A VA Suicide-Reduction Program Not Reaching Vets In Need

Last year, the VA began offering mental health treatment to vets who don’t normally qualify for VA care. Since then, fewer than 200 people have used the program. Steve Walsh with the American Homefront Project reports.


Former Marine Josh Onan talks with a mental health professional at the San Diego VA. Onan is taking advantage of a year-old program that makes VA care available to people with less-than-honorable military discharges.
Katie Schoolov / KPBS

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Josh Onan was in Ramadi, Iraq in 2006 when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb.

“I remember laying down in the truck,” Onan said. “Waking up, there is dust and debris all over me, and there was an Iraqi colonel, and he’s just screaming, screaming and I don’t understand what he’s saying.”

Onan suffered a head injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. During the next year, he was in and out of trouble with military officials, mainly for small infractions, which he chalks up to the medications he was taking.  Then, while on leave, he was caught with a small amount of cocaine and was kicked out of the Marines.

Onan is one of the thousands of veterans who have other-than-honorable discharges. They don’t typically qualify for VA benefits, even though they have a high suicide rate.

To address that, the VA last summer started a new program. It allows that group of veterans to come into the VA and be treated for mental health issues at least for 90 days.

Onan is taking advantage of the program. After years of being rejected by the VA, Onan now is getting his PTSD treatment paid for by the agency, and he hopes it helps him get back to being the person he was before the injury.

I’m 32 years old now, and this guy is 20, and I look up to this guy,” he said as he looked at a old photo of himself. “I know it’s me, but I miss everything about him. Sometimes it’s hard to find this guy.”

Advocates fault VA for inadequate outreach

The VA says nationally 115 veterans have used the program, a figure that’s disappointing to veterans advocates.  They say it represents just a small fraction of the veterans who now qualify for mental health care. The VA last year estimated that more than 500,000 veterans have other-than-honorable discharges.

“It’s not possible that that’s the number of people who need help,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq vet who works with the Vietnam Veterans of America. “It’s a failure to contact them, to fully inform them, and to break the stigma.”

Vietnam Veterans of America lobbied the VA to help veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.

“It’s a program that most people who are eligible for haven’t heard of, and the reason for that is the VA refused to do any outreach,” said Vietnam Veterans of America Executive Director Rick Weidman.

Weidman said there was an internal debate over whether the VA could pay to reach out to veterans who normally don’t qualify for VA care.

Illness Related To Service

Of the 115 people who took advantage of the program, 25 were in San Diego, according to the VA.

“They came in saying they had an urgent need, and they were evaluated and received care for that urgent need – whether it was a substance use disorder or suicidal thoughts,” said Dr. Neal Doran of the San Diego VA.

Earlier this year, Congress expanded the program to take in even more former service members.

Bi-partisan language inserted into a recent budget bill turned the VA program into law, making all vets with other-than-honorable discharges eligible for mental health care if their illnesses are related to their service.

The VA has not released details about how the new program will operate.

“VA is currently in the process of writing implementation regulations which will provide further guidance on expanding mental health care outreach to service members in need,” the agency said in a written statement.

The VA is also required to actively seek out the veterans who qualify.

But Onan said finding those veterans – and persuading them to seek out VA care – will still be difficult.

“I felt shunned. I still feel shunned,” Onan said.

He said treatment has been a lifesaver for him, but he fears the alienation he felt will make it difficult for other vets to seek help.

“I wouldn’t be surprised that a lot of them aren’t alive,” he said. “And the reason I say that, is without treatment and without proper care, even loved ones. I don’t think I could have done it without God and my family.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2018 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.
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Thoughts On This Day: September 11th Anniversary

The Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 after the terrorist attack. Photo credit: Department of Defense

Sharing this simple, yet heartfelt message by DJ Reyes, a retired Army Colonel and Senior Mentor/Coordinator of the Florida 13th Judicial Circuit Veterans Treatment Court:

Friends: We all take pause today to not only remember what happened, but to reflect on the incredible impact the events had on our very Nation.  For many of us, it defined our military lives as we were totally immersed in fighting the Global War on Terrorism. It affected all of us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It affected our families and those we love.

It confirmed for many of us that words such as Duty, Honor, and Country are not bumper stickers – but a Code that we live and die for.

For our VTC team of mentors, judges, lawyers, VA, and community support:  We continue the Fight, but now we help many of those get whole again, and to return home with honor. I am very proud and humbled to be part of this incredible group of true Patriots right here in the greater Tampa Bay area.

We’ll celebrate and honor and remember more during our upcoming 4th Annual Heroes Gala Dinner/Awards Event next month and hope to see many of our community supporters that evening.

Does Military Service Prepare Veterans For Politics?


Congressional candidates MJ Hegar (right) and Gina Ortiz Jones speak at the LBJ Presidential Library in June. Both are military veterans seeking their first political office.
Jay Godwin / LBJ Library

Dozens of military veterans – many of them with recent service in Afghanistan and Iraq – are offering themselves as an antidote to Washington’s partisan rancor.

Veterans now make up less than 20 percent of Congress, compared with about 75 percent in the 1960s, according to the non-partisan organization, With Honor. Some high-profile candidates are trying to reverse that trend.

They’re running for Congress, often as political newcomers challenging longtime incumbents. Their campaign ads and websites play up their military experience and their service to the country.

“We’re at a record low number of veteran representatives in Congress, and it’s no coincidence that we’re at a record level of toxic, hyper-partisanship,” said Texas congressional candidate MJ Hegar, an Air Force veteran who is running as a Democrat in a historically Republican district that includes Fort Hood.  “I have a record of putting this country ahead of myself.”

Hegar is challenging eight-term incumbent John Carter, a non-veteran with an extensive background in military affairs. She kicked off her campaign in June with an autobiographical video that earned more than 4 million views online and raised upwards of $750,000. It puts her combat experience front and center, starting with the day she earned the Purple Heart.

“I was on a rescue mission in Afghanistan as a combat search and rescue pilot. I heard the windshield crack and realized I’d been shot,” Hegar tells viewers as the scene unfolds onscreen. “But I continued the mission and airlifted the patients out. After taking even more fire, we crashed a few miles away.”

Grounded by the attack, Hegar tried to get a different job in air support, but Pentagon policy at the time barred women from combat roles. With assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union, Hegar challenged the policy in court and won.

Now, as she runs for Congress, Hegar says she put her military service at the center of her campaign not as a strategic move but as a reflection of who she is.

She argues that, while military experience isn’t the only thing that defines a candidate, veterans are uniquely equipped to deal with socially and politically divisive issues.

“I think that veterans have been thrust into a melting pot of people, have had to take on large-scale obstacles, and have been all around the world and immersed in other cultures,” she said.

At a campaign event in Austin, Democrats Debra Coe said Hegar has the kind of background that can help their party win control of Congress.

“She’s not afraid of anything” Coe said. “She’s fierce, and that’s what we need.”

Female veterans run in several states

Hegar is one of more than 400 veterans who’ve run for Congress this year, though some have already lost their primaries. As of mid-August, about 80 had won their party nominations; ten of those are women.

In addition to Hegar, they include fellow Texas Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer; Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath, a former Marine pilot; and New Jersey Democrat Mikie Sherrill, who served as a Navy helicopter pilot.

For former military members, it’s not always easy to transition to politics.

“You’re out there in a very nasty and polarized political environment; that’s a big change from what most of our constituents saw in the military,” said Norm Bonnyman of  Veterans Campaign , a non-partisan organization that trains veterans to run for office.

Among the challenges facing veterans: As newcomers to politics, they often have little experience raising money and may lack the political connections they need to get party support. Many also lack deep ties to a community because they moved around a lot during their years in the service.

“While they have the discipline, while they have drive, while they have the leadership traits that a lot of folks are interested in seeing in their elected officials, those barriers to entry are very high,” Bonnyman said.

Then there are the gerrymandered, less competitive districts that make it hard for anybody to beat an incumbent.

“You can run a very compelling candidate with a military biography, but you can’t move a plus 20 Republican district into the Democrats’ column with merely changing the biography of your candidate,” said Jeremy Teigen, a political scientist from Ramapo College of New Jersey who wrote the book Why Veterans Run.

Rep. John Carter (R-TX) has been serving in Congress since 2003. Though he’s not a veteran, he’s talked a lot during his campaign about his support of the military. Credit Carson Frame / American Homefront

Incumbents stress their military support

Carter, the Republican incumbent in Texas’ 31st District, has said little during his reelection campaign about the military service of Hegar, his Democratic challenger. But he’s played up his own support of the military.

Carter wrote and championed the Veterans Transplant Coverage Act, a newly-passed piece of legislation that allows veterans to receive organ transplants from non-veterans with their VA coverage. He also pushed to get additional funding for Fort Hood as part of the defense budget.

“By their very nature, soldiers and the military demand more attention, and I’m glad to give it to them,” Carter said. “My overall congressional experience has been heavily centered on veterans affairs.”

Carter has run against veterans before and never lost.

“I think we rise or fall on our accomplishments of our lives,” Carter said. “That’s generally how I run my race, whoever I’m running against. ”

During a recent appearance by Carter at an American Legion post, many voters in the heavily Republican district said they didn’t know much about Hegar, and that her veteran status was unlikely to make them vote across party lines.

“I won’t vote for a Democrat,” said American Legion member American Legion member Larry Gossett. “Their philosophies and their beliefs are nothing close to what mine are.”

The Cook Political Report in August ranked the seat “Likely Republican” in the November election.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2018 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.

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

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.

When Veterans Die Alone, These Volunteers Step Up

The Marine Corps League of Clearwater, FL were responsible for holding the May Unattended Ceremony at Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Fl.

Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who died in military service. But a group of military veterans in Florida works all year to commemorate their comrades who died with no family by their side.

Vietnam-era veteran Clifford Leo Bisek died alone, while sitting outside the Tampa motel room where he lived. He had no close family members and no friends nearby.

But a group of strangers made sure he received a proper farewell.

They’re among a group of veterans who hold small monthly ceremonies at the Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Fla. On the first Tuesday of every month, they gather to pay tribute to their fellow veterans who have passed away without loved ones.

Marine veteran Bob Cannon – volunteer organizer of the monthly ceremonies – is the first to arrive and last to leave the Bay Pines outdoor columbarium.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that everybody gets a good welcome and send off,” said Marine veteran Bob Cannon, who has organized every service for nearly two decades at Bay Pines. “I’m a Vietnam veteran. When I came back, I had not a very good welcome home.”

Under federal law, every eligible veteran is entitled to a military funeral if the family requests it. When there are no relatives present, the veteran can still be interred at a VA cemetery, but without an individual ceremony. The agency calls it an “Unattended Interment.”

There were 10 such burials in April at Bay Pines. The VA’s National Cemeteries Administration does not track the number of unattended interments nationally, but it operates more than 130 sites throughout the country.

A soldier, sailor, and local hero

Clifford Bisek, a Vietnam Era veteran, in 2010 when he chased a robber off with his cane. Photo courtesy of the Tampa Bay Times.

At Cliff Bisek’s interment, two VA employees carried the ashes of the 72-year-old veteran in a rectangular metal box. Cemetery director Eugenia Simmons held it close to her heart, as she and cemetery worker Terry Clark double checked the paperwork. They slide the box into the niche at the outdoor columbarium.

Simmons signed a form and — in a final gesture — patted the granite stone covering Bisek’s niche.

“Whenever I do an interment, somebody has to say goodbye,” Simmons said.

Bisek was a sergeant in the Army during the Vietnam Era and later served in the Navy. Eight years ago, the Tampa resident briefly became a local hero when he foiled a drug store robbery by chasing away the thief with his cane.

“Safety of the other people comes before mine,” Bisek told the Tampa Tribune at the time. “It has been in my system practically all my life.”

In March, Bisek died from heart disease. Inside his motel room, police discovered old paperwork from the VA, so the county medical examiner sent Bisek’s cremated remains to Bay Pines.

Bay Pines Cemetery Director Eugenia Simmons bids a final farewell to Clifford Bisek during his interment in April. There was no ceremony or family that day.

Simmons said because Florida has so many retirees, it’s common for veterans to die with no family or no relatives nearby.

“We give them a dignified burial,” Simmons said, “and then once the cremated remains are placed, we send information to the family so they know how to locate their loved one.”

‘We’ll always be here’

A half dozen local veterans service organizations volunteer at Bay Pines on a rotating basis to conduct the monthly service for the unattended interments. At the most recent service, the send-off began with a motorcycle “ride-by” with veteran Randall McNabb as ride captain. More than two dozen riders showed up.

“I love these guys,” McNabb said. “They spend their own time and their own dime to get out here and stand for these veterans.”

A bugler plays Taps at the May 2018 Unattended Ceremony where more than two dozen motorcycle riders and member the Clearwater Marine Corps League participated in the ceremony at Bay Pines National Cemetery.

The ceremony is brief. It includes a prayer, the presentation of the colors, and the reading of the name of each veteran who was intered that month. Each name is followed by the ringing of a bell – a Navy tradition. There’s a three-volley gun salute and the playing of Taps.

Sharply dressed in a pressed white shirt decorated with ribbons and medals from past service, Color Guard commander Bill Cona oversaw the service. It’s important to him to be at the cemetery for his comrades, just as he hopes someone will be there for him.

“I don’t really think about them not having anyone around because we’re here, and we’ll always be here,” Cona said,  choking up a little.

Typically at military funerals, the color guard presents a folded American Flag to the veteran’s family. But at these ceremonies, the flag is symbolically handed to a volunteer. Then, it will be used again at next month’s ceremony.

Watch a video of the Bay Pines ceremony here.

The folding of the American Flag and presentation to a volunteer – standing in for family – is part of the ceremony.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

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