Veterans Roundup: VA Choice Extended, How the White House is Approaching Women in the Military, VA Accountability and More

Karen Pence Emerges As the Trump Administration’s Liaison to Military Women

Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times
Karen Pence has made it her mission to tell the stories of military women, spouses and families using her public platform. As a Blue Star Mother, Pence understands the sacrifices that military families must endure to support their serving loved one. While Pence wants to honor women who serve, many women’s rights groups question whether the Trump Administration is actively addressing sexual harassment and integrating women in combat positions and whether the administration can be an advocate for military women’s issues. Pence has been hosting events at different bases to speak to her audience, but has not addressed specific policy discussions.–DD
Bottom line: Second Lady Karen Pence deserves kudos for helping maintain a focus on the softer side of military and veteran issues in the wake of the end of the Joining Forces Initiative. As a Blue Star Mother, her personal ability to understand the challenges facing those who serve is unquestioned, and she clearly cares about service women and military families. At the same time, she is only a partial solution for the Trump Administration, as her desire to avoid engaging on the actual issues that matter right now to women in and around the military minimizes her ability to effect positive change. In her current stance, she is engaging only on the human level, not the policy level, unlike Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, whose Joining Forces Initiative sought to create positive change in the military community through the bully pulpits available to the First Lady and the Second Lady. Pence is still the most viable liaison in the Administration to military women and military spouses, but her ability to bridge gaps and create real trust will remain limited so long as she remains focused on creating personal bonds without touching on professional concerns. –BW

Congress Extends VA Choice Program
J. P. Lawrence (@JPlawrence3), San Antonio Express
Last week, Congress voted to continue the Veterans Choice program, extending it past the program’s original August 2017 deadline. VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin said this deadline created issues with the program’s implementation, asserting that failure to extend it would be a “disaster for veterans.” While acknowledging it is not a perfect program, most veteran advocates support its efforts to offer more options for healthcare. –KB 
Bottom line: There is no downside in continuing a program that has money left in its operating account and is making strides to help veterans find healthcare when they need it. Hopefully, the longer timeline will allow Dr. Shulkin and his agency time to make adjustments to the program that was hurriedly rolled out and is still being adjusted to meet its ambitious goals of reduced wait times and efficiency. The problems veterans are facing in seeking healthcare in the private sector isn’t surprising to many Americans who have their own health insurance. Many military Tricare beneficiaries often face the same hurdles as they seek healthcare outside the military’s network of facilities. Hopefully, the extra time given to VA Choice will lead to greater efficiencies and it remains a suitable option for veterans and isn’t a step to truly privatizing healthcare for them instead. –FPW

Some VAs Are Dropping Veteran Caregivers from Their Rolls
Quil Lawrence (@QuilLawrence), NPR
Veteran caregivers nationwide are being dropped from the VA caregiver program. Jim Graham was a Navy corpsman for 13 years. A mortar blast killed his best friend and gave him a traumatic brain injury and years of post-traumatic stress. His wife Alishia has been his caregiver ever since, and they rely on the VA caregivers program to provide a stipend to cover the cost of caregiving. The VA denies any cuts to the size or funding of the caregiver program stating that they have expanded the number of caregivers over the years. –JG
Bottom line: There are few issues more challenging than those surrounding our military caregivers today. The VA has made huge strides in recognizing their challenges and setting up programs to support them while working with outside organizations like our friends at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. The VA’s Meg Kabat is as dedicated a public servant as you could find, but the caregiver program has been fraught with challenges, internal and external, from its start because it is only for Post-9/11 veterans and what are the clinical definitions for when a veteran needs a full or part-time caregiver. A number of very public fraud cases made things all the more difficult as VA began carefully looking at the clinical needs of each veteran and more veterans found themselves pushed out of the program parameters. Much like Choice, the devil is in the details with these programs. Clearly defined parameters that are enforced across all VA locations and staffing to manage the programs are probably the near term targets for advocates and policymakers as this vital community is serviced and supported. –FPW

Concerns Linger over Veterans Crisis Line Operations Despite Improvements
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times 
Although the number of calls going unanswered at the Veterans Crisis Line call center has gone down dramatically, recent VA Inspector General reports show that there is still work to be done. House Veterans Affairs Committee lawmakers say this is an area where there is little room for mismanagement – an overall concern for the committee with the VA. –KB 
Bottom line: The good news is that lawmakers and the VA IG (and the media) continues to keep an eye on how the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) is performing and recommending improvements along the way. If the VCL is a microcosm of the management issues VA faces across the board, then it is prudent that a suicide prevention mechanism is the focus for broad impact. Lessons learned with VCL should be applied where appropriate across the board at VA. Yet, the biggest mistake VA leaders and lawmakers could make would be to focus on the VCL as the main suicide intervention available to veterans. While it is certainly an important frontline program, neither VA nor lawmakers should lose sight of the fact that there are many other ways for VA to improve in suicide prevention than increasing the number of calls answered by VCL staff. We’re optimistic that VCL lessons can be applied within the crisis center and to other programs, but we also are firm believers that improvements in mental health must also be made elsewhere. –LJ

Citing Porn Watcher, VA Secretary Begs Congress for More Firing Authority
Eric Katz (@EricM_Katz), Government Executive
Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin is frustrated with personnel policies that reduce the effectiveness and timeliness of terminating employees at the VA. Recently, it was discovered that a Houston VA medical center employee viewed pornography while with a patient. The employee has since been placed on paid administrative leave because current policy requires the VA to provide 30 days’ notice before firing a worker. Proponents of these policies say that removing them would be an attack on federal government union workers’ rights. However, Shulkin said that he will work with the House and the Senate to develop new accountability legislation to remove inhibitory standards like this. –JG
Bottom line: I have had five non-military employers in 11 years. In every job, I was an at-will employee who could be fired at any time. My only recourse would be to challenge the decision post facto by citing a firing process that violated state or federal laws. Thus, it is a bit difficult for me to have any sympathy for people who watch porn at work, and who cannot be immediately terminated for cause because of restrictions on firing authority. I certainly understand the arguments made by the federal government employees’ union, and can sympathize with them, but given how long the issue of firing authority has been a thorn in the VA’s side, I believe that the best decision right now is a negotiated retreat that empowers the VA to more rapidly and simply fire underperforming and misbehaving employees, while ensuring that a robust and well-resourced appeals process remains available for those who feel that they have been unfairly fired. The VA has been embarrassed far too many times for an agency under the congressional microscope by its inability to fire employees who create scandals. The key to a long-term solution is to pass narrow legislation that focuses on streamlining and speeding up the termination and appeals process. There is middle ground to be found that will benefit the VA and reward those employees who work hard by removing those who negatively impact the VA’s ability to support and serve America’s veterans. –BW

Advocates See More Work Ahead for Integrating Women in Combat, Military Roles
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Military Times 
A briefing on the status of combat integration this past Wednesday brought officials from different organizations together to talk about the matter. Speakers included Ellen Haring, Director of the Service Women’s Institute for client the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). The briefing, which was sponsored by SWAN and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), addressed multiple factors contributing to the slow process of full integration of women into combat units. –KB

Trump Welcomes Wounded Veterans to the White House
Military Times (@MilitaryTimes)
Wounded Warrior Project’s annual Soldier Ride event was hosted at the White House last week. The four-day event uses cycling to bring wounded service members and veterans together to overcome physical, mental or emotional wounds. President Trump addressed the service members and veterans and hopes to continue to participate in the event for the next seven years. –DD

Building a War Monument Isn’t Easy
Jeanette Steele (@jensteeley), The San Diego Union-Tribune
As of now, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for the Global War on Terror. Andrew Brennan, a former Army pilot, and others from the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation, don’t want to wait decades for a monument dedicated to the sacrifices made by post-9/11 veterans and active service members. His goal is to raise enough money to erect a memorial on the National Mall by 2024. –AB

Facts & Figures – “Talent Hiding in Plain Sight”: The Success of Student Veterans
The Association of American Colleges & Universities
The National Veteran Education Success Tracker (NVEST) published by Student Veterans of America analyzed data from 853,111 records at the Department of Veterans Affairs to identify trends within the post-9/11 GI Bill student population, including high graduation rates among veterans. This study helps paint a more detailed picture of student veterans and what factors are most critical to their success.  ­–JG

Marines Slow in Integrating Women into Combat Arms Jobs
Dianna Cahn (@DiannaCahn), Stars and Stripes
A year after then-Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter announced the full integration of women into combat units, the U.S. Marine Corps is still resisting the policy through implementing de facto barriers according to critics at a briefing this past Wednesday. The briefing, which was held by client; the Service Women’s Action Network in conjunction with the National Women’s Law Center and the ACLU, addressed many of these barriers stating that the Army has far outpaced the Marines in this endeavor. –KB

Veteran Tickets Foundation Sending Two Lucky Veterans to Final Four NCAA Basketball Championship Game
Veteran Tickets Foundation (@VetTix), Vet Tix Press Room
National nonprofit Veteran Tickets Foundation (Vet Tix) sent two lucky VetTixers to the NCAA March Madness Championship game in Phoenix, AZ. Vet Tix provides currently serving military, veterans and their families with free tickets at a discounted price to community events. The tickets were donated by a local Phoenix company, Salt River Project, and sent a Navy and Air Force veteran to witness the North Carolina Tar Heels battle it out against Gonzaga. –DD

“We Can Care for Them Right Now Or Bury Them Right Now. We Must Choose Right Now.”
Kate Van Name, Warrior Centric Health, LLC
Our friends at Warrior Centric Health announced a significant hire this week with recently retired Army Colonel Joseph Simonelli joining the growing firm as the new Vice President of Sales, Business Development, and Government Affairs with the Maryland-based firm. Simonelli last served as the Chief of Staff at Arlington National Cemetery after a distinguished career of 30 years of service. Both he and WHC Co-founder Ron Steptoe are West Point classmates of our CEO Fred Wellman. –FPW

VA Secretary Makes Strides to Improve Veterans’ Experience
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (@DeptVetAffairs)
VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin appointed Lynda Davis, PhD, as Chief Veterans Experience Officer (VEO). As VEO, Davis will advise Shulkin and Senior Leaders of the VA to ensure the voices of veterans, military families, caregivers and survivors are heard and will work to improve access to care and benefits. In Davis’ previous positions, she served as a Senior Leader of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Military Community and Family policy. –DD

Dana W. White Tapped for Pentagon Press Position
Aaron Mehta (@AaronMehta), Defense News
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has chosen a former staffer to Sen. John McCain, Dana W. White to become the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. She joins retired Army Col. Steve Warren on the growing Public Affairs team at the VA. White comes from a background in Public Affairs and policy jobs, including a program accounts job at Northrop Grumman. –JG

Tradeshows & Conferences:

SPIE: Defense + Commercial Sensing 2017 (DCS) (Sun – Thur, April 9-13, 2017); Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim, CA

Marine Military Expos: Marine South 2017  (Wed – Thur, April 12-13, 2017); Goettge Memorial Field House, Camp Lejeune, NC

Congressional Hearings:
None this week.

Other Events & Opportunities
High Ground Veterans Advocacy: Summer 2017 Fellowship Class Applications
Who: Service members and veterans around the country
When: Applications are open until April 20, 2017; Training June 4-10, 2017

Fred Wellman, President of ScoutComms

Fred Wellman, President ScoutComms, brings us his weekly review of 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.