January 26 Veterans News

January 26 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateReport: Toxic exposures caused illness in Gulf War veterans (Medical Xpress)
Twenty-five years after 700,000 U.S. troops fought and won the first Gulf War with remarkably low casualties, research “clearly and consistently” shows that exposure to pesticides and other toxins caused Gulf War Illness, a complex and debilitating disorder that affects as many as 250,000 of those deployed, according to a new report led by a Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) researcher. In a special issue of the journal Cortex that coincides with the 25th anniversary of the war, Roberta White, professor of environmental health at BUSPH, and colleagues from a dozen other institutions comprehensively review studies on Gulf War Illness (GWI), especially those since 2008. They conclude that exposure to pesticides and ingestion of pyridostigmine bromide (PB) – prophylactic pills intended to protect troops against the effects of possible nerve gas—are “causally associated with GWI and the neurological dysfunction in Gulf War veterans.” The research team also cites multiple studies showing a link between veterans’ neurological problems and exposure to the nerve-gas agents sarin and cyclosarin, as well as to oil well fire emissions. These “toxic wounds” resulted in damage to veterans’ nervous systems and immune systems, including neuroendocrine and immune dysregulation, autonomic nervous system irregularities, and reduced white and gray matter in veterans’ brains, the review says. White and colleagues have been studying the health of troops deployed in the 1991 Gulf War for more than 20 years to determine why so many of them suffer from a multi-system disorder characterized by fatigue, joint and muscle pain, headaches, concentration and memory problems, gastrointestinal distress, and skin rashes. They note that effective treatments for the illness have been elusive, but that a recent treatment research effort has begun to produce promising leads. “Further research into the mechanisms and etiology of the health problems of (Gulf War) veterans is critical to developing biomarkers of exposure and illness, and preventing similar problems for military personnel in future deployments. This information is also critical for developing new treatments for GWI and related neurological dysfunction,” they write. In 2008, a Congressionally mandated panel directed by White—the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses—issued a landmark report concluding that Gulf War Illness was a “real” disorder, distinct from stress-related syndromes, and urging a robust research effort into its causes and potential cures. Gulf War veterans have complained for years that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has not taken the illness seriously. In terms of toxic exposures, the authors note, six out of seven research studies have found “significant associations between self-reported pesticide exposure and GWI.” Similarly, ingestion of PB pills dispensed by the military has been “consistently linked to ill health in GW veteran populations.” James Binns, a co-author of the report and former chairman of the Research Advisory Committee, equated the main causes of GWI to “friendly fire.” “We did it to ourselves,” Binns said. “Pesticides, PB, nerve gas released by destroying Iraqi facilities—all are cases of friendly fire. That may explain why government and military leaders have been so reluctant to acknowledge what happened, just as they tried to cover up Agent Orange after Vietnam. Certainly, the government should have been facing the problem honestly and doing research from the start to identify diagnostic tests and treatments.” In the report, the research team notes that in addition to veterans suffering from GWI, other deployed troops from the first Gulf War report a variety of neurological disorders, either in conjunction with GWI or as separate ailments. Studies have found that deployed troops suffer a higher incidence of stroke, brain cancer and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), compared to non-deployed veterans. The VA’s own study, published in 2009, found that deployed veterans were diagnosed with seizures, stroke and neuralgia at higher rates than non-deployed service members. Other studies have found excess rates of brain structure alterations and brain cancer deaths among veterans who had the greatest exposure to nerve agents or oil fire smoke. The report makes clear that psychiatric problems “have been ruled out” as a cause of Gulf War Illness, noting that Gulf War veterans have lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychiatric disorders than their counterparts who served in other wars. The research team says that a number of studies using diagnostic imaging and EEG probes have identified “structural and electrical abnormalities” in the central nervous systems of deployed troops with GWI. Fourteen of 15 papers published since 2008 support that conclusion, the report says. White and colleagues say that overall, the research to date supports the conclusion that veterans are suffering from a “persistent pathology due to chemical intoxication.” They say further research into GWI could benefit other occupational groups, such as farmers and insecticide applicators, who have similar exposures. White said she is hopeful that new research efforts will lead to effective treatments, especially as veterans age and are at increased risk of neuro-degenerative diseases. “It is critical that we develop treatments that will improve or at least stabilize these neurologic conditions,” she said.

Democratic presidential candidates discuss military, veterans (Military Times)
The three Democratic presidential frontrunners gave their final pitches to Iowa voters Monday night at a nationally televised town hall event just one week before that state’s caucuses, answering questions directly from voters on a host of domestic and foreign policy issues. The format gave each of the candidates — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — a chance to more thoroughly lay out their positions than in the four quick-response debates held so far. Here’s a look at some of the key military and veterans policy issues they discussed:

  • Clinton, on use of military power: “I think it’s imperative (as president) you do your very best … to avoid military action. It should be the last resort, not the first choice, to use diplomacy, even if it’s slow, boring, hard, to continue to persist and be patient to get results. “And that you also should use the enormous capabilities that we have to project our values around the world, our cultural values, our freedoms, our human rights, and respect for the dignity of all people… “Every situation is different. So I want to make sure I stay as close as possible to the non-intervention. That’s why I say no American ground troops in Syria or Iraq. Special Forces, trainers, yes. Planes to bomb, yes. No ground forces.”
  • Sanders, on his perceived lack of foreign policy experience: “Experience is important, but judgment is also important. … Dick Cheney, he had a lot of experience, too. His policies with regard to foreign affairs was an absolute disaster. So, experience is important, but it is not the only thing. “I would urge people to check out my views on foreign policy, how we deal with ISIS, and I think they will make a lot of sense to the people of Iowa, and the people of our country.”
  • O’Malley, on veterans employment: “My strategic goal is full employment for the veterans of ours who come home from Iraq and Afghanistan. We do a very poor job of transitioning our veterans back to civilian life. And I have found, as a governor attacking this problem, that the key is employment… “We’re a better nation than this and we need to have a transition program so that none of our veterans slip through the cracks and we need to make the first goal so that we can then get to the post-traumatic stress issues, mental health and other things.”
  • Sanders, on his ability to work with Republicans: “I am probably the most progressive member in the U.S. Senate. But, I have over the years, not only in the Senate, but in the House, worked with Republicans when there was common ground. When I was in the House, in a number of years I got more amendments passed on the floor of the House working with Republicans than anyone else… “In the Senate, just a couple of years ago, in a dysfunctional Congress I worked with people like John McCain, people like Jeff Miller over in the House, to pass the most comprehensive Veterans health care legislation in the modern history of the United States of America.”

McDonald: VA working toward single ‘data backbone’ (FierceGovernmentIT)
This year, the Veterans Affairs Department plans to develop a holistic veteran data management strategy, which will help ensure that veterans can go to any VA health facility and more easily receive care, said VA Secretary Bob McDonald in recent testimony. “By the end of the year, a veteran can go anywhere they want and we will serve them,” said McDonald during a Jan. 21 hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Dr. David Shulkin, VA’s undersecretary for health, said the goal is called “seamless care,” and while vets can currently go to a facility other than their primary location, they need the assistance of a traveling veteran coordinator to get care. All but three VA facilities currently have such a coordinator. “Our goal is to make sure that you don’t need to contact a person, that our systems recognize you as a veteran. You should be able to get care wherever you walk in to get care,” said Shulkin. VA plans to achieve this by December 31. Because the VA’s current electronic health record – the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture, or VistA – is deployed on-premises, sharing across locations has been a challenge. With the department’s forthcoming Electronic Health Management Platform, VA hopes to provide integrated records across the entire VA network. McDonald said this is part of VA’s broader vision of “One data backbone for all of VA, what’s called a consumer-response system.” It should also allow vets that go online to fill out a form to have information “Automatically populate from the data backbone,” said McDonald. During the hearing, the secretary outlined additional information technology goals for the department in 2016. For example, VA plans to implement an IT quality and compliance office and finalize congressionally mandated interoperability requirements for the sharing of VA and Defense Department health records information. McDonald added that VA Chief Information Officer LaVerne Council has a goal of ensuring 15 percent of IT projects are on time and on budget, and will close “100 percent of current cybersecurity weaknesses.”

Another report of misconduct investigated at Tomah VA center (Fox 11)
Authorities at the troubled VA Medical Center in Tomah are investigating another report of misconduct. Acting director Victoria Brahm has emailed employees reminding them about the VA’s sexual harassment policies after a hospital employee reported being the victim of inappropriate contact by another worker. The La Crosse Tribune reports Brahm told employees that reassignments have been made. Last week, a mental health worker at the center was charged with sexual exploitation by a therapist. He’s accused of sexually harassing two female patients and exposing himself. The facility in west-central Wisconsin has been under scrutiny following reports that physicians were prescribing more painkillers than most VA hospitals, and that employees who spoke out were subjected to intimidation.

‘Big Four’ vet service organizations working together in Indiana (The Paper)
The four largest veteran service organizations in Indiana have joined together as a unified voice for veteran specific legislation during this 2016 session in the Indiana General Assembly. Leaders of the Indiana Departments of The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and American Veterans have aligned their legislative priorities in an agreement to strategically support a number of veteran specific bills introduced this session. The combined organization’s group, known to many in the veteran community as the “Big Four,” is scheduled to hold a press conference at 10 a.m. at the Indiana State House South Atrium Friday. The Big Four would like to address the media on legislative concerns for veterans in the state and explain why the groups have joined forces to back crucial legislation for Hoosier veterans. Some of the priority legislation the Big Four are working together to pass during the 2016 session of the Indiana General Assembly are; Veterans’ Recovery Program, which establishes programs and funding for troops with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries; Military Family Relief Fund, which expands the availability of access to the fund from active service members to honorably discharged veterans and their families, and; Unclaimed Remains of Veterans, which gives unclaimed veterans honorable burials. The Indiana American Legion Cmdr. Larry Lowry said the state ranks low overall in the nation when it comes to veterans’ benefits and services and needs to move toward a higher standard for veterans. … The Indiana VFW Cmdr. William “Buzz” Weberding said benefits that concern veterans in the state need to be protected. … Indiana DAV Cmdr. Terry Sanders said despite the large number of veterans in Indiana, the state hasn’t moved in favor of benefits for veterans. … Indiana AMVETS Cmdr. Jackie Randolph, expressed the need for the organizations to join together in the legislative fight and his organization’s concern for Indiana veterans. “Indiana is a patriotic state; we raise our men and women to want to serve. We need our elected officials to honor that service and pass meaningful legislation to get Indiana off the bottom of the pile.”

For older veterans struggling in college, the key to graduation is relationships (NCPR)
Going back to school is challenging for veterans. The majority who enroll in two- or four-year colleges across the nation don’t complete their degree. Jefferson Community College in Watertown and SUNY Canton will be awarded over a million dollars this year to help more veterans graduate. School administrators say individual attention is key. Picture this: You’re a student, dressed in say, jeans and a T-shirt. You walk into a classroom and its filled with men and women in Army uniforms. Today’s lesson is military operations. “You sit down in there and tell me how you would do, how many questions you’d ask,” Robert Harding asked. This is the type of scenario Harding at JCC said veterans experience when they go back to school, except in reverse. They’re the odd man out. Harding said its not that veterans can’t do the work, its just that they’re out of their comfort zone. “I may be 44 years old with a wife and three kids and I just commanded 600. Now I left that. I’m with 19-, 20-, 21-year-old people and I can’t remember why A + B = C,” Harding said. The majority of the 400 veterans enrolled at JCC are older students who haven’t written an essay or done math for almost 20 years. Most drop out after  a few months. Harding said money from the SUNY system will help create remedial English and math classes specifically for veterans. The school will also hire more tutors to work one-on-one with students. Rebecca Smalls Kellogg, director of JCC’s Learning and Success Center said its all about building relationships to figure out why some veterans are struggling. “What we’re trying with this program is to have these tutors have the opportunity to ask those types of questions,” she said. Kellogg said the grant will establish a connection between JCC and SUNY Canton so students interested in earning a bachelors degree later can transition to Canton easily. Kellogg thinks we owe our veterans the chance at an education. “If they need more time transitioning into an environment they haven’t lived in, I think we ought to give them more than what I can give them right now,” she said.

Proposed pilot program would help vets with PTSD train own service dogs (CBS Denver)
A Colorado state lawmaker is hoping to launch a first-of-its-kind pilot program to help veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) train their own service dogs. “These veterans that have these dogs have told me the dog has saved their lives many times; kept them from committing suicide,” said Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-El Paso County. Among those supporting the bill is Navy veteran Jeremy Turrell. He trained his 7-year-old golden retriever to be his service dog. “I originally got him just as a pet when I got out of the service. He was actually supposed to help me get a girlfriend. He failed, but he fulfilled the bill as my best friend even better,” Turrell said. While his dog’s name is Chaos, Turrell, who returned from combat with PTSD, says he is a calming force. “My life in general, he’s what’s kept me going because if I’m not going to change my life for me, then I’ll at least do it for him,” Turrell said. “The best thing he does is come to your aid. He’s there for you to love on him so he can love on you.” Landgraf plans to introduce a bill that would establish a pilot program for 10 veterans to access and train service dogs to help with their PTSD. “My only regret is only reaching out to 10 veterans, but it’s a start and then hopefully they will be able to turn around and do the same thing for other veterans and the program will be self-sustaining and it can branch out to police and fire,” Landgraf said. She says mental health professionals, veterinarians and dog trainers have already volunteered to help with the program. She’s hoping to get the dogs — partially trained — from the prison system. The Veterans Administration says 22 veterans a day commit suicide nationwide. Colorado has the fifth highest suicide rate in the country and El Paso County, where many veterans live, has the highest rate in the state. “If we can save the lives of 10 veterans; help veterans have productive, normal lives; what’s better than that?” said Landgraf. Her bill has bipartisan support. The lawmaker is working on other veterans issues too. She held the first veterans’ caucus at the state Capitol Monday. “I’m hoping to figure out what kind of legislation that’s needed; what will help veterans the most.”

2 sentenced for defrauding Memphis VA of $1.1 million (Stars and Stripes)
Federal prosecutors say two men have been sentenced to prison for defrauding the Memphis VA Medical Center of more than $1 million. The U.S. attorney’s office said Monday that Andre Reddix and Ronnie White pleaded guilty to fraud conspiracy in September. White received two years and six months in prison on Dec. 11. Reddix received the same sentence Thursday. The men were each ordered to pay back more than $1.1 million. Prosecutors said Reddix was a VA employee whose duties included using a company credit card to buy supplies. In August 2007, Reddix created false purchase orders for White’s company, White Pharmaceuticals, while White made fake invoices matching the purchase orders. Reddix used the credit card to pay White, and the men split payments from more than 300 fraudulent transactions.

New Eugene, Oregon, VA healthcare center opens (KEZI)
An exciting day for veterans in the Willamette Valley, as the new Veterans Affairs Healthcare Center in Eugene officially opened its doors. It was standing room only at the grand opening ceremony for the VA Healthcare Center Monday morning. A huge crowd came out to get a first look inside the new facility. VA staff and local leaders, along with veterans’ groups, marked the occasion with a short ceremony and an open house. After, staff lead tours of the new facility. Veterans and city officials we spoke with say this facility will be a big benefit to the veteran’s in Lane County. The new 120,000-square-foot facility provides primary care, mental health, women’s health, audiology, optometry, radiology, and will have an onsite dispensing pharmacy. The VA says for all future scheduled appointments, report to the new VA Healthcare Center.