Schmitt & Coletta, P.C.

Veteran Attorneys Fighting For Veterans and Their Families

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Vet Educational Housing

Posted on October 14, 2013 at 12:34 PM Comments comments (25)
Secretary of Veteran Affairs General Shinsheki testified that housing stipends for vets attending college will not be paid after the end of October. The VA's carryover funds will run out by then.
 
He testified that he did not think the Congress would actually shut the government down and did not take steps to plan for it fast enough.

Appointment as Adj Prof Of Law

Posted on October 1, 2013 at 11:12 AM Comments comments (20)
I have been appointed as an Adjunct Professor of Veteran Affairs Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. I am teaching law students to become effective advocates for Veteran Benefits.

Still A Huge Backlog!

Posted on January 27, 2013 at 12:46 PM Comments comments (112)
.The failures locally are a symptom of a national breakdown: Across the country, more than 900,000 veterans wait an average of nine months for the agency to determine whether they qualify for disability benefits, according to the VA.

One Woman's Story

Posted on December 8, 2012 at 9:46 PM Comments comments (16)
After trying for decades to suppress memories that nearly destroyed her life, Ruth Moore would have been forgiven had she struggled with the words Wednesday as she recounted being raped as a young Navy enlistee and her ensuing years of trauma.
click image to enlargeNavy veteran Ruth Moore, a Maine native, testifies Wednesday about being raped by a superior officer when she was 18.The Associated Pressclick image to enlargeRuth Moore, right, is accompanied by her husband, Butch Moore, and daughter Samantha on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
But with her husband and young daughter seated close behind her, Moore was resolute as she told members of Congress about the attack, the ensuing cover-up, her discharge from the Navy on a false medical diagnosis and her decades-long fight for veteran's benefits.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this process took me 23 years to resolve, and I am one of the fortunate ones," said Moore, a Maine native who now lives in Milbridge, as she read her testimony.
"It should not be this way. If I had been treated properly and received benefits in a timely manner back at the time of my discharge, my life would have been much different," she said.
Moore, 43, shared her story during a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing exploring why so many victims of "military sexual trauma" are having trouble getting disability benefits.
The Department of Defense estimates that as many as a quarter of the women in the military will be sexually abused or assaulted. Incidence rates among men are lower, but in both cases the vast majority of the incidents -- as much as 87 percent -- are not reported.
Speakers on Wednesday attributed the dismal 13 percent reporting rate largely to military culture. In an environment in which "unit cohesion" is paramount, sexual-assault victims fear being punished or retaliated against if they report it.
Then, years later, often still suffering from the traumatic events, they are frequently denied disability benefits for lack of physical proof.
Military sexual trauma victims are more likely to suffer from depression, disorders such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, and to become homeless.
"Simply put, MST has devastated the veterans' community," said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain who now is executive director of the Service Women's Action Network.
Moore offered her own dark experiences as evidence.
As an 18-year-old just out of boot camp, Moore was stationed in the Azores when she was raped twice by a petty officer, her superior.
She reported the incident to a chaplain but got little to no help, even as her life "spiraled downward." Her assailant was never punished.
After a suicide attempt, she ended up in a military hospital psychiatric facility. She was later honorably discharged with "borderline personality disorder." She claims she was never treated for her rape.
"In hindsight, it was easier for the military to get rid of me than admit to the rape," she said.
The incident scarred Moore personally, leading to a failed marriage, trouble keeping jobs, panic attacks, night terrors, migraines and additional thoughts of suicide.
The Veterans Benefits Administration denied her disability benefits twice -- in Maine and Florida -- before she was granted partial benefits in 2009.
Moore was finally given access to a military sexual trauma coordinator, in Vermont in 2009, who helped her get additional benefits. The coordinator also realized that many of Moore's medical records had been expunged -- a practice that was common until recently but still happens today, Bhagwati and others said.
"I am asking you -- no, pleading with you -- to please consider favorably the legislation that would prevent this from happening to others," Moore said.
That legislation, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, would lower the burden of proof for disability benefits for veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder because of sexual trauma.
It would put more stock in veterans' testimony, eliminating the need for physical proof -- such as medical records -- that is often long gone or never existed because the service member didn't report the incident.
Essentially, the legislation would bring the standard of proof to the same level required for service members who have PTSD from combat or other causes. From fiscal years 2008 to 2010, only one-third of sexual trauma-related PTSD requests were approved, compared with 54 percent for all other claims, according to figures from the Service Women's Action Network.
Pingree said Wednesday that there has been "a tremendous change in attitude" in the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs toward sexual trauma victims and benefits.
But she said more progress is needed and the VA must start giving victims of sexual trauma the benefit of the doubt.
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.
Subcommittee members said they had heard talk of "zero-tolerance" policies in the past, yet the vast majority of assaults continue to go unreported and those who seek benefits afterward are still turned away.
After VA officials said existing policies could adequately accommodate disability requests for sexual trauma, subcommittee Chairman Jon Runyan, R-N.J., said more needs to be done.
"If the VA were a private company, you wouldn't be in business very long because you wouldn't have very many happy customers," Runyan said.
After the hearing, Moore and her family lingered in the committee room as people thanked them for making the trip to Washington to testify.
While the emotions of it all were starting to peek through, Moore said she was pleased with the hearing and with her decision to go public with her story.
"The committee was very generous," Moore said. "I think they truly heard the message. I think a lot of good is going to come of this today."

Military Sexual Trauma. PTSD and Eating Disorders

Posted on December 8, 2012 at 9:40 PM Comments comments (207)
Despite high rates of comorbidity between posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and disordered eating, there is little in the way of empirical research or practice guidelines to inform the treatment of these frequently co-occurring disorders. Clinicians who provide treatment for this patient population must navigate complicated decisions about whether these problems are best treated concurrently or sequentially, and which treatment approaches and modalities are most appropriate for the patient. The current clinical case describes the treatment of a female soldier who was admitted to a 25-day, trauma-focused inpatient program 3 months after she experienced military sexual trauma. Although treatment initially targeted her PTSD symptoms, she later disclosed her ongoing struggles with disordered eating, which raised complex questions about the most effective treatment approach. This case study illustrates the intricate link between PTSD and disordered eating, and highlights important clinical considerations relevant to the assessment and treatment of these commonly comorbid disorders.

Sexual Assault Banned

Posted on December 8, 2012 at 9:35 PM Comments comments (14)
Yesterday, the Senate unanimously passed Senator Barbara Boxer's amendment banning anyone convicted of a felony sexual assault from joining our armed forces. Defense Secretary Robert Gates established the policy
administratively in 2009, but Sen. Boxer’s amendment is an important first step in codifying the ban into law. The National Defense Authorization Act is still being debated in the Senate, but if it passes (as it is expected to in the next few days), the change will be made official and permanent.
 

Military Rape and Abortion

Posted on December 5, 2012 at 6:16 PM Comments comments (113)
 
In a historic bipartisan vote on Tuesday, the Senate passed Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's (D-N.H.) amendment to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act that would extend abortion insurance coverage to victims of rape in the military. If the House of Representatives decides to include the measure in its version of the defense bill, military servicewomen who have become pregnant from rape will no longer have to pay out of pocket for an abortion procedure for the first time over 30 years.
Army veteran Ayana Harrell, 34, has been closely watching the progress of the amendment. Harrell says she was drugged and gang-raped in February 2001 by a group of soldiers and Marines at the Redstone Arsenal base in Huntsville, Ala. It took her three months to drum up the courage to report the rape, she says, because she had been trained to believe that soldiers are not allowed to feel or behave like victims. By the time Harrell told her senior drill sergeant what had happened, she had discovered that she was pregnant from the assault.
"The only thing he said to me was, 'This is your thing. I don't want to hear it. You need to deal with it however you're gonna deal with it. Go off post and get an abortion,'" Harrell told The Huffington Post in an interview.
Harrell says she made an appointment at a local Alabama abortion clinic, but ended up backing out of the procedure in part because she couldn't afford the "$200-something" fee. If she had been a civilian employee of the federal government, a recipient of Medicare or Medicaid, or even incarcerated in a federal prison, her insurance plan would have paid for her abortion. But military servicewomen receive health care and insurance through the Department of Defense's Military Health System, which is prohibited by law from covering abortions except when a woman's life is in danger.
"It shouldn't be that a woman joins the military and she loses her rights to make choices about her body," she said, "or that she has to make the choice to foot the bill out of her pocket for something that wasn't her choice in the first place."
Sen. Shaheen told The Huffington Post that the issue of fairness for military women -- not the abortion rights issue -- is the reason for her amendment, and the argument she is making to her Republican colleagues in the House. Regardless of whether certain members have an ideological opposition to abortion, she says, military women should be given the same level of health care coverage as civilians after they have been sexually assaulted.
"It's simply unfair that we've singled out the women who are putting their lives on the line in the military," she said. "We have young women who are starting out making $18,000 a year, and they just are not able to deal with this situation on the private side when it happens to them."
Because the House version of the NDAA does not have a similar amendment attached, a bipartisan conference committee will be charged with deciding whether to include the measure in the final version of the bill. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) both support Shaheen's amendment, and Shaheen said that House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has indicated that he would support it as well. House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) has not indicated whether he would support the measure's inclusion, but three out of four ranking conferees would make for strong odds.
Claude Chafin, communications director for the House Armed Services Committee, said the committee's policy is not to comment on issues that may be the subject of conference negotiations.
Greg Jacob, policy director of the veterans activist group Service Women's Action Network, says the amendment has better chances now that it did in previous years, because of the results of the November elections. Some Republicans in the House may still dislike the policy for ideological reasons, he said, but voters clearly rejected candidates like Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) and Richard Mourdock of Indiana who opposed abortion rights for rape victims.
"Politically, it comes at a good time for us," Jacob said. "Clearly, those folks [like Akin and Mourdock] lost. The constituents and electorate have mixed feelings about abortion in cases of rape and incest, so it would be a difficult decision to maintain for you to deny that this is a necessary change in policy."
For Harrell, the trauma of having been raped and forced to continue her pregnancy continues to negatively affect her life more than a decade later. In the month after she reported the rape, she says she could not stop crying through her basic training activities. The other soldiers harassed her and called her a "slut," she says, and the military honorably discharged her for having a "personality disorder."
After she gave birth to her daughter, she says, she struggled for three years to connect with her. Today, she struggles with severe depression and cannot even go to the grocery store without constantly looking over her shoulder. "I'm fighting a war everyday in my mind," she said. "Every day it's hard for me to get up, just like that solider that went to Iraq."
If Shaheen's amendment passes, Harrell says, it will feel like a personal victory. "When I was in the military, if you wanted that choice, you had to pay for it yourself or just deal with it," she said. "And you're being a slut, you're being the loose female. That's what they tell you.
"I was 'the slut' for so many years, so it's amazing just to see this now. It's bittersweet."

An Insult to Disabled Veterans

Posted on December 4, 2012 at 10:10 PM Comments comments (16)
  Senator John F. Kerry made an impassioned but ultimately futile plea for ratifying a treaty aimed at advancing the rights of the blind and disabled across the globe, urging Congress to do for the world what has already been accomplished in the United States to protect Americans with disabilities.
In the end, Kerry and other supporters fell five votes short of the 66 needed for ratification of the international pact known as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — hailed by advocates as a human rights effort to transform how nations across the world treat those with long-term physical, mental, and intellectual impairments, particularly children who face a future of bleakness because of their disabilities.
“We will keep fighting till we win for disabled vets,” Kerry tweeted after the vote.
It was a clear disappointment for the senior senator from Massachusetts, who pushed the bill as an extension of the work of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a champion for expanding rights for the disabled and a cosponsor of the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, which served as a model for the treaty.
 
“This is not about politics, it is not about ideology,” Kerry said on the Senate floor before the vote. “It’s about people.”
The treaty had already been approved by the European Union and 125 countries, including China and Russia.
Eight Republicans, including Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, and the Senate’s two independents joined Democrats in voting 61-38 in favor of ratification. The Constitution requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate for a treaty to be ratified.
Proponents argued that the treaty would help further advance rights for the disabled, including Americans already protected by the landmark antidiscrimination law.
The treaty was supported by President George W. Bush, who helped negotiate it and whose father, President George H.W. Bush, signed the Americans With Disabilities Act into law in 1990. The United States became a signatory to the treaty in 2009 under President Obama, a move signaling the country’s intent to ratify the agreement.
Bob Dole, former Senate majority leader, looking frail and requiring a wheelchair, returned to the chamber on Tuesday in a symbolic show of support for the treaty.
Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and staunch supporter of the treaty, read from a letter written by Dole.
But McCain’s fellow Republican from Arizona, Senator Jon Kyl, helped defeat the bill.
“Just as with many treaties before this one, the CRPD would offer cover to regimes that have no intention of actually helping their citizens, while needlessly tying the hands of countries like the United States that have actually made great strides in this area,” Kyl said in a floor speech.
Kyl said the treaty would be toothless in forcing countries to adopt measures that would reduce the physical barriers that keep the disabled from having the same access to public facilities as able-bodied people.
Last week, former senator Rick Santorum convened a news conference to take issue with wording in the treaty alluding to reproductive rights, which some conservatives take as code for abortion. Santorum and other opponents say the treaty risked the usurping of US sovereignty and the rights of parents with disabled children.
In a statement released by his office after the vote, Kerry called the vote one of the saddest in his 28 years in the Senate, “a wakeup call about a broken institution that’s letting down the American people.”
“Today the dysfunction hurt veterans and the disabled, and that’s unacceptable. This treaty was supported by every veterans group in America and Bob Dole made an inspiring and courageous personal journey back to the Senate to fight for it,” Kerry said.
Veterans, many maimed in combat, joined business groups, advocates for the disabled, and a few high-profile Republicans in attempting to change enough minds among a solid bloc of GOP members who thwarted passage of the bill because of their concerns over abortion, US sovereignty, and timing.
“I could not sleep tonight if I were one of the senators who did not vote for this today,” said Steve Rothstein, president of the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, which is working in 67 countries to better the lives of the blind by building schools, training teachers, and advocating for civil rights of the sight-impaired. Some 4.5 million children worldwide, he said, don’t go to school because they are blind.
The Obama administration also criticized the outcome.
“We are disappointed that the overwhelming majority of Senate Republicans today blocked the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities,” said press secretary Jay Carney in an e-mail. “We hope the Senate will reconsider this treaty soon in the next Congress.”

Article from Stars and Srips re PTSD Lawsuit

Posted on December 3, 2012 at 4:34 PM Comments comments (18)
 
As a young soldier fighting in Vietnam in 1969, John Shepherd Jr. responded to an ambush by tossing a hand grenade into a bunker that killed several enemy soldiers. He was awarded a Bronze Star with a valor device.
A few weeks later, his platoon leader was killed by a sniper, Shepherd told The New York Times, as he was trying to help Shepherd out of a canal. Shepherd’s behavior became erratic, and soon he refused to go on patrol.
After a court-martial, the Army discharged Shepherd under other-than-honorable conditions, then known as an undesirable discharge, which, the Times reports, meant that veterans benefits were denied.
Shepherd is now part of a class-action lawsuit against the armed forces arguing that he and other Vietnam veterans had post-traumatic stress disorder when they were given other-than-honorable discharges, according to the Times. The suit, which was filed in Federal District Court and names as defendants the secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy, demands that their discharges be upgraded.
The suit, the Times noted, raises two issues that could affect thousands of Vietnam vets: whether they can retroactively be given a diagnosis of PTSD though the disorder was not identified until 1980; if so, whether recent policies intended to protect troops with PTSD should be applied retroactively to their cases.
Shepherd’s legal team, students with the Yale Law School veterans legal clinic, argues yes on both counts, the Times reports. In court papers, they assert that it is reasonable to assume that Shepherd and other veterans who were later given PTSD diagnoses began exhibiting symptoms while they were in service, accoridng to the Times.
Under rules issued during the Iraq war, troops who say they have PTSD must be given medical examinations before they are forced out of the military, to ensure that problematic behavior is not linked to the disorder, the Times reports. Servicemembers given a PTSD diagnosis may still receive an honorable discharge.
“Vietnam War-era veterans, in contrast, have been denied this opportunity for appropriate consideration of the PTSD,” the Times quotes the students as saying in the complaint.
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The suit could have a wide impact. The students told the Times that more than a quarter million Vietnam-era veterans were discharged under other-than-honorable conditions, and that thousands of them probably had PTSD.
A Department of Veterans Affairs doctor in 2004 gave Shepherd a diagnosis of service-connected PTSD, according to the Times. As a result, the department will provide health care for his PTSD, but not general medical care, unless he is found to have other health problems related to his service.
Veterans disability compensation also is a problem. Shepherd’s undesirable discharge was upgraded to a general discharge in the 1970s under a Carter administration program, and that should have made it easier for him to apply for disability compensation, the Times reports. But subsequent legislation said clemency upgrades like Shepherd’s did not automatically qualify veterans for benefits. His compensation claim was ultimately rejected, according to the Times.
Shepherd, 65, twice divorced, has battled with alcoholism and drug abuse, the Times reported. He lives in New Haven, Conn., getting by on Social Security and a Teamsters pension, the Times said. While he could use the extra money from disability compensation, equally important, he told the Times, is removing the taint of his discharge.
“I want that honorable,” he told the Times. “I did do my part, until I really felt it wasn’t worth getting killed for.”

PTSD: Medication or Therapy

Posted on November 30, 2012 at 9:40 PM Comments comments (13)
 

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