February 5 Veterans News

February 5 Veterans News

VetsHQ News UpdateVets and contractors believed to be sickened by war time burn pits (KOAA)
A News5 investigation into so-called burn pits looks into how toxic fumes our service members and civilian contractors were exposed to in war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq on a daily basis are now believed to be causing serious health problems. As thousands of veterans came home from war, doctors started noticing a common health problem, they reported having a cough and/or trouble breathing. Some cases developed into rare lung diseases, and few even ended in death.  But just as more vets and civilians are being diagnosed as having respiratory problems, Congress cut funding for more research on burn pit exposures for 2016. The burn pits were used to destroy all types of waste during wars in the Middle East, burning everything from trash and food waste, to vehicle parts, ammunition, tires, batteries, medical waste, animal carcasses, chemicals, plastic and in some cases even body parts. The Department of Veterans Affairs said one of the challenges in understanding the risks of burn pits is that each one could contain varying kinds of waste and that could differ on a day-to-day basis. “We have no idea what these veterans were exposed to day to day,” said Daniel Warvi, Public Affairs Officer, VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System. Veronica Landry, who was a contractor in Iraq roughly 10 years ago, worked for the company that was contracted to run many of the Department of Defense’s burn pits, KBR. She said the burn pits were close to living quarters and exercise areas, and sometimes they were instructed to take cover in bunkers because ammunition would ignite and explode in the burn pit. … There are believed to have been dozens of burn pits in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Qatar and a few other locations. Army veteran Richard Vanhorn said after three tours stretching all over the Middle East, he was exposed to many burn pits and likely toxic fumes. He started noticing trouble before he was even out of the Army. “I just felt myself get more out of breath, I would struggle a lot more,” said Vanhorn. At 29 years old, Vanhorn was diagnosed with Deployment Related Lung Disease and emphysema. … Vanhorn is now part of several studies at National Jewish Health in Denver, as experts there try to pinpoint exactly what’s plaguing service members’ lungs. Landry, who recently had a lung biopsy done, is also seeking treatment at National Jewish Health. She was recently diagnosed with a debilitating disorder called Bronchiolitis. … Veronica was healthy, a cyclist and never smoked. Now in her early 40’s, she has an oxygen tank at home. … In 2011, Dr. Cecile Rose at National Jewish Health teamed up with other researchers to begin trying to understand why vets and contractors were suffering these seemingly mysterious and debilitating respiratory disorders. They received a $500,000 grant from the Department of Defense that same year to begin their work. … After a directive from Congress in 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs started a Burn Pit Registry, which went online in 2014. Since then, more than 27,000 vets report being exposed to burn pits and of those, 30 percent said they’ve been diagnosed with respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. … National Jewish Health in Denver is proving to be the top place in the country to receive treatment and conduct research. Dr. Rose said she’s already seen well over 100 patients and her team expects those numbers will grow immensely in the next few years as word gets out about these lung disorders linked to deployment. … She said she and her team are anxious to work with the Department of Defense on prevention, the most obvious answer would be to have incinerators and stricter guidelines.  She’s also studying the effects of dust exposure and other airborne hazards service members were breathing in while deployed. While research into burn pit exposure is relatively new, really ramping up two years ago, it also suffered a major blow this year.  Congress failed to fund peer reviewed medical research of burn pits for the upcoming year, leaving it off of the Congressional Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP) for 2016. … Dr. Rose said with or without inclusion on the CDMRP, the research will continue at National Jewish Health with the VA and with private money.

Learn more about Burn Pit exposure.

VA: Incorrect wait times recorded at Colorado Springs clinic (Military.com)
Workers at a Colorado Springs VA clinic incorrectly reported that some veterans got appointments sooner than they actually did, while at least 288 veterans had to wait longer than the government’s 30-day target, federal investigators said Thursday. The investigators didn’t say whether the records were deliberately falsified to make the clinic’s performance look better than it was. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General reviewed 450 appointments over a one-year span and found that in 59 cases, clinic employees reported veterans got appointments within 30 days even though it took longer — in one case, 77 days. Investigators also found that 288 veterans, or 64 percent of the cases they checked, had to wait longer than the VA’s target of 30 days. The average wait among the 288 late appointments was 66 or 68 days, depending on the type of care the veteran was seeking. The VA said it removed a management-level employee and reorganized scheduling staff to address the problems. But in a written response included with the investigative report, Cory Ramsey, the VA’s interim regional director, said the investigation had retroactively applied some standards in finding fault with the clinic. The VA has been struggling nationwide to shorten the time veterans have to wait for appointments, and some employees have been accused of falsifying documents to cover up the problem. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, whose district includes the clinic, said he had been assured almost two years ago by VA officials that no records had been falsified in Colorado. “We have been deceived,” he said Thursday. Lamborn said he would call for a congressional hearing into the new report. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, said veterans deserve better. “It is intolerable that investigations continue to uncover these unacceptable practices at the VA,” he said. “It’s clear from this report that we must continue to demand accountability at the VA and that strong oversight is still essential.” The Inspector General’s Office said it looked into the Pfc. Floyd K. Lindstrom Outpatient Clinic in Colorado Springs starting in February 2015 after a veteran complained about service there. Investigators reviewed 150 appointments for five kinds of specialty care and 300 appointments for primary care from October 2014 through September 2015. The 150 specialty care appointments were randomly selected from more than 7,400 appointments in the one-year period, the report said. The report didn’t say how many primary-care appointments the clinic handled in that time or how the 300 were chosen for review. Under federal law, veterans who can’t get appointments within 30 days are supposed to be placed on the Veterans Choice List, allowing them to get care elsewhere. The report found that among the 288 late appointments the investigators reviewed, 188 veterans were placed on the list later than they should have been, and 100 were never added. The Colorado Springs clinic has a history of long wait times. In a six-month period from September 2014 to February 2015, more than 10 percent of the clinic’s appointments took more than 30 days to schedule, the highest rate in the state and the 12th-worst among 940 VA clinics and hospitals nationwide. “I’ve heard nothing but horror stories on the appointments system,” said Kenneth Thibodeau of Colorado Springs, a Vietnam-era veteran who gets VA treatment for diabetes, blindness and an amputated leg. Thibodeau, 69, said he’s been waiting nearly six months for an appointment for a new prosthetic leg to replace the ill-fitting one he has now. The VA said the clinic’s patient numbers increased by more than 13 percent between 2014 and 2015, among the fastest growth rates of any veteran’s facility in the country.

Pilot study shows meditation can help US veterans manage chronic pain (EurekAlert)
They return to the United States with multiple types of trauma, and suffer from one of the highest rates of chronic pain of any population in the United States. They are U.S. veterans. A major challenge for health care providers is how to help them alleviate pain that will last a lifetime. Now, a new study suggests veterans may be empowered to help themselves with the practice of meditation. A small pilot study conducted at the Washington, D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center reveals that veterans who practiced meditation reported a 20 percent reduction in pain intensity (how bad pain hurts or feels), as well as pain interference, how pain interferes with everyday aspects of life, such as sleep, mood, and activity level. The reductions were consistent across several methods by which doctors commonly measure pain in patients. “Meditation allows a person to accept pain and to respond to pain with less stress and emotional reactivity. Our theory is that this process increases coping skills, which in turn can help veterans to self-manage their chronic pain,” said Thomas Nassif, Ph.D., a professorial lecturer in American University’s Department of Health Studies, researcher at the D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and lead author of the new study published in Military Behavioral Health. Pain is a significant health issue among the approximately 2.6 million service members who have served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq since these conflicts began in 2001, according to the Veterans Health Administration. Musculoskeletal pain conditions are the most frequently diagnosed medical issue, exceeding any other medical and psychological concern. Chronic pain is also found in most combat veterans who sustained a traumatic brain injury. The form of mindfulness meditation administered in the study, Integrative Restoration Yoga Nidra, or iRest, is used at Veterans Health Administration medical centers and active-duty military facilities nationwide. The Army surgeon general’s Pain Management Task Force has cited iRest as a Tier I intervention for managing pain in military and veteran populations. The pilot study consisted of four male veterans who received iRest meditation treatment, and five who did not. All study participants served in combat and returned to the U.S. with chronic pain and moderate TBI. The study participants attended meditation sessions twice weekly at the D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center and were given iRest recordings to engage in self-practice as well. By the end of eight weeks, the study participants had acquired useful mindfulness skills that empowered them to use meditation as a tool to help manage their pain, Nassif said. “In many cases, primary care physicians are the ones expected to help individuals overcome their chronic pain,” Nassif said. “One of the most commonly used tools we have in our toolbox is opioids. Veterans in this study, and many who come to meditation sessions, find that opioid medication is a short-term solution. Meditation could be a useful tool to help veterans manage their pain over the long term.”The study calls on health care providers to promote self-management in patients by disseminating strategies and techniques to help patients prevent, cope with, and reduce pain, and concludes that iRest represents one promising self-management approach. More research should be conducted, Nassif said, and future studies should include quantitative measures and a greater number of participants.

Senators introduces bipartisan legislation to reduce VA backlog (Nevada Appeal)
Four U.S. senators including Den Heller, R-Nev., introduced this week bipartisan legislation to establish a new, voluntary five-year pilot program to help reduce the large backlog of appeals made by veterans to the Veterans Benefits Administration. “As co-chair of the Senate VA Backlog Working Group, ensuring Nevada and our nation’s veterans receive a decision on their disability claims in an accurate and timely manner has been a top priority for me in the Senate and on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee,” Heller said. “The story is no different when a veteran appeals their claim decision. These heroes feel the VA has made a mistake and may not be penalized by having to wait two or more years for an appeal to be complete. ‘ Heller said the bill, The Express Appeal Act, gives veterans more choice and flexibility to expedite their appeal while also preserving their rights. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said while the VA is making progress on reducing the overall disability claims backlog, veterans who file an appeal are too often waiting years to get a final determination by the VA. “By cutting bureaucratic red tape, this legislation provides veterans the option of having their disputes with the VA determined in a much more timely manner that reflects our commitment to them and their families,” Tester said. “This is a common-sense bipartisan bill that will save the VA millions.” With over 400,000 appeals sitting in a growing backlog, Garry Augustine, Disabled American Veteran Washington Headquarters executive director, said it is imperative to move forward with commonsense reform proposals like the FDA, which have broad support in Congress, the VA, the Board of Veterans Appeals and the veterans community.

Still up in the air, Taos County’s veteran cemetery plan is ambitious (Santa Fe New Mexican)
The Taos Veterans Cemetery has neither been built nor fully funded, but sagebrush has been cleared and plans drawn up. That headway is an essential part of a strategy to clinch the state support and federal funding needed to bring the project to fruition. The county began working in earnest in 2014 on its plan to build a local veterans cemetery. After securing roughly $200,000 from the Legislature, the county commissioned artistic renderings and master plans. Officials already have priced fencing for the perimeter of the property, and local volunteers cleared the land last fall. All that effort “shows a big commitment from Taos County,” said Richard Sanchez, the county’s facilities director. And that’s essential as local officials are looking to garner the favor of Gov. Susana Martinez and the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services to get support to fund the expensive undertaking. Martinez created a formal, state-level veterans cemetery program under the state department in 2013 — igniting a thrust of momentum to build small cemeteries throughout New Mexico. According to Tom Wagner, director of the cemetery program, New Mexico was one of only five states that didn’t have its own veterans cemeteries. That New Mexico — the fifth-largest state in square miles — didn’t have state-level cemeteries meant veterans only had two national cemeteries to choose from. According to Wagner, only 40 percent of New Mexico veterans are buried in actual veterans cemeteries. To boot, the distance to those cemeteries from many corners of New Mexico is onerous, if not agonizingly long, for a drive. Martinez’s plan called for the construction of four veterans cemeteries over the course of five years. After touring 10 sites, including Taos, the Martinez administration chose Fort Stanton, Gallup, Carlsbad and Angel Fire. … Building a brand-new, 20-acre cemetery from scratch is expensive. Estimates have put Taos’ cemetery at roughly $4.6 million. But according to Wagner, even a 3- to 5-acre cemetery might cost up to $6 million to design and build.

Small veterans group concerned they may get shut down (KAKE)
A small non-profit group helping servicemen and women in Kansas fears they may be shut down. Tom Tavtigian returned home a broken man after being wounded in combat. He founded the group Wounded Warriors United as a way to help veterans like himself who were struggling. … Wounded Warriors United focuses on taking veterans on hunting and fishing trips. Tavtigian hopes to expand. Tavtigian knows the name he chose ‘Wounded Warriors United’ shares wording with the Wounded Warrior Project but differences between the groups are stark. In corporate documents filed in 2014 the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) made more than $400 million. A big difference from Tavtigians small group based in Manhattan. … Tavtigian is concerned that Wounded Warrior Project could come after him for using the term ‘wounded warriors.” because they have done it before. A search of federal court records show the Wounded Warrior Project has sued three non-profits for trademark infringement in the past. In one complaint WWP noted that “defendant’s infringement of WWP’s trademark rights has caused defendant monetary harm.” It is wording like this from such a large non-profit that concerns Tavtigian. “I don’t understand how and organization that makes $300-400 million a year can say if a group that makes less than $100,000 a year that that’s really hurting them; that that is hurting their organization, I just don’t see it,” says Tavtigian. The Wounded Warrior Project has been the subject of controversy online, most notably in The Daily Beast, for how they choose to spend their donations. … WWP does not make money solely from donations or investments. According to tax filings they have made more than 3 million dollars since 2009 by renting their mailing list. WWP may be bringing in money and spending it, but concerns about brand and longevity lace their court documents. This why Tavtigian is worried. I reached out to WWP to see if Tavtigian’s Wounded Warriors United has anything to worry about and they gave me this statement: “We have had no contact with Wounded Warriors United, its founder, or its members, and have no reason to believe they are misleading the public to imply an affiliation with WWP. While we are not affiliated with Wounded Warriors United, WWP frequently collaborates with well-run, well-meaning charities, many of which are small, grassroots organizations, much like we once were.” For now Tavtigian can rest easy and go back to helping wounded warriors he cares so much about.

Petroleum industry wants veterans in oil & gas jobs (Military Times)
American Petroleum Institute’s Vets4Energy campaign has launched an initiative to help veterans connect with companies in the oil and natural gas industry. Vets can use the new Veterans Energy Pipeline website to translate their job skills from the military into the oil and gas industry. For example, you select your branch of service and your military occupation, and the website will show you which civilian jobs are similar. Employers can also use the site to find veterans with the skills they’re seeking. Don Loren, retired rear admiral and the national liaison for Vets4Energy, said the group aims to spur discussion about energy policies, which are linked to national security. He said a significant element of national security is veteran employment. “What better way to promote a sound oil and natural gas energy industry than to incorporate these skills and experiences into that environment,” Loren said. With the United States and other countries trying to move away from fossil fuels, however, there are concerns over whether this is a secure industry for veterans in years to come. “I know there’s a lot of conversation taking place out there right now,” said Jack Gerard, API president and CEO. “By 2040, 2050, 60 percent of the energy the U.S. uses will be oil and natural gas. “If you want a long-term opportunity in an industry, look at these industries that are fundamentally the backbone of our society,” he said. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. and member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he believes in solar and wind power but that there’s not enough of those available. “We’d still like to find the fuel of the future, but it’s just not there yet,” he said. Loren encouraged veterans to send feedback if they couldn’t find jobs that incorporated their skills on the site.