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Morning Muster: 11.25.2014

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Kimberly Vaughn, veterinarian technician, secures an intravenous needle into Bery, a military working dog assigned to Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, security forces, prior to surgery Nov. 15. The surgery was performed to remove a thick abscess from a severe insect sting that was not responsive to medication. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Julia A. Casper)

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Kimberly Vaughn, veterinarian technician, secures an intravenous needle into Bery, a military working dog assigned to Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, security forces, prior to surgery Nov. 15. The surgery was performed to remove a thick abscess from a severe insect sting that was not responsive to medication. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Julia A. Casper)

Suicide information should be remembered for the future; former member of military correction board calls it a ‘pressure cooker’; VA fires head of Phoenix medical system; Sen. Sanders will use last months to push suicide legislation; senators questioning roll-out of Choice Card program; Native American vets face different challenges from combat stress; VA requesting brain donations; county that serves Ft. Hood lacks veterans service officer

Defense One‘s Molly O’Toole reports that while active duty suicides are down, they should not be forgotten for future wars. From service members who avoided mental health help because they feared it would hurt their careers, to unavailable resources, to being overwhelmed by deployments and life stressors, to a dearth of information from the military, O’Toole writes of concerns that may come again.

And, while suicides for soldiers and Marines went down this year, they increased for airmen and sailors, showing there’s still a battle to fight. O’Toole offers a comprehensive look at recent data, lessons offered from parents and friends, and the work health officials and Congress members have done to try to address the crisis. In 2013, 475 service members killed themselves.

A former member of the Army Board for Correction of Military Records told Fusion‘s Alissa Figueroa the process is “not fair.”  Figueroa’s been reporting on the board for the past month, describing how difficult it is for veterans to get decisions overturned by the board. It’s the last place they can go to fight unfair discharges, such as for a personality disorder that was, in fact, a case of post-traumatic stress disorder, or to change “pattern of misconduct”—again, often an inaccurate description of PTSD—to an honorable discharge. The changes can mean the difference between gaining necessary mental health benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as a job from an employer who won’t be scared off by “other than honorable” or “dishonorable” typed on a vet’s discharge paperwork. 

Army Col. Howard Cooley called the board a “pressure cooker of a situation,” because it’s required to handle so many cases so quickly. Cooley offers a plan to the military, and it involves ending a process where “they reject admissible evidence, do not hold hearings and issue summary denials to applicants that often do not address evidence brought.”

VA fired the head of Phoenix’s hospital system Monday, reports Matthew Daly at The Associated Press. Sharon Helman was placed on administrative leave seven months ago after allegations that 40 vets died while waiting for treatment at the Phoenix VA Health Care System. The scandal led VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign as accusations of doctored appointment books and long wait times flew. She is the fifth senior executive VA has fired or forced to resign this year.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., will use the remainder of his time as chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee to push for legislation to combat veteran suicide, reports The Associated Press. Sanders loses the chair when Republicans take control of the Senate in January.

Two New Hampshire senators are questioning the way VA is implementing a new program designed to allow veterans to access private care if they face long wait times or have to drive more than 40 miles to reach a VA facility, reports the Concord Monitor‘s Casey McDermott. Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., have sent VA two letters because veterans must, before using new “Choice Cards,” call an outside contractor by phone to ask permission to gain coverage from a private provider. Then, rather than allowing the veteran to go to a provider of his or her choosing, the contractor provides a list of pre-approved providers. 

“We have been hearing from veterans in our state who are confused by the roll-out of this important program,” Ayotte and Shaheen wrote, “and we remain concerned that it is not being implemented as Congress intended.”

Colorado Public Radio‘s Michael de Yoanna reports that University of Colorado researchers are paying close attention to Native-American service members because they are two to three times more likely to suffer mental anxiety, such as PTSD, than white service members. This may be because they are more likely to experience close combat because of other people’s assumptions that Native Americans are “at one with the environment” or because they are raised to be protectors, and therefore volunteer for difficult missions. But the researchers are finding that traditional healing may also be more effective for service members who were raised in traditional environments. For example, de Yoanna reports that Lakota Wiping of Tears, where tears are symbolically brushed from the cheeks, is effective.

The government is requesting that veterans donate their brains to VA.

Not yet.

“The Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank would be very grateful to accept tissue donations from veterans who wish to donate their brains for scientific study after they die,” said Matthew Friedman, senior adviser to the National Center for PTSD.

VA is beginning a brain bank to study PTSD and combat stress, and Friedman says it will likely be operational by 2015, and that it will be the first brain tissue repository to research stress, trauma and PTSD on brain tissue, as well as PTSD biomarkers.

Interestingly, VA has been reporting that it has had a brain bank since 2007, but Friedman said this is the first time funding has been available to actually push the project forward. A bank to study ALS exists, and veterans without health issues are also encouraged to donate tissue after their deaths so researchers can compare normal and impaired brain tissue.

More than a year after promising they would hire a veterans service officer for the county that services Ft. Hood, Texas, the Bell County Commissioner’s Court still has not complied with the law, reports the Austin-American Statesman’s Jeremy Schwartz. The county was the only to ignore a state law requiring the officer, and has, instead, depended on a volunteer liaison to handle one of the largest veteran populations in the state. The “volunteer” said he had never done any VA claims work, however. In 2011, more than 1,100 veterans showed up for help, but received none.

Bergmann & Moore, LLC, is a national law firm dedicated to serving the needs of veterans in compensation claims before and against the Department of Veterans Affairs. The firm’s partners are former VA attorneys who are very familiar with the VA system. Bergmann & Moore handles all kinds of cases, but has a concentration in claims involving PTSD, military sexual trauma and complex medical issues, such as brain cancer or degenerative issues, veterans exposed to Agent Orange often face. For more information, or to sign up for an email version of this blog, contact Kelly Kennedy at kkennedy@vetlawyers.com

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