8 February, 2019 08:14

Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Friday, February 8, 2019 which is Boys Scouts Day, Laugh And Get Rich Day, National Kite Flying Day and International Winter Bike to Work Day.
This Day in Legion History:

  • Feb. 8, 1918: The United States Army resumes publication of the military newsletter Stars and Stripes. The World War I-era Stars and Stripes was largely the creation of Second Lieutenant Guy T. Viskniskki, an AEF press officer and former censor at the American Field Test Headquarters in Neufchateau, France. Viskniskki’s staff was made up mostly of enlisted men and featured prominent journalists like Harold Ross, who helped write the Preamble and attended the Paris Caucus and later was an editor of The American Legion Magazine. Stripes also featured Grantland Rice, who went onto become known as the dean of American sports writers and occasionally wrote poetry for The American Legion Magazine.

This Day in History:

  • On this day in 1943, Japanese troops evacuate Guadalcanal, leaving the island in Allied possession after a prolonged campaign. The American victory paved the way for other Allied wins in the Solomon Islands.
  • 1587: After 19 years of imprisonment, Mary Queen of Scots is beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in England for her complicity in a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth I.
  • 1962: The Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), headed by Gen. Paul D. Harkins, former U.S. Army Deputy Commander-in-Chief in the Pacific, is installed in Saigon as the United States reorganizes its military command in South Vietnam.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

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Military Times: VA says it has never been more cooperative with Congress. So why can’t lawmakers get the answers they want?
By: Leo Shane III16 hours ago
WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials issued a formal announcement this week that they are “providing a new and unprecedented level of transparency to lawmakers in Congress.”
Democratic lawmakers are asking if that’s the case, why are they still struggling to get answers on a host of department policy issues.
VA officials and congressional critics have been locked in an escalating fight this week over whether VA leadership has been forthcoming on series of recent requests, with an emphasis on the new community care rules which could dramatically expand the number of veterans receiving taxpayer-funded health care from private-sector doctors.
The showdown calls into question whether Congress and VA can continue to see the same type of legislative success they’ve enjoyed in recent years, with numerous high-profile bills passed into law and brought into regular rotation in President Donald Trump’s stump speeches.
It also comes as Congress evaluates whether it needs to intervene on the new proposed community care rules, already a controversial conflict point in the larger debate over whether the administration is outsourcing too many responsibilities and too much money in their quest to make VA health care more flexible.
Lawmakers, including Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., have said their requests for detailed information on the sweeping health care rule changes have been ignored. Congressional staff was briefed on the issue as it was being publicly released for the first time, and lawmakers from both parties said they felt the had limited input while the rules were being drafted.
“Once again, VA has followed its no well-established pattern of lack of transparency with Congress with its failure to engage in dialogue about its plans with regard to the new Veterans Community Care Program,” Tester wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie this week that was co-signed by 11 other Democratic senators.

“Given the lack of fundamental information VA is currently able to provide on the proposed standards and what we know about the quality and access to care the department is able to provide, we believe there is reason for alarm.”
The letter lists more than 50 unanswered questions on VA funding, staffing, patient use projections.
It followed a letter just days earlier from Tester, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., and their Republican counterparts lamenting that staff briefings from VA have been “somewhat limited in scope and details” since Wilkie took office last year, and reminding the department of Congress’ oversight role.
VA leadership has pushed back, saying that they dramatically increased their response to congressional inquiries from fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2018.
In a statement, Wilkie said that VA is “setting new standards” for cooperation with Congress and releasing information to the public.
“Under President Trump’s leadership, the department is now the first hospital system in the nation to post online its hospital wait times, opioid prescription rates, accountability and settlement info, and chief executive travel,” he said.
“All the while, we are keeping lawmakers informed through multiple means regarding the great reforms and progress across the department, and we will continue to do so.”
VA officials reiterated that message on Capitol Hill later in the week during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on electronic medical records. But several senators — both Democrats and Republicans — expressed concerns that answers to specific questions have been difficult to obtain.
Among them have been ongoing concerns about the influence of a trio of businessmen — Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, primary care specialist Dr. Bruce Moskowitz, and attorney Marc Sherman — who have been linked to key policy discussions within VA, despite having no formal role in the administration.
On Thursday, after months of similar requests about their role to VA, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., released a letter she sent directly to the three men requesting clarification on their role in VA planning, including whether they “may have had the opportunity to profit from your arrangement.”
The VA statement on transparency criticized past administrations for “not providing enough information to the legislative branch” but said that has changed for the better since Trump took office.
Tester disagreed, saying he saw more effort in outreach to Congress in the past, both during Republican and Democratic control of the White House.
‘This is not a political thing,” he said. “Communication is critical … The secretary has done some really good work, but I don’t believe it is where it needs to be.”
He said he had not yet seen the VA press release on transparency.
“I appreciate the fact that they responded,” Tester said. “It would be nice if they picked up the phone instead of doing it through (the press). “

Stripes: As Congress begs for VA information, agency touts unprecedented level of transparency

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 6, 2019
WASHINGTON — The ongoing fight between members of Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs continued Wednesday when 12 senators criticized the agency for failing to give them even basic information while VA officials declared they were “providing unprecedented transparency.”

The 12 senators — 11 Democrats and one Independent — sent 24 questions to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie about his proposed rules stipulating when veterans will be allowed to receive private-sector medical treatment – changes that he said would revolutionize the VA health care system. The senators complained Wilkie released the rules last week “before engaging in meaningful consultation with Congress” and veterans organizations.

Under the VA’s draft rules, veterans who must drive more than 30 minutes to reach their VA mental health or primary care providers — or wait longer than 20 days for an appointment — would be allowed to use a private doctor.

“Once briefed, we were disappointed that VA couldn’t provide basic information on how the proposed wait and drive-time standards would affect the department, the veterans who rely on it for care, and the American taxpayer,” the senators wrote.

They asked Wilkie for his reasoning behind the rules, including the data that he used and any input from private entities. They also wanted to know cost estimates and budget plans, as well as how many more veterans would be eligible to receive private-sector care under the new rules and whether the VA would need to hire more staff to schedule appointments with private doctors.

Previous pleas to receive the information have been “met with silence,” the senators wrote. On Monday, Republican and Democratic leaders of the veterans affairs and appropriations committees sent an initial letter to Wilkie urging him for a more collaborative relationship with Congress.

Last week, some lawmakers and veterans organizations expressed worries the rules could expand veterans’ care too far into the private sector and erode VA resources. The senators wrote Wednesday that the VA has shown “apparent indifference” about their concerns.

In its statement Wednesday, the VA listed the number of congressional hearings, roundtables and briefings it participated in during fiscal year 2018. The agency conducted 1,302 congressional briefings, a 66 percent increase over the previous year, according to the statement.

But as early as December, lawmakers have criticized the lack of substance at those briefings. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., told Wilkie at a public hearing Dec. 19 that the VA gave various congressional staff members different sets of information about the proposed private-sector care rules. Boozman is chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that handles VA funding.
Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Jon Tester, D-Mont., brought up the lack of transparency Tuesday during a meeting of the appropriations subcommittee.

“I want to express my frustration and disappointment with how the VA has engaged Congress on its proposed access standards for the new community care program,” Schatz said. “Members of the majority and minority, authorizers and appropriators, have made repeated requests to hear from the VA about what information the VA relied on to inform its decision-making, and it’s budgetary implications.”

Tester said Congress needed more information about the access standards in order to fulfill its role of oversight.

“I hope there are not folks within the VA who see us as an enemy, because we are not,” he said. “Our job is oversight. And, in fact, if there are folks within the VA who think we are an enemy, they need to change their opinion.”

Schatz and Tester signed onto the letter Wednesday, along with Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Jack Reed, D-R.I., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

The senators asked for written responses from the VA by Feb. 22.

In the meantime, the senators said the lack of information is worrisome.

"We believe there is reason for alarm," they wrote.

The VA plans to post the proposed rules to the Federal Register, where members of the public will be allowed to provide input. Under the law, the new rules for private-sector care must be finalized in March.

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Twitter: @nikkiwentling

Reuters: U.S. military aims to withdraw from Syria by April: WSJ

February 8, 2019
ANKARA (Reuters) – The U.S. military is preparing to withdraw American forces from Syria by the end of April and a significant portion of them will be out by the middle of March, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing current and former U.S. officials.
A U.S. official confirmed the April target to Reuters, saying the withdrawal included a pull-out from the U.S. military base at Tanf, near the Syrian border with Iraq and Jordan.
President Donald Trump announced in December he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, saying the battle against Islamic State there was almost won.
The president’s sudden decision surprised many in his own administration as well as coalition allies such as Turkey and an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias that fought Islamic State with U.S. military support.
Washington has been trying to reach agreement with Turkey, which considers the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia a terrorist organization, for the safety of the YPG fighters after it pulls out. It is also discussing setting up a safe zone along the border to address Turkish security concerns.
Asked about the WSJ report, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria and Iraq referred Reuters to comments by Pentagon spokesman Commander Sean Robertson, who declined to discuss the pull-out timeline.
A Turkish official said the United States had not signaled to Ankara a date when the U.S. withdrawal from Syria would be completed.
An official from the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S.-backed alliance which is spearheaded by the YPG, told Reuters: "What we know is that so far there is no withdrawal, and the situation on the ground is unchanged. There is no discussion to set any date or time ceiling (for a withdrawal)".

Military.com: Support for Making VA Motto Gender-Neutral May Be Fading

7 Feb 2019
Military.com | By Richard Sisk
An annual membership survey from the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) showed that less than half of surveyed members support a more gender-neutral version of the Department of Veterans Affairs‘ iconic motto: "To care for him care who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan."
The survey, released last week, of about 4,600 IAVA members showed that 46 percent either "strongly" or "somewhat" supported changing the motto taken from Abraham Lincoln’s majestic Second Inaugural Address.
About 30 percent "strongly" or "somewhat" opposed changing the motto, while 24 percent were neutral on the issue.
In October, the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, backed by IAVA, the Service Women’s Action Network, and the NYC Veterans Alliance, petitioned the VA to change the motto.
"The current VA motto is gendered and exclusionary, relegating women veterans to the fringes of veteran communities," the petition stated.
"The time to act is now," Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive officer of IAVA, said in a statement when the petition was filed.
Changing the motto would make "a powerful commitment to creating a culture that acknowledges and respects the service and sacrifices of women veterans," Rieckhoff said.
Last November, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, and Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-New York, introduced a bill that would change the motto to read: "To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans."
Another replacement motto suggested by advocacy groups would read: "To care for those who shall have borne the battle and their families and survivors."
A VA spokesman has repeatedly said that the petition will be reviewed, but there are no current plans to change the motto.
Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural on the steps of the Capitol on March 4, 1865, in the waning days of the Civil War and about a month before he was assassinated. John Wilkes Booth, his assassin, was in the audience.
Lincoln’s closing words were: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
Roll Call: Reed: Congress should be consulted on any Colombia deployment
The top Democrat on Senate Armed Services warned generals against planning military intervention in Venezuela without congressional input
Posted Feb 7, 2019 5:28 PM
Patrick Kelley
The top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee warned generals on Thursday against planning a military intervention in Venezuela without first seeking congressional input.
“Congress must be consulted if there is any military action beyond the current planning for the evacuation of U.S. citizens and embassy personnel" in Venezuela, Jack Reed of Rhode Island told Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command.
Reed’s warning comes a little more than a week after National Security Adviser John Bolton attended a news conference carrying a notebook with "5,000 troops to Colombia" scribbled on it. The next day, Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan did not rule out sending U.S. forces to Venezuela’s neighbor and U.S. ally Colombia to tend to upheaval in the region.
Recently, Venezuela’s years-long economic and political troubles have worsened. Venezuela’s economy continues to contract as hyperinflation in the country is projected to surpass 13,000 percent by year’s end, all while international support for the country’s opposition party is growing.
President Donald Trump and numerous other world leaders in January threw support behind Juan Guaido, the leader of the Venezuelan legislature, as the country’s legitimate president.
Guaido in January invoked a clause in the Venezuelan constitution to declare illegitimate the Nicolas Maduro regime, thus installing himself as the country’s interim president.
Maduro in January claimed victory in Venezuela’s presidential elections, which were deemed illegitimate by the United States, European Union and some of Latin America’s biggest countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Peru. Those countries and Guaido have since called for new, fair elections.
In the meantime, the United States has attempted to squeeze the Maduro regime through oil and other sanctions, but the socialist leader is still clinging to power.
“We’ve seen impacts but we haven’t seen the desired result,” Faller said of the sanctions imposed on Venezuela.
In the face of international pressure, Maduro has turned to Cuba, Russia and China.
“We’ve seen reporting of Russian security forces being flown in,” Faller said, noting that Maduro also relies on Cuban intelligence officers and security forces for his personal protection.
China has also helped to keep the Maduro regime afloat, loaning Caracas billions of dollars and helping the regime in other ways.
“China’s in there,” Faller said, “and they’re involved in cyber in ways that are absolutely unhelpful to a democratic outcome.”

WaPo: The parking lot suicides
Veterans are taking their own lives on VA hospital campuses, a desperate form of protest against a system that they feel hasn’t helped them.
By Emily Wax-Thibodeaux
February 7, 2019
ST. PAUL, Minn.
Alissa Harrington took an audible breath as she slid open a closet door deep in her home office. This is where she displays what’s too painful, too raw to keep out in the open.
Framed photos of her younger brother, Justin Miller, a 33-year-old Marine Corps trumpet player and Iraq veteran. Blood-spattered safety glasses recovered from the snow-covered Nissan Frontier truck where his body was found. A phone filled with the last text messages from his father: “We love you. We miss you. Come home.”
Miller was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts when he checked into the Minneapolis Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in February 2018. After spending four days in the mental-health unit, Miller walked to his truck in VA’s parking lot and shot himself in the very place he went to find help.
“The fact that my brother, Justin, never left the VA parking lot — it’s infuriating,” said Harrington, 37. “He did the right thing; he went in for help. I just can’t get my head around it.”
A federal investigation into Miller’s death found that the Minneapolis VA made multiple errors: not scheduling a follow-up appointment, failing to communicate with his family about the treatment plan and inadequately assessing his access to firearms. Several days after his death, Miller’s parents received a package from the Department of Veterans Affairs — bottles of antidepressants and sleep aids prescribed to Miller.
His death is among 19 suicides that occurred on VA campuses from October 2017 to November 2018, seven of them in parking lots, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. While studies show that every suicide is highly complex — influenced by genetics, financial uncertainty, relationship loss and other factors — mental-health experts worry that veterans taking their lives on VA property has become a desperate form of protest against a system that some veterans feel hasn’t helped them.
The most recent parking lot suicide occurred weeks before Christmas in St. Petersburg, Fla. Marine Col. Jim Turner, 55, dressed in his uniform blues and medals, sat on top of his military and VA records and killed himself with a rifle outside the Bay Pines Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I bet if you look at the 22 suicides a day you will see VA screwed up in 90%,” Turner wrote in a note investigators found near his body.
VA declined to comment on individual cases, citing privacy concerns. But relatives say Turner had told them that he was infuriated that he wasn’t able to get a mental-health appointment that he wanted.
Veterans are 1.5 times as likely as civilians to die by suicide, after adjusting for age and gender. In 2016, the veteran suicide rate was 26.1 per 100,000, compared with 17.4 per 100,000 for non-veteran adults, according to a recent federal report. Before 2017, VA did not separately track on-campus suicides, said spokesman Curt Cashour.
The Trump administration has said that preventing suicide is its top clinical priority for veterans. In January 2018, President Trump signed an executive order to allow all veterans — including those otherwise ineligible for VA care — to receive mental-health services during the first year after military service, a period marked by a high risk for suicide, VA officials say. And VA points out that it stopped 233 suicide attempts between October 2017 and November 2018, when staff intervened to help veterans harming themselves on hospital grounds.
Sixty-two percent of veterans, or 9 million people, depend on VA’s vast hospital system, but accessing it can require navigating a frustrating bureaucracy. Veterans sometimes must prove that their injuries are connected to their service, which can require a lot of paperwork and appeals.
Veterans who take their own lives on VA grounds often intend to send a message, said Eric Caine, director of the Injury Control Research Center for Suicide Prevention at the University of Rochester.
“These suicides are sentinel events,” Caine said. “It’s very important for the VA to recognize that the place of a suicide can have great meaning. There is a real moral imperative and invitation here to take a close inspection of the quality of services at the facility level.”
Keita Franklin, who became VA’s executive director for suicide prevention in April, said the agency now trains parking lot attendants and patrols on suicide intervention. The agency also has launched a pilot program that expands its suicide prevention efforts, including peer mentoring, to civilian workplaces and state governments.
“We’re shifting from a model that says, ‘Let’s sit in our hospitals and wait for people to come to us,’ and take it to them,” she said during a congressional staff briefing in January.
For some veterans, the problem is not only interventions but also the care and conditions inside some VA mental-health programs.
John Toombs, a 32-year-old former Army sergeant and Afghanistan veteran, hanged himself on the grounds of the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., the morning before Thanksgiving 2016.
[Trump’s
VA vowed to stop veteran suicide. Its leaders failed to spend millions set aside to reach those at risk.
]

He had enrolled in an inpatient treatment program for PTSD, substance abuse, depression and anxiety, said his father, David Toombs.
“John went in pledging that this is where I change my life; this is where I get better,” he said. But he was kicked out of the program for not following instructions, including being late to collect his medications, according to medical records.
A few hours before he took his life, Toombs wrote in a Facebook post from the Murfreesboro VA that he was “feeling empty,” with a distressed emoji.
“I dared to dream again. Then you showed me the door faster than last night’s garbage,” he wrote. “To the streets, homeless, right before the holidays.”
‘They didn’t serve him well’
Miller was recruited as a high school trumpet player into the prestigious 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Band based in Cherry Point, N.C. In Iraq, he was posted at the final checkpoint before U.S. troops entered the safe zone at al-Asad Air Base.
Hour after hour, day after day, his gun was aimed at each driver’s head. He carefully watched the bomb-sniffing dogs for signs that they had found something nefarious.
After he came home, Miller’s family noticed right away that he was different: in­cred­ibly tense, easily agitated and overreacting to criticism. He eventually told his sister that he suffered from severe PTSD after being ordered to shoot dead a man who was approaching the base and was believed to have a bomb.
Miller called the Veterans Crisis Line last February to report suicidal thoughts, according to the VA inspector general’s investigation.
The responder told him to arrange for someone to keep his guns and to go to the VA emergency department. Miller stayed at the hospital for four days.
In the discharge note, a nurse wrote that Miller asked to be released and that the “patient does not currently meet dangerousness criteria for a 72-hour hold.” He was designated as “intermediate/moderate risk” for suicide.
Although Miller had told the crisis hotline responder that he had access to firearms, several clinicians recorded that he did not have guns or that it was unknown whether he had guns. There was no documentation of clinicians discussing with Miller or his family how to secure weapons, according to the inspector general’s report, a fact that baffles his father.
“My son served his country well,” said Greg Miller, his voice breaking. “But they didn’t serve him well. He had a gun in his truck the whole time.”
Franklin, head of VA’s suicide prevention program, called the suicide rate “beyond frustrating and heartbreaking,” adding that it’s essential that “local facilities develop a good relationship with the veteran, ask to bring their families into the fold — during the process and discharge — and make sure we know if they have access to firearms.”
She said VA is looking at ways to create a buddy system during the discharge process, pairing veterans who can support each other’s recoveries.
During the week of Miller’s birthday in December, his family joined his high school band leader to donate Miller’s trumpet to a local low-income high school.
“He was a blue-chip, solid kid,” said Richard Hahn, his high school band leader. “He does this honorable thing and goes into the Marines. Then we have this tragic ending.”
He sat with Miller’s mother, Drinda, as she closed her eyes in grief, rocking gently. Hahn and Harrington recalled their memories of Justin, playing the trumpet at Harrington’s wedding and taps at his grandfather’s funeral.
After the investigation into Miller’s suicide, VA’s mistakes were the subject of a September hearing in front of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, but it was overshadowed by Brett M. Kavanaugh’s testimony during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing.
Listening to the conversation about her son, Drinda broke down and left the room. She sat in the lobby, shaky and crying. Her daughter knelt in her skirt to hold her mother’s hand.
‘He was making real progress’
A Rand Corp. study published in April showed that, while VA mental-health care is generally as good or better than care delivered by private health plans, there is high variation across facilities.
“There are some VAs that are out of date. They are depressing,” said Craig J. Bryan, a former Air Force psychologist and a University of Utah professor who studies veteran suicides, referring to problems with short staffing and resources. “Others are stunning and new, and if you walk into one that’s awe-inspiring, it gives you hope.”
The Murfreesboro VA hospital, where Toombs took his life, was ranked among the worst in the nation for mental health, according to the agency’s 2016 internal ratings. It has since improved to two out of a possible five stars.
The program, “while nurturing in some ways, also has strict rules for picking up medications on time and attending group therapy,” said Rosalinde Burch, a nurse who worked closely with Toombs in the VA program. She believes she was transferred and later fired from the program for being outspoken that “his death was totally preventable.”
Toombs was 20 minutes late to pick up medications the day he was kicked out, Burch said. He had been late several other times and occasionally left group sessions early, because he was suffering from anxiety.
“But those shouldn’t have been reasons for kicking him out,” she said. “He was making real progress.”
Toombs’s substance abuse screenings were clear, and he was starting to counsel other veterans, she said. Burch wrote an email to the hospital’s program director, saying, “We all have the blood of this veteran on our hands.”
Since Toombs’s death, the program has a new leadership team, including a new program chief and nurse manager, the hospital spokeswoman said. Burch has filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that investigates whistleblower claims, to get her job back.
For Miller’s family, their son’s death has motivated them to speak out about how VA can improve.
“The VA didn’t cause his suicide,” Harrington said. “But they could have done more to prevent that, and that’s just so maddening.”
On the snowy burial grounds behind St. Joseph of the Lakes Catholic Church in a quiet suburb of the Twin Cities, she huddled with her parents around his grave. Nearby stood the special in-ground trumpet stand that his father designed.
The family sipped from a tiny bottle of Grand Marnier, a drink that Miller liked. His mother shook her head in despair as she recalled the sounds of her son’s music.
“Justin used to play his trumpet for all of the funerals,” his father said. “But he wasn’t here to play for his own.”

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