<![CDATA[Army Times]]>https://www.armytimes.comFri, 14 Jul 2023 04:23:04 +0000en1hourly1<![CDATA[House Republicans argue for discipline of ‘bad apples’ at VA]]>https://www.armytimes.com/federal-oversight/congress/2023/07/12/house-republicans-argue-for-discipline-of-bad-apples-at-va/https://www.armytimes.com/federal-oversight/congress/2023/07/12/house-republicans-argue-for-discipline-of-bad-apples-at-va/Wed, 12 Jul 2023 22:21:08 +0000House lawmakers discussed a bill Wednesday that would expedite firing of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employees and limit appeals of those decisions.

Republicans have called it a restoration of accountability for veterans and Americans who are “fed up with bad VA employees” not being appropriately disciplined, said House Veterans Affairs’ Committee Chairman Mike Bost, a Republican from Illinois.

“Veterans are at the core of the mission, not bureaucrats,” he said at the hearing.

VA does not support the bill, saying when there appears to be a delay in addressing a case of misconduct, which Bost questioned, it’s not because the agency is lacking power to deal with it. It’s because it takes time to conduct a thorough investigation, said Rondy Waye, executive director of Human Capital Programs at the agency.

A perceived delay on the front end would be there whether the agency used the bill’s procedures or not, he added.

The Restore the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability Act, introduced last month by Bost and supported by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), clarifies similar legislation signed by President Donald Trump in 2017. However, that law has been mired by legal challenges at federal courts, the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

Lewis Ratchford, the agency’s chief security officer, said in his statement that VA is concerned the bill would continue to throw up time-consuming legal objections, “creating uncertainty and potentially leading to a continued pattern of overturned disciplinary actions.”

For that reason, Secretary Denis McDonough said in March the agency wouldn’t be using some of the authorities, saying that the law “wasn’t really helping us manage our workforce as much as it was getting us in front of federal judges and other administrative bodies,” Military Times previously reported.

Patrick Murray, the legislative director at Veterans of Foreign Wars, said while the original law may have been rendered inert by legal interference, the new bill would fill gaps and allow for proper implementation.

For several years, and increasingly so as the agency has taken on more services for burn pit victims, Congress has been on the VA’s doorstep asking about workforce accountability. In 2014, there were questions about whether employees were being appropriately dismissed in connection with a scandal about juked performance metrics.

Montana Republican Matt Rosendale said the 2017 act led to a 50% increase in removal actions.

Trump signs VA accountability measure into law

“I have yet to understand why this legislation is necessary right now when VA has been clear that they already have the authority they need to discipline employees,” said Mark Takano (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in an emailed statement to Federal Times. “I am concerned about the due process issues we saw with the 2017 law, with VA spending a lot of time in court over the last few years for legislation they said left them no better off.”

“Under the old law, employees were often subject to discipline or termination that was completely out of line with the alleged poor performance or misbehavior,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, to Federal Times. “Right now, the department is experiencing a staffing crisis. Should the VA Accountability Act be restored, these issues will only be exacerbated, and our nation’s veterans will suffer the consequences.”

Some those who opposed the 2017 bill have said the Restore Act’s underlying philosophy resembles that of Schedule F — a plan by the Trump administration to curb employment protections and due process that are inherent to the merit-based civil service.

Part of the bill proposes aligning disciplinary processes for middle managers with those used for the Senior Executive Service, prompting concerns that more severe consequences intended for high-profile employees would become applicable to lower GS-level or wage-grade supervisors when the nature of the work is not necessarily the same.

There’s also concern from agency leaders that harsher policies will create a chilling effect while the agency is going through hiring surges to accommodate implementation of an August law that expands health care coverage for possibly millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic fumes from burn pit fires.

“If you diminish the rights to VA employees below those for the rest of the government, below the doctors and nurses and others, for example, caring for active duty military, [you have] a situation where the VA can’t recruit effectively,” said Daniel Horowitz, AFGE’s deputy legislative director.

Unions are also balking at a provision of the bill that says procedures would supersede collective bargaining agreements.

The VA has the second-largest federal workforce behind the Department of Defense with nearly 400,000 employees and issues roughly 4,900 to 5,000 disciplinary actions a year on average.

“We need to consider what is best for veterans and VA and whether this is something VA actually needs,” Takano said.

With reporting by Military Times’ Leo Shane.

Staff Sgt. Jackie Sanders
<![CDATA[Nearly 80 years after going MIA in WWII, US soldier accounted for]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/07/12/nearly-80-years-after-going-mia-in-wwii-us-soldier-accounted-for/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/07/12/nearly-80-years-after-going-mia-in-wwii-us-soldier-accounted-for/Wed, 12 Jul 2023 18:50:55 +0000BOSTON — A U.S. Army soldier from Massachusetts reported missing in action while his unit was involved in fighting against German forces in Italy during World War II has been accounted for, the military said.

The remains of Pvt. Wing O. Hom, of Boston, were identified in April using both anthropological and mitochondrial DNA analysis, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced Tuesday.

Hom, 20, went missing in February 1944 during fighting near the town of Cisterna di Latina, south of Rome.

A member of Company B, 7th Infantry Regiment, 3d Infantry Division, Hom’s body was not recovered and he was never reported as a prisoner of war, officials said. He was declared dead in February 1945.

A set of remains recovered near the hamlet of Ponte Rotto, about 3 miles (5 kilometers) west of Cisterna di Latina, could not be identified and were ultimately buried at the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy.

Those remains were disinterred and sent for analysis and identification in 2021 after a DPAA historian studying unresolved American losses during the Italian campaign determined they possibly belonged to Hom.

Hom will be buried in Brooklyn, New York, on Oct. 11, the DPAA said.

<![CDATA[Marine vet who avoided spotlight found purpose before death in Ukraine]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/07/11/marine-vet-who-avoided-spotlight-found-purpose-before-death-in-ukraine/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/07/11/marine-vet-who-avoided-spotlight-found-purpose-before-death-in-ukraine/Tue, 11 Jul 2023 22:28:43 +0000Even as a kid, Ian Frank Tortorici rejected the limelight.

His father, Jon Frank, liked to express his pride in him by posting photos and videos of him on social media.

But the boy would insist, “Don’t put me on Facebook.”

When Frank uploaded a video of his son’s wrestling highlights to YouTube — “he had a move, a cradle, he just mastered that move,” Frank recalled — Tortorici wrote in the comments, “To whom it may concern, I do not condone this video.”

So Frank knows that when his son volunteered to fight in Ukraine, it wasn’t because he wanted attention. And he knows that his son, who was killed June 27 at age 32 in what Frank said was a missile strike in Kramatorsk, wouldn’t have wanted people to make a fuss over his death.

Ukraine lessons take center stage in Marines’ new information warfare plan

But Frank said he feels he has to get his son’s story out.

“I just have to, because he’s not here and he can’t stop me,” he said in an interview with Marine Corps Times on Friday. “I have to tell the world who he is.”

The father said, “I didn’t know who he was.”

One of five children, Tortorici “was always a guardian,” his younger brother, Taylor Frank, wrote in a Facebook statement July 3. Taylor Frank, who often was in the hospital as a kid, remembered his brother reading to him or distracting him with funny faces so he wouldn’t notice the needles.

Tortorici developed an interest in the military at age 14, when he decided to do Devil Pups, a program that gives youth a taste of life in the Marine Corps. He loved it, Jon Frank said.

As a teen, Tortorici considered the Navy Reserve as a way to pay for college but spoke to a Marine recruiter with prompting from his dad, a Marine veteran. That was it: He became a Marine reservist.

The young man grew up with the last name Frank and served in the Marine Corps under that name but adopted Tortorici, his great-grandfather’s name, as an adult.

He changed his name the way he did everything else in life, according to his father. He announced once, with little fanfare, that he would do it, and then he did it.

Tortorici served in the Reserve as a data systems technician beginning in 2009 and left as a corporal, according to Marine spokeswoman Yvonne Carlock. His Reserve end of current contract was listed in the Marine Corps’ databases as 2016, according to Carlock, though Jon Frank said his time in the Reserve ended the year prior.

He was activated for 10 months at Miramar, California, where he was part of Marine Wing Support Squadron 473, though he never got sent on his expected deployment to Bahrain, Jon Frank said.

Tortorici didn’t fit in with the “bravado” of the Corps, and he didn’t like to tell people he was a Marine, his father said.

After graduating from Seattle Pacific University, the young man tried out teaching and tech but decided to become a law enforcement officer for the National Park Service and later for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In his time off, Tortorici would strap on a backpack and explore Europe — especially Eastern Europe, according to Frank.

It was there that Tortorici met a young Ukrainian woman, who would become his girlfriend, Frank later learned.

When Russia’s war in Ukraine began in February 2022, Tortorici’s girlfriend urged him to provide humanitarian aid rather than volunteer on the front lines, as she later recounted to Frank.

But Tortorici signed up with the Ukrainian International Legion, a group of foreign citizens fighting for Ukraine.

Characteristically, he kept that decision to himself, until March 2022, when Tortorici told Frank via an out-of-the-blue secure message that he had gone to volunteer in Ukraine.

‘I’ll come home when it’s over’

Throughout the next 15 months, Tortorici would fight in seminal battles across Ukraine, according to Frank.

Sometimes, he shared details; other times, he went silent for weekslong stretches during which his father feared the worst.

Frank noticed from the messages that his son had changed, had become bolder. Prouder.

In photos, his kit always looked spiffy, and it was clear to Frank that Tortorici took immense pride in every part of his uniform. That was unusual for Tortorici, who once had bought the cheapest car he could find in the Sunday newspaper, with vinyl seats and roll-up windows, Frank said.

When his father asked him to come home, Tortorici invariably responded, “I’ll come home when it’s over.”

In late June, Tortorici had some time off from fighting on the front lines. He told Frank he was heading to Kramtorsk, Ukraine.

When Frank saw news on Telegram of a Russian missile strike hitting a restaurant in that city, he worried. His son rarely splurged, but when he did it was on things that made him laugh and on food.

Frank messaged Tortorici but got no response.

A few days later came the call from the State Department.

With his death, Tortorici became at least the fifth U.S. Marine veteran to be killed volunteering in Ukraine.

The other Marine vets known to have died in the war in Ukraine are former Sgt. Cooper “Harris” Andrews, 26, killed in April; former Cpl. Pete Reed, 33, killed in February; and retired Capt. Grady Kurpasi, 50, and Willy Joseph Cancel, 22, each killed in April 2022.

The State Department has discouraged Americans from volunteering in Ukraine, although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has welcomed foreign volunteers.

After Tortorici’s death, his grieving father heard more about his son’s last year and a quarter from those who fought alongside him.

His comrades said Tortorici showed no fear and always insisted on being the first to hit the trenches, according to Frank.

They said he thrice had an instinct to move positions, saving himself and others from artillery fire each time. They said he would push back with officers if he believed something wasn’t right, and the officers would listen because they respected his battlefield experience.

“I’m learning so many things about him,” Frank said. “I just don’t understand how that’s my son. It’s not my son who they’re talking about. He’s not a warrior. And to them, that’s all he is. Somebody who was born to do this.”

Tortorici will never get to live out what his father said was his plan of marrying his girlfriend and raising a family with her on a farm in Eastern Europe.

But one consolation for Frank is that his son, in fighting for Ukraine with the men on his team, finally found a place he felt like he belonged.

“Everybody’s sharing pictures with me,” Frank said, “and I’ve never seen his face so happy in his whole life.”

Editor’s note: This story was corrected July 13 to clarify the end date of Tortorici’s Marine Corps service and the type of car he bought.

<![CDATA[Army vet paralyzed from run-in with police gets $20 million settlement]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/07/11/army-vet-paralyzed-from-run-in-with-police-gets-20-million-settlement/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/07/11/army-vet-paralyzed-from-run-in-with-police-gets-20-million-settlement/Tue, 11 Jul 2023 19:06:42 +0000SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A Northern California man who was left paralyzed after he was slammed to the ground during a traffic stop won a $20 million settlement, one of the largest in the state’s history, officials announced Tuesday.

Gregory Gross, an Army veteran who lives in Yuba City, sued the police department in 2022 after police officers used “pain compliance” techniques and expressed disbelief when he repeatedly cried out, “I can’t feel my legs.” Police officers also dismissed Gross when he said, “I can’t breathe,” while being held facedown on the lawn outside a hospital, video released by Gross’s lawyers shows.

Gross was accused of driving drunk and causing a slow-speed collision in April 2020.

Gross was left with a broken neck, and he underwent two surgeries to fuse his spine. He said the officers’ use of force left him unable to walk or care for himself, and he now needs round-the-clock nursing care for the rest of his life.

“We are not against the police,” said Attorney Moseley Collins, who represents Gross. “We are for the police, but we are against police brutality when it occurs.”

The settlement is among one of the largest police misconduct settlements in California history. In May, the state agreed to pay $24 million to the family of a man who died in police custody after screaming, “I can’t breathe,” as multiple officers restrained him while trying to take a blood sample.

As part of the settlement, Yuba City will also start randomly auditing officers’ bodycam footage and reviewing use of force incidents, police Chief Brian Baker said. He apologized to Gross at a news conference Tuesday.

“You’ve been in my thoughts since this tragedy was brought to my attention,” Baker said to Gross. “On April 12th, 2020, we missed the mark. And for that, Mr. Gross, I’m sorry.”

Gross said the police reforms are important to make sure what happened to him isn’t repeated. He’s donating $20,000 to California Peace Officers’ Memorial Foundation.

“I’m glad that they did something and took it serious,” Gross said Tuesday. “I couldn’t understand how someone could be in a position of authority and was acting like that and treating another human being like that.”

Deronda Harris, Gross’ partner of 13 years, said she’s grateful to see the settlement finalized.

“It’s nice to finally have closure,” Harris told The Associated Press.

Gross also filed separate lawsuits in 2021 against Rideout Memorial Hospital in Marysville, along with the University of California, Davis Medical Center, alleging their actions contributed to his condition. Collins declined to comment on the status of the lawsuits, citing confidentiality.

In the police body camera video supplied by Gross’ lawyers, an officer is seen twisting Gross’ already handcuffed arms and forcibly seating him on a lawn. At one point, officers slammed him on the ground and held him facedown as Gross repeatedly cried out that he couldn’t feel his legs and he couldn’t breathe.

“Mr. Gross, we are done with your silly little games,” an officer tells him.

In September 2021, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law barring police from using certain facedown holds that have led to multiple unintended deaths. The bill was aimed at expanding on the state’s ban on chokeholds in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Rich Pedroncelli
<![CDATA[Families seek answers 50 years after fire destroyed veterans’ records]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/07/11/families-seek-answers-50-years-after-fire-destroyed-veterans-records/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/07/11/families-seek-answers-50-years-after-fire-destroyed-veterans-records/Tue, 11 Jul 2023 18:22:49 +0000The apocalyptic scene is still burned into Mike Buttery’s memory 50 years later: Black smoke billowing from the top floor of the Military Personnel Records Center; bits of paper wafting through the air as dozens of firefighters tried desperately to stem the inferno.

“They’d hit it (the paper) with the water, and the water would knock it back up in the air, and then it would float around some more out there,” Buttery, then a janitor at the center, recalls of the wind-whipped paper swirling around the massive six-story building outside Saint Louis.

As he watched from a safe remove, Buttery could only think of the millions of veterans — like himself — whose records were being consumed and “how in the world would they get their benefits.”

“It immediately went through my mind that those people were losing whatever history there was of their service,” Buttery, who served with the Army in northern Vietnam, said during a recent interview from his home in a rural area southwest of the city.

The July 12, 1973, fire in Overland, Missouri, consumed an estimated 16 to 18 million personnel files, the vast majority covering the period just before World War I through 1963. It’s believed to be the largest loss of records in one catastrophe in U.S. history.

It is an event that dogged untold veterans, forcing them to fight once more — this time for benefits, medals and recognition they’d earned. It echoes to this day — in the struggles of families seeking to document the achievements and sacrifices of loved ones, or to bury them with full military honors; and in the efforts of conspiracy theorists, still searching for proof of a nefarious plot behind what government investigators long ago wrote off as most likely the careless act of a single man.

More than anything, it highlights the monumental, ongoing effort to reclaim the history that, at the time, seemed irretrievably lost.

This photo provided by the National Archives and Records Administration shows damaged records after a massive fire at the Military Personnel Records Center in Overland, Mo., near St. Louis, which started on July 12, 1973. (National Archives via AP)

If the records center was meant to inspire awe, mission accomplished.

“Its size is difficult to comprehend, even when one is inside,” Walter W. Stender and Evans Walker, who were with the Federal Records Centers, wrote in a 1974 article in The American Archivist titled, “The National Personnel Records Center: A Study in Disaster.”

“The sheer bulk alone makes a strong impression on the viewer, and the vast scale tends to overwhelm the quiet St. Louis suburban community of Overland where the building rises on a seventy-acre site,” they wrote. “The building, 728 feet long, 282 feet wide, six stories high, presents an impassive façade to the world with its rather bland curtain wall of glass and aluminum.”

Built for the Department of Defense in 1956, the facility was later turned over to the National Archives and Records Service, then part of the General Services Administration. By the time of the fire, the military records center and a nearby one for civilian records had been merged into the National Personnel Records Center.

Walker and Stender, then assistant archivist for the records centers, said the 1.6 million-square-foot building “reflected careful planning.” But “in actual function,” they concluded, “it was not a successful records center.”

There were some sprinklers on the first and second floors, but none in the stacks, and no firewalls between records storage areas.

A rash of fires in the previous year prompted the government to conduct a study of the facility, which was released in the fall of 1972.

“The study concluded that the facility was at high risk for a devastating fire, pointing to the storage containers (cardboard, not metal), the lack of overhead sprinklers, and the ebb-and-flow of employee hours as three particular concerns,” according to a recent blog post by Jessie Kratz, Historian of the National Archives.

Less than a year later, Kratz noted, the worries were validated: the center was “vastly unprepared for fire.”

Buttery says that was apparent, even to a janitor.

“It was so hot and so dry,” Buttery says of the file areas.

“All that paper was packed in cardboard boxes on metal shelving,” says Bill Elmore, a janitor assigned to the sixth floor. “Basically, from the floor to the ceiling.”

The former Air Force crew chief, who was working there under a veteran readjustment program, was nearing the end of his eight-hour shift when he overheard a man pounding on the doors. The man, whom a guard described as having “long hippie-type hair,” shouted that smoke was pouring out of the upper floor windows.

It was 12:11 a.m., July 12.

Elmore noticed a fellow janitor and veteran, Terry Davis, sprinting up the stairs. He followed, hoping to reach the firehoses near the escalators.

What he saw is “etched in my memory.”

“I saw Terry running back towards the very door I had just opened with a scared look on his face,” Elmore says. “And a wall of smoke moving behind him faster than he could run.”

Elmore, Buttery and the others watched from a grassy hill as the windows exploded.

“There was a glow from the top of that building that was just, I mean, it was right up against the clouds,” says Buttery. “There was nothing that was going to stop it, that fire. It had too much fuel.”

According to a GSA investigation, janitor John Staufenbiel was the last person known to have been on the sixth floor. It was 12:05 a.m.

Neither he nor two other custodians who later joined him on the freight elevator reported smelling smoke “or seeing any signs of fire,” the report said.

This photo provided by the National Archives and Records Administration shows the damaged sixth floor and roof of the Military Personnel Records Center in Overland, Mo., near St. Louis, after a massive fire that started on July 12, 1973. (National Archives via AP)

The fire was not declared officially extinguished until the morning of July 16.

It had burned so hot that steel-reinforced concrete columns on the sixth floor buckled, portions of the collapsed roof slab supported only by file cabinets. So much water was poured on the fire that holes had to be knocked in the outer walls to let it drain; eventually, bulldozers were hoisted onto the fifth floor, and what was left of the top story was shoved off the side.

The search for a cause would be daunting. But arson was already front and center.

An investigation found there had been 11 fires in the two and a half years leading up to the conflagration. Six of the incidents were classified as suspected arson, three “identified with careless smoking or disposal of smoking material.”

Elmore says the FBI was clearly “looking for somebody to hang this thing on.” At one point, he says agents led him to a small room and shut off the lights.

“And they turned one of those desk lights into my face, and they stood on the other side of the light in the dark room asking me questions,” he says, including whether he’d smoked on the roof and about “any anti-war feelings or thoughts I might have.”

Buttery says agents came to his home and “stayed almost half the night,” questioning not only him, but his wife.

In addition to looking into reports of faulty fans and undersized extension cords, agents ran down tips that “dissident employees” or someone of Asian “extraction” might have been involved in the fire (the Vietnam War was still raging at the time).

According to a nearly 400--page, partially redacted FBI investigative file, a summer employee was quizzed about any “left-wing or militant-type individuals” employed there. Workers were grilled about their marijuana use.

Eventually, the probe turned to something far more mundane.

A custodian had been going around telling colleagues that he might have started the fire. They passed that on to investigators.

Three months to the day after the fire, the man confessed to agents: Around 11 p.m., he’d snuck up to the sixth floor to smoke and had stubbed out his cigarette on one of the shelves.

The man had been hired by a private organization that provided disabled workers for federal installations. U.S. Attorney Donald J. Stohr told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that it would be difficult to prove intent.

The case was presented to a federal grand jury on Oct. 31, 1973. The panel declined to return an indictment.

This photo provided by the National Archives and Records Administration shows the damaged sixth floor and roof of the Military Personnel Records Center in Overland, Mo., near St. Louis, after a massive fire that started on July 12, 1973. (National Archives via AP)

Fires at the U.S. Capitol, and the War and Treasury Departments during the 19th century claimed uncounted records and objects from the republic’s founding, and a 1921 blaze destroyed nearly the entire 1890 federal Census. But while each “helped to diminish the cultural heritage of this nation,” Stender and Walker wrote, none equaled the 1973 inferno.

The center housed roughly 52 million Official Military Personnel Files, or OMPFs.

The OMPF is like a diary of a veteran’s service, containing every duty station, award, promotion and disciplinary action from enlistment to discharge. It is a kind of one stop shop for veterans seeking a job, medical benefits, insurance or government loans.

These OMPFs can also contain items such as telegrams, letters, photographs and testimonials — sometimes hundreds of pages — that might not exist anywhere else.

Some files were lost from every branch of the service. But Army and Air Force records suffered most.

The flames consumed 80% of Army personnel files for people discharged between Nov. 1, 1912, and Jan. 1, 1960. For the Air Force, it’s estimated that files for 75% of personnel discharged from Sept. 25, 1947, through Jan. 1, 1964, with names that began after “Hubbard, James,” were lost.

The sixth floor was also home to what is commonly referred to as the VIP or — as Elmore has heard some call it — “secrets” vault.

In addition to the personnel files of all veterans working at the center, as well as those of close relatives who served, the vault held the records of “persons of exceptional prominence” or, as it’s sometimes put, from “the famous to the infamous” — former presidents like Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy; gangster John Dillinger and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer; actors Jimmy Stewart and Burt Lancaster; even Adolf Hitler’s nephew, William, and a Navy mascot named Billy Goat.

“The intense heat of the fire turned the vault into a huge oven and roasted its total content to the consistency of slightly burned toast,” a 1979 report from the Army Adjutant General’s Office said. “Practically every paper in the vault came out with charred, blacked edges and almost complete loss of flexibility.”

Of the records stored in the vault, 1,694 were destroyed or damaged.

Roughly 6.5 million records salvaged from the fire — known as “B” or “burned files” — are kept in climate-controlled warehouses to avoid any further degradation. They aren’t disturbed unless someone requests them.

To the naked eye, many of the pages appear to be nothing but a “black smudge,” says NPRC Director Scott Levins. But technicians can use infrared cameras to reveal what’s beneath that charred mess.

When someone requests a file that was lost, research technicians comb morning reports, unit rosters, payroll lists and other source documents looking for proof of the veteran’s service.

“We’re looking for a date of entry, a separation and a character of service,” says Levins. “And if we can find those three data points from official government records, then we can issue a document ... so veterans can get benefits.”

To date, the center has partially reconstructed nearly 5.5 million records.

Given the periods involved, most of the veterans whose records were destroyed have likely died. Levins says historians and family genealogists seeking to fill out those veterans’ histories are “the real pain point.”

“I have helped countless families find answers, closure, and peace,” says Chicago-based genealogist Jennifer Holik, who has been doing military research for more than a decade. “The fire has been a major obstacle to overcome.”

This photo provided by the National Archives and Records Administration shows the clearing of rubble after a massive fire at the Military Personnel Records Center in Overland, Mo., near St. Louis, which started on July 12, 1973. (National Archives via AP)

Even before the grand jury closed the criminal case, an interagency committee had concluded that the fire’s cause “Cannot be Determined.”

But there are some who will never accept that it was an accident.

One theory Levins has heard is that the fire was started to destroy records connected to Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Although the Air Force records destroyed began with “Hubbard, James,” L. Ron Hubbard served in the Marine Reserves and Navy, and those files now reside in the “vault” area. (Technically no longer a vault, NPRC has an area in the stacks “with greater security controls which contain Specially Protected Holdings,” Levins says.)

Some veterans have even suggested to Levins that the government set the fire “`so they wouldn’t have to pay my benefits.”

One person who still thinks it might have been arson: Elmore.

“The fire was way too big, way too fast,” he says.

Elmore was one of five people who reported the alleged smoker’s admission to the FBI, but he never believed him.

“He wanted attention,” Elmore says of the man. “Anything that he said to any of us, we all took with a huge grain of salt.” (The Associated Press has learned the man’s name but could not locate him or determine if he is still alive.)

Elmore, 75, can’t help wondering if the fire might have been connected to Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, leaders of the so-called plumbers who broke into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington hotel, were both veterans.

Levins says there is no definitive list of what was inside the vault in 1973, but that the files of Liddy (Army) and Hunt (Army/Navy) are very much extant. Hunt’s Army record was “impacted by the fire”and partially reconstructed,” Levins says.

Following the fire, Buttery and Elmore helped launch a non-profit veterans service center in St. Louis that helped thousands of former service members find jobs and obtain benefits. Elmore later started a small business, since closed, helping veterans obtain their records.

The former janitors are still friends. But Buttery doesn’t share his buddy’s suspicions.

“I mean, a spark would have ignited, it would have been like a pile of leaves, pile of dry leaves,” says Buttery, 71, who operates a construction business. “I think if anything, it was an accident.”

Ashley Cox, a preservation specialist at the National Archives and Records Administration, and NARA Preservation Technician Tom Schmidt assess a record's condition at the National Personnel Records Center in Spanish Lake, Mo., near St. Louis, on June 2, 2023. (Sean Derrick/National Archives via AP)

In 2011, the same year Levins became director, the NPRC moved into a shiny, modern facility on the other side of St. Louis County. The old building, one story shorter than before, remains vacant.

A half century after the fire, Levins still has a team of around 20 people working full-time on about 6,900 fire-related cases.

If there was a silver lining to the fire, Levins says, it’s that it led to advances in records management, storage and restoration.

The government pioneered vacuum-drying methods to salvage water-logged records, developing safety standards that were later adopted by the National Fire Protection Association.

The VA is methodically digitizing the center’s paper records. Between that and redundant backup procedures, Levins is confident something like this can never happen again.

In 1995, a special task force of the National Archives and Records Administration — now an independent agency — concluded that military personnel files were “permanently valuable.” Under a 2004 agreement with the Department of Defense, all OMPF’s will eventually be turned over to NARA and “will never be destroyed,” Levins says.

“I tell the veterans, `In a sense, you’ve been immortalized, because your military record will be kept for the life of the republic,’” he says. “It will be kept for the same length of time as the United States Constitution.”

<![CDATA[Pentagon policies debate, Joint Chiefs confirmation on tap this week]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/07/10/pentagon-policies-debate-joint-chiefs-confirmation-on-tap-this-week/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/07/10/pentagon-policies-debate-joint-chiefs-confirmation-on-tap-this-week/Mon, 10 Jul 2023 14:00:00 +0000While House lawmakers will spend the week debating new policies for the military, senators will question the man who will be charged with carrying out those changes.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a nomination hearing for Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., President Joe Biden’s pick to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Brown is expected to face tough questioning from Republican members, but his biggest obstacle will be Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who has a hold on more than 200 Defense Department nominees over the military’s abortion access policy.

A few hours after that hearing, the House Rules Committee will set the parameters for floor debate expected to begin this week on the annual defense authorization bill, which contains hundreds of policy changes for the Pentagon in the coming year. More than 1,500 amendments were submitted by lawmakers for the draft bill in recent weeks, but only a small fraction of those are expected to be considered.

Democrats in the chamber are expected to push back against GOP efforts to limit abortion access, transgender medical care limits and other social issues included in the measure. But Republicans are expected to use the measure to reinforce their campaign priorities ahead of negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Senate later this summer.

Both sides hope to have a final product for lawmakers to consider by early fall. Whether Brown can be confirmed in the same timeline is unclear.

Tuesday, July 11

Senate Armed Services — 9:30 a.m. — G-50 Dirksen
The committee will consider the nomination of Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Wednesday, July 12

Senate Armed Services — 9:30 a.m. — G-50 Dirksen
The committee will consider the nomination of Gen. Randy George to serve as Chief of Staff of the Army.

House Veterans' Affairs — 2 p.m. — 360 Cannon
Pending legislation
The committee will consider several pending bills.

Senate Select Intelligence — 2:30 p.m. — 216 Hart
The committee will consider the nomination of Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh to be the Director of the National Security Agency and Michael Casey to be the Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

Senate Veterans' Affairs — 3 p.m. — 418 Russell
Pending legislation
The committee will consider several pending bills.

Thursday, July 13

Senate Commerce — 10 a.m. — 253 Russell
Coast Guard Budget
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan will testify on the fiscal 2024 budget request for her service.

Senate Foreign Relations — 10:30 a.m. — Capitol S-116
Pending Business
The committee will consider several pending bills and pieces of legislation.

Evan Vucci
<![CDATA[Army retiree powerfully impacts veterans and his community]]>https://www.armytimes.com/smr/smoy/2023/07/09/army-retiree-powerfully-impacts-veterans-and-his-community/https://www.armytimes.com/smr/smoy/2023/07/09/army-retiree-powerfully-impacts-veterans-and-his-community/Sun, 09 Jul 2023 13:30:09 +0000Becoming the owner of a basketball franchise was never part of Lindsey Streeter’s post-military career goals. But it fit in nicely with his game plan for life.

“I like to make big-splash plays, I like to try to do things that will be impactful,” said Streeter, who served 31 years in the Army. “And I like to involve others so that I can turn around and give the credit to the whole team, share the glory of whatever comes.

For this veteran, owning a basketball team is about more than filling a stadium. “It’s about making the community believe it’s their actual team, and they’re part of the effort too,” he said.

Streeter, the recipient of the 2023 Veteran of the Year Award from Military Times, was already an all-star in the community outreach game before his latest professional sports venture.

Since 2016, he has handled veterans programs for Bank of America, and currently acts as the company’s Senior Vice President of Global Military Affairs. The role has given him a major platform as a voice for hiring and supporting veterans in the workforce, and using military experience to improve the corporate world. He also serves as Georgia’s ambassador for the U.S. Army Reserve, lobbying on service member quality of life issues.

When his wife, Mary Ann, passed away in 2020, he took over leadership of her nonprofit, Quad E, which provides preventive health care options to vulnerable individuals. On Sundays, he serves as a deacon at his local church.

And last year, Streeter became owner of the Savannah Hurricanes of the Triple Threat Basketball League, not to live out unfulfilled athletic dreams but because he saw an opportunity to use the platform to help out in the Georgia community he now calls home.

Lindsey Streeter is the owner of the Savannah Hurricanes of the Triple Threat Basketball League. (Courtesy of Lindsey Streeter via Facebook)

Along with the normal tasks of promoting an upstart sports league, Streeter has put extra emphasis on youth outreach programs across Savannah, with training camps and school visits a staple of the team’s schedule.

“All the different jobs and roles feel like a lot, but it’s really just one agenda,” Streeter said in a phone interview conducted from his car in-between a charity appearance and a corporate meeting. “We’re looking at building partnerships, we’re looking at ways we can help the community as a whole. And we stay focused on those goals.

“And because I’m getting after so much purpose, it really doesn’t feel like it’s extra work. The energy is there because the passion fuels that, and getting to see the impact of the work just keeps me going.”

Service and citizenship have always been a part of Streeter’s life, even before he joined the military. He remembers as a young child in Washington, D.C., growing up in a poor family but still taking part in charity efforts for local institutions. He said his mother instilled the idea of giving back to the community, even when they had little of their own to spare.

In the Army, Streeter served several stints as a recruiter before taking over as a battalion command sergeant major and later as commandant of the Non-Commissioned Officers Academy. In all the jobs, he was reminded of the responsibility he had to help build up young soldiers and grow them into future leaders.

“I have a personal mission statement that says I’m going to use my time, my talents and my resources to impact others in a meaningful way,” he said. “And it says that my reputation precedes me, and so I’ve got to live my life in a purposeful manner that keeps me focused on that.”

When Streeter left the service in 2016, he wanted to continue those connections to the community and the military. The new civilian job with Bank of America gave him both.

“I have a personal mission statement that says I’m going to use my time, my talents and my resources to impact others in a meaningful way,” Lindsey Streeter said. (Courtesy of Lindsey Streeter via Facebook)

“They asked me to ensure that the veteran culture there was right,” he said. “Our goal was not just to make the company veteran-friendly, but veteran-ready. And through our changes and example, we’ve been able to affect other organizations and help shape their culture by giving them things to emulate.”

Those veteran hiring efforts have even extended to the basketball team: The Hurricanes’ coach and general manager are also retired non-commissioned officers.

Streeter said he is conscious that for many individuals in the groups he works with — especially the young basketball players whose whole lives have revolved around sports — he is often the first or most prominent veteran they have known. He says that puts even more pressure on him to make sure he is reflecting that personal pledge of service and integrity.

“I don’t typically lead with my veteran status when folks in the community meet me, but I think it becomes apparent once they hear me talk and start running the show,” he said. “So, I’m always keeping in mind that I am an ambassador for the community. And I want to give credit to the Army for what they did for me, to help me become who I am today.”

Streeter was named CEO of the year for the Triple Threat Basketball League this season, and his Savannah Hurricanes made the playoffs. But he says the biggest wins so far have been the wide-eyes of the local kids he’s watched interacting with team members, and the community partners who said they’re looking forward to future work with the franchise.

“To the onlooker, the team is filling up a gym and they’re playing good basketball,” he said. “They care about winning on the court. But I care about winning in the community.”

See all Military Times’ 2023 Service Members of the Year honorees.

<![CDATA[Better data collaboration essential for vets, Bush Institute says]]>https://www.armytimes.com/education-transition/2023/07/07/better-data-collaboration-essential-for-vets-bush-institute-says/https://www.armytimes.com/education-transition/2023/07/07/better-data-collaboration-essential-for-vets-bush-institute-says/Fri, 07 Jul 2023 19:00:00 +0000Balancing privacy concerns with the opportunity to improve outcomes and more effectively target resources by using data is a key component of helping the veteran community, according to the George W. Bush Institute.

In a series of articles, Military Times is examining each of these four recommendations from the institute:

· The administration should refine a national veterans strategy.

· The DoD should leverage veteran and military family communities to sustain an all-volunteer force.

· The DoD should invest further in the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) for the 21st century.

· The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration should focus on advancing data collaboration.

“There are privacy concerns, but there are also opportunities to more effectively target resources by using data,” said Col. Matthew F. Amidon, former director of veterans and military families at the institute.

The fourth recommendation, a call to increase focus on advancing data collaboration, is exciting because it can allow underserved populations to receive targeted services, Amidon said. The all-volunteer force is more diverse than ever, with 15 percent of active duty service members being women and 16 percent being African American, according to data from Rand.

With more data on how to assist these groups, Amidon said it will better allow for more tailored resources while serving, and also upon transitioning back to civilian life.

The Bush Institute’s recommendation includes proposing a Congressional mandate to capture consistent data – specifically, finding better ways to measure the economic health of veterans.

Gary J. Kunich, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said his office collects data through surveys, key engagements, databases, focus and working groups and web and digital media to help serve their veterans. They also work closely with other agencies and have policies in place to help advance racial equity and support, as well as the Deborah Sampson Act, a task force for women veterans.

“We are always seeking ways to ensure we deliver the best care and access to benefit all veterans, but also have taken critical steps in doing so for underserved veteran populations,” Kunich said.

A more complete data set can also provide more details on which veteran populations have the greatest need, especially when it comes to economics. Amidon said one example is tailoring data to analyze not just if a veteran is employed, but if they are making enough money to support themselves and their family in the area they live.

Ross Dickman, COO for Hire Heroes USA, a veteran employment nonprofit that has helped more than 75,000 veterans and spouses find jobs, said many veterans are underemployed. Being able to have data to show what constitutes meaningful employment is necessary, Dickman said.

“I applaud (the Bush Institute’s) policy paper,” Dickman said. “We know things need to be improved and modified so we can meet the needs of today’s veterans.”

Amidon said connecting the VA/DoD Identity Repository (VADIR) database and payroll information – and linking that with geographic data from the Social Security Administration – could provide that kind of detail.

“Certain subpopulations are underearning,” Amidon said. “And there’s an enormous array of resources available, but how do you target them? That’s what we are seeking here.”

Kunich said the VA has minority veteran program coordinators in each state’s regional office and can “triage” the needs and routes to provide more tailored post-service experiences.

“Data is used to improve the veteran experience, understand local catchment areas and gaps in care and access, and develop sound outreach to every veteran population,” Kunich said. “We also have an Internal Data Governance Working Group that provides input and suggestions to best use this information.”

Amidon said veterans are a large group and have a diverse array of talents. Ensuring the best outcomes for veterans is good for business and community – and, of course, the vets themselves.

“The Bush Institute is out here to influence change,” Amidon said.

George W. Bush Institute
<![CDATA[Unaccredited claims coaches profit off veterans, with little oversight]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/07/05/unaccredited-claims-coaches-profit-off-veterans-with-little-oversight/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/07/05/unaccredited-claims-coaches-profit-off-veterans-with-little-oversight/Wed, 05 Jul 2023 21:31:29 +0000Editor’s note: This story was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Jim Peckey was a young Navy petty officer stationed in Bahrain when the 9/11 attacks happened. As the nation went on a war footing, he suddenly shifted from administrative and IT duties to lugging water and equipment 12 hours a day, seven days a week — work that left him with chronic neck and back pain. He retired in 2002 but he put off applying for benefits because, like millions of veterans, he felt overwhelmed by the paperwork required.

That changed in 2020, when he watched a YouTube video in which a fellow veteran, Brian T. Reese, promised to help veterans navigate the benefits maze and lead “happier, healthier and wealthier” lives.

Peckey signed on as a customer with Reese’s company, Austin-based VA Claims Insider. The 44-year-old Abilene resident, who now does IT work for a defense contractor, said he was charged nearly $10,000 for about six hours of coaching, some of which included watching pre-recorded online informational sessions with as many as 400 other attendees at a time.

Although Peckey did get a monthly disability check of around $1,500, he felt he was charged for information he could have found on the internet. To help him qualify for benefits, the company’s coach pushed him to emphasize mental distress, Peckey said, even though what he considered that to be a “backseat concern” and wanted top-notch care for his chronic physical pain.

“Nothing short of a nightmare,” he wrote in a December 2021 complaint filed with the Texas attorney general’s office, in which he accused the company of “slimy car sales tactics” and “defrauding veterans out of their benefits.” Peckey said he wanted to sue but could not find a lawyer to take on the case. He refused to pay VA Claims Insider, which then hired a collection agency to pursue his debt; he says he felt so strongly about the matter that he accepted the hit to his credit score.

In another complaint, Shana Hill, the wife of a Marine Corps veteran in Houston, said their coach “showed late and was disorganized and did not provide any strategy as advertised and promised.” Another veteran, Simon Keller of Tucson, Arizona, estimated that he had paid nearly $8,000 for two hours of assistance and claimed the company was “extorting” veterans.

The Texas Tribune spoke with five of a dozen or so people who complained to the Texas attorney general about VA Claims Insider. All said the state hadn’t meaningfully followed up on their concerns. Peckey, the Abilene veteran, said that the office suggested that he hire a private lawyer, or talk to the Better Business Bureau.

Complaints made to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

It’s not only the attorney general’s office that received complaints about VA Claims Insider. The Federal Trade Commission has gotten two dozen complaints, and the Better Business Bureau well over 100.

Last fall, after the Tribune began asking questions, the Texas attorney general’s consumer protection bureau asked VA Claims Insider for documents for an “investigation” over potentially “engaging in deceptive acts in the sale of packages to aid and/or assist consumers in making disability claims to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.”

It turns out that in 2019, the VA’s Office of General Counsel told the company in a letter that it “may be engaged in illegal activities, which include the unauthorized representation of claimants for VA benefits and charging them for your service,” and that it, absent an adequate response, the company would have to “cease any and all illegal activities.” It also warned the Texas attorney general’s office that Reese’s coaching efforts are clearly intended to “game the system.”

Not long after, VA Claims Insider hired a law firm to perform an internal risk analysis. The analysis, obtained by the Tribune, raised concerns that its work could be construed as illegally assisting with claims preparation: “We cannot give VACI assurance that the business model and existing contracts will not be reviewed, investigated, and challenged by regulatory authorities (or prosecutors) empowered to do so, or that if challenged, VACI will prevail.” It also recommended new policies to fully protect the company against potential allegations of kickbacks, financial fraud and other issues.

Texas AG's request for information about the business practices of VA Claims Insider.

Outside Texas, other for-profit claims companies have gotten scrutiny, too. In 2021, Louisiana’s attorney general secured a permanent injunction against an unaccredited veteran claims company there. Last October, the Federal Trade Commission reminded veterans that they don’t need to pay for help getting benefits. The alert also warned of scammers who emphasize their military service to “gain your trust so you won’t stop and ask questions about their pitches.”

For this story, the Tribune reviewed internal company documents, consumer complaints and government emails and interviewed more than 25 current and former clients and coaches of VA Claims Insider. Some requested anonymity, citing nondisclosure agreements and fear of being sued.

Notes of appreciation for Jim Peckey from his time working at the White House. He keeps mementos in his Abilene home. (Ronald W. Erdrich for The Texas Tribune)

VA Claims Insider says its material is consumed by 600,000 veterans each month, that 25,000 veterans have participated in its “paid membership programs” and that the vast majority are satisfied customers. A spokesperson, Jeff Eller, said that Peckey and other customers had made “exaggerated or unfounded complaints” to avoid payment, pointed to dozens of positive client reviews and said the Tribune was cherry-picking evidence to put the company in a negative light. Reese encouraged clients to share their stories with the Tribune, and a few dozen reached out, mostly with positive feedback.

Eller said the company “operates well within the law” and “is better today than ever before.” He added: “VA Claims Insider has been conducting internal risk analysis since it launched in 2016, and still does. We are deeply troubled that confidential and privileged materials have been disclosed.” He said the company introduced a code of conduct in January 2021 and updated and expanded it in August 2022; coaches now go through mandatory training and a probationary period.

Byzantine claims system

More than 1.8 million veterans have some form of officially recognized disability as a result of service in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Moreover, a new federal law, the Honoring Our PACT Act, expanded benefits for millions of veterans disabled by military burn pits and other toxic exposures dating back to the Vietnam War. Since the law was signed last August, 560,000 claims have been filed under the act, and there could be up to a million more. Many of these claims are coming from Texas vets through the VA’s Waco and Houston offices, which are today experiencing some of the most severe claims backlogs in America.

While civilians may assume that military service automatically confers access to government care and benefits, most veterans must navigate a series of highly specific and constantly evolving statutes that dictate who is eligible for assistance and how to demonstrate eligibility. To get benefits, most veterans need to file a disability claim and secure a disability rating — a number from zero to 100. The higher the number, the more care and compensation a veteran receives. Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran and veteran advocate in Rockville, Maryland, described this system as an “adversarial, complex, and burdensome claims nightmare.”

Traditionally, the VA accredited three types of claims representatives: agents, lawyers and veteran service organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. The lawyers and agents charge fees on a tightly regulated scale. The service organizations provide their services for free, as does the Texas Veterans Commission, which also employs accredited agents.

As the veteran population ages and shrinks, so too are the organizations that have traditionally watched out for vets. While veterans’ groups had nearly 10,000 accredited claims agents five years ago, today there are just over 6,500.

The VA Office of General Counsel trains, tests and regulates the agents. Accredited claims agents undergo background checks. Before charging for services, they must also submit detailed fee agreements to the government to be scrutinized and approved as fair.

With savvy online skills and big marketing budgets, unaccredited companies like VA Claims Insider have promised to help veterans from the sidelines — while imposing rates far higher than what the accredited agents can charge.

Because Reese and his coaches are unaccredited, they face none of this scrutiny and are free to charge what they like. Reese calls VA Claims Insider an education company.

VA's 2019 letter notifying VA Claims Insider of its concerns.

For decades, federal law penalized unaccredited actors who charged veterans for “preparing, presenting, or prosecuting claims before the VA.” While regulations still prohibit such behavior, all criminal penalties were removed from federal statutes in 2006, leaving the VA essentially toothless to go after bad actors. (Accredited representatives, however, remain liable to be investigated and, if appropriate, disbarred when a veteran complains.)

Accredited representatives are flummoxed as to why veterans are seeking more expensive, unaccredited coaches like Reese rather than their free or far cheaper services.

Richard W. Rousseau, a retired Army colonel and an accredited veterans claims lawyer from Harker Heights, in Central Texas, was alarmed by VA Claims Insiders’ contract language and fee structure. He calculated the company charges clients roughly $8,000 if their disability rating jumps by 10%. “My fee would be about $1,600,” he said.

Reese himself secured free accredited claims assistance from AmVets, a veterans group. He has said he appreciates accredited agents and often refers veterans to their services. Yet in client seminars, he has broadly cast the accredited agent as someone who “doesn’t care and hurts your rating.” His company’s contracts prohibit coaches from referring clients to accredited agents. In a recent TikTok video, Reese urged unhappy veterans to “fire” their free, accredited representatives. (Eller, the company spokesperson, said Reese “simply repeats what is well-known in the veteran community” — that many accredited agents are “overworked, underpaid, undertrained, and underappreciated.”)

Some veterans told the Tribune that they turned to Reese after accredited agents failed them. Others were happy to pay steep prices for help getting generous benefits. Ronald A. Conaway Jr., who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said he used VA Claims Insider after facing delays with an accredited advocate at the Disabled American Veterans, a century-old, congressionally chartered veterans’ group.

“My coach should have been more communicative and proactive,” said Conaway, who reached out to the Tribune at Reese’s encouragement, explaining that he’d sometimes have to email his coach at VA Claims Insider four times before getting a response. Conaway said he paid roughly $8,000 for about six hours of assistance, but was “ecstatic” that he’d secured a rating boost in just a few months. “If I had to do it again, I’d do it again,” he said.

Troy Thompson of Woodland, California, another former client Reese referred to the Tribune, said he initially felt the company’s $8,000 fee was “too much,” but concluded it was worthwhile after seeing his rating jump from 70 to 100.

A third satisfied client, Bill Lonegran of Simi Valley, California, agreed: “The charge was a little high, but I’d been dealing with the VA for years. And they helped me.”

Claims issues are especially acute in Texas. Data shows that nearly 6,000 Texas vets (or roughly 9%) of the 67,000 or so vets who sought help at state claim offices in 2020 went unseen — meaning many likely sought assistance elsewhere.

While its exact number of clients in Texas is unclear, VA Claims Insider makes aggressive appeals to Texas veterans, including through email blasts, online advertisements and guidance mentioning Texas-specific veteran benefits, which include free college at state schools, property tax exemptions and home improvement loans. Other unaccredited claim companies have also zeroed in on Texas. One is Veterans Guardian, which lists 2,202 Texas clients, more than any state after North Carolina, where that company is based. It too has received government scrutiny.

Reese’s website and written materials are dotted with disclaimers that neither he nor his company are replicating the services of accredited agents. And yet some believe that his coaches are illegally “preparing” a claim. In a document submitted to the Texas attorney general, a VA official wrote that Reese, in a 2017 video, “flatly admits” that, for the right price, “we do your entire disability claim for you.” The video has since been taken down.

“We were logging in to their accounts and basically doing claims for them,” one former coach who insisted on anonymity told the Tribune. Clients described the process in ways that raised similar red flags. In a complaint to the attorney general, a veteran from Tomball named Michael Warner said he did his claim step-by-step “as instructed” by his coach. He also said that his coach filed a separate claim form without his knowledge or consent.

Peckey and other clients have also complained that coaches with VA Claims Insider steered them away from claims involving physical ailments, favoring conditions like somatic symptom disorder, which is characterized by high anxiety or excessive worry over one’s health. “They were fighting me, telling me what’s wrong with me,” Peckey told the Tribune. “The priority was being pushed on the most lucrative claim, not the pain I was feeling. Eventually I went with the flow.”

Derick Jordan, a veteran from Wylie, told the attorney general’s office that his coach “insisted” he tie his disability rating to mental health issues because it was “easiest to prove” and had “more value” — for Jordan and for the company. “VA Claims Insider uses deceptive practices to take advantage of veterans to increase their bottom line,” he explained in a handwritten complaint.

A current employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said that Reese’s business urges veterans to exaggerate mental health claims. “It’s, ‘Oh, you hurt your ankle, does that make you depressed and anxious?’”

Eller, the spokesperson, said, “Physical conditions are taken just as seriously as mental conditions.”

At a U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in April 2022, Richard J. Hipolit, the VA’s deputy general counsel for veterans programs, suggested that unaccredited agents could be prosecuted by the Department for Justice for “producing evidence that was fraudulent, or whatever, in support of claims.”

Building a claims empire

Reese, 39, built his brand around a narrative of struggle and redemption. He grew up in Pillager, a small town in central Minnesota, and helped win a hockey championship playing for the U.S. Air Force Academy. Upon graduation in 2007, he became a procurement officer and reached the rank of captain. “Basically, I bought stuff,” he said in a podcast appearance. The work took him to Afghanistan in 2011, where he secured upgrades to prisons in the city of Kandahar that, according to a citation for his defense meritorious service medal, prevented a “Taliban jailbreak.”

In a LinkedIn post, Reese wrote that he came down with post-traumatic stress disorder in Afghanistan following many sleepless nights marked by the booms of indirect rocket fire. The severe mental and physical pain, he says, led to alcohol and drug abuse, a gambling addiction, then divorce. “I was shattered and broken,” he says on his website. “I was unwilling to be uncomfortably vulnerable, and therefore, didn’t seek the proper help. But during this same season, God put it on my heart that I was created for a greater purpose: to give fellow veterans hope and help.”

Reese left active duty in 2012 and moved to Texas in 2014. He served as a civilian contracting officer based at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio until 2018.

VA Claims Insider’s listed Austin address is a P.O. Box at a United States Postal Service location in a strip mall. (Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune)

VA Claims Insider, which he founded in 2017, has no physical headquarters. It is registered to an Austin P.O. box in a small shopping center. Texas gives special benefits to veteran-run businesses, waiving franchise taxes for five years, or up to $1 million. Reese and his wife, Laurel, own a riverfront home worth $2.2 million with a private boat dock that is similarly exempt from property taxes, thanks to a Texas law that grants such relief to veterans, like Reese, who are rated as 100% disabled.

In a webinar, Reese explained that his disability benefits had given him new “lifestyle options,” like a Minnesota vacation and a new Ford truck. “I want this for you,” he said. “I want you to get the tax-free compensation.”

As his client list grew, Reese boosted online advertising and hired coaches, many of them disabled veterans he’d helped. He won praise from Texas news anchors and influencers like Marcus Luttrell, a retired Navy SEAL who wrote a bestseller, “Lone Survivor,” about a deadly clash with Taliban fighters. He also acquired a website called Military Disability Made Easy, which charges $19.95 a month for video tutorials and other information.

Four former employees of VA Claims Insider, who insisted on anonymity because they feared being sued, said that as the company’s popularity spiked, coaching quality degraded. Some coaches were saddled with up to 1,000 clients at a time. (Accredited claims agents generally have somewhere between 100 and 250 clients at a time.) “We could hardly keep up,” said one former coach. “We weren’t providing much service to our clients,” another admitted. “I wondered how we could justify these high prices.” Other former employees said unqualified coaches were brought on. “They were bringing in anybody they could hire, teaching them real quick and on the fly, then sending them out to the wolves,” one said.

Unaccredited companies proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered VFW and Legion posts around the country and exploded following the passage of the PACT Act. Sullivan, the veterans’ advocate who served in the Gulf War, compiled a list of what he called six of the worst unaccredited “claim sharks.” It included VA Claims Insider as well as another venture, Telemedica, which was formed by Reese’s wife, Laurel.

Through Telemedica, her company connects veterans with clinical professionals who provide medical evaluations that can help strengthen a veteran’s disability claim. Before Telemedica was founded in 2020, Reese was overseeing contractual relationships with clinical providers in which his company retained $120 out of every $395 evaluation fee, plus a $100 “one-time exam/records review fee.”

VA Claims Insider and Telemedica, which shared an address on some business documents, are deeply intertwined, according to a dozen former employees. They said VA Claims Insider employees have conducted work for Telemedica and claimed coaches were directed to push clients to undertake evaluations from the company. “I wouldn’t always recommend one,” recalled one former coach. “They got upset about that.”

Brian Reese’s waterfront home on the Colorado River in West Austin. (Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune)

In a complaint to the attorney general, Jordan, the veteran from Wylie, said he was pushed into spending nearly $400 on a Telemedica evaluation in which he was diagnosed with PTSD in just 15 minutes. Jordan claimed that his evaluation was “not accepted” by the government.

In another complaint to the attorney general’s office, Warner, the veteran from Tomball, said the VA deemed his evaluation from Telemedica “useless.”

In a third complaint, Florida resident Amy Anderson told the attorney general’s office that her partner undertook an evaluation that was a “detriment to his claims due to how many fraudulent claims are submitted by this ‘medical team.’”

The 2020 risk analysis warned about VA Claims Insider’s involvement in medical evaluations, noting that “any time a consulting service advertises referrals to medical professionals, the government will take notice” but said the company “possesses valid arguments to address any kickback investigation that may occur.”

Eller said VA Claims Insider “does not pressure any veteran client or coach to utilize services through Telemedica, LLC. Period.” He claimed the two companies were totally separate and said anti-kickback statute doesn’t apply to Telemedica, as “neither VA Claims Insider nor Brian Reese has ever received a penny for making referrals to Telemedica.”

Mounting scrutiny

When a VA Claims Insider client threatened in 2018 to go to the Texas attorney general with concerns, Reese contacted the attorney general’s office for guidance, according to records obtained through a public records request.

Texas’ consumer protection laws are considered to be among the weakest in the country, in large part because only the state’s attorney general can seek damages for deceptive practices. In other states, consumers can themselves seek legal redress for dubious business practices.

The attorney general’s office has been under strain. In May, the Texas House impeached Attorney General Ken Paxton on charges that include bribery, abuse of office, dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice. He has been suspended without pay and awaits trial by the Texas Senate.

After consulting Paxton’s office, Reese posted a video on Facebook in which he said that a few “haters” had posted “fake reviews” and other “misinformation” about his company. Reese asserted that he had spoken with lawyers in the attorney general’s office to “make sure that everything we’re doing is above board.”

It wasn’t only customers who sounded alarms. According to arbitration documents, Reese fired a contractor who he feared was going to cooperate with a potential investigation and therefore posed a “security risk.” Eller brushed off the claim as that of a “disgruntled former contractor,” who tried to steal intellectual property.

Reese has also encountered growing government scrutiny. In response, VA Claims Insider has paid $280,000 to Ogilvy Government Relations for lobbying on “issues related to veterans’ benefits, including legislative proposals.”

They may have found an ally in U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who introduced a bill in 2021 that would provide a three-year pilot contract to an unnamed company that provides consulting services “to assess and advise claimants based upon a review of each claimant’s specific circumstances” — a description that fits VA Claims Insider.

Cruz’s staff didn’t explain why the bill was introduced. Eller said that Reese had met with Cruz staffers, but only to discuss new disability coverage secured through the PACT Act.

At the hearing in April 2022, U.S. Rep. Jake Ellzey, a Waxahachie Republican and a Navy veteran, and other lawmakers invited major for-profit claims companies, including VA Claims Insider, to answer questions about their business practices. Reese did not show up because he was out of the country on vacation.

In his testimony, Ryan M. Gallucci, an Iraq veteran who at the time oversaw 1,900 accredited claims representatives at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said leaders of the unaccredited groups in attendance “should be met at the door by Capitol police, not offered a seat at the same table as hardworking VA accredited advocates who are held to professional and ethical standards designed to protect veterans.”

Ellzey, a former Texas Veterans Commission official, and other House members have introduced the Governing Unaccredited Representatives Defrauding (GUARD) VA Benefits Act, legislation that would reinstate federal penalties for nonaccredited actors.

“I don’t think anybody should make any money off of a veteran and the disability that they receive,” Ellzey says.

Jasper Craven, an independent investigative reporter covering military and veterans’ issues for outlets including The New York Times Magazine, the Intercept, the Atlantic and the New Republic, is a co-author of “Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends, and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veterans Affairs.” This year he was a finalist for a Livingston Award for national reporting for an investigation he wrote for Mother Jones.

Disclosure: Jeff Eller, a former Texas Tribune board member, and the Texas Veterans Commission have been financial supporters of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Ronald W. Erdrich for The Texas Tribune
<![CDATA[Leon Gautier, last member of French D-Day military commando unit, dies]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/07/03/leon-gautier-last-member-of-french-d-day-military-commando-dies/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/07/03/leon-gautier-last-member-of-french-d-day-military-commando-dies/Mon, 03 Jul 2023 17:37:26 +0000PARIS — Leon Gautier, the last surviving member of an elite French unit that joined U.S. and other Allied forces in the 1944 D-Day invasion to wrest Normandy from Nazi control, has died. He was 100.

The death was announced Monday by Romain Bail, the mayor of Ouistreham, an English Channel coastal community where Allies landed on June 6, 1944, and where Gautier lived out his last years. Details were not released. A special tribute ceremony is expected.

Gautier was a nationally known figure and met with President Emmanuel Macron as part of commemorations for the 79th anniversary of D-Day last month.

FILE - French President Emmanuel Macron speaks with Leon Gautier, a French WWII veteran of the Commando Kieffer, during a ceremony in tribute to the 177 French members of the

He and his comrades in the Kieffer Commando unit were among the first waves of Allied troops to storm the heavily defended beaches of Nazi-occupied northern France, beginning the liberation of western Europe.

The commandos spent 78 days straight on the front lines, in ever-dwindling numbers.

Of the 177 who waded ashore on the morning of June 6, 1944, just two dozen escaped death or injury, Gautier among them.

He later injured his left ankle jumping off a train and was forced to sit out much of the rest of the war. His ankle remained painfully swollen for the rest of his long life.

In the huge D-Day invasion force made up largely of American, British and Canadian soldiers, French Capt. Philippe Kieffer’s commandos ensured that France had feats to be proud of too, after the dishonor of its Nazi occupation, when some chose to collaborate with Adolf Hitler’s forces.

Ludovic Marin
<![CDATA[VA plans new cancer research center with Stanford medical experts]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/30/va-plans-new-cancer-research-center-with-stanford-medical-experts/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/30/va-plans-new-cancer-research-center-with-stanford-medical-experts/Fri, 30 Jun 2023 18:46:02 +0000Veterans Affairs officials unveiled preliminary plans to build a new cutting-edge cancer care and research center in California with Stanford University as part of new public-private partnership efforts approved as part of sweeping toxic exposure legislation approved last summer.

Construction is still years away, but VA officials touted the announcement as a sign of what the future of department health care could be: groundbreaking research that benefits not only veterans suffering from the wounds of war, but also the country as a whole.

“This will allow us to partner with every powerhouse academic center in the country, if we do this right,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, VA Under Secretary of Health, during a press event at the Stanford Medicine campus on Friday. “For research, training, and care delivery, it’s all one bucket of cancer care that veterans deserve.”

According to VA statistics, more than 50,000 new cancer cases are reported to department registries annually. Elnahal said because of other health issues related to military service, veterans often face worse health outcomes from those diagnoses than patients without any military background.

Deadline looms for vets to get retroactive toxic exposure benefits

Stanford officials said they conduct about 1,000 new clinical trials with cancer patients annually. The goal of the new joint center would be to bring those efforts together with existing VA research projects, and use the combined resources to speed up results and expand workloads.

“This center will provide our entire community, both veterans and non-veterans, access to cancer care that’s informed by the best possible science and research,” said David Entwistle, president and CEO of Stanford Health Care. “And what’s more, we’ll be able to serve as a beacon of hope for millions of patients and their families who will receive that difficult diagnosis.”

Details of construction timing, project costs and facility staffing still need to be worked out between federal officials and university leaders. Elnahal acknowledged the work is still in its very early stages, but said he hopes to open the doors to the new center in the next five years.

Friday’s partnership was made possible through the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act) signed into law last August. That measure is best known for a massive expansion of disability benefits for veterans who suffered toxic exposure injuries during their time in service, including 12 types of cancer linked to prolonged inhalation of burn pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the legislation also included new authorities for VA leaders to work with private institutions on research and medical care. Department officials said the Stanford project will serve as a model for more partnerships to come.

“My message to veterans is this: know that we are doing this in service of making medical care even better and more accessible to you over time,” Elnahal said.

VA officials are spending the next month conducting a public awareness campaign on the PACT Act in an effort to get more veterans to sign up for medical care and benefits. More than 660,000 veterans have applied for benefits in the last 11 months, and the department has paid out more than $1.4 billion to eligible recipients so far.

<![CDATA[Lawmakers eye ending affirmative action at military academies ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/30/lawmakers-eye-ending-affirmative-action-at-military-academies/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/30/lawmakers-eye-ending-affirmative-action-at-military-academies/Fri, 30 Jun 2023 17:15:00 +0000Thursday’s Supreme Court decision which ended the use of affirmative action in college admissions contained a carve out for military service academies, but a key Senate Republican wants to eliminate it there too.

Shortly after the ruling was announced, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., took to social media to praise the court’s ruling and his aim to “further prohibit our military service academies from engaging in race-based affirmative action.”

Earlier in June, Wicker introduced his Military Merit, Fairness, and Equality Act, which would “prohibit the Department of Defense from prioritizing the demographic characteristics of service members above individual merit and demonstrated performance.” Although the military academies are not specifically mentioned in the legislation, it would cover all defense-affiliated institutions.

In connection with the high court’s 6-3 ruling on affirmative action this week, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that none of the military academies were part of the case before the justices, and therefore the decision does not address how race-based admission systems may impact “the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present.”

Service academies exempt from Supreme Court affirmative action ruling

Wicker, who plans to offer his legislation as an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill during floor debate in July, said the move is needed to bring “fairness” back to the armed forces and refocus military leaders on lethality, readiness and other relevant force priorities.

On Friday, Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Wisc., introduced similar language as an amendment to the House draft of the annual authorization bill, banning the Defense Department from “granting preferential treatment to any person or group based in whole or in part on race.”

Senate Democratic leaders have already pushed back against those proposals, calling them political interference in the military’s efforts to ensure that the fighting force represents the demographics of the country at large.

Numerous Democrats also sharply criticized the Supreme Court’s Thursday ruling, and called the exception for military academies perplexing.

“So military academies can use race-conscious admissions policies because it’s fine to explicitly and intentionally send our Black and brown kids off to die, but not explicitly and intentionally give them access to education?” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., wrote in a social media post following the Supreme Court ruling.

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo. and an Army veteran, echoed that sentiment, calling the decision “outright grotesque” because of the military carve out.

Last year, as part of the case pending before the Supreme Court, 35 former top military leaders filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that affirmative action was necessary for national security, both in the academies and for Reserve Officer Training Corps students at private universities.

The Republican measures face a difficult legislative path ahead. Wicker’s language is unlikely to advance in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Tiffany’s measure could see more success in the Republican-controlled House, but would still have to survive negotiations with Senate leaders before becoming law.

Both chambers are expected to resume debate on the authorization bills — which include hundreds of policy changes and budget priorities for the military — when they return from their current break on July 10.

Bryan Woolston
<![CDATA[Bush Institute announces veteran leadership program’s 2023 class]]>https://www.armytimes.com/education-transition/2023/06/30/bush-institute-announces-veteran-leadership-programs-2023-class/https://www.armytimes.com/education-transition/2023/06/30/bush-institute-announces-veteran-leadership-programs-2023-class/Fri, 30 Jun 2023 15:00:00 +0000Training leaders to help transitioning servicemembers and their families is the mission – and building a community of life-long support is the powerful offshoot of the George W. Bush Institute’s Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program.

The 2023 class was recently announced, including 34 civilians, veterans and active military, all focused on supporting veterans and their families.

“We started this program to train leaders who will help solve transition-related issues that military families face,” said Eva Chiang, managing director of leadership and programming for the institute. “It is a way to inspire people.”

This is the fifth cohort to go through the program, and they’ll gather in July to hear from leaders such as U.S. Navy Captain and NASA Astronaut Chris Cassidy, the eighth United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald, retired United States Air Force General Alfred Flowers, and Bush Institute Senior Fellow Dr. Deborah Birx.

The five-month program includes sessions at the Bush Center and a session in Washington, D.C., Chiang said. Applicants were chosen based on an application and review process, she said, and each one has a personal leadership project they will continue to develop as part of the process.

After they leave the program in November 2023, Chiang said they join a network of 170 alums, who work on improving veteran outcomes – and can rely on each other for continued support and inspiration.

“It was a really amazing experience,” said Eric Goralnick, a civilian military advisor at the Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Center for Trauma Innovation and an associate professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School.

He was in the previous cohort in 2022, working on a project to build a civilian/military initiative at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital for veterans interested in health care careers.

As the participants work through the program, they continue to hone their personal leadership projects, Chiang said. And then, when the program is over, they have a network to continue collaborating and helping one another – a network that will continue to grow.

“And that’s really important, because they can call on one another,” she said. “These are mission-oriented folks who are tightly connected.”

The personal leadership projects range from large scale global projects to boots-on-the-ground intensely local work, Chiang said.

The program is funded through donations and is free for participants.

Goralnick, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who served before going to medical school, said of the 200,000 veterans who leave service each year, about 10,000 have experience as allied health care professionals. His effort is focused on helping those veterans transition into health care careers.

“Going through this program really helped me shape a vision and it helped me develop an action plan to bring my vision to life,” he said. “And it gave me the time and space to meet with colleagues who share similar interests and are working through similar challenges.

“It’s like having a phone-a-friend connection for life.”

Blas Villalobos, who was also in last year’s class, agreed. His project is focused on providing low- or no-cost mental health treatment to veterans. The cohort was able to help him exceed his goals, including holding a fundraising concert in October 2022.

“I had a 3-year goal when I started,” said Villalobos, a former U.S. Marine. “But we made it happen sooner.”

He said the networking component was key, allowing him to expand his network and support his mission.

“It’s really incredible,” said Villalobos, who is the CEO of Centerstone’s Military Services. “I can only see this growing. The collective power of this group is amazing and I know it will continue.”

The 2023 class of the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program includes:

· Quiana Abner, Program Manager of Onward to Opportunity in the Texas Region, D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), San Antonio, Texas

· Kellie Artis, Director of Communications, Virtual Veterans Communities, Fayetteville, North Carolina

· Jennifer Barnhill, Freelance Journalist and Lead Researcher, Military.com and Partners in PROMISE, Pacific Grove, California

· Bobby Ehrig, Executive Director, Citizens for Progress, Bulverde, Texas

· Pete Faerber, Founder and President, The Warriors’ Lawyer, Lithia, Florida

· Victoria Harvey, Deputy Director, Hiring Our Heroes, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Kapolei, Hawaii

· Marnie Holder, Veteran Services Program Officer, National Veterans Memorial and Museum, Columbus, Ohio

· Desiree Holley, Director of Operations, Operation Healing Forces, Brandon, Florida

· Seth Kastle, Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and Director of Military Program Innovation, Fort Hays State University, WaKeeney, Kansas

· Jermaine King, Chief, Public Protection and Safety (Senior Enlisted Leader), United States Air Force, Edwards Air Force Base, California

· Stan Kurtz, Programs Director of Office of Veterans Business Development, U.S. Small Business Administration, Dumfries, Virginia

· Michael Logan, Senior Director for Veteran and Military Affairs, The University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas

· Mollie Marti, Chief Executive Officer, Worldmaker International, Mount Vernon, Iowa

· Selene Martin, Corporate Responsibility Director, USAA, Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas

· Jessica Lynn McNulty, Commander, United States Navy, Clifton, Virginia

· Josh Michael, Clinical Sales Associate, Intuitive Surgical, Argyle, Texas

· Michelle Mills, Senior Recruiter, Amazon, Tucson, Arizona

· Rachel Moyal-Smith, Senior Clinical Implementation Specialist, Ariadne Labs, Slingerlands, New York

· Reggie Ordonez, Chief Operations Officer, Bunker Labs, White House, Tennessee

· Jennifer Pluta, Director of Veteran Career Services, Office of Veteran and Military Affairs, Syracuse University, Brewerton, New York

· Taheesha Quarells, Director of Troops to Teachers, Department of Defense Military to Civilian Transition Office, Pensacola, Florida

· Kris Rick, Veterans Employment and Training Services - Training and Partnership Lead, U.S. Department of Labor, Oakton, Virginia

· Curtez Riggs, Director of Military Events, Recurrent Ventures, Live Oak, Texas

· DeLisa Duncan Russell, Group Chief Executive Officer, Promises Behavioral Health, Spring, Texas

· Gilbert Saguid, Founder, Veterans Franchise Group, San Diego, California

· Abi Scott, Chief, Enlisted Force Development, U.S. Space Force, Fort Belvoir, Virginia

· Jackson Smith, Executive Director, Bastion Community of Resilience, New Orleans, Louisiana

· Sarah Streyder, Executive Director, Secure Families Initiative, Alexandria, Virginia

· Cappy Surette, Senior Manager, External Communications for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, The Walt Disney Company, Windermere, Florida

· Chi Szeto, Management Analyst, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Torrance, California

· Eric Templeton, Cybersecurity Business Development Manager, Cisco, Garner, North Carolina

· Susan Thaxton, Chief Strategy Officer, The Mission Continues, Annapolis, Maryland

· Tracy Threatt, Counselor, Central Piedmont Community College, Concord, North Carolina

· Olivia Valerio, Military Bridges Program Project Manager, H-E-B, San Antonio, Texas

George W. Bush Institute
<![CDATA[White House $3.1 billion homeless program includes help for vets]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/29/white-house-unveils-new-support-programs-for-homeless-vets/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/29/white-house-unveils-new-support-programs-for-homeless-vets/Thu, 29 Jun 2023 09:00:00 +0000White House officials are pairing new legal support and job training programs for veterans with a $3.1 billion investment in general community support grants in an effort to further reduce the number of veterans facing homelessness.

Administration officials unveiled the plans on Thursday, calling them “the single largest investment in communities’ homelessness response systems in history.” The move comes as Veterans Affairs officials said they are on pace with their goal of permanently housing 38,000 at-risk veterans this year.

“Homelessness is a challenge we face as a nation, but importantly it is also a solvable one,” said White House Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden in a press conference on the new initiatives.

According to the latest federal estimates, about 33,000 veterans across the country lack reliable, permanent housing on any given day. That figure is down about 11% since 2020 and down about 55% since 2010.

Advocates struggle to help homeless vets as COVID support disappears

Despite the progress, however, veterans advocates have warned that the expiration of a host of pandemic-era support programs and grants threatens support systems for vulnerable veterans. Officials from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans said some non-profits have seen their federal grants slashed by tens of thousands of dollars, potentially hurting their outreach efforts.

The $3.1 billion boost to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care program could help offset some of those losses. The program awards funds to community groups and local governments to help provide support to families facing the threat of homelessness.

Federal officials said the new money will not be earmarked solely for veterans support efforts, but that participants will be directed to “coordinate with local Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers to ensure these funds are effectively supporting veterans and their families.”

Two other new programs will be aimed directly at helping veterans, however. A new $11.5 million Legal Services for Veterans grant program will give individuals help with fighting eviction orders, gaining access to financial support programs, and provisioning similar legal assistance.

“Legal support can be the difference between becoming homeless in the first instance or having a safe, stable house,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough.”With this, we move ever closer to that goal.”

VA aims to help 38,000+ homeless veterans again this year

The Department of Labor Veterans’ Employment and Training Service also plans to launch a new $58 million grant program to connect homeless veterans with job opportunities. That money will include training programs for in-demand industries and outreach to community employers to connect them with would-be veteran workers.

Department of Veterans Affairs officials will also work with HUD leaders on a series of “boot camps” on veterans homelessness throughout the fall, officials said. The sessions will bring together staffers to talk about best practices in reaching and helping veterans, and finding ways to better coordinate cooperation of numerous federal agencies in focusing on helping homeless veterans.

Tanden called the success in reducing the number of homeless veterans over the last decade a model for other government support efforts, but also said that more still needs to be done.

Congressional appropriators in the House and Senate have already preliminary backed plans for a 16% boost in homelessness assistance funding in the budget for fiscal 2024, which begins on Oct. 1. However, because of ongoing partisan fights on a host of budget issues, it’s unclear when that money may be available to VA planners.

Jae C. Hong
<![CDATA[Bush Institute recommends TAP revamp]]>https://www.armytimes.com/education-transition/2023/06/28/bush-institute-recommends-tap-revamp/https://www.armytimes.com/education-transition/2023/06/28/bush-institute-recommends-tap-revamp/Wed, 28 Jun 2023 19:52:58 +0000Meeting the needs of transitioning service members – and their spouses – is a big job, and it generally starts with the Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program (TAP).

Consistently evaluating and improving TAP – especially to meet the needs of minorities, women and younger, enlisted service members – is critical to improving post-service outcomes, according to a series of policy recommendations issued in January by the George W. Bush Institute.

“Outcomes for those groups aren’t as good as we’d like them to be,” said Col. Matthew F. Amidon, former director of veterans and military families at the institute.

In a series of articles, Military Times is examining each of the Institute’s four recommendations:

· The administration should refine a national veterans strategy.

· The DoD should leverage veteran and military family communities to sustain an all-volunteer force.

· The DoD should invest further in the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) for the 21st century.

· The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration should focus on advancing data collaboration.

Currently, TAP offers a common level of support to about 200,000 service members a year at 200 locations around the world, said Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Department of Defense spokesperson. She said the program tailors support to each service member’s individual transition plan and it is successful and continuously evolving.

“Commanders fully support TAP and are committed to ensuring a successful military-to-civilian transition for their Service members,” Schwegman said. “DoD’s historic level of service and support to service members is better and more comprehensive than at any point in our nation’s history.”

Research has shown that veterans are undervalued – and often underpaid – in the civilian workforce – despite their training, ability to work with and for a team and strong work ethic, it can be a struggle for transitioning service members and spouses to find meaningful, lucrative employment. The Veterans Metrics Initiative from Penn State has indicated that more than 60 percent of veterans are underemployed or unemployed – which in the current job market, is a large untapped pool of talented and driven individuals.

Amidon said TAP does a great job, but it isn’t a monolith. Some bases and stations do a better job than others and those with robust relationships with civilian employers and those that support sub-populations like younger, enlisted service members, women and communities of color tend to have better success rates.

“We don’t throw darts at TAP,” he said. “They’ve made great strides.”

And Ross Dickman, COO for Hire Heroes USA, a nonprofit that has helped service members and spouses transition to the civilian workforce since 2005, said his organization has collected data showing a more personalized approach increases positive outcomes.

His organization surveys the veterans and spouses they serve for 36 months after job placement, asking questions about how well they are doing at their jobs and in their communities. That information is used to keep improving their program – filling in gaps and bridging barriers.

“We have some really unique insights,” Dickman said. “Any modification to TAP needs to address some of the gaps and barriers that are in transition assistance outcomes. Generally, we’d love to see a continued emphasis on understanding the career support based on need, client demographics and more. There are different needs based on location, the type of experience while in the military, gender, race – it all factors in and TAP can’t always fit with all of these unique needs.”

Any further investment in TAP, Dickman and Amidon said, needs to address these known gaps and work to address a more personalized approach. Dickman said Hire Heroes USA’s success is due to its one-on-one approach, with each client receiving personalized service to help them find employment that that fits their skills – and helps the service member meet their financial needs and goals as well.

Schwegman said TAP is currently evaluating and steering modifications to collaborate with its current six agency partners (the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Labor, Education, Homeland Security, Small Business Administration, and the Office of Personnel Management). This collaboration has led to programs for women; wounded, ill or injured service members and their caregivers and a host of other targeted programs.

And in the future, the DoD will continue to focus on the 13 congressionally mandated demographic and transition factors: Rank, term of service, gender, component status (i.e. active duty, Guard or Reserve), disability, character of discharge, health, military occupation specialty, intentions after transition, education, prior employment, post-transition employment/education enrollment/vocational enrollment, and other Departmental factors deemed appropriate.

“DoD TAP is successful because it is postured to continuously evolve to meet the demands of the transitioning service members,” she said.

Rachel Everett
<![CDATA[Deadline looms for vets to get retroactive toxic exposure benefits]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/27/deadline-looms-for-vets-to-get-retroactive-toxic-exposure-benefits/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/27/deadline-looms-for-vets-to-get-retroactive-toxic-exposure-benefits/Tue, 27 Jun 2023 17:00:00 +0000Veterans Affairs officials plan a public awareness blitz over the next five weeks to get as many individuals as possible to sign up for new military toxic exposure benefits ahead of an August deadline for retroactive payouts.

The Summer VetFest is part of a year-old, $11.4 million effort connected to the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act), sweeping benefits legislation approved by lawmakers last summer. As many as one in five veterans living in America today could receive new health care or disability payouts as a result of the measure.

The PACT ACT provides presumptive benefit status for 12 types of cancer and 12 other respiratory illnesses linked to burn pit exposure in the Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq; hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) for veterans who served in Vietnam; and radiation-related illnesses for veterans who served in several new locations in the 1960s and early 1970s.

“There are millions of veterans and survivors across America who are eligible for new health care and benefits, and we will not rest until every one of them gets what they’ve earned,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “That’s what this Summer VetFest is all about: educating veterans, their families, and survivors — and encouraging them to apply today.”

Biden signs burn pit exposure health bill into law

Since the PACT Act was signed into law on Aug. 10, 2022, more than 660,000 veterans have applied for benefits, and the department has paid out more than $1.4 billion.

Under federal law, veterans who apply for the PACT Act payouts within a year of the bill signing are potentially eligible for retroactive benefits back to that date. But veterans who enroll after Aug. 9, 2023, will only receive payouts back to their date of filing.

Veteran Affairs officials said that’s the impetus for the July outreach push. By filing ahead of the Aug. 9 deadline instead of after it, veterans who are awarded toxic exposure disability benefits could get tens of thousands of dollars more in payouts.

Department staff have held similar outreach efforts throughout the past 12 months, including a “PACT Act Week of Action” in December, when VA hosted dozens of local information events across the nation.

Along with new online ads and public service announcements, the new outreach push will include events in all 50 states (plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico) where veterans can apply for PACT Act-related benefits, enroll in VA health care, get screened for toxic exposures injuries, or learn more about VA services.

Veterans or their family members can also get information about PACT Act benefits by visiting the department’s web site or by calling 1-800-MYVA411 (1-800-698-2411).

<![CDATA[Defense bill targets religious freedom group for its advocacy work]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/26/defense-bill-targets-religious-freedom-group-for-its-advocacy-work/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/26/defense-bill-targets-religious-freedom-group-for-its-advocacy-work/Mon, 26 Jun 2023 20:35:00 +0000Military members and staff would be barred from interacting with a well-known advocacy group that has frequently sparred with Christian organizations under an amendment inserted into the House draft of the annual defense authorization bill last week.

Defense officials and troops would be barred from communicating with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation or from making “any decision as a result of any claim, objection, or protest made by MRFF without the authority of the Secretary of Defense,” per language offered by Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and adopted with unanimous, bipartisan support by the members of the House Armed Services Committee, according to documents supplied by the committee.

The group’s founder called the legislative language an unconstitutional attack on their efforts and troops’ rights, and vowed to fight the move as the measure winds through Congress.

“If they don’t like what we do at MRFF on behalf of our 84,000-plus military and veteran clients, they can take a number, pack a picnic lunch and stand in line with the rest of those fundamentalist Christian extremist bastards who constitute our enemies,” said Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the group.

Pentagon unveils new religious liberty policies after pressure from conservative lawmakers

A senior committee staffer familiar with the crafting of the memo but not authorized to speak to the press said the actions of the group have raised concerns among lawmakers for years, and the language is designed to ensure that military staffers don’t overreact to the group’s demands without following proper review procedures.

In March, the group boasted that they convinced leaders at an Austin, Texas, Veteran Affairs clinic to remove a prominently displayed cross from a public lobby “in under 90 minutes.” MRFF officials said the display improperly sent the message “that our military is a Christian military and only Christian veterans matter.”

The non-profit has pushed similar efforts in the past, often riling conservative Christian groups. In February, after MRFF officials convinced Merchant Marine Academy leaders to move a painting titled “Christ on the Water” from a public space to a chapel, the move was attacked by Republican lawmakers and outside Christian groups as overreach.

Weinstein said getting singled out in the legislation amounts to a “badge of honor” for his work.

“If the fundamentalist Christian nationalists who are behind this are trying to execute us through legislation, we’ll take that as validation of the positive effect that we’re having for our clients and for the Constitution,” he said. “And they can go fuck themselves.”

Turner’s office declined to comment and House Democratic committee leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment ahead of publication. The defense bill is expected to go through numerous changes over the next few months before becoming law. House Republicans are expected to add more amendments on issues of abortion access and transgender rights when the measure comes up for full chamber debate next month.

GOP lawmakers target diversity training, COVID rules in defense bill

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s draft of the authorization bill does not include any similar restrictions on communications or response to MRFF requests.

In contrast to the House Armed Services Committee’s legislation, the measure proposed by the Democratic-led Senate committee contains only a few controversial social issues, although Republicans could attempt to add more through amendments during floor debate next month.

A final draft of the legislation is expected to be negotiated later this summer, with an eye towards passage of a final draft sometime this fall. The authorization bill has been passed by Congress for 62 consecutive years, making it one of the most reliable legislative vehicles on Capitol Hill annually.

<![CDATA[Supreme Court to rule on whether vets should get more GI Bill benefits]]>https://www.armytimes.com/education-transition/2023/06/26/supreme-court-to-rule-on-whether-vets-should-get-more-gi-bill-benefits/https://www.armytimes.com/education-transition/2023/06/26/supreme-court-to-rule-on-whether-vets-should-get-more-gi-bill-benefits/Mon, 26 Jun 2023 16:30:00 +0000The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to take up an ongoing veterans education benefits case which could dramatically rewrite federal benefits rules and give additional tuition money to potentially millions of veterans.

And if the nation’s highest court upholds the decisions of lower federal courts, the ruling could finally end the eight-year-old legal fight, forcing Veterans Affairs leaders to start paying out the money in coming college semesters.

The case — Rudsill vs. McDonough — has been closely watched by advocates for years because of its potential wide-ranging impact on veterans seeking college degrees. Monday’s decision to take up the case means that lawyers for the plaintiff and the federal government will argue their cases before the Supreme Court sometime this fall, with a final decision expected sometime in spring 2024.

One vet’s GI Bill fight could win benefits for millions of other students

In a joint statement, Troutman Pepper partner Misha Tseytlin and associate Timothy McHugh — who have handled the case in recent years — called the high court’s decision a welcome chance at finally resolving the case.

“Should we prevail, approximately 1.7 million post-9/11 veterans will be eligible to receive additional educational benefits totaling billions of dollars,” they said. “This would be transformative for millions of veterans, their families, and their communities.”

VA officials have declined all comment on the ongoing case, but pledged to work with veterans to help them handle any complications with their education benefits.

The case centers on how the Department of Veterans Affairs has awarded education support through its Post-9/11 GI Bill program and the Montgomery GI Bill program. Under the first, eligible veterans receive 36 months of tuition payouts, housing stipends and other financial assistance. The Post-9/11 GI Bill is used by the vast majority of veterans attending schools today.

The Montgomery GI Bill program was the predecessor to the Post-9/11 GI Bill and is being phased out by the department. It offers far less money, but still can provide several thousands of dollars annually to veterans for tuition costs if they paid into the program at the start of their military service.

Currently, VA officials make students give up eligibility for the Montgomery GI Bill program when they register to begin using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. That means that once their education benefits from that program are exhausted, they cannot receive more tuition support from the other program.

Jim Rudisill, the Army veteran at the center of the court case, was wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq in 2005 and used his Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits shortly thereafter. But he wanted to tap into his unused Montgomery GI Bill benefits to attend Yale Divinity School, as part of the process to become an Army chaplain, and sued when VA officials denied that move.

Veterans Affairs officials have argued in court that using both benefits amounts to double-dipping on government benefits, which is prohibited under federal statute. But courts have ruled against them in recent years, saying that the education programs are separate, even if all the money comes from the same source, the VA budget.

GI Bill fix for vets enrolled in defunct schools heads to White House

Under separate existing federal statute, all government higher education payouts are capped at 48 months. So, if the Supreme Court rules against VA’s interpretation of how the programs must be administered, veterans who use up their post-9/11 GI Bill program might still get 12 more months of money for school.

That won’t matter for most veterans who received degrees and moved onto civilian careers over the last decade. But for individuals who fell a few semesters short of getting a degree, the court ruling could open the door to new financial support to finish their education goals.

Unlike the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which can be transferred to spouses and children under certain circumstances, the Montgomery GI Bill cannot be passed to another family member. So veterans looking for additional help to pay family bills won’t benefit from a potential favorable ruling.

No date has yet been set for when the Supreme Court arguments on the case will be scheduled. The Court is expected to end its current term in the next few weeks.

Patrick Semansky
<![CDATA[100-year-old veteran getting help seeking Purple Heart for WWII injury]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/25/100-year-old-veteran-getting-help-seeking-purple-heart-for-wwii-injury/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/25/100-year-old-veteran-getting-help-seeking-purple-heart-for-wwii-injury/Sun, 25 Jun 2023 14:58:31 +0000CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Raymond Chambers never received a Purple Heart despite being wounded while serving during World War II, but now, at 100 years old, he may have a chance to receive the military decoration with the help of Collegedale resident Robert Gould.

One of Gould’s neighbors, an American Legion member, knew Chambers and helped introduce the two men. Gould took an interest in the life and history Chambers has experienced.

“It was fascinating to listen to him, to hear the history that he was bringing forth,” Gould said by phone.

In 1942, Chambers enlisted in the Army and served with the 3rd Infantry Division, mostly in France and Italy. The most difficult part of serving was watching his friends die in front of him, he said.

“Hard thing about combat is holding your buddy in your arms, or just watching the medics work on him, and him passing away with a bullet in him,” Chambers said. “It stays on you forever.”

Chambers remembered the names of several soldiers he watched die, but the one he spoke of most was a soldier from Texas named Cruz, who was a husband and father. During one battle, a lieutenant ordered Cruz to go out against the German forces, Chambers said, but he tried to tell Cruz to ignore the order due to the danger.

“I told him not to go,” Chambers said. “I said, ‘Tell that lieutenant to go to hell.’”

Cruz went out anyway, Chambers said, and the Germans killed him. Chambers said he did not want anything to do with the lieutenant after that.

Chambers was not immune to the dangers of war. While fighting in France, he sustained wounds from artillery shrapnel that struck him in the head and rear end, he said. He spent two weeks in a hospital before returning to duty with the shrapnel still in his body.

Chambers said the shrapnel has not caused many issues for him other than giving him some discomfort when sitting. For Chambers, the longest lasting wounds have been psychological.

“I was a nervous wreck when I came back,” he said.

When he returned to America in 1945, Chambers stayed for three months in a hospital in Florida. He said there were a couple of nights where he tried to dig foxholes with his hands outside the hospital.

After his stay at the hospital, Chambers had the opportunity to fill out paperwork to receive his medals, including the Purple Heart, before a bus was set to take him home. Barbara Painter, Chambers’ living companion for the past decade, said Chambers felt rushed to get on the bus, and he wanted to go home more than he wanted his medals. So, he got on the bus, she said.

At their initial meeting, Gould presented Chambers with a print of a painting by his father titled “Peace 1783 — A Nation is Born.” Gould’s father, John F. Gould, was an artist and illustrator who worked for General Electric Co. and the Saturday Evening Post.

In honor of the nation’s bicentennial, John Gould created a series of three paintings depicting George Washington in historical scenes in 1783, Robert Gould said by phone.

In “Peace 1783 – A Nation is Born,” Washington is depicted in Newburgh, New York, where the first Badge of Military Merit, the precursor to the Purple Heart, was presented. While the Badge of Military Merit was forgotten over time, the award was reestablished as the Purple Heart in 1932 by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, at the time the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

After meeting with Chambers and presenting him with the print, Gould said he wanted to help Chambers obtain the Purple Heart.

Peter Bedrossian, program director at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, said by phone that getting Chambers the Purple Heart would require contacting the U.S. Army Human Resources Command in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and providing officials there with information such as Chambers’ service number and period of service. The more information provided will help the command better determine Chambers’ eligibility for the Purple Heart, Bedrossian said.

Gould has contacted the Human Resources Command and is planning to gather Chambers’ information in order to send them.

Maj. Will Cox
<![CDATA[Lawmakers push to make it easier to discipline, fire VA workers]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/23/lawmakers-push-to-make-it-easier-to-discipline-fire-va-workers/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/23/lawmakers-push-to-make-it-easier-to-discipline-fire-va-workers/Fri, 23 Jun 2023 16:00:00 +0000U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs leaders would be able to demote and fire problematic workers more quickly under new accountability rules proposed by a group of lawmakers on Friday.

The move comes in response to federal rulings against previous attempts to streamline disciplinary actions against VA staff, and in response to concerns from department leadership about using already approved authorities for those personnel decisions. Supporters say the move is needed to ensure that poor-performing workers aren’t hurting customer service and staff morale.

“While the VA employs some of the finest men and women, it only takes a few bad employees to disrupt the culture and service at the VA, which negatively impacts veterans,” Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said in a statement announcing the new legislation.

“Veterans are best served when VA leaders have the ability to swiftly take action to remove bad employees in order to maintain a healthy workplace and, more importantly, provide quality services for our veterans.”

Lawmakers demand VA fire substandard staff faster

The measure — dubbed the Restore Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability Act — has backing from Moran, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., has introduced companion legislation in his chamber.

“In order to best serve veterans, the VA Secretary must have the authority to quickly and fairly remove, demote, or suspend bad employees who are undermining the quality of services that our veterans have earned,” Bost said in a statement. “As it stands today, the VA secretary’s hands are tied, and failing employees continue to be employed at VA.”

In March, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced that he would stop using disciplinary authorities approved by Congress in 2017 because of numerous legal challenges to the measures. Those powers were approved after a push from Republican lawmakers to find ways to more quickly deal with employees accused of malfeasance, ineptness or, in extreme cases, criminal activity.

But McDonough insisted that the 2017 law “wasn’t really helping us manage our workforce as much as it was getting us in front of federal judges and other administrative bodies” to settle personnel disputes. Rulings in recent months from the Federal Labor Relations Authority and the Merit Systems Protection Board have muted much of their effectiveness, he said.

VA officials have insisted since then that other existing authorities allow for proper management and punishment of department staff.

Lawmakers behind Friday’s legislation disagree. The new legislation would make multiple changes to federal employment rules regarding VA workers, including matching disciplinary rules for VA managers and supervisors with the process in place for Senior Executive Service staff and installing new expedited removal, demotion or suspension authority for all categories of VA employees.

The legislation would also get rid of the requirement that supervisors put an employee performance improvement plan in place before any disciplinary action.

The measure already has the backing of a wide range of veterans groups, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Concerned Veterans of America. However, whether that support will be enough to move the legislation ahead remains unclear.

While Bost can move the measure through his Republican-controlled committee without Democratic support, finding momentum in the Senate is more difficult. Union leaders have voiced concerns about cutting back on employee appeals rights in the past, and are likely to lobby Democratic leaders in the Senate to move carefully on the new suggestions.

<![CDATA[Spending plan for vets programs gets Senate support, but fights loom]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/22/spending-plan-for-vets-programs-gets-senate-support-but-fights-loom/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/22/spending-plan-for-vets-programs-gets-senate-support-but-fights-loom/Thu, 22 Jun 2023 18:49:29 +0000Senate appropriators on Thursday advanced plans for $320 billion in Veterans Affairs spending in fiscal 2024, setting up a showdown with their House counterparts — not on budget levels, but on social issue fights attached to veterans programming plans.

The measure, adopted by a bipartisan, unanimous vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee, includes a roughly 6% increase in funding for VA operations next fiscal year.

That hike matches the level outlined in the debt limit deal negotiated by the White House and Republican leaders last month, as well as the spending outline from the House Appropriations Committee passed earlier this month. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the measure provides veterans with “the support we owe them and the support they need.”

The measure includes $16.2 billion for mental health care (up 17% from fiscal 2023 levels), $3.1 billion for homelessness prevention efforts (up 16%) and $1.3 billion for women’s health initiatives (up 50%).

GOP budget bill would ban abortions, transgender services at VA

What the Senate measure doesn’t include is language regarding abortion services at VA facilities or restrictions on transgender medical care.

Those issues and others were inserted into the House version of the budget bill last week, over the objections of House Democrats. Republican leaders of the House committee said the moves are needed to rein in political posturing by department leaders.

Language in the House budget bill would ban VA from providing abortion services — something they have been doing since last fall — as well as medical care for transgender veterans. VA has promised to provide gender confirmation surgery in the future but has not conducted any operations as of yet. Medical staff do provide hormone therapy and other transgender-specific care.

None of those social issue fights were included in the Senate draft, adopted by the full committee after only a few minutes of debate. Murray said she hopes to move the VA and other budget bills “in an orderly and timely way” to ensure federal programs don’t face the threat of a possible partial shutdown this fall.

Since the spending totals in the House and Senate drafts largely match, the biggest obstacle to completing the VA appropriations work appears to be finding ways to reconcile the controversial limits on department services preferred by House Republicans.

Both measures are expected to be voted on by their respective chambers in the coming weeks, then head to inter-chamber negotiations for the rest of the summer. In past years, the VA budget has typically been one of the earliest spending bills finished because of bipartisan support for veterans care and benefits.

<![CDATA[Measure to boost pay for some injured vets moves ahead ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/21/measure-to-boost-pay-for-some-injured-vets-moves-ahead/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/21/measure-to-boost-pay-for-some-injured-vets-moves-ahead/Wed, 21 Jun 2023 16:09:57 +0000Tens of thousands of wounded service members could see their disability payouts significantly boosted under a measure advanced by a key congressional committee on Wednesday.

The measure — known as the Major Richard Star Act — still faces a long legislative path ahead. But for veterans advocates who have been pushing for the reforms for years, Wednesday’s action represents a significant step forward in addressing what they say is an injustice for troops who have already sacrificed so much on behalf of their country.

The bill passed out of the House Armed Services Committee by a unanimous voice vote, despite concerns from some conservative lawmakers about the costs of the measure and the lack of budget offsets included in the legislation for now.

Fixing disability and retirement pay is Congress’ next big vets issue

Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said he plans to “work with leadership and the Veterans Affairs committee to see if an offset can be found for this bill” in coming weeks. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the plan will cost roughly $9.75 billion over the next 10 years.

But he backed moving the legislation ahead because under current rules, “veterans are unfairly forced to forfeit a portion of the benefits they rightly earned.”

Since 2004, veterans who have a disability rating of at least 50% have received their full military retirement pay and disability benefits, a combined total that can amount to several thousand dollars each month.

But veterans who have a disability rating of less than 50% are subject to dollar-for-dollar offsets under federal rules. That can mean a loss of several hundred dollars a month for some individuals who depend on those stipends to supplement their family income.

Officials from Wounded Warrior Project have estimated that as many as 50,000 medical retirees nationwide are hurt by the current policy. Most of those veterans were forced out of the service early by a significant injury and may have limited job options in the civilian business sector as a result.

The Richard Star Act — named for an Army veteran who died in 2021 of cancer related to burn pit exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan — would allow all combat-wounded veterans medically discharged before serving 20 years to receive both retirement and disability pay, without any reductions. Veterans must be eligible for Combat-Related Special Compensation to qualify.

While Wednesday’s action in the House committee was quick and straightforward, the next steps for the legislation are less clear. The Senate has introduced but not moved on the measure. The earliest that action could come on the bill in the House is July, but it will be competing for time with high-profile appropriations issues and the annual defense authorization bill.

Ken Scar
<![CDATA[Lawmakers float grant program to get service dogs to struggling vets]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/21/lawmakers-float-grant-program-to-get-service-dogs-to-struggling-vets/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/21/lawmakers-float-grant-program-to-get-service-dogs-to-struggling-vets/Wed, 21 Jun 2023 16:00:00 +0000Lawmakers on Wednesday unveiled a new proposal to use community grants to pair service dogs with struggling veterans, in the hopes the companionship will help solve a host of transition difficulties.

The bipartisan Service Dogs Assisting Veterans (SAVES) Act comes two years after Congress approved similar legislation that advocates say proved too limited to connect canines and veterans. The new legislation would set aside $10 million annually for nonprofit groups who have trained the dogs and handlers to work with veterans seeking their services.

“This bill will allow more veterans who are struggling with the invisible wounds of war to receive service dogs that could ultimately save their lives,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and one of the sponsors of the measure, said in a statement. “We must repay the debt to the men and women who served our country.”

Service dog helps ease Army veteran’s anxiety

Under the plan — which still must survive Senate and House debate before becoming law — the Department of Veterans Affairs would administer the new program, which echoes past service dog efforts managed through the Department of Defense.

Groups who are accredited to train and work with service dogs could apply for grants to cover the costs of preparing the canines, preparing the veterans, and providing ongoing support to both after they are matched.

Past research from the Department of Veterans Affairs has shown that service dogs can help reduce the frequency and severity of PTSD symptoms among veterans. In 2021, lawmakers approved plans for a five-year pilot program to provide canine training to veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in an effort to provide alternative treatments for individuals suffering from that condition.

But advocacy groups say the rules governing that legislation were severely limiting, and thus far have linked only a small number of veterans and dogs. The new proposal looks to push the idea further, using existing infrastructure in the community to help push the efforts ahead.

“Service dogs have a proven track record of providing life-saving assistance to veterans,” said Carl Cricco, CEO of the nonprofit K9s For Warriors. ”The SAVES Act will ultimately put more service dogs in the hands of veterans in critical need, allowing them to regain their independence and reintegrate into civilian life.”

While the past programs were only open to veterans with PTSD, the new proposal would make eligible veterans with any disabilities recognized by VA, potentially opening the program up to thousands of additional individuals.

Committee hearings on the measure are expected next month. Along with Tillis, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.; and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. have signed onto the measure.

Airman 1st Class Audrey Chappell
<![CDATA[Ford announces five-year commitment to Team Rubicon partnership]]>https://www.armytimes.com/education-transition/2023/06/20/ford-announces-five-year-commitment-to-team-rubicon-partnership/https://www.armytimes.com/education-transition/2023/06/20/ford-announces-five-year-commitment-to-team-rubicon-partnership/Tue, 20 Jun 2023 18:08:40 +0000As wildfires rage in California and Canada, and hurricane season is about to kick into gear, the veteran-led Team Rubicon humanitarian organization is always monitoring the possibility of natural disasters with the intensity of The Weather Channel.

Since Team Rubicon was founded by veterans after a massive Haiti earthquake in 2010, the organization has launched 1,100 disaster recovery operations and grown to more than 160,000 volunteers. This kind of volunteer movement doesn’t happen with the help of philanthropic commitments, such as the one Ford Motor Company committed to Team Rubicon on Tuesday.

Ford has been a believer in Team Rubicon’s mission since 2016. It extends its relationship through Team Rubicon Powered by Ford, a five-year, $5.8 million commitment that includes vehicles, philanthropic investment and employee volunteerism, as Ford employees can receive paid time off to join Team Rubicon’s veterans on the front lines of disaster recovery.

“It’s a demonstration of trust,” said Team Rubicon CEO Art delaCruz, a retired U.S. Navy officer. “You can imagine, for an organization that relies on people donating and investing in our vision, a five-year partnership is substantial. The philanthropic investment allows us to get people in the field to help people on their worst day. And then this additional enabler, which is a real special combination of vehicles that allows us to drive forward in a manner to innovate in a disaster space.”

The donation of 17 vehicles for Team Rubicon’s relief efforts includes 10 Ford F-150 PowerBoost hybrid trucks, three F-150 Lightning trucks, two F-Series Super Duty trucks and two Ford Bronco SUVs.

The vehicles will help Team Rubicon’s recovery efforts in areas where power is out or limited, giving crews the ability to power vital equipment like generators, chainsaws or safety lights and also equip trucks with refrigerators to keep food and beverages cold for team members and help any storm victims who need assistance keeping their own food from spoiling.

“What’s unique about these new trucks is the power that they can bring,” delaCruz said. “These hybrid trucks essentially have the ability to drive a generator via the vehicle. And you have energy storage via batteries so you can tap into the battery and also tap into energy from the generators when needed.”

Before this most recent commitment, the Ford Fund had donated $1.5 million to Team Rubicon. The monetary portion of Tuesday’s announcement allows Team Rubicon to allocate funds to areas such as training, transportation to disaster zones, or purchasing additional relief equipment.

“This is a very sizable partnership, the type of thing that makes major disaster responses possible,” delaCruz said. “And probably more importantly, it allows the little recoveries to happen.”

The contributions come at a perfect time for Team Rubicon, which has already responded to 70 operations this year. Eight of those events are considered billion-dollar disasters, which have increased at a rate of 400 percent since 1980, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. In 1980, billion-dollar events occurred every 82 days according to NOAA. Now they’re happening every 18 days.

“The reality is weather-related disasters in the U.S. are becoming more frequent and more severe,” said Bill Ford, Ford Motor Company’s executive chair. “That is why we are significantly expanding our relationship with Team Rubicon, donating a fleet of vehicles and deploying volunteers where they are needed most.”

Photo courtesy of Ford
<![CDATA[Supreme Court turns away veterans over 1966 hydrogen bomb accident]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/20/supreme-court-turns-away-veterans-over-1966-hydrogen-bomb-accident/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/20/supreme-court-turns-away-veterans-over-1966-hydrogen-bomb-accident/Tue, 20 Jun 2023 17:53:32 +0000The Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected an appeal on behalf of some U.S. veterans who want disability benefits because they were exposed to radiation while responding to a Cold War-era hydrogen bomb accident in Spain.

The justices not did comment in turning away an appeal from Victor Skaar, an Air Force veteran in his mid-80s.

Skaar, of Nixa, Missouri, filed class-action claims seeking benefits for him and others who say they became ill from exposure to radiation during the recovery and cleanup of the undetonated bombs at the accident site in Palomares, a village in southern Spain, in 1966.

A federal appeals court rejected the class-action claims. The Supreme Court’s action leaves that ruling in place.

The Justice Department, arguing against high-court review, noted that Congress last year enacted legislation that expands eligibility for benefits for many Palomares veterans. But the department also acknowledged that Skaar is not covered by the legislation.

Skaar’s lawyers told the Supreme Court that he suffers from leukopenia, described as a condition that can be caused by exposure to radiation. Skaar also has had skin cancer, now in remission, the lawyers wrote in a court filing.

He was among 1,400 U.S. service members who were sent to Palomares to help clean up what has been called the worst radiation accident in U.S. history.

On Jan. 17, 1966, a U.S. B-52 bomber and a refueling plane crashed into each other during a refueling operation in the skies above Palomares, killing seven of 11 crew members but no one on the ground. At the time, the U.S. was keeping nuclear-armed warplanes in the air near the border with the Soviet Union.

The midair collision resulted in the release of four U.S. hydrogen bombs. None of the bombs exploded, but the plutonium-filled detonators on two went off, scattering 7 pounds (3 kilograms) of highly radioactive plutonium 239 across the landscape.

Alex Brandon