Clinton promises VA reform, trashes Trump in VFW speech (MilitaryTimes)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton promised offered a scathing rebuke of her Republican rival in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention on Monday, calling his policies dangerous and his outlook poisonous. “If we retreat on security or the economy behind an imaginary wall, we will have lost our leadership, our purpose, our chance to prevail in the 21st century,” Clinton told the crowd of veteran leaders, without ever mentioning Donald Trump’s name. “If America doesn’t lead, we will leave behind a vacuum.” The North Carolina speech, delivered about 500 miles south of the opening morning of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this week, touched on Clinton’s already outlined plans for reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs. She promised to cut down on veterans’ wait times for medical care, improve coordination of military and VA health care coverage, boost programs for female veterans and to “end the epidemic of veteran suicide” if elected to the White House. Clinton also pledged to make transitions from military to civilian jobs easier, and to protect the post-9/11 GI Bill benefit, calling congressional plans to trim the benefits “not just wrong, but short sighted.” But the majority of Clinton’s speech was a rebuttal to the Republican convention in Cleveland last week and Trump’s own campaign promises to vastly expand medical care access for veterans outside the VA. Democrats have repeatedly labeled that a dismantling of the VA system, and Clinton did so again on Monday. “We are not going to privative VA,” she told the crowd, eliciting scattered cheers. “We are going to reform it, and make it work for every single veteran in America.” Clinton cast herself as a long-time advocate of veterans issues, dating back to her service in the Senate. She called Trump a “newcomer” on the topics and cited multiple campaign gaffes by the business mogul to paint him as irresponsible and untrustworthy. “One thing for certain you will never hear from me is praise for dictators and strongmen who have no love for America,” she said. “(Our troops) deserve a commander in chief who will never force them to commit war crimes … You will never hear me say that I only listen to myself on national security.” Republicans have pushed back on those statements, calling Clinton the less credible candidate because of her past history of scandals, including her involvement in the deaths of U.S. personnel in the 2012 attack on the American embassy facilities in Libya. But Clinton promised to be a commander-in-chief “who honors your service, not just with words but deeds.” That includes restoring veterans faith in the VA, saying she has been outraged by recent missteps by the agency and dismayed by veterans’ eroding faith in the institution. “I know a lot of vets still feel invisible, powerless, like their country have forgotten them,” she said. “That’s wrong. We have to make sure we end that.” Trump will have his chance for a rebuttal at the VFW convention Tuesday morning. VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who has been a frequent target of Trump, is also scheduled to speak just before the Republican nominee.
Survey: Americans think more than half of vets have mental problems (MilitaryTimes)
The general public vastly overestimates the number of post-9/11 veterans with mental health conditions, a misconception veterans advocates say threatens the overall well-being and employment prospects of former troops. A survey of more than 1,000 adults in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom found that roughly 40 percent believed more than half the 2.8 million veterans who have served since 2001 have a mental health condition. The actual figure lies somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent, or 280,000 to just more than a half million, according to a Rand Corp. estimate. The recent survey, conducted by the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, also found that while a majority of veterans say traumatic brain injury and combat-related mental health conditions are legitimate war wounds, 80 percent say embarrassment or shame is a barrier to seeking treatment. A similar percentage say concerns for future employment also kept them from getting medical treatment and therapy for these conditions. The veterans’ acknowledgment of the legitimacy of these injuries, juxtaposed with their reluctance to get care is a “clear indication that challenges and stigmas regarding veterans mental health persist,” said Military Service Initiative director retired Army Col. Miguel Howe following a forum in Washington on July 7 on veterans’ transition. “The unfortunate result is that less than half veterans who experience these invisible wounds of war are seeking care.” Howe said. The Bush Institute commissioned the survey to better understand public perceptions of today’s veterans. Howe said the organization wanted the information to improve programs for veterans and families. He added that the survey results mirror the findings of research conducted in 2011 by the Pew Research Center, which found about half of 1 percent of the U.S. population has served on active duty and fewer Americans knew anyone serving in the U.S. military. “The civilian military divide is still there. … The needle has not moved, even though there have been tremendous efforts in this country in the past five years. But the work hasn’t been enough and it really is going to take public, private and nonprofit partnerships to build a national system of high-quality care and services [for veterans],” Howe said. Nearly 3 million active and reserve service members have left the military for civilian life since 2001, with another million expected to transition in the next five years. Transitions not only include changes in employment, they often mean change of housing, income, communities, lifestyle and health care, and also affect family members. The Bush Institute teamed with the Edelman marketing firm and Give An Hour, a nonprofit established to provide free mental health counseling to troops, veterans and family members, to hold the Washington event focused on fostering successful transitions for military personnel. “This is about what we need to do to change and address perceptions because they are getting in the way of the veterans getting the mental health care they need and relationships with the veterans we employ,” said Barbara Van Dahlen, founder of Give An Hour. Results of a concurrent survey conducted by Edelman underscore the disconnect between the civilian population and those who serve. The Edelman survey of more than 2,000 veterans and civilians found while 84 percent of employers believe veterans are viewed as heroes in their communities, just 26 percent of employers believe veterans are “strategic assets” to their communities. And only 34 percent of veterans felt they were assets to their community. “The stereotyping of veterans as heroes may create emotional distance between veterans and civilians, making it difficult for community members to connect with veterans and see them as potential colleagues,” the Edelman report noted. According to the Bush survey, more than two-thirds of the public said they do not understand the problems faced by the military, and post-9/11 veterans agreed, with eight of 10 saying the American people don’t understand them. Brian Duffy, incoming national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said civilian communities and veterans must take steps to ensure that former troops successfully transition to their post-service lives. “There is a bridge that needs to be crossed, both on the civilian side and the military side,” Duffy said.
Veterans compensation bill becomes law (The New Star)
Disabled veterans are eligible to receive an increase in their benefits next year after a bill by Congressman Ralph Abraham, M.D., R-Alto, became law over the weekend. President Obama signed Abraham’s HR 5588, the Veterans’ Compensation COLA Act of 2016, on Friday, July 22. The new law directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to increase, as of Dec. 1, the rates of veterans’ disability compensation, additional compensation for dependents, the clothing allowance for certain disabled veterans, and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses. The amount of the increase will be equivalent to the increase provided under Title II of the Social Security Act. The precise amount of the adjustment will not be known until the end of the calendar year. “I’m proud to have led the bipartisan effort in Congress to provide for our American heroes. This COLA adjustment will help bring increased financial security to our veterans and their families. Our veterans served our country, and now we have to make sure they receive the benefits they deserve for their sacrifice,” Abraham said. Abraham has also passed legislation in the House – HR 677, the American Heroes COLA Act – that will make veterans’ COLA adjustments automatic each year. The Senate has yet to act on the legislation.
US Senate approves bill honoring Filipino vets (Military.com)
The U.S. Senate has passed a bill authored by Sen. Mazie Hirono to make it possible for more than 260,000 Filipinos and Filipino-Americans, including 300 from Hawaii, to receive the highest civilian award that Congress can bestow — the Congressional Gold Medal. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, author of a companion measure in the U.S. House, said she hopes to gather enough support to send the legislation to President Barack Obama before the end of the year. Following the Senate’s action, Gabbard said House rules require the measure to have 290 co-sponsors before it can be considered. So far, Gabbard has been able to persuade 180 House members to support the bill. “More than 200,000 Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers responded to President Roosevelt’s call to duty and fought under our American flag during World War II,” Gabbard said. “With just 18,000 Filipino WWII veterans alive today, time is truly of the essence to honor these courageous men with the long overdue recognition they deserve. We’ve made tremendous progress over the past year to gather bipartisan support from lawmakers for this legislation.” Before his death, U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, in a statement released by the Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus, said: “While this recognition is a step in the right direction, Congress can do more. As the number of World War II veterans continues to diminish, we can continue to build on recent improvements to the visa process and make it easier for the families of these selfless Filipino veterans to be reunited with their loved ones in the United States.” Retired Army Col. Ben Acohido, who is part of a national effort to complete a census determining the exact number of surviving Filipino veterans, estimates that little more than a dozen are still living in Hawaii. Congress has already recognized the wartime contributions of other minority military units with eligibility for the medal beginning with the Tuskegee Airmen in 2006; Navajo Code Talkers in 2008; Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, in 2009; the Japanese-American soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service in 2010; the Montford Point Marines, who were the first African-Americans to serve in the Marine Corps, in 2011; and in 2014, the 65th Infantry Regiment, known as the Borinqueneers — the only Hispanic, segregated military unit in the Korean War whose soldiers were predominantly from Puerto Rico. “These veterans were instrumental to an Allied victory in the Pacific theater, but their fight didn’t end with the war,” Hirono said in a statement. “For decades, they have continued to fight for the benefits they have earned and to be reunited with their families in the United States.” Her sentiments were echoed by retired Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, a 1968 Leilehua High School graduate and chairman of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project. “Filipino World War II veterans served their country with distinct honor and uncommon valor and we owe them a profound debt of gratitude,” he said. “I am proud that with the Senate’s unanimous passage of the Filipino World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act, the veterans are significantly closer on their lifelong goal of national recognition of sacrifice and selfless service during World War II from the U.S. Congress. They have waited 75 years for this proud and historic milestone in American history. We deeply appreciate Sen. Hirono’s steadfast leadership and dedication to the thousands of Filipino World War II veterans and their families who made this day possible. The veterans will surely be proud.” Taguba’s father, Tomas, survived the 65-mile Bataan Death March in 1942, retired as a sergeant first class in 1962, and lived in Hawaii until his death. Most of the survivors are in their 90s and supporters continue to fight for U.S. fulfillment of promised pensions and health benefits. “The Congressional Gold Medal will preserve the history of service and sacrifice by these loyal Filipino WWII veterans,” Acohido said. “They were the first line of defense in the Pacific, providing valuable time for the American military to marshal its forces when the outcome of the war was still in question. We are now hopeful for the bill’s passage in the U.S. House.” Hirono has continued the congressional battle to restore pensions and benefits begun by U.S. Sens. Spark Matsunaga, Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka. The legislation was supported by a bipartisan coalition of 71 senators, including Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said: “Filipino World War II veterans served and sacrificed alongside American forces and played an important role in the Allied victory. I have spent my career fighting to ensure they receive the recognition and benefits they deserve. While we can never fully repay the debt we owe these brave soldiers, Congress can pay tribute to their courage by awarding them with the Congressional Gold Medal. Granting Filipino veterans this honor will be yet another step taken in correcting past wrongs and celebrating their heroic actions and the patriotism of their community.”
Flight schools, veterans struggle with new VA regulations (AZCentral)
It was about a year ago that faculty at the University of North Dakota’s flight school rounded up aviation students using veterans’ benefits and laid to rest rumors that their education would no longer be paid for. However, the Department of Veterans Affairs was tightening its rules in the wake of news that some private flight schools were overusing the benefits. University staff let the students know that the VA would now only pay for the minimum flight hours required, Max Kahlhamer, a UND flight instructor, said. Trying to meet stringent VA regulations since then has been like “trying to fit a round peg into a square hole,” Kahlhamer said. A series of reviews of public flight schools and the subsequent tightening of rules has left some students in flight schools, including those in Arizona, struggling to secure funding. New students have fewer options than they had before. A Congressional Budget Office report estimates about 600 students per year are subject to the changes. Michael Sticka, a UND junior in flight education, said he has stuck closely to new guidelines, being careful to keep to the approved number of flight hours. Even so, he exceeded the limit and paid $1,500 out of his own pocket. For many veterans, the changes feel like a promise broken. “That’s why a lot of people joined the military,” Sticka said. “They were promised schooling.” The Los Angeles Times reported in March 2015 that several helicopter-training companies were taking advantage of government benefits to pay for costly training. Flight-program administrators at public institutions say they understand the VA’s subsequent need to crack down, but many question the level to which their programs have been targeted. “They’ve been chipping away at flight programs as best they can,” said Reda Chambers, coordinator of veterans services at Chandler-Gilbert Community College. The VA in late 2015 conducted reviews of at least 121 public institutions of higher learning, including Arizona State University. Of those, the VA found half or more were not complying with its rules, VA spokesman Terry Jemison said in an email. Funding for students enrolled in those schools could be pulled by the VA. Every institution of higher learning offering flight training will be reviewed by the end of September, Jemison said. Half of all vocational flight schools will be reviewed. The new standards have affected schools in several ways. Some programs are struggling to meet newly applied requirements for the number of veterans versus non-veterans allowed in each classroom. Ohio State University has told new students the VA will only pay for flight classes if they are pursuing a degree in aviation, said Mike Carrell of OSU’s Office of Military and Veterans Services. In Arizona, Chambers said VA beneficiaries in Chandler-Gilbert’s helicopter program saw funding suspended for several months mid-semester because the agency ruled the proportion of veterans to non-veterans in the program was off. That rule previously had been applied to the school as a whole rather than to specific programs. Many schools have grappled with the issue of paying for the private pilot’s license portion of aviation degrees. For pilots aspiring to fly for United, Delta, Southwest or any other major airline, a private pilot’s license is akin to training wheels. It’s the first hurdle for flight students to overcome on the path to earning two- or four-year degrees, which most major airlines require of new hires. The challenge for the 121 schools reviewed in December is that their flight training is contracted to a third party. Those schools will need to change their programs by Aug. 1 to remove private-pilot instruction or bring the program in-house, VA spokeswoman Meagan Heup said in a written statement. Legislation that would cap how much the VA reimburses for flight students at public schools passed by voice vote in the U.S. House in February. Flight students at public schools billed the VA an average of $42,000 in tuition and fees in 2014, according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office. The cap would place a maximum bill of about $20,000 on those students. David Oord, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said he sees no reason for such a cap. In a letter addressed to House Speaker Paul Ryan, the AOPA and other flight advocates questioned why flight degrees were being singled out. The focus should be on the veterans and the benefits afforded them, he said, especially because there is a shortage of commercial pilots. The aviation industry will need 95,000 commercial pilots in North America before 2034, according to a Boeing forecast. A version of the House bill waiting to be heard in the Senate does not include a flight cap. That comes as welcome news for veterans in flight school, many of whom wrote Congress about the legislation. Congress received 11,000 communications about the bill, according to the AOPA’s letter. Sticka, 43, was among those encouraged by his university to write to Congress. For as long as he can remember, he’s been around airplanes. His father has worked for Delta for 47 years. The GI Bill benefits meant he could pursue a degree in aviation after leaving the Navy in 2014. “It was hugely welcome,” he said. Sticka didn’t expect to meet VA roadblocks, but he said he’s more worried for students earlier in their education. If legislation with a lower funding cap passes or regulations are tightened further, they will be the ones affected, he said. Oord said the focus should remain on providing veterans with the benefits they’re due. “Don’t discriminate against the vets,” Oord said. “If they choose aviation, provide them a path.”
Stack-Up.org uses video games to help soldiers and veterans (Forbes)
Trash day was always the hardest, says Stephen “Shanghai-Six” Machuga. His mind would wander back to Iraq, where insurgents would hide explosives in trash — the site of a street lined in mysterious bags and piles of detritus started his brain sweating. He’d come up with reasons not to leave the house, staying inside to play World of Warcraft instead. The Azeroth of the game is a violent place to be sure, but it’s a safe place as well. As it turned out, that’s just what he needed. Little by little, things got better. “I just started to forget my problems because I was so involved in the game,” he says. “It distracted me in a way that nothing else did. I dug my heels into that game, and over time, I just kind of started to forget my problems.” Machuga was deployed in Iraq in 2003, but his struggle with trash day gave him an idea of how he might continue his service out of uniform. Today he’s the CEO of Stack-Up.org which, like Machuga’s previous charity Supply Drop, uses video game care packages to help soldiers both at home and abroad. They’ve garnered some attention from video game luminaries like Cliff Bleszinski, dean Hall and Palmer Luckey, who’s helping to bring cutting-edge VR tech to the organization. Machuga remembers being on deployment and being sent a big box of harlequin romance novels that they couldn’t figure out what to do with besides target practice. “Civilians wanted to help the troops, but it turned into a fifth grade canned food drive mentality,” he says. “Are you really helping? You end up with 26 cans of yams.” Everyone wants video games, however. That’s the idea behind Stack-Up: war can be a boring endeavor punctuated by chaos, and leisure activities become a crucial way to keep your mind together whether you’re deployed or reintegrating to civilian life. There’s something perfect about a video game for that: the best can suck you in to the exclusion of everything else. David Crouse deployed to Iraq in 2006 and was later wounded while working on a bomb squad in Cambodia: he found himself sitting in the Walter Reed Army Medical Center with one thought on his mind: “how am I going to play Playstation with one hand?” As it turns out, you can make it work. And video games helped him through that, just like they had on his deployment, just like they had when he was struggling back home. “Any time I wasn’t working, I was playing video games and watching movies. For me, that was a form of escape. For a couple hours a day I was just Dave again, not having to be Corporal Crouse. Whenever I’m dealing with things mentally, video games are kind of a safe space. I always feel at home with that. ” Since then, Crouse has linked up with Stack-Up to run the organization’s “air assault” team, which brings veterans to game conventions. There’s something different about video games when compared to movies or TV, Crouse says. They require a level of attention and engagement that has a way of taking over your entire brain, useful both at home and abroad. “There’s something about videogames as a medium, that I can dive into this world and be immersed in it,” he says. “It’s like a movie that you’re part of.”
Illinois budget deal could provide boost for veterans home (Chicago Tribune)
There’s renewed hope that a partially finished veterans home on the southwest corner of Forest Preserve Drive and Oak Park Avenue will be completed after the project sat idle for the past year. A budget deal reached by state lawmakers last month provides the state’s $8.5 million obligation of the $70.5 million price tag of the facility, which had been slated to open this month before the state’s budget impasse stopped the construction timeline last summer. The five-story, 200-room long-term health care facility is supposed to be Chicago’s first long-term care center for vets. A groundbreaking ceremony was attended by state lawmakers in September 2014 to celebrate the start of construction, which began the following month and continued until June of last year. Since then, the facility — envisioned as a specialized housing and medical care facility (including memory loss care) for aging veterans in the Chicago area — was left in a futile state as it hung in the balance of the state budget woes. Lawmakers who supported the project, including state Sen. John Mulroe, D-Chicago, who sponsored a bill earlier this year in an attempt to get Gov. Rauner to re-appropriate the money that was originally earmarked for the facility — were unsure whether the brick walks that stand on the site would ever materialize into what would be Illinois’ fifth home for veterans. “The home became a victim of the Illinois budget impasse,” Mulroe said in a statement. “It’s outrageous that projects like the Chicago Veterans’ Home ever got caught in the line of fire.” A spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Veterans did not have a date when construction on the facility would resume. When the project was first announced in 2013, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs approved federal reimbursement for up to 65 percent of the costs for the project, meaning the federal government would pay up to $45.8 million of the construction costs. The home, located in Chicago’s Dunning neighborhood, will treat veterans for a variety of medical needs, including diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, according to the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. The Chicago area is home to more than half of the 764,000 veterans in the state, according to the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, but the closest skilled nursing home with specialized care for veterans is more than an hour drive south of Chicago, in Kankakee County.