Defense & Veterans Roundup: No One Wants to be VA Secretary, Congress Actually Compromises on Something

Posted by Fred Wellman

War’s Elite Tough Guys, Hesitant to Seek Healing

Thom Shanker (@ThomShanker) and Richard A. Oppel, Jr., New York Times. In the last two and a half years, 49 Special Operations members have committed suicide. This represents more than have killed themselves in the preceding five years combined and is now clearly recognized as a crisis in the ranks of the military’s warrior elite even as the numbers decline for the rest of the military. The very culture of their work has been a major factor as the ultra-competitive and ‘no weakness’ mentality leads operators to resist admitting they have a problem until discipline issues, domestic violence, and all too often, suicide consume them. Shanker and Oppel tell the tale of SFC Michael Lube who had been a rock-solid operator until after his fourth combat tour when he began drinking excessively and beating his wife. Even as she begged him to seek help he refused for fear of losing his security clearance and career in Special Forces and she even met resistance from his chain-of-command that told her to “keep it in the family”. Not told in the story are accusations that he committed other criminal offenses that he was charged with the day he put a gun to his head and left a note behind saying “I’m so goddamn tired of holding it together.” The causes of this spike go beyond cultural as well. Studies are leading researchers to believe that the quiet companion to these mental health challenges are repeated low-level concussions or Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries that are now being commonly called “breacher’s brain” for the repetitive uses of door breaching charges many front line operators use when executing raids to grab high level enemy leaders. All of this has Special Operations Command focusing heavily on addressing the rise and battling the stigma associated with seeking help. The battles of today’s wars won’t end when the last troops board the flights out of Kabul. –FPW

VA Denies 4 in 5 Gulf War Illness Claims, New Data Show

Patricia Kime (@PatriciaKime), Military Times. The Department of Veterans Affairs has been encouraging veterans who suffer from Gulf War illness symptoms to file claims for health care and benefits for a few years now but Patricia Kime has looked at new data that shows only about one in five of those applications are approved. What’s odd is that back in 2011 when VA last published data on Gulf War illness-related claims they had claimed that some 21,072 of 42,811 requests had been approved or just about 49% of all those that applied. Now new data provided to Congressman Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan says that only 11,216 of some 54,193 that have applied for Gulf War-related illnesses have been approved – a denial rate of 80% and a substantially lower number than previously reported approvals. VA didn’t provide any context to the changed numbers and only provided them after the Congressman asked and not when news outlets or veterans advocates had previously requested them. In the end it leaves advocates frustrated and angry as the entire issue reminds everyone of the decades long denial of illnesses associated with the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam that was only accepted in the last five years—more than 30 years after the war’s end. Gulf War syndrome remains a mystery but as we reported last week that many new veterans are suffering from “unspecified” medical conditions that are eerily similar to the first Gulf War veterans so we expect this issue isn’t going to end any time soon and VA will have to figure something out before yet another scandal slaps them in the face with untimely and preventable deaths of veterans. –FPW

Vet Unemployment Drops Again in May, Beating Nation’s Unemployment Rate

George Altman, Military Times. Unemployment hit yet another record low for post-9/11 veterans in the nation in May with a remarkable 5.3% rate for veterans of the newest generation marking another steady drop over the last three months. There is no doubt this continuing fall can be credited to the many efforts such as Get Skills to Work, Hiring Our Heroes from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the 100,000 Jobs Mission led by JP Morgan Chase and others that have pledged millions of jobs to transitioning service members and veterans. This month’s number is the lowest ever recorded for this generation of veterans and overall veteran unemployment was also a staggering 5%, close to which many economists refer to as the “natural unemployment” rate that an economy must maintain to have a supply of new workers to for an economy to run efficiently and avoid inflation. While the sample sizes are always small with veterans in the Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys, it is hard not to recognize that the employment situation is improving for veterans. What this means for companies is actually complicated. Next year the Office of Federal Contract Compliance has mandated that companies that do business with the federal government will have to make efforts to ensure 7.2% of their work force are veterans. The days of picking up any of the thousands of unemployed and talented veterans like shooting fish in a barrel may well be over. Companies are going to have to work harder now to find qualified veterans to meet OFCCP guidance and will probably find themselves competing with other companies for the best talent on the streets. So, easing the efforts to hire veterans and create veteran friendly workplaces is precisely the wrong idea now more than ever. –FPW

Exclusive: HUD Official Apologizes For Tweets Critical Of Bergdahl’s Unit

Evan McMorris-Santoro (@evanmcsan), BuzzFeed. Our friend Brandon Friedman (@BFriedmanDC) has earned his ability to speak on veterans issues as an Afghanistan and Iraq veteran with the 101st Airborne, acclaimed author, and founder of the social media effort at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He regularly comments on issues surrounding hot topics for veterans such as the benefits backlog and his disdain for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Unfortunately, Brandon also learned this week that at a certain level in an official government position you no longer have a “personal social media persona” but a professional one. He learned this the hard way when while riffing about the Bowe Bergdahl situation he surmised that perhaps Bergdahl’s unit was “long on psychopaths and short on leadership” on Twitter Wednesday night and it got ugly by morning when the Washington Post picked it up as “HUD official tweet: Was Bergdahl’s unit ‘long on psychopaths’?” Brandon is clearly not espousing an official position of the White House but it took about five seconds in this red-hot political environment for the President’s political opponents to paint it as yet another Obama administration dismissal of veterans. The lesson is a simple one. There is no longer a separation of personal and professional lives on the Internet. No amount of caveats in your Twitter profile about how it’s your own personal opinion or “retweets do not mean endorsement” will save you from saying something inappropriate in a politically charged atmosphere that might blow up on you as representing an official position. It’s no different for us here at ScoutComms representing our clients in a professional manner on both our personal and professional channels. Hopefully a good guy like Brandon survives this lesson. –FPW

Anger Explodes Over Treatment of Bergdahl’s Release as Veterans, Troops Call Him a Deserter

Hannah Allam (@HannahAllam) and Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy Washington Bureau. Bringing Bowe Bergdahl home has generated a storm of controversy. Senators and Representatives from both parties are up in arms, pundits are taking potshots at the Administration, service members and veterans are divided, and some real crazies have taken it so far that the FBI is now investigating death threats against the Bergdahl family. Some veterans and service members are upset about the pomp and circumstance given to Bergdahl’s release given that many consider him a deserter—though few of them would argue that Bergdahl should not have been brought home. Others are furious that troops died looking for Bergdahl. Ultimately, as Fred our fearless CEO notes in this piece, DOD did not sufficiently anticipate the internal communications disaster it had coming with the Bergdahl release. Wellman recommended that the Pentagon should have assured service members and families that an investigation would take place after Bergdahl’s health and safety were secured. Curiously, not too long after publication, the Pentagon did just that. Of course, the perpetual anger machine has already kicked into full gear and it looks like it may be too late for the White House or Pentagon to salvage this one. –LJ

Lamothe’s Checkpoint debuts

While Dan Lamothe has been busy writing front page stories at his new home The Washington Post, he didn’t forget his real job: starting the WaPo’s military blog. Checkpoint went live this week with stories on D-Day, Bergdahl, a Marine’s “Alive Day”, and even the CIA’s first Tweet. So far, so good! Expect to see contributors and more hard-hitting analysis in the future. –LJ

Acting VA Secretary: 18 Vets on Phoenix Wait List Died

Dennis Wagner, The Arizona Republic. While visiting the epicenter of the VA health care scandal, Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson confirmed that 18 veterans died while on the Phoenix VA Health Care System’s secret waiting list of more than 1,700 veterans. Investigators found 14 of the 18 veterans who died had contacted VA for “end of life” care indicating that these veterans were in need of acute care, but were also likely near death regardless of care. Gibson noted the VA is facing a “massive erosion of trust” among veterans and he is seeking to do his best to earn some of that trust back one veteran at a time. Part of the plan is transparency: today an internal audit of nationwide VA wait lists is expected to show more than 100,000 veterans waiting too long for health care appointments. Gibson says he also wants to change the culture of VA to one where bad news rises up the chain of command so problems don’t fester to the point of a system collapse. The VA culture of complacency has gotten so bad that the government is investigating 37 cases of VA retaliation against whistleblowers. Gibson and whoever comes after him has a difficult road ahead to gain the trust of veterans, VA employees, Congress, and taxpayers. –LJ

Senators Announce Deal to Address VA Problems

Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times. Many months ago, partisan bickering over Iran riders to a veterans’ bill and questions about how to pay for certain measures scuttled Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) attempts to pass an omnibus veterans bill largely supported by all of the major VSOs. In the fallout of the VA care delay scandal, both Democrats and Republicans (and, okay, an Independent) all raced to highlight their partisan measures intended to “fix” the VA. Then, a miracle occurred: Senators put party affiliation and personal politicking aside to compromise on a bipartisan VA reform bill. Sanders and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) led negotiations to write a bill that takes both sides’ reforms into account: veterans experiencing long wait times or in rural areas will be able to see private providers, VA will get $500 million to hire more doctors and nurses and authorization for 26 new medical facilities, and the VA secretary will have broader authorization to fire senior executives. Sanders also managed to sneak in a provision extending in-state tuition to all GI Bill users. The biggest hurdle will still be funding the reform bill—rather than use Overseas Contingency Operations funding as Sanders previously proposed, this bill would make an emergency appropriation, something not too kindly looked up in the budget hawkish House. –LJ

Many Ideas, but Few Names for VA Pick

Phil Ewing (@philewing) and Jeremy Herb (@JeremyHerb), Politico. How hard will it be to fill the VA Secretary job? At least one candidate asked by the White House to consider the post has said no and another in line to head the embattled Veterans Health Administration withdrew his nomination from Senate consideration this week. Perhaps sensing the difficulty of finding the right person, few VSOs or Senators who would have the final vote are willing to name names, but aren’t afraid to name traits the next Secretary should have. McCain, Maverick-y as ever, broke with his colleagues and named Sen. Tom Coburn as his pick for VA—a suggestion Coburn quickly swatted down as absurd. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) offered up Dr. John Rowe, former head of Aetna, as her pick but Dr. Rowe when reached for comment said he’d never given the idea any thought. Likely if he did, he would come to the conclusion that he should not pursue the position. As Politico notes, not only does the next VA Secretary have immediate concerns about veterans’ health care and VA culture to worry about, but VSOs have been busy compiling a long to-do list for him or her as well. While most veterans advocates have tried to be circumspect about who they would like to see head the department, that hasn’t kept a few from making out of left field suggestions like Gens. Mattis or McChrystal. If there one thing VA doesn’t need it’s more “Chaos”. The next VA Secretary will need to be able to make friends on both sides of the aisle in Congress while also winning a charm offensive inside VA and with veterans. Generals often come with a lot of political knowledge and experience from their own careers, but neither Mattis nor McChrystal are shining examples of that (and that’s what makes them popular.) –LJ

How Do VA Firings Compare to Government-Wide Firings?

Josh Hicks (@Reporter_Josh), The Washington Post. Ask most veterans and veterans advocates what is wrong with the VA and one of the first answers will be entrenched federal employees. A key component of VA reforms bills has been extending the authority of the VA Secretary to fire people. It’s currently so difficult to fire people that VA is still in the process of attempting to fire the leadership of the Phoenix VA Health Care System. The Phoenix leadership team is senior executives, though, and so on a totally different level than rank and file GS employees. According to federal workforce data, the Veterans Health Administration, the agency within VA that operates its vast network of health care resources, has outpaced the rest of the government in firing GS employees for cause over the last six years. VHA firings also make up a disproportionate number of firings within VA. So VA has been firing its low-level civil servants: in 2013, VA fired 2,247 employees for cause, more than any other government agency. Why do the issues continue to remain systemic? Perhaps because while turnover is higher than the rest of government, its still not high enough. Or, it’s perhaps because of the 2,247 people VA fired last year only two were senior executives. –LJ

Memories from Normandy

Clinton Riddle, George Batts, Joachim Dahms, and Ernest Côté, The New York Times
June 6 marked the 70th anniversary of Allied forces landing on the beaches at Normandy. That day, more than 150,000 troops bent the arc of history towards justice and eventually peace. In first person narratives, the New York Times captures four distinct stories from men who were there making history: American, Canadian, and German soldiers. With the Greatest Generation quickly passing on from this earth, every memory recounted is a special one. –LJ

The Lucky Few

Mike Hixenbaugh (@Mike_Hixenbaugh), The Virginian-Pilot
Hixenbaugh’s piece recounts how four men took very different paths to the same place: the beaches of France. It’s replete with wonderful anecdotes about 1940s paratroopers, training that would make a Ranger blanch, and “old-fashioned ‘energy drinks’” also known as whiskey. The seven part story is well worth the time investment and when you finish, you’ll feel like you know the men profiled. The Pilot is planning on bringing the area veterans and Hixenbaugh together for an event in August in Virginia Beach to reflect on their stories and the 70th anniversary. –LJ

Tradeshows & Conferences

Center for a New American Security Annual Conference (Wed, 11 June); Willard InterContinental, Washington, DC

Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (Fri-Sun, 13-15 June); Westin Times Square, New York, NY

View our full list of upcoming tradeshows.

Congressional Hearings

Both chambers are in session this week.


Veterans Affairs: Oversight Hearing on Data Manipulation and Access to VA Healthcare: Testimony from GAO, IG and VA Who: Dr. Debra A. Draper, Ph.D, Director, Health Care, U.S. Government Accountability Office, Mr. Philip Matkovsky, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Administrative Operations, Department of Veterans Affairs, Mr. Richard J. Griffin, Acting Inspector General, Department of Veterans Affairs, Ms. Linda A. Halliday, Assistant Inspector General for Audits and Evaluations, Department of Veterans Affairs When: 7:30 PM, Monday, June 9, 2014 Where: 334 Cannon

Appropriations: Full Committee Markup of FY15 Defense Appropriations Bill When: 9:30 AM, Tuesday, June 10, 2014 Where: 2359 Rayburn

Armed Services: The May 31, 2014 Transfer of Five Senior Taliban Detainees Who: The Honorable Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense, The Honorable Stephen Preston, General Counsel, U.S. Department of Defense When: 10:00 AM, Wednesday, June 11, 2014 Where: 2118 Rayburn

Veterans Affairs: An Examination of Bureaucratic Barriers to Care for Veterans When: 9:15 AM, Thursday, June 12, 2014 Where: 334 Cannon

Think Tanks & Other Events

The Brookings Institution: Moore’s Law Goes To War: How Can The Department Of Defense Keep Pace With Changes In IT? Who: Jacques Gansler, Director, Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise, University of Maryland School of Public Affairs, Andrew Hunter, Director, Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell, Department of Defense, Tom Sisti, Senior Director and Chief Legislative Counsel, SAP America, Jon Etherton, National Defense Industrial Association, Senior Fellow, Lt. Col. Dan Ward, Author, F.I.R.E: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation, United States Air Force When: 1:30 PM, Tuesday, June 10, 2014 Where: Falk Auditorium, The Brookings Institution, 1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20009

Fred WellmanFred Wellman, President ScoutComms, brings us his weekly review of defense industry and veteran news via The Scout Report. Fred served over twenty years as an Army officer in both aviation and public affairs. Follow Fred on Twitter @ScoutComms.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 09, 2014 3:59 pm

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