Archive for September, 2012

Deadline to Apply for VRAP Tomorrow

Posted by Kelli McKinney

back to school with VRAPEven in a stumbling job market, there are a few high-need occupations in which the number of opportunities remains higher than the number of qualified applicants. The VA has identified a list of these high-demand career fields, and last year partnered with the US Department of Labor to create the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011.

Under the VOW act, the joint benefits program called Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP) was created to help provide retraining of US veterans so they would better qualify for these high demand careers. The goal – increasing the employability of our veterans and lowering the unemployment rate.

For eligible veterans, VRAP offers financial assistance for those who return to school to gain new, in-demand skills. This assistance comes in the form of a monthly payout equal to the full-time payment of the MGIB-Active Duty: $1,473. For the up to 45,000 unemployed soldiers who qualify, these benefits are available for 12 months. As of now, about 37,000 applications have been accepted. The program is set to end in October 2013 OR when the 99,000 participant limit is reached, whichever happens first.

VRAP Eligibility Requirements are:

  • You must be between the ages of 35-60 and have received an other-than-dishonorable discharge
  • You must be unemployed when you apply, but you must be employable
  • You cannot be eligible for other VA educational benefit programs
  • You may not be enrolled in another governmental training program

The simplest way to apply for VRAP is online through the VONAP EBenefits portal. But before you get started, make sure you’ve collected the following pieces of information and have them handy – you’ll need them during the application process:

  • Entry and exit dates for your time in Active, Reserves, or National Guard
  • Addresses for the units in which you served
  • List of any and all military benefits, and the amount of payments you currently receive
  • If you claim a disability, list the name/address of your current and past medical facilities
  • If you claim a disability, a list of exposures that caused it
  • If you are married, information about your spouse
  • If you were married, information about your previous spouse(s)
  • Information about your children that live in your home or elsewhere (you will need child support information if applicable)
  • Records of any training and employment history for the past year

Ask a Stupid Question! (No, really.)

Posted by Charlotte Webster

questions answered smSpeak up, people. It’s Ask a Stupid Question Day.

Friday, September 28 is Ask a Stupid Question Day. And although most of us have been taught that there is no such thing as a stupid question, apparently that was not the case in the early 1980s when this holiday originated. So the glorious decade that brought us Duran Duran, acid-washed jeans, Live Aid and Atari also shepherded in the era of the Stupid Question. Thanks, 1980s.

At the time, education experts felt that too many kids experienced shame when they asked a question in class because other kids giggled at their question. So part of their ingenious solution to encourage students to ask more questions in the classroom was creating a day that actually called questions stupid.

A lot has changed since the 80s, thankfully, and looking at the title of this holiday, I have to wonder what definition of “stupid question” are we applying? But at any rate, I happen to believe that every question is a good question, and in observance of Ask a Stupid Question Day, I submit to you my annual Stupid Questions, asked with complete sincerity:

1)     Why is there only one national space program and no state or city space programs?

2)     Is there really going to be a bacon shortage next year?

3)     Whatever happened to Peter Gabriel?

4)     How many Kool-aid flavors are there?

5)     Who invented shoelaces?

6)     When is the best time to buy an island?

So if you’ve been holding back an inquiry or two for fear of being ridiculed by classmates, co-workers, or cashiers in the checkout line, stand proud. Today is YOUR day.

All those questions you’ve been afraid to ask, those wonders you’ve been wondering, the puzzlers you’ve been puzzling over, just put them out there. Speak up. Whether you’re in a classroom or a chat room, a boardroom or a boardwalk, now is the time to ask whatever it is that’s on your mind.

And if you’re in a class or a meeting or in line at the grocery store and you hear someone else ask a question, the No Laughing rule applies. Unless the person asking is a comedian, in which case you should probably laugh because the question is most likely intended to be funny. But otherwise, be kind and support your fellow inquiring mind.

I think that in spite of their misaligned holiday naming convention, and perhaps a missed opportunity to squelch bullying, those teachers in the 80s were on to something. If we stop asking questions, we stop learning. What would happen if fear of retaliation or public scorn made us unable to ask questions of our leadership, our peers, or even ourselves? Ask Dr. Michelle Washington, whose questioning of the VA and their treatment of veterans with PTSD landed her a poor performance review. Asking “why” can be one of the scariest, yet most empowering experiences there is.

The ability to question, to explore, and simply to think critically for ourselves is at the crux of our national identity. Asking questions – and listening to the answers – can lead to greater understanding of the world around us, and it’s one reason why education is so important.

So go ahead – ask your questions. Listen to those answers. And ask, ask, ask more questions. As long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of your fellow citizens, it’s your right to be inquisitive.

After thinking about it some more, I’ve decided that I want to add to my previous list of questions. Here it is:

7)      What better way to maintain an inquisitive, entrepreneurial spirit and keep challenging myself every day to be better than to go back to school?

And as a cautionary tale about what happens when you stop asking questions and educating yourself, I leave you with this clip from the movie “Dumb and Dumber.”

What do you think? What questions will you ask today? How about using your education benefits to go to class and ask even more questions?

Who Was Uncle Sam?

Posted by Kelli McKinney

As far as national symbolism goes, I have to confess at the risk of sounding unpatriotic: Uncle Sam was always been somewhat of a puzzler for me. So I did a little research on the Interwebs to inquire after the history of our Uncle Sam. Who is this tall man sporting a greying goatee, white top hat, and a penchant for pointing emphatically?

Some of you probably know the history and evolution of Mr. Sam Wilson, a meat packer from Troy, NY.  Sam worked for Elbert Anderson, a contractor who supplied rations for U.S. soldiers during the War of 1812.

These meat rations were packed into wooden barrels and stamped with the initials E.A.-U.S., referring to the contracting company name and the rations’ place of origin – United States. When a bystander asked what the initials stood for, a meat worker jokingly said “Elbert Anderson and Uncle Sam,” referring to the man who packed the rations rather than the country who paid for them. The worker, like most Troy residents, associated “Uncle” Sam Wilson with the power to feed the army. The joke stuck around, apparently.

The War of 1812, among many other things, re-ignited a fading American interest in a national identity. Uncle Sam’s development as a widespread representative of the U.S. was welcome, since most icons up until that time, Columbia or Brother Jonathan, had carried only regional appeal.

The imagery of Uncle Sam varied and evolved over time, but has its origins in caricatures drawn of Jonathan Turnbull, a former Governor of Connecticut and frequent confidant and advisor to George Washington.

The symbol of our ever-changing nation has been through as many transitions as the country it represents. What we think of today as the “standard” Uncle Sam image was created by James Montgomery Flagg on the cover of the magazine “Leslie’s Weekly” on July 6, 1916. The caption, “What  Are You Doing for Preparedness?” paired with the white-haired, goatee-sporting man in a blue-banded white top hat and red and white striped pants became synonymous with America and its ideals.

It’s hard to really quantify the impact that the WWII Uncle Sam recruitment poster has had on our collective psyche, but I think it’s probably pretty substantial. Uncle Sam as a character may very well have been the advertising industry’s first attempt at personalization: The old man in his stars and stripes, glaring intensely at the viewer and pointing seems to call each of us on the carpet, letting us know at once that our effort — or lack therof — made a difference.

Since he was first drawn, he’s been parodied as often as he’s been paraded at 4th of July picnics, used as a stand-in for “big brother” in political cartoons as often as he’s represented some of our deepest sorrows.

Although Uncle Sam, and our perception of him, has changed over time, he remains a powerful symbol of patriotism, government, and  idealism. After looking through collection after collection of Uncle Sam images and stories, I think he stands for an ideal that is as important today as it was during Sam Wilson’s time 200 years ago: One person can make a difference. He might look like an aging rock star, but Uncle Sam Wants You. He believes in you, and he wants you to participate. To care and to stand up for what is right, very possibly now more than ever.

 

What did you think of Uncle Sam when you were growing up? Did his image influence you to join the military or affect your perception of military service? Tell us below!

Sequestration Already Decimating Military School Districts

Posted by Charlotte Webster

school childrenBy long tradition, and for good or for ill, public K-12 education has historically been funded via property taxes. But that solution doesn’t work well for districts with a lot of active-duty military families. Federal land, including base housing, generates no tax revenue for local districts. And military families aren’t picking up the slack with sales taxes, either. To the extent military families do their shopping at commissaries and post exchanges, they don’t generate sales taxes either to the state or to the counties in which they reside.

To compensate, Congress plusses up budgets of school districts that have high concentrations of military students – to the tune of $1 billion per year, via a federal grant program called IMPACT AID.

But the so-called “sequestration” provisions of the Budget Control Act, if they become effective, will lop off 9 percent of that figure effective later in the fiscal year – unless Congress reaches a last minute deal.

That means sequestration will zap military school districts of nearly $100 million.

The effects are already making themselves known: School’s already started, and affected districts have had to make budgeting decisions assuming that their funding will be lower this year.

For some districts, IMPACT is negligible. But other districts may rely on the federal government for the majority of their budgets. This is particularly true for districts that lie entirely on military bases.

School officials have already had to eliminate teacher positions, cancel entire programs, and increase class sizes, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C:

Walker said he had been forced to eliminate an elementary reading specialist; a librarian; a middle school reading specialist; high school teachers in math, science, and English; and the school’s baseball, cross country, and swimming programs. Custodians, secretaries, and other administrative personnel were also eliminated. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the entire Randolph Field School District, kindergarten through 12th grade, serves fewer than 1,500 students, so these are big cuts.

Similar problems are also affecting school districts on Indian reservations, as well – these schools are likewise heavily dependent on federal funding.

The funding situation for many of these school districts was already dire: A July 2011 DoD report listed 15 military installation schools as “condition red,” meaning they were in desperate need of significant repair or renovation of their physical plants. The report listed another 48 schools as “yellow,” also indicating a need for significant maintenance, repair or renovation.

Additionally, the Pentagon reported 28 schools as being significantly over capacity, by 16 percent or more. The Pentagon reports that it has a maintenance budget shortfall of $1 billion – even before sequestration, according to reporting by the Center for Public Integrity.

TRICARE Prime Enrollment Fees Going Up In October

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

increasing costsBrace yourselves: If you’re a military retiree or retiree dependent/family member, your TRICARE enrollment fee will be going up, effective tomorrow, October 1. The amount of the hike depends on when you enrolled. The new fee will be $269.28 per year for individual enrollees, and $538.56 per year for families. For those of you who were enrolled prior to October 1st of 2011, your 2011 fees were $230 and $460, respectively.

If you enrolled after that date, your current fee is slightly larger than those who enrolled prior to October 1, 2011.

Even so, TRICARE rates are bargain-basement, compared to private sector plans offering benefits anywhere near comparable – even where civilian employers are paying half your premium. On a monthly basis, TRICARE Prime costs $22.44 per month for individuals, and precisely twice that for families.

Exception: If you are a survivor of a deceased servicemember, or if you have been medically retired, your fees will not be going up. You are exempted from fee hikes, as long as you are continuously enrolled in TRICARE Prime. 

Wisconsin Military Voters Told To Turn In Ballots…A Week Late

Posted by Charlotte Webster

During the 2004 presidential campaign, the satirical website The Onion published a humorous fake news story that depicted Republican operative urging minorities to vote… a day too late.

That was pure satire.

This story, though, is real:

Elections officials staffing the federal voting assistance website listed an incorrect deadline for receiving absentee military ballots in Wisconsin. The website listed November 16th as the deadline. The actual deadline is 4 p.m. November 9th – the Friday following the election.

Here’s a screen grab, taken from the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s website:

 

Wisconsin military voting dates 

The snafu was apparently first detected by MacIver News Service, itself an arm of the MacIver Institute of Public Policy. The organization is a Wisconsin-based think-tank that promotes conservative politics and ideology.

Wisconsin is considered a battleground state in this years’ presidential election. Military ballots historically trend towards Republicans. The error could have led to hundreds of Wisconsin military ballots arriving too late to be counted in the election. The error could have turned the state, in the event of a tight race.

Wisconsin has 10 electoral votes.

 If you are a Wisconsin resident, you can request an absentee ballot be emailed or to you by emailing your municipal clerk. Wisconsin does not allow you to return your ballot electronically.

According to a recent Pew study it takes 26 days, on average, for a Wisconsin absentee voter to navigate the absentee voting system, obtain a ballot, fill it out, and mail the ballot in where it can be counted. So backwards time-plan accordingly.

Wisconsin does not require military absentee voters to register ahead of time.

What I Never Receive My Ballot?

Fortunately, if Wisconsin – or any other state – fails to send your ballot on time, or if they sent it but for whatever reason you didn’t receive it, or you lost it, there is a back-up plan available: Download the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot, or FWAB. This ballot, good in all 50 states, is intended for military and other absentee voters who haven’t gotten their ballots with 30 days or less left to go before the election.

Just write in your preferences – clearly and legibly, please, from your municipality’s sample ballot – and return it according to the instructions. 

Stop Loss Pay Deadline Looms

Posted by S.E. Davidson Parker

stop loss pay deadlineService members whose active duty was involuntarily extended beyond their original agreements are facing an October 21st, 2012 deadline to apply for stop loss pay benefits. The Department of Defense increased the use of stop loss after the advent of the terrorist attack of September 11th. It reached its highest use in 2005, and the policy is slated to discontinue in 2011 by a 2009 directive of the-Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

This is not an automatic benefit; those who experienced stop loss must apply to receive the funds. You must have served under stop loss between September 11th, 2001 and September 30th, 2009. For each month served under stop loss, veteran service members will receive a bonus of $500.

Your application must include:

  • DD 2944, Claim for Retroactive Stop Loss Payment; and from the DD2944 form
    • DD 214, Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty and/or DD Form 215, Correction to DD Form 214;
    • Personnel record or enlistment or reenlistment document recording original expiration of service date;
    • Approved retirement memorandum or orders establishing retirement prior to actual date of retirement as stipulated on DD 214 or DD 215;
    • Approved resignation memorandum or transition orders establishing a separation date prior to actual date of separation as stipulated in DD 214 or DD 215; and
    • Signed documentation or affidavit from knowledgeable officials from the individual’s chain of command acknowledging separation/deployment, etc.

Your branch of service may request more information and documentation after receiving your application. Each branch of service processes its own stop loss claims; the address for each service’s claim processing is located on the DD2294.

Veterans who voluntarily reenlisted after being told they were to undergo a stop loss and received a bonus for that reenlistment are ineligible for this program.

Homeowners Assistance Program Deadline is September 30th

Posted by Charlotte Webster

VA mortgageIf you were planning on taking advantage of the temporarily extended Homeowners Assistance Program, or HAP, it’s time to get a move on. The deadline to apply is September 30th.

HAP provides financial assistance to homeowners who are upside down in their homes because of base closures or realignments. The term ‘upside-down’ means the homeowners owe more on their homes than their homes are worth.

The Homeowners Assistance Program actually consists of two distinct parts: The first part, Conventional HAP, dates back to 1966, and was specifically designed to help federal and military workers sell their homes where housing prices were depressed because of base closures. The Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 expanded the program to include disabled members of the military and spouses of deceased servicemembers.

The September 30th deadline applies specifically to those going for benefits under conventional HAP.

To qualify for these benefits, you must meet the following criteria:

  • You must have been the home’s owner and occupant on 13 May 2005,
  • You must have taken a hit of 10 percent or more on your home because of a base realignment or closing.
  • You had to relocate more than 50 miles to your new post, or you were forced to retire because your job or post no longer exists.
  • You must sell your home between 1 July 2006 and 30 September 2012.

PCS Criteria

  • To claim HAP PCS benefits, you must meet the following criteria:
  • Your PCS orders must be dated between 1 February 2006 and 30 September 2010.
  • You must have been required to move at least 50 miles.
  • You must have closed or committed to close on the property prior to 1 July 2006.
  • The property must be the primary residence of the owner.
  • You must not have received benefits under Expanded HAP Benefit Payments previously.

Benefits

The HAP may compensate you with the appraised value when you actually sell it. The government reimburses closing costs for private sales.

Those applying under PCS or BRAC 2005 auspices (those whose positions were eliminated or they were forced to move because of a base closure) must sell their houses by September 30th to receive assistance, though a 1 month extension was recently granted for Fort Monmouth, New Jersey and NAS Brunswick, Maine. So things are down to the wire for that group.

Extended HAP Benefits

Extended HAP benefits go to wounded or disabled servicemembers with a VA disability rating of 30 percent or higher, or those whose military doctors certify are likely to receive a 30 percent or higher disability rating. However, there must be a specific reason why the servicemember must relocate (and sell the home). Examples of valid reasons include to obtain better access to treatment, be closer to caregivers or to find work that you can do with the disability.

Disqualifications

The following groups do not qualify for HAP benefits:

  • Those who retire prior to the federal mandatory retirement dates.
  • Those who are entering active duty (these people may fall under the Soldiers and Sailors Act to ward off foreclosure and bankruptcy proceedings, though).
  • Service members who leave or are discharged voluntarily.
  • Servicemembers who request voluntary release from active duty (REFRAD).
  • Servicemembers released for substandard performance or misconduct.

Application

To apply for the HAP program, you’ll need the following documents:

  • DD Form 1607, Application for Homeowners Assistance
  • The deed to your dwelling with recording information such as book, page number, date of recording of deed; or bar code.
  • Transfer orders, or amendment orders; DoD civilians provide a copy of a SF50.
  • Retirement orders or separation letter. This will provide further evidence of your relocation.
  • A statement from utility company indicating occupancy dates.
  • DD Form 1300 Report of Casualty, if applicable.

A full brochure is here. If you are working with a real estate agent, and you think you may fall under one the HAP criteria, give this document to your agent.

Treat PTSD – With an Injection?

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

doctor with needleTreat our returning warriors with a shot.

That’s the logic behind a new treatment for post-traumatic stress symptoms – and at least one clinician is reporting substantial early success.

This isn’t an ordinary flu shot, though. The injection required applies an anesthetic to “numb” a conflux of nerves inside your spine, close to the 7th vertebrae. Basically, it requires a horse needle to penetrate an inch and a half of tissue and inject the anesthetic directly into your spine.

The therapy itself isn’t new. It’s been used in pain management circles since the 1920s, and it’s widely used to treat menopausal symptoms among women. But one scientist, Dr. Eugene Lipov, an anesthesiologist practicing in the Chicago area, has modified the technique and is applying it to help individuals suffering from severe PTSD to control their symptoms.

The Theory

Why does it work? Well, even Dr. Lipov isn’t entirely sure – which is part of why he’s been having trouble receiving funding to expand research and trials. But the theory is this: Traumatic experiences, such as combat, near-death experiences, rapes and the like, are associated with the manufacture of a hormone called Nerve Growth Factor. This causes the runaway development of nerves – specifically in a region of the spine called the Stellate Ganglion.

Historically, scientists have thought that they could control sympathetic symptoms of certain disorders by numbing the nerves in the Stellate Ganglion. For example, scientists have reported some success in helping breast cancer patients control night sweat symptoms, mitigate “hot flashes” in menopausal sufferers, and control profuse sweating of the hands.

Lipov was familiar with the technique in treating sympathetic nervous symptomology in these ailments, and hypothesized that the same logic might be effective in controlling certain symptoms of PTSD.

Is It Safe?

Some military people have viewed the technique with some trepidation. After all, memories die hard, and yes, the government did deliberately infect a number of servicemen with syphilis years ago.

This does not appear to be one of those cases. The treatment has a decades-long track record, and is generally considered safe. Side effects (other than the obvious pain and soreness you would expect when sticking a needle 1 ½ inches into your spine) are extremely rare. Doctors warn against the procedure if you are taking a blood-thinning agent, but that’s true of any invasive procedure. But long-term negative effects in previous applications of the treatment were on the order of 1 in 100,000.

More common side effects include difficulty swallowing and “a lump in the throat.”

Does it work?

It’s too soon to say for sure. An early study, published this year in the American Journal of Psychiatry, suggests that four PTSD patients out of nine reported an immediate and substantial improvement in PTSD symptoms. The problem: There were only nine patients in the study.

Naturally, it will take money to expand the study to a more meaningful sample of PTSD patients. But the government so far isn’t playing ball, according to wired reporter Katie Drummond, who has been following the story for some years already.

The application to PTSD is novel – but did have a full peer-review in the February 2012 issue of Military Medicine, a professional journal by and for the military surgical and medical community.

The study’s authors broadly confirmed earlier findings by Lipov and others, and reported the treatments appeared to be effective at helping mitigate two of the three major symptoms of PTSD – isolation and hyperarousal. There was no real improvement in “re-experiencing,” however. But the study only involved eight patients. There were almost as many doctors (seven) co-authoring the study… and one of them was Lipov.

Alternatives

While it seems counterintuitive at first blush, to treat a psychological ailment with an injection, most of the therapies currently in use aren’t exactly working out great. Other medications – antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and the like, can take months to become effective. And cognitive/behavioral therapies – talking it out on a couch – can take many months, with the therapist racking up billable hours all along the way. Even then, existing treatments for PTSD aren’t knocking the ball out of the park.

Cognitive therapy costs thousands of dollars per veteran over time – as do conventional drug therapies. In contrast, a stellate ganglion block treatment takes 10 minutes and costs about a thousand dollars.

Which is one reason why we expect the treatments’ popularity to grow among doctors.

But so far – and taken with the appropriate large grains of salt that such small samples demand  – the treatment appears at least occasionally effective, and provides immediate symptom relief – within hours, claim the Military Medicine studies.

Early indications are that the treatment is even effective with “hard cases.” That is, treatment-resistant PTSD cases that have not been responsive to cognitive/behavioral therapy and pharmaceutical treatments.

But you didn’t expect the easy cases to line up around the block to receive a horse needle in the back, did you?

President Signs Executive Order Expanding Mental Health Services for Military

Posted by Charlotte Webster

Obama FtBliss msnbcPresident Barack Obama signed an executive order on August 31st directing a number of federal agencies to expand access to mental health care and services for servicemembers, their families and veterans. The measure comes amidst an epidemic of suicides among military members —  amounting to as much as one per day.

Specifically, the executive order contained the following provisions:

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs was directed to increase their veteran crisis hotline capacity by 50 percent.
  • The VA was also directed to ensure that all veterans reporting themselves to be in crisis “connect with” a trained mental health professional within 24 hours or less.
  • The VA was directed to work with the Defense Department to develop and implement a 12-month suicide prevention campaign (apparently they have to be told to do this).
  • In areas where the VA has trouble recruiting qualified professionals, the President has directed them to form “pilot sites,” which will contract with local professionals to provide needed services.
  • The VA is directed to hire 800 “peer-to-peer” support counselors, and as many as 1,600 new mental health care workers.

The President announced the executive order during a visit to Fort Bliss, Texas.

One former Army psychiatrist, however, says the order doesn’t go far enough. Writing for Time Magazine, COL Elspeth Cameron Ritchie argues that the Veterans Administration is already trying to hire 1,600 additional mental health care professionals, even without the executive order.

COL Ritchie has published extensively on mental health care issues concerning veterans and survivors of traumatic experiences. She collaborated with a number of colleagues to make additional recommendations for the President. Among them:

  • Educate civilian mental health workers on how to work with veterans.
  • Educate police and corrections officers on best practices in working with veterans.
  • Train more college counselors.
  • Bring more anti-PTSD medications to market, or expand their use.
  • Re-look at security clearance questionnaires that force servicemembers to reveal mental health treatment, potentially discouraging some servicemembers from seeking treatment.

COL Ritchie also wrote “we need to re-look at gun laws, and ensure that gun safety is emphasized. This is the ‘third rail’ of suicide prevention, and I fear that no Presidential candidate will discuss this.”

What do you think of COL Ritchie’s implication that military members and veterans either aren’t trained on the safe handling of firearms, or that their access to firearms must be restricted?

Do you think this and her other suggestions would make a difference? 

 

(Photo credit: MSNBC)

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