Veteran’s Roundup: Speculation about the next VA Secretary but More Than 20 Veterans Groups Have a Suggestion: It’s Bob. Plus Much More

Posted by Fred Wellman

VA Secretary ‘Most Difficult’ Position to Fill in Trump Cabinet, Transition Team Official Says
Shushannah Walshe (@shushwalshe), Benjamin Siegel (@benyc), Candace Smith (@CandaceSmith), Katherine Faulders (@KFaulders), ABC News
After a recent letter organized by national VSOs that urged President-elect Donald Trump to keep Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald in his current position, many veterans are feeling uncertain about who will be appointed by the Trump administration. Trump is reportedly considering a number of candidates for VA secretary to include Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, former chief executive of the Concerned Veterans for America Pete Hegseth, and the first four-star woman in Navy history, Adm. Michelle Howard. A senior transition official said filling the new cabinet position is proving to be one of the most difficult decisions thus far. Many veterans groups have expressed their frustration that Trump has met with celebrities but not the veterans groups that understand the dilemmas veterans face. –DD
Bottom line: It’s been a parade of names associated with the Veterans Affairs secretary position but where it will end up is really anyone’s guess. If you are basing it on the model for most of the other cabinet positions named to date you would have to put Pete Hegseth in the lead as someone who is interested in proverbially “flipping the apple cart” at the agency. By the same token there is a loud chorus of support among VSOs to give Bob McDonald an opportunity to continue his reforms begun two years ago. Somewhere in between falls Admiral Howard and General Dunwoody as compromise choices that would add much needed diversity to Mr. Trump’s cabinet but as General Shinseki learned, being a general and managing the second largest government agency are very different things. The transition team announced their hope to finish all of the cabinet selections at the end of the week…last week. So, if nothing else it will be another fascinating week with a fast changing news cycle. Hold on to your hats and stock up on the booze. –FPW

Veterans Groups Urge Trump to Keep Obama’s V.A. Secretary
Dave Philipps (@David_Philipps), New York Times
Organizations that represent hundreds of thousands of veterans wrote a letter this past week to President-elect Donald Trump urging him to keep Obama’s VA secretary, Bob McDonald. The letter, signed by leaders of 20 veteran groups such as Got Your 6, AMVETS, the Service Women’s Action Network and Wounded Warrior Project, posit that current efforts to revamp an outdated system are showing “early signs of success,” and that starting over with a new secretary would undoubtedly mean rolling back any current progress. Trump’s possible nominees for VA secretary have drawn criticism from other veterans groups for their lack of understanding of the VA. –KB
Bottom line: As Fred noted, there are a lot of veteran-serving organizations that want to see current Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald continue to oversee the reforms he’s trying to put into place at VA. On paper, Bob checks many of the boxes you’d want to see from a new VA secretary: has military experience, has experience running a massive and successful business, knows the VA doesn’t stand for “Veterans Administration”, etc. But, for veterans who are still angry with the status quo at their local VA, change is the order of the day. It seems unlikely that the veneer of “drain the swamp” would allow a DC bureaucrat to keep his job, but Bob isn’t really a DC bureaucrat. He’s someone who would be just as happy in retirement, but was called back to public service. He’s trying to change VA for the better, and to an extent has been succeeding. For an incoming president that wants to fix the problems he sees in Washington, Bob would have a lot to teach him about just how that gets done. ­–LJ

FBI Looks into Congress’ Claims VA Lied About Hospital Costs
Dan Elliott (@DanElliottAP), The Associated Press
The FBI’s field office in Washington is evaluating recent claims against VA executives regarding their knowledge of cost overruns in the construction of a VA hospital in Aurora, Colo. A group of lawmakers made recent accusations against VA executives about the veracity of congressional testimony they gave in 2013-2014 about the cost of hospital construction. Two officials in the VA’s construction department claimed there would be no cost overruns, however the current price tag is expected to be triple the $604 million estimate made in 2014. Rep. Jeff Miller, the outgoing Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, believes there needs to be an investigation into both VA officials’ testimonies and that several more VA officials misled Congress about the costs associated with the hospital. –DD
Bottom line: The scandal surrounding the massive cost overruns at the VA’s Colorado hospital seems like an occurrence from the distant past, given all that has occurred for the country and for veterans in the last two years. Yet it is back on the radar with the interesting entrance of the FBI into the picture, as they examine whether certain VA officials—one who suspiciously retired immediately after being questioned—knowingly lied to Congress about the massive cost overruns incurred in the hospital’s construction. While we should be avoid linking this scandal to criticism of Secretary Bob, as it predated him, it is important to recognize that the VA had and continues to have a problem with misbehavior among senior and mid-level managers that has not yet been fully or satisfactorily resolved. The fact that 21 members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee called for this investigation should be proof enough that this specific issue is being pursued for the sake of good governance and not partisan rancor. Hopefully, the FBI’s investigation will start and end with the actions of two individuals, and will not create broader problems for a VA that can never quite get away from scandals of the recent past. –BW

Congress Passes Gutted Veterans Reform Bill
Nikki Wentling (@nikkiwentling), Stars and Stripes
Congress passed a version of the Jeff Miller and Richard Blumenthal Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2016 just before the end of the 114th Congress. The bill proved to be a letdown for some veterans groups because many components they had advocated for over the past year were omitted. Omissions include an updated appeals process for veteran’s disability claims and expanded support for military caregivers, though the bill does include increased work flexibility for Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare providers and supports research into the effects of toxic exposure on veterans’ descendants. –MC
Bottom line: What does “gutted” look like? The initial bill that lawmakers and veteran-serving organizations worked on together was more than 400 pages. The final bill that passed came in at 57 pages. It’s indicative of what can get through a very divided Congress at the moment. Advocates for veterans and service members gave the passage of the bill a tepid welcome because when that much gets dropped from proposed legislative, a lot of veterans are going to lose out. Secretary Bob has repeatedly called out Congress as an impediment to VA reform, and considering a revamped benefits appeals process was dropped from the bill, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from. With the anticipated coming changes in VA leadership, it will be interesting to watch how the Congress-VA relationship shifts or retrenches. Will a new VA secretary be more in line with the same ideas many in Congress also espouse? Or will the new VA secretary see the issues facing the agency for what they are and work with, but also against, Congress when necessary to ensure veterans’ needs are put first? –LJ

“We Want it to Stop with Us”: Agent Orange Curse Hangs Over Families of Vietnam Veterans
Joanne Kimberlin (@jkimreporter), The Virginian-Pilot
Agent Orange, a defoliant that was sprayed on trees and plants during the Vietnam War, is known to have caused health problems among many Vietnam veterans, even years after exposure. Now, many families are questioning whether the substance could harm affected veterans’ children and even grandchildren. An in-depth story by the Virginian-Pilot’s Joanne Kimberlin takes a look at three families who have dealt with cancer, birth defects, mental health struggles and even death that may be the result of Agent Orange. –MC
Bottom line: This story gets to the heart of the damages left by the chemicals, medicines, and toxic stew that has become part of the dangers of modern warfare. The Department of Veterans Affairs recognized Agent Orange as a presumptive condition for a host of illnesses in 2012 but that hasn’t ended the story. A mounting pile of evidence is leading researchers to believe that genetic damage has occurred in those exposed to the toxic combination of defoliants that is now translating into birth defects and genetic disorders for second and third generations of Vietnamese people and the children of Vietnam veterans. This issue isn’t a simple one and it’s got ties to following generations of veterans as Gulf War Illness continues to perplex researchers and now concerns around the smoke from burn pits in today’s wars rises. There is a certain bit of fatalism that goes with serving in combat. Most veterans accept the risks that go with serving your nation at war but the idea that their children and grandchildren will pay the price of that service is a burden few can accept. These illnesses must be rigorously investigated and solutions found that prevents future generations aren’t bearing the cost of war. The consequences of not doing so are truly dangerous for our national security and the health of the nation. –FPW  

Military Spouses Struggle to Stay in Careers, Despite State Laws
Jen Fifield (@JenAFifield), Stateline
Although our nation has made strides in reducing veteran unemployment, military spouse unemployment rates remain very high. Military spouses face difficulties in finding employment for many reasons ranging from frequent moves, demanding volunteer positions related to their spouse’s positions, to supporting the family during deployment. Over the past few years, many states have passed laws that allow certifications to carry across state lines, with the hope that spouses will be able to get back to work more easily after moves, but it is unclear whether or not these laws have made an impact on military spouse employment. –MC
Bottom line: We always want to write more about military families and the issues they face, but we don’t see as many stories about them. Fortunately, the issue of military spouse employment is back in the news and while we’re seeing trends continuing as they have for years, it begs the question of what’s next. For veterans, a concerted effort by corporate America helped turn the tide. In many regards, those same companies through outlets like Hiring Our Heroes have also dedicated themselves to hiring military spouses. Yet, the unique traits of military spouse life seem to continue to make employment harder to find. I also have to wonder what retention looks like among spouses who do find employment and how the proliferation of self-employment through direct sales companies like LuLaRoe are impacting the labor force. While many successes can be taken from lowering veteran unemployment, the same lessons can’t always be applied to a group like military spouses. We hope future research looks not just at the trends, but into some of the areas that are truly unique about the military family experience and how that impacts employment. –LJ

Navy’s Top Doc Revamping Military Medicine
Carl Prine (@CarlPrinetweets), San Diego Union-Tribune
The Navy is currently reexamining its current healthcare system by looking at three main issues: accessibility of healthcare, the quality of the healthcare, and the usage of technology to provide its members with the best primary care providers possible. This examination is led by the 38th surgeon general of the Navy, Vice Adm. C. Forrest Faison III, who is demolishing the current standard of looking at healthcare practices through a “civilian lens,” stating the healthcare needs of those in the Navy are far different from civilians and even from service members in other branches of the military due to the Navy’s high turnover rate as well as sailors’ general age. Service members in the Navy tend to be much younger than the general population, which warrants an entirely different approach to healthcare. –KB  
Bottom line: While Vice Admiral Faison is absolutely correct to draw a clear line between Navy and civilian medicine, highlighting the many differences between how people seek and receive care in those two different environments, at the same time many of the solutions he is pursuing to strengthen Navy Medicine would not be out of place in civilian institutions and systems. These include appealing to millennials through digital offerings, prioritizing customer service and customer feedback, and enabling patients to see medical professionals who are not doctors when they are not in need of urgent care. The Navy—like the other services—faces a number of unique challenges, and there are no silver bullets to problems that Faison identifies, like steady patient churn. But the fact that he’s focused so intently on improving how the Navy provides care to respond to the demands and needs of Sailors and Marines bodes well for Navy Medicine in the near future. –BW

Job Fair at University of North Florida Helps Veterans Land Jobs
Action News Jacksonville
In Jacksonville, Fla., 57 employers attended the Hiring Our Heroes Hiring fair focused on helping veterans, service members and military spouses find meaningful employment. To find out what Hiring Fairs are scheduled to take place around the country in 2017, visit the Hiring Our Heroes website. ­–JG

Part 1: These Women Aspire to Combat Roles-Now They’re Training for Them
Hari Sreenivasan (@hari), PBS NewsHour
Three female Marine recruits recently spoke to William Brangham on their experiences integrating into combat units in the Marines.Brangham also interviewed Kate Germano, former commanding officer of the Marine Corps’ only all-female unit – the 4th Recruit Training Battalion in Parris Island, S.C. Germano, who is now Chief Operating Officer of the Service Women’s Action Network, speaks about the dangers of separating battalion units by gender, stating that “separate but equal” is never actually equal. Kate and others involved in the series will be participating in a Twitter chat on women in combat today at 1 pm Eastern. You can join using the hash tag #NewsHourChats. –KB

Veteran Wins $150,000 Semi-Trailer Truck
Nikki Wentling (@nikkiwentling), Stars And Stripes
On Friday, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Troy Davidson was awarded Hiring Our Heroes’ Transition Trucking: Driving for Excellence Award which recognizes the top veteran turned rookie truck driver in the country. Davidson was presented with the grand prize, a fully loaded Kenworth T680 truck. This truck will allow him to continue hauling as an owner-operator in the industry. The other two finalists, Kevin Scott and Russell Hardy each received a check for $10,000. –JG

A Year in Review at Student Veterans of America: Part two
James Schmeling (@jschmeling), Student Veterans of America
James Schmeling, executive vice president of strategic engagement at Student Veterans of America, has been sharing lessons and resources learned throughout his first year at Student Veterans of America. His latest piece takes a look at SVA’s valuable partners and the resources they offer, from career exploration services to college selection and scholarships. We highly recommend reading James’ blog from this week, and checking out his previous one too! –MC

Daytona International Speedway launches ‘Tickets for Troops’ program
Tim Durr (@TimDurr), FOX Sports
Daytona International Speedway has partnered with the Veteran Tickets Foundation (Vet Tix) and the Greater Jacksonville Area USO to launch their “Tickets for Troops” program, which enables race fans the ability to donate money to provide tickets for Speedway events directly to service members, veterans and Gold Star families. The program is one of many partnerships Vet Tix has established in the last few years to create a pipeline of opportunities for its 450,000 service member and veteran “VetTixers.” –BW

White House: Portland has Ended Veteran Homelessness
Trevor Ault (@TrevorKOIN), KOIN 6 News
The city of Portland, Oregon became the first West Coast city to officially end veteran homelessness on Saturday, Dec. 10. The designation means that Portland has established all the resources to help any veteran that may fall into homelessness. –MC

Veterans Help Make San Diego a Hub for Start-Ups
Eilene Zimmerman (@eilenez), The New York Times
San Diego has become an entrepreneurial hub due to the 229,000 military veterans that live within the city limits. However, many veterans face challenges in starting their own business when going through the transition from the military to civilian life. Former service members and nonprofit groups have been created to address the issues veteran small business owners may face to include SoCal Veterans Business Outreach Center and The Rosie Network, which offers business development training to small businesses started by veterans or military spouses. –DD

Advocates: Fairness for Veterans Act is only 1 Step in Fight Against ‘Bad Paper’ Discharges
Nikki Wentling (@NikkiWentling), Stars and Stripes
In the 2017 NDAA, lawmakers put in place a provision that will help thousands of veterans facing other than honorable discharges. The legislation requires officials who oversee discharges to take medical evidence about mental health from a service member’s doctor into consideration before issuing the discharge. Advocates hope that this will prevent veterans suffering from PTS being denied the medical care they need because of an other-than-honorable discharge that resulted from their condition. While this is a very necessary step for the initiative, there is still more that needs to be done to ensure that veterans past, present and future are not being denied care that they need most. –JG

Tradeshows & Conferences:

None this week.

Congressional Hearings:

None this week.

Think Tanks & Other Events:

None this week. Sense a pattern? 

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, December 19, 2016 9:25 am

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