Veterans Benefits Information guide to VA benefits

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Veterans Benefits Information

Acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie tapped to lead the department

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President Trump announced Friday he is tapping acting Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie to be the department’s next leader. Wilkie was apparently unaware of his pending nomination, as the president joked he had “ruined the surprise” per a Politico report. Wilkie has led the VA since the firing of former Secretary David Shulkin in late March.

Wilkie’s nomination comes at a crucial time for the VA. The department signed a $10 billion contract with Cerner for a new electronic health record system and the VA MISSION Act of 2018 is poised to pass the Senate next week with the president planning to sign the bill into law by Memorial Day.

Wilkie is a reserve officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserve assigned to the Office of the Chief of Staff. Before his first Pentagon tour, he was special assistant to the president for National Security Affairs and a senior director of the National Security Council under Dr. Condoleezza Rice, according to his official bio.

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Trump Says He Will Nominate Acting Secretary to Lead V.A.

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President Trump’s previous choice to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, Ronny L. Jackson, withdrew his name from consideration last month.

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Long-term direction of VA uncertain; 50 days without a secretary

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has now been without a secretary for 50 days, leaving the organization in a state of limbo. The absence of permanent senior leadership in the wake of former Secretary Shulkin’s firing on March 28 and a high job vacancy rate across the enterprise has left many veterans uncertain about the future strategic direction of the VA.

Despite the glaring deficiencies in both leadership and personnel, VA spokesman Curt Cashour said, “Under President Trump, VA has had its most productive year in decades — we have made groundbreaking progress, particularly in the areas of accountability, transparency and efficiency across the department.”

The American Legion counts 17 major issues that remain unaddressed in the absence of permanent Senate-confirmed leadership at the head of the VA.

The most glaring problem is the high vacancy rate at the VA. As of March 8, the vacancy rate is nearly 9 percent, amounting to more than 33,600 personnel. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the hardest hit by the vacancies, is short more than 30,000 health-care providers and administrative personnel. Strangely, not all of the job vacancies are listed on USA JOBS.

“I can’t identify any large corporation or hospital that has a nearly 9 percent vacancy rate and still attests to operating efficiently,” said Louis Celli, American Legion National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division Director.

These vacancies are creating capacity shortages at the VA and pushing more veterans out of the system to seek more expensive community care.

Although there hasn't been a presedential-appointed VA Secretary, acting Secretary of the VA Robert Wilkie has been serving in the capacity as Secretary since March 28, but the page listing his public travel hasn’t been updated in months, marking another black hole in the “groundbreaking progress” the VA has made in transparency and accountability under the Trump Administration, according to Celli.

The other significant issues needing the attention of top leadership include:

• Completion of the $16 billion Cerner electronic health record contract;

• Filling the vacancies with qualified talent — many of the departed personnel held a doctorate;

• Full implementation of the Telehealth program;

• Improvement of the White House VA hotline — many veterans say they never hear back following initial calls;

• Expansion of mental health services for veterans not otherwise qualified for VA benefits due to conditions such as an other than honorable discharge;

• Implementation of the VA’s suicide prevention plan currently at the White House; and

• Completion of the MyVA website.

In the absence of a confirmed secretary, there is concern that the organization will not continue to progress on these issues. And with no name being touted for serious consideration to become the organization’s head, there’s no telling how the VA will continue to devolve over the coming months.

Lambasting the state of the VA is easy. What’s not as simple is finding solutions to the problems plaguing the organization in the absence of qualified leadership. However, some of the issues at hand could be addressed without the nomination of a qualified and vetted individual.

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Years in the making: how the risk for Alzheimer’s disease can be reduced

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From forgetting names to repeating questions, or having trouble remembering a recent event, growing older presents some challenges for an aging mind. But these symptoms can be an indication of something much more serious: Alzheimer’s disease.

Army Maj. Abraham Sabersky, a staff neurosurgeon at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, said Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and the sixth leading cause of death for Americans.

“The health of our service members and veterans is the paramount mission of the Military Health System,” said Sabersky. “Given Alzheimer's prevalence in the general population, I believe that it is important that we highlight the lifestyle modifications that can prevent this debilitating illness.”

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that affects the brain’s ability to retain new information. The result is often noticed as “memory problems.” The National Institute of Aging, or NIA, defines the disease in three stages: mild, moderate, and severe. Symptoms develop slowly but get worse over time.

As early symptoms begin to appear, people can seem healthy but may have trouble with processing, remembering, or showing good judgment. According to the NIA, some emerging signs of Alzheimer’s include memory loss, getting lost in familiar settings, difficulty with money and bills, and taking longer to complete everyday tasks. The disease can become severe enough to limit a person’s ability to carry on a conversation or respond to the surrounding environment, said Sabersky.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said an estimated 5.5 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s disease in 2017. Risk factors include aging, diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking, and family history. The CDC said symptoms usually begin after age 60, but Alzheimer’s disease likely starts a decade or more before problems become apparent to others.

“There appears to be a link between repeated head injuries and certain forms of dementia, which can overlap with the symptoms of Alzheimer's,” said Sabersky, referring to a 2014 study published by the American Academy of Neurology. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that more than 750,000 veterans have Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, he added

“Veterans who experienced brain trauma in the course of their service can be at higher risk for developing the disease,” said Sabersky. “The diagnosis PTSD has also been associated with an increased risk of developing dementia later in life.”

While no cure has been found, various types of medication are available to help lessen symptoms and improve quality of life. Sabersky said extensive interest in the subject has led to new research findings being released consistently over time.

Army Maj. Joetta Khan, registered dietitian at Walter Reed, said risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are similar to heart disease.

“There is a growing body of evidence that diet, exercise, and other interactions within one’s environment could alter brain health and mental function,” said Khan. Exercise seems to play a relevant role in brain health. Many observational studies have shown a decreased risk of dementia in people who exercise, she added.

Healthy lifestyle habits, including exercise, proper nutrition, sleep, stress management, and being active, have shown the greatest benefit for preventing and slowing the progression of Alzheimer's, said Sabersky.

“Keeping physically active and eating a balanced diet should be a priority with aging,” said Khan, adding that although bodies begin to slow down, they are influenced by behaviors. “Understanding the connection between a healthy lifestyle and brain health is essential to increasing not only our quantity (years) of life, but also the quality of those years.”

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'We look for something to do'

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The Morgan Wiles American Legion Post 336, Legion Riders Chapter in Williford, Ark., is just under 18 months old. But the chapter already is making a positive impact on youth in the community.

The chapter recently staged a series of fundraisers and a kick-off ride to collect more than $1,000 to send three local high school students to a summer band camp. It’s part of a commitment to local youth that will drive the chapter, Chapter 336 Rider David Ames said.

“We look for something to do,” said Ames, state director for the Arkansas Legion Riders. “How can we affect the community the best? How can we get ourselves out in the community and present ourselves … as a community group? We donate to veterans' causes, but this was the first time we picked a community-based cause that seemed to us to be relevant.”

Ames said he found out from Chapter 336 Legion Rider and State ALR Vice Director Billie Suiters, whose children attend Highland High School, that some of the children’s friends wouldn’t be able to attend the camp for financial reasons – despite the band and its booster club conducting several fundraisers.

“This area is a low-income area,” Ames said. “We decided as our first community-based ride that we would support that effort so that those kids could go to band (camp).”

Ames said Suiters got the process of raising funds within the community and “it just sort of bankrolled through the community. We had donations, and we had … a silent auction with local businesses. Word of mouth got it out and said, ‘This is what we’re doing.’”

Chapter 336 also staged a 154-mile motorcycle ride around the Ozarks that included food and evening entertainment. All of the proceeds from the ride and after-ride event were donated to Highland School Band Director Greg Bruner to disperse among children in need of help to attend the camp.

The chapter ended up raising $1,054 to send three students to a week-long Dixie Band Camp at the University of Central Arkansas. The camp features several workshops for the children to learn how to play their instruments, afternoon and evening social activities, concerts, outdoor activities and a final-day concert.

Chapter 336 isn’t done, Ames said. This year’s ride was the first of what will become an annual event.

“We will pick a charity or a need for every event,” Ames said. “We’re going to focus on the need of the community for the children, more so than anything else.”

Ames, who spent 33 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, said taking a community approach to assisting others helps provide the right image of The American Legion. “In order to change the perception … let’s do something in the community that’s outside of the realm of (the perception),” he said. “We’re a Legion post that is involved with our youth and our community. I thought that was important, and the post thought that was important, because this was the first way … to really get us out there and involved. And the response was amazing.”

There’s also another benefit to making a positive impact on the community.

“We have a number of young (post-9/11) veterans who don’t see the Legion as a family-based or community-based organization,” Ames said. “Once they realize (we are), we’ll start getting membership. And we’ve already done that.”

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Did you know?

The issuance or replacement of military service medals, awards and decorations must be requested in writing.

Requests should be submitted in writing to the appropriate military service branch division of the NPRC. Standard form (SF 180), available through the VA, is recommended to submit your request. Generally, there is no charge for medal or award replacements. For more information, or for the mailing address of the military branch office to submit your request to, call 1-86-NARA-NARA (1-866-272-6272) or visit the NPRC website at