May 18 Veterans News

May 18 Veterans News


Blue Water Navy veterans struggle with toxin exposure (KREM)
A group of veteran converged on our nation’s capital Wednesday to raise awareness for their plight. Members of the “Blue Water Navy” said tens of thousands of sailors are sick because they were exposed to toxic herbicides during the Vietnam War. They rallied to try and get traction for two bills stalled in Congress that would restore their benefits related to exposure to Agent Orange. The head of the Blue Water Navy veterans group said there are some 90,000 living Blue Water Navy veterans who served off shore from Vietnam. He estimates half of them are suffering from some sort of health problem related to exposure to Agent Orange. One Spokane Veteran has three such health problems, but the VA is denying Agent Orange benefits to him and his entire class of veterans. It was one plan to try and win the Vietnam War: Spray the herbicide Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals over vast stretches of jungle to deprive enemy fighters of food and cover and help save US service members lives in combat. People like Dennis Hyltin worry Agent Orange may have been the strategy to save lives then, but it is silently taking service-members’ lives now. “It’s a time bomb ticking inside of you,” said Hyltin. Hyltin said that time bomb inside of him and other “Blue Navy Veterans is going unacknowledged by the federal government. Initially, the Agent Orange Act of 1991 made it clear all Vietnam Veterans were presumed to have been exposed to the toxic herbicide and should receive VA benefits for related illnesses. But in 2002, the Bush Administration quietly excluded members of the Blue Water Navy. For the last decade, Hyltin has compiled two thick binders filled with his pleas and appeals that have all been denied. The VA recognizes Agent Orange which contains the toxic chemical dioxin, as nasty, nasty stuff. They have even compiled a list of more than a dozen diseases and illnesses they will assume are caused by Agent Orange and grant qualifying veterans full medical coverage and compensation as a result. … While he launched aircraft into the fight, like tens of thousands of members of the “Blue Water Navy” Dennis never set foot on Vietnam soil. As a result, the VA does not presume his illnesses are service related. “They say the Agent Orange stopped at the coastline; it didn’t go out into the water. Well, everyone knows that’s not true,” said Hyltin. If it is true dioxin got into the water, patrolling Navy vessels sucked in contaminated water and distilled it to use aboard the ships, a process that would have only concentrated the toxin. Every member of the crew would have been exposed. “Our fresh water came from the Gulf of Tonkin because it was saltwater and they changed it into freshwater so where we’re drinking, eating and bathing in this stuff,” said Hyltin. That might explain the results of a study from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They found the risk of having non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was higher among men in the sea-based Navy than among other veterans. So now, the VA says those with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma may be granted a service connection. Then, there is a study from the Royal Australian Navy. It revealed the highest overall levels of mortality among Australian Vietnam Veterans was with the Royal Australian Navy. Like Hyltin, they too served in the Gulf of Tonkin. On top of that, Blue Water Navy Veterans believe the planes launching from their aircraft carriers were flying through the toxic chemicals too. After a court ordered the VA to review its policy, the VA responded a few months ago writing, “Environmental health experts in VA’s Veterans Health Administration have reviewed the available scientific information and concluded that it is not sufficient to support a presumption that Blue Water Navy Veterans were exposed to Agent Orange.” It is a conclusion echoed time and again in letters to Hyltin. But hundreds of members of Congress, including Cathy McMorris Rogers, seem to believe we should ere on the side of the veterans.  Both the house and senate have proposed legislation to expand coverage to the Blue Water Navy. “Regardless of whether they served on land or at sea, those who’ve fallen victim, Agent Orange deserve access to the benefits and compensation,” said Senator Mark Warner. Still, that legislation does not appear to be a priority. It has been languished in committee for more than a year, which is time Dennis argues many veterans do not have. “A lot of the people in the Blue Water Navy have died because of the exposures,” he said. 

New documentary set to blast stereotypes of PTSD (MilitaryTimes)
A team of filmmakers vow to break down the stigma and stereotypes associated with post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans with a new documentary showcasing the success stories of those who’ve broken through the fog after war. “We believe that the mainstream media has chosen to go with stories that have shock value, rather than telling the stories of veterans who deal with the disorder but still lead highly productive lives,” said Derek Brown, director of “The Face of PTSD,” now in preproduction. “This has created a mischaracterization of those with the disorder as violent, abusive, or addicted. We will show how that mischaracterization is a leading cause for veterans not seeking treatment, and thus further perpetuating the problem.” That’s not to say those who are dealing with PTSD haven’t gone through hard times, Brown said. But “despite those challenges, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We want to bring awareness to the causes of the stigma surrounding the disorder in order to promote a message of treatment rather than judgment.” Brown’s crew is adopting the hashtag #treatmentNOTjudgement as the rallying cry for the movie. He says much of the film will delve into alternative ways veterans are finding help in managing and even overcoming PTSD. The feature-length film is being produced by New Jersey-based Malka Media, which has launched an Indiegogo campaign to help crowdfund the project. The money will be used to cover the expenses of interviewing veterans and experts across the country. Meanwhile, two veterans charities, Backpacks for Life and Soldiers’ Angels, are partnered with the production, including special incentives for donations within the Indiegogo donation tiers. Brown says he was inspired to create the film after a trip downrange with Army veteran Colin Wayne Erwin, who was on a USO tour at the time. Erwin suffers from PTSD after a 2012 rocket attack in Iraq left him with severe injuries. He’s gone on to become an elite fitness model as well as founding his own patriotic-themed sign company in Alabama. Erwin will be among those featured in “The Face of PTSD.” “Once I got to know his story, and the things he had to overcome, I knew we had to make this film,” Brown said.

Vets pleading for cleanup of black mold festering in VA hospital for months (Fox News)
Veterans living at a long-term care facility in a Chicago-area VA hospital are pleading for congressional intervention over being forced to live the past 10 months with black mold growing in their housing complex. Veterans Affairs documents indicate officials at Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital knew about the black mold infestation in August 2015 but conducted no testing until mid-April 2016 and have yet to clean up the problem – though they are promising to act soon. The mold is contained in two rooms of the Residential Care Facility (RCF), a separate building housing 30 residents for indefinite stays. “I was going by the hallway and the door was open. The back wall was all moldy black,” 81-year-old resident Raymond Shibek told “I went and told the director of nursing. She said, ‘How did you see that?’ I said, ‘The door was open.’ She said, ‘You weren’t supposed to see that.’” Shibek said the mold covered an entire wall measuring roughly 10 feet-by-10 feet. Resident Dan James, 58, said the staff “sat on this for months until we started getting aggressive about it,” and “only taped off the rooms a month and a half ago.” Veterans say no one knows how long the mold has contaminated the building, but they claim a large number of patients have fallen ill, even died, over the past few years. It is unknown if the mold was in any way related to the illnesses. An April 22-dated letter sent to Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and signed by 18 residents in the unit asked for congressional intervention. … Kirk, chairman of the Senate Appropriations VA subcommittee, fired off a letter earlier this week to a VA supervisor seeking answers on the mold problem. “The saddest part about this work is that there seems to be no bottom – each time we discover a problem, there always seems to be a cover-up, instances of willful incompetence, and/or another problem right around the corner,” he wrote. Kirk previously has criticized Hines management over an infestation of cockroaches in the hospital kitchen, prompting him to author a bill requiring mandatory outside health inspections. The VA says it is moving to address the mold situation. An internal email dated March 4 from Rita Young, Hines’ chief of Safety and Emergency Management Services, was sent to union stewards updating them. Young said the drywall in two rooms contained “black mold” caused by a pipe leak that has been repaired. It took until April 5 for VA officials to post a bid notice asking for “hazardous material abatement.” The project will be awarded next month and is expected to be completed in July, VA spokeswoman Jane Moen said. The VA did not comment on the delay in cleaning up the mold other than to say, “Hines takes any allegations regarding patient safety and concerns seriously. Our veterans, staff and visitors are our #1 priority.” The VA has not provided any memos or proof that mold testing was conducted prior to the April tests. Mold can be found in buildings that have damp conditions, creating spores that can become airborne and pose a health risk to people with immune deficiencies or prone to respiratory problems, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. … The mold was first discovered by a maintenance worker who saw a black substance on the wall behind the lockers, said resident Charles Scott, 26. It was then that the residents began an odyssey to have the rooms sealed off and the mold removed not only from the locker room, but a nearby storage and maintenance room, Scott said. … When the veterans noticed that nothing was being done to alleviate the mold problem, they insisted on meeting with staff, they said. A meeting was held March 17 with 10 residents and 14 upper-level management VA officials including two doctors. Minutes from that meeting said, “Clinical/medical risks of mold discussed in meeting. Potential hazards and risks include smell, allergic reaction and/or asthma attacks within 6.5 hours of inhaling.” The minutes also said: “When the mold was discovered, rooms C106 and C107 were shut down, residents’ items were removed from that room, and water source contributing to mold room was resolved. However, this issue was not followed up with the right people and is being handled now.” Red “Do Not Enter” signs were taped to the doors, along with a VA memo describing the pipe leak and saying, “There were missed opportunities and lessons learned from this situation. Communication and notification to all parties until the issue is resolved is key.”

Rubio blasts union involvement in VA reform bill (Washington Examiner)
Sen. Marco Rubio warned the Senate against passing a reform package aimed at cleaning up the Department of Veterans Affairs, arguing the current legislation is too weak on VA employees who abuse veterans. “The VA ‘reform’ bill as it stands today should not be rammed through Congress without real accountability reforms being added to it,” Rubio said in a statement Tuesday. “It’s simple: If you work at the VA and work against the interests of our veterans through your negligence, indifference, incompetence or corruption, the VA secretary should be able to fire you.” The Florida Republican has been a critic of the Veterans First Act, the omnibus legislation that cleared the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee late last week. In March, Rubio and Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, penned a letter expressing their concerns that Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate VA Committee, was cutting a deal with the Obama administration that would ultimately water down the reform bill. After a draft version of the legislation was leaked to the federal employees’ union, the labor group’s leadership issued demands for softer accountability provisions. Portions of the bill that empowered VA leadership to punish or fire employees who misbehave were removed from a subsequent draft. Hours before the Veterans First Act passed last week, lawmakers circulated the final text of the legislation, from which a provision capping VA employee bonuses had been cut. Rubio highlighted the impact the federal workers’ union seemingly had on the VA legislation presently pending before the Senate. “We all believe our veterans deserve the utmost respect and highest quality of post-service healthcare available, but it’s unfortunate the labor unions have so far gotten their way in writing the VA accountability provisions in the Senate’s VA reform bill,” he said. “The current VA bill includes too many loopholes that let bad VA employees off the hook, and either we work through it and get it fixed in the coming weeks, or this bill will not be rammed through,” he added. Rubio has indicated he would likely block the bill if it were brought up on unanimous consent given its failure to crack down on the accountability failures that have ravaged the VA for years. Agency leadership has admitted that a maze of bureaucratic rules prevent managers from firing VA workers in even the most clear-cut situations of employee misconduct.

Lawsuits mount over sexual abuse allegations at Leavenworth VA Medical Center (The Kansas City Star)
Federal lawsuits are mounting over the alleged sexually inappropriate actions of a former employee at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leavenworth. The latest suit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., on behalf of an Iraq War veteran identified as John Doe P.M. It is at least the sixth lawsuit filed this year alleging that former physician assistant Mark E. Wisner subjected patients to sexually inappropriate touching and comments. According to Tuesday’s suit, Wisner allegedly conducted “numerous” genital examinations in which the veteran’s genitals were fondled. He also made inappropriate comments about the man’s penis and suggested that he would withhold pain medication if the man did not submit to the examinations, according to the suit. The allegations mirror those in the previously filed lawsuits. Wisner also is being prosecuted on criminal charges filed in Leavenworth County District Court. Officials with the VA said that when reports of possibly inappropriate behavior were raised, they removed Wisner from patient care duties and started an investigation. Before the investigation was completed, Wisner surrendered his medical license to the Kansas Board of Healing Arts and left the VA, officials said. The results of the VA investigation were turned over to Leavenworth County authorities and criminal charges were filed.

Veterans climb Mount Everest to raise awareness of military suicides (ABC News)
Climbing Mount Everest is arguably one of the hardest feats in the world — even for someone in tip-top physical shape. But a group of U.S. veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, including one with a prosthetic leg, is working toward reaching the the 29,029-foot summit to raise awareness of suicide rates among veteran and active-duty soldiers. One of the most inspirational figures of the climb is retired Staff Sgt. Chad Jukes, who lost his right leg in Iraq in December 2006 when a improvised explosive device (IED) struck his vehicle. If successful, Jukes will be the first combat-wounded veteran to summit Mount Everest. Since losing his leg, Jukes has never stopped climbing. He is making the trek up Mount Everest with a prosthetic, which he said required extensive preparation. Jukes was worried about how his body was going to handle sleeping at the high altitude and in the frigid conditions, but he is doing “fairly well” and is mostly sleeping through the night, he said. The USX Veteran Everest Expedition’s climb is being led by Lt. Harold Earls, a 23-year-old active-duty soldier assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart in Georgia. The team reached the Advanced Base Camp overnight and plans to leave for Camp 1 tonight to begin their push to the summit. Weather has taken a turn for the worse since the team arrived, with members saying the snowy conditions are “not good at all for climbing.” But, weather permitting, the team should be able to reach the summit by May 23. Every day, more than 22 veterans and one active-duty soldier commit suicide, the USX Veteran Everest Expedition said. The group hopes the difficult climb will draw attention to the epidemic of military suicides.

Solar Ready Vets expands training to five more installations (MilitaryTimes)
The Energy Department announced Tuesday that five military installations will join Solar Ready Vets, which trains troops for solar industry careers once they transition out of the military. The five new installations are:

  • Eglin Air Force Base, Florida
  • Fort Bragg, North Carolina
  • Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey
  • Joint Base San Antonio
  • Marine Corps Base Hawaii

They join Camp Pendleton, California; Fort Carson, Colorado; Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia; Hill Air Force Base, Utah; and Fort Drum, New York, in offering training for service members who are interested in learning about the solar energy industry. “With the addition of these five bases, we have met President Obama’s goal of expanding the Solar Ready Vets program to 10 bases in its first year,” said Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, deputy secretary of energy at the Energy Department. Through the Defense Department’s SkillBridge initiative, service members can participate in the program starting up to six months prior to separation. Since launching in April 2015, 252 service members have graduated from the four- to six-week Solar Ready Vets program. Each class takes about 20 students, and there’s no out-of-pocket cost. “Most everyone who’s graduated thus far has had job opportunities immediately available to them in the solar industry,” Sherwood-Randall said. “Every graduate has earned at least two interviews with solar companies.” Logan Rozanski, who graduated from the first Solar Ready Vets class at Camp Pendleton in 2015, started working at SunPower a month after finishing the program. “After the training, we had a bout of interviews with five recruiting teams from five of the largest industry names,” said Rozanski, who works as a remote operations control center operator. “The process was a very good model of the civilian recruitment process.” He said there’s a strong veterans presence in his office, and it’s nice being able to work alongside them. “No matter where I choose to go, this experience can carry over as long as the location that I’m going to has an established utility grid,” Rozanski said. Sherwood-Randall said not every student who graduates chooses to work in the solar field immediately, but at least it’s an option for them. “They’ve been in a very structured lifestyle where they didn’t have a lot of choice about what they would do next,” she said. “They want to figure out what the next sequence is … this is a very valuable option and could be Option 2.” Brig. Gen. Robert LaBrutta, commander of the 502nd Air Base Wing and Joint Base San Antonio, said more than 3,500 service members transition from the base every year. “Renewable energy has national security framework consequences to it,” he said. “Anything we can do to get a renewable energy source here is going to help us out in securing energy into the future.” The Energy Department also awarded more than $10 million to 10 projects through its Solar Training and Education for Professionals funding program. It supports programs like Solar Ready Vets and will help veterans connect with solar training institutions.