Sunday, March 22, 2020

VA Suspends Funeral Honors

Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (March 21, 2020) VRI — All large funeral services and military burial honors will cease at veterans cemeteries nationwide starting next week as part of federal efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Veterans Affairs officials made the announcement Friday afternoon, with the new policies effective on March 23. That means that funeral services scheduled for this weekend at veterans cemeteries will continue as planned.


But starting Monday, “committal services and the rendering of military funeral honors will discontinue until further notice,” according to the department notice.

In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the move was necessary for the sake of public health.

“We are committed to the safety of our veterans, their families and employees, and (we) have implemented an aggressive public health response to COVID-19,” he said. “At the same time, we continue to take steps to provide flexibility to veterans and their loved ones, where possible.”

More than 130 veteran cases have been confirmed in patients at 38 different VA medical centers across the country. The New Orleans VA Medical Center has the most, with at least 42 cases so far.

Two deaths have also been attributed to coronavirus in veterans under the department’s care: One in Vermont and one in Oregon.

Nationwide, more than 15,000 cases of the illness have been confirmed, and more than 200 deaths connected to the fast-spreading virus.

In response, several states have called for residents to limit their public movements and avoid mass gatherings. Earlier in the week, President Donald Trump said that for the next few weeks, Americans should avoid any events or interaction with groups of more than 10 people.

VA officials have already put in place limitations on visitors to VA medical centers and other facilities, and encouraged individuals showing symptoms of the virus to call ahead to doctors before visiting any hospitals.

The new cemeteries notice said that even with the new restrictions, immediate family members will be allowed to witness the burial of their loved ones at veterans cemeteries. However, those groups will be limited to no more than 10 people.

Families wishing to postpone a funeral service scheduled for after March 23 can contact local officials to make other arrangements. Individuals can also call the National Cemetery Scheduling Office at 800-535-1117 or access the office online to see their options.

“Although VA national cemeteries remain open to visitors, guests are strongly urged to obey local travel restrictions and avoid unnecessary travel,” the VA announcement said. “Certain portions of a cemetery typically open to the public, such as public information centers or chapels, may be closed to the public.”

VA handles burial services for more than 130,000 veterans and eligible family members annually, according to department records.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Data for PTSD Claims Stolen

Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (February 19, 2020) VRI — Hackers have gained access to sensitive data from at least five law firms in the past four months, releasing stolen data that includes pain diary entries from veterans’ personal injury cases, Emsisoft, a cybersecurity and anti-malware company, told Military Times.

Maze, a hacking and ransomware group, has breached several law firms, local government databases and other companies, demanding payments for data recovery and deletion. The posted information includes VA documents, patient care records, legal fee agreements and HIPPA consent forms.


Two of those hacks targeted Texas-based law firm Baker Wotring in November and Woods and Woods LLC in Evansville, Indiana, this month, the Evansville Courier & Press reported.

Woods and Woods is a nationwide disability benefits firm that deals with U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs litigation.

“[Woods and Woods LLC] has notified the FBI and has taken and continues to take prompt action to contain the incident, mitigate its effects, and fully investigate,” said Neil Woods in an emailed statement to Military Times. “The firm is able to continue conducting its business since it had backups in place. The firm will provide additional information to its clients as the investigation continues.”

It is unclear, however, whether clients from the firms are aware some of their sensitive information has already posted to the web. Read more HERE

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Monday, February 10, 2020

Navy SEAL Team 6 Operator Found Guilty

Indianapolis, Indiana, USA (February 10, 2020) VRI — Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Aaron Howard was sentenced to 30 days in the brig, reduction in rank to petty officer second class, and a loss of $500 pay each month for three months, according to Navy Times, which first reported on the verdict.

Military prosecutors accused Howard of pretending to be someone else by "spoofing" phone numbers to text-message victims and request nude photos under false pretenses.


Lt. Kirwinn Mike, a Navy prosecutor, claimed Howard had in one incident pretended to be a female performance dietitian who was assigned to SEAL Team 6, The Virginian-Pilot reported. According to Mike, Howard texted a woman that he could provide a body-fat analysis if she sent a photo of herself naked from the neck down.

"It's 100% safe," one text message said. "You don't have to worry."

Howard was accused of soliciting nude photos from two civilians and a female sailor. Charges involving the female sailor were later dropped and the jury found Howard not guilty of charges related to one of the civilians.

Investigators with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service said they were able to trace the internet address of the text messaging apps used to Howard's home address, according to The Virginian-Beach Pilot. But Howard's attorneys argued that their client was wrongfully accused, and the text messages could've come from anywhere.

According to Navy Times:

Howard's military defense counsel, Marine Capt. Douglas Germano, said the prosecution sought a sentence of 18 months behind bars and a dishonorable discharge. Germano said he was glad that the jury recognized Howard's service to his country by delivering a verdict that will allow him to seek a medical retirement.

Reading a prepared statement before his sentencing, Howard, 34, indicated that he needed medical care for the hidden wounds of war, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, hearing loss and traumatic brain injury.

The Navy did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Michael Waddington, Howard's civilian attorney.

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Friday, February 7, 2020

House passes VA funded service dogs for veterans

Washington, DC, USA (February 7, 2020) VRI — House lawmakers unanimously approved a bill that would lay the groundwork for the Department of Veterans Affairs to start funding service dog programs and connect veterans with canines that could be critical for their mental health care.

The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act authored by Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, would kick-off a pilot program to issue federal grants to nonprofits that provide service dogs to veterans suffering from mental health issues, and require the VA to assess the effectiveness of dog therapy.

“Our veterans fought for our freedom, and I’ve heard from many veterans who say that’s exactly what their service dog gives them – freedom. They’re free to go to restaurants, to fly on planes, to go to the movies, things that post-traumatic stress [disorder] had made impossible,” Stivers said.


Lawmakers on the House and Senate Committees for Veterans’ Affairs have made tackling veterans suicide a top priority after years of legislative measures and efforts that haven’t stemmed the crisis. Some veteran advocacy groups frustrated with Congress’ inability to make progress on the issue have called for more creative thinking.

"Congress continues to ignore damning reports released by [The Journal of the American Medical Association] and others regarding our current mental health approaches failing veterans. We have not heard a peep about it from this leadership.” Joe Chenelly, national executive director of American Veterans, said in a statement last month. “When it comes to curbing suicide the time to act is now...Every day matters and the status quo is untenable.”

The number of veterans committing suicide dwarfs combat fatalities since 9/11. Between 2005 and 2017, 78,875 veterans took their own lives, according to the most recent data from VA. In comparison, about 7,000 troops have been killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, across two decades.

Nonprofits are one of the only avenues for veterans to adopt service dogs. The VA doesn’t provide any funds for service or emotional-support animals but concluded a congressionally mandated study on the benefits of dogs for PTSD care in July, according to Christina Mandreucci, a spokeswoman for the department. The results of one part of the study on whether service or emotional-support dogs can help veterans with PTSD is expected to be released in the summer, and the results on whether dogs can lead to overall health care savings with fewer hospital stays and less reliance on medication is expected by the end of the year.

“Mental wellness does not have a one-size-fits-all solution, which is why VA must provide innovative and out-of-the-box treatments to help veterans combat these invisible illnesses and thrive in their civilian lives,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the ranking member of the House VA committee. “There is no question that the companionship and unconditional love offered by man’s best friend can have powerful healing effects on men and women from all walks of life, including our men and women in uniform.”

There is no vote scheduled yet for the Senate version of the measure.

SOURCE: Stars and Stripes

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