December 28 Veterans News

December 28 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateCongress drops burn pit exposure from Pentagon research list (
Burn pit exposure as a cause of illnesses among veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failed to make the 2016 list of peer-reviewed medical research programs that Congress requires the Defense Department to conduct. The absence of burn pit exposure on the list was confirmed on Tuesday by a spokeswoman for the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs at Fort Detrick, Maryland. “Congress designates the topic areas for each fiscal year, and these topic areas change each year,” Gail Whitehead told  The research programs fall under the Department of Defense budget. “There’s nothing comparable,” said Anthony Hardie, director of Veterans for Common Sense. “There’s very little research inside the [Department of Veterans Affairs].” Ron Brown, president of the National Gulf War Research Center, which has long advocated for more medical research into Gulf War Illness and now burn pit exposure, said he didn’t know why the topic was discontinued. It was added for the first time to the list in 2015, according to Brown, who took part in the peer reviewed process this year. “What they may have done … instead of listing it as ‘burn pit exposure,’ is broken it down in subcategories dealing with specific illnesses that would be covered under [that topic], such as constrictive bronchiolitis and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis,” he said. “But why they would do that I’m not sure,” Brown said, because burn pit exposure as a topic would have covered those and other ailments that affect veterans of the Persian Gulf War, Iraq War and Afghanistan War. The Defense Department’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs provides research grants and contracts to study illnesses and possible treatments for illnesses and diseases related to military service. The program’s 2015 budget totaled $247.5 million. From 1992 through 2015, the department’s funding for the effort totaled more than $13 billion.

VA ordered to report to congress on burn pits registry findings (
The Veterans Affairs Department has been directed to report to Congress early next year on the findings of its Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, where veterans can detail health problems linked to exposure to burn-pits, oil well fires or other toxins or pollutants during deployments. The directive was included in the recently passed omnibus appropriations bill by Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, who sponsored with Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee in 2013 legislation that created the registry. The lawmakers acted after years of complaints that veterans of U.S.-led wars in the Middle East were incurring illnesses from exposures that were being untreated or misdiagnosed by the VA. In 2011, the website Danger Room uncovered and published an Army memo based on an eight-year assessment of the air quality at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, stating that the “long term health risk associated with air conditions on BAF … indicates there is a potential that long-term exposure at these levels may increase the risk for developing chronic health conditions such as reduced lung function or exacerbated chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, atherosclerosis, or other cardiopulmonary diseases.” The Burn Pit Registry that went live in April 2014 takes reports from veterans and service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, as well as Djibouti, where the U.S. maintains Camp Lemonnier, a naval expeditionary base that is home to Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. Veterans of the Persian Gulf War, known as Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, may also enter their exposures into the registry, as well as any veteran who served in the Southwest Asia theater after Aug. 2, 1990. “Many of our servicemen and women were exposed to toxic fumes and chemicals from burn pits while serving our country overseas,” Udall said earlier this week. “We don’t know the long-term affects others will experience throughout their lives, but the burn pits registry was a first step.” Udall said the VA needs to keep working with and sharing data with the Defense Department to make sure Iraq and Afghanistan veterans “get the treatment they have earned. ” … In a statement Thursday morning the VA said it will “report to House and Senate appropriations committees within 180 days on matters connected to [burn pit registry], as well as other topics connected with potential toxic exposures in Iraq and Afghanistan.  VA will of course respond to this directive.” … But critics say the reports, while heavy on data, offer no conclusions. “While the higher rates of illness statistics are noted, the actual link to the burn pits is still missing,” said Ron Brown, president of the National Gulf War Resource Center. “Not exactly sure as to why a conclusion cannot be made based on research the VA has already. Like everything else with research it will always say more research is needed even after dozens of studies are conducted.” He added, “At some point, with enough research saying the same thing, the benefit of the doubt must be granted to the veterans.”

Effects severe for veterans with less-than-honorable discharges (Trib Live)
No medical or mental health care. No subsidized college or work training. For many who leave the military with less-than-honorable discharges, including thousands who suffered injuries and anguish in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, standard veterans benefits are off limits. The discharge serves as a scarlet letter of dishonor, and the effects can be severe: Ex-military members with mental health problems or post-traumatic stress disorder can’t turn to Veterans Affairs hospitals or clinics; those who want to go to college aren’t eligible for the GI Bill; the jobless get no assistance for career training; the homeless are excluded from vouchers. “It’s an indelible mark of their service that follows them for the rest of their lives into the workforce, through background checks, social relationships, and it precludes them from getting the kind of support that most veterans enjoy,” said Phil Carter, an Iraq War vet and senior fellow at the Center for A New American Security. The Department of Defense said of nearly 207,000 people who left the military last year, just 9 percent received what’s referred to as “bad paper.” Still, that’s more than 18,000 people last year and more than 352,000 since 2000, Defense Department data show. U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican who’s on the House Armed Services Committee, believes many of those men and women suffered battle-related problems that affected their behavior, especially PTSD and traumatic brain injury. A 2005 study showed Marines deployed to combat who were diagnosed with PTSD were 11 times more likely to receive less-than-honorable discharges, said Brad Adams, an attorney who works with the San Francisco-based organization Swords to Plowshares. Varying levels of bad paper discharges exist. A general discharge is for those whose service was generally satisfactory, but who engaged in minor misconduct or received non-judicial punishment. Recipients are usually eligible for VA medical and dental services, VA home loans and burial in national cemeteries, but can’t receive educational benefits through the GI Bill. Virtually no post-military benefits are available below that level. An other-than-honorable discharge is an administrative action for those with behavior problems such as violence or use of illegal drugs. A bad conduct discharge is punishment for a military crime, and dishonorable discharges are for offenses such as murder or desertion. With those discharges, the VA doesn’t consider the former service members veterans for the purposes of VA benefits. “There is a small percentage of folks who were court-martialed and convicted, and they have earned their bad paper,” Carter said. “The vast majority of this population was discharged administratively, generally because of some minor misconduct.” Maj. Ben Sakrisson, a Defense Department spokesman, said there is “substantial due process” for all cases where people receive a less-than-honorable discharge. Studies show those who are less-than-honorably discharged are far more likely to end up in prison than honorably discharged veterans, and more likely to be suicidal. Jobs are harder to get because background checks highlight an undesirable military discharge. “They have a hard time maintaining employment and navigating the transition back to civilian life,” said Jamison Fargo, associate professor of psychology at Utah State University.

Combat veterans not alone with brain injuries (
Tens of thousands of American combat veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with undiagnosed brain injuries often were “thrown into a canyon” — falling deeper into despair and sometimes flirting with suicide or addiction — before trying to get help, according to a Johns Hopkins University study. Written by Rachel P. Chase, Shannon A. McMahon and Peter J. Winch, researchers at the Baltimore university’s Department of International Health, the study published in the December issue of Social Science and Medicine builds on previous work at Johns Hopkins. That work uncovered tens of thousands of undiagnosed and untreated brain injuries stemming from improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the signature wound of America’s 21st-century wars. Innovations in body and vehicular armor saved the lives of troops who likely would have died of blast injuries in past wars, but survivors often had higher risk of memory loss, cognitive struggles, mood disorders, migraine headaches, addiction, insomnia and suicide. The Johns Hopkins researchers conducted 38 in-depth interviews in 2013 and 2014 with Army combat veterans and their family members, and a model emerged: Veterans too often played down their wounds but became detached from friends and family. Many denied their downward spiral until a “wake-up call” forced them to seek help from Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs programs. Aid could be difficult to obtain, however, without documentation that other soldiers obtained after 2007 because of better battlefield and post-deployment screening protocols. “When veterans came to me before the study, there was so much uncertainty. They told me that they thought that they ‘were alone’ when they came home, but these actually were shared experiences. Their symptoms were very similar, so a picture of their lives post-blast exposure needed to be modeled,” said Chase, who has a doctorate in international health from Johns Hopkins. Veterans with the best outcomes typically had spouses who prodded them to get help or lived near a respected clinic that specialized in brain injury care or one that boasted an exceptionally good medical provider, “even within a reportedly low-functioning facility,” researchers found. The study found that veterans exposed to another bomb blast after 2010 — when the military increased its efforts to diagnose and treat every brain injury from war or training — often had better outcomes than those who were not wounded again. Chase credited such post-2010 help to an evolving “social dynamic” within the military. Commanders now make sure troops get screened for potential concussions and are more likely to keep them out of training or off the battlefield until doctors clear them, she said. The bigger problem is the “no, not, never code” that GIs adopt to deny exposure to blasts because they don’t want to abandon their buddies in the fight and the bureaucratic red tape that continues to ensnare combat veterans who often display symptoms that could apply not just to traumatic brain injury, or TBI, but other invisible wounds of war, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, according to Chase. “One of the vets in the study told us what it was like,” she said. “You go to one clinic, and they tell you, ‘Oh, that’s TBI.’ Then you go to another clinic, and they say, ‘No, that’s PTSD.’ Back and forth and you’re still untreated.” A more detailed exploration of the study’s findings is slated for 2016 in Military Medicine, the flagship journal for health care providers serving the Defense Department, the VA and the U.S. Public Health Service. “For health providers, our study gives you a way to talk about the problem with the family, to show them that this isn’t unusual and that there is hope for the veterans,” Chase said.

Phoenix VA whistleblowers say hospital still lacks doctors (CBS News)
More than a year after we first learned of problems at the Phoenix VA Hospital — they still have not been fixed. A new government report describes long waits for veterans seeking treatment. Whistleblowers charge the hospital is missing something essential: enough doctors. Ground zero for the Veterans Affairs wait-time scandal was at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Hospital. A 2014 Inspector General report detailed how thousands of veterans across the country were put on secret waiting lists. Whistleblower Dr. Sam Foote maintains that at least 40 veterans died in Phoenix since April 2013. He said more than two years later, the problems still aren’t fixed. The report did not blame the wait times for the deaths, but it did call for changes in how the Phoenix VA schedules appointments. “A band-aid has been put on this, and therefore everything’s okay? Everything’s not okay,” said Dr. Foote. “They still don’t have enough physicians and providers to provide medical care.” In October, the IG released a new report about critical staffing shortages in the Urology Department from April 2013 to September 2014. The report says “leaders did not have a plan to provide urological services” and the staffing crisis “impacted thousands of patients.” “They killed him, the Phoenix VA,” said Debbie Allen, whose husband Mel was being treated at that time for bladder cancer. The Urology Department had to refer the Vietnam veteran to an outside hospital. “There were no doctors in the Urology Department that were qualified to do that surgery to remove his prostate and his bladder,” said Allen. Allen said it took eight months for the referral to go through. By then the cancer had spread, and Mel died in March 2014. Could that have contributed to Mel’s death? “Yes. You don’t mess around with cancer,” said Allen. The VA would not specifically discuss Mel Allen’s case with CBS News because of privacy concerns. But the VA said in a statement it has reduced the number of patients on a wait list by hiring additional staff for the Urology Department, and by referring patients to private medical providers.

Fort Harrison to re-start support group for women veterans (Montana Standard)
The Veterans’ Administration at Fort Harrison plans to re-start a support group for women veterans who were raped or sexually assaulted, spurred by two years of lobbying by an advocate who said changing roles in the military increases the program’s need. The Military Sexual Trauma Courage Group will begin its first 12-week course on Jan. 26 at Fort Harrison outside Helena, VA spokesman Shawn Garcia said Thursday. “The decision was simple: There’s a need,” Garcia said. “We have a significant population of women veterans in general, and there is a need for military sexual trauma support groups.” The group will help victims — generally women who were raped or assaulted while in military service — work through issues of anger, trust, self-esteem and relationship problems. Carole Kiley, an Army Veteran who served at Fort Riley, Kansas, and in Germany from 1977-1981 as a mechanic, has been pressuring the VA to re-start the program since 2013. She has spoken about it at multiple VA town halls, has met with VA managers and even started her own group when she felt she wasn’t making any headway trying to bring it back within the system. “I’m just stunned that it took two years to happen, but I’m erasing that and saying thank God the VA finally listened,” Kiley said. The need for such groups will be even greater now that the military is opening all jobs to women, including combat-related roles, she said. “Is see this as an opportunity for women, but also an opportunity for the increase of military sexual trauma,” Kiley said. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that any man or woman who meets the standards for high-risk military post should be able to serve, opening 220,000 jobs that include special operations forces. Garcia said it is unclear how many women will participate in the program. Kiley said she expects good participation through the outreach efforts of VA behavioral health specialists and physician referrals. Sexual assault can be shameful, embarrassing and hurtful, leaving women veterans to believe they’re alone and stuck in their thinking, Kiley said. Having the safety of an all-women group should encourage victims to become involved, she said. “We need to be taken care of the way our brothers in arms are taken care of by the VA,” she said.

Tampa Bay area veterans may have to wait a year for Camp Lejeune toxic water benefits (WFLA)
Marines who served at Camp Lejeune between 1953-1987 and now suffer from various forms of cancer will have to wait as long as a year before the VA completes its rulemaking process, which will give them access to benefits. That’s a big disappointment for many considering the VA’s announcement last week that it was awarding “presumptive” benefits to people who lived at the base, drank water laced with toxic chemicals, and later came down with eight maladies ranging from kidney cancer to Parkinson’s disease. “There’s just no excuse for it,” said former Marine dependent and base resident Mike Partain. “It’s gone on too long.” Partain ended up with male breast cancer eight years ago — a condition that is not covered under the newly-announced “presumptive” VA benefits. As a former dependent, Partain wouldn’t be covered even if male breast cancer was on the VA list because it only applies to former Marines. Partain says a number of veterans he knows who fall under the presumptive list of maladies can’t hold out much longer due to life-threatening conditions they’ve suffered from for years. “There are veterans who need this now,” Partain said. Partain is also troubled that bladder cancer did not make the VA list of presumptive conditions since nearly 900 former base residents have that disease and, in his view, there is a scientific link to the toxic solvents that permeated the base drinking water. Congressman David Jolly (R-Pinellas) agrees that survivors of the toxic water scandal at Camp Lejeune deserve relief. “The Lejeune issue has gone on far too long,” Jolly said. But he also expressed little optimism that the VA will speed up its rulemaking process. “Welcome to the frustrations of bureaucracy,” Jolly said. “That is the challenge we face in a large bureaucracy like the VA.” Partain has had battles with the VA for eight years on behalf of Camp Lejeune survivors. He insists his campaign is far from over. “There’s a lot of work to do. We still have to address the families and the dependents who were on the base,” Partain said. “It’s not over by any stretch of the imagination.”

Tomah VA facility underwent changes in 2015 following Marine’s death (Fox 11 News)
A Wisconsin veteran’s death in Tomah brought to light the need for change at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics across the country in 2015. The year started out in turmoil for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah. This VA facility raised more red flags for the nation’s healthcare system in place to treat those who fought for our country. It is at the Tomah facility where Marine veteran Jason Simcakoski died while in inpatient care in August of 2014. He was just 35 years old. The medical examiner ruled Jason died of mixed drug toxicity. An autopsy revealed he had 14 different prescribed drugs in his system. “Do you blame the VA for his death?” reporter Mark Leland asked Marv Simcakoski. “Yes I do. I mean obviously if they would have done things differently and not overmeded him and learned to say no,” said Simcakoski. What wasn’t widely known at the time of Simcakoski’s death is the VA inspector general’s office had concluded an investigation into alleged overprescribing of pain medication at Tomah months earlier. FOX 11 Investigates learned complaints from staff dated back to 2011. The final report on the investigation though was not made public until media reports leaked it in early 2015. FOX 11 Investigates questioned the VA’s Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson about overprescribing. “Should somebody be on that many prescriptions?” asked Leland. “I’m going to tell you I think we’re too quick to prescribe pills,” said Sloan Gibson, the VA Deputy Secretary. Scrutiny on the VA in Tomah led to a Congressional hearing in Tomah. “We are supposed to be caring for vets returning from war not creating a war they can’t survive,” testified Noelle Johnson, a former Tomah VA pharmacist. Wisconsin Senators Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson, first criticized for a slow response to whistleblower complaints at Tomah, were a part of that hearing. “We share a bipartisan commitment to get to the bottom of the problem at the Tomah VA,” said Baldwin at the hearing in Tomah. Both Senators have since pushed for more accountability and change within the VA healthcare system. Baldwin introduced the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act with the support of Jason’s family. To date the legislation has not come up for a vote. “We just hope with our son’s passing we’ll be able to help some other veterans,” said Marv Simcakoski. At the VA in Tomah, change has taken place. The doctor in charge of Simcakoski’s care and the director overseeing the facility at the time have both been fired. The medical center has also enacted new procedures to better address patient care and family concerns, while working to restore public trust in the system. VA officials and lawmakers call it a work in progress.

Homeless veteran gets apartment just in time for Christmas (ABC News)
Army veteran Tony Jones has been homeless for nearly a decade, living in a tent in a small patch of wilderness in Southeast Washington, DC. “If it wasn’t for basic training, I wouldn’t even be able to do this stuff here, because that’s how I learned how to do the trenching around the tent,” Jones told ABC News’ Jonathan Karl. Unfortunately, Jones’s situation is not unique. Veteran homelessness is a problem the President and First Lady hoped to end in 2015. “The good news is we’ve helped get thousands of homeless veterans off the streets,” President Obama said to an audience of military veterans in August 2014. “We should have zero tolerance for that.” He was echoing comments made by First Lady Michelle Obama just two months earlier. “They aren’t just going to address veteran’s homelessness in their cities and states,” the First Lady said, in announcing that 77 cities had signed on to her Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. “They’re going to end it, and they’re going to do it by the end of 2015. That is an audacious goal.” Although the number of homeless veterans has dropped dramatically since its high of more than 74,000 in 2010, figures released in November by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development show that there are still nearly 48,000 U.S. veterans living on the streets. But in cities that have taken the president’s challenge seriously, major strides have been made. Washington, DC is one such city. In August 2013 Miriam’s Kitchen, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending homelessness, counted 1,489 homeless veterans in the nation’s capital. As 2015 comes to a close, there are only about 200 homeless veterans remaining in the city. Local organizations like Miriam’s Kitchen have helped veterans apply for and receive the benefits to which they are entitled – including access to a Veteran’s Administration program that provides vouchers to pay for their rent. Emily Buzzell, a caseworker at Miriam’s Kitchen, helped Jones navigate the process of receiving a Veterans Administration voucher which will pay his rent, allowing him to finally move off the streets. Just before Christmas, Jones’s apartment was ready, and ABC News visited him on the very day he moved from a tent in the woods into an apartment. “I can’t even express in words how I feel right now. I just know I feel, I feel great,” Jones said.

New York state to reimburse groups for burying indigent veterans (NCPR)
New York state will reimburse congressionally chartered veterans organizations providing funeral and burial services for indigent military veterans. Under a measure approved by the Legislature and signed this week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the law takes effect in three months. Assemblyman Michael DenDekker, in his sponsor’s memo, says there have been cases in New York City where the casket of an indigent veteran broke apart when pallbearers moved it during cemetery burial services. The Queens Democrat says the organizations try to provide dignified and honorable burials, and state support will help them do that. He says the cost is to be determined. The House Committee on Veterans Affairs lists 46 chartered groups nationally, including the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars.