Veterans say trained dogs help with PTSD, but VA won’t pay (NPR)
At a warehouse near Dallas, a black Lab named Papi tugs on a rope to open a fridge and passes his trainer a plastic water bottle with his mouth. Service dogs are often trained to help veterans with physical disabilities. Now, a growing number are being trained to meet the demand from vets with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues. Those dogs learn extra tricks — how to sweep a house for intruders, for example, so a veteran feels safe. “We teach them something called perimeter, where they go into the house and they check, they just touch all the doors and all the windows,” says Cheryl Woolnough, training director at Patriot PAWS, a nonprofit in Rockwall, Texas, that provides service dogs. These dogs also learn how to create personal space for a veteran by stepping in front or behind the owner to block people from approaching. Most veterans who apply for a service dog have PTSD, often on top of physical disabilities, according to Terri Stringer, assistant executive director of Patriot PAWS. “We have 100 veterans on our list waiting for dogs, so we have to get more dogs,” Stringer says. So far, though, the Department of Veterans Affairs won’t help pay for service dogs for PTSD, citing a lack of scientific evidence. But it’s launching a study to find out what effect specially trained service dogs can have on the lives of veterans with PTSD. Vets with PTSD who already rely on service dogs say the research should have been done years ago. The training process for these service dogs is complex. … It takes more than two years and costs about $30,000 per dog. The few veterans lucky enough to make it to the top of the list each year get dogs at no charge. Jay Springstead, who lives outside Dallas, still has nightmares from combat in Vietnam 40 years ago. “A service dog for post-traumatic stress can actually help you get out into the public and regain some of that independence that you’ve lost,” he says. Springstead started volunteering at Patriot PAWS after his youngest son took his own life. “Both my sons were Iraqi combat veterans; my youngest one had severe post-traumatic stress,” he says. “So I’m familiar with the symptoms and I also know how important dogs are to anyone’s recovery.” Springstead and many others are frustrated that the VA is not providing financial assistance to veterans who use service dogs to cope with PTSD. It’s a complaint Patricia Dorn, director of the VA’s Rehabilitation Research and Development Service in Washington, D.C., has heard repeatedly. She says that while there is plenty of scientific evidence of the benefits of service dogs for people with physical disabilities, there’s little in the area of mental health. “We understand, veterans are not happy with the agency in that we’re not just providing this benefit,” Dorn says. “But for an agency with [over] 150 hospitals and millions of veterans we serve, we need to have the evidence base to make a determination.” That’s why the VA is conducting a randomized controlled trial on service dogs with 200 veterans with PTSD from Atlanta; Iowa City, Iowa; and Portland, Ore. Dorn says researchers will assess veterans’ quality of life over a three-year period. This isn’t the first time the VA has tried to study service dogs and PTSD. An earlier effort was halted in 2011 after two service dogs bit children in veterans’ homes. The current study, Dorn says, has stricter standards for dog training and a more rigorous study design. In the meantime, Springstead says veterans sometimes get tricked into buying dogs that aren’t properly trained. Patriot PAWS is one of a few dozen organizations in the country accredited through Assistance Dogs International, but there’s no standardized training specific to mental health.
Commentary: Historic achievement for veterans in the fight against hepatitis C (The Hill)
Thomas J. Berger, Ph.D., executive director of Veterans Health Council at Vietnam Veterans of America: Congress made headlines last month by approving a funding measure to avert the looming government shutdown. But the measure doesn’t just keep federal agencies funded until next fall. Buried within the 2000-plus page bill is a truly historic development for veterans battling the nation’s deadliest blood-borne disease. Veterans, especially those of my era who served in and around Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, experience hepatitis C infection rates that are twice as high as our civilian counterparts. Yet previously, too many people who tested positive for hepatitis C preferred to forego treatment and risk cirrhosis, hepatic cancer, liver damage, and/or organ failure, rather than undergo the harsh and largely ineffective regimen of chemotherapy required to attempt to rid their bodies of the virus. Fortunately, an unprecedented advancement in the treatment of hepatitis C has brought new hope to those living with this potentially fatal virus. Less than two years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved several new treatments with cure rates of up to 98 percent, and few – if any – side effects. Recognizing this historic opportunity to treat the more than 180,000 veterans infected with the virus, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) rushed to begin providing these new treatments to its patients. However, given that the VA’s medical services budget is appropriated by Congress a year in advance, the extra funding required to handle the influx of new hepatitis C patients in 2015 could not have been anticipated years prior. Acting laudably in response, Congress quickly provided the VA with emergency resources, which the agency used to begin an aggressive awareness campaign among veterans of their risk for the disease, and making cures available to those in greatest need. The appropriations cycle that just concluded with the approved omnibus bill in mid-December was the first time that the VA could attempt to project a budget for hepatitis C medications for veterans – and the Department was conservative in requesting $1.3 billion for the next two fiscal years. Thankfully, however, the VA’s authorizers and appropriators on Capitol Hill had the fortitude to recognize the need for a much more substantial investment in hepatitis C treatments for veterans and the enormous long-term savings to the taxpayer – and to veterans’ health – from laying out that investment up front. The final version of the omnibus bill included $3 billion in funding for treating veterans with hepatitis C over the next two years, and for that we applaud and thank members of the Veterans Affairs and Appropriations Committees. This is a critical first step towards addressing the hepatitis C epidemic among veterans, and we are hopeful this level of commitment can continue until we can eradicate this deadly virus. It’s not often that we achieve biomedical breakthroughs with which to fight back against major public health threats. We are grateful that Congress has come together across party lines to capitalize on this opportunity to adequately address the devastating impact of hepatitis C on our veterans.
Colorado veterans angry over quality of care they’re receiving through the government (Western Slope Now)
Veterans across the Western Slope have been experiencing delayed care under the federally enforced Veterans Choice Program, putting their health at risk. The Grand Junction Branch of the VA Medical Center currently helps about 15,000 veterans, several being on The Veterans Choice Program that was implemented by the federal government a year ago. In order to qualify for the program, a veteran would need to live more than 40 miles away, and/or have been waiting for an appointment for more than 30 days. Attached to the program, was supposed to be quick service for any veteran needing specialty care, but many of our war heroes have seen the complete opposite. “So I’m just sitting and waiting and waiting and buying my time. I see a problem with it, and they need to let the VA start treating their patients again,” said Chuck Coyle, a retired Vietnam war Veteran. Coyle said he called the program the first half of December and was told they would get a hold of him within a day. It’s the beginning of January, and he still hasn’t received a call. The program was supposed to allow for VA Medical institutions to contract with local hospitals so veterans could receive their needed care, but officials with the VA said they’re struggling with that. “The providers aren’t being reimbursed in a timely manner in their contract in all cases,” said Director of the Grand Junction VA Medical Center Marc Magill. He added hospitals giving veterans services should be getting their total cost back within 30 days, instead most have been waiting months. This has lead to complications for the VA when it comes to finding facilities to contract with, leaving them to have to send their patients farther away or have them wait for months. “We would like a long term relationship with our community providers and we’ll work to make sure that can happen,” said Magill. Magill added he’s had to hire three new positions since the program was enforced costing them a total of $150,000, to help alleviate the stress of local veterans. He also advised, any veteran seeing long wait times, or no calls back and are supposed to be receiving care under the program, to contact the local VA Medical Center.
Navy wants smartphone app to diagnose PTSD, TBI (Defense Tech)
Officials with the Office of Naval Research are supporting the development of a smartphone application that may help to screen for autism in children — and, down the road, may identify symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury in war veterans. The technology in play is an algorithm that maps landmarks on faces and assesses emotional responses based on facial movements, officials said in a news release. “We analyze the video to track position and movement of the head and face, including the lips, eyes and nose–all of which indicate emotions,” said the algorithm’s developer, Duke University professor Dr. Guillermo Sapiro, in the release. “For example, while watching stimuli like a funny video, does the child smile, look toward the caregiver or ask the caregiver to view the video as well? We study all of that. Lack of emotion and social sharing are possible characteristics of childhood autism.” While the technology is still being developed, Sapiro says he hopes to make a version of the app tailored to read facial expressions indicating the presence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and depression. The release notes that those with PTSD or depression may smile often, but those smiles are short and appear forced. “We hope to find the right partner and develop a research app studying PTSD,” Sapiro said. “We’ve already received interest from a nearby Veterans Affairs center about using this technology in veterans’ homes to monitor behavior for signs of depression.” For now, the app, called “Autism and Beyond” is available from the Apple app story. Duke University is seeking families to participate in a six-month medical research study to test the effectiveness of the app and the algorithm.
Group helping homeless veterans asked to vacate land (Tucson News Now)
Ten days after the group Veterans on Patrol set up a camp in Sierra Vista, police showed up and told them they had two weeks to vacate the premises. This is the third camp the group has set up in Arizona. The group has faced resistance in Phoenix and Tucson as well, but they were not prepared for this encounter. The group of volunteers is dedicated to finding homeless veterans who have slipped through the cracks, and face chronic homelessness. Many of them are not even enrolled in the Veterans Administration program to get benefits. Volunteers provide them with food, shelter, clothing as well as help them sign up for these benefits. In some cases, they have been able to help homeless veterans find housing through government programs as well. Lewis Arthur, the founder of Veterans on Patrol, said winning the trust of these veterans was the biggest challenge they have faced. They use other homeless veterans as scouts, and they take their time to show the homeless veterans that there are no strings attached to get help. “Sometimes it’s taken me a month and half just to win the trust of one veteran,” Arthur said. The group operates with the help of volunteers and support from the community. … In the last 10 days, Arthur said they found 14 veterans camped out in the desert. Most of them were Vietnam war veterans. Arthur said they have been trying to fill in the gaps that government agencies and other non-profit groups are failing at, which is getting help to the most vulnerable veterans in the community. … The group had been anticipating a meeting with the Mayor and Chief of Police in Sierra Vista, but they were caught off guard when several police officers showed up at their camp on Monday morning. … The group was then told to vacate the property within two weeks. “I told them they’re not going to shut me down,” Arthur said. A group of volunteers rounded up signs and flags, marched to city hall and demanded a meeting with Mayor Rick Mueller. Mueller, who is a veteran himself, and serves on the veteran’s council, agreed to meet with the group, and seemed to like what they were doing, according to Arthur. “He said he would be writing a letter to the state to request more time for us,” Arthur said. He added support from the Sierra Vista community has been overwhelming. Donations are pouring into the camp, day and night. They actually had to ask the community to stop bringing in donations, all they needed was firewood.
Army veteran’s dogs stolen from backyard (WFLA)
A registered U.S. service dog and its puppy have been stolen from a Virginia veteran battling post-traumatic stress disorder. The theft happened overnight on New Year’s. “I went to visit a friend of mine for New Year’s,” said Marcus Taylor. “I left right before midnight and when I got back in the morning my dogs were gone.” Three-year-old Kaycee and her 6-month-old puppy, Lei, were nowhere to be found. Taylor says someone broke into his fenced-in back yard and stole them. “My fence closes, latches, I even use a chair to barricade it,” he said. “They had to come through that gate, go to my kennel, and I had a ten-gage master lock. Somebody had to cut through that in order to get back there into my dog kennel.” Taylor served ten years in the military, retiring in 2013 with an injury. Now battling post-traumatic stress disorder, he said Kaycee, a bulldog-pitbull mix, is his closest companion. “Not being able to sleep at night, having nightmares and all, I always had my dog right there. She goes to the grocery store and everything,” said Taylor. “She’s all I’ve got.” A longtime friend described watching Taylor and Kaycee together. “Kaycee is always with Marcus,” said Desiree Smith. “He can get real sad sometimes, and the dog brings him a lot of joy. When he’s around that dog it’s like he’s a kid again.” Now Taylor is asking whoever took Kaycee and Lei to bring the dogs back to him. “My dog Kaycee, most people just see her as just a dog,” he said. “But it’s a lot more. When you’re away from your family that’s all you got, protection, your best friend, it’s irreplaceable, that’s my child.” If you have information about this incident you are encouraged to call Henrico County Crime Stoppers at 804-780-1000.
Property tax relief available for Tennessee disabled veterans (WATE.com)
There’s a unique tax benefit for disabled vets in Tennessee, but not everyone knows about it. Some years ago, the Tennessee legislature approved a property tax relief program for veterans who are rated by the VA as permanently and totally disabled. Ron Golden, 71, a former Army infantryman who volunteered for service in 1963, is a disabled vet and has been for 50 years. In 1965, then PFC Golden with the 1st Armored Division, was severely injured during a training accident while on maneuvers in preparation for deployment to Vietnam. … “I was paralyzed on the left side due to the brain injury, brain trauma,” he said. His Army record shows that he was medically discharged. … Golden owns a home in Clinton where he lives on a modest disability check from that injury half a century ago. Financially, things are tight for Golden. The little work he was able to do ended several years ago because of that injury in the military. He received a letter in 2009 from the Department of the Army’s Compensation branch. “It says I have dementia due to head trauma. I am 100 percent disabled. It doesn’t specifically say that I am permanently and totally disabled,” said Golden. Living alone and keeping up his property becomes financially harder every year. Recently he heard about a property tax relief program for disabled vets and contacted the Veterans Administration. “I’ve been trying for a good while to get it which I’ve been having a lot of difficulty,” he said. It turns out Golden should not have been calling the VA. Some people in Washington, D.C. aren’t aware of what’s available in Tennessee, specifically at the county courthouse or other locations where you can find a veteran’s service office. Service officer Leon Jaquet works for the state. He handed Golden a pamphlet that explains the relief program. “If our veterans are 100 percent, permanent and total service connected through the VA, they can qualify for the program,” said Jaquet. County trustee’s offices administer the property tax relief program for disabled veterans. After receiving confirmation from the VA that he’s permanently and totally disabled, Golden filled out papers just before Christmas. Anderson County Trustee Rodney Archer says the program gives eligible veterans a credit towards their property tax. He says there are a number requirements disabled vets must meet to be eligible. “One hundred percent permanently and totally disabled as defined by the Veterans Administration. Then there is an income criteria. It’s household income, not just the veteran’s income. That household income cap this year is $60,000. Then you must own and live on the property,” said Archer. Golden believes there are likely other vets like himself who might not be aware of the tax relief program. The key here is to have the proper paperwork from the Veterans Administration.
U.S. Small Business Administration offers help to veterans (Star Tribune)
The U.S. Small Business Administration has resources available for veterans who want to start their own businesses or for small businesses that may have been affected by employees who have been deployed. The numbers are substantial, according to the SBA: Nearly one in 10 small businesses in this country are veteran-owned; veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than nonveterans; and businesses owned by female vets have increased 297 percent from 2007 to 2012. The SBA’s website has collected a list of programs that can offer help, especially in navigating the complexities of returning home for members of the Guard or Reserve after being deployed. It has information on starting a business, financing, mentoring and training and selling to the government. It can be found on the website www.sba.gov/content/veteran-service-disabled-veteran-owned. One example of a resource is the Military Economic Injury Loan, which provides funds to eligible small businesses to meet operating expenses when an essential employee is called to active duty. The filing period for businesses to apply begins on the date the essential employee is ordered to active duty and ends one year after the essential employee is discharged or released from active duty. Another aspect to consider are laws that make federal contracting more attractive to veterans, particularly those with a service-connected disability. The Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act of 1999 established an annual governmentwide goal of awarding at least 3 percent of all federal contracts to small businesses owned or controlled by service-disabled veterans. There’s also Boots to Business, a two-step entrepreneurship training program open to service members and their spouses. The two-day course introduces participants to the opportunities and challenges of business ownership. An eight-week online course allows participants to work through the fundamentals of developing a workable business plan.
Wounded veterans receive ski, snowboard lessons through nonprofit organization (Fox13)
A veteran nonprofit organization is giving wounded veterans an opportunity to enjoy winter sports in a way some thought they didn’t think was possible. The Semper FI Fund is providing injured military service members lessons on how to ski, snowboard and other sporting activities throughout the year. “They (Semper Fi) make guys who are in wheelchairs or are amputees — there’s no difference between any of us,” said Sgt. Evan Stratton, wounded veteran who served in the Marine Corps. “They provide an environment that just makes guys feel normal.” On Monday, more than 80 veterans hit the slopes at Park City Mountain Resort for ski and snowboard camps. The nonprofit is providing world-class coaches to teach the veterans how to ski based on their type of injury, which includes using a mono-ski. Coaches include 2014 Sochi Olympic Games Paralympic medalist Keith Gabel. Stratton said the organization helps veterans learn a new sport or is getting them back into a sport they originally did and adapting to their needs. However, veterans say, they gain more than just new skills on the snow. They also gain lifelong friendships with other veterans learning with them who’ve struggled like them.