Opinion about the VA – Veterans Issues

VA strikes against Hill assertions over corrupt agency

Bruce Steele
2:01 PM EST

Q: What is the difference between the VA administration and the Boy Scouts?
A: Adult leadership.

1/21/2016 7:41 PM EST

Then VA is corrupt! It is so badly broken the only way to “fix” the myriad problems existing within the system is to “blow it up and start over.” Senior management is part of the problem, not the solution. But the real problem is the entire government employment system that protects incompetent, lazy, and ignorant employees. Additionally, their hiring of medical professionals who CANNOT communicate effectively in English is abominable.

Tall Paul
1/21/2016 1:38 PM EST

Gibson relies heavily on one of the Obama Administration’s favorite tactics: the strawman argument. Gibson tries to convince people that the agency is only being accused of corruption. Sure, corruption is one of the complaints, but the biggest and most accurate complaint is that the VA is being terribly mismanaged. Gibson doesn’t have much of a defense to that complaint, so he pretends that critics are only complaining about corruption

1/21/2016 11:13 AM EST.

Been going to Hines IL for over 10 years. It would be like picking “Low Hanging Fruit” for a committee to walk through and eliminate the non-functional workers.
Professional staff is excellent. Unqualified managers in departments and amazing improvements to the façade which does not improve services to veterans. Needs a house cleaning, big time. I understand workers can not be fired. That’s the issue.

1/21/2016 10:30 AM EST.

I use the VA and I don’t have many good things to say about it. It’s very difficult to get appointments. The only positive thing I can say is the VA mail order prescription program is efficient.

10:11 AM EST

VA mail order prescription They operate just like your local drug dealer. They have turned most vets into drug addicts. My cousin recently died. I went to the post office to pick up his mail. They gave me two large envelopes containing several bottles of class narcotics. No wonder my cousin appeared to be high all the time. His daily dosage of 8 10mg Oxycodone would have killed the average person. There was also at 300 lower tabs.
The VA hands out drugs faster than any drug dealer. He had already hooked his wife on the drugs and she was fighting mad when I told the post office he was dead and to return them to sender.

1/21/2016 10:30 AM EST

VA / total corruption. Giant cost overruns on building but zero improvement in goals to help the very folks it was designed to assist. It has become a huge joke. Suggest anyone go to their local VA and view strange set up.
Should eliminate the entire Dept. & allow veterans to use regular hospitals.
Save trillions of dollars, both in buildings, cost to run, over inflated employees, over charge/services & equipment. etc. Close them down. Useless

1/21/2016 9:32 AM EST

I have used at least 7 different VA hospitals and clinics in 6 different States since the late 70s. Care and access have improved greatly since I started. Some are better than others and all together in my opinion they are no better or worse than the private sector. In some areas related to combat physical and mental trauma, some VA medical centers are much better. After Bush and the Congress voted for war and did not vote for major increase in VA budget due to ignorance, and arrogance about our casualties from invading and occupying and destroying 2 countries, the VA went along with assuming there would not be much in the way of new patients. The result was a fight between the VA, the Congress and President Bush for increasing the budget. Meanwhile the backlog got bigger and bigger. To make things worse, the VA and DOD had a memo or understanding for the VA to see active duty soldiers which should have been the DODs responsibility to take care of their own. The VA was set up for civilian veterans of war and not soldiers. This complicated things even worse in some VAs where there were military bases nearby. And guard and reserves who were either back from deployments or waiting for another deployment started using the VA either while activated or between activations. All this ignorance and arrogance by the politicians and heads of the VA helped cause the problem. It took us in the veteran service organizations to point out the stats and lobby these idiots to fully fund the VA. And then they had a hard time recruiting new practitioners. Still the VA today is much, much better than in the 60s an 70s and early 80s. Context is important when weeding out bad apples. The politicians are using the VA as a political football while they run their patriotic BS lines while running for office. As a combat vet having used the VA and private medical care, and having worked for the VA and in the private sector as a practitioner, I have a bit of experience for my opinion.

1/20/2016 3:35 PM EST

Here is the thing that ticks us off. WAPO can continue to write these articles and nothing will happen until Congress and the VA HEADS decide implement a new program which speaks directly to the Veterans (not some BS survey) who are using the services to find out just how long it takes for an appointment and then any followup appointments the Dr. tells you to reschedule.
With problems all across the nation, here is an idea. How about hiring Veterans to go and monitor a sample of hospitals and clinics and let them audit and takes samples for 6 months (sitting with the people who make appointments and the medical staff). Analyze the results, write a report and go back and sit with Congress and the VA at the same conference room table to go over the real facts. Then maybe the individual employees and their direct supervisors will start being held accountable. How do I know the system is screwed up? I am a disabled vet who stays as far away as I can paying my own insurance and copays. Acute condition means present day not 3 months later that the VA can get you a scheduled appointment for the medical condition.

william j mcintyre md
1/21/2016 6:35 AM EST [Edited]

I am a Vietnam veteran with two conditions related to Agent Orange exposure. I filed a claim with the Lexington, Kentucky Veterans Administration campus last July. From reading news articles I expected horrible service and long delays. I was pleasantly surprised by stellar service, prompt appointments and also prompt consideration of my application for disability benefits.

Mike Rone
1/20/2016 2:08 PM EST

The VA is so far beyond mere corruption, they offer post college graduate classes in political vice and corruption !! No where else on this planet do you see more laziness and rudeness from people who are paid (quite well ) to help you. And on top of it all m they have a benefits package that is solid gold. Not that Obama(don’t)care crap. Real insurance, where the doctors actually clean the thermometers off and keep them all separate per their “job” Want to cut fraud, waste and abuse in government?? Close the VA, Hire new people who will actually have to work for a living, preferably veterans !!

1/20/2016 12:41 PM EST

More Republicans vying for the Vindictiveness Prize: how can rake more people over the coals while we insult and demean the VA even more? Be nice if Republicans could take out more of their ire on the likely criminal fraud and waste on Wall Street, but I’m not holding my breath.

1/21/2016 8:31 PM EST

I’m a liberal democrat. the VA sucks.

Erick Smith
1/20/2016 11:53 AM EST

Those of us that have worked at a VA Hospital know what really goes on. Corruption? Yup, treating Veterans differently because they are service connected or non-service connected? Yup. Many lof us ex-employees have reported fraud, waste and abuse to the VA’s OIG under the “Rewards Program. These filings have actually been proven true by the VA OIG and yet, we are not rewarded at all, which is a shame. Being a “whistleblower” usually means losing your job and federal benefits, but again, no compensation. The VA still needs to be revamped.

Eric Rothman
1/20/2016 6:42 PM EST

Corruption? Yes. Also incompetence. Is it all pervasive? No, but it is a lingering infection that bogs down the whole body. There’s enough of it to seriously impede the full and proper function, and it presents at the health care facilities. A few years ago I needed an MRI of my abdomen, it only took 5 months. I’ve been scheduled, canceled, rescheduled and canceled again for an MRI of my neck for a chronic problem that’s been diagnosed for years. It’s been getting worse, but they waited because someone thought I had an implanted electrical stimulation device. A simple review of my many X-rays would reveal no such device. It’s now on again, but no date has been set. I have been treated as a hypochondriac, malingerer, and “uppity”. I’ve also received some great care by folks who really are concerned about my well being. I got an operation I really needed, so what if I woke up on the table during it? “You hallucinated it” I was told. It was retribution because I’d declined a spinal the anesthesiologist really, really wanted to do. He even tried to change my mind (for the 5th time) as I was going under.
I depend on them for all my health care, and I’m grateful for what they do. I recently got a new primary care doctor, 7th in 5 years, I hope she doesn’t get sucked into the system, but don’t see how she can help it. Everyone should read this:


to see what a large part of the problem is, they can’t get rid of some dead wood even if they want to, which isn’t all that often. I guess hurry up and wait is better than hurry up and die.

Mathew Peterson
1/20/2016 11:38 AM EST

The hardest thing there is to see is a person in pain and misery, and the VA can do it with a straight face, while making you wait in the 6 month line.

1/20/2016 11:46 AM EST

Veterans who only have to wait six months are lucky. A decade, or two, of waiting isn’t out of the ordinary, nor are the consequences of such a wait, e.g., homelessness, bankruptcy, ruined credit …

1/20/2016 9:33 AM EST

As a vet who has used the VA in 2 different states, 3 hospitals, and several local clinics, my take is that there is plainly a resources problem..drive by a VA hospital parking lot and see how full it is. Maybe a news crew go go inside and see the hughe number if vets getting care.) There is a common thread in all this VA bashing. Lack of funding. Do people really think that people are so corrupt that they intentionally delay available appointments just because they they are to lay to enter it into the computer. It’s amazing how some disability wait time were reduced when overtime was authorized to speed up the process.
It also might be helpful if there was story about just what the VA does. I have many rants complaining about things that are not in the job of the VA. Anytime the VA does not do what someone wants, some think the VA is at fault not that that is the VA’s function.

1/21/2016 7:59 PM EST

The VA is run by silly middle schoolers. Your basic 100 bed rural hospital in Georgia runs more efficiently than any VA hospital. You could look it up.

1/21/2016 5:59 PM EST

Miller and Moran should resign if incompetency is the yardstick. They and their Republican’t peers have been paid for the past 6 years and have accomplished nothing, nada, zip, zero. Talk about wasting the taxpayers money. Clowns on their side of the aisle like Gowdy, Gormet, Issa, have wasted millions of dollars on phony, useless investigations. ” Send in the clowns, don’t bother, their already here.”

1/21/2016 11:13 AM EST

Been going to Hines IL for over 10 years. It would be like picking “Low Hanging Fruit” for a committee to walk through and eliminate the non-functional workers.
Professional staff is excellent. Unqualified managers in departments and amazing improvements to the façade which does not improve services to veterans. Needs a house cleaning, big time. I understand workers can not be fired. That’s the issue.

1/21/2016 10:44 AM EST

Congress is no position to point fingers at any agency when it comes to corruption or lack of accountability. What has this and the previous 6 Congress’ done to help the country?

1/21/2016 10:30 AM EST

I use the VA and I don’t have many good things to say about it. It’s very difficult to get appointments. The only positive thing I can say is the VA mail order prescription program is efficient.

10:11 AM EST

VA mail order prescription They operate just like your local drug dealer. They have turned most vets into drug addicts. My cousin recently died. I went to the post office to pick up his mail. They gave me two large envelopes containing several bottles of class narcotics. No wonder my cousin appeared to be high all the time. His daily dosage of 8 10mg Oxycodone would have killed the average person. There was also at 300 lower tabs.
The VA hands out drugs faster than any drug dealer. He had already hooked his wife on the drugs and she was fighting mad when I told the post office he was dead and to return them to sender.

Bruce Steele
2:11 PM EST

I hear you. It is not the mail order system at fault but whoever writes the scripts who is at fault. My personal experience has been positive which no over-fills or duplicates. I will confess to receiving another vet’s anti-depressants in the mail a couple of years ago, which I took to the VA pharmacy the following day. When the pharmacist saw the error, I thought she was going to get a sudden onset of carpel tunnel keying corrections into her computer.

1/20/2016 2:47 PM EST [Edited]

There were 28 employees disciplined. How many thousands of people work for VA? Yes, we know, the TeaBaggies are having a great ole time, kicking the Veteran’s Administration, knowing they won’t get kicked back — but the legislators don’t care what kind of damage they do to the VA as long as they get their jollies. Wooo hoooo! They get to call people names, insult them, smear the whole huge group, and *nothing* happens to them!
And it encourages other people to insult the VA. Just take a look at that “Mike” guy, below. Would he do that to their faces? Of course not! But it’s safe for trolls to bluster and shout on the Internet; nothing happens to them.
An awful lot happens to the VA, though. People who work there are repeatedly and publicly insulted — does good to their morale, doesn’t it? The veterans, the vast majority of whom get excellent care, are made dubious and distrustful of their caregivers. People back away from applying to work at the VA.
But what do the TeaBaggies care? Hey, here’s a big juicy target that can’t kick back. Just sail in and start kicking!

1/20/2016 3:36 PM EST

You’re emotional calm down. Tea baggies? Where do you come up with this crap?

william j mcintyre md
1/21/2016 6:35 AM EST [Edited]

I am a Vietnam veteran with two conditions related to Agent Orange exposure. I filed a claim with the Lexington, Kentucky Veterans Administration campus last July. From reading news articles I expected horrible service and long delays. I was pleasantly surprised by stellar service, prompt appointments and also prompt consideration of my application for disability benefits.

1/21/2016 8:02 PM EST

You have claims. I bet you walk with a cane. Sometimes.

1/20/2016 2:17 PM EST

The bigger obstacle to the VA trying to clean house is the MSPB. You may recall that the director of the Phoenix VAMC, Sharon Helman, was removed on charges of negligence and accepting improper gifts from a contractor, but the MSPB overturned the charges of negligence and left only the improper gifts charge to stand. Now she is appealing to get her job back. Thanks, MSPB!

1/21/2016 10:31 AM EST

What is the MSPB?

1/21/2016 1:17 PM EST

Merit Systems Protection Board. Created by law in 1978. Has jurisdiction over appeals of adverse actions from the civil service. Ensures due process, protection of employee rights. Important to note, however, that MSPB affirms far more agency adverse actions than it rejects.

1/21/2016 2:13 PM EST

My apologies, Capsize. I should have clarified that. Psykomagician, thanks for the clarification, and you’re correct that the MSPB tends to support agency actions, but I also find that some of the “no brainer” cases still tend to get overturned (full disclosure: I’m a VA employee and labor relations manager, so my point of view is obviously biased).
My thought is that the MSPB should not be able to mitigate a penalty to a lesser action, because that puts them in the armchair quarterback role of pretending to know more than the agency about the work, the environment, and the misconduct. They should only be allowed to sustain or overturn an action, and should only be able to do so in cases of partisan political activity or abrogation of due process.

Mike Rone
1/20/2016 2:08 PM EST

The VA is so far beyond mere corruption, they offer post college graduate classes in political vice and corruption !! No where else on this planet do you see more laziness and rudeness from people who are paid (quite well ) to help you. And on top of it all m they have a benefits package that is solid gold. Not that Obama(don’t)care crap. Real insurance, where the doctors actually clean the thermometers off and keep them all separate per their “job” Want to cut fraud, waste and abuse in government?? Close the VA, Hire new people who will actually have to work for a living, preferably veterans !!

1/20/2016 2:51 PM EST

You feel better now?
1/20/2016 12:41 PM EST
More Republicans vying for the Vindictiveness Prize: how can rake more people over the coals while we insult and demean the VA even more? Be nice if Republicans could take out more of their ire on the likely criminal fraud and waste on Wall Street, but I’m not holding my breath.

Mathew Peterson
1/20/2016 11:38 AM EST

The hardest thing there is to see is a person in pain and misery, and the VA can do it with a straight face, while making you wait in the 6 month line.

1/20/2016 11:46 AM EST

Veterans who only have to wait six months are lucky. A decade, or two, of waiting isn’t out of the ordinary, nor are the consequences of such a wait, e.g., homelessness, bankruptcy, ruined credit …

1/20/2016 11:11 AM EST

“Twenty-eight employees have been implicated in scheduling improprieties and all have been subject to disciplinary actions, from reprimand to removal, according to Gibson” – is anyone going to jail?

Mike Griggs
1/20/2016 10:11 AM EST

if i ran a multi-billion organization, my back accounts were as fat as these upper management government bureaucrats, i defend the sinking ship as well. since 2001 involved with the VA thanks to my governments decision to let us bath in agent orange. it just keeps going from bad to worse. even in the system you can’t get appointments under a 6 month spread here in colorado springs. the protocols and procedures keep changing producing less and less. this is no longer a health care agency, this is no longer about the veterans.

1/20/2016 2:52 PM EST

They don’t have enough personnel because they don’t have enough money to hire them? Why, let’s cut the budget! That’ll teach that VA a lesson, won’t it?

1/20/2016 9:46 AM EST

As a retired Fiscal/Budget/COO I can tell you funding is not the problem. You could cut the VA 10% or more and still get the job done with the proper management. Every scandal brings a re-organization (another name for position name change and moving people around to make it look like something is being done. More people are hired and the same amount of work is produced. Perhaps if doctors would see more than 15 outpatients a day there would not be a backlog. Perhaps if all physicians were educated in the US things would be better. Perhaps if all physicians were licensed in the state where the VA was located things would be better. Perhaps is diversity quotas were not underlying promotions things would be better, perhaps if all or most of management were veterans (they once were) things would be better. Finally if the “good old boy” portion system and protection system were not in place things would be better. The healthcare network is way to large to manage from DC and no matter how many times you reorganize little kingdoms run by the same individuals will exist.

fed up disabled vet
1/20/2016 8:25 AM EST

I am a Disabled vet that utilizes the Martinsburg WV VA hospital. I am a former supervisor for the same facility. If you contact me, I have had actual crimes committed against me both as a employee and later as a patient. These were reported to senior level managers( director and assistant director) and ignored. I was fired do to one of my service condition. I also have witnesses that will be glad to testify to these actions. I have made complaints to the VA attorney General that went unanswered. Contact me if you want facts that can be verified. This is just one facility. I cannot speak for the others.

1/20/2016 5:26 AM EST

I’ve been under VA care since I was medically discharged in 1987. I won’t, actually I can’t, complain about the medical care I have received and it’s apparent by all of these congressional inquires that most management from the lower tier to the upper tiers has been the target of public scorn. When upper management allows millions in cost over runs on one project as is the case in Denver and then finds secret lists elsewhere, you know the administration end of the VA needs a high colonic. From my own personal experience: I almost lost both legs when part of a building collapsed on me as a result of a truck bombing in Lebanon. After twenty years, the legs became weaker and three doctors signed off on my request for an electric wheelchair. However, the request was denied because someone in the approval process couldn’t find any “evidence of service connected injury”. In 1987, VA records weren’t all in computerized formats. I appealed twice and at the second appeals hearing, I brought in copies of the same paper records the VA had stored in filing cabinets showing the injuries sustained in the terror attack. The fact, is ineptness is rampant in the system from an administration point of view. That’s what Congress is targeting – the ability and quality of the follow through by VA administration not the healthcare given to our vets.

Wes Carter
1/20/2016 4:47 AM EST

I CANNOT agree with WSJ’s January 13 report on VA “indifference.” My experience since 1992 has been quite the opposite, other than a few instances where staffers were in an inappropriate position of authority. Instead VA has been amazingly attentive to my concerns, and concerns of the veterans of our C-123 Veterans Association.
For instance, this MLK holiday weekend a dedicated claims manager in the VA St Paul Regional Office has been reviewing veterans’ claims and resolving many which are complex or have been stalled to long.
That same staffer has been available for detailed inquiries, and has resolved claims with amazing speed when a terminal veteran first sought care and benefits..
Mr. McDonald’s leadership cannot inspire everyone at VA nor can he do the work of all 300,000 employees. His leadership, however, is as telling as it can be. I cannot imagine any cabinet officer working as hard at such a thankless job.
As for medical care, I’ve had some disappointments but in the decades since my injury, probably fewer complaints with VA than I’d have had with my civilian practitioners, and certainly a more comprehensive package of care offered me…dental, prosthetics, rehab, pharmacy, ophthalmology, general medicine and other benefits essential to a disabled veteran.
Veterans are lucky to be able to say to Secretary McDonald, “Thank you for YOUR service!”

1/20/2016 1:04 AM EST

To say this is a Republican thing or Dem thing is totally wrong. Some where the tone has been set in regards to the treatment of the vets. As fight the power stated, I worked in the casino business and as he said, there is no excuse for a mistake or not knowing the regs. NIGC, IGRA, and other state and local rules apply. A person can go to jail for failure to follow the laws. VA is an institution that needs to be reworked. Someone made a comment about the Republicans wanting to privatize the post office. Well right now it is in the red again. Post office is a failure. This is government run. As a vet I cannot fault the doctors or nurses for the services they provide. But when it comes to appointments, that is a different story. As another person wrote about his claim being looked at for 7 years, this is the norm. Then it will get denied then a person will appeal which in effect the VA will say as they did here in Seattle, “We had 20,000 claims and we cut them down to 7,000.” This statement is actually true. The other part of this statement is that the 13,000 were denied so in effect the claims were cut. They most likely will get appealed by many. Many will give up. This is the sad part that the vets will give up on things they have earned by the service they provided. Vets that gave and didn’t sit on the sidelines. As for the prisons being privatized, this cost to be private is lower then to be government run. Of course this depends on the location. As for medical, I can’t give you an educated opinion on that. Homesweethome is right, you can’t make this stuff up. The VA needs to be reworked from the top. It is corrupt, that is true. If anyone doubts me, I worked at the call center and I have seen it. One more thing, at the regional office in Oakland, they threw away thousands of claims. Nothing was done about that. In the mean time our veterans are waiting for the VA to help them.

1/19/2016 11:44 PM EST

President Trump will authorize Attorney General Giuliani to conduct a thorough and complete investigation into the corruption of the VA administrators. Expect indictments and convictions. Trump takes this issue more seriously than anyone can possibly imagine.



Various issues, including high unemployment and loss of limbs, afflict the lives of America’s combat veterans trying to make a new life on “Civvy Street.” Advanced medical care has preserved the lives of badly wounded, who would have died in previous wars. These articles are posted to inform the general public about the issues that confront men and women who have served in the armed forces.

Finding a job biggest challenge for veterans, survey finds



Marines hang-out in the recreation area at the Wounded Warriors barracks aboard Camp Pendleton January 12, 2011.

By: Hope Hodge

7/17/2012 12:35 PM

Within five to seven years, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that more than one million new veterans will enter their system, in need of disability claims processing, health care, and more.

The influx is both enormous (the VA reports it served 1.3 million veterans in total during 2011) and inevitable: with combat ending and the ranks narrowing after a decade and a half of war, many troops will begin the natural process of transitioning out of the military and returning to civilian life.

The VA that will receive them is already overburdened, battling a veterans’ claims backlog of over a decade that swept past 600,000 overdue claims just last week and shows no clear signs of improvement.

“This is disgraceful. This is an insult to our veterans. And you guys just recycle old programs and put new names on them,” House Veterans Affairs committee ranking member Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) exploded at a June 19 hearing, before testimony was even under way. “We just keep announcing new names, new pilot programs, on and on. If it wasn’t tragic, it would be ridiculous.”

By Fiscal Year 2013, federal funding for veterans, at $140 billion, could surpass total federal funding for education. The VA, including all claims centers and hospitals, employs about 300,000 workers, and 3,300 of those employees have been hired since the start of FY 2010 just to augment the staff processing disability claims. But money and manpower has not been enough to stem the worsening problem of connecting veterans to healthcare and benefits in a timely fashion.

l Backlogged claims: The VA defines a backlogged claim as one not processed within the department’s goal timeframe of 125 days. The claim is the first step in the disability process, and a granted claim, awarded by percentages according to the severity of a service-connected illness or injury, results in a set cash benefit. The backlog dates back to the 1990s and has grown rapidly in recent months. From January 2011 to the week ended July 9, the backlog roughly doubled, from 300,000 claims to just over 600,000. More than two-thirds of all pending claims, each representing an ailing or injured veteran, are now dragging months behind schedule.

l Long waits: The average claim adjudication wait time is as few as 183 days or as many as 300, depending on who you ask. Claims processed in Oakland, Calif., the second-worst backlogged region in the nation according to a May Inspector General’s report, take nearly a year to get approved or denied. The backlog worsened in 2010 when VA Secretary Eric Shinseki added a handful of new medical conditions to the list of ailments presumed connected with exposure to the Vietnam-era herbicide Agent Orange, a move that was lauded by veterans’ groups. But this month the VA officials announced they were nearing the end of processing about 230,000 retroactive Agent Orange claims. And the majority of the nearly 920,000 total claims still pending before the department remain overdue.

l Paper-based system: Lacking technology also slows the process: the VA and Department of Defense use largely incompatible information technology systems, unable to easily communicate regarding veterans’ health records. And, the claims system remains largely paper-based, a decade into the 21st century. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said he was most frustrated with the outdated mechanics of the system, making it taxing on veterans and susceptible to human error.

“What you have now is World War II veterans relegated to carrying boxes of papers down the hallways of (the Veterans Benefits Administration) or regional offices in an attempt to get their claims adjudicated,” he said. “And that’s not right.”

VA knows it has problems

VA officials are amply aware of the problem. On June 19, VA undersecretary for benefits Allison Hickey testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee that a new electronic Veterans’ Benefits Management System would break the back of the backlog by 2015, processing claims on time with 98 percent accuracy, in spite of the new wave of veterans entering the system. More recently, Hickey told reporters the department plans to fast-track certain claims to regional offices to speed the process of resolution.

But the announcements are the last in a long series of shiny promises, all trumpeting dynamic changes expected to cut through layers of bureaucracy and clear the wait list—and all failing to deliver. As early as 2001, according to archives kept by the blog VAWatchdog.org, the VA was touting a new 120-day task force aimed at making the claims system current. A decade ago, those 120 days came and went.

To hear some lawmakers describe it, the entrenched bureaucracy of the VA is like Pilgrim’s Progress author John Bunyan’s Slough of Despond, in that “here have been swallowed up at least twenty thousand cart-loads, yea, millions of wholesome instructions”—all unsuccessful at providing a clear way above the mire.

Business sense

But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who discussed improving care available for military brain injuries and making healthcare vouchers available for veterans while he was on the presidential campaign trail earlier this year, told Human Events in an interview that the answer lies not in more money or more people, but in a fundamental rethinking of the Department of Veterans Affairs. One such effort he proposed: inviting a brain trust of successful business leaders to tackle the VA in a way that could inject the department with market urgency and efficiency.

“If McDonald’s can report worldwide (store sales) at five o’clock every evening,” Gingrich said, with a wry grin. “I suspect, by the way, that one White House dinner that had the right 40 people, all of whom had to have at least a billion dollars in assets, would have so much talent devoted to reforming the VA the following morning, so many resources made available to the VA the following morning, that it would be startling.” Gingrich said choosing those with experience as industry leaders to head the VA could also help to put systems back on track.

“You end up with retired people, academics, what have you, people for whom it’s a good job,” he said.

“These are jobs that are so big you don’t want somebody for whom it’s a good job; you want somebody who has already done a job this size.”

Miller also saw hope in a free market opportunity.

“I have often said if the federal government would offer some young group of software developers a million dollars to develop a patch that would allow the DoD and VA systems to communicate, they’d do it in 24 hours,” he said, during an interview with Human Events in his office. “But people, being the humans that they are, like staying with what they know. Unfortunately, it isn’t serving the veterans who are trying to get their disability ratings decided.”

Take a page from the IRS

At the June 19 hearing, Filner pointed out that not all government bureaucracies function with the seeming lack of urgency for which people fault the VA. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, speedily processed millions of tax returns annually by assuming information submitted was accurate, then auditing periodically to encourage honesty and root out fraud.

“Grant the claim, subject to audit,” Filner said. “Send out the check, do something.”

Two relatively junior members of the committee, both physicians who previously served in private practices, offered a more nuanced option: establish a fast-track system for claims of tinnitus, or hearing loss. Touted as the number-one service-connected disability each year by the American Tinnitus Association—over 840,000 veterans received compensation for tinnitus in FY 2011—the condition is also easy to diagnose with a simple examination.

“Hearing, you can test it pretty easily, make those determinations,” Rep Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) told Human Events. “Many veterans have been in combat; It just happens. Those are simple things they should get off the table.”

Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) said he planned to introduce a bill, in this legislative session or the next, to make tinnitus a presumptive temporary assignment.

“Audiology, it’s a simple determination: a guy has hearing loss or he doesn’t. Why does that take 18 months then to make a determination that a guy has a hearing loss?” Benishek told Human Events. “Why can’t we make a temporary disability for hearing loss, get him his benefits immediately? Why can’t we eliminate that 30 percent from the backlog and speed up the process.”

According to worksheets provided by the VA, a hearing loss claim grant now requires completion of five steps, included review of a veteran’s medical records and history, before diagnosis and claim adjudication can be made.

Challenge veterans service organizations

Gingrich laid much of the onus for sparking change within the VA at the feet of veterans service organizations, the congressionally charted, independent advocates for veterans.

“With very bold and dramatic change, for that the veterans’ organizations would have to decide that they are prepared to see change at the VA. I think today they’re not prepared to say that,” he said.

“Their job is to represent the veterans, and they ought to be clear and aggressive about whether they think this generation of veterans is getting the care they need in the way they need it, in a timely manner and a convenient manner. I think it’s very hard to answer yes to that.”

Gingrich said he suspected many organizations calculated it was safer to work within the bureaucracy than to anger decision makers and risk losing valuable access and clout.

Filner’s June 19 rant did not spare the organizations either.

“Why are you so afraid of blowing up the whole system? Why are you guys playing their game?” he asked. “You represent the veterans. Do something real.”

Human Events reached out to two of the highest-profile organizations, Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars, for comment.

VFW Public Affairs director Joe Davis said more attention should be paid to the positive work of the VA in adjudicating thousands of new Agent Orange claims from those who served in the Vietnam era, welcoming large numbers of veterans into an already overburdened system, and taking steps to provide ample care for veterans of the current conflict immediately following their years of service. In spite of speed bumps, the department, he said, was on the right track.

“You’ve got to look at the big picture instead of just banging,” Davis said.

David Autry, deputy national director of Communications for DAV, said veterans’ organizations were working hard to assist the VA’s efforts to implement an electronic system and to challenge poor performance.

“We have to work within the system that we have, but we are continually urging the VA to straighten up and fly right,” he said.

Start fresh

Jim Strickland, a Vietnam veteran and manager of VAWatchdog.org, is tired of watching veterans struggle to play by outmoded rules.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs is hopelessly broken and the really big problem is until Congress acts decisively, VA will not repair itself,” he told Human Events. They need to remodel the Department of Veterans Affairs. They need to reorganize the VA and give them a new mandate.”

Strickland said that despite ample funding, the system was often arcane, operating by laws and disability schedules created decades ago.

As the system stands, he said, “the VA is at war with veterans.”

In Congress, some are beginning to acknowledge that the department is at a tipping point.

“The VA is well intended as it is, and it still moves at glacial speed,” Roe said. “If it continues to get worse, you do have to think outside the box.”

Gingrich said a fundamental re-conception of the VA was in order to make the system convenient for veterans rather than bureaucrats and give more attention to post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, the signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The issue was so important, he said, that he would like to see it a part of the Republican presidential platform.

“We’re faced with a new generation of veterans’ problems vastly different than earlier ones,” he said.

Miller suggested his committee might be able to pursue more aggressive solutions for reforming the VA after the end of combat activity in Afghanistan, and said he was willing to countenance a more radical change.

“We do know that throwing money and people at the problem hasn’t solved it,” he said.

Invited to comment on this story, VA spokesman Josh Taylor referred to the electronic management system for claims, reiterating the department’s goal of resolving the backlog by 2015.

“This administration has shown unwavering commitment to serve Veterans,” the spokesman said in a statement. “VA has completed a record-breaking 1 million claims per year the last two fiscal years, and we are on target to complete another 1 million claims in FY2012. But too many veterans have to wait too long to get the benefits they have earned and deserve.”


Military suicides rising, even as combat eases


WASHINGTON (AP) — Suicides are surging among America’s troops, averaging nearly one a day this year — the fastest pace in the nation’s decade of war.

The 154 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year far outdistance the U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan — about 50 percent more — according to Pentagon statistics obtained by The Associated Press.

The numbers reflect a military burdened with wartime demands from Iraq and Afghanistan that have taken a greater toll than foreseen a decade ago.

The military also is struggling with increased sexual assaults, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and other misbehavior.

Because suicides had leveled off in 2010 and 2011, this year’s upswing has caught some officials by surprise.

The reasons for the increase are not fully understood. Among explanations, studies have pointed to combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems. Army data suggest soldiers with multiple combat tours are at greater risk of committing suicide, although a substantial proportion of Army suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed.

The unpopular war in Afghanistan is winding down with the last combat troops scheduled to leave at the end of 2014. But this year has seen record numbers of soldiers being killed by Afghan troops, and there also have been several scandals involving U.S. troop misconduct.

The 2012 active-duty suicide total of 154 through June 3 compares to 130 in the same period last year, an 18 percent increase. And it’s more than the 136.2 suicides that the Pentagon had projected for this period based on the trend from 2001-2011. This year’s January-May total is up 25 percent from two years ago, and it is 16 percent ahead of the pace for 2009, which ended with the highest yearly total thus far.

Suicide totals have exceeded U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan in earlier periods, including for the full years 2008 and 2009.

The suicide pattern varies over the course of a year, but in each of the past five years the trend through May was a reliable predictor for the full year, according to a chart based on figures provided by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner.

The numbers are rising among the 1.4 million active-duty military personnel despite years of effort to encourage troops to seek help with mental health problems. Many in the military believe that going for help is seen as a sign of weakness and thus a potential threat to advancement.

Kim Ruocco, widow of Marine Maj. John Ruocco, a helicopter pilot who hanged himself in 2005 between Iraq deployments, said he was unable to bring himself to go for help.

“He was so afraid of how people would view him once he went for help,” she said in an interview at her home in suburban Boston. “He thought that people would think he was weak, that people would think he was just trying to get out of redeploying or trying to get out of service, or that he just couldn’t hack it – when, in reality, he was sick. He had suffered injury in combat and he had also suffered from depression and let it go untreated for years. And because of that, he’s dead today.”

Jackie Garrick, head of a newly established Defense Suicide Prevention Office at the Pentagon, said in an interview Thursday that the suicide numbers this year are troubling.

“We are very concerned at this point that we are seeing a high number of suicides at a point in time where we were expecting to see a lower number of suicides,” she said, adding that the weak U.S. economy may be confounding preventive efforts even as the pace of militarydeployments eases.

Garrick said experts are still struggling to understand suicidal behavior.

“What makes one person become suicidal and another not is truly an unknown,” she said.

Dr. Stephen N. Xenakis, a retired Army brigadier general and a practicing psychiatrist, said the suicides reflect the level of tension as the U.S. eases out of Afghanistan though violence continues.

“It’s a sign in general of the stress the Army has been under over the 10 years of war,” he said in an interview. “We’ve seen before that these signs show up even more dramatically when the fighting seems to go down and the Army is returning to garrison.”

But Xenakis said he worries that many senior military officers do not grasp the nature of the suicide problem.

A glaring example of that became public when a senior Army general recently told soldiers considering suicide to “act like an adult.”

Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of the 1st Armored Division, last month retracted — but did not apologize for — a statement in his Army blog in January. He had written, “I have now come to the conclusion that suicide is an absolutely selfish act.” He also wrote, “”I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess. Be an adult, act like an adult, and deal with your real-life problems like the rest of us.” He did also counsel soldiers to seek help.

His remarks drew a public rebuke from the Army, which has the highest number of suicides and called his assertions “clearly wrong.” Last week the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, said he disagrees with Pittard “in the strongest possible terms.”

The military services have set up confidential telephone hotlines, placed more mental health specialists on the battlefield, added training in stress management, invested more in research on mental health risk and taken other measures.

The Marines established a counseling service dubbed “DStress line,” a toll-free number that troubled Marines can call anonymously. They also can use a Marine website to chat online anonymously with a counselor.

The Marines arguably have had the most success recently in lowering their suicide numbers, which are up slightly this year but are roughly in line with levels of the past four years. The Army’s numbers also are up slightly. The Air Force has seen a spike, to 32 through June 3 compared to 23 at the same point last year. The Navy is slightly above its 10-year trend line but down a bit from 2011.

As part of its prevention strategy, the Navy has published a list of “truths” about suicide.

“Most suicidal people are not psychotic or insane,” it says. “They might be upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing.”

In a report published in January the Army said the true impact of its prevention programs is unknown.

“What is known is that all Army populations … are under increased stress after a decade of war,” it said, adding that if not for prevention efforts the Army’s suicide totals might have been as much as four times as high.

Marine Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently issued a video message to all military members in which he noted that suicides “are sadly on the rise.”

“From private to general, we shoulder an obligation to look and listen for signs and we stand ready to intervene and assist our follow service member or battle buddy in time of need,” Battaglia said.

The suicide numbers began surging in 2006. They soared in 2009 and then leveled off before climbing again this year. The statistics include only active-duty troops, not veterans who returned to civilian life after fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nor does the Pentagon’s tally include non-mobilized National Guard or Reserve members.

The renewed surge in suicides has caught the attention of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Last month he sent an internal memo to the Pentagon’s top civilian and military leaders in which he called suicide “one of the most complex and urgent problems” facing the Defense Department, according to a copy provided to the AP.

Panetta touched on one of the most sensitive aspects of the problem: the stigma associated seeking help for mental distress. This is particularly acute in the military.

“We must continue to fight to eliminate the stigma from those with post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues,” Panetta wrote, adding that commanders “cannot tolerate any actions that belittle, haze, humiliate or ostracize any individual, especially those who require or are responsibly seeking professional services.”


Looking After the Soldier, Back Home and Damaged


Marijuana study of traumatized veterans stuck in regulatory limbo


Vets like Lawrence Booth are frustrated by the civilian job hunt

Published: Friday, September 02, 2011, 8:46 PM Updated: Saturday, September 03, 2011, 8:01 AM

By Mike Francis, The Oregonian

While in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, Lawrence Booth of Hillsboro wired buildings at LSA Anaconda – known widely as “Mortaritaville” — and drove his crew’s Armored Security Vehicle through some dangerous parts of the country. He’s been shot at, had his truck blown up once by a roadside bomb and had his back damaged by the wear and tear of his deployment.

But in Oregon, he’s out of money and almost out of time.

At 26, Booth is a victim of a sluggish economy and a frustrating inability to make his military certifications translate into the civilian certifications necessary to work as an electrician or heavy equipment operator.

“I can’t see why I can’t run a yellow piece of equipment but I can run a green one,” he said Thursday. “I can’t see why I can wire an outlet in Iraq, but I can’t wire an outlet in Hillsboro.”

Booth is part of a particularly troubled component of the employment statistics — young veterans who have recently left the service. Post-9-11 veterans have a harder time finding jobs than older veterans and the general population, according to a May report to Congress. And the contrast is starkest for young male veterans between 18 and 24, whose unemployment rate was almost 27 percent in April.

Booth has looked for work for several years, as he had to forfeit his spot with Axis Crane when it moved his facility while he was deployed from Oregon City to Albany. He’s since sold his car and “everything of value” to keep food on the table for his family — wife Jennifer, 5-year-old Hailey and 2-week-old Kevin. He spent his last $150 getting his OSHA 30 safety certification in hopes that he could get hired, then get an upgraded certification that would help him get promoted.

He’s posted his qualifications on Craigslist and sent out about 80 resumes, he estimates. The only nibbles he’s gotten are a couple of phone calls from staffing agencies, with no solid results.

Meanwhile, the $850 rent on the family’s Hillsboro’s house is due today — during the weekend America celebrates the labor movement — and the Booths are on the verge, he fears, of losing everything.

More veterans, more efforts to help

At the same time, a new group of about 600 Oregon National Guard soldiers is in transit this week between Iraq and their homes, mostly in eastern Oregon and Idaho. Earlier in the deployment of the troops of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Brigade, commander Lt. Col. Phil Appleton of Silverton said 218 of them weren’t in school and didn’t have jobs waiting. The battalion has strongly emphasized preparing those troops to get a job or go to school when they got home. Many are returning to counties like Malheur, which has an unemployment rate of 11.1 percent, 1.6 percentage points higher than the statewide rate.

The Guard has arranged job fairs and other post-deployment services for returning troops, but it’s a challenge to stay in contact with people who serve one weekend a month and live in communities scattered around the state.

Later this month, Central City Concern is putting on its annual Portland Veterans Stand Downand Job Fair at the Oregon Convention Center. It’s meant to be a one-stop shop for veterans who need to connect with the Department of Veterans Affairs, get dental care, or find a job. The centerpiece of the Sept. 20 event will be the presence of dozens of private- and public-sector employers who want to talk to veterans about job openings.

Daava Mills, a recruiter for Vigor Industrial in Portland, with locations in Bremerton, Seattle, Everett, Tacoma and elsewhere, says she’s found some “very good” workers through Central City Concern’s veterans programs.

“They are taught to ask questions. They are taught to make suggestions,” she said, describing a recent hire of Desert Storm veteran with higher-than-typical analytical skills for a general laborer.

“They are ready to take direction and they take a lot of initiative,” added Rachel Post, director of supportive housing and employment at Central City Concern, the Portland-based nonprofit. “They are used to working as part of a team. You’re probably not going to find it to such a high degree in the general population.”

The report to Congress called for continuing investment in reintegration programs, like the Oregon Guard’s, and applauded the public sector practice of giving preference to veterans for jobs.

But what Lawrence Booth needs is the answer to a problem that still hasn’t been solved — a practical way to translate military skill into their civilian-world equivalents. Booth has nine years of military experience, only to have his qualifications treated as if he’s just starting out.

“You get educated,” he said, “just to be uneducated at the end.”

-Mike Francis


Rare lung disease diagnosed in soldiers

Nashville doctors try to pinpoint cause

5:32 AM, Jul. 21, 2011

Jimmy Williams didn’t realize his military service might be the reason for his breathing problems when he retired from the U.S. Army in 2007 after two tours in Iraq.

He thought he was simply out of shape. “I was really tired all the time, wore out,” he said. “I was just feeling run down, gasping for air. I could hardly mow my yard.”

Williams now knows he suffers from constrictive bronchiolitis, a rare condition that cannot be diagnosed with X-rays or pulmonary function tests. A team of Tennessee researchers discovered scarring inside the small airways of his lungs and those of other soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their findings, published today in The New England Journal of Medicine, could help veterans prove disabilities stemming from their war service.

“These guys had very believable stories,” said Dr. Robert F. Miller of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “In a large majority of cases, they were elite athletes at the time of deployment. Now, they can’t run two miles.”

Although many of the soldiers were exposed to a 2003 sulfur-mine fire near Mosul, Iraq, not all were, so the exact cause of the lung damage remains a mystery. Another big question is how many undiagnosed veterans are suffering from the ailment.

Although Williams had brief exposure to the mine fire, he believes a burn pit at Balad, Iraq, to dispose of garbage, debris and military equipment caused his condition.

“I would wake up at night choking,” he said. “I had black soot on everything I owned, but we didn’t think about it. We just did our jobs.”

Miller first noticed the illness in 2004 when perplexed doctors at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital in Fort Campbell referred some soldiers to Vanderbilt. He and colleague Dr. Matthew S. King, who is now at Meharry Medical College, started looking for the cause along with other lung specialists.

It took surgery — open lung biopsies — for the physicians to make the diagnoses.

“I think the whole situation was kind of surprising because this constrictive bronchiolitis is a very uncommon disease in people who are otherwise healthy,” said King, the lead author of the study. “It is common in people who have had lung or bone marrow transplants. It is common in people who have lupus. It is common in people who haveautoimmune disease. But it is not at all common in fit, young military personnel or other healthy people.”

Cause unknown

The disorder, however, can result from inhaling irritants. Workers in factories where diacetyl is used to make microwavable popcorn have been diagnosed with the condition.

The study was conducted from February 2004 through December 2009.

It began with 80 soldiers. Forty-nine of them agreed to undergo the open lung biopsies. Of that number, 38 were diagnosed with constrictive bronchiolitis. Twenty-eight of those soldiers had been exposed to the sulfur-mine fire.

Other exposures included dust storms, burn pits and combat smoke.

“I don’t think our study links this disorder to burn pits,” Miller said. “Burn pits may be a problem that contributes to this disorder. I think what we can say is that this disorder is linked to service in the Middle East. We haven’t been able to definitively link what the cause is for this.”

The patients who have been treated have not shown improvement, King said, but their conditions have not worsened since they have been stateside.

Vanderbilt is shipping 45 slides to National Jewish Hospital in Denver, where a researcher has received a U.S. Department of Defense grant to try to determine what substances are lodged in the tissues of the lung samples.

Miller is urging the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to recognize this disorder in making decisions about disability.

Williams went to a VA center to apply for disability assistance, but the representative told him the request probably would be denied because of the lack of medical data about the condition.

“It’s not just me,” he said. “It’s the other soldiers out there that have the same problem but are afraid to come forward. … They are fathers with families. What do they have for the future to look for?


Head wounds boost risk of dementia, study finds
Tuesday, July 19, 2011 03:07 AM

PARIS – Head injuries may more than double the risk of dementia in military veterans, a study found.

The dementia risk was 15.3 percent among U.S. veterans who had sustained a traumatic brain injury, compared with 6.8 percent for those who didn’t suffer head trauma, over a seven- year period. The risk was significant for all forms of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, said researchers, who reviewed medical records of 281,540 veterans ages 55 and older.

The findings, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Paris yesterday, highlight another hazard of war.

Traumatic brain injury accounts for 22 percent of casualties overall and 59 percent of blast-related injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Kristine Yaffe, director of the Memory Disorders Program at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, who led the research.

“This issue is important because TBI is very common,” Yaffe said in a statement.


Brad Eifert was in Iraq during two of the war’s most violent years. When he returned home, he knew that something was wrong.

Coming Together to Fight for a Troubled Veteran
By ERICA GOODE Published: July 17, 2011

OKEMOS, Mich. — When the standoff began on a humid August night, it seemed destined to become one more case of a returned soldier pulled down by a war he could not leave behind.

Staff Sgt. Brad Eifert circled through the woods behind his house here, holding a .45-caliber pistol. The police were out there somewhere and, one way or the other, he was ready to die.
He raised the gun to his head and then lowered it. Then he fired nine rounds.

“They’re going to take me down, they’re going to finish me off, so,” he remembers thinking, “finish me off.”

Leaving his weapon, he ran into the driveway, shouting, “Shoot me! Shoot me! Shoot me!” The police officers subdued him with a Taser and arrested him. A few hours later, he sat in a cell at the Ingham County Jail, charged with five counts of assault with intent to murder the officers, each carrying a potential life sentence.

In daring the police to kill him, Mr. Eifert, who had served in Iraq and was working as an Army recruiter, joined an increasing number of deployed veterans who, after returning home, plunge into a downward spiral, propelled by post-traumatic stress disorder or other emotional problems.

Their descent is chronicled in suicide attempts or destructive actions that bring them into conflict with the law — drunken driving, bar fights, domestic violence and, in extreme instances, armed confrontations with the police of the kind that are known as “suicide by cop.”

Such stories often end in death or prison, the veteran in either case lost to the abyss.

But something different happened in Mr. Eifert’s case. Headed for disaster, he was spared through a novel court program and an unusual coming together of a group of individuals — including a compassionate judge, a flexible prosecutor, a tenacious lawyer and an amenable police officer — who made exceptions and negotiated compromises to help him.

If he takes advantage of the chance to recover his life, he is likely to avoid incarceration and receive the care he needs to move forward.

How this came about — it evolved over more than seven months, during which Mr. Eifert remained in jail — says much about what is required to pull a psychically wounded soldier back to safety and raises questions about the limitations of the systems in place to deal with troubled veterans, whose trespasses can in many cases be traced to a lack of adequate help earlier on.

Some officials believe that war trauma should not qualify veterans for special treatment in the criminal justice system, especially in cases where public safety is endangered. “P.T.S.D. is not a get out of jail free card,” said a prosecutor in a Missouri case involving a veteran who had a faceoff with the police.

Yet a growing number of legal and law enforcement experts argue that when a veteran’s criminal actions appear to stem from the stresses of war, a better solution than traditional prosecution and punishment is called for. The society that trained them and sent them into harm’s way, they say, bears some responsibility for their rehabilitation. And they point to other exceptions in the legal system like diversion programs for drug offenders and the mentally ill.

“I don’t interpret it as excusing behavior, but as addressing what the behavior is,” said Judge Robert T. Russell Jr. of Buffalo City Court, who founded the first special court for veterans there in 2008. It can provide an alternative to punishment, mandating treatment and close supervision and holding them to strict requirements.

“The benefit is, you increase public safety, you don’t have a person reoffending and, hopefully, that person can become functioning and not suffer the invisible wounds of war,” Judge Russell said.

Mr. Eifert, 36, was fortunate that, just months before, his county had become one of 80 jurisdictions around the country that have adopted the veterans court model. But the resolution of his case took more than that.

The judge had to take an interest in his case and accept him in the court, which did not normally hear serious cases involving the use of a firearm.

The prosecutor had to ultimately decide that Mr. Eifert’s emotional difficulties warranted leniency.


Army suicides set record in July

By Greg Jaffe, Published: August 12

The U.S. Army suffered a record 32 suicides in July, the most since it began releasing monthly figures in 2009.

The high number of deaths represents a setback for the Army, which has put a heavy focus on reducing suicides in recent years. The number includes 22 active-duty soldiers and 10 reservists. The previous record was 31, from June 2010.

Army officials cautioned that investigations are underway in most of the deaths to confirm the exact cause.

“Every suicide represents a tragic loss,” Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, said in a written statement. “While the high number of potential suicides in July is discouraging, we are confident our efforts . . . are having a positive impact.”

Over the past several years, the Army has launched a major effort to institute new training to improve soldiers’ ability to bounce back from stress, and setbacks in combat and in their personal lives. It has hired hundreds of mental health and substance abuse counselors and has launched a push to convince soldiers that seeking help for mental health problems will not have a negative impact on their careers.

The service also has tapped the National Institute of Mental Health to conduct a five-year, $50 million study and statistical analysis of suicide in the Army, an effort that includes surveys, data mining and medical testing.

Chiarelli, meanwhile, has devoted hundreds of hours to studying the suicide problem and its possible links to post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries caused by battlefield explosions.

So far, the efforts have not resulted in a significant change in the suicide rate in the Army. Over the first seven months of 2011, about 160 active-duty and reserve soldiers have committed suicide, which is about on par with the number of troops taking their own lives during the same months in 2009 and 2010.

The Marine Corps, which reports information on suicides by corps members online, also has posted annual suicide rates similar to the Army’s.

Senior Army officials had hoped that the slowing pace of combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan might reduce the overall strain on the force and help drive down the rate of soldier suicides. The extra time at home, however, does not appear to have had a significant impact on the suicide rate.

In recent years, the Army’s suicide rate has surpassed the rate for the overall population. Comparing suicide rates among soldiers is difficult because the latest national suicide statistics, which are compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are about three years old.

If the suicide rate among troops is compared to a population that is similar to the military in terms of age, race and sex, the rate in the Army and Marine Corps appears to be about the same or slightly lower than the population at large, according to the Rand Corp., a government-funded think tank.


Oklahoma veteran receives prosthetic leg with computerized knee
Brian Wofford, a McLoud native who lost his leg in Iraq, has received a new prosthetic leg with a waterproof, computerized knee from Scott Sabolich Prosthetics and Research in Oklahoma City.

BY SONYA COLBERG scolberg@opubco.com
Published: August 30, 2011

Brian Wofford lost his leg fighting for others’ freedom.

Now he’s stepping into a renewed sense of freedom of his own.

“It’s always exciting getting a new leg,” he said.

This makes Wofford’s seventh leg. This one sports a high-tech, microprocessor-studded prosthetic knee, the first of its kind fitted on a veteran at Scott Sabolich Prosthetics and Research in Oklahoma City and one of about 125 worldwide. Thanks to the new Genium prosthetic that “thinks,” he doesn’t worry about incidents like the time a former knee buckled and laid him flat four times as he crossed a sloping, busy street in Washington, D.C.

As he spoke, the 28-year-old McLoud native touched the arching scar on his left jaw that toughens his boyish features. He recalled noticing how kids in Baghdad waded barefoot through backed-up sewage water while other people carefully placed stones over sewage flooded streets to reach the open-air fruit stands. So in his first peacekeeping mission in September 2004, the truck commander cheerfully packed up after the grand opening of a sewage pump station that troops had rebuilt.

He glanced back to check the blind spot when his driver started to pull away. That moment, a suicide bomber swerved, almost hit them head-on and detonated a bomb. Their Humvee took most of the damage, jamming a piece of metal into Wofford’s jaw, spewing shrapnel into the faces of Wofford’s gunner and driver, cramming the windshield into the driver’s forehead.

“I took the windshield out of my driver’s head. Threw it on the hood,” Wofford said.

Before they could help other wounded soldiers get to the medics, another car turned a corner and exploded another bomb. Wofford was blown 10 feet away. He hobbled six or seven steps until his left leg collapsed. His left foot was on backward, and shrapnel peppered football-size and fist-size holes in his body. Bullets from snipers pinged past the soldiers as Wofford struggled with a jammed gun.

“I’m laying in the middle of Baghdad with a useless rifle,” he said.

An Iraqi guardsman died when he tried to stop a third suicide bomber nearby. There were no American fatalities, but about 200 Iraqis were injured and 49 Iraqi children were killed, he said, changing the feeling toward terrorist organizations in Baghdad.

That attack also changed Wofford and the other 10 injured American soldiers.

It can ‘think for you’

The most obvious sign on Wofford is the amputated leg. Below his shorts, the polished steel limb is set off by a new, gray computerized knee especially designed for the military with U.S. Department of Defense funding. Though just becoming available to civilians, the design allows soldiers to return to field operations, said Scott Sabolich, owner and clinical director of Scott SabolichProsthetics and Research.

The knee contains hydraulics that slow it down when the patient activates it. Unlike others, this waterproof, computerized knee can create different walking patterns. It has an accelerometer in it that detects when the knee is moving forward or backward, as well as points on the top and bottom of it that detect torque.

“It can basically think for you,” Sabolich said. “It’s basically an intelligent knee.”

Wofford, a 6-foot, 2-inch and 230-poundUniversity of Wisconsin-Whitewater student studying secondary math education and coaching, is a little different from many Scott Sabolich patients who are older or weaker and have lost limbs to diabetes or other types of accidents.

Wofford could overpower some of the stability and comfort shortfalls of his earlier knee.

“We could put him in a door hinge, and it would work,” said Scott Williams, prosthetic practitioner with Scott Sabolich.

He said the new knee will reduce a lot of the work Wofford had to put into remaining stable on stairs, rocks and steep inclines. Wofford doesn’t feel like he’s tipping over on inclines because of the flexion in the knee.

“It opens up a lot more doors of freedom of movement,” Williams said.

Many changes

When Sabolich joined the 64-year-old family business two decades ago, prosthetics had just gone from wooden to aluminum knees and stainless steel ones with hydraulic units. About 10 years ago, prosthetic knees became computerized with the advent of C-leg and the Rheo for above-knee amputees.

“They were phenomenal. But they can’t do what this can do,” Sabolich said.
Suitable for most patients under 50, the knee likely will become the standard in the next decade, he said.

Boulders are no longer mountains to owners of this new knee because it actually picks up the foot and steps for the wearer. It knows when to bend the knee as the patient walks.

“It’s the most amazing thing in the world,” Sabolich said.

Wofford said he plans to return to Oklahoma when he gets his degree. And he’s prepared for the most frequent question he’s heard with all his other prosthetic knees.

“People ask me, ‘How do you walk on that?’”

“I walk. How do you walk?” he says.

“It’s still walking. It’s natural, but it’s different.”


Widespread mental health conditions reported in returning war vets
The Star’s Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON | Nearly one of every five of the more than 2 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer a mental health condition, according to a new report.

Faced with this wave of new and damaged veterans, federal agencies are in danger of being overwhelmed.

In a related development this week, an internal Department of Veterans Affairs survey found that staffers do not believe they have the resources to handle the rise in cases.

“A large number of people serving overseas have mental health impacts, and more and more are coming home,” said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which conducted the survey. “I am deeply concerned that we are not ready.”

Some of the findings of the Veterans for Common Sense:

•712,000 have sought medical treatment of some kind since leaving military service.

•368,000 suffer a mental health condition.

•212,000 suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, a signature injury of the wars.

Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, said that in 2003, estimates were that the VA would see about 50,000 new patients. But with nearly three-quarters of a million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans already in the VA system, he called the long-term estimate “ominous,” hitting a million before 2014.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan activist group compiled the statistics from a raft of federal reports.

Of the 109,000 casualties since combat in Iraq and Afghanistan began, 6,200 troops have been killed.

Among those were 298 war-zone suicides, according to the study. Overall, it reported 2,300 active-duty suicides since 2001.

Underscoring the stress of 10 years of war, suicides exceeded deaths in combat in 2009.

The study said that nearly 1 million troops — 42 percent of all service members sent to the combat zones — have been deployed at least twice.

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