Veterans Roundup: VA Staff Misled Ethics Officials, Gender-Neutral Mission Statement for VA, Lung Disease in Service Members and More

Posted by Fred Wellman

Veterans Affairs chief Shulkin, staff misled ethics officials about European trip, report finds
Lisa Rein (@lisarein), The Washington Post
A report by VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal says that Veteran Affairs Secretary Dr. David Shulkin’s staff modified emails and fabricated statements to get around ethics rules to pay for his wife’s 10-day trip to Europe last summer. Vivieca Wright Simpson, Shulkin’s chief of staff and then third highest ranking official in the VA, modified language in emails to provide justification for expenses related to the trip, claiming Shulkin was to be honored with an award from the Danish government – however, no award was given on the trip. Shulkin and Poonam Alaigh, the acting undersecretary of health at the time of the incident, spent three and a half days in various meetings discussing veterans’ health concerns with officials from both the Danish and British governments, and the balance doing various sightseeing, at a cost to taxpayers of at least $122,334. Wright Simpson has since decided to retire after recommended disciplinary actions by the IG, and the now embattled Shulkin wrote a check on Wednesday repaying the cost of his wife’s travel expenses and also plans to reimburse a British veterans’ advocate for Wimbledon tickets that he inappropriately accepted. While the VA suffered little controversy in 2017, the first six weeks of the new year has brought chaos, leaving even its staunchest supporters expressing concern that policy goals remain at the forefront of the VA agenda. –
Bottom line: There is a lot to unpack here but let’s keep it short and simple. Secretary Shulkin and his team really screwed up. It was inappropriate and he should pay back the money (he already did) and be censured for the mistake. His chief of staff retired over her role in it all. That is all appropriate. What has been revealed in the aftermath is what appears to be a major power play within the VA over who should be in charge and this IG report is being used as leverage to get him fired. That is not okay. We’ve worked with many of the folks being named in the reports coming out about the issues and have had positive experiences in our work, but our concern remains simple. Veterans first. Period. The motto of VA is clear and defined “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” Like everything these days we can have an argument about what “taking care of veterans” means to different people but I’m positive a power struggle led by presidential personal political appointees against Senate confirmed political appointees isn’t good for the department, the nation and certainly not for our veterans. The adults need to stop this now and get back to work.

When military deployment costs a spouse their job
Leigh Ann Caldwell (@LACaldwellDC), NBC News
Due to multiple moves between duty stations, active duty military spouses like Lakesha Cole face a continuous effort to secure new jobs in new states or even new countries. So far, Cole has supported her family through five PCS moves. Research by Hiring Our Heroes revealed that the unemployment rate among military spouses is roughly four times higher than the national average. Often, these relocations involve moving to military bases that are frequently more than 50 miles from cities that generate a high number of top tier jobs. Furthermore, education certifications or occupational licenses often do not transfer between states, leaving an educated and trained spouse virtually unemployable. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA
) proposed a new bill to help alleviate some of the transition stress for spouses which would let federal agencies expedite hiring processes for spouses, calls for additional education and training for spouses and expands DOD approved childcare facilities. –KG
Bottom line: If it seems like we’ve been talking about this issue forever, it’s because we have. What is essentially the normal battle rhythm of military life makes economic opportunity for military spouses an especially challenging conundrum. With PCS moves every few years, sometimes unreliable childcare options and continually high operational tempos, military spouses who want to work and pursue career progression are stymied. That being said, I love reading milspouse success stories like Kesha’s. She’s a badass who used her business acumen and downright killer work-ethic to build a successful career and business despite some challenging conditions. (Psst, if you don’t know about Kesha check out her business here.)  But, I digress. Kaine’s bill attempts to chip away at some of the barriers to quality employment that military spouses face. While this is a good effort, it seems like we continue to miss the boat on the root cause of many of our most pressing family readiness issues. Perhaps the bigger issue is not allowing families to stay in place for long enough to truly build careers or to develop essential social support networks and safety nets. Before you even think it, yes, I get it. I get that it would be hard to adjust the way we think about and execute duty station assignments and PCS moves. Really, really hard. Hopefully Kaine’s bill will start a more nuanced policy discussion how we can more effectively support family readiness. Just because “this is the way it has always been,” doesn’t make it right.

VA spending up again in Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget plan
Leo Shane III (@LeoShane), Navy Times
Funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs may receive a 6 percent increase due to the Trump Administration’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget, which if approved, would follow a trend in increasing funding for the agency. This increase is said to be intended to rebuild the trust of veterans, though it includes a round-down in cost-of-living increases that veteran advocates have fought for years. The 2019 budget plan includes extension of VA vocational rehabilitation, support to homeless and at-risk veterans, medical and prosthetic research, gender-specific health care for women and more.
Bottom line: While the idea of an increased budget for the VA has many excited, one item in particular is raising a red flag: the Trump Administration’s proposal to round down COLA. As the author points out, the cost is minimal, on a per veteran basis (no more than $12 per year on individual veterans, but it potentially saves $2.3 billion over the next decade) but others argue that this simply trades funds for one deserved benefit to pay for other deserved benefits. We’ve seen this attempted before and fail. The Administration’s proposed budget also includes a number of provisions aimed at eliminating wasteful spending, modernizing the VA and rebuilding trust in the VA. While most of these ideas are great in theory, as we all know it will be a matter of what ends up in Congress’s version of the budget and, in some cases, how it is ultimately interpreted and implemented by VA.

VA employees wanted a gender-neutral mission statement. The agency refused.
Emily Wax-Thibodeaux (@emily_wax), The Washington Post
After the Department of Veteran Affairs released its strategic plan through 2024 to the general public, it quickly retracted the report after discovering an unauthorized edit. Staffers at the VA edited the 59-year old motto, which came from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and excluded reference of female veterans. The change to the motto was not cleared internally and the VA later rereleased the report with the original version of Lincoln’s quote. Doing so has divided the VA internally, however, and spokesman Curt Cashour released a statement that Lincoln’s words are inclusive of all veterans, male and female.
Bottom line: Any other week, this may have been the most notable retracted and corrected statement out of VA covered by the Washington Post. This week, though, this is the sideshow of an internal power struggle at VA. Changing the VA motto to be gender-neutral has been the policy priority of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America for the last year now, and they apparently have acolytes within the agency. One reason the VA has given for not changing the motto has been the cost of changing the motto across the agency’s collateral, wall signs, and other materials. If anything, this episode shows that there are much easier ways to go about beginning to adopt a new version of the motto, if the agency so chose. It would be easier to overlook motto-gate (sorry) if the VA were doing a better job across its facilities to be responsive to female veterans’ needs. If female veterans felt their local VA hospital was a welcoming place for women, perhaps there wouldn’t been such a desire for a top-down messaging approach. Yet, here we are. VA insiders are obviously working to make the VA more attentive to the needs of women, whether it’s the masterminds behind the him-less motto or officials with the VA’s Center for Women Veterans, and that’s the kind of progress we hope doesn’t get derailed by internal power struggles.

Burn pits downrange caused lung disease in service members, court rules
Kyle Rempfer (@Kyle_Rempfer), Military Times
After years of veteran advocacy groups and individuals fighting for recognition that a number of ailments have a root cause in exposure to burn pits, a court decision has given service members hope that their claims may soon be taken very seriously. Many service members stationed at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan have been exposed to burn pits, which the court ruled can be connected to lung disease. This court ruling may help the benefit and coverage claims by more than 124,000 veterans and service members who are in the VA’s Burn Pit Registry.
Bottom line: Some advocates feel that a ruling in January may have been a step towards supporting service members who claim exposure to burn pits overseas has caused respiratory illness and lung diseases. A Department of Labor judge ruled in favor of a civilian contractor who was exposed to smoke from burn-pits at two FOBs during her employment in Mosul for eleven months between 2004 and 2005. It is unclear how this ruling will truly impact the thousands of veterans who have registered their exposure to the toxic burn-pits, however, as the plaintiff was a civilian contractor, not a service member. In additional coverage by Task and Purpose this week, Ken Wiseman of VFW explained that while the suit may not have a direct impact on service members, it could create a “tipping point” for policy in the long run by reinforcing the evidence suggesting that exposure does indeed cause health issues.

Verizon Features Vets4Warriors on FiOS 1 News
Josh Frank (@), TAPinto New Brunswick
The Vets4Warriors call center is staffed by veteran peers and licensed clinicians 24/7, every day of the year to connect with veterans, service members, family members or caregivers who need to talk to a trusted peer who can properly assist them. These veteran peers demonstrate what the power of a veteran can do for another when it comes to their everyday struggles. Verizon, which is a supporter of Vets4Warriors, is committed to assisting those who serve our country and Vice President of External Affairs for Verizon New Jersey, Samuel A. Delgado says that he is moved by the stories of service members and stands by them. Verizon will be highlighting Vets4Warriors in a commercial on FiOS1 News in the upcoming weeks.

Proposed Food Stamp Cuts Would Hit Military Families
Richard Sisk (@SiskRichard), Military.Com
Data collected in the 2013 U.S. Census shows that approximately 23,000 active duty service members benefitted from participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney stated that the Trump Administration aims to scale down the program to ensure that only families who need aid receive it. In light of President Trump’s proposed cuts to the government assistance program, Army Lt. Gen. Anthony R. Ierardi, the Joint Staff Director for force structure, readiness and assessment at the Pentagon, shared that the military would work to find solutions that support families receiving SNAP if Congress chooses to pass the White House’s proposed budget cuts. –NJ

Congressional Hearings

None this week.  

Community Opportunities 

Veterans in Global Leadership: Apply to be a 2018-2019 VGL Fellow
Who: Student veteran candidates with a passion for service, a commitment to assist other veterans, an entrepreneurial spirit and proven leadership skills.
When: Application deadline is April 30, 2018

Elizabeth Dole Foundation: Application for 2018 Hidden Heroes Fund Grants
Who: Non-profits with innovative programs supporting military and veteran caregivers.
When: Application deadline is February 23, 2018

Pat Tillman Foundation: Apply to be a Tillman Scholar
Who: Veteran and active-duty military service members; current spouses of veterans or active-duty service members, including surviving spouses; service members or spouses pursuing a degree as a full-time student.
When: Application deadline is March 1, 2018

High Ground Veterans Advocacy: Apply to be a Fellow
Who: Anyone who served in the U.S. military and is an active member of a reputable military or veteran-focused organization.
When: Application deadline is March 4, 2018

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, February 20, 2018 10:58 am

Leave a Reply

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

Notify me of updates to this conversation