ScoutReport – 7/19
I didn’t realize for awhile that I was starting this newsletter off saying “it’s been a crazy week in Washington” until one of my colleagues pointed it out. So I really wanted to start finding a new approach but…wow…it’s really been another crazy week in Washington. On the good news front, current Secretary of the Army Mark Esper is moving quickly toward being confirmed as the next Secretary of Defense after a prolonged vacancy. He promised, while speaking to a recent Army Public Affairs conference, to be more open and transparent with the press and the public so we have high hopes that the Pentagon will again be the ‘building that speaks’ soon. Meanwhile, two perpetual issues for the military family and veterans communities are in the spotlight again as food insecurity and suicide still stalk those who serve. We hope you’re staying cool amongst the heat waves. I may or may not be writing this from a veranda in the Azores, which is significantly cooler than DC right now and well…less crazy. -Fred
Why are many of America’s military families going hungry?
ScoutComms has had the pleasure in the past of collaborating with Operation Phantom Support, a non-profit based outside Fort Hood in Texas that runs a food pantry for the military and veteran community. They do exceptional work, but like NBC News highlights in San Diego, it’s unfortunate and troubling that they even need to exist. There is no simple solution to the issue of military families needing food assistance, in part because we have no clear data to truly understand the breadth of the problem. Better data is absolutely necessary to help define the problem and dictate the appropriate actions on a federal/state scale, but the lone DoD response to the NBC News investigation is infuriatingly obtuse, with an unnamed spokesperson asserting that the issue is “minimal,” that “military members are very well paid,” and that when in trouble, the solution is financial literacy training. Even if the issue was minimal, the military should show more sympathy to those who are clearly suffering. This is not a theoretical debate; as one expert interviewed by NBC News notes, “We’ve identified that there are food pantries on or near almost every military base in this country.” This is a problem that largely affects lower-ranked enlisted service members, particularly those who have multiple children and whose spouse is not able to work full-time to provide a second income. In the short term, individuals and communities who don’t have to worry about where their next meal comes from should help these food pantries survive. But in the long term, DoD and other government agencies need to take a leadership role in better defining and addressing the problem. Potential actions to mitigate these issues could include exempting Basic Allowance for Housing from counting against a family’s eligibility for federal assistance or developing base-specific food assistance programs for personnel assigned to those locations. It also could include looking at creating more avenues for military spouses to find flexible work opportunities so that even if they can’t hold a full-time job due to their child care situation, they may be able to earn enough part-time or remotely to complement the service member’s earnings and ensure that food is always on the table. – Brian Wagner, President of ScoutComms
Military Unit, Ravaged by War, Regroups Back Home to Survive the Peace
In the fight to prevent suicides among veterans there simply isn’t one solution and this week Ben Kesling looked at a unique public-private partnership focusing on the bonds built in combat. During an 11-month tour of Afghanistan’s Arghandab Valley, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment had a brutal tour with three soldiers killed and many more severely wounded. But worse still, in the 10 years since, two soldiers have killed themselves while more than a dozen have made attempts. Identified as a ‘high risk’ unit, the Department of Veterans Affairs partnered with nonprofit The Independence Fund to bring nearly a hundred veterans of that deployment together for a weekend reunion that included the usual military trappings of toasts to those lost and outdoor activities, to group sessions and meetings with VA mental health counselors. The idea is simple: extend the bonds that kept warriors alive in combat to help keep them alive at home. While it’s too early to say if this approach will have long-term impact, it appears it broke through the hesitancies many of the men had about getting help, with several continuing to get therapy and staying in touch after the reunion. One more gathering has occurred since this first trial and others are planned. This is a unique approach that may not work for every veteran, but it certainly is a smart new addition to the toolbox of reducing the scourge of suicide that is haunting our veteran community for too long. -Fred Wellman, CEO & Founder of ScoutComms
Agency cites missing information, but critics blame poor communication
Earlier this year, a Department of Veterans Affairs office in Atlanta eliminated 208,272 health care applications from across the country. According to records, the reason for this elimination was due to missing information on the application, such as branch of service or signature. Many veterans groups and advocates say that the VA should have communicated more with the veterans before closing their applications. Adrian Atizado, deputy national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said of the issue, “When we hear about the VA not taking a more thoughtful approach to a situation like this — when they only send one letter because they have an incomplete application — I think we all should be expecting our government and this administration to do better by our veterans.”
Do Service Dogs Help Treat PTSD? V.A. Still Doesn’t Know
The Department of Veterans Affairs launched research back in 2011 looking into the effectiveness of service dogs. The study has met many obstacles and challenges along the way. Originally slated to be completed in 2015, the VA now says the findings will be released in 2020. VA Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs deputy assistant secretary James Hutton explained the difficulty of researching psychiatric service dogs: “the complexity and scope of this study are far beyond any others ever attempted. VA had to design its own procedures, which is a very time-consuming process.”
New Law Increases VA Home Loan Limits, Funding Fees
A law signed to provide compensation to ill veterans who served on Navy ships in Vietnam also made changes to Department of Veterans Affairs-backed home loans for all eligible veterans. Starting Jan. 1, 2020, all veterans are able to take advantage of the VA’s “zero-down payment” loan program. The new law will make the maximum guaranty 25% of the loan amount, getting rid of the Freddie Mac link to VA loans. Regardless of the loan size, starting Jan. 1, the funding fee for a zero-down payment VA loan for active-duty veterans will increase, and will remain in effect until Jan. 1, 2022. The fee increase is intended to pay for disability compensation for veterans, and the new law also removes the loan limit for the Native American Direct Loan Program and exempts Purple Heart recipients from paying the funding fee.
Why DoD is still using burn pits, even while acknowledging their danger
The Pentagon recognizes and acknowledges the risks of burn pits and is looking for alternatives while pledging to do a better job of tracking how exposure affects service members. However, there is no current plan to stop using them, though they are trying to improve monitoring procedures. The concern is that burning the waste creates hazardous fumes, and that it could cause rare cancers, respiratory illnesses and other health issues in the veteran community.
Milley: No Problem with transgender troops if they meet standards
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, nominated to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that he does not feel that there is anything in someone’s identity that should prevent them from serving in the military, and that he has no problem with transgender individuals joining or continuing to serve. Under the Obama administration, transgender individuals were allowed to serve openly, as well as receive medical treatment. This was changed in 2017 when President Trump announced a reversal of policy. Milley said that the military is, and should remain, standard-based, and that gender identity is unrelated to someone’s willingness to serve.
Internal battle over Purple Heart trademark leaves wounded veterans in its wake
Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH) is locked in competing lawsuits with its own foundation in order to continue its mission of serving veterans. Tension between the two organizations began to rise after the Purple Heart Foundation, which serves as the fundraising arm for MOPH, stopped living up to the promised funding commitments. MOPH is now fighting to take back the Purple Heart trademark and take control of its own fundraising.