WASHINGTON (AP) -- Some five decades after he led a platoon credited with rescuing dozens of soldiers pinned down by enemy fire, a Vietnam War veteran will be awarded the nation's highest military honor for valor, the White House announced on Tuesday. In May 1967, Army Maj. Charles Kettles led several helicopter trips to help evacuate wounded soldiers near the district of Duc Pho. He returned to the landing zone without additional aerial support to rescue stranded soldiers pinned down by enemy fire. The White House says Kettles helped save the lives of 40 soldiers. Kettles retired from the Army in 1978 as a lieutenant colonel. He resides in Ypsilanti, Michigan, with his wife, Ann. The Army said next month's White House ceremony is the culmination of an effort that began in 2012. William Vollano of the Veterans History Project launched a formal campaign to upgrade Kettles' Distinguished Service Cross to the Medal of Honor. As part of that review, several men from his company and the 101st Airborne Division sent letters validating Kettles' actions. Lawmakers also got involved. Longtime Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan sent a letter to the Pentagon asking for reconsideration so that Kettles could be awarded the Medal of Honor. Then, after Defense Secretary Ashton Carter determined that Kettles' actions merited the nation's highest military honor, Rep. Debbie Dingell and Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, all of Michigan, introduced legislation waiving a time limitation for the award and paving the way for President Barack Obama to make the final decision. The Army also announced that Kettles will be inducted into the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes on July 19, one day after the White House ceremony. The Army said that despite a heavily damaged helicopter, Kettles was relentless in his efforts to ensure that every soldier was extracted. On one particular flight out of the landing zone, a machine gun sprayed the helicopter Kettles was flying, but "Maj. Kettles coaxed the helicopter and managed to fly us back to base camp," said Roland J. Scheck, an Army specialist who was serving as a door-gunner on Kettles' crew. "Kettles personifies the Army's 'Warrior Ethos' - never leave any soldier behind," said Secretary of the Army Eric K. Fanning. BY KEVIN FREKING
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Veterans whose injuries have left them unable to conceive children may soon be getting long-sought help as congressional negotiations on legislation funding the Department of Veterans Affairs near a close. At issue is a Senate-passed measure that would lift a 1992 law that prohibits the VA from paying for infertility treatments, such as in-vitro fertilization. The measure, by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., enjoys bipartisan support but there appears to be lingering resistance from anti-abortion forces who are opposed because IVF treatments result in the destruction of fertilized embryos. Though the Pentagon covers infertility treatments such as in-vitro fertilization for active duty personnel at seven hospitals, IVF treatments are banned for those in the VA health care system under a law enacted in 1992. But thousands of veterans have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with injuries to their sexual organs, spinal cords or brains that have rendered them unable to conceive a child, prompting veterans groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans to press to lift the law. Murray has drafted legislation to permanently lift the ban but has been stymied in the Veterans Affairs Committee after Republicans indicated they would offer controversial abortion-related amendments. Instead, the provision under consideration would lift the ban for two years and provide $88 million to fund the treatments over that span. Murray won a bipartisan 23-7 vote on her measure at a Senate Appropriations panel session in April that included support from powerful Republicans such as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran of Mississippi. The Senate later passed the VA funding bill, which also includes $1.1 billion to battle the Zika virus, by a sweeping 89-8 vote. "This issue shouldn't be about politics. It shouldn't be about partisanship," Murray said at the time. "And we shouldn't cut corners when it comes to our veterans and their families. This is a chance to support our veterans." Despite widespread backing in the Senate, House negotiators have yet to agree to Murray's measure, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said at a Wednesday meeting of House and Senate negotiators on the measure. While in-vitro fertilization can cost $20,000 or more, other treatments such as sophisticated artificial limbs, can cost even more. "This is a widely used medical procedure that vets should have access to," Mikulski said. "The VA provides treatments for other injuries sustained in war - infertility treatments should be no different." It's unclear how the issue will be resolved next week, when negotiators promise to produce an agreement. There may be some reluctance by lawmakers on Capitol Hill's Veterans Affairs committees to cede their turf. And Murray has tried for years to pass the measure only to come up empty in the face of anti-abortion forces and lawmakers concerned about cost. On the other hand, wounded veterans elicit sympathy and support in Congress, especially during election years. And the profile of the issue has been raised this year, in part because the VA funding measure is advancing as a stand-alone bill - along with the Zika funding - instead of being buried inside an omnibus spending measure. BY ANDREW TAYLOR
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Department of Veterans Affairs will no longer use its authority to fire senior executives in an expedited manner - dropping a key portion of a law Congress passed two years ago in response to a nationwide scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking medical care. Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the agency was forced to abandon the new authority after the Justice Department said it would no longer defend the provision in court. "Under these circumstances, I believe it would be irresponsible to continue using that authority when other methods for disciplining senior executives exist," Gibson said late Friday. Using the expedited authority against Justice Department advice "would only hinder VA's ability to hold senior officials accountable...and make those actions stick," Gibson said. The Justice Department told Congress last month that it was not contesting a legal argument by a fired VA official at the center of the scandal. Sharon Helman, the former director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, argues in court papers that the 2014 law is unconstitutional and denies her right to appeal her firing. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a May 31 letter that the Justice Department essentially agrees with Helman's argument, citing a law that requires appeals of high-level firings to go to the Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial agency that reviews personnel actions by the executive branch. The 2014 law sends an employee's appeal directly to an administrative judge, whose ruling is final. Congress adopted the law amid frustration by lawmakers of both parties, who said the VA and other federal agencies were too slow to fire employees for wrongdoing. Lawmakers were incensed by reports that veterans on secret waiting lists in Phoenix and other cities faced scheduling delays of up to a year. As many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA hospital, according to an investigation by the VA's inspector general. The inspector general found that workers at the Phoenix hospital falsified waiting lists while their supervisors looked the other way or even directed it, resulting in chronic delays for veterans seeking care. Similar problems were soon discovered nationwide. Republicans called the agency's decision to abandon the expedited firings outrageous. "It is unconscionable that the VA is choosing to blatantly ignore all of the accountability reforms set in place by the Veterans Choice Act" adopted by Congress in 2014 and signed by President Barack Obama, said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "Two years ago, veterans were forced to wait far too long for care because of incompetent executives. Since then, we've seen scandal after scandal emerge at the department," Isakson said. "I am not going to stand by and watch the VA continue to look the other way while another one of its own gets away with egregious misconduct." Isakson urged Congress to pass a bipartisan bill giving VA even greater authority to fire executives quickly - a provision Isakson said would stand up to a constitutional challenge. "Everyone knows VA isn't very good at disciplining employees, but this decision calls into question whether department leaders are even interested in doing so," said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House veterans panel. BY MATTHEW DALY
NIANTIC, Conn. (AP) -- After losing sight in his right eye from a 2013 rocket attack in Afghanistan, retired U.S. Army Maj. Dan Thomas recovered with help from an equine therapy program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Hoping to help other veterans, he and his wife traveled from their home in Alabama to Connecticut last week to purchase two massive, jet black carriage horses, animals that were put up for auction by the state after they were seized from a breeder in February as part of an animal abuse investigation and rehabilitated through a state program involving female prison inmates who help with the care. Thomas said the two Friesian mares, among 32 emaciated and depressed horses taken from the farm, are the perfect animals to help veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. "They know what it's like to go through hell and come out the other side," said Thomas, who plans to create a program similar to the one he experienced at the couple's 160-acre ranch in Black, Alabama. The Friesians, 1,400-pound Francisca and 1,000-pound Rosalind, will join seven other horses the couple previously rescued. Considered a "war horse" in the Middle Ages, Friesians are a highly sought-after breed, recognized for being gentle and intelligent. Thomas knows firsthand that such a demeanor in a horse can be a calming influence for returning combat veterans. "I've been through lots and lots of things. After being blown up, it's quite a traumatic experience for you. The horses are what works for me. So I know it's out there and works for other people because I've seen it," Thomas said, explaining how there's peace in being around such a powerful creature that could hurt you but doesn't. The 32 horses seized by Connecticut officials in February from the Fairy Tail Equine breeding center in East Hampton have attracted great attention from across the country because of the type of horses involved. The Department of Agriculture received inquiries from as far away as Alaska about the sealed, monthlong auction. Besides Friesians, Andalusian and Gypsy Vanner horses were also seized. Adam and Tracy Erickson, owners of Skywalker Stables in Jamestown, New York, were visibly thrilled to take home Voruke, another Friesian. The couple has rescued horses from the slaughterhouse, buying the animals from meat buyers at the eleventh-hour. They rehabilitate the horses and find them good homes. Tracy Erickson said she's never come across a Friesian and plans to keep Voruke. "It's just a wonderful, gentle breed of horse," she said. Money raised from the state's auction will help offset the cost of caring for the horses, which has exceeded $100,000, not including staff time. Raymond Connors, supervisor of the department's animal control division, said winning bidders were screened to make sure the animals will go to a suitable place. As the buyers coaxed their new horses into trailers, Connors remarked how the animals look "1,000 percent better" than the day when they were seized. The owners of the breeding center were arrested on animal cruelty charges. Their case is still pending in court. Dan Thomas saw photos of Francisca and Rosalind after they were seized. "I'm just really impressed with what the state of Connecticut has done here because these horses are beautiful now," he said. "It looks like the state of Connecticut has saved some lives." BY SUSAN HAIGH
Newswise — Philadelphia – David Rubin, MD, director of PolicyLab, a research center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), was recently appointed to the United States Department of Defense (DoD) Military Family Readiness Council (MFRC). Established in 2008 as a Federal Advisory Council, the MFRC makes recommendations to the Secretary of Defense about policies and programs around military family readiness. The MFRC also monitors requirements on DoD’s support of military family readiness and evaluates and assesses the effectiveness of military family readiness programs. Military family readiness is the concept that military families must be well-supported so that the servicemen and servicewomen can focus on their mission. In keeping with its continuing commitment to ensuring that military families have the health care services and supports they need for their children, including children with special needs, the MFRC reached out to the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) to provide perspective from the pediatric health care arena and to nominate a representative to serve on the Council. “Adding a representative from a children’s hospital underscores the DoD’s recognition that the family’s health care is an essential component of ensuring military family readiness and well-being,” CHA Vice President of Public Policy Jim Kaufman said. “Children’s hospitals have a longtime commitment to ensuring that children of military families have access to the care they need at the right time, in the right place and from the right provider.” While all children have unique health care needs as compared to adults, children of military families face special circumstances as a result of their parents' service. “The known effects of deployments and frequent relocations on children must be taken into consideration when developing the medical and social support systems necessary to serve these families in a timely and efficient manner,” Dr. Rubin said. Dr. Rubin’s team at PolicyLab has been conducting research for the DoD’s Defense Health Program (DHP) since 2011. Their work specifically examines the stress families experience when soldiers return home from deployment. The team’s recent findings in the American Journal of Public Health illustrate the need to support families throughout the deployment cycle, especially during high-risk time periods such as the 6 months following deployment. CHOP is also a champion of the TRICARE for Kids Coalition, which advocates for DoD policy and practice to address the needs of children. “With his demonstrated commitment to the comprehensive needs of children from military families, and with CHOP being one of the largest providers of care and treatment to military children from all around the globe, Dr. Rubin’s appointment to the Council was fitting,” Kaufman said. As Director of PolicyLab, Dr. Rubin works to develop evidence-based solutions for the most challenging health-related issues affecting children. In addition to his role at PolicyLab, Dr. Rubin is a professor of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. In 2013, Dr. Rubin was appointed to the federal Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse & Neglect Fatalities. Dr. Rubin is also a past member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Task Force on Foster Care and the Committee for Early Education, Adoption & Dependent Care. “As a pediatrician at CHOP, I care for children from all different kinds of families, including those in the military,” said Dr. Rubin. “And as a researcher, I know that these children face unique challenges and are greatly affected by the deployment of their parent. I look forward to serving military families as a member of the Military Family Readiness Council.”
WASHINGTON – Sometimes play is the best medicine. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is announcing a partnership with the national non-profit organization KaBOOM! to make play more accessible to children visiting VA Medical Centers and VA Fisher Houses. KaBOOM! is one of a number of partnerships formed under the MyVAinitiative, the largest transformation in VA’s history, which focuses squarely on the needs of Veterans through customer service and strong community partnerships. Under the agreement, KaBOOM! will provide their signature Imagination Playground™ and Rigamajigs to VA locations across the nation. These portable, scalable play systems create safe, fun-filled environments for children to play in. KaBOOM! will work with VA to select sites across the country that have the greatest need for play spaces. VA medical centers and VA Fisher Houses, which are built by Fisher House Foundation to provide temporary accommodations for families of Veterans receiving treatment at a VA medical center or military hospital, have been identified as ideal locations for these play environments. “When Veterans are dealing with a serious illness or injury, it can be incredibly stressful for their families, especially those with young children,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald. “Our partnership with KaBOOM! will enable us to use the simple art of play to help keep the children and families of Veterans happy and healthy. These types of partnerships are a great way for the VA to provide support for families – an important component of taking care of Veterans.” CarMax is the KaBOOM! corporate sponsor for this playground project. As a part of its ongoing multi-million dollar commitment to KaBOOM!, CarMax will build four playgrounds and provide 30 grants for Imagination Playgrounds™ and Rigamajigs to select VA medical centers, Fisher Houses and other organizations that serve Veterans and military families. It is expected that through this project, VA, KaBOOM! and CarMax will help reach 85,000 children over the next three years. The first donations were made to facilities located in Gainesville, Florida, and Salt Lake City, Utah. “We are grateful to our Armed Forces who inspire us with their dedication to protecting our country,” said James Siegal, CEO of KaBOOM! “Through our partnership VA, together we are honoring and showing commitment to Veterans and military families by encouraging play, particularly for kids who need it most. Creating play spaces in Fisher Houses and VA facilities will help ensure kids can experience balanced and active play so they can thrive and enjoy the childhood they deserve.”
No veteran should ever be without a safe and stable place to sleep at night. VA’s National Call Center for Homeless Veterans has trained counselors available around the clock to help veterans and their families access local resources or assistance. If you, or someone you know, is homeless or at-risk of homelessness, call VA’s toll-free hotline at 1-877-4AID VET (1-877-424-3838). You can also connect with VA online through its confidential Homeless Veterans Chat service for more information on VA programs that can assist you. Explore VA’s website to learn more about VA’s targeted health care, housing, and employment programs for homeless veterans. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans also has a list of local organizations that serve homeless and at-risk veterans.
Ed Hall was at the Alpha Ridge Landfill in Marriottsville, Md., last summer when he witnessed two people about to throw away 18 U.S. flags of various sizes. He yelled for them to stop, identified himself as a retired U.S. Marine colonel and current American Legion post commander, and rescued the flags from being improperly disposed. “They were apologetic and had no idea what the etiquette was for retiring a flag properly,” said Hall, commander of Post 156 in Ellicott City, Md. “This is the symbol of America, and it should not be thrown into the trash.” Saving American flags from the trash and educating community members about flag etiquette sparked an idea for Hall – to place an American flag disposal container at the Alpha Ridge Landfill. Hall worked with the Howard County Commission for Veterans and Military Families to put his idea into action and on Veterans Day 2015, Alpha Ridge Landfill became the first in Maryland to install a flag retirement station. An unused mail box was painted red with American Legion Post 156 flag retirement signage and placed at the landfill’s entrance. Since the flag retirement station’s dedication last November, 522 U.S. flags have been collected and properly retired by Post 156. “There is an awareness that is sweeping Howard County and expanding beyond that there is a final chapter in the lifespan of an American flag and that it should not be disposed of,” Hall said. “The flag disposal service certainly has increased public awareness of The American Legion and our commitment to proper U.S. flag etiquette.” Members of Post 156 visit the landfill weekly and collect up to 30 flags during each visit. The success of the flag retirement station at Alpha Ridge Landfill has led to the installation of a second one, and for the landfill to remind visitors about the flag service on its digital billboard. “Our program has proven to be very successful, and we are extremely proud of it,” said Bob Lowell, judge advocate for Post 156. “We are providing a very well-appreciated service to the residents of Howard County, and ensuring proper U.S. flag retirement etiquette.” Two Vermont posts also installed a U.S. flag disposal container at a local landfill and recycling center – Post 18 in Springfield and Post 84 in White River Junction. Post 18 Adjutant C. William Mattoon was approached by staff from Springfield's recycling center about collecting unserviceable American flags for proper retirement. Mattoon took the initiative and purchased a large trash bin with a lid, taped flag retirement signage to it with Post 18’s information, attached a small U.S. flag to the bin’s handle, and placed the trash bin in a visible area at the recycling center. Mattoon visits the recycling center weekly to collect the flags, which has totaled to several hundred over the past year. The flag retirement service “has given the post some visibility to the community, and I have had several comments thanking me for a place to dispose of the flags,” Mattoon said. “Utilizing the recycling center was the easiest and most logical place to place the container.” Vermont 5th District Commander Larry Green said Post 84 collected 50 American flags within the first two months of the post placing a flag disposal box at its local landfill. The flag retirement service “is giving Post 84 good public relations with the community, and it’s giving publicity to The American Legion as a whole,” Green said. “Everything about the flag drop-off box is good.”
The VA's home loan program has provided over 21 million home loans totaling more than $400 billion since the program's inception as a short-term home loan program in the 1944 GI Bill of Rights. Here are some of the reasons many military homebuyers choose this robust loan option. No down payments necessary Frequently, the biggest factor that delays or prevents an aspiring homebuyer from getting a home loan is the down payment. No-money-down conventional loans have all but disappeared, and a down payment - about $40,000 for an average loan - makes purchasing a home out of reach for most families. Not so with a VA loan. As long as the sales price doesn't surpass the appraised value and the loan amount doesn't exceed certain predetermined limits, no down payment is necessary. This is an incredible advantage, especially for first-time homebuyers who don't have profits from the sale of one home to put down on another. Additionally, VA home loans don't require private mortgage insurance that conventional lenders mandate if your down payment is less than 20 percent. This potentially can save a military homebuyer thousands of dollars a year. They also have less stringent credit-history and income requirements, which often are stumbling blocks for many loan applicants. Money-back guarantee It's important to understand the VA isn't actually loaning you the money, rather VA-approved lenders do, and the VA will step in and help cover the losses a lender might incur. How does this help a military homebuyer? If a lender knows they're essentially insured for part of the loan they're making, they're inclined to offer a more favorable interest rate. All other things being equal, VA home loans typically reduce the borrower's interest rate 0.5 to 1 percent. Foreclosure avoidance Falling on hard financial times might make it difficult to make a monthly mortgage payment. The VA takes a proactive approach with their mortgage assistance program by receiving monthly updates on every loan they make. At the first sign of trouble, the VA will reach out to the borrower and advocate on his or her behalf to avoid foreclosure. Chris Birk, director of education at Veterans United Home Loans, who literally wrote the book on VA loans, says the assistance program has “emerged as a model for the industry.” Birk explains, thanks to the program, more than 90,000 foreclosures were avoided last year, representing a saving of $2.8 billion to taxpayers. The fork in the road The loan process of VA loans and traditional loans vary. To qualify for a VA loan, potential borrowers must obtain a certificate of eligibility (COE) that confirms they meet the minimum service requirements (which can be found at www.benefits.va.gov/homeloans). There are limited exceptions to these requirements, and spouses of veterans, as well as individuals who have served in organizations like NASA, can apply for eligibility under certain conditions. The VA doesn't dictate how much you can borrow from a private lender, but it does cap the amount it guarantees, known as an entitlement, which will be calculated as part of your COE. To account for real estate market variations, this amount varies based on the county of the property, as well as your service type. Exceeding your loan limit might mean you have to put some money down to secure the loan or the private lender might reject the application. VA loan recipients, with few exceptions, must pay a funding fee (not to be confused with closing costs) that helps defray the costs of the program. This fee can vary from 0.5 percent for refinancing to 3.3 percent for borrowers who are using the entitlement benefit for a second time. The fee may be rolled into the loan and declines if you make a down payment. Some restrictions apply The VA appraisal process is more comprehensive than just a determination of fair market value and might take longer to complete. The reviewer assures the house meets certain minimum property requirements defined by the VA. (For example, if a home is in a flood zone, it likely won't be approved.) This review does not take the place of home inspection. VA loans cannot be made for vacation or rental home purchases, nor can you flip a house. Most land purchases are disallowed, too. Condos, manufactured homes, and construction loans are permitted, but there are some hurdles to overcome. Worth repeating Refinancing via VA loans has proved preferable to the millions wanting to jump on the refinancing bandwagon, but it must be done on a home originally purchased with a VA loan. If you need cash to pay bills or make home improvements, a cash-out refinance loan is obtainable on an existing VA or non-VA loan. Birk calls the VA loan “the most powerful option on the market for [veterans] and their families.” Despite its appeal, only a fraction of eligible homebuyers take advantage of it, primarily because of a lack of awareness and understanding of the program. Seek out a realtor and lender who are not deterred by the particulars of a VA loan. Because of stringent down-payment, credit-history, and income requirements, most VA borrowers would not qualify for a traditional home loan, so military homebuyers shouldn't overlook this valuable benefit.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Thousands of Filipino-American World War II veterans living in the U.S. will be reunited with family members who live outside the U.S under a new immigration program. The Filipino World War II Veterans Parole program takes effect this week under an executive order signed by President Barack Obama. Rudolpho "Rudy" Panaglima (pah-nah-GLEE'-mah) is one the veterans who will benefit from the new policy. He was just 13 when joined a Filipino guerrilla unit that worked in secret with the U.S. Army during World War II. Panaglima says the program will allow two of his grown sons to move to suburban Washington to care for him and his 83-year-old wife. He says the reunification of his family "is what I am dreaming because of our age now." BY MATTHEW DALY