Department Of Veterans Affairs

10 things you need to know today: June 30, 2014

A Sunni insurgent guards a checkpoint in Iraq.

A Sunni insurgent guards a checkpoint in Iraq | (AP Photo, File)

The Week

Obama picks a new Veterans Affairs secretary, ISIS declares the creation of an Islamic state, and more

1. Obama taps former Procter & Gamble chief to run Veterans Affairs
President Obama on Monday will nominate former Procter & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald, a West Point graduate, to serve as the next secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, White House officials say. The department has faced months of criticism for allegedly covering up long waits for veterans seeking medical care. The nomination comes four weeks after former Army general Eric Shinseki resigned from the post over the scandal. An acting undersecretary and the VA general counsel have also quit. [The Washington Post]

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2. ISIS declares it has created a formal Islamic state
The Sunni extremist group fighting to take over Iraq and Syria declared Sunday that it was forming an Islamic state to restore the 7th-century Islamic caliphate. The group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), said its name would now be simply the Islamic State. It declared all other Islamist factions “invalid.” The move represented an open challenge to other affiliates of al Qaeda, which has long named restoring the caliphate as one of its main goals. [NBC News]

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3. Russia sends fighter planes to Iraq’s air force
Iraq said Sunday that Russia was contributing 12 new Russian warplanes to help fight Sunni extremist insurgents. The move was seen as an attempt to focus criticism on the U.S. for being too slow to supply the Iraqi army with American F-16 fighter jets and attack helicopters, both of which are now on the way. Congress had balked at selling Iraq Apache helicopter gunships over fears that the country’s Shiite-led government would use them to target political opponents. [The New York Times]

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4. North Korea prepares to indict two U.S. tourists
North Korea plans to charge American tourists Miller Matthew Todd and Jeffrey Edward Fowle with committing “hostile acts” against the country, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Monday. Fowle entered the county in April. Diplomatic sources said he was detained for leaving a Bible in his hotel room, although his family denied he was on a mission for his church. KCNA claimed Miller tore up his tourist visa upon arrival in April and asked for asylum. [CNN]

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5. By-standers injured in New Orleans gun battle
Nine people were injured in crossfire during a shootout in the heart of New Orleans’ famed, tourist-packed Bourbon Street on Sunday. Two of the victims were in critical condition. New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said the perpetrators were “two cowardly young men trying to hurt one another.” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu promised police would catch the gunmen. “Our No. 1 priority is to keep New Orleans safe,” he said. [The Times-Picayune]

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6. Mexico cries foul after Holland knocks it out of the World Cup
Holland advanced to the World Cup round of eight on Sunday with a last-minute penalty goal that gave it a 2-1 win over Mexico. The Mexican team had led for 40 minutes before the Dutch team tied the match with a spectacular goal by Wesley Sneijder with two minutes remaining in regulation time. Then, deep in overtime, Holland’s Arjen Robben went down in the penalty area. The referee said he was tripped, setting up the winning goal. Mexican players insisted Robben faked the fall and stole the game. [The Telegraph]

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7. Dozens trapped for hours in stalled SeaWorld ride
Forty-eight people were stranded 220 feet above ground for four hours on Sunday when a power outage stalled a ride at SeaWorld San Diego. City fire officials said 46 park visitors and two employees were riding in a revolving capsule on the Skytower when it suddenly stopped. Park officials said they never lost communication with the group, and that the employees on board passed out water and snacks. There were no injuries, but a 17-year-old boy was taken to a hospital for anxiety. [The Associated Press]

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8. Pharrell emerges as the BET Awards’ big winner
“Happy” singer Pharrell Williams continued his award-show winning streak on Sunday by winning Video of the Year and Best Male R&B/Pop Artist at the 2014 BET Awards on Sunday night. Beyonce, another big winner, took home the awards for Best Female R&B/Pop Artist and Best Collaboration, which she won with husband Jay Z for Drunk in Love. Host Chris Rock got good reviews for jokes at the expense of everyone from Chris Brown to embattled Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. [Variety]

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9. Global warming threatens emperor penguins, report says
Antarctica’s 600,000-strong emperor penguin population will fall by at least a fifth by 2100 as global warming melts sea ice where the birds breed, according to a study published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change. The authors of the report urged governments to declare the penguins endangered to help protect them, even though some colonies are expected to grow through 2050. [Reuters]

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10. Heat stars opt out of contracts to help rebuild their team
Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade joined fellow Miami Heat star LeBron James in opting out of their contracts, meaning they will become free agents this week. This does not mean the Heat — who came up short this month in their bid for a third straight NBA Finals win — will be breaking up. Heat President Pat Riley will now try to re-sign Bosh and Wade with pay cuts that will allow the team to strengthen its roster with other free agents to build another championship team. [New York Daily News]

 

10 things you need to know today: May 29, 2014

The late Maya Angelou celebrates her 82nd birthday in 2010.

The late Maya Angelou celebrates her 82nd birthday in 2010. (Steve Exum/Getty Images)

The Week

A VA watchdog report sparks outrage, Maya Angelou dies at 86, and more

1. VA watchdog report sparks outrage
An internal investigation found that 1,700 veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ medical center in Phoenix were placed on an unofficial waiting list for care. The VA inspector general also found that falsified records were created to hide long wait times for care. President Obama called the findings “extremely troubling.” Republicans and vulnerable Democrats called on VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. [The Washington Post]

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2. Award-winning author Maya Angelou dies
Author and poet Maya Angelou died Wednesday at her home in North Carolina. She was 86. The African-American literary icon wrote more than 30 books, although she was also a dancer and civil rights activist. She was best known for her groundbreaking 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “She was a warrior for equality, tolerance, and peace,” her family said in a statement. Singer Dionne Warwick said Angelou’s “legacy of wisdom” would live on. [Reuters]

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3. Apple buys Beats for $3 billion
Apple confirmed Wednesday that it was buying Beats Electronics for $3 billion. The move will help the iPhone and iPad maker compete in the subscription music business thanks to Beats’ streaming music service. It will also give Apple an injection of cool thanks to Beats’ popular high-end headphones. Beats’ co-founders — music mogul Jimmy Iovine and rapper Dr. Dre — will join Apple under the deal. [The Wall Street Journal]

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4. California lawmakers try to block gun sales to potentially dangerous people
California lawmakers plan to introduce legislation this week that would let police officers and others ask courts to bar people deemed potentially violent from buying or owning guns. Lawmakers drafted the bill in response to a murderous rampage that left six victims and the apparent killer, Elliot Rodger, 22, dead. Rodger legally bought three guns despite warnings from his parents and mental health professionals that he could be dangerous. [The New York Times]

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5. Obama expounds on the Obama doctrine
President Obama used his commencement address to West Point cadets on Wednesday to outline a foreign policy vision aiming to put the nation’s “long season of war” in the past while remaining committed to doing “what is right and just” overseas. Critics say Obama has abandoned America’s leadership role by being too passive in Syria, Ukraine, and Afghanistan. Obama said he was trying to strike a balance between isolationism and unilateralism that violates international law. [The New York Times]

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6. Sisi wins big in Egypt’s presidential vote
Former Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overwhelmingly won the country’s presidential election, according to provisional results released Thursday. Sisi had 93 percent of the votes in the first 15 percent of polling stations counted, but turnout was low due to a boycott by supporters of the freely elected Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by Sisi last year. Sisi’s supporters see him as a strong leader who can restore calm. [Al Jazeera]

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7. Army sergeant accused of sexually assaulting 12 women
An Army staff sergeant, Angel M. Sanchez, has been accused of sexually assaulting a dozen women since 2011, including several female soldiers who said he used his position as a drill sergeant to threaten them. At least one of the women was allegedly attacked in Afghanistan. Sanchez appeared at a pre-trial hearing on Wednesday at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. The Pentagon said this month it received thousands of sexual assault reports in 2013. [The Washington Post]

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8. Investigators say missing Malaysian plane didn’t crash in search area
The 330-square-mile area where acoustic pings were heard in April is not the “final resting place” of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished March 8, the search coordinator said Thursday. A U.S. Navy unmanned submersible has finished scanning the area without finding a trace. A top Navy civilian official said the pings did not come from the jet’s black boxes, although a Navy spokesman called his statement “speculative and premature.” [Associated Press]

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9. Kerry tells NSA leaker Edward Snowden to “man up”
Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday said National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden should “man up” and return to the U.S. to face spying charges. Snowden has temporary asylum in Russia, and said in his first network TV interview, which aired Tuesday and Wednesday on NBC, that he wants to come home, if offered clemency. Kerry said he should make his case against U.S. surveillance in court. “A patriot would not run away,” Kerry said. [Associated Press]

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10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer dies at 85
Billionaire Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Britain’s Manchester United soccer team, died Wednesday at age 85, eight years after a stroke that left his speech impaired and limited the mobility of his right side. Glazer bought the Bucs for $192 million in 1995 — then an NFL record — and revived the team by replacing everything from its jerseys to its coaches. Eight years later Tampa won its first Super Bowl. [NBC Sports]

How America is failing its veterans

Homeless military veterans stand in line to receive free services from the Department of Veterans Affairs on November 3, 2011 in Denver.

Homeless military veterans stand in line to receive free services from the Department of Veterans Affairs on November 3, 2011 in Denver. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The Week

The problem is far worse than long wait times at VA hospitals

HUNGRY USMC VETERAN PLEASE HELP, the cardboard sign read. Sitting next to it was a scruffy man, maybe in his early 30s, in tattered jeans and scuffed work boots. His hair looked oily, he needed a shave. I fished a crumpled $1 out of my pocket and put in his cup. Our eyes met for a second and he said, “Thank you.” I felt a flash of guilt. What good is a buck going to do?

This encounter, at a Metro station in the shadow of the White House, and steps from the entrance to the Department of Veterans Affairs itself, is hardly rare. Perhaps you’ve had one yourself. There are an estimated 58,000 homeless veterans, and another 1.4 million who are in danger of being on the streets because of poverty, lack of community support, and overcrowded/substandard housing conditions. Many Americans are quick to dismiss a panhandler on the corner as a bum or a loser. In fact, he might very well be a Marine or a soldier down on his luck.

A nation that claims to revere its heroes cannot, in good conscience, allow them to fend for themselves on the streets of our communities. Yet allow it we do. Many of us are so self-absorbed with our own conceits that we rush by, can’t be bothered.

This is a national disgrace.

And yet, we bleat our collective shock and outrage over allegations that 40 veterans died while waiting for care at a VA hospital in Phoenix. We ask how could this have happened. Isn’t it obvious how it happened? Some people like to call America an “exceptional” nation. A nation that is truly exceptional doesn’t allow its heroes to beg on the streets. Is it so surprising that a nation whose citizens typically ignore the epidemic of homeless vets also fosters a system in which vets are denied proper medical care?

And it’s not just homelessness, by the way. Of all veterans who have served since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, 29 percent have at least one service-connected disability: an injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and so forth. And the unemployment rate for this group, at 9 percent, is well above the national average.

Now, this isn’t meant to divert attention from what appears to be incompetence within the VA and the White House. Heads should roll. Eric Shinseki is a decorated combat veteran from Vietnam. Awarded two Purple Hearts, three Bronze Stars, and more, he rose through the ranks to become a four-star General and Army Chief of Staff before retiring in 2003. I have no doubt that Shinseki cares deeply about his fellow veterans. But this doesn’t mean he’s the right man to lead a huge, messy civilian bureaucracy like the VA.

But before tossing this war hero overboard, let’s look at the big picture. In 2009, Shinseki inherited a Veterans Administration that even by Washington standards had a reputation for being backwards. Until last year, it didn’t even have a way of digitally processing the million plus claims it got each year (even the much maligned IRS rolled out electronic filing in 1990). Shinseki changed this. Today, the VA is converting millions and millions of pieces of paper to a huge digital database. What a mess.

At the same time, Shinseki, with the backing of President Obama, expanded benefits for veterans. In 2010, coverage was expanded for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange. The administration also loosened the rules to help vets get coverage for PTSD. Advances in battlefield medicine and technology have meant that more veterans are surviving injuries. All of this is wonderful news. But it has also unleashed an avalanche of new work upon the VA.

This meant disaster in the early years of the Obama administration. In 2009, the VA had 423,000 claims pending. Some 150,000 of them were more than four months old. By 2012, the total claims figure had ballooned to 883,000, with an estimated 587,000 of them more than four months old.

Since 2012, and particularly since the VA has finally discovered the digital world, the backlog was cut (Shinseki claims) to 300,000 as of May 10. At that rate, the backlog would vanish by the middle of next year.

Still, perhaps Shinseki should still get the boot; after all the buck does stop with him and with the president. But if anyone is truly deserving of the ax, it is Sharon Helman, the director of the Phoenix VA facility which cooked the books on patient wait times. It turns out she even got an $8,500 bonus in April, which has since been rescinded. Helman really must go.

But none of this would go far enough to help the man on the corner with the sign: HUNGRY USMC VETERAN PLEASE HELP. Heads may roll at the VA, but chances are the man with the sign, and far, far too many others like him, will still be on the corner asking for your help. These people risked their lives for you, for me, for all of us in some far off hellhole.

It’s time we did a hell of a lot more for them.

Government To Stop Requiring Veterans To ‘Prove’ PTSD

Well it’s about time…

Huffington Post

WASHINGTON — The government is making it easier for combat veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder to receive disability benefits.

The Veterans Affairs Department plans to announce Monday it will no longer require veterans to prove what might have triggered their illness. Instead, they would have to show that they served in combat in a job that could have contributed to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Veterans advocates and some lawmakers have argued that it sometimes could be impossible for a veteran to find records of a firefight or bomb blast. They also have contended that the old rule ignored other causes of the disorder, such as fearing a traumatic event even if it doesn’t occur. That could discriminate against female troops prohibited from serving on front lines and against other service members who don’t experience combat directly.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the change in policy “long overdue.” Last year, Schumer and Rep. John Hall, D-N.Y., proposed legislation similar to the new rule.

“It is so unfair to put the burden of proof on the brave men and women who have already put themselves in harm’s way,” Schumer said Thursday. “These guidelines rectify that and should bring more veterans who’ve served their country the help they need.”

A study last year by the RAND Corp. think tank estimated that nearly 20 percent of returning veterans, or 300,000, have symptoms of PTSD or major depression.

The change in regulations was first reported by The New York Times.