TIME health

What Americans Can Learn From Obama on Mental Health

US-POLITICS-OBAMA-AMERICAN-LEGION
President Barack Obama greets members of the American Legion after speaking at the American Legion's 96th National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, August 26, 2014. SAUL LOEB—AFP/Getty Images

We must broaden the scope of our efforts beyond the military and veteran community

President Obama addressed the American Legion’s 96th National Convention on Tuesday and outlined five priorities to “fulfill our promises to service members, veterans, and their families.” These priorities include: delivering the quality health care veterans have been promised, ensuring all veterans have every opportunity to pursue the American Dream, providing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs with the resources our veterans deserve, protecting the dignity and rights of all veterans and eliminating the decades-old disability claims backlog.

From early in his administration, our President has demonstrated his concern for and commitment to our military and veteran families. He has made numerous speeches at military installations, praising the sacrifices of our troops and pledging his support. He has acknowledged his respect and admiration for those who wear the uniform during his State of the Union Addresses, often inviting injured service members and their families to join the First Lady in the Capitol to watch the address. In 2012 he issued an Executive Order titled “Improving Access to Mental Health Service for Veterans, Service Members and Military Families,” which paved the way for greater communication and coordination among government agencies while creating several specific initiatives and programs to increase access to care and improve the provision of services. And in June 2013, a primary focus of his National Conference on Mental Health was on the unique mental health challenges facing our military and veteran community.

Our First Lady shares the President’s commitment. In the spring of 2009, five months into the administration, I was invited to a meeting at the White House hosted by the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden. The purpose of the gathering was to learn about the issues affecting our service members, veterans and their families from the organizations that support them and to ask for suggestions regarding how the First Lady and Dr. Biden might best use their platform to assist these worthy men, women and families. This meeting, and several that followed, provided the foundation for what would become the First Lady and Dr. Biden’s Joining Forces initiative, which focuses on three key areas of support for military families: employment, education and wellness.

Tuesday’s speech by the President made reference to several new executive actions designed to serve the military and veteran community – many of which focus on improving the mental health and wellness of those who struggle, those who suffer and those who are at risk of suicide. During perhaps the most inspiring moment of the speech, President Obama proclaimed:

“And maybe most of all, we’re going to keep saying loud and clear to anyone out there who’s hurting, it is not a sign of weakness to ask for help; it is a sign of strength. Talk to a friend. Pick up the phone. You are not alone. We are here for you. And every American needs to know if you see someone in uniform or a veteran who is struggling, reach out and help them to get help. They were there for America. We now need to be there for them.”

Our President has done an excellent job of setting the table for us. He has provided leadership and directed resources. He has made it clear that the mental health and wellness of those who serve and their families is a priority for his administration and for America. His staff has consistently reached out to the community of organizations that engage and support our military and veteran community, asking for feedback and seeking opportunities for partnership and collaboration. Some might suggest that this has all been politically motivated – sadly so much of what seems to happen in Washington these days certainly is – but to those of us who have had the honor of working alongside our colleagues at the White House over the years on these issues, it has been clear from early on that that this sustained effort is genuine.

But while the President’s leadership is absolutely critical for success, we will need more than his commitment if we hope to ensure the mental health and wellness of those who serve and their families. We must broaden the scope of our efforts and look beyond the military and veteran community. The stigma associated with mental illness is a huge problem within our society – a problem that we must address if we hope to reduce the number of service members and veterans who choose suicide every day. How can we expect those who serve – given their training on self reliance, their value on mental toughness and their focus on serving others – to step forward and ask for help if they are depressed, anxious or suicidal when so few among us in the civilian community do so comfortable or openly. It was a little over two weeks ago that Robin Williams’ suicide sent shock waves and overwhelming sadness across our nation. Robin Williams – who was so beloved, so talented, so smart – was unable to ask for help in his darkest hour. He was unable to let those he loved know that he was in danger. How horribly sad and lonely he must have felt – how terribly distressed and alone so many in our nation feel every day.

We must change our culture if we are to succeed in saving lives and ending suffering. We must come to accept that mental health and mental illness are elements of the human condition – just as physical health and disease are – not just within our military culture but for all Americans. We must use opportunities like the one that the President has given us to harness support, roll up our sleeves and do the heavy lift required that will change the conversation in America about mental health. Perhaps one positive outcome of the last 13 years of war can be an end to the stigma associated with mental health and mental illness. Perhaps our service members and our veterans will once again lead America and serve as examples of courage, acceptance and compassion for self and others.

Barbara Van Dahlen, named to the TIME 100 in 2012, is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder and president of Give an Hour. A notable expert on the psychological impact of war on troops and families, Dr. Van Dahlen has become a thought leader in mobilizing civilian constituencies in support of active duty service members, veterans and their families.

TIME Guns

9-Year-Old Girl Accidentally Shoots, Kills Instructor at Gun Range

The operator says it allows supervised children age eight and up to handle weapons

A nine-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed a shooting range instructor in Arizona, police say.

Charles Vacca, 39, was instructing the girl on how to use an automatic Uzi on Monday when the girl, who was accompanied by her parents, pulled the trigger and then lost control of the weapon, the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Tuesday. Vacca was shot in the head and died of his injuries.

Sam Scarmardo, the operator of the shooting range Last Stop where the accident occurred, said the range allows accompanied children age eight and older to handle weapons.

He said Vacca, a longtime military veteran, had been working at the range for roughly two years. Scarmardo also said the range had not had an accident since it was opened more than a decade ago.

The girl’s parents were recording the tutorial on their cell phones when the incident occurred and handed the footage over to authorities, according to Scarmardo.

TIME Veterans

Report: No Proof Veterans Died Because of Delays

Veterans Health Care
The VA Health Care Center in Phoenix on April 28, 2014 Ross D. Franklin—AP

The VA's Office of Inspector General has been investigating the delays for months and shared a draft report of its findings with VA officials

(WASHINGTON) — The Veterans Affairs Department says investigators have found no proof that delays in care caused any deaths at a VA hospital in Phoenix, deflating an explosive allegation that helped expose a troubled health care system in which veterans waited months for appointments while employees falsified records to cover up the delays.

Revelations that as many as 40 veterans died while awaiting care at the Phoenix VA hospital rocked the agency last spring, bringing to light scheduling problems and allegations of misconduct at other hospitals as well. The scandal led to the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. In July, Congress approved spending an additional $16 billion to help shore up the system.

The VA’s Office of Inspector General has been investigating the delays for months and shared a draft report of its findings with VA officials.

In a written memorandum about the report, VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald said, “It is important to note that while OIG’s case reviews in the report document substantial delays in care, and quality-of-care concerns, OIG was unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely quality care caused the death of these veterans.”

The inspector general’s final report has not yet been issued. The inspector general runs an independent office within the VA.

Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson confirmed the findings in an interview with The Associated Press. Gibson, however, stressed that veterans were still waiting too long for care, an issue the agency was working to fix.

“They looked to see if there was any causal relationship associated with the delay in care and the death of these veterans and they were unable to find one. But from my perspective, that don’t make it OK,” Gibson said. “Veterans were waiting too long for care and there were things being done, there were scheduling improprieties happening at Phoenix and frankly at other locations as well. Those are unacceptable.”

In April, Dr. Samuel Foote, who had worked for the Phoenix VA for more than 20 years before retiring in December, brought the allegations to Congress.

Foote accused Arizona VA leaders of collecting bonuses for reducing patient wait times. But, he said, the purported successes resulted from data manipulation rather than improved service for veterans. He said up to 40 patients died while awaiting care.

In May, the inspector general’s office found that 1,700 veterans were waiting for primary care appointments at the Phoenix VA but did not show up on the wait list. “Until that happens, the reported wait times for these veterans has not started,” said a report issued in May.

Gibson said the VA reached out to all 1,700 veterans in Phoenix and scheduled care for them. However, he acknowledged there are still 1,800 veterans in Phoenix who requested appointments but will have to wait at least 90 days for care.

The VA has said it was firing three executives of the Phoenix VA hospital. The agency has also said it planned to fire two supervisors and discipline four other employees in Colorado and Wyoming accused of falsifying health care data.

Gibson said he expected the list of disciplined employees to grow. He took over as acting VA secretary when Shinseki resigned and returned to his job as deputy secretary after McDonald was confirmed.

“The fundamental point here is, we are taking bold and decisive action to fix these problems because it’s unacceptable,” Gibson said. “We owe veterans, we owe the American people, an apology. We’ve delivered that apology. We’ll keep delivering that apology for our failure to meet their expectations for timely and effective health care.”

To help reduce backlogs, the VA is sending more veterans to private doctors for care.

Congress approved $10 billion in emergency spending over three years to pay private doctors and other health professionals to care for veterans who can’t get timely appointments at VA medical facilities, or who live more than 40 miles from one.

The new law includes $5 billion for hiring more VA doctors, nurses and other medical staff and $1.3 billion to open 27 new VA clinics across the country.

The legislation also makes it easier to fire hospital administrators and senior VA executives for negligence or poor performance.

TIME celebrities

The Military Absolutely Loved Robin Williams

The late comedian took multiple trips to war zones to entertain troops

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Robin Williams was beloved by the U.S. military, perhaps even more so than by the American public. He carried Bob Hope’s mantle as a funny man far from home, often in inhospitable places. Throughout his career, Williams made six USO tours to Iraq, Afghanistan, and 11 other countries and performed for 90,000 troops by the time of his final tour in 2010.

He had the troops roaring in Baghdad in 2003, shortly after the capture of Saddam Hussein. “I love the fact that when he came out of that spider hole, he wanted to negotiate,” Williams said, before changing his voice into that of a bellowing soldier: “It’s a little late for that, bubsy! You’re at the point where you’re going to share a cell with a large man named Bubba. I’m gonna be yo’ new Baghdaddy.”

He also poked fun at the Army itself, including a change to uniforms that appeared to be computer-generated. “The new Army camouflage—it’s digital,” he told troops in Kabul in 2007. “So you can disappear in front of a computer.”

“Williams traveled around the world to lift the spirits of our troops and their families,” the USO posted on Facebook following the news of Williams’ passing. “He will always be a part of our USO family and will be sorely missed.” The post had attracted nearly 60,000 “likes” by midday Tuesday.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a statement of his own on Williams, saying that “from entertaining thousands of service men and women in war zones, to his philanthropy that helped veterans struggling with hidden wounds of war, he was a loyal and compassionate advocate for all who serve this nation in uniform. “He will be dearly missed by the men and women of DOD—so many of whom were personally touched by his humor and generosity.”

Jim Garamone, a writer for the Pentagon’s internal news service, wrote Tuesday of the comedian’s caring and compassion for those fighting the nation’s wars:

At the end of every performance—be it a combat outpost or a forward operating base—Robin was always the last entertainer to leave. In Iraq, a group of Marines came in from patrol and missed his show. He made it a point to meet with them and give them 20 minutes of fun, even as the chopper’s blades were turning to go to the next show.

In Afghanistan, the “clamshell” at Bagram Air Field was a favorite venue for him, and he performed there many times. In 2010, he started the show with “I love what you’ve done with the place.”

He was not a prima donna. One time a sandstorm grounded the party at an outpost near Baghdad. Robin along with everyone else crammed into a small “tin can” to spend the night. The next day his jokes about snoring and gaseous emissions pretty much convulsed everyone.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, recalled asking Williams, the father of three, for some fatherly guidance during that last 2010 tour. “I once asked Robin Williams to offer advice for my son, who would soon turn 18,” Kirby tweeted early Tuesday. “’Follow your heart,’ he said. ‘The head is sometimes wrong.'”

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Airman enjoy Robin Williams’ shtick during a 2007 show in Kuwait. DoD photo / Chad J. McNeeley
MONEY College

Why Veterans Will Soon Save Thousands on College

War veterans & co-eds taking notes during classroom lecture at crowded University of Iowa
The latest change to the GI Bill will help fill college classrooms for less. Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE P—Getty Images

A bill heading to the president's desk grants veterans and their families automatic in-state status at all public colleges, potentially saving them time and money.

Great news for college-bound veterans and their families: Starting next year—the fall of 2015—veterans and their dependents will be able to pay low in-state tuition at any public university in the country.

A bill granting veterans automatic in-state status at the nation’s public colleges got final bipartisan approval by Congress last Thursday, and President Obama has said he will sign it into law.

While public colleges are concerned that the new bill will cost them money, veteran’s organizations are thrilled. “We’re really excited,” says William Hubbard, vice president of government affairs for the Student Veterans of America, which estimates there are 550,000 veterans currently in higher education.

Because members of the military often spend long periods overseas, many don’t maintain residency in any U.S. state. So servicemen and women often can’t find an affordable college when they return home to start civilian life, Hubbard says.

Twenty-four states have passed state laws giving vets in-state status at their public colleges, but many veterans live or want to live in states that haven’t done so, such as California or North Carolina, he says. At the University of North Carolina, for example, in-state residents are charged tuition and fees of about $6,400 this year; out-of-state students pay roughly $31,800.

The bill could save families tens of thousands of dollars, since the automatic in-state status will also be granted to veterans’ spouses and children.

Because veterans won’t have to wait to establish residency in a state to pay the lower tuition, the new law will also save time and speed the transition to civilian life, says Ryan Tomlinson, education program coordinator of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “I’m happy for the vets,” he says. “This increases their access to good colleges.”

Public colleges and universities, while sympathetic to the veterans’ plight, expressed concern that Congress was forcing them to take on extra expenses. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities, notes that states have been cutting the budgets of public colleges for years. This new law, by reducing their tuition revenues, “would add further financial strain to these institutions,” he warned.

Learn more about Money’s Best Colleges 2014-2015

TIME Congress

As Time Runs Out, Congress Is Gridlocked on Immigration Reform

John Boehner
House Speaker John Boehner, center, walks to the House chamber on Capitol Hill on July 31, 2014 J. Scott Applewhite—AP

The House of Representatives has consequently had to delay its recess by a day

On Thursday, Republicans in the Senate stymied the bill that would have allotted $2.7 billion to resolving the issue of Central American minors illegally crossing the border into the U.S., which many politicians have deemed a national crisis.

The bill received 50 yeas and 44 nays, falling short of the 60 it needed in order to end up on President Barack Obama’s desk. In July, Obama had asked legislators for a comprehensive emergency plan dedicated to resolving the immigration issue.

Republicans, according to a CNN report, took issue with the legislation’s dearth of provisions concerning the deportation of illegal immigrants. A bloc of far-right Congressmen within the party also managed to successfully suspend the vote on a bill in the House of Representatives intended to facilitate the deportation process, deeming the legislation too moderate.

The squabbling has forced the House to delay its August recess by one day.

Not all was gridlocked in Congress, though. The Senate voted almost unanimously in favor of a bill that will provide the Department of Veterans Affairs with over $16 billion to address some issues concerning health care services for veterans, including reduction of delays and the hiring of more doctors.

TIME Veterans

Congressional Negotiators Strike VA Reform Deal

From right: Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Richard Blumenthal during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 24, 2014.
From right: Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Richard Blumenthal during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 24, 2014. AP

In three days, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Jeff Miller have turned around the state of negotiations and come up with a $17 billion solution

Updated at 3:55 p.m.

The two chief congressional negotiators to reform the scandal-plagued Veteran Affairs Department have struck a $17 billion deal to address long patient wait times and dishonest government employees who doctored records to make their hospitals appear more efficient.

The bill includes $10 billion to allow veteran patients to receive non-VA health care and another $5 billion to hire more doctors and health care practitioners. The cost of the bill is offset by $5 billion in cuts to the department elsewhere, said Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders Monday.

The bill is a compromise between two proposals created last week by Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller and Sanders, which they said would have cost $10 and $25 billion, respectively. Interim Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson requested $17.6 billion two weeks ago to hire 1,500 doctors and build new clinics, among other things.

Sanders, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman, said that the bill was “far from what I would have written if I had to do it alone” and that “God knows” there is more work to be done. But both he and Miller, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman, said they support the bill and expect it to pass this week before members leave for a five-week recess.

The deal uses a variety of methods to speed up patient service. If the VA doesn’t grant an appointment to a patient within the current wait time goal of 14 days, or if a patient resides more than 40 miles from a VA facility, the veteran can use non-VA care, including from private health care providers that participate in Medicare, and Department of Defense health centers.

The bill would also allow the VA Secretary greater authority to fire employees, who would have three weeks without pay before an appeals board would be required to make its verdict. The new power will aid former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald, whose confirmation to the position is pending.

Miller and Sanders noted that the cost of the Senate and House bills that passed overwhelmingly in June made negotiations difficult. Each of those would have cost at least $35 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The Veteran Affairs Department has been rocked by reports of patients dying while on months-long waiting lists. Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May after an inspector-general report signaled a widespread practice of employees falsifying records to hide slow response times.

A deal had seemed unlikely Thursday, when Sanders said on the Senate floor that he wouldn’t be shoehorned to pass the Republican’s $10 billion proposal. “Any sixth-grader in a school of the United States understands, this is not negotiation,” he said. Miller then released a statement saying that it would be “impossible” to forge a bill if Senate Democrats refused to participate in conference meetings. With only a week left before the August recess, media outlets proclaimed that negotiations had “imploded,” “ground to a halt” and were “on the verge of collapse.”

But these squabbles may have actually pushed the negotiations further along, a congressional aide with inside knowledge told TIME. Asked Friday if the previous day’s press coverage was overblown, the aide said, “Maybe a little, but we all gave everyone plenty of fodder and it could be that some of the drama, intentionally or not, helps move things along.”

TIME Military

Quadruple Threat: Soldier, Sailor, Airman and Marine, All Rolled Into One

Branched out: From Marine, Soldier, Sailor to U.S. Air Force Airman
Now-Air Force Staff Sgt. Jesus Yanez has also served in the Army, Navy and Marines since 1993. Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez / Department of Defense

Staff sergeant has served in all four branches of the U.S. military

Despite the Pentagon’s nonstop jawboning about joint operations—where the military’s four sister services cooperate to prevail on the battlefield—those with time in uniform will tell you that each service is like a foreign land to the other three.

That makes Staff Sergeant Jesus Yanez, currently manning checkpoints at the biggest U.S. base in Afghanistan, a genuine world traveler.

Since 1993, he has served in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

His skills pay dividends when he’s spending his day off getting pizza or walking around with military colleagues at Bagram air base, just outside Kabul. After his buddies spy an American sailor wearing foreign-looking insignia they don’t understand, the questions begin:

“They ask me, `What rank is that?’ And I’ll say `He’s a petty officer,’ and they ask: `What’s a petty officer?’” referring to the Navy’s non-commissioned officers. “They’ll ask me, `Do you salute warrant officers?’”—those in the Army between enlisted and officers—“and I’m like, `Yes, Army warrant officers get a salute.’”

But military life’s not all about rank. “The food in the Air Force is much better than in the Army, Navy or Marine Corps,” says Yanez, who is in the middle of a five-month tour in Afghanistan with the Air Force—and enjoying every bite. Marine chow, not so much: “You could throw a biscuit into the wall and make a hole through it.” But the Marines, he concedes, score high elsewhere: “Their uniforms are probably the best in the military.”

Yet he says he has learned from each of the services. “In the military, you’re like a family,” Yanez says. “It doesn’t matter what branch you’re in, if something happens to you, everybody’s going to be there for you. And the military gave me an education—I have an associate’s, bachelor’s and a master’s.”

Yanez as a Marine 20 years ago. USMC

Yanez, 39, hails from El Paso, Texas. He served as an active-duty Marine from 1993-97. “They always say the Marine Corps’ boot camp is the hardest one to go through,” he remembers thinking. “In my mind, when I was in high school, I’d think if I could be a Marine, I could do anything.”

He left the corps and spent a couple of years in the civilian world. “After awhile, I missed the military, just in general,” Yanez recalls. The single father of two wanted to stay in El Paso. He was looking for a reserve slot, and checked out, but rejected, the El Paso Marine Reserve unit. “I didn’t want to do artillery,” he says of their specialty.

So he ended up in a nearby Navy Reserve unit. “The Navy Reserve had a master of arms program, which is almost like an MP [military police], and that when I enlisted,” he says. “I wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement.” But Yanez says he found the Navy too informal—“I wasn’t used to the first-name basis at the reserve unit”—especially following his Marine service.

He traded the Navy for the Army in late 2001. “After September 11, I just felt that I needed to go back and do my part for my country,” he says. But he spent time stateside after his new reserve unit already had deployed to Iraq, which Yanez found disappointing. “The opportunity for me to deploy with the Army wasn’t there,” he says. In his reserve service, Yanez generally has drilled one weekend a month, with a two-week block of training annually.

But while working as a civilian Army police officer at El Paso’s Fort Bliss, he heard from Air Force reservists there that they routinely deployed overseas. So in 2006, he joined the Air Force as a member of the Texas Air National Guard’s 204th Security Forces Squadron, and spent part of 2010 in Iraq.

“It sort of just happened, being in all four branches,” Yanez, with the 455th Expeditionary Base Defense Squadron at Bagram, recently told an Air Force public-affairs officer. “I didn’t even think about it until one of my friends mentioned it.” Pentagon officials said Thursday that Yanez’s quad-service heritage is “highly unusual,” but don’t have data detailing just how rare it is.

Yanez doesn’t boast of his unusual military background. “I don’t have any stickers on my vehicle—I don’t even have any tattoos,” he says. But something betrays his past, at least to keen observers. “People always ask me, even though I’m in an Air Force uniform, if I was a Marine,” he says. “Because I still have a high and tight flattop” haircut. “Saves me a lot of money.”

One more thing. Yanez doesn’t want those in the Coast Guard thinking he’s slighting them. Coasties always feel dissed when people talk about the nation’s four military services, because Coast Guard personnel insist they’re the fifth. The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, but can be commanded by the Department of Defense in times of war. “Maybe I’ll get a job with the Coast Guard,” he says, “when I retire.”

TIME animals

Ohio Man’s Therapy Ducks Fall Foul of Local Ordinances

Iraq war veteran Darin Welker holds one of his ducks at his home in West Lafayette, Ohio on July 10, 2014.
Iraq war veteran Darin Welker holds one of his ducks at his home in West Lafayette, Ohio on July 10, 2014. Trevor Jones—AP

Veteran Darin Welker says raising the birds helps him overcome PTSD from the Iraq War

Darin Welker loves his ducks. He feeds them, looks after them, and sometimes the Iraq War veteran from West Lafayette, Ohio just watches them interact. But Welker’s community doesn’t share the same affection for his feathered friends.

On Wednesday, the Associated Press reports, Welker will appear in a local municipal court facing a minor misdemeanor charge for raising 14 ducks in violation of local village rules. He could face a fine of up to $150.

Welker, an Iraq War veteran, says he’s been raising the ducks as a form of therapy for a back injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Welker told the AP that although the Department of Veterans Affairs paid for his back surgery in 2012, they did not provide mental or physical therapy.

In March, he got the ducks to help fill that void, after hearing raising them could be therapeutic.

“Taking care of them is both mental and physical therapy,” Welker told the AP. “[Watching them] keeps you entertained for hours at a time.”

In West Lafayette, however, raising ducks or any farm animal violates a 2010 ban on housing “chickens, turkeys, ducks, live poultry or fowl of any kind, horses, ponies, cows, calves, goats, sheep, or live animals of any kind except dogs, cats, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, birds or mice.”

But there is hope for Welker and his ducks. A local woman fought to keep the pot-bellied pig she and her daughter use for therapy in 2013. Mary Smith, the pig’s owner, told the Coshocton Tribune at the time that she would rather move than give up her pig. “He’s part of our family,” Smith said.

Smith obtained a letter from her doctor confirming her pig was for therapy. According to the AP, Welker has already gotten a letter from the mental health department of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs recommending he keep the ducks.

[AP]

TIME Veterans

Obama to Tap Soap Salesman to Clean Up VA

Former Procter & Gamble boss is a West Point grad

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President Obama will announce he is replacing the retired Army general who was running the VA with a former Army captain—swapping four-star salutes for business smarts. The pick suggests just how tough the VA assignment is, and an acknowledges that the sprawling bureaucracy of 300,000 doesn’t always salute when it’s given orders.

Bob McDonald, a former chief executive of soap giant Procter & Gamble, is replacing Eric Shinseki, who stepped down May 30 after it became clear many officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs were hiding how long it took veterans to get their promised medical care.

Obama picked the right guy to clean an agency tarnished by accusations that its managers repeatedly gamed VA records—potentially leading to the deaths of some veterans—to help VA officials win annual cash bonuses. Early in his career at P&G, McDonald managed the company’s Tide detergent business, before heading to Canada and then Asia to run the company’s laundry and cleaning operations. The White House leaked news of McDonald’s nomination, expected Monday, and said his business skills and military background make him the right choice.

Paul Rieckhoff, chief of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, suggested McDonald’s corporate background could be an asset. “His branding background may prove helpful,” he said. “There are few organizations in America with a worse reputation with its customers than the VA right now.”

A native of Gary, Ind., McDonald spent five years in the Army, primarily with the 82nd Airborne Division, after his graduation from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1975. He joined P&G—and its lengthy roster of brands, which now includes Gillette, Crest and Febreze—in 1980. He ran the company for four years before retiring in 2013, after pressure from investors that he wasn’t cutting spending sufficiently.

Congressional reaction was muted. Senator Bernie Saunders, I-Vt., who chairs the veterans committee that will hold McDonald’s confirmation hearing, said simply that he looks forward to meeting McDonald “in order to ascertain his views” on the VA’s problems. His Republican House counterpart was even less welcoming. “The only way McDonald can set the department up for long term success is to take the opposite approach of some other VA senior leaders,” said Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. “That means focusing on solving problems instead of downplaying or hiding them, holding employees accountable for mismanagement and negligence that harms veterans, and understanding that taxpayer funded organizations such as VA have a responsibility to provide information to Congress and the public rather than stonewalling them.”

McDonald spoke about such fudging as P&G’s chief operating officer. “We don’t lie, cheat, or steal,” he said in remarks he would make to new P&G employees in 2008 and 2009, “and we don’t tolerate people who do.”

McDonald has his work cut out for him, as detailed in a report by White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, who Obama dispatched to the VA’s Veterans Health Administration to determine how bad things are. “The VHA leadership team is not prepared to deliver effective day-to-day management or crisis management,” Nabors report, released Friday, concluded. “Instead, VHA is marked by an inherent lack of responsiveness and a belief many issues raised by the public, the VA Leadership, or oversight entities are exaggerated, unimportant, or `will pass.'”

McDonald will be the first VA chief of the last four who didn’t retire from the service after an Army career. The prior four VA secretaries—since it became a Cabinet-level agency in 1989—served, like McDonald, in uniform early in their careers. He qualified for many badges during his five years in uniform: Airborne, Ranger, Jungle, Arctic and Desert Warfare, Jumpmaster, Expert Infantry, and Senior Parachutist.

He brought that same approach to P&G. When he took control of the Tide account in 1984, “Tide only came in one form, which was powder Tide regular scent,” he told a Yale audience last year. “Today…you can get liquid Tide, you can get Tide with bleach, and you can get Tide with Febreze. We just launched a Tide for fitness clothes.”

Knowing consumers—and what they want—is key, he explained: “You’re going to create better loyalty, more indispensability, and as a result of that you will have a higher market share.”

He’s going to need all the business savvy he can muster, assuming Senate approval, in his new job. When McDonald left P&G, it had annual sales of about $84 billion, half of the VA’s annual budget. The Congressional Budget Office estimated earlier this month that the reforms the Senate wants to make in providing veterans with better access to health care could double the VA’s annual $44 billion health-care budget.

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