VA extends deadlines for undiagnosed Gulf War illnesses

WASHINGTON — Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs extended the deadline Thursday for Iraq veterans with unexplained illnesses to qualify for compensation and survivor benefits, pushing back the deadline to the end of 2016.

That deadline was set to expire Saturday. The move covers veterans from either the just-completed Iraq War or the 1990-1991 Gulf War who have clear service-related illnesses but not a clearly defined diagnosis.

'No one had prepared us for peace'

The following is part of an occasional series of guest columns highlighting the work and concerns of veterans groups. Jonathan Raab is a spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America who is currently preparing for his second deployment with the New York Army National Guard.

We had spent the better part of a year training for war. No one had prepared us for peace — or for the uncertainty of the next few months. My National Guard unit had just finished a long and difficult rotation at the Army’s National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. We spent several weeks in the unforgiving desert, sweating while we ran missions into mock villages, defended a mountain from a mass enemy attack, trained on how to take care of dozens of casualties while under fire, and worked with minimal sleep and resources.

VA career fair in DC on Jan. 18

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs will host a free veterans-only career fair next month at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center, as part of an outreach effort for veterans in the mid-Atlantic states.

The event, scheduled for Jan. 18, is designed to provide “career and education opportunities” for veterans living in the capital, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and West Virginia.

Eight years later, IAVA vet reflects on Iraq

The following is part of an occasional series of guest columns highlighting the work and concerns of veterans groups. Chris Hellie is an Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran’s of America spokesman. He served as a platoon leader and company executive officer with the First Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, serving 16 months in Iraq.

Every individual experiences moments in life that will define their future path for years to come, moments in time that will never be forgotten and will remain a part of their conscience for the rest of their lives. I have three such moments; one is the first time I fell in love. I remember the girl, the time and the place like it was yesterday. I was a kid, but I knew it when I saw it.

Vet rehab center? Not in my backyard!

A proposed rehabilitation facility for veterans in San Diego is garnering opposition from local residents who say they support the troops — just not in their backyard.

The head of one Washington-based veterans advocacy group called their opposition “shameful.”

Flag honors for federal workers killed on job

WASHINGTON – Families of federal workers killed on the job can be presented with an American flag on behalf of a grateful nation, under legislation signed into law today.

Veterans groups had raised concerns about the idea earlier this fall, saying it would blur the lines between honors for military service and recognition of civilian work. Bill sponsor Rep. Richard Hanna, R-NY, calmed those concerns by amending his original proposal to ensure that those being honored died as a result of “a criminal act, an act of terrorism, a natural disaster,” or a similar circumstance.

Veterans Affairs sees budget boost for 2012

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers working to rein in government spending still found enough leftover cash to give veterans a Christmas bonus during their latest round of budget negotiations.

As part of the massive federal budget bill agreement Congress passed last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs will see a 3.6 percent boost in its discretionary funding for fiscal 2012. The $58.5 billion plan is about $300 million less than what the White House requested, but the increase is still more than many agencies received.

Corps commandant defends Meyer’s MOH

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos earlier today released this statement on the brewing controversy over Dakota Meyer’s Medal of Honor:

The series of McClatchy news articles have cast doubt on the decision to award the Congressional Medal of Honor to Sgt. Dakota Meyer. I stand firmly behind the process and the decision to award the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Meyer.

The Medal of Honor is our nation's highest award for bravery. Fittingly, it involves the most demanding of investigations and multiple levels of review. This process, followed scrupulously in this and other cases, is designed to confirm with as much certainty as possible that the level of bravery and self sacrifice displayed is worthy of this singular honor. Selflessness of this caliber cannot be measured under ordinary circumstances, because the ordinary does not evoke the extraordinary.

MOH recipient drops defamation suit

WASHINGTON —Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer on Thursday reached a settlement in his defamation case against his former employer, a bit a good news in a difficult week for the war hero.

In a statement, Meyer said he and BAE Systems “have settled our differences amicably” and he would drop the lawsuit. He had accused mangers at the defense contractor of publicly calling him a mentally unstable employee with a drinking problem, after he questioned internal plans to sell high-tech rifle scopes to the Pakistani military.

Federal hiring of vets hits highest mark in 20 years

WASHINGTON — More good news on veterans employment: Veterans made up 28.5 percent of new federal hires in fiscal 2011, the highest rate in the last 20 years, according to officials at the Office of Personnel Management.

Twenty-two of 24 federal agencies hired more veterans last fiscal year than in fiscal 2009, and 23 agencies met previously announced goals for disabled veteran hiring for fiscal 2011. Officials credit President Barack Obama’s 2009 veterans employment initiative with the increased numbers.

Jailed veterans find structure together

Much has been written about the phenomenon of veterans courts, designed to administer justice to former servicemembers who may have run afoul of the law. The idea is that military service, and the experiences that often go along with it, may create extenuating circumstances that necessitate special treatment.

Now The New York Times reports that Florida is among a handful of states that have taken it a step further, creating special dorms to house veterans, surrounding them with men of like backgrounds in an environment that adds military ritual to the existing prison structure.

Retirement changes worry enlisted ranks

WASHINGTON – Enlisted troops aren’t happy with talk of changes to the military retirement system, according to Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond Chandler III.

In a conversation with reporters this week. Chandler said the topic was one of the biggest concerns he has heard from troops worldwide in recent months, with the vast majority opposed to any change in the current 20-year system. “They’re saying ‘I signed up for this. They need to keep that plan,’” Chandler said.

Senators want investigation into VA wait data

WASHINGTON — Following up on a promise from last week, the leaders of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee today formally requested a inspector general investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs record-keeping practices on wait times for patients seeking mental health care.

VA officials have said that most patients who request such appointments are seen within 14 days, but experts testifying before the committee last week said the department may be gaming those numbers. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., requested the VA inspector general look into the issue to “determine if wait time data VA collects represent an accurate depiction of veterans’ ability to access those services.”

VA announces new members for women veterans committee

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced six new members Friday for a committee designed to provide insight on the issues facing the 1.8 million women veterans.

“The Advisory Committee on Women Veterans’ significantly guides VA’s efforts to identify and address the ever changing needs of women Veterans,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said. “Women serving in the military are essential components of our Nation’s success. In honor of their service, VA is committed to providing women Veterans with quality care and preparing for their evolving needs.”

Legion says defense funds must be protected

The following is part of an occasional series of guest columns highlighting the work and concerns of veterans groups. Fang Wong, a 26-year Army veteran who served in Vietnam, is the national commander of the American Legion.

The supercommittee wasn’t so super after all. It failed in its critical mission to cut the federal budget by $1.2 trillion. So we are left with the question, “Now what?”

Veterans unemployment rate drops again

WASHINGTON –Good news from the Labor Department this morning: The national unemployment rate dropped nearly half a percent last month, to 8.6 percent, and the unemployment rate for veterans fell three-tenths of a percent to 7.4 percent. The rate for Iraq and Afghanistan era veterans remains significantly higher – 11.1 percent – but even that was down a full percentage point from October.

While analysts note that the national unemployment rate news is tempered by the numbers behind the statistics – 120,000 new jobs were created, but about 310,000 job seekers simply stopped looking for work – the news for veterans was more upbeat.

Dance champ offers Panetta some tips

WASHINGTON – “Dancing with the Stars” champion J.R. Martinez made a quick visit to the Pentagon today, following up on a request from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to meet the military’s newest celebrity veteran. Defense officials said the meeting was brief, but it gave Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey a chance to thank Martinez for his work promoting the challenges and successes of wounded warriors and returning veterans.

It also gave Panetta a chance to learn some dance moves, at least according to the pictures released by the Pentagon. Of course, that’s not the first dance advice he has given to the military.