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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is encouraging community members, individuals, businesses and organizations to help support hospitalized Veterans nationwide by turning good intentions into action on this International Volunteer Day Dec. 5. Each year, thousands of Veterans spend the holidays at VA inpatient facilities away from family and friends. “The holidays can be an especially lonely and challenging time for hospitalized Veterans,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “Volunteering is a meaningful way to provide kindness and get into the overall spirit of giving by showing these Veterans that they are not forgotten.” International Volunteer Day, designated by the United Nations in 1985, aims to encourage people around the world to volunteer in their communities. Through VA’s Voluntary Service program, upwards of 61,000 volunteers have donated more than 8 million hours to Veterans nationwide this year. To learn more about VA’s many volunteer opportunities, visit VA’s Voluntary Service website.
December brings a slew of decorations, but a wreath adorning the tombstone of a veteran tops the list for hordes of volunteers annually. While the month’s decorations speak the holiday language, National Wreaths Across America Day dictates an all too familiar message for veterans everywhere — Remember, Honor, Teach.   Angel Ramirez, a member of VFW Post 3225 in Clovis, Calif., places a wreath on a veteran’s grave last December at Red Bank Cemetery just east of Clovis where 225 veterans are buried. The Post works with Wreaths Across America to ensure veterans’ graves are decorated. For Bill Rogers, a Life member of VFW Post 3225 in Clovis, Calif., the pilgrimage alongside others in the community across Academy and Red Bank cemeteries distributing wreaths captures the essence of paying tribute to fallen veterans.    “It’s all about remembering our veterans that won’t be with us during the Christmas time,” said Rogers, who served as an Air Force police officer in Vietnam in 1971-72. “We’ve been doing it for about five years now, honoring them twice a year.” Rogers and 40 other Post 3225 members join a community of volunteers that include boys and girls scouts at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District twice a year, decorating 350 graves with wreaths in December and U.S. flags on Veterans Day.  “We start in Clovis and end at Red Bank, which is about five miles east of town,” Rogers said. “Red Bank is also on the side of a mountain, so putting up flags there makes for a neat sight as we honor our veterans.” Post 3225 joins legions of VFW Posts worldwide yearly in honoring veterans through the Wreaths Across America initiative, whose humble beginnings in 1992 snowballed into a network of volunteers that continues to grow today. According to the Wreaths Across America website, the organization peaked in 2014 by draping 1,000 locations that included Puerto Rico and 24 overseas cemeteries with more than 700,000 ardent, red wreaths to commemorate veterans. But it’s WAA’s commitment to teaching the younger generations that brings remembrance and honor for veterans full-circle.  In the case of Post 3225, the passing of member Dennis Van Zandt last year exemplifies the bond a generation makes in continuing tradition. “Honoring one of our own means a lot to us,” Rogers said. “He passed away last year, and he used to help as a cook during our Veterans Memorial pancake breakfast fundraisers, so now his daughter has stepped into that role to help us out. She will join us in honoring her father and other veterans this year as well.” VFW members can join their Post’s tribute to fallen veterans at this year’s National Wreaths Across America Day slated for Dec. 14. For more information, visit wreathsacrossamerica.org.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie praised members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs today for setting the goal of getting important Veterans suicide prevention legislation passed before the end of the year. Wilkie appeared before HVAC today to testify in support of H.R. 3495, the Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act. The bipartisan bill, which currently has 228 cosponsors, would allow VA to offer direct grants to Veterans service organizations, caregivers and nonprofits at the state and local level, letting these groups use grants to tailor aid to the Veterans in their communities for the purposes of suicide prevention. While HVAC leaders are still finalizing the precise legislative vehicle and language through which to accomplish the goals of H.R. 3495, HVAC Chairman Mark Takano during the hearing expressed support for getting final legislation passed in 2019. “I do want to get this legislation passed before the end of the year,” Takano said. After the hearing, Secretary Wilkie released the following statement: “To reach the roughly 60 percent of veterans who die by suicide each day without any recent connection to VA care, the government needs to reach far beyond its walls and work with as many partners as it can. I am fighting for legislation that would give VA the ability to do just that, and I am encouraged Chairman Takano shares my goal of getting the legislation passed before the end of the year.”
An idea spawned at a VFW national convention allowed a Maryland Auxiliary to help blind students learn the history of the U.S. flag   For a classroom of young students in Maryland, school begins like every other day — by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Thanks to members of Auxiliary 8509 in Baltimore, these students got to feel these words recently — by reading them in Braille. A child explores a Braille version of the U.S. flag, such as those used by students at the Maryland School for the Blind in Nottingham near Baltimore. An instructor at the school said students “really enjoyed the tactile flags, and teachers wove it into their curriculum lessons.” They study at the Maryland School for the Blind (MSB) in Nottingham, Md., where Cynthia Palmer Davis, life member and president of the Department of Maryland Auxiliary, recently gifted a supply of “tactile,” or perceptible by touch, U.S. flags to school administrators and faculty. “The students really enjoyed the tactile flags, and teachers wove it into their curriculum lessons,” said Carol Seckington, principal of the Functional Academic and Autism Blind programs at the MSB. “They were excited and curious when the flags were distributed. The explanation about the colors of the flag and what the stars and stripes represented was interesting and helped students understand the representation of having the hands-on tactile representation.”  Davis said distributing the flags gave her a sense of pride. “I was excited to learn they have students starting as early as pre-kindergarten, and that these young people would have a tool to help them learn the Pledge of Allegiance,” she said. “Guilt is what I felt when a staff member told me that no one had ever approached their students to participate in our scholarships, but that feeling quickly gave way to joy. Because this opens new possibilities not only for the students, but the VFW and Auxiliary as well.” The tactile flags also led to sharing information about the VFW Auxiliary and VFW scholarship programs, such as the Auxiliary’s Young American Creative Patriotic Art Contest and VFW’s Patriot’s Pen and the Voice of Democracy contests. By giving the flags, Auxiliary membership introduced them to the scholarship programs. “I was determined to make sure that the VFW and VFW Auxiliary extend educational opportunities to all youth populations,” Davis said, “and special-needs youth are included in that outreach. Now my heart is led to share all available resources with them.” Davis discovered the tactile flags at VFW’s 119th National Convention in Kansas City, Mo., last year. The Kansas Braille Transcription Institute (KBTI) in Wichita produces the flags. Randolph Christopher Cabral created the American Braille flag in honor of his late father, World War II veteran Jesus Sanchez “Chuy” Cabral. The elder Cabral lost his sight to glaucoma later in life. Randolph, who had taken an interest in Braille and services for the blind, founded the institute in Wichita the same year his father passed away. In his father’s memory and with the intention of aiding those who are blind or low-vision, Randolph hatched his idea of the Braille American flag. Today, this resource is made for portability and ease of distribution. Randolph and KBTI are hopeful for and interested in making it possible for all of America’s blind and deaf/blind children to learn the Pledge of Allegiance. In the upper Midwest, Lucetta Jasinski, a member of Auxiliary 2895 in Cudahy, Wis., distributed tactile flags to Vision Forward (formerly Badger Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired) in Milwaukee. Vision Forward provides a continuum of services from birth to adulthood to individuals with visual impairments. It focuses on helping them achieve important developmental, educational, personal and professional goals. Jasinski said giving the tactile flag to them was “near and dear” to her heart because she has family members who have lost their sight. To obtain tactile U.S. flags from KBTI, visit kbti.org or call 316.265.9692. Proceeds generated by these flags benefit blind and low-vision veterans and other blind/low-vision Americans.  This article is featured in the 2019 November/December issue of VFW magazine, and was written by Amanda Cook. Amanda is the editor-in-chief of the VFW Auxiliary Magazine.
(Photo by MEREDITH TIBBETTS/STARS AND STRIPES) NOV 20, 2019 November 20   By Rose L. Thayer/Stars and Stripes   A Washington monument to honor Medal of Honor recipients was proposed Tuesday in legislation introduced by two Texas congressmen. The National Medal of Honor Monument Act, filed by Reps. Marc Veasey, a Democrat, and Ron Wright, a Republican, tasks the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation with the creation of a monument in Washington to honor the more than 3,500 recipients of the nation’s highest award for military service. The bill also recognizes Arlington, Texas, as the new home of the National Medal of Honor Museum, also under the management of the foundation. Last month, the north Texas city, located 20 miles west of downtown Dallas, was named as the home of the future museum by the Medal of Honor Museum Foundation. “We look forward to working with the bipartisan contingent of elected officials to make sure we are doing all that we can to honor the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients and get this great piece of legislation passed," said Joe Daniels, CEO and president of the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation. The foundation has identified potential sites for a monument and is working with a bipartisan group of members in Congress to build the monument in an ideal location as quickly as possible, according to a spokesperson for the foundation. Information related to the rendering and cost of the monument is not yet available, but will use private and public donations. The measure has gained 18 cosponsors, 12 of which are from Texas. After introduction, it was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, according to the lower chamber’s website. The full text of the bill is not yet available. “I am honored to introduce this legislation that will honor these brave men and women for risking their lives to protect our democracy,” Veasey said in a statement. “I am also proud to join my fellow North Texan, Congressman Wright, to ensure that the city of Arlington, Texas, will be the forever home of this new Medal of Honor Museum.” Wright expressed similar sentiments in a statement. These service members’ contributions “deserve to be memorialized with a monument,” he said. "These men and women went above and beyond the call of duty on the battlefield in order to preserve our values and way of life," Wright said. The Arlington museum is scheduled to open to the public in 2024 and will be located near two professional sports stadiums also located in the city. It will feature permanent, interactive experiences and rotating exhibitions and an education center. Members of The American Legion can receive 50 percent discounts on annual subscriptions to the Stars and Stripes digital platform of exclusive military news, topics of interest to veterans, special features, photos and other content, including the daily e-newspaper, job listings and history. American Legion members can subscribe for $19.99 a year by visiting legion.stripes.com and using the coupon code LEGIONSTRONG when filling out the online form.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently renewed a nationwide partnership with Y-USA that focuses on whole health to enhance services available that promote the health and well-being of Veterans, their families and caregivers. In the next phase of the partnership, renewed Oct. 1, VA and YMCA of the USA — the national entity that oversees YMCA facilities across the country — will share ideas and success stories to expand the program at the local level. “This partnership will bring together local YMCAs’ expertise in strengthening the community through healthy living and social responsibility with VA’s highest health care standards for Veterans,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “Partnerships provide opportunities for physical fitness, social integration and community service that address what Veterans are seeking.” VA, Vet Centers and local YMCAs are working together to increase awareness about YMCA programs — including community events, whole-health groups, Veterans benefits and services clinics, and youth activities — by creating a toolkit of best practices and resources for local YMCAs. The partners will also develop a pilot collaboration program between local YMCAs and Mobile Vet Centers and community-based counseling centers that provide a wide range of social and mental health services. VA will support and encourage its local and national offices and medical facilities to enter into agreements with YMCAs to provide programming and services targeting the Veteran population. Y-USA will share information, resources and spaces such as meeting rooms with VA to facilitate Veteran outreach events and services outside of VA facilities. Y-USA will also work to integrate Veterans and their families into social, volunteer and mentorship programs. This partnership is coordinated through the Veterans Health Administration, (VHA) Office of Community Engagement (OCE), a trusted resource and a catalyst for collaboration at the national, state and community levels. Partnershipscoordinated by OCE support VHA’s commitment to delivering personalized, proactive, patient-driven health care.
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced today that unions will be required to vacate or pay rent for the use of VA office space and equipment that they previously used for free.  Further, VA employees who serve as union representatives are now expected to spend at least 75 percent of their paid time performing VA business or necessary training in most circumstances. The changes are part of VA’s implementation of the following three important Executive Orders: Developing efficient, effective, and cost-reducing approaches to federal sector collective bargaining (13836) Ensuring transparency, accountability, and efficiency in taxpayer funded union time use (13837) Promoting accountability and streamlining removal procedures consistent with merit systems principles (13839) The Executive Orders generally end the practice of offering free or discounted use of government property to labor organizations. VA will provide union leaders with rental costs for all union-occupied spaces by Dec. 13, and unions have until Jan. 10, 2020, to notify VA of their intent to either vacate or rent each VA space currently occupied. If there is no notice of intent to rent received, VA will consider the lack of notice an intent to vacate. Unless a notice of intent to rent is received, unions have until Jan. 31, 2020, to: Remove from all VA controlled space any property belonging to the union, its officers, representatives or other affiliates. Return any government furnished equipment provided to the union, its officers, representatives or other affiliates for the purpose of conducting non-VA business. Prohibiting the free or discounted use of government property for union business will either result in new revenue for the government or more office space to benefit Veterans. At the Salem VA Medical Center alone, AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee and other union officials are occupying more than 7,500 square feet of space, which they will now need to vacate or rent under the Executive Orders. The Executive Orders also seek to limit taxpayer-funded union time, redirecting man hours from union business back to direct services and medical care. In FY 2016, VA employees spent more than a million duty hours on taxpayer-funded union time at a cost of more than $49 million. The Executive Orders generally require union representatives and employees to request and receive written approval prior to the use of taxpayer-funded union time.  Further, the Executive Orders require all VA employees to spend at least 75 percent of their paid time performing VA business or necessary training, unless otherwise authorized by law (e.g., 5 U.S.C. §§ 7131(a) and (c)), regulation, or an exception in the Executive Order. Finally, as part of the Executive Orders, VA will not:  Reimburse employees for expenses incurred performing non-agency business, unless required by law or regulation. Approve taxpayer-funded union time for lobbying activities, as conducting lobbying activities while on paid time is prohibited for all Department employees. Approve taxpayer-funded union time for preparing or pursuing grievances, including arbitration, on behalf of bargaining unit employees, except where such use is otherwise authorized by law or regulation, or Executive Order. “Common sense dictates that VA employees’ main focus should be providing Veterans the best possible care, benefits and customer service. At the same time, unions using VA facilities should have to pay their fair share,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “These Executive Orders will help ensure that’s the case.”
(Photo by Steven B. Brooks)   By Steven B. Brooks NOV 12, 2019   The Legionnaires from American Legion Post 18 in Weehawken, N.J., have managed to more than double the post’s membership in two years, thanks in part to focusing on community involvement. That involvement, along with following the Legion’s long-time mantra of “veterans helping veterans”, was at the forefront of the post’s Veterans Day mission. Yes, post members attended three Veterans Day ceremonies in the area – including one it co-conducted with Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1923 – that morning. But in the afternoon, Post 18 members made visits to fellow post members who haven’t been involved in recent post activities. One such member was World War II veteran Ernie Troisi, a 91-year-old widower in nearby Union City. Post 18 Commander Chris Page, First Vice Commander Troy Robert Mack and member Craig Vogel – all post-9/11 veterans – walked more than a mile to visit Troisi in the home the veteran has lived in since birth. The goal was to perform a “buddy check” on their fellow members, as well as pass out membership cards. “They love being identified as Legionnaires,” said Page, who was active duty in the Army from 1992-1999 and currently is a sergeant first class in the Army Reserves. “And that’s what (non-commissioned officers) do in the service. You’re supposed to check up on your troops. We’re charged … with the health and welfare of our troops. What we like to do is check up on our members and make sure they’re OK. We also check in on their families as well. It goes back to helping out with the community.” The Legion contingent was joined by members of Pin-Ups on Tour, whose members recreate the magic of the Hollywood Canteen that operated during the 1940s as a club offering dancing and entertainment for servicemembers who were normally on their way to an overseas deployment. Troisi, whose wife passed away in the past year, shared photos he had of he and his wife, their family and Troisi’s younger years, when he was a gymnast and a track athlete. Page asked Troisi if there was anything he needed; Post 18 will help collect Troisi’s wife’s clothes that the veteran wants to donate to someone, as well as seeing that his disabled doorbell is working. “I really appreciate it,” Troisi said of the visit. “Thank you so much for coming by.” Mack, who served in the Army from 2004-2009 and now is the director of Human Services for Weehawken, said conducting the buddy checks is “literally just the right thing to do. Lord knows we would love to do this more often and more frequently. But certainly today is a day you call on your buddy and make sure that your buddy’s doing OK.”
The Department of Defense is expanding commissary, military exchange, and morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) retail privileges on U.S. military installations as specified in the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018, included in the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019. Starting Jan. 1, 2020, access will expand to include all veterans with service-connected disabilities, veterans who are Purple Heart recipients, veterans who are former prisoners of war, and individuals approved and designated as the primary family caregivers of eligible veterans under the Department of Veterans Affairs Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers. While this expansion will extend eligibility to over 4.1 million new patrons, the Department expects little to no impact on current patrons in most locations. There may be some impact in areas with a high cost of living, but the Department is preparing to accommodate all new patrons. "These new privileges recognize the service and sacrifice of these veterans and those that care for them," A.T. Johnston, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Military Community and Family Policy, said. "If you or someone you know might be eligible for these privileges, share the message," Johnston said. "Please help us ensure these veterans and caregivers receive the privileges they've been granted." New patrons eligible solely under this authority should be aware that the law requires the Defense Department charge them a small user fee to offset the increased expense incurred by the Department of the Treasury for processing commercial credit or debit cards used for purchases at commissary stores. The Department of Defense is finalizing the details for these new privileges with the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and the Treasury. Information will be announced soon regarding installation access and the authentication process for these privileges. To learn more about the commissary, military exchange and MWR expansion, visit https://download.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Factsheets/expanding-access-fact-sheet.pdf
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Board) was named a finalist Oct. 30, for the 9th Annual U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation Hiring Our Heroes awards and is a contender for the Military Spouse Employment and Mentoring Award. The Hiring Our Heroes initiative launched in March 2011 is a nationwide effort to connect Veterans, transitioning service members and military spouses with meaningful employment opportunities. In July, the Board and Hiring Our Heroes partnered to promote best practices for the hiring and retaining of military spouses throughout the federal government. “Military spouse employment in the federal government is important not just because of the unique qualities military spouses possess,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “It supports the whole health of the military family.” The Board joined the Department of Defense’s Military Spouse Employment Partnership in October 2018 and plans to identify additional best practices for hiring military spouses through a Board military spouse working group. The award winners will be announced Nov. 13.