June 28, 2019
It hasn’t been too crazy a week in Washington…in a relative sense lately. The long sought recognition of Agent Orange exposure for ‘Blue Water Veterans’ from Vietnam was signed into law this past week. This news comes as a great capstone for the retirement of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Executive Director Bob Wallace after nearly two decades of leadership on so many veterans issues. We wish him the best of luck. We take a look at how the VA is using AI to identify veterans in need and the idea to pay for our wars from Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke. It’s a short week next week for Independence Day and we hope you have a safe and happy holiday. – Fred
Beto O’Rourke proposes ‘war tax’ as part of veterans’ plan
After a subpar performance in Wednesday night’s Democratic Debate, Beto O’Rourke may not ever be in a position to put his veterans plan into action as president, but his proposal to impose a “war tax” on non-military households has certainly stirred up plenty of discussion and debate in the veterans community. Under his proposal, a progressive tax would be levied to help cover the health care of veterans of future wars. While many responses have focused on dissecting the details of his proposal—how do we determine non-military households? Why not levy a tax to pay for wars themselves?—I want to focus on the concept itself. As an Army officer complained to CBS News in 2006, “We’re at war, America’s at the mall.” Since 9/11, little sacrifice has been demanded from the American people, who have been largely disconnected from the prosecution of multiple wars by America’s increasing isolated warrior class. Thus, there is a logic behind a war tax of any kind, whether it is used to fund war or fund healthcare for those who go to war. But our fundamental problem as a nation is not that we are under-serving veterans (though that is an issue) or that we don’t care (though many are ignorant of what is going on in Afghanistan and other hot spots today). The real problem is that our national mechanism for considering and debating whether we should go to war—or even resort to force in the first place—is broken, and responsibility for fixing that broken mechanism resides first with Congress and not the American people. Congress has largely abdicated its role in deciding when or where we use force since 9/11, and both Republican and Democratic presidents have grown comfortable acting relatively unilaterally while Congress objects timidly on cable TV while doing nothing in the U.S. Capitol to reassert its Constitutional role and demand greater accountability and more public planning. Just this week, the president asserted that he had no exit strategy nor needed no exit strategy for a conflict with Iran, even as tensions rise, and yet Congress will do little to ensure it is relevant to the decision-making process. So while I respect O’Rourke’s effort, and firmly believe, based on his past actions and the testimony of people I know, that he cares deeply and personally about the veterans community, his war tax is dealing with a problem that should be tackled after Congress gets its own house in order. -Brian Wagner, President of ScoutComms
How the VA uses algorithms to predict suicide
A fascinating story on the efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop an artificial intelligence tool that can scan records of patients and flag them for mental health treatment and outreach to prevent suicide. The effort called REACH VET essentially “scours millions of records for medications, treatment, traumatic events, overall health and other information, and based on prior experience, it plucks out the names of veterans most likely to die by suicide in the next year. Clinicians then reach out to them directly, sometimes before the patient has expressed suicidal thoughts to anyone.” Developed in concert with Harvard researchers and clinicians around the country, the program leads local mental health care providers at VA facilities to reach out to veterans and offer additional services and treatment plans to get ahead of the continuing scourge of suicide plaguing the community. The VA believes the effort is paying off as they are seeing about 250 fewer veteran suicides than would have been expected based on the previous historical rate. While no system is perfect, it is encouraging to see applications of AI to crunch the mass of data available in our medical system to prevent suicide. What is also encouraging is that civilian health systems are looking at the technology and how it might apply to the larger population that is also dealing with growing suicide issues. Privacy and insurance will remain major concerns as with any technology and the implications of identifying someone before they attempt suicide smacks eerily of the ‘pre-crimes’ dystopian nightmare of Tom Cruise’s ‘Minority Report,’ but we must explore every option to save lives in our community and make an impact on a continuing issue for those who have served and our nation. –Fred Wellman, CEO & Founder of ScoutComms
Wounded by Chemical Weapons in Iraq, Veterans Fight a Lonely Battle for Help
Annette Nellis, Brian Ornstein, Ronnie Walker and Steven May are among the veterans who were exposed to chemical weapons in Iraq and are now fighting for recognition of their injuries. After all four had been evaluated at the Walter Reed hospital in Bethesda, Md., only Nellis, Ornstein and May received a letter from an Army doctor who “had not talked to or evaluated any of them” and were told to contact the Army Public Health Center with any questions. Nellis’ emails have gone unanswered, and she said, “We’re now fighting the government we fought for in combat.”
Benefits for ‘blue water’ veterans finalized after years-long fight
Last week President Trump signed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act into law, granting “presumptive status for disability benefits to an estimated 90,000 Navy veterans who served in the seas around Vietnam during the war.” This new law comes after years of advocates fighting for the benefits of “blue water” veterans and is projected to total $1.1 billion over the next 10 years.
Funding Flows in the Sea of Goodwill: An Analysis of Major Funders in the Veteran-Serving Nonprofit Space
Center for New American Security, Emma Moore (@moreemmamoore), Margaret Seymour (@maggie_mae_mour), Jared Stefani (@JaredRStefani), Kelly Kennedy (@KellySKennedy) and Kayla M. Williams (@kwilliams101)
In their analysis of veteran philanthropy and its major funders, the Center for New American Security (CNAS) found that research and legal services are among the areas with the smallest percentages of funding. While private foundations funded more rehabilitative services, caregiver support and medical research, corporations funded employment training for veterans and their families.
David Bellavia receives the Medal of Honor for his actions in a ‘house of nightmares’
On Tuesday, Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia became the first living Medal of Honor recipient who fought in the Iraq War. Bellavia is recognized for his extreme bravery during the second battle of Fallujah, the acts of which soldiers alongside him attribute their lives to. Retired Sgt. 1st Class Colin Fitts was one of those men and stated, “If it were not for David Bellavia, I would not be sitting here today. I am certain of that. I am extremely humbled and appreciative of him.”
Steven Weintraub: Providing relief, and good times, for veterans with PTSD
While Vet Tix provides free tickets to events for veterans and service members, it has also allowed those with PTSD opportunities to socialize and integrate these events with their ongoing therapy. Some testimonials from these individuals even share they were able to enjoy themselves for the first time in decades. In additional Vet Tix news, last week NASCAR driver Kyle Larson provided tickets for the Sunday race at Sonoma Raceway to 1st Tix, an organization powered by Vet Tix that gives tickets to first responders.