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

Department of Veterans Affairs’ new ‘smoke-free’ policy doesn’t apply to employees

While veterans, visitors, volunteers, contractors and vendors will be prohibited from smoking on VA grounds, employees will keep their smoking privileges because of a memorandum of understanding between the VA and the American Federation of Government Employees.

VA secretary moves to permit public display of religious symbols

Citing a need to protect religious liberty, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie issued new policies Wednesday permitting displays of religious and spiritual symbols in VA facilities. VA facilities are also now allowed to accept donations of religious literature and symbols.

Veterans to hand out John McCain shirts at July Fourth celebration in DC

VoteVets, a liberal advocacy group founded by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, are behind the effort to distribute shirts Thursday featuring the USS John McCain, a Navy destroyer, along with the words, “Big Bad John.”

VA delays decision to add more diseases to Agent Orange list

Researchers with the National Academy of Medicine released a report stating there was “suggestive” evidence that eight diseases — including prostate cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson-like syndromes — could be caused by Agent Orange

VA policy restricts ‘meaningful access’ to benefits for Native Americans

Among a host of inequities, the most important problem to address is a VA policy that prevents tribes from having their own accredited advocates who can log into VA systems and help veterans and their families with benefits claims — a process that is notoriously time-consuming and complex.

Trump plans phone call about VA Mission Act with 10,000 veterans next week

President Donald Trump will address 10,000 veterans by phone next week about a new law that aims to expand veterans’ access to private-sector doctors.

Pushing for VA policy change, congresswoman opens up about sexual assault

Rep. Annie Kuster's comments came during a hearing about the Department of Veterans Affairs and its decisions about disability benefits for veterans who claim they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder related to military sexual assault.

A bittersweet victory: Veteran behind Blue Water case sees its resolution after 13 years

Alfred Procopio Jr. said he learned perseverance from his parents, who “never took no for an answer.” And now the name “Procopio” represents a major victory for tens of thousands of Vietnam War veterans, thanks to the case of Procopio v. Wilkie.

North Carolina VA hospital bought $2.3 million surgical robot without permission

A Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in North Carolina spent $2.3 million on a surgical robot without approval, a federal watchdog reported Wednesday.

ICE fails to give veterans special consideration before deporting them, GAO says

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn’t track how many veterans it deports or consider a person’s military service before deporting them, a federal watchdog agency reported Thursday.

DOJ drops case against benefits for Blue Water Navy vets

With the court challenge apparently over, tens of thousands of veterans – with estimates up to 90,000 – are in line to receive VA benefits.

VA to expand veterans’ access to private medical care

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday will launch a major expansion of veterans’ access to private doctors – a reform effort President Donald Trump has promised since his 2016 campaign.

Website matches veteran entrepreneurs with businesses

What has traditionally been a strong entrepreneurial trend among veterans is facing a generational decline. One veteran's solution is something like a dating website, but instead of logging on to find a love connection, wannabe business owners can look for a match among companies for sale.

Medical marijuana for vets to be highlighted during Rolling Thunder event

Veterans Cannabis Project, which lobbies for easier access to medical marijuana, partnered with Rolling Thunder’s primary sponsor, Harley-Davidson of Washington, D.C., to host a free barbecue and concert that aims to rally support for marijuana advocacy.

VA deputy nominee praises accountability law that failed to fire senior leader

The nominee for second-in-command at the Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday that the Trump administration’s controversial Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act has helped the agency become a “rising star” of the federal government.

House again passes 'Blue Water' Navy benefits bill with unanimous support

For the second time in less than a year, the House unanimously approved a bill Tuesday that would extend benefits to Vietnam War sailors who have fought for years to prove they were exposed to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange.

House lawmakers question VA’s ability to meet deadline for GI Bill changes

Department of Veterans Affairs officials tried to assuage House lawmakers' doubts about the agency’s ability to successfully implement changes to veterans’ education benefits by a December 1 deadline.

Veteran suicide, 'blue water' benefits among topics addressed in 18 bills OK'd by House panel

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs sent 18 bills to the full House Wednesday, including legislation to address veteran suicides, create a fourth administration at the Department of Veterans Affairs and extend benefits to “Blue Water” Navy veterans.

House panel considers 'blue water' bill in wake of court ruling

Following a federal court decision that veterans who served offshore on ships during the Vietnam War should be eligible for Agent Orange benefits, lawmakers made their case Wednesday for why legislation is still needed to ensure it gets done.

Veteran suicide crisis draws attention from House lawmakers who promise action following multiple deaths on VA campuses

The scheduled hearing and news conference were held in response to multiple instances of veterans dying by suicide in April — three suicides in five days. A fourth veteran died by suicide outside a VA clinic in Cleveland Monday.

House lawmakers Crenshaw, Ocasio-Cortez spotlight opposite views on VA reform

Freshmen lawmakers Reps. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. have become media sensations in their respective parties, each gaining hundreds of thousands of social media followers during their first months in the House.

'I’m having a good day,' Trump says at wounded warrior event following release of Mueller report

In front of a backdrop of 29 veterans, President Donald Trump on Thursday expressed vindication following the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report on possible collusion efforts between his campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 elections in his favor.

New legislation would recognize nine more diseases caused by Agent Orange

“American heroes affected by Agent Orange deserve the peace of mind knowing that the federal government recognizes the existing link between their exposure and illness,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn.

Special counsel: VA miscommunication and delays to blame for amputation of veteran's leg

“It is unacceptable that a situation should ever arise where our nation’s veterans are provided such substandard care that it resulted in a loss of limb, because of a mistake by the agency entrusted to take care of them,” wrote Special Counsel Henry Kerner.

VA leaders against adding a fourth administration to the department

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation last week to create the Economic Opportunity and Transition Administration at the VA and add a new senior official to lead it. It would include programs such as the GI Bill,

Effort underway in Congress to add a fourth administration to the VA

The VA is currently made up of three administrations: the National Cemetery Administration, the Veterans Health Administration and the Veterans Benefits Administration.

House lawmakers ask VA to delay expansion into private sector, citing IT issues

The department is working toward a June 6 deadline to implement a new community care program for VA patients that was mandated by Congress under the VA Mission Act, a major reform bill.

Two senators want to revoke ‘BRAC-like’ review of VA facilities

Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Mike Rounds, D-S.D., introduced legislation Wednesday to eliminate the VA Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission.

VA secretary denies reports he’s looking for another job

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie pushed back Tuesday against reports that he launched an internal campaign to become the next secretary of defense.

VA secretary recommends DOJ not challenge ruling on ‘blue water’ benefits

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie recommended the Justice Department not contest a federal court ruling that could extend benefits to Vietnam veterans who served on ships offshore during the war, he announced Tuesday.

Federal watchdog: VA leadership failures are to blame for GI Bill payment issues

The Department of Veterans Affairs didn’t have a designated official overseeing the project to implement portions of the new Forever GI Bill, VA Inspector General Michael Missal wrote in a report released Wednesday.

Congressmen urge FBI to investigate bots targeting veterans with fake news

A study from Oxford University in 2017 found Russian operatives used Twitter and Facebook to disseminate “junk news” to veterans and servicemembers.

Property management company forced to pay $1.5 million for wrongfully evicting servicemembers

The Justice Department discovered PRG Real Estate Management had evicted tenants from 2006 to 2017 without disclosing to state courts that they were active-duty servicemembers, a violation of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.

New legislation seeks to provide staff, funding, research to help prevent veteran suicides

Legislation introduced in the Senate this week aims to tackle the nation’s veteran suicide epidemic by boosting funding, mental health staff, alternative therapies and research at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans groups appeal to Trump over benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans

At issue is the interpretation of the current law, which allows easier access to disability benefits for veterans who “served in the Republic of Vietnam” and suffer from one of a list of illnesses linked to the Agent Orange.

Key veterans groups blast Trump’s VA budget proposal as falling short of veterans’ needs

Three large veterans organizations criticized President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget proposal for the Department of Veterans Affairs, arguing the historically high amount still falls short of meeting veterans’ needs.

Retiring judge calls VA appeals system a 'tragedy'

Chief Judge Robert Davis said the pressure on VA employees to get through a large backlog of benefits claims leads to poor decision-making and a high number of appeals.

Trump's budget request seeks another increase in VA funding

President Donald Trump’s budget request for fiscal 2020 includes $220 billion for the VA — up 9.5 percent from fiscal 2019, when the agency’s budget surpassed $200 billion for the first time.

Senators push for nationwide Green Alert system for missing veterans

Two senators introduced legislation Thursday that would create a Green Alert public notification system to find veterans when they go missing.

House bill strengthens burn pit registry

The House unanimously approved a bill this week to make the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry a more useful tool for researching the health effects of toxic exposure on servicemembers and veterans.

VA contracting at 'high risk' for wasting tax dollars

The Government Accountability Office on Wednesday declared Department of Veterans Affairs contracting, which topped $26 billion in 2017, is a “high risk” area of government, susceptible to waste and mismanagement of taxpayer money and in need of more oversight.

House VA committee launches investigation of bots using fake news to target veterans, servicemembers

In a statement, committee chairman Rep. Mark Takano said foreign actors are using “shadowy practices” to disseminate false information to servicemembers, veterans and their families.

Trump creates task force to combat veteran suicide

Over the next year, the PREVENTS initiative will be responsible for working with public and private sectors to better understand the underlying factors of suicide and plan methods for addressing it at state and local levels.

Trump executive order eases veteran transition into Merchant Marine

Trump’s administration is positing the action as part of a broader effort to transition veterans into civilian jobs. It’s also a method to boost the number of highly-qualified mariners in the Merchant Marine, which has faced a shortage in recent years.

Marijuana-PTSD study concludes after 10 years of planning, research

Ten researchers gathered in San Francisco this week to comb through data from a just-completed study on the effect of marijuana on post-traumatic stress disorder – the first government-approved research of its kind.

Army veteran shoots doctor at VA hospital in Florida

The FBI said Larry Ray Bon, 59, shot a doctor in the neck just before a mental health evaluation at West Palm Beach VA Medical Center.

Supreme Court: Is Peace Cross a war memorial or a Christian symbol?

The Supreme Court is expected to decide whether a giant cross, a memorial dedicated to 49 local men killed in World War I, is in keeping with the Constitution’s First Amendment and the separation of church and state. The outcome of the case could affect other veterans memorials nationwide.

VA announces new policy to prioritize Purple Heart recipients for VA claims

The Department of Veterans Affairs will start to give priority consideration to Purple Heart recipients in the spring when processing veterans’ benefits claims, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie announced Tuesday.

Takano announces congressional task force to address challenges facing female veterans

Rep. Mark Takano, the new chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, announced Monday that a new congressional task force will address barriers that women veterans face when trying to obtain Department of Veterans Affairs benefits and health care.

VA reports staff vacancies nearing 49,000 across the country

Of the vacancies, 42,790 are within the VA health care system, with 24,800 in the medical and dental fields, the data shows.

The public can now comment on VA’s proposed rules for expanding private-sector care

The public has until March 25 to comment on the rules. At that point, the agency could use the feedback to make changes before it implements a new private-sector care system in June.

VA says it made a 'mistake' using gender-neutral motto

The motto, which has been the same for nearly 60 years, has been a point of recent controversy. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a national veterans organization, described the motto as sexist, outdated and exclusionary.

VA launches new benefits appeals process, promising faster decisions

Under the old system, veterans waited an average of three to seven years to reconcile their appeals. The new one could get final decisions to veterans in as little as 125 days, VA officials vowed.

Vets groups recommend VA budget increase to handle expansion of private care

As the Department of Veterans Affairs works toward expanding its use of private-sector doctors, three veterans groups proposed this week that the White House and Congress approve a budget for private care in 2020 that’s nearly double what was appropriated for 2019.

VA preparing to launch major overhaul of claims appeals process

The new system involves multiple avenues for veterans, including an option to appeal their claims with a higher-level adjudicator or directly with the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

House passes bill to offer free child care at VA facilities nationwide

The Veterans’ Access to Child Care Act, H.R. 840, would make permanent a pilot program the VA began in 2011 to provide child care for veterans who need the VA for intensive medical and mental health care, such as cancer treatment or care for post-traumatic stress disorder.

House VA committee launches investigation into Mar-a-Lago trio

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, wants travel logs to and from Mar-a-Lago, as well as emails, text messages and phone records, among other documents, between the three club members and former and current VA officials.

Federal watchdog initiates investigation into VA dog testing

The controversy surrounding the continued use of dogs in medical experiments at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities heated up again this week when the agency’s inspector general announced it would initiate an investigation into the practice.

As Congress begs for VA information, agency touts unprecedented level of transparency

Last week, some lawmakers and veterans organizations expressed worries the rules could expand veterans’ care too far into the private sector and erode VA resources.

Lawmakers want full military honors at Arlington for MOH recipients, POWs

Legislation introduced in the House on Wednesday would grant them a military band and horse-drawn caisson – honors now reserved only for officers and servicemembers killed in action.

Lawmakers issue bipartisan call for more transparency from VA

Republicans and Democrats in Congress asked Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie on Monday to work with them more closely and openly as the agency implements sweeping reforms in coming months.

House veterans' committee chairman promises 'imminent' hearing on new private-sector care rules

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., plans to hold a hearing in the “imminent future” to analyze rules that the Department of Veterans Affairs publicly released Wednesday to expand veterans’ access to private doctors.

VA unveils proposed new rules for expanding private-sector care

New rules proposed by the Department of Veterans Affairs could mean less travel time and more choices for veterans seeking mental or physical care.

Court decides 'Blue Water' Navy veterans should be eligible for Agent Orange benefits

A federal court ruled Tuesday that Vietnam veterans who served on ships offshore during the war are eligible for benefits to treat illnesses linked to exposure to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange – a decision that has the potential to extend help to thousands of veterans.

VA secretary predicts controversy over upcoming change to private-sector care program

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie announced Monday that he will unveil new rules this week stipulating when veterans will be allowed to access private-sector medical care – a plan that he said would “revolutionize” the VA health system.

Veterans groups still left in the dark over how sweeping law will change VA

Three veterans organizations called attention this week to the ongoing lack of transparency about a sweeping law, set to take effect in the summer, that will fundamentally alter the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system.

House lawmakers launch new effort to protect military spouses from deportation

A measure was reintroduced in the House on Wednesday to provide relief to military spouses facing deportation, with particular attention paid to one spouse – Alejandra Juarez, the wife of an Iraq War veteran who was deported to Mexico last year.

Report: Former VA secretary Shulkin violated ethics rules, allowed security to chauffeur his wife

The findings follow a prior probe into Former Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin's ethical violations, in which he spent much of a taxpayer-funded trip to Europe sightseeing with his wife.

Conservative-leaning vets group, facing Democrat-led House, switches strategy in efforts to reform VA

Concerned Veterans for America, funded by billionaires Charles and David Koch, has pushed for an aggressive expansion of veterans’ health care into the private sector and a faster process to fire VA workers. Now, they’re concerned the policy initiatives could be undone.

VA secretary fights notion that government shutdown could lead to veteran suicides

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie sent a letter Monday to J. David Cox, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, calling the notion “preposterous” and harmful to veterans.

Number of veterans employed on Capitol Hill still low, review finds

Recent figures show that while there are more than 13,000 congressional staffers on Capitol Hill, a shockingly low percentage of them are veterans. One veterans advocate says he knows why that may be.

Takano takes helm of VA committee, inspired by 'positive force' of incoming House members

When Congressman Mark Takano took the stage over the weekend at a student veterans convention in Orlando, Fla., it marked his first public address as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs — a position that will enable him to set priorities in Congress for veterans for the next two years.

‘A daily struggle’: Veterans in federal workforce feel effects of government shutdown

About 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed since Dec. 22 because of the partial government shutdown — and thousands of them are veterans.

House lawmakers launch new effort to pass ‘Blue Water Navy’ bill

Just days into the new congressional session, some House lawmakers are trying again to secure benefits for thousands of veterans who served on ships off the coast during the Vietnam War – an effort that failed by the time the 115th Congress ended last month.

VFW post in Maryland closes due to government shutdown

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5633 in Potomac, Md., accessible only through federal parkland, was forced to close during the partial government shutdown.

Student vets CEO calls on veterans to fill America’s ‘leadership deficit’

America is facing an “unprecedented leadership deficit,” and young, educated veterans should be the ones to fill it, the CEO of a large veterans organization argued Friday in a call to action.