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As reported on stripes.com The Department of Veterans Affairs is overpaying hundreds of millions of dollars to schools and veterans under the post-9/11 GI Bill when students drop a class or leave school, letting $416 million go uncollected in fiscal 2014 alone, a newly released report says. The program works like this: When a veteran enrolls, the government sends money for tuition and fees to the school and begins sending housing and living stipends to the veteran. If a student drops or fails to complete a class, VA is supposed to scale back the benefits accordingly. The student becomes responsible for any overpayments. These debts often come as a surprise to students because the VA, which administers the massive education program for servicemembers and veterans who served after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has not been clear about the rules, the Government Accountability Office found. "Because VA is not effectively communicating its program policies to veterans, some veterans may be incurring debts that they could have otherwise avoided," auditors wrote. One in four students getting GI Bill benefits — about 225,000 veterans — incurred a debt to the government that averaged about $570, the GAO said. And more than 7,000 veterans each owed more than $5,000 to the government after they withdrew from school or continued to get housing benefits when they should not have. In most cases, veterans are responsible for repaying the debts resulting from government overpayments, with schools responsible in a small number of cases. VA officials have recovered more than half of the overpayments from fiscal 2014, but $110 million from previous years is uncollected, most of it from veterans. "Unless VA expands its monitoring of overpayment debts and collections, it will not be able to ensure that it is taking appropriate steps to safeguard taxpayer funds," said the report, requested by Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., the top Democrat on the Senate's government oversight panel. The wasted money is one piece of what the government calls accidental "improper payments," 90 percent of which are overpayments by federal agencies that include Social Security checks and Medicare reimbursements to doctors. In a related report early this month, the GAO found that the improper payments expanded in fiscal 2014 after declining for several years, reaching $124.8 billion or just more than 3 cents of every dollar spent by the government. The money has totaled $1 trillion since fiscal 2003. Three-quarters of the improper payments come from three programs — Medicare, Medicaid and the earned-income tax credit — all of which are meant to help the elderly and the poor. Close to 10 percent of Medicare's $603 billion in outlays were improperly paid, and the error rate for the $65 billion earned-income credit was 27 percent. Also in 2014, the VA provided $10.8 billion in GI Bill education benefits to almost 800,000 veterans and others. Auditors found that the debts are magnified by a paper-based system for notifying students that they owe money and by porous oversight of the program. Beneficiaries' addresses in the agency's files often are out of date, so some students do not even receive notifications that they owe money and miss deadlines for disputing the debts. VA does not require veterans to verify their enrollment each month, causing a "significant time lapse" between when veterans drop courses and when the government learns about the enrollment change and can reassess payments. VA has taken steps to address processing errors through technology improvements, quality assurance reviews and training, the report noted. But it recommended that VA find better ways to communicate its policies to individual veterans, notify them more promptly when an overpayment occurs and improve its system for verifying enrollment. VA officials said they will pursue those changes, including expanding their monitoring of overpayments and collections, providing more information to veterans up front and developing a system for verifying veterans' monthly enrollment. The agency noted in a response to auditors that school officials have spotty attendance at training that VA offers in administering the GI Bill; VA said it cannot force schools to participate in the training.
Programs Designed to Help Transitioning Servicemembers and Veterans Develop New Skills and Credentials WASHINGTON –  The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today launched two new no-cost training programs, Accelerated Learning Programs (ALPs) and VA Learning Hubs, to help transitioning Servicemembers and Veterans from all eras learn skills, earn credentials, and advance in civilian careers following separation from service.  ALPs and Learning Hubs are part of VA’s Veterans Economic Communities Initiative (VECI), promoting education and employment opportunities for Veterans through integrated networks of support in 50 cities. VA launched the VECI program in response to President Obama’s August 2014 challenge to help Veterans and families integrate with their communities and find meaningful jobs that can lead to economic success. Under VA Secretary Robert McDonald’sMyVA transformation, VECI is now in place in cities across the United States. “My message to transitioning Servicemembers is simple: Plan early and stay engaged, because transition is the mission,” said McDonald. “These two new resources provide no-cost opportunities for our transitioning Servicemembers and Veterans to learn new skills and earn credentials, which can increase their competitiveness during their transition.” ALPs offer transitioning Servicemembers and Veterans the opportunity to build on their world-class training and technical skills gained through their military service, and earn certifications in high-demand fields. VA is piloting ALPs this summer with seven courses focusing on building skills and certifications needed to advance in high-demand careers in information technology (IT), as part of the President’s TechHire initiative. Each ALP course is offered at no cost and includes free referral and support services..  The first ALP cohort includes seven courses covering a range of IT-related topics, including: ·                Coding/Programming Boot Camps; ·                80+ IT Certifications in Hardware, Software, Networking, Web Services, and more; ·                Network Support Engineer Job Training and Certification; ·                Cybersecurity Training and Certification; ·                IT Help Desk Job Training; and ·                IT Boot Camps for Desktop Support and Windows Expertise. Transitioning Servicemembers and Veterans from any era are invited to apply to their choice of courses. Applications will be accepted starting August 17, 2015 – seats in the pilot cohort are limited; applicants are encouraged to apply early. ALPs do not involve use of the Post-9/11 GI Bill..  Students are able to participate in these programs while also pursuing other programs of study using Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. Visit the ALP website to learn more about each program and apply. VA is also launching Learning Hubs in 27 cities across the country this year in partnership with the American Red Cross, The Mission Continues and Coursera, an online education platform. Transitioning Servicemembers and Veterans can take advantage of both online and in-person study. Each week, online course modules will be completed outside the classroom while class sessions, led by Learning Hub facilitators, provide opportunities to discuss course materials with peers, hear from subject matter experts, and network. Upon completion of the program, Servicemembers and Veterans may elect to receive one free verified certificate issued by Coursera.   For more information about the VECI or to learn more about VA ALPs and Learning Hubs, contact VeteranEmployment.vbaco@va.gov.
First, an ancient tape surfaced, then a letter that had been locked away for 40 years. Finally the full picture of Marine Sgt. Kenneth Altazan's bravery on a harrowing day in Vietnam began to emerge. But it would be six years before the retired farmer got the call from a major at the Pentagon. “He said, ‘I assume you’ve gotten our letter by now,’” Altazan recalled in a phone interview with Stars and Stripes. “I said, ‘No sir, I haven’t got your letter.’ And he said, ‘Let me be the first one to congratulate you — your Silver Star has been upgraded to the Navy Cross.’” Altazan, of Baton Rouge, La., was being recognized for pulling injured Marines off a battlefield in Quang Nam province under intense fire and bringing them to the CH-46 helicopter where he served as crew chief. The Navy Cross is the highest honor bestowed on Marines and seamen by the Navy, second only to the Medal of Honor. He received the award Tuesday. On May 9, 1969, Altazan was serving with the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364 “Purple Foxes” when they were dispatched to what they knew would be a hazardous mission: 10 wounded Marines spread over several rice paddies were under heavy fire and needed to be evacuated. “With complete disregard for his own safety, Sergeant Altazan boldly leaped from his helicopter, ran to the side of the wounded man, lifted him to his shoulders, and fearlessly moved back across the fire-swept terrain toward his CH-46, all the while assisting another evacuee across the perilous open area,” according to Altazan’s original citation. But the narrative in the original citation, remarkable as it was, understated Altazan’s actions. Altazan had actually left the helicopter multiple times despite the danger. At one point the wounded man he was carrying was shot, sending Altazan sprawling and severely injuring his knee. He not only got up and took the man to the chopper but continued to pick up the injured despite being in excruciating pain.  “I learned in boot camp to react — you don’t think, you react,” he said. The full story came out after a chance meeting at a reunion of his Vietnam comrades brought one of Altazan’s friends in contact with the surveillance plane pilot who was monitoring the battle from 1,500 feet above. After being accused in an earlier friendly fire incident, the pilot had started recording the audio of all of his missions. He still had the tape of the battle and provided it to Altazan. Then, the Navy corpsman aboard Altazan’s helicopter remembered a letter he had written his wife right after the battle detailing the entire mission, complete with maps. She had saved all of his war correspondence, and the corpsman got in touch with another old squad mate of Altazan’s. Once the Pentagon had all of the new evidence, it took six years before they approved the upgrade. Altazan was in the Marine Corps for four years before returning to Louisiana. He said he struggled with his experiences after returning from Vietnam, bouncing from job to job before finding his calling as a crawfish farmer. Now 69, Altazan has since retired. At a ceremony Tuesday in Baton Rouge, he was awarded the Navy Cross in front of his wife, children, grandchildren and more than 100 well-wishers, including some of his old squad mates. “It was truly a humbling experience,” he said. druzin.heath@stripes.com Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes
Many Vietnam veterans are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange and are eligible for benefits for illnesses believed to stem from the herbicide. But other Vietnam veterans aren't eligible. Below is a great article about how this happens. The men and women who served in the Vietnam War are used to being treated differently than other veterans, but even within their ranks, some are treated better than others. While many Vietnam veterans automatically are granted benefits for cancer, diabetes and other sicknesses because they are presumed to stem from exposure to Agent Orange, others don't get that consideration. Keith Trexler of Whitehall Township is one of them. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer about five years ago. If he had been among the ground troops or those patrolling inland waterways, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs would have considered his cancer to be "service-connected" due to the likelihood he came in contact with Agent Orange, an herbicide sprayed to kill vegetation the enemy used for cover.  Because Trexler served in the Navy on the waters offshore, the VA doesn't presume he was exposed. He's what the VA considers to be a "blue water" veteran. To qualify for benefits for his cancer and other ailments, he must prove to the VA he came in contact with Agent Orange, something that's not easy to do. Read Full Story here
OSHKOSH, Wis. (Stars & Stripes & Tribune News Service) — Tansi's journey to Mike Henningsen's side is an unusual one that includes a stint behind bars. Tansi doesn't know she lives in a prison, all she knows is the kind embrace and loving care of men who committed crimes and are now training her to become a disabled Vietnam veteran's companion. The black Labrador retriever is being trained to pick up items dropped by her soon-to-be owner Mike Henningsen and help him remove socks from his prosthetic leg. She's one of several dogs Oshkosh Correctional Institution inmates are training to work as guide dogs for blind people and as service dogs for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress and other ailments. "We have a high interest in inmates giving back to the community," said Warden Judy Smith. "The benefits for the institution and inmates have probably had more of an effect than we expected. We have inmates who haven't seen a dog in 20 years." Read full story here
By Valerie Sweeten, Jobs Correspondent Military veterans are some of the best trained personnel, with skills able to translate to nearly any workplace. Companies in all industries are recruiting veterans, while military organizations and resources are hosting job fairs, assisting with resumes and translating skill sets. Some of the most popular jobs for vets include engineer, information technology professional, police officer, project manager, math/science teacher, entrepreneur, mechanic, sales representative and civilian public service. The Occupational Safety Councils of America (OSCA) is a safety council that is providing training dislocated workers, especially veterans, and transitioning service members through grants and community partnerships in an effort to help them transition into employment in the construction and petrochemical industries. Qualities that make veterans appealing are wide and varied, especially when it comes to safety and continued production at plants. "Veterans address two issues for employers," said Lydia E. Chavez-Garcia, business development, OSCA. "The first is the decline in standard basic soft skills in the human resource pool. For example, coming to work regularly, showing up on time and ability to follow directions. The second issue is positions in this industry require working in adverse environments such as extreme heights and weather conditions, confined spaces and dealing with hazardous conditions. Veterans have experienced these types of conditions and are cognizant of how to adapt during these types of environments." Connecting with veterans is important to OSCA, with its job recruiters being veterans themselves. By having this in place, OSCA can better understand how to transfer those military skills to industry and how to review and translate a DD 214 (or Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty), for other positions held that may be relevant to what they're trying to fill. "Nearly all of our staff members are veterans and all of our staff are immersed in the local/national military and veteran community. We collaborate and attend veteran resource events, job fairs, and our local military installations," Chavez-Garcia said. Margaret Moellenberndt, human resources supervisor with Fluor, said it is actively recruiting both in the craft and staff sectors. The range of skill sets presented by the military is what makes them attractive as employees. "The work Fluor does both in our offices and on our projects requires our employees to give 100 percent. They have to be able to turn out strong, quality work," Moellenberndt said. Opportunities are available in many of the global home offices and project sites around the world. These can range from carpenters to electricians, welders, craft supervision, contracts/project managers, engineers, health, safety and environmental professionals and quality specialists. "Construction is one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation," Moellenberndt said. "Military personnel bring an exceptional skill set to the employer. They are dedicated, pay close attention to detail and are accustomed to doing great work under tight deadlines. Our projects can also be in remote locations, something with which a veteran may have experience." It also has developed a skills crosswalk on the website that matches military skills with open positions. Its outreach extends to military-specific job fairs including the Hiring Our Heroes events and work with transition offices regarding various opportunities. Federal help In addition, the Internal Revenue Service is lending a hand with offering the newly expanded tax credit for companies hiring veterans. The VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 is able to provide an expanded Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) for businesses hiring unemployed eligible veterans. This is the first time the tax credit is also available to certain tax-exempt organizations. The Returning Heroes Tax Credit offers incentives up to $5,600 for hiring unemployed veterans. The Wounded Warriors Tax Credit is able to double the existing WOTC up to $9,600 for long-term unemployed veterans with service-connected disabilities.   For job fairs, vets can go to www.military.com/veteran-jobs/career-advice/job-hunting/upcoming-job-fairs.html.  
As reported on http://www.militarytimes.com/ After almost two years of waiting, staffers at the Veterans Affairs Department's watchdog office may finally be getting a new boss. On Friday, President Obama nominated attorney Michael Missal to take over as VA’s inspector general. Missal previously worked as a senior counsel at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and has worked on a number of federal and congressional investigations. In a statement to USA Today, a White House official said Missal was tapped for the post in part because of his “proven record of expertly leading prominent, sensitive, and extensive investigations.” Attention on the work of the VA IG office has intensified over the last year, since the department was overwhelmed in spring 2014 by accusations of records manipulation and widespread mismanagement at its regional offices. Several prominent lawmakers questioned whether IG investigators had done enough to make public signs of problems in department operations, and whether staffers were too close to the VA employees they were charged with investigating. Officials in the inspector general’s office have consistently denied those charges, but often had to do so without a top leader guiding those efforts. The former permanent inspector general, George Opfer, retired in December 2013. In June, the longtime acting inspector general, Richard Griffin, retired as well. Since then, lawmakers and outside critics repeatedly have petitioned the White House to name a replacement, noting the numerous questions still surrounding VA’s operations and policies. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., one of a group of senators who wrote to Obama on the issue twice this summer, issued a statement calling the nomination “long overdue” and noting that “we need a permanent IG for the VA to provide stable leadership and oversight of the agency.” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, echoed those concerns. “Whistleblowers deserve a fair shake from the OIG, and I hope this nominee will usher in a new era of openness, transparency and accountability for veterans,” Johnson said in a statement. Neither senator specifically endorsed Missal for the post, but promised to give his credentials a thorough review in weeks to come. No timetable has been set for a confirmation vote.
From Veteran News Now Northrop Grumman is a leading global security company providing innovative systems, products and solutions in unmanned systems, cyber, C4ISR, and logistics and modernization to government and commercial customers worldwide. They hold themselves to a higher standard, both in the products they deliver and in the way they conduct themselves throughout the entire customer experience. Because, after all, they are in the business of securing a great deal more than just their place in the market. The mission is to be at the forefront of technology and innovation, delivering superior capability in tandem with maximized cost efficiency. The security solutions they provide help secure freedoms for the nation as well as those of our allies. Squarely meeting obligations, fiscally and technologically, isn’t just a business goal, but a moral imperative. To that end, as Northrop evolves as a company, the responsibility they feel for their country and the citizens and troops they help support grows with them. ​ Northrop employs thousands of veterans worldwide and is committed to hiring and assisting military-experienced candidates and employees. Veterans bring a unique set of skills to their company, and have a first-hand appreciation for their business, products, and services. They value the training and leadership development that candidates gain from their military service and experience. Click Here To View And Apply To All Of Northrop Grumman’s Available Job Opportunities!
By National Commander Michael D. Helm The government rationale for the latest round of defense cuts is sequestration. I prefer to call it abdication. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, politicians often accused one another of having a “pre-9/11 mentality.” Yet now, with the Executive Branch controlled by the Democrats and the Legislative Branch controlled by the Republicans, we are cutting our military to pre-World War II levels. As the national commander of The American Legion, I have been visiting U.S. military bases around the globe. Just last month a three-star general asked me ‘what’s it going to take for people to wake-up, Paris burning?’ And this was before ISIS inspired terrorist attacks in three continents on a single day. In addition to ISIS and al Qaeda, nations such as Russia, North Korea, Iran and China have all engaged in provocative and threatening acts. In fact, the Washington Times reported that China recently test-fired a new submarine-launched missile with the capability of inflicting nuclear strikes against all 50 states. Lest you think that China is simply an economic threat, consider that its state run newspaper published in 2013 that a nuclear JL-2 missile strike on the western United States would kill 5 million to 12 million people. The American Legion is committed to keeping America safe. A strong national defense is one of the pillars upon which our organization was founded. Yet, the 2016 defense budget is projected to be 31 percent less than it was in 2010. The Army plans to cut an additional 40,000 troops. These cuts are irresponsible and they are dangerous. Unless Congress spares the military from another sequestration round, annual training will again be slashed. While we cannot definitively blame sequestration for the deaths of servicemembers, I cannot help but recall a military investigation that revealed that a 2013 training accident at a Nevada mortar range was caused by human error and inadequate training. It cost 7 U.S. Marines their lives and wounded several others. Then there are the personnel costs associated with these budget cuts. While a strong argument can be made that a military draft would lighten the burden from the less than one percent of the brave Americans who are already defending our freedom, a strong all-volunteer force would be more cost-effective. Yet military members are noticing the chipping away of their pay and benefits that has been occurring at an alarming rate over the years. In 2009, a Military Times survey indicated that 91 percent of military members rated their quality of life as “good” or “excellent.” In 2014, only 56 percent felt that way. Moreover, 70 percent now predict that the quality of life for servicemembers will decline. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has said that the military must make the services attractive to young people. He has plenty of work to do. In order to make military service a viable option to this tech-savvy generation, he can begin by shelving a recommendation of The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission which would eventually eliminate the current pension system for those who make a career of the military. While it has become fashionable to compare private sector 401-k plans to what our military retirees receive, let’s dispel the myth that the pension system is somehow overly generous. Unlike private sector careerists, those who spend 20 years or more in the military have been required to change duty stations every two or three years, frequently separate from their families, risk life and limb in combat zones, rigorously train in brutal conditions, uproot their children from schools and friends, interrupt careers of their working spouses, and subject themselves to a military justice system that can imprison them for disrespecting their boss. If you compensate military service in the same manner as the private sector, don’t be surprised when the best and brightest choose the private sector. Just as importantly, we should not allow our national and elected leaders to pit personnel costs and benefits against weapons modernization and training. We can and must do both. We owe it to every man and woman in uniform that we will never send them in harm’s way without the resources to win. Our nation deserves it and our Constitution requires it. - See more at: http://www.legion.org/pressrelease/229078/our-government%E2%80%99s-number-one-responsibility#sthash.iOSfchHJ.dpuf
Some 250 veterans from throughout the region attended Stand Down 2015 last Friday in Lowell, calling attention to the issue of homelessness among veterans and providing supplies and services to the veterans . The event was hosted by the City of Lowell, the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center in Haverhill and the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital (the Bedford VA). Stand Downs are collaborative events held nationally, coordinated between the VA and community-based homeless service providers, said Robert Cook, public affairs officer for the Bedford VA. The Stand Down began with a ceremony on the steps of Lowell Memorial Auditorium, featuring the University of Massachusetts ROTC color guard and the Lowell High School Singers performing the National Anthem. Lowell Mayor Rodney Elliot commended the Bedford VA, city officials and the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center for hosting the Stand Down in Lowell, and encouraged the nation to make veterans its highest priority. “We should want to serve our veterans after they have done so much for us,” Elliot said. Bedford VA Hospital Director Christine Croteau reminded those in attendance that homeless and at-risk veterans do not fit any stereotype and are often the people we would least suspect of being affected by those issues. “Stand Down represents one of many ways Bedford VA wants to serve our veterans better than they have ever been served before,” said Croteau. John Ratka, executive director of the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center of Haverhill, and his staff greeted veterans at registration, provided breakfast and lunch and organized and distributed donations of clothing and supplies. They also supplied supportive services for veterans and families through case management on site. Veterans also received shelter referrals, health screenings and VA and Social Security benefits counseling. Bedford VA buses later transported interested veterans to the Bedford VA campus to participate in specialized workshops and to camp overnight, followed by breakfast to start Day 2 of the Stand Down.