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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 cites improvements at five hospitals removed from ‘high-risk’ list

SUGHED: VA cites improvements at five hospitals removed from ‘high-risk’ list

Mission Act gets funding under historically high VA budget agreement

After a dispute delayed negotiations on the Department of Veterans Affairs budget for fiscal 2019, lawmakers came to an agreement Monday for more than $200 billion for the agency that includes funding for the new VA Mission Act – legislation that expands private-sector medical care for veterans.


Wilkie opposes bill that would extend Agent Orange benefits to 'Blue Water' veterans

New Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie urged senators in a letter Friday to reject legislation that would make health care and disability compensation available to approximately 90,000 “Blue Water” Navy veterans – those sailors aboard aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships who contend they were exposed to Agent Orange.


Measure to let VA doctors recommend marijuana was again left out of budget bill

A measure to allow doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend marijuana in states where it’s medically legal failed to make it into the final version of a VA funding bill for the third consecutive year.


Inspector general finds VA claims backlog greater than reported

The VA considers backlogged claims to be veterans’ claims for benefits that take longer than 125 days to approve or deny. The VA Inspector General’s Office reported officials omitted 63,600 backlogged claims from its count during the first half of 2016, creating a misrepresentation of how many claims were delayed.


PHOTOS

Arlington National Cemetery opens 27-acre expansion with burial of two Civil War veterans

The expansion will keep the cemetery – long viewed as a shrine to America’s fallen heroes – viable for about 10 years longer than expected. Plans for the new space, titled the Millennium Project, have been in the works since Bill Clinton was president in 1990s.


Legislation seeks to allow battlefield crosses in national cemeteries

Lawmakers on Wednesday considered a bill to force the National Cemetery Administration to allow battlefield crosses, following the controversial removal of the grave markers from three veterans cemeteries last year.


Delays in Forever GI Bill implementation could affect veterans’ checks

Student veterans starting the 2018-2019 school year could receive incorrect housing payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs because the agency missed a deadline to fully implement changes to how the checks are calculated, lawmakers and veteran advocates said Wednesday.


Lawmakers ask VA secretary to research marijuana as an alternative to opioids

In a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, lawmakers asked the VA to initiate a “rigorous clinical trial” of the drug. In recent years, more veterans have come out in support of marijuana as a potential alternative to addictive opioids.


Pence: Trump is a 'champion,' 'ally' to veterans

Speaking to hundreds of American Legion members on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence lauded President Donald Trump as a champion to veterans and listed off a series of what he described as major achievements under his administration.


American Legion’s influence with the VA questioned at annual convention

For 100 years, the American Legion has been a voice for veterans in Washington, influencing government policy on veterans’ health care, education and national security. But at its national convention this week doubts about its influence emerged.


Lawmakers, advocates call for change after VA mishandled military sexual trauma claims

Some lawmakers and veteran advocates are calling for more change to how the Department of Veterans Affairs handles claims of sexual trauma in the military after it was discovered the agency denied benefits to hundreds of veterans without due diligence.


Leader of VA electronic health record project resigns, prompts concern

Genevieve Morris was selected to lead a multibillion-dollar overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs' electronic health records. She resigned Friday, citing differences with VA leadership.


VA considers ending ban on transgender surgeries for disabled vets

Since 1999, the VA has excluded “gender alterations” from its medical benefits package. For another two weeks, the VA is taking comments about a proposal to remove that ban for veterans who have a high enough disability rating to qualify them for comprehensive medical care from the VA.


Arlington National Cemetery reopens to public after bomb threat

Arlington National Cemetery reopened Wednesday after a bomb threat forced officials to close the facility to the public for about four hours. Despite the cemetery’s closure, funerals still took place as scheduled.


IG finds the VA wrongly denies benefits to victims of military sexual trauma

The Department of Veterans Affairs wrongly denies benefits to thousands of veterans claiming they suffer from military sexual trauma, potentially causing stress and psychological harm, a government watchdog reported Tuesday.


Video/Gallery

Forging ahead: Bladesmithing gives troops, vets and caregivers a chance to bond, heal

“If these men and women are having a bad day, they can come in here, rant, rave, curse, scream, holler – you name it – and we all understand,” Donna Porras said. “We might not have been in their shoes, but we understand.”


IG report: Veteran caregivers face long waits for VA assistance

Last year, lawmakers demanded the VA inspector general investigate the Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers program following news reports of the VA dropping veterans from the program with little notice.


Veterans group sues VA over ‘Mar-a-Lago Crowd’

VoteVets, a liberal advocacy group, filed a lawsuit Thursday aimed at preventing three wealthy members of President Donald Trump’s private club in Florida from influencing decisions at Veterans Affairs. The suit is a response to a news report that revealed the three were exerting major influence over the VA and secretly shaping Trump’s veterans policies.


Stern of US destroyer found near Alaska as researchers map little-known campaign of WWII

Researchers are hoping the discovery of the USS Abner Read brings some awareness about the Aleutian Islands campaign to the American public. For families of the sailors who died, they want the finding to offer some solace.


Remains from North Korea in moderate to poor condition, could take years to identify

“The mettle of our scientists and the capabilities of our labs will be challenged, but in the months and years ahead, they will make identifications from these remains and give families long-sought answers,” said Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Director Kelly McKeague.


VA shuffles several leadership posts; embattled former acting secretary retained as senior adviser

Peter O’Rourke, who became embroiled in multiple controversies during his short time as acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, will stay on as a senior adviser to new VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, the VA announced Monday.


Democrats, vets groups respond to report of ‘Mar-a-Lago Crowd’ secretly influencing VA

A shadowy trio of wealthy members of President Donald Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Fla., are effectively running the Department of Veterans Affairs in secret, according to a news report published Tuesday.


VA secretary to announce new leader for DC hospital

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, who’s been on the job for one week, visited the Washington DC VA Medical Center on Monday to meet with hospital leaders. In a statement after his visit, the VA announced it found a new leader for the facility who will begin work “in the near future.”


DEA’s lack of action to license marijuana growers threatens next phase of PTSD study

In the final months of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Drug Enforcement Agency announced it would license more growers to produce marijuana for scientific research – a decision that was meant to facilitate research into the drug. Nearly two years later, federal authorities haven’t approved or denied any applications.


Senate passes measure to extend commissary, exchange privileges to more veterans

All Purple Heart and Medal of Honor recipients, former prisoners of war and veterans with disabilities connected to their military service, as well as veteran caregivers, would be eligible to shop at commissaries, according to the legislation.


VA raises opposition to bill extending benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans

Department of Veterans Affairs officials urged senators Wednesday to vote against legislation that would extend VA benefits to sailors who served off the coast during the Vietnam War and claim their illnesses were caused by exposure to Agent Orange.


Memo: VA finds 'deteriorating' conditions at DC hospital

After being deemed high risk in January, the flagship Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington has continued to deteriorate in quality during the first six months of 2018.


Veterans gun reform group urges government to continue ban on 3-D printed guns

The Veterans Advisory Council for Everytown for Gun Safety described the printable, hard-to-trace guns as a threat to national security and public safety.


Robert Wilkie officially sworn in as 10th VA secretary

Robert Wilkie is now in charge of the second-largest federal agency, with more than 360,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $200 billion.


House approves bill allowing deployed troops to cancel cable, Internet contracts

Another measure would create a fourth division within the Department of Veterans Affairs focused on economic opportunity – an idea that began gaining momentum in the spring.


2 years after Trump promised a White House veterans hotline, it’s open – in West Virginia

President Donald Trump vowed two years ago to create a White House hotline for veterans, promising them attention and action from the highest levels of government. A hotline was established, but its connection to the White House is in name only.


Democrats call on Sessions to investigate acting VA secretary for perjury

Three Democrats on Thursday called on the Justice Department to investigate whether the acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs lied during testimony to a congressional committee.


Gallery

Veterans, VA employees rally against Trump’s workforce orders

The executive orders, which went into effect this month, limit union employees’ ability to use official time, shorten collective bargaining negotiations and encourage agencies to fire employees, instead of merely disciplining them.


Trump's VFW remarks go from praise to politics

President Donald Trump spoke to about 4,000 veterans gathered in Kansas City, Mo., for the VFW’s annual national convention, telling the crowd about his commitment to rebuild the military and improve care for veterans.


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.


Senators introduce bill to extend commissary, exchange privileges to more veterans

Currently, access to discounted on-base stores is now limited to active-duty troops, members of the National Guard and Reserve, military retirees, family members and some veterans.


New congressional subcommittee will oversee VA’s $10B deal to overhaul its health records

The VA signed a contract with Cerner Corp. in May to overhaul its health record system and make it compatible with the Defense Department. Lawmakers have expressed concerns about the project because of previous failed attempts by the VA and DOD to merge their systems.


Health care administrators remedy problem for veteran faced with $30,000 medical bill

Bob Hart uses the VA Choice program to receive medical care at a private hospital close to his home near Jacksonville, Ill. He was informed several weeks ago that he owed the hospital for treatment he thought the VA covered.


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.