The Veteran’s Experience

VA Experience

By Debbie Gregory.

Have you ever heard of the Veterans Experience Office?

The VA is looking to change the culture of a massive federal agency that provides everything from medical care to monthly disability checks to funerals.

The “Veteran’s Experience” campaign started in 2015 under former VA Secretary Bob McDonald. The office’s budget this fiscal year is $55.4 million, up from $49 million last year.

The VA has rolled out more than 100 community veteran committees nationwide, retraining employees to be more flexible and customer focused.Two years in, the nation’s veteran organizations are still taking a wait-and-see position.

Joe Plenzler, the spokesman for the American Legion, is encouraged by this initiative and hopes to see it succeed.“Any effort to improve dialogue between veterans and VA employees and administrators is time and money well spent.”

Two early goals were to establish one consumer-oriented website and one toll-free telephone number for all VA divisions. The result was vets.gov and (844) My-VA311.

Whether current VA secretary David Shulkin will continue the program has not yet been announced. Shulkin has named former Army officer and Pentagon civilian executive Lynda Davis to head up the office. Lynda is a friend who formerly served as the Executive Vice-President of TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors).

One of the goals of the program is to re-engineer VA routines that aren’t working, identifying “pain points” where the experience hits a snag. This could be canceled appointments, a slow check-in process, or difficulty parking.

The Veterans Experience Office, headquartered in Washington, now has split the country into five districts and dispatched “relationship managers” to each.

“Our goal is to build trust with veterans, their family members and survivors,” said Joy White, who leads the office’s Pacific district, which includes California and the West Coast. “How do we do that? By bringing their voices to everything we do.”

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.

Two U.S. Servicemembers Killed in Afghanistan

rodgers

By Debbie Gregory

Two U.S. Army Rangers who were killed in Afghanistan on April 26th  may have been struck by “friendly fire” according to the Pentagon.

Both Sgt. Joshua Rodgers, 22, and Sgt. Cameron Thomas, 23, were deployed from Fort Benning, Ga. A third soldier was wounded in the operation.

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis confirmed that there is an investigation to determine whether the men had been killed by ground fire, either from American forces or Afghan commandos who were taking part in the raid.

“We are investigating the circumstances of the combat deaths of the two Army Rangers in the beginning of what was an intense three-hour firefight,” Davis said.

Davis said the target of Wednesday’s deadly raid was Abdul Hasib, whom Defense Department officials called the emir of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials said they could not confirm that he was killed in the operation.

A spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Captain William Salvin said the deaths occurred in the same valley where the United States had dropped “the mother of all bombs,” the GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast.

The soldiers were fighting the Islamic State in Nangarhar Province. They were taking part in a lengthy raid, supported by airstrikes from American warplanes, in Achin, a small district where a number of Islamic State fighters have been engaging in a long-running battle with Afghanistan security forces.

U.S. officials say intelligence suggests Islamic State is based overwhelmingly in Nangarhar and neighboring Kunar province.

U.S. officials have said they believe that IS has only 700 fighters in Afghanistan, but Afghan officials estimate it has more than double that number.

In a statement, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Sergeants Rodgers and Thomas “proved themselves willing to go into danger and impose a brutal cost on enemies in their path.Our nation owes them an irredeemable debt, and we give our deepest condolences to their families.”

California Governor Pardons Three Deported Veterans To Help Them Regain Residency

Deported Veterans

Following their honorable discharges from the military, three former servicemembers were convicted of crimes and deported. None of these crimes resulted in a physical injury to another party.

Marines Erasmo Apodaca Mendizabal and Marco Antonio Chavez, as well as former soldier Hector Barajas Varela are the Veterans pardoned by California Governor Jerry Brown, which may restore their green cards and allow them to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, also a Marine Corps veteran, worked on their cases, and said, “The injustice we are solving is not the actual crime or conviction, the injustice is what the federal government did to them.”

As a lawful permanent resident, Erasmo Apodaca Mendizabal joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school. During his three years of service, he was deployed to Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. He earned a national defense service medal and other military honors.

In 1996, he broke into his ex-girlfriend’s house when he was drunk and stole $500 worth of goods. He was convicted of burglary and was deported in 1997 after serving a ten month sentence.

At 19 years old, Marco Antonio Chavez enlisted in the Marine Corps and served for four years.

In 1998, he was convicted for animal cruelty and served 10 months in prison. An immigration judge considered his conviction an aggravated felony, which led to his deportation in 2002.

He moved with his family to Mexico, and his wife, who does not speak Spanish, commuted across the border for work. Eventually his family moved to Iowa, leaving him in Mexico.

Hector Barajas served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division from 1995 until he was honorably discharged in 2001. When he returned home to Compton, CA, he struggled to adjust to civilian life. One night, he was arrested for shooting a gun from his vehicle. Even though no one was hurt, he was charged with assault. He pleaded guilty to illegal discharge of a firearm and served two years in prison. Then he was deported to Mexico.

Barajas established the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana to help fellow deported veterans adjust to their new lives. “The Bunker” as it is known, is a two-story apartment covered in military posters and American. flags.

After receiving a heads-up, Fletcher was in Tijuana with Barajas when he learned that the governor had granted his pardon.

“He was stunned, he started crying, he was overwhelmed,” Fletcher said. “He couldn’t believe it. He’s had just years and years of bad news, yet every day he gets out there and tries to help.”

Immigrants who serve in the United States military are eligible for citizenship. All of those who serve often have problems adjusting to civilian life and this should be a consideration. With their pardons and the reason for their dismissed green cards gone, their lawyers will argue that the crucial permit for living and working in the United States should be reinstated

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Paralyzed Army Veteran Walking Again

By Debbie Gregory.

In 2004, Eugene Simpson Jr, 26, was an Army tank commander with the1st Battalion, 77th Armor, based in Schweinfurt, Germany. His unit deployed to Iraq to help train the Iraqi Army and conduct patrol missions.

One day his patrol unit was struck by the force of an improvised explosive device as they drove by it. He was ejected from the vehicle and badly injured. He was flown back to Germany for multiple surgeries. The prognosis was not good.

Simpson, an athletic soldier, was paralyzed from the waist down with a severed spine. As is often the case for many disabled Veterans who have returned home from war, the father of two became divorced within the year.

“Once you get home, someone has to make things accessible for you, and you have to find your way around it,” he recalls. “And that was a little difficult.”

Simpson was re-married in 2013 to his wife, Aerial. He adjusted to his “new normal” with the help and support of his family.

While at McGuire for an annual checkup, Simpson saw another veteran on one of the exoskeletons. “It looked awesome,” Simpson said. “And my head was rushing and I was thinking how amazing it would be to stand up and walk around a little bit again.”

Simpson, who now is 40, was accepted as a volunteer in one of the VA‘s multicenter Cooperative Study Programs based on new powered exoskeleton technology that can provide eligible paraplegics a chance at a better quality of life.

The program is based upon pilot research by Dr. Ann Spungen of the Bronx VA Medical Center’s Center of Excellence on Medical Consequences of Spinal Cord Injury.

“Exoskeletons allow upright ambulation in the household and community for persons with SCI who otherwise lack functional ambulation,” said Dr. Lance Goetz, site investigator for the Richmond McGuire study.

Simpson was already in shape, so he had very little preparation to do for the study.

The FDA approved exoskeleton, called the ReWalk 6.0, is a wearable robotic exoskeleton that provides powered hip and knee motion for independent, controlled walking while mimicking the natural gait of the legs.

The ReWalk 6.0 not only improves mental, social and physical health by standing and walking, but also helps overcome bowel and bladder management difficulties.

“The importance of the study [to me] is just that it’s giving guys that are paralyzed just the opportunity to feel normal and do the things they couldn’t do because of the wheelchair. People don’t realize that, just one or two steps, it changes guy’s lives. Mentally it can do amazing things.”

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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.

Service Disabled Veteran Business Owners Info

service disabled

The purpose of the Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Concern Procurement Program is to provide procuring agencies with the authority to set acquisitions aside for exclusive competition among service-disabled veteran-owned small business concerns. The program also has the authority to make sole source awards to service-disabled veteran-owned small business concerns if certain conditions are met.

At VAMBOA (Veterans and Military Business Owners Association), our focus is connecting Service Disabled Veteran Business Owners, Veteran Business Owners and Military Business Owners with opportunities to grow their businesses.

Statistics show that that 70 percent of Americans would prefer to do business with a veteran-owned business than one that is not veteran-owned. Veterans are trusted by Americans.

The private sector also represents endless contract potential. And while there is a demand for service disabled and veteran businesses qualified for contract opportunities, the certification process can be difficult to navigate.

To become certified as Vet-owned, you will need your DD 214. If you intend to apply for service-disabled status, you will also need a letter from the United States Department of Veteran Affairs stating that you are, indeed, service-disabled. Contact the VA’s benefits office if you have lost or misplaced this disability status letter.

The more important factor centers on whether in fact there exists actual veteran ownership, control, and direct “hands on” operating/ management, or whether a veteran’s status is being used in name only.

There will always be those who are ready, willing and able to play the system, evading laws, regulations, or guidelines to win a contract. But for those who want to play by the rules, help is available.

If you are a veteran or service-disabled veteran, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has a multitude of resources to help you start and grow your small business. From creating a business plan to finding your first customer, the SBA will assist you and help you succeed. They also have funding sources for your business.

And don’t forget to join VAMBOA. Membership is free, and you will receive all of the benefits of membership. Here is a link to join: http://www.vamboa.org/member-registration/

 

Two Airmen Receive Air Force’s Highest Honor

honor

By Debbie Gregory.

Two former Special tactics airmen received Air Force Crosses on Thursday at Hurburt Field in Florida.   Chief of Staff General David L. Goldfein who officiated at the ceremony and said, “What they did was the essence of special tactics.”  

Military Connection wants to commend and congratulate both of these American heroes. They represent the best of the best and are true heroes who went above and beyond moving deliberately into harm’s way to protect others.  

Retired Master Sgt. Keary Miller. a pararescueman assigned to the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron in 2002, fought in the 17-hour battle that has become known as the Battle of Robert’s Ridge.

Staff Sgt. Chris Baradat, a combat controller assigned to the 21st Expeditionary Special Tactics Squadron, directed 13 releases of 500-pound bombs and more than 1,100 rounds from A-10s and AC-130s during three hours of fighting in 2013.

These special tactics airmen had previously received Silver Stars for gallantry, but their medals were upgraded as a result of a Defense Department-mandated review of valor awards bestowed for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force Cross is the service’s second highest medal for valor in combat.

Both of these heroes are very humble and act like they did nothing special. Miller told reporters that “We don’t go out there picking missions to try to get a medal,” he said. “We go out there to perform what the Air Force has recruited us and trained us to do.”

Staff Sgt. Chris Baradat said, “A lot of the difficulty was just coordinating between different air assets that were coming in for strikes and having to move other aircraft out of the way,” Baradat told reporters during the teleconference.   He said that “he was just one piece of the puzzle”.

America is in good hands with these incredible heroes among us. Those who serve and their loved ones sacrifice so much so the rest of us can be safe. We must never forget those who serve and wear our nation’s uniform.

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.

College Tuition Fee Waiver for Disabled Veterans’ Dependents

tuition

By Ted Puntillo

Thanks to the College Tuition Fee Waiver program (CTFW), disabled veterans in California can get some assistance in covering the cost of sending their children to college.

The CTFW program waives mandatory system-wide tuition and fees at any California institution of higher learning, including the University of California, California State and community college systems. Tuition assistance applies to most graduate and undergraduate programs, with some exceptions.

There are several ways to take advantage of CTFW, most commonly the program known as Plan B. This program entitles the children – natural, adopted and step – of disabled veterans, for a waiver that covers about 90 percent of tuition fees, excluding books, housing and parking.

Plan B also includes dependent children of a disabled veteran who died of a service-related cause. There is no requirement of war time service for the deceased and no age limit on the child.

In order to qualify for tuition assistance, the child must provide proof of their relationship to the disabled veteran. This is usually done with a birth certificate or adoption papers. In the case of step children, applicants must show proof of relationship through birth and marriage certificates.

The plan contains some income restrictions, including the child’s annual income that may not exceed the “annual income limit” as determined by the national poverty level. This year the limit is firmly set at $12,486.00. Applicants will be asked to provide tax forms proving they earned less than the income ceiling necessary to qualify for assistance. There is zero wiggle room in this threshold.

Taking advantage of Plan B is quick and easy, and now online. Veterans need to provide proof of their service-related disability by obtaining a Veterans Administration award letter. This application form, known as DVS-40, can be found online at https://www.calvet.ca.gov/VetServices/Pages/College-Fee-Waiver.aspx

Bring your completed application materials to your California county Veteran Service Office where they are reviewed, processed and sent to the selected college. The fees are waived shortly thereafter.

There are three additional tuition fee waiver programs that qualify veterans under CTFW, including Plans A, C and D.

  • Plan A includes the children and spouse, unmarried widow and/or registered domestic partner of a 100 percent disabled veteran to receive the tuition fee waiver under certain circumstances.
  • Plan C covers dependents and the spouse of any California National Guard member who was killed during active duty.
  • Plan D grants benefits to the children of Medal of Honor recipients and is intended for undergraduate studies only. Students must meet the age and income restrictions.

Applying for benefits can sometimes be confusing, and veterans are encouraged to seek assistance if they have questions. The best place to get help is your County Veterans Service Office. They are there to help you get connected to the benefits and services you deserve for your service to our country. We look forward to serving you, and, as always, thank you for your service.

Ted Puntillo is director of Veteran Services for Solano County. He also served as the Deputy Secretary with CalVet. You can reach Ted via email at tepuntillo@SolanoCounty.com. The Solano County Veteran Services Office, 675 Texas St. in Fairfield, is open from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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.

Can a Common Antibiotic Prevent or Treat PTSD?

PTSD

A common antibiotic, doxycycline, may prove useful in the treatment and/or prevention of Post- Traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to research by British and Swiss scientists.

PTSD is caused by an overactive fear memory and includes a broad range of psychological symptoms that can develop after someone goes through a traumatic event. This medication can disrupt the formation of negative thoughts and fears in the brain.

In a specially designed trial involving seventy-six (76) healthy volunteers, participants were given either doxycycline or a placebo and placed in front of a computer. The screen would flash either blue or red, and one of the colors was associated with a 50 percent chance of receiving a painful electric shock. After 160 flashes with colors in random order, participants learnt to associate the ‘bad’ color with the shock.

Those who were on doxycycline had a 60 percent lower fear response than those who were not.

In a follow-up experiment one week later, without any medication, the volunteers repeated the screen flashes, but this time there were no electric shocks, but a loud sound played after either color was shown.

Fear responses were measured by tracking eye blinks, as this is an instinctive response to sudden threats. The fear memory was calculated by subtracting the baseline startle response, to the sound on the ‘good’ color, from the response to the sound when the ‘bad’ color was showing.

The participants may not forget that they received a shock when the screen was red, but they “forget” to be instinctively scared when they next see a red screen.

Further experiments will explore doxycycline’s potential effects in a phenomenon called “reconsolidation” of fear memories. This is an approach to helping people with PTSD in which memories and associations can be changed after an event when the patient experiences or imagines similar situations.

The study was published in Molecular Psychiatry.

D.C. VA Hospital Poses Dangers to Veterans

VA Hospital

There are numerous below par conditions at a Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center that have prompted a scathing report from the VA’s Inspector General.

These conditions are so dangerous that the agency’s Inspector General issued a very rare preliminary report to alert patients and other members of the public.

Some of the findings by the Inspector General included:

  • The operating room ran out of vascular patches to seal blood vessels and ultrasound probes used to map blood flow
  • A surgeon used expired equipment during a procedure
  • Chemical strips used to verify equipment sterilization had expired a month earlier, so tests performed on nearly 400 items were not reliable
  • Four prostate biopsies had to be canceled because there were no tools to extract the tissue sample
  • The hospital ran out of tubes needed for kidney dialysis, so staff had to go to a private-sector hospital and ask for some.
  • The facility had to borrow bone material for knee replacement surgeries
  • A tray used in repairing jaw fractures was removed from the hospital because of an outstanding invoice to a vendor

The director of the medical center has now temporarily been assigned to administrative duties, and a new acting director has been named.

It was further determined by the Inspector General that this VA hospital, which serves more than 98,000 veterans in the nation’s capital, lacks an effective inventory system.

Additionally, the report cautions that “there are numerous and critical open senior staff positions that will make prompt remediation of these issues very challenging”.

“Although our work is continuing, we believed it appropriate to publish this Interim Summary Report given the exigent nature of the issues we have preliminarily identified and the lack of confidence in VHA adequately and timely fixing the root causes of these issues,” VA Inspector General Michael Missal wrote.

New VA Secretary David Shulkin told the media earlier this week that he welcomes outside oversight with hopes it will help him fix the beleaguered agency.

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Is Stop-Loss a Solution to Keep Air Force Pilots?

pilots

By Debbie Gregory.

Pilots are leaving the United States Air Force faster than they can be replaced. Officials are considering the drastic solution of forcing the pilots to stay against their will. Faced with losing pilots to commercial airlines, top generals are considering enacting the stop-loss option.

Stop-Loss is a policy of forcing retaining members, in this case pilots, to stay beyond their original agreed period.

General Carlton Everhart, Chief of Air Mobility Command, and other senior Air Force generals will meet with national airline executives on May 18th to try to find ways to solve this exodus of pilots that will be mutually acceptable by both. The meeting will be at Andrews Air Force Base.

The shortages, especially in fighter pilots, are beginning to hurt the Air Force’s fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, Everhart said.

But just as important as the shortage of pilots is a dearth of maintenance personnel, said Everhart, whose command oversees the Air Force’s support fleet.   This shortage compromises transport, refueling, aeromedical and VIP aircraft. The maintenance shortage has gotten far less attention than the pilot issue, but the Air Force is also beginning to lose other key types of skills to the civilian sector, from air traffic controllers to cyber warriors

“If I don’t have pilots to fly, the enemy has a vote, and if I can’t put warheads on foreheads, then (ISIS) is winning,” Everhart said.

The pilot shortage may be more a function of pilots being pushed out by the declining state of Air Force readiness than about the lure of more money in the private sector.

There are not enough pilots today across all United States military services, especially in the active duty Air Force, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. The remaining staff picks up the slack, resulting in frequent and lengthy deployments, which places additional strains on military families.

At other times, however, pilots are not flying enough. When they return to stateside bases, Air Force pilots spend less and less time in the air. This is partly because the degraded condition of aging fleets of aircraft combined with often insufficient funds for training exercises that have made planes less and less available to fly.

The shortage of maintenance personnel also drives down aircraft availability. To top it off, pilots are increasingly called on to perform administrative tasks, instead of flying, because the Air Force downsized its office staff to save money.

“It’s all connected,” Everhart said.

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.