Veterans generate new job prospects


By Debbie Gregory.

At 6.2 percent, the unemployment rate among veterans reached a four-year low in April– thanks to veterans who stopped standing in line for job interviews and went to work for themselves instead.

Veteran-owned franchising is a growing option that is capturing the attending of thousands of former military members each year. In 2010, the number of veteran-owned franchises reached 6,081. That number jumped to 11,469 in 2011, according to officials at the International Franchise Association (IFA), a Washington-based trade organization.

While Washington has done its share to encourage businesses to hire veterans, including offering tax breaks to companies that do, the IFA has launched its own campaign to increase veteran entrepreneurship. The group joined forces with the White House, Department of Veterans Affairs and the Small Business Administration to create the Operation Enduring Opportunity campaign.  The campaign is working towards employing 80,000 former military members and military spouses in franchising by 2014. A recent survey showed that 64,880 had found such jobs since November, 2011 when the campaign began.

Officials say veterans and military families are a good match for the world of franchising because they have the discipline and dedication.

“Veterans do well in the franchising arena,” said Rhett Jeppson, Associate Administrator of SBA’s office of veterans’ business development, and a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. “It’s a way to provide opportunities for them, especially if jobs aren’t available.”

Former U.S. Army Ranger Robert Rummells tried jobs such as installing equipment and simulated firearms training, but learned quickly that he was most comfortable working for himself. He opened a Mosquito Joe pest-control franchise in Virginia and is excelling at life in a franchise. “I’m an outdoor type of guy, and I didn’t want to be chained to my computer in an office, talking on the phone,” said Rummells.

The Small Business Administration reports that veterans own about 2.4 million businesses, or 9 percent of all U.S. businesses, employing 5.8 million workers. Still, entering the franchise world can be difficult. Veterans can use programs supported by the SBA, but banks are cautious of small borrowers.

Kevin Safley, who served with the National Guard in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, and again between 2009 and 2010, opened a Cottman Transmission auto care franchise in Washington last year, after obtaining a small business loan as a service-disabled veteran.

“It’s been rough. I’m still learning,” Safley said. “But we’re making money, and there are lots of customers. If I don’t give up, things will work out.”

Find Out if You Are Eligible for VA Health Benefits


By Debbie Gregory.

The VA Mission Statement is: To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan”  by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans. Veterans have served this country with steadfast allegiance and deserve the benefits they have earned.

The very first step in obtaining access to VA Health Benefits is to apply. The Veterans Administration then begins the verification process to determine a Veterans’ eligibility. Once a Veteran is enrolled, that Veteran remains enrolled in the VA health care system and maintains access to certain VA health benefits.

VA Health Benefits include all the necessary inpatient hospital care and outpatient services to promote, preserve or restore your health. VHA medical facilities provide a wide range of services including traditional hospital-based services such as surgery, critical care, mental health, orthopedics, pharmacy, radiology and physical therapy.

In addition, most VA medical facilities offer additional medical and surgical specialty services including audiology & speech pathology, dermatology, dental, geriatrics, neurology, oncology, podiatry, prosthetics, urology and vision care. Some medical centers also offer advanced services such as organ transplants and plastic surgery.

Health benefits also include preventive care services:

  • Periodic medical exams (including gender-specific exams)
  • Health education, including nutritional education
  • Immunization against infectious disease
  • Counseling on inheritance of genetically determined disease

Health benefits vary for each Veteran.  Enrolled Veterans enjoy access to the VA’s comprehensive medical benefits package. Certain benefits, such as dental care, may vary from individual to individual, depending on eligibility status.

The Veterans Health Benefits Guide contains general benefits information and is designed to provide Veterans and their families with the information they need to understand VA’s health care system—eligibility requirements, the enrollment process, enrollment priority groups and copayments.

Veterans can expect the VA’s highly qualified and dedicated health care professionals to meet their needs, regardless of the treatment program, and regardless of the location. New locations continue to be added to the VA system, with the current number of treatment sites now standing at more than 1,400 nationwide. To see the guide online, click here.

Preparing for cyber warfare


By Debbie Gregory.

The fight is leaving the battlefield and entering cyberspace.

Experts have spent years warning the U.S. military that their computer networks are at risk. The networks have been disrupted and fallen prey to intellectual property theft by nations such as China and Russia, in addition to hackers and criminal groups.

Now the U.S. military is developing a unit capable of taking out this new enemy, even as overall defense spending is cut. President Barack Obama’s proposed 2014 budget allotments for an additional $800 million for cyber warfare spending. Meanwhile, the overall Pentagon budget will be cut by $3.9 billion.

The new headquarters of the U.S. military’s Cyber Command is being built at Fort Meade, Maryland, 25 miles north of Washington D.C. on a former military golf course. There, experts expect 3,000 – 4,000 cyber warriors to take their place on the battlefield by late 2015. The additions will quadruple the size of the current Cyber Command.

“We’re going to train them to the highest standard we can,” Army General Keith Alexander, head of Cyber Command, told the Reuters Cybersecurity Summit last month. “And not just on defense, but on both sides. You’ve got to have that.”

There is a growing fear that cyber threats will escalate from mainly espionage and disruptive activities to far more catastrophic attacks, destroying or severely degrading military systems, power grids, financial networks and air travel. Therefore, U.S. military commanders have worked to develop offensive strikes, and have made cyber warfare an integral part of future military campaigns.

While military officials often publicly discuss the nation’s cyber weaknesses in public, there is little talk about the nation’s offensive cyber warfare capabilities. Much of those details are classified. Possible U.S. offensive cyber attacks could range from invading other nations’ command and control networks to disrupting military communications or air defenses. They could even consist of putting up decoy radar screens on an enemy’s computer to prevent U.S. aircraft from being detected in its airspace.

Experts say the U.S. may be the best in the world at inserting viruses and other digital weapons into enemies’ networks. And other countries agree. Last year, U.S. and Israeli officials created a virus that damaged systems at one of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

While the nation’s capabilities are clear, what is unclear is when their use is warranted. Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the United States must be ready and should articulate – soon – what level of cyber aggression would be seen as an act of war, bringing a U.S. response.

“One of the things the military learned, going back to 9/11, is whether you have a doctrine or not, if something really bad happens you’re going to be ordered to do something,” he told the Reuters summit. “So you better have the capability and the plan to execute.”

“To be a good cyber warrior, you have to be thinking, ‘How is the attacker discovering what I’m doing? How are they working around it?’ … Cyber security really is a cat and mouse game,” said Raphael Mudge, a private cyber security expert and Air Force reservist. “That kind of thinking can’t be taught. It has to be nurtured. There are too few who can do that.”

“They’re going to pick the cream of the crop for the ‘full spectrum cyber missions’,” the former U.S. intelligence official said, using a euphemism for cyber offense.

Inspiration in Boston


By Debbie Gregory.

Amputee J.P. Norden wants to drive again. More than anything, he wants to walk again.

Service members who lost limbs in combat have reached out to Norden to show him he will drive, he will walk, and that he can do anything he sets his mind to.

Norden and his brother Paul were cheering for a friend at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in April when a series of bombs exploded. Each brother lost a leg in the second blast. Shortly after, wounded warrior amputees from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center traveled to Boston to inspire Norden and the other victims.

“We worked out with them and pushed them,” said Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills. “We told them, ‘Hey man, there’s life after amputation.'”

This week J.P. and his surgeon, Dr. E.J. Caterson, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston – visited Walter Reed to meet with patients and learn the latest medical and surgical advances for military members who received similar blast wounds on the battlefield.

“Walter Reed has the most experience with amputees,” Caterson said. “[The doctors] shared with us their expertise, because there are some difficult decisions we’re making” in fitting patients with prosthetics and providing rehabilitation programs.

Caterson said he hoped the wounded warriors would be an inspiration to J.P.

“I wanted J.P. to see his peers around him who have gone through the same thing as he did, and I want him to see the incredible energy this place has, the incredible expertise and the motivation to say, ‘Let’s get better,'” Caterson said.

During the visit, the wounded warriors were quick to inspire. Marine Corps Sgt. Luis Remache, who lost both legs in a grenade attack in Afghanistan, told Norden that challenges always would exist with prosthetics. Norden does not yet have a prosthetic leg.

“It’s all on you,” Remache told Norden. “Set a goal and work toward it. At first, I depended on everyone, and people had to carry me. I wondered how I would ever drive. Now I can hand cycle and swim,” he said.

“Some days you’ll get down, but it all gets better,” advised single-leg amputee Army Sgt. Ryan Long. Long was on patrol in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province when the vehicle in which he was traveling hit a roadside bomb. “You’ll find the little things in life are really meaningful,” he added.

Norden, whose amputation is below the knee, was overwhelmed by the support and dedication of the wounded warriors as they pushed themselves during workouts.

“I’m just amazed,” he said of the peer support and energetic atmosphere. “It’s unbelievable that there are so many people like me here, but worse. I see people doing everyday things. It makes me know it can happen.”

‘inTransition’ Mental Health Care for Transitioning Service Members


By Debbie Gregory.

When military members and their families make a transition — like a deployment or permanent change of station – it is important that they have the right support systems in place. For those receiving treatment for psychological health concerns, the inTransition Coaching and Support program offers personalized support as they move between health care systems or providers

inTransition is a voluntary program that aims to help those returning from deployment; those transitioning to or from active duty; service members separating from the military or temporarily relocating. The program also provides support to service members undergoing transitions of all kinds, ensuring they maintain their behavioral health treatment and successfully continue through the changes in their lives.

inTransition is a confidential program that supports service members move between health care systems or providers. A personal coach is provided along with resources and tools that help service members transition with success. All inTransition coaches are skilled counselors who understand today’s military culture and issues.

Service members and veterans transitioning from the military to Veterans Affairs for treatment or between military treatment facilities now have access to greater consistency in psychological health and traumatic brain injury care, according to a Defense Department official George Lamb. Lamb currently serves as the acting division chief of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) Clearinghouse. He supervises and manages the division’s dissemination and activities; provides marketing guidance; and coordinates outreach. His work entails managing reports, recommendations, analysis and research efforts in support the directorate’s outreach mission.

The Defense Department developed six inTransition program public service announcements (PSAs) to educate service members, veterans, Reserve and National Guard members, health care providers and family members about the program’s coaching resources. The inTransition PSAs provide an overview of what the program provides to each audience and how to get more information.

InTransition is open to all service branches, and is part of a Defense Department Health Affairs policy that identifies and screens every service member with a need for a mental health referral. inTransition has 98%  retention in the program.

Retired Military Leaders Emphasize Early Education


By Debbie Gregory.

Weekly, applicants are walking into a requiting center in Brooklyn wanting to enlist in the United States Army. Sergeant First Class Israel Herrera doesn’t like to turn them away, but he finds, more often than not,  six out of 10 don’t meet military standards.

Today, the military is seeking a higher skilled recruit. In addition to being a high school graduate who is patriotic and able bodied, recruits must also have above average scores on the military entrance exams and be free from prior drug use or criminal conduct. Drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with high unemployment, have enabled the U.S. military to become choosier. Joining the Army provides employment and stability, and that makes it an attractive choice for young people.

There are several reasons why today’s youth do not qualify for military service. 20% of high school students fail to graduate. Obesity and other medical conditions disqualify about 35% of candidates. Prior drug and alcohol involvement disqualify another 19%, and criminal records disqualify 5%.

Thee qualification requirements were much more lenient during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

But more recently, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have been looking to enlist the highest quality recruits. High school diplomas are required, and candidates with GEDs are often turned away and encouraged to acquire some college credits before re-applying.

Studies of preschool programs have shown higher rates of high school completion and lower rates of criminal activity, among other positive outcomes in program graduates through age 20. Retired military admirals and generals are supporting Obama’s proposal to invest more public money in preschool access for 4-year olds in order to improve the nation’s national security. They believe that the best long-term solution to improve recruiting qualifications is to expand the access to and quality of early education. Research has shown that students who start school earlier do better academically and live healthier lives.

Strategically, it is imperative that the United States have a military comprised of highly qualified individuals, capable of using high-tech weapons systems, interacting with people from different cultures, and making high-stakes decision.

VA has reached ‘tipping point’ in benefit backlog

va backlog

By Debbie Gregory.

Veterans who have served their country transition out of the military, and they expect to receive their benefits. What they don’t expect is to be told to wait for government benefits. Unfortunately, the massive backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs has kept them waiting for years.

America’s newest veterans are filing for disability benefits at a record rate. An astounding 45 percent of the 1.6 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now seeking compensation for injuries they say are service-related. To date, one-third of them have been granted disability.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is mired in backlogged claims.

Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) , the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman, welcomed assurances from Thomas Murphy, the VA’s director of compensation services,  that the Department of Veterans Affairs has made “significant progress”, and is “at a tipping point” in reducing a massive backlog of claims for disability benefits.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been struggling with an intractable backlog of disability payment claims numbering around 559,000. The VA has focused its resources on veterans who have been waiting the longest – two years or more. Within the last month, the numbers are beginning to dwindle.

The VA made the decision to take all the oldest claims and process each and every one within 60 days. Allison Hickey, the VA’s Under Secretary for Benefits, said that the process was on track.

Over the last two months, the VA cut its overall number of backlogged claims, some of which have been pending more than 125 days, by about 50,000.

In April, the majority of the U.S. Senate sent a letter to President Obama urging his direct and public involvement in fixing the disability claims backlog that has been plaguing the Department of Veterans Affairs.

President Obama’s 2014 budget will include a four percent increase for the Veterans Affairs Department, with $63.5 billion in discretionary funds, including $300 million for programs to reduce the department’s claims backlog.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki promised the claims backlog — defined as claims that have taken longer than the VA target of 125 days — will be cleared by 2015.

Disabled vet raises money to benefit other wounded warriors


By Debbie Gregory.

Todd Love was in 6th grade when the World Trade Center towers fell on Sept. 11th. At the time he said he didn’t appreciate what was happening.

“I was just a kid, I didn’t really understand what was going on,” he said.

Nine years later, as a corporal in the Marines, Love was leading a foot patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmond province when he stepped on an improvised explosive device. He woke up in a hospital in Germany, missing both his legs and his left arm.

Now, he is escorting steel from the World Trade Center across the county to raise money for injured veterans and recognize the sacrifices made by thousands of Americans since that September day.

Love, director of Bikers for America’s Bravest, is escorting the historic relic from the September 11, 2001 to raise funds to build handicap-accessible homes for other veterans who have lost limbs in Afghanistan. The homes are built by the Stephen Stiller Tunnel to Tower Foundation’s Building for America’s Bravest program.

The program currently has a dozen or so veterans in needs of specialized homes that accommodate the access and medical care they require resulting from combat-sustained injuries, such as limb amputation. Love became involved with the program after the organization built him a home in Georgia.

The World Trade Center steel is moving up the east coast and is scheduled to arrive in New York just before the annual Tunnel to Tower 5k event, which commemorates firefighter Stephen Stiller who carried 60 lbs. of equipment from the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the World Trade Center, where he died trying to save others.

Stiller’s sacrifice, and those of his fellow service members, are something that Love takes seriously. “I felt like I didn’t deserve to hold it,” he said of the first time he hefted the roughly 20-lb. hunk of World Trade Center steel. “It represents something. That’s why it’s cut into a heart of steel.”

Stephen Natowich is a member of the America’s Guardians, a motorcycle club chapter that is comprised of veterans from both the military and public safety realms. He helped escort the steel for part of its journey to New York. Natowich said Love is a hero, adding,  “He is a heck of a fighter. He’s a true American hero.”

Love said he isn’t trying to inspire, he’s just trying to live his life the same way he did before he was injured, and he is often overwhelmed by the response of others.

“I’m really very much the same as I was,” he said.

Accentuating the Positive


By Debbie Gregory.

In recent years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has received an outpouring of negative attention. The media relentlessly covers the department’s downfalls, caused in part by the rush of thousands of injured veterans who require care after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. A 2013 Congressional Research Service report notes that among service members deployed to these regions, 103,792 were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and 253,330 were diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury. Thousands more suffered more visible wounds that resulted in amputations and major surgery.

The backlog of disability claims, the unpaid injured veterans, the problems that plague individual VA Medical Centers across the country are well documented. What is not often spoken of is their successes. Despite the VA’s struggles, there are things that this department does better than any civilian-operated hospital or HMO. Here is a quick look at what the VA does well:

  1. Prosthetics – Congress’ report says 991 service members received wounds in Iraq that required amputations. In Afghanistan, another 724 veterans underwent amputations as a result of combat wounds. The VA is expert at providing prosthetic limbs that fit the lifestyle of military veterans. Many civilian insurance plans cover only the basic prosthetic limb, with a cap cost of $5,000 or less. The VA provides specialty legs that veterans can use while running or doing CrossFit exercises, which can cost upwards of $30,000. Veterans also receive adaptive equipment and a clothing allowance.
  2. Service dogs – The VA covers the veterinary care for service dogs of blind and hearing-impaired veterans.
  3. Transportation – Eligible veterans who live in rural areas may be reimbursed the mileage they log to travel to the VA for certain appointments, at a rate of 41.5 cents per mile. Veterans who cannot drive may be eligible for transportation via ambulance or wheelchair van.
  4. Rural health care – The VA knows many of their patients are stuck in rural areas, far from the nearest VA center. These veterans do not have the same access to healthcare as those who live closer. Rather than give the veterans the duty of finding a way into town, the VA is trying to find a way to come to them. Officials are opening Community-Based Outpatient Clinics and sending mobile medical units into small towns and rural communities to give veterans there better access to health care. The VA is also expanding telemedicine technologies allowing veterans to work remotely with their doctors rather than travel long distances.
  5. Free care for OIF/OEF veterans — All OIF/OEF/OND veterans receive five years of free health care after they leave active duty. After that time period, there may be a co-pay depending on the veteran’s income.

It is easy to focus on the difficulties that the VA is experiencing as they care for each new wave of injured veterans who arrive home. However, their policies and programs can be and are just as substantial as any military or civilian facility if you take time to look beyond the difficulties.

White House directs resources to target military and veteran mental health issues

Enduring Freedom

By Debbie Gregory.

Thousands of mental health providers, millions of dollars, and hundreds of mental health summits across the nation – the White House is arming the VA to tackle mental health issues and get help for every veteran who needs it.

As he opened the National Conference on Mental Health, President Barack Obama said, “Today, we lose 22 veterans a day to suicide — 22. We’ve got to do a better job … of preventing these all-too-often silent tragedies. That’s why we’ve poured an enormous amount of resources into high-quality care and better treatment for our troops.”

The White House is hosting the conference as the first of a series of steps to assist the nation in combating diagnoses such as PTSD and TBI. One in five adults suffers from mental illness, and still the diseases routinely are untreated. President Obama hopes to end the stigma that often comes with a diagnosis.  Obama singled out service members and veterans who struggle with mental health issues, but are afraid to get help.

“We see it in veterans who come home from the battlefield with the invisible wounds of war but who feel, somehow, that seeking treatment is a sign of weakness when, in fact, it’s a sign of strength,” the president said.

In conjunction with the conference, the VA announced that it met the president’s goal to hire 1,600 new mental health professionals to give better access to mental health services for veterans, service members and military family members. Obama set the goal in an executive order in August, 2013.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said, “Meeting this goal is an important achievement, but we recognize that we must continue to increase access to the quality mental health care Veterans have earned and deserve.”

The VA has also hired 318 new peer specialists and expects to meet the goal of hiring 800 peer specialists by Dec. 31, 2013 as outlined in the Executive Order.  The department also has enhanced the capacity of its crisis line by 50 percent and established 24 pilot projects in nine states where VA is partnering with community mental-health providers to help veterans more quickly access mental health services.

In addition to hiring more mental health professionals, VA is expanding the use of innovative technology to serve Veterans in rural or underserved areas. VA expects to increase the number of Veterans receiving care from tele-mental health services in fiscal year 2013, and has increased the number of Vet Centers, which provide readjustment counseling and referral services from 233 in 2008 to 300 in 2012.

This summer, the VA is directing 151 of its health care centers nationwide to conduct mental health summits with community partners, which include local government officials, community-based organizations and veteran service organizations. The summits will identify and link community-based resources to support the mental health needs of veterans and their families and increase awareness of VA programs and services.

The president also announced an online effort to combat mental illness. The White House launched, a consumer-friendly website with tools that help users with the basics of mental health and the signs of mental illness, and show them how to talk about mental health and how to get help. The site also features interviews with celebrities and other Americans who have been affected by mental illness.

The VA previously launched an award-winning, national public awareness campaign called Make the Connection, aimed at reducing the stigma associated with seeking mental health care. It also informed Veterans, their families, friends, and members of their communities about VA resources. To view the site, visit,