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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)  proposed a rule, Jan. 16, that would implement President Trump’s, May 3, 2018, Executive Order (EO) establishing a White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, to remove regulatory barriers allowing religious and non-religious organizations equal treatment in VA-supported social service programs.  The proposed rule ensures VA-supported social service programs are implemented in a manner consistent with the Constitution and other applicable federal law.  Under current regulations governing these programs, religious providers of social services — but not other providers of social services — must make referrals under certain circumstances and must post notices regarding this referral procedure. VA’s proposed rule would eliminate religious providers from this requirement.   The current hinderances were not required by any applicable law, and because they were imposed only on religious social service providers, they are in tension with recent Supreme Court precedent regarding nondiscrimination against religious organizations. The proposed rule will foreclose other unequal treatment of religious organizations by ensuring they are not required to provide assurances or notices that are not required of secular organizations.   By compelling religious organizations, but not secular organizations, to post special notices and make referrals, the alternative-provider requirements unequally placed impediments on religious organizations and cast unwarranted suspicion on them.  Additionally, the proposed rule will clarify that religious organizations may apply for awards on the same basis as any other organization and that when VA selects award recipients, VA will not discriminate based on an organization’s religious character. The proposed rule further clarifies that religious organizations participating in VA-supported social service programs retain their independence from the government and may continue to carry out their missions consistent with religious freedom protections in federal law, under the First Amendment.   The proposed rule incorporates the Attorney General’s 2017 Memorandum for All Executive Departments and Agencies, Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty. That memorandum was issued pursuant to President Trump’s, May 4, 2017, Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty, which guides all federal administrative agencies and executive departments in complying with federal law.  “Protecting religious liberty is a key part of ensuring Veterans, families and potential partners — no matter their religious beliefs — feel welcome to work with and seek services from VA,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “These important changes will help us accomplish these important goals.”   
The Mission Continues helps Veterans and other service members continue their service after serving in uniform. Utilizing skills developed in the military, Veteran volunteers deploy to work alongside other non-profit groups to make improvements in under-resourced communities. The Mission Continues Core Values The non-profit centers their work around five core values: Work Hard Trust Learn and Grow Respect Have Fun These values influence how the organization and its volunteers operate. Who Can Volunteer? Thousands of volunteers throughout the country work with The Mission Continues every year. Volunteering opportunities are open to Veterans, National Guard and reserve members; some are open to civilians. The organization offers programs for volunteers to help communities, including deployment groups that work in a particular city. These groups work on various projects, including helping to renovate schools and clean up parks, as well as working with organizations like The Boys and Girls Club of America. Leaders of Social Change One of the leading training programs offered, the Service Leadership Corps, prepares volunteers to become community-based leaders of social change. The program requires an application and Veterans must commit to three to five hours per week for approximately six months, along with attending four weekend sessions. The program pays for travel, meals and lodging for these four sessions. In addition, volunteers must reside in a metro area of a city where the organization operates in and meet certain requirements relating to their service record. Professional Development Grants are available for qualifying members who complete the Service Leadership Corps program. There are also job openings offered by The Mission Continues, with over 50% of their employees being Veterans. Connect with other Veterans Volunteering with The Mission Continues provides many benefits. Veterans use skills developed from the military to help a community while making connections with other Veterans and those in their area. Volunteers also build on communication and resilience skills throughout their work. Learn more at: https://missioncontinues.org/.  The sharing of any non-VA information does not constitute an endorsement of products and services on part of the VA. Written by Isabel Nulter and graphics designed by Austin Waters, student interns working with VA’s Digital Media Engagement team.
By Steve Beynon/Stars and Stripes   Housing and veterans officials told House lawmakers Tuesday that the veteran homeless rate has dropped to a 10-year low as thousands of federal vouchers that could help get more veterans off the streets went unused. “There are so many unused vouchers and so many homeless veterans remaining,” Keith Harris, the national director of clinical operations for Veterans Health Administration, said Tuesday during a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing on veteran homelessness. The Department of Housing and Urban Development reported last week that the homelessness rate among veterans is at a 10-year low, as overall homelessness increased across the country. Some lawmakers and Department of Veterans Affairs officials have largely credited the decrease to the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program, which helps veterans with rental assistance and VA support services. Harris said more than 800,000 veterans and their families have used the HUD-VASH program since 2010, calling it one of the “most important resources for ending veteran homelessness” and saying the collaboration between nonprofits and multiple state and federal agencies makes eliminating veteran homelessness an attainable goal. Nationally, the homeless population is up 3%, which HUD attributes to a ballooning crisis in California where homelessness increased 21% between 2018 and 2019. But the number of homeless veterans in the United States is down to 37,000, according to HUD. This is a decrease of 2% in the last year and a 50% decrease since 2010, said Hunter Kurtz, assistant secretary for Public and Indian Housing for HUD. Last year, about 8% of the homeless population were veterans. But the program intended to help veterans find a place to live isn’t being used by thousands of potentially eligible former service members due to a lack of VA staff and skyrocketing costs of living in some parts of the country, according to Harris. “One homeless veteran is one too many,” Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., said during the hearing. “Right now we are not good enough at identifying at-risk veterans and connecting them with services before they become homeless.” The HUD-VASH program has more than 100,000 vouchers issued nationally right now, but 11,000 are not being used by a veteran. Of the 37,000 homeless former service members, nearly one-third of them can possibly find subsidized housing. A roadblock with vouchers for some veterans is skyrocketing costs of living in some parts of the country, specifically urban areas, according to Harris. “All over the country the vouchers are just not enough,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla. “Veterans are having a hard time because it’s just not enough and they’re having a hard time paying for things like electricity. We’re very fortunate to have nonprofits kick-in.” Harris said HUD is working to increase the number of federal subsidized living spaces, put a ceiling on rising rents and make the vouchers more useful. He also pointed to the VA being short staffed with case managers, which the department is seeking new ways to process homeless case work such as using contractors. “One critical strategy [to ending veteran homelessness] is increasing the number of case managers,” Harris said. “Along with the lack of affordable housing, the lack of case workers is unquestionably the great limiting factors in voucher utilization.” 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.
Jim Pasqualini’s search for his uncle’s final moment landed him in Normandy, France, face-to-face with an old stone church sitting at the center of a roundabout and guarded by two oak trees towering over its steps.    Jim Pasqualini in November stands near where his uncle, Frank, was believed to have died back on July 11, 1944, in Saint-Georges-d’Elle, about six miles northeast of St. Lo, France. He stood there, studying a World War II battle map that had taken him on a route through a swath of old farm homes flying both the French and U.S. flags across Saint-Georges-d’Elle, a small village about six miles northeast of St. Lo, France.    “I couldn’t take my eyes off of this old stone church,” said Pasqualini, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and member of the VFW Department of Virginia residing in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. “I just knew that my uncle had seen this church on the day he died.” Frank Pasqualini had lived through D-Day, being one of the first on the shores of Omaha along the coast of Normandy with the 741st Tank Battalion. But unlike the U.S. troops that would later bask in the glorious sea of Parisians welcoming their saviors during a parade across the Champs Elysees, he met his fate on July 11, 1944 — a month and 18 days before the liberation.  “He was the only one of my four uncles that died in battle during WWII,” Pasqualini said. “I remember my grandma, Dina, speak fondly about him. I always wanted to honor him by visiting the site where he died 75 years ago.” Prior to his trip to France in November 2019, Pasqualini had previously honored his uncle Frank by arranging a memorial ceremony at Richmond National Cemetery in Virginia, where a joint grave held his uncle and two other men, Thomas R. Fair and Willis E. Nixon.  At Saint-Georges-d’Elle, however, Pasqualini came full circle. The locals in Saint-Georges-d’Elle, a community of about 200 residents, showed Pasqualini and his girlfriend around, helping him decipher the exact location where in 1944 a German rocket obliterated his uncle’s M4 Sherman tank — taking the lives of four of the five soldiers inside. During a dinner visit with a French couple residing in one of the 20 modern townhomes in town, Pasqualini found his answer. The couple happened to live behind a ravine dubbed “Purple Heart Draw” by the Americans during the war, a nickname attributed to the loss of many U.S. soldiers that died fighting to overtake Hill 192 from the Germans.  “We started to line the roads up with the map at dinner, and it turned out that their house was exactly where two of the four Sherman tanks were destroyed. Now I’m not entirely sure if my uncle was in one of those two, but we were at least within 100 yards of where he was killed,” Pasqualini stopped. “I had seen what he saw on his last day of life.”
American Legion Fenton / St. Louis, MO You never know what you might find when you request a copy of either your or a family member's past service records. A military records check revealed that one of our deceased American Legion members received a Bronze Star that neither he nor his family ever knew about.Edward F. Ucinski Sr, a past commander and a 51-year member before his passing, was recently recognized for his actions during the second world war. Edward Sr. was a combat infantryman who saw action during Operation Overlord at Normandy and the Ardennes Counteroffensive at Bastogne, where he was captured.No one knew of the award, since it had not been awarded until after the end of World War II. This was part of an initiative started by Gen. George C. Marshall to recognize those whose sacrifices went undocumented, by the awards process.The Bronze Star medal was presented to Edward Sr.'s great-grandson, Edward Kirk Ucinski IV, at the Rockwood Summit High School Veterans Day ceremony in St. Louis County. The presenter was SFC Lagermann, United States Army.It was an honor and a recognition that was long overdue. Submitted by:Edward Ucinski III
In continuing an eight-year relationship between an Oregon VFW Post and Junior ROTC program, one VFW member recently accompanied her son’s JROTC group to Normandy in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.  Shannon Ferreira, a member of VFW Post 1324 in Oregon City, Ore., accompanies her son’s JROTC group to Normandy, France, for its participation in D-Day commemoration events. Ferreira said the Post and the JROTC have good relationships in the community.  Photo courtesy of Shawn Dachtler. Shannon Ferreira, a member of VFW Post 1324 in Oregon City, Ore., served as a chaperone to the group of 13 cadets. The cadets participated in two ceremonies, one on June 6 at Brittany American Cemetery and the following day at Normandy American Cemetery. “My favorite part was being able to talk to the veterans,” Ferreira said, “and while I was there made a point of speaking to as many of them as I could – the WWII veterans – and taking pictures with them. And getting their names and a little piece of their stories. To me, it was amazing. It was also emotional because many of those men were the same ages [when they deployed] as my son. Or within the same age frame.” Ferreira, who served two tours in Bosnia (December 1995-November 1996 and June-September 1998) in the Army’s 501st MI Bn., 1st Armd. Div., as a signals intelligence analyst, said the cadets were invited about a year and a half ago. She said she joined them because it was a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience. “While I was in the Army, I was in 82nd Abn. Div., as well, but I never deployed with them,” Ferreira said. “But I know they played a huge part in WWII. And I love the history of it and my son is a huge WWII history buff.” The biggest takeaway from the trip, according to Ferreira was the opportunity itself. “That generation is dwindling, and it’s so important to be able to take young kids, the high schoolers, over there to interact because they are the future generation,” Ferreira said. “And so to be able to chaperone and go with those kids and have them interact with that generation, it was impactful for the kids.” Ferreira said the Post and Oregon City’s JROTC program have worked together prior to this trip.  Post 1324 Public Information Officer Shawn Dachtler said the relationship between the Post and the Oregon City High School JROTC was initiated by two past Post commanders who reached out to Major Doug Thomas. “Essentially, the conversation was that we should work together,” said Dachtler, who served in the Navy from 1993 to 2002 in electronic warfare and was with the Armed Forces Expeditionary Service aboard the USS Normandy in the Persian Gulf in 1998. “We see your kids doing good things and we want to help support them.” The Post, Ferreira said, supports JROTC financially every year and offers the Post for fundraising events at no charge, while the JROTC provides a color guard for various events. “Our post and our JROTC are supportive of each other,” Ferreira said. “To me, it’s important to have that bond.” The relationship between the Post and JROTC gives the cadets, who could also go into the military, a chance to meet the older generation of veterans and learn from them. Dachtler said the Post’s work with JROTC is similar to its outreach at the college level. “We are doing our best to make sure we're engaged in all age groups,” Dachtler said. “The local JROTC currently has four students that have committed to the Army. We see that as being right in line with our missions and goals.”
By Wyatt Olson/Stars and Stripes   Service members who suffered moderate to severe traumatic brain injury in combat have significantly higher incidence of mental health disorders in following years as compared to warfighters who sustained other traumatic injuries, a study found. The study, published in the current issue of the journal Military Medicine, examined almost 5,000 cases of traumatic injury experienced by Marines, soldiers, airmen and sailors during combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan from February 2002 to February 2011. Among the study’s findings is a clear relationship between moderate and severe brain injury and a greater risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, a link that contradicts a theory posited by some previous researchers. Traumatic brain injury has been the scourge of U.S. combatants during the extended war on terrorism, particularly the decade after the September 2001 World Trade Center attack. Improvised explosive devices were the weapon of choice by enemy guerrilla fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq. Improvements in body armor and medical treatment saved the lives of many blast victims who would have died in earlier conflicts. By 2010, 7,832 warfighters had survived severe traumatic brain injury, the study said. The new research compared two groups — one that sustained moderate to severe brain injury, the other experiencing general, critical injury — and looked for associations with anxiety and mood disorders, adjustment reactions, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, cognitive disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The study found that most of these patients, 70.6%, were diagnosed with at least one of those five mental health conditions during multiyear follow-up periods. That is “considerably higher” than the 42% found in a much smaller 2012 study, “even though our mental health diagnoses were defined more narrowly,” the study said. However, patients who suffered traumatic brain injury were at “consistently greater” risk for diagnosis of those five conditions than the group of patients suffering general trauma, the study found. “If you have severe TBI, you are at risk of having something undesirable,” said David Chin, the study’s co-author and a professor at the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Previous studies found links between mild and moderate traumatic brain injury and adverse mental health outcomes in combat veterans, but such research was usually limited to examining only a one-year post-injury period and primarily focused on PTSD and loss of mental function from physical injury. The new study includes patients from all four service branches and examines mental health outcomes over longer periods of time, a median length of just over four years. Chin said the study likely underestimates mental health outcomes for a few reasons. Health records were available for care provided within a Defense Department health care facility or tied to the DOD’s Tricare system. Encounters with health care providers outside that were not available for the analysis, he said. The culture of underreporting mental health issues among service members likely skews the data, he said. Finally, an examination using longer follow-up periods would probably reveal more mental health diagnoses, he said. “I think this illustrates that we just don’t have enough information to really get at how big the problem of mental health care actually is for these patients,” he said. The study’s findings contradict a hypothesis by earlier investigators theorizing that patients with moderate and severe traumatic brain injury could not develop PTSD because impaired consciousness confers a sort-of “amnesiac effect” that precludes “encoding” the memories necessary for PTSD development, Chin said.
WASHINGTON – Ten Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) members and Student Veterans of America (SVA) leaders were selected for the 2020 VFW-SVA Legislative Fellowship Program Sunday at the SVA National Conference in Los Angeles, California. The 10 fellows will now join more than 500 VFW members on Capitol Hill in early March to advocate on behalf of all veterans, service members and their families.  “The VFW prides itself on working with our student veterans nationwide to help build tomorrow’s leaders,” said VFW National Commander William “Doc” Schmitz.  The VFW-SVA Legislative Fellowship is a semester-long academic experience that involves researching, coordinating, reporting and advocating on behalf of one of four veterans’ policy areas: student veteran success on campus and beyond, improving veteran’s health care and benefits, transitioning from military to civilian life, and challenges for service members and military families.  Each selected fellow submitted a policy proposal to address one of these issues through federal legislative action.  “SVA has partnered with the VFW for five years to host the annual VFW-SVA Legislative Fellowship Program,” said SVA President and Chief Executive Officer Jared Lyon. “The opportunity provides exceptional student veterans the chance to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill and with other organizations in the veterans’ advocacy space. “We are fortunate to have a strong partner in the VFW to offer this program, and are grateful for their support to empower tomorrow’s leaders,” said Lyon, a VFW Post 3308 member.  During their visit to Washington, each fellow will be paired with a VFW mentor and accompany their VFW state delegation around Capitol Hill for in-person meetings with their members of Congress. The fellows will receive briefings from federal officials regarding ongoing policy initiatives, as well as learn techniques to work with the media when advocating on veterans’ issues.  Upon returning home, each of the fellows will also be responsible for executing a community action plan, to include delivering their individual research papers directly to their respective congressional delegations.  The 10 fellows selected for the 2020 class are: Tom Baker, Navy veteran, Arizona State University Katherine Cassell, Army retiree, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Carl Chen, Air Force active duty service member, Trident University International Clifton Clevenger, Army veteran, Wayland Baptist University Ashley Dent, Air Force veteran, New York Institute of Technology Sasha Georgiades, Navy veteran, Hawaii Pacific University Blake Hite, Navy veteran, Georgetown University Matthew Jenkins, Marine Corps veteran, University of South Florida Randy Purham, Army active duty service member, American Public University Jack Ratliff, Army veteran, University of South Florida The VFW-SVA Legislative Fellowship Program continues a legacy of collaboration between the two organizations that was formalized in 2013. To interview any of the selected fellows, contact Gabriella Kubinyi at gkubinyi@vfw.org.
“Rep. Phil Roe played a critical role in the most comprehensive overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs this nation has seen in generations. His legacy includes writing the bill that gave Veterans real, permanent choice; putting us on a path to modernizing our electronic health records; and making sure VA remains accountable to the Veterans it serves,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.  “The work he did during his time leading the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has reshaped VA for generations to come and will positively impact the lives of millions of Veterans,” Wilkie added. “All of us are grateful that Dr. Roe had the drive to come to Congress and make such an important contribution to the lives of our Veterans. More importantly, he is a true gentleman with an unfailing love for his country and family.”
WASHINGTON —  The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will begin deciding claims for the  Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 at 12:01 a.m., Philippine Standard Time, Jan. 1, 2020. The Philippines is the farthest east VA regional benefits office. The Act extends the presumption of herbicide exposure, that include toxins such as Agent Orange, to Veterans who served in the offshore waters of the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Signed into law Jun. 25, the law specifically affects Blue Water Navy (BWN) Veterans who served no more than 12 nautical miles offshore of the Republic of Vietnam between Jan. 6, 1962 and May 7, 1975, as well as Veterans who served in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between Jan. 1, 1967 and Aug. 31, 1971. These Veterans can now apply for disability compensation and other benefits if they have since developed one of 14 conditions that are presumed to be related to exposure to herbicides. Veterans do not need to prove that they were exposed to herbicides. The specific conditions can be found by searching the term “Agent Orange” on www.va.gov. “For six months, VA worked diligently to gather and digitize records from the National Archives and Records Administration to support faster claims decisions,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “These efforts will positively impact the claims process for Veterans filing for these benefits.” To be eligible a Veteran must have served in the identified locations during the specified time period and currently have a condition(s) associated with herbicide exposures, such as Agent Orange. Blue Water Navy claims are being processed under current prioritization criteria; however, special priority is being given to Veterans who are over the age of 85 or have a terminal condition. Qualifying recipients include affected Veterans who are still living and certain survivors of deceased BWN and Korean DMZ Veterans. Survivors can file claims for benefits based on the Veteran’s service if the Veteran died from at least one of the 14 presumptive conditions associated with herbicides such as Agent Orange. The law also provides benefits for children born with spina bifida if their parent is or was a Veteran with certain verified service in Thailand during a specific period. The Act includes provisions impacting the VA Home Loan Program. Veterans have more access to obtain no-down payment home loans, regardless of loan amount, and the home loan funding fee is reduced for eligible Reservists and National Guard borrowers who use their home loan benefits for the first time. VA’s website describes the eligibility of certain Purple Heart recipients who do not have to pay a funding fee as well as other benefits. Veterans who want to file an initial claim for an herbicide-related disability can use VA Form 21-526EZ, Application for Disability Compensation and Related Compensation Benefits or work with a VA-recognized Veterans Service Organization to assist with the application process. Veterans may also contact their state Veterans Affairs Office. BWN Veterans who previously filed a claim seeking service connection for one of the 14 presumptive conditions that was denied by VA may provide or identify any new and relevant information regarding their claim when reapplying. To re-apply, Veterans may use VA Form 20-0995, Decision Review Request: Supplemental Claim. As a result of the new law, VA will automatically review claims that are currently in the VA review process or under appeal. Visit Blue Water Navy Veterans benefits for more information or call 1-800-749-8387 for special issues. ###