14 September, 2018 19:22

Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Thursday, September 13, 2018 which is Bald is Beautiful Day, Fortune Cookie Day, International Chocolate Day and Uncle Sam Day.

This Day in Legion History:

· Sept. 13, 1950:Backed by a $25,000 grant approved by The American Legion National Executive Committee on May 4, 1950, the National Association for Mental Health is established.

This Day in History:

· On this day in 1814, Francis Scott Key pens a poem which is later set to music and in 1931 becomes America’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The poem, originally titled “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” was written after Key witnessed the Maryland fort being bombarded by the British during the War of 1812. Key was inspired by the sight of a lone U.S. flag still flying over Fort McHenry at daybreak, as reflected in the now-famous words of the “Star-Spangled Banner”: “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”

· 1971: The four-day revolt at the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York, ends when hundreds of state police officers storm the complex in a hail of gunfire. Thirty-nine people were killed in the disastrous assault, including 29 prisoners and 10 prison guards and employees held hostage since the outset of the ordeal.

· 1862: Union soldiers find a copy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s orders detailing the Confederates’ plan for the Antietam campaign near Frederick, Maryland. But Union General George B. McClellan was slow to act, and the advantage the intelligence provided was lost.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

· Military Times: VA undecided on whether to pay for sex reassignment surgery

· Stripes: Wilkie opposes bill that would extend Agent Orange benefits to ‘Blue Water’ veterans

· Military Times: VA establishes new research center focused on caregivers

· TAL: American Legion welcomes VA’s establishment of Elizabeth Dole Caregiver Center

· KSN: Veterans garden looks to give hope and prevent suicide

· ReBoot Camp: Think vets like you don’t belong at Ivy League schools? The schools may disagree

TAL TESTIMONY: Today at 10:00, Legislative Director Matt Shuman will be testifying before the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Health in 334 Cannon House Office Building. This will be a Legislative Hearing on H.R. 5413 and H.R. 6418. You can find the streaming of that hearing HERE. (Click the button that says “live”.)

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Military Times: VA undecided on whether to pay for sex reassignment surgery

By: Leo Shane III   15 hours ago

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WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials are still evaluating whether to fund sex reassignment surgeries for transgender veterans following a months-long push from advocates asking the department to reverse its opposition to the procedure.

Last week, a group of 83 Democratic House members petitioned VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to make the change, calling the current department policy discriminatory and potentially harmful to the health of those veterans.

“Simply put, the VA has an obligation to provide the necessary care that is prescribed to enrolled veterans by their health care practitioners,” the group said in a letter to Wilke.

“It is unconscionable to deny veterans the same access to health care services that civilians receive in the private sector, and that is available to Medicare beneficiaries and federal workers, simply because of outdated and unscientific prejudice against their gender identity.”

Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., led that effort and in a statement called it “unacceptable that we would ask our veterans to risk their lives to protect our rights but we would refuse to defend theirs in return.”

The move came at the end of a two-month comment period on the possible policy change. VA officials have discussed allowing the surgeries to be covered in the last few years, but have not made any updates, prompting some advocates to sue the department.

VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the department is reviewing comments collected during the summer on the issue and will announce any changes through formal federal channels.

In his confirmation hearing in July, Wilkie pledged the department would ensure that veterans seeking help from his VA “will all be treated with the respect and the support they deserve.”

When specifically asked about transgender veterans — and President Donald Trump’s past comments that the military should not provide medical treatments to transgender troops — Wilkie said that VA “is proud to provide care, benefits and othe VA services to all veterans, including transgender veterans. That policy will remain unchanged.”

In a statement, Human Rights Campaign spokeswoman Charlotte Clymer said the current VA policy “flies in the face of every major medical authority and undermines the health and wellbeing of transgender patriots who have laid their lives on the line for this country and their families.”

VA does provide medical support services for transgender individuals before and after sex reassignment surgery, but not the procedure itself.

Advocates estimate there are 160,000 transgender veterans in America today.

Stripes: Wilkie opposes bill that would extend Agent Orange benefits to ‘Blue Water’ veterans

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 11, 2018

WASHINGTON – New Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has come out against extending benefits to veterans who served off the coast during the Vietnam War, citing high costs and insufficient evidence that they were exposed to Agent Orange.

Wilkie urged senators in a letter Friday to reject legislation that would make health care and disability compensation available to approximately 90,000 “Blue Water” Navy veterans – those sailors aboard aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships who contend they were exposed to Agent Orange through the ships’ water systems. The dioxin-laden herbicide has been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease, as well as other conditions.

The bill passed the House unanimously in June and was sent to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“We know it is incredibly difficult to hear from Blue Water veterans who are ailing and ill, and we have great empathy and compassion for these veterans and their families,” Wilkie wrote to Senate VA committee members. “However, we urge the committee to consider the scientific evidence, impact on other veterans and costs associated with this legislation.”

The VA is conducting a study to compare the health of deployed Vietnam War veterans, including Blue Water Navy veterans, to others of similar age who weren’t deployed. Wilkie urged senators to wait until the study publishes in late 2019 before deciding on the legislation.

Wilkie’s stance deviates from that of former VA Secretary David Shulkin, who said last year that he was committed to extending benefits to Blue Water Navy veterans despite a lack of scientific evidence.

“It’s too late for us to be able to get solid scientific evidence, so we just have to do the right thing,” Shulkin said during a House hearing in October 2017. “There is no doubt our Vietnam veterans have waited too long for us to bring this to resolution.”

Wilkie also took issue with the method included in the bill to pay for the increased costs of the benefits. To make up the cost, the legislation raises fees for servicemembers and veterans who use the VA’s home loan program.

The method wouldn’t generate enough savings, Wilkie argued. He said the VA estimates the legislation would end up costing the agency $5.5 billion – much more than the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated it would. Wilkie argued the Congressional Budget Office underestimated by thousands the number of veterans and dependents who would become eligible for VA services.

Further, Wilkie wrote the VA would need 803 new employees in order to implement the bill.

John Wells, a retired Navy officer, has been fighting on behalf of Blue Water Navy veterans since 2008 with the group Military-Veterans Advocacy. On Monday, he described Wilkie’s $5.5 billion estimate as ludicrous. He said he felt “betrayed” by Wilkie, with whom he has been trying to meet for months.

“I’m very disappointed in Secretary Wilkie,” Wells said. “He promised me a meeting. We thought he would do that before he came out and signed off on this.”

The Senate VA committee discussed the legislation during a hearing Aug. 1. Committee members heard from Paul Lawrence, VA undersecretary of benefits, who voiced his opposition. He said the bill would set a bad precedent for approving benefits for illnesses without proof that they were caused by military service.

The committee hasn’t scheduled a vote for the bill and has provided no updates on it since the August hearing.

Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said there were efforts underway to push the bill through Congress, even without the VA’s support.

“I find the Trump administration’s sudden rigid opposition to this bipartisan legislation difficult to comprehend,” Walz said in a statement. “Our nation owes it to these veterans to get this done. I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers to make sure that happens, even if we have to drag the administration along, kicking and screaming, to do so.”

About 90 members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars traveled to Washington this week to ask Senate committee members to approve the legislation.

“We have folks meeting with senators this week to push them on the urgency and why we cannot allow this session to pass without acting on it,” said Carlos Fuentes, a VFW director.

Military Times: VA establishes new research center focused on caregivers

By: Leo Shane III   20 hours ago

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WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials are launching a new center of excellence focused on caregivers, a move that advocates say could significantly boost research and support for families caring for ailing veterans.

“We know how important caregivers are to the veterans community now, and we know they’re going to be even more important 10 and 20 years out,” said Steve Schwab, executive director of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. “This center is going to own the research in this area and a lot of areas that are still undiscovered.”

The center consists of teams of researchers spread across four VA sites in Texas, Florida, Utah and California. Together, the staffers will collect data on caregiver challenges, support service availability and a host of other topics with an eye towards future policy changes designed to improve veterans health care.

Earlier studies by the RAND Corporation have identified more than 5.5 million veteran caregivers across the United States, providing medical and emotional support that would total nearly $14 billion annually.

VA officials do grant monthly stipends and training services to some of those family members, but advocates have said those benefits are greatly overshadowed by the value the caregivers provide.

Schwab said even though groups like his have helped provide significant research on the topic, having federal backing — and focus — on the topic provides more opportunities.

“For example, when we worked with RAND, we identified 10 areas that need further investigation to understand what the community needs,” he said.

“Right now, there’s no evidence-based research on the effects of caregiving on children. Many of these kids end up working as secondary caregivers. What does that mean for them and for the family? That’s the kind of study we need to see get done now.”

The RAND study also estimated that 1.1 million individuals are caring for post–9/11 veterans, a population with different injuries and life expectancy than older generations.

VA officials officially named the center after former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, noting her “significant impact on, and dedication to, military and veteran caregivers.” Along with its advocacy work, her foundation has been a persistent advocate for the creation of a dedicated caregivers research center within VA.

The department already boasts about 20 other research centers, including ones focused on pain management, long-term health care, chronic diseases and mental health.

TAL: American Legion welcomes VA’s establishment of Elizabeth Dole Caregiver Center

The American Legion

Sep 10, 2018 Sep 10, 2018

American Legion National Commander Brett P. Reistad praised the Department of Veterans Affairs for its latest initiative to support caregivers of disabled veterans.

“The American Legion has always believed that it is not just veterans who serve and sacrifice for our nation, but their families as well,” Reistad said. “We are very pleased that VA recently announced the funding for and creation of the aptly named Elizabeth Dole Center of Excellence for Veteran and Caregiver Research. Just last month, we honored Sen. Elizabeth Dole with The American Legion Distinguished Service Medal for her leadership and advocacy on behalf of the nation’s 5.5 million military and veterans caregivers. Most of the time this care is provided by loving family members. These caregivers need a strong support network to provide for their wellbeing. The National Executive Committee of The American Legion unanimously passed a resolution in 2017, which calls for the establishment of a caregiver program. This has also been a longtime recommendation of our own national TBI / PTSD Committee. We are pleased that the VA Mission Act signed by the president is working toward delivering equal benefits for all caregivers.”

KSN: Veterans garden looks to give hope and prevent suicide

By:

Tiffany Lane

Posted: Sep 11, 2018 10:44 PM CDT

Updated: Sep 12, 2018 11:20 AM CDT

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WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Forty-five thousand people over the age of ten took their own lives in 2016, according to the CDC.

The suicide rate for veterans is alarming.

One family, who has experienced that tragedy first-hand, has teamed up on a special space at the Wichita VA to raise awareness.

The Memorial Peace Garden at the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center is a place of healing and hope for veterans.

But for Laura Nutter, the serene landscape has an even more significant meaning, as it helps honor her late father Don Kolar, who served in the U.S. Air Force.

"My dad passed away from suicide in 2011," she said. "That was in February in the dead of winter. And, it was a very shocking circumstance."

Kolar is one of about 22 veterans a day who lost their lives to suicide.

After his death, Nutter wanted to remember her father with the hobby he enjoyed the most, gardening.

"Dad used to drive around with boxes of produce in his backseat and he spent a lot of time out in his garden," said Nutter. "He spent a lot of time out in his lawn chair watching it grow."

Kolar won’t be able to do that anymore, but Nutter believes it’s not too late for others.

Iraq War Veteran Dean Rhein is glad that message is being shared, as someone who is a survivor of suicide himself.

"I think it’s the trauma that we go through," he said. "I think it’s the losses we go through. It’s hard to bear that. And, it’s hard to really be in society."

That’s why Nutter hopes the garden provides veterans with a different type of escape, a place where they can come together, get produce, enjoy the beauty, and surround themselves with rocks painted with words of encouragement.

"It’s been a very healing process for me getting you know past the negative event of my dad’s death and trying to go forward with a positive result," said Nutter.

There will be a mental health summit at the Wichita VA Friday.

It will be from 8:30 to 4 in the auditorium and is open to the public.

For anyone who has thoughts of suicide, you can contact the national suicide prevention lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.

ReBoot Camp: Think vets like you don’t belong at Ivy League schools? The schools may disagree

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By: Natalie Gross  13 hours ago

When Thomas Johnson graduated from high school, going to an Ivy League university didn’t seem like an option.

Sure, he made good grades. But the idea of getting accepted into one of the eight elite Northeastern schools felt “like a real far reach.”

“There was that kind of stigma that you don’t have the ability to (get in) with such low acceptance rates,” Johnson, 25, said in a recent interview. “It was an obstacle that I didn’t think I could overcome.”

Johnson decided to join the Army instead and later earned an associate degree from a local community college.

Just last year, this would’ve made Johnson ineligible for admission to Princeton University, where he and five other students with military backgrounds who already have some college education will start classes Wednesday.

But the Ivy League school recently reversed its long-standing ban on transfer student admissions, in part to be able to enroll more veterans, who often earn college credit during their military careers. This marks the latest in a string of efforts by Ivy League institutions to make their campuses more accessible to veterans and, ultimately, grow the number of former service members within their ranks.

Rapid growth

In the last five fiscal years, the number of Post-9/11 GI Bill users at Ivy League institutions has grown nearly 34 percent, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

While the number of GI Bill users includes dependents using transferred benefits, as well as veterans, that VA data is the most accurate way to track veterans in higher education, since the large majority of GI Bill users are veterans.

Part of the reason for the enrollment growth at Ivies is the generous and relatively new Post-9/11 GI Bill itself, which covers up to $23,671.94 in tuition and fees per year at private schools and includes a sizable housing stipend. Schools can also choose to participate in the Yellow Ribbon program to defray additional costs not covered by the benefit, and according to VA records, all the Ivies do.

There are now roughly 1,700 GI Bill users at Ivy League schools — a far cry from the 206 enrolled a decade ago.

Schools have also ramped up their undergraduate recruitment efforts in that time, a move that is a bit unusual for campuses that are in no way hurting for applicants, said James Schmeling, executive vice president of the nonprofit Student Veterans of America. And with research demonstrating veterans do well in higher education, both veterans and schools now feel more confident about the value that former service members can bring to a top-tier institution.

“When both of those know better what is possible, then you’re going to get people into those schools,” Schmeling said.

A new approach

Since Princeton began rethinking its nearly 30-year ban on transfer students, the school has recruited on military bases, at student veteran conferences and through veterans groups at community colleges, said Janet Rapelye, Princeton’s dean of admission.

In fiscal 2017, Princeton enrolled just 22 GI Bill users — the fewest of any Ivy League school, according to VA data. But the school hopes its new policies and recruiting efforts lead to a turnaround.

“Without the transfer option, if they’d taken college courses, they simply couldn’t apply,” Rapelye said. “It just limited the pool so much.”

But there’s more to it than just recruitment. All applications, especially those of veteran and transfer students, are weighed for the life experiences that prospective students would bring to campus.

That’s an approach long taken at Columbia University, which has been recruiting service members and veterans to its School of General Studies, geared toward nontraditional students, since the early 2000s. Columbia enrolled 531 GI Bill users in fiscal 2017, the most of any Ivy League school.

“It’s great that universities are now beginning to value the experiences of service members and then also begin to figure out how to value the academic potential of service members who don’t necessarily fit into the traditional ways of assessing academic intelligence or potential,” said Michael Abrams, executive director of the Center for Veteran Transition and Integration at Columbia.

While veterans may not always come with glowing GPAs or SAT scores, for example, they may have learned three languages in four years while on active duty. This is proof that they have the intelligence and the stamina it takes to succeed in a rigorous academic program.

“It’s really looking at other ways of assessing potential,” Abrams said.

Getting in and fitting in

“I think if you would ask any Marine, any airman, any sailor — you ask them, ‘Do you know that you could apply to these schools and you could have a chance to get in?’ they would probably tell you, ‘No, you’re crazy,’” said Marine Sgt. Javier Castillo, 22, “That’s what I thought.”

But Castillo, a first-generation immigrant born to Mexican parents who is also the first in his family to attend college, was accepted into both Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania.

“The fact that I’m going to be attending an Ivy League school is unheard of, at least for me,” said Castillo, who is starting classes at the University of Pennsylvania this fall as he transitions out of the military.

Castillo isn’t alone.

Andrea Goldstein, CEO of Service to School, an organization that helps veterans get into top-tier schools, said they’re generally not accustomed to bragging about themselves or discussing details about their service.

“We’re taught selfless service and not to advertise the nature of our work, and so to suddenly have to talk about yourself — and not only talk about yourself but say why you should be admitted to a program — is very tough,” said Goldstein, a Navy veteran and reservist.

Through mentorship, admissions counseling and other help, Goldstein said, her organization helps build that confidence so veterans know they can succeed at these schools.

“That’s a lot of what we’re about,” she said. “We’re not just about letting people know that they can get it, we’re letting them know that they can fit in.”

Without Service to School, Johnson — and several other veterans who talked to Military Times for this story — say they wouldn’t have gotten into an Ivy.

Johnson said his Service to School advisor was the first one to tell him about Princeton’s transfer policy change and helped him apply.

Summer Lee, a Marine veteran who’s now a junior at Yale University, said she’d never dreamed of attending a top-tier school, but with the group’s help, she ended up getting accepted to Yale, Brown, Cornell and Georgetown University.

Service to School has grown 20 to 30 percent each year since its founding in 2011, and the group helped 1,700 veterans apply to college last year, Goldstein said.

“We screen and prepare applicants, so (schools) know if they are getting a veteran student who is from Service to School that they are highly prepared,” she said.

Some Ivies are providing a little extra help in this department as well.

Cornell University recently launched a six-week Veterans Summer Bridge Program for both transfer and first-time students. The program includes three free, credit-bearing courses, including one focusing on strategies to succeed in college, offering student veterans a chance to get their feet wet before the fall semester.

This summer, the University of Pennsylvania hosted the Warrior-Scholar Project, a rigorous academic boot camp designed to prepare service members and veterans for college life.

“You literally have no time off. From the time you wake up, it’s books, writing, speaking on topics,” said Castillo, who participated in the training to get ready for the fall semester. “I think this is definitely beneficial just because they give you a taste of what it might be like at a top-tier institution.”

A ‘value proposition’

Goldstein said it’s ultimately a “value proposition” for colleges to enroll veterans. While, yes, veterans in many cases come fully funded or close to it with the GI Bill, it goes beyond money, she said.

They’re also going to add value to the classroom.

“I absolutely experienced this firsthand in one of my classes, where we were talking about security force assistance, training a foreign military,” she said. “It was one thing to talk about it from an academic perspective. It was another thing to hear about it from someone who had actually done it.”

Johnson said learning often happens through conversations in the classroom, which are enhanced by different viewpoints, such as those of veterans who have leadership experience and have lived through basic training, deployments and other major life changes.

“I think (what Ivy League schools) are really realizing — to bring that kind of diversity as far as viewpoints and ideas to the campus — is they have to expand the types of students they’re bringing in,” he said. Veterans "just bring a different set of ideas to the campus that might not otherwise be represented.”

Part of the unique perspective that Johnson will bring to Princeton: that of a new father. His wife is set to give birth to a baby girl this week, just as classes get underway.

“I was joking with my wife about a lot of these students that are coming in. They’re going to be dealing with being away from their family for the first time and dealing with a set of issues and things they have to overcome, and mine will be dealing with a brand new baby and a family,” he said.

But so far, Princeton has shown it will support him. The financial aid office offered assistance just as it would to any other student, despite him having the GI Bill, and he’s already received individualized attention through an online forum and pre-orientation with the other new transfers.

“All my college experience before this was community college,” he said. “There is a shift there, and Princeton has recognized that to make the transition as easy as possible.”

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