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VA Announces New Medical Center Director

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has announced it has appointed Michael S. Heimall, a former director at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, to take on new duties as director of the Washington DC VA Medical Center (DCVAMC). In that role, Heimall will oversee delivery of health care to more than 121,050 Veterans and an operating budget of $610 million. A retired U.S. Army officer with 30 years of progressive experience in hospital and health system leadership, Heimall served as the director for Walter Reed, where he led a 240-bed facility employing 7,000 people.

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Blocking VA documents release protects 'shadow rulers' — not Vets

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U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie doesn’t want any sunlight on his agency’s “shadow rulers.” By blowing off a recent congressional document request, Wilkie is blocking the public from determining whether a secretive trio of outsiders is calling the shots at the VA.

Wilkie was just confirmed by the Senate in late July. His handling of the data request from the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee raises serious questions about his judgment so early in his tenure. After the scandal involving clinic wait times, public faith in the VA is lagging. Yet Wilkie’s stunning refusal last month to turn over the documents undermines trust even further, creating the damning perception that his priority isn’t Veterans but protecting the three outsiders, all of whom belong to President Donald Trump’s glitzy Mar-a-Lago club.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica news organization first reported about the behind-the-scenes decisionmakers in a story published Aug. 7. E-mails and other documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that the three have “leaned on VA officials and steered policies affecting millions of Americans.” They weighed in on high-level staffing changes, meddled with a major software contract and pushed the agency to make a seismic and expensive push — outsourcing care to private providers.

One of the three also wanted the agency to bring in his son to develop an app. Despite this access to agency inner circles, none of three men ever served in the military. Nor is their expertise relevant. The three men are: Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, attorney Marc Sherman and Bruce Moskowitz, a doctor who runs a company catering to wealthy medical patients.

The congressional request for additional documents, filed on Aug. 8 by Rep. Tim Walz, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s ranking member, is sensible. The documents obtained by the reporters may have been redacted. The congressional request would also go beyond the correspondence the reporters were able to obtain through the Freedom of Information law. A thorough review is a must, especially when Veterans sense that “an ideological war is being waged within the VA below the radar of the media and of the public,’’ said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America advocacy group. “Veterans’ healthcare, benefits and general well-being are ending up as collateral damage.”

Yet on Sept. 15, Wilkie tersely declined the House committee’s document request. His reasons do not hold up to scrutiny. He said the documents are the subject of ongoing litigation. Yet that lawsuit was filed after the congressional committee’s data request. And its existence does not exempt the agency from complying with the committee’s request.

Walz, who is also the Minnesota DFL gubernatorial candidate, gave a deadline extension — until Oct. 31 — in a forceful letter this month. It is Wilkie’s best interest to meet that. Failure will sour the VA’s relationship with a key oversight committee and will only accelerate the public trust deficit in him and the agency.

A noncommittal response this week from a VA spokesman about whether Wilkie will release the documents did not inspire confidence. Wilkie made a mistake saying no once. He owes it to his agency and more important, to the 9 million Veterans served by VA medical facilities, to correct course.

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Wilkie Jilts Walz On Mar-A-Lago Probe, Cites Pending Lawsuit

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VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has refused to provide Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.), ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, with copies of emails and other internal communications between Department of Veterans Affairs officials and three members of President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago country club who allegedly influenced VA policies and executive hiring and firing decisions for at least a year.

Wilkie told Walz in a Sept. 14 letter that the documents the congressman seeks are “the subject of ongoing litigation alleging violations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act and, therefore, not appropriate for release at this time.”

“It’s stonewalling, plain and simple,” Walz said in an interview Wednesday, adding, “This just reeks of corruption. It’s cronyism.”

Hours later Walz’s office sent a second letter to Wilkie. This one set a new deadline of Oct. 31 for VA to release all documents showing VA interactions with billionaire Ike Perlmutter, Palm Beach physician Bruce Moskowitz and lawyer Marc Sherman, all of them Mar-a-Lago members who teamed to influence personnel decisions and to shape policy at VA after Trump became president.

Walz told Wilkie that his response was “a transparent attempt to stonewall not only a member of Congress but also the American public on a matter of significant importance to our nation’s Veterans. Be assured, this issue will remain a top concern of the Committee until all our questions have been answered.”

The lawsuit Wilkie cited was filed Aug. 18 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by VoteVets Action Fund, which has been the highest spending liberal nonprofit organization active in recent federal elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The fund is associated with VoteVets.org, a political action committee and non-profit social welfare organization founded in 2006 by Iraq and Afghanistan war Veterans who hold progressive political views.

VoteVets contends the Trump administration empowered Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman to influence VA in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a Watergate-era law passed to ensure that advisors to federal departments are objective and their advice is accessible to the public.

Alan Grogg, an attorney representing VoteVets, said its complaint relies on a lengthy ProPublica news article and VA documents that the online newsroom obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It argues the President’s friends constituted an advisory group and yet the advisors, all of them non-Veterans, met none of the transparency requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

The law requires, Grogg explained, that if an agency is going to use an outside group to provide advice and recommendations, it has to file a charter for the committee, disclose the minutes of its meetings and disclose materials provided to the committee. VA took no such steps to legitimize the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd,” he said.

Documents ProPublica obtained “show the way these three individuals were empowered to not only provide advice and recommendations but even to influence decision making,” Grogg said. “It’s unfortunately part of a pattern with this administration, leaning on non-government individuals to exercise governmental authority, and it’s a jarring example of that trend.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order to stop the Mar-a-Lago trio from meeting with or advising Wilkie or other VA officials until VA complies with transparency obligations of the 1972 law.

Walz said the mid-term elections next month are the reason Republican colleagues on the committee haven’t joined him yet in pressing VA for documents to reveal how the Mar-a-Lago trio influenced the department.

“I don’t want to criticize them openly yet,” Walz said, adding, “I think it’s a fair hesitation on their part going into an election.”

Regardless of November election results, he added, “this is not going away. This is Veterans’ health care. These are unelected officials who I believe, just straight up, have financial interests in this with [computer applications] they are trying to promote, some of their companies that have been intersected. I think the potential for deep cronyism, getting an inside track, for corruption, is there.”

Walz said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), the House committee chairman, is “a man of great integrity.” Walz trusts him to “be right with me,” seeking answers about the Mar-a-Lago trio, after the election, assuming he too suspects undue influence.

Republicans on the committee “know, and they care, that this is wrong.”

Walz doesn’t give the same benefit of the doubt to Wilkie, who served as acting VA secretary earlier this year and was introduced to the Mar-a-Lago trio before Trump later nominated him to be VA secretary. He took office in July.

Wilkie’s refusal to release the documents made a bad situation “significantly worse by sending a letter falsely claiming” documents are being withheld “because of a lawsuit filed [eight days] after I requested the information,” Walz said.

“He knew what the situation was there. He made that choice. You lay with dogs, you get fleas,” Walz said.

Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee pressed Wilkie at hearing last month on his own interactions with the Mar-a-Lago trio. Wilkie told Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) he will reject improper outside influences on VA.

“A lot of those [interactions reported by ProPublica] took place before I became the secretary. And I am committed to making sure that I am the sole person responsible” for VA policy, Wilkie said.

Asked if any VA officials still consult with the Mar-a-Lago Crowd, Wilkie said, “Not that I know of. I met with them once for an hour when I was in Palm Beach the first week I was acting. I have had no connection with them since then.”

Pressed by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Wilkie said the topic discussed with the trio in Palm Beach was the Cerner Corp. contract to create a new electronic health record system for VA, the same system adopted by Department of Defense.

“And if I’m going to believe the media stories, that the folks I talked to were against it, then I went against their wishes because I approved it two weeks later,” Wilkie said.

Wilkie also conceded to Hirono that his first contact with a member of the Mar-a-Lago group occurred the day he began his stint as acting VA Secretary days earlier, when Marc Sherman was waiting for him in his office at VA headquarters.

"What was discussed that day," Hirono asked.

“Somebody I had never met before…was standing there and told me for whom he worked. And I listened and I said thank you. I’m always happy to listen to anyone who wants to talk about Veterans. I was not familiar with what was going on. Again, that was my first day,” Wilkie said.

Wilkie’s decision to deny him the documents means “he owns this now,” Walz said. “We need to find out what their influence has been. They are unelected officials who are interfering and have no authority whatsoever…other than they bought expensive memberships and they’ve got an inside track to the president.”

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Senior Energy Dept. aide moving to Veterans Affairs

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John Mashburn, a former Trump White House official, is leaving the Energy Department for a senior position at the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to three people familiar with the move.

Mashburn, a senior adviser to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, is stepping down after six months on the job. One of the people said he’s joining the VA in a high-level role advising the head of the department, Robert Wilkie.

Mashburn, a Veteran of conservative policy circles, served as the policy director of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. He then worked on Trump’s presidential transition team and subsequently became deputy cabinet secretary when Trump ascended to the White House.

The staff shuffle comes as the VA is recovering from a tumultuous year. Trump fired the former VA secretary, David Shulkin, after he clashed with White House officials over policy issues and faced criticism for allegedly wasting taxpayer money during a trip to Europe.

Mashburn became embroiled in the Russia scandal when The New York Times reported in May that he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believed he had received an email in 2016 from George Papadopoulos, telling the Trump campaign that the Russians had damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

Mashburn did not respond to a request for comment. After this story was published, VA press secretary Curt Cashour confirmed that Mashburn has joined the VA as a senior senior adviser to the secretary.

“John is a policy expert whose deep Capitol Hill, White House and private sector experience will prove invaluable as we work to build on the unprecedented progress at VA under President Trump,” Cashour said, adding that Masburn started Oct. 15.

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Low rating force changes at Atlanta VA

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ATLANTA - Huge developments in the leadership at Atlanta VA Health Care System. The Department of Veterans Affairs announced temporary changes to the top brass in Atlanta after receiving low ratings.

“As Secretary Wilkie has said, Veterans deserve the best healthcare possible, and the steps we are taking today are designed to ensure that’s exactly what the Atlanta VAMC is providing,” Veterans Integrated Service Network 7 Director Leslie Wiggins was quoted as saying in a release sent to FOX 5 News.

The VA launched an investigation following the drop in ratings. It will be conducted by the department’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection and the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of the Medical Inspector.

“To be clear, this is not an indication of misconduct on the part of any Atlanta VAMC employee. Rather, we are making these changes out of an abundance of caution so that Veterans can have the utmost confidence in the facility’s commitment to quality of care,” Wiggins was quoted as saying.

The changed include the following moves:

  • Chief of Staff David Bower has decided to retire, and Dr. Ashley Slappy will serve as acting chief of staff
  • Deputy Chief of Staff Sanjay Ponkshe will be detailed to a staff position in primary care
  • Emergency Department Chief Robert Forster will be detailed to a staff position in Tele-Urgent Care, and Dr. Melissa Stevens will serve as acting emergency department chief
  • Clinical Access Services Chief Lee Singleton will be detailed to the Veteran Experience Office and Ms.Tammy Robinson will serve as acting clinical access services chief
  • Primary Care Chief Raman Damineni voluntarily stepped down to a primary care staff position, and Dr. Cedrella Jones-Taylor will serve as acting primary care chief

“Upon the conclusion of the OAWP and OMI investigations, which are expected to take approximately 30 days, we will reevaluate the Atlanta VAMC’s leadership needs,” Wiggins said.

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Wyden cheers VA moves to stop 'pension poachers'

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WASHINGTON - Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., applauded Wednesday the Department of Veterans Affairs for making changes he has long advocated to better protect aging Veterans from financial scammers known as “pension poachers.”

Wyden said the reforms will help stop scammers who pose as “advisors” and profit by selling unsuspecting Veterans financial products they don’t need and pushing them to apply for benefits for which they would not normally qualify.

These poachers convince elderly Veterans to sell their homes, transfer assets, and pay exorbitant fees. In some cases, the VA does not approve Veterans for the benefit after they have locked assets away in difficult-to-tap financial products.

In addition, the financial maneuvering can often affect a senior’s ability to qualify for Medicaid benefits and other government assistance programs.

The new regulations go into effect on Thursday and will help ensure the pension “Aid and Attendance” benefit — designed to help elderly Veterans and/or their spouses who cannot afford essential services on their own — is no longer exploited by unscrupulous financial planners who profit from selling inappropriate financial instruments to Veterans and make sure that only applicants in need receive the benefit, the lawmaker said in a news release.

“These changes are long overdue but a welcome step forward in the fight to protect our Veterans from greedy scammers. Now, my work continues to ensure the VA implements this rule in a way that cracks down on poachers,” Wyden said. “It is imperative that Veterans who need this benefit have access. Because this new regulation includes additional restrictions that I did not propose, I will also work to make sure these limits don’t hurt those Veterans.”

Wyden introduced legislation to strengthen the program and protect Veterans after working with the Government Accountability Office to shed light on the issue. During the 2012 undercover investigation, GAO identified more than 200 organizations across the country that market financial and estate planning services to help potential pension claimants, who should not have been eligible, qualify for pension benefits.

The VA rule going into effect includes a provision from Wyden’s legislation that requires a three-year look back at an applicant’s financial history when they apply for the pension.

The GAO investigation also revealed that some of these organizations were overcharging Veterans for services — up to $10,000 — or profiting by selling potentially harmful financial products such as trusts or deferred annuities. Trusts can severely limit access to savings and deferred annuities may leave seniors without access to all their funds within their expected lifetime without facing high withdrawal fees.

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Despite recommendations for reinstatement, VA stands by firing of top Memphis VA chief of surgery

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The Department of Veterans Affairs is standing by its decision to fire a top doctor at the Memphis VA Medical Center last year, despite recommendations from officials to reinstate the former chief of surgery as a general surgeon, records show.

Darryl Weiman was fired last October by Director David Dunning for “failure to lead and act.” The move came during sweeping changes by administrators aimed at improving the hospital that received a one-star rating by the VA for its death and infection rates, among other factors.

But Weiman’s firing at the time — along with the firing of Susan Calhoun, former head of anesthesiology — led to allegations that VA administrators were using the hospital’s doctors as scapegoats for ongoing issues.

The same independent examiner who conducted a review of Weiman’s appeal, looked into the grievance filed by Calhoun. And though a similar recommendation that Calhoun be granted relief in her reinstatement, along with compensation, VA MidSouth Healthcare Network Director Cynthia Breyfogle upheld Calhoun’s termination.

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VA secretary refuses to provide documents about ‘Mar-a-Lago Crowd’

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has refused to provide U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, with copies of emails and other internal communications between Department of Veterans Affairs officials and three members of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago country club who allegedly influenced VA policies and executive hiring and firing decisions for at least a year.

Wilkie told Walz in a Sept. 14 letter that the documents the Minnesota congressman seeks are “the subject of ongoing litigation alleging violations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act and, therefore, not appropriate for release at this time.”

“It’s stonewalling, plain and simple,” Walz said in an interview last week, adding, “This just reeks of corruption. It’s cronyism.”

Hours later Walz’s office sent a second letter to Wilkie. This one set a new deadline of Oct. 31 for the VA to release all documents showing VA interactions with billionaire Ike Perlmutter, Palm Beach physician Bruce Moskowitz and lawyer Marc Sherman, all Mar-a-Lago members who teamed to influence personnel decisions and to shape policy at VA after Trump became president.

Walz told Wilkie that his response was “a transparent attempt to stonewall not only a member of Congress but also the American public on a matter of significant importance to our nation’s Veterans. Be assured, this issue will remain a top concern of the Committee until all our questions have been answered.”

The lawsuit Wilkie cited was filed Aug. 18 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by VoteVets Action Fund, which has been the highest spending liberal nonprofit organization active in recent federal elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The fund is associated with VoteVets.org, a political action committee and non-profit social welfare organization founded in 2006 by Iraq and Afghanistan war Veterans who hold progressive political views.

VoteVets alleges the Trump administration empowered Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman to influence the VA in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a Watergate-era law passed to ensure that advisers to federal departments are objective and their advice is accessible to the public.

Alan Grogg, an attorney representing VoteVets, said its complaint relies on a lengthy ProPublica news article and VA documents that the online newsroom obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It argues the president’s friends constituted an advisory group and yet the advisers, all non-Veterans, met none of the transparency requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

The law, Grogg explained, requires that if an agency is going to use an outside group to provide advice and recommendations, it must file a charter for the committee, disclose the minutes of its meetings and disclose materials provided to the committee. The VA took no such steps to legitimize the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd,” he said.

Documents ProPublica obtained “show the way these three individuals were empowered to not only provide advice and recommendations but even to influence decision-making,” Grogg said. “It’s unfortunately part of a pattern with this administration, leaning on non-government individuals to exercise governmental authority, and it’s a jarring example of that trend.”

The lawsuit seeks a court order to stop the Mar-a-Lago trio from meeting with or advising Wilkie or other VA officials until the VA complies with transparency obligations of the 1972 law.

Walz said the mid-term elections next month are the reason Republican colleagues on the committee haven’t joined him in pressing the VA for documents to reveal how the Mar-a-Lago trio influenced the department.

“I don’t want to criticize them openly yet,” Walz said, adding, “I think it’s a fair hesitation on their part going into an election.”

Regardless of November election results, he added, “this is not going away.

“This is Veterans’ health care. These are unelected officials who I believe, just straight up, have financial interests in this with [computer applications] they are trying to promote, some of their companies that have been intersected. I think the potential for deep cronyism, getting an inside track, for corruption, is there.”

Walz said U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the House committee chairman, is “a man of great integrity.” Walz trusts him to “be right with me,” seeking answers about the Mar-a-Lago trio, after the election, assuming he too suspects undue influence.

Republicans on the committee “know, and they care, that this is wrong,” Walz said.

Walz doesn’t give the same benefit of the doubt to Wilkie, who was acting VA secretary earlier this year and was introduced to the Mar-a-Lago trio before Trump later nominated him to be VA secretary. He took office in July.

Wilkie’s refusal to release the documents made a bad situation “significantly worse by sending a letter falsely claiming” documents are being withheld “because of a lawsuit filed [eight days] after I requested the information,” Walz said.

“He knew what the situation was there,” Walz said. “He made that choice. You lay with dogs, you get fleas.”

Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee pressed Wilkie at hearing last month on his own interactions with the Mar-a-Lago trio. Wilkie told U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., he will reject improper outside influences on the VA.

“A lot of those [interactions reported by ProPublica] took place before I became the secretary,” Wilkie said. “And I am committed to making sure that I am the sole person responsible” for VA policy.

Asked whether VA officials still consult with the Mar-a-Lago trio, Wilkie said, “Not that I know of. I met with them once for an hour when I was in Palm Beach the first week I was acting [secretary]. I have had no connection with them since then.”

Pressed by U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Wilkie said the topic discussed with the trio in Palm Beach was the Cerner Corp. contract to create a electronic health record system for the VA, the same system adopted by the Department of Defense.

“And if I’m going to believe the media stories, that the folks I talked to were against it, then I went against their wishes because I approved it two weeks later,” Wilkie said.

He also conceded to Hirono that his first contact with a member of the Mar-a-Lago group occurred the day he began his stint as acting VA secretary days earlier, when Sherman was waiting for him in his office at VA headquarters.

What was discussed that day? Hirono asked.

“Somebody I had never met before … was standing there and told me for whom he worked,” Wilkie said. “And I listened and I said thank you. I’m always happy to listen to anyone who wants to talk about Veterans. I was not familiar with what was going on. Again, that was my first day.”

Wilkie’s decision to deny him the documents means “he owns this now,” Walz said.

“We need to find out what their influence has been,” the congressman said. “They are unelected officials who are interfering and have no authority whatsoever … other than they bought expensive memberships and they’ve got an inside track to the president.”

Source

VETERANS GROUPS ACCUSE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION OF DERELICTION OVER CHANGING VA’S ‘OUTDATED AND SEXIST’ MOTTO

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As a new monument is set to be dedicated to the military service of women in New York on Saturday, Veteran advocacy groups accuse the Trump administration and the current leadership at the Department of Veterans Affairs of stonewalling a change to the agency’s “outdated and sexist” mission statement.

The demand for revision centers on the 1865 quote from President Abraham Lincoln made during his Second Inaugural Address and which became the VA motto in 1959: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”

Veteran groups contend that the motto is gendered and fails to recognize the sacrifices and service of more than two million women Veterans and their families, according to a press release given to Newsweek Thursday night.

“The time to act is now” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of IAVA in the statement. “The unveiling of the Women Serve monument at Calverton National Cemetery is an important time to recognize and support women Veterans.”

“A long overdue motto change would do the same on the biggest level possible. By finally making this change, President Trump and VA leadership can mark a powerful commitment to creating a culture that acknowledges and respects the service and sacrifices of women Veterans,” Rieckhoff said.

Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Service Clinic is acting on behalf of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the largest organization representing post-9/11 Veterans, along with the Service Women's Action Network and the New York City Veterans Alliance as they petition both President Donald J. Trump and his newly minted VA Secretary Robert L. Wilkie Jr., to change the motto.

If successful, the petition would trigger an informal process within U.S. government agencies known as “notice and comment,” which is used to create new administrative regulations or to modify or repeal agency policy.

For federal agencies like the VA, a notice of the proposed rule has to be published in the Federal Register, the daily journal of the federal government.

While there are no guarantees the new rule would be adopted to ultimately change the motto, it forces the Trump administration and the VA to take a position as to why the change would not occur—the results would also be published in the Federal Register.

"The mere fact that we have to fight to ensure that the VA's motto recognizes women Veterans and survivors of fallen women service members is mind-boggling and something I never could have anticipated,” said Allison Jaslow, a former U.S. Army captain, who previously served as IAVA's executive director until earlier this year.

“The motto is not only emblematic of the cultural barriers that women face at the VA, but the resistance to this simple request is indicative of how the agency is utterly out of touch with the changing face of America’s Veteran population," Jaslow told Newsweek by phone on Thursday evening.

In a report published earlier this year, many female combat Veterans said VA doctors disparaged their service at VA facilities and were skeptical about their war experiences.

The more than four-year study into VA mental health services published by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found instances of women being catcalled in VA facilities where some were seeking treatment for military sexual trauma, according to the report first written about by Stars and Stripes.

A VA clinician in Cleveland, Ohio, quoted in the report said, “The last thing [female Veterans] want to do is go to the clinic or the medical center and sit around in a waiting room with a bunch of people who look like potential perpetrators,” the report states. In East Orange, New Jersey, another clinician said, “I think there are many, many people who fall through the cracks and don’t want to come here because they associate it with the very culture that traumatized them. That’s a huge barrier to treatment.”

The fight to change the VA’s motto started in March 2017 as IAVA rolled out the #SheWhoBorneTheBattle campaign to highlight the outdated motto and underscore how women Veterans were being alienated by the government agency designed to care for them after transitioning out of the armed forces.

Veteran groups met with former VA Secretary David Shulkin and Kayla Williams, once an Army intelligence specialist but who then served as the director of the Center for Women Veterans at the VA. Williams left the VA this past July to become the director of the Military, Veterans and Society program at the Center for a New American Security.

In November 2017, IAVA pressured Shulkin to change the motto, describing it as “sexist and outdated.” A response by the VA this past January, two months later, said the motto was representative of “the heart of our noble mission.”

Determined not to be discouraged, Veteran groups continued to press on and began to garner positive results as signs began to emerge that indicated that the VA was open to the idea of modifying Lincoln’s 1865 motto—a common practice that had already occurred over the last 15 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy; the U.S. Naval Academy; and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as official signs, school slogans and academy hymn lyrics have been modified to gender-neutral terms, according to IAVA.

In a letter to Jaslow from Williams on February 2, and first reported by Stars and Stripes earlier this year, Williams wrote, “Recognizing that they can seem exclusionary to some women Veterans, for many years I—along with other senior VA leaders—have honored the population we serve today by using a modernized version [of Lincoln’s words].”

“This symbolic update, which we are continuing to gradually incorporate alongside the original in digital and print materials, as well as spoken remarks, is an important acknowledgement of today’s Veteran population,” Williams wrote.

However, four days later, Williams's sentiments would be undercut by Shulkin’s spokesman, Curt Cashour, who said the VA would continue to use Lincoln’s quote as its motto, “unchanged.” Cashour added, “VA is proud of Lincoln’s words as a historic tribute to all Veterans, including women Veterans, whose service and sacrifice inspires us all.”

In February, The Washington Post reported that the VA had planned to modernize the motto, but was reversed. In a document posted on the VA’s official website that outlined the department’s objectives through 2024, officials quickly noticed that the motto had been edited without authorization. The document was removed a day later from the website.

An email obtained by Newsweek from July 23 shows that Jacquelyn Hayes-Byrd, the acting chief of staff for the VA, blasted out official department policy throughout the entire agency, saying, “To ensure consistency and clarity across the Department, I am reminding all Administrations and Staff Offices that our mission statement is President Abraham Lincoln’s direct quote from his 1865 second inaugural address, ‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.’”

The message goes on to state that the use of “him” in Lincoln’s quote is assumed to be gender neutral in this “historical usage and context.”

“VA is proud of Lincoln’s words as a historic tribute to all Veterans, including women Veterans, whose service and sacrifice inspire us all,” said Hayes-Byrd. “This mission statement is effective Department-wide. Administrations and Staff Offices may not paraphrase it or alter it on official VA documents or in external or internal presentations.”

The email prompted an interesting remark from Tony McClain, a staff director who works on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, who said in an email: “Now they’re just being obnoxious….”

Shulkin, an Obama holdover and appointed to lead the VA by Trump in 2017, was drummed out of office back in March after a damning inspector general report slammed Shulkin for wasteful spending and unethical behavior during a 10-day official department trip in the summer of 2017.

A week after Hayes-Byrd’s letter, Wilkie, an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserve and nominated to work at the Defense Department by former President George W. Bush, assumed office as the 10th VA secretary.

It is not known where Wilkie stands on the position of changing the motto, but in August, Wilkie, in a speech during a VA Central Office Town Hall in Washington, D.C., said, “The active duty force is 17 percent composed of America's fighting women. That means there's a change coming here for our VA. That all goes to show you that I've been around a while, and I've been privileged to see a lot that has happened.”

Ellen Haring, the CEO of Service Women's Action Network, said Friday she asked Wilkie about changing the motto while he was addressing their group in Atlanta, Georgia in September. Wilkie, however, declined to comment.

Newsweek reached out to the White House for comment on Friday, but was referred to the VA prompting condemnation from IAVA.

“That sad response is the ultimate abdication of responsibility,” Rieckhoff told Newsweek. “The VA answers to the White House, and the buck stops with the President.”

“The latest suicide number released by the Defense Department show how many women Vets we’re losing to suicide every day, and we need the Commander-in-Chief to lead on this issue now,” Rieckhoff said.

More than 345,000 women have deployed since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, according to IAVA. The VA reported last month that in 2016, the suicide rate for women Veterans was 1.8 percent higher than for civilians.

Last week, James Byrne, the acting deputy secretary who served as VA's general counsel, brushed off the motto question last week during a meeting with IAVA representatives in Washington, D.C.

"Lincoln’s words serve as an historic tribute to all Veterans, including women Veterans, whose service and sacrifice inspires us all," Cashour said in response to an inquiry by Newsweek on Friday. "They are a timeless and poignant reminder of the debt America owes all who have worn the uniform. VA will review the petition and respond appropriately."

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Veteran finally wins claim after 10-year battle with VA

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10 year battle

 

KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -- There may finally be some hope for veterans battling appeals with the V.A.

“RAMP”, or the Rapid Appeals Modernization Program, started about a year ago.

Steve Fisher is a veteran who began his battle for benefits back in 2007. He has spent a decade fighting a bureaucratic paperwork war with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

To put it in perspective, his fight for benefits lasted longer than the war he served in.

Fisher served three tours in Iraq and has survived three roadside bombs.

“I heard a big boom, lots of smoke, ringing," he recalled. "Everyone was rushing to get us out of there."

One roadside bomb was the worst one.

“It separated the entire truck in half,” he said. “Luckily, everyone survived, but we were all knocked unconscious and medevacked to Fallujah Medical.”

He suffers from PTSD, a traumatic brain injury, hearing and vision loss, and nerve damage -- especially in his back.

Fisher said his life changed after that blast. So, he applied for benefits when he finished his tours.

The V.A. approved some, but not all, of his claims. He has been in appeals since 2009.

“This has all been going on since then,” he said. “Here it is -- 2018.”

He first applied in 2007. It took two years for the V.A. to approve some of the claims. Then, that kicked off the long appeals process as his file bounced from Washington back to the regional level twice. As time passed, his medical reports became outdated.

“I had to go to new exams,” he explained, “do all the exams again.”

Fisher describes a frustrating, bureaucratic, never-ending process.

“Every time I get a new letter from the V.A., it’s a sinking feeling,” he said. “My heart drops and then I open it. Every time I opened it, it hasn’t been a positive outcome; it's been a nightmare.”

He’s not alone. Many veterans across the nation report similar problems.

Last year, KCTV5 News reported on Phil Nash who is battling the V.A. for benefits, as well as cancer.

“We have to fight for the compensation we are entitled to,” Nash said.

In pictures from his service, one can see planes spraying Agent Orange.

The V.A. originally approved his disability benefits because his cancer was directly connected to his exposure to Agent Orange.

Then, he had surgery and was considered cured, so the benefits stopped.

However, when his prostate cancer came back, the benefits did not. Since then, the cancer has spread.

Nash’s case is on appeal. It has taken years, it is still not resolved, and he is losing hope.

“I’ll probably be dead,” he said.

“I have several friends who have given up and these are friends in heavy combat,” Fisher said. “They are missing limbs, organs from mortar attacks. They are having the same issues I’m having.”

The V.A. has promised things will improve and, for Fischer, he’s finally seeing results.

KCTV5 News first spoke to Fischer when he was concerned the new rapid appeals process wasn’t working. We followed his story and the program did resolve his claim in the promised time frame.

“I’m just glad it’s over,” he said. “It still hasn’t hit me yet. It’s still really new to me, definitely. When I wake up in the morning, now I have a smile. This is great!”

However, one has to remember this was a 10-year battle that lasted through three presidencies. So, only time will tell how well the program will work overall for veterans across the nation.

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