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Job fair puts veterans face-to-face with prospective employers

In 2011, with the veterans unemployment rate sitting at more than 8 percent, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began a new program geared at putting veterans, transitioning military, military spouses, National Guard members and reservists at work in the civilian world.

And alongside the Chamber was The American Legion, which became a key member of the Hiring Our Heroes team and still is today.

That partnership was evident Feb. 23 at the Hiring Our Heroes career event during the Legion’s 58th annual Washington Conference. Nearly 100 job-seekers at the Washington Hilton had the opportunity to meet with representatives from 53 companies and government agencies, including Amazon, Hilton Worldwide, Lowe’s, Southwest Airlines, the U.S. Departments of Veterans Affairs and Agriculture, and the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Since Hiring Our Heroes began, the veterans unemployment rate has dropped to 4 percent according to January 2018 statistics. “It really took a great deal of action by both the private sector and the public sector to aggressively attach the challenges that our servicemembers were facing when they came back from deployment,” Hiring Our Heroes President Eric Eversole said. “I’ll tell you that since that first day back in March of 2011, we were honored to have The American Legion stand next to us as we undertook the rest of the mission to stamp out veteran unemployment.”

The Feb. 23 hiring fair was sponsored by Amazon, Microsoft, AARP and Oak Grove Technologies. Amazon’s Raphael “Ralph” Hernandez, the company’s Senior Community Engagement Program Leader and a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, said his company is a strong fit for those coming from a military background.

“Amazon values veterans and military spouses, National Guard members and reservists and military dependents because they have the values and skills that we need,” Hernandez said. “Regardless of their background, education level or rank, there is a job at Amazon for a military community member.

“They’re a good culture fit. Their values align with Amazon’s leadership principles. And we’re seeing that military community members, veterans and military spouses – they’re succeeding at Amazon."

Michael J. Marin, who spent 14 years on U.S. Army active duty and now is a major in the Army Reserves, recently began working as an agent for Greater Washington New York Life, which had a booth at the job fair.

Marin said New York Life has been a good fit for him because of what he’s learned in the Army. “(At New York Life), for myself, there’s a lot of what I picked up in the military: just the motivation, discipline, the focus,” he said. “Translating that into this job requires the same kind of intensity.”

On the other side of the table were veterans like Brian Mills, who retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2012, as a senior master sergeant and came to the job fair looking for a lead on a new career. “I’m really looking for some gainful employment … that’s commensurate with my grade and skill level,” he said. “It look liked it was going to be a really robust event that The American Legion was putting on, so I felt like this was a great time to capitalize on some opportunities.”

Mills came away from the event impressed. “It has been my experience that sometimes you see a long list of employers, but when you show up you don’t see that same number of employers,” he said. “Here, it’s just the opposite. I saw the list, I had some targeted employers I wanted to talk to, and so far I’m two for two. I am impressed.”

Geoffrey Maynard, who will retire this spring after 24 years in the U.S. Navy and is looking to the next phase of his career, attended The American Legion’s résumé workshop in the morning and the employment fair in the afternoon.

“To have so many employers available all at once like that as a resource is outstanding,” Maynard said of the job fair. “As a jobseeker, I spend hours researching, looking online, checking job sites. To have this in front of me today is fantastic.

“Any jobseeker knows that face-to-face contact, that meeting point, goes a long way, compared to someone looking at your résumé or some application he came across from the Internet.”

At the job fair’s opening ceremony, Ely Ross – director of Veterans Affairs in the office of Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser – presented American Legion Executive Director Verna Jones with a proclamation honoring the Legion’s 58th annual Washington Conference.

After receiving the proclamation, Jones reiterated the Legion’s dedication to helping veterans join the workforce. “Nothing can be more important than taking care of our nation’s heroes,” she said. “These men and women have fought for us and our freedom to do the things that we do. And being here today to offer them jobs, and make sure they’re not unemployed or underemployed, it just a great way to say thank you and give back."

Mills had praise for The American Legion for making veterans employment one of its priorities.

“I think it’s a good program simply because a lot of employers say, ‘We’re veteran friendly,’” Mills said. “But then you turn around and look at how a lot of veterans are unemployed. For The American Legion to take that step and partner up with employers to make it more easy for them to understand (veterans’) uniqueness and what we can bring to the table, I think it’s a win-win for both sides.

“I’m glad (The American Legion) decided to do that. It will give us a leg up … give us a chance to show our skills and hopefully get some opportunities we might not get.”

Legion honors the fallen with 25,000-poppy wreath

Department of Maryland Commander James Marchinke led an American Legion delegation Friday to lay a wreath made of 25,000 poppies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.

“It was a great honor to be there,” Marchinke said. “I’ve been there three or four times but this is the first time I have actually presented a wreath.”

Accompanying Marchinke were two Iraq War veterans, Alexander J. Whitney Sr., commander of American Legion Post 31 in Westminster, Md.; and Alicia N. Knecht, commander of Post 109 in Halethorpe, Md.

This wreath is the culmination of direct mail fundraising efforts where American Legion donors have returned the roses and/or poppies to be included in the wreath. This is the fifth consecutive year that donors have helped create such a wreath to be presented at Arlington.

During the ceremony, Marchinke reflected back to his time of service, which included Beirut.

“I did three tours in Beirut and the last tour was when I lost a lot of my friends in the explosion in the terrorist attack at the barracks,” he said, referring to the October 1983 terrorism attack that killed 241 American Marines and sailors. “But there are a lot of other comrades, too, that I worked with in the military. My thoughts were with all of them.”

Veterans outreach scheduled for Missouri

American Legion national staff and Department of Missouri Legionnaires will team up March 3 for a district revitalization and veterans outreach effort March 3 in Savannah, Mo.

Veterans in the area are invited to the event to learn more about Legion programs from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at Dick Munkres Post 287, 501 E Price St., Savannah.

A veterans service officer will be available to assist with Department of Veterans Affairs and other veterans benefits questions.

Registration now open for ALR Northwest romp

Registration is now open for the 2018 American Legion Riders Northwest Region Romp, which will be hosted by Albert J. Hamilton Post 7 in Bellingham Wash., May 31-June 3.

All Legion Riders in the Northwest Region are invited to attend the Romp, which is expected to draw more than 200 participants. Non-motorcycle riders also are invited to attend the event, which will serve as a fundraiser for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other local charities.

The base registration fee is $47, which includes the Saturday night dinner, a shirt, a rocker and four nights of entertainment. Additional shirts can be purchased, as can a coin.

For more information, including a schedule of events and accommodations information, click here.

National Commander Rohan guest speaks as NPC Headliners Newsmaker

American Legion National Commander Denise Rohan appeared at a National Press Club Headliners Newsmaker session Feb. 23 in Washington, D.C., to discuss ways that the Trump administration and Congress can improve the delivery of benefits for more than 20 million veterans across the country.

Rohan, who represents about 2 million Legionnaires from 13,000 posts worldwide, addressed the need to preserve and improve the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), including VA hospitals. She also proposed ways to increase suicide prevention efforts, improve gender-specific health care for women and strengthen national security.

“Our position about the Department of Veterans Affairs has always been clear: We believe it is a system worth saving,” Rohan said. “This doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize the important role that private providers play in veterans’ health care.”

Whether it’s treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder or research into state-of-the-art prosthetics, Rohan said these kinds of unique health care needs are simply best provided by the VA.

“Choice, when run efficiently, is an important component to overall VA health care,” Rohan said of the program that allows certain veterans to seek care outside of the VA. “But that choice should not lead to a private system that would break a solemn promise that we, as a nation, have made to those who have defended our freedom.”

According to Rohan, VA Secretary David Shulkin has promised to resist efforts to privatize his department. Rohan said The American Legion fully supports Shulkin’s decision in trying to stem back well-funded lobbying efforts to do just that.

“These men and women deserve far more than a health-care voucher and a ‘thank you.’ They deserve treatment in a system that was created specifically for them,” Rohan said. “It is our country that sends them to war and it is our country that should tend to their wounds. It is our country that owes them a network of trained professional counselors: veterans in their peer group who have gone through similar experiences and are ready to tell them that life is always worth living.”

Rohan said the suicide rate among veterans is a national tragedy. In 2014, the suicide rate for U.S. combat veterans, between the ages of 18 to 24 years old, was 10 times the national average. Rohan fears that rate would be even higher if it weren’t for a strong VA system, and advocates like the Legion who make suicide prevention a priority.

“Family members serve too, and they still bear many of the physical and emotional scars of that service,” she said. “Most people serving in the military believe that if you help their family, you are also helping them. That’s why The American Legion is generous in awarding scholarships for young people, Temporary Financial Assistance for needy children and offering a strong Family Support Network.”

As a veteran service organization dedicated to mutual helpfulness, Rohan said the Legion isn’t just interested in helping its members. The well-being of all veterans and their families is always a moral imperative, but it is even more important when people can rely on an all-volunteer force.

“What is certain is that our veterans, past and present, will have advocates in The American Legion fighting for them and their families here in Washington, D.C., and at home in their communities,” she said.

Part of the VA’s 2019 budget request includes $2.9 billion for the Veterans Benefit Administration. Rohan said this will help support the department’s implementation of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act.

“We are very pleased to see the increase in defense spending that the White House has proposed,” she said. “We believe this will go a long way toward reducing the appeals backlog and help veterans receive a timelier resolution.”

For Rohan, it is a very exciting time for the Legion as it kicks off its annual Washington Conference. The conference will include testimonies at congressional hearings, a Commander’s Call featuring speeches from a variety of federal government and agency officials, and other newsworthy events.

“From reforming VA to publicizing our volunteerism in the local communities, The American Legion understands and appreciates the important role the Fourth Estate plays in our republic,” Rohan said. “We are here to share our legislative priorities with our congressional delegations and remind them that America has an obligation to serve veterans as well as veterans have served America.”

New exhibits in National Headquarters museum

In anticipation of the 100th anniversary of The American Legion, the Library and Museum Division is pleased to announce three newly designed exhibits in the Emil A. Blackmore Museum at National Headquarters in Indianapolis.

Culminating a year of planning and design, these new exhibits showcase several artifacts from the collection and offer visitors a new look at the wartime experience.

The new exhibits highlight three unique stories in U.S. and American Legion history. The exhibit on chaplains in the military honors the service of military chaplains and examines artifacts related to that service. The second case, on homefront scrap-collection drives during World War II, helps explain how recycled, everyday objects helped fight the Axis. While not a new exhibit theme, the exhibit on Pfc. Jessica Lynch's rescue is in a new exhibit case that offers a better presentation of the diorama.

The museum is free of charge and open to the public weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Questions can be directed to the division at library@legion.org.

A tale of two posts: Melbourne post recovers from Irma, serves its community

Hurricane Irma took its best shot at American Legion Post 81 in Melbourne, Fla., damaging the roof, knocking out power and closing the building for nine days.

“For an old building, it's really done pretty good about holding up to all the storms in previous years,” Post 81 Commander Tracy “Stretch” Spence said. “But Irma came through with some pretty strong winds. It didn't take our roof but caused us multiple leaks and damage so we had to fix the entire roof to repair the damage. We couldn't piecemeal it together.”

Post 81 members rallied to reopen the post, taking turns guarding the post and cleaning it up, as well as lending assistance to others in need. A grant from the Legion’s National Emergency Fund (NEF) also contributed to the post’s return after Irma struck in early September.

“We do a lot of fundraising around here,” Spence said. “I'm really proud of our post. We are involved in a lot of various fundraising and our post has done really well. But when it came time to replace the whole roof, we're talking $26,000 that we just didn't really have. The National Emergency Fund was available to us, up to $10,000, and we applied for it and they granted us $8,000, which really helped us because it saved us that money that we're able to roll back into the programs now.”

NEF provides immediate grants to American Legion members and posts that have been affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes. After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria devastated communities in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, NEF distributed thousands of dollars to posts and individuals. Donate to NEF here.

Post 81 is among Legion posts that have recovered and are back to serving their communities. However, nearly six months after the hurricanes, others like Post 135 in Naples are still working through various challenges to reopen. 

John Gamerl is first vice commander of Post 81. He described the post building as “being in shambles” soon after Irma hit. But he never doubted it would reopen quickly.

“Our commander is a driven man and when he wants something done, he's gonna get it done,” Gamerl said. “He made a vow to not only the post, but to the community in general that we will be up and running. In short order he had us back up, back in business. I'm very proud of that.”

Bruce Thurber, commander for the 12th District in Florida, noted Post 81 was helping other hurricane victims before Irma.

“Two weeks prior to being hit by Irma, Post 81 was helping me collect goods that we sent to Texas in relief for Hurricane Harvey,” Thurber explained. “The day after the truck left, Irma hit us. This post helped raise about $20,000 worth of relief supplies that went over to Texas. Then all of a sudden, they're stranded here with their roof off and unable to continue operating and doing what they do. They are one of the most important parts of this community. When asked by anybody, they always step up.”

The post supports Boys State, Girls State and Boy Scout programs. It also feeds thousands of veterans and others who visit the Melbourne area each year when a traveling Vietnam Wall exhibit is on display. “This is not a rich community,” Thurber said. “If it wasn't for The American Legion, this community would not have the things that they have.”

Post 81 sits in an industrial part of Melbourne. Nearby businesses and residents know that the post is the go-to place when American flags need to be retired. Twice annually, the post holds proper flag retirement ceremonies. In June, Post 81 members retired thousands of flags over the course of two days.

In mid-February, more than 500 flags were properly disposed of during a retirement ceremony at the post. Spence led the ceremony, emceeing the procedures so the audience of 50 or so people understood what was happening.

“It gets them involved,” he said, referring to Legion Family members and citizens in attendance. “As I've started doing these different things — like Pearl Harbor, the flag retirement ceremonies, my POW ceremony — people always come to us afterward and say, ‘I wish you would tell us more.’ Or, ‘Tell us more about what you're doing.’ That's exciting.”

After the flag retirement ceremony, Legion Family and community members were invited to participate and properly dispose of flags in the fire pit. It’s an example of the post’s community service efforts.

“It's all about Americanism,” Spence said. “You do these ceremonies because the more you can do the ceremonies, the more you can get the younger generation involved. They learn to appreciate why we do it. One of the things The American Legion teaches, which I'm trying to instill in our post is, if you are casual about your attitude to America, or to the Legion or anything else, then you're going to have a casual belief. If you're more professional and more honorable and make it important, then your community, your children, your community around you will learn it's important. They'll take more pride in it, therefore hopefully you can pass that message on to the next generation.”

 

 

 

 

 

A tale of two posts: Naples post still recovering from Irma

John Madsen was the first one to see American Legion Post 135 the morning after Hurricane Irma tore through last September.

“I didn’t know what to do,” said Madsen, a Sons of The American Legion member who estimated that 8 to 10 inches of water inundated the building. “We had to wait until the power came back on. But by that time, it was too late — the mold had set in.”

The flooding was severe because the road that sits outside the post is elevated, which created a flow of water directly feeding into the post.

“It’s upsetting but I am optimistic,” said Madsen, the post’s kitchen and bar manager. “We’ll get reopened. We have to get reopened. The community needs us. The veterans need us. We can’t think about ourselves. We have to think about the community and the veterans that we take care of. And that’s the main thing. I could go find another job. But I would rather stay here and help the veterans in this community.

“It’s my job to give back to all the other veterans who have served.”

Post 135 Adjutant Michael “Mickey” Schuh has taken the lead role in working to get the post re-opened. It’s been a long process, from ripping out the damaged materials to getting approval from the local government to securing funds to cover costs.

The post is stripped down to its bare essentials. The carpeting is gone. The interior walls will have to be redone. Storage pods contain the few items that were salvageable.

Schuh estimates that the total cost will be $350,000 to $400,000 for everything from the actual repairs to the mold remediation to the storage pods rental to the new air conditioning unit. Insurance will cover $225,000. “We’re pretty far behind,” Schuh said.

The post has received support locally, around the state and nationwide, including a $25,000 grant from the Department of Florida. “That was really a surprise,” Schuh said. “Department Commander Steve Shuga and District Commander Mike Raymond came down and told us they had a surprise for us. We were all ready for a $5,000 grant. They came up with $25,000. That was a big shot in the arm, it got us feeling a lot better.”

Raymond says Post 135 was the worst hit in his 13th District. “We were flabbergasted at the amount of damage that this post took,” said Raymond, who visited the post about a week after Irma.

Shuga tipped off Raymond about the surprise grant.

“Commander Shuga got to see it up close and I guess it really tugged at his heart,” Raymond said. “He’s been to other posts but this he felt is where it was needed. And when I found out, I couldn’t hold back the tears. When Commander Shuga handed them the check, there wasn’t a dry eye in the building. They deserve it. They have been doing all the work. They have been here every day.”

The post also received a $5,000 American Legion National Emergency Fund (NEF) grant. Two other posts have donated $2,000 apiece. “Everybody has been really supportive. We’ve had a lot of assistance,” Schuh said.

NEF provides immediate grants to American Legion members and posts that have been affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes. After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria devastated communities in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, NEF distributed thousands of dollars to posts and individuals. Donate to NEF here.

Nearly six months after the hurricanes, Post 135 and others are still working through various challenges to reopen. Meanwhile, others like Post 81 in Melbourne received significantly less damage and are back to serving their communities.

In the 1950s, the Army donated the post building, which the Army Air Corps used as a hangar during World War II. Post 135 uses it for various occasions and fundraisers, especially during this time of the year. More than 100 people regularly show up for special events.

“This is our season,” Schuh said. “This is our time to make the money to get through the summer months. Our activities double during this season. We have dinners on Friday nights. Dinners on Saturday nights. Dances. We weren’t able to have the Christmas party for the kids. We weren’t able to have Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving. Or our Valentine’s Day dinner-dance. They couldn’t go anywhere else because they are in their 70s and 80s and nobody else plays that music that they like to dance to.”

Kateri Sparks, president of Auxiliary Unit 135, was devastated when she first saw the damaged post.

“I walked in the building and I cried,” she said. “I couldn’t believe the damage. There was water, it was moldy, it was so hot. It was heartbreaking. This is home for us.”

Sparks said the unit has agreed to suspend its other activities in order to focus its support efforts on the post and veterans whose lives have been turned upside down by Irma. Unit 135, for example, is supporting a female veteran who lost her job last year, as well as helping the post pay its ongoing bills.

Even amid the slow recovery, post members are still involved in some community activities. They presented the colors during the city’s downtown ceremony for Veterans Day, and will also participate in the Memorial Day commemorations.

While the post navigates the hurdles in reopening, no one is entirely sure when it will be active again. Maybe June, they say. Schuh remains determined. “I’m an old Marine. You can’t give up your post.”

Sparks is eager to celebrate Post 135’s return to its community.

“Oh my goodness, we will do something tremendous and with grateful hearts because people have been so kind and so supportive,” she said.

 

VA secretary testifies on department’s 2019 budget request

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held an oversight hearing on Feb. 15 to consider testimonies from Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin, along with other head VA officials, about the VA’s 2019 budget request and Advance Appropriation proposal for 2020.

“This fiscal year’s budget request totals $198.6 billion in VA funding – an increase of nearly $12 billion over (the) last fiscal year,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. “That’s a huge number but it’s even more striking when you compare the growth in VA’s budget to overall federal spending and the economy.”

Since 2006, the VA’s budget increased by about 175 percent while overall federal spending went up more than 50 percent. Given the aggressive expansion of VA resources, Roe said the department must stay focused on its core mission to ensure resources are appropriately utilized and that priority is given to veterans’ care and benefits. 

“VA will take action on many important items in fiscal year 2019. Some examples include implementation of the Forever GI Bill and appeals modernization, and the start of what will undoubtedly be a costly and lengthy replacement of VA’s Electronic Health Record,” Roe said.

Veterans benefits

According to a VA press release, the department’s budget request for 2019 has increased by $6.8 billion compared to last year. The $198.6 billion in total funding prioritizes the VA’s most important needs and combines internal offsets, modernization reforms and efficiencies to produce the best results for veterans. 

Shulkin said more than $88 billion is comprised of discretionary funding, of which $76.5 billion is proposed for medical care including collections. In addition, an annual appropriation adjustment of $500 million is requested for community care and $1.9 billion for the Veterans Choice Fund. 

Mandatory AA funding for programs such as disability compensation, pensions, readjustment benefits and Veterans Insurance and Indemnities benefits is also included in the new budget, totaling about $121.3 billion, according to Shulkin’s written statement.

“This budget reflects our efforts to reform business practices intending to do what’s right for our veterans,” Shulkin said. “Our responsibility does not end with simply asking for more money to support veterans.”

Shulkin said his job is to build a modern, adaptable and sustainable department for a changing world. More importantly, he is working to ensure that the VA maintains its commitment to veterans by executing its top five priorities which include focusing resources based on needs, modernizing systems and services, improving timeliness, preventing suicide, and providing greater choice for veterans.

“We have critically assessed and prioritized our needs and aggressively pursued internal offsets, modernization reforms and other efficiencies to provide veterans the quality care they have earned,” he said.

Health care

While the focus on foundational services will be a significant change to the way health care is provided, Shulkin said the VA will continue to ensure that a full array of health care services is available for all enrolled veterans. The department will also continue to offer services that are essential components of care and assistance.

“The big question we have is striking that balance between the care and the research in the VA versus the community care,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., committee ranking member. 

When Walz asked if the VA has enough money to keep the Choice Program running, Shulkin said there is enough to make it last until the end of May 2018. 

“We are tracking this on a weekly basis. We’re on a spending rate in the Choice Program between $350 million to $400 million,” Shulkin said. “You authorized $2.1 billion back in December, so when we do the math and tracking it, we’re OK until the end of May. We’re putting the veterans’ needs first and the money follows.”

To reassure veterans and taxpayers that every dollar is being used wisely, Shulkin said the 2019 budget proposes certain changes to the way in which the department spends on resources. One of those changes includes a request to merge the medical community care appropriation with the medical services appropriation.   

Shulkin said this change will maximize the VA’s ability to focus even more resources on the services that veterans need the most.

“I still have deep concerns that this budget is going to that trend (of privatizing the VA) without the input (and) without the knowledge,” Walz said. “I think that’s the wrong approach because veterans themselves have made it very clear (that) they wanted that fully funded VA.”

Electronic Health Record (EHR) modernization

Last June, Shulkin announced his decision to adopt the same EHR system as the Department of Defense (DoD). He said this transformation is about improving the VA’s services while significantly enhancing the coordination of care for veterans who receive medical care from the department, DoD and other community partners.

The 2019 budget includes a $1.2 billion request to modernize EHR. Given the magnitude of this transformation, long-term costs and complex contracting needs, Shulkin said the VA is requesting a single separate account. 

“This is a huge decision. No one’s ever implemented an (EHR) change this big so we’re taking it very seriously,” Shulkin said. “Everyone thinks VA has an Electronic Health Record today (but) we don’t. We have 130 electronic health records – 130 different parts of (the Veterans Information Systems and Technology Architecture) VistA. This (modernization effort will allow us to have) a single electronic health record within VA.”

According to Shulkin, the proposed new EHR system will enable the VA to keep pace with the improvements in health information technology and cyber security which VistA is unable to do. He said it will also "enable seamless care" between both departments, resulting in better service to veterans as transitioning servicemembers will have their medical records at the VA. 

“Since this is proposed to be the same system that DoD uses, we will for the first time have an interoperable system with DoD,” Shulkin said. “That’s a challenge that, frankly, the American health-care system hasn’t figured out yet. We think VA could help lead this for the whole country – by making this interoperable.”

Infrastructure improvements and streamlining

Shulkin said the VA is requesting $1.1 billion in major construction funding, plus an additional $706.9 million in minor construction, for infrastructure improvement projects. This funding will support several projects, including medical facility renovations, cemetery expansions and enhanced medical services, in Missouri, New York, Texas, Ohio, Florida and Michigan.

In addition, Shulkin said the VA is requesting more than $960 million to help fund about 2,100 medical leases, and $672.1 million to activate new medical facilities. The department is also requesting $400 million for a new seismic program that would address medical facilities in need of critical repairs and upgrades, according to his written testimony. 

“We gave $4 billion for infrastructure. It appears that that money is not going to be used for infrastructure (but instead) for community care,” Walz said. 

“We’re asking for the money where it’s most needed,” said Jon Rychalski, VA’s chief financial officer and assistant secretary for management. “I’m not discounting the aging facilities. (But) based on the funds available, we could better use that funding (for) community care.”

According to Shulkin, the VA is a participant in the White House Infrastructure Initiative. He said part of that initiative is to explore additional ways to modernize the department’s real property assets and support its continued delivery of quality care and services.

“The last four hospitals that the VA managed were each at least hundreds of millions of dollars over budget,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. “One of the efforts that I led in Congress was to strip the VA of their construction management authority. The same people that had their fingerprints on these four construction projects that were years behind schedule and (over budget) are the same people that are in charge of construction management today in the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is unchanged.

“You need to shift that responsibility to some third party outside the VA. The waste and abuse is just incredible.”

To combat fraud, waste and abuse (FWA), Shulkin said the VA has implemented an initiative called STOP FWA and established a Prevention of Fraud, Waste and Abuse Advisory Committee to provide department officials with best practices that are used in the private and public sector. 

The department is also working with the Department of the Treasury to move VA’s Community Care program closer to industry best practices. Moreover, VA officials are partnering with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to replicate their investigation process and utilize their data in identifying medical providers with performance issues.

“There is no excuse for these past projects and we cannot continue to do business as usual,” Shulkin said. “I think (the) way of the future is (to have) our public-private partnerships where the private sector helps us build.” 

Shulkin said the VA is committed to reorganizing its entire internal approach regarding construction of facilities and logistics. Department officials will begin recruiting outside industry professionals who have the expertise and technical know-how.

“We’re excited about this project in Omaha, Neb., where we’re going to do a groundbreaking on a different model of constructing VA facilities,” he said. “We’re going to look for people with outside expertise. We think you’re pushing us in the right direction.”

Click here to watch the full hearing and hear other concerns from committee members.

'It really breaks your heart'

For 15-20 years, Legionnaire Loretta Young has worked with the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. She calls the JROTC cadets the best of the best and a source of pride for nearby Arthur R. Lanni Memorial Post 365 in Sunrise, which sponsors the school’s JROTC program.

But on Feb. 14, pride turned to sorrow when three of the school’s JROTC cadets – along with 14 of their fellow classmates and teachers – were gunned down by a former student at the school. And six days later, Young and hundreds of other mourners gathered at Kraeer Funeral Home in Coral Springs to say goodbye to one of those students, 15-year-old Peter Wang.

One week after the loss of Wang and fellow JROTC cadets Martin Duque and Alaina Petty, both 14, Young still was having trouble verbalizing how emotionally difficult the past week has been.

“It really breaks your heart,” Young said. “Really, I can hardly describe how you feel when you work closely with them, when you see them on a regular basis. You admire all that they do. And then to know that their life is gone, I can’t even put it into words.

“We shouldn’t have to go see them put in the ground and to see their families so heartbroken. I’m a mother, so I know.”

Young, the longtime commander of Post 365, has seen the benefits of the JROTC program as both the Department of Florida’s JROTC and Shooting Sports chairman, and as a member of the staff at the Legion’s 3-Position Junior Air Rifle Championship in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“They work very hard,” Young said. “They are the cream of the crop when you speak about the JROTC cadets and their instructors. They are shining examples of what our youth is and what we have to look forward to as a country. To lose any one of them is devastating.”

Post 365 members attend the school’s JROTC events as often as they can, as well as sponsor year-end award ceremonies for military and scholastic excellence. Young recently had met with school officials about the JROTC’s formal inspection program, which was scheduled for the day after the shooting. Young said the formal inspection program, which only takes place every few years, is a “shining example of what the cadets are.”

An Air Force veteran, Young had visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School a few weeks ago to prepare for the awards ceremony and had shaken Wang’s hand. And the day of the shooting she spoke with the school’s curriculum advisor.

“I was hanging up saying ‘I’ll see you tomorrow morning at the inspection,’” Young said. “To hang up the phone and then look and the see the school on the news … I was speechless. It’s devastating.”

After their deaths, the U.S. Army presented all three cadets with the Medal of Heroism for the danger and extraordinary responsibility they took on during the shooting. Fellow students said Wang was holding a door open to allow others to escape when he was gunned down.

And the U.S. Military Academy, which Wang had hoped to attend, posthumously admitted the slain youth to the institution on the day of his funeral.

Young, who is a member of U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s service academy nomination committee, said the posthumous honors are a good way to honor the three teens, but it doesn’t take away the pain of knowing all three are gone.

“It is a nice recognition, and it is nice that West Point did that for Peter,” she said. “But it doesn’t diminish the fact that I saw a 15-year-old lying in his casket in uniform that I only saw a few weeks ago. And he’s gone forever.”

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