Quil Lawrence

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.

Lawrence started his career in radio by interviewing con men in Tangier, Morocco. He then moved to Bogota, Colombia, and covered Latin America for NPR, the BBC, and The LA Times.

In the Spring of 2000, a Pew Fellowship sponsored his first trips to Iraq — that reporting experience eventually built the foundation for his first book, Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East (Bloomsbury, 2009).

Lawrence has reported from throughout the Arab world and from Sudan, Cuba, Pakistan, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan for twelve years, serving as NPR's Bureau Chief in Baghdad and Kabul. He covered the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the second battle of Fallujah in 2004, as well as politics, culture, and war in both countries.

In 2012, Lawrence returned to the U.S. to cover the millions of men and women who have served at war, both recently and in past generations. NPR is possibly unique among major news organizations in dedicating a full-time correspondent to veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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.

From Richmond to Seattle, cities are taking a fresh look at – and sometimes taking a sledgehammer to – statues of slave owners. U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals are under scrutiny, and the Marine Corps has banned Confederate flags. Some veterans would like to see this momentum help change the gender-exclusive motto of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The New York police officer accused of using a chokehold in an incident captured on video Sunday has been charged with strangulation.

The officer, 39-year-old David Afanador, was suspended the same day the cellphone video appeared to show him choking a Black man on a Queens boardwalk. Now he's been arrested and charged with felony strangulation and attempted strangulation. Afanador pleaded not guilty and was released Thursday afternoon without bail.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed what he says are the most aggressive police accountability measures in the nation, including criminalizing the use of chokeholds, following weeks of protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police.

Thousands of people who had planned to visit war memorials in Washington, D.C., this holiday weekend were forced to cancel this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. That includes veterans traveling with the nonprofit network Honor Flight, which recently suspended all trips at least until this fall.

"Our veterans that travel with us are still living, so their day is Veterans Day not Memorial Day," says Honor Flight CEO Meredith Rosenbeck. "But they go to honor their friends and comrades, those who have fallen."

Macabre news of bodies stacked in a makeshift morgue. Federal emergency teams swooping in to take control of state veterans homes where the coronavirus has killed scores. For veterans, getting care in their own homes has gone from a preference to a matter of survival.

"It's definitely scary," says Rob Grier.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is the country's largest health care network with 300 hospitals, clinics and nursing homes nationwide. More than 9 million American veterans get care from the VA, and today VA doctors and nurses serve on the frontlines of the pandemic crisis.

Watching the White House briefings on the pandemic is prompting questions about the officials gathered near the podium, including: Who's that in the blue uniform with four stars on his collar?

Admiral Brett Giroir, M.D., is assistant secretary for health – not in the Navy but in the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS), one of the country's two unarmed services. (For extra credit: The other one is NOAA.)

New York City has drastically increased its estimate of the number of people killed by COVID-19 to include probable victims who were not tested. The new number is 10,367.

For weeks, firefighters and paramedics have been recording a massive spike in deaths at home around New York City. The deceased were presumed to be victims of the coronavirus but were never tested. Now city officials have recalculated the toll that the virus has taken and reached a staggering number — adding nearly 4,000 to the total.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he will not fight with President Trump during a pandemic, appearing conciliatory after a day of rising tension between the two men.

At a news conference Monday, Trump said his "authority is total" in terms of when to open the economy. He then tweeted Tuesday that governors such as Cuomo who were starting to make their own plans about how to reopen their states are mutinous.

The Department of Veterans Affairs runs the largest health care network in the country. Nine million vets are enrolled in VA health care, and recently, the department announced it would treat all veterans who need help during this crisis.

But VA health workers say they need help. At least seven VA staff have died from the virus, and NPR has seen internal emails telling VA staff to use the same surgical mask for up to a week.

In an interview with NPR News, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie said the VA stands ready to back up the nation's health care system, but has not yet been asked to deploy resources by the Department of Health and Human Services.

"We have been preparing for what has been coming for a while now," Wilkie said. "In war and in case of natural disaster or an epidemic, we are the surge force."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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

What did attract attention was that Brezler had sent classified information over an insecure network. The Marine Corps then embarked on what would be a multiyear effort to kick out Brezler — claiming it was for mishandling information. Brezler maintained it was retaliation for calling attention to deaths he thought might have been prevented.

There are times when retired Staff Sgt. Matt Lammers doesn't look like he needs anyone's help — like when he was competing, and winning, races at the Department of Defense Warrior Games in Tampa, Fla., this summer.

"We don't like to say the word 'can't' in our family," says Matt, who lost both his legs above the knee and his left arm to an explosion during his second deployment to Iraq in 2007.

Khalid al-Baidhani found out early about the risks of being an Iraqi working for the U.S. military in Baghdad. In 2006, he was waiting for a ride home outside a U.S. base.

"A car stopped right away, took out the pistol and start shooting me," Baidhani recalls, "I [couldn't] feel anything after that."

Baidhani survived, recovered and went back to work with U.S. forces.

"I want ... good communications between U.S. military and Iraqi civilians over there," he said.

A Wisconsin combat veteran was driving down the highway in February when he suddenly found his name, license plate number and mental health information broadcast on the radio, on television and posted on electronic billboards across the state.

"It felt very violating. Because I didn't want everyone who doesn't know me to know I have problems. It made me want to crawl into a bigger hole," he told NPR.

But the "Green Alert" might have saved his life.

At a speech in Lima, Ohio, on Wednesday, President Trump went off script into a five minute, ad-libbed attack on the late Sen. John McCain, a celebrated Vietnam War veteran and a former prisoner of war. Lost amid the unusual verbal attack on a deceased war hero by a sitting president was an inaccurate claim about veterans' issues.

President Trump slammed McCain for failing to pass a bill to expand VA services — a bill which in fact was originally sponsored by Sen. McCain.

The VA Mission Act passed into law with broad bipartisan support last year, but that unity began to wane immediately, when President Trump signaled after signing it that he wouldn't give it an additional stream of funding.

Navy veterans long denied VA benefits are declaring victory after a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The court sided with the plaintiff, a Vietnam vet with cancer who sued the Department of Veterans Affairs, demanding it recognize that his health conditions were caused by Agent Orange.

A decade-long fight ended at the Supreme Court this week, when justices refused to hear an appeal by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who say that toxic smoke from burn pits made them sick.

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Friday that it will stop dropping caregivers from its stipend program. The temporary suspension comes three days after a report from NPR exposed concerns from veterans that their caregivers were arbitrarily cut, despite no change in their status.

Chris Kurtz is trying to keep his sense of humor. Even after the VA told him last summer that he no longer needs a caregiver.

"Apparently my legs grew back, I dunno," he says with a laugh, and sinks into his couch in Clarksville, Tenn. And then he mentions that he probably can't get out of the couch without help from his wife.

On a recent chilly day in Manhattan, a group of veterans marched a dozen miles up the island — from the historic Fraunces Tavern to the spot where the first woman pensioned by the United States Army fired her cannon at British redcoats.

Editor's note: This story contains a description of self-harm.

Thirty years ago, more than half of the members of Congress were veterans — many from the World War II generation. Recently, that number has hovered around 20 percent — a decline that some observers link to a loss of civil discourse and bipartisan compromise. With only about 1 percent of Americans serving, there's also a gap of understanding between vets and civilians.

Which is what brings comedian Pete Davidson into this story.

In a wide-ranging interview with NPR, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie said his department is on the mend after a tumultuous 2018.

"I do think it is better, because the turmoil of the first half of this year is behind us, the waters are calmer. We're not where we need to be, but we're heading in that direction," he said.

Early in Donald Trump's presidency, the VA was considered an island of stability in an unpredictable administration.

Your kid can grow up, even join the Army and go to war, and you'll still do dad things when he comes back. David Toombs would make his son lunch.

"I always made him extra, just in case he got hungry or he wanted a snack or he was running low on money. So I made his lunch like a typical dad," says Toombs.

Toombs worked right next to his son, John, at a steel die shop in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Nico Walker is in jail for robbing banks.

He can use the pay phone for 15 minutes at a time, and then he has to wait a half-hour. It took a while to do an interview.

That's also sort of the way he wrote his debut novel, Cherry — on a typewriter, with a hundred-or-so other guys looking over his shoulder.

"It was something that I was doing when I was locked up," he says. "Something to pass the time. But I didn't — I wasn't planning to write a novel, you know, autobiographical or anything like that."

President Trump delivered a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars annual convention in Kansas City, Mo., offering many of his regular talking points about everything from tariffs to immigration to the new American Embassy in Jerusalem.

Trump was interrupted repeatedly by applause and shouts of support - notably when he mentioned his hopes that the remains of Korean War veterans would soon be repatriated, as agreed in his June 12 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

President Trump's second VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, was confirmed 86-9 by the Senate on Monday. He takes the helm of the second largest department in the U.S. government, with more than 350,000 employees, a nearly $200 billion budget and almost 20 million American veterans depending on it for care and benefits.

That may sound like a herculean task. Now add that the department has been in turmoil since Trump sacked his first VA secretary, David Shulkin, with dozens of senior staff, subject matter experts and career officials quitting or being pushed out.

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