Veterans Court at Fort Hood is the Newest Veteran Benefit

veterans court

By Debbie Gregory.

Last month, under an agreement between the U.S. Attorney, the Chief of Pretrial Services for the Western District of Texas and the VA, a Veterans Treatment Court, the first located on a major military installation, was established at Fort Hood. This is a great veteran benefit to the many veterans in the Fort Hood area.

Also called the Veterans Endeavor for Treatment Support, the program hopes to aid veterans with service-connected mental health or substance abuse disorders to stay out of the court system. As far as veteran resources go, this one is a win-win for all.

Fort Hood was chosen because of the large veteran population surround the base. However, the program is voluntary. A variety of misdemeanor crimes will fall into the program such as driving while intoxicated, various types of assaults, property crimes and theft crimes.
Qualified veterans charged with committing misdemeanors while on Fort Hood will be eligible to participate in the pilot program designed to provide an alternative to a federal conviction. The treatment court model also builds upon the Department of Justice ‘Smart on Crime’ initiative to bolster prevention and reentry efforts to deter crime and reduce recidivism.

“This is a unique program, and so far as we know, it is the only one of its kind for offenses committed by veterans on military bases,” said Richard Durbin, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas.

Scheduled to begin this month, the initiative will be overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Walter Smith Jr. and run by Judge Jeffrey Manske.

Participants in the program will be under intensive supervision for approximately 12-18 months, concurrently utilizing various types of treatment depending on their circumstances. Treatment could include substance abuse, mental health, and counseling.

More than 160 of these courts exist in state and federal jurisdictions nationwide. If you know of a local Veterans’ Court in your area, please feel free to send the information to [email protected] and we will add it to our Veterans Court Resource page.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Financial Relief for Surviving Spouses May Be Coming

funeral

By Debbie Gregory.

Surviving spouses of military retirees are eligible to receive a portion of their service members retired pay upon the service member’s death if they are enrolled in DoD’s Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP).  Additionally, the survivors of disabled service members who die from service-connected causes are also eligible for the VA’s Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC).

For some 60,000 military widows and widowers who lost their spouses to service-connected illnesses or injuries, a House subcommittee is investigating how Congress might allow a further easing the “SBP-DIC offset” to provide them with an improved benefit packages. Under current law, recipients of both SBP and DIC are subject to a dollar for dollar offset.

Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), chairman of the House armed services subcommittee on military personnel, and his colleagues have vowed to look at ways to either end or dull the offset’s effect on the surviving spouses’ financial health.

Partial offset relief through a Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA) is set to expire in late 2017.  Unless Congress acts to end the offset, surviving spouses will once again feel the full brunt of the SBP-DIC offset.

Under the SBP offset law, which has existed for four decades, surviving spouses cannot receive both DIC and full SBP.  With basic DIC now set at $1254.19 a month, it usually will wipe out or vastly reduce any SBP annuity.

While the surviving spouses do get a refund of premiums their late spouses paid for the annuity coverage, the government adds no interest to the refunds, regardless of how long ago it received the premium payments.

Most members of Congress agree that surviving spouses should be allowed concurrent receipt of SBP and DIC, but still the offset remains.  Ending the offset would add $7 billion to U.S. annuity obligations over the first decade, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

SSIA is set to end Oct. 1, 2017.

At MilitaryConnection.com, we have had the honor and privilege to meet and work with a number of outstanding widows who advocate and give voices to others in the same position. We are proud to call Vivianne Wersel (Gold Star Wives of America) and Bonnie Carroll (T.A.P.S) our friends.

We salute and proudly serve veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Vets4Warriors Offers Support to Those Who Serve, Past and Present

vets4warriors1

By Debbie Gregory.

A new national help hotline, Vets4Warriors, was recently created. Vets4Warriors, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit, offers a 24/7 helpline, a veteran benefit in partnership with Rutgers University Behavioral Health Center (RUBHC).

The all-veteran call center, with specially chosen Peer Advisors, answer calls in seconds, listen and support you, every hour of every day, 24/7. Not only are the services confidential, anonymous, and stigma-free, they are also thorough. There is follow-up to ensure that all callers have their needs met.

There is no reporting or information shared with service branches or units, and there is no length limit of peer support involved in this veteran benefit.

The Peer Advisors are trained in the Best Practice Model “Reciprocal Peer Support” developed at RUBHC 18 years ago. Their initial 80 hours of training is supplemented by on-going continuing education, as well as receiving support by licensed mental health clinicians.

Support by veterans is available for active duty, National Guard and Reserve service members, veterans, retirees, and their families/caregivers at 855 838-8255.

For those serving outside the United States, help is still available by either calling the Global DSN Operator at: DSN 312-560-1110 or Commercial (719) 567-1110. There is also a live chat feature available on the website and provide a phone number. A peer will call you back.

If you need help now, these veteran resources are available by calling the Vets4Warriors National Help Hotline at (855) 838-8255 or visiting the Vets4Warriors website.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Free Tax Preparation Assistance for Those Who Serve

taxes

By Debbie Gregory.

The bad news is that the tax deadline will be here before we know it. But the good news is that not only do we have until April 18th to file instead of April 15th (due to the Emancipation Day holiday in Washington, D.C., falling on Friday, April 15) there is free tax preparation assistance available to veterans, seniors, and low-income earners.

The IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs are available to taxpayers who earned less than $54,000 in 2015. All tax returns completed through VITA are prepared by IRS certified volunteers, so you can feel confident your tax return is accurate. Even better, there are over 12,000 convenient locations across the country. To find the VITA location nearest you, enter your zip code into the easy-to-use VITA/TCE Locator at http://irs.treasury.gov/freetaxprep/.

Another free service is MyFreeTaxes, managed by the United Way, with assistance from legacy partners, National Disability Institute and Goodwill Industries International, and  sponsored by the Wal-Mart Foundation. MyFreeTaxes operates the only free online tax preparation and filing assistance platform available in all 50 states and Washington D.C.. The services are available to those who earned $62,000 or less in 2015, allows qualified Veterans, active-duty military, their families and all other qualifying taxpayers to file both a federal and state tax return, absolutely free. In addition to e-filing, MyFreeTaxes also provides in-person help to individuals and families earning $20,000 or less in 2015. For more information, please visit: www.myfreetaxes.com.

The IRS.gov/FreeFile allows taxpayers to choose from a variety of industry-leading tax software options in order to prepare and e-file their federal tax returns at no cost. If you earned $62,000 or less last year, you are eligible to choose from among 13 software products. If you earned more, you are still eligible for Free File Fillable Forms, the electronic version of IRS paper forms.

Still Holding Out Hope for Marines Missing in Hawaii

missing marines

By Debbie Gregory.

Search and rescue crews are still holding out last hopes for finding the twelve Marines missing in Hawaii since late Thursday night, when their Super Stallion helicopters failed to return to base.

Searchers have found life rafts and other debris that were carried aboard the aircraft, but still have had no sign of the crew members who were on board. The debris was found on the North Shore of Oahu, where the two helicopters were involved in a midair collision during a nighttime training mission.

So far, the search has spanned more than 18,000 square miles, with a Navy warship, a Coast Guard cutter, several helicopters, jet ski teams, sonar, and dozens of Marines along the shoreline all scouring the surf for signs of life. The first two days of the search were hampered by 30 foot waves from a storm off the coast of Hawaii. By Sunday, the weather had calmed, allowing search efforts to continue at full speed.

Still a search for survivors, Chief Petty Officer Sara Mooers said on Monday, “We err on the side of caution because the last thing that anybody wants is to suspend the search when there’s still a possibility of finding somebody.” She added that survival was possible under a “best-case” scenario.

According to the Marines, crews wear personal flotation devices and receive training in survival swimming.

We join the rest of the country in sending out thoughts and prayers for the twelve crew members, who come from Oregon to Massachusetts and range in rank from lance corporal to major, and their families.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

The War Horse Features First-Hand Accounts of Wars

warhorse1

By Debbie Gregory.

Marine veteran Thomas Brennan, a medically retired sergeant-turned-journalist, wants to ensure that the war stories of his generation are told. To that end, Brennan is launching The War Horse, an independent non-profit journalism site dedicated to chronicling the stories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The plan for stage one of The War Horse’s development, which launches on January 18th, is:

  • Launch Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign, website, and initiate media coverage campaign.
  • Begin using tax-deductible donations to enter into contracts with freelance journalists and interns, and begin hiring processes for office staff.
  • Continue submitting grant applications, developing business strategy, pursuing sponsorships and donations, and finding volunteers.

Brennan is uniquely qualified to tell those stories. Besides his near nine years of service in the Marine Corps and being wounded when a rocket- propelled grenade detonated next to him, he has reported on the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs as a civilian. He began freelancing for The New York Times blog, At War while he was still in uniform, documenting medical appointments for his TBI and PTSD, his combat memories, and even his suicide attempt in 2013. He later matriculated as a Stabile Fellow from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Brennan believes the War Horse will ultimately be a collaboration of staff and freelance journalists, producing quality stories through “bulletproof reporting.” He defines the site as a news outlet and community where all people—military, civilian, pro-war, and anti-war—can express their thoughts about and experiences with war and have them matter.

His Kickstarter campaign goal is at least $50,000, which will fund the first four fully multimedia long-form stories and assist with grant-writing and development that will allow the website and newsroom to grow. In addition to the works of investigative journalism and feature stories, the site will host The Echoes Project, a compilation of profiles for all US personnel killed in combat since Sept. 11, 2001. The project will also allow those who knew the fallen service members to share stories, images, and written memories about them.

To learn more about the War Horse, visit http://www.thewarhorse.org/. Follow them on Facebook (hyperlink: www.facebook.com/thewarhorsenews) and Twitter (hyperlink: www.twitter.com/@shareyourwar)

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Alaska Groups Give Away Cannabis to Veterans in Need

medmari

By Debbie Gregory.

While Alaskans technically gained the right to use medical marijuana 18 years ago, there are no state-licensed dispensaries, and only six qualifying illnesses for medical marijuana use, according to NORML. In a bold move to help the state’s veterans, private residents in Alaska are providing cannabis to veterans, free of charge.

Alaska Green Angels has been giving away cannabis for the past year. While they may appear to be a disconnected, non-cohesive group, the Angels all share a common thread- pain, and the treatment of their pain with cannabis.

Researchers in the United States and several other countries have found evidence that medical marijuana can help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, pain and anxiety.

After Alaska voted to commercialize recreational marijuana use in 2014, numerous businesses claimed that they were giving away marijuana, but they asked people to make a “donation” for the product. The Green Angels began, partially in response to what co-founder Don “DC” McKenzie called “predatory” practices against medical marijuana users, on Facebook.

The premise is a simple request/fulfillment arrangement. Post your need for cannabis and one of the members with marijuana will respond. Alaska state law says that one can legally give one ounce of marijuana to another person over the age of 21. However, under federal law it remains a crime.

The Green Angels have roughly 10 people growing cannabis, while others provide the equipment or raw materials for edibles.

Also providing cannabis products to veterans is the Alaska Veterans Cannabis Relief Organization. It began as a chapter of the national group Weed for Warriors Project, and has since become its own organization.

In addition to supplying cannabis to a couple hundred veterans, the group also helps veterans set up their own home growing operation.

CannaCare joins the Green Angels an Alaska Veterans Cannabis Relief Organization in supplying the state’s veterans with free cannabis.

Going forward, Alaska Green Angels hopes to become a non-profit organization. The plan is to continue providing free cannabis in whatever capacity possible.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Health of the Force Report Reveals the State of Army Medicine

sleep

By Debbie Gregory.

The Office of the Army Surgeon General has released the inaugural Health of the Force (HOF) report, which provides a snapshot of the health of active duty Soldiers on U.S. based installations in 2014.

The Health of the Force report, released by Army Medical Command (MEDCOM) has tracked and collected health care data, showing the progress and needs of today’s soldiers. Key data regarding injuries, behavioral health, chronic disease, obesity, tobacco use, sleep disorders, hospital admissions, and other health measures has been invaluable in evaluating troop readiness.

In his first message to the force upon becoming Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Mark Milley stated, “We must ensure the Army remains ready as the world’s premier combat force. Readiness for ground combat is — and will remain — the U.S. Army’s #1 priority. We will always be ready to fight today, and we will always prepare to fight tomorrow.”

According to the report, medical readiness was achieved by 83 percent of Soldiers, with injuries affecting nearly 300,000 Soldiers annually. Approximately 15 percent of Soldiers had a diagnosed behavioral health disorder, including adjustment disorder, mood disorders and anxiety disorders.

Many of these issues can be attributed to inadequate sleep, affecting the approximate 33 percent of Soldiers who get five hours or less of sleep per night and the approximate 62 percent of Soldiers who get less than seven hours. Inadequate sleep increases the likelihood of injuries, behavior disorders, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and depression.

And, the report notes very sobering information that “individuals who routinely get five to six hours of sleep perform much like a person with a blood alcohol content of 0.08.”

Army Leaders now have the “Health of the Force” to track the health of the Army, installation by installation, and to share lessons learned for those installations on different ends of the health spectrum.

Those who serve our nation, past and present, deserve the best healthcare available. The MilitaryConnection.com Military Medicine page has outstanding articles and resources for anyone who wants additional information.

Unacceptable: The Sexual Assault of Military Children

The U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas is pictured in this photo courtesy of the U.S. military barracks public affairs department. Bradley Manning was sentenced on August 22, 2013, to 35 years in a military prison for turning over more than 700,000 classified files to WikiLeaks in the biggest breach of secret data in the nation's history, and will serve his sentence at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks. (REUTERS/U.S. military barracks public affairs department)

By Debbie Gregory.

In one of the most alarming and despicable statistics released by the Pentagon, hundreds of military children are being sexually abused each year, with more inmates in military prisons for child sex crimes than for any other offense.

Incidents involving sexual assault in which the children of service members are victims occur hundreds of times each year, according to the Defense Department. The abuse is committed most often by male enlisted troops, between E-4 and E-6 ranks, which contain the largest number of active-duty personnel and the largest number of parents in the military.

Three Democratic Party senators have urged Defense Secretary Ash Carter to end secrecy in the military justice system. They demanded that documents from sex crimes trials be more open and available. In a December 8th letter, the senators — Barbara Boxer of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii — told Carter they are concerned the department may be underestimating how many sexual assaults are occurring in the military.

For victims, the effects of child sexual abuse can be devastating. Victims may feel significant distress and display a wide range of psychological symptoms, both short- and long-term.  They may feel powerless, ashamed, and distrustful of others. The abuse may disrupt victims’ development and increase the likelihood that they will experience other sexual assaults in the future.

Between 2010 and 2014, there were at least 1,584 substantiated cases of military dependents being sexually abused. Enlisted service members were the perpetrators in 840 of the cases. In 332 cases, family members of the victims were responsible.

We owe it to these children, who already sacrifice so much, to live and grow up in a safe environment. Parents need to remain ever vigilant, but our leaders also need to take some responsibility for prevention and punishment.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Funding Approved to Treat Veterans With Hepatitis C

hep c

By Debbie Gregory.

Many veterans who fought to protect and defend our country have continued to fight in order to get the support they need from the federal government. Fortunately, help is on the way for veterans living with hepatitis C, one of the greatest threats facing those who have served.

Congress has earmarked $1.5 billion in the just-passed budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs to treat veterans with hepatitis C.

While hepatitis C has reached epidemic levels nationwide, the veteran community has a hepatitis C infection rate that is nearly double the national average. For veterans, this deadly, blood-borne disease is a leading cause of liver failure, liver damage and liver cancer. It impacts veterans disproportionately due to a variety of factors, including battlefield blood exposure, emergency transfusions and mandatory vaccinations in the era before hepatitis C testing became common. It is estimated that as many as 230,000 veterans suffer from hepatitis C, a rate five times greater than the general population.

The cost of treatment is staggering. Newer treatments using modern drugs with fewer side effects and a higher cure rate cost over $1,000 per pill. That means a full treatment cycle needed to cure hepatitis C can cost over $84,000 per patient. While the VA does get a 50% discount from the drug maker, it’s still very expensive to treat all the veterans afflicted with the disease.

Ironically, the drug that can effectively cure 99% of all people infected with the hepatitis C virus was invented by a doctor who worked for the VA. That doctor sold the drug to a private company for around $400 million in 2012. The doctor estimates it costs $1,400 to produce a full treatment regimen of the drug. This is the same medication that the company charges $42,000 for, which reflects the 50% discount.

The VA has been seeking funding from Congress for years to treat infected veterans. The Senate Appropriations Committee followed the lead of military veteran and senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) and approved a budget for the that included the additional $200 million to fund critical hepatitis C treatments to make up the $1.5 billion for hepatitis C over the next two years.

The new influx of funds in this year’s budget should go a long way to provide needed treatment to seriously ill veterans and help cure many veterans who are not yet showing serious symptoms.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.