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It’s been a tumultuous week for the Department of Veterans Affairs, after a scathing inspector general report surfaced detailing abuses and errors in VA Secretary David Shulkin’s 10-day trip to Europe last summer. But the fall-out from the investigation hints at a power struggle over the department and its priorities.
The VA Office of the Inspector General report released on Feb. 14 detailed “a number of serious derelictions” in expensing a $122,000 trip Shulkin, his wife, and a small group of VA employees took to Copenhagen and London last July. Among its more serious claims: that Shulkin’s now-retiring chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, doctored emails in order to bill the VA for the secretary’s wife’s airfare.
Shulkin has since pledged to repay the cost of his wife’s travel expenses and a pair of Wimbledon tickets the OIG report said he improperly accepted. But while Simpson resigned her post after 35 years at the VA on Feb. 16, Shulkin pushed back against the allegations that his chief of staff doctored emails, telling reporters that he believed her email account may have been hacked. (Rep. Tim Walz, the ranking Democrat on the House Veteran Affairs Committee, called on the Department of Justice to investigate that claim.)
For Shulkin, an Obama-era VA officer unanimously confirmed by senators for the department’s highest office last year, the scandal means that his quiet, bipartisan brand in the chaotic Trump administration has officially come to an end. In the aftermath of the report, Shulkin has not only lost his chief of staff but had at least one Republican congressman call for his resignation; Shulkin went into President’s Day weekend under a cloud of speculation that he may be asked to resign.
So why the hurry to rush Shulkin out the door? Shulkin himself suggested to the press that the leak of last year’s trip to Europe was a politically motivated attack from parties trying to push their own agenda from within the VA, and he vowed to “root” out the bad actors.
“We need this department to be functioning well,” Shulkin told Military Times following the Feb. 15 House Veteran Affairs Committee hearing on the 2019 budget. “Everybody needs to know their job is taking care of veterans … If that’s not the case, we’re going to root that out and we’re going to make sure this is a department we’re all proud of.”
Stories of political infighting within the VA — which oversees the largest health care system in the country — have bubbled to the surface in the aftermath of the OIG report. Recent articles by The Washington Post, New York Times, and Military Times depict a power struggle between VA civil servants and a cohort of well-connected proponents of VA privatization operating within the department.
The significant influence of Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group affiliated with the Koch brothers — and a supporter of Coffman, the congressman who’s now demanding Shulkin’s scalp — has raised concern among veterans service organizations, given CVA’s advocacy for moving more veterans’ care out of the VA and into the private sector, according to Stars and Stripes.
Shulkin, along with numerous veterans service organizations and lawmakers, has argued against privatizing the VA, but the fallout from the OIG travel report may have provided proponents of privatization an opening. Indeed, White House senior adviser on veterans affairs Jake Leinenkugel, a former Marine and political appointee with no prior experience in veterans care, circulated an internal memo in December that expressed frustration with Shulkin and his top leadership and suggested capitalizing on the travel scandal as a way to replace Shulkin with a strong political candidate. That email was recently obtained and published by The Washington Post.
“This behavior is disturbing, represents the worst of Washington politics, and must be brought to a swift and decisive end,” Walz said of the alleged political jockeying in a Feb. 16 statement.
As Shulkin continues to face criticism for the excesses detailed in the OIG report, several veterans service organizations have rallied to his defense and pushed back against calls for the VA chief to resign.
“While we were disappointed to learn of the recent issue with the Secretary’s travel, we believe that the current controversy surrounding the Secretary is part of a larger effort to remove him and install others who would take steps to privatize the services provided to our nation’s heroes by the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Denise Rohan, the national commander for the American Legion, said in a Feb. 19 statement.
Joe Chenelly, the executive director of AmVets, put it more succinctly in a Feb. 19 statement directed at President Trump: “Please allow VA Secretary Shulkin the space necessary to do his job and continue your focus on fixing the VA.”
Five people have been indicted in federal court in the Western District of Texas on charges of participating in a scheme to steal millions of dollars from benefits reserved for military members, U.S. Department of Justice officials said Wednesday.
As the military services each roll out new policies regarding hemp-derived products like cannabidiol, or CBD, the Defense Department is not mincing words.
"It's completely forbidden for use by any service member in any of the services at this point of time," said Patricia Deuster, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.
The warning, along with the policies issued recently by the Air Force, Coast Guard and Department of the Navy, comes as CBD is becoming increasingly ubiquitous across the country in many forms, from coffee additives and vaping liquids to tinctures, candies and other foods, carrying promises of health benefits ranging from pain and anxiety relief to sleeping aids and inflammation reduction.
The Navy has fired five senior leaders so far in August – and the month isn't even over.
While the sea service is famous for instilling in officers that they are responsible for any wrongdoing by their sailors – whether they are aware of the infractions or not – the recent rash of firings is a lot, even for the Navy.
A Navy spokesman said there is no connection between any of the five officers relieved of command, adding that each relief is looked at separately.
'We are a people organization' — Army leaders push renewed focus on soldiers amid rise in sexual assaults and suicides
After months of focusing on modernization priorities, Army leadership plans to tackle persisting personnel issues in the coming years.
Acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said Tuesday at an event with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that what people can to hear service leadership "talk a lot about ... our people. Investing in our people, so that they can reach their potential. ... We are a people organization."
Two U.S. military service members were killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday, the Resolute Support mission announced in a press release.
Their identities are being withheld pending notification of next of kin, the command added.
A total of 16 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan so far in 2019. Fourteen of those service members have died in combat including two service members killed in an apparent insider attack on July 29.
Two U.S. troops in Afghanistan have been killed in non-combat incidents and a sailor from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln was declared dead after falling overboard while the ship was supporting operations in Afghanistan.
At least two defense contractors have also been killed in Afghanistan. One was a Navy veteran and the other had served in the Army.