Veterans Roundup: New Year and New VA Issues, Preventing Veteran Suicide, Military Personnel Changes

Posted by Fred Wellman

Suicide Claims 14th Marine from a Unit Battered by Loss
Dave Philipps (@David_Philipps), The New York Times
On December 9th, the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, lost its 14th member to suicide since 2008, when the unit returned from a tour in Afghanistan with many casualties. Advocates say that many veterans, like those from the 2/7, fall through the cracks after leaving the military. Dave Philipps tells the story and explores the issue of suicide among veterans in a recent article. –MC
Bottom line: While activism around ending veteran suicide has created broad awareness about grim statistics, it was Philipps’ first piece on the 2/7 back in September that put human faces to the ongoing struggle that is preventing suicide among young veterans. It was a story that should have driven action—but perhaps too many had already declared victory. The fourth post-redeployment suicide among the men of the 2/7 was Clay Hunt, a veterans advocate and humanitarian, who later would be the namesake for a law intended to provide better mental health care for veterans. The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act should have been a first step, not the final one, in improving mechanisms to prevent suicide and treat mental health issues. Philipps’ tragic update on the 2/7, that in December Tyler Schlagel was the latest victim and that another Marine had attempted suicide, but was saved by the unit’s own quick reaction force, is yet another reminder that more must be done. That means the government must continue funding research, expanding access, and forming partnerships; non-profit organizations must support grassroots efforts like the one started by the 2/7 and also provide services with proven results; and the private sector can do more than just support non-profits, it can transform the way it supports transitioning veterans to ensure they have access to support systems. And of course everyday Americans can provide the networks and services to ensure when veterans come home, they reenter communities not as strangers, but as neighbors. –LJ

VA: Claims Backlog Is Better, but Is Never Going Away
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times
The Department of Veterans Affairs closed out 2015 with the lowest level of backlogged disability claims in six years, but did not come close to reaching its goal of zero. The progress that has been made to date is the result of caseworkers’ overtime, process updates, and computer upgrades. While VA is undertaking efforts on everything from the backlog to healthcare, some veterans say they are still unable to access adequate care and no longer trust the system. –MC
Bottom line: While the VA and its leadership takes a lot of heat for both statistical and anecdotal problems—veterans unable to see a doctor, bungled treatments, and executives run amok—we should all take a moment to reflect on the fact that the number of backlogged disability claims has plummeted in the last few years as the renewed energy of Secretary Bob McDonald and increased Congressional funding has trickled down through the VA. While the number of backlogged disability claims is still far from zero—and while there has been a concurrent but not equal increase in appeals during the same time period—it no longer feels like Secretary Bob is piloting a stalled airplane. So before we move on to the next round of “Secretary said, Chairman said” in the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, let’s all take a moment to express our gratitude that the VA can learn new tricks, and to pray to whatever deity or administration official we believe in that this is not the last time in 2016 that we credit the VA with achieving notable, measurable improvements. –BW

A Case of VA Fraud, or an Exaggeration?
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times
Two VA executives, Diana Rubens and Kimberly Graves, have been accused of abusing their positions and stealing $400,000 in government funds, according to a report by the inspector general. Lawmakers have called these actions criminal offenses but the VA sees it as a management problem and the Department of Justice declined to prosecute. The VA was also accused last week of violations in handling veterans’ private records. –MC
Bottom line: Leo’s latest story on the middle management problems at the VA highlights the challenges inherent in any bureaucracy where employees have protections beyond at-will employment. Employees don’t get fired at the slightest hint of impropriety, which is both an individual protection and an organizational burden. The story as it has been reported in recent months is not a positive one for the VA, no matter if you prefer to believe the VA’s own investigation over the IG investigation. Yet it is hard to spend too much time venting angrily about these two specific employees; they are one very small story within the broader continuum of challenges that the VA still must tackle at the national, regional and local levels to improve veterans’ access to timely, quality care. If the VA does not continue to see improvement, it’s handling of this case may prove to be one nail in the current leadership’s eventual coffin. But if the VA leadership—including Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson, who defended the VA’s handling of the situation—can improve the organization’s overall effectiveness, these two women will be nothing more than a footnote. –BW

Insurance for Reproductive Services Leaves Some Veterans Behind
Patti Borda Mullins (@FNP_Patti), The Frederick News-Post
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, and Kevin Jaye, a combat-wounded Army veteran, are working together to get Congress to change the reproductive services available to veterans. After becoming wounded in Afghanistan, Kevin married his wife, Lauren, and wanted to start a family. But since Kevin had transitioned from military to VA health care, the necessary reproductive services were no longer available to them. An old law prevents VA from offering certain IVF services to veterans. –MC
Bottom line: This issue keeps coming up in different forms from the recent news of the first U.S. penis transplant to this issue of VA not being able to cover reproductive services like IVF due to laws passed years ago by conservative Congress members concerned with the discarding of unused embryos. In an odd twist, the Department of Defense isn’t under the same restrictions and covers IVF, but once a wounded service member becomes a veteran the rules change. It’s not a comfortable topic to discuss anytime but allowing our veterans to have families is simply common sense and cobbling together nonprofits and donors to cover this simple human need seems silly and unnecessary. We hope that 2016 is the year that Congress gets it together and authorizes and funds support for reproductive support for veterans and their families. –FPW

Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s Historic Changes Irk Generals
Tom Vanden Brook (@tvandenbrook), USA Today
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has made significant changes to the military since taking office in February to include opening all combat positions to women, allowing transgender troops to serve, and establishing a 401(k) style plan for service members. However, Carter’s changes are unpopular among senior officers, and many believe troops have been required to accept too much social change in a short amount of time. –MC
Bottom line: There is little room to argue that Secretary Carter has been a significant change agent in a short time at the Pentagon. While many of the changes he has implemented were long in the works, like the massive retirement overhaul, it will always be his name on the history books that signed the final guidance and made the tough calls like opening all military positions to women. Change is hard. Change is often incredibly painful in an organization that is the most tradition bound like the uniformed military. It will not be easy and it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s irritating both generals and rank and file service members. But, that is just how it is. There is never a good time to change. There is always a war just ending, a crisis unfolding, or an impending action in the modern era. The old “pull the band-aid” approach sometimes is the only solution. The important thing is that 2016 could be even bigger. Congress has its eyes on Tricare “reform”, changes to the Commissary system and the DoD will be implementing the opening of combat jobs to women among others. We hope that our fellow advocates, military support organizations, and veterans service organizations are ready to do what needs to be done to support change but ensure that the rush to “reform” doesn’t destroy the overall quality of the U.S. Armed Forces. –FPW

Female WWII Pilots Barred from Arlington National Cemetery
Matthew Barakat (@MattBarakat), The Associated Press
Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) played an important role during World War II. These female pilots flew noncombat missions to free up males for combat missions. They were granted veteran status back in 1977 and since 2002 had been eligible to have their ashes placed at Arlington National Cemetery. But last year, former Secretary of the Army John McHugh reversed this decision and declared a large number of WWII-era veterans, including WASPs, ineligible. Now the family of Elaine Harmon, who served as a WASP, is working to change this decision and gain the rights to place her ashes at Arlington. –MC
Bottom line: While many of the stories about McHugh’s decision have focused on the small number of WASPs who will no longer be eligible for inurnment, a far greater number of Merchant Marines who served during WWII are impacted by the change. Due to space constraints at Arlington, Army officials have been looking for ways to limit eligibility. Excluding “active duty designees” from WWII cleared hundreds of thousands of potential placements off the books, but critics of the move say with so few WWI veterans remaining, the strain on the cemetery would be minimal. From a bureaucratic standpoint, it makes sense and halts a potentially slippery slope. From a PR standpoint, it doesn’t look great for the Army—particularly at a time with so many military families questioning how their benefits might change down the road. The takeaway here is that the military has to get better at communicating with its families and their descendants. –LJ

8 Surprising Ways Vets Are Helping Vets
J Jon R. Anderson (@GengisJon) and Amanda Miller (@agkmiller), Military Times
Among the eight unexpected ways military veterans are giving back to their communities is through the work of our pro bono client, No One Left Behind. No One Left Behind is an organization founded by Matt Zeller, an Army veteran, which supports former Iraqi and Afghan interpreters and their families as they resettle in the U.S. –MC

Overcoming the Odds: Jesse Reising Busy Writing His Success Story
Justin Conn (@jconnHR), Herald & Review
Jesse Reising was a football player at Yale who intended on becoming a Marine but he was injured during the final game of his senior season. Reising didn’t let that stop him from serving his country. He went on to help found the Warrior-Scholar Project, and organization that helps veterans prepare for the transition to student life. –MC

Quick Hits:

Student Vets’ Members & CEO on Club’s Mission & Upcoming NatCon
George Altman (@George_Altman), Military Times
Jared Lyon of Student Veterans of America sat down with Military Times last week to talk about the organization’s mission, efforts to assist student veterans, and the upcoming National Conference. –MC

Some Military Discharges Mean no Benefits After Service Ends
Jim Salter, The Associated Press
Veterans who receive less-than-honorable discharges are declared ineligible for many veterans’ benefits including VA healthcare, education benefits, and career training and assistance. Some advocates believe that many veterans who left under less-than-honorable circumstances may have done so as a result of battle-related issues including traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress. More than 18,000 service members received less-than-honorable discharges last year. –MC

New York City Declares End to Chronic Vets Homelessness
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times
New York City announced it has ended chronic veteran homelessness. The accomplishment means that all known chronically homeless military veterans have received housing or are in the process of receiving housing, although exceptions are made for those who refuse assistance. A chronically homeless person is someone who has been without a home for more than a year or has been homeless four or more times in three years. –MC

Need to Know, 2016: Potential Military Commissary Changes
Karen Jowers, Military Times
In 2016, we can expect to see many changes in commissary benefits due to budget cuts. Congress passed legislation at the end of 2015 that requires the Defense Department to develop a plan for a “budget neutral” commissaries and military exchanges. The department is allowed to conduct pilot programs, and the plan must be submitted by March for October 2018 implementation. –MC

Married Military: Soldiers Often Marry Young, and for Good Reasons
Katelyn Clark, The Leaf-Chronicle 
More than half of all service members on active duty are married and 43 percent of those are 25 years old or younger, according to a Department of Defense Demographics Report. Last week, Katelyn Clark took a look at young military marriages and the psychology behind why troops choose to marry young for reasons ranging from economic gain, to security, to love. –MC

Team Rubicon Ramps Up Response to South, Midwest Storms
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times
Team Rubicon, an organization that provides military veterans a way to continue serving through disaster relief, has ramped up efforts in response to the recent tornadoes and flooding throughout the South and Midwest. The organization has about 55 volunteers working in 3 states, and more teams may be established if necessary. –MC

TRICARE Fee Cuts for Autism Therapy Stir Access Worries
Tom Philpott (@TomPhilpott), The Daily Press
This month, Tricare announced cuts of 15 percent in fees for applied behavior analysis (ABA), a therapy used to treat children with autism. In an online survey, some ABA businesses said they would stop treating Tricare clients. The survey responses have raised concerns for advocates and parents of children receiving the therapy. –MC

Crisis Coach Assists Veterans with Transitions
Jocelyn Brumbaugh (@JBrumbaughTD), The Tribune-Democrat
Jennifer Roseman, vice president of VetAdvisor, was the subject of an in-depth profile for her work assisting veterans. VetAdvisor helps veterans with their transitions from military to civilian life through coaching services including behavioral health, wellness, finance, and employment issues. –MC

Tradeshows & Conferences

Student Veterans of America: National Conference (Wed – Sun, January 7 – 10); Disney World, Orlando, FL

Congressional Hearings

Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations: Army Fee Assistance Program: Part II When: 10:00 AM, Wednesday, January 6, 2016 Where: 2154 Rayburn

Think Tanks & Other Events

No events this week.

For a full list of upcoming events, visit our website.

Fred WellmanFred 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.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 04, 2016 2:55 pm

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