s nothing compared to the price they paid.” People donated money to Wreaths Across America and could specify that a wreath be placed on a particular grave. “There were 9,500 wreaths total, about 3,000 more than last year,” said Manhattan’s Dave Kestel, a Will County Farm Bureau member who organized the transportation of boxes of wreaths to the cemetery. “It’s a good thing.” Smothers said the increase from last year is “huge,” however she hopes word will spread, resulting in more wreaths being available next year for placement. “We’ve still got 43,000 veterans buried here,” Smothers said of the cemetery.