Combat correspondent uses her experiences in school

By Anthony Cave, News21


Post-9/11 veteran Jennifer Brofer films a news story at the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Georgia in 2007. (Courtesy of Jennifer Brofer)

Jennifer Brofer served in the Marines, on the frontlines in Afghanistan, but she wielded a camera instead of a rifle.

Brofer, 30, a combat correspondent for more than 10 years, served in Afghanistan during 2010-11. She worked across media, using the printed word as well as video. When logistic Marines built bridges, she was there. Redeploy missions? She was there too.

“It was inherently dangerous,” Brofer, an Arlington, Texas, native, said.

Since her discharge in 2012, Brofer has used the Montgomery GI Bill to study radio-television-film at the University of Texas at Austin.

Other than a few canceled appointments for non-emergency care at the Department of Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic in Austin, her experiences have been positive, she said.

“I’m a happy gal, mentally unscathed,” Brofer said.

Still, her experience led her down the military path once again in a class she took last semester. Brofer completed a nine-minute video titled “Girls With Guns,” which chronicles the experiences of post-9/11 veteran Mary Hegar, whose helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan in 2009.

She survived and returned fire, but Hegar came home to fight again, this time the military’s ban on women in combat. She sued the U.S. Department of Defense and the Combat Exclusion Policy was eventually lifted in January 2013.

Brofer said her experiences overseas helped her share Hegar’s narrative.

“I learned how to tell a story in very adverse conditions,” she said. “I don’t take for granted what the reporters do here in America. If it wasn’t for the skill, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

The video also highlights teenage girls in a high school Junior ROTC program. Brofer said that it is important to advocate gender equality.

Brofer wants to be a producer or director; she already has a resume start. When Christina Aguilera sang the National Anthem before the 2011 Super Bowl, the NFL Network showed a montage. Her three-second shot of a group of Marines standing in a tent made the worldwide broadcast.

Brofer, who was posted in Afghanistan at the time, had spent the night before the Super Bowl, editing film for the spot. She said that “luckily” she was behind the camera.

American Indian Health Services to receive VA funds

By Mary Shinn, News21

Donna Jacobs, the director of the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System, presented at the Veterans Benefits Summit in Tuba City, Ariz. during June. The Northern Arizona VA Health Care System is working with Indian Health Service facilities and tribal facilities across their region to open veteran centered clinics. (Photo by Hannah Winston, News21)

Donna Jacobs, the director of the Northern Arizona VA Health Care System, presented at the Veterans Benefits Summit in Tuba City, Ariz. during June. The Northern Arizona VA Health Care System is working with Indian Health Service facilities and tribal facilities across their region to open veteran centered clinics. (Photo by Hannah Winston, News21)

Tuba City, Ariz. – American Indian Health Service centers and tribal health care clinics nationwide are now getting Department of Veterans Affairs reimbursement for care they provide to Native American veterans.

The reimbursements allow health care centers to share staff, technology, training and other resources. Native Americans who are veterans also get increased access to VA health care. For example Indian Health Services staff will receive training to treat veterans with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The VA started processing reimbursements in May 2013.

In December 2012, VA and IHS signed the national agreement. Local versions of the agreement are being negotiated. So far 34 local agreements have been signed across the country, according the VA Office of Tribal Government Relations. There are 566 federally recognized tribes, many of them in remote locations.

Native Americans are only .8 percent of the overall U.S. population, but they are 1.6 percent of the currently deployed forces in Afghanistan, according to Department of Defense data.

Ron Tso, the CEO of an IHS center in the Navajo Nation, said at a health benefits summit in June that it’s important to share resources in preparation for returning veterans.

“We’re going to have a whole slew of veterans returning from Afghanistan, we have to be ready,” Tso said.

But IHS and the VA still haven’t designed a way to share electronic health records.

Veterans also voiced concerns at the June health summit on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona that part of the agreement would lead to more bureaucracy. For example, if a veteran needs care that was not provided by IHS, must go to the VA for a referral.

Rick Gray, a Vietnam veteran who lives on the Navajo Nation in Kayenta, Ariz., said often veterans are given inadequate answers when they ask specific questions about VA care.

“All we get it is: We’re sorry, we’re sorry,” he said.

Gray has fought for better healthcare on the Navajo Nation and he said it is true that the VA is trying to offer more veteran specific healthcare. In many cases they are still waiting for care to improve while the reimbursement agreements are put into place, he said. In many areas, veterans have been waiting for better care so long they no longer expect change, he said.

“A lot of the comments we get from veterans is: We’ll believe it, when we see it.”

VA researches hearing problems for post-9/11 vets

By Kay Miller, News21

VA researchers are adding to their understanding of hearing disorders by working to resolve problems unique to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

At the National Center Rehabilitative for Auditory Research, audiologists are aware that hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) top the list of the Veteran Administration’s disability compensation.

The audiology profession in fact, has its roots in helping veterans, said Theresa Schulz, a retired Lt. Col., who was an Air Force audiologist and is now a Honeywell Safety Products hearing conservation manager.

“There were veterans coming back from World War II with hearing loss and that’s where the profession originated,” she said in an interview.

Audiologists became leaders in hearing protection as well as hearing loss treatments, Schulz said. Those efforts are continued today at the VA Medical Center in Portland, Ore., which houses NCRAR.

Gabrielle Saunders, NCRAR associate director, is the lead investigator of a computer-based study of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.  The study gives them instruction in preserving their hearing.

“They carry a [personal digital assistant] reminding them nearly 10 times a day to note what they think is the noise level around them,” Saunders said. The level of noise they hear is monitored by a dosimeter, a device also to record actual noise levels.

Preliminary results show success in convincing participants to actively protect their hearing, Saunders said.

“We hope that we will be able to not only provide this to all veterans, but be able to modify it for all branches of the service, and offer it to civilians too,” she said.

House Committee, seeking information from VA, subpoenas Shinseki

By Daniel Moore, News21

Lawmakers say they cannot effectively hold the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs accountable because the agency has not responded to nearly 100 requests for information, some of them more than a year old.

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs on July 9 launched “Trials in Transparency,” a website that will keep track of requests for VA information.

“The leisurely pace with which VA is returning requests – and in some cases not returning them – is a major impediment to the basic oversight responsibilities of the committee,” according to a statement.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) also subpoenaed VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for more information from his August 2012 request, related to $6.1 million spent on training conferences for employees in 2011.

“After the personal assurances I received from Secretary Shinseki and the accommodations made by congressional investigators, there can be no excuse for the continued delay,” the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said in a statement.

Issa originally requested internal VA communications following an Inspector General report that revealed spending at two human resources conferences in Orlando, Fla., had “weak, ineffective, and in some instances, nonexistent” oversight from the VA. The report labeled at least $762,000 as “unauthorized, unnecessary, and/or wasteful expenses.”

Since then, the committee staff has called or emailed the VA more than 45 times, according to a press release.

The VA has declined to comment on the subpoena.

What We’re Reading, Week 8

By Chad Garland, News21

Going Home (Chris Bloxom, 6/30, ESPN SportsCenter) Surprise military homecomings at sporting events seem to have become almost commonplace in the past decade and this six-minute ESPN video produced for the July 4th holiday shows why: they’re too touching to pass up.

Inside SportsCenter’s ‘Going Home’ video salute to soldiers’ family reunions at sports venues (Dan Quinn, 7/3, ESPN Front Row) Features producer Chris Bloxom wanted to add a structure to the string of YouTube video clips featuring military members reuniting with family members at sports events. Bloxom turned to the Army to find an Afghanistan veteran and his family to re-enact a homecoming as a way of creating what he called “intrigue.”

House veterans committee creates site to prod VA (Gregg Zoroya, 7/9, USA Today) Apparently frustrated with the amount of time it is taking the Department of Veterans Affairs to respond to its requests for information, the House Veterans Affairs Committee set up a website listing some of the nearly 100 requests the VA has not fulfilled, some dating back more than a year.

Over Water, Under Fire  (7/10, Powering a Nation) This interactive documentary special report produced by fellows at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill tells the story of the Colorado River. Text and graphics focus on the changes humans have made to the river and their impacts to the environment along America’s most endangered river, according to the American Rivers organization. These elements are woven into a video story about Army veterans traveling down the river together as a means of therapy and recovery.

Oklahoma nonprofit helps veterans with claims

By Kelsey Hightower, News21

A Goldsby, Okla.,-based nonprofit organization has assembled a national community of volunteers to help veterans and their families negotiate the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs claims process.

Veterans wait to talk to a volunteer at the Goldsby Community Center in Goldsby, Oklahoma. (Photo by Kelsey Hightower, News21)

Veterans wait to talk to a volunteer at the Goldsby Community Center in Goldsby, Oklahoma. (Photo by Kelsey Hightower, News21)

Every Thursday at Veterans Corner, which is south of Norman, Okla., former military from across the country get assistance in filing their disability claims. The setting is modest. Volunteers work quickly to unload tables, printers, and office supplies to set up Veterans Corner in the Goldsby Community Center. In minutes, an empty building is transformed into an office and waiting area for the average 150 walk-ins.

This has been the routine for five years.

Dale Graham, founder and director of Veterans Corner, said that the organization was established to help veterans who say the VA wasn’t helping them get the disability benefits they deserved.

When Graham returned from his deployment in Vietnam he went to therapy sessions for his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Gulf War veteran Charles Russell and his wife Janet seek help filing a VA claim at the Goldsby Community Center. (Photo by Kelsey Hightower, News21)

Gulf War veteran Charles Russell and his wife Janet seek help filing a VA claim at the Goldsby Community Center. (Photo by Kelsey Hightower, News21)

“I went to the VA in the early ’90s and talked to them about [my] problems,” he said. “They didn’t want to hear about it and they certainly weren’t going to do anything about it.”

Graham set out to change that. “I was convinced to learn their system,” he said.

He began by helping his friends work through the claims process. Graham continues to fight for fellow veterans with the support of his 100 volunteers.

Veterans Corner has helped approximately 20,000 veterans and surviving spouses receive about $50 million annually in VA disability benefits, Graham said. Through this journey, as Graham describes it, his PTSD has improved.

“If you’re helping somebody else, you’re helping yourself,” he said.

Calls to veteran suicide crisis line increasing

By Jeff Hargarten, News21

The Veterans Crisis Line, managed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, has experienced steady increases in calls, texts and chat sessions from former soldiers struggling with suicidal thoughts since its launch. Counselors have answered about 840,000 calls since the crisis line started in 2007, according to VA statistics.

Online chat sessions since 2009, and text messages since last year, also have increased.

“The phone has not stopped ringing,” said Jan Kemp, the VA national suicide prevention coordinator and program manager of the crisis line.

Crisis counselors fielded 9,379 calls in the first year. Each year the call volume has increased, reaching a high of 193,507 calls in fiscal year 2012. Through April 2013, more than 151,000 callers have asked for help. Chat sessions leaped from 864 in fiscal year 2009 to about 45,000 in 2012. Text messages also have exceeded 4,300 in this fiscal year, up from 3,800 last year.

Veterans Crisis Line Call Volume 2007 - April 2013

Kemp was skeptical that veterans would call the crisis line, she said. Now 800 to 1,000 calls daily reach the crisis line, she said, along with chats and texts.

A 2012 VA report found 19 percent of callers to the VCL call more than once per month and that most callers are male aged between 50 and 59. Also, the percentage of those thinking of suicide when calling the VCL has decreased, as have calls resulting in rescues from suicide attempts.

Initially calling it the Veteran Suicide Hotline, the VA found that veterans were less likely to call if they weren’t feeling imminently suicidal. The name was changed and that made a “huge difference” in the number of veterans using the line, Kemp said.

The line isn’t merely for those with suicidal feelings, but those experiencing any kind of crisis, Kemp said, to help head off possible future suicidal tendencies.

There are nearly 21.5 million veterans in the United States, according to the 2011 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. The VA estimates 22 veterans die by suicide each day, according to a 2012 report. But officials said that rising suicide rates don’t indicate that the VCL is ineffective.

“We have to ask: what would the suicide rate be if we weren’t doing these programs? It seems like it might be worse,” said Craig Bryan, associate director of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah.

The VA also started Make the Connection, a campaign that includes a website with information on common mental health symptoms and conditions, links to screening resources and a video series where veterans talk about their personal struggles.

The Veterans Crisis Line can be reached online or by calling 800-273-8255.

Advocacy group shares stories from veterans in claims backlog

By Daniel Moore, News21

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America on June 20 launched an  interactive database that shares the personal experiences of more than 1,700 post-9/11 veterans who are waiting — some for more than 10 years — on their disability claim to be processed.

The New York-based veteran advocacy group collected information from their members with a survey asking details about their claim, disabilities, wait time and how that wait has affected them emotionally and financially. Using the interactive, titled “The Wait We Carry,” the public can view each veteran’s response sorted by a variety of metrics, including location.

The public also may send messages to veterans to learn more of their story. Messages are sent to IAVA, which double checks with the veteran to make sure they are still open to speaking publicly.

Aminatou Sow, IAVA director of digital engagement, said the project is designed to “put a face to the big scary numbers” of the much-reported backlog of claims at VA regional offices by reaching out to all communities.

“One thing that we hear a lot from veterans is how they don’t feel heard specifically,” Sow said. “It’s one thing to say half a million people are still waiting for benefits, but the point of digital storytelling that the individual data points are as important as the aggregate.”

IAVA worked with Periscopic, an information design firm, and used a grant from the Knight Foundation to create the interactive.

What We’re Reading: Week 5

By Rachel Leingang, News21

A Loan Program for Veterans Comes Wrapped in Red Tape (Elizabeth Harris, 6/10, New York Times): More than 200,000 veterans live in New York City, but only 266 Veterans Affairs home loans were made in the city last year. One couple searching for a home loan finds the VA loan options to be burdensome for New York City properties.

Deployment to war doesn’t figure in majority of military suicides (Alan Zarembo, 6/15, Los Angeles Times): Most military suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, according to data from the Pentagon. The LA Times looked into some possible causes of the high suicide rate through the stories of five servicemembers.

What is the military-civilian divide to you? (Leo Shane III, 6/19, Stars and Stripes): Throughout our reporting, we’ve heard from veterans who cite a lack of understanding and cultural divide between military members and families and civilians. Stars and Stripes asked its readers what that divide means in their lives and what civilians should know about them and their service.

Elite Units in U.S. Military to Admit Women (Jennifer Steinhauer, 6/17, New York Times): The Pentagon announced Tuesday that women will be allowed to train as Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Marine infantry members, among others. The branches each can decide how to integrate women into their ranks, but must ask for exemptions when they decide women can’t do a particular position.

Deadline passes for VA claims open more than two years

By Daniel Moore, News21

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs still has compensation and pension claims that are more than two years old, according to data from some regional offices, meaning that the agency missed the self-imposed deadline to clear all two-year-old claims by June 18.

Allison Hickey, the VA Undersecretary for Benefits, sent a letter in April to all 57 regional offices, instructing all claims workers and “as many (others) as needed” to focus on finishing all such claims within 60 days. She also asked all claims pending for more than a year to be cleared within six months.

As of June 19 the VA did not have numbers, but spokeswoman Meagan Lutz said the agency would have a progress report by the end of the week.

Jason Dominguez, assistant director at the Ohio Department of Veteran Services, said the Cleveland regional office, which handles all Ohio claims, started with 3,114 and has 238 left to process.

“Those mainly need medical evidence,” Dominguez said, adding that Cleveland also has been working on 1,560 additional claims sent from other offices with higher backlogs.

Of those claims that were “brokered” as part of Hickey’s deadline, 150 remain to be processed.

A claims processor at the Columbia, S.C., regional office reported her office had cleared the two-year-old claims.

“Once you got the go-ahead to clear something … I don’t know how you couldn’t get them cleared,” she said.