VA Hosts Senior International Forum and Ministerial Summit on Veterans Affairs
April 8, 2014
Ministers responsible for Veterans Affairs and officials from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States today completed a series of meetings at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY discussing the latest research, best practices and various areas of collaboration to address the growing needs of Veterans.
“VA was honored to host this event. I am pleased to collaborate and share information with our international partners in order to ensure that our Veterans have access to quality health care services and benefits that they have earned,” said Secretary Eric K. Shinseki. “The discussions that occurred during the Summit help provide insight into how we can address the complex issues facing today’s Veterans and their families.”
The following statement was released by Summit participants at the conclusion of the meetings:
The Ministerial Summit is an event held every 18-24 months and the objectives are to address challenges facing Veterans communities. As host of the 2014 Summit, the United States welcomed guest representatives from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. Department of Defense. Participating officials discussed the importance of collaborative research in the areas of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Transition and Employment Initiatives, Strategic Communications, Women’s Health, and Memorial Affairs.
Providing services and honoring our Veterans is one of the foundational strengths of our alliances. All participating governments at the Summit have programs aimed at the growing needs of their Veteran populations. Research continues to play a vital role in further understanding the complex array of issues Veterans face both when they return from the battlefield, and when they transition to civilian life. Close collaboration on these shared values allows each country to continue to provide quality care to their Veterans.
While each nation has unique challenges in providing services to Veterans, we all are committed to finding solutions to improve the quality of service for Servicemembers, Veterans, and their families. As a result each country places great emphasis on the sharing of research methods, findings, and best practices. This spirit of cooperation and collaboration will ensure that our Departments will have the understanding and ability to help our nation’s heroes as they take off the uniform and enter civilian life.
With the impending end of major military operations in Afghanistan, participants emphasized the importance continuing collaborative efforts through information exchanges and research so agencies can continue to provide insight into the complex issues that face our Veterans and their families. With the vast knowledge and expertise of each participating country, we can continue to share findings and look for ways to enhance services for our nation’s Veterans.
Representatives at the 2014 Ministerial Summit included:
• Canada – The Honorable Julian Fantino, Minister of Veterans Affairs
• New Zealand – The Honorable Michael Woodhouse, Minister of Veterans Affairs
• United Kingdom – The Right Honorable Anna Soubry, Minister of State for Defense, Personnel, Welfare and Veterans
• United States – The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs
• Australia – Secretary Simon Lewis, Secretary of Veterans Affairs
This March, over 300 wounded warrior athletes gathered at 4th Annual Marine Corps Warrior Trials at Camp Pendleton. Athletes from across the US, Canada, Colombia, France, Georgia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom met to compete in various adaptive sports, many with the aspiration to earn a spot in the 2014 Warrior Games, to be held in September in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Although the focus of the event was competition, the brotherhood and bond between the athletes, both domestic and international, was evident at every turn. Whether it was a misstep or a victory, every performance evoked cheers and a sense of community resounded throughout the entire event. Many of the athletes look to this sense of community to help their recovery, but also as an opportunity to inspire others in similar situations.
Jose Barron heard about the Marine Trials while he was recovering from wounds he sustained in Afghanistan at Balboa Naval Medical Center in San Diego, Calif.
“I was looking to meet others with disabilities, and cope with them,” he said. “(Adaptive sports) has given me a lot more confidence and you meet so many other wounded warriors that motive you.”
Jose is no stranger to these types of competitions; this was his third time at the Marine Corps Trials. However, this time around, he refocused his goals from getting the gold to inspiring more wounded warriors to participate.
“My job now is to get the rest of the guys involved and give them a taste of how it feels to get gold,” he said. Luckily for Jose, he was able to do a little of both during this year’s trials by propelling his wheelchair basketball team to the gold medal podium for a third straight year.
Jose and the other athletes at the Marine Corps Trials are living proof that the benefits of adaptive sports go far beyond the physical rehabilitation and that some of the most powerful recovery is done in the space between competitions.
For more coverage on the 2014 Warrior Trials and the 2014 Warrior Games follow us on Facebook andTwitter.
VA contracts with the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Sciences, a non-governmental organization, to scientifically review evidence on the long-term health effects of Agent Orange and other herbicides on Vietnam Veterans. IOM determines whether the evidence points to a statistically valid association that would suggest or establish a relationship between diseases studied and herbicide use.
WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today hosted the first national forum for law schools and legal organizations that provide free legal help to Veterans.
Called “Vet Law 2014,” the forum welcomed attorneys, law students and legal aid organizations that provide pro bono services to Veterans, especially homeless Veterans and those at risk of becoming homeless.
“The unmet legal needs of Veterans are one of the root causes of homelessness,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “Working with partners in law schools and the legal community, we can improve the lives of these vulnerable Veterans.”
The forum is designed to educate legal providers on the most pressing legal needs of Veterans. VA officials and Veterans Service Organizations shared best practices for providing legal and benefits assistance to Veterans. The forum built on the partnerships at 45 VA medical facilities across the nation, which have housed legal service clinics since 2011.
“We are pleased that so many law schools and legal groups have joined us in this effort to assist Veterans with their legal issues and their applications for benefits,” Shinseki said.
Issues on the agenda includde legal assistance for eviction and foreclosure prevention; child support issues; outstanding warrants and fines; accessing public benefits; guardianship; clearing up bad credit; expunging criminal records; and family law matters, such as child support, child custody and divorce.
WASHINGTON – Each April, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) uses Fair Housing Month to mark the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the landmark law passed shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which prohibits housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and family status. This year’s Fair Housing Month theme is “Fair Housing is Your Right: Use It!” Throughout the month, HUD will cast a spotlight on the persistent problem that exists in this country, as individuals and families continue to face both blatant and subtle forms of housing discrimination.
HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan launched this year’s commemoration at an event featuring the new film “A Matter of Place,” which documents three personal stories of housing discrimination in New York City. Underwritten by a grant provided under HUD’s Fair Housing Initiative Program, the film profiles three examples of housing discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, and source of income and features commentary from legal experts, civil rights advocates and fair housing testers.
“This month is an opportunity to recommit to the principle that fair housing is an essential part of everything we do; every grant we make; every building we build; and every community we work with,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. “And we will go to the mat in order to ensure the right of every American to fair housing. Although the times have changed – our commitment to this work remains as strong as ever. It is at the core of our mission.”
“Fair Housing Month is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on just how far we’ve come to make our housing more equitable and how far we still have to go to end housing discrimination,” said HUD Acting FHEO Assistant Secretary Bryan Greene. “Fair housing is about giving people the opportunity to pursue their dreams and whenever this opportunity is denied, not only do families lose, our entire nation loses.”
Each year, HUD and communities and organizations across the country recognize Fair Housing Month by hosting an array of activities that enhance the public’s awareness of their fair housing rights and promote the nation’s commitment to end housing discrimination.
In addition to the legal protections provided under the Fair Housing Act prohibiting housing discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, and family status, approximately 20 states, the District of Columbia, and more than 150 cities, towns and counties across the nation also prohibit discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals and families. In 2012, HUD published new regulations to ensure that the Department’s core housing programs are open to all eligible persons, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In addition, 12 states and the District of Columbia, as well as several counties and municipalities protect persons against housing discrimination based on their source of income.
There are approximately 1.8 million children, including babies, toddlers, school-aged children, teens and young adults, with one or more parent serving in the armed forces. Since 1986, April has been designated as the Month of the Military Child to celebrate and recognize the contributions, courage and resilience of the youngest members of the military community. It’s also a time to recognize the nation’s responsibility and commitment to providing strong networks of support for military families. The Department of Defense (DoD) provides targeted support to military children and their families through a variety of specialized programs.
Through the DoD’s youth programs, military children can access a variety of programs that support their health and well-being and allow them to make new friends. Activities for youth include everything from gardening and photography to golf and swimming. In addition, for those military children living in more remote areas without a robust military community, Youth on the Move provides an online space where military children can network with each other and share information about the topics that interest them and the issues and problems that are unique to them. Other resources provided by Youth on the Move include advice about moving, social life and changing schools. Child and youth behavioral military and family life counselors can also provide a wide range of support to military children and youth, family members and staff members who work with children.
Through the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP), military families with adults and children who have special medical and educational needs can receive specialized support and assistance. Enrollment in the program ensures that the family’s documented medical and educational needs are considered during the assignment coordination process. To receive further information and referrals, non-clinical case management and a warm welcome and handoff through moves and deployments, Service members and their families are encouraged to connect with the installation-specific EFMP family support office. Families can also speak with a Military OneSource Special Needs Specialty Consultant, and military families can download the DoD Special Needs Parent Tool Kit at no cost.
With summer just around the corner, it’s the perfect time for military children and families to take advantage of Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs that allow kids a chance to get outside, be active, learn new skills and get to know their community. And opportunities are not just limited to sports. Morale, Welfare and Recreation can help with planning outings such as camping trips, and developing new hobbies. Youth looking for summer jobs on their installation can also get information about internships, jobs and volunteer opportunities.
At the Department of Defense, and the Office of Warrior Care Policy, we recognize that a network of support is vital to military families, and that supporting military children is a shared community responsibility. We are thankful for the sacrifices military children around the world make on behalf of their Service member parents, and we salute and celebrate them.
Last month, more than 50 wounded, ill, and injured Service members attached to the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) gathered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., to vie for positions on the team heading to Colorado Springs, Colo. for the 2014 Warrior Games this fall. Featuring swimming, cycling, archery, shooting, track and field and sitting volleyball trials, the atmosphere was one of friendly competition, with athletes listening intently to coaches’ feedback and pushing one another to do better next time.
One such athlete striving for personal best was U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Erin McLoughlin, who competed in archery. Having served since 2003 – she joined at 17 – Erin is due to separate from the military within the year, after sustaining a traumatic brain injury during a routine training activity in an altitude chamber. Throughout her recovery and rehabilitation, USSOCOM Care Coalition’s Wounded Warrior Athletic Reconditioning Program (WWARP), has helped Erin embrace challenges in her own way. During the trials in Tampa, she opted to compete on the more difficult of the two possible bow models, relishing the additional effort required to draw back and launch her arrows. In addition to archery, Erin hopes to participate in other adaptive sports during the Warrior Games, which are scheduled for September 28-October 4.
“I enjoy participating in adaptive sports. I did shot-put in high school, and so I look forward to competing at the Warrior Games in that sport, as well as sitting volleyball and archery,” Erin said. “It’s been a great confidence boost, encouraging me to exercise and stay in shape after my injury. Reconnecting with the family of other Service members, experiencing that camaraderie again has also been wonderful.”
Stay tuned to the blog, as well as Facebook and Twitter (@WarriorCare) for ongoing coverage of adaptive sports and Warrior Games events!
Marine veteran Logan Edwards worried he could become one of the 22 former members of the armed services who, on average, commit suicide every day.
Then, he says, he tried marijuana.
Edwards, who served eight months in Iraq, is one of an unknown number of veterans who have turned to marijuana to manage Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which may afflict as much as 20 percent of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to experts. The Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t let its doctors prescribe weed, so the former service members buy it illegally, fib to their doctors, accept it as a gift, or grow it themselves.
In Edwards’ case, he says the drug may have saved his life.
“The first time I used it, I wanted to cry. Because it took away my anxiety. Because it did everything for me that the Oxycontin, benzodiazepines and anti-depressants the VA prescribed me for three years did not do,” said Edwards, 26, a resident of Davenport, Iowa. His symptoms -– an unrelenting “hyper-vigilance,” insomnia and nightmares -– emerged “the moment we walked off the plane” in 2008.
“I can function completely fine all day just by using cannabis. I’m back in school. My attendance is good. My grades are good. My relationships have healed,” added the former Marine. “It allowed me to get my life back.”
In a March 12 letter, federal health officials approved a long-delayed study to explore if pot relieves PTSD. But doctors employed by the VA are banned from prescribing medical marijuana – and from completing forms that allow veterans to enroll in medical-marijuana programs. While medical weed is legal in 20 states, only eight states recognize PTSD as a qualifying condition for which physicians can write cannabis prescriptions.
“…Due to the way the federal government and the state want to handle this medical marijuana issue, I still am forced to spend time away from family, treating these wounds of war.”
Across that tangled post-war legal landscape, thousands of combat veterans are tapping underground sources to buy bootleg marijuana to self-treat PTSD. And in 12 states where the drug is legal but prohibited for PTSD, many are lying to doctors that they need medical weed for allowable conditions like chronic pain, advocates assert. Meantime, vast numbers of other veterans can’t find it, can’t afford it, abuse alcohol to self-medicate, or rely on conventional VA drugs.
“My brothers are killing themselves because they’re out of options,” Edwards said. “These VA pharmaceuticals only exacerbate the problem. The listed side effects on (some) of the bottles say: ‘Will increase suicidal ideation.’ So the suicide rate is really what this comes down to.”
With marijuana federally classified as a Schedule I controlled substance (like heroin and LSD), VA physicians “will not provide for use,” said Gina Jackson, a VA public affairs officer. At the same time, veterans who participate in legal, medical-marijuana programs “will not be denied access to care for VA clinical programs but should be assessed for misuse, adverse effects, and withdrawal.”
The possibility of federal drug monitoring –- plus fears of losing VA benefits and the threat of legal trouble –- has driven scores of veterans to secretly use marijuana for decades to address their PTSD symptoms, several veterans said.
“Us veterans have already conducted tests on pot and PTSD -– and it works!” said Vietnam veteran Bob Walker, 69. “It’s nice to see the feds playing catch up.”
PTSD expert Dr. Harry Croft, a San Antonio-based psychiatrist who has treated veterans for combat-related anxiety and substance abuse, applauds the federally approved investigation.
Veterans at ‘the breaking point’
“We owe it to our veterans with this condition,” Croft said. “Unfortunately, present treatment options are not helpful to many veterans and, therefore, other newer options should be scientifically explored, including medical marijuana.”
At Walker’s home in Northern California, he ingests pot via a vaporizer each night before bed. A Marine veteran grows that marijuana and supplies it free to Walker and a local network of other Vietnam vets. Diagnosed with PTSD, Walker tried VA-prescribed Xanax and anti-depressants but found he could not function on the pharmaceuticals. About 15 years ago, he said, a VA counselor quietly suggested Walker use cannabis to relieve his insomnia, anxiety, stuttering and cold sweats.
“It solved a big problem for me. You feel, well, lighter,” said Walker, a former Army aircraft mechanic who served in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966, watching his best friend die in a chopper crash. “Probably 60 to 70 percent of the vets I know use marijuana for stress reduction and sleep. It’s their baseline medication.”
“I’m back in school. My attendance is good. My grades are good. My relationships have healed. It allowed me to get my life back.”
Near Denver, retired Marine and Iraq veteran Sean Azzariti, 32, sees roughly the same rate of pot use among ex-service members with PTSD. He, too, was diagnosed with the disorder. But in Colorado, PTSD is not a qualifying condition under which private doctors can prescribe cannabis to veterans. So, for four years, Azzariti could not tell his physician the real reason he needed cannabis and instead said the prescription would help treat chronic nausea.
Simply because of that forced ruse, pro-marijuana advocates ensured Azzarti was the first customer in Colorado to buy legal weed on Jan. 1 when the state began allowing anyone 21 and older to purchase pot. He paid $70 for a strain called Bubba Kush and pot-infused candy truffles.
“If veterans had another avenue (to treat PTSD), most would take that and it would save lives. I wouldn’t be talking to you if I didn’t have cannabis,” said Azzariti, who smokes daily to manage his symptoms. “Veterans have been ignored for 30 years, denied what they truly need to heal. Vietnam veterans could have told us this stuff works.
“That’s why I’m open about using it. Sure, there’s a chance I’ll lose my $120-a-month (VA) disability benefits. But that’s a small sacrifice to save one life and potentially change the world,” Azzariti said. “With all of these people coming home from war, (the PTSD and veteran-suicide crises) are only going to get worse. How are we going to treat that? We can’t just keep throwing pills at people.”
Afghanistan war vet on his journey with PTSD
Near Seattle, Iraq veteran Tom Studley, 28, stopped swallowing pharmaceuticals for his PTSD symptoms four years ago and instead, he said, gained inner peace by smoking, vaporizing and eating marijuana.
“The anxiety begins to go away pretty quick and stays away for a while,” said Studley, who served as an Army machine gunner.
After returning, he was prescribed muscle relaxants, Percocet and methadone for chronic back pain plus Trazodone, Celexa and hydroxyzine pamoate for sleep and anxiety. On his property, Studley now grows, harvests and uses cannabis from his 15 marijuana plants -– a legal crop in Washington State.
“I feel”, he said, “less out of control.”
In Iowa, Marine veteran Edwards is taking control -– but with a painful plan.
In May, he will move to Colorado, away from his girlfriend and 3-year-old daughter. He’s relocating and transferring colleges, he said, for one reason: to legally access medical marijuana to continue managing his PTSD. He’s tired of breaking the law.
“I thought my deployment days, being away from my family, ended when I got out of the Marine Corps. But due to the way the federal government and the state want to handle this medical marijuana issue, I still am forced to spend time away from family, treating these wounds of war,” Edwards said.
“I never thought I would have to leave the state and community I grew up in to get access to medicine that’s working and is better for me than the FDA-approved stuff. I never thought I would end up being a medical refugee.”
Atlanta – Data about military veterans who commit suicide is stark: 22 veterans a day decide to end the lives. The nation’s two wars are also taking a toll on the families of those service members. Telling the stories of those military spouses, parents, sisters and brothers and their struggles with depression, anxiety and suicide is the focus of a new CNN Digital project called “The Uncounted.” (Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army via Flickr.)
Data about military veterans who commit suicide is stark: 22 veterans a day decide to end the lives. The nation’s two wars are also taking a toll on the families of those service members.
Reporter Ashley Fantz told GPB’s Joshua Stewart about the year she spent collecting the stories.
JOSHUA STEWART: Why did you spend a year trying to tell these stories?
ASHLEY FANTZ: I had heard, Josh, for quite a few months from sources within the military family community that there were suicides happening, but I knew that the Department of Defense did not actually track their numbers. So I started out by asking military spouses first—and this is not just spouses, of course, as you pointed out, parents, siblings, children, they’re all suffering. They said that it wasn’t one particular thing that broke them but the cumulative trauma of 12 years of war has left them so wrung out and so desperate. And if you’ve got service members coming back home–there’s something close to 600,000 service members who have PTSD or traumatic brain injury—so these family members have also got the burden, both emotional and financial, of caring for injured service members who are suffering from these unseen ailments.
MONICA VELEZ: My brother, Cpl. Jose Velez, fought in Iraq, and then my brother, Spc. Andrew Velez, fought in Afghanistan. I still hadn’t even begun to comprehend Freddy’s death, he was killed in action. How could my brother take his life? I had lost my whole family, and all I could think about is it would be better off if I was just gone.
STEWART: That’s hard, that’s hard to hear, and I just wonder, how did you get Monica and these families to open up to you, to be willing to share that?
FANTZ: They hadn’t been asked before. It occurred to me very early on that they needed to talk, they needed the rest of America to understand or to try to understand what they’ve been through. As you know, the fighting force in America is much smaller than the civilian population, so there is this tremendous gulf between what our military communities have gone through and just simply what the rest of America understands.
STEWART: Are there not resources available that they could tap into to get help in these situations?
FANTZ: Two things that I found revelatory: The Department of Veterans Affairs generally does not treat family members. There are exceptions, but that is something that is generally true. On the Defense Department side, yes, there are programs and the Defense Department is committed to chipping away at this problem and they have the veterans crisis line. But for a multitude of reasons among each family member I spoke to, they said that they are just not connecting, they’re not getting the help that they feel is adequate. So there are programs, but the programs are not reaching everybody.
STEWART: Ashley Fantz is a CNN reporter. We have a link to her project “The Uncounted” at GPB.org. And you can see more about the project at the “On the Story” page on our site. Ashley, thanks so much for sharing this project with us.
While much has been written about the role of caregiving for the elderly and chronically ill and for children with special needs, little is known about “military caregivers” — the population of those who care for wounded, ill, and injured military personnel and veterans. These caregivers play an essential role in caring for injured or wounded service members and veterans. This enables those for whom they are caring to live better quality lives, and can result in faster and improved rehabilitation and recovery. Yet playing this role can impose a substantial physical, emotional, and financial toll on caregivers. This report summarizes the results of a study designed to describe the magnitude of military caregiving in the United States today, as well as to identify gaps in the array of programs, policies, and initiatives designed to support military caregivers. Improving military caregivers’ well-being and ensuring their continued ability to provide care will require multifaceted approaches to reducing the current burdens caregiving may impose, and bolstering their ability to serve as caregivers more effectively. Given the systematic differences among military caregiver groups, it is also important that tailored approaches meet the unique needs and characteristics of post-9/11 caregivers.
Post-9/11 Military Caregivers Differ from Other Caregivers
There are an estimated 5.5 million military caregivers in the United States. Of these, 1.1 million (19.6 percent) are caring for post-9/11 veterans.
Military caregivers helping veterans from earlier eras tend to resemble civilian caregivers in many ways.
Post-9/11 military caregivers differ from the other two groups. They tend to be younger, caring for a younger individual with a mental health or substance use condition, employed, and not connected to a support network. They are more likely to use mental health resources and services, and to use them more often.
Caregivers Perform a Variety of Caregiving Tasks and Face Heavy Burdens
Post-9/11 military caregivers typically help those for whom they are caring cope with stressful situations or other emotional and behavioral challenges.
Seventeen percent of civilian caregivers reported spending more than 40 hours per week providing care (8 percent reported spending more than 80 hours per week); 12 percent of post-9/11 military caregivers and 10 percent of pre-9/11 military caregivers spent more than 40 hours per week.
Military caregivers consistently experience worse health outcomes, greater strains in family relationships, and more workplace problems than non-caregivers, and post-9/11 military caregivers fare worst in these areas.
Society Needs to Start Planning Now for Caregivers’ Futures
The need for long-term planning is likely more pronounced for post-9/11 military care recipients, who are younger and may be more vulnerable than pre-9/11 and civilian care recipients, particularly those relying on aging parents and in new marriages. Critical aspects of planning include financial, legal, residential, and vocational/educational planning.
Post-9/11 caregiver duties can be estimated as worth close to $3 billion (in 2011 dollars); the costs of lost productivity among post-9/11 caregivers are $5.9 billion (in 2011 dollars).
Most Relevant Programs and Policies Serve Caregivers Only Incidentally
Most programs offering services to military caregivers tend to be targeted toward the care recipient, with his or her family invited to participate, or toward military and/or veteran families, of whom caregivers are a subset. These programs either make services available for family caregivers or they serve military families and within that group offer services for the caregiver subset.
Efforts are needed to help empower military caregivers, and should include ways to build their skills and confidences in caregiving, mitigate the potential stress and strain of caregiving, and raise public awareness of the caregivers’ value.
Creating contexts that acknowledge caregivers’ special needs and status — particularly in health care and workplace settings — will help caregivers play their roles more effectively and balance the potentially competing demands of caregiving and their own lives.
Programs relevant to the needs of military caregivers are typically focused on the service member or veteran, and only incidentally related to the caregiver’s role, and there are specific gaps in needed programs, particularly for programs that help reduce the time spent performing caregiving duties, provide health care to caregivers, and offset lost income. Therefore, eligibility issues and these specific programmatic needs should be addressed.
Ensuring the long-term wellbeing of caregivers and the agencies that aim to support them may each require efforts to plan strategically for the future, not only to serve the dynamic and evolving needs of current military caregivers, but to anticipate the needs of future military caregivers in a changing political and fiscal environment.