Veterans Roundup: Best for Vets Launches, Seek the Helpers, Emergency GI Bill Fix Approved, and More

Posted by Fred Wellman

These are not normal times for anyone
Fred Wellman (@FPWellman)

I wanted to find one good news story to analyze for you guys this week amid the Coronavirus outbreak and dramatic shifts in all of our lives. It proved nearly impossible. This is a cataclysmic moment for all of us and I simply didn’t want to add more to it. Instead, I wanted to tell you about the helpers and highlight some of the ways our incredible clients are taking action at this important moment. Soldiers’ Angels is prioritizing its Hunger Relief Program which hosts monthly Mobile Food Distributions to supply at-risk, homeless and low-income veteran families with food assistance. Their monthly food distribution events are held in Atlanta, Charleston, Denver, Detroit, Orlando and San Antonio. Soldiers’ Angels and their volunteers will be taking extra safety precautions while serving as many as 200 low-income, at-risk and homeless veteran families in each city. Each pre-registered veteran family in need will receive, on average, 75 lbs. of food, including fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and non-perishables. This amount of food could produce up to two weeks of meals for a family of four. Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation is quickly moving to assist their hundreds of student scholars who now find themselves heading home from school with looming questions about housing fees, extending their educations and unexpected costs that will need resolutions. Their staff is reaching out to their dozens of scholars to support them and ensure they continue to thrive in their educations. Brady is energizing their important End Family Fire coalition to remind gun owners that they need to safely store their weapons now more than ever as children are out of school and home all day. Often they may be unsupervised as parents try to work remotely so we urge every responsible gun owner to place their firearms in secure safes, boxes and absolutely add trigger locks with ammunition stored separately from the weapon. It’s bad enough we are fighting a deadly pandemic, let’s not lose more of our family members to unsecured firearms at home. Along that line we are worried about everyone’s mental health and our client Vets4Warriors has adjusted their operations to maintain 24/7 connectivity for veterans, service members and their families to reach out and find a peer to talk with before things become a crisis. They are available at Vets4Warriors: 1-855-838-8255 and we can’t urge you enough to call when you need an understanding ear to talk to. Those are just a few of the helpers we are privileged to support and we hope you will support them if you can financially as many fundraisers are being canceled but their missions are as important as ever. We will all get through this together.  -Fred Wellman, CEO and Founder at ScoutComms

Emergency fix for GI Bill payouts at colleges shuttered by coronavirus advances, but final passage uncertain
Military Times, Leo Shane III (@LeoShane)

Times are changing. Fast. The emergency flip to remote work and online learning platforms for k through 12 schools and colleges is forcing people to adapt quickly due to the practice of social distancing we have all been told is necessary in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. This means that key veterans advocacy groups like Student Veterans of America, along with around 70 others, made a mad dash to Congress to make sure that VA education benefits of currently enrolled student veterans are not disrupted amidst the rumbling chaos. As stated by the article, under existing rules for the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit, student veterans in online classes only receive half of the housing allowance as their on-campus peers. At issue, is that some student veterans would see a significant drop in the amount of their monthly benefits, which many use to offset their costs of living, including rent and food. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman, Jerry Moran (R-KA), helped move a measure that would update language allowing for GI Bill payments to continue uninterrupted in the event of national emergencies. The measure passed without any objection in just a couple of days this past Wednesday. As an extension to this story, it is important to note that the bill also passed the House and is now on to the president’s desk for signing. The quickness to act at this time by both veteran’s service organizations and Congress provided some light to student veterans in this dark time. Acts of care, compassion and community action are going to continue to be necessary as we are already experiencing a tidal wave of uncertainty covering us all. The ground may feel unstable right now, but we can’t forget that we are people of incredible strength. Sometimes I think we all need a reminder of just how strong and brave we are. Let’s weather this storm together, take care of each other the best we can and put our heads together and virtually innovate. We got this. –Kiersten Downs, PhD, Research Director at ScoutComms

A West Point football player got hooked on pain pills. Now he owes the U.S. $300K.
NBC News, Rich Schapiro (@richschapiro)

Jared Rogers, a former West Point senior football player, had a future planned out. Rogers was going to finish strong as a valuable defensive player on the Army Black Knights football team, serve his country in the military and then pursue his career in engineering. Instead, Rogers’ secret that he had been addicted to opioid pain pills came out, and the then 23-year-old cadet’s life had been spun on its head. Though his addiction had been something that he had kept secret for a long time, an accusation that the military made against him caught Rogers by surprise. Jared Rogers was accused of participating in a drug ring, an action that Rogers has stated he has never been a part of. He was able to strike a deal to resign from the academy and avoid military trial, as well as incarceration. However, this was not the last of the case. Rogers was given an other than honorable discharge, as well as an order to repay the U.S. government $256,000. A review of Rogers’ investigative reports and charging file revealed that he was not accused of selling drugs. In fact, the charges were for lending his car to a fellow cadet, who used it to transport drugs to campus, that included the pain pills that Rogers had developed his addiction to. This case brings into question how academies such as West Point, and the Army at large, are equipped to handle cadets that are suffering from addiction. There are conflicting views on drug addiction, some more progressive and others seemingly outdated, that do not work together to create a probable solution. Rogers’ case showcases the hardships that addicts and their families face regularly. He is currently at home and still attempting to jump-start his career, though the process has not been an easy one. His debt continues to rise due to this case, and is now over $330,000.

National Guard activated to combat coronavirus spread in six states, more to follow.
Military Times, Dylan Gresik (@DylanGresik)

The governors of Florida, Iowa, Luisiana, New York, Rhode Island and Washington have all activated the National Guard to assist in the growing coronavirus pandemic. They are currently training personnel in COVID-19 response, as well as providing assistance in the forms of logistical support, disinfection/cleaning, active/conduct transportation of medical personnel, call center support and meal delivery. When a state governor activates the National Guard under “State Active Duty” status, the guardsmen remain in “command and control” of the governor and are sourced and paid by the state. In a multi-state emergency, governors may activate the guardsmen to assist other states as well, though no state has currently enacted this yet. The National Guard has unique capabilities and resources that can help local first responders in their service and response to combating COVID-19, making their assistance in the pandemic necessary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the lead federal agency tasked with combating the spread of COVID-19. According to the CDC, there have now been over 1,600 confirmed cases and 41 deaths due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Congress wants answers on contamination at former US air base in Uzbekistan
Military Times, Patricia Kime (@patriciakime)

Congressional committees are trying to push the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to release documents detailing toxic pollutants at Karshi-Khanabad Air Base (K2) used by U.S. troops during the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., chairwoman of the House Veterans Affairs Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee, is also requesting data on veterans claiming illness possibly related to their time on the air base. This push stems from a study claiming that K2 veterans were five times more likely to develop some cancers and other illnesses than veterans who were assigned at other bases. There were also numerous reports of chemical and radiation exposure, and Luria is concerned that the VA has yet to address this potential exposure that most likely caused multiple cancer developments, and even deaths. The Defense Department has not answered any questions or requests related to this subject. Luria stated that K2 veterans can seek a medical exam from their primary care providers and are eligible to participate in the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry to document their health concerns. She is giving both departments until March 27 to respond. 

Unions seek more protection for VA employees after workers test positive for coronavirus
Stars and Stripes, Nikki Wentling (@nikkiwentling)

With recent efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, federal unions are calling on VA officials to better protect their employees following reports that some have tested positive for coronavirus. Five unions representing 350,000 VA workers wrote to the agency, urging them to better prepare and communicate their intentions and next steps in the process, as the response to the virus has not been well communicated with employees. As many of these health care professionals need to continue to go out into their daily lives in order to help serve those suffering, their protection needs to be increased in the event that they contract COVID-19. They called for more training on how the VA staff could remain safe from the virus, as well as a move that any VA employee who has contracted the virus should be placed on precautionary leave for at least two weeks, while maintaining pay and benefits. The VA also has a mission to provide emergency medical care to all Americans in times of crisis. 

Retired Army pilot testifies that daughter’s death likely linked to firefighting foam used by military
Stars and Stripes, Corey Dickstein (@CDicksteinDC)

Keala Holmes, daughter of retired Army pilot Jim Holmes, died in March 2019, just days after her birthday. The cause of the 17-year-old’s death was a rare brain cancer that her father believes is related to drinking water contaminated by firefighting foam that has been used for decades at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, the home of his family for 16 years. Holmes has disclosed a feeling of deep betrayal, stating that he “lost my only child due to being poisoned by the same military that I faithfully served and fought for.” Holmes appeared before House lawmakers to advocate for a stronger Pentagon response to the toxic foam called AFFF that he believes caused his daughter’s death. He stated that, in the 16 years his family had lived near Patrick Air Force Base, he was never warned about the manmade chemicals that had contaminated the water in the area. In recent years, Congress and the Pentagon have taken steps to clean up years of contamination and have banned the use of AFFF except in exterminating real fires. It is expected that by the year 2024, they will have found a replacement, eliminating the problematic foams from being used. However, though many bases were receiving this care, it was reported that Patrick Air Force Base was not one of them. Holmes has demanded that the Pentagon provide water treatment to the communities around the base, and that they share information of the potentially contaminated water with the families living in the area. 

Dept. of Defense implements domestic travel ban
Military Times, Leo Shane III (@LeoShane)

In an attempt to limit service members’ exposure to the coronavirus, the Pentagon announced a complete domestic travel ban for all troops and their families effective from March 16 until May 11. The memo that announced the travel ban explained that the “restrictions are necessary to preserve force readiness, limit the continuing spread of the virus, and preserve the health and welfare of service members…and [their] local communities.” While officials noted exceptions may be made to allow patients and medical providers to travel with their families, the exceptions are expected to be “limited in number.” The travel restrictions are also expected to affect Department of Defense hiring practices, as “DoD components may only onboard civilian employees within the local commuting area.”

Understaffed Veterans Affairs scrambles to confront COVID-19
Reveal News, Aaron Glantz (@Aaron_Glantz)

The VA recently announced screening processes for everyone who enters its facilities and adopted a no-visitors policy for all of its nursing homes, in addition to emailing veterans who use VA health systems with messages urging them to “keep hands clean” and inform VA health staffers of recent travel or symptoms. These measures come on the heels of data published by the VA showing that the agency is short about 44,000 health staffers, “including physicians and registered nurses,” and that “the agency’s emergency cache of medicine is in disarray and there are only limited numbers of coronavirus tests available for patients and staff.” VA workers across multiple labor unions have voiced concerns that the new screening processes do not go far enough, as “staff in [VA] facilities received no testing beyond the four-question survey.” Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, noted in a statement that the VA is putting its healthcare workers at risk as well as the veterans they care for, saying, “It is clear from the administration’s utter lack of preparation at the Veterans Health Administration that they have not taken the steps necessary to protect health care workers charged with caring for our nation’s cherished veterans.” 

VA’s mission to see civilian patients in times of crisis vanished from its website
The Washington Post, Alex Horton (@AlexHortonTX)

The VA’s “fourth mandate” to “absorb non-veteran civilian or military patients in the event that hospitals overflow in an emergency”–such as in pandemics like the coronavirus–reportedly disappeared from its website amid a growing fear nationwide that the virus could “overload civilian hospitals.” Though the VA has historically deployed its medical resources to aid both civilians and veterans after natural disasters and other emergencies, a former nurse practitioner at the Memphis VA medical center commented that the VA “has appeared to focus less on emergency planning and training since the Trump administration began.” Kristofer Goldsmith, the associate director of policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America, characterized the move as “Orwellian” and said, “This is a national security issue. It’s really frightening to see the administration apparently trying to purge [the VA’s fourth mandate] from America’s memory.” 

VA Home Loan Relief for Those Impacted by COVID-19, Jim Absher

The VA asked home loan lenders to “offer relief” to veterans impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, including “making every effort to…conduct all necessary meetings by telephone or other electronic methods.” The VA has also reportedly urged lenders to “ease the financial burden” faced by veterans during the pandemic, including encouraging them to “liberally apply” existing measures designed to stave off foreclosures and allowing “leeway” for veterans unable to make mortgage payments. Several large mortgage companies that specifically work with veterans have already stated that they will shift their practices to meet veterans’ needs during the “economic fallout” of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Senators press VA about preparedness for coronavirus pandemic
Stars and Stripes, Nikki Wentling (@nikkiwentling)

After the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled COVID-19 a pandemic and President Trump subsequently declared a national emergency, a group of Democratic and Independent senators pressed the Department of Veterans Affairs for information on how the agency is fulfilling its mandate “to improve the nation’s preparedness for response to war, terrorism, national emergencies and national disasters.” The senators questioned the VA’s resources including respiratory equipment, N95 respirator masks and “emergency caches of drugs and medical supplies” that could be needed in a “crisis” where the VA is called to “act as medical backup.” A 2018 report by the VA Office of the Inspector General found that the VA’s stores “contained expired drugs” and that “[officials] gave no assurances that the cache is ready to mobilize in the event of an emergency.” However, a recent letter to lawmakers by Richard Stone, the executive in charge of the VA, noted that the VA does in fact have “proper equipment and supplies necessary to treat veterans;” further adding that the VA may need to seek additional Congressional appropriations to access resources necessary for the treatment of coronavirus.

Fred Wellman

Fred Wellman, CEO and Founder of 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

This entry was posted on Monday, March 23, 2020 7:37 pm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of updates to this conversation