Veterans Roundup: VA reform, Dysfunction in Congress, and How to End Veteran Homelessness

Posted by Fred Wellman

VA Chief Answers Critics: I Can’t Just Walk Into a Room and Fire People
Josh Hicks (@reporter_hicks), The Washington Post. At a breakfast with reporters on Thursday, VA Secretary Bob McDonald addressed concerns that he is not firing problem VA employees quick enough. McDonald explained that the new law still requires due process and new legislation would be required to expedite the process. The Justice Department’s role in VA firings has flared up and officials there are refusing to comment on whether or not they requested that VA keep executives employed while Justice continues its criminal investigations—VA says DOJ made the request, but Congressional staffers say DOJ made no such request. –MC
Bottom line: This Thursday, the House Veterans Affairs Committee will hold a hearing looking at the implementation of the VA reform law to date. Expect this to be a major issue raised by Congressional leaders questioning why VA hasn’t acted faster to remove employees—especially after McDonald wondered aloud to reporters about his doubts that lawmakers understood the reform law they passed. Overhauling the VA, as McDonald plans to do, must include an overhaul of the system that protect bad actors. A culture change, as McDonald notes is necessary, can happen once there is accountability. –LJ 

Veterans Affairs Chief Calls Cultural Change Key to Improving System’s Health Care
Jada F. Smith, The New York Times. In addition to firing authority, VA Secretary McDonald also discussed with reporters the cultural changes that are necessary to improve the VA system overall, and particularly its customer service. VA wait times have gone down nationwide but McDonald says that it’s going to take a cultural shift among VA employees to truly resolve the issues. As part of this effort, McDonald is emphasizing the recruitment of young medical professionals from schools like Duke University and the University of Vermont to join the department. –MC
Bottom line: Much of McDonald’s very public goodwill tour has focused on the people who work at the VA and its facilities across the country. He has asked employees and veterans to call him Bob, he sports an “I Care” lapel pin, and he asks for real stories from veterans about the challenges they face accessing care. McDonald even gave out his cell phone number during a press conference several months ago—calls per day are down from 250 to about 15. Giving away his cell phone number, he says, has inspired lower level VA employees to do the same. Changing the culture of VA may be the biggest challenge McDonald takes on, but the second biggest may be managing expectation about how long that kind of sea change may take. –LJ 

Helping Homeless Veterans Locally, and Thinking Bigger
Jacob W. Sotak (@JWSotak), The New York Times. Organizations like VetConnect, a small group in the Bronx that assists homeless veterans, are the local impact of a national push to end veteran homelessness. Although their efforts may seem small, advocates say that every veteran reached makes a difference. VetConnect’s efforts were originally confined to New York City effort, but it is beginning to expand to other states with high populations of homeless veterans including California and Texas, joining organization’s like DC’s own Veterans NOW initiative, which is helping combat homelessness for local veterans. –MC
Bottom line: VetConnect is doing yeoman’s work to help homeless veterans on a case-by-case basis. What is needed to achieve a long-term reduction in veteran homelessness is increased collaboration and communication between all of the disparate public and private sector organizations that are providing housing and other forms of support to veterans. The Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University (IVMF) has been helping communities including New York City bring together service providers of all shapes and sizes to create more robust and efficient networks to serve veterans. In the future, we hope that small groups like VetConnect will seamlessly fit into a broader community plan to support local veterans in need. –BW 

Younger Veterans Heading to Congress in Big Numbers
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times. The 114th Congress will have more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans serving than any previous session, even though the total number of military veterans in Congress is declining. Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) became the first two Iraq War veterans elected to the Senate, Ernst being the first female veteran to serve in the Senate. As these new veterans—including friend of ScoutComms Representative Seth Moulton (D-MA)—find their way in Congress, it’s likely they’ll push for spots on the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees. –MC
Bottom line: It’s great to see a new generation of veterans making their way into Congress, though we don’t know much about how their military service will influence their legislating. Some may become champions of the military and veterans writ large, while others will become known primarily for their partisan affiliations. Regardless, it’s important that veterans continue to have a voice in Congress, particularly as older veteran legislators retire. We will be watching, along with our friends at HillVets, to see if these new members hire veterans to staff their offices—a HillVets survey from the spring only identified 98 veterans working in House or Senate committees and offices. We’d love to see more veterans make their way onto the Hill in 2015. –BW 

American Legion Appoints First Female Executive Director 
Bryant Jordan (@BryantJordan), The American Legion appointed its first female executive director in its nearly 100 years of serving veterans. Verna L. Jones, an Army veteran, succeeds Peter Gaytan and will direct the Legion’s policies, act as a liaison to the White House, and maintain relationships between the American Legion and federal departments such as the VA. Jones is credited with transforming the Legion’s veterans’ affairs and rehabilitation division into a service organization that has helped thousands of veterans access health care. –MC
Bottom line: A little known fact about The American Legion: their Congressional charter adopted in 1919 was inclusive of all veterans, male and female. As executive director, Jones will lead the Legion’s DC office and much of its ongoing policy and programmatic work. During the VA scandal, the Legion hosted town halls in DC and Phoenix and next to Dan Dellinger, the previous National Commander, Jones was the face of the Legion to many stakeholders. It’s great to see a woman at the head of any veterans’ organization and so it’s phenomenal to see one heading up one of the oldest and most respected VSOs. –LJ 

Obama Authorizes Up to 1,500 More Military Personnel to Deploy to Iraq
Michael R. Crittenden (@CritterDJ), Jeffrey Sparshott (@jeffsparshott), and Felicia Schwartz (@felschwartz), The Wall Street Journal. The fight against the Islamic State is expanding as President Obama authorized 1,500 more troops to deploy to Iraq, nearly double the current number, and asked Congress for $5.6 billion to support the mission. The newly authorized troops will not play a combat role “officially” but they will train and advise Iraqi forces and establish new operations centers. Defense officials say that this expanded role may potentially increase the chance of conflict. –MC
Bottom line: There is almost no question that this campaign will fail if we sit back and hope that the Iraqi Army suddenly finds the skills to push back against the Islamic State group forces. While U.S. troops will not be operating as independent units in direct combat, they will undoubtedly filter down to ever lower levels in the Iraqi chain-of-command to bolster their leadership, tactics, and use of Coalition combat air assets. The only way to effectively strike the IS will be with skilled eyes on the targets and advisors that can push the Iraqi forces to exploit the tactical opportunities presented by Coalition air strikes. So, while pundits will call this “mission-creep” or “boots on the ground”, it’s actually a common sense approach to fighting this battle. Both the Administration and its critics need to have some honest conversations with the public on this and stop playing political ‘gotcha’ so we can effectively fight this war both in Iraq and here in the U.S. –FPW

VA Calls for More Money for Patient Care
Martin Matishak (@martinmatishak), The Hill. Earlier this year, Congress approved an emergency $16.3 billion to help reform VA health care delivery, but VA Secretary Bob McDonald says the department needs more funding to care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans long-term. As seen in past generations of veterans, the cost of caring for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will peak 40 years from now. Larger VA funding requests could come at the same time as requests for advanced appropriations for all VA funding to ensure continued delivery of services during a government shutdown or other Congressional gridlock. –MC
Bottom line: History simply does not lie on this issue. The real wave of care needed for a generation of veterans doesn’t occur for many years, often decades, after their service. Today’s veterans aren’t the cause of the current backlog in VA disability claims and doctor appointments for the most part, instead it is in many ways due to the newly authorized claims associated with Agent Orange in Vietnam, a war that ended forty years ago. There is no reason to believe that this won’t be the case with this generation of veterans and the price associated with caring for them as they age. Frank talk is what is needed in a time of budget cuts. Too many don’t understand that defense spending and veterans support funding are not intertwined in either timing or in level of need. We hope that Congress recognizes their responsibility to take care of those who have volunteered to serve our nation but history doesn’t give us a lot of hope. The “peace dividend” savings can’t include funds to care for veterans. –FPW 

Quick Hits:

Robert McDonald: Cleaning up the VA
60 Minutes. Today, VA Secretary Bob McDonald is expected to make a major announcement about his plans to overhaul the VA. 60 Minutes aired the first one-on-one sit down with the new secretary on Sunday—likely much to the chagrin of our beat reporter friends. As always for McDonald, or Secretary Bob, reform starts with the people who work at the VA. –LJ 

Five Myths About Military Suicides. Yochi Dreazen (@YochiDreazen), Washington Post
On Veterans Day, it’s important to remember the facts behind the numbers. The tragedy that is America’s mental health crisis has taken its toll on servicemembers, but there are many misconceptions about what military service means when it comes to suicide. –LJ 

‘Built by Vets’ – Another Tool to Help Veterans Employment
Vincent Darcangelo, The Sharon Herald.  #BuiltByVets is a new Get Skills to Work campaign designed to highlight veterans’ skills in manufacturing. Gary Sinise kicked off the campaign at AUSA, the Army tradeshow featuring a multitude of manufactured equipment. Veterans are encouraged to post photos on social media of things they have created and built using the hashtag #BuiltByVets. The photos are being highlighted on GSTW’s Tumblr site. Post your photo in time for Veterans Day! –MC

Citi and IVMF Launch Second Round of ‘Realizing Your Dream’ Business Plan Competition for Veterans
Last week, IVMF announced the second iteration of the Citi Salutes: Realizing Your Dream Business Competition at the Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE) National Conference in San Antonio, TX. V-WISE and Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) graduates are invited to participate in the competition by submitting their business plans. Competition winners will split $130,000 in funding provided by Citi. –MC

Vets’ Entrepreneurship Boot Camp to Include NHL Alumni
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times. Starting next spring, former professional hockey players will attend IVMF’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities. Through a partnership between IVMF and the National Hockey League Alumni Association’s (NHLA) BreakAway program, former NHLers will learn about entrepreneurship alongside wounded warriors. For every two NHL alumni that attend the bootcamp, the NHLA will offset the cost of one veteran’s attendance. Leaders from both groups say that veterans and former players have more common experiences than you might think and that they can learn a lot from each other. –MC

Veterans Kicking off Capitol Hill Coat Drive 
Judy Kurtz (@JudyKurtz), The Hill. On Friday, veterans’ advocates and veteran Hill staffers bar-hopped around the Capitol to help homeless kids. The second annual HillVets Coat Crawl set a lofty goal of raising enough money to donate 450 coats for homeless children in Washington, DC this winter. In an era of gridlock, HillVets is showing that veterans will find ways to take action on the Hill and off. –LJ 

Congressional Testimony from CNS Response to Feature Key Findings in Suicide Prevention
CNS Response Chairman Tom Tierney and CEO George Carpenter have been invited to submit testimony to the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health. The hearing will consider multiple pieces of legislation including HR 5059, The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. Tierney and Carpenter will give updates on the clinical trial of CNS technology currently underway at Walter Reed and provide recommendations on key ways the legislation could better serve veterans and servicemembers. CNS Response technology gives doctors and their patients outcome-based metrics to understand which mental health drugs will work best based on a simple test of brain function. –LJ 

The Warrior-Scholar Project 
The Warrior-Scholar Project, an organization that puts enlisted veterans through a two-week, intensive academic bootcamp to help them unlock their full potential in college, released a new documentary last week. The short film features Warrior-Scholar Project alums’ first-hand testimonials about how the program helped them prepare for their post-military lives as college students. Be sure to check it out, it’s definitely worth the watch. –MC

Tradeshows & Conferences

No major conferences or tradeshows this week.

For a full list of upcoming events, check out our recently updated Events page.

Congressional Hearings


Veterans Affairs: Assessing the Implementation of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 When: 10:00 AM, Thursday, November 13, 2014 Where: 334 Cannon

Armed Services: The Administrations Strategy and Military Campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant ISIL Who: General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Department of Defense, The Honorable Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense When: 10:00 AM, Thursday, November 13, 2014 Where: 2118 Rayburn

Foreign Affairs: Combating Ebola in West Africa: The International Response Who: The Honorable Rajiv Shah, Administrator, U.S. Agency for International Development, Ms. Bisa Williams, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State, The Honorable Michael D. Lumpkin, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, U.S. Department of Defense, Major General James Lariviere, USMC, Deputy Director for Politic-Military Affairs (Africa), Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Department of Defense, Major General Nadja Y. West, USA, Joint Staff Surgeon, Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Department of Defense When: 10:00 AM, Thursday, November 13, 2014 Where: 2172 Rayburn

Armed Services: The Department of Defense Excess Property Program in Support of U.S. Law Enforcement Agencies: An Overview of DOD Authorities Roles Responsibilities and Implementation of Section 1033 of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act Who: Jim Bueermann, President, Police Foundation, Mr. Alan Estevez, Principal Deputy Under Secretary, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, U.S. Department of Defense, Vice Admiral Mark D. Harnitchek, USN, Director, Defense Logistics Agency, Mr. Mark E. Lomax, Executive Director, National Tactical Officers Association When: 4:00 PM, Thursday, November 13, 2014 Where: 2212 Rayburn

Think Tanks & Other Events

Center for a New American Security: For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice Who: Howard Schultz, Chairman, President and CEO of Starbucks, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Senior Correspondent and Associate Editor at The Washington Post, Hon. Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense, and GEN Peter Chiarelli, USA (Ret.), former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Sponsored by BP America When: 5:30 PM, Monday, November 10, 2014 Where: The Capital Hilton Hotel, 1001 16th St NW, Washington, DC, 20036

National Education Initiative: Honoring Veterans Who: Lt. Col. James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Retired), Dr. Kenneth Hartman, Former President, Drexel University Online, Former Army Officer When: 9:30 AM, Tuesday, November 11, 2014 Where: Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies, Washington, DC

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 Tuesday, November 11, 2014 1:05 pm

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