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The Scout Report 373rd Edition

The Scout Report 373rd Edition

Military Families and Veterans News and Analysis

Monday, June 25, 2018

You may have heard that the VA released new numbers about veteran suicide last week. You may have also heard that the numbers the VA released raised more questions than anything else. So, no, you won’t find anything on that story in this week’s Scout Report, as we let enterprising reporters dig further into the data and how VA is parsing it. We’ll update you next week and analyze what it means for the many organizations on the frontlines of preventing military and veteran suicide.

So, in this week’s Scout Report we look at the poor ratings so many VA nursing homes have received, a disturbing trend in water contamination on military bases, bureaucracy impacting the bottom line for disabled veterans and the latest leadership drama at VA. –LJ

 

Congressional Hearings

House:

Armed Services: Nomination – Lyons
Who: Lieutenant General Stephen R. Lyons, USA, To Be General And Commander, United States Transportation Command
When: 9:30 AM, Tuesday, June 26, 2018
Where: G50 Dirksen

Armed Services: Hearing: Army and Marine Corps Depot Policy Issues and Infrastructure Concerns
Who: Lieutenant General Aundre Piggee, Deputy Chief of Staff, G-4, U.S. Army; Brigadier General Joseph Shrader, Commanding General, Marine Corps Logistics Command, U.S. Marine Corps
When: 8:30 AM, Thursday, June 28, 2018
Where: 2212 Rayburn

Senate:

Veterans’ Affairs: Pending Nomination – Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Who: Robert Wilkie, to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs
When: 2:30 PM, Wednesday, June 27, 2018
Where: G50 Dirksen

Community Opportunities:

Veterans Campaign and University of San Francisco: Master of Arts in Public Leadership
Who: Veterans and military families, but open to anyone interested in public service.
When: Applications open now!
Where: The hybrid curriculum combines online learning with five intensive weekend seminars in the D.C. area.

 

Military and Veteran Issues:

Secret VA nursing home ratings hide poor quality care from the public
Donovan Slack (@DonovanSlack), USA Today and Andrea Estes, The Boston Globe
The Department of Veterans Affairs has been keeping the quality ratings for its 133 VA nursing homes for official use only until recently when USA TODAY and The Boston Globe began inquiring and got the number released publicly. As of December 31, 2017, 60 VA nursing homes in 32 states had received the lowest rating based on a scale of one to five. The papers’ investigations have revealed that, for the first time, VA nursing homes have performed worse than private ones. There have been no statistics released as of yet regarding the rates of infection or injury, but experiences shared by family members whose loved ones are in the nursing homes indicate the suffering caused by the bad quality at some VA nursing homes. –SM 
Bottom line: One of the hallmarks of sending veterans to the Department of Veterans Affairs for their healthcare in the last several years has been a clear and decisive increase in the quality of care and the satisfaction of those who actually use the system. Even before the crises of the last decade, the VA’s nursing home system has been considered an ongoing success as older veterans can find not just the healthcare they need but also camaraderie among fellow veterans of service. These ratings cast a harsh light on the system like never before and lead to a host of questions about what is being done to address the fact that over half of the nursing homes have the lowest possible rating and don’t appear to even meet federal standards of care. This is an incredibly important issue today as the WWII, Korea and even early era Vietnam veteran generations see exponential growth in the number of elderly members in mental and physical decline and in need of resident care. This isn’t a political football to be passed around and blamed on the media. It’s a real crisis of confidence and care that cannot be ignored. –FPW 

The Military Drinking-Water Crisis the White House Tried to Hide
Emily Atkin (@emorwee), The New Republic
A federal study revealed that 1,500 drinking water systems across the country are contaminated with a chemical compound known as perfluoroalkyls (PFAS), putting millions of Americans at risk of exposure – especially near military bases. Those exposed to PFAS are at risk for many issues, including cancer, hormonal disruptions, and difficulties with fetal development during pregnancy. Even though three million Americans are at risk, military personnel and veterans are at greatest risk to PFAS, due to firefighting foams seeping into the groundwater at military facilities and the drinking-water supply. The Trump administration urged the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry not to publish results of the testing because they feared a “public relations nightmare.” Now those who have been exposed to the chemical compounds on the military bases feel deceived by the government for not sharing this information with them. –SM 
Bottom line: This likely isn’t the most shocking news to those in the military community. For years, veterans and families who lived on Camp Lejeune have been seeking recognition of illnesses associated with contaminated drinking water on that base—and they finally got it in 2017. The contaminants highlighted in this most recent report are, in fact, found all over America in all kinds of products. Yet, because PFAS are so commonly used in military aviation, veterans are thought to be particularly vulnerable. That surely comes through in another article this last week from Tara Copp at Military Times“Why women were told ‘Don’t get pregnant at George Air Force Base’”–PFAS-like contaminants led to a number of suspected illnesses and miscarriages among service members and spouses over the years. As a veteran points out in Tara’s article, she never thought much about the warnings not to get pregnant while at George AFB, because she assumed the service would protect her. Similarly, service members and families today—and Americans generally—hope that the federal government agencies charged with protecting our drinking water will do just that. Atkin writes in her article that DOD is making slow progress towards addressing the drinking water issue with clean water now available on 11 bases where PFAS had previously been detected. Yet, if these reports came out earlier, if a PR nightmare had been realized, or if the right thing to do had simply been done, perhaps many more military families could live healthy lives. –LJ 

Veterans Owe Thousands for Survivor Benefits. Why Can’t They Opt Out?
Sara Jerving (@sarajerving), The New York Times 
Retired disabled veterans are being required to pay into the Survivor Benefit Plan, a program operated by the Defense Department that is designed to supplement a family’s income after a retiree passes away. Those who are eligible are automatically enrolled at retirement, with the premium deducted from their retirement check each month. However, disabled veterans, often unknowingly enrolled in the program in the flurry of transition from the military, receive a bill if their benefit from the Department of Veterans Affairs isn’t enough to cover the payment. More than 19,000 retired disabled veterans received notifications that their wages would be garnished, and that they also owed thousands of dollars in back payments and interest fees. For years, Defense Department officials would tell those who did not want to be enrolled to simply not pay the bill, but the debt continued to accrue. New legislation now allows the deductions to be pulled from a veteran’s Combat Related Special Compensation. For many veterans, the garnishments cause financial strain, in addition to the toll of combat-related injuries and the stress of transition. –KG 
Bottom line: Veterans—despite general misconceptions—are not worse off than illegal immigrants, nor are they poorly treated in comparison to their civilian counterparts. All of which is true when considering the general benefits and services available to them. But then there are stories like this, which highlight the ways in which veterans who did not come back whole from war are being tossed around and screwed over by a large bureaucracy that isn’t set up to respond rapidly to imperfect and unfair processes. In a case like this, where a clearly identified subset of the veteran community is facing crippling payments due to poor information and broken processes, the right thing for the government to do would be to forgive the historical debts and offer each affected member a one-time chance to remove themselves from the program, while also revisiting all existing processes to ensure that this problem does not affect future veterans. And while policymakers debate the future of VA healthcare, they would also be well-served to consider ways in which to improve how veterans’ financial benefits are handled, to strengthen a flawed and overburdened system.  –BW 

VA’s Acting Secretary, Watchdog Fight Over Whistleblower Records
Ben Kesling (@bkesling) The Wall Street Journal  
Michael Missal, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general, and acting VA secretary Peter O’Rourke are in a stalemate over the department’s handling of whistleblower claims, under the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection program, which was created in 2017. In an official letter from Missal to the O’Rourke, who served as the newly formed program’s first executive director, Missal purported that the department had repeatedly failed to fulfill record requests as part of his investigation into the VA’s low referral rate of whistleblower complaints to the Office of the Inspector General. Missal now seeks congressional assistance to gain access to the VA documents, while O’Rourke maintains that the IG is overreaching his mandate and behaving in an insubordinate manner. A VA spokesman, Curt Cashour, said of the inquiry: “The IG is not conducting a specific investigation. It is asking for constant and unfettered access to [the VA’s] whistleblower case files.” However, leaders of both the House and Senate VA committees are calling for compliance from the VA, with Rep. Tim Walz (D – Minn.) noting to O’Rourke that “nobody is above the law.” –KG
Bottom line: In an administration plagued with investigations, it’s not surprising that the VA’s acting secretary, Peter O’Rourke, is pushing back against IG Missal’s request to access more information relating to the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. It would seem that if there’s nothing to hide, why the dispute over access to the information? O’Rourke was the office’s first executive director, which some may interpret as an insider looking to cover their tracks. Given that Republicans and Democrats seem to be somewhat on the same page in their response to this one, it’s unclear how long O’Rourke can continue to withhold the information. As O’Rourke explains, “cabinet-level officials are considered under U.S. law and federal practice as superiors in name only to the inspectors general in their departments, who act with nearly unfettered access to employees, officials and documents deemed necessary for investigations.” An additional dynamic at play is President Trump’s official nomination this week of Robert Wilkie to lead the VA, who once confirmed will take over for O’Rourke and could potentially throw another wrench into the resolution of this matter. –CB

Client Hits:

Higher ed law fails its mission to protect deserving military-connected students
Tanya Ang (@TanyaMAng), Lauren Augustine (@laurenmla610) and Barrett Y. Bogue (@BarrettBogue), The Hill
Client Student Veterans of America (SVA) was one of 35 of veteran and military organizations to gather on Capitol Hill to state concerns regarding the PROSPER Act. SVA’s Vice President of Government Affairs, Lauren Augustine, and Vice President for Public Relations and Chapter Engagement, Barrett Bogue, were contributors for this piece highlighting what the proposed legislation fails to do for military-protected students. –SM 

GORUCK’s New Boot was Inspired by the Iconic Special Forces Boot of Vietnam
Jared Keller (@jaredbkeller), Task & Purpose 
GORUCK has launched the premier Jungle Rucking Boot, the MACV-1, for pre-sale. The project spanned four years and took the small development team– Special Forces veteran, GORUCK founder and CEO Jason McCarthy, thirty-year Special Forces veteran Richard Rice, and inventor of the Reebok Pump Paul Litchfield – across the globe, as they tested and refined the MACV-1 until there was nothing left to remove. McCarthy believes that these boots, like everything at GORUCK, will help bridge the gap between military and civilian by building a community around purposeful living: “There are many of us who answered the call after 9/11, but it’s because we needed a task and a purpose,” he said. “Americans will always answer the call, and I believe there’s a way of life that we can help promote that will help inspire more Americans to be more than they already are, to work towards something larger than themselves.” –KG 

Closing the closet door on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Jonathan Kaupanger (@JonathanVets1), ConnectingVets.com
Alisha Guffey, founder of pro-bono client The Ask & Tell Project, talked with Connecting Vets’ Jonathan Kaupanger about the  lasting negative effects of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the inspiring work her organization is doing to share the stories of the LGBTQ service members effected by it. This work is not only strengthening the LGBTQ military community, but the military as a whole as well. To share your own story, or to become a partner, visit AskandTell.com. –AB

Hitting the green for a good cause
Kaitlyn Fletcher, Loudon Times-Mirror
Paralyzed Veterans of American, along with their partner, Agility Defense and Government, Inc., hosted the 11th annual Paralyzed Veterans Golf Open on Monday. The annual tournament has raised more than $4 million since the tournament began in 2007; this year’s efforts raised $277,922. 40 veterans and more than 200 guests and sponsors, including Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), attended this year’s event. –KG 

GORUCK’s MACV-1 Was Inspired by Vietnam Era Jungle Boots
Tactical Life 
GORUCK, the creator of premier rucksacks, apparel and leader of endurance-based rucking events, now steps into footwear with the launch of its premier Special Forces boot, the MACV-1. With a design inspired by Vietnam-era jungle boots, the MACV-1 embraces its ancestry while adapting to the demands of modern day Special Forces. The process took four years and was led a small development team across the globe, but is now finally a product they proudly endorse. Thirty-year U.S. Army Special Forces veteran and Senior Advisor, Richard Rice, said of the boot: “My MACV-1’s are better than any boots I wore in my 30-year Army career spanning jungle, desert, mountainous and urban warfare. And when the mission’s over, you can drink in ’em, too.” –KG

Quick Hits: 

Bob Dole’s final mission
Steve Hendrix (@SBHendrix) The Washington Post 
Every Saturday, former senator and World War II veteran Bob Dole, now 94-years-old, makes the increasingly difficult trip to the National World War II Memorial in Washington. Spending three or more hours a day, regardless of weather conditions, Dole shakes hands, takes photos and offers sincere greetings to all he sees. His wife, former senator Elizabeth Dole, believes her husband is simply built to serve, and notes that his goal is simply “to make a positive difference in one person’s life every day.” The World War II veteran is largely responsible for the memorial, which opened in 2004 after he raised more than $170 million towards the effort. –KG 

Do Service Dogs Help Military Veterans with PTSD?
Zazie Todd, Ph.D. (@CompAnimalPsych), Psychology Today
Between 5 percent and 20 percent of veterans returning from war are estimated to suffer from post-traumatic stress (PTS), and Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine found that those with service dogs do better physiologically and psychologically, compared to those on the wait-list. The survey also revealed that those with a dog experience fewer disturbances while sleeping, lower levels of anger and anxiety, and less alcohol abuse. Service dogs are trained through various commands and general obedience to serve veterans with PTS; veterans receiving one must partake in a three-week training program to better understand how to care for and interact with them. Even though the results suggest that service dogs assist veterans with PTS, further research is being conducted to reach the full outcome of the study. –SM 

Appeals court tosses veterans’ lawsuits over burn pits
Denise Lavoie (@deniselavoie_ap), Associated Press
On Wednesday, a federal appeals court said it would no longer move forward with the lawsuits brought against KBR – a military contractor that repeatedly discarded tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials into open burn pits, resulting in harmful smoke that left more than 800 service members suffering from neurological problems, cancer and health issues. Because the military makes all decisions regarding burn pits, including location, hours and materials to be burned, the judge said KBR could not be expected to individually choose to use landfills, recycling or incinerators for their waste. –SM 

Military making headway on opioid epidemic among service members, vets, officials say
Claudia Grisales (@cgrisales), Stars and Stripes
Progress is being made in the military community in regard to the opioid crisis, resulting in considerably lower levels of opioid abuse and addiction among active-duty service members. Since the military created a series of reforms to address this epidemic, other forms of treatment are being used more often, and military prescriptions for opioids have declined by 15 percent. The Defense Department is beginning its own effort in monitoring the drug this December with state Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPS) to keep an eye on those may be abusing or are addicted to it. –SM

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