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  • AO BWN Battle Exposure


    • Tens of thousands of Navy Veterans are excluded from VA benefits related to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam war.
    • A bill making its way through Congress would extend benefits to cover blue-water Veterans, who were stationed in ships off the Vietnamese coast.
    • Early this month, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie sent a letter to lawmakers asking to stop the bill, saying its provisions are based on sympathy instead of science.
    • Veterans and their advocates are firing back, flooding the Senate with letters supporting the bill.

    Veterans groups are pushing a bill making its way through Congress that would extend VA benefits to tens of thousands US Navy Veterans who were potentially exposed to Agent Orange while serving off the coast of Vietnam. The bill is the latest glimmer of hope for Veterans who have fought for decades to receive the benefit, and would finally recognize their exposure to the toxic herbicide but come at an estimated cost of $5.5 billion to US taxpayers.

    The VA is attempting to delay this provision, saying that this vast increase in health care costs should only come after more study, which is likely to publish next year.

    "Science does not support the presumption that blue water Navy Veterans were exposed to Agent Orange," said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a letter to the Senate. The letter is yet another roadblock facing Vietnam Veterans who claim their health has suffered due to exposure.

    But the Veterans are fighting back. As of Thursday morning, Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Veterans affairs committee, has received at least three letters from advocates urging the Senate to pass the bill. They say the VA is "cherry-picking" evidence and overestimating the bill's true cost.

    Agent Orange was one of several chemical herbicides used during the Vietnam War to destroy enemy cover and food crops. Although primarily delivered via aircraft, the defoliant was also carried on vehicles, back-mounted equipment, and sprayed from ships.

    Operation Ranch Hand lasted about a decade before a scientific study reported that one of the chemicals caused birth defects in lab animals. The military stopped its use of herbicides in 1971; throughout the next decade Veterans began reporting instances of cancer and birth defects in their children.

    The legitimacy of their claims would be argued for the next 20 years, until the Agent Orange Act of 1991 directed the VA to conduct research into the chemical's potential side effects. In the decades since, Vietnam Veterans have slowly started to gain recognition of their Agent Orange exposure and its sometimes life-threatening consequences.

    As recently as 2010, the VA extended the list of diseases it would recognize as being linked to the herbicide. Just three years ago, the agency started accepting claims for Veterans who served in Agent Orange-contaminated aircraft in the post-Vietnam era.

    But since 2002, the VA took what advocates and Veterans say was a step backwards by invalidating claims presented by blue-water Veterans, saying there was no conclusive scientific evidence that the Vets, who served in warships off the coast, were ever exposed to Agent Orange.

    VA: Too much money, not enough science

    The question is whether the Veterans were exposed to the herbicide through chemical runoff that made its way into the South China Sea and was then converted into drinking water through the ships' distillation plants.

    Where the ships were located makes all the difference.

    The VA discredits arguments that US ships made water close enough to land to have used contaminated water. According to the Institute of Medicine, which is now known as the National Academy of Medicine, any chemical runoff would likely have been diluted by coastal waters before reaching the ships' intakes. But, as reported in extensive coverage by ProPublica, Veterans have said ships often distilled water well within that range.

    Surprisingly, both sides of the ordeal — the VA, which claims blue water Veterans were not exposed and Veterans advocacy groups that say they were — use the same IOM study to argue their side.

    That's because the IOM merely states it is "possible" the Navy Vets were exposed.

    The VA now says that's exactly why they should wait before extending benefits to blue-water Veterans.

    In a Senate hearing on August 1, Dr. Paul Lawrence, the VA under secretary for benefits, noted this as just one of three reasons the VA opposes the bill.

    One of the provisions would increase the fee charged to borrowers under the VA's home loan program. Lawrence said the VA is opposed to "increasing the costs that some Veterans must pay to access their benefits."

    He also maintained that the increased loan fees could not offset the costs associated with an extension of Agent Orange-related benefits. Secretary Wilkie's letter reinforced this idea, stating that Congress had underestimated the health care costs by a whopping $5.4 billion. He also argued that the addition of tens of thousands of eligible Veterans would only exacerbate an already extensive backlog of Agent Orange-related claims.

    These arguments echo one made in July, just days before the Senate hearing, by former VA Secretary and Vietnam Navy Veteran Anthony Principi. In an op-ed published in USA Today, Principi argued that Congress should stand on the side of science and pass "sensible laws that maintain the integrity of our legislative process."

    Veterans and advocates say that's 'poppycock'

    The Veterans won't face this battle alone.

    The Senate is hearing from a resounding chorus of supporters who say the VA is using a typical stall tactic.

    "These Vietnam Veterans have waited too long. It is time for us as a country to do the right thing," former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin wrote. Dr. Shulkin, who was fired by President Donald Trump in late March, said this bill is not driven by sympathy as the VA claims, but by a conscientious desire to uphold "our country's responsibility for caring for those who have borne the battle."

    Another letter, cosigned by four Veterans organizations, pointed out that it was the VA's "erroneous decision" to disqualify blue-water Veterans in the first place, and that the science is on their side.

    "The IOM found that there is not a scientific basis to exclude blue water Navy Veterans," the letter said.

    In his letter addressed to the Senate, Dr. Shulkin recognized the legitimacy of both sides of this nuanced issue.

    "The answer must not be to simply deny benefits," he wrote. "When there is a deadlock, my personal belief is that the tie should be broken in favor of the brave men and women that put their lives on the line for all of us."

    The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act soared through the House of Representatives with a vote of 382-0. When — or even if — it will become law now rests in the hands of the Senate which, as of Thursday, has yet to decide.


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  • Vets Colleges


    Best for Vets: Colleges 2019 rankings

    • 4-year schools
    • 2-year schools
    • Online and nontraditional schools
    • Career and technical colleges

    Methodology: How we did it

    In the market for a good school where you can use your education benefits?

    We surveyed hundreds of colleges across the country and used their answers, combined with federal data, to rank them in the areas of university culture, academic quality and outcomes, policies, student support and costs and financial aid.

    Read about our top finishers below and check out the full list of schools in the charts to help inform your decision.

    4-Year Schools

    1.Georgia Southern University

    Veterans and service members make up about 8 percent of the student body at Georgia Southern University, the largest proportion of any top 10 school in the four-year category. The school recently consolidated with Armstrong State University, which has for years been a top finisher in our Best for Vets rankings.

    “We are extremely proud of the programs, services and campus culture we have developed that provide service members, Veterans and their families the opportunity to achieve their academic and professional goals,” said Phil Gore, Georgia Southern University’s director of Military and Veterans Affairs. “Being recognized by Military Times as one of the best institutions for military-affiliated students demonstrates the level of commitment we have to providing our military population an optimal educational experience to ensure they complete a postsecondary degree.”

    2.University of South Florida

    At the University of South Florida, military-connected students are retained, complete courses and graduate at higher rates, on average, than their peers at other schools that provided this information on the survey. They also have a slightly higher GPA than non-military students at the school – 3.21, compared to 3.17.

    “The university has made it a point, no matter the issue, to work with Veterans from the moment they show interest in the school, through their matriculation and even beyond graduation into their future career,” said Air Force Veteran and University of South Florida graduate Aimee Carpenter, now an admission and benefits coordinator at the school. “At any point throughout their journey, the Office of Veteran Success is there to help our student Veterans and their families in any way they can.”

    3.Rutgers, TheState University ofNew Jersey

    At Rutgers, the largest school in the top 10 with more than 69,000 students, the student Veteran population has tripled in the last decade, said Ann Treadway, director of the Office of Veteran and Military Programs and Services. The school has both a Veterans center for socializing and an office for processing military education benefits on campus, as well as a virtual Veterans center to replicate these services for online students.

    2-Year Schools

    1. Central Community College-Nebraska

    This multi-campus community college serving a 25-county area in Nebraska topped our list of 2-year schools for the sixth year in a row.

    “Student Veterans face unique challenges as they readjust to civilian life, and we are dedicated and proud to have multiple centers and services available to empower them through the transition,” said Travis Karr, director of Veteran and military services.

    Central recently opened its fourth Veteran and Military Resource Center at its Kearney Learning Center satellite campus, providing comprehensive resources and services for students and embodying “Central Community College’s mission to maximize student and community success,” Karr said.

    2. NorthwesternMichigan College

    At Northwestern Michigan College, the Office of Military and Veteran Services tries to serve as the “new team” for students who recently separated from the military. It’s no wonder, then, that of the five areas we consider for the Best for Vets: Colleges list — culture, student support, cost and financial aid, policies and academic quality — culture was the school’s strongest category.

    “The men and women who have chosen to serve our country deserve our respect, our gratitude and our support,” said Scott Herzberg, advisor for military and Veteran services at Northwestern Michigan College. “They have invested time, energy, and passion with their whole being to do a job few in our nation now do. It’s our turn to serve them, just as they have served us.”

    3.Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus

    At the Trinity River Campus of Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas, the 1997 book “Inside the Magic Kingdom” is required reading for all news hires, school officials told Military Times. That translates to “aggressively” friendly customer service for students, and the Disney-like atmosphere could be one reason the school earned high marks on our rankings.

    Like most other schools on the list, Tarrant County College is a signatory of the Veterans Affairs Department’s Principles of Excellence and Eight Keys to Veterans’ Success and has both a Veterans center and a Veterans office on campus.

    Online and Nontraditional Schools

    1.Liberty University

    Liberty University is the largest school in our online and nontraditional rankings list with nearly 103,000 students. And while Liberty has a physical campus in Lynchburg, Virginia, the overwhelming majority of its 30,000 Veteran, service-member and military-dependent students have opted to attend online, according to enrollment figures provided by the school.

    The university did a better job of retaining both its military and non-military students between 2016 and 2017 than most other online and nontraditional schools that participated in the survey.

    “In 2017, we were designated as a Purple Heart University — the first one in Virginia — in recognition of our support of military members, including Veterans and their families,” said President Jerry Falwell Jr. “We consider it a great honor to serve these men and women who have made sacrifices for our country.”

    2. University ofMaryland University College

    "At UMUC, we know what it means to serve the educational needs of Veterans, as well as service members transitioning out of the military, because we have been doing it for more than 70 years,” said retired Army Col. Keith Hauk, associate vice president for Veterans initiatives and military operations support at the university.

    Military students make up more than 45 percent of the student population at the school, which offers classes primarily online, but also in person, including on many military installations in the U.S. and overseas. Aside from being a top-ranked school, UMUC is also the second most popular destination for service members using TA benefits and is among the top 10 most common colleges chosen by GI Bill users, according to federal data.

    3.Excelsior College

    Excelsior College, headquartered in Albany, New York, had the highest military-student graduation rate of any online and nontraditional school that provided this information in the survey. It also tied for the lowest student loan default rate among schools ranked in this list.

    “Through flexible, affordable, and career-oriented academic programs and wide-ranging student-centric services and resources offered by our Center for Military and Veteran Education, we are well positioned to assist former service members achieve their educational and career goals,” said Excelsior President James Baldwin. “Their success remains the most significant measure of our success as an institution.”

    Career and Technical Colleges

    1.ECPI University

    ECPI University runs on a year-round schedule, offering five-week terms with both in-classroom, online and hybrid options that offer military and Veteran students flexibility and speed in their education, said Bill Brown, executive director of military education at the for-profit school. And in many cases, classes replicate the training programs students went through during their active-duty service.

    "At ECPI University, we value and honor military experience,” Brown said. “Our academic team works diligently to ensure that all relevant military education and training is translated into academic credit. That military experience carries over not just in credit, but also value to the entire student body.”

    2.Savannah Technical College

    At Savannah Technical College, one in four students is a Veteran, service member or a military dependent, said Jim Krupp, the school’s military outreach coordinator.

    “We are proud to serve military-affiliated students and continue to look for ways to support them, including unique training programs, scholarships and support services,” he said. “Our graduates have a 93.1 percent placement rate in their field of study, which shows that employers hire our graduates for their trained workforce.”

    Though the school’s most recent graduation rate for all students was a mere 25 percent, according to Education Department data, its military students graduated at a much higher rate of 73 percent.

    3.Gwinnett Technical College

    Gwinnett Technical College, which has about 8,000 students, recently opened a new 25-acre campus in Alpharetta, Georgia, in addition to its main campus in Lawrenceville. The school offers more than 140 associate degree, diploma and certificate programs, as well as hundreds of seminars, workshops and courses that provide specialized training, according to information provided by the school.

    Student support was the school’s highest-ranked category, followed by cost and financial aid. Tuition costs at Gwinnett are covered by both the military’s tuition assistance benefit and the GI Bill.


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    CalVet is in the process of updating the rules for admission eligibility at our eight California Veterans Homes.

  • Disabled Vets


    What's Not Talked About?

    Throughout the history of warfare, service members have been placed in unimaginable situations, often situations in which they have to make difficult decisions. Frequently, decisions made during deployment have lifelong consequences. Many Veterans have expressed a desire to be the person they were before they experienced trauma, and they often try to suppress or avoid memories of the trauma they have lived through. However, the use of avoidant coping strategies has been found to be counterproductive in the long run. By attempting to avoid the traumatic events service members have experienced, they end up exacerbating the intensity and frequency of their trauma memories and the sequelae and symptoms of those memories over time.

    Some Veterans are able to move past trauma with minimal dysfunction in their lives; however, for others, the traumatic event creates havoc and chaos. Trauma symptoms can become so problematic that they result in family discord, divorce, social dysfunction, significant substance use, employment difficulty, physical health difficulties, legal problems, and more. And the disruption of service members’ lives as a result of trauma symptoms is hardly uncommon. Due to the dysfunction and negative impact of trauma and its symptoms in the lives of service members, the VA has recognized and developed the VA disability rating system. The disability rating system considers both physical and mental health-related conditions. The more areas of a Veteran’s life that are impacted (i.e. social and occupational difficulty or physical limitation and/or pain), the more financial compensation that Veteran potentially could be warranted. I am a firm believer that Veterans are entitled to every dollar that they are afforded and then some...Many can argue that the lifelong implications and symptoms that Veterans have to endure cannot be quantified or compensated with a dollar amount. The VA does its best to equitably compensate Veterans based on their level of dysfunction. However, if the Veteran could eliminate the disabling experience that initiated their impairing symptoms, it is possible that they could exceed the amount of their VA compensation by functioning optimally in the civilian sector. Essentially, they would be able to have a greater positive economic impact and earn a higher living wage if they did not experience disabling symptoms. Given the high level of training military members receive, the values, discipline, and structure instilled by military training and service often lead most Veterans to make dependable, hard-working, and effective employees.

    Disability Rating System

    According to the VA Disability Rating System, in the year 2000, the average compensation provided to Veterans through the disability rating system was about $20 billion for 2.3 million Veterans. In 2013, that number rose to 3.5 million Veterans receiving $54 billion in compensation. This number has continued to rise over the last several years and will hopefully continue to do so, enabling Veterans to receive the compensation they deserve. A major reason for the spike in Veterans receiving compensation is the continued 14-year wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When service members are sent to war and later return home, there are often significant consequences to service—economics being one of them. Unfortunately, many Veterans who are still in need of services and compensation for VA benefits have not taken advantage of the services offered. Many factors impact Veterans’ decisions not to seek care— a main one being stigma. Two examples of stigma are: one, a Veterans’ hesitation to seek mental health services due to being perceived as “weak” or “vulnerable;” and, two, the possibility of having negative career or job implications as the result of potentially impairing symptoms. As I have said in a previous blog, it takes a nation to build a military and go to war. And, it takes a nation to welcome them home. Compensating our Veterans for their service is the first of many steps that should be afforded to Veterans for their sacrifice. If we send people to war, it is a fundamental imperative that we take care of them when they come home. The tide is changing, and the VA has gone to great lengths to decrease wait times for compensation and pension evaluations so that Veterans are streamlined through the process. There is no perfect system, and the pendulum has and is continuing to shift in the right direction so that our brothers and sisters in arms are taken care of.

    To specify the rating system with an example, if a Veteran diagnosed with PTSD has a 50 percent service-connected disability rating and they have a spouse and one child, they would receive $978.64 each month. Yearly, that is roughly $11,745. The pay for a Veteran that is 100 percent serviced-connected increases significantly. They would approximately $3200 monthly. Although this money is not taxed, many Veterans still struggle to make ends meet. Anecdotally, there is a misconception that if a Veteran receives a 100 percent service connection, they will be able to live a “lavish” lifestyle. That is simply not true. This money can definitely help decrease financial distress, however, many Veterans still struggle to pay for things they and their families need.

    Once a Veteran receives a disability rating and compensation is provided, there can be fear that the disability rating might be decreased or taken away if the VA finds evidence the Veteran’s symptoms have improved to a more manageable level. Once Veterans receive a service-connected percentage of disability, it is not a fixed rate for life—although it could be. The VA has the right to decrease the compensation rate if the Veteran shows material improvement in their ability to function in daily life whether that be in relation to a physical or mental health-related condition. According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs Service Connected Disability website (2017), if a Veteran has less than a 100 percent disability rating, has been receiving compensation for less than five years, and has shown medical and social improvement, the VA can reduce the percentage of disability and compensation based on the evidence found. However, if a Veteran has been receiving benefits for longer than 20 years, it is considered a continuous rating and the VA cannot lawfully reduce the rating. At 10 years, a Veteran’s rating cannot be terminated, but it can be reduced. If a Veteran’s disability rating is reduced, a Veteran has the option of requesting a reexamination, and they should contact a Veterans’ Service Organization representative to advocate on their behalf.

    The VA provides great and well-needed services, and they save lives every day. Unfortunately, some Veterans walk away from the VA dissatisfied and displeased. There is no perfect mental health and medical system, and the disability rating scale is not perfect either. There is no one program that provides a “fix all” solution. What it will take is public and private partnerships moving forward in order to maximize reach and expand access, frequency, and quality of care.

    Many Veterans who receive benefits fear their benefits may be taken away at any point in time. Unfortunately, this fear of disability ratings potentially being lowered if there is substantial evidence that the Veteran has made improvement deters people from seeking and fully engaging in well-needed treatment. For instance, if a service-connected Veteran engages in an evidenced-based trauma-focused treatment for PTSD that has been shown to reduce symptoms upon full completion, and as a result of that treatment their overall dysfunction decreases, that Veteran could be at risk of decreased disability ratings if that improvement is documented and gathered during a medical evaluation. Veterans who know the disability rating system may be deterred from seeking care at the VA because of that potential. The more dysfunction one has, the more money they receive; so increased symptomology is incentivized and reinforced. If Veterans struggle with employment and optimal functioning, it makes sense that those Veterans may not want to show improvement. This is one lens to look through.

    Unfortunately, there is no perfect solution to this problem. However, there has been plenty of debate about possible solutions. One solution discussed would be to extend the time period between the rating system from the initial evaluation and reevaluation. This solution could assist with decreasing stigma and reducing the fear of losing a percentage rating with the potential benefit of encouraging people to fully engage in well-needed treatment. This would allow Veterans to seek a high standard of care, receive benefits, and practice their skill-sets learned with a longer time to adjust for life stressors that may continue to exacerbate symptoms. If there is no reoccurrence of symptoms, then one may experience a reduction in compensation. If there continues to be notable impairment, then the percentage of disability rating could stay the same or increase. Another potential solution is to continue the private-public partnership so that Veterans can receive care outside of the VA. If Veterans fear that making progress would jeopardize their disability rating when seeking care at the VA, those concerns are potentially lessened with treatment in the private sector. These issues about disability ratings and improvement in functioning are only a few of the many issues debated in the current Veterans’ issues climate. Although they are hotly debated, the pendulum is moving in the right direction by placing our Veterans first.


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  • Congress


    After years of false hopes and disappointments from Congress, military personnel with at least 20 years of service who did not spend more than 179 consecutive days on federal active duty received an early Christmas present from both Congress and the president.

    President Barack Obama signed into law on Dec. 16 legislation known as the Jeff Miller and Richard Blumenthal Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2016 that grants Veteran status for National Guard soldiers and airmen and reservists from all branches of service.

    Earlier this month, the 114th Congress approved legislation to expand the legal definition of a Veteran for guardsmen and reservists who honorably serve or had served in the military for 20 years but were never called up for federal active duty for an extended period of time.


    “I still think it falls somewhat short, but it is a step in the right direction. A person in the guard or reserves who spends 20 years of good service at a minimum would get around 1,260 days on duty or about 3.5 years of honorable service.” Brig. Gen. Bill Burks, the adjutant general forNevada.

    "This legislation is a victory for Veterans. While we still have work to do, I am proud of how we have moved the ball forward in a bipartisan way," said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a retired National Guard sergeant major.

    Since first coming to Congress, Walz — along with members of the Nevada delegation to include Sen. Dean Heller, outgoing senator and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Congressmen Mark Amodei and Joe Heck, both Army Veterans — has fought tfor this legislation to honor guardsmen and reservists.

    In Nevada for example, the state recognizes guardsmen and reservists as Veterans without the requirement of 179 days of federal active duty. No one, though, welcomed the news more than Brig. Gen. Bill Burks, the adjutant general for Nevada.

    "I still think it falls somewhat short, but it is a step in the right direction," he said in an email to the Lahontan Valley News. "A person in the guard or reserves who spends 20 years of good service at a minimum would get around 1,260 days on duty (63 days times 20 years) or about 3.5 years of honorable service.

    "I know all enlistments are now for eight years (active, guard and reserve), but if you can manage that as a period of two to three years active duty enlistment and spend the remainder in the IRR (Individual Readiness Reserve), you are considered a Veteran even if you never leave the United States. So you can see the disparity in the systems.

    "Lastly, I don't know of any guard member that only does the one weekend a month and two weeks a year anymore. I think the average nationwide is well over a 100 days for the average guard member."

    Kat Miller, director of the Nevada Department of Veteran Services, said the legislation provides for no additional benefits other than permitting those who are entitled to retired pay for nonregular service to be referred to as Veterans.

    "Nevada is ahead of the federal government in acknowledging members of the Guard and Reserve as Veterans," she said. "In fact in 2013 Gov. (Brian) Sandoval signed Assembly Bill 266, which established that in Nevada members of the National Guard and Reserve forces are defined as "Veterans" if they have been assigned to duty for a minimum of six continuous years, even if they are not military retirees."

    Sen. Dean Heller said the passage of the bill and the president's signature "have been a long time coming." He said guardsmen and reservists take the same educational courses and perform the same type of training.

    "I am very grateful to honor those who honor their country," Heller said in a phone interview with the LVN. "This will serve them well. These men and women work hard and serve hard. They did what they had to."

    Likewise, Amodei said Walz's legislation bill is common sense legislation and lawmakers persevered to pass this law.

    "It's the right thing to do," said Amodei, who represents Congressional District 2 in Northern Nevada. "The folks in the Guard and Reserve will now be acknowledged."

    Both Reid and Heck did not comment on the bill's passage.


    The National Guard Association of the United States has been a big proponent of attaining Veterans status for guardsmen and reservists.

    "The current definition has long been out of date," said retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, NGAUS president. "It fails to recognize the deterrence value of training and readiness to our national security. Many of those affected underwent arduous, even dangerous, training. They helped win the Cold War. Others worked in direct support of those who did deploy. Yet our nation tells them that they aren't Veterans."

    NGAUS vigorously pushed for the change for six years. It easily passed in the House in every session only to be halted in the Senate by fears that an expansion of the definition would raise the cost of Veteran entitlement programs.

    The House and Senate actually approved the change last year, but the language was not identical. This forced the two chambers to come up with a compromise provision, which they did last week.

    John Goheen, director of Communications for NGAUS, served on active duty and has worked alongside guardsmen and reservists.

    "All of us should be called Veterans. We all served," he said, adding many guardsmen and reservists served with distinction.

    Because of the provision of the law, Goheen said the newly minted Veterans will not be eligible for additional benefits, a point echoed by Miller.

    "However, neither the Federal nor the state legislation affects eligibility at our cemeteries or at the Nevada State Nursing home," Miller pointed out. "Our cemeteries and nursing home must follow federal eligibility guidelines in order to receive federal reimbursement. This legislation did not change current Federal law which only permits National Guard and Reserve members to be buried at the cemeteries if they have served two continuous years on active duty, died while in the line of duty, or if they were officially retired from the guard of reserve."

    Miller also said a Veteran must have had 90 days of active duty military service to receive care at a state Veterans home,


    Retired Nevada Army Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Wayne Willson said the bill will affect millions of guardsmen and reservists across the United States, and thousands of military personnel in Nevada who never worked in an AGR (Active Guard Reserve) full-time federal status or deployed for more than 179 days. Willson said not too many Guardsmen deployed to Vietnam although the Nevada Air Guard received orders to activate airmen when the North Koreans seized the USS Pueblo in 1968. Fewer than 51,000 Guardsmen received a call up to Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990-1991. The massive deployments, though, began in 2002 and 2003 when the military deployed both active duty and reservists to Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Retired Nevada Army Guard Maj. James M. Ludlow of Fallon spent 22 years in the National Guard but never deployed more than 179 days. During his career, he commanded several Carson City units and traveled overseas numerous times for training including to the Republic of Korea and Panama.

    "It bothered me a little bit," Ludlow said about the federal government's lack of recognition for Guardsmen and Reservists. "People served only two years in active duty were called Veterans," said Ludlow, an engineering officer who has the equivalent of more than six years of military service. "When I served in the Guard, we were eligible for federal call-up."

    Ludlow said he was glad when he heard Congress passed the legislation and the president signed it.

    Chief Warrant Officer 4 Joe Dolan of Carson City spent 41 years in the Nevada Army Guard, most of that time as a state technician. Although technicians wear the uniform and must take the same courses as their active-duty counterparts, they are considered as civilian state — not federal — employees. Most technicians worked in Carson City, Reno and Las Vegas.

    "This is certainly good news," said Dolan, who served as both an administrative and safety officer.

    Overall, Miller said the legislation is important for recognition.

    "I personally would like to see the federal government expand eligibility for burial and nursing home benefits to all those who serve in the Guard and Reserve … not just our retirees," she said. "These patriotic men and women volunteered to serve our nation and our state in times of both restless peace and war; the fact that they were not called up to do so in no way detracts from their willingness to serve."


    In addition to the provision for federal status, the bill also included the following provisions:

    HR 2691 – Authorizes the VA to provide burial and funeral benefits to Veterans if there is sufficient evidence to establish that they deserve the benefit, even if the Veteran had not filed paperwork with the VA previously.

    Sections of HR 1338 – Requires VA to report to Congress on the interment of unclaimed remains of deceased Veterans to ensure they are treated with dignity and respect.

    HR 2531 – Fixes a component of the Fry Scholarship (for surviving spouses of post-9/11 Service Members who die in the line of duty) so that recipients from 2001-2005 can receive the full benefit they are entitled to.

    According to the congressman's office, the bill also had about 60 other provisions improving VA-provided services to homeless Veterans, VA construction management, the Vocation Rehabilitation and Employment program, and access to care in the Veterans Health Administration.


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  • Vet Benefits


    Different government programs have different Veteran criteria

    There is no standardized legal definition of "military Veteran" in the United States. Veteran benefits weren't created all at one time. They've been added one at a time for more than 200 years, and each time Congress passed a new law authorizing and creating a new Veteran benefit, it included eligibility requirements for that particular benefit.

    Whether or not one is considered a "Veteran" by the federal government depends upon which Veteran program or benefit one is applying for.

    Veterans' Preference for Federal Jobs

    Veterans are given preference when it comes to hiring for most federal jobs. However, in order to be considered a Veteran for hiring purposes, the individual's service must meet certain conditions.

    Preference is given to those honorably separated Veterans (this means an honorable or general discharge) who served on active duty in the Armed Forces. Retirees at or above the rank of major or equivalent are not entitled to preference unless they qualify as disabled Veterans.

    For more information about the Veteran's Preference Hiring Program, see the Federal Government's Veteran's Preference Web Page.

    Home Loan Guarantee

    Military Veterans are entitled to a home loan guarantee (within dollar limits) when they purchase a home. While this is commonly referred to as a "VA Home Loan," the money is not actually loaned by the government. Instead, the government acts as a sort of co-signer on the loan, and guarantees the lending institution that they will cover the loan if the Veteran defaults. This can result in a substantial reduction in interest rates, and a lower down payment requirement.

    For more information, see the VA's Home Loan Guarantee Web site.

    Burial in a VANational Cemetery

    To qualify as a Veteran for the purposes of burial in a VA National Cemetery also depends on the conditions and period of service. Any member of the Armed Forces of the United States who dies on active duty is obviously eligible.

    Any Veteran who was discharged under conditions other than dishonorable is usually eligible as well.

    Service beginning after September 7, 1980, as an enlisted person, and service after October 16, 1981, as an officer, must be for a minimum of 24 continuous months or the full period for which the person was called to active duty (as in the case of a Reservist called to active duty for a limited duration) to qualify for VA National Cemetery burial.

    Undesirable, bad conduct, and any other type of discharge other than honorable may or may not qualify the individual for Veterans benefits, depending upon a determination made by a VA Regional Office. Cases presenting multiple discharges of varying character are also referred for adjudication to a VA Regional Office.

    For more criteria for burial at Arlington National Cemetery can be viewed on the VA's National Cemetery's Web Site.

    Military Funeral Honors

    The Department of Defense (DOD) is responsible for providing military funeral honors. "

    Upon the family's request, every eligible Veteran receives a military funeral honors ceremony, to include folding and presenting the United States burial flag and the playing of Taps. The law defines a military funeral honors detail as consisting of two or more uniformed military persons, with at least one being a member of the Veteran's parent service of the armed forces.

    For more information, see the DoD's Military Funeral Honors Web site.

    Active DutyMontgomery GI Bill

    In all cases, the ADMGIB expires 10 years after discharge or retirement. To be eligible, one must have an honorable discharge. To retain MGIB benefits after discharge, in most cases, one must serve at least 36 months of active duty, if they had a four-year active duty contract, or at least 24 months of active duty, if they signed up for a two or three-year active duty contract (there are some exceptions to this rule).

    For complete details, see our ADGIB Article.

    Post-9/11 GI Bill

    If you have at least 90 days of aggregate active duty service after September 10, 2001, and are still on active duty, or if you are an honorably discharged Veteran or were discharged with a service-connected disability after 30 days, you may be eligible for this VA-administered program. See details.

    Service-Disabled VA Life Insurance

    To be eligible for basic Service-Disabled Veterans Insurance (S-DVI), a Veteran must have been released from active duty under other than dishonorable conditions on or after April 25, 1951. He/she must have received a rating for a service-connected disability and must be in good health except for any service-connected conditions. An application must be made within two years of the granting of service-connection for a disability.

    For complete details, see the VA Life Insurance Web site.

    VA Disability Compensation

    Disability compensation is a benefit paid to a Veteran because of injuries or diseases that happened while on active duty or were made worse by active military service. It is also paid to certain Veterans disabled from VA health care.

    The amount of basic benefit paid varies depending on the nature of your disability. Note: You may be paid additional amounts, in certain instances, if:

    • you have very severe disabilities or loss of limb(s)
    • you have a spouse, child(ren), or dependent parent(s)
    • you have a seriously disabled spouse

    For complete information, see the VA's Disability Compensation Web site.

    VA Disability Pension

    Disability Pension is a benefit paid to wartime Veterans with limited income who are no longer able to work.

    You may be eligible if:

    • you were discharged from service under other than dishonorable conditions
    • you served 90 days or more of active duty with at least 1 day during a period of wartime. (However, anyone who enlisted after September 7, 1980, generally has to serve at least 24 months or the full period for which a person was called or ordered to active duty in order to receive any benefits based on that period of service)
    • you are permanently and totally disabled, or are age 65 or older
    • your family income is below a yearly limit set by law

    VA Medical Care

    The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) provides a broad spectrum of medical, surgical, and rehabilitative care to eligible Veterans.

    If you have a discharge other than honorable, you may still be eligible for care. As with other VA benefits programs, the VA will determine if your specific discharge was under conditions considered to be other than dishonorable.

    The length of your service may also matter. It depends on when you served. There’s no length of service requirement for:

    • Former enlisted persons who started active duty before September 8, 1980, or
    • Former officers who first entered active duty before October 17, 1981

    The number of Veterans who can be enrolled in the health care program is determined by the amount of money Congress gives VA each year. Since funds are limited, VA set up priority groups to make sure that certain groups of Veterans are able to be enrolled before others.

    For more information, see the VA's Health Care Web site.


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  • PTSD Vet Lied


    A Veteran from Fairport pleaded guilty to lying about suicides he says he witnessed overseas in order to claim disability benefits and claim tens of thousands of dollars.

    Michael Pecka, 33, filed a claim for VA Disability Benefits in 2011 claiming that he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from witnessing the suicide of two fellow soldiers while deployed to Kuwait in 2004-2005 with the Army Reserve.

    But investigators with the Department of Veterans Affairs determined that Pecka "lied about being present for either suicide, lied about observing either suicide, lied about being involved in the investigation of either suicide, and in the case of one of the soldiers, was not even in the same country at the time he committed suicide," according to the office of U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy, Jr.

    Due to the high disability rating that Pecka received because of his PTSD claims, he received more than $92,000 in tax free disability benefits that he wasn't legally entitled to.

    Pecka filed the initial claim while he was an inmate in federal prison for an unrelated bank fraud conviction. Investigators said he repeated his false claims about observing the suicides on government forms in 2011 and 2014.

    He faces five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000, or both. Pecka is scheduled to be sentenced on January 24, 2019.


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  • VA secretaries spar


    WASHINGTON — The fight over extending benefits to “blue water” Veterans who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam is now pitting former Veterans Affairs secretaries against each other, adding to the confusion over Congress’ next steps.

    Last week, four former VA secretaries — Anthony Principi, Jim Nicholson, James Peake and Bob McDonald — wrote to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee urging lawmakers not to grant presumptive illness status to roughly 90,000 blue water Veterans who claim exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, saying there is insufficient proof for their cases.

    “(This legislation) is based on what we believe to be inconclusive evidence to verify that these crews experience exposure to Agent Orange while their vessels were underway,” the group wrote. “We urge the committee to defer action … until such a study is completed and scientific evidence is established to expand presumptions to those at sea.”

    The recommendation is in line with arguments laid out by current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie earlier this month. Department officials have argued that granting the presumptive status to Veterans could upend the system by establishing new, non-scientific criteria for awarding benefits.

    But advocates for the Vietnam Veterans have argued that scientific proof of exposure is impossible given that proper sampling was not done decades ago, as the ships patrolled the waters around the South China Sea.

    They say rare cancers and other unusual illnesses clustering among the blue water Veterans should be enough to spur action from Congress.

    Earlier this year, members of the House agreed. They overwhelmingly passed legislation that would require VA officials to automatically assume those Veterans were exposed to Agent Orange for benefits purposes, the same status granted to troops who served on the ground in Vietnam or on ships traveling upon inland rivers.

    Under current department rules, the blue water Veterans can receive medical care for their illnesses through VA but must prove toxic exposure while on duty to receive compensation for the ailments. Advocates have argued that VA officials are systematically denying those claims.

    In a letters to Wilkie and the committee this week, John Wells — counsel to the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association — blasted the department’s stance as unfair and inhumane.

    “Whether (the opposition) is due to bureaucratic intransigence or incompetence I do not know,” he wrote. “The bottom line, however, is that they have misrepresented and ‘cherry picked’ evidence to support their flawed position. That is a stain on the national honor.”

    Wells and other advocates have an ally in at least one former VA leader. David Shulkin, who was fired by Trump earlier this year, petitioned the Senate committee this week to move ahead on the issue, calling it a matter of honoring the Veterans’ sacrifice.

    “As Secretary, I was faced with the dilemma of what to do when there was insufficient evidence to make a reasonable conclusion,” he wrote. “I stated then — and continue to believe — that in the absence of reliable data to guide a decision, the answer must not be to simply deny benefits.

    “When there is a deadlock, my personal belief is that the tie should be broken in favor of the brave men and women that put their lives on the line for all of us.”

    Moving ahead with the legislation could prove expensive for the department. House officials estimated the cost of extending benefits to be about $1.1 billion over 10 years, but current VA officials have insisted the total is closer to $5.5 billion.

    For now, the legislation remains stalled in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has said the issue is among his top priorities but has also voiced concerns about whether the House measure as written covers the cost and scope of the problem.

    Wilkie is scheduled to appear before the committee on Sept. 26 to discuss a host of reform efforts at the department since he took over the top leadership post on July 30.


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  • Claims Process


    What Is a Fully Developed Claim?

    The Fully Developed Claims (FDC) program is an optional initiative that offers Veterans and survivors faster decisions from VA on compensation, pension, and survivor benefit claims.

    Veterans and survivors simply submit all relevant records in their possession, and those records which are easily obtainable, such as private medical records, at the time they make their claim and certify that they have no further evidence to submit. VA can then review and process the claim more quickly.

    Many Types of Claims

    There are many types of claims for disability compensation. For example, if you're filing a VA claim for the very first time, you have an original claim. A reopened claim means you have new and material evidence and you want VA to reconsider a claim it once denied. There are also new claims, secondary claims, and special claims.

    To learn more about which type of claim you may have and the evidence and forms you need with your submission, view the Claims and Evidence page. Your claim must meet all the applicable requirements listed to be considered for the FDC program.

    Who Can File anFDC?

    Veterans may file an FDC for disability compensation for the following reasons:

    • An injury, disability, or condition believed to have occurred or been aggravated by military service.
    • A condition caused or aggravated by an existing service-related condition.

    Veterans and their families and survivors may also file pension or dependency and indemnity compensation (survivor) claims at these pages:

    Why Use theFDC Process?

    FDC puts you in control, and it's faster and risk-free.

    By filing an FDC, Veterans and survivors take charge of their claim by providing all the evidence at once. By then certifying that there is no more evidence, VA can issue a decision faster.

    File an FDC without risk. Participation will not affect the attention your claim receives from qualified VA rating staff or the benefits to which you're entitled. If VA determines other non-federal records exist and are required to decide a claim, VA will simply remove the claim from the FDC program and process it through the traditional claims process. Once you initiate your FDC, you'll have up to one year to complete it. Should VA approve your claim, you'll be paid back to the day you initiated your claim.

    What's theBest Way to File anFDC?

    • The best way to file an FDC is electronically at Once you log on to your account, VA recommends you appoint an accredited Veterans Service Officer to help you initiate your claim, gather the required medical records and evidence, and submit your claim. If you don't yet have an account, register today.
    • If you prefer to file your FDC by paper, complete VA Form 21-526EZ and visit your local regional office. You can appoint an accredited Veterans Service Officer to help you prepare and submit your claim. You can also appoint your accredited Veterans Service Officer online at

    How Should I Prepare MyFDC?

    • Register for an account.
    • Next, appoint an accredited Veterans Service Officer who can provide free, expert assistance.
    • Gather relevant documents, such as private medical records. While VA will obtain Federal records on your behalf, such as your DD-214 or service medical records, submitting them, if you have them will save time. If you believe there is not a notation in your service record describing your disability, submit letters from friends or those you served with that tell us about the facts of your claim ("buddy statements").
    • Initiate your claim at or call 1-800-827-1000 for assistance.


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  • Dental Coverage

    Military retirees eligible for the new dental and vision coverage — as well as active duty families eligible for the new vision benefit — can start researching their options in earnest now, with the release of new rates for 2019.

    The enrollment period for coverage under the Federal Employee Dental and Vision Insurance Program, or FEDVIP, is Nov. 12 to Dec. 10, but the time to start comparisons is now, said Kathy Beasley, director of government relations, health affairs, for the Military Officers Association of America.

    For retirees, the FEDVIP replaces the Tricare Retiree Dental Program, which ends Dec. 31. In order to have dental and vision coverage on Jan. 1, retirees must sign up during the enrollment period. Active duty families are still eligible for dental coverage under Tricare, but if they want the new vision coverage, they must sign up during the enrollment period.

    “We want to get this information out as soon as we can to give people extra time to make their decisions,” Beasley said, noting the Office of Personnel Management had provided the information early, in advance of being published on The rate information is available here, and will be available in early October on the website, along with a comparison tool that helps in making the choice.

    The rates and options vary among the different plans, but according to Beasley, officials with the Office of Personnel Management said the average gross dental premium for 2019 increases by 1.2 percent compared to rates for 2018. That does vary; for example, the FEP BlueDental rates for 2019 are decreasing on average by 6.8 percent for the high option and by 7.8 percent for the standard option, according to William A. Breskin, senior vice president of government programs for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

    The actual premium will depend on the plan chosen, but across the carriers, the average dental premium rates for 2019:

    Average biweekly dental premium*

    Average monthly dental premium*




    Self + 1



    Self + family



    *Actual premium may be higher or lower

    *Actual premium may be higher or lower

    The average vision gross premium is decreasing by 2.8 percent in 2019.

    The actual premium will depend on the plan chosen, but across the carriers, the average vision premium rates for 2019:

    Average biweekly vision premium*

    Average biweekly vision premium*




    Self + 1



    Self + Family



    *Actual premium may be higher or lower

    *Actual premium may be higher or lower

    It’s difficult to compare costs under the new plan with current costs under the Tricare Retiree Dental Program because the TRDP is a “one size fits all” program.

    Beasley said many MOAA members have said they looked at the 2018 FEDVIP prices compared to TRDP, and can’t find the exact same coverage and prices for comparison purposes. The FEDVIP offers a variety of different plans and options, with 10 different companies offering dental options for dental coverage, and four different companies offering vision coverage.

    She said officials at OPM, the Defense Health Agency, military service organizations and Veterans service organizations have joined forces in the last few months to get the word out to retirees about the new retiree dental plan options, but some apparently don’t know about the changes. She said she was in Huntsville, Alabama, giving a briefing, and about half of the retirees she spoke to had heard about the changes.

    As retirees evaluate their choices for the new dental plan, Beasley suggests that if they like their current dentist, they should ask their dentist whether they accept a FEDVIP plan, and talk about next year’s dental needs.

    “Your dentist knows your dental health and what you might anticipate in the future," she said. "Do your due diligence and look at the pricing. Use the plan comparison tool, and make your decision based on that.”


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  • Ind Unemploy


    As a VA claims processor, Veterans often ask me about Individual Unemployability (IU), also called Total Disability based on Individual Unemployability (TDIU). The following is a more formal version of what I tell them.

  • MPTF


    The Motion Picture & Television Fund’s VA Benefits Assistance Program has helped Hollywood’s military Veterans and their families collect more than $500,000 in unclaimed retroactive Veterans Affairs benefits over the last five years — and more than $85,000 in ongoing monthly benefits, all tax free for life.

    On Saturday, the MPTF will hold its 2nd annual VA Benefits Screening Day to help even more Vets and their families receive the benefits they’ve earned.

    The entertainment industry may not be thought of as one that employs many military Vets, but the MPTF has found that about 10% of its clients are Veterans or family members eligible for VA benefits. Since 2014, when the MPTF’s Social Services Department began formally tracking outcomes, it’s averaged more than 600 annual screenings of entertainment industry Veterans, their surviving spouses, and parents of industry members who are eligible. Through these screenings and linkages to the VA for formal filing and processing, the MPTF program has helped Veterans of military campaigns from World War II and the Korean War to Vietnam and the Iraq War.

    “We’ve made it our mission to reduce barriers to access to these benefits,” Naomi Rodda, director of MPTF Community Social Services, told Deadline. “Our message to industry Veterans and their families is: Don’t leave money on the table. You served our country and you are entitled to these benefits.”

    The majority of MPTF’s Veterans are identified and screened when they reach out for other services and programs offered by the fund. Rodda, who recently obtained her own accreditation as a VA Claims Agent – which allows the MPTF to have a more direct role in assisting its military Veterans and their families throughout the claims benefits process – says industry Veterans and their families should not be deterred by the “bad rap” the VA bureaucracy has received in some quarters.

    “The biggest lesson that I’ve learned in working on behalf of the Veterans for almost 10 years now,” she said, “is that the individual Veterans’ Service Officers that are responsible for filing and processing MPTF’s clients’ claims have been very helpful and willing to go the extra mile to resolve complex issues.”

    The MPTF notes that as word of its program has spread, two industry donors have stepped up with financial support of $100,000 each to broaden and sustain its work.

    Saturday’s 2nd annual VA Benefits Screening Day will be held at the offices of the Costume Designers Guild, IATSE Local 892, in Burbank. Although a limited number of screening appointments remain for the event, MPTF plans to hold additional screenings and outreach events throughout 2019.

    Additional information: call (323) 634-3888 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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  • JD Williams


    A triple amputee Veteran will have his full-time caregiver services reinstated after the Tennessean reported Wednesday that the Nashville VA initially decided to deny the level of his caregiver's benefits.

    Staff Sergeant J.D. Williams lost his right arm and both legs while deployed with the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan in 2010.

    He was discharged and sent home, where his wife, Ashlee Williams, was assigned and paid by the VA to be his caregiver.

    But after six years, she wrote on Facebook on Nov. 17, the VA decided to lower her husband to the lowest tier of the program, determining that he no longer needs a full-time caregiver.

    She claimed that the VA assumed that the care she provided her husband, including helping her husband with applying prosthetics and lifting him into a wheelchair about 10 times a day, was part of her "spousal duty."

    "...should have been included on the marriage certificate according to the VA," Ashlee Williams wrote in a post that was shared more than 25,000 times on Facebook by Wednesday morning.

    Williams wrote in a separate post that while she still has caregiver designation, being dropped to the lowest tier in the program has been a "pattern" she has seen in other VA caregiver cases.

    "I'm just a minuscule part of this MUCH Larger problem," she wrote.

    Nashville VA is part of the Tennessee Valley Healthcare System. When asked by the Tennessean to comment on the case, the VA said they will reverse their action Wednesday.

    "In this case, the reassessment process was handled incorrectly, and VA is taking steps today to reinstate Mr. Williams’ caregiver benefits to their original level," said Chris Vadnais, a TVHS spokesman.

    He said Williams' occupational therapy assessment responses were not fully considered by the team assessing his benefits, leading to an "improper reduction."

    "The goal of all VA health care programs is to help Veterans achieve their highest level of health, quality of life and independence," said Vadnais.

    The Williams did not respond to requests for comment.

    Caregiver details the VA's process

    According to Ashlee Williams, when a caregiver is dropped to the lowest tier, they're given an opportunity to appeal. But the appeal is reviewed by the same clinical eligibility team that made the decision to change caregivers' status, and the appeals are most often denied.

    Then the caregiver is removed.

    The practice of dropping the caregiver's to a lower tier before the appeal and dismissal helps ensure the VA pays the cheapest rate, Williams said.

    "The VA now only has to pay them the 3 months at the lower tier. It is a SIGNIFICANT difference," she wrote. "THIS is why I'm speaking out. No-one deserves this. I will appeal my decision to be lowered and fight for every other caregiver going through this too."

    Williams noted that she had made six attempts to reach the VA Caregiver Support Coordinator on Friday before posting, but ultimately went public due to the VA’s inaction.

    An OB-GYN at the VA hospital made the decision, according to her post.

    Vadnais said the provider was a primary care physician who works in a women's clinic, not an OB-GYN.

    VA to establish clearer assessment

    The VA MISSION Act gives the VA the ability to make these changes to participants of the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, while expanding the program to those who care for Veterans.

    The VA, Vadnais said, periodically reassesses participants to ensure that Veterans and caregivers have everything they need to continue progressing toward improved health and wellness.

    "Eligibility for VA’s caregivers program is complex, and determinations are often made by multidisciplinary teams, including primary care doctors, rehab professionals and mental health clinicians," he said.

    The VA, he said, is working to establish clearer, more objective eligibility criteria for consistency in these determinations.

    "In the meantime, VA is ensuring that all facilities understand better how to differentiate Veterans undergoing positive changes in their needs and capabilities from those who require a consistent or greater level of care," he said.

    'A hundred ways I could have died'

    J.D. Williams was on his second tour in Afghanistan when he led a small six-person team into a village "that had a great deal of resistance," he wrote in a blog post for Retiring Your Boots.

    As they approached, an IED detonated directly beneath him.

    "My whole life started flashing through my head and I could feel an ice-cold tingling sensation all over my body," he wrote.

    When he checked himself for injuries, he saw that his right arm and legs were gone.

    "I (laid) back down and started thinking about life. Chaos going on all around me, I’m laid there thinking I may never see my family, friends, or Montana ever again," he wrote.

    Williams said his team risked their own lives to get him to safety and get him a medical evacuation within 20 minutes, all while exchanging gunfire with the Taliban.

    "As soldiers, we faced the horrors of war and never backed down... I take pride in our country and the brave men and women who defend it. I can honestly say that I would do it all again. I can think of a hundred ways I could have died the day I stepped on that IED but I’m here and I’m extremely thankful for that," he wrote.


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  • Vet with HBP


    WASHINGTON — New research linking Veterans’ high blood pressure with wartime exposure to chemical defoliants could dramatically expand federal disability benefits for tens of thousands of Vietnam-era troops.

    The findings, from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, conclude that “sufficient evidence” exists linking hypertension and related illnesses in Veterans to Agent Orange and other defoliants used in Vietnam, Thailand and South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s.

    They recommend adding the condition to the list of 14 presumptive diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure, a group that includes Hodgkin’s Disease, prostate cancer and Parkinson’s Disease. That’s an upgrade from past research that showed a possible but not conclusive link between the toxic exposures and high blood pressure problems later in life.

    If Veterans Affairs officials follow through with the recommendation, it could open up new or additional disability benefits to thousands of aging Veterans who served in those areas and who are now struggling with heart problems.

    Veterans who struggle with high blood pressure issues are eligible for health care at VA facilities. But the illness is eligible for disability benefits in only select cases.

    Adding an illness to VA’s presumptive list means that Veterans applying for disability benefits need not prove that their sickness is directly connected to their time in service. Instead, they only need show that they served in areas where the defoliant was used and that they now suffer from the diseases.

    That’s a significant difference, since proving direct exposure and clear health links can be nearly impossible for ailing Veterans searching for decades-old paper records.

    A change in the designation of hypertension by VA could also add significant new costs to the department’s disability payout expenses.

    In 2010, when then Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki expanded the list of presumptive illnesses for Agent Orange exposure to include ischemic heart disease and Parkinson's, the department estimated additional costs of more than $42 billion over a decade.

    It’s unclear how many Veterans suffer from high blood pressure and would be eligible for disability payments if the change is made. In a statement, VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the department “is in the process of evaluating this report and appreciates the work” of the group.

    Regardless the cost, officials from the Veterans of Foreign Wars are already calling for VA officials to move ahead with adding hypertension to the list.

    “There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Agent Orange made Veterans sick, it made their children sick, and it brought pain and suffering and premature death to many,” VFW National Commander B.J. Lawrence said in a statement. “Even though it’s been a half century since they were exposed, the results of that exposure is something they continue to live with daily.”

    Over the last year, advocates for “blue water” Navy Veterans — sailors who served in ships off the coastline of Vietnam — have been fighting with department officials over a decision to deny them presumptive status in Agent Orange related claims.

    VA officials have insisted that scientific evidence does not exist linking their illnesses to exposure to the defoliant miles away from the Vietnam mainland.

    The new study is available at the National Academies Press website.


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  • Retirement System


    With less than three months to go before the year-end deadline, only one in six service members who are eligible to make the choice to opt in to the new military retirement system have done so, falling far short of prior expectations and raising questions about why the response has been so low.

    About 1.6 million active-duty and reserve troops are eligible to opt into the new retirement system, which promises a smaller pension check for those who complete a 20-year career but offers cash payments into a personal retirement account that service members can keep regardless of how long they stay in the military.

    As of the end of September, 16.5 percent of those eligible service members have opted in to the Blended Retirement System, also known as the BRS, according to defense officials. The deadline for eligible service members to opt in to BRS is Dec. 31.

    Yet within the individual military services, the response has varied significantly. The Marines have the highest opt-in rate, with 36.6 percent opting in to BRS. They’ve continued the trend from earlier this year. More than a third of the service members who opted in to BRS since July are Marines — the smallest service.

    The service with the lowest percentage of enrollment is the Army, at 10.5 percent of eligible soldiers opting in. To date, 20.5 percent of sailors have opted in, and 16.9 percent of airmen.

    The numbers are raising two basic questions: Are people just procrastinating in making their decision? Or are they affirmatively choosing not to opt into the BRS?

    “It’s a really important question for someone to figure out what’s going on,” said Beth Asch, a senior economist at RAND specializing in defense manpower and compensation issues who has done extensive research and analysis on the BRS.

    A 2015 law fundamentally changed the traditional retirement system for all future service members. Yet for troops who were in uniform at the time the law was changed, they now get a choice whether to keep the legacy benefit or to enroll in the new system.

    The traditional retirement system might be better for troops who will definitely complete a 20-year career because the pension checks will be higher. But for younger service members who may decide to leave the military before the 20-year mark — and would get no retirement benefit at all under the traditional system — the new system might be better because it will allow them to accrue some money in a retirement savings account that they can keep.

    The retirement savings is accrued in a Thrift Savings Plan, or TSP.

    All troops entering the military starting in 2018 are automatically enrolled into the new Blended Retirement System. But those with fewer than 12 years of service as of the end of 2017 can make the choice in 2018 to either stay with the legacy system or switch to the new BRS.

    The Army, Navy and Air Force don’t require their service members to take any steps if they’re going to stay with the legacy retirement system. If they do nothing, service members will automatically remain enrolled in the traditional retirement system. But in order to choose the BRS, they must actively take the steps to opt in and fill out paperwork stating that intent.

    The Marine Corps is the only service that requires its members to register their decisions regardless of whether they opt in to the BRS or stay with the legacy system.

    Of the nearly 176,00 Marines eligible to make the choice, 54 percent have done so. Of those Marines, about 30,200 have explicitly decided to remain with the legacy retirement system, or about 17 percent of the total Marines eligible to make the choice. (They can also change their minds and opt in to BRS by Dec. 31.)

    Some are puzzled why more service members haven’t opted in — especially younger enlisted troops with only a few years in the military.

    “I’m a little surprised that the take rate isn’t higher,” said Stephen Pietropaoli, a retired Navy rear admiral who is chief operating officer for Navy Mutual.

    Pietropaoli’s speculation is that most people just haven’t decided.

    “You have to actually sit down and apply some mental energy to do an assessment, an analysis,” of life goals, expectations of being able to continue their military career, their personal finances, and what they’re trading for the portable TSP package, Pietropaoli said.

    “When you give them a whole year to decide, a lot of them will take the whole year,” he said. "But there’s also the possibility that many will miss the deadline for opting in, and there will be dissatisfaction.... That’s what I think the services should be worried about.”

    He said it might help if the other services follow the Marine Corps example: requiring eligible service members to register their decision, whether they are opting in or staying in the legacy system.

    Pentagon officials take a neutral stance, and have said they have no target or goal for opt-in, and no preference for which system individual service members choose. Each decision is an individual one, based on the service member’s circumstances and future plans.

    For more than two years, the Defense Department and the services have been conducting a financial education campaign to inform service members about the features of the new plan, and questions to consider as they compare the features with the legacy plan. That includes a tool that allows service members to plug in their particular numbers and compare the results for staying in the legacy system, and moving to the new system.

    “As we move into the final stage of the opt-in period, [DoD] is continuing its aggressive communications strategy,” said DoD spokeswoman Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason. “This awareness campaign incorporates social media, the Armed Forces Network, direct communications, and local installation commands,” she said.

    Those who are eligible to opt in to the new BRS or stay with the legacy system are active-duty members who had fewer than 12 years of service ― and reserve-component members in a paid status with fewer than 4,320 retirement points ― as of Dec. 31, 2017.

    Those with more time in the military automatically stay with the legacy system; those entering on or after Jan.1, 2018, are automatically enrolled in the BRS. For more information, click here.

    In their research for DoD on the effects of the BRS on retention, RAND Corporation researchers have estimated that virtually all junior enlisted personnel in the pool of people eligible to choose would elect the BRS over the legacy system, as would many personnel who are more senior. The election rate would drop off for those with more years of service.

    “I think the bottom line is that fewer enlisted personnel, especially, are opting in than we would have expected,” said RAND’s Asch.

    “When we do our analysis, we assume people have perfect information, in the sense that they fully understand all the nuances of the plan,” Asch said. “They may not have perfect information about the future, but they understand the plan and they act rationally on it. … They understand the features of it and what it means financially.”

    Retirement may not be on the radar for many young, enlisted personnel, which is why the financial education is particularly important, Asch said. “It could be that they didn’t understand the financial education. … Maybe the education could be improved, although it’s my sense that it’s a very good program."

    “The big question is: why are people leaving money on the table? My thought is that they may be getting advice that’s not necessarily in their best interest,” she said.

    One hypothesis, she said, is that the young troops are looking to others for help in making their decision ― parents, and others around them who are older. “It’s not something most people know about, the pros and cons of the BRS."

    “The thing that makes it tricky is that the decision that’s best for a 30- or 40- or 50-year-old is different than what’s best for a 20- or 25-year-old. … If the influencers tend to be older, they might be giving advice based on their experience, and where they are in their life cycle, and how close they are to retirement, which may not be necessarily in the best interest of the young member.

    “One of the huge advantages of this program is that it’s particularly advantageous for young people who don’t think they’re going to make it to retirement. In fact, we know that most people will not make it to retirement, especially enlisted,” she said.

    According to the Defense Department, currently 81 percent of service members in the legacy retirement system separate with no government retirement benefit. Under the legacy system, only those who stay until they’re eligible for retirement can receive retirement pay.

    Asch said she is neutral on the question of whether or not people should opt in, from the standpoint of DoD force management.

    “But people could be missing out on an opportunity," she said. “Does that mean that everyone should opt in? No. But the fact that we have junior enlisted not opting in, is a shame. …

    “The people who choose not to opt in who are young … I’m not talking about people who have 10 years of service. I’m talking about people with two, three years of service, and are choosing not to opt in, are leaving money on the table, because most of them will not make it to retirement. …

    “They’re going to leave without any benefit, whereas if they opt in, they’d leave with something.”

    Under the new BRS, the retirement pay is reduced by 20 percent for those who stay until they’re eligible for retirement benefits. However, DoD automatically contributes at least 1 percent to the BRS service member’s Thrift Savings Plan, and matches up to 5 percent of the service member’s contributions to his or her TSP. In addition, at the 12-year mark BRS service members receive a one-time payout of continuation pay— active-duty members get 2.5 times their monthly basic pay. Also, BRS service members who stay long enough to qualify for retirement benefits can opt for a partial lump-sum payout.

    The DoD contributions to the TSP and other BRS features are not available to those in the legacy system.


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  • Justice 003


    SAN DIEGO – Michael Vanden Brink pleaded guilty today to stealing thousands of dollars in benefits intended for the widow of a military Veteran. During his plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jan M. Adler this morning, Brink admitted that after the widow’s death in 2004, he converted her benefits paid out by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to his own use.

    Brink, 57, acknowledged that H.C.C., the spouse of a deceased Veteran, began to receive Dependency and Indemnity Compensation benefits in 1972. Sometime prior to March 2004, H.C.C. began to receive those benefits via direct deposit into a bank account in both her name and Brink’s.

    Brink acknowledged that H.C.C. died on June 30, 2004, at her home in Oceanside, California, and that he was aware of her death and that her benefits should have ceased immediately upon her death. Brink further acknowledged that he knew that he was not entitled to H.C.C.’s benefits, and that he knew that the money rightfully belonged to the United States.

    As a part of his plea, Brink admitted that he received a monthly bank statement for the account, and that he never informed the bank that H.C.C.’s monthly benefits should cease. Instead, Brink admitted that from July 1, 2004 until February 26, 2014, only he had access to and control of all funds in the bank account, and that during that time he converted a total of $145,035 in United States’ money to his own use.

    “For almost a decade, this defendant stole thousands of dollars intended to help the families of our brave men and women in uniform,” said United States Attorney Adam L. Braverman. “This prosecution demonstrates the commitment of the United States Attorney’s Office to protecting the integrity of programs for our Veterans and their families.”

    “This investigation demonstrates the OIG’s commitment to aggressively pursue individuals who defraud VA programs. The VA OIG will continue to identify criminal activity in order to protect the integrity of VA programs.” said Special Agent in Charge A.E. Pleasant, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Inspector General, Criminal Investigations Division, Western Field Office.

    As a part of his plea agreement, Brink agreed to pay $145,035 in restitution to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Brink faces up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $390,060 at his sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge John A. Houston on December 10, 2018.

    DEFENDANT                       Case Number 18-cr-3894      

    Michael Vanden Brink           Oceanside, CA.


    Theft of Public Property – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 641

    Maximum penalty: 10 years’ imprisonment, $390,060 fine, restitution


    U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, Office of Inspector General – Criminal Investigations Division


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  • Hill and Ponton Logo


    Meaning of Permanent & Total

    First, let’s break down each word in the phrase “permanent and total.” Permanent means that a Veteran has a disability which has no chance, or close to no chance, of the disability improving. The VA considers a disability to be permanent when the medical evidence shows that it is reasonably certain the severity of the Veteran’s condition will continue for the rest of the Veteran’s life. In determining this, the VA is allowed to take into account the Veteran’s age.

    Total means a Veteran’s disability is rated at 100% disabling. Ratings are assigned to a disability based on the VA’s rating schedule. A rating is meant to represent how much the disability impairs a Veteran’s ability to function. In other words, the rating reflects the severity of the disability. If a disability is rated at 100%, then that indicates the Veteran is completely, or totally, disabled.

    A Veteran might have a disability that is rated at 100% (total), but it might not be considered permanent. If a disability is not considered permanent, it is called a temporary disability. Vice versa, a Veteran could have a disability that the VA has determined is permanent, but it is not rated at 100% so it isn’t total. However, when a Veteran has a disability that is considered permanent AND total, there are certain benefits that come into play.

    Permanent and Total Benefits

    If a Veteran has a permanent and total rating they do not have to worry about getting scheduled for VA re-examinations. The VA has already made the determination that the medical evidence shows the disability is not going to improve when they found the disability to be permanent.

    Other benefits that come with permanent and total ratings include:

    • CHAMPVA (The Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs) – This is a comprehensive health care benefit program for spouses and children of Veterans. If a Veteran has a P&T rating their spouse and children can receive health care benefits under this program. Also, if a Veteran who passed away had a P&T rating at the time of death their surviving spouse and children can receive health care benefits under CHAMPVA (Note: the Veteran’s cause of death must have been from a service-connected disability).
    • Chapter 35 Dependents Educational Assistance Program – This provides education and training opportunities for eligible dependents (spouse, son, daughter, stepchildren, adopted children) of a Veteran who has a P&T rating. Unlike CHAMPVA, if a Veteran dies from a non-service connected disability, dependents can still receive Dependents Educational Assistance benefits as long as the Veteran had a P&T rating when they passed away. There is a lot of information regarding Dependents Educational Assistance benefits, so for more details on this program click here.
    • Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) – DIC benefits only become applicable when the Veteran has passed away. If a Veteran had a P&T rating for the 10 years immediately prior to their death, qualifying dependents will be eligible for DIC benefits. However, if the Veteran had a permanent and total rating for LESS THAN 10 years prior to their death, qualifying dependents are only eligible for DIC benefits if the Veteran’s cause of death was service-connected.
    • Certain state-level benefits – state-level benefits for Veteran’s that have a P&T rating range from college and employment resources to free hunting and fishing licenses. For example, in Florida, a Veteran with a P&T rating and an honorable discharge are exempt from paying property tax on their residence. For a comprehensive list of each state’s benefits click here.

    Getting the VA Assign a Permanent & Total Rating

    You can’t file a claim for a permanent and total rating, but you can submit a letter to the VA requesting they find you permanent and total. When submitting this request, you should also send medical evidence that shows your service-connected disability or disabilities are not going to improve in the future. The VA typically makes a determination of permanent and total on their own, but if you have not been found permanent and total it is worth letting the VA know why you should be.

    If you’re unsure whether you’ve been found permanent and total, first look at your rating decision. Some rating decisions will include a permanent and total box that will be checked if the VA found you to be permanently and totally disabled. Another indicator on rating decisions is if there is language that says something like “eligibility to Dependents Educational Assistance Benefits (Chapter 35 DEA benefits) has been established.”


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  • Rating Reductions


    Under certain conditions, VA may reduce your disability rating. Legally, VA is entitled to rating reductions but there are rules they must follow when doing so. But unfortunately, mistakes are still made and VA often does not get rating reductions quite right. So, in this post, we’ll discuss what VA can and cannot do when reducing your rating and what you should do if VA sends notice that your rating may be adjusted.


    The idea is that some service-connected conditions will improve over time or with treatment and VA wants to make sure they are compensating each Veteran according to their present level of disability. For example, if you had service-connected cancer and but it goes into remission, VA would propose a rating reduction because, presumably, your cancer is less disabling – i.e. has less of an impact on your ability to function in life and at work.

    VA normally starts the process of reducing a rating under two circumstances:

    • Scheduled re-examinations. Usually, VA will evaluate (after you are granted service-connection) whether your disability should be scheduled for a future re-examination (a C&P exam) to determine if your benefits need to be adjusted. VA usually makes this determination if they believe your disability can be expected to improve. Typically, the first re-exam will be scheduled 2-5 years from the date of your first Rating Decision.
    • Evidence of change in condition. VA can also order a re-examination at any time if there is new, relevant medical evidence that your disability has improved.

    But disabilities, as you likely know, are complicated. Symptoms of a disability may temporarily decrease but resume at baseline level soon after. Or, for example, symptoms may improve but not enough to significantly (or, as VA would say, materially) improve your ability to function under the ordinary stressors of life or work. So VA has strict rules guiding the process of rating reductions. But, those guidelines are not always applied correctly, so it can help to have an idea of what VA is required to do.


    There are a number of things VA must do when reducing ratings under any circumstances:

    • A proposed rating (as well as a final decision) must be based on a review of the Veteran’s entire medical history
    • VA must show that there has been an actual change in the disability since the last rating decision
    • VA must show that change in the disability reflects material improvement in the Veteran’s ability to function under the ordinary conditions and stressors of life and work
    • Examination reports must be based on thorough examinations

    Additionally, the procedural manual (M21) that VA adjudicators use to process claims states that VA must outline the time period during which your condition is said to have (materially) improved.


    VA is required to send a letter proposing the reduction of your benefits, if the decrease will affect the amount of monthly compensation you receive. The letter is not a final VA decision and so cannot be appealed, but VA gives you the opportunity to respond to the proposal by submitting evidence and/or attending a hearing.

    From the date of the letter, you have 60 days to submit evidence if you believe the reduction is not warranted. Within the first 30 days of the 60-day period, you have the option to request a hearing to be conducted by VA personnel unrelated to the proposed reduction. VA must consider evidence you submit during this period (including the transcript of the hearing, if you choose to attend one) and all previous evidence and medical records associated with your file.

    What are some types of evidence you might submit? You do not need to submit treatment records from your VA Medical Center as VA already has access to those documents. But it can be helpful to submit a medical opinion from an outside, independent doctor if your Compensation and Pension exam was not favorable. Additionally, you may want to submit statements from family, friends, or employers who have observed your ability to function in daily life and/or at work. If you choose not to submit evidence within the 60-day period, VA will issue a final decision reducing your rating.

    If, after 60 days or the review of your submitted evidence, VA sends a final decision that reduces your rating, you can file an appeal with a Notice of Disagreement form.


    For certain special cases, there are rules in place that protect Veterans from rating reductions or severance of their disability benefits.

    Stabilized Ratings: 5 Years or more

    Any rating that has remained at the same level for 5 years or longer is considered “stabilized.” In addition to the general rating reduction rules that VA must follow (see above), VA must show sustained improvement in your condition.

    What does sustained improvement mean? Essentially it means one of two things: Either 1) VA cannot use just one re-examination (C&P exam) to show ‘sustained’ improvement, rather they must show through medical records as well as a C&P re-exam that you are not just temporarily experiencing improvement. Or, 2) VA must show that the evidence in your file predominantly demonstrates ‘sustained.’

    VA must provide an explanation of why they are reasonably certain your condition will continue to show ‘sustained’ improvement.

    100% (Total) Ratings

    VA can reduce a total rating (that is, a rating of 100%) only if there is material improvement in the Veteran’s condition. In addition to the general rating reduction rules, VA must provide evidence that your condition has improved such that there has been an observable change in your ability to function under the conditions of daily life.

    Continuous Ratings: 20 years or more

    Conditions that have been rated at or above a certain rating level for 20 years or longer are considered “continuous.” VA cannot reduce a continuous rating below the original rating level (unless they determine the rating was based on fraud). For example, if a Veteran’s service-connected PTSD was originally rated 30% disabling and fluctuated between 30% and 70% over the next 20 years (without dipping below 30%), VA could not reduce the rating to below 30 percent.


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  • TRICARE Logo

    By law, the TRICARE Retiree Dental Program (TRDP) will end on Dec. 31, 2018. New dental plan options for those enrolled in TRDP will be available through the Federal Employees Dental and Vision Insurance Program (FEDVIP). FEDVIP vision coverage will also be available for the first time.

    In case you missed the September webinar, join the TRICARE webinar on Oct. 11, from 2 to 3 p.m. ET, to learn about new dental and vision coverage under FEDVIP. The “New Dental and Vision Coverage Options for TRICARE Beneficiaries” webinar will discuss who is eligible for FEDVIP, as well as how and when to enroll.

    There’s no automatic enrollment into a new dental plan once TRDP ends. For 2019 dental coverage, retirees and their family members must take action to enroll in a FEDVIP plan. All beneficiaries eligible for TRDP are eligible for FEDVIP dental coverage. Visit the FEDVIP website for dental plan options.

    If you’re eligible, your first chance to enroll in FEDVIP is during the 2018 Federal Benefits Open Season. This runs from Nov. 12 through Dec. 10, 2018. Your coverage will then start Jan. 1, 2019.

    Retirees, retiree families, and active duty families are eligible for FEDVIP vision coverage. This year’s FEDVIP open season is also your first chance to enroll in a FEDVIP vision plan. If you enroll during open season, your coverage will start Jan. 1, 2019. Visit the FEDVIP website for vision plan options.

    Register to join us on Oct. 11 to learn more about the TRDP transition to FEDVIP and what the change means for you. A Q&A led by the presenters will follow the presentation.

    Keep updated on all of the TRICARE changes. For the latest on changes to TRICARE, visit TRICARE News and TRICARE Changes.


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  • Peer to Peer


    Across the country, Veterans are exploring their missions, aspirations, and purposes in life and are led by special people uniquely qualified to help– their peers. November 14, 2018 is Whole Health Peer Facilitator Day, where the unique skills of Peer Facilitators, who give their time and talents helping fellow Veterans take control of their health and well-being, are recognized.

    “Having done what I did in the Army, I find my voice, my example, my pitch, and my display really helps a lot of Veterans have confidence in what I’m saying – to get involved in the system,” says Jerry McClain, a former US Army Ranger and Whole Health Peer Facilitator at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama.

    Jerry has left the Army, but he has not stopped serving. He is a pastor, husband, father, grandfather, and a tireless supporter for his fellow Veterans. He became a Peer Facilitator to share the Whole Health benefits he experienced with other Veterans.

    Whole Health encourages Veterans to develop a Personal Health Plan, set goals based on what is important to them and work to achieve those goals in partnership with their health care teams. Many plans include well-being programs such as yoga, aquatic therapy, mindfulness meditation, acupuncture, or creative writing classes. The aim is to empower Veterans to take control of their care and equip them with what they need to reach their goals.

    When Jerry first learned about Whole Health over three years ago, he was looking for ways to manage pain resulting from a shattered right femur he suffered while in the service. The injury left him with hip, back, and knee pain and unable to walk or run as he had before. He found himself gaining weight, battling depression, and concerned about using too much medication to manage the pain. When he learned about VA’s Whole Health approach to care he was ready to “try anything they were willing to give” him. This is when he was introduced to mindfulness, a practice he found extremely beneficial in dealing with his issues.

    He likes the way Whole Health encourages Veterans to think about their health in a new way and consider what matters most to them. As people who have served, Veterans are accustomed to working on a mission. Whole Health encourages each person to look at how their health and well-being helps them achieve their life mission. As a Peer Facilitator, Jerry has seen Veterans practicing Whole Health move away from, or significantly reduce, the use of pain medication. “I’m one of them,” he says.

    He’s now leading Whole Health courses in his community at the American Legion in Pelham, Alabama. With more than 25 students in his first class, he says Whole Health makes him feel good about encouraging Veterans to come to the Birmingham VA Medical Center and gives him the opportunity share information about benefits and services other Veterans may not realize they are entitled to.

    The VA currently has more than 1,200 Whole Health Peer Facilitators nationwide, bringing this innovative approach to care to their fellow Veterans. Learn more about Whole Health and Whole Health Peer-Facilitator training and contact your local VA Medical Center to get involved.


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  • Shortage Vet Benefit Experts


    All this week on Stateside, we're looking at why more Michigan Veterans aren't getting the help they may be entitled to from the VA. The state has consistently ranked in the bottom five states and territories when it comes to helping Veterans and their families access federal VA benefits.

    Part of the problem is that the state doesn't have enough accredited Veteran service officers. These are the experts who help Vets navigate all the red tape in the VA's complex application process.

    Michael Smith is the director of the Washtenaw County Department of Veterans Affairs. He served a collective 21 years in the U.S. Army and is now an Accredited Veteran Service Officer. He joined Stateside to talk about the challenges that many Veterans face when navigating the application process for federal benefits.

    Nearly 600,000 Veterans live in Michigan. There are around 135 Veterans service officers at the county level, which Smith says is not nearly enough. He says that this shortage is part of the reason why Michigan ranks 48th in the nation when it comes to Veterans receiving federal benefits.

    "If a Veteran or a survivor or a dependent has nowhere to go to talk to someone who can advise them, and council them on benefits, and then assist them in the process of applying for those benefits, then they won't do it," Smith said.

    Listen above to hear Smith talk about what the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency (MVAA) could be doing to better support Veterans, and his advice for Veterans seeking help with determining their own potential VA benefits.


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  • Casket 001


    The results of a recent VA customer survey indicates Veterans and their families continue to experience high customer satisfaction in burial and memorial services for Veterans and families from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)’s National Cemetery Administration (NCA). 98.2 percent of all respondents saying they were satisfied with their experience at the national cemetery. For Veterans not buried in a VA national cemetery, VA provides headstones, markers or medallions to commemorate their service. For more information, visit the National Cemetery Administration website.


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  • VA Report

    Jeff Sweeney and Galen Warman were not surprised by the findings. Any of them.

    Not by the first report issued by the Office of the Medical Inspector, or the second, or the third, released last week in an investigation into the Manchester VA Medical Center’s competency and procedures.

    “They’re notorious for covering things up,” said Sweeney, 40. “I am fed up for having to fight for everything and I’m fed up being in pain all the time, but I’m not surprised.”

    Their skepticism is easy to understand, since the Office of the Medical Inspector is the VA’s own investigative arm. That’s why they think the OMI essentially shouted, “Nothing to see here,” in its recent findings, when it ruled on a variety of issues, including suspected mistreatment, misdiagnosis and slow response times connected to Myelopathy, a compression of the spinal cord.

    Sweeney and Warman both live in Concord, were both injured while serving their country and both sought medical help for their severe back and neck pain. They’ve moved on, started new lives, learned to live with their pain, and the ongoing process of an organization investigating itself has dulled their senses.

    “It falls in line with what they’ve been trying to do,” Warman told me. “I expected this all along, so no one is plowing new ground.”

    Indeed, this is old ground. Warman suffered back and neck injuries in a construction accident 30 years ago and a car wreck in 2007. Sweeney’s truck was hit by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2011.

    They both have since gotten some relief through surgery, but years had passed before they received the proper care, and they still have plenty of aches and pains.

    That’s why the whistleblowers we’ve been hearing about since the summer of 2017, the ones with those medical and nursing degrees – the ones who documented incompetency and delays in treatment and immoral record keeping and a poor monitoring system on degenerative spinal conditions – won’t let this go.

    In fact, they remain fighting mad, complaining about the conflict of interest they’ve seen as part of the VA’s investigation and the lack of accountability since the story exploded in the Boston Globe.

    “It’s what they do, like a damage control system,” said whistleblower Dr. Ed Kois, head of the spinal cord clinic at the Manchester VA. “They say they’re going to investigate, bring in the OMI knowing they’ll do a lengthy investigation and then wash their hands.”

    The Office of Special Counsel, an independent entity that oversees the OMI, isn’t buying it. In a prepared statement emailed to me, the OSC’s special counsel, Henry Kerner, wrote that “clear discrepancies undermine the assertion that VA leadership was open to concerns and worked to ensure Veterans receive timely care.”

    Those words were golden to Kois and Stewart Levenson, the Manchester VA’s former Medicine Department chairman, who were the loudest whistleblowers among the 12 staff members who came forward.

    They want you to know they are not doctors with axes to grind, nor are they trying to further their careers, working as self-promoters, promised by an outside government entity to expose trouble at the VA.

    Kois says he hasn’t been promised a better parking spot, and Levenson insists he did not come aboard to boost his chances of winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

    Kois’s parking spot remains unchanged, and he’s still courting the press, trying to make as much noise as possible. And Levenson did not win in the primary election, yet he’s writing op-eds and calling columnists back so these problems don’t fade from view.

    “All these investigative bodies descended on Manchester and you would think more would have been done,” Levenson said by phone. “But how can you investigate yourself? It was garbage. You can’t explain it away.”

    Added Dr. Ted Daly, another reputable whistleblower: “I’m flabbergasted by their conclusions.”

    Levenson, Kois and the others cited dirty surgical instruments, flies in the operating room and mismanagement up top, but it was the mistakes made on patients with compressed spinal cord problems that were the most alarming and damaging.

    Kois called it a “perfect storm” of factors. The Manchester VA had no neurosurgeons, forcing patients to the Boston VA in West Roxbury, which was overworked and not able to give the proper care.

    Record keeping between Boston and Manchester failed to clearly show who needed surgery, and a doctor named Muhammad Huq, the former head of the spinal cord clinic at the Manchester VA, was found to be cutting and pasting notes in medical charts, meaning information remained unchanged for years.

    Some whistleblowers and staff felt that upper management was more concerned with ratings and budgets than actual care, which led to the ouster of top officials once the story broke.

    Caught in this perfect storm were nearly 100 patients with spinal cord problems, many of whom were never properly treated. Some ended up in wheelchairs, others were forced to use canes, and still others simply had to endure pain needlessly for years, for a condition that one doctor said often goes untreated in third-world countries like Nigeria.

    But certainly not here in the U.S.

    Try telling that to Warman, 67, an Army Veteran who later served in the Air National Guard. His back pain went undiagnosed for years at the Manchester VA, leading to an endless supply of painkillers and a drastic change in lifestyle.

    “They were not forthcoming on how to treat it,” Warman told me. “It was like, ‘Take two of these in the morning and have a nice day.’ I was addicted to painkillers.

    “I tried to have some kind of life and I kept asking for help and getting none,” Warman continued. “They said they were not responsible.”

    Kois, new to the facility, first examined Warman in 2015. His response after viewing an MRI was “Holy s---.”

    “It showed he had severe narrowing of the spinal canal,” Kois said. “I sent him for further evaluation and he had surgery and I saw him again and he was doing great.”

    Pain remains, but Warman is strong enough to work at Cumberland Farms and deliver newspapers.

    And then there’s Sweeney. After midnight, riding in the lead truck in a convoy of at least 30 vehicles, he heard a bang, saw a flash and, after running for cover and the adrenaline rush had worn off, awoke with his back “killing me.”

    The Manchester VA sent him for physical therapy, which did nothing. Neither did steroids. Surgery was performed in Boston, but Sweeney awoke in even more pain.

    He was told during subsequent checkups that the pain was a normal part of the recovery process, but the pain grew worse and he later was let go from his job with the Department of Transportation for missing eight months.

    Sweeney said the VA eventually stopped taking his calls. He contemplated suicide. He drank a lot of beer. Then he went to see Kois, who took a CAT scan and told Sweeney, “I want you in my office, now.”

    Sweeney pulled out his phone and showed me what Kois had shown him: a picture of his spine, with a screw inserted into bone, which was fine, and another screw penetrating a nerve, which was not.

    “Permanent nerve damage caused by the VA,” Sweeney said. “I didn’t put that screw in there myself.”

    But following 14-hour surgery to remove the misplaced screw at New England Baptist Hospital, Sweeney’s life changed.

    “I was shocked that I was walking,” Sweeney said. “I went for a walk with the nurse and I felt good walking around. I’ll have contact with Dr. Kois for the rest of my life, if I can. Dr. Kois saved my life.”

    There’s still pain, though. Sweeney has been taking steroid injections since January. He installs natural gas lines and hopes surgery in the future will return him to some sense of normalcy.

    And, soon, his story and that of five others from across the country will be told in a documentary called, The Care They’ve Earned, an unflinching look at flaws and holes in the VA system.

    Advanced screenings have been shown in selective theaters this summer. Sweeney didn’t know the film’s release date around here, and its producer, Justin Springer, was unavailable for comment.

    Sweeney showed me a trailer on his phone, which included that CAT scan, the one that clearly showed those two screws in his back.

    “I hope people see it,” Sweeney told me. “I lived it and it was still an eye-opener for me.”


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  • Donald Trump 001


    President Trump to issue executive order requesting mental health coverage for a 12 month period for all service members as they leave the military, administration officials say in briefing.

    • Evidence 002


      One of the major aspects of developing a disability claim with the VA is gathering and submitting relevant evidence to help support it. The VA has what is called a duty to assist, however, it can be extremely beneficial to also gather your own evidence during the claims process. By submitting various forms of evidence, you provide the VA with more information and different angles for them to view your case. The type of evidence you should consider submitting will depend greatly on the disabilities that you are experiencing and at what step of the process you are at.

      Types of Evidence

      Service Records/Service Medical Records

      When trying to initially get your claim service connected, you have to show an in-service event that led to your disability. The easiest way to prove this in-service event is with your service records and medical records, if the event is documented. Whether it is a physical injury, or a mental one, having it documented in your service records can be a huge stress reliever when it comes to managing your VA claim. If the in-service event is not documented in your service record, don’t give up on your claim! There are other pieces of evidence that can be used to help prove your claim.

      Service records can also be beneficial when you need to prove you were in a certain location during a specific time period. For example, for the VA’s presumptive illnesses, you may need to show that you were in Vietnam or Thailand between 1962 and 1975, or that you were stationed at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987, or even possibly that you served in the Southwest Asia Theater during the Gulf War. Your service record should contain any documents that show what units you were assigned to and the location of each. These documents can include, but are not limited to, orders, travel vouchers, re-enlistment paperwork, and awards.

      Expert Medical Opinions

      Medical opinions can be useful, whether you are trying to show service connection for a disability, or if you are requesting an increased rating. Medical opinions allow for an outside doctor to review your claims file and meet with you to discuss your disabilities, symptoms, and the limitations you suffer because of it. They can provide the VA with a detailed medical account to show diagnosis and severity.

      Employment Information

      When filing for increased compensation based on unemployability, it is required to disclose your employers of the last five years that you actually worked. By giving the VA the employer’s name and address, it allows them to send the employer a form to verify when you worked there, your total income earned, the type of work you did, and anytime you lost due to illnesses. Basically, they are verifying all of the information that you included on the form 21-8940, but they want to hear it from the employer. You can expedite this step by sending your previous employers a form 21-4192 when you first file for individual unemployability.

      Buddy Statements

      Buddy statements can be helpful at any point in your process with the VA. If you are trying to get service connected or receive a higher rating, a buddy statement can prove to be your best piece of evidence. Generally, buddy statements will come from close family members or friends who have witnessed your disabilities and the change they have caused in your life. Buddy statements can also come from fellow service members, and can be beneficial if you are trying to prove a specific location or an event in service. They can help to corroborate the facts to the VA and provide an additional outlook on your situation.

      Deck Logs

      Deck logs can be vital to a Navy Veteran’s claim, especially when they need to show that they were part of the Brown Water Navy, serving within the inland waterways of Vietnam. For these Veterans, the deck logs for their ship during the time they were deployed to Vietnam can be requested and used to show on what days their ship was inland and what specific bay or waterway they were in. Deck logs can also be used to help prove a stressor that may have occurred on board on the ship. For example, if there was an active shooter on the ship and a Veteran developed PTSD and is now trying to get it service connected, the deck logs can be used to prove the incident occurred and provide the details of the situation.

      Dependent Benefits

      If you are trying to obtain additional compensation for your dependents, there is also evidence required for these benefits to be granted. When you file for dependents with the VA, you must complete a form 21-686c. With this form, you list any current and prior marriages, as well any prior marriages of your spouse. You also list any children who may qualify for benefits. To prove you have a spouse, you may be required to submit your marriage certificate and any prior divorce decrees. To claim children, you may be required to submit their birth certificate, so it is helpful to know where these documents are and have them ready to avoid further delay with the VA.


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    • Hill and Ponton Logo



      RAMP (Rapid Appeals Modernization Program) is the VA’s pilot program for the new appeals system created by the VA Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017. RAMP is an optional program, available to Veterans with claims that are currently on appeal. If a Veteran does not want to opt into the RAMP program, they do not have to submit anything to the VA; their appeals will continue to be processed in the current appeals system now referred to as the Legacy Appeals System.

      Information onRAMP Rating Decisions

      Now that the RAMP program has been in effect for several months, Veterans who opted in are receiving rating decisions. It is important to understand the information included in these decisions, and also what your options are if you are not happy with the decision.

      The appearance of rating decisions hasn’t changed much with the RAMP program. However, the information that must be included in the rating decision has changed slightly. RAMP rating decisions must list all favorable findings that the VA identified when reviewing the case, including listing what evidence was considered as favorable. The VA must also identify the evidence they considered to be unfavorable. In the narrative part of the rating decision, the VA must explain how the favorable and unfavorable evidence was weighed in coming to their ultimate finding. In addition to listing the evidence, the VA also has to include a list of all regulations and laws that were applied in making their decision.

      Forms Included inRAMP Rating Decisions

      In addition to the explanation and the list of evidence and regulations, RAMP decisions will have two forms attached. These two forms are the RAMP Review Rights form and the RAMP Selection form.

      The RAMP Review Rights form gives information about how to appeal the decision. The different ways to appeal a decision from RAMP are based on the different lanes that make up the RAMP program. The appeal options include:

      • Supplemental Claim: If you are unhappy with the rating decision and would like to submit new evidence, this is the appeal option to select. Once the new evidence (must be new and relevant) is submitted, a different rater will review the case.
      • Higher Level Review: This appeal option can only be selected if the decision being appealed was issued out of the supplemental claim lane, and you do not have any additional evidence to submit. (Note: if opting into RAMP, the only requirement is that no additional evidence can be submitted.) A higher-level VA employee will review the decision that is being appealed based on the evidence of record.
      • Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA): If you are unhappy with the rating decision and want to take your appeal straight to the BVA, use this appeal option (Note: the BVA will not begin deciding RAMP appeals until October 2018). If you choose to appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, you will have to select one of three options. These options are:
      • Direct Docket: Select this if you have no additional evidence to submit, and you do not want a hearing. The BVA will issue their decision based on the evidence of record.
      • Evidence Only Docket: Select this if you would like to submit additional evidence, but do not want a hearing. After submitting your appeal, you will have 90 days to submit additional evidence.
      • Hearing Docket: Select this if you would like to have a hearing with a Veterans Law Judge. You will also be able to submit additional evidence up to 90 days after submitting your appeal.

      The second form that will be attached to a RAMP rating decision is the RAMP Selection form. After deciding which appeal option is best for you, fill out the RAMP Selection form. This form requires you to specify which issues you are appealing, and which appeal option you are choosing.


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    • TRICARE Logo


      If you’re eligible for TRICARE, you can choose from a variety of plans. This gives you options for where and how you seek medical care. But how do you decide which plan or plans are best for you and your family members? The TRICARE website can help you learn what health plans you may be eligible for and compare plan features and costs. This will help you choose the right TRICARE plan for you and your family.

      Find a TRICARE Plan

      If you aren’t sure what health plans you may be eligible for, start by using the TRICARE Plan Finder. Answer a few simple questions, and the tool will display the choices of plans you may be eligible for based on who you are and where you live. You can do this for yourself or for family members. Remember that different family members may be eligible for different plans.

      Compare Plans

      If you want to compare several health plans, you can compare their features side-by-side using the Compare Plans tool. Simply select the plans you’re interested in learning more about. The results will display in a table, allowing you to compare the main features and costs of each plan, including:

      • Cost for a primary or specialty care visit
      • Annual deductible
      • Maximum out-of-pocket costs
      • Enrollment requirements
      • Annual fee
      • Locations where the plan is available

      Take command of your health by making informed decisions about your TRICARE benefit. The TRICARE Plan Finder and Compare Plans are just two helpful tools that make it easier to determine the right health plan for you and your family.


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    • DVA Logo 019


      Today the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced a series of immediate actions to improve the timeliness of payments to community providers.

    • Pension and DIC Rules


      The VA has made changes to regulations governing VA pension and Parents’ Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, which are need-based programs.  

      According to the VA, these changes will ensure that only those with a genuine need receive these benefits.

      There were four major changes to the qualifications for these benefits:

      1. Establishment of a clear net-worth limit for income and assets
      2. Establishment of a 36-month look-back period to review asset transfers at less than fair market value that may reduce net worth
      3. Establishment of up to a five-year penalty period to be calculated based on the portion of the covered assets that would have made net worth excessive, and
      4. Updates to medical expense definitions for consistency with VA internal guidelines.

      Establishment Of A Clear Net-Worth Limit

      Previously, the VA used a complicated formula to compute net worth. The new regulations create an arbitrary amount. VA says this will make computation easier, faster, and fairer.

      Under the new regulations, the net worth limit for 2019 is $123,600. This limit will be increased by the same percentage as the annual social security COLA increase, if there is one. A primary residence does not count as part of net worth, also a mortgage does not count as a liability.

      Establishment Of A 36-Month Look-Back Period

      This rule should keep people from hiding money in order to qualify for benefits. Some bad actors would sell stocks or other assets at a loss in order to qualify for pension benefits, others would "gift" money to a friend or family member in order to bring their net worth down to the qualifying limits.

      The new rule requires VA to look at an applicant's finances for the 36 months prior to the application for pension to determine if there are any financial irregularities.

      Establishment Of Up To A Five-Year Penalty Period

      This rule is related to the 36-month look-back period.

      If an applicant transfers money to a non-qualified source as determined above, the VA will withhold the pension based on the amount of money transferred. So, if an applicant transferred $12,000 to an uncle in order to qualify for pension and their monthly pension amount is $2,000, the VA will withhold 6 months of pension ($2,000 x 6=$12,000). This new rule allows the VA to withhold pension for up to 5 years in such cases.

      Updates To Medical Expense Definitions

      Medical costs have long been used in computing net-worth for pension benefits, however there has been much argument as to what really constitutes a "medical cost".

      Previously, the VA didn't include some medical care such as custodial care, assistance with getting around in one's home, and in-home supervision. While this type of care isn't "medical" by definition, it is related to an underlying medical condition, therefore the VA has added it as a cost.

      These new rules add these and other types of types of care as qualifying expenses.

      Veteran's Pension

      Veteran's pension is a monthly payment to certain Veterans with income below levels. The Veteran must have served at least one day during a wartime period and be:

      • 65 years or older, or
      • permanently and totally disabled, or
      • in a nursing home, or
      • receiving social security disability, or
      • receiving supplemental security income

      See our Veterans Pension page for more details.

      Survivor's Pension

      Survivor's pension, also known as the "death pension", is paid monthly payment to low-income, un-remarried surviving spouses and certain children of deceased wartime Veterans.

      See our Survivor's Pension page for more details.

      Parents’ Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC)

      Parents' DIC is a tax-free income-based monthly benefit for the parents, or parent, of a military service member or Veteran who has died from:

      • A disease or injury incurred or aggravated while on active duty or active duty for training, OR
      • An injury incurred or aggravated in line of duty while on inactive duty for training, OR
      • A service-connected disability.

      “The amended regulations bring consistency to the pension process and ensure benefits are available for Veterans and survivors with financial need,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “They will help maintain the integrity of and provide clarity to our needs-based pension program.”


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    • VA Wont Pay


      The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) told congressional staffers on Wednesday that it will not repay Veterans who received smaller GI Bill benefit payments than they were owed, NBC News reported.

      Committee aides told the outlet that the VA said it could not reimburse those Veterans without auditing past education claims, which, they said, would hold up future claims.

      The report comes weeks after computer problems delayed GI Bill payments to hundreds of thousands of Veterans.

      The issue first came under scrutiny after GI Bill payments were delayed due to a change in calculating housing allowances under the Forever GI Bill, which President Trump signed into law last year. According to NBC News, the department's computers were unable to process the change, quickly leading to an immense backlog of Veterans' claims.

      The issues ultimately resulted in Robert Worley, executive director of the VA's education service, being reassigned earlier this month.

      Because of the backlog, the department announced Wednesday that it would delay the bill’s housing allowance changes until next year, also pledging that Veterans who received incorrect GI Bill benefit payments would eventually be paid the correct amount.

      Committee aides, however, said VA officials told Capitol Hill staffers on Wednesday that the department will not retroactively reimburse underpaid Veterans due to the housing miscalculations once the system is fixed next year, according to NBC News.

      "They are essentially going to ignore the law and say that that change only goes forward from Dec. 2019," one aide told the outlet.

      Pressed for comment by NBC, VA spokesman Curtis Cashour said that attempting to implement the new law would put “an enormous administrative burden for schools in which some 35,000 certifying officials would have to track retroactively and re-certify hundreds of thousands of enrollment documents.”

      He added that the department would instead be paying housing allowances in accordance with the Department of Defense's previous Basic Housing Allowance rates until next year.

      Cashour pushed back in a statement to The Hill on Thursday, claiming “the NBC report is misleading and gives the false impression that some Veterans on the GI Bill will not be made whole with respect to their housing payments."

      “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he continued. “Each and every Veteran on the post-9/11 GI Bill will be made 100 percent whole — retroactively if need be — for their housing benefits for this academic year based on the current uncapped DoD rates, and, beginning in spring 2020, we [will] be in a position to provide Veterans the new rates where applicable to meet the law known as the Forever GI Bill.”

      Cashour further clarified to The Hill that “every single Veteran will be made whole for their housing benefits this year”

      “For many students, this DoD BAH [Pentagon Basic Allowance for Housing] rate will be equal to or higher than their current payment,” Cashour continued. “If a student was overpaid due to the change in law or because of VBA’s challenges in implementing the law, the student will not be held liable for the debt.”

      Cashour added that the VA in spring 2020 “will have solved its current information technology difficulties" to comply with the Forever GI Bill changes.


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    • GI Bill Benefits 001


      "This is — to be kind — a train wreck,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

      Shelley Roundtree departed the U.S. Army in 2013 after seeing friends and fellow soldiers die in combat during his tour in Afghanistan. He was committed to transitioning to civilian life, and one of his first steps was to enroll in college with tuition and housing benefits he'd earned under the GI Bill.

      Roundtree, 29, began studying marketing at Berkeley College in Midtown Manhattan. He dreams of working in the fashion industry, and he's close to graduating — but now there's a serious obstacle.

      The Department of Veterans Affairs is suffering from a series of information technology glitches that has caused GI Bill benefit payments covering education and housing to be delayed or — in the case of Roundtree — never be delivered.

      "I’m about to lose everything that I own and become homeless," Roundtree said. "I don’t want to be that Veteran on the street begging for change because I haven’t received what I was promised."

      Without the GI Bill's housing stipend, Roundtree was kicked out of his apartment and is now living on his sister's couch, miles from school, where he feels like a burden on his family. The new living situation required him to move all his belongings into a storage container, which he can no longer afford. Now all of his possessions are in danger of being auctioned off by the storage facility.

      Roundtree said that because of his extremely strained finances, he is forced to choose between spending money on public transportation to get to his marketing classes or buying food — not both. At the end of the day, the Veteran said he often makes himself go to sleep hungry.

      "It’s just confusing," said Roundtree. "Who is there for us? Who is representing us? Who is helping us? Who is doing what they need to do to better the situation for Veterans?"

      There are many Veterans, like Roundtree, across the country who are still waiting for VA to catch up with a backlog created after President Donald Trump signed the Forever GI Bill in 2017. The landmark piece of legislation greatly expanded benefits for Veterans and their families, but it did not upgrade the VA's technical capabilities to account for those changes.

      While it is unclear how many GI Bill recipients were affected by the delays, as of Nov. 8, more than 82,000 were still waiting for their housing payments with only weeks remaining in the school semester, according to the VA. Hundreds of thousands are believed to have been affected.

      The cause of the difficulty lies within VA’s Office of Information Technology, which was tasked with implementing a change in how the housing allowance was calculated, the agency said. The Forever GI Bill required that housing would be based on the ZIP code of where a Veteran went to school, not where he or she lived.

      Issues that arose when VA attempted to stress-test their antiquated system, and a contract dispute over the new changes, meant VA waited until July 16 to tell schools to begin enrolling students, according to Veteran advocacy groups. Many colleges and universities waited, however, because the VA told them that they would need to re-enter their student Veterans' certifying information either way.

      “That’s when the floodgates opened,” said Patrick Murray, the deputy director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “With all the delays trying to get the upgrades in the ZIP code processing, they suddenly got all their enrollments, which usually come during the spring across the summer. Instead they all came a few weeks before the fall semester, and they couldn’t keep up.”

      A VA spokesperson told NBC News by email that "further system changes and modifications are being made and testing is ongoing on the IT solution" to fix the delay in monthly stipend payments.

      "These changes have led to processing issues," a VA spokesperson wrote, referring to the GI Bill changes, "and VA is committed to providing a solution that is reliable, efficient and effective."

      At the end of August, Veterans Benefits Administration had nearly 239,000 pending claims — 100,000 more than at the same point in 2017. As school began, thousands of students faced dire circumstances and some faced eviction, getting kicked out of school or taking on loan or credit card debt.

      As the problem appears to have no clear solution, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is holding a hearing Wednesday to investigate the matter.

      The contractor hired by the VA to update its system for the Forever GI Bill, Booz Allen Hamilton, a multibillion-dollar information technology company, will be called to testify, a committee aide said. They will be joined by Under Secretary for Benefits Dr. Paul Lawrence and Director of the Education Service Robert Worley. A witness from the VA’s Office of Information and Technology will also be called.

      "This is — to be kind — a train wreck,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Veterans' affairs committee. “It’s really frustrating the amount of money that Congress has appropriated for Veterans, and this is the way VA has rolled it out. This discussion started over a year ago.”

      Roe’s office recently visited the VA’s regional processing office in Muskogee, Oklahoma, along with Democratic and Senate Committee staffers and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.

      In a Nov. 5 letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, Roe said that employees at the processing center told the group that IT systems at the office froze and crashed so often that tasks that once took five minutes now required 45 minutes. Computers often suffered a “blue screen of death,” which required restarting machines, and “managers had to write off 16,890 man hours due to system crashes or latency issues.”

      “While Committee staff never witnessed a ‘blue screen of death,’” the letter said, “they did witness the system crash no fewer than five times in a 10 minute period.”

      The VA declined to share how much the IT system failures, overtime payments and the 202 additional workers hired to address these problems have cost taxpayers.

      As some Veteran advocates point out, this is not an issue that came as a surprise.

      At the July 17, 2017, hearing in the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs — before the bill was passed into law — Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity Curtis Coy highlighted this as his core worry in response to one of the few questions asked during the hearing.

      “My biggest concern is two words: IT,” said Coy at the time. “We have an IT system in much or almost all of these sections that requires some degree of changes.”

      After Coy retired this year, the VA cut his position and the Office of Economic Opportunity. Multiple Veteran Service Organizations said the loss of this role, as well as the office, meant that there was no one left at the VA to communicate the issues to Veterans or to lobby higher-ups about the GI Bill issues.

      That’s not to mention the huge number of posts that remain unfilled at the agency. More than 45,000 jobs sit vacant at the VA, according to the agency’s own numbers, and it has not had a permanent chief information officer since LaVerne Council departed the office after Trump’s election.

      "Right now Secretary Wilkie and Dr. Lawrence have only been on the jobs for months,” Murray said. “People have been coming in and out of the VA like it’s a revolving door, and this is another example where a lack of consistent leadership causes these problems.”

      But Veterans like Roundtree are less concerned about the leadership at the VA — they just want to know if they can depend on the money they earned under the GI Bill.

      And advocates are similarly concerned as it remains unclear if the VA will be able to catch up before January, or if it will be inundated with new requests next year and fall even further behind.

      “I don’t see that there is an immediate fix, and I don’t see how this is going to be addressed in the spring or summer semesters,” said Tanya Ang, the policy and outreach director of Veterans Education Success. “This needs to be something that has a greater focus on it for a lot longer."


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    • DVA Logo 005


      Supplemental Income for Wartime Veterans

      VA helps Veterans and their families cope with financial challenges by providing supplemental income through the Veterans Pension benefit. Veterans Pension is a tax-free monetary benefit payable to low-income wartime Veterans.


      Generally, a Veteran must have at least 90 days of active duty service, with at least one day during a wartime period to qualify for a VA Pension. If you entered active duty after September 7, 1980, generally you must have served at least 24 months or the full period for which you were called or ordered to active duty (with some exceptions), with at least one day during a wartime period.

      In addition to meeting minimum service requirements, the Veteran must be:

      • Age 65 or older, OR
      • Totally and permanently disabled, OR
      • A patient in a nursing home receiving skilled nursing care, OR
      • Receiving Social Security Disability Insurance, OR
      • Receiving Supplemental Security Income

      Your yearly family income must be less than the amount set by Congress to qualify for the Veterans Pension benefit. Learn more about income and net worth limitation, and see an example of how VA calculates the VA Pension benefit.

      Additional Pension Allowances

      Veterans or surviving spouses who are eligible for VA pension and are housebound or require the aid and attendance of another person may be eligible for an additional monetary payment.

      How To Apply

      You can apply for Veterans Pension online or download and complete VA Form 21P-527EZ, “Application for Pension”. You can mail your application to the Pension Management Center (PMC) that serves your state. You may also visit your local regional benefit office and turn in your application for processing. You can locate your local regional benefit office using the VA Facility Locator

      To apply for increased pension based on A&A or Housebound payments, write to the PMC that serves your state and provide medical evidence, such as a doctor’s report, that validates the need for an increased benefit.


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    • Sailors Want Benefits


      Some Vietnam Veterans are living in fear, others dying without benefits they say they deserve, after the government revoked medical care for thousands of Veterans who say they were exposed to a more toxic version of the defoliant Agent Orange.

      Veterans Affairs argues the decision was based on a lack of scientific evidence linking some Veterans to Agent Orange.

      But WRAL found that the reason there's little scientific evidence is the government failed to test off-shore sailors during and after the war.

      Mike Bornes volunteered to serve his country during the Vietnam War, a conflict that included the defoliant linked to numerous long-term illnesses.

      “I’m true blue USA all the way,” Bornes said.

      But now, 50 years removed from his tour of duty, the 71-year-old former Navy Yeoman from Holly Springs said he feels his country betrayed him.

      “I'm tired of having a dollar sign put on my life,” he said. “It's wrong.”

      Bornes is among the thousands of so-called Blue Water Sailors who worked on supply and ammunition ships off the coast of Vietnam.

      Those sailors don't qualify for medical benefits afforded to troops on the ground.

      “It's wrong,” Bornes said. “It's unethical. It's unfair.”

      The VA did treat them for exposure to Agent Orange for years but ended those benefits in 2002.

      “They know we've been exposed,” Bornes said. “They just don't want to do it because they say they don't have the money.”

      The frontline of the battle for benefits is now in Washington, D.C., where the House of Representatives passed a bill requiring the VA to restore benefits. The bill is now stalled in the Senate.

      “Vietnam Veterans generally believe the policy of the VA when it comes to any kind of toxic exposure, especially Agent Orange, is delay, deny and wait for us to die,” said Rick Weidman, of Vietnam Veterans of America.

      The point of contention is whether the troops on ships were exposed to Agent Orange.

      Unlike ground troops, they weren't tested at the time.

      Without those tests, the VA argues there's no proof the Veterans are suffering from exposure to Agent Orange.

      “We want to find ways to pay benefits, but historically, we have to say no to some folks when there's not a rational basis or the evidence is not there,” said Beth Murphy, VA compensation service director.

      The VA has pointed to one study by the Institute of Medicine in which researchers "could not find enough data to determine whether or not Blue Water Navy personnel were exposed."

      What the VA usually doesn't cite in the same research is the claim, “Given the lack of measurements taken during the war and the almost 40 years since the war, this will never be a matter of science but instead a matter of policy.”

      “It's preposterous,” Weidman said. “It's not scientific evidence; it is simply wanting to say no.”

      Bornes said priorities seemed unfair.

      “They always find money to send you to war, but they never find money to treat you when you come back,” Bornes said.

      He argues the ships spent months just off the Vietnam coast using treated ocean water for everyday life.

      Australian researchers found the on-board filtration process didn't remove the harmful chemicals from the water. Instead, it intensified them.

      “Everything you did with water, you did with that contaminated water,” Bornes said.

      Another controversy is how to pay the additional benefits.

      A Senate bill would tack a fee on VA mortgage loans. Opponents say it's nothing more than an additional tax on Veteran homebuyers.

      Supporters argue even with that fee, VA loans are much cheaper than what's available on the open market.

      Bornes is now retired and tends to his model train hobby, which he calls relaxing, and to his diabetes, which causes pain and numbness in his hands and feet.

      He said he's convinced his diabetes is linked to Agent Orange, but he's more concerned about his fellow sailors facing more serious health problems.

      “Now that we're getting sick, we can't get the benefits that we deserve,” Bornes said. “Something is wrong.”


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    • No Soldier Burried Alone


      OMAHA, Neb. - A Vietnam Veteran who recently died with supposedly no living relatives will not be buried alone.

      Stanley Stoltz will be laid to rest at Omaha National Cemetery Tuesday.

      Scores of Veteran groups and civilians plan to attend the internment ceremony thanks in part to a plea on social media that went viral.

      "It's just been a tremendous outpouring of support for this man and even non-Veteran-affiliated groups," said Good Shepherd Funeral Home director Michael Hoy.

      Hoy said a hospice social worker called a week ago asking if they could provide Stanley Stoltz, a Vietnam Veteran with no known family, a proper burial.

      "That became our mission," Hoy said.

      Besides contacting Veterans groups, they also posted a notice in the newspaper and on social media. The notice included a plea for people to attend the Tuesday service.

      It was also an attempt to find out more about Stoltz and if he had any family or friends near by.

      The notice went viral, even attracting the attention of CNN reporter Jake Tapper, who posted the notice on his Twitter page.

      "After publishing that some family did come forward, that live a distance away. One may in fact travel to the service," Hoy said.

      It also touched a patriotic heart string.

      "The Legion Riders will be there, the Patriot Guard will be there, of course the Veterans honor guard," said Dick Harrington.

      He is with the Final Salute Society, a volunteer group that has represented about a couple dozen soldiers at the national cemetery over the past two years.

      "It's extremely important that somebody represents the Veteran. Nobody dies alone," Harrington said.

      KETV Newswatch 7 was able to learn that Stoltz grew up in Emmetsburg, Iowa.

      Former classmates said he was a soft-spoken and kind soul.

      His ex-wife said he was haunted by the Vietnam war which lead to substance abuse.

      In 2012, he came to the Stephen Center in Omaha, a homeless shelter for people committed to sobriety.

      Stoltz ended up at a Fremont nursing home where he died last on Nov. 18.

      He will be laid to rest beside other heroes and not alone.


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    • PTSD 002


      With the headlines of U.S. Navy Fleet Commander Scott A. Stearney’s untimely death earlier this month, it is just another tragic reminder of the toll combat takes on these brave men and women even after they come home.

      The numbers are mind-blowing. The Department of Veterans Affairs recently reported that more than 20 Veterans and active duty service members, guardsmen and reservists commit suicide every day in this country. That’s nearly one suicide every hour, and more than 80 percent of them are Veterans.

      There aren’t enough people and systems to help Veterans, and they keep falling through the cracks. I consider these people a vastly underserved and unreached community.

      The effects of combat-related trauma run deep, down to the warrior’s very heart and soul. I know this from personal experience, having served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      War keeps you running at full speed, always on guard, ready to fight at a moment’s notice. After enduring such extreme conditions for long periods of time, returning to the normality of civilian life is not easy.

      When I came home, nothing felt real to me. Watching TV with my wife didn’t feel real. Walking through the aisles of the grocery store didn’t seem real. My feelings were not easy to identify at first. I just felt “off,” but I didn’t always know why. I didn’t know what was happening to me.

      This is common among Veterans who struggle after returning home. We can’t always draw a straight line from how we feel back to the experience of combat. We don’t want to     believe that the fighting affected us.

      I was in denial. I didn’t want to acknowledge the strange sensations for what they were. But eventually, I couldn’t ignore what was happening. I was struggling with the after-effects of combat.

      Everyone experiences this differently. There are, however, a few classic signs — anger, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive behavior and flashbacks. At one point or another, I have suffered from all of them.

      Eventually, I got help, and there are some wonderful organizations that help Veterans, but many Veterans aren’t as fortunate as I was. Typical interventions such as clinical treatments and group therapies are inadequate and usually ignore the spiritual dimension to trauma. The spiritual dimension to trauma includes topics such as grief, guilt, and shame. It can manifest through things that the warrior has experienced or done on the battlefield.

      Many Veterans dealing with these challenges isolate themselves from friends and family. They don’t think that people understand what they’ve been through. It’s hard for Veterans to communicate to non-Veterans about combat experiences and post-combat struggles. A common complaint from family and friends is, “I can’t reach him or her” or “They won’t talk to me.”

      Veterans do want help. But sometimes they just don’t know how to communicate it. And once they’re able to speak out, they don’t always know how to connect or who to connect with. That’s why it’s very important that when Veterans reach out, especially to a church or nonprofit, the organization is ready to receive them.

      These organizations should have a program to get the Veterans connected with a small group of people who understand and appreciate the Veteran and his or her family. Belonging to a community with a sense of camaraderie is key. It’s something Veterans had while in the service and something they are looking for when they get out.

      It is crucial that when our Veterans return home that they have available to them a support group that will help them walk through everything they have experienced on the battlefield. Even more so, these groups are imperative to helping these brave men and women begin the healing process, pointing them in the right direction to restore broken relationships and begin to knit together the wounds of the heart. Ultimately, that is what will assure a successful transition back into mainstream society.


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    • Website Updates 002 

    • Rating Reduction


      There are several different approaches the VA can take to reduce benefits. Of course, the possibility of a rating decrease is heavily dependent on whether the case is protected or unprotected.


      The Requirement of Sustained Improvement

      If a rating has stabilized or continued at the same level for five years or more, the VA must show that all evidence of record indicates a sustained improvement in the disability. This means the medical history for the disability in question must be considered when reviewing records for a possible rating reduction. If the VA cannot show sustained improvement, it cannot reduce a Veteran’s rating.

      The VA must also review the entire record of examinations to determine whether such examinations are full and complete. If not, they may not be considered in a VA rating reduction.

      If the disability has shown temporary or episodic improvement, it cannot be reduced unless all evidence clearly shows sustained improvement. The VA must also consider whether the material improvement shown “will be maintained under the ordinary conditions of life.”

      The Requirement of Fraud

      If a Veteran’s disability has been rated at the same level for 20 or more years, the VA cannot reduce it unless it can show that the disability rating was based on fraud.

      The Requirement of Material Improvement

      When the VA considers reducing a 100% rating (including TDIU based on individual or combined rating), it must determine whether there has been a material improvement in the physical or mental condition evaluated at 100 percent. An examination is necessary for the VA to do this.

      Additionally, if the Veteran has experienced material improvement on a schedular rating, VA must still consider whether he or she qualifies for TDIU.


      Even if a Veteran’s rating has not been in place for five years or more, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has established the following:

      • Proposed reductions must be based on review of the entire history of the Veteran’s disability.
      • The VA must make a determination as to whether there has been an actual change in the disability.
      • Improvement in the disability must be shown in the Veteran’s ability to function under the ordinary conditions of life and work.
      • Examinations reporting any such improvement must be thorough.


      When the VA determines a rating reduction is proper, due process protections apply. The VA must provide prior notice to the Veteran of the proposed reduction. The Veteran must be given 60 days after the notice to submit evidence to rebut the proposal (the 60-day notice requirement is not enforced in cases where the Veteran’s compensation will not be altered as a result of the reduced rating).

      The Veteran also has a right to a predetermination hearing, which must be requested within 30 days of notification of the proposed VA rating reduction. The proposed reduction, if implemented, would not take effect until after this hearing has taken place.

      In the event a Veteran receives a proposed VA rating reduction, it is important to provide any and all evidence to fight the VA’s proposal. If the VA schedules an examination, attendance is critical. Failure to do so will result in an automatic reduction.

      Veterans Serving Veterans

      If the VA unfairly reduces your rating, don’t give up. There are many ways to fight this decision. One of them is hiring a Veterans’ law attorney.

      With many Veterans counted among our attorneys and staff, we know firsthand the struggles service members face when they return home with injuries and disabilities. Our firm has worked closely with Veterans for fifty years and we have recovered millions of dollars in back pay awards.


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    • Going Back to School


      Welcome to The Bridge, a regular column from Andrea N. Goldstein on the experience and challenges of transitioning from the military to civilian life.

      I was drunk at a Korean karaoke bar in Bahrain when I decided I was going to leave the Navy. I made up my mind when between songs, I overheard someone who was about to take terminal leave say, “If you know you’re not going to stay in for twenty, leave sooner rather than later.”

      It wasn’t a knee-jerk decision. I planned my exit from the Navy well in advance (and publicly on Task & Purpose). I wanted to go to the graduate school of my choice full-time on the timeline that I dictated. Like many others, I also wavered about when I’d leave. After deployment, I dropped my papers to resign my active duty commission and started grad school applications. I left active duty two years ago, and in May, I graduated from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

      Conventional wisdom about being a Veteran in school focuses on benefits or jokes about being an older student. And most of it holds up, no matter the kind of program, whether you’re a first-time, first-generation college student, or getting a Ph.D. But here’s what nobody tells you:

      Trauma has an incubation period

      I didn’t realize how some of the worst days of my service had profoundly affected me until the second semester of my first year, when I started white-knuckling the desk in the back of the lecture hall in one of my classes. I didn’t serve in direct combat, and the kinds of missions I supported don’t make the news unless something goes horribly wrong. I felt like I didn’t deserve to feel the anxiety that lived in my bones. It took interviewing hundreds of women Veterans for my thesis, including a handful who had a similar military experience to me decades earlier, to realize that we were struggling with some of the same issues and that was okay.

      For many Veterans, the college or graduate school application process is the first time they have to tell their story, and that often brings up a lot of challenging memories. Know this, and use it to grow stronger.

      Take care of your health. Seriously.

      The military broke most of us somehow—and for many, it takes a while before we notice. Get enrolled at the local VA for healthcare before your semester starts. I was able to do well in school because VA Boston helped me get healthy. You can choose not to use the VA, but it’s always better to have and not need than to need and not have.

      Self-advocate: I was admittedly not great at this. All schools have a point of contact for disability accommodation, and your needs can look different. I hated asking for accommodations, but was always relieved they were in place when I needed them.

      Self-advocacy is exhausting and choosing expediency may be the best thing for your self-care, even if it impacts your grades. Chronic pain is a rude roommate who does not care when you have midterms. At times, getting an extension so I could get through a flare was a godsend. At other times, I took B’s on some papers in my last semester that I could have gotten A’s on because I decided being done was better for my health and self-care.

      Veterans in academia matter

      Veterans use their experience to forge new research agendas. Pat Tillman Scholar Gretchen Klingler, who learned Iraqi Arabic in the Air Force, is currently conducting research with Iraqi women through her studies in anthropology at Ohio State. Another Tillman Scholar, Texas A&M medical student Andrew D. Fisher, left the Army and started a group to promote Stop the Bleed, which brings lessons learned about bleeding control from the battlefield to local communities. For my master’s thesis, I interviewed women Veterans to understand why women Veterans are less likely to self-identify in their communities—and learned that there’s hardly any qualitative research on women Veterans.

      As Veterans, we often complain that the civilian world doesn’t know or care enough about us. If we are not part of the conversation, it will take place behind our backs or not at all. In academia, we can spearhead the research that informs the public and shapes policy.

      You need fellow Veterans more than you think

      Marginalized Veterans are often the first to self-select out of being part of the Veteran community. Why would we continue to try to be part of an organization that mistreated us? As a Veteran, I found my tribe. Particularly among Pat Tillman Scholars and fellow Veteran classmates at Fletcher, I members of the military community who, like me, felt out of place on active duty.

      That said, don’t just stay in the Veterans bubble—seek social experiences that make you uncomfortable. I met some my best friends in graduate school in an a capella group, and through a recurring happy hour the Veterans club had with former Peace Corps volunteers (we called it “War & Peace.”)

      Where you go to school really matters

      Going back to school directly after the military gave me the opportunity to reflect in a way that I would not have known I needed had I gone straight to work. My courses taught me a vocabulary that helped frame past experiences and gave me tools to accomplish more than I could have imagined. I had time to network, work a summer internship at a top company, and figure out what I didn’t want to do.

      Don’t rush. If you’re on unsure footing on your path, take the time to conduct research and spend some time in community college. Seek support from Service to School, Warrior-Scholar Project, and Posse Foundation Veterans Program. Aim high, and you may end up somewhere that changes the trajectory of your life.


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      The VA offers protections for disability ratings that have been in effect for certain periods of time. Until these regulatory protections kick in or your ratings become permanent, VA may severe or reduce a Veteran’s disability rating based on specific findings.


      Severance is when the VA tries to revoke a finding of service connection. If the VA tries to sever service connection, it will notify the Veteran of the proposed action and give him or her 60 days to submit evidence to show that service connection should not be severed and 30 days to request a hearing. If the Veteran does not submit evidence within that 60-day window or request a hearing within 30 days, the VA will issue a final decision.

      In cases of severance, Veterans are given added protection if they have been service-connected for the condition for 10 years or more. Under 38 C.F.R. 3.957 in the VA code of regulations, a Veteran’s service-connected disability that has been in effect for ten years or more “will not be severed except upon a showing that the original grant was based on fraud or it is clearly shown from military records that the person concerned did not have the requisite service or character of discharge.” The ten-year period is calculated from the effective date of the award for service connection. For example, if a Veteran was granted service connection for a low back injury effective October 20, 1980 and the VA issued a decision dated August 29, 2018 attempting to sever service connection, the VA would have to abide by the ten-year rule above.


      Veterans with disabilities that are not considered permanent may be sent for future VA examinations in order for the VA to evaluate the severity of those disabilities and rate them appropriately. If the VA finds that a Veteran’s condition has improved, it can reduce a Veteran’s disability rating.

      The VA is required to follow the same process for reductions as they are for severances. This means that if the VA wishes to reduce a disability rating, they must issue notice of the proposed reduction and give the Veteran 60 days to submit evidence and 30 days to request a hearing. However, there is one major difference between the process of a reduction and severance. When the reduction would not change the actual amount of compensation that a Veteran is receiving, the VA does not have to issue notice of the reduction.


      An easy way to tell if your VA disability ratings are permanent is if the VA has deemed you to be totally and permanently disabled. This means that the VA does not see a reasonable chance of your conditions improving. However, if you are not “permanent and total,” the VA has regulatory protections for reductions of service-connected disabilities.

      Under 38 C.F.R. 3.951 (b), the VA cannot reduce a rating that has been “continuously rated at or above any evaluation of disability for 20 or more years” unless it is shown that the rating was based on fraud. So, for example, if you are rated at 20% for a right knee disability from January 1994 and the VA proposes to reduce your right knee rating to 0% in March 2017, they can only do so if they find that your initial 20% rating was based on fraud. If they cannot show that, they cannot reduce your 20% rating. This rule protects disabilities that have been increased over the span of 20 years or more as well. For example, the Veteran who receives 20% for his right knee disability from January 1994 was increased to 30% in 2006. In March 2017, the VA proposes to reduce his 30% to 0%. Although the rating for the right knee condition changed between the initial grant and the proposed reduction, he is still protected under the 20-year rule.


      For Veterans that have been granted entitlement to Total Disability Based on Individual Unemployability (“TDIU”), the VA can only reduce that rating if “actual employability is established by clear and convincing evidence” (38 C.F.R. 3.3.43(c)). What that means is the VA can only sever your TDIU if you have been found to be employable. For Veterans with TDIU, the VA will send out a yearly employment questionnaire to see if a Veteran participated in substantially gainful employment during that year. In order for the employment to be substantially gainful, a Veteran would have had to be employed for 12 months or more and would have had to earn over the federal poverty threshold.

      Check out our video on Permanent and Total disability HERE.


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    • AO Symptoms


      WICKLIFFE, KY — October is Agent Orange Awareness Month.

      Agent Orange is a powerful herbicide that contains the deadly chemical dioxin. About 11 million gallons were sprayed in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971.

      The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says any Veteran who served anywhere in Vietnam during the war is presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange.

      Kathy Diehl lost her husband, Ron, a year ago to the effects of Agent Orange.

      A poster at the Kentucky Veteran and Patriot Museum is dedicated in his honor. They didn’t know the herbicide was the cause until after his death.

      Diehl warns Veterans to be aware of symptoms of conditions linked to Agent Orange exposure and not to ignore them.

      “If you look at the list of symptoms from exposure to Agent Orange, there are those signs. And people need to look at those, our Veterans do. And they need to seek early treatment and get those things documented.” Diehl said.

      Agent Orange has been linked to several diseases and other health conditions. For a list of those issues and more information about Agent Orange, click here.


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    • Robert Wilkie 10


      WASHINGTON — Robert Wilkie is slated to appear before lawmakers this week for the first time since he took over as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs two months ago.

      The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee scheduled a hearing, “State of the VA: a 60 Day Report,” for Wednesday afternoon, where senators are expected to ask Wilkie about his plans for implementing several major, congressionally mandated reforms.

      Wilkie, a former Pentagon official, was sworn in June 30 after months of political infighting under former VA Secretary David Shulkin. His dismissal this spring led to an exodus of other VA leaders.

      Veterans groups are looking to Wilkie to bring stability to the embattled agency, and they expect to hear Wednesday how he plans to do it.

      “I think he’s really walked into a tough situation,” said Bob Wallace, executive director of Veterans of Foreign Wars. “He’s really got a full plate in front of him, but I think he’s capable of meeting the challenge. I think he’s the right person at the right time for the VA.”

      Here are a few issues Wilkie is likely to be asked about.

      Implementing the VAMission Act

      Chanin Nuntavong, a director with the American Legion, said Wilkie has “huge undertakings” to tackle at the VA. The biggest could be implementing the VA Mission Act, a $52 billion, far-reaching bill approved in June that overhauls the VA’s private-sector care system and extends benefits to more Veteran caregivers.

      Most of what’s in the Mission Act is supposed to be implemented by June 2019, but there are already concerns about whether the VA will meet that goal.

      The Mission Act outlined dozens of deadlines for the VA to submit progress reports to Congress. Three reports were due Sept. 4. Of those, two were several days late and one still hadn’t been submitted as of Tuesday, according to the office of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

      The missing report pertains to the VA’s progress with extending benefits to Veteran caregivers. The Mission Act mandates that the VA provide benefits, such as monthly stipends, health care and medical training, to caregivers of Veterans injured before May 7, 1975.

      “VA needs to be hitting these early milestones if it’s going to meet the later ones,” Tester said at a Sept. 5 hearing. “It needs to do better.”

      Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative advocacy group, has also expressed concern about the VA meeting the deadlines, particularly those regarding the new program for private-sector medical care.

      “It’s important for the VA to meet these deadlines to show that one, they’re taking this seriously, and two, they’re going to be transparent about it and show they can be trusted,” said Dan Caldwell, executive director of CVA. “If they can’t meet a deadline on a report for Congress, how can they be trusted to run the whole program?”

      The Mission Act does away with the Veterans Choice program, which was created in 2014 to allow some Veterans to receive medical care in the private sector, but only when they live more than 40 miles driving distance from a VA facility or their wait for a VA appointment would be more than 30 days.

      Some claim the Choice program was implemented hastily, and many Veterans thought the rules were too rigid. Under the Mission Act, Choice expires in June, and a new system is supposed to take its place.


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