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The Scout Report 298th Edition

Military Families and Veterans News and Analysis
Monday, January 2, 2017

Hello from the future! 2017 certainly feels like the future, at least. With a new year comes all sorts of new ideas and plans that we’re excited to share with you in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we hope you saved the evening of January 17th in your calendar for our next #ScoutSocial in DC.

This first Scout Report of 2017 looks at the future of military pay and benefits and the VA might be in the next administration. We also highlight some excellent reporting in the New York Times Magazine on one Marine’s fall and the Wall Street Journal on opioid abuse among veterans.

With the holidays over, we’re back at work and hitting the grind harder than ever… by heading to Disneyland. If you’ll be joining our clients Student Veterans of America in Anaheim this week, please do say hi to myself, Fred, and Margaret. It’s our fifth SVA conference and we are excited to keep the streak alive of meeting so many of the next generation of successful veteran leaders in sunny SoCal. –LJ 

The week ahead:

Tradeshows and Conferences:

Student Veterans of America: 9th Annual National Conference (Thu – Sat, Jan 5-7, 2017); Disneyland Hotel & Resort, Anaheim, CA

Veterans Campaign: Winter Campaign Training Workshop (Fri – Sun, Jan 6-8, 2017); Atlantic Council, Washington, DC

Congress:

No hearings this week.

Think Tanks & Other Events:

None this week.

Military and Veteran Issues:

New in 2017: Expect rigorous debate over military pay and benefits
Leo Shane (@LeoShane), Military Times
What do military pay and benefits look like for our nation’s military members and families in 2017? According to a recent article by our friend Leo Shane, a lot is up in the air. Service members will see a raise equal to that of the civilian sector for the first time since 2013, but the future of troops’ housing stipends and base pay remains uncertain under the incoming new administration. –MC
Bottom line: Like many things in the incoming administration, it’s incredibly difficult to predict what the future holds for military pay and benefits. Trump has said throughout his campaign he will boost the defense budget and military spending while promising to take better care of the troops. The one thing we have said consistently here at ScoutComms is that “taking care of the troops” is all in the eye of the beholder. Senior uniformed military leaders have said themselves that money needs to be spent on new equipment and training more than healthcare and other benefits to families that have grown dramatically since 9/11. Their view of “taking care of the troops” is backing out of promises to retirees and what some see as “extravagant” spending like housing stipends and childcare costs. At the same time, congressional leaders in the Republican-controlled Congress and Executive branch have been the ones leading the charge for retirement and pay “reforms” that have dramatically changed the way service members are paid. So, while there is quite a bit of optimism in the ranks that a Trump Administration will be mean a return to the generosity of the Bush Administration and glory days of pay boosts, there is cause for caution when keeping in mind it’s the same people who cut those benefits in the first place. –FPW

Donald Trump considers moving VA toward privatization
Ben Kesling (@BKesling), Wall Street Journal 
Faced with the task of fixing a tumultuous VA healthcare system, the incoming Trump Administration convened a meeting this pastWednesday to discuss possible alterations to the system to ensure that all veterans get the medical care they need. One of the solutions proposed involves privatizing at least part of the VA healthcare system. A large group of veterans’ advocates from multiple organizations have openly expressed their opposition to this measure, stating that private healthcare systems are ill-equipped to handle unique ailments that our nations’ service members must deal with. –KB 
Bottom line: Thus far, PEOTUS Trump’s tactical plan for the VA seems to be to say he will do things that are already being pursued—like creating an advisory council to help drive improvements (hello MyVA!)—but promise that they’ll be vastly more successful than anything pursued under President Obama. At the strategic level, he has continued to float a vague plan for turning over more VA care to the private sector, something that has already been executed through VA Choice, while meeting with people like former Concerned Veterans for America head Pete Hegseth who have advocated for a much stronger effort to diminish the VA as the primary provider for America’s veterans. While we are all tearing out our hair trying to read the tea leaves, it is pretty clear at this point that Trump does not have a strong plan in place for the VA, as he has yet to select anyone to replace relatively popular Secretary Bob McDonald. Last week, it appeared that either Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove or healthcare executive Luis Quinonez, both veterans, were in line to vie for the top spot, but in a blow to the transition process, both have now dropped out of the running. Until Trump appoints a nominee to be the new VA Secretary, or releases a more detailed plan, we are forced to grasp at straws and read the tea leaves to try to understand what changes will occur for VA healthcare in 2017. –BW

The Fighter
C.J. Chivers (@cjchivers), The New York Times
SamuelSiatta was a celebrated marksman in the Marines. After leaving the Marine Corps in 2012, he suffered from PTSD, anxiety,and depression. Despite multiple prescriptions, he often resorted to binge drinking as a way to dull his senses. One night in April 2014, without having any memory of doing so, Siatta drunkenly knocked down the door of a house in his neighborhood and attacked one of the men inside. Siatta was arrested and charged with “home invasion causing harm” which, in the state of Illinois, carried a minimum sentence of 6 years in prison. After a successful appeal,Siatta is out of prison on four years of probation for a lesser charge. He has seen progress in his overall wellbeing from regular counseling at the VA. Siatta is now pursuing a future as an amateur fighter in mixed-martial-arts. –JG
Bottom line: This long-form piece from C.J. Chivers hits on much of what we see in news stories throughout the year in the ScoutReport: PTSD, moral injury, the isolation many veterans feel, the system failing veterans, that mental health and substance abuse treatment works, and how advocates and others can have a real impact on the wellbeing of individuals. This piece also works because Chivers is a veteran himself and he acknowledges his own skepticism about the premise of the story at the outset: he has known plenty of bad apples in the service who ended up in jail and deserved to be there. Ultimately, after Chivers started researching his story and asking the lawyers and others involved, prosecutors decided Siatta didn’t belong in jail, but on probation where he could receive the treatment that allowed him to successfully function day-to-day. Like any great piece of writing, this story is about one man but it illuminates a problem we know is too common within the veteran community: a young man or woman quietly succumbing to alcohol or drugs or isolation rather than seeking or getting the help they need. Siatta’s turmoil led him to uncommon violence, jail, and finally a kind of redemption. Many more will simply drift farther away until we figure out better ways to connect them to their communities and care. –LJ 

Suicide kills more U.S. troops than ISIL in Middle East
Tom Vanden Brook (@tvandenbrook), USA Today
Since the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve in 2014, the primary cause of death of American troops overseas has been suicide, rather than combat. This is due in part to the fact that the campaign is largely air strikes against the Islamic State, with limited ground combat. Still, the issue remains that suicide will continue to be a leading cause of death among soldiers due to its complexity and lack of a central cause, warranting further research into what can be done to eliminate this issue. –KB
Bottom line: It sounds really bad that of the 31 U.S. service members that have died in Operation Inherent Resolve, 11 were by suicide. To say that 1/3 of all deaths were in that way causes panic in many circles but Tom unpacks it well in the article. Suicide has been a scourge of the military for a decade but research is now showing that in the end, the military rate is almost comparable to the civilian population and not the outlier it has often been portrayed as representing. The factors that would drive a service member to end their life are often not even related to combat or PTSD but things that drive many to depression including financial difficulties, relationship losses, and existing mental health conditions they brought with them into the service. Clearly, research is needed as retired General Chiarelli points out, we just don’t have the answers as a society of why extensive efforts to reduce suicide within the ranks continues to fail to make a significant dent in the issue. Like many issues that face the military, they are also issues that face our nation as a whole. If we can solve them or understand them better for those who serve than that data can be applied to our larger society as well. Now we just need the willpower to pursue that goal. –FPW

Child abuse in the military: Failing those most in need
David S. Cloud (@DavidCloudLAT), Los Angeles Times
Cases of child abuse and neglect within military families have steadily increased over the years and many argue that the cases have not been addressed appropriately or in a timely manner. The Family Advocacy Program, a $200-million-a-year Pentagon program, and state child welfare agencies are in place to help prevent and effectively deal with cases of child abuse in the military. A recent Los Angeles Times investigation suggested that the Pentagon has not adequately dealt with this issue. –DD
Bottom line: Let’s start with the least worst part of this: child abuse within the military is still below civilian levels. So this isn’t a military-only issue, but it is more than troubling that the rate has been going up in recent years. The article outlines a dysfunctional military system that is supposed to protect children but seems to act more as a way to save the jobs of abusers or their commanders. The silver lining in these tragedies is that some have led authorities at certain bases to heighten their coordination with local child protective services to improve capacity. Additionally, lawmakers like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard have advocated for more reporting by the military to local authorities about child abuse cases. There truly is no excuse for these abusers, many of whom the article notes are known to others, to remain in the military or go without charges. –LJ

The VA hooked veterans on opioids, then failed them again
Valerie Bauerlein and Arian Campo-Flores (@vbauerlein and @acampoflores), Wall Street Journal
After over-prescribing opioid-based painkillers to service members with severe physical and mental injuries, the VA is now trying to keep up with the surge of veterans that have become addicted to the medications. The department cut back on prescribing the painkillers in2013, after questions arose in regard to prescribing practices within the Department. The VA is now seeking out ways to help alleviate pain without the use of powerful painkillers such as Oxycodone, while also trying to provide mental health services to those struggling with addiction. –KB
Bottom line: Even if you are familiar with the opioid crisis afflicting veterans, this WSJ story is a sucker punch, which piles national data on top of personal crisis stories to illustrate that opioid abuse has skyrocketed among post-9/11 veterans, and that the VA is unable to treat them in a timely manner due to a severe lack of resources. While it would be convenient to blame the VA, and they do share some of the blame, veterans are the tip of the spear in America’s broader struggles with opioid abuse, which has resulted from aggressive marketing by drug companies, overworked medical professionals trying to get patients out the door quickly, the addictive nature of the drugs themselves, and of course the inability of Americans—including veterans—to stop taking opioids without extensive outside influences. We also have to acknowledge that opioid abuse is one of the costs of our current wars. Veterans today survive many attacks that would have killed their predecessors on battlefields before, which leaves them coping with a whole host of minor and major physical ailments. We don’t fund our system and develop policies that take into account what today’s veterans face. From Congress on down, we have failed to have necessary debates about the human costs of our wars and about the extent of our obligation to our veterans. The VA’s decision to reduce its reliance on opioids in 2013 was an important step, but the battle against opioids is going to claim a lot more veteran victims before any major victories can be claimed. –BW 

Client News:

Report: for-profit schools skirting federal law with GI Bill revenue
Alex Horton (@AlexHortonTx), Stars and Stripes
Last week, the Department of Education released a report showing approximately 200 for-profit colleges may be skirting federal law and taking in large amounts of Post-9/11 GI Bill funding. Student Veterans of America is among one of 10 advocacy groups who signed a letter last week calling on Congress to take action against these for-profit colleges and close a loophole that allows them to take in more than 90 percent of funding from federal student aid. –MC

Milton Truck Driver Institute student wins semi truck
Aaron Little (@AaronL_SRPG), Santa Rosa Press Gazette
Troy Davidson was given a fully-loaded Kenworth T680 semi-truck as the grand prize for winning the Hiring Our Heroes Transition Trucking: Driving for Excellence award. At an award ceremony at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington D.C., the accomplished Navy veteran turned rookie truck driver was recognized for successfully translating skills learned in the Navy for the trucking industry. –JG

Boots to Business Reboot Offered to Veterans, Families
Big Island Now, News of Hawaii
Active-duty service members,veterans and military spouses in the Hilo, Hawaii area will have the opportunity to learn about small business ownership in an upcoming Boots to Business Reboot course. This free workshop will be held at the University of Hawaii at Hilo campus in room 127 on Jan. 5-6, 2017. Boots to Business Reboot is offered by the Small Business Administration through apublic private partnership with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. Interested participants can sign uphere–DD

13 January Events With Free Tickets for Vets And Service Members
Steven Weintraub (@weintraub_sd), Task & Purpose
Veteran Tickets Foundation (Vet Tix) recently announced 13 of the many new 2017 event tickets available for the month of January. Vet Tix is a national nonprofit that supports the veteran and military community by providing free event tickets to professional and collegiate sporting events, concerts, performing arts and family activities in all 50 states. To become a “VetTixer,” veterans, members of the military, and Gold Star family members can sign up for free. –DD

Quick Hits:

New in 2017: Military commissaries will shake up grocery prices
Karen Jowers (@KarenJowers), Military Times 
In an effort to recoup some of the money used to operate commissaries, the Defense Department is planning to roll out a pilot plan to increase the prices on certain items in 2017. The plan will also lower prices on items that are staples traditionally marketed by the commissaries, such as milk and bananas, in order to entice more military families to shop on base. –KB 

Texas Guard identifies aviators killed in Apache crash
Michelle Tan (@MichelleTan32), Army Times
Two Texas Army National Guard soldiers died ina AH-64 Apache crash in Galveston Bay last week and were recently identified by officials. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dustin Lee Mortenson and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Lucas Maurice Lowe were in the 1-149th Attack Helicopter Battalion of the Texas Guard’s 36th Infantry Division, and were said to be on routine training. –DD

Gen. Seth McKee, highest-ranking survivor of D-Day, dies at 100 in Scottsdale
Richard Ruelas (@Ruelaswritings), The Republic
Gen. Seth McKee, a four-star general, who led a group of fighter planes to provide air cover for troops on the beach at Normandy, passed away Dec. 26, 2016 at 100 years-old.  McKee’s long career in the Air Force included commanding NORAD. McKee will be remembered for his countless acts of heroism in the face of battle and many later years serving as a leader. ­–JG 

VFW recruits on college campus to bring young vets into the fold
Fred Thys (@FredThys), NPR
The VFW is working to appeal to a younger generation of veterans, after criticism in recent years for only targeting older service members. As part of the VFW’s growing efforts to reach younger audiences, student veterans at Northeastern University are working to establish a VFW post on campus to bring the newest generation of veterans into the fold. –MC

Growing number of veterans, retirees moving overseas
Maria Zamudio (@mizamudio), The Associated Press
Tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel are stationed overseas each year in countries like Japan, Germany, Italy and many others. New data shows that many of those who retire from service may choose to stay or move back overseas after retirement with cost of living, sense of security, and a desire to explore other cultures in mind. –MC 

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