Quil Lawrence

David Aquila ("Quil") Lawrence is an award-winning correspondent for NPR News, covering the millions of Americans who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as they transition to life back at home.

Previously, Lawrence served as NPR's Bureau Chief in Kabul. He joined NPR in 2009 as Baghdad Bureau Chief – capping off ten years of reporting in Iraq and all the bordering countries. That experience made the foundation for his first book Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East, published in 2008.

Before coming to NPR, Lawrence was based in Jerusalem, as Middle East correspondent for The World, a BBC/PRI co-production. For the BBC he covered the fall of the Taliban in December 2001 and returned to Afghanistan periodically to report on development, the drug trade and insurgency.

Lawrence began his career as a freelancer for NPR and various newspapers while based in Bogota, Colombia, covering Latin America. Other reporting trips took him to Sudan, Morocco, Cuba, Pakistan and Iran.

A native of Maine, Lawrence studied history at Brandeis University, with concentrations in the Middle East and Latin America. He is fluent in Spanish and conversant in Arabic.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's sort of a designated driver in Jason Stavely's circle of Iraq buddies, but he doesn't take away people's car keys. He takes the guns.

"Come toward September-October, if I get the feeling, I'm more than happy to give my guns back to my buddy again," said Stavely.

Stavely has bad memories from the war that get triggered every autumn. And last year, one of his Marine Corps friends died by suicide in October. So Stavely's therapist at the Veterans Affairs clinic suggested getting his guns out of the house.

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By the time they cut her from the program, Alishia Graham was angry, but not surprised. Her postman delivered the news in February.

"The letter was sitting at the top — and my stomach dropped because I knew what it was," she says.

The letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs informed Graham that her husband Jim, who sustained a brain injury on his third deployment to Iraq, no longer qualified for a caregiver to help with his daily life.

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Now a story about an uncontroversial Cabinet secretary in the Trump administration running a department with an agenda that has bipartisan support. It's a rare thing these days. The Department of Veterans Affairs has suffered scandal after scandal.

The Senate voted 100-0 on Monday to confirm President Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, Dr. David Shulkin.

The unanimous vote makes Shulkin the first-ever nonveteran to lead the VA, but that didn't stop him from winning endorsements from most of the major veterans service organizations. He also won bipartisan, unanimous support from the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs — a political double rainbow in Washington's current polarized atmosphere.

Before they get to work on reforming the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Congress and the White House might want to take a closer look at the last time they tried it — a $16 billion fix called the Veterans Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, designed to get veterans medical care more quickly.

As promised, President Trump has moved to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. It's a concern for those who might be left without health insurance — and especially for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which may have to pick up some of the slack.

Carrie Farmer, a health policy researcher at the Rand Corp., says 3 million vets who are enrolled in the VA usually get their health care elsewhere — from their employer, or maybe from Obamacare exchanges. If those options go away, she has no idea just how many of those 3 million veterans will move over to the VA.

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Some other news - veterans groups say they're pleased and also bemused by President-elect Trump's choice to run the Department of Veterans Affairs. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports on the response to David Shulkin.

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There are plenty of recent stories involving white police officers who have shot and killed black men, including some who are on trial for those shootings. Then there's the case of a white cop who did not shoot a black man holding a gun — and it may have cost him his job.

It started with a 911 call for help in Weirton, W.Va., on May 6 at 2:51 a.m. An emergency dispatcher in turn put out a call for an officer.

"Had a female stating they needed someone right now. She sounded hysterical," the dispatcher said. "Hung up the phone, will not answer on call back."

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Thirteen years ago, just as the United States began what was to become its longest war, a futuristic wheelchair hit the market.

The iBOT allowed paralyzed people, including many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, to stand up by rising to eye level. It also did something no wheelchair ever had: climb stairs.

World War II veteran Earl Shaffer is believed to be the first American to walk the Appalachian Trail in one season, and his diary details the 124-day south-to-north trek. Back in 1948 Shaffer said he wanted to "walk the Army out of his system." Some newer war veterans have the same idea, and NPR tagged along as they finished the 2,100-mile trek.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The presidential race is, a lot of times, about stump speeches, polls and accusations. It is also about ideas and policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

Four years ago, Jason Brezler sent an urgent message to a fellow Marine in Afghanistan, warning him about a threat. The warning wasn't heeded, and two weeks later, three U.S. troops were dead.

Now the Marine Corps is trying to kick out Maj. Brezler because the warning used classified information.

Solving a problem

Jason Brezler never thought he'd make a career out of the Marine Corps — his family history was FDNY.

"My grandfather was a firefighter, my father was a firefighter and fire chief," he says.

Stephen Coning, a 26-year-old former Marine, took his own life this summer, leaving behind a wife and a 2-year-old son.

By chance, it was the same week the Department of Veterans Affairs released conclusive data showing that the rate of suicide for those who served is now much higher than for civilians.

Despite that connection, the VA does not presume all suicides to be "service connected."

Donald Trump picked a military town — Virginia Beach, Va. — to give a speech Monday on how he would go about overhauling the Department of Veterans Affairs if elected.

He blamed the Obama administration for a string of scandals at the VA during the past two years, and claimed that his rival, Hillary Clinton, has downplayed the problems and won't fix them.

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When clinical psychiatrist Cher Morrow-Bradley and other health care providers call the Veterans Choice program, they are greeted with a recorded, 90-second "thank you" from Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald.

It's not having the intended effect.

"Why don't you make this easier? The process is so cumbersome, and I have to listen to you thanking me for spending all this time and then I get put on hold," says Morrow-Bradley, adding that she hasn't figured out how to skip the message.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR — together with member stations from across the country — has been reporting on troubles with the Veterans Choice program, a $10 billion plan created by Congress two years ago to squash long wait times veterans were encountering when going to see a doctor. But as we reported in March, this fix needs a fix.

Many veterans are still waiting to see a doctor.

Last winter, a retired Brooklyn firefighter drove down to Walter Reed Hospital, outside Washington, D.C., with what he considers holy artifacts: a bucket full of scraps from the World Trade Center.

"It's remarkable, the pieces of steel that we have. They're so important and you don't want to waste anything," said Danny Prince, who is also a Navy veteran.

Steve Danyluk, a former Marine combat pilot met Prince in Maryland and took on his cargo. Danyluk, another veteran activist, wanted to turn the steel into a symbol with the power to save the lives of veterans.

Stacy Bannerman didn't recognize her husband after he returned from his second tour in Iraq.

"The man I had married was not the man that came back from war," she says.

Bannerman's husband, a former National Guardsman, had been in combat and been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He behaved in ways she had never expected, and one day, he tried to strangle her.

"I had been with this man for 11 years at that point, and there had never been anything like this before," Bannerman said. "I was so furious and so afraid."

The fix is broken.

Two years ago Congress created the Veterans Choice Program after scandals revealed that some veterans were waiting months to get essential medical care. The $10 billion program was designed to get veterans care quickly by letting them choose a doctor outside the VA system. Now Congress and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are pushing through new legislation to fix the program.

Midway through Matt Keil's second deployment in Iraq, he came home and married his fiancee, Tracy, in 2007.

He had two weeks R&R; no time for a honeymoon.

Before he went back to war the couple had the sort of conversation unique to newlyweds in the military. "I told her if you get a phone call that I'm injured, I'm probably fine," Matt says. "But if they come to the apartment or to your work in person, then I'm dead."

During World War II, thousands of Americans lied about their age to enlist in the military. During the Iraq war, Daniel Torres lied about something else.

"I didn't want to be just another Mexican living in the U.S. I wanted to say I'd done something for the country," said Torres.

The number of military veterans in the country's jails and prisons continues to drop, a new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows.

It's the first government report that includes significant numbers of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and the findings defy stereotypes that returning war veterans are prone to crime.

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