Veterans enjoy a day out fishing
By Adva Saldinger
The Patriot Ledger
Posted Jul 24, 2008 @ 03:12 AM
Last update Jul 24, 2008 @ 03:50 AM
QUINCY — Bob Cunio did three tours of duty in Iraq as a Marine, was stabbed, wounded by an improvised explosive device and is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and substance-abuse problems at the Brockton Veterans Administration hospital.
On Wednesday he put all that aside, kicked back on a lobster boat and cast a line into the waters of Boston Harbor.
“I think it’s a good deal,” he said. “Staying on the grounds is not good. It’s good for you to get out and see that life goes on.”
He was on a boat with several friends who made the most of their first time at the 52nd annual Harvey’s Salt Water Fishing Club Vets’ Day at the Quincy Yacht Club.
“This is really great; I’m excited,” said Allan Visser, an Army veteran who served in the Gulf War and who is also at the Brockton VA hospital. “I’ve met a lot of new friends, and it gives you a lot of hope.”
Twenty lobster boat owners volunteered their boats and time to take the almost 200 veterans out.
“We owe a lot to these guys,” said Dana Riques, an Army veteran living in the Chelsea Soldiers Home who had tried his luck fishing the past four years at the event.
This year Riques had a bit more luck. He managed to hook a skate, which he threw back.
Veterans of all ages went out for several hours, despite cloudy skies, and several managed to catch flounder.
After they were done fishing, and just as it started raining, the veterans sat down to a meal. They sang the “Star-Spangled Banner,” heard from Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch, and won prizes in a raffle.
Paul DaCosta, a Marine Corps veteran who served during peacetime, is at the Brockton VA hospital with a broken leg. “It’s kind of motivating to see all the vets,” he said.
Christopher Davis, who served in Iraq during the Gulf War with the Navy SeaBees, also said he had a great time at the event. He has been in and out of the hospital for treatment of post-traumatic stress since leaving the Navy in 1994.
“It means a lot to me all the vets together going out on the trip,” he said.
Adva Saldinger may be reached at email@example.com.
what a wonderful thing for these people to do SALUTE
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Veterans enjoy a day out fishing
Injured veterans still wait for help
They were conceived as bureaucracy busters, advocates to help severely injured troops navigate the multi-agency maze of getting health care and benefits.
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Physical therapist Barry Dye (left) watches Staff Sgt. Axel Perez work on balance and endurance at the active-duty rehabilitation unit at Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Click photo for optionsBut hiring federal recovery coordinators and assigning them to service members is being held up -- by bureaucracy.
In written answers to questions asked by The Augusta Chronicle, the program's U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs administrators said they have no immediate plans to put a recovery coordinator in Augusta, where Eisenhower Army Medical Center has been taking in the second- or third-most number of war-wounded troops of all military hospitals in the country.
"However, VA and (the Department of Defense) are carefully tracking workload, geographic distribution and complexity of severely injured service members and using this data to determine the number and location of additional FRCs," the VA statement said.
"Should the analysis indicate a high concentration of catastrophically injured service members in the Eisenhower area, VA will consider locating an FRC there in the future."
The active-duty rehabilitation unit at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center is currently treating 15 hospitalized patients and seven outpatients who fit the seriously wounded description, spokesman Michael Shaffer said.
The spinal cord injury unit has another three inpatients and two outpatients, he said.
Spokeswoman Jennifer Chipman said she couldn't obtain those figures for Eisenhower because of an ongoing office move, but at least two amputees are being treated there.
The creation of an Interagency Recovery Coordinator corps was one of the main recommendations of a nine-member presidential panel formed in 2007 to find ways of improving services for injured troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the time, The Washington Post had just exposed neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
The so-called Dole/Shalala report was given to President Bush a year ago this week.
Laurie Ott, the executive director of the CSRA Wounded Warrior Care Project, says the coordinators program is moving along too sluggishly.
U.S. Rep. Paul Broun is trying to meet with VA officials at his Washington office before next month's recess to try to convince them to put a patient advocate in Augusta, according to his press secretary.
In response to other questions from the newspaper, the VA said it has spent $2.5 million on the program in fiscal year 2008, with nine recovery coordinators currently assigned to 88 patients -- 34 at Walter Reed; 22 at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio; 20 at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.; seven at the VA in Providence, R.I.; and five at the Houston VA.
"I can tell you seven people by name who need an FRC in Augusta," Ms. Ott said.
Asked by The Chronicle whether he's satisfied with the program's progress, retired Sen. Bob Dole, who co-chaired the presidential panel with former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, hinted that improvements are on the way.
"I know there are some kinks in the program which are now being addressed at the White House and by VA Deputy Secretary Gordon Mansfield," Mr. Dole wrote in an e-mail. "I have other information that gives me confidence the program will be a great asset to seriously wounded in 90 days."
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Putting McCain's performance on the public record
By TERRENCE L. LITKA SR.
It is funny to read the misquoting of Sen. Barack Obama, but it is understandable considering the Limbaughesque propaganda being spewed by the conservative side. There are a few things, though, about Sen. John McCain that should be pointed out to those who are blindly jumping on his bandwagon.
While McCain's service to his country in the military and his prisoner of war experience are commendable, his votes against veterans' benefits are deplorable. Not only has he refused to support the 21st Century GI Bill, which the Veterans of Foreign Wars endorsed last June, he has consistently voted against increasing funding for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees all medical care for veterans:
McCain voted against an amendment providing $20 billion to the VA's medical facilities. He voted against providing $430 million to the VA for outpatient care "and treatment for veterans," one of only 13 senators to do so. He voted against increasing VA funding by $1.5 billion by closing corporate loopholes. He voted against increasing VA funding by $1.8 billion by ending "abusive tax loopholes."
People are already talking that McCain would be best for the defense of this country. Think. Do you honestly believe any president, regardless of political party, would not defend this land? Do you honestly believe that any president, regardless of political party, would buck the Constitution and take away your firearms? Think! Don't be led like sheep by the talk-show entertainers.
As for being a "maverick," McCain voted with the Bush administration 89 percent of the time. Since President Bush took office, McCain has supported Bush's positions 89 percent of the time. McCain's support of Bush's policies reached as high as 95 percent in 2007. Think about this as you pay more than $3 per gallon of milk and more than $4 per gallon for gasoline.
Now, his view on jobs. McCain voted with the Republicans in 2007 to stall a minimum wage increase for working families — before bowing to public pressure and voting to pass the final bill that included tax breaks for businesses. He even voted to completely repeal the minimum wage laws in 45 states and allow the other five states to opt out of any future minimum wage increases above $5.15 an hour. McCain voted against protecting workers' overtime pay from Bush administration rules that threaten the overtime rights of 6 million workers. McCain voted to block the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from issuing, implementing or enforcing standards to protect workers from ergonomic injuries. In 1993, before finally voting for the Family and Medical Leave Act, McCain voted to jeopardize leave for millions of workers by gutting the bill. He voted to suspend the act unless the federal government either certified that compliance would not increase costs for business or provided financial assistance to businesses to cover any costs associated with implementing the law.
McCain voted against extending the expiring Temporary Emergency Unemployment Compensation program for another six months, with an additional 13 weeks of benefits for workers who exhaust their federal benefits while looking for a new job. The amendment also called for unemployment benefits for low-wage workers and workers seeking part-time employment. At the time the program was due to expire, more than 1 million long-term jobless workers were nearing the end of their state benefits.
McCain voted against the 2004 $318 billion highway and transportation bill that would create about 5 million jobs over six years in new highway and transit construction projects, although Bush said he would approve only up to $256 billion in funding. The legislation contained Davis-Bacon prevailing wage protections.
McCain also voted in 2005 against a six-year, $286 billion reauthorization of the federal highway and transit construction program. The infrastructure modernization bill would create 1 million family-supporting jobs, protected by Davis-Bacon prevailing wage standards. McCain voted against an amendment that authorized $1.6 billion in fiscal year 2002 to help states and local school districts repair their most dilapidated public school buildings.
Now for health care, like Bush's, McCain's plan undermines existing employer-based health care and pushes workers into the private market to fight big insurance companies on their own. It will reduce benefits, increase costs and leave many with no health care at all. McCain wants to shift the burden from employers to workers. He will make health care premiums part of taxable income, essentially creating a new tax for working families. The modest tax credit McCain wants to give people to cover his new tax would cover less than half the average health premium, leaving workers to pick up the difference. Also, by promoting high-deductible Health Savings Account plans, which provide fewer benefits at higher costs, he will make the high costs of individual insurance even worse. Many states have laws regulating health care quality by requiring basic services to be included in health care coverage. McCain's proposal would circumvent these laws, resulting in lower quality coverage without consumer protections.
So, one must wonder if these facts will be broadcast by the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Laura Ingraham so that we, the voters, are informed before we make our decision. Be sure to register to vote. Stay informed on the issues. Think. Vote.
Terrence L. Litka Sr. lives in Mishawaka.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Mitchell takes on the stigma of vets' mental-health issues
by E.J. Montini - Jul. 22, 2008 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Late last year at a congressional hearing in Washington, Rep. Harry Mitchell listened to a couple named Mike and Kim Bowman tell the story of their 23-year-old son, Tim, a soldier who had returned safely from his yearlong deployment in Iraq only to commit suicide at home.
"We already were hearing that suicide among veterans who were between 20 and 24 years old was 2½ times higher than non-veterans," Mitchell told me. "And I remember thinking to myself: 'We can't do this again.' "
The first-term congressman previously had attended a "stand-down" event in Phoenix, at which homeless veterans receive free haircuts, showers and meals, as well as medical check-ups and help with housing or job services.
"A lot of those guys were Vietnam vets," Mitchell said. "After that war we didn't understand PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as well as we do now. I just didn't want us to neglect another generation of veterans. And the Bowmans said something really important at that hearing, something that stuck with me. They said that we shouldn't wait for veterans to go to the VA, but have the VA go to veterans."
As a subcommittee chairman on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Mitchell, a Democrat, working with Republican colleagues, began asking the VA some tough questions about how much effort it put into reaching veterans at risk of suicide or other mental-health problems connected with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.
Mitchell already was working on a revised version of the GI Bill, which Congress recently approved.
What he found after questioning VA officials was that the VA had a self-imposed ban on the kind of television advertising that can quickly get the word out concerning mental-health services.
There also was no aggressive program aimed at reaching veterans through the Internet or through cellphone technology.
In the meantime, too many veterans who had survived the war were suffering at home, with some taking their own lives.
Most recently in Arizona, there was the story of Staff Sgt. Travis Twiggs, a Marine who killed himself and his brother, Willard, after a long police chase and who is suspected of trying to commit suicide - Thelma & Louise style - by driving off the edge of the Grand Canyon.
"It has taken some work appealing to the VA bureaucracy, but I believe things are beginning to turn around," Mitchell said.
Not long ago, officials from the VA told Mitchell's committee that it has changed its outreach policy.
A pilot program that involves advertising on everything from buses to billboards is going into effect in Washington, D.C.
The message reads: "It takes the courage and strength of a warrior to ask for help."
It goes on to list the VA's suicide prevention hotline number: 800-273-TALK (8255).
The government also produced a television spot with the same message that features actor Gary Sinise, who was in Forrest Gump and currently stars in CSI: New York.
Not long ago, I wrote about a vet who had thought about killing himself after having returned from a tour in the war zone.
Since then, I've heard from other veterans as well as from friends and loved ones of soldiers who see troubling signs in their returning veterans and aren't quite sure what to do about it.
(They, too, can call the hotline and get help.)
"Hopefully, we can destigmatize this," Mitchell said. "In hearing after hearing, we are told about people who are afraid to report it because it will affect their jobs. We have to get over that. We need to be more on the offensive."
Reach Montini at 602-444-8978 or ed.montini@arizonarepublic .com.
Monday, July 21, 2008
Having the 'Best Military' Is Not Always a Good Thing
In the meantime, at home, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates launched a fierce verbal assault on… go ahead, take a guess: the "creeping militarization" of U.S. foreign policy. It seems that too many unappetizing "peacekeeping" tasks, once handled by other departments of the government, are now in the military's lap, which turns out not to be quite as capacious as once imagined. "The Foreign Service is not the Foreign Legion, and the U.S. military should never be mistaken for a Peace Corps with guns" were among his exact words. Of course, this is what happens when your leaders love military power to death, can't imagine dealing with anyone here or abroad unarmed, and expand the Pentagon's job description in every imaginable direction.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, as ever more bombs fall, civilians, including a bride and her wedding party, were being regularly wiped out in sizeable numbers by American air power. As the civilian casualty reports came in last week, the U.S. military alternately denied that civilians were dying, issued vague regrets that civilians should have to die, and launched "investigations" that we're guaranteed never to hear about again. And the Afghans? Well, here was an aside in a New York Times account of a Taliban attack on a U.S. base near the Pakistani border in which nine U.S. soldiers were killed and 15 more injured: A former governor of the region where the attack took place said "some local people might have joined the militants since a group of civilians were killed in American airstrikes on July 4 in the same area. 'This made the people angry,' he said. 'It was the same area. The airstrikes happened maybe one kilometer away from the base.'"
As for the Air Force high command, R. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post reported: "The Air Force's top leadership sought for three years to spend counterterrorism funds on 'comfort capsules' to be installed on military planes that ferry senior officers and civilian leaders around the world, with at least four top generals involved in design details such as the color of the capsules' carpet and leather chairs, according to internal e-mails and budget documents."
The cost of this program is now estimated at $7.6 million in Global War on Terror money, $68,240 just to change the color of the seats and seat belts from an unpleasant Army brown to a cheerful Air Force blue (while adding seat pockets). Believe me, if you were a general, you would have been involved too. After all, among other features to decide on: a "37-inch flat-screen monitor with stereo speakers, and a full-length mirror" in each two-room capsule. Attention Secretary Gates: Should U.S. Air Force generals be mistaken for interior decorators with Hellfire missiles?
And just in case you didn't think that ordinary Americans back home could do their bit supporting our troops to the nth degree, they now have a wonderful opportunity, thanks to HBO's "Generation Kill" website, where they can "gear up," pick-up that needed Generation Kill women's tank top or men's Tee, and even – no kidding – send a box of "Bandaid brand adhesive bandages" to the soldiers as part of the site's "troop drive." Creeping militarism, who sez? Well, retired Lt. Col. (and TomDispatch regular) William J. Astore, for one. ~ Tom
Noted veterans' advocate Earl Hopper dies
by Lily Leung - Jul. 21, 2008 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Earl P. Hopper Sr.'s fight for the rights of troops who were captured or missing in action began when his oldest son, Earl P. Hopper Jr., disappeared in North Vietnam in 1968.
Though his mission began with one person, what fueled it was a band of brothers who had been "knowingly, wantingly" left behind by the U.S. government, said his wife, Patty.
Hopper Sr., a Glendale native and noted advocate for captured and missing troops, died July 11. He was 86.
Services for the retired Army colonel will be 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Chapel of Chimes Mortuary, 7924 N. 59th Ave., Glendale.
On numerous occasions, Hopper Sr. served as a leading expert in hearings before congressional committees on behalf of those missing or captured in war.
He was a key figure in two lawsuits in the 1970s that were integral in the reform of the Missing Persons Act.
"He would do anything, work with anyone who would work with him to help resolve this issue and to help make sure these kinds of travesties never happen again," Patty Hopper said.
The couple met through their work with the National League of Families, an organization for family members of captured and missing service troops from the Vietnam War.
She had lost a classmate. He had lost his son.
Hopper Sr., who had a 30-year military career, was elected to the organization's board of directors in 1973 and served until 1984, when he had become its chairman.
He and his wife continued their work with the families of captured and missing troops and became founders of Task Force Omega in 1983.
The research-driven organization has concentrated its effort on the return of the POWs abandoned in Vietnam and Laos after the Vietnam War.
The group regularly researches the lives of captured and missing troops, producing comprehensive biographies.
Hopper Sr. was the youngest of eight children and grew up on a farm in then-rural Glendale.
He had a paper route as a kid, loved pranks and was considered a good athlete at Glendale High School, his wife said.
He enlisted in with the Arizona National Guard in 1940 and served with distinction in World War II with the 101st Airborne Division.
During the Korean War, he worked with military intelligence; he was an adviser to a South Vietnamese Brigade during the Vietnam War.
"He had an extremely finite sense of right and wrong, and he had the most remarkable mind," Patty Hopper said.
Donations in Hopper Sr.'s name may be sent to Task Force Omega, 14043 N. 64th Drive, Glendale.
For more information, call 623-979-5651.
SALUTE and TAPS for a true American Hero a veteran
Hospital cutbacks spark outrage among veterans
The planned Aurora medical center would treat 500,000 in the Rocky Mountain region.
By Jessica Fender
The Denver Post
Article Last Updated: 07/20/2008 11:41:22 PM MDT
Colorado veterans who want their own hospital rallied near the state Capitol on Sunday, incensed by a recently released report that shows potential budget overruns led Veterans Affairs officials to scale back plans for an Aurora medical facility.
The cutbacks announced in April left the embattled medical center at the Fitzsimons campus — originally envisioned as a self-sufficient hospital — sharing space and resources with the University of Colorado. The impact on services is unclear, but it first appeared the hospital would serve fewer spinal cord injury patients.
Veterans and congressional leaders pointed out Sunday that years of delays and revisions have helped inflate construction costs for their ideal hospital to more than $1 billion. The scaled-back version apparently meets the more than $700 million budget.
"For veterans in the Rocky Mountain region to have . . . rented space in someone else's hospital is inconceivable," said National Foreign Legion Commander Tom Bock. "We've got to make sure this plan . . . builds us a stand-alone hospital."
The VA declined to comment beyond the letter Secretary James Peake sent Colorado congressmen with the report.
In it, Peake says veterans will be better served by improvements to satellite clinics, home care and telecare programs than a costly hospital in the metro area.
Leasing beds rather than building a new hospital could "become a pivot point for future" facilities, according to the VA's report.
The agency and the Bush Administration have been mulling whether to continue providing in-house care for veterans or contracting services to outside companies.
The report provides an overview of a $4 million study the VA conducted on Fitzsimons and completed in January without sharing details with veterans groups or lawmakers — a move that angered Colorado's delegation.
Congress has already set aside $168 million for the project and could approve another $769 million this year.
Fitzsimons would serve nearly 500,000 veterans from Colorado, as well as those from Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana.
Jessica Fender: 303-954-1244 or email@example.com
My two cents: this is just more of the same mentality that brought the mess at Walter Reed a year ago, contracting out government responsibilities. The need to make a profit for the at profit organization will prevail over the best care possible for the veterans, they will look for ways to cut costs, will veterans get needed Cat scans or MRIs or will medical problems be left undiagnosed in their early stages and get to the level of disease that surgery or chemo won't save the life of the veteran. This has hapened many times even at VA hospitals, but when you put a middleman in the equation the customer in this case the veterans usually end up losing.
A move to take care of 'stop-loss' soldiers
By Edward Colimore
Inquirer Staff Writer
Army Spec. Joe Fabozzi thought he was getting out of the New Jersey National Guard in December 2003. He wound up dodging bullets and mortar shells in Iraq four months beyond his enlistment.
Army Spec. Garett Reppenhagen expected to leave Iraq in October 2004. New orders kept him there nearly 10 more months.
And Army Sgt. Robert Reichner hoped to leave Kosovo in June 2004 to restart his civilian life. He was sent to Guantanamo Bay for another year of duty.
The three were among about 60,000 service members who have been held over during the past four years by the Pentagon's controversial "stop-loss" policy. The measure involuntarily extends military service beyond the end of the enlistment period.
More than 12,000 soldiers - including nearly 4,000 Guard members - were under stop-loss orders in May, compared to about 8,500 about the same time last year. And many have objected strongly to the months of extra duty, often in combat zones.
A bill now in Congress would pay them an additional $1,500 a month of extended duty. The measure, introduced by U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.), also would make payments retroactive to October 2001, covering servicemen and women affected by stop-loss since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is being considered by committees in both houses.
The pay "would make me feel good, that my service had been acknowledged," said Fabozzi, 29, a Waretown, Ocean County, resident and air-traffic controller at Northeast Philadelphia Airport.
"Getting the $1,500 is great, but given the choice of getting the $1,500 or going home, I would have gone home," he said.
Soldiers have not had that choice - and eight of them challenged the stop-loss policy in federal court in Washington, D.C., four years ago. The case was dismissed.
"The stop-loss policy is unfair, a violation of the basic principle of contracts," said the soldiers' attorney, Jules Lobel, a University of Pittsburgh professor and vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a public-interest group in New York. "People should serve their time, and that should be it."
Lautenberg's legislation - sponsored on the House side by U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton (D., Ohio) - does not address the merits of the policy. It seeks only to provide extra pay to soldiers.
"The military made a deal with our men and women in uniform, and if our troops are forced to serve and sacrifice longer than that commitment, that sacrifice should be rewarded," said Lautenberg, whose measure is cosponsored by Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania.
The proposed stop-loss pay comes as many troops are reenlisting. More than 1,200 troops serving in Iraq signed up for extended service and were sworn in in Baghdad on Independence Day in one of the largest such ceremonies ever, officials said.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq, said he was "proud of their decision to re-enlist and help the people of Iraq win their most important battle . . . freedom."
Many soldiers affected by stop-loss, though, have felt betrayed, "like everything we stand for in this country was getting violated every step of the way," said Fabozzi, who would be eligible for at least $6,000 under the proposed measure.
"Giving us money now and still forcing soldiers to stay is like [federal officials] admitting they were wrong."
The additional money, however, "would help right now," said Reppenhagen, 33, a Colorado Springs, Colo., resident who was an infantry sniper in Iraq and hopes to become a high-school history teacher.
"It would have helped more [in Iraq], so I wouldn't have had the feeling like I was being used and abused by the military," he said.
The pay - Reppenhagen would be eligible for up to $15,000 - "will help increase the morale of troops who are suffering with stop-loss," he said.
The policy "has been used as a buffer" because of the lack of troops, he added. "Soldiers are being worked to the bone and abused by the stop-loss process."
Some of the troops say they believe the proposed pay increase may discourage political and military leaders from extending service because of the cost. Lautenberg is awaiting estimates - expected to be available within a week from the Congressional Budget Office - that would show how much the bill would cost.
On the House side, the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee recommended monthly stop-loss bonuses of $500 to $1,500. That action would cost $73 million to $220 million, according to an estimate published in the Congressional Quarterly.
"It will let them know there will be a price to pay," said Reichner, 32, who was mobilized and discharged through Fort Dix and stands to receive $18,000 if the stop-loss bill becomes law."
A soldier is no longer a volunteer after serving the time of enlistment, said Reichner, a Kalamazoo, Mich., resident and graduate student who hopes to become a program analyst in the Defense Department.
"He's not under a contract anymore," he said. "It's the same concept as overtime. If a boss asks you to work overtime and doesn't want to pay overtime, do you want to work?"
The "overtime" in the legislation would be welcome to many soldiers whose families are going through tough financial times, said Marine Chris Bertone, who served during the Iraq invasion in 2003 and in Afghanistan in 2004.
The 24-year-old Bloomfield, N.J., resident was involuntarily recalled several months ago as he was about to enter a police department boot camp in Essex County, New Jersey. His service has been temporarily delayed by "paperwork problems."
"But I expect to head back to Iraq," he said. "I think [the stop-loss money] is an excellent idea."
Though also in favor of the additional pay, Kristopher Goldsmith said he would much rather see stop-loss ended. The policy, he said, nearly ended his life.
A former Army sergeant, the Long Island, N.Y., resident served in Iraq in 2005, returned home, and was called up again - under a stop-loss order - to be part of the troop surge last year.
"Instead of being a civilian again and starting my life, I was doing the polar opposite: putting on a uniform and returning to Iraq," said Goldsmith, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, an antiwar group with 47 chapters across the country.
"I had come back with pretty severe PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and depression and was having panic attacks."
He said he attempted suicide on Memorial Day last year and received a general discharge.
Such stories leave former soldiers such as Steve Mortillo, 25, of West Philadelphia, unimpressed by the extra money being sought for the troops.
"I'm glad people realize the situation soldiers are in," said Mortillo, an Army specialist who served in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 and is president of the Philadelphia chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which has 1,200 members.
The extra pay "is better than nothing, but it doesn't address the larger issue."
Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mission to rebuild Iraq leaves vet in ruins
The story of Army Lt. Col. Kathryn Champion, 43, who owns a home in Yelm, Thurston County, and still has family there and in the Yakima area, parallels the story of the war.
By JOHN BARRY
St. Petersburg Times
Army veteran Kathy Champion, of Florida, is being treated for multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder.
GULFPORT, Fla. — She looks young and petite, waiflike in T-shirt and shorts. The only clue to who she really is — or was — is a slight toughness in her voice, a commanding directness, a clear vibe that this is someone who could, under certain circumstances, pull the trigger.
The girl in the T-shirt was the lieutenant colonel who trucked duffel bags of cash around Baghdad, who fed donkeys to Saddam's lions, who brought home a Bronze Star, who also brought home a strange illness and a parcel of emotional ambiguity.
The story of Army Lt. Col. Kathryn Champion, 43, who owns a home in Yelm, Thurston County, and still has family there and in the Yakima area, parallels the story of the war. She won plenty, lost plenty. She accomplished a lot, accomplished little. She looks good, feels bad. She can't say what her story means. The ending hasn't been written. It's as though she has circled back to the beginning. She's Kathy again, just Kathy, starting over with nothing.
Surreal weirdness of war
Kathy is an honorably discharged veteran under Veterans Affairs (VA) care for multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Kathryn was an Army reservist and former science teacher in Thurston and Yakima counties who rose from the ROTC to the command of an all-male "civil affairs" unit in Iraq. Her job was laughably uncivil. It was basically to dodge bombs while dispersing wads of money to pacify and theoretically rehabilitate war-ravaged neighborhoods west of the Tigris River.
That was two years ago. It's hard to see today's Kathy in such a role. She lives in limbo in a friend's Florida home. She has been driven out of teaching by rowdy middle-schoolers. She feels chronically tired. She injects herself with an interferon drug to slow her MS. She's dependent on disability pay. She's navigating, in a haze of sickness, three of the most complex bureaucracies in existence: VA health care, Social Security and VA disability benefits. But about Saddam's lions:
There were 65 of them. They fell under the job she had in Alpha Company 448, Civil Affairs Battalion, a Special Forces group that operated out of Camp Liberty, northeast of the Baghdad airport. She directed 32 men. Their mixed-bag mission was to recruit Iraqis to rebuild medical clinics, repair water plants, reopen schools. Their task also was to pay cash from duffel bags to local contractors, and to baby-sit those lions.
Lt. Col. Champion's unit had inherited the Army's mission to restore the Baghdad Zoo. The zoo, like so much else there, had a cruel and crazy history. It had long been denounced as inhumane and finally was decimated during the U.S. invasion of Baghdad.
Lions escaped into the city and had to be shot or rounded up with armored vehicles. The zoo was looted; hundreds of animals were either turned loose or eaten.
That was the zoo Champion inherited.
Much of it was downright fun. She played with lion cubs. She bargained for two white tigers from Turkey. She strengthened security and helped get rid of the barbed wire. But she also had those 65 lions on her hands.
It involved a feeding ritual that she could not have imagined as her Iraq assignment. It's documented on her home computer: Donkeys led past cages of hungry cats, slaughtered, then served up for lion-sized orgies of leg of donkey.
Everything about her mission, even the rare successes, seemed to have that same touch of surreal weirdness.
During her 15-month tour, she saw four soldiers die. Her convoy fell under fire seven times. After one roadside explosion, the rooftop gunner on her Humvee fell into her arms, his face peppered with shrapnel. She was his impromptu medic.
On another trip, her convoy was rammed by trucks front and back, forcing the Humvees to stop dead. The Humvees rammed back, forcing an opening. She shouted out her mantra: "Shoot and haul ass!" She dealt with Shiites, Sunnis and Wahhabi tribes. She paid them to rebuild infrastructure and buildings. When the work was done, she gathered the contractors in a room, signed receipts and counted out dollars from a duffel bag. She carried as much as $1.2 million.
In particular, she was proud of helping build a rehab clinic for wounded Iraqi soldiers, if only because she had completed something. "It was finished and not blown up."
Young boys greeted her convoy. They took candy treats from her soldiers. But one village meeting was interrupted by explosions just outside. She found two of her parked Humvees blasted into smoking hulks. The young boys she'd just treated had disappeared.
Next visit, the same boys were back, welcoming her Humvees, begging for candy. Friends or foes? Interrogate them? Treat them?
She had no answers.
Enduring the aftermath
Champion did accomplish this: She commanded. For 15 months, she made life-or-death decisions, tended to bleeding comrades, made men listen to her, even Muslim men. She stood her ground under fire. She was awarded a Bronze Star.
She could take that much home. She hoped.
She returned in May 2006. She mustered out of the Army and became schoolteacher Kathy again. By October, she was subbing at a middle school in Florida.
On her first day, she says, a kid cursed at her. She kicked him out of class. The boy walked home. Kathy was told she shouldn't have let him leave campus.
Public school was not foreign territory. She had taught middle-school children from 1989 to 2004 in Washington's Sunnyside School District in Yakima County and the Griffin and Yelm school districts in Thurston County for 20 years in her home state of Washington. While there, she had experienced every conceivable middle-school drama — her car was even torched once.
But Kathy couldn't pull herself together now. She ruminated over those Iraqi boys. Friends or foes? Treat them, or interrogate them?
In December, a child in class pushed her in the chest. She felt that old surge in her gut: Shoot and haul ass.
"I wanted to snap his head off."
Kathy hasn't been in a middle-school classroom since.
She tried taking a biology class at the University of South Florida. She couldn't retain anything she read. She suffered headaches, fatigue, cramps in her limbs, blurred vision. All that led to examinations and diagnoses last November of multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder. Those led to a heavy regimen of medications, including the interferon drug Avonex and antidepressants.
Dr. Kimberly Monnell, Kathy's neurologist, says the MS may have been there all along, undiscovered during her years of service. Kathy's initial complaint was chronic pain in her arms and back from dragging a wounded soldier out of a Humvee.
A fellow civil-affairs officer, one who served in Iraq at the same time and now also lives a block away in Gulfport, hardly recognizes her.
"Kathy got that Bronze Star for a lot of reasons," Lt. Col. Ana Christian said. "She was constantly exposed. But she was the one people looked to to get things done. We're all carrying something different degrees of post-traumatic stress, so I'm not surprised she's sick. I'm just surprised at the severity. To see her this way now makes me cry."
Champion revisits Iraq through the photos and videos she stored on her laptop — black truck skeletons, group hugs, guns everywhere, fireballs and those amazing lions, which made it against all odds.
Looking back suggests a way forward. Somehow, those lions survived.
Seattle Times reporter Elizabeth Rhodes contributed to this report.
Mental health organization luncheon set for Nov. 13
Mental health organization luncheon set for Nov. 13
12:00 AM CDT on Monday, July 21, 2008
Retired Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré will be the keynote speaker at the 2008 Prism Awards Luncheon on Nov. 13 at the Hilton Anatole hotel, benefiting Mental Health America of Greater Dallas.
President Tim Simmons said the luncheon will honor the men and women who have served or are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dr. Robert Ware Haley will be the honorary chairman.
Gen. Honoré is best-known for his success in leading the response of the Department of Defense to Hurricane Katrina and has served in a variety of command and staff positions in Korea and Germany. The latter positions focused on defense support to civil authorities and homeland defense.
Dr. Haley is a professor of epidemiology at UT Southwestern Medical School and holds the endowed Armed Forces Veterans Distinguished Chair of Medical Research.
Prism Awards are presented annually to those who have contributed significantly to the understanding of mental health and education to remove the stigma attached to mental health needs.
Awards are named for those who have a deep history in the community for drawing attention to the necessity for stable mental health. The awards include the Dr. Carmen Miller Michael Mental Health Advocate Award, the Ruth Sharp Altshuler Award, the Pamela Blumenthal Memorial Award and the Lightner Sams Foundation Child Advocate Award. A host committee is being chaired by Cynthia Figueroa, Sue Ann Gilman and Margaret Keliher.
Tickets are $150 each with tables of 10 costing $1,500.
For more information about the 2008 Prism Awards Luncheon, visit www.mhadallas.org or call Rosa Fleming at 214-871-2420, ext. 106.
Gala on for Nov. 1
The 2008 Richardson Regional Medical Center Foundation's Yellow and Black Tie Gala benefiting the nonprofit Richardson Regional Medical Center and promoting the new Cancer Center will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 1 at the Westin Galleria Dallas.
Proceeds will support medical technology, research and clinical programs at both of the hospital's locations.
They are the Campbell Road campus and the Bush/Renner campus, where a new cancer center and outpatient hospital are under construction.
The evening includes a cocktail reception, seated dinner, live entertainment, live and silent auctions and a presentation of future plans.
Susanne Bock is chairwoman, and honorary chairs are Ed and Linda Armstrong Kelly.
Tickets are $150 each or $1,500 for tables of 10. For tickets and sponsorships, call Jennifer Vitera, 972-498-7678, e-mail her at jenniferv@richardsonhealth .com or visit www.yellowandblacktiegala .com.
I am glad to see one of my personal hero's LTG Russel Honore will be the keynote speaker at a dinner honoring DR Robert Haley as the honorary Chairman, to those of us that were involved in Operation Desert Storm or the First Gulf War, he is one of the nations leading research experts into Gulf War Illness. I myself feel that LTG Honore should have been promoted to General (4 stars) for his heroic lead of government assistance in the Katrina disaster that was spread across the entire south, not just helping evacuate New Orleans, he spear headed the national effort that was the responsibility of FEMA when President Bush told 'Brownie you're foing a heck of a job" and then Brownie was gone, LTG Honore was the one who did the "one hell of a job".
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Battle scars: Three South Florida veterans fight for their lives
Stories by Mike Clary
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Their scars may not be visible. But each came home wounded. For Iraq war veterans Jeremy Polston, Wanda Rios-Figueroa and Terrence McGriff, the anger, insomnia and anxiety that dogged them when they returned to South Florida were just the start of the problems.
They could not connect with friends and family. Accustomed to facing death, the day-to-day concerns of the civilian world seemed trivial. They fought off panic in crowds, startled at loud noises, had dreams too vivid to forget, too horrible to describe.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the most common, most debilitating injuries of war. With the conflict in Iraq now in its sixth year, about 1.6 million U.S. troops — including about 6,000 South Floridians — have tasted orange fog sand storms, inhaled the rank mixture of heat and death, learned to sleep through the fear.
And then they come back to the world.
"We are seeing a flood of patients," said psychiatrist Daniella David, director of the Miami VA Medical Center's PTSD program. There is a six-month backlog of those waiting to get into the program's 16-bed residential treatment facility.
In May, the Pentagon released figures showing the number of Iraq war veterans diagnosed with PTSD jumped 50 percent in 2007. According to an independent study from the Rand Corp., nearly one in every five soldiers and Marines who have served in Iraq report symptoms.
Jeremy Polston, 33, Lantana
"On missions, we always thought, 'We're going to die tonight,'" Polston said. In 2003, on the first Father's Day after his son was born, he almost did.
Sent to Ramadi with the Florida National Guard's 124th Infantry Regiment in 2003, he conducted house-to-house searches, dodged rocket attacks and worried that a roadside bomb blast was around the corner.
The one that led to Polston being awarded the Purple Heart came after an Iraqi truck driver stopped at a checkpoint but suddenly hit the gas. Polston opened fire with his M16, and the vehicle exploded. He took shrapnel to the right thigh.
When he recovered from his injuries and returned to duty: "I was frightened. But I had to suck it up," said Polston, a Tennessee native who was a Marine before joining the National Guard.
He concentrated on returning home to his infant son. He thought about God.
"After being hit, I was mentally more aggressive. When I stepped out of the gates, I felt like a hired assassin. James Bond, Rambo.
"I felt like a bad ass," he said. "And at times I was."
Back home in 2004, Polston struggled. Crowds made him nervous. He broke down and cried for no apparent reason and spent hours at his insurance company job sitting in the dark.
He was charged with battery after a fight in a West Palm Beach bar.
"He was isolated, a little lost," ex-wife Jacqueline Walls said. "There was a sadness in his eyes."
The couple divorced last year after six years of marriage.
Eventually Polston realized he had PTSD. He began seeing a counselor and took classes to control his anger.
He started a business advising veterans and their survivors on government benefits.
He converted to Judaism.
Most important, Polston said, he discovered the joy of being a father. "If not for him, I might have done something to myself," he said, referring to Jackson, now 5. "I always thought, 'Who wants to look up to me?' He does."
Wanda Rios-Figueroa, 53, Fort Lauderdale
When she came back from Iraq, Rios-Figueroa said she was like a firecracker: "I was always going off on people."
When a friend she was staying with kicked her out, she checked herself into the VA Medical Center in West Palm Beach and ended up in the 90-day residential PTSD treatment program in Miami. She graduated from the program in April.
"I had nightmares, I felt suicidal," said Rios-Figueroa. "I just didn't understand what was going on with me."
Born in Puerto Rico, Rios-Figueroa spent 11 years in the Army, got out and joined the National Guard in Texas in 1995. Called up in 2004, she was sent to Iraq and assigned to provide security for supply convoys. She survived countless roadside bombings and rocket attacks.
"You learn to become like a robot," she said. "You grow numb to the threats."
Back home in 2005, Rios-Figueroa said she was so angry and alienated even her family did not recognize her. "Wanda, you're different," a sister told her during a vacation.
"I felt guilty about things that happened over there," she said, "and I just felt I needed to be there, to try to help."
So she signed on with KBR Inc., the former Halliburton subsidiary, and returned to Iraq for two more years. When she returned to Florida from Mosul in December 2007, she felt even more estranged.
Rios-Figueroa says the treatment program may have saved her.
"She is highly motivated," VA psychiatrist Daniella David said. "She is beginning the rest of her life."
Now living with a sister, Rios-Figueroa is job-hunting and looking forward to another family vacation where her father, sisters and brother will see a Wanda under control.
"I will never be able to tell them about what happened over there," she said. "And I will never be the old Wanda again. But I think I can be happy."
Terrence McGriff, 24, Lauderdale Lakes
His mother died of AIDS when he was 11. He had no relationship with his father. His only brother is doing life in prison.
So when the Marine Corps recruiter found the soft-spoken theater student at Dillard High School in 2002, McGriff was ready for something different.
Just eight months after graduation, the slight, soft-spoken Broward County native who had never been on an airplane before found himself racing across the desert in a Humvee, through oil fields raining fireballs of petroleum, triggering round after round from his M16 into the Iraq night.
He did seven months in 2003, returned stateside and was ordered back to the war the following year.
He was assigned to mortuary detail, where he bagged the bodies of fallen comrades and the charred remains of four civilian contractors dragged through the streets of Fallujah in March 2004.
When he sought psychiatric help, he was placed on two weeks of suicide watch and his weapons were taken away.
"After that, I didn't want to talk to anybody else," he said. "I begged to get my weapons back. It was embarrassing. It really hurt me."
In early 2006, McGriff volunteered for a third seven-month tour for the extra $600 a month in combat pay he needed to help out a dying uncle.
McGriff now studies film at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. After school, he works a night shift for Fed Ex unloading trucks.
He is haunted by nightmares of the things he saw and did. "I hear a plane at night and I think I'm back in Iraq, and the plane is bringing in more angels" — military-speak for bodies.
Since returning home, the grandmother who raised McGriff, Annie Garland, said she has never heard him speak of the war. "He's very quiet," she said.
McGriff takes medication, goes to counseling, and struggles to stay positive.
"I try to clear my mind of the military and lead a normal life. But it's hard. I'm just trying to find myself. I remember laughing so much. I was happy. Now it's like gray clouds all over.
"I ask the doctor for a pill that will take all this stuff out of my head. He says, 'There's no pill; it takes time.'
"And I say, 'Eight months after high school I was in Iraq. You didn't give me time for all this you threw at me.'
"I hope speaking out will help [other veterans] lost like me. I'm halfway there, but a mile away."
Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
Mike Clary can be reached at email@example.com or at 305-810-5007.
Audit of Veterans Benefits Administration Transition Assistance for Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom Service Members and Veterans Report
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted an audit to determine if Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) controls over transition assistance ensured (1) prompt processing of seriously disabled veterans’ compensation claims from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) and (2) effective outreach to OEF/OIF service members and veterans.
The audit covered VBA transition assistance controls in effect during Fiscal Years (FY) 2006–2008 (through January 2008). The audit included a review of 4,969 compensation claims received at 57 VA Regional Offices (VAROs) from seriously disabled OEF/OIF veterans the Department of Defense (DOD) discharged from military service during FY 2006. The audit also evaluated VBA outreach to service members and veterans during FYs 2006 and 2007.
VBA Emphasis on Seriously Disabled OEF/OIF Veterans. In January 2007, VA’s Under Secretary for Benefits wrote the following to all VBA employees:
There is no higher priority for any VBA employee, whether serving in the field or in headquarters, than ensuring that we are timely meeting the needs of those seriously injured in OEF/OIF. At every level of our organization, we must ensure we have identified and are case-managing all of the seriously injured. We must actively work to stay in touch with them and do all we can to ease their transition.
VBA defines seriously disabled veterans as service members who definitely or possibly will be discharged from military service because of an injury or illness and all veterans with DOD classification codes of very seriously injured, seriously injured, or a special category involving an amputation.
Presidential, Congressional, and Government Accountability Office Concerns. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. led a coalition of military forces from more than 40 countries in two Global War on Terror (GWOT) operations. In October 2001, OEF began in Afghanistan and in March 2003, OIF began in Iraq. During the period of October 2001–December 2007, about 1.7 million U.S. service members supported OEF/OIF operations.
As these service members returned to the U.S., the President, Congress, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) expressed concerns regarding VBA’s transition assistance. To address these concerns, in March 2007 the President established a Task Force on Returning Global War on Terror Heroes and a Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Soldier. In addition, Congress held five hearings related to VBA’s transition assistance responsibilities during the period August 2005–April 2007. These hearings focused on the effectiveness of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) for members of the National Guard, cooperation between VA and DOD to meet
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Audit of Veterans Benefits Administration Transition Assistance for
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the needs of returning service members, and timeliness of disability claims processing. Also, GAO issued the report Military and Veterans’ Benefits, Enhanced Services Could Improve Transition Assistance for Reserves and National Guard (Report No. GAO-05-544, May 2005). The report recommended that DOD, in conjunction with the Department of Labor (DOL) and VA, determine what National Guard and Reserve members need to make a smooth transition and to explore options for enhancing their participation in TAP.
VBA Transition Assistance Responsibilities and Controls. Title 10 of the U.S. Code requires VA, DOL, and DOD to administer TAP to meet the needs of service members and veterans transitioning from military service to civilian life. VBA transition assistance responsibilities include promptly processing OEF/OIF veterans’ claims and providing outreach to OEF/OIF service members and veterans.
VBA had several controls over the processing of seriously disabled OEF/OIF veterans’ claims and outreach to OEF/OIF service members and veterans. These controls included a 30-day goal for VARO processing of seriously disabled OEF/OIF veterans’ compensation claims and TAP briefing participation rate goals of 53 percent for FY 2006 and 85 percent for FY 2011.
VBA controls needed strengthening to ensure transition assistance meets the needs of OEF/OIF service members and veterans. Controls over VARO processing of seriously disabled OEF/OIF veterans’ compensation claims needed strengthening to meet VBA’s 30-day claim processing goal. Claim processing delays can cause veterans financial hardship by depriving them of compensation they may need to successfully transition from military service to civilian life. In addition, controls over outreach needed strengthening to ensure VBA informs service members and veterans of available VBA benefits that can ease their transition to civilian life.
Claims Received from Seriously Disabled OEF/OIF Veterans Needed to Be Processed Promptly. To improve claim-processing timeliness, VBA needed to strengthen controls for obtaining DOD data identifying seriously disabled OEF/OIF veterans and monitoring case-managed claims. As shown in Chart 1, VAROs did not process 3,776 (76 percent) of 4,969 seriously disabled veteran compensation claims within VBA’s 30-day goal. Chart 1: Seriously Disabled OEF/OIF Veterans' Claims Processed (4,969 Claims)1,193 (24%)3,776 (76%)30 Days or LessMore Than 30 Days
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Of the 4,969 claims VAROs processed, 3,776 did not meet VBA’s goal by an average of 114 days and as much as 504 days. Chart 2 shows the processing times for all 4,969 claims VAROs processed.
Obtaining DOD Data.
In June 2005, VBA established procedures with DOD in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to obtain medical information that identified seriously disabled OEF/OIF veterans. In support of the MOU, the Under Secretary of Defense directed the U.S. Army Surgeon General to provide VBA a service member data report every 3 weeks that includes the injury and illness classification codes needed to identify these veterans. However, as of January 2008, VBA had not obtained any of the U.S. Army Surgeon General reports. Senior C&P Service officials stated that VBA had not followed up with DOD to obtain these reports because VBA was waiting to obtain the injury and classification codes from a planned VBA/DOD Veterans Tracking Application (VTA). As of January 2008, VBA was testing the reliability of VTA data and could not provide us with a planned full implementation date. Chart 2: Seriously Disabled OEF/OIF Veterans' Claims Processed (4,969 Claims)681,0155384805054756951,1931%20%11%10%10%10%14%24%02004006008001,0001,2001,4000 - 3031-6061-9091-120121-150151-180181 - 365366 +Processing DaysClaims
Monitoring Case-Managed Claims. VBA policy requires VAROs to case manage seriously disabled OEF/OIF veterans’ claims. Case management is intended to ensure VAROs process seriously disabled claims within VBA’s 30-day goal. Case management procedures require VAROs to closely monitor the status of each claim and use telephone calls and letters to inform each veteran of their claim’s status. VAROs only case managed 1,049 (21 percent) of the 4,969 seriously disabled OEF/OIF claims requiring case management. VAROs did not identify the remaining 3,920 (79 percent) claims for case management because VBA did not obtain the necessary information discussed above. Regardless, VBA’s case management had minimal effect on the timeliness of claims received from seriously disabled OEF/OIF veterans. For example, VARO claim processing times did not meet the 30-day goal for 77 percent of the 3,920 claims that were not case managed and a minimally lower 74 percent of the 1,049 claims that were case managed.
To monitor the processing of case-managed claims, VBA’s Office of Field Operations (OFO) and VAROs used an OEF/OIF Registry. However, the OEF/OIF Registry was not an effective monitoring tool because it did not clearly show and summarize claim processing timeliness information such as claim processing days to date. As a result,
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OFO and VARO officials and case managers could not easily identify, track, and follow-up on claim processing delays.
Outreach to OEF/OIF Service Members and Veterans Needed Improvement. We estimated OEF/OIF service member VBA TAP briefing participation rates of 43 percent in FY 2006 and 47 percent in FY 2007. These participation rates were slightly less than VBA’s FY 2006 goal of 53 percent. (VBA did not have a FY 2007 goal and, as discussed below, did not determine actual participation rates.) In addition, VBA did not deliver initial outreach letters to 65,853 (33 percent) of 198,128 OEF/OIF veterans. Furthermore, VBA did not provide special outreach to an additional 3,274 OEF/OIF veterans who did not have a high school diploma or equivalent. To improve outreach to service members and veterans, DoD is in the best position to collect and monitor service member attendance at VBA TAP briefings. In addition, VBA needed to strengthen procedures for processing initial outreach letters and establish policies and procedures for providing special outreach.
Monitoring TAP Briefing Attendance. DOD and VBA did not determine and monitor TAP briefing attendance for OEF/OIF service members because of difficulties in collecting the data needed to calculate participation rates. To calculate these rates, DOD needs to determine the OEF/OIF service members eligible to attend TAP briefings and the OEF/OIF service members who participate in the briefings. (Hospitalized seriously disabled service members who cannot attend TAP briefings receive an individual briefing at the medical facility providing treatment.) Our estimated participation rates of 43 percent in FY 2006 and 47 percent in FY 2007 indicate that VBA was not achieving the 53 percent TAP participation rate goal. In addition to monitoring TAP briefing attendance, to help increase TAP briefing participation, DOD needed to mandate service members to attend a briefing prior to discharge.
Processing Initial Outreach Letters. Title 38 of the U.S. Code requires VBA to advise discharged veterans, through outreach letters, of available VBA benefits. The 65,853 OEF/OIF veterans did not receive initial outreach letters because C&P Service staff made incorrect ineligibility determinations (36,968 National Guard and Reserve veterans), did not obtain Certificates of Release or Discharge from Active Duty (DD-214s) information from DOD (22,879 veterans), and did not follow-up on letters returned as undeliverable (6,006 veterans).
Providing Special Outreach. Title 38 of the U.S. Code requires VBA to perform special outreach, in person or by telephone, for veterans who do not have a high school diploma or equivalent. C&P Service staff stated that they did not identify and provide the 3,274 OEF/OIF veterans special outreach because it was not required by VBA policies and procedures.
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Audit of Veterans Benefits Administration Transition Assistance for
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VBA controls needed strengthening to ensure transition assistance meets the needs of OEF/OIF service members and veterans. Controls over VARO processing of seriously disabled OEF/OIF veterans’ compensation claims needed strengthening to reduce claim-processing delays. In addition, controls over outreach needed strengthening to ensure VBA informs service members and veterans of available VBA benefits that can ease their transition to civilian life. VBA implementation of the following recommendations will address the transition control deficiencies identified during the audit and help ensure a smooth transition for the men and women who have made sacrifices in defense of freedom, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also throughout the world.
1. We recommended the Acting Under Secretary for Benefits obtain U.S. Army Surgeon General reports that include the injury and illness classification codes necessary to identify seriously disabled service members until VBA fully implements VTA.
2. We recommended the Acting Under Secretary for Benefits develop improved monitoring mechanisms to ensure VAROs promptly process seriously disabled OEF/OIF veterans’ compensation claims.
3. We recommended the Acting Under Secretary for Benefits pursue an agreement with DOD requiring service members to attend a VBA TAP briefing prior to discharge.
4. We recommended the Acting Under Secretary for Benefits develop a mechanism to obtain the VBA TAP briefing participation data necessary to calculate and monitor annual service member briefing participation rates.
5. We recommended the Acting Under Secretary for Benefits establish policies and procedures that clearly describe minimum benefit eligibility requirements and implement controls for ensuring the accuracy of eligibility determinations.
6. We recommended the Acting Under Secretary for Benefits develop a mechanism to obtain the DD-214 information needed to identify discharged veterans who should receive outreach letters.
7. We recommended the Acting Under Secretary for Benefits establish policies and procedures that require staff to follow-up on initial outreach letters returned as undeliverable.
8. We recommended the Acting Under Secretary for Benefits establish policies and procedures that require staff to provide special outreach to veterans who do not have a high school diploma or equivalent.
I encourage everyone to open the pdf and read the entire file, if this is the best they can do for the "new veterans? think how they are treating the veterans of Vietnam, Desert Storm, Korea and WW2 who are at the back of the line for claims processing, my appeal is in it's sixth year.