Tuesday, May 31, 2011

VA Campaign to Help Vets in Crisis

ROA was briefed on the Veteran Crisis Line and the Department of Veterans Affairs’s (VA) Suicide Prevention Outreach Campaign led by Reingold, a communications and marketing firm.

The Crisis Line, formerly known as the Veterans Suicide Hotline, was established in 2007. The name was changed to “Crisis Line” to encourage wider utilization. The Crisis Line is open 24/7/365, providing confidential counseling and referrals for veterans and families, and is available to all veterans, regardless of status and whether or not they are registered with the VA.

The VA’s outreach campaign goals are to increase awareness and use of the hotline (1-800-273-8255) and the online chat service, support broader suicide prevention efforts, and promote help-seeking behaviors. There is not a smart phone app at this time, but that may be added in the future. This campaign has been branded with a new logo and identity, has a partnership outreach network, a campaign website, and leverages PSAs and media to raise the profile of the campaign.

The campaign messaging tries to avoid normalizing or glorifying suicide, showcases help-seeking behaviors, promotes individual family and community “connectedness,” stresses confidentiality, and highlights VA leadership.

The target audience includes veterans, specifically OEF/OIF, National Guard and Reserve, and Vietnam-era veterans who have seen an increase in suicides post-9/11; families, friends, and caregivers who can identify the first signs of the need for help; and health care providers. According to Reingold, providers tend to be reluctant to get involved.

Messages include “It’s your call,” “Treatment works,” “Veterans get treatment everyday,” “Take charge,” and “We need you.”

The latest numbers from the National Institute of Mental Health show that suicide has surpassed combat death as a cause of mortality in the military.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Veterans Affairs Roundtable Addresses Employment Issues

ROA was invited to a roundtable on Veterans Affairs issues hosted by Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). ROA Executive Director MG David Bockel represented ROA at the meeting, addressing issues on veteran unemployment.

ROA - Outline of Specific Employment Issues Discussed

Attending groups were divided into seven tables with each addressing a different veteran issue. A Veteran Affairs committee member was also seated at each table. Rep. Marlin Stuzman (R-Ind.), chairman of the VA economic opportunity subcommittee, facilitated the discussion on veteran’s unemployment, with notes being taken on the suggestions being made. ROA pointed out that unemployment remains a problem for members of the Guard and Reserve returning from deployment, that Reserve Component affiliation doesn’t help an individual seeking employment, and that ROA’s Service Members Law Center get about 4800 calls a year on employment and reemployment problems.

Majority Whip McCarthy talked not only about the importance veterans play but also described a back room in his office which survived the burning of the Capitol in 1812 and includes a mural of the military regiment that one of the first House clerks served in. Chairman Miller talked about the work the Veteran Affairs committee is doing and addressed a number of unresolved issues. Besides unemployment, he talked about the need to fix VA claims processing, improvement of electronic medical records, mental health challenges, and ensuring an adequate Veterans budget.

To round-out the meeting, veteran and military group representatives got to hear from Majority Leader Eric Canton (R-Va.) and Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.).

The meeting ended with a promise that this was the first of many meetings between military and veteran groups and the House Veteran Affairs committee leadership.

Initiative Connects Faith-Based Groups, Churches to Military Families

ROA participated in a conference call with First Lady Michelle Obama and Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, on the "Joining Forces" initiative recently launched by the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden.

The purpose of the call was to share how faith-based groups and churches can assist in the initiative. According to Mrs. Obama, the primary focus areas for this initiative are education, employment and wellness.

Also on the call were a few groups that are or have been working with faith-based groups and/or churches that gave examples of what they have already been doing to reach out to military families.

One group, Partners in Care, was started by Chaplain and Colonel William Sean Lee of the Maryland National Guard. It coordinates the efforts of 74 congregations and faith-based organizations and provides multiple services including childcare, counseling, groceries and much more to Guard and Reserve families in the area. Partners in Care has been so successful that similar programs are now being introduced Illinois, Delaware, Missouri, Montana and Oregon.

Another group, the Women Veterans Resource Center in Washington, collaborates with churches to assist with career goals, hot meals, job readiness, bible studies and more.

In addition to informing military, veteran and military family orgnaizations, the conference call provided guidance to groups wishing start their own initiatives.

At the Joining Forces website, www.joiningforces.gov, you can find volunteer opportunities and post projects, connect with social media, find resources, send messages of thanks, and more.

Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Still Waiting for Help

ROA was briefed about the recently published report Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans and Agent Orange Exposure which concluded that “There is no consistent evidence to suggest that Blue Water Navy veterans were at higher or lower risk for cancer or other long-term health outcomes resulting from TCDD exposure associated with Agent Orange than Brown Water Navy veterans or ground troops.”

The Institute of Higher Medicine’s (IOM) Committee on Blue Water Navy Veterans and Agent Orange Exposure, which conducted the study, shared that their conclusion was based on three things: a lack of data regarding quantity of environmental concentrations of TCDD (TCDD is Agent Orange’s dioxin contaminant), minimal TCDD loading to marine waters due to spray drift, and minimal TCDD loading to marine waters from river discharge.

The Committee plans to approach this anew by focusing on quantitative rather than qualitative data, which was used for this report.

Of concern to many stakeholders and advocates involved is the lack of utilization of the Australian studies regarding this issue. IOM spoke to this and included in their report that they did indeed look at the Australian studies and said while “The committee’s assessment corroborates the Australian finding that in experiments simulating the water-distillation system used on Navy ships the system had the potential to enrich TCDD concentrations from the feed water to the distilled potable water,” but that "without information on the TCDD concentrations in the marine feed water, it is impossible to determine whether Blue Water Navy personnel were exposed to Agent Orange–associated TCDD via ingestion, dermal contact, or inhalation of potable water.”

According to the report, the Australian studies were inconsistent with U.S. studies associating TCDD exposure with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and many of the studies didn’t account for smoking or secondhand smoke. The report noted that Australian reports found significantly lower risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, one of the first cancers that IOM established as associated with Agent Orange exposure. IOM also said during the briefing that there are several small, individual studies that are inconsistent because they were methodologically flawed.

While the IOM did agree with aspects of the Australian studies, it could not per its scientific processes and requirements conclude the same full results. So yet again, American Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans, similar to the nuclear veterans, are being forced to wait out a lengthy process.

Gulf War Veterans and those that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan will likely find for a few or several years hence that they have and will run into very analogous circumstances in trying to prove their health problems are strongly related to their combat service.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

HASC Mark-up of NDAA Completed

In the early morning hours of May 12, the House Armed Services Committee completed the mark-up of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Next week this bill is scheduled for a vote by the entire House Chamber.

It was a marathon session that lasted from 10 am on Wednesday to past 3 am the next morning. Despite a number of amendments and some intense debate, the final version of the bill was approved by the whole committee with a 60 to 1 final vote.

The House version of the bill provides $690 billion for the Department of Defense and national security activities. The base budget is $553 billion for the Department of Defense with another $119 billion for overseas contingency operations.

A pay raise of 1.6 % was included in the HASC version of the NDAA.

A manager’s package of approximately 16 amendments was presented en bloc. It offered non-controversial programs and received quick approval. Included were provisions on employment for Wounded Warriors, sexual assault programs, training of returning service members, and money to combat the challenge of service member suicides.

Another en bloc package was offered containing amendments dealing with PTSD studies, the Yellow Ribbon Program, selective service, autism, online school programs and related personnel issues which was included in the final committee mark-up.

The marked up bill did authorize pre-separation individual behavioral counseling, including for those whose orders are not 90 days in length. It also authorizes Guard and Reserve access to mental health assessments during unit training or assemblies. Language was included to amend the Service Members Civil Relief Act to improve custody protections of deployed active and Reserve service members.

The first cuts to the armed forces end strengths were included in the mark-up of the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012. The Army is looking at a drawdown of 7,200 and the Navy a cut of 2,921. The Air Force could expect an increase of 600.

The Reserve Component end strength remains unchanged except for the Navy Reserve with a suggested increase of 700 and the Air Force Reserve with an increase of 200. The Navy and Air Force Reserves’ increases are for traditional reservists, but each faces cuts to full time staff (FTS): -311 for the Navy Reserve and -330 for the Air Force Reserve. Additionally, the USAFR would gain 57 military technicians (miltechs). The Air National Guard is looking at increasing its FTS by 249 and miltechs by 115.

The HASC’s version of the NDAA would allow the Department of Defense (DoD) to increase TRICARE fees for retirees under the age of 62 by $2.50 a month for individuals and $5 a month for families for Fiscal Year (FY) 2012. The legislation would cap DoD’s ability to increase fees in the future by limiting any prospective increases to the same percentage as cost of living increases in military retirement and social security annuity. Indexed fees would change in October but would use any increase from the beginning of the year. The legislation also prevents individuals after Oct. 1, 2012 to continue with U.S. Family Health Plan while under Medicare and TRICARE for Life.

Although the exclusion of the U.S. Family Health Plan was requested by DoD to save defense dollars, this proved to be phantom savings. Instead, those dollars became an offset used to pay for a provision to ease the Survivor Benefit Plan/ Dependency and Indemnity Compensation offset for 57,000 surviving military spouses. In the final mark-up, the Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance would be raised to $163 by fiscal 2013, $200 in 2014, $215 in 2015, $282 in 2016 and $314 for fiscal 2017 using DoD requested dollars.

As written, the bill does not stop the DoD's proposed increases in TRICARE's prescription copayments. The current copayment of $3 for generics, $9 for brand name and $22 for non-formulary medications at retail pharmacies would rise to $5, $12 and $25 respectively. To offset these increases, the Pentagon would eliminate the $3 copay for generic drugs provided through home delivery. Mail order brand names would remain at $9, but non-formulary prescriptions would also go up to $25.

Faced with a lack of a mandatory dollar offset, an amendment on early retirement was not introduced. ROA will work to get it into the Senate NDAA. The Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) correction to the Fiscal Year Reserve retirement deployment credit correction was never included in the NDAA language. Nor was there any mark-up to expand concurrent receipt to Chapter 61 medically retired service members with less than 20 years of service.

Review of the Future Role of the Reserve Component Released

The Comprehensive Review of the Future Role of the Reserve Component prepared by the Office of the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs has been published.

The review follows the 2010 QDR which called for the Reserve and National Guard to be "...vibrant...seamlessly integrated...trained, mobilized, and equipped for predictable routine deployment...well into the future" and provides recommendations for how to incorporate the Guard and Reserve into the National Military Strategy.

Detailed in the 141 page-long Executive Summary & Main Report are the following:
  • Future role and importance of the Reserve Component;
  • Using the Guard and Reserve to best advantage;
  • Roles for which the Guard and Reserve are well suited;
  • Options for rebalancing the Total Force;
  • Necessary revisions to law, policy, and doctrine.
ROA's advocacy and strategic education teams are analyzing the review and future coverage in an Officer feature article and DEF reports and events is highly likely.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Interactive film review: 'The War Inside'

As a volunteer, ROA’s legislative assistant (this writer) had the opportunity to participate in the GI Film Festival last week and attended the world premiere of The War Inside, an interactive film designed for service members to educate on behavioral health and post traumatic stress issues.

The movie provided insight into the psychological challenges of returning home after deployment with combat stress and its effects on others including the family.

Each audience member was provided a “clicker” for interaction.  Audience members were introduced to members of a platoon that have recently returned from deployment and are experiencing stress.  They then chose among characters– a wife trying to cope with her husband who’s changed, a Sergeant distancing himself from his wife, a young Specialist with severe stress on the verge of a meltdown, or a Platoon Sergeant having difficulty determining the appropriate command climate regarding behavioral health.  What followed was a brief segment about a situation that required a decision to be made. Options appeared on the screen and the audience member selected how the individual would respond. After a series of these segments, a result is reached which demonstrates their ability to make wise decisions. The goal is for the audience member to learn how different actions in such situations can change the end result for better or worse.

Though The War Inside was quite good, it could have included a better variety of characters. It did not address Guard and Reserve members who upon returning home lack the support of a post and have to transition back into civilian careers.  But the film, as one person stated during the event, is one more arrow to add to the quiver.