Retired Soldier & Veteran Affairs News 28 November 2016
Retired Soldier & Veteran Affairs News 28 November 2016
AUSA ASKS CONGRESS TO QUICKLY PASS DEFENSE BUDGET
The Association of the U.S. Army has joined other defense-related associations in urging Congress to pass a complete and fully funded 2017 defense budget before the end of the calendar year, and not wait for a new administration in the White House.
When the House and Senate return to work next week after a long pre-election break, lawmakers will face a pile of unfinished business, including the defense policy and funding bills for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Lawmakers approved temporary funding before leaving town, but that short-term spending bill expires on Dec. 10.
Leaders of the House and Senate armed services committees have vowed to try to complete work on the National Defense Authorization Act by the end of the year. That measure sets policy, including giving permission to begin new programs or continue ones that are expiring.
The path ahead on funding is unclear because lawmakers have had difficulty reaching bipartisan agreement on spending priorities, including defense spending levels. There have been discussions about passing only another temporary funding bill that would keep agencies operating until April or May, putting off further deliberations on major decisions until the new session of Congress convenes in January.
Fourteen defense-related association, including AUSA, have written congressional leaders urging them to pass a full defense budget – policy and funding – before the end of the year, warning that both reduced funding and further delay will hurt national security.
“There is always a temptation to extend the time for difficult final decisions,” the letter says, but cautions that temporary funding would “unnecessarily delay new programs, prevent the ramping up of mature programs, and affect defense readiness and operational issues.”
“Please consider both the known and an unpredictable national security challenges that the U.S. will face as our adversaries seek to take potential advantage of America’s peaceful and democratic transition to a new administration,” the letter says.
17 November 2016 Legislative News Update - TRUMP ASKS FOR EXTENDED CR
Unless you live on another planet, you know how the race for the White House turned out. Now the question is how the result will affect the waning days of the 114th Congress.
President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team has asked lawmakers to extend the existing continuing resolution that expires Dec. 9 through the end of March instead of passing an omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2017. That would give his incoming administration a say in federal spending priorities.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., was noncommittal about which option he favored. "We’re prepared to go. During this recess, we have been polishing up the bills, making some really good progress, so we will be prepared to go now or later, depending on where leadership wants to go,” said Rogers.
Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., said that he preferred to finish this year’s work, but “there’s obviously some thought that he should have something to say about defense and other types of spending in the new year, so it’s back and forth.”
I can tell you where AUSA stands. AUSA President Gen. Carter Ham, USA, Ret., along with other defense-related associations sent a letter to the House and Senate leadership urging them to pass both the defense appropriations and authorizations bills before the end of the year.
The letter said that a “continuing resolution for defense that extends beyond the one under which we are currently operating will unnecessarily delay new programs, prevent the ramping up of mature programs, and affect defense readiness and operational issues.”
CONGRESS REVIEWING REQUEST FOR ADDITIONAL WAR FUNDING
The Defense Department has asked Congress for an additional $5.8 billion for overseas contingency operations, funding that would be on top of the $58.8 billion previously sought.
The Army would get $4.4 billion of the additional money, according to the Defense Department request. The Pentagon previously requested $25 billion in overseas contingency funds for the Army.
Operations and maintenance expenses account for $3.2 billion of the Army request, with an additional $814 million in operating expenses for Afghanistan Security Forces. Direct personnel costs for the Army made up just $94 million of the request.
The request assumed there will be about 2,400 more troops involved in Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan than previously planned, the result of a decision to slow the drawdown of forces. Additionally, the request assumed about 2,000 more troops involved in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria.
Operations and force protection make up $2.8 billion of the overall defense request, covering the cost of having more deployed troops than previously budgeted. This includes funds to cover the additional cost of special pay and subsistence for deployed forces, deployment and redeployment of forces, and the fuel and operating costs for ground vehicles and aviation.
The second biggest piece of the request is $1.3 billion for in-theater support, covering expenses for personnel and units operating in the region but not directly in Afghanistan and Iraq.
AT LEAST THEY’RE TALKING
The fate of the stalled fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill is still up in the air; however, House and Senate conferees have resumed negotiations in an effort to hammer out a final bill.
Two issues in particular have been cited as sticking points.
One is a provision in the House bill that would ban placing the greater sage grouse on the Endangered Species List.
The provision was pushed by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who also serves as Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Bishop believes that placing the bird on the endangered species list interferes with military training on western lands.
Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., the sponsor of the second amendment, says his amendment protects religious organizations’ ability to hire and conduct their operations consistent with their religion, even if those beliefs don’t comport with the modern support for sexual orientation. Critics say it would enable federal contractors to discriminate against people over sexual orientation or sexual identity.
The bill still faces a veto threat by the White House over a wide range of issues. If President Obama does veto the bill, it could be pushed into the 115th Congress.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE November 22, 2016
VA Lauded by National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable for Screening Rates
Approximately 4,000 Veterans are diagnosed with Colorectal Cancer each year WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has received Hall of Fame recognition by the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable (NCCR) for achieving an 82 percent colorectal cancer screening rate, which exceeds the NCCR goal of 80 percent and the national average, which is in the 60 percent range. NCCR was established in 1997 by the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a national coalition of public, private and voluntary organizations along with invited individuals. “We know that colon cancer is both common and lethal,” said David J. Shulkin, VA Under Secretary for Health. “Colon cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in the United States; we know that it can be prevented through screening. Recognition by this prestigious organization shows that our prevention measures are saving our Veterans’ lives.” VA has been an early leader in fully embracing the value of colorectal cancer screening and in employing a comprehensive approach to its screening program by developing policies and guidance about screening. VA also monitors and reports system-wide screening rates, increased access to screening, developed systems of care to facilitate screening using clinical reminders, clinician toolkits, patient and staff education. Information about VA’s efforts to prevent and treat colorectal cancer may be found at http://www.va.gov/QUALITYOFCARE/initiatives/compare/Prevention_Colorectal_Cancer_Screening.asp. Information about VA’s cancer research and achievements may be found at http://www.research.va.gov/topics/cancer.cfm. #
AUSA Chapter Assists Dedication
The William Penn Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army was instrumental in the oversight and fundraising for a brass plaque dedicated to veterans that was installed in Northhampton Township, Penn. The plaque, along with a parking space in front of the municipal building that’s reserved for Purple Heart recipients, was dedicated on Veterans Day.
Half of Army Civilians Are Veterans
The Fiscal Year 2015 Office of Personnel Management Report on veterans’ employment in the federal government finds the percentage of veterans in the Army civilian workforce is about 50 percent—111,760 veterans in a workforce of 223,622. The Air Force is the only executive branch agency with a higher percentage. Its 82,180 veterans make up 57.2 percent of its civilian workforce.
Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS)
November 18, 2016
Last week we held our Salute to Veterans ceremony to honor our nation’s Veterans, and specifically to recognize those who are continuing their service in the Department of Labor. Our theme commemorated the 5-year anniversary of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, and to do that, we welcomed an expert panel that included Kayla Williams, Department of Veterans Affairs, Mark Walker, American Legion, Maureen Casey, Institute for Veterans and Military Families and Dennis Wimer, Indiana Department of Workforce Development.
When the VOW Act was passed, veteran unemployment was at an alarming 7.7 percent. Now, five years later, it is 4.3 percent, lower than the overall unemployment rate of 4.9 percent. This positive trend is due in large part to the collective efforts of state and Federal partners, Veteran Service Organizations, and employers who have created effective hiring strategies to recruit, hire, and retain veterans in the civilian workforce.
As we reflect on our collective accomplishments in the veteran employment space, over the past five years, we also look forward to forging more opportunities to continue this progress.
In September, the National Governors’ Association released the Veterans’ Licensing and Certification Demonstration final report, to help ease veterans’ transition from active duty to civilian employment by encouraging states to simplify their licensing process for veterans and military spouses. This month, we are pleased to release a licensing and certification toolkit to help states tackle some of the complexity of state licensure and third-party certification systems for veterans. The guide includes best practices, tips, and resources to accelerate state-specific initiatives that address the gaps in veterans’ licensing and certification.
As we look to 2017, the Labor Department remains committed to providing veterans, transitioning servicemembers and their families with employment services and training opportunities to help them secure a civilian career, any time and through any transition, whether that is their transition out of uniform into the civilian labor market, or from one career path to another. These resources can be found by visiting www.dol.gov/veterans or finding a local American Job Center.
Join us in helping veterans connect with the resources they need to find meaningful employment, by spreading the word. Let them know where they can find in-person assistance, or online resources.
Together, we can continue to make a difference.
Veterans Who Worked as Interpreters Say Pentagon Failed to Pay Bonuses
Tribune Washington Bureau | Nov 14, 2016 | by David S. Cloud
WASHINGTON -- When the California National Guard desperately needed interpreters to accompany troops headed to Iraq and Afghanistan, it promised enlistment bonuses of up to $20,000 each to dozens of Arabic, Dari and Pashto speakers.
The Pentagon's need for crucial language skills on the battlefield was so great that some interpreters were put in uniform even though they were too old or had health problems that might have disqualified them from military service.
That relaxing of the rules has come back to haunt them. Many of the interpreters who went to war were only partially paid their bonuses because the California Guard later decided they were unfit for the military service that they already had given.
Some say they are now unemployed, suffering from post-traumatic stress and combat injuries. Many are embittered at the California Guard, which they say broke its commitments.
"As far as I know, it's only the interpreters who didn't get paid," said Khatchig Khatchadourian, an Arabic interpreter from Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley who says the California Guard still owes him half the $20,000 bonus it agreed to pay when he enlisted in 2008. "They think we're stupid because we are immigrants."
The plight of the interpreters, known in military jargon as 09 Limas, offers a new wrinkle in the enlistment bonus scandal that has roiled the California Guard and the top levels of the Pentagon.
The Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau reported last month that the Pentagon was demanding repayment of enlistment bonuses paid to nearly 10,000 California Guard soldiers at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago.
In response to a public outcry, and at the urging of the White House, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter ordered a suspension of the repayment programand set up an appeals process to review the debts.
But the 09 Limas are different. Unlike soldiers who received large bonuses and were ordered to repay the money years later, the interpreters say they were never paid.
The California Guard has identified 44 interpreters who were affected by the shifts in recruitment standards or other problems, said Col. Peter Cross, a spokesman.
"The complexity arose in cases where neither the soldier nor the Guard could locate a copy of any agreement, although work was done by the soldier that likely would have given rise to a bonus payment," he wrote in an email.
Nearly half the 09 Limas deployed within the first year and then requested to go to the Inactive National Guard to work as private contractors, who normally were paid much more, Cross said.
That violated the bonus terms of their enlistment contracts, he said. To add to the confusion, soldiers serving in the same unit often enlisted under different terms and different bonus entitlements.
Enlistment bonuses for the 09 Limas also were blocked after California Guard auditors noticed that some interpreters had served in the Army even though they had failed to meet normal enlistment standards.
The translators say recruiters assured them that the 09 Lima program had eased recruitment rules so they could enlist even if they were too old or in poor physical condition or had scored too low on aptitude tests.
Before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon didn't recruit many soldiers who were fluent in Middle Eastern and South Asian languages, relying on contract interpreters instead.
But as the conflicts intensified, deploying combat units needed thousands of native speakers to communicate with Iraqis and Afghans on patrols or in meetings with local officials.
Although contractors were still widely used, the Pentagon wanted at least some interpreters in uniform who were trained as soldiers and who couldn't quit on short notice or refuse dangerous assignments.
To meet that goal, the Pentagon in 2006 ramped up the 09 Lima program. It offered special bonuses, eased enlistment standards and even accelerated U.S. citizenship applications for immigrants who agreed to join the Army.
National Guard recruiters, including California's, scoured the country for Arabic, Dari and Pashto speakers.
One of those who signed up, now a 47-year-old resident of Brentwood, near San Francisco, said the California Guard informed him in 2011 that he would not get his $10,000 bonus because he had failed an aptitude test required of all Army recruits.
Yet his low score had not stopped the Army from accepting him in 2008 and sending him to Iraq.
Like several interpreters interviewed, he asked that his name not be made public, fearing public attention would further complicate his attempts to get paid.
He was in many respects an ideal 09 Lima recruit. The son of a Libyan military officer, he was a U.S. citizen because he was born at Fort Benning, Ga., in the 1960s when his father was on a military exchange program.
The married father of three enlisted as an Arabic interpreter after losing his job in the 2008 recession. Promised a $10,000 enlistment bonus, he received half after completing boot camp but never got the rest despite his appeals, he said.
In Iraq from 2009 to 2011, he was close to bomb blasts and other combat while accompanying U.S. troops on missions, he said.
After he returned home, a Veterans Affairs doctor diagnosed him with mild traumatic brain injuries. He also needed shoulder surgery for noncombat injuries in Iraq.
When he left the Army in 2014, he gave up trying to get the bonus money. He is now in college using GI Bill benefits he is entitled to as a former soldier.
"I'm proud to have been in the service, but I don't understand why they would say you get this amount, then all of a sudden say you don't get it," he said. "I'm disappointed."
Another former interpreter, a 45-year-old resident of Glendale, was born in Iran and immigrated in 1998. He joined the Army reserves in California in 2008 after his truck business failed.
He deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 and spent six months translating for a Marine special operations unit in Shindand district near Iran. In 2010, he returned for a second tour.
"When I came back (home in 2011) I was mentally not stable," he said. "I would get drunk at 10 or 11 in the morning until I passed out."
When the Army Reserve rebuffed his claims for the unpaid half of his $20,000 enlistment bonus and for back pay he says he was owed, he contacted Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., his congressman.
Schiff's office wrote the Pentagon, which partly backed down and sent the interpreter $6,000 in back pay. He insists he is still owed the rest, but he has lost documents to support his claim.
"It's an honor to have served," he said. "But that's not enough. I have lost my hope in the whole government system."
Khatchadourian was born in Syria and grew up in Lebanon before he moved to Los Angeles with his family in 2006. He joined the California Guard two years later after finishing high school.
In return for a $20,000 bonus, he agreed to sign up for three years as an Arabic interpreter. He planned to use the money for college.
"It was mixture of serving my country, something to do (and) money," he said, recalling his motivation.
His bonus agreement, signed by Khatchadourian and his California Guard recruiter, reads, "I will receive a total bonus of $20,000 ... less taxes."
He got the first $10,000 after he finished boot camp in 2009. He expected the remainder in December 2010, his second anniversary in the Army.
He was then in Iraq with the 224th Sustainment Brigade, a California Guard support unit based in Long Beach. He says he never got the check -- or an explanation.
When he returned home in 2011, California Guard officials said they had found a problem with his enlistment contract. He would not get the second $10,000 -- and he might have to give back the first $10,000.
Khatchadourian said he later learned that auditors flagged his bonus because he had failed to initial one page of an addendum to his contract.
In October 2015, after years of appeals, he received a letter from the National Guard Bureau, the Pentagon agency that oversees state Guard organizations, ruling that he was eligible for his entire $20,000 bonus.
Khatchadourian "accepted an incentive offer in good faith and has otherwise fulfilled the obligations under the contract," it read. "Therefore, withholding payments of this incentive would be against equity, good conscience and contrary to the best interest of the military."
A year later, he is still waiting for the money.
SBA executive: How more veteran-owned small businesses can keep America Strong
By: Barb Carson, November 15, 2016 (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Siuta B. Ika/Air Force)
Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.
Veteran-owned small businesses have always been a pillar of America’s economy, but they are in a generational decline.
More than 1.1 million veteran business owners are over the age of 65, and in 2014, only 4.5 percent of Post-9/11 veterans started a business, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When considering that nearly half of World War II veterans and 40 percent of Korean War veterans started businesses, the differences are stark.
As an estimated 200,000 service members transition from the military every year, the Small Business Administration knows how imperative it is to connect service members, veterans and military spouses with the tools and resources they need to become business owners — and what the nation risks losing if they don’t.
Census data shows veterans are 45 percent more likely than nonveterans to start a small business. Today, veterans own 2.52 million small businesses — nearly 1 in every 10 — while employing 6 million Americans and generating $1.14 trillion in receipts. However, estimates show there would be nearly 1.4 million more companies, creating an additional 2.8 million jobs, if today’s veterans launched their own businesses at a similar rate as Korean War veterans.
Starting a successful small business is a tough mission. It requires tenacity, discipline and adaptability — all character traits found in a veteran, alongside many other skills. But being your own boss doesn’t mean going it alone.
Transitioning service members and veterans need ready access to business assistance services, resource networks, capital and market opportunities to ensure success. Empowering and regenerating America’s veteran entrepreneurs is one way to help reverse our declining trends in entrepreneurship while also facilitating the economic revitalization of small towns and rural America.
The SBA’s Office of Veterans Business Development works to formulate, implement and promote policies and programs that equip members of the military community with counseling, training and education, as well as access to capital to start their own businesses and assist them with contracting opportunities. Since 2013, 50,000 transitioning service members and military spouses have participated in the Boots to Business program as part of the Defense Department’s Transition Assistance Program. B2B provided — for the first time since World War II — a strong, visible pipeline of potential veteran business owners.
Boots to Business provides free entrepreneurship training in more than 200 military installations and military communities. Graduates of these programs are 53 percent more likely to start a business, and 91 percent are still in business after a year, according to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families.
Resources like the Veterans Business Outreach Centers provide entrepreneurial development, counseling and mentoring, and referrals for eligible members of the military community. The Service-Disabled Veteran Entrepreneurship Development Training Program supports organizations that deliver entrepreneurship training to service-disabled veterans, and the Veterans Institute for Procurement is an accelerator-like program that focuses on procurement.
In addition to the resources listed above, female veterans, active duty, and military spouses can also access resources through Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship, or V-WISE.
Surveys of Post 9/11-era veterans show as many as 25 percent would like to own a business after leaving service. However, lack of seed capital can be a challenge. There are no grants for veteran-owned businesses, traditional SBA lending programs are not for new businesses and the SBA’s micro-lending intermediaries do not focus on veterans, leaving veteran entrepreneurs more likely than nonveterans to rely on personal savings and credit cards to fund their businesses.
Seeking to bridge the seed capital gap, Congress proposed the Veterans Entrepreneurial Transition, or VET, Act of 2016. It proposes an SBA program that would evaluate the use of Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits as seed capital for starting a new business, similar to the World War II era-GI Bill, connecting B2B and other technical assistance programs to GI Bill grants by leveraging existing SBA infrastructure and administration.
The SBA activates the entrepreneurial potential of military and veteran entrepreneurs. Recognized through the SBA’s annual celebration during National Veterans Small Business Week and beyond, generations of these brave women and men have answered the call to start their own small businesses. The Post-9/11 era of veterans represents the next great generation to continue this legacy of success.
Survey: Women Troops Feel Undervalued and Unappreciated
Female troops and veterans want the public to know their military service is much more than just discussion of sexual assault in the ranks, according to a new survey released Monday.
Almost three in four women in the new Service Women’s Action Network survey said they do not believe their military service is understood or valued among the general public, and only 24 percent said they think military leadership does enough to publicize their work.
While 42 percent of women surveyed saw sexual harassment and assault as a common issue confronting the female servicemember community, far fewer listed it as a personal obstacle to their service.
Instead, 43 percent said their biggest military hurdle is assignments and job opportunities, 35 percent said family policies, and 36 percent said general gender bias problems.
And despite the perception of widespread problems for women serving in the military, 80 percent said they would recommend enlisting to other women.
“We were pleasantly surprised by that, because that is how most of us feel about our experiences,” said Ellen Haring, director of the SWAN’s Service Women’s Institute. “Even if you had some bad experiences, for most of us the positives have outweighed that.”
Group officials said they don’t want the results to minimize the problems with misogyny and sexual assault in the ranks. But they do hope the survey results help broaden public understanding of what female servicemembers have done while serving, and create a broader appreciation of their sarifices.
The survey drew responses from nearly 1,200 active-duty troops, reservists and veterans over the last 45 days.
When asked to rank the three most pressing issues facing women troops and veterans, access to women-specific health care in the Defense Department, access to women-specific health care in VA and access to mental health programs topped respondents’ list.
But when asked their own most pressing challenges, the women answered differently. About 35 percent still said access to mental health care was of top importance, but that was followed by finding ways to connect with other women veterans (32 percent) and ensuring their families’ financial stability (32 percent).
Roughly 68 percent said the military needs to take a bigger role in improving awareness of women’s military and veterans contributions, and 57 percent said veterans groups need to do more.
Forty-seven percent said the media needs to do a better job with that. When asked how often the entertainment industry portrays servicewomen, 78 percent said they rarely or never see those roles.
US Veterans Courts Grow Quickly But Inconsistently
The number of special courts for military veterans who get in trouble with the law is increasing rapidly.
The first veterans treatment court opened eight years ago in upstate New York. Now there more than 300 of them across the country, and hundreds more are expected to open in the next few years.
"Between 2008 and 2010, maybe there were 20 or 30, so you figure just in the last five or six years it's expanded that much," said Scott Swaim, director of the nonprofit group Justice for Vets, which has a federal grant to train the staffs of the courts at no cost to them. Swaim said his group trains about 50 courts around the country in a typical year.
The courts are for veterans who have been charged with minor crimes. They're a kind of hybrid approach to justice. They are intended to help vets deal with problems like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and substance abuse, while lowering the likelihood of repeated arrests.
Advocates say they prevent crime and save taxpayers money.
But as the number of courts has exploded, that growth has been haphazard, missing some big population centers and even entire states.
The Veterans Treatment Court in Harnett County was the first in North Carolina. It has graduated 21 veterans since 2014 and so far none has been arrested again.
Chief District Court Judge Jacqueline L. Lee presides over the treatment court, which meets weekly. She said veterans deserve the second chance that her court offers.
"They have gone through so much for our country — for me, for you, for every citizen in this land," Lee said. "We owe it to them that when they go and do these things for our country, we look after them when they come back."
Lee essentially acts as commanding officer in her courtroom, and much of what she does is aimed at restoring structure to veterans' lives and helping them feel their ties to the military again.
There's a ceremony in the courtroom recognizing newcomers, and veterans who complete their treatment program go through another ceremony for graduation. Each court session includes a brief lesson about what happened that particular day in military history.
Courts operate differently in different parts of the country. Some only take combat veterans, others accept only those who have committed crimes directly related to a condition such as service-related PTSD.
But Swaim said the more successful courts share certain features, such as robust mentor programs. Also typical are attendance mandates for treatment sessions, and frequent and random testing for drug and alcohol use.
It can take veterans two years or more to successfully complete the court program, after which their criminal records may be cleared.
On a recent day in the Harnett County Veterans Treatment Court, Wilton MacKenzie, 43, was one of the men who came before Judge Lee.
McKenzie has an appealing laugh that he uses a lot, close-cropped hair as if he were still in the Army — and, until recently, a charge hanging over him of assault on a female. That charge meant the only job he could find is part time, working for a waste hauler.
McKenzie served three hard combat tours — two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan — and has been diagnosed with PTSD.
Three veterans stand before Judge Jacqueline L. Lee during their graduation ceremony from the Harnett County, N.C.Veterans Treatment Court.JAY PRICE/AMERICAN HOMEFRONT PROJECT
He reluctantly talked about one experience during his tour in Mosul, Iraq. He and four other U.S. soldiers were walking through the city on a mission when they came under a heavy attack by dozens of militants shooting from roofs, alleys, and buildings.
They took cover on a rooftop, and a quick reaction force arrived in a Black Hawk helicopter to help. It was overhead when it collided with another helicopter, and one of the aircraft fell, burning, onto the roof where his unit was.
"I will never forget watching this staff sergeant, laying down there getting burned trying to help this guy in the back of the helicopter," MacKenzie said. "We were trying to put him out because he was trying to hold on to him."
McKenzie said his combat experience changed him and eventually led to his brush with the law. But he said the court helped him get back on track.
"They pointed me in the right direction to get the help I need," he said. "because I was not that type of person before the military."
Mark Teachey, himself a retired Army officer, coordinates the Harnett County court. Twenty-one veterans have successfully passed through it since 2014.
"Zero recidivism," Teachey said. "No one's been re-arrested. That is remarkable."
That’s similar to outcomes in veterans treatment courts around the country since the first one opened in Buffalo in 2008.
Early research suggests that the courts are saving taxpayers millions of dollars in court, jail and, prison costs, as well things that can’t be tallied, like crimes that have been prevented. That success has fueled dizzying growth in the number of veterans treatment courts.
But even with rapid growth, the courts aren’t everywhere they’re needed. North Carolina has three, and a fourth is opening soon. But advocates estimate the state needs as many as 17.
The situation is similar in most other states, and it means that some veterans have to drive long distances to find a veterans court, while others are unable to apply to enter the courts at all.
One reason for the haphazard growth pattern is a kind of enthusiasm gap. It’s not easy to start a veterans court, and it typically requires participation from prosecutors, public defenders, volunteers, the VA, and other players. Not every community that needs a court has someone motivated enough to build one.
"Someone in the legal system has to start it," Swaim said. "Some judge somewhere has to say, 'Yeah, I think it's a great idea,' or some legislator for some state has to say 'Yes, we believe veterans treatment courts have value, and yes, you can start one.'"
Another impediment is money. In most states, there's no ongoing funding for the courts' startup and operating costs other than short-term grants.
Swaim said that can seem daunting, but in practice it doesn't usually cost much to run the courts. The VA pays for much of the counseling, which is a major part of the cost.
Harnett County was fortunate. It got three years of startup grants from the state, then won a $1.4 million federal grant this fall.
Before, it could accept only those who have honorable discharges and are eligible for VA treatment. The new grant, though, will allow the court to pay for non-VA treatment, so it can accept veterans it couldn't before, Teachey said.
"Some of these veterans have a less than honorable discharge because they went AWOL (absent without leave), he said. "One particular individual went AWOL and when they found him he was in treatment, and they kicked him out of the military because he was getting PTSD treatment."
The money also will allow the court to expand its staff and about double the number of veterans it can serve, Teachey said.
McKenzie recently had his last day in the court, because he graduated along with two other veterans. He completed the court program after more than a year and a half of treatment and counseling, working with a mentor and appearing regularly in court, despite the fact that it's an hour away from his home in another county.
His assault charge will now be erased from his record.
"I can tell you, these people will never see me again," McKenzie said after his final court appearance, "unless they ask me to come to visit."
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project -- a collaboration of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, Southern California Public Radio, KUOW-Seattle, and WUSF-Tampa.
VA Awards $219.2M to Increase Rural Veterans’ Access to Health Care and Services
VA Reform Named a Top Priority
The Trump transition team has signaled that his administration will pursue changes in VA personnel policies—such as shortened disciplinary processes and limited appeal rights—similar to those that have been pending in Congress this year, and which are commonly viewed as setting a precedent for extension government-wide. A statement on the newly launched official transition site lists VA reform as one of three strategies for making the government “for the people again.” It says veterans “are hindered and not helped, by government employees who are not up to the task of providing competent answers to their situations. The Trump administration will transform the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to bring it into the 21st Century by providing state-of-the-art treatment for all physical and mental health care needs of our veterans. Likewise, any questions a veteran may have about benefits earned should be addressed in a complete and timely manner. We will make the VA great again by removing corrupt and incompetent individuals who let our veterans down. Our administration will make certain that honest and dedicated public servants in the VA have their jobs protected, and are put in line for promotions.”
New Medicare Rates Set; Cost to Be Higher for Some
The Medicare program has announced rates for 2017, with a $109 monthly Part B premium (for physicians and related services), an increase of about $4 for most. Due to a “hold harmless” provision that prevents increases for most enrollees from exceeding the increase to Social Security benefits, those not protected by that provision—including new enrollees for 2017 and those who don’t pay Medicare premiums from Social Security benefits (a group that includes most of those retired under CSRS)—will pay $134. That amount would have been even higher—projected earlier as around $150—except that Medicare used an authority to soften the impact. Still, groups representing retirees are asking Congress to bring that higher premium down to the level applying to everyone else. Those with annual taxable incomes above $85,000 for single filers and $170,000 for joint filers also pay at the higher basic rate—plus, they are subject to surcharges that will range from about $53 to $294 a month depending on income. The Part B annual deductible will rise from $166 to $183 for all enrollees. In Part A, which covers hospitalization and related costs, the deductible will rise from $1,288 to $1,316 for the first 60 days and proportionate boosts also will apply to deductibles for longer periods.
AUSA Volunteer Gets Award
Employer Support of the Guard and Service, known as ESGR, is a Defense Department program established in 1972 to promote cooperation and understanding between reserve component members and their employers. A network of more than 4,500 volunteers provides a support network for the program.
Beleaguered VA fails to implement many recommendations
By Joe Davidson | Columnist November 3
In this April 2, 2015, file photo, a visitor leaves the Sacramento Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Rancho Cordova, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
Since the scandal over the coverup of long patient wait times broke two years ago, Department of Veterans Affairs officials have touted a reorganization dubbed “MyVA” as the road to excellence.
Earlier this year, a department news release called the 2014 changes “the most significant culture and process change at VA in decades, with the primary goals of putting Veterans first and becoming the top customer service organization in government.”
But for those changes to work, VA needs to evaluate and implement them.
That’s a problem.
The Veterans Health Administration, the section that runs VA’s health system, “does not have a process that ensures recommended organizational structure changes are evaluated,” according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
The GAO found cases in which VHA’s responses to recommendations “were incomplete, not documented, or not timely.” The lagging effort conflicts with federal standards requiring agencies to fix problems on “a timely basis.”
This comes as no surprise to House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who has led a dogged congressional probe into the department.
“This report documents an approach that has become commonplace at VA, in which the department announces initiatives with great fanfare and expends tremendous amounts of time and resources to achieve them, while failing in implementation due to a complete lack of oversight and accountability,” he complained in an email to The Washington Post.
He accused VA Secretary Bob McDonald of pursuing the MyVA organizational restructuring “with no intent of evaluating its outcomes and impact on agency performance.” He called that “baffling.”
In its response to the GAO, VA said the department is working to reorganize “for success, guided by ideas and initiatives from Veterans, employees, and all of our stakeholders.”
Caring for about 7 million veterans in 168 hospitals and more than 1,000 outpatient facilities, VHA runs the nation’s largest health-care system and has a $51 billion budget. Although veterans have complained about long waits for service, they also have praised the care once they get it.
But how much better would that be if VHA followed recommendations for improvement?
The GAO cited an unnamed senior official on a governance task force who said that Undersecretary of Health David Shulkin “did not approve 13 of the 21 recommendations, so they would not be implemented.” Furthermore, his decisions were not documented because “they were communicated verbally.”
Shulkin told the GAO that “his immediate priorities were to focus on improving access to care and hiring officials for vacant senior-level positions, and as a result he did not want to make significant changes to VHA’s organizational structure,” according to the report.
A VA statement to the Federal Insider elaborated: “all facilities will be able to provide same day access for primary care and mental health by the end of 2016.”
The experience of the governance task force was an example of VHA devoting “significant time and effort” to restructuring proposals, the GAO said, but the health agency then “either did not act or acted slowly to implement recommendations.”
VHA did agree to implement the GAO’s recommendations, although the report provides reason for skepticism. Among its recommendations, the GAO said VHA should develop a process for recommendations to be evaluated for implementation. VHA agreed with the GAO.
Will VHA now develop a process to evaluate GAO recommendations about evaluating other recommendations before any recommendations are implemented?
Something needs to be done sooner rather than later.
Rep. Mark Takano (Calif.), the acting ranking Democrat on VA committee, said he was glad the agency accepted the GAO’s suggestions.
“Structural deficiencies are a root cause of inconsistency across the VHA,” he said. “For meaningful and needed improvements to take place, the VHA’s organizational structure must be capable of implementing and evaluating efforts to transform and modernize its operations.”
But that’s difficult when VHA provides limited monitoring of those efforts and “little implementation guidance,” according to the report.
Without adequate monitoring, the GAO added, “VHA cannot be certain that the changes being made are effectively addressing deficiencies; nor can it ensure lessons learned can be applied to future organizational structure changes.”
Pentagon Could Look to Close Bases Without BRAC Authorization
By: Aaron Mehta and Joe Gould, November 7, 2016 (Photo Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON – For several years, the Pentagon has been blocked by Congress in its request to begin another round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC). Now, facing an expected wave of modernization bills in the next decade, a top DoD official has suggested the building needs to look for alternative ways to shut down excess infrastructure.
Bob Hale, who served as Pentagon comptroller from 2009 to 2014, says that the five rounds of BRAC held since 1990 have resulted in savings of $12 billion dollars every year.
So how could a non-BRAC closure work? The Pentagon has some base closure capabilities that the Secretary can trigger, although Morin noted Congress can pass laws prohibiting those actions if it wishes – essentially, the situation that led to the creation of the BRAC process in the first place.
However, that legislation has not garnered much support, and most Republican members of Congress contacted by Defense News expressed iron-clad opposition to the idea that the Pentagon could move to close bases without a formal BRAC agreement — something they are not ready to give the department.
Pentagon to Congress: We Need Base Closures
HASC Readiness Subcommittee Chair Rob Wittman, R-Va., said DoD has historically cooperative relationship with Congress with regard to BRAC, which respects the process’s far-reaching implications for industry and communities that support the military. He condemned the idea of an end-run by DoD.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE November 9, 2016
VA Releases Major Report on Progress of “MyVA” Transformation Process Multi-year Effort Showing Measurable Improvements in Homelessness, Health Care, Claims
WASHINGTON – Today, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released a major update on the MyVA transformation, Secretary McDonald’s effort to transform VA into the top customer service agency in the federal government. This third edition of the program’s semi-annual report shows progress serving veterans with more services, in better time. “Guided by Veterans’ needs, we’ve left old, unresponsive ways of doing business behind,” writes Secretary Robert McDonald. “We’ve changed leadership. We’ve added staff. We’ve adjusted policies. We’re eliminating bureaucracy and unproductive work. We’re encouraging inno-vative approaches to serving Veterans, and we’re sharing best practices across the Department. In short, we’re making VA the high-performing organization that it can be, and that my fellow Veterans, expect and deserve.” Key results in the report include: Veteran trust of VA is on the rise. In June 2016, nearly 60% of veterans said they trust VA to fulfill our country’s commitment to Veterans – from 47% in December 2015. We are completing more appointments, faster. In FY 2016, VA completed nearly 58 million appointments – 1.2 million more than in FY 2015 and 3.2 million more than FY 2014. More of them are provided by a network of more than 350,000 community providers – a 45% increase in the number of providers since last year. Processing of disability claims is faster and more accurate, too. The average wait time to complete a claim has dropped by 65%, to 123 days. We completed nearly 1.3 million claims in FY 2016, and reduced pending claims by almost 90%. Urgent care is available when a Veteran needs it, and for non-urgent appointments, wait times are down. By September 2016, the average wait time for a completed appointment was down to less than 5 days for primary care, less than 7 days for specialty care, and less than 3 days for mental health care. Veteran homelessness has been cut in half; it’s down 47% since 2010 nationwide, thanks in part to VA’s work with nearly 4,000 public and private agencies. In the last 18 months, VA has facilitated dozens more collaborations, bringing in more than $300 million in investments and in-kind services to support America’s veterans. Quality is improving. 82% of VA facilities improved quality overall since the fourth quarter of FY 2015. The report details the changes and innovations, large and small, which produced these results. It also lays out a path forward for the agency – including an important role for Congress before the end of 2016.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE November 9, 2016
VA and Social Security Partner to Speed Up Disability Decisions for Veterans
WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) launched a new Health IT initiative that enables VA to share medical records electronically with social security disabilty processors. This secure process will save time and money resulting in better service for Veterans and dependents who apply for social security disability benefits. The SSA requests nearly 15 million medical records from health care organizations yearly to make medical decisions on about three million disability claims. For decades, SSA obtained medical records through a manual process. This new national initiative puts in place an automated process to obtain Veterans’ medical records entirely electronically. “VA’s partnership with Social Security will ultimately improve the quality of life for Veterans and their dependents by enabling Veterans to share their health information within a safe and secure health-related consumer application,” said Dr. David Shulkin, VA’s Under Secretary for Health. The joint venture is expected to significantly speed up social security disability decisions, utilizing VA’s VLER Health Exchange under the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record (VLER) Program. The VLER Health Exchange gives VA and participating community providers the ability to retrieve Veterans’ health information from each other for the purpose of treatment. Currently, VLER Health Exchange shares health data with over 79 community health care partners, representing 775 Hospitals, 427 Federally Qualified Health Centers, 142 Nursing Homes, 8441 Pharmacies and over 11,969 Clinics. The SSA now has access for the purpose of processing benefits for Veterans and their dependents. “This SSA-VA partnership is another example of VA’s leadership in interoperability efforts among federal partners,” said VA Secretary, Robert McDonald. “Increasing federal partnerships to improve operation and resource coordination across agencies is among VA’s 12 Breakthrough Priorities for 2016.” VA has partnership agreements with Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Treasury (DOT) among many others. To learn more about VA health care visit: www.va.gov/health.
Collaboration between DoD, VA Aims to Improve Initiatives for Women's Health
The Military Health System is highlighting the efforts of Health Affairs Women’s Health working group. Comprised of experts from the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs, the group addresses health-related concerns, needs and issues affecting a growing body of women both in the military and as they transition to VA.
Dr. Cara Krulewitch, director of Women’s Health Medical Ethics & Patient Advocacy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Health Affairs), said the group wants to ensure that there is a comprehensive approach to the health needs of a woman – from entry into the military to status as a veteran.
“We will find a better way to identify trends and what’s going on across the life cycle of our soldiers, airmen and seamen,” said Krulewitch. Communication between DoD, VA and the services will allow the group to share data and health perspectives to identify gaps that must be filled.
While men’s health is just as important as women’s health, women have specific needs that are different from those of men, she said, including the unique hygiene needs of women in a field environment.
“We want to ensure that we’re focusing on both [men’s and women’s health], even in simple things,” said Krulewitch. Contraception is a major topic for the group, but other areas of discussion include cancer screenings and reproductive and gynecological needs.
Colonel Nancy Parson, chief of the Army Medicine women’s health service line, said the group is response-oriented based on issues that have come forward from beneficiaries and Congress. In September, experts participated in a live question-and-answer session through Facebook, which allowed the experts to directly address questions and concerns voiced by beneficiaries.
“Sometimes we think of the [needs of a] younger soldier, but we’ve gotten some questions recently from some of our older female officers who are asking about things like menopause and urinary retention issues as they get older,” said Parson. This type of feedback can help guide the group’s discussions in the future, she said.
Through collaboration with the VA, the group will be able to gain a better understanding of the needs of women transitioning out of service, which will then impact the education and initiatives being provided to women now in the service, said Parson.
“We always want to educate people about how to complete preventive care in order to take care of themselves,” said Parson, stressing that they focus on areas to keep service members fit and ready. Officially chartered in June under the Health Executive Committee, the group plans to announce its first set of initiatives in 2017.
“Women will have seamless care throughout their entire military experience and career,” said Krulewitch.
VA launches nationwide study on the health of Vietnam Era Veterans
Researchers to invite 43,000 Vietnam-era Veterans to Participate
VA researchers are embarking on a new nationwide study to comprehensively evaluate the current health and overall well-being of Vietnam era Veterans as they age. This month, VA will begin recruiting participants for the Vietnam Era Health Retrospective Observational Study (VE-HEROeS).
“Through VE-HEROeS, VA will be able to answer questions about the long-term health consequences of Vietnam War service, provide VA clinicians with evidence to explain health conditions, and anticipate future needs for VA health care and services,” said Dr. Victoria Davey, VA Office of Research and Development staff member, senior researcher for Post Deployment Health Services, and principal investigator on this study.
Study Participant Selection
VE-HEROeS researchers will invite approximately 43,000 Vietnam-era Veterans, including Veterans who served in Vietnam during the Vietnam War and Veterans who served elsewhere during the war, to participate in this study by completing a questionnaire. Researchers will also invite a comparison group of approximately 11,000 members of the general population to participate and complete a similar questionnaire.
Researchers will begin mailing invitations to selected Veterans on November 2, and to invited members of the general population on November 10.
VA is scientifically selecting a sample of individuals for this study. These individuals will represent others with similar characteristics, so researchers cannot accept volunteers. All individuals who are selected for this study are encouraged to participate.
This study includes a questionnaire for everyone and medical records review for a smaller group of participants. The VE-HEROeS questionnaire includes the following topics:
Researchers will look closely at neurologic conditions and hepatitis C infection as a part of this study. Researchers will also describe the health of a population of Vietnam Veterans who served only in the Blue Water Navy and will ask Veterans about health conditions among their descendants that may have been inherited.
Vietnam Veterans have significantly contributed to the study development and planning by serving on the Steering Committee. Learn more about VE-HEROeS at http://www.publichealth.va.gov/epidemiology/studies/heroes/index.asp.
The number of veterans in Congress will likely drop again next year
The overall number of veterans serving in Congress will likely drop again next session, even as the number of lawmakers who fought in the recent wars continues to rise.
“We live in a dangerous world. I still think it matters to have lawmakers who served. But the population trends show a long-term reduction in the size of the veterans population for years to come.”