Defense and Veterans Roundup: Shinseki Done, Bergdahl Home, 1,700 Veterans Waiting for Appointments

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U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl freed in Taliban prisoner exchange

David Cloud (@DavidCloudLAT), Los Angeles Times. The Taliban released the only prisoner of war held from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on Saturday in a surprise action after almost five years in the hands of enemy forces. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl of Idaho was passed to U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan in exchange for five senior to mid-level Taliban leaders held in Guantanamo Bay in a deal brokered by the government of Qatar where the enemy combatants will live for one year as part of the agreement. News of the release was decidedly mixed in the U.S. as many questioned the idea of negotiating with the Taliban and amongst military ranks it quickly became obvious that much skepticism remains surrounding Bergdahl’s capture. There has never been an official explanation given by the Department of Defense on the circumstances of the young soldier’s disappearance from his base in eastern Afghanistan but it’s fairly common knowledge in the ranks that he left his weapon and military equipment behind and snuck off in the middle of the night. In an article in Rolling Stone magazine in 2012 late reporter Michael Hastings told of e-mails from Bergdahl to his parents expressing unhappiness with the U.S. and his departure from his base in the middle of the night. Thus news of his release has generated little enthusiasm in the ranks and a lot of grumbling. When Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel triumphantly announced the release to a hangar full of troops at Bagram airbase there wasn’t even a smatter of applause in the crowd. Senior officers tried to write it off to enlisted members being “intimidated by at visit by the Secretary of Defense” to the Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes. I’ve been in a lot of events with a couple of SecDefs and being intimidated has never been a factor for U.S. soldiers. There is no question that it’s good news that we no longer have a U.S. soldier in the hands of the enemy but we shouldn’t just discount the concerns of service members and veterans who are appalled that his apparent decision to desert his post cost the lives of other troops searching for him. In past wars such an act would have been cause for execution and for the good of the discipline and morale of the armed forces DoD must investigate the circumstances of his capture and explain it to those who served with misgivings of their own but did their duty. Anything less flies in the face of all the talk of military justice and ethos. –FPW

Hagel Orders Review of U.S. Military Health-Care System

David Lerman (@DavidLerman2), Bloomberg. In the wake of two deaths at Ft. Bragg’s Womack Army Medical Center the Secretary of Defense ordered a 90-day review of the U.S. military’s health system. The review to be led by Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, will focus specifically on access to care and on the quality treatment provided to service members and their families. The New York Times was first to report that the hospital commander was relieved after a soldier and a family member both in their twenties died in the last ten days after visiting the hospital’s emergency room. While a separate system than the much scrutinized Department of Veterans Affairs health system, the military network of 42 domestic inpatient hospitals serves some 9.6 million beneficiaries including uniformed military personnel, retirees, and their families. In addition, the review will include civilian providers that are contracted by DoD and Hagel will be given recommendations for improvements on any areas that fail to meet nationally defined or Pentagon-directed standards according to a statement from Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby. All of this points to the concern that DoD doesn’t want to fall into the same circular firing squad that VA finds itself in after reports of veterans dying while waiting for appointments on secret waiting lists. The military healthcare system generally meets with good reviews after years of expansion during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars but young adults dying of mysterious maladies are the kinds of stories that don’t get better so Hagel’s actions are a good call. –FPW

Army Commander Denies Knowing Escort Was a Minor

Guillermo Conteras, San Antonio Express-News. As defenses go to charges of engaging in sex trafficking as an Army officer it’s probably safe to say that claiming you didn’t know the prostitute you were with was a minor would be among the weakest to throw out there. Yet, that’s what National Guard Lt. Col. Raymond Valas finds himself offering after being denied bail in Syracuse, New York last week for charges of paying to have sex with a juvenile manipulated into prostitution in San Antonio, Texas. Army Times reports that Valas is charged along with three other men who orchestrated the prostitution ring that was uncovered when two 15-year old runaway girls were found held at a San Antonio motel. Valas is currently part of the U.S. Army War College’s National Security Fellows program where he attends Syracuse University and in 2012 commanded some 1,400 troops from several countries in El Salvador for a humanitarian assistance mission. For now he sits in jail with a career in tatters and likely facing extensive prison time. –FPW

IG: 1,700 Phoenix-Area Vets Omitted From Wait Lists

Patricia Kime (@patriciakime) and Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times. Thanks to the shortened week, the VA rollercoaster didn’t start up the perilous first hill until Wednesday afternoon when the VA inspector general released its interim report on the health care delays facing veterans. The IG’s report—called variously “disturbing”, “damning”, and “reprehensible”—found 1,700 veterans on a secret waiting list for health care appointments. The list had been created so hospital administrators could attain bonuses for meeting goals on wait times established by VA headquarters in Washington. On average, veterans were waiting 115 days to see their primacy care physicians, though the Phoenix VA was reporting that veterans were waiting only 24 days. While the interim IG report focused mainly on the issues in Phoenix, the report makes clear that the problems are not isolated, they are systemic. At least 42 VA facilities are now part of the IG’s probe into health care delays and mismanagement. The interim report convinced high-profile Republicans against Shinseki with Rep. Jeff Miller, the Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and Sen. John McCain that it was time for Shinseki to resign. –LJ

Late-Night Fireworks on Capitol Hill as VA Officials Face Congressional Ire

Chad Pergram, FOX News. It was an usual sight for a Wednesday night—or for most times: a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill. The afterhours session of the House Veterans Affairs Committee saw subpoenaed VA staffers on the Hill answering increasingly angry questions from lawmakers. It was a testy hearing that directed a lot of fire about the afternoon’s IG report to a few low-level VA Congressional liaisons who did their best to answer questions far above their pay grades. The four-hour plus hearing was more omen than truth-finding session as invective against VA and Shinseki coalesced on both sides of the aisle. By Thursday, the number of Representatives and Senators calling for Shinseki to resign grew to over 100 and included a number of dissatisfied Democrats facing reelection. Even the White House grew more tepid in its comments about Shinseki to include saying he was on “probation” until the systemic failures could be fixed. –LJ

Shinseki Resigns Amid VA Scandal Over Veterans’ Health Care

Greg Jaffe (@gregjaffe) and Ed O’Keefe (@edatpost), The Washington Post
Then it happened. Just a few hours after getting two standing ovations at ScoutComms’ client the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans’ annual conference during his final public appearance, Secretary Shinseki offered his resignation to President Obama. Shinseki feared his presence had become too much of a distraction from the very real problems facing the VA and veterans’ health care. Obama said he will nominate a new secretary in the days and weeks to come, but until then Sloan Gibson will take over as acting secretary. Gibson joined VA three months ago after being confirmed as Deputy VA Secretary, a position formerly held by Scott Gould. Gibson came to VA after a five-year stint at the USO and a long banking career before that. Gibson is a West Point graduate, an airborne-qualified Ranger tab holder, and former infantry officer. Shinseki leaves the VA having significantly decreased veteran homelessness, increased access to health care and disability for Vietnam veterans, and expanded educational opportunities for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Shinseki’s legacy will be that of a soldier who cared for his troops to the very end. –LJ

How the VA Developed Its Culture of Coverups
David Fahrenthold, The Washington Post. Doctor Shortage Is Cited in Delays at V.A. Hospitals Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Abby Goodnaugh, The New York Times. While we lament the departure of Secretary Shinseki and speculate about the VA’s future, these two articles delve into how the VA became the systemic mess it is today. Fahrenthold dives into the depths of the VA bureaucracy that meant Shinseki never learned of the problems in his nationwide health care system. VA’s reputation as a mind-bending bureaucracy dates back to its founding at the Veterans Bureau in 1921 when its first leader was a known crook who took kickbacks and stole from taxpayers. After he was caught, the bureaucracy was created to ensure another leader couldn’t take the same advantages. Fifteen years ago, VA leadership tried to reform the bureaucracy by using data to evaluate performance across a vast health care system. Today, those same performance measures are being used to cover-up the sad state of that health care. As early as 2005 the VA knew its mid- and low-level staff were “gaming” the system. In 2010 it sent a memo telling staff to stop using the workarounds. This seems to be something of a contradiction: obviously VA knew there was a problem, but what was being done to fix the culture that allowed staff to continue manipulating wait times? In the New York Times, reporters show that little was being done to ensure more doctors were available across the health system to treat the influx of patients. Demand for primary care appointments within VA have increased by 50 percent but the number of primary care doctors has only grown by 9 percent. Ultimately, there is no silver bullet for the complex challenges the VA health care system is facing. –LJ

With Shinseki Out, Who Will Obama Tap Next to Lead the Department of Veterans Affairs?

Gordon Lubold (@glubold) and John Hudson (@John_Hudson), Foreign Policy
While many experts have been quick to dispense with the conventional wisdom when asked about who might replace Shinseki, ScoutComms takes the pragmatic approach. Asked for comment, Lauren provided thoughts on why a military man or woman is necessary for the top job at VA. It would take a civilian with an enormous amount of credibility in the veterans and military space to lead VA, especially now. Veterans’ groups are going to be especially hard to win over in the current political climate. Some pundits are saying VA needs someone who has administered a health care system, but that simply shows a lack of understanding about the broad range of services provided by VA. The one thing we can all agree on: whoever takes over VA has one hell of a job ahead of them. –LJ

Tradeshows & Conferences

No major tradeshows or conferences. Next week is the CNAS annual conference and IVMF’s V-WISE in New York City.

View our full list of upcoming tradeshows

Congressional Hearings

The Senate is in session this week.


Small Business and Entrepreneurship: Examining military service to small business owner, focusing on supporting America’s veteran entrepreneurs  When: 3:00 PM, Wednesday, June 4, 2014 Where: 428A Russell

Veterans Affairs: To Examine Pending Legislation When: 10:00 AM, Thursday, June 5, 2014 Where: 418 Russell

Think Tanks & Other Events

Hill Vets: Monthly Happy Hour Who: DC-area veterans, Hill staff, and advocates (and Fred and Lauren!) When: 6:00 PM, Thursday, June 5, 2014 Where: Béarnaise, 315 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington, DC 20003

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 02, 2014 2:38 pm

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