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.

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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.

Job Fair For Veterans, Especially Those With Disabilities

Bay Pines VA – C.W. Bill Young Medical Center. Photo Courtesy: VA.gov

A job fair with special emphasis on opportunities for veterans with disabilities is set Thursday, August 2, 2018 from 5-8 p.m. at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System (VAHCS).

Similar job fairs have been conducted in the past and have been instrumental for Veterans seeking employment in the federal government according to a VA Bay Pines release.

“Qualified applicants will be interviewed on the spot, and tentative job offers may be made that day. Applicants interested in positions in Nutrition and Food Service, Housekeeping and Engineering are encouraged to bring their resume, DD214 (Member 4 Copy with Character of Service), VA letter showing disability rating, and Schedule A letter if applicable.”

For more information about the upcoming job fair, please contact Brenda Sykes, Section Chief, Human Resources Management Service at (727) 398-6661, extension 10636.

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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VA Acting Secretary Issues Message To Workforce

The following message comes directly from the Department of Veterans Affairs Acting Secretary Robert Wilkie:

Robert Wilkie, photo courtesy of the Department of Defense

I’m deeply grateful to President Trump for the opportunity to serve with you and for America’s Veterans.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the “War to end all Wars”.  One hundred years ago, my great grandfather left the comfort of teaching law at Ole Miss to join the 320th Field Artillery Regiment of the 82nd Infantry Division assembling at Camp Gordon, Georgia. Across the cantonment from his regiment was an infantry outfit whose muster roll included a reluctant scratch farmer from Pall Mall, Tennessee, by way of Buncombe County, North Carolina, by the name of Alvin York.

In another part of the country was my wife’s grandfather, who had probably never ventured beyond three or four counties in North and South Carolina, but by the time he was 18, he was marching up the Champs Elysees into the terrible battle of the Meuse Argonne.

Captain A.D. Somerville, Sergeant Alvin York and Private Onslow Bullard, ordinary Americans called upon to do extraordinary things. It is their descendants whom we are honored to serve—millions of ordinary Americans who have answered a special call for us and the world.

At my Pentagon swearing in, I was proud when the officiating officer noted that I had been born in khaki diapers. I have been privileged to see this military life from many angles—as a dependent, as the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier, as an officer in two services—the Navy and the Air Force– and as a senior leader in the Pentagon. Being with you today is the culmination of a lifetime of watching those who have borne the battle.

I do not know how long I will be privileged to serve as the acting secretary, but let me tell you about my philosophy.

Customer service is the key—but not necessarily in the way you might think. Customer service must start with each other—not talking at each other but with each other across all office barriers and across all compartments. If we don’t listen to each other we won’t be able to listen to our Veterans and their families.

We must have a bottom up organization. The energy must flow from you who are closest to those we are sworn to serve. It is from you that the ideas we carry to the Congress, the VSOs and to America’s Veterans will come.  Anyone who sits in this chair and tells you he has the answers is in the wrong business.

This is a noble calling. We have a solemn responsibility to Veterans—not just today, but in the months and years to come, to set the standard for the millions coming into our VA and for the millions who will join the ranks down the years.

That is our important and nonnegotiable mission. The president and Congress support us, and I’m honored to help lead this organization.  I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible. I value your thoughts and insights as we improve our cepartment (department) for the challenges in the years ahead.

Thank you and God bless.

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