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Two Army veterans, filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday against the Massachusetts treasury. The veterans got help from the Harvard Law School and the suit claimed that the veterans had been unrightfully denied their “welcome home” bonuses to them and other veterans with other-than-honourable discharges. The Massachusetts legislature formed the “Welcome Home Bonus” back in 2005 for the post-9/11 service members. Under the program, service members who had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan — and had previously lived in Massachusetts for a minimum of six months before enlisting — were eligible to apply for a one-time $1,000 bonus, that is tax free. The program has been run by the state treasury ever since it was initiated and is for the veterans with honourable discharges. The two veterans who are named in the lawsuit, claimed to have enlisted multiple times, and are arguing that the honourable discharge they received before their later, other-than-honourable discharge should make them eligible. According to Dana Montalto, who is a senior fellow at Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic working on the case, the two veterans had been deployed and were also honourably discharged and later re-enlisted. From the plain reading of the statute, they ought to be eligible Chandra Allard, who is the spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, responded on Thursday saying that the office is not in a position to comment on pending legal matters. Army veteran and Massachusetts native Jeffrey Machado (one of the plaintiff), was deployed to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2012-13, later received an honourable discharge and immediately re-enlisted. The complaint filed in Massachusetts Superior Court states his military service ended in an other-than-honourable discharge in 2014 that was “given out after the wounds of war and the stress of service became too great.” The Veterans Legal Clinic estimates there are 4,000 veterans in Massachusetts who met the criteria for the bonus but, like Machado, ended their service with an other-than-honourable discharge. Though the case centres on several thousand veterans in Massachusetts, Montalto contended it was characteristic of a broader trend of veterans with “bad paper” being denied benefits. Discharges that are other-than-honourable, including a “general” discharge, are known as “bad paper” and can prevent veterans from receiving federal assistance, such as health care, disability payments, education and housing. Machado and the other veteran named in the lawsuit, Herik Espinosa, appealed the treasurer’s denial of their bonuses in March to the Massachusetts Veterans’ Bonus Appeal Board. In both instances, the appeals board affirmed the treasury’s decisions. The treasury will now have time to respond to the veterans’ complaint, and the case could lead to oral arguments before a Superior Court judge.  
President Donald Trump last Friday signed a new bill into law, the new law will in turn make it easier and faster for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire the employees. This is part of a push intended to make an overhaul within the agency that has been struggling to serve millions of military vets. During the White House ceremony, the President thanked the veterans for their services. Trump had promised during his election campaign to dismiss VA workers, who are not delivering, and he cast Friday's bill signing as fulfilment of that promise. This new measure was influenced by the 2014 scandal: Phoenix VA medical centre. It was reported that some veterans had died as they waited months for care. The Department of Veterans Affairs happens to be the second-largest department in the U.S. government, currently the department has than 350,000 employees. The main functions of the VA department include providing health care and other services to military veterans. Many federal employee unions in the country have opposed this new measure. The VA Secretary David Shulkin, who is an Obama administration holdover, was standing alongside President Trump as the president made fun that he might have to start using his famous reality TV catchphrase of  "You're fired" just in case the reforms will not be implemented. The new legislation, has received plenty of support from many veterans' groups. The bill was cleared in the House just last week by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 368-55. It replaced an earlier version, which the Democrats had vehemently criticized and described to overly unfair to the employees. The Senate passed the bill by voice vote a week earlier. Paul Rieckhoff, who is the founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, praised the move made by the president. The bill indeed was a rare initiative by Trump that got Democratic support.  The new law will lower the burden of proof to fire employees, allowing for dismissal even if most evidence is in a worker's favour. The American Federation of Government Employees (the largest federal employee union in the US), has opposed the new bill. However, the Senate-passed measure which was seen as more balance with workers' rights unlike the version that was passed by the House in March. The bill has turned another of President Trump's campaign promises into law by forming a permanent VA accountability office. The office was established by President Trump by executive order in April.  
One of the major problems and issues that affect many veterans around the country is suicide. Over the years the rate of suicides among veterans has risen and higher rates than the general population, according to researchers. According to a new study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, there are several factors that put veterans at higher risks of committing suicide and there are ways in which the veterans can reduce their chances of committing suicide. The study looked at a large group of veterans and also the active service members. They then used the data collected to determine timing that puts veterans at higher risks of suicide and the other contributing factors hence be able to help them combat the problem. The authors involved in the study reported that the deployment context is very important in identifying the suicide attempt (SA) risk among Army-enlisted soldiers and also among the veterans. They further noted that, "A life/career history perspective can assist in identifying high-risk segments of a population based on factors such as timing, environmental context and individual characteristics." Researchers from several prestigious institutions like the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, Harvard Medical School, and the University of California-San Diego took part in the study. The researchers examined data collected from 163,178 enlisted soldiers. Out of that number of serving soldiers 9,650 had at one point attempted suicide during the study period which was between 2004 and 2009. From the study, the authors discovered some shocking information and results, which included the surprising fact that the enlisted soldiers, who had never been deployed on any mission, accounted for 61.1 percent of the enlisted soldiers who attempted suicide. Among the serving soldiers who have never been in any deployment, the risk of suicide attempt was highest when they reached their second month of service. While those had been in any form of deployment were at the highest risk just six months into deployment. While those who had been deployed and had returned back home were at the highest risk, five months after getting back home was their highest risk time. The study also showed that the suicide attempts were more common among the female soldiers and veterans. Especially the female soldiers and ex-soldiers, who had received a mental health diagnosis in the past month. The other group was the group that had been found to be suffering from any form of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The case worsens for this last group if the affected soldier had also been deployed in the past. Dr. David Rudd, who is a clinical psychologist and focuses on veteran issues. Rudd is also the current President of the University of Memphis, while speaking to ABC News said that the findings from the study showed how the soldiers often show signs of distress early into their service. It showed that it’s important for the senior officials who are in the military to look for these early signs of difficulty shown by many soldiers in their early days in the service. Rudd commented on the fact that suicides rates are at high levels among soldiers who have not been deployed means that the army officials should focus on improving screening measures before service. As this will be able to help them to identify the people who are unable to cope with the stressors of the military occupation.  
The Department of Veterans Affairs has decided to back off the proposal that is in President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget, which intends to cut billions of dollars from the veterans’ programs that is concerned with provision of compensation to the country’s most disabled veterans. The VA Secretary, David Shulkin while speaking to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last Wednesday this week noted that he was ready to team up with the lawmakers in an effort to find an alternative option to the currently proposed $3.2 billion cut, targeted to the VA Individual Unemployability benefit. This announcement from Shulkin came after the country’s six largest veterans service organizations condemned the proposal that was in the president’s budget. The American Legion which happens to be one of the big organisations for veterans and other groups have reported of receiving thousands of calls from frustrated veterans who are very concerned with the outcome of their lives ever since the proposal in the president’s budget was released in May. May have expressed alarm for the suggested cuts to their benefits as this will in turn change their livelihoods. The money cut from the benefit is intended to provide finances to an updated version of the VA Choice program. The program allows the veterans to access health care services from private doctors. The Choice program is anticipated to be passed through Congress by the end of fiscal year 2017 on Sept. 30.  Though it has also faced many challenges with many saying it’s a scheme to promote privatisation of the VA health care services provision. The VA seeks an estimate of $2.9 billion for the Choice Program. The only challenge the agency faces is where to get that amount of money well the only option right now is from the Individual Unemployability benefit. After the meeting with the Senate, Shulkin said that he will be holding more private meetings with the law makers to consider other ways to fund the new improved Choice program. The President’s budget also proposes that the practice at the VA be reapplied hence be able to round down the veterans’ cost-of-living adjustments. This is estimated to make a savings of approximately $20 million in the coming year of 2018. The savings will also be channelled towards the new Choice program. Shulkin also mentioned that the round-down proposal is still be considered as a source of funds for the Choice Program. The AMVETS National Director Joe Chenelly also reported of receiving close to 4,000 calls in the past few weeks from concerned veterans. According to the president’s budget proposal, some of the veterans will have to be removed from the current VA’s Individual Unemployability benefit. As per now the veterans who are eligible for the program have a 60 to 100 percent disability rating. This means they are unable to secure employment because of their disability. This means they receive the highest compensation rate. The budget also proposed that some more veterans be removed from the program who are eligible for Social Security payments and have reached the minimum age to receive Social Security. This means that approximately 225,000 veterans aged 60 or older could be affected by the proposal, and out of those veterans, 7,000 are 80 years old or much older.  
The Department of Veterans Affairs has unveiled what is considered to be a new program, which is bale to check the health records of a veteran patient and hence be able to identify the veterans who are likely to attempt suicide. The program was launched by the VA, in the whole country in June 2017, and is considered one of the best analytics program. The program uses a programmed computer algorithm to access veterans’ electronic health records and be able to identify and analyse important  factors, such as chronic illness, socioeconomic stressors, hospitalizations, relationship issues, life changes and certain medical and mental health conditions. These are the factors that are used as indicators of people who are at a higher risk of trying to commit suicide. According to Aaron Eagan who is the program manager, the goal of the is to be able to know early enough if a veteran is likely to commit suicide and hence try to prevent a potential crisis A statement released by Eagan, stated that the step is unique and new in an effort to enhance suicide prevention. The idea is to engage people who are well trusted, build enough trust, hence be able to meet their needs this in turn will reduce any probability of a crisis taking place. The program was piloted back in October last year in several VA medical centres that are located in Erie and Butler, Pa., . Then it was later decided that it should be expanded to the whole country and made available to al VA hospitals. Eagan referred to the program as an alert system. So far, an approximate number of 6,400 patients have been identified as the most high-risk patients across the country. They have all been included into the program. The program has been titled the Recovery Engagement and Coordination for Health – Veterans Enhanced Treatment, or REACH VET. Coordinators have been placed in over 150 VA hospitals across the country. When the REACH VET program identifies a combination of factors that are likely to put a veteran at risk, that’s when the coordinators will take the information collected to a trained health care provider. The health care will in turn contact the veteran and “engage in a conversation,” After that the provider will consider whether it’s necessary to make a referral for specialty care. The VA has spent close to six years working on the program and making sure that it will be a success. Veterans have been known to be at higher risks of suicide compared to the rest of the population.  This is according to statistics that has been collected by the VA, over the years. In the report released by VA, it was noted that the veterans made up about 8.5 percent of the total U.S. population in 2014, and the same veterans accounted for 18 percent of suicides. While in 2014 an average of 20 veterans committed suicide daily, and out of the 20 , six were found to be enrolled in VA health care.
The US police have been investigating the death of a female veteran. The army veteran who had filmed herself as she shoot the service dog, is suspected to have committed suicide. The 23 year old Marinna Rollins is charged with cruelty to animals together with her long term boyfriend Jarren Heng. The two apparently filmed themselves as they patted the Huey (a 2 year old pit bull). They then allegedly tied the dog to tree in the woods before shooting him multiple times. According to the District Attorney of Cumberland County, the couple could be heard laughing in the background after shooting the dog. They then poked the body of the dead dog with the barrel of the gun that Rollins had used to mercilessly kill the pit bull. The video also shows Rollins shooting the dog. According to the video, Heng also shot the dog (dead body) 5 times in quick succession after the dog had died.  The video of the pair had been uploaded on Facebook and the couple were promptly charged and were supposed to appear before a court on the 16th of May. Just 9 days before their hearing, Rollins died in what the local authorities believe to be suicide. Rollins had been reported to be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder following her service in the army.  Huey had belonged to the husband of Rollins, Matt Dyer. The estranged husband was currently in deployment when the whole incident took place. Dyer had thought that Huey would help Rollins deal with her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the dog’s company would be beneficial. Speaking to CBS, Dyer said, “I felt like her having to take care of Huey would be good for her and would be good for Huey,” Dyer was totally shocked by the turn of events. And is really sad about what happened. After Rollins received the service dog, she decided to rename it from Huey to Camboui. Rollins had also posted a message via her Facebook, indicating that the dog was going to be rehomed later on. In her message and post, Rollins had posted that, “Great last day with the pooch! Sad he has to go, but he will be much happier where he is heading off to,” Rollins wrote. Nobody would have guessed, of the final destination of the poor Huey. Animal rights activists in the country took to Facebook, and demanded “justice for Cam”. Heng’s court appearance is expected to go ahead.
MEDFORD, N.J., June 14, 2017 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ --  Veterans with service-related health issues received instant relief when Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) held a Benefits Claims Day at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) regional office in New York City.   "My claim was open since 2014," said Cecilia Burgos, U.S. Navy wounded warrior and local Medford, New Jersey, resident. "Three weeks from me working my claim with Wounded Warrior Project, I was sitting in front of the VA representative who would be deciding my case. Four hours later, I had their decision." Cecilia's approval came with more than $42,000 in retroactive benefits service pay the following day. With long-term financial health support playing a critical, empowering role in the recovery process, WWP created the Benefits Service program, helping injured veterans navigate the complexities of the Department of Defense and VA. WWP reaches out to local communities through a variety of events, filing thousands of claims each year. Benefits Claims Day is one of the events gaining traction across the nation as an innovative collaboration between WWP and VA. As a VA-accredited organization, WWP works individually with warriors to understand their unique needs, provide information on the claims process, advise them of benefit options, file benefit claims, and obtain necessary evidence. The staff stays connected with these injured veterans through the entire claims life cycle. "It feels good to know someone was looking at my claim and that I wasn't just a number," Cecilia said. "I was finally able to pay off my bills – like my student loans – and put some away in investments. But I also took my kids to Disney ®." WWP programs and services assist injured veterans with mental health, physical health and wellness, career and benefits counseling, and connecting with other warriors and their communities. Generous donors make it possible for wounded warriors to benefit from program resources at no cost to them. To learn and see more about how WWP programs and services help to connect, serve, and empower wounded warriors, visit http://newsroom.woundedwarriorproject.org/, and click on multimedia.
By Wounded Warrior Project, Special for USDR   Veterans know the combination of dining out and reduced physical activity can be bad for the waistline as they transition back to civilian life. But that doesn’t mean eliminating date night. Knowledge and willpower are effective tools for enjoying a delightful, yet healthy, meal. Eating out should be special, not an excuse to over-indulge. Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) empowers veterans to use some basic guidelines to turn a night on the town into a healthier fine-dining experience.   As an added benefit, eating healthy improves mental health. Reduced-calorie diets that include vegetables can help with depression. When we are dining out, we are going to have more calories, bigger portion sizes, more sodium, more saturated and trans fats, and a higher sugar content – all bad things. But there are different strategies we can use to cut down on those extra calories, fat, sugar, and sodium. We will explore three ways to make healthier choices during a night out on the town: scouting the menu in advance, creating a healthy and comfortable environment, and being salad-smart. We started with scouting the menu in advance, so let’s move to creating a healthy and comfortable environment. Put cellphones away, and establish a more relaxing mood that reduces impulsive eating. Once the food arrives, eat deliberately. Savor the flavor. Slow down by drinking water and setting down your fork between bites. That gives your stomach a chance to tell you when it’s full. Starches like pasta, rice, potatoes, and bread should be limited to a small, fist-size amount. Avoid salsa and chips, popcorn, and sugary drinks. Restaurants often use grilled vegetables as garnish, so ask for your full portion. Also, have the server put half of your meal in a to-go container before serving the meal so it’s out of sight, out of mind. Registering with WWP is a good way for veterans to stay on a healthy path, with access to Physical Health and Wellness events that include adaptive sports, nutrition coaching, and recreational activities. To learn other healthy tips for dining out, visit http://newsroom.woundedwarriorproject.org/Wounded-Warrior-Project-Empowers-Veterans-to-Live-Heathier.
Retired Master Sergeant Jim Carver, 53, of Powhatan, Va., describes the initial process of separating from the military as “hectic.” A disabled veteran who served over 21 years on active duty, Carver “had the basics taken care of” with his initial VA claim. However, when he heard about the VFW’s National Veterans Service program, he reached out to his VFW Department Service Officer, Ms. Bobbiejo Lazo. “Once I was on the phone with her, I knew I was talking to the right person,” Carver related. “She was extremely thorough in explaining the progress of my claim, what every letter from the VA meant and what my next steps should be. She was persistent in all communications with the VA.”  A veteran herself, Lazo joined the VFW “for the chance to serve veterans and use my skills and passion for problem-solving.” Her duties as the VFW Department of Virginia Service Officer consist mainly of assisting with VA claims to include dependents. Lazo said, “I truly believe ‘No one does more for veterans’ than the VFW. I want all veterans and active duty service members to know we’re working hard on the state and national levels to make sure they get the benefits they’ve earned.” “This service had a tangible impact on my life, in that Ms. Lazo was able to significantly increase my disability rating,” Carver stated. “As veterans, we’ve earned these benefits, including claims for disability and education,” he continued. “We earned them every time we were deployed. We earned them when we spent evenings and weekends on a field training exercise or at the range. We earned them every week we worked 70-80 hours. Veterans need to take advantage of this expert assistance when it comes to their VA claim.”  Learn more about the VFW's National Veterans Service (NVS) program, or locate a VFW Service Officer near you.
A successful collaboration between the Department of Veterans Affairs, The American Legion and the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs (MDVA) resulted in more than $300,000 being awarded to veterans with VA claims appeals waiting to be adjudicated by the Board of Veterans Appeals. That collaboration has turned into a larger pilot program, and those involved at the earliest stages of the project are hoping it goes nationwide. Since 2016, the MDVA claims division – comprised of several American Legion members – has been part of VA’s Pre-Hearing Conference program. The program got its start in St. Paul, Minn., and has since been expanded to 10 other VA Regional Offices: Cleveland; Montgomery, Ala.; Houston; Waco, Texas; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Denver; St. Petersburg, Fla.; San Diego; Oakland, Calif.; and Detroit. The Pre-Hearing Conference program allows senior claims representatives with clients who have pending VA claims appeals to present those claims they feel should be easily adjudicated at the regional office to a BVA judge via teleconference. The judge can rule in favor of the veteran at that time or suggest the case go before the board; under no circumstance will a pre-hearing conference be a detriment to the veteran. Zach Hearn, the Legion’s deputy director of benefits in the Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, said that VA – primarily BVA senior leadership – had been working with the Legion and other veterans service organizations “behind the scenes” on modernizing the department’s appeals process before a bigger push for modernization began in 2016. Hearn said he was asked if the test program was something the Legion could do. “Minnesota’s got a superior department in the claims office, so I reached out to Ron Quade,” he said. “Ron was pretty much like, ‘Let’s do this.’ Ron’s always looking for new ways to tweak the system. He’s kind of like 3M: ‘I don’t necessarily invite it, but I make what it is better.’” Quade, who doubles as the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs director of the Claims and Outreach Division, and as director of its Veterans Programs, jumped at the opportunity. “We said ‘heck yes, we’re interested,’” said Quade, a member of American Legion Post 45 in New Prague, Minn. “It was an absolutely enormous opportunity to help some veterans get something they may have been waiting years to receive.” Quade communicated with BVA Judge John J. Crowley, the man behind the idea. “It took us about two weeks to connect,” Quade said. “But when I say ‘connect,’ we connected. We were speaking the same language. The judge, right out of the gate, made a lot of sense to me. The goal he was trying to attain was very similar … to mine: What a program would look like, what his goal was, and for me, (to) advantage the veteran.” Crowley handled pushing the program through VA officials in Washington, D.C., and also assisted with implementation in Minnesota. Quade said Crowley spoke about the program to an annual group of Minnesota county service officers this year. “He did a meet and greet … the first day and then stayed throughout the entire second day to do a presentation … and to be able to discuss cases. I bet he met with 25 or 30 (county service officers) while he was here. And he gave them all his cell phone number.” The six pre-hearing conferences in 2016 and 2017 resulted in veterans with appeals winning more than $318,000 in compensation just from the MDVA office. “The amount of money they were able to secure … for these veterans was really impressive,” Hearn said. “It goes to show the benefit of VA working with the veteran community to try to improve its product line.” But there is a hitch. Quade said when the program was established, it was determined that no cases appealed after April 2014 were eligible for a pre-hearing conference. But initially referred to as the two-year date, that date hasn’t been moved forward as the program has aged. “It’s not a two-year date,” Quade said. “It’s a date that’s set in stone that continues to grow.” Hearn said the Legion will ask VA to push that date forward. “I don’t think that anybody predicted the success would have been as great as it was in this pilot program,” he said. “It’s something that we’re going to have to sit down and talk about. You want to create a program to be longstanding. You can’t use a static date. Eventually you are going to run out of those cases. “What do you do? Do you say that the program dies, or do you recognize the importance of the success of the program … and make a date flexible so VA’s better equipped to serve veterans? That is something that I will, over the next several months, be speaking with (BVA) on and say, ‘What is preventing us from moving this forward, and what sort of actions do we need to take to ensure that it happens?’” Quade believes advancing the date will make a big impact on VA’s appeals backlog. “Let’s say tomorrow we can wipe out 10 percent of the entire backlog. It’s just gone,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be good for the remaining 90 percent and how fast the VA would be able to get to their claim? That’s our idea of how beneficial it can be if you can run through those cases. “We are trying to do the best job for our claimants, and I really think we brought that through with this program.” ---- By Steve B. Brooks