Monday, March 30, 2009

VA Hiring Vets for Outreach, Army's 'Warrior Resilience and Thriving' Program, TRICARE West Offers Benefit Help, Female Veteran Testifies Re: PTSD

Recently in the news:

  • The Associated Press | VA hires vets to go find comrades who need help - "Graner is one of 100 former service members hired nationally by the Department of Veterans Affairs as outreach specialists to help get Iraq and Afghanistan veterans into programs aimed at easing their transition back to civilian life. They frequent job fairs, welcome-home events and other places where troops back from the wars might congregate and look for those struggling to adjust. The goal is to persuade them to visit one of 230-plus vet centers nationwide...[for] free services from job hunting assistance to marriage and mental health counseling. Experts applaud the effort to actively search for veterans who may need help, even if some advocates say the program should be much bigger."

  • USA Today | Military puts focus on epidemic of suicides - "In Maj. Thomas Jarrett's stress management class ... American troops are urged ... to strive for 'post-traumatic growth.' During a 90-minute presentation entitled "Warrior Resilience and Thriving," Jarrett, a former corporate coach, offers this and other unconventional tips on how troops can stay mentally healthy once they return home. He quotes Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Paradise Lost author John Milton and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche... Walking through the crowd of young GIs in the makeshift classroom, Jarrett urges them to fight their "internal insurgents."

  • News-Leader | Videos explain health care benefits to military families - "Military families throughout TRICARE’s west region now have a new way to learn about their health care benefits through the movies. ... “TRICARE 2 You” video topics, which run an average of three minutes in a prime-time news format, include explanations of TRICARE plan options, how to access specialty care, behavioral health resources, pharmacy options and newborn enrollment, among others. “We wanted to do whatever it takes to help our beneficiaries maximize use of their TRICARE benefit and avoid out-of-pocket costs,” said David J. McIntyre, president and CEO of TriWest Healthcare Alliance. “This is especially useful for service members, particularly those in the National Guard and Reserve who live or work in rural areas without convenient access to military base resources,” he said. Produced by TriWest, in partnership with TRICARE Regional Office-West, the videos are housed in the company’s new TRICARE 2 You Online Library."

  • IAVA | Iraq Veteran Testifies On Capitol Hill - "Veteran Carolyn Schapper testified at a hearing before the House Veterans Subcommittee on Disability & Memorial Affairs about the disparities in PTSD diagnosis for male and female soldiers in combat. During her deployment to Iraq from October 2005 to September 2006, Carolyn participated in over 200 combat patrols as a member of a Military Intelligence unit with the Georgia National Guard."
More PTSD Combat Diigo links.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Female Faces of War - Part 2: Military's Leading Ladies Have Come a Long Way, Baby

"It's either her or me in this engine room!"

One of my favorite films of all time (a close second to Some Like it Hot) is Operation Petticoat released in 1959 by MGM, featuring Cary Grant and Tony Curtis and a gaggle of Army nurses who have had to hitch a ride on their WWII submarine, the USS Sea Tiger.

This weekend, a phenomenal group of gals (along with hundreds of boy scouts on their own excursion) gathered on the Battleship Massachusetts as the Female Faces of War Conference and Overnight Adventure set sail. One can only wonder what the men who served on that ship would have to say about all of this; but, we sure did have a great time.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Stop-Loss to be Stopped, Military Families to Get Pentagon Dover Travel Assist, Obama Nixes Private Insurance Provision of 2010 VA Budget

  • CNN | Pentagon to phase out unpopular 'stop-loss' program - "The military will phase out its "stop-loss" program, the contentious practice of holding troops beyond the end of their enlistments, for all but extraordinary situations, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Wednesday. Instead, the military will use incentives programs to encourage personnel to extend their service. Starting this month, the department will provide 'special compensation of $500 per month' to troops whose tour has been extended, Gates said. 'This special compensation will be applied retroactively to October 1, 2008, the date when Congress first made it available.'"

  • NTM Lede Blog | Pentagon Will Help Families Travel to Dover - "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today that the Pentagon would pay for families to travel to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware if they want to be present when the body or remains of a loved one is returned from war. Mr. Gates announced last month that the Pentagon was reversing its longstanding policy of barring media coverage during the repatriation of fallen soldiers at Dover. He said then, and reiterated today at a news conference, which the Pentagon's Web site streamed live, that the decision about media coverage would be up to each family."

  • Washington Post | Obama's Turnabout On Vets Highlights Budgeting Nuances - "The relatively small proposal -- third-party billing would have saved about $540 million, less than 1 percent of the overall VA budget -- was not even part of Obama's official [2010 VA] budget but quickly threatened to undermine Obama's credibility with veterans. Ultimately, however, Obama listened to the veterans ... 'When you do public policy behind closed doors, you throw a lot of things on a wall, and some things stick and some things don't stick,' said Bob Wallace, executive director of Veterans of Foreign Wars. 'I think the administration and the president handled this with class, bringing the veterans in to talk with them, listening to their positions and two days later the chief of staff saying, 'It's over.''"
Gates announcement on stop-losses and Dover travel assistance:

More PTSD Combat Diigo links.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Female Faces of War - Part 1: Jessica Lynch and Lori Piestewa

This past week has marked the sixth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. As I prepare for my presentation at next weekend's Female Faces of War conference, I'm going through some of my previous writing related to the women warriors of this era. I'm also in the midst of writing my Honors Capstone paper, Combat Veterans, Mass Media and the Advancement of Social Consciousness, that I've been researching since January.

Something I'm still shaping, but wish to share with you...

Women have been smack-dab in the middle of three significant historical markers and media stories to have come out of the Iraq War era so far (as nearly 20 percent of deployed forces in the Middle East, they are a part of many more, of course). Three female service members in particular have also -- each in their own way -- played a role in coming forward to set the record straight on an important issue, provide important evidence and testimony, and share something they felt was hidden or not understood correctly by society.

Three notable female figures of the Iraq War's first year:

  • Jessica Lynch, an Army private held hostage and made into a hero after her support convoy came under attack during the initial invasion of Iraq in March 2003, set the record permanently straight about what really happened.

  • Sabrina Harman, former Army Reserve specialist with the 372nd Military Police Company who would later be convicted of participating in Abu Ghraib's horrors, photographed both prisoners and the guards meting out the abuse during the fall of 2003 "trying to expose" what was happening -- even while taking part herself.

  • Tami Silicio, a Kuwait-based military contractor whose photos of fallen U.S. service members' flag-draped coffins created an uproar after the Seattle Times published them in April 2004, acted to show military families the dignified way in which the bodies of their loved ones were were being transported home.
As you can see, I'm not going the easy route, listing merely "heroes" -- although Lynch certainly qualifies as one in my book. The reason Harmon is included yet others are not? There is no doubt that her digital images and emails home describing what was happening at Abu Ghraib prison shaped the course of Iraq War history.

Though their contributions widely differ, it is clear that each made a significant mark. I'll be expanding on their influence as I piece together my remarks for the FFW conference; when I have those ready, I'll be sure to share them with you here as well.

Although a departure from the PTSD-focus on this blog, in extended a few excerpts from a piece I wrote in 2007 about Jessica Lynch and the saga she was swept up in. This post also pays tribute to Lori Piestewa, Lynch's best friend and the first female service member to die in Iraq.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Congressman Sestak on Veterans, TBI and Brain Awareness Week

Earlier today, Congressman Joe Sestak (PA-07) took to the floor of the House of Representatives to talk briefly about 2009's Brain Awareness Week, which began Monday and continues through March 22.

Gulf War Vet Dies on Road to Honor the Fallen, Are Doctors Over-Diagnosing PTSD?, Colbert Nation to Invade the Middle East, VFA News, MTV's Real World

  • USA Today | Veteran on cross-country trek dies - "A disabled Gulf War veteran who left Norman earlier this month on a hand-propelled bicycle headed for Washington D.C. to honor fallen soldiers has died. Kevin Baker suffered a seizure Friday morning in his sleep at the home of some friends in Lake Charles, La., said Norman resident Diane Zellner. He died in an ambulance en route to a local hospital, Zellner said she was told. Baker, a 39-year-old Navy veteran, had a history of seizures, stemming from a traumatic brain injury, she said. He also had been diagnosed with lymphoma."

  • Scientific American | Soldiers' Stress: What Doctors Get Wrong about PTSD - A provoking article (of thought, certainly, and anger in some as well) says that PTSD "is under fire because its defining criteria are too broad, leading to rampant overdiagnosis;" that the "flawed PTSD concept may mistake soldiers' natural process of adjustment to civilian life for dysfunction;" and that "misdiagnosed soldiers receive the wrong treatments and risk becoming mired in a Veterans Administration system that encourages chronic disability." Mind Hanks has more commentary (its comments are reflective of the opinion tug of war).

  • On a lighter note, comedian and Comedy Central talk show host Stephen Colbert plans to take The Colbert Report to the Middle East. "I’m not supposed to tell anyone where I’m going, but just say it’s sandy and they’d like us to leave," Colbert told Stars and Stripes on Tuesday.

  • Veterans For America | News Analysis: March 18, 2009 - Always recommended, John Steinman collects another day's worth of valuable info- and link-laden tidbits.

  • MTV's “The Real World” highlights cast member and Iraq vet Ryan's recent visit to the New York office of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). The episode, premiering tonight and rerun throughout the week, has Ryan marching in the Veterans' Day Parade and attending IAVA's Second Annual Heroes Gala.
More PTSD Combat Diigo links.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Senate Hearing on Military Suicides Slated for Wednesday, March 18, as Army Continues to Attack Problem

Over the course of the past years, with a notable uptick in tempo over the past few months, we've been witnessing a distressing rise in military suicides. We outside observers haven't been alone in taking note. The military has as well.

The Army, for instance, has been undergoing a month long "stand down" meant to put renewed focus on suicide prevention. They now enter the "chain teaching" phase, which will run through July 15. (In 2007, a 90-day PTSD/TBI education chain teaching program was initiated.) In addition, last week Army Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli held a blogger's roundtable [audio-mp3], "assuring those on the line that the Army understands the severity of the problem, and is doing everything it can to prevent even a single suicide from happening."

"The culture of the Army is that of a team," said Chiarelli. "And anytime one of our own feels so lost that he or she sees no other option than to take their own life, then we've failed as an organization." And so, the real work begins.

The Army is also introducing a new fitness program, set to launch in May, that will combine physical and mental strength and resiliency training. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said it is "designed to move mental fitness up to the level we give to physical fitness" and will "give more soldiers coping skills so they can deal with the difficult challenges of combat and come back stronger."

It's good to see the Army (and other military branches) responding as they are. While a small element, kudos to their using blogger's roundtables to engage more intimately and directly with us. [I was invited to take part in one last summer, but was unavailable; I mention it, though, because it does show that they are trying to reach out to more of us in ways that they never had before.]

Many, many Americans care about this issue, and wish to ensure that our military families have the resources they need when they serve, and when they return home, too.

Op-Ed on Military's PTSD Dilemma, Ranch Reintegration for OEF/OIF Vets, Carrots and Sticks for Obama's 2010 VA Budget Proposal

  • The Boston Globe | The military's post-traumatic stress dilemma - Iraq vet Tyler Boudreau begins: "WITH ARMY and Marine Corps suicide rates climbing dramatically, surpassing even those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan last month, the nation is increasingly disturbed and demanding treatment for veterans. But these suicide reports highlight an important distinction: A significant portion of those returning from war are not yet veterans; they are still active or reserve service members, which means, above all, that they probably will be going back to one of our theaters of operations. And that means that any treatment for post-traumatic stress will be positioned in direct conflict with the mission itself. As a former Marine captain and rifle company commander, I witnessed this conflict firsthand."

  • Chicago Tribune | Restoring spirits of men haunted by war - 15 OEF/OIF vets recently took part in a novel reintegration program: "The veterans came from throughout the United States to spend four days at the stylish Wildcatter Ranch, invited by the Wounded Warrior Project and the owners of the ranch to help restore their spirits. Some of the men have physical injuries, but each of them is struggling to deal with combat stress and their return to civilian society. The men went canoeing and rode horses. They got massages and shot skeet. They stayed in luxurious rooms and they visited an elementary school, where the children gave them Graham Steers ball caps. 'I have never seen anything like this before,' said Harvey Stubbs Jr., 32, a Chicago-area native who was medically retired from the Army because of his injuries. 'The outpouring of love ... has been amazing. A lot of people give lip service to supporting the troops, but these people have opened their hearts to us in ways I can't believe.'"

  • CNN | Obama pledges more help for veterans - President Obama, appearing alongside VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, spoke of the $25 billion funding infusion the Department of Veterans Affairs can look forward to receiving over the next five years under his new budget. "'With this budget, we don't just fully fund our Veterans Affairs health care program, we expand it to serve an additional 500,000 veterans by 2013,' [Obama] said. He promised that the VA would "dramatically improve services" related to mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and he said homeless veterans would be targeted for support."

  • Kansas City Star | Veterans assail proposal to have private insurance plans pay for their service ailments - President Obama's 2010 VA budget provision to bill private insurance for service-connected health care is under fire with veterans and their supporters. While no one will see the full budget proposal until April, this idea being floated about is "dead on arrival" according to Sen. Patty Murray [D-WA], who has an influential seat on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
IAVA's Paul Reickhoff on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show:

More PTSD Combat Diigo links.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Congressman Hall's COMBAT PTSD Act Deserves Our Support

Last Monday, Rep. John Hall [D-NY], the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance and memorial affairs, introduced important legislation that would give vets coping with PTSD easier access to their disability benefits and the treatment they need. Press release:

After visiting with veterans at the U.S. Veterans Hospitals at both Montrose and Castle Point, Congressman Hall announced legislation he has written called the COMBAT PTSD Act: Compensation Owed for Mental Health Based on Activities in Theater. The legislation will remove the onus from any veteran diagnosed with PTSD to have to prove that a specific incident during combat caused his or her PTSD. Hall's COMBAT PTSD Act will make it so that any veteran diagnosed with PTSD who served in combat will automatically have the ability to get treatment and benefits for the service injury of PTSD. ...

The VA's current policy forces veterans to "prove" that a specific stressor during a war triggered their PTSD, even if they have already been diagnosed and been receiving treatment for the condition. Veterans must track down incident reports, buddy statements, present medals, and leap other hurdles to validate to the VA that their PTSD was a result from their war service.

"The current policy violates common sense," stated Hall. "A soldier who does not have PTSD before entering a war, who returns home from war with PTSD, should not have to prove that his PTSD is a result of a specific experience during war. Simply serving in combat can induce PTSD. The wars America is fighting right now have no front or rear lines. Danger can strike in any place, anywhere. It is clear that the current regulations are in need of change."

People are beginning to chime in on the issue.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Michelle Obama Visits Fort Bragg, Marines 'Cover' Each Other, Yellow Ribbon Program Implemented

  • US Army | First Lady visits Fort Bragg, vows support for military families - "First Lady Michelle Obama paid a visit to Soldiers and family members at Fort Bragg in what was her first tour outside the White House. During her visit, Obama said she was inspired by the spirit of the Fort Bragg community and said she was fully committed to improving support to all military families."

  • MSNBC | Army program helps ease stress of deployment - "Army Reserve's Chattanooga-based 591st Transportation Detachment prepares to implement the new Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program. All branches of the service have some form of the program, according to Lt. Col. Robin Smith Sr., chief well-being officer for the Army Reserve. The...program was launched "to prepare soldiers and their families for mobilization, sustain the families during mobilization and to help with reintegration with their families, communities and employers upon redeployment," he said. The program began as part of a requirement outlined in the Department of Defense Appropriations Act of 2008 and became even more important as the steep suicide rates were recorded in recent months."

  • Marine Corps News | 'Cover Me' Leaves No Marine Behind - "The Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, hosted by Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, screened the film, “Cover Me,” at the South Mesa Club...March 5, to help raise awareness and educate Marine leadership about combat operational stress. The film’s conception was centered on the Corps’ need to let Marines know it is all right to seek medical help for combat operational stress and in doing so, their careers will not be adversely affected."

  • Richmond Times-Dispatch | For these airmen, it’s about surviving, not flying - "The realistic training exercise, staged in a mock village at the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center at Fort Dix in New Jersey, is part of new combat preparedness received by airmen who perform the ground duties that keep planes flying. The convoy's 25 members passed...They learned to "shoot and scoot." They were among 187 airmen at the center to receive advanced training before deployment overseas. The role of the Air Force in Afghanistan is crucial, especially as Taliban forces try to close a supply route through Pakistan's Khyber Pass and Kyrgyzstan seeks to shut a U.S. air base in that country. Nearly 600 airmen have been killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - and 96 percent of them have been on the ground, according to Air Force officials. Their mounting losses - partly due to expanded duties off base - prompted intensive training, begun three years ago, to help the ground airmen survive combat."
More PTSD Combat Diigo links.

Friday, March 13, 2009

March 27-28: Celebrate Women’s History Month and 'Female Faces of War' on the Battleship Massachusetts

If you're lucky enough to be a New Englander, you may be interested in attending an upcoming and one-of-a-kind event in Fall River, Mass. I'm excited to be among those who will be speaking at 'Female Faces of War,' which highlights the remarkable contributions of women in the military. Moored at Battleship Cove, home of the world's largest collection of historic naval ships, this conference will be a great way to recognize Women's History Month.

Details in extended about the overnight accommodations on the battleship and the different conference packages available. (I have to say, I'm especially looking forward to getting the chance to cross 'Spend night on famous battleship' off of my Bucket List. :o) Registration ends in a few days, so make your arrangements soon if you can join us.

Army Learns Secrecy is Deadly When it Comes to Suicide

I'm still hunkered down doing research for my Honors Capstone paper -- the results of which have been accepted for presentation at a Purdue University conference in April). Thanks for your patience with me these dormant weeks and months...

Now on to Dina Greenberg at the Houston Chronicle:

The Department of the Army has finally gone public and acknowledged the alarming rate of suicide among its ranks. While Army leadership is to be commended for breaking the barrier of silence regarding mental illness in the military, the underlying culture of secrecy that has contributed to the current trend is in dire need of reform. ...

According to figures obtained by the Associated Press, there has been a steady increase in suicides since 2003, totaling 450 active duty soldiers, with the highest numbers occurring in the past year. Military suicides vary considerably between branches of the service, with the Army and Marine Corps frequently reaching the highest annual rates. Longer and more frequent deployments and the primacy of ground combat operations are factors often blamed for the Army’s higher rates of physical injury, mental illness and suicide.

In October 2008, the Army announced a five-year, $50 million collaborative study with the National Institute of Mental Health to address suicide. In a rare public admission of the urgency of the problem, Dr. S. Ward Cassells, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, stated in the New York Times, “We’ve reached a point where we do need some outside help.” Such efforts are encouraging but will yield little immediate assistance to active duty soldiers, returning veterans and their families.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

New VA Report Stirs Up Long-Simmering Veterans Disability Claims Processing Controversy

Just when you think that our beleaguered veterans can relax, that health care improvements are on the way or already there, the latest VA report (yes, another one) confirms we're merely treading water.

While things are all a boil, again, this week, the veterans claims processing backlog (and everything that flows from it) has been a long-simmering problem.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Duckworth Awaits VA Post Approval, PTSD Advice for the DoD, Alaska's March Focus on TBI

  • While Illinois Veterans Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth has been tapped by President Obama to be the public face of the federal VA (as assistant secretary of public and intergovernmental affairs), her Senate confirmation hearing has yet to be scheduled. In the meantime, Michael Blecker, a Vietnam vet and executive director of Swords to Plowshares, offers this advice to them both.

  • More advice: Veterans for Common Sense unveiled its Four PTSD Priorities for 2009 asking the DoD to: 1) "implement the 1997 Force Health Protection law, PL 105-85, Section 761-771, that requires the military to provide pre- and post-deployment medical exams to all service members; 2) implement a strong anti-stigma program as required by the National Defense Authorization Act for 2009; 3) hire additional mental health professionals to meet the increasing demand for examinations and treatment; and 4) urges VA to work more closely with DoD implementing the Force Health Protection law so VA has sufficient records to provide medical care and process disability claims."

  • And in state news, legislators in Alaska are gearing up to designate March as Brain Injury Awareness Month. "Sadly, Alaska is number one per capita for TBIs [at about 800 reported cases every year] and it is one of the leading causes of death for young people in our state," said sponsor Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage. In related news, the Pentagon reports that current wartime brain injuries are thought to be in the 180,000-360,000 range, or about 20 percent of those who have deployed to Afghanistan and/or Iraq.

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