Will the VA Provide Better Service to Veterans?

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With much fanfare, Dr. David Shulkin, the new Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”), has moved quickly to address some of the recurring problems at the VA.

Dr. David Shulkin, VA Secretary

As the first VA Secretary without a military background, Dr. Shulkin appears committed to resolve several pressing concerns:

– Speedier processing of Veteran benefit claims and,

– Eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and artificial constraints on “out-of-network” support for Veterans (Choice Program).

Indeed, Secretary Shulkin recently unveiled a 10 Point Plan to modernize the VA:

1. Firing bad employees

2. Extending the Choice program

3. Choice 2.0

4. Improving VA infrastructure

5. ‘World-class’ services

6. Better VA-DoD partnerships

7. Better electronic records

8. Stopping suicide

9. Appeals modernization

10. Internal improvements 

While there is little in these Powerpoint presentation bullet points that anyone would quibble with, implementing these broad goals tends to be far more complicated than listing the goals.   Unless there are rigorous benchmarks to assess progress toward achieving these goals, then this “goal-setting” exercise is rather fruitless.

In fact, it is difficult to reconcile the need for increased hiring within the VA unless one sees clear and conclusive evidence that “bad employees” are being fired.  In fact, the VA is recommending a hiring surge to deal with a backlog of benefit claims, a situation that has persisted for 4 years.

Are more employees needed or does the VA lack the “right” mix of employees to implement Shulkin’s 10 point plan?

For instance, State and Local VA coverage varies radically across the US.  For example, NPR reported in 2015 “that spending is nearly $30,000 per patient in San Francisco, and less than $7,000 per patient in Lubbock, Texas. Nationally, the average is just under $10,000. In places where more veterans are enrolled in VA health benefit plans, spending per veteran did tend to be higher.”   Why?  This is a huge variance that is not well explained.

Aligning the VA to Achieve Measurable Goals

As one looks at Shulkin’s proposed goals, it would be useful to determine their priority and the level of commitment (personnel and capital expenditure) that is required to attain them.  Furthermore, what are the benchmarks to chart progress toward achieving those goals.

For instance, “stopping Veteran suicides” is a goal that would find few naysayers.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to reconcile that goal with the sad fact that 30% of suicide watch calls are not currently attended by the Veteran Crisis Center.  Indeed, I find it disturbing that the Suicide Crisis Line has been centralized under the VA in the name of “efficiency.”

Perhaps, Dr. Shulkin and his staff have some measurable goals.  If so, they should be made public and both the Executive Body and Congressional Oversight Committees should receive regular updates from the VA on progress to date in achieving mutually agreeable goals.

Is this likely to happen?  Most certainly not!  This is an anathema to Big Government.

Is Firing Bad Employees Really Going to Occur?

With 365,000 employees, there are certainly going to be a few “bad eggs.”  While Dr. Shulkin praised the vast majority of VA employees, he told a cheering crowd  that “We’re going to make sure that the secretary has the authority to make sure that those (sic “bad”) employees … are leaving the VA system.”

J. David Cox

J. David Cox

Really?  It seems to anyone who has taken more than a cursory look at staffing within the VA, that David Cox, the President of the American Federation of Government Employees, will be calling the shots rather than Dr. Shulkin.

In most cases, distinguishing between a “bad” employee and an inefficient one is largely subjective.  Given the protection afforded by employees at the VA, it is highly unlikely that both the bad and inefficient employees will be “leaving the VA system” anytime soon.

In effect, this places a greater burden on both ” the good” and the many efficient and competent employees within the VA.  With little say or control on managing the workforce, I find it highly unlikely that Dr. Shulkin will be able to fulfill his promise to fire “bad” employees.

More importantly, it is unlikely that he will be able to realign staffing levels to implement his 10-point plan.

And Speaking of Bad Apples:  How About Dr. David Cifu?

If Secretary Shulkin is really serious about dealing with “Veteran suicides” and providing Veterans with alternative treatment for Veterans with PTSD, he would do well to question the credentials of Dr. David Cifu and others within the VA who continue to block Veteran access to better treatment alternatives.

When one looks at Secretary Shulkin’s complex agenda, one should focus on the signs that change is actually occurring.  Personally, I don’t expect to see much change over the next couple of years, unless there are clear bookmarks to measure that change.  Sadly, it seems likely that we will be looking at the same litany of complaints a couple years down the road.

Dr. Shulkin, I admire your bravado and enthusiasm, but question whether you have the right tools and authority at your disposal to bring about a much needed reform within the VA.

Veterans should be hopeful, but not too optimistic.

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SFTT News: Week Ending Mar 24, 2017

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Found below are a few military news items that caught my attention this past week. I am hopeful that the titles and short commentary will encourage SFTT readers to click on the embedded links to read more on subjects that may be of interest to them.

If you have subjects of topical interest, please do not hesitate to reach out. Contact SFTT.

Does President Trump’s Military Budget Help “Grunts?”
Trump, who positions himself as the champion of the working class, has promised to pump billions more into the military. Yet the initial numbers suggest those who really benefit will be the ones who always benefit: the big defense contractors and their enablers at the Pentagon and Congress. The last people to see that flood of spending will be the ones most likely to fight and die: the grunts.   Read more . . .

All Laser Military by 2025?
Lasers have been a mainstay of sci-fi battles for decades. But making them practical for the battlefield has proven difficult. Now, private contractors and government agencies have developed weapons systems that are making science fiction a reality. This was made evident when Lockheed Martin and the US Army recently announced, a successful test of a 60-kilowatt (kW) laser. This one was twice as powerful as one they assessed in 2015.  Read more . . .

Changes in Tactics Required for “Megacity” Warfare?
Speaking at the Future of War Conference 2017 hosted by New America in Washington, D.C., Gen. Mark Milley said that the character of warfare will likely go through a fundamental shift over the next decade. The world’s population is steadily moving toward living in megacities. Currently, there are about a dozen of these huge urban areas with populations of more than 10 million. By mid-century, “we are going to have at least 50 or more,” Milley said.  Read more . . .

Nato Logo

Assessment of New NATO-Russia Balance
Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, the military balance between NATO and Russia, after years of inattention, has again become the focus of intense concern and even alarm in some Western quarters. From NATO’s vantage point, Russia poses a serious military threat to its eastern flank—and to Euro-Atlantic security more broadly—for three reasons.  Read more . . .

VA Recommends Hiring “Surge” to Deal with Disability Claims
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is warning the backlog for veterans appealing decisions involving disability benefits will grow if the Trump administration goes ahead with its harsh budget cuts. Waiting times could grow to as much as eight-and-a-half years. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Veterans Affairs Disability Benefits released on Thursday found staff resources at the agency had not kept pace with increased pending appeals, and concluded that additional staff were needed.  Read more . . .

Criticism of VA Suicide Hotline
The VA suicide hotline is still sending nearly a third of calls to outside back-up centers despite pledges by Veterans Affairs officials to stop the practice last year after a scathing report found the centers had routed veterans to voicemail, an inspector general investigation found. The VA opened a new call center and hired more staff to answer phones, but as of November, 30% of calls — or 14,600 that month — rolled over to backup centers.  Read more . . .

Refugees with PTSD Handle Stress Differently
PTSD is a mental health disorder that makes a person re-experience a traumatic event. “What we discovered was that a gene associated with a person’s mental health became overactive in refugees with PTSD and wasn’t able to respond the right way when working with the body’s stress defense system,” said Bengt Arnetz, a professor of family medicine who led the study. The methyl CpG binding protein 2 gene, or MECP2, helps control the normal function of nerve cells and plays an important role in mental health and the body’s ability to handle stress. The findings are being presented at the American Psychosomatic Society’s annual meeting on March 18.  Read more . . .

Drop me an email at info@sftt.org if you believe that there are other subjects that are newsworthy.

Feel you should do more to help our brave men and women who wear the uniform or our Veterans? Consider donating to Stand For The Troops

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2017 Veterans Affairs Budget: Breaking Down the Numbers

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Politicians from both sides of the political spectrum tend to use budget data in much the same way a magician conjures a rabbit out of a top hat.  Sadly, the Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA”) budget – in the hands of a politician – often becomes an instrument of posturing for voters rather than a management tool to efficiently allocate limited funds and resources to our Veteran population.

In analyzing the 2017 VA Budget, it is useful to analyze a few broad parameters to help pinpoint the “macro” issues.  Certainly, the VA can operate more efficiently, but this assumes that the VA management is committed to insure that Veterans receive the best care possible.

Unfortunately, management efficiency within the VA is beyond the scope of this very preliminary analysis of the 2017 VA budget.

SFTT’s focus is on how well – in “macro” terms – the 2017 VA budget actually benefits Veterans.

Discretionary vs Mandated Spending at the VA

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, “The President’s 2017 Budget includes $182.3 billion for VA in 2017.  This includes $78.7 billion in discretionary resources and $103.6 billion in mandatory funding.  Our (sic the VA) discretionary budget request represents an increase of $3.6 billion, or 4.9 percent, over the 2016 enacted level.”

Department of Veterans Affairs

In effect, discretionary spending at the VA has been spared the axe of many other government programs.  As stated above, discretionary spending at the VA is projected to increase 4.9%.  This analysis will focus only on discretionary spending to determine whether the proposed increase actually benefits Veterans.

Discretionary spending represents only 43% of the total VA budget, while some 57% is allocated toward “mandatory programs” that support Veterans who meet predetermined criteria.   Needless to say, eligibility for Veterans to tap into those “mandatory” programs are largely determined by the VA. Many question the rationale and the process used by VA administrators to determine eligibility and the level of compensation.

Analyzing the Discretionary Spending Increases at the VA

All too often we confuse an “increased budget” with better service or improved end-user outcomes.  In the case of the VA the “end-user” is a Veteran who avails himself or herself of VA services.

To explain this apparent paradox, I cite the following example.  For instance, if the entire 4.9% budget increase is allocated to existing staff, then Veterans will receive NO better service or end-user outcomes UNLESS operating efficiencies occur within the VA.  In effect, you are relying on the VA’s NEW management to perform a better job than their predecessors rather than expecting the increased budget allocation to improve the lives of Veterans.

The same logic could be applied to price increases for drugs, third-party consulting services and other discretionary contractual obligations.

The budget is cleverly designed to avoid breaking out staff salary expenses.  Instead it focuses on programs such as “Benefits Claims Processing,” “Medical Care, and “Information Technology.”  Therefore,  it is rather difficult (if not impossible) to breakout budgeted expenses to obtain a better understanding to the cost-benefit relationships.

What is clear, is that the Department of Veterans Affairs hires well over 350,000 full-time employees and staffing has increased by roughly 10% over the past two years.  The good news is that over 32% of VA staffing are Veterans:

Veterans Affairs Budget

Without getting into the details of the budget, it is difficult to know whether taxpayer dollars are being spent efficiently within the VA.  With an average annual salary of approximately $50,000 (estimated national average), total VA staff expenses should exceed $18 billion.  To this, one needs to tack on an additional 30% (estimated) in staff-related expenses (social security, severance pay, pension plan, unemployment insurance, etc).

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that roughly one-third of the “discretionary” budget is allocated toward staff.  It would be most interesting to know, how much money is allocated to third-party contractors, consultants and part-time employees.

Fitch reports that on average, “staff expenses” represent 54% of total operating expenses of privately run hospitals.  As such, the “scratch-pad” analysis above suggests that the VA is woefully understaffed (i.e. 1/3 of discretionary expenses) or that staff expenses and outside contractor expenses are much higher as a percentage of total discretionary spending.

The issue is not to question whether these staffing and compensation levels are appropriate, but to determine whether the end-user (i.e. the Veteran) is receiving the full benefit of this budgetary increase.

I suspect not, but it is next to impossible to determine how funds are allocated and whether they are done so efficiently.

While the new administration appears to be sending the “right” message to the VA, the current budget seems rather superficial and I detect little that represents a major change in direction of a huge government entity that seems more interested in defending its turf than representing the interests of all Veterans.

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SFTT Military News: Week Ending Mar 17, 2016

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Found below are a few military news items that caught my attention this past week. I am hopeful that the titles and short commentary will encourage SFTT readers to click on the embedded links to read more on subjects that may be of interest to them.

If you have subjects of topical interest, please do not hesitate to reach out. Contact SFTT.

Kim - North Korean

Military Action in North Korea on the Table?
The US has said its policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea is over and suggested it might decide to take preemptive military action. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the option was “on the table” if the threat from the North’s weapons programme reached a level requiring it. During a visit to South Korea, he also said the US was exploring a range of new diplomatic and economic measures. And he defended the deployment of a US missile system in South Korea. The move has angered China, but South Korea and the US say the system is needed as a defence against North Korean aggression.  Read more  . . .

Energy Efficiency Now a Military Priority
The US military sees climate change as a national security threat. So, it’s finding ways to adapt to global warming, to make the armed forces stronger and more flexible.  The US military burns over 1.25 billion gallons of fuel a year, and the Department of Defense is the country’s single largest consumer of fossil fuels, according to Goudreau. “When you talk climate issues, you can talk mitigation or adaptation. Every single gallon of fuel that we burn is carbon going into the atmosphere,” he says.   Read more . . .

Big Increase Proposed in Military Spending
As US president Donald Trump was proposing a $54 billion defense spending hike on March 16, something rather different was happening in Russia. With its economy sputtering, there are reports that it could slash its military budget by 25%. The actual figure is actually more likely to be around 5%, explains Mark Galeotti, a Russian security expert at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. And it comes after several years of rapid growth in Russia’s defense spending. But that still reveals a stark discrepancy. Trump wants to bolster America’s military with an amount not far short of Russia’s entire 2016 defense budget of $65.8 billion (3.8 trillion rubles).  Read more . . .

1,000 Ground Troops to Syria?
The U.S. military has drawn up early plans that would deploy up to 1,000 more troops into northern Syria in the coming weeks, expanding the American presence in the country ahead of the offensive on the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, according to U.S. defense officials familiar with the matter. The deployment, if approved by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and President Trump, would potentially double the number of U.S. forces in Syria and increase the potential for direct U.S. combat involvement in a conflict that has been characterized by confusion and competing priorities among disparate forces.   Read more . . .

Dr. David Shulkin, VA Secretary

VA Budget to Grow by 6%
The Department of Veterans Affairs, the second-largest federal agency with 313,000 civilian employees and a far-flung hospital system, is one of the few corners of the government that would see its budget grow in the next fiscal year — by 6 percent. During his campaign, President Trump promised dramatic reforms at an agency he said was filled with a culture of “fraud, coverups and wrongdoing” after a 2014 scandal over coverups of patient wait times for medical care. His first spending plan would boost VA’s budget by $4.4 billion, to $78.9 billion, with much of the new money dedicated “to improve patient access and timeliness of medical care” for the more than 9 million veterans who use the system.  Read more . . .

South Carolina Discussion on Veterans with PTSD Stereotypes
There are many stereotypes surrounding veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many of them are negative and paint those living with PTSD as violent. However, the Student Veteran Association at the University of South Carolina is aiming to change that perception. “PTSD, it is the normal reaction of human beings who experience extraordinary events,” says Dr. Nancy Brown with the College of Social Work at USC. On Wednesday night, six panelist, with different military backgrounds, all living with PTSD in their own way are hoping to educate and knock down perceptions.  Read more . . .

Drop me an email at info@sftt.org if you believe that there are other subjects that are newsworthy.

Feel you should do more to help our brave men and women who wear the uniform or our Veterans? Consider donating to Stand For The Troops

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Cyberwarfare, Spying and All That Jazz: Please Take a Few Precautions

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While the press is currently having a field day reporting that “gentlemen” actually spy on each other, it would be useful for readers of SFTT to take a few precautions to protect themselves in this era of unscrupulous hackers and BIG BROTHER.

cyber warfare

Short of going completely “off the grid” – i.e. no email, no social media accounts, no credit cards, no personal data stored online by ANY third party – it is virtually impossible to guarantee that your anonymity will withstand the efforts of a determined hacker or even a casual network intrusion.

Furthermore, even if you taken every step possible to insulate yourself from hacking, a massive cyberattack on the country’s infrastructure system (i.e. power grid, telecommunications, air traffic controller, etc.) could cause great personal and collective harm.   See more below on “Distributed Denial of Service” or DdoS.

Suggestions to Protect Yourself in the Information Age

As suggested above, there is little you can to do to fully protect yourself against determined “bad guys” or State intelligence operatives.   Nevertheless, you can take a few simple steps to help reduce your cyber-profile without compromising your lifestyle too much:

– Scrap your AOL and Yahoo email services for Google.  Regardless of who your service provider is, Google has far more FREE security surveillance features to protect your personal online accounts from hacking;

– Delete any unnecessary social media accounts (i.e. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.);

– Change your password every six months or so and definitely use at least one symbol (?,$,!) and Capital Letter in your password  (1234 is not a password);

– Use Two-Step Security verification to reduce the chance of unauthorized changes to your account(s).

– Do not share your password(s) with others, including your family.  It is not a matter of trust, but your security procedures may be far better than those of your friends or family;

– If you are into chat, photo-sharing, etc. avoid using multiple platforms to simplify your life (for instance, use Google Chat rather than Facebook messaging or What’s App);

– ALWAYS update your accounts with the latest UPDATE from your provider, most updates contain very important security enhancements;

– Cancel as many credit cards and online accounts as conveniently possible;

– Regardless of its convenience, consider ending electronic banking and insist on paper statements;

– Can you live without a cell phone?

Sure, many of these suggestions can be a huge inconvenience, but are you willing to compromise your personal security to make life easier for others?

Distributed Denial of Service or “DdoS”

Last year, cyberattacks temporarily shut down Twitter, Netflix, PayPal and others may be just the beginning of disruptive communications warfare.

While these cyberattacks appear to have orchestrated by a rogue band of hackers who call themselves the “New World Hackers,” it portends an ominous future for cybersecurity.

The “attack” called distributed denial-of-service or Ddos causes tens of thousands of mobile devices to simultaneously query server databases that cannot handle the volume of requests and simply shutdown.  Read more by clicking the link below:

http://time.com/4541790/cyberattack-internet-hackers-cameras-toys/

This cyberattack came on the heels of “leaked” emails from high-ranking members in the Democratic National Party by Wikileaks that may have been provided by Russian government intelligence sources.

Actually, recent information suggests that shared passwords could have been the original source of the DNC leaks according to Luke Rosiak of the Daily Caller:

Imran Awan — the lead suspect in a criminal probe into breaches of House of Representatives information security systems — possessed the password to an iPad used by then-Democratic National Committee Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz when DNC emails were given to WikiLeaks, The Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group has learned.

The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. intelligence officials have long feared these attacks and have presumably instituted safeguards and countermeasures to prevent such occurrences.  

DoD Network, Systems and Data or DDNSD

In 2013, the Department of Defense established detailed guidelines to protect the country’s cyber networks.  A hyperlink to the recently updated unclassified version is shown below:

http://iac.dtic.mil/csiac/download/DDNSD_Public_Releasable_11132014.pdf

While our network security has improved dramatically since 9/11, hackers (state-sponsored and independent) continue to breach our security system with increasing regularity.  It is impossible to know how the “defection” of Edward Snowden compromised our security, but most security experts claim that the damage was considerable.  See below . . .

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-23123964

Also the recent “leak” of current CIA electronic surveillance methods certainly doesn’t engender much confidence that we can insulate ourselves from determined cyberattacks.  Question:  If this is the “intelligence information” that is currently publically available, then what should we think about more clandestine intelligent programs that may have already been hacked by hostile State intelligence services?

In Summary

Many years ago (2003-2004),  I attended a lecture on internet security by a security specialist who was then consulting with Homeland Security.  He showed a frightening real time analysis of hacking attempts against Windows-based peripherals, particularly printers.    If fact, I watched this internet security consultant break into the Club Membership database where the event was hosted in less than 30 seconds.

It seems that the New World Hackers were able to orchestrate their assault on vulnerable servers using cellphones and other internet-enabled peripherals.  If this is the case, virtually all systems are vulnerable.   Recent disclosures by Wikileaks on CIA surveillance tools clearly suggest that this is already happening.  

As Hillary Clinton’s “private server” and the DNC hack have shown, we don’t take security-measures seriously.  Unless we wise up, more pain and suffering will be coming shortly.

While you may not be able to control the full spectrum of an electronic invasion of our privacy, do take a few of the steps recommended above to better safeguard your well being.  Lowering your cyber-profile is a good thing!

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Techniques to Help Veterans Minimize Chronic Pain

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Dealing with chronic pain can be quite a . . . pain.  Chronic pain is defined as any pain that lasts longer than 6 months, chronic pain can be moderate or unbearable; episodic or continuous. Of course, whether due to past injuries, strain from overuse, or just general wear and tear, chronic pain is common amongst military Veterans.

Caregiver for Veteran with PTSD

On days when the pain is debilitating, you may not want to get out of bed. It may seem as though you are fighting a losing battle against the pain, but your quality of life can be restored. More importantly, it can be done without having to rely on opioids for relief. Here are a few tips on what you can do to minimize chronic pain.

Biofeedback Therapy for Chronic Pain

Biofeedback is a relaxation technique in which patients use their mind to control body functions that normally occur without fail. Participating in a biofeedback therapy session can give you the skills to lessen your pain at home. In a session, sensors will be attached to your body, then connected to a monitoring device. The device will measure your body functions such as breathing, perspiration, skin temperature, blood pressure and heart rate. As you relax during therapy, your breathing slows and your heart rate will dip. As the numbers on the monitor begin to reflect your relaxed state, you will start to learn how to consciously control your body functions. Through biofeedback therapy, you will learn how to use your mind to overcome bouts of pain.

How to Reduce Inflammation for Chronic Pain

It’s no secret that chronic pain and inflammation go hand-in-hand. Inflammation is a normal immune response in  your body that usually alerts you when something is wrong. Pain, swelling and redness are all forms of inflammation that is needed to help with the healing process. Inflammation becomes an issue when it becomes chronic, and the initial healing process fails, which causes pain. Fortunately you can reduce chronic pain and inflammation by consuming a healthy diet. Certain foods can cause flare ups, therefore they need to be reduced or eliminated. Those foods include dairy products, fried food, refined flour, sugar, high-fat red meat and all processed foods. The proper diet should be rich in leafy-green vegetables, low-sugar fruits and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Exercise Regularly to Reduce Chronic Pain

Exercise is actually one of the best ways to reduce chronic pain. The less you move, the more pain you are likely to feel. The endorphins that are released during exercise are natural painkillers that increase your tolerance by changing how your body responds to pain. Routine exercise can help you reduce your medicine intake, increase your happiness and return your zest for life. If you find it difficult to move fluidly during exercise, start by walking a few times a week, then gradually increase your efforts.

Don’t Hesitate to Ask for Help

Naturally, you’ll want to do everything you can to maintain your independence, but know that it is more than ok to need help. Overdoing it in areas where you shouldn’t will only worsen your pain, causing you more stress and unhappiness. Figure out areas of your life where you could use some help and then see who might be able to provide it.

For example, keeping your house clean may be especially difficult when your pain is at its worst. Consider asking a family member to help you with cleaning once a week or if you have the resources, hire a housekeeper. Yard work can be another troublesome area for people with chronic pain. Chances are you can find a tween or teen in your neighborhood who would be more than happy to pick up leaves in your yard or mow it once every couple of weeks for a few extra bucks. Just having this little bit of extra help can make a world of difference.

Find Support

Chronic pain can be very isolating and it may seem as though no one in your immediate circle understands your frustration. Participating in a support group, such as those provided by the ACPA and its sister organization Veterans in Pain, will provide a safe haven for you and allow you the opportunity to vent. Those that suffer with chronic pain tend to see themselves in a negative light. Thinking negatively of yourself can lead to depression and more painful flare-ups. If you find that the group setting is not helping you solve your issues, consider reaching out to a therapist. Never be ashamed or prideful to ask for help –it just may save your life.

When you are in pain, it can be hard to find the motivation to do anything. Feelings of anger and resentment toward your body are to be expected, but it is important that you push forward. Chronic pain is a condition that can be successfully managed as long as you treat it with self-love and patience. Use these tips as a blueprint to help you combat chronic pain and start living your best life!

Guest Contributor, Constance Ray
Recovery Well

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SFTT Military News: Week Ending Mar 10, 2017

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Found below are a few military news items that caught my attention this past week. I am hopeful that the titles and short commentary will encourage SFTT readers to click on the embedded links to read more on subjects that may be of interest to them.

If you have subjects of topical interest, please do not hesitate to reach out. Contact SFTT.

Turkey Seeks to Develop Military Cooperation with Russia on Syria
President Tayyip Erdogan sought to build cooperation with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Friday over military operations in Syria, as Turkey attempts to create a border “safe zone” free of Islamic State and the Kurdish YPG militia. Erdogan, referring to Islamic State’s remaining stronghold, told a joint Moscow news conference with the Russian President “Of course, the real target now is Raqqa”. Turkey is seeking a role for its military in the advance on Raqqa, but the United States is veering toward enlisting the Kurdish YPG militia – something contrary to Ankara’s aim of banishing Kurdish fighters eastwards across the Euphrates river.  Read more . . .

Dangerous Military Options for North Korea
Frustrated that North Korea has been undeterred by international sanctions, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is conducting a policy review to look for more effective ways to counter Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear threats. Adding new urgency to this longstanding security threat is North Korea’s accelerated efforts to develop the capability to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM.) In January President Trump tweeted “it will not happen,” in response to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s statement indicating that his country would soon test an ICBM.  Read more . . .

Support Options to Help Veterans Finish College
Military veterans face steep challenges when trying to reintegrate themselves in school after service, ranging from lacking the structure of the military to being older than their classmates. Compared to their non-vet peers, veterans — 4% of undergrads nationwide, according to American Council on Education — report at higher rates that they struggle to connect with campus, which can lead to higher dropout rates. In 2011, 51.7% of veteran students graduated from college, compared to 58% of non-veteran students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. To help more vets stay in school and graduate, several universities nationwide have started programs to teach their staff and faculty about military culture and veterans’ issues. DuBord helped Binghamton adopt one such training program, called Vet Net Ally.   Read more . . .

Drug Abuse

Expanded Drug Testing for Military Applicants
The Defense Department will be expanding drug testing for military applicants to check for all drugs that are tested in active duty military members, according to DoD.  The change, set to take place on April 3, is meant to reflect “the level of illicit and prescription medication abuse among civilians, as well as the increase in heroin and synthetic drug use within the civilian population,” according to Army Col. Tom Martin.  Read more . . .

Can PTSD Risk be Estimated Before Deployment?
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are studying cortisol and testosterone in soldiers. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is released as part of the body’s flight-or-fight response to life-threatening emergencies. Testosterone is one of the most important of the male sex hormones. Their findings, published in the journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology, look at cortisol’s critical role in the emergence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but only when levels of testosterone are suppressed.   Read more . . .

PTSD:  Misconceptions and Latest Treatments
Medscape recently interviewed Dr Sonya Norman, director of the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Consultation Program, run by the executive branch of the National Center for PTSD, about common misconceptions related to PTSD and the latest treatments for the condition.  Read more . . .

Drop me an email at info@sftt.org if you believe that there are other subjects that are newsworthy.

Feel you should do more to help our brave men and women who wear the uniform or our Veterans? Consider donating to Stand For The Troops

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Dr. David Cifu: Do Veterans with PTSD Want Him in Their Corner?

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Stand for the Troops (“SFTT”) has written extensively about treating Veterans with PTSD and TBI.  Sadly, much of the publically available literature for brain-related injuries deals with identifying the symptoms and helping Veterans – and their loved ones – cope with terrible consequences of living with PTSD and TBI.

The issue(s) – at least in my mind – are these:

– Is treating the behavioral symptoms of PTSD and TBI enough for Veterans?  

– Have we given up hope in helping Veterans permanently reclaim their lives?

Sadly, treating the symptoms of PTSD/TBI is generally confused with actually providing Veterans with a meaningful long term solution to overcome the debilitating impact of a war-related brain injury.  

Now we learn that the VA is again studying the medicinal benefits of marijuana in treating Veterans with PTSD.   As many Veterans have been experimenting with marijuana for quite some time, I believe that the study will conclude that “medicinal marijuana, if used wisely, can mitigate anxiety, wild mood swings and suicidal thoughts among Veterans suffering from the effects of brain-related injury.”

The phrase in quotes are my words, but I suspect that conclusions of the multi-million dollar clinical study will not differ significantly.

The use of mind-altering drugs – whether medicinal marijuana or opioids – will most certainly help Veterans cope with the debilitating pain and anxiety of PTSD and TBI, but will prescription drugs meaningfully contribute to curing brain injury among Veterans?  

While the Department of Defense (“DoD”) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”) have largely agreed that prescription drugs is not the answer, there is little evidence that the DoD or VA are clearly committed to provide Veterans with a clear path to full recovery.

Dr. David Cifu

Dr. David Cifu

In fact, the VA, represented by its spokesperson, Dr. David Cifu, continues to push a stale and failed agenda that states that the only two effective treatment therapies offered by the VA are:

– Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and,

– Prolonged Exposure Therapy.

As the SFTT and others have pointed out, the VA has little – if anything – positive to show in having treating tens of thousand of Veterans with PTSD and TBI with these therapy programs.  You don’t have to be a brain surgeon (sorry for the very poor pun) or even Dr. David Cifu to recognize that currently recommended VA therapy programs have failed Veterans miserably.

Nevertheless, Veterans, the public and countless Congressional committees continue to listen to the same irresponsible dribble year-after-year and buy the same stale argument that Veterans are getting the best treatment possible.  To use a popular phrase, a little “fact-checking” would go a long to way to dispelling this insipid myth.

Dr. David Cifu represents what is wrong with the VA:   A lack of willingness to consider other alternatives.   As Judge and Jury on what constitutes “authorized therapy programs,” the VA has effectively precluded thousands of Veterans from seeking “out of network” solutions that appear to provide a far better long-term outcome.

The VA claims otherwise as we have seen in a long battle over the efficacy of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (“HBOT”) in treating Veterans with PTSD and TBI.  Dr. David Cifu stands behind questionable studies that suggest that there is insufficient clinical evidence to support the thesis that HBOT can improve brain function.   In fact, Dr. Paul Harch, cites plenty of evidence in an academic study for the National Library of Medicine (Medical Gas Research) that conclusively demonstrates the lack of substance to Dr. Cifu’s bland and misleading opinions.

It is difficult to know whether new leadership within the VA will lead to more openness in providing Veterans with PTSD/TBI the support they require in finding therapy programs that work, but unless gatekeepers like Dr. David Cifu can be shown a quick exit, it is unlikely that much will change.

Our brave Veterans deserve far better than the sad and tragic delusional claims of Dr. Cifu.

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SFTT News Highlights: Week Ending Mar 3, 2017

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Found below are a few news items that caught my attention this past week. I am hopeful that the titles and short commentary will encourage SFTT readers to click on the embedded links to read more on subjects that may be of interest to them.

If you have subjects of topical interest, please do not hesitate to reach out. Contact SFTT.

Does President Trump’s Military Budget Add Up?
“. . . as Trump invokes former President Reagan’s “peace through strength” doctrine, few in the military policy community know what Trump really wants to do with the proposed 10% annual budget increase or what vision he holds for the armed forces. Though Trump repeatedly has called for a military buildup, he spent much of his campaign promising to pull back from the type of expensive commitments and endeavors that would require such a large expansion. He pledged an “America First” policy and complained bitterly that trillions of dollars spent fighting wars in the Middle East could have been used to rebuild the homeland.”  Read more . . .

Sweden Reinstates Military Draft
Sweden is reinstating the military draft — for men and women — because of dwindling volunteers and growing concerns over a more assertive Russia in the Baltic and Ukraine. “The security environment in Europe and in Sweden’s vicinity has deteriorated and the all-volunteer recruitment hasn’t provided the Armed Forces with enough trained personnel,” the Swedish defense ministry said Thursday. “The re-activating of the conscription is needed for military readiness.”  Read more . . .

Department of Veterans Affairs

VA Reportedly Not “Truly” Tracking Health Care Delays in Two States
Government inspectors say actual delays in delivering medical care to military veterans remain far worse at Veterans Affairs medical facilities in North Carolina and Virginia than internal records showed. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said Friday the new report by the Veterans Affairs Department’s inspector general found 90 percent of the vets eligible to see private doctors because of long VA delays weren’t getting the help they were due.   Read more . . .

Reported Unease Among Turkish Military Prompts Dismissal of Newspaper Editor
According to Turkish media reports, the headline angered President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish government, leading to the removal of Sedat Ergin, Hurriyet’s veteran editor. Ergin, a journalist and political commentator, was appointed as the editor-in-chief of Hurriyet in August 2014.  Saturday’s news story, filed by Hurriyet’s Ankara bureau chief Hande Firat, was focusing on how the General Staff, the highest military body in the country, evaluated the criticism and speculation directed at the Turkish armed forces following last year’s failed coup attempt.  Read more . . .

Missing Chemical for Veterans with PTSD?
Dr. Lynn Dobrunz is a Neurobiologist and U.A.B. Associate Professor who has studied the human brain for years. Dr. Dobrunz explained, “Many people experience a traumatic or frightening experience and have a fear response at the time. That’s normal and appropriate.” In normal brain function, a release of the chemical Neuropeptide Y, or NPY, produced anxiety-relieving effects to trauma. Dr. Dobrunz said traumatic flashbacks replace reality for these people. Her new research now helps explain why. “I was not surprised to find that Neuropeptide Y was altered in this PTSD model,” said Dr. Dobrunz. “I was surprised to find that Neuropeptide Y seemed to be completely absent.”  Read more . . .

Shulkin Proposes Changes to Veterans Choice Program
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Sunday proposed eliminating a controversial policy that limits veterans from receiving private-sector health care. Speaking to hundreds of people at the Disabled American Veterans annual conference in Arlington, Va., Shulkin laid out his top 10 priorities for the Department of Veterans Affairs. It was his first public address since becoming VA secretary. High on Shulkin’s list was redesigning the Veterans Choice Program into what he called “Choice 2.0.”  Read more . .

stealth destroyer

Stealth Destroyer, not the USS Porter

 

 

Details Emerge on Russian Jets who “Buzzed” US Destroyer
Russian pilots buzzed the guided missile destroyer Porter repeatedly last month, but also had “relatively large number of interactions with” U.S. and NATO aircraft the same day, according to the Defense Department. The DoD shared new details regarding interceptions that took place Feb. 10, “some of which were deemed to be safe and standard and some of which were assessed as unsafe and unprofessional,” according to a statement from the Office of the Secretary of Defense provided to Military.com The USS Porter incident involved Su-24 Fencer attack aircraft and an Ilyushin Il-38, an anti-submarine warfare and maritime patrol aircraft, near the warship in the Black Sea on Feb. 10.   Read more . . .

Drop me an email at info@sftt.org if you believe that there are other subjects that are newsworthy.

Feel you should do more to help our brave men and women who wear the uniform or our Veterans? Consider donating to Stand For The Troops

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Don’t be Duped by Charitable Organizations for Veterans

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It seems like every year we have a major scandal involving a charitable organization that claims to support Veterans.  Last year, the largest Veteran charitable organization, the Wounded Warriors Project (“WWP”), came under scrutiny after it was discovered that a significant percentage of funds raised by WWP served as compensation or incentives for the WWP staff rather than being channeled into programs that truly benefit Veterans or their loved ones.

IAVA  -  Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

WWP was not the first Veteran charitable organization to show its feet of clay, but now the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (“IAVA”) is coming under intense public scrutiny.  Jonah Bennett, a reporter for the Daily Caller, notes the following:

Former employees of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, one of the largest veterans’ advocacy organizations in the country, allege that the charity’s CEO has abused staff and pressured employees to lie about grant funds and project success to mislead donors.

Seven former employees of IAVA spoke to The Daily Caller News Foundation and said among other things that CEO Paul Rieckhoff, who served in Iraq as an Army first lieutenant, has fostered an environment that puts pressure on employees to aggressively fiddle with numbers so that grant finances and grant project goals can be listed as complete.

Needless to say, CEO Paul Rieckhoff has “denied allegations that he had pressured the staff to misuse grant money and mislead donors.”   Nevertheless, it represents yet another blemish on fund-raising efforts by charitable organizations that claim to support Veterans.

Problems within the IAVA date back several years when a 2014 letter from a former employee to the IAVA Board “asks for Rieckhoff to step down as CEO, citing a long history of poor relations with donors, high staff turnover and misspending grant funds.”   Calls by the Daily Caller to “Rieckhoff’s personal cell phone went unanswered.”

 

While it is difficult to know which – if any – of the allegations by former employees of IAVA are true, hints of discontent within the organization have been widely known for several years.  Whether these allegations are true or not,  the repercussions will likely be severe for both IAVA and many other charitable organizations focused on supporting Veterans.

Sadly, many charitable organizations that seek to support Veterans are strapped for cash to fund even the smallest programs.  Well-intentioned efforts fail because the principals simply don’t have the experience or capabilities to raise funds for Veteran programs.  Others fail because they simply don’t have the “right” infrastructure to attract charitable funding.

With large organizations like IAVA and the WWP, the pursuit of funding tragically becomes far more important than the causes they support.  This may well be an over-generalization, but  funding becomes critical to support the many deserving Veteran programs that require an almost constant supply of fresh financial resources.

It is not surprising that the leadership of so many well-meaning Veteran organizations gets trapped by the dilemma of balancing the needs of Veterans and their ongoing fund-raising efforts.   As we have seen in the case of WWP and now IAVA (apparently), the lure of attracting additional resources appears to outweigh the needs of Veterans they claim to support.

What to Look for in a Veteran Charitable Organization

There are no hard and fast rules for determining which charitable organization(s) is/are most effective in meeting the needs of Veterans, but there are certainly a few common themes:

– The integrity of the Administrators and Board Members;
– Projects clearly segregated for direct contributions by donors;
– Clear (and auditable) guidelines on how contributions will be allocated;
– Annual audit reports and regular project updates to donors to let them know how funds are being deployed;
– Independent advisory board consisting of charitable organizations to supervise and administer grants.

Tell-tale Signs of Abuse in Veteran Charitable Organizations

It is difficult to generalize on the “signs of abuse” within a charitable organization, but if it looks “too good to be true” the program is probably a sham.   Found below are just a few tell-tale signs that the “hype” is greater than “real” programs to support Veterans:

– Public outings with Veterans (baseball games or other sporting events) is a sure sign that   it is a staged PR event with little or no lasting benefit to the Veteran or his/her family;
– Lack of distinction between general purpose funding ($19 a month, for instance) and funding for specific identifiable programs for Veterans (i.e. Hyperbaric Oxygen, PTSD research, defined occupational training program, etc.);
– Does the charitable website intelligently focus on specific Veteran support programs or does it focus instead on pulling the donor’s heartstrings?
– Who are the Board Members and do written guidelines of corporate governance exist?
– Are audited financial statements and charitable organization credentials easily found on the website?

SFTT takes no great pleasure in commenting on problems of a prominent Veteran charitable organization, but if these allegations ring true, it gravely affects the funding of all organizations that seek to support our brave Veterans.

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