Good morning, Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Wednesday, May 1, 2019, which is Frequent Flyer Day, Great American Grump Out, May Day, National Anxiety Disorders Screening Day, and Silver Star Day.
Today in American Legion History:
- May 1, 1942: The American Legion National Executive Committee passes a resolution, as wartime demand soars, to expand local blood-donation efforts across the country. Thus is born the Legion’s Blood Donor Program, which continues today, rewarding American Legion departments, based in five different membership categories, that give the most blood on an annual basis. The American Legion ultimately becomes the No. 1 donor of blood to the Red Cross throughout the nation.
- May 1, 1972: The American Legion launches an unprecedented national Halloween safety program and guide for parents.
Today in History:
- On this day in 1931, President Herbert Hoover officially dedicates New York City’s Empire State Building, pressing a button from the White House that turns on the building’s lights. Hoover’s gesture, of course, was symbolic; while the president remained in Washington, D.C., someone else flicked the switches in New York.
- 1898: At Manila Bay in the Philippines, the U.S. Asiatic Squadron destroys the Spanish Pacific fleet in the first battle of the Spanish-American War. Nearly 400 Spanish sailors were killed and 10 Spanish warships wrecked or captured at the cost of only six Americans wounded.
- 1963: James Whittaker of Redmond, Washington, becomes the first American to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- Stars & Stripes: mseaveywith “Remove” in the subject line. If you have received this from someone who forwarded it and would like to be added, email mseavey.
Stars & Stripes: Veteran suicide crisis draws attention from House lawmakers
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES | Published: April 29, 2019
WASHINGTON — A veteran died by suicide outside the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Cleveland on Monday – hours before a House panel was slated to discuss several other veteran suicides that occurred on VA property this month.
“Another one just today,” said Melissa Bryant, the policy officer with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “That’s our sense of urgency.”
The veteran died at about 3 a.m. outside the emergency room at the Cleveland VA, said Bryant, who was briefed on the incident.
At 5 p.m. on Capitol Hill, House Republicans and Democrats joined together to draw attention to what they described as a rising trend of suicides on VA campuses.
The scheduled hearing and news conference were held in response to multiple instances of veterans dying by suicide in April — three suicides in five days. Two happened on VA campuses in Georgia and one inside the waiting room at a VA clinic in Austin, Texas.
The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Monday evening heard from officials at the National Institute of Health and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration about best practices for suicide prevention.
Just before the committee hearing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the House Republican conference chairwoman, joined about a dozen other lawmakers at a news conference where they promised bipartisan action on the issue.
“The House will continue to come together, putting aside politics and partisanship to ensure both the VA and [Department of Defense] have the resources they need,” Pelosi said. “We will ask tough questions and ensure robust oversight of both agencies.”
The leaders of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., vowed the House would quickly take up legislation. One of the bills being considered would require the VA to notify Congress of suicides at VA campuses and provide information about the veterans, including an explanation of their most recent encounters with VA employees.
Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., introduced the legislation following the string of suicides on VA property. Rose argued it was a trend that needed to be tracked.
“Having these key data points will help Congress fully understand the scope of this crisis,” he said. “We need to know this information so we can better serve our veterans in need.”
Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, said veteran suicides on VA property accounted for less than 1 percent of veteran suicides overall and some of them hadn’t sought VA care in years.
“The fact that help was a few feet away is deeply troubling,” he said. “But yet, even if we fix that problem, 99.6 percent of veteran suicides are not occurring on our campuses. There are those who would like to indict the VA. I would caution you, this is not as easy as having just a few more policemen to go through parking lots. This is about a whole-of-society approach.”
While Monday’s hearing was held in response to suicides on VA property, Takano said it was “harmful to veterans and overly simplistic to blame the VA for these tragedies.”
The VA faced criticism in December, when the Government Accountability Office revealed the agency used less than 1 percent of its budget for suicide prevention outreach in fiscal year 2018. Of the $6.2 million obligated, the VA had spent only $57,000 by September, the last month of the fiscal year.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order in March creating a Cabinet-level task force that he promised would “mobilize every level of American society” to address veteran suicide. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie was selected to lead the task force.
Associated Press: House Democrats attempt to block border wall by using popular veterans bill
By: Andrew Taylor, The Associated Press | 10 hours ago
WASHINGTON — Democrats controlling the House are trying to use a popular veterans measure to block President Donald Trump from transferring $3.6 billion from military base construction to build his long-sought wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tuesday’s move faces certain opposition from Trump and a potential veto threat. Lawmakers often try to use essential spending bills to reverse presidential moves, but they are often unsuccessful. Republicans tried in futility on numerous occasions to advance conservative policy “riders” on topics such as the Affordable Care Act, financial regulations and the environment.
The $108 billion measure funding veterans benefits and improvements to military bases is perhaps the most popular funding bill to annually advance through Congress. Democrats unveiled the bill Tuesday and it is scheduled for a preliminary panel vote Wednesday.
Trump in February roiled Capitol Hill by invoking emergency powers to transfer the money after being denied his full $5.7 billion wall request. He did so as Congress considered a catchall spending bill in the wake of a 35-day partial government shutdown.
Earlier this month, House Democrats filed a lawsuit to block Trump from using a declaration of a national emergency along the southern border to funnel money to his border wall.
The veterans and military construction bill is one of three funding measures unveiled this week as Democrats get the annual appropriations process under way. Also Tuesday, a panel with responsibility for labor, health care and education programs approved a $190 billion measure that’s a top priority for Democrats, who rewarded it with a 6%, $12 billion increase over current levels.
That measure contains a provision to reverse a Trump administration move to block organizations that receive Title X family planning funding from counseling women on how to obtain an abortion. Republicans objected to the move as the panel approved the measure Tuesday, but they praised the measure for retaining other longstanding provisions backed by anti-abortion lawmakers and for increases in medical research.
Stars & Stripes: Lawmakers, advocates urge help for servicemembers sickened by burn pits
By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES | Published: April 30, 2019
WASHINGTON – Lawmakers and military advocates on Tuesday urged new action to support servicemembers exposed to toxic burn pits that have been linked to a long list of serious illnesses.
Today, a registry of servicemembers exposed to burn pits now totals 173,000.
And there could be many thousands more, some experts and lawmakers contend.
“We need to take care of our veterans, we need to provide the health care that they need and the benefits that they earned,” Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., told an audience gathered Tuesday on Capitol Hill for a briefing on the issue. “We need to act now.”
Ruiz joined Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii and a panel of advocates and experts urging new actions on a package of legislative efforts regarding burn pits.
Burn pits exposed deployed servicemembers to dangerous chemicals and fumes that have been linked to a series of deadly illnesses, experts have said.
Hundreds of open pits have been used at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan to burn trash, human waste, petroleum, rubber and other debris and released hazardous smoke into the air. Some troops exposed to smoke from burn pits have attributed medical conditions, such as respiratory issues and cancer, to the toxic fumes.
But much work remains for government officials to make that connection, lawmakers and advocates said.
“It doesn’t take a genius to understand there is an association between this toxic smoke and somebody’s ill health,” said Ruiz, an emergency room physician. “We ban the use of burn pits in the United States of America because it could cause health effects including cancer. Then why are we allowing American soldiers being exposed to burn pits in other counties when our government and our military are doing the burning?”
In February, Castro conducted a series of town hall meetings in Texas to urge action on pending legislation in the lower chamber on burn pits. Castro said Tuesday that servicemembers were exposed for days, weeks and months to burn pits, which total more than 200 so far during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We can’t afford to cast a blind eye to the level of exposure and the number of servicemen and women who were impacted,” he said.
Castro has sponsored two bills to expand the tracking and evaluation of veterans and servicemembers who spent time living or working near burn pits while deployed overseas.
The first, the Family Member Access to Burn Pits Registry Act of 2019, or H.R. 1001, would expand the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry to allow family members of veterans to register their loved ones who might be too sick to do so or have died.
Created in 2014, the registry is managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs and is open to veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, veterans who served in Djibouti, Africa on or after Sept. 11, 2001, Operations Desert Shield or Desert Storm veterans and others who served in the Southwest Asia theater of operations on or after Aug. 2, 1990.
The second bill, the Burn Pits Veterans Revision Act of 2019, or H.R. 1005, would create a diagnostic code and evaluation criteria for obliterative bronchiolitis, a medical condition often linked to burn pits. The law would also create a disability rating for the illness.
Udall said the VA contends it still needs additional documentation to link burn pit exposure to illnesses to approve service-connected disability benefits for servicemembers. That is a next big step that must be reached, he said.
“We’ve made progress but our work is far from over. Our goal is to recognize burn pit exposure as a ‘presumptive service connection,’” Udall said. “We won’t rest until we get this done.”
In February, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, also renewed calls for burn pits legislation and a congressional hearing to address the health concerns of servicemembers and veterans exposed to burn pits while deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Burn Pit Accountability Act, S. 191, sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who is also a presidential candidate, was introduced Jan. 17 and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 31 senators including Brown.
The legislation requires the Defense Department evaluate servicemembers for the toxic exposure during routine medical exams and directs more data collection.
Brown, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, has said Congress needs to hear directly from servicemembers and veterans who have suffered serious health problems related to the open-air burn pits used to dispose of toxic waste.
Ruiz on Tuesday urged more impacted servicemembers to contact his office to share their stories.
“We’re making real progress because you are making real noise,” he said. “All of you please tell us your stories. You are going to see us amplifying those here in Washington D.C. until we get this fixed.”
Military Times: Fed up with mold, vermin and lead, House budget plan adds $140 million for military housing fixes
By: Leo Shane III | 13 hours ago
House Democrats want to add $140 million to the president’s military construction budget for next year to help improve the quality of family housing across the force.
On Tuesday, lawmakers from the House Appropriations Committee offered their first draft of the fiscal 2020 military construction spending bill, which includes an increase of almost 2 percent above last year’s enacted levels.
The majority of that boost will address issues “such as mold, vermin and lead in military family housing.” The topic has been a major focus of both chambers in recent months, since news reports emerged about serious problems at privatized military housing across the country.
Military officials have promised sweeping reforms to address the problem in months to come, but have also struggled with how to bring housing standards up without rewarding negligent contractors.
But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., and chair of appropriations committee’s construction panel, said lawmakers need to act now with the budget boost to ensure a high quality of life for those troops and families by addressing “shoddy housing conditions.”
Whether House Republicans or Senate lawmakers will go along with the extra money is unclear. The House panel is scheduled to mark up the budget draft on Wednesday.
Even if the plan clears the House in the next few weeks (leaders have said they hope to move quickly on the issue), the appropriations bill likely has a long path ahead to becoming law.
President Donald Trump has asked for a $750 billion budget with extra funding for his controversial southern border wall project. Many Republicans on Capitol Hill have voiced support for the plan, but Democrats have vowed to oppose it, and control the majority in the House.
Meanwhile, military leaders in recent weeks have circulated new surveys to troops and their families about current housing conditions, in an effort to better oversee private contractors tasked with upkeep of those properties.
About 2 million individuals are currently housed through the military’s privatized housing program.
Military Times: New measure would allow troops to sue for military malpractice mistakes
By: Leo Shane III | 14 hours ago
After hearing tearful testimony from the victims of military medical negligence, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers announced new legislation to do away with the legal rules protecting the Defense Department from medical malpractice lawsuits.
“When doctors fail to perform or woefully misread tests, when nurses botch routine procedures, when clinicians ignore and disregard pain, service members deserve their day in court,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and the chairwoman of the House Armed Services Committee’s personnel panel.
“We’re not talking about special treatment. We’re talking about giving service members the same rights as their spouses, federal workers, and even prisoners. When compensation schemes are insufficient, service members should have their claims heard in the justice system.”
The new legislation — named for Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal, a Green Beret fighting stage four lung cancer because of Army doctors errors — would allow malpractice lawsuits against the military by creating an exemption to the Feres Doctrine, a 69-year-old legal precedent barring that legal action.
Critics have called the original decision flawed and unfair to military families, but Defense Department officials have said undoing the precedent would upset the current military compensation and benefits system.
“A combat injury or death would appear to be valued lower than an injury or death where a tort claim would be allowed,” said Jessica Maxwell, a department spokeswoman. “Such an inequity toward members injured or killed in military operations could not be sustained.”
But lawmakers behind the new legislation said the current system is also unfair, and revictimizes families.
Stayskal was among the witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing and said Army doctors missed cancerous tumors on multiple occasions while they still could have been treated. He argued not being able to sue the department takes away impetus for them to take corrective action and “barred any chance for (my family) to become whole.”
Rebecca Lipe, a former Air Force judge advocate who served in Iraq, told lawmakers her internal injuries from ill-fitting body armor during her six-month overseas tour were ignored for months by military physicians. Instead, they accused her of having an affair and contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
She said if she could file suit against the military for those mistakes, the action could potentially force changes in the medical review process, or in gender-specific body armor, or in other military failures.
Instead, she said, “I’ve completely lost faith in the Defense Department to take care of me.”
Speier’s bill would not cover any cases related to combat operations, and would only apply to mistakes that occur at major military hospitals and clinics. Medical treatments on ships or battalion aid stations would be excluded.
Plaintiffs bringing lawsuits could not receive compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees would be capped under existing federal laws.
Several Republicans on the armed services panel raised concerns that the topic belongs to the chamber’s judiciary committee, but voiced general support for a review of the Feres Doctrine.
Three Republicans have already signed on to the legislation, and Speier said she expects more in coming days.
Past efforts to amend the legal precedent have run into opposition because of the potential costs facing the military. The new bill would only cover cases filed after implementation and those currently pending, limiting the potential legal exposure for the department. Costs of the plan were not released.
Speier called it a change to properly compensate families and force military leaders to better address medical shortfalls.
“Allowing service members to sue the Department of Defense for medical malpractice will help root out this rot,” she said. “There are few incentives better than the threat of legal action to push an organization to change its behavior. This would lead to better quality care for our service members and higher levels of readiness.”
Meanwhile, Stayskal’s attorneys on Tuesday filed a new lawsuit against the Defense Department seeking compensation for the mistakes in his case. Their hope is that Speier’s legislation will move ahead in time for the case to be considered by the courts, and not simply rejected under the Feres Doctrine.