Veterans Roundup: Renewing a Commitment to Military Spouse Employment, How Staff Attrition Is Eating Away at the VA from the Inside, and More

Posted by Fred Wellman

Russian hackers posed as IS to threaten military wives
Raphael Satter (@razhael), Associated Press News
In 2015, a handful of military wives received cryptic, threatening messages to their social media accounts, sending several military families into a panic. Originally thought to be online attacks from Islamic State supporters, the hackers have since been identified as the same Russian group that hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails and interfered with 2016 United States presidential election. Other high-profile military spouses received such threatening messages, including the Twitter account for Liz Snell’s charity: Military Spouses of Strength. Hackers had infiltrated the charity’s feed to tweet threats toward other spouses, as well as former first lady Michelle Obama. –DD
Bottom line: It was a very big deal when a number of prominent military spouses received threatening messages online that appeared to be from an ISIS affiliated “cyber corps” in 2015. Thousands of military family members were suddenly changing their names on social media sites and creating new accounts that didn’t mention their military affiliation in the fear that terrorists could come knocking at their door. Now we know the entire thing was a hoax perpetrated to spread exactly the fear it succeeded in creating and undermining confidence in the U.S. government’s ability to protect our military members and their families. It even appears the patently ridiculous freak out in Texas surrounding the Jade Helm exercise around the same time was hyped and exploited by the Russians. They have found the methods to use our paranoia and division to turn us against each other and take our eyes off the ball of defending the nation against real threats. At some point we hope our government will actually take this open information warfare against our nation as the threat that it is instead of ignoring it or dismissing it as sideshow. When Russian agents are exhorting Americans to take up arms against other Americans or hide in fear we need to get serious about what is happening. –FPW

Demand For Veteran Counseling Puts Stress On The Counselors
Peter Biello (@PeterBiello), National Public Radio
A few years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs changed how it rated counselors’ work by requiring them to meet a minimum number of clients instead of tracking hours spent with clients. This resulted in higher stress levels for many of the counselors at Vet Centers, including Ted Blickwedel, a U.S. Marine veteran and former clinical social worker. The VA requires counselors to have 25 or more visits a week to be considered successful. Blickwedel said that the average visit is around 77 minutes which rounds up to 32 hours a week, which leaves him working longer hours without pay to leave adequate time for administrative work. Many counselors interviewed say they work long hours, and many take medication to manage their stress. The head of all VA Vet Centers, Mike Fischer, says that headcounts rather than hours is a reasonable measurement of counselors’ productivity and that those who are not meeting the requirements need to create a different plan, like group sessions. –SM
Bottom line: It’s not news that there is higher demand for VA mental health services than VA can meet–wait times for non-emergency mental health care can be some of the longest for veterans. Unfortunately, to lower wait times the VA seems to be placing the burden on counselors to see more veterans per week thereby decreasing the amount of time a counselor may be able to spend with each veteran to meet the headcount requirement. Needless to say, more social workers don’t go into the industry to churn out paperwork and check boxes. Most want to help people, so they want to spend more quality time with clients and patients (of course everyone has heard of the counselor who fails to live up to this.) The ideal solution to meeting veterans’ demand for counselors’ time would be for the VA to hire more social workers. That requires funding, though, and support from agency leaders at VA which you’ve read in many Scout Reports is, well, lacking right now. Are Vet Center counselors and veterans seeking mental health care just further victims in a long game of privatization of the VA? How Congress and administration leaders react to this problem will be very indicative. –LJ

At the VA, a Law Meant to Discipline Executives is Being Used to Fire Low-Level Workers
Jasper Craven (@Jasper_Craven), The Nation
During a campaign rally in October 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump said he would make the VA “great again” by firing allegedly unethical and incompetent VA executives. When he signed the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, it was assumed that he was fulfilling his promise, but instead it appears that low-level employees – 1/3 of whom are veterans – are being penalized. While dozens of respected senior staff have left because of problematic VA leaders and the VA’s direction under Trump, since the law was signed only five senior leaders have been removed. At least 1,264 people holding positions in processing, food service and housekeeping have been fired. Not only are these low-level workers being let go, but their positions are not being filled. This leaves remaining employees overworked, some with nervous breakdowns, and others even being placed on suicide watch. –SM
Bottom line: It appears the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act isn’t being interpreted the way that Congress intended and the law is “getting the guppies instead of the trout,” as Kevin Patterson, a local AFGE executive put it. This is evidenced by the fact that since the law was signed in June 2017, the overwhelming number of VA employees removed have been low-level. If you will recall, this legislation all came to be because of the scandal surrounding the VA hospital administrator in Phoenix who manipulated wait-time data, and then ended up successfully appealing her termination. There are two components at play here: new work standards for administrative employees, which was introduced last year, and the lowering of time allowed to appeal a termination (from 30 days now down to only seven, in addition to weakened due-process protections.) To add an additional layer on this, not being factored in is the VA’s Compensated Work Therapy program, which as Craven says, “takes in veterans with mental illnesses or physical impairments who would otherwise have found it difficult to get a job.” All of that said, this could be mere unfortunate coincidence and/or a lack of foresight of the implication of this legislation, but some see this as a much more nefarious play and a multi-tiered strategic plan to dismantle and privatize the VA, in particular by those who see the role that the Koch brothers, through Concerned Veterans for America, played in passing this legislation. The thought is that by keeping the VA understaffed and overworked and underpaid that the VA will self-implode, and privatization will be the only choice. The White House currently seems pleased with the interpretation of the law, but a bipartisan group of congressional members has quietly begun reviewing legislation that would put back in place some of the due-process protections. –CB

White House Plans to Roll Out Military Spouse Coalition
Amy Bushatz (@amybushatz),
Based on a hiring authority for military spouses put in effect in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush, President Trump announced an executive order on May 9 to place an emphasis on hiring military spouses in federal agencies, including collecting data on military spouse hiring habits within federal organizations. The White House plans develop a national coalition of military spouses and will host a national conference call to discuss the topic of military spouse employment with several organizations. President Trump said the executive order will lead as an example for other businesses across the county. –DD
Bottom line: There is no denying that any action to assist military spouses find employment is a good thing. It’s a welcome moment that the Trump Administration is making some effort on this topic but, like many things lately, there are layers to the issue that this simply doesn’t solve. Signing an Executive Order saying agencies should do better is fine but what office will run this program and ensure it’s being followed? What jobs are we talking about since this Administration has been frantically cutting the federal workforce as fast as possible? What’s even more odd is that it isn’t actually a “new” program since the rule they are encouraging agencies to follow was created in the waning days of the Bush Administration and was a big part of the efforts of Joining Forces under Mrs. Obama and Dr. Jill Biden. Military spouse employment is an incredibly difficult nut to crack as talented men and women are located far from where jobs they are qualified for are located. It’s not as simple as saying we need more hiring when a spouse who happens to be a lawyer is stationed at Vicenza, Italy and there are only two lawyer jobs even available on the entire base and dozens of qualified spouses. So, while it’s great to sign an order and shed attention on the issue, this issue is much deeper and wider than a one-off ceremony on Military Spouse Appreciation Day and that’s precisely why Joining Forces was manned by a full time staff and overseen by the First and Second Ladies. We hope this is the start of a major effort towards military and veteran family issues by the Trump Administration but without more than a single order it’s hard to be optimistic. –FPW

Lundy resigns as MNVM president
Heather C. Cook, Republic Monitor
Mike Lundy, president of Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial board of directors, resigned this week. Lundy will now fulfill a new role as site supervisor and veterans’ representative. The project has grown exponentially in recent months, and Lundy is excited for the opportunity to serve veterans in a more direct and personal way. The board elected Don Fulford, CEO of the nonprofit Association of the Miraculous Medal, as Lundy’s successor. –KG

In Veterans, even a mild case of traumatic brain injury is linked to an increased risk of dementia
Karen Kaplan (@LATkarenkaplan), Los Angeles Times
Research conducted by Deborah Barnes, of the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Health Care System and UC San Francisco, revealed a link between traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and dementia. Their study included 178,799 patients who were diagnosed with a TBI from 2001 to 2014 and findings conclude that individuals who suffered a mild TBI were 2.36 times more likely to develop dementia than the control group. As the severity of the TBI increased, so did the risk of dementia. These findings give additional merit to the argument that even mild TBIs can have significant consequences. –KG

Military aviation mishap panel receives House Armed Services’ blessing
Joe Gould (@reporterjoe) and Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), The Military Times
Both the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) have raised concerns about military aviation safety following accidents that occurred this spring. The Military Times reports that more than 5,000 military accidents have taken place since 2013, the year that budget cuts began. During this week’s congressional debates, Ranking Member Smith proposed the creation of an independent national commission to review military aviation safety practices. The eight-person commission would be tasked with updating training, personnel, and maintenance protocols. Smith and Thornberry have called for swift action to address these issues, with Smith noting that “this is becoming a very large problem and… is costing the lives of the men and women who are serving us.” –NJ

Congressional Hearings

Veterans’ Affairs: Member Day: Testimony and Proposals on the Department of Veterans Affairs
When: 10:00 AM, Wednesday, May 16, 2018
Where: 334 Cannon

Veterans’ Affairs: VA Research: Focusing on Funding, Findings, and Partnerships
When: 10:00 AM, Thursday, May 17, 2018
Where: 334 Cannon

Veterans’ Affairs: A Review of VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program
When: 2:00 PM, Thursday, May 17, 2018

Tradeshows and Conferences 

Naval Helicopter Association: 2018 Naval Helicopter Association Symposium (Sat – Sun, May 12-18, 2018); Marriott Norfolk Waterside Hotel, Norfolk, VA

Special Operations Medical Association: SOMA 2018 Scientific Assembly (Mon – Thur, May 14-17, 2018); Charlotte Convention Center, Charlotte, NC

AFCEA: Defensive Cyber Operations Symposium (Tue – Thur, May 15-17, 2018); Baltimore Convention Center, Baltimore, MD

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, May 14, 2018 11:31 am

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