Veterans Benefits Information guide to VA benefits

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Veterans Benefits Information

New York Post 205 donates 100 boxes of produce to food pantry

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When a western New York food pantry started up during the pandemic to help families in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda (Ken-Ton) school district, Milton J. Brounshidle Post 205 in Kenmore reached out to help.

After looking at ways to maximize a donation, Legionnaires launched “Operation Groundhog Day” (a reference to the Bill Murray movie that has him repeating the same day). They delivered 50 boxes of fresh produce to Ken-Ton Cares Food Pantry and then repeated the 50-box delivery a week later.

The donation was a hit, Post Commander Ted Balbierz reports. When the food pantry announced the addition of fresh produce, orders tripled, he said, “and they are currently exploring available grants to continue to be able to provide fresh produce” to families in need.

Balbierz also gave something else to Ken-Ton Cares founder Dr. Jill O’Malley, who started the food pantry as an offshoot of her Ken-Ton Closet, which provides clothing to kids in need. That “something else” was an American Legion centennial challenge coin.

“One of the coolest things happened to me today,” Dr. O’Malley wrote on Facebook on May 7. “I got a challenge coin! I have never heard of this before and I am so honored to receive it. I thought I was going to cry (and Lord knows how that would go with a mask??). Anyhow, I am a humble servant that does not need recognition but I am going to cherish this forever. Thank you Commander Balbierz!”

It turns out Post 205 has a history of supporting efforts that help children in the school district. The post had adopted Ken-Ton Closet “as our primary Children and Youth project,” Balbierz noted, providing financial support, plus last fall purchasing 100 winter coats for children.

When schools were closed by the pandemic, Dr. O’Malley, who is president of the Ken-Ton School Board, “recognized the growing need to ensure local families were receiving proper nutrition,” the Post 205 commander said.

The Legionnaires initially offered financial support, and then “explored maximizing our donation by attempting to purchase wholesale dry goods,” he said. “But we ran into a dead end as every contact our Legionnaires had in commercial wholesale food purchasing was unable to assist as they were currently not working due to the stay-at-home order.”

That’s when a different solution appeared “right in front of our noses.”

The commander’s daughter, Lauren, a recent Auxiliary member, and her boyfriend, Mike Pope, operate a local produce stand (George's Produce Market) and regularly purchase wholesale produce.

“We reached out to Dr. O'Malley about the possibility of donating 100 boxes of fresh produce to be included with the non-perishables currently being offered and she accepted. Thus, what we lovingly named ‘Operation Groundhog Day’ was born.”

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Over $667,000 awarded to American Legion Legacy Scholarship recipients

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In the fourth year of its eligibility expansion, The American Legion Legacy Scholarship has awarded over $667,000 in financial aid to 35 children of post-9/11 veterans.

The 2020 Legacy Scholarship application deadline was April 15, and the awardees were determined by the Americanism Commission on May 9.

The 35 recipients met the scholarship's eligibility requirements, which is for children of veterans who died on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001, or children of post-9/11 veterans who have a combined VA disability rating of 50 percent or higher. Up to $20,000 will be awarded to the recipients for the expense of graduate or post-graduate tuition, books, room and board, meal plans and other supplies. The grant amount each scholarship recipient receives is based on his or her financial need after all federal and state aid is exhausted.

Legacy Scholarship recipients have a year to use the grant and those eligible can reapply up to six times.

Since the Legacy Scholarship's first grant in 2004, 401 military children of the fallen and disabled have received over $3.6 million in aid. Read testimonials from American Legion Legacy Scholarship recipients and how thanks to the scholarship they are able to achieve their dreams of going to the college of their choice, pursue their studies without having to get a job or have the opportunity to study abroad.

The number of scholarships awarded and the amount of financial aid granted to each awardee (this includes returning applicants) is determined on donations to the scholarship fund and one's financial needs. The American Legion Riders have been the most dedicated fundraiser and supporter of the Legacy Scholarship through their annual Legacy Run. The Run has raised over or near $1 million for the Legacy Scholarship Fund since 2015.

For more information about the Legacy Scholarship or to make a donation to the Legacy Scholarship Fund, visit

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National cemeteries plan brief, private ceremonies for Memorial Day

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National cemeteries will open from dawn to dusk on Memorial Day, but the usual events to honor deceased service members will be brief and closed to the public.

The Department of Veterans Affairs issued guidelines Wednesday about how its 142 national cemeteries should observe Memorial Day, which is May 25. The cemeteries will open for people to visit gravesites, but visitors are asked to distance themselves. The VA is urging people to visit on the Friday, Saturday or Sunday before the holiday to avoid crowds on Memorial Day.

During a typical year, the day is marked with large public gatherings to honor fallen veterans and service members. There are wreath-laying ceremonies, and flags are placed at each gravesite. This year, there will be no flag placements.

The VA advised each national cemetery to hold a brief wreath-laying ceremony, which will include a moment of silence and the playing of Taps. Though the cemeteries will be open, the ceremonies will be closed to the public. Some of them will appear on livestream on the National Cemetery Administration’s social media pages.

“This year, by necessity, will be different from past Memorial Day observances,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said. “While the department can’t hold large public ceremonies, VA will still honor veterans and service members with the solemn dignity and respect they have earned through their service and sacrifice.”

Wilkie plans to preside over the ceremony at Quantico National Cemetery in Virginia, and Pamela Powers, the VA’s acting deputy secretary, will go to Culpeper National Cemetery in Virginia. Randy Reeves, who leads the National Cemetery Administration, will attend the ceremony at the Riverside National Cemetery in California on May 22 and travel to Calverton National Cemetery in New York on May 25.

Arlington National Cemetery, which is under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Army, remains closed to the public. Family pass holders are allowed access to visit gravesites, but they can’t congregate in groups of 10 or more and are expected to wear facemasks. The cemetery is expected to issue guidance this week about its plans for Memorial Day. Typically, U.S. presidents participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington and deliver speeches.

Last month, organizers canceled a Memorial Day motorcycle rally in the nation’s capital that was intended to replace the popular Rolling Thunder event. Rolling Thunder, a 32-year-old tradition, attracted hundreds of thousands of participants every Memorial Day weekend. AMVETS planned a similar event, Rolling to Remember, for the weekend of May 23.

Instead of the in-person ride and rally, AMVETS asked motorcyclists to ride 22 miles on May 24 in their local communities, while following social distancing guidelines. The 22 miles recognizes an often-cited statistic that 22 veterans die by suicide every day. Participants can download a phone app titled “REVER” to track and share their ride.

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America’s Cities Could House Everyone, if They Chose To

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Our housing crisis is a symptom of America’s wealth, and its indifference.

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California state veterans’ homes hold COVID-19 infections to single digits

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Just three residents of California state veterans’ home have contracted COVID-19 and only two have died, a sharp contrast to what’s transpired in similar long-term care facilities in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and elsewhere in the country. The California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) thorough preparation and early response is being credited for helping prevent the highly contagious virus from infecting more of the 2,100 veterans who live in the state’s eight homes.

State veterans’ homes appear to have been hit especially hard by the outbreak. But a lack of comprehensive data about COVID-19 infections in federal, state and private nursing homes makes it difficult to compare how each is handling the infections. In addition, the residents of state veterans’ homes are primarily men – who appear to be more susceptible to the virus – and often have other health issues.

Nearly 140 residents of New Jersey’s trio of state veterans’ homes have died as a result of COVID-19 infections, 76 at the Paramus facility alone. The Long Island State Veterans Home in New York reported 68 deaths as of Tuesday. And the deaths of more than 70 at the Holyoke Soldier’s Home in Massachusetts has prompted federal and state investigations.

In addition, four Democratic U.S. senators asked the Government Accountability Office to review VA’s oversight of state veterans’ homes last week in light of a 2019 GAO report that recommended the agency improve its efforts. “The recent deaths of veteran residents and other care challenges at State Veterans Homes during the COVID-19 public health emergency remind us that VA’s implementation of these recommendations would contribute toward improved care quality at these facilities nationwide and better inform veterans and their families about the best care options,” the letter stated. “While VA does not supervise or control the administration of State Veterans Homes, VA pays for veterans to receive care at these facilities and is the only entity that inspects every SVH in the nation.”

Long-term care facilities have been coronavirus-infection hot spots since the first major outbreak surfaced at a private nursing home in Kirkland, Wash., in late February. Today, between a third and half of the nearly 86,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States have occurred in nursing homes run by private companies, states and the federal government. The problem is so acute that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services is set to require nursing homes to report all COVID-19 infections to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Low pay for staff, who often work at multiple facilities may have contributed to transmitting the virus between nursing homes, according to Robyn Grant of The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care. Infection control problems, which have been among the top 10 problems identified during federal nursing home inspections for several years -- and were the No.1 issue in 2019 – likely exacerbated the spread of the coronavirus, Grant says. A lack of masks, gloves and disposable gowns has also made it difficult to prevent or contain infections.

“We know (for-profit) nursing homes are short on registered nurses because they are trying to save money,” says Charlene Harrington, professor emerita of nursing and sociology in the University of California San Francisco School of Nursing who has studied nursing homes for 30 years. “Registered nurses are the ones who develop infection control plans, they have to assess patients, they oversee the isolation protocol and supervise the care staff. If you don’t have them, you aren’t able to mount an effective campaign to control the virus.”

A shortage of personal protective equipment has been an issue throughout the pandemic. The Long Island State Veterans Home turned to a painting company for mask donations in early April. CalVet has received donations of masks from businesses and private citizens. And South Korea is donating a half a million masks to VA, the agency announced Tuesday.

The private nursing home industry is lobbying for $10 billion in federal aid to pay for personal protective equipment, staff and testing, according to a May 6 letter the American Health Care Association sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Any aid should come with strict conditions, Harrington says “They have been pulling so much money out of their nursing homes that they don’t have the reserves to do what they need to do,” she says. “If they are going to give nursing homes money, they should have really strong protections to make sure they are financially accountable.”

States are also asking for help. California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Colorado have joined forces to ask Congress for $1 trillion in COVID-19 relief funds. The money would fund public health programs, law enforcement and schools, according to the Los Angeles Times.

More than 100 residents of Pennsylvania’s six state veterans’ homes have tested positive for COVID-19, with 28 confirmed COVID-19 deaths and 11 probable COVID-19 deaths.

“The majority of the approximately 1,300 residents we care for in our six Veterans Homes are predominantly older and many have multiple complex health conditions which make them particularly susceptible to coronavirus,” said Joan Nissley, communications director at the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “With an average age of around 80 years old, it is not uncommon for a resident to pass away during their time at a home. We greatly respect and honor these true American heroes in life and in death. We continue to be vigilant in our infection prevention and control plans and remain dedicated in doing everything we can to stop the spread of this virus.”

In New Jersey, meanwhile, National Guard medics and VA nurses have been assisting at the state veterans’ homes, where residents and staff alike have been stricken by the virus. “This is a global pandemic that has far-reaching impacts,” said Kryn Westhoven, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “Our homes are no more immune to it than the rest of the community. Given that our population is especially vulnerable because of age and pre-existing conditions, the homes are doing everything in their power to ensure we curtail and mitigate the spread of the virus. Our Paramus and Menlo Park homes in particular are located in some of the hardest hit areas in the state.”

Some states appear to have done remarkably well combatting COVID-19. There have been 22 resident infections and seven deaths at Oregon’s two state veterans homes. Washington reports 47 infections and eight deaths among the residents of its four veterans’ homes. But California stands out given that it has the nation’s fifth-highest number of COVID -19 cases per capita, according to the Los Angeles Times.

CalVet is run by Dr. Vito Imbasciani, a 27-year veteran of the Army Medical Corps, whose father served with the Marines in the South Pacific during World War II. Three uncles served in Europe during the war and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. The department’s director of long-term care is Thomas Bucci, an Air Force veteran who had decades of health-care administration experience before joining CalVet.

Imbasciani and Bucci drafted a 38-point plan for dealing with a possible COVID-19 outbreak in mid-February, weeks before the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, and they have continued to add to that blueprint. The extensive advance preparations included making sure California’s state veterans homes had an ample supply of masks, gloves and gowns for staff. By late February, visitors were required to use hand-washing stations set up at the main entrance of each veterans home before entering the building. And on March 15, CalVet closed the homes to all visitors except for families with loved ones in hospice care.

In a note to families the day before suspending visitor access, Imbasciani acknowledged the stress the decision would cause and promised nursing home staff would help families stay in contact with residents by assisting with video calls via cell phone or laptop. “I don’t take this decision lightly, but as a physician, I know it is medically necessary,” he wrote of the closure. “I ask for your patience and understanding and hope you know that every step we are taking is to keep you and your loved ones safe.”

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