Sen. John McCain Always Willing To Look You In The Eye

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in Tampa at the USF downtown medical research building. I’m the journalist with the headphones and hair-bun to the left of McCain.

I’m not a national reporter – although I’ve reported stories that were broadcast nationwide – my sphere is considered local, regional and state news.

So, I”m one of thousands of such journalists Sen. John McCain must have talked with during his life. Yet he gave me and fellow reporters the same attention as he would the national press corps.

As you can see in the photo above, he looks directly at me to answer my question with an equally direct response. That was just one of his many rare qualities. But one that – as a journalist – I truly appreciated.

Thank you Sen. McCain for respecting me as a “local” reporter and for understanding the critical importance of the news media to your beloved nation. Just as you were a defender of the United States, we are defenders of the First Amendment and U.S. Constitution.

You, Sen. McCain, are a class act and will be missed.

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Veterans Push Feds To Recognize Marijuana As A Treatment

Janine Lutz in front of her Memorial Wall, which she built with photos of veterans who committed suicide. Families of the vets send photos to her through her Live To Tell foundation. CREDIT: Julio Ochoa/Health News Florida

 

The following story is from my WUSF Public Radio colleague Julio Ochoa.

Originally published on August 16, 2018 9:29 am

Charles Claybaker spent five tours in Afghanistan, kicking in doors and taking out terrorists. But an aircraft crash in 2010 left the Army Ranger with a crushed leg, hip and spine and a traumatic brain injury.

Army doctors loaded him up with a dozen prescriptions to numb the pain and keep his PTSD in check.

But on the pills, Claybaker went from a highly-trained fighting machine to a zombie for at least two hours a day.

“I mean, I’m talking mouth open, staring into space,” Claybaker said.

Claybaker decided he would rather live in constant pain. He took himself off opioids and endured the discomfort for eight months.

Then, after retiring and moving back to St. Petersburg, he discovered marijuana – and it changed his life.

“I can just take a couple of puffs sometimes. It just depends on the day and what’s going on or how bad it is,” Claybaker said.

Marijuana instantly relieved his pain and helped with his anxiety. Claybaker says marijuana also helped him focus and he finally started feeling more like himself.

“I was a 2013 gold medalist at the Warrior Games in archery, I graduated summa cum laude from Eckerd College, I started my own charity. I adopted my 14-year-old brother who is now on a full-ride scholarship to Oregon State,” he said. “I understand that marijuana has some ills, but for me personally, it absolutely helped me do all those things.”

In order to get the drug, though, he had to break the law. Even with medicinal marijuana legal in Florida, the federal government says it’s a crime. Claybaker and other soldiers can’t get a prescription from the VA and their insurance won’t cover it. The out-of-pocket costs to buy a month’s supply from a dispensary can be upwards of $500.

Claybaker was featured in a 20-page report by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune about veterans who want the government to reclassify marijuana to reflect its medical value. The vets are using the drug to treat conditions ranging from pain to PTSD.

Reclassifying marijuana from a schedule 1 drug – which has no medical value – would open doors to research and treatment at the VA.

Janine Lutz, who was also featured in the Herald-Tribune’s report, joined the effort after her son committed suicide in 2013.

“The drugs killed my son,” Lutz said.

Janos (John) V. Lutz was a Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps who served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He returned home to Davie in 2011 with injuries to his knee and back and a severe case of PTSD.

Doctors at the VA prescribed an anti-anxiety medication, despite a note in his records that it had led to a previous suicide attempt. His mom says he was dead within a week.

“I would call that a pharmaceutically-induced suicide,” Janine Lutz said. “And I actually sued the VA for that and I won my case.”

Lutz received $250,000 in a settlement with the VA.

Today Lutz runs the Live To Tell Foundation, which supports military veterans. Families of vets who committed suicide send her their photos, which she laminates and links to her traveling Memorial Wall.

Her “Buddy Up” events bring veterans together so they can form bonds and look out for one another.

It was at those events that she learned how many veterans self-medicate with marijuana. With about 20 veterans committing suicide every day in the United States, Lutz says the government needs to act.

“Stop playing games with the lives of America’s sons and daughters and if they want cannabis, give it to them and stop giving them these psychotropic dangerous drugs that are destroying their bodies and their minds,” Lutz said.

The American Legion polled its 2 million members – war veterans – and found that 92 percent favored marijuana research. In addition, 22 percent reported using marijuana for medical reasons.

The group has since joined in the effort to push Congress to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug.

So far, that request has gone nowhere.

At a recent stop in Orlando, new VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he has got to follow the rules.

“I’m not a doctor, never played one on television. I’m not a scientist,” Wilkie said. “I will follow the federal law. And the federal law is very clear.”

Charles Claybaker says he and other soldiers deserve better. Claybaker started speaking out after a good friend and fellow ranger committed suicide.

“I think that the government owes it to the veteran to provide the most beneficial treatments for their injuries,” he said.

Marijuana, he said, helps him get through the dark times. He thinks it can help others too.

The radio version of this story is available here.

Continue reading

VA Veteran ID Cards Issued With An Ad On The Back

 

The VA issued identification card with an Office Depot logo because the company paid for production and mailing of the cards.

The VA is mailing identification cards to veterans who requested them for tangible proof that they served in the military. But after waiting almost three years for the new government-issued I.D., some veterans are not happy that the card contains an advertisement.

President Obama signed the law creating the card in July 2015, but it included no funding, so it languished for more than two years. Eventually, the VA struck a partnership deal with Office Depot, in which the retail chain is paying to print and mail the cards.

The company logo appears on the back, along with the taglines, “Saluting you today and everyday. Thanks for taking care of business.”

That disappoints Air Force veteran Carl Hunsinger, chairman of the Manatee County Veterans Council in Florida. For years, he had lobbied Congress to create the card, because many of the 40,000 vets the council represents have little or no proof of their service. Continue reading

White House To Soften Military Consumer Protections

Photo courtesy of FBI.gov

The following is the introduction to an NPR report on the White House rollback of regulations that protected service members from predatory lenders.

By Chris Arnold, NPR

The Trump administration is taking aim at a law designed to protect military service members from getting cheated by shady lending practices.

NPR has obtained documents that show the White House is proposing changes that critics say would leave service members vulnerable to getting ripped off when they buy cars. Separately, the administration is taking broader steps to roll back enforcement of the Military Lending Act.

The MLA is supposed to protect service members from predatory loans and financial products. But the White House appears willing to change the rules in a way that critics say would take away some of those protections.

“If the White House does this, it will be manipulating the Military Lending Act regulations at the behest of auto dealers and banks to try and make it easier to sell overpriced rip-off products to military service members,” says Christopher Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah, who reviewed the documents.

You can read the full NPR story here.

New Secretary Pledges To Protect VA From Politics

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie addresses the national AMVETS convention in Orlando on Aug. 8, 2018, during his second week in office.

Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie was President Trump’s second choice to replace fired Secretary David Shulkin.

But the former Pentagon official is now running the VA said he’s promised to protect the VA from politics and total privatization.

“I think there are two departments in the federal government that should be above any partisan bickering and that is Department of Defense and VA,” Wilkie said. “Partisan politics shouldn’t impact anything a veteran experiences. That’s my pledge.”

Wilkie is an officer in the Air Force Reserves and also served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness with Defense Secretary James Mattis before moving to the VA.

He took the oath of office on July 30 and has spent much of these first weeks on the road, including visiting Florida VA medical centers in Tallahassee, Orlando and Tampa. And Wilkie was the keynote speaker for both the national AMVETS conference in Orlando and the Jewish War Veterans convention in Tampa.

He said his top priority is to implement an electronic medical records system that is seamless, so it includes a veteran’s medical history from the VA, Department of Defense and private physicians and pharmacies.

“We’re in the midst, nationally, of a terrible opioid crisis,” he said. “What this gives VA the ability to do is it will take a veteran’s record and if he has an opioid given to him by VA and someone in the private sector gives him something else – the combination of those two streams will alert VA that that individual is now on a spectrum for trouble.”

He estimates it will take five to 10 years to fully implement an electronic medical records system. The VA is partnering with the Department of Defense in the state of Washington to set up a pilot program.

Wilkie was quick to defend against lingering fears that he or the Trump Administration will privatize the VA.

“First of all, that is a legislative impossibility. The only way the VA is privatized is if our board of directors on Capitol Hill say it will be privatized,” Wilkie said. “But that doesn’t mean that we cannot come up with a mix of VA and private care for our veterans.”

He reiterated his support of the current system during his address to the AMVETS audience in Orlando.

“The private sector cannot replicate the VA’s expertise in many things like spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, rehabilitative services, prosthetics, audiology, services for the blind, and suicide prevent,” Wilkie said.

The new VA Secretary is a history buff, and he was quick to reference a predecessor, the former WWII Army General Omar Bradley, who is credited with reshaping the VA.

“In his day, right after World War II, 30 percent of the care was in the private sector,” Wilkie said.

Thursday, several Congressional Democrats sent the VA Secretary a letter requesting details on communications the department has had with three Mar-a-Largo friends of President Trump. The letter was the result of a Pro Publica report, The Shadow Rulers of the VA, that says the three, non-veterans, are secretly shaping policy at the VA.

Here is the department’s response via written news release:

We appreciate hearing from experts both inside and outside VA as we look for better ways to serve our nation’s heroes. This broad range of input from individuals both inside and outside VA has helped us immensely over the last year and a half – a period that hands-down has been VA’s most productive in decades.

Under President Trump’s leadership, VA has made groundbreaking progress, particularly in the areas of accountability, transparency and efficiency across the department while enjoying an unprecedented series of legislative successes.

We look forward to building on these improvements as we continue to reform VA under President Trump.

You can listen to the Secretary’s two-way interview with the American Homefront Project @AmHomefront at WUSFNews.org.

AMVETS Highlights: Town Hall, Job Fair, New VA Secretary

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie,  (Photo courtesy of VA Blog)

Here’s a chance for veterans in the Orlando region to speak up and share their perspectives on veterans’ health care.

A “listening session” – sponsored by the American Veterans (AMVETS) – is planned Tuesday, August 7, 2018, at 6:30 p.m. as part of the organization’s 74th annual convention.

Medical experts, both national and Orlando-area veterans will address current issues in health care include critical gaps. The town hall is open to the public.

Other AMVETS convention highlights:

The AMVETS convention is Aug. 6-10 at the Caribe Royale Convention Center, 8101 World Center Drive, Orlando.

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