31 October, 2019 13:20

Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Thursday, October 31, 2019 which is Girl Scout Founders Day, National Caramel Apple Day, National Doorbell Day and Halloween.

Today in History:

· On October 31, 1517, legend has it that the priest and scholar Martin Luther approaches the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nails a piece of paper to it containing the 95 revolutionary opinions that would begin the Protestant Reformation.

· 1961: Five years after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalinism and the “personality cult” of Soviet rulers at the 20th Party Congress, Joseph Stalin’s embalmed body is removed from Lenin’s tomb in Moscow’s Red Square.

· On October 31, 1776, in his first speech before British Parliament since the leaders of the American Revolution came together to sign of the Declaration of Independence that summer, King George III acknowledges that all was not going well for Britain in the war with the United States.

· Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India, is assassinated in New Delhi by two of her own bodyguards. Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, both Sikhs, emptied their guns into Gandhi as she walked to her office from an adjoining bungalow. Although the two assailants immediately surrendered, they were both shot in a subsequent scuffle, and Beant died. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, attempted to forge a unified nation out of the many religious, ethnic, and cultural factions that existed under British rule until 1949. His daughter, Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mohandas Gandhi), rose to power in 1966, fighting many of the same problems as her father had. Her own political career was a roller coaster, from the highs following India’s victory over Pakistan in 1971 to the lows of being thrown out of office in 1977 after declaring a state of emergency in 1975, during which time she suspended civil liberties and jailed her political opponents. Although many criticized her for being authoritarian, the majority of the population supported her because of her extensive social programs.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

· Army Times: President Trump awards Medal of Honor to Master Sgt. Matthew Williams

· Military Times: Will VA be ready to process new ‘blue water’ Vietnam veterans benefits next year?

· Military Times: Lawmakers have ‘no confidence’ in VA’s whistleblower protection office

· McClatchy: Exclusive: Veterans want answers as new data shows rise in cancers over two decades of war

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Army Times: President Trump awards Medal of Honor to Master Sgt. Matthew Williams

By: Kyle Rempfer   13 hours ago

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President Donald J. Trump awarded the nation’s highest combat medal to Master Sgt. Matthew O. Williams during a ceremony at the White House on Wednesday.

Williams, a Green Beret weapons sergeant from 3rd Special Forces Group, was presented the award for his actions “going above and beyond the call of duty” during an April 6, 2008, mission in Nuristan province, Afghanistan, that came to be known as the Battle of Shok Valley.

“Matt’s heroism ensured that not a single American died in the Battle of Shok Valley,” Trump said during the ceremony. “Matt is without question and without reservation one of the bravest soldiers and people I’ve ever met.”

Trump commended Williams for his “unyielding service” and “unbreakable resolve” during the battle, as well as the five other deployments he made to Afghanistan and the one he made to Africa.

Throughout the 2008 battle, Williams exposed himself to enemy fire multiple times on steep and challenging terrain.

His team was pitted against an overwhelming enemy force that held the high-ground and was able to rain rocket propelled grenades, sniper rounds and small arms fire onto the Green Beret team and their Afghan National Army Commando partners.

Williams carried wounded teammates down the mountainside, including his team sergeant, and “shielded the injured from falling rubble as American warplanes bombed insurgent positions above and rocked the mountain from top to bottom," the president said at the ceremony.

At one point, while dropping casualties off at a collection point, Williams engaged and killed two insurgents he spotted advancing on the position to take advantage of the wounded and disoriented friendly forces.

Over the course of a seven-hour firefight, Williams “valiantly protected the wounded," Trump said, until the team was able to completely evacuate from the target area inside CH-47 Chinook helicopters.

His Medal of Honor citation states that Williams’ actions helped save the lives of four critically wounded soldiers and prevented the lead element of the assault force from being overrun when they were ambushed at the outset of the mission.

Members of Williams’ Green Beret team from that 2008 operation, as well as one of their Afghan interpreters, were present at the White House ceremony.

Williams will continue to serve in the Army on active-duty after Wednesday’s ceremony, a prospect that he’s looking forward to, he told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday.

The medal, he said, represents something much bigger than himself.

“The medal itself is more of a story of teamwork, never quitting, trusting in one another and doing what is right, what needs to be done,” Williams said Tuesday.

“As far as the day to day goes, I am hoping to return back to the unit — get back to my team — and continue training and get my current team ready for whatever comes next for us," he added.

Military Times: Will VA be ready to process new ‘blue water’ Vietnam veterans benefits next year?

By: Leo Shane III   16 hours ago

Veterans Affairs officials are confident they’ll be able to start processing “blue water” Vietnam veterans disability claims at the start of next year, but also acknowledged a tight timeline ahead for the training and technology work to get the department ready for those cases.

But House lawmakers expressed concerns that even minor hiccups in that work could mean significant delays for veterans who have already waited decades for their benefits.

“These people have waited too long, and we finally have the legislation in place,” said Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., ranking member on the House Veterans’ Affairs committee’s panel on disability assistance. “We need to get it done.”

In June, President Donald Trump signed into law legislation finalizing presumptive benefits status for “blue water” veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam during the war there. Under VA rules, veterans who served on land in the war are presumed to have toxic exposure related to spraying of the defoliant known as Agent Orange during the war, but sailors on ships off the coast of Vietnam were not given the same concession.

Now, with the new law, as many as 90,000 veterans could be eligible for the new presumptive status and thousands of dollars a month in disability benefits.

But the legislation allowed VA officials to delay processing those cases until Jan. 1, 2020, even though some cases were already being considered due to a federal court ruling earlier in the year.

Advocates and some lawmakers have complained that the wait has put another unfortunate burden on veterans suffering from Agent Orange exposure for decades. On Wednesday, in an update hearing before the committee, VA Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations Willie Clark repeated that the delay was needed to get department systems in line for an expected flood of claims.

In the last few days, Veterans Benefits Administration officials have sent out letters to more than 77,000 veterans whose past disability claims connected to Agent Orange exposure have been denied. Those individuals will have to refile with the department next year if they want their cases reconsidered.

Clark said a ship locator tool to help claims processor verify veterans’ assignments during the war should be finished the first week in December. New training for those processors is scheduled to be finished by December 13. Eight regional processing offices will be assigned with handling the new cases to ensure consistency and efficiency in finishing the claims reviews.

"We are on track to begin awarding the benefits on Jan. 1.”

Lawmakers said they are hopeful but wary.

Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va. and chairwoman of the disability assistance panel, questioned whether officials are scanning enough deck logs to ensure a complete look at veterans eligibility. She also echoed concerns from veterans advocates that individuals will have to navigate a confusing array of forms and other paperwork that will further delay benefits processing.

“Veterans feel the burden is always put upon them,” she said. “We want to make this as simple as possible for them instead.”

Other lawmakers voiced concerns that the department for now is not including submarines patrolling the waters, despite evidence sailors aboard would have been susceptible to the same toxic exposures.

Clark said officials are still troubleshooting those issues. He said benefits officials are committed to working with veterans to help them better understand the process, and prepared to make adjustments as needed. They will also prioritize cases of veterans more than 85 years old, and those facing terminal illnesses or financial hardship.

More information on filing for claims is available on the VA web site.

Military Times: Lawmakers have ‘no confidence’ in VA’s whistleblower protection office

By: Leo Shane III   22 hours ago

Lawmakers say they have lost confidence in the Veterans Affairs office founded to investigate whistleblower complaints and aren’t inclined to send cases there following a damning report about its operations by the department’s inspector general last week.

Members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee criticized the leader of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection during a Tuesday afternoon hearing, citing multiple failures with the agency’s investigations and limited results from the office’s work over the last two years.

“If I’m approached by a whistleblower from my district, I cannot in good conscience direct them to work with your office,” said committee chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif. “And that’s not going to change until I see some real progress.”

Separately, six Democrats from the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie lamenting “significant deficiencies” in the department’s whistleblower protection policies and demanding reforms in the accountability office.

“This is all the more surprising given the high level of publicity the administration has focused on (whistleblower protection) law and your stated commitment to protecting whistleblowers and ensuring accountability,” the note stated.

Last week, the VA inspector general offered a scathing assessment of the OAWP’s work thus far, accusing leadership of creating “an office culture that was sometimes alienating to those it was meant to protect.”

Among the most problematic findings were a lack of sufficient training for staff, an inconsistent approach to the office’s mission and responsibilities, and a refusal to investigate cases where whistleblowers wanted to remain anonymous.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Tamara Bonzanto, Assistant Secretary for Accountability and Whistleblower Protection at VA, said she has been working since her appointment six months ago to correct the office’s mistakes of the past. She said new training and oversight policies will be in place by the end of the year, and said a reorganization of the office should provide better results in months to come.

She also pushed back on Takano’s assessment that the office cannot be trusted to care for employees who want to report wrongdoing.

“If whistleblowers have a complaint, they should come to our office,” she told Military Times. “We’ve taken on a lot of major changes in the last few months. They should be confident coming to us.”

Accountability within VA’s employee ranks was a major talking point in President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Under new firing authorities signed into law by Trump in early 2017, VA has dismissed more than 8,600 employees.

But union officials and other outside advocates have complained that many of those firings are low-level employees, not senior managers more directly responsible for cultural problems within VA.

In June, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hosted another hearing on whistleblower problems within VA where several current employees complained they still face retaliation and unclear legal protections when they report problems with supervisors.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Republicans on the House committee were less critical than Takano but also expressed serious concerns that the office isn’t moving quickly enough to respond to lingering problems.

When pressed by those lawmakers if the OAWP has the “culture of accountability” needed to improve its operations, Bonzanto said she is confident it does. VA Inspector General Mike Missal testified that he isn’t as sure.

“We did not find that as we conducted our investigation,” he told lawmakers. “We’re going to take another look as we assess our implementation of our recommendations.”

McClatchy: Exclusive: Veterans want answers as new data shows rise in cancers over two decades of war

By Tara Copp,

Shirsho Dasgupta, and

Ben Wieder

October 30, 2019 04:00 AM

Veterans saw a spike in urinary, prostate, liver and blood cancers during nearly two decades of war, and some military families now question whether their exposure to toxic environments is to blame, according to a McClatchy investigation.

McClatchy found that the rate of cancer treatments for veterans at Department of Veterans Affairs health care centers increased 61 percent for urinary cancers ⁠— which include bladder, kidney and ureter cancers ⁠— from fiscal year 2000 to 2018.

The rate of blood cancer treatments ⁠— lymphoma, myeloma and leukemia ⁠— rose 18 percent in the same period. Liver and pancreatic cancer treatment rates increased 96 percent and prostate cancer treatment rates increased 23 percent.

McClatchy analyzed all billing data for veteran visits involving a cancer diagnosis at VA medical facilities from fiscal year 2000 to 2018. The data was obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. A more in-depth methodology of the review can be found here.

McClatchy selected that time frame to look at what impact the last two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on veterans’ medical needs, even as the VA continues to treat veterans from past wars.

Veteran Marine Corps Sgt. Mark S. Villamac Ho joined the military after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and deployed in early 2003 to Al Numaniyah, Iraq, as an aircraft rescue firefighter.

In Iraq he was exposed to the firefighting foam the military is removing from service due to its links to cancer, and to the open-air trash-burning pits that more than 187,000 veterans have reported made them sick.

Ho was 38 when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer, and a second cancer in his nose and throat. He is still fighting the disease and worries about the service members who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in the years after him.

“I got cancer because of my service in the military,” Ho said. “There could be hundreds, thousands of veterans behind me getting cancer.”

Many veterans still struggle to get their illnesses treated by the VA, said former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.

“We’re continuing to repeat the mistakes we have made for 50 or 60 years,” Shulkin told McClatchy. “Letting our veterans continue to wait, without the support and help that they need, is really not fulfilling the responsibility that we committed to them when they joined the military.”

Overall, the rate of cancer treatments received by veterans within the VA peaked in fiscal year 2009 and then declined over the past several years, but is significantly higher than before the September 11, 2001, attacks that led to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There were decreases too. Across all services, the rate of treatments received by veterans for brain cancer fell 33 percent, testicular cancers fell 22 percent and respiratory cancers fell 13 percent, according to McClatchy’s analysis.

When each service was analyzed, there were also sharp increases in treatments for some cancers. The rate of prostate cancer treatment in the Air Force rose 44 percent; for Marine Corps veterans the increase was 60 percent. The rate of urinary cancer treatments for Army and Navy veterans rose 56 percent; for Marine Corps veterans it was a 98 percent increase.

The rate of treatments for liver and pancreatic cancers more than doubled for both Army and Marine Corps veterans. Within the Marine Corps, there was a 112 percent increase in treatment rates; in the Army there was a 104 percent increase.

Veterans who are cancer survivors have a name for the environmental factors that may have made them sick: toxic exposure.

“If you’re one of our vets who is suffering, we need to get into the fight for you now,” said Jon Stewart, who recently advocated for continued funding for 9/11 first responders. The former late night comedy show host has now joined forces with the veterans advocacy group Burnpits360.

CANCER FINDINGS

When McClatchy presented initial findings to the VA and asked if it was concerned about the rise in cancers, the agency said it disagreed with McClatchy’s approach. The VA said an analysis of billing data would create an overcount, and that its internal cancer registry system did not show a significant rise.

“According to the latest official VA cancer data, the annual total number of cancer cases among enrolled veterans peaked in 2010 and has been declining since,” the VA said in a statement. “Colorectal and prostate cancer have been declining, while hepatocellular and skin (melanoma) cancer have been increasing. These trends largely mirror national cancer trends.”

But when viewed over the longer 2000 to 2017 time frame, the data provided to McClatchy from the VA’s cancer registry system shows an increase in some cancers. It shows the number of blood cancers increased 41 percent, while bladder, kidney and ureter cancers increased 70 percent. Skin cancers have increased 48 percent, brain cancers are up 20 percent. Liver and pancreatic cancers are up 151 percent — although they represent only a small number of actual cases. Prostate cancers are up 9 percent.

McClatchy’s analysis showed decreases in treatments for brain, respiratory and testicular cancers. VA’s cancer registry system showed increases in brain, respiratory and testicular cancers. The differing results are due to differences in methods of calculation and the makeup of the two datasets.

The VA’s cancer registry system does not provide a breakdown by different branches of the military.

While sympathetic to veterans’ concerns, Dr. Michael Kelley, chief of hematology and oncology for the VA, said much more research is needed to link a cause to the cancers.

“The time between possible exposure to a common carcinogen, for example, and the diagnosis of cancer is oftentimes measured in decades,” Kelley said. “It can be very difficult to recreate what was happening in retrospect.”

Some veterans aren’t waiting for the VA to establish causality. Instead they are busy collecting names.

‘MORE OUT THERE’

Retired Air National Guard Capt. Shelia Frankenfield and her future husband deployed within 30 days of each other to Balad, Iraq, in 2008.

In 2012, they were diagnosed with cancer two weeks apart. She with breast cancer at age 42, he with testicular cancer at age 38.

“What’s the chance that we deployed 30 days apart, at the same base, and now we both have cancer? This is not the norm,” said Frankenfield, a registered nurse. She asked that her husband not be identified because he is still serving.

Frankenfield suspects the burn pit in Balad, where air quality was monitored starting in 2004 due to waste particles that troops were breathing in. It could also be the water sources at Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg International Airport, where she was based with 1,800 members of the 193rd Air National Guard Special Operations Wing. In 2018 the Defense Department acknowledged in a report to Congress that the airfield’s water was contaminated.

Frankenfield has started to collect names of current and former members of the 193rd Air National Guard Special Operations Wing who had cancer, including those who have died, and those like her, who had to retire from the military for medical reasons.

“It’s about 100 names,” she said. “And I know there’s more out there.”

FEWER VETERANS, RISING CANCER

The number of U.S. military veterans receiving medical care from the VA has almost doubled to 6.2 million at the end of fiscal year 2018 from 3.2 million in fiscal year 2000.

The rise has occurred even as the number of U.S. military veterans overall has steadily declined, reflecting the passing of the World War II generation and military cuts in the decades since.

At the end of fiscal year 2018 there were 19.6 million military veterans, down from 26.6 million in fiscal year 2000, according to VA data.

During that same period, the total number of cancer cases treated by the VA more than doubled, to 710,215 in fiscal year 2018 from 336,453 in fiscal year 2000.

One of the limitations is that since not all veterans are eligible for, or choose, VA health care, both the dataset McClatchy obtained through FOIA and the VA’s cancer registry only capture part of the problem. That means the actual number of veterans with cancer is likely even higher.

National Guard and military reserve veterans may be eligible to have their treatments covered by the VA if they were called to active duty and can show that their injuries likely occurred while activated. Veterans who retired after a 20-year military career are eligible for care from a component of the military’s active duty medical system, TRICARE. That data is maintained by a different Defense Department health agency.

For the rest, the VA determines whether a service member is qualified for VA health care coverage based on an assessment of income or whether the illness was likely connected to their time in uniform.

“Claim approval is the gateway to health care from VA, much like a Social Security disability determination opens the door to Medicare-covered health care,” said Anthony Hardie, director of Veterans for Common Sense.

CLAIM DENIED

Doris Brock’s late husband was one of the veterans the VA denied. Chief Master Sgt. Kendall Brock retired in 2005 after serving for 35 years in the Air National Guard in New Hampshire. In late 2015, he was diagnosed with bladder and prostate cancer.

As a member of the National Guard, Kendall Brock wasn’t eligible to have his health care covered unless he could show his cancer was tied to his time in military service. The Brocks’ income level also would have disqualified his claim. He pursued medical treatment outside the VA. But the Brocks also filed paperwork to have the VA recognize the service connection, so they could receive disability compensation.

“We were denied almost immediately after the first form we filled out,” Doris Brock said.

They appealed that decision, this time highlighting “all the chemicals he had worked with as part of being an aircraft maintainer,” Brock said. His claim was denied again.

Kendall Brock died in 2017 at age 67. His widow is still trying to get the VA to recognize his claim.

The number of veterans not getting treated, and therefore not being counted, frustrates advocates.

“You cannot get treatment at the VA if you are not service-connected,” said Derek Fronabarger, legislative director of the Wounded Warrior Project. “It irks me a little bit when the [VA] says, ‘Oh no, the data isn’t there.’ But they are not capturing the data because they are not treating all of the individuals who are sick.”

If the government acknowledges widespread service-connected links to cancer, it could get prohibitively expensive, very fast.

Some late-stage cancer treatments can cost upwards of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, said retired Navy Cmdr. Mike Crosby, a career F-14 pilot who formed the group Veterans Prostate Cancer Awareness, Inc.

SIMILAR STORIES

Some service members died from cancer while still on active duty. Army Sgt. Curt Forshey was on his second deployment to Iraq when he got a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop.

After his nose bled again, doctors sent him to Kuwait. Curt Forshey called his wife, Laura, and told her he had just been diagnosed with leukemia.

Within hours, he was on a medical evacuation flight to Germany.

By the time Laura Forshey landed in Germany to meet him, Curt was already in a medically induced coma.

He died the next day at age 22.

Laura Forshey waited years to join a support group for grieving military spouses. But now she is meeting more widows like her, who did not lose their spouses to combat, but to cancer.

“Their stories are very similar,” Forshey said. “They were in the same locations, or the same years. The same symptoms,” she said. “The cancer stories start to get linked together. And then the military was the bigger link.”

This year the Defense Department is looking into at least one area of toxic exposure. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has directed a task force to address the widespread concerns about the military’s firefighting foam. The review will include the cost of clean up, an assessment of the foam’s impact and how to make it easier for veterans exposed to it to have their illnesses covered by the VA.

The foam’s cancer-linked compounds were found in the water of “more than 400 installations and their surrounding communities,” Esper wrote in a memo directing the task force. “The Department is committed to taking a strong and proactive stance to address the effects.”

‘I WANT TO LIVE’

From the hospital bed at the VA Loma Linda Healthcare System in California in 2017, Ho called his older brother, a Marine Corps Master Sergeant. The line got very quiet. Ho started to cry.

“I was literally only able to say, ‘Yeah, they diagnosed me with cancer. Myeloma.’”

The rate of blood cancer treatments for veterans is up 18 percent across the military services and up 30 percent among Marine Corps veterans, according to McClatchy’s analysis of the billing data.

The VA has recognized Ho’s service connection and is covering his cancer treatments.

After doctors gave him the news, Ho went online to find out what myeloma meant for his future. In his post-Marine Corps life, he had focused on work and his hip hop musical career. He had put off marriage.

He looked up survivability rates. “That’s the first thing I was looking for, was hope,” Ho said. He learned he may only have five years.

“I remember being on the hospital bed, and I was like … F**k, I messed up. I should have a family by now. I should be married,” he said. “I was like, now what? You only got five years left. Now it’s too late.”

That was two years ago. Stem cell replacement, radiation and chemotherapy have kept the disease in check, and Ho sees a VA counselor regularly to help him navigate the mental health challenges of living with cancer.

“This has been a very spiritual journey for me,” Ho said. “I want to live. I trust the VA to help me live.”

McClatchy video producer Reshma Kirpalani contributed to this report.

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