The official blog of American Veteran Magazine, the national quarterly publication of AMVETS.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Senate Hears Tesimony on Arlington Mismanagement

This morning the Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight hosted a hearing on the recent scandal at Arlington National Cemetery, where hundreds of mismarked graves had been identified by an Army Inspector General investigation. To view video of this morning's hearing, Click Here.

The Army's investigation only focused on a random sampling of Arlington plots and the Senate's own investigation prior to Thursday's hearing clarified that more than 6,000 graves at the cemetery could be mismarked as a result of cemetery management issues.

In the wake of the Army's scathing report, both the cemetery superintendent, John Metzler, and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham, were dismissed and the Department of the Army established a new chain of command to ensure proper oversight over Arlington.

Metzler and Higginbotham were both subpoenaed to testify before the committee, though Higginbotham chose not to answer questions and was quickly dismissed by Subcommittee Chairwoman Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Metzler accepted the blame for the scandal, offering his regrets to families whose loved ones were interned at Arlington under his watch.

The hearing focused on a general lack of oversight within the Arlington National Cemetery contracting process, as the cemetery sought to migrate from its paper-based record-keeping system to a digital tracking system similar to what VA uses at its national cemeteries around the country. Arlington officials estimated that nearly $5.5 million had been spent over the years to update the cemetery's record-keeping system, but the Senate's investigation discovered that the figure was closer to $8 million.

Committee members were baffled by answers Metzler gave when asked why VA was able to more effectively transition its systems at all 131 national cemeteries for a fraction of the cost Arlington has amassed since first awarding contracts in 2004.

The hearing took a more positive turn during the second panel's testimony, when Chairwoman McCaskill and Subcommittee Ranking Member Scott Brown, R-Mass., had the opportunity to ask current Army leadership about the command climate change at Arlington since the scandal broke.

Army leaders were contrite in admitting that the department did not exercise proper oversight while Metzler was in charge and that the newly-established chain of command, headed by Kathryn Condon, offered improved transparency and oversight in the process.

Condon, who took on the new role last month, outlined a series of steps Arlington has taken to remedy the situation from double-checking old maps for accuracy and reaching out to VA for insight on how to properly implement digital record-keeping at the nation's most revered veterans' cemetery.

McCaskill said she didn't buy Metzler's notion that a funding and staffing shortfalls led to the mistakes, and that the lack of oversight in contracting at Arlington was tantamount to fraud, waste and abuse. She also indicated that her subcommittee would continue to monitor the situation and look to hold those responsible for the mismanagement accountable for their actions.

AMVETS has been outspoken about the issue at Arlington since the story broke last month, saying that Arlington officials have no room for error because the facility is the nation's testament to the sacrifices of all American veterans.

American Veteran will continue to follow the Arlington story, ensuring that Army leaders keep their promises to ensure that Arlington cemetery properly honors the sacrifices of America's heroes.

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Stop Loss Pay Available Until October

Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that special pay for veterans who served under the stop loss policy is still available. Department of Defense officials are trying to reach as many eligible veterans as possible before Oct. 21, 2010, when all applications for the benefit must be submitted.

If you are a veteran who was involuntarily extended under the stop loss policy between Sept. 11, 2001 and Sept. 30, 2009, you are eligible for the benefit, which on average amounts to more than $3,700.

To view the application for, Click Here. To apply for the benefit, veterans can print out the form, DD-2944, sign it and send it to the appropriate service address, which is included in the form.

For more information on the benefit from DoD, Click Here. Service-specific telephone numbers are also available on the Web site for veterans with questions about the process.

The benefit, known as Retroactive Stop Loss Special Pay, or RSLSP, is a $500-per-month benefit for each month or partial month of involuntary extension.

AMVETS leaders encourage anyone who is eligible for the benefit to apply as soon as possible, since Congress has not indicated that it will extend the application deadline.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Missing Sailors Identified; One Killed

This morning, Military Times reported that the two sailors captured last week by the Taliban in Afghanistan have been identified. One of the sailors was killed in the attack on the two men's armored sport utility vehicle in Logar province, Afghanistan on July 23.

The sailor who remains missing was identified as Petty Officer 3rd Class Jarod Newlove, 25, of Renton, Wash. The Pentagon said that efforts to find Newlove are ongoing.

The sailor who was killed in the attack was identified as
Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin McNeley, 30, of Wheatridge, Colo. The Pentagon said McNeley's body was successfully recovered by coalition forces on July 25, two days after the sailor went missing.

Newlove is the third American service members listed as "Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown," or DUSTWUN, along with Army Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban last year, and Army Sgt. Ahmed Altaie, who disappeared in Iraq in 2008.

AMVETS leaders mourned the death of McNeley, but applauded the efforts of coalition forces ensuring he was not left behind. AMVETS also condemned the capture of Newlove and continued to call on the departments of Defense and State to do everything in their power to ensure the safe return of all America's missing service members.

"We owe it to our brave military men and women to ensure that no one is left behind on the battlefield and AMVETS hopes that the Pentagon and the State Department will exhaust any and all resources to make sure our POWs and those missing-in-action are brought home," said AMVETS National Commander Duane J. Miskulin. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of Petty Officers McNeley and Newlove, and we hope that Newlove can be found and brought home safely."

The Pentagon said that the July 23 incident is still under investigation and American Veteran will continue to follow the story as it continues to develop.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

This Week at American Veteran

This week at American Veteran we will discuss partner Paws With A Cause, which recently placed another assistance dog with a deserving disabled veteran. We will also discuss the ongoing search for two missing service members in Afghanistan--one of whom the Taliban has claimed to have killed in an ambush late last week.

Though the two missing service members have not been identified yet, AMVETS leaders have consistently called on the departments of Defense and State to exercise all options in ensuring that all our missing/captured service members are returned safely--including Army Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl and Army Sgt. Ahmed Altaie, who each remain POW/MIA.

This week, AMVETS will also be on hand for VA Forum on Women Veterans, taking place at the Women's Memorial outside of Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday. AMVETS National Deputy Legislative Director Christina Roof will participate in the day's discussions, addressing one of AMVETS' top legislative priorities for 2010.

This week, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs will host three critical hearings this week, which AMVETS will be watching closely. On Tuesday, the Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations will host a hearing on Gulf War illness. On Wednesday, the full committee will discuss ongoing oversight and inadequate cost control measures within VA. On Thursday, the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity will discuss licensure and credentialing.

As these hearings draw closer, we will bring you links to live video on this blog along with details from each discussion.

This week, we will also be bringing you highlights from the summer issue of American Veteran magazine, which should be arriving in your mailboxes shortly.

As always, we're eager to hear from you to let us know how we're doing, so please leave your comments on the posts. Also please feel free to share your stories with us to highlight on the blog and within the pages of American Veteran magazine.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Post-9/11 G.I. Bill Update: Living Stipend Make-Ups in August

Yesterday, Military Times reported that VA will automatically issue living stipend make-up checks in August to veterans who received inaccurate payments for the spring semester. Veterans will not need to apply for the updated payments.

By law, VA was obligated to update its living stipend payments to conform to the new Department of Defense Basic Allowance for Housing, of BAH, payments on Jan. 1. However, VA cited shortcomings in its IT infrastructure for the spring semester and chose to ensure that all enrolled veterans in the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill received compensation, rather than adjusting the existing payment model after facing issues with the program's roll-out in the fall.

AMVETS leaders have been closely monitoring the implementation of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill and calling for improvements to make the benefit more equitable. AMVETS also spearheaded recent efforts to commission federal grants for student-veterans' "centers of excellence" on college campuses nationwide, offering student-veterans all the tools necessary to succeed in the academic environment.

Department of Education is currently accepting grant applications from colleges and universities interested in commissioning such centers as part of the $6 million pilot program.

When news of G.I. Bill payment delays surfaced, AMVETS leaders were concerned that the hassles would foster attrition among student-veterans experiencing financial hardships as a result of the delay. Fortunately, AMVETS partner Supportive Education for the Returning Veteran, or SERV, reported that attrition rates among many of the nation's student-veterans were negligible in the first academic year of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, with many schools actually seeing a spike in veteran enrollment between the fall and spring semesters.

VA plans to have its automated Post-9/11 G.I. Bill claims system operational by December, ensuring that payment delays and other hiccups in the enrollment system are eliminated. AMVETS leaders will continue to monitor VA's implementation of the new system to ensure timely and accurate delivery of the landmark benefit.

American Veteran will continue to follow implementation of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill and continuing efforts by the veterans' community to ensure timely, accurate and equitable delivery of the benefit.

(Image: VA's official logo for the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.)

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Live from Capitol Hill: Senate Discusses G.I. Bill; House Roundtable on PTSD, TBI

This morning, the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs will host a hearing on potential improvements to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, which AMVETS has been calling for since last summer when the new benefits took effect.

Some of the improvements AMVETS has called for include expansion of benefits for mobilized National Guard troops on Title 32 orders, increased equity in benefits for students attending private universities, living stipend benefits for full time online students, and increased access to vocational training outside of traditional colleges and universities.

This morning, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs is also hosting a roundtable discussion on treating the invisible wounds of war--post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and traumatic brain injury, or TBI. The committee has brought together leaders within the health care industry alongside Department of Defense and VA officials to discuss the issues.

To view a list of this morning's participants in the roundtable, Click Here. To view live video starting at 10 a.m., Click Here.

AMVETS National Commander Duane J. Miskulin made addressing the invisible wounds of war his top personal priority for his year in office and AMVETS National Deputy Legislative Director Christina Roof will be on hand for the roundtable. To read about Miskulin's chief initiative to address these invisible wounds and the broader reintegration issues faced by today's veterans through AMVETS Warrior Transition Workshops, Click Here. '

American Veteran will follow both of these hearings closely. For updates, check back later.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

This Week at American Veteran

This week at American Veteran we will continue to follow hearings on Capitol Hill, including Wednesday's roundtable discussion on post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and a hearing on healing the physical injuries of war, both in the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs will also host a hearing on Post-9/11 G.I. Bill improvements. Details on each hearing will be available later in the week.

We will also discuss this weekend's ruling in U.S. District Court, deeming the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 unconstitutional. AMVETS issued a statement this afternoon, calling for an appeal to uphold the critical law, which roots out fakers exploiting the veterans' community. AMVETS was the first major veterans' organization to tackle the Stolen Valor issue when it launched in December 2009.

This week we will also bring you updates on the 2010 AMVETS Symposium for 21st Century Veterans, taking place during this year's AMVETS National Convention in Louisville. AMVETS leaders are finalizing details for the event and we will bring you highlights here.

As always, we're eager to hear from you and hear what's happening at AMVETS posts and departments around the country for our Keeping Posted Online section. We will also keep you up to date on the latest news in the veterans' community. Finally, we also encourage you to comment on our stories whenever possible. Details on how to publish your comments can be found on the right hand tool bar.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Supreme Court to hear USERRA Case

This morning reported that the Supreme Court has granted certiorari on the Uniformed Servicemembers Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, or USERRA, case involving Army Reserve Sgt. Vincent Staud and Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Ill.

AMVETS leaders will be watching closely, as the decision could impact the future of USERRA cases and how terminations of veteran employees are handled.

AMVETS supports strict enforcement of USERRA law to ensure that members of the National Guard and Reserve cannot be discriminated against once they return from duty overseas.

The law, which was passed in 1994, has been tested in recent years with the increased operational tempo for National Guard and Reserve forces, who, at times, have comprised nearly half of America's combat power in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the first case to make its way to the Supreme Court.

For more information on USERRA at the Department of Justice Web site, Click Here.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Live from Capitol Hill: Senate Discusses Claims Backlog; House to Tackle Suicide

This morning on Capitol Hill both the House and Senate committees on Veterans Affairs will hear testimony on critical veterans issues.

First, at 9:30 a.m., in Russell Senate Office Building room 418, the Senate committee will host a hearing to discuss the daunting VA claims backlog. Joseph Violante from Disabled American Veterans will testify on behalf of the Independent Budget partners, including AMVETS. Lists of witnesses have not been published, but live video from the hearing is available on the committee's Web site. To view the video, Click Here.

At 10 a.m., in Cannon House Office Building room 334, the House VA Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will discuss VA's suicide prevention and outreach efforts. AMVETS National Deputy Legislative Director Christina Roof will be on hand for the hearing, where leaders from other veterans' groups and VA and Department of Defense officials will testify. To view a full list of witnesses and to read their prepared remarks, Click Here.

To view live video from the hearing, Click Here.

AMVETS leaders will be following both hearings closely, as the VA claims backlog is AMVETS top legislative priority for 2010, and AMVETS National Commander Duane Miskulin has made veterans' mental health and suicide prevention a personal priority for his year in office.

In an effort to augment VA and DoD's efforts to quell veteran suicides, Miskulin drove AMVETS' partnership with Freedom & Honor earlier this year to commission AMVETS Warrior Transition Workshops--a series of national workshops designed by combat veterans for combat veterans, offering peer support to help veterans contextualize their experiences and successfully transition back to civilian life.

Check back with American Veteran Online later for highlights from today's hearings.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

This Week at American Veteran

This week at American Veteran we will discuss VA's recent changes to policies on PTSD claims processing. This morning VA officially announced changes waiving additional evidence requirements for veterans seeking service connection for PTSD. We will discuss in depth on this blog, but in the meantime, to read VA's Q&A on the PTSD changes, Click Here.

This week we will also be sending the summer issue of American Veteran magazine to the printer for delivery in time for the 66th annual AMVETS National Convention next month in Louisville, Ky. As we finalize this magazine, you may not see as frequent of updates on the American Veteran blog. However, we continue to invite your feedback and any submissions of photos and stories you would like us to consider for publication in the magazine or on the blog.

As convention draws closer, we will also post an update on the 2010 AMVETS Symposium for 21st Century Veterans. Submissions for participants are due to AMVETS National Legislative Director Ray Kelley as soon as possible to ensure that veterans receive all necessary materials prior to arriving in Lousiville. More to come this week.

On Capitol Hill this week Congress is back in session after the Fourth of July recess, and American Veteran will be following hearings in both the Senate and House committees on Veterans Affairs. On Wednesday, The Senate will hear testimony on VA's current efforts to alleviate the VA claims backlog--AMVETS' top legislative priority for 2010--and the House will hear testimony on VA's suicide prevention efforts--one of AMVETS National Commander Duane Miskulin's personal priorities for 2010.

Details on each hearing, including updates on witnesses, links to testimony and live video feeds will be available on this blog Wednesday morning.

On Thursday, VA's update on its study of service dog benefits for physically and psychologically wounded veterans is due to Congress. As the leader in advocating for veterans' service dogs, AMVETS will be watching closely, with updates posted to the American Veteran blog.

As always, let us know how we're doing and check back regularly for updates.

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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Senate Letter to Shinseki on Vets' Service Dogs

This afternoon, Senators Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) sent a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asking for clarification on the VA's study on the benefits of service dogs for veterans suffering from physical and psychological injuries.

The bipartisan letter was also cosigned by Senators Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Roland Burris (D-Ill.), John D. Rockefeller IV (D-N.Y.), and Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

AMVETS National Deputy Legislative Director Christina Roof spearheaded the effort to gather bipartisan support for the letter, in addition to the letter already sent by the House in May and by AMVETS last month.

The letter comes on the same day that VA's Office of the Inspector General issued its report on veterans' access to service dog benefits, confirming AMVETS' concerns that VA did not have proper protocols in place to deliver the entitlements.

American Veteran will continue to follow this story closely. Check back regularly for updates.

(Images: Senate letter to VA Secretary Shinseki on veterans' service dogs.)

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BREAKING: OIG Reports on Vets' Service Dogs; This Week at American Veteran

BREAKING: This afternoon VA's Office of the Inspector General released a report on VA's service dog benefits for wounded veterans, confirming some of AMVETS' concerns voiced in recent letters to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

In the report, VA's Inspector General recommended that VHA immediately publish its criteria for service dog benefits--a recommendation AMVETS has been calling for since March. The benefit, which was established in 2001 prior to 9/11 still has not been properly codified by VA and, according to OIG, only eight eligible veterans have successfully received their entitlements as a result.

In working on this issue, AMVETS has discovered hundreds of eligible veterans who have either been denied their entitlements or simply never heard of the benefit. We'll follow this story closely with more to come this week.

This Week at American Veteran:

This week at American Veteran, we're focusing on publishing the summer issue of American Veteran magazine, so if you have any last minute submissions for letters-to-the-editor or the Keeping Posted section, please submit them by close-of-business tomorrow.

The new issue should hit mailboxes prior to the 66th annual AMVETS National Convention, taking place August 7-14 in Louisville. This year, AMVETS is also hosting its 2010 Symposium for 21st Century Veterans, and all participant registrations for the symposium are due to AMVETS National Legislative Director Ray Kelley ASAP.

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

AMVETS Asks For Clarification on Service Dogs

Yesterday, AMVETS National Deputy Legislative Director Christina Roof sent a formal letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asking for a formal update on VA's study of service dogs for wounded veterans and clarification on VA's outreach efforts on current benefits available to veterans using eligible service animals.

The letter was similar to letters Roof has worked on with leaders in the House, which was sent to Shinseki in May, and the Senate, which is currently in circulation among Senate staff.

AMVETS and Congressional leaders are looking for clarification on the VA's study of service dogs and the health impacts for both physically and psychologically wounded veterans as commissioned by the 2010 defense authorization.

Under the law, VA had 270 days to clarify how it would conduct the study--a deadline approaching on July 8.

Prior to the deadline, AMVETS hopes to ensure that VA's Office of the General Counsel has kept with the intent of the study, especially in light of this week's hearing in the House where Congressional leaders chastised VA's General Counsel for a lack of proper oversight and neglecting to adhere to guidelines outlined in laws pertaining to veterans' benefits.

AMVETS latest letter also asked for clarification on VA's outreach efforts on current service dog benefits provided under Title 38, the body of law governing veterans' benefits. Under the current law, veterans who make use of service dogs for physical injuries are entitled to compensation for veterinary care and other types of routine care for their service animals through VA's office of prosthetics and sensory aides.

However, for years VA had failed to properly enroll veterans in the program. Recently, AMVETS has been working with VA prosthetics to help reach out to veterans, but efforts hit a road block last month. AMVETS hopes to continue leveraging all available resources to inform veterans of these benefits.

AMVETS has been a critical voice on veterans' service dogs since partnering with non-profit Paws With A Cause in 1987 to place service dogs with deserving wounded veterans.

In the last few months, AMVETS and Paws have worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the issue with VA leadership and on Capitol Hill to ensure responsible implementation of veterans' service dog programs.

American Veteran will continue to follow VA's service dog study and benefits outreach closely. For updates, check back regularly.

(Images: Top: AMVETS' letter to VA Secretary Shinseki asking about veterans' service dog issues. Bottom: AMVETS member and U.S. Paralympian Kevin Stone and his assistance dog Mambo speak with Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) during recent visits to Capitol Hill, while CNN collects b-roll for a story on veterans and their assistance dogs. Photo by Ryan Gallucci.)

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