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Nikki Wentling

Nikki Wentling covers veterans for Stars and Stripes and is based in Washington, D.C. She graduated from the University of Kansas with a bachelor of science in news and information.

Wentling previously covered local government for the Lawrence Journal-World in Lawrence, Kan. and military and veterans for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, Ark.

Email: wentling.nikki@stripes.com | Phone: (202) 761-0865 | Twitter: @nikkiwentling



VA employee advocates, lawmakers contend new law targets low-level workers and whistleblowers

The VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act was approved a year ago by Congress and heralded by President Donald Trump as a fix-all to root out a culture of corruption at the VA.

VA secretary nominee Wilkie is approved by Senate committee

Robert Wilkie, the latest choice by President Donald Trump to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, was easily approved Tuesday by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, moving his nomination to a vote by the full Senate.


Veteran using VA Choice program could get stuck with $30,000 medical bill

Bob Hart, a 73-year-old farmer in central Illinois, always pays his bills. But that changed when the Vietnam War veteran was informed he owed $30,000 for medical treatment he thought the Department of Veterans Affairs covered.


Leader at Connecticut VFW post resigns after being outed as former KKK member

Scott E. Palmer, the former vice commander of VFW Post 591 in Wallingford, Conn., was one of multiple KKK members arrested in the mid-1990s during investigations into a rising number of hate crimes in the area.


White House reaffirms its commitment to jobs for military spouses

The unemployment rate for military spouses is about 16 percent – quadruple the overall unemployment rate in the U.S. Experts cite challenges such as frequent moves, often with little notice, as well as barriers created by differences in professional licensing requirements state to state.


VA secretary nominee Robert Wilkie is headed for confirmation

If confirmed by the Senate, Robert Wilkie will take over the second-largest federal agency, with a nearly $200 billion budget and 375,000 employees. He’ll be tasked with leading implementation of a massive VA reform bill Congress passed this month to overhaul the VA’s private-sector care programs.


House approves benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans

The House unanimously passed legislation Monday that would extend Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to approximately 90,000 sailors who served off the coast during the Vietnam War, some of whom have been fighting for years to prove their illnesses were caused by exposure to Agent Orange.


Vets with bladder cancer could wait years for government to recognize Agent Orange link

In the past nine years, Vietnam War veteran Robert Lytle has undergone three surgeries. Doctors removed eight malignant tumors from his bladder. The Department of Veterans Affairs has denied his requests for disability compensation three times.


National Mall site selected as location of national Gulf War memorial

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts voted to place the memorial on one-quarter acre at the southwest corner of 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue, a decision celebrated by supporters who advocated for a spot on the National Mall during the three-year site selection process.


VA reveals its veteran suicide statistic included active-duty troops

The VA released its newest National Suicide Data Report on Monday, which includes data from 2005 through 2015. Veteran suicide rates are still higher than the rest of the population, particularly among women.


VA inspector general accuses acting VA secretary of concealing information

The rift was revealed this week when Inspector General Michael Missal sought help from Congress to obtain information that he argues VA leaders have been unlawfully withholding for months.


Democrats call for investigation after VA fails to share information on new disciplinary law

Democrats are calling for an investigation into a one-year-old law that gave Department of Veterans Affairs leaders more power to discipline employees, citing a lack of transparency from the agency about how it’s being put to use.


VA hospitals across the country have more than 3,000 unwanted jobs

Thousands of jobs at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country remain vacant because VA leaders contend they can’t find qualified candidates who want them, an agency report released Thursday revealed.


VA discloses rankings of 133 nursing homes

Of the 133 VA nursing homes listed, 34 earned five-star ratings overall, the highest given. Eleven had 1-star ratings, the lowest. The VA posted the performance ratings onto its website Tuesday and said it would update the information annually.


LinkedIn to give free premium membership to military spouses

Through a partnership with the Defense Department, LinkedIn will expand its program for veterans and servicemembers to include spouses. The program will also travel alongside families as they move from base to base.


Veterans group urges Trump to push North Korea for recovery of Korean War-era remains

One nationwide veterans organization hopes when President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday, he’ll push for the recovery of remains of American servicemembers killed during the Korean War.


Congresswoman calls for VA investigation after survey reveals high rates of sexual harassment

The Merit Systems Protection Board found 26 percent of women and 14 percent of men who worked at the VA reported experiencing sexual harassment between 2014 and 2016.


Lawmakers, veterans ask VA for urgency in addressing burn pit exposure

Ralph Erickson, the VA’s chief consultant for post-deployment health, told members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that the VA is working on six studies and is trying to grow a registry to gather data from servicemembers exposed to burn pits. “The VA is getting out in front of this as best we can,” he said.


House committee again blocks measure to let VA doctors recommend marijuana

For the second consecutive year, a House committee blocked lawmakers from voting on a measure that aims to allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana in states where the drug is legal.


Signing of VA reform bill prompts questions about how to fund it

The signing ceremony finalized the end of a contentious legislative fight. VA officials will now initiate a rulemaking process to decide when veterans will be eligible to go outside the department for medical treatment.


VA says money for Choice program will last until Trump signs funding bill

The Department of Veterans Affairs has long claimed a key health care program could run out of money by May 31 if lawmakers did not rush to pass new legislation to fund the VA. But the date came and went this week without President Donald Trump signing the new VA Mission Act and the Veterans Choice Program is still solvent.


Retiring VA deputy Bowman says agency is 'not broken'

The retiring deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday reassured homeless veteran advocates about the agency’s future in his final public speech, trying to dispel worries about the leadership changes the VA has recently undergone.


White House approves VA plan to offer mental health care for transitioning servicemembers

In January, President Donald Trump issued an executive order that required the VA, Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security to develop a plan by March 9 on how to provide mental health care seamlessly to new veterans and implement that plan within 180 days.


VA hospital in NC purchased more than $1M in supplies that it didn’t use

The Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Durham, N.C., spent more than $1.3 million on medical supplies that it didn’t need or use, according to documents released Thursday by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.


Largest gun control organization in US looks to veterans for support, advice

Since the mass killing at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., more veterans are bucking their pro-gun stereotype and calling for gun reform, citing their combat experience and firearm expertise as reasons why their opinions should carry weight.


VA leadership shuffle: Secretary steps down, chief of staff moves up, deputy retires

Robert Wilkie, who served as acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs for two months and is the expected nominee for the full-time job, will step down from his temporary post during his Senate confirmation process, the VA announced Wednesday.


Watchdog: VA cuts opioid prescription rate by 41 percent in past 5 years

A government watchdog reported Tuesday that the Department of Veterans Affairs has slashed its opioid prescription rate, concluding roughly 267,000 fewer veterans receive opioids in 2018 than did five years ago.


Trump issues orders aimed at weakening civil-service protections

President Donald Trump signed three executive orders Friday afternoon that aim to limit union activity, shorten the amount of time it takes to fire federal workers and encourage agencies to fire employees, instead of merely disciplining them.


Sweeping VA reforms to increase private care, expand caregiver benefits approved

After contentious negotiations that spanned more than a year, senators voted 92-5 to pass the VA Mission Act – a $52 billion deal struck between Republicans and Democrats to boost funding for VA programs, as well as the agency’s use of private doctors.


VA moving forward with Shulkin’s nationwide restructuring plan

Lawmakers have pointed to a communication breakdown between local, regional and national VA leaders as the reason for scandals during the past year. The planned restructuring looks to solve that problem.


Veterans groups call for acting VA secretary to step down during Senate confirmation

President Donald Trump’s announcement to nominate Robert Wilkie to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs on a permanent basis prompted new questions this week about whether Wilkie must step aside as acting secretary during his congressional confirmation process.


Trump picks Wilkie to lead VA in surprise announcement

President Donald Trump made the surprise announcement during a public speech Friday morning at the White House about prisons and the criminal justice system. He said Robert Wilkie, currently serving on an interim basis, has done an “incredible job.”


VA inks $10 billion contract with Cerner for new electronic health record

The Department of Veterans Affairs signed a multibillion-dollar contract on Thursday to replace its antiquated electronic health record system – an action that comes as a relief to veterans and lawmakers who worried it was indefinitely stalled after former VA Secretary David Shulkin was fired in March.


Trump donates 1st quarter salary to VA caregivers program

President Donald Trump donated his salary from the first quarter of 2018 to the Department of Veterans Affairs for a program that benefits veteran caregivers. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders handed a check for $100,000 to acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie on Thursday.


VA mails new veteran ID cards with Office Depot logo

The Department of Veterans Affairs has finally mailed thousands of new, free identification cards to veterans after months of setbacks and delays. Each card is adorned with an Office Depot logo – a symbol of the company’s new partnership with the VA.


House approves plan to increase private-sector care for veterans, fix VA funding crisis

House lawmakers approved sweeping legislation Wednesday that changes rules dictating when veterans can go outside the Department of Veterans Affairs for medical treatment, which fulfills a promise made by President Donald Trump to give veterans more choice over their health care.


Trump signs executive order to push federal agencies to hire more military spouses

Based on a survey, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated the unemployment rate for military spouses was 16 percent in 2017. The overall unemployment rate in the United States was 3.9 percent as of April.


House panel supports Agent Orange coverage for ‘Blue Water’ Navy veterans

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs voted unanimously to send a bill to the full House that would provide benefits to “Blue Water” Navy veterans, who were aboard aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and other ships and potentially exposed to Agent Orange.


Lawmakers advance bill pushing VA to research marijuana

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs voted unanimously to advance the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act – a bipartisan attempt to encourage the VA to study the drug as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain and other ailments that disproportionately affect veterans.


House committee approves extensive VA reform deal

The bill, titled the VA Mission Act, would alter eligibility criteria for veterans to access private-sector health care, extend benefits for veteran caregivers and initiate a review of VA infrastructure, among other changes.


US Border Patrol eyes murals painted by deported veterans on Mexico border wall

Navy veteran Amos Gregory, a muralist working in San Francisco, was inspired in 2013 to paint an upside-down flag on the border wall dividing San Diego and Tijuana — a distress signal that Gregory described as the perfect symbol to represent the plight of deported veterans. Over the years, the mural has become a backdrop for their fight to return to the U.S.


Lawmakers launch new effort to provide Agent Orange coverage for 'Blue Water' Navy vets

The VA has argued there is not enough evidence to link Agent Orange to sailors aboard aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers and others ships.


Lawmakers try again for major Veterans Affairs reforms

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, introduced legislation Thursday that’s similar to a deal that failed in March to be included in a massive spending bill that Congress passed to avoid a government shutdown.


Support grows for ecstasy-assisted psychotherapy to treat PTSD

Study results published Tuesday show MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, was effective in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for some veterans – boosting evidence to make the psychedelic drug an approved treatment.


Acting VA secretary: Dirty Salt Lake City clinic demonstrates need for more private care

The photos, which quickly spread on social media over the weekend, show a dirty VA clinic room in Salt Lake City with an overflowing trash can, medical instruments strewn on the counter and a filthy sink.


Special Counsel: Bedford VA hospital knowingly exposed employees, veterans to asbestos

Whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Bedford, Mass. alerted the special counsel to the contamination last year, and the VA Office of Occupational Safety and Health followed up with an investigation.


WWII pilot to get Arlington burial 74 years after he went MIA

Lt. William Punnell was shot down over the Pacific Ocean in July 1944 while on a mission to strafe Japanese targets on the Republic of Palau. His family never imagined he would be found.


Lawsuit claims Trump’s selection of Wilkie as acting VA secretary was 'unlawful'

The lawsuit argues VA Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman is the appropriate person to fill in as acting secretary until the Senate confirms a permanent leader. The Senate confirmed Bowman in August to take the No. 2 position.


Who’s next? Possible picks for VA secretary

Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, a White House physician, withdrew Thursday from consideration as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, leaving the big question: Who’s next?


ANALYSIS

Allegations against Jackson sank his VA secretary nomination – next, his career?

At least two lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee are calling for the Defense Department to look into the allegations before they’ll consider Ronny Jackson’s scheduled promotion to two-star admiral.


Veterans seek an end to ‘tumultuous chapter’ at the VA

To prevent any more damage to the Department of Veterans Affairs' reputation and delay in selecting a new VA secretary, lawmakers and veterans groups are calling on President Donald Trump to accept their input before naming his next nominee.


Ronny Jackson withdraws from nomination as VA Secretary

The decision came after details emerged late Wednesday of allegations made by 23 of Jackson’s current and former coworkers. They said he drank on duty and handed out prescription medication without keeping records of it. Jackson denies the claims.


New allegations blast Jackson as 'Candyman' who drank on duty, doled out opioids

Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, a White House physician and nominee for secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, came under scrutiny Tuesday, when the Senate committee postponed his confirmation hearing because of the new information.


White House releases VA nominee's evaluations in attempt to prove his merit

The White House on Tuesday evening released multiple hard-copy evaluations and inspector general reports about Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, in an attempt to vindicate him after allegations emerged about his professional conduct.


Trump discourages Jackson from continuing in 'ugly' VA confirmation process

President Donald Trump on Tuesday said he still supported Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson as his nominee for Department of Veterans Affairs secretary, even as Jackson faces allegations of creating a hostile work environment as White House physician, overprescribing medications and drinking on the job.


Senate postpones Ronny Jackson’s confirmation hearing, asks Trump for more information

Senate lawmakers postponed the confirmation hearing for Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the nominee for Department of Veterans Affairs secretary, amid an investigation into allegations of his conduct as the White House physician.


DC VA hospital gets another temporary director

The Department of Veterans Affairs appointed Adam Robinson on Monday to lead its D.C. hospital for about four months, making him the third temporary leader of the facility since its director was fired last year.


Veterans Affairs' chief information officer resigns

The chief information officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs resigned Tuesday, prompting questions about what will happen with the agency’s planned modernization efforts.


VA secretary nominee Jackson tells senator he won’t privatize the agency

Following his first meeting with Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician and VA secretary nominee, Sen. Jon Tester said Jackson’s views on private-sector medical care fell in line with the views of former VA Secretary David Shulkin.


Bipartisan group of lawmakers push VA to research marijuana

A group of Republicans and Democrats in the House introduced a bill Tuesday that would clarify the Department of Veterans Affairs has the authority to study medical marijuana and incite the agency to initiate research.


New leader takes over effort to establish Global War on Terror memorial

The nonprofit behind the effort to establish a national memorial dedicated to the Global War on Terror got a new director Monday after the group’s founder left in mid-March.


Acting VA secretary wants Congress to act on Choice reform

Robert Wilkie wrote in a statement that the VA and Congress need to come together to overhaul the VA Choice program, which veterans use to receive private-sector medical care.


Larry Connell is out as director of DC VA hospital

The director of the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington was reassigned Monday amid ongoing problems at the hospital and an investigation into whether his appointment broke federal protocols.


Government groups disagree about putting new Desert Storm memorial on National Mall

The National Capital Planning Commission unanimously chose a location on the National Mall for the new National Desert Storm and Desert Shield War Memorial, putting the group at odds with another commission that also has a say in the selection process.


VA rejects Shulkin's warning of privatization threat

The Department of Veterans Affairs issued an official news release Thursday afternoon, attempting to debunk warnings of any effort in President Donald Trump’s administration to privatize the agency’s vast health care system.


‘Truth can be transformative': Veterans team with songwriter to share stories of war

Retired Marine Corps Maj. Jennifer Marino came face to face with acclaimed folk singer Mary Gauthier by chance. That meeting would mark the start of a years-long relationship with Gauthier that would result in several co-written songs about Marino’s experiences with war and coming home.


ANALYSIS

'Culture of complacency': DC veterans hospital plagued by problems despite claims of progress

A broken refrigerator in the blood bank. Dirty syringe bottles. Critical staff and supply shortages that led to canceled procedures. Unsanitary equipment and rooms in disarray. All were found in the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington.


ANALYSIS

Communication breakdown adds to VA woes

Several hospitals in the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system have been the subject of scandal in the past year, ranging from unsanitary conditions in Washington to misconduct in Roseburg, Ore., and poor patient care in Manchester, N.H.


New acting VA secretary sends video message to agency employees

New acting Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie addressed VA employees Wednesday in his first public message since President Donald Trump appointed him to the post last week.


TriWest CEO warns of looming financial catastrophe if VA Choice runs out of money

TriWest Healthcare Alliance, which contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs to arrange private-sector care for veterans through the VA Choice program, warned Tuesday in an apocalyptic letter to lawmakers that another funding shortfall could lead to restricted care for veterans, as well as layoffs and financial ruin for the alliance.


Veterans group calls for Trump to remove acting VA secretary

A large, national veterans organization is calling on President Donald Trump to remove new acting Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie amid confusion over who should be running the agency legally.


Fired VA chief Shulkin: ‘They saw me as an obstacle to privatization’

David Shulkin spoke out Thursday morning, hours after being fired as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and blamed his ouster on White House appointees who seek to dismantle the agency.


'We don’t know this guy': Lawmakers, vets groups express concern over VA secretary nominee

Among the dozens who weighed in shortly after President Donald Trump announced his nomination of a new Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary, there was one constant: There remained many questions about Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson and the direction that he would take the VA.


VA Secretary Shulkin fired; White House physician selected to replace him

After weeks of speculation that David Shulkin would lose his job, President Donald Trump finally announced his decision to dismiss him through the president’s preferred mode of communication: a tweet.


Veterans join March For Our Lives to push for gun reforms

A few dozen veterans gathered at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Saturday in support of March for Our Lives. Many more veterans were likely dispersed through the large crowd, said Air Force veteran Pam Campos, who organized the veteran contingent at the Washington march.


Veterans to come together at 'March For Our Lives' events across the country

The mass shooting at a Florida high school last month and subsequent social media postings that made assumptions about veterans and guns inspired former Army Sgt. Kate Logan to speak out.