Friday, May 09, 2008

Lacks leadership

Starting with war resistance.  The Olympian reports, "A resolution that would have made Olympia a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants and war resisters died in a city council meeting.  No one moved to consider it at Tuesday's meeting."  Matt Batcheldor (The Olympian) reported last week  that "several councile members say they won't consider the resolution, one day after the May Day rally became violent on the streets of Olympia, when some participants broke windows on two downtown banks and six people were arrested."  Batcheldor quoted Joshua Simpson stating, "I'm not accountable for, like, what a few individuals decide to do."  Simpson was among those working to see the council pass the resolution.  It's now on hold.  Possibly waiting, possibly tabled.  Did the May Day breaking of "windows on two downtown banks" kill the resolution?  Probably not.  It's an easy out.  Another one, the one people would be clucking right now if there had been no violence on May Day, is, "It was pushed too soon!  People weren't ready!"  A council that refuses to consider a motion because some people in the city of Olympia (six were arrested) broke some windows is looking for any reason to avoid addressing it.  Good for Simpson, File Bohmer, Katie Olejnik and all the others working on the issue and getting it before the council to begin with.  (I personally support both points of the proposal but we're focusing on war resistance.)  They got the issue in front of the city, whatever else happens, they did that.  And they did so at a time when others ignore the issue.  Some, like The Nation magazine, have ignored it for years while others, like Amy Goodman, clamped down on the topic right before Ivan Brobeck went public (November 2006).  Organizations?  The ones not worth noting all seem to have lost interest with Ehren Watada.   You can read the faux activists put on their mock rage about whatever Congress does next, but the reality is that they always have something to do instead of talking about, writing about or taking action for war resisters.  Always.  So congratulations to the citizens of Olympia who worked to get the resolution this far.  Hopefully, it will go further in the coming weeks.  Regardless, they took the issue and turned it into news.
In Canada, war resisters are hoping the Parliament will take action on a motion waiting to be debated.   Currently, you can utilize the following e-mails to show your support: Prime Minister Stephen Harper ( -- that's pm at who is with the Conservative party and these two Liberals, Stephane Dion ( -- that's Dion.S at who is the leader of the Liberal Party and Maurizio Bevilacqua ( -- that's Bevilacqua.M at who is the Liberal Party's Critic for Citizenship and Immigration.  In addition Jack Layton, NDP leader, has a contact form and they would like to hear from people as well. A few more addresses can be found here at War Resisters Support Campaign. For those in the US, Courage to Resist has an online form that's very easy to use.         

There is a growing movement of resistance within the US military which includes Matt Mishler, Josh Randall, Robby Keller, Justiniano Rodrigues, Chuck Wiley, James Stepp, Rodney Watson, Michael Espinal, Matthew Lowell, Derek Hess, Diedra Cobb, Brad McCall, Justin Cliburn, Timothy Richard, Robert Weiss, Phil McDowell, Steve Yoczik, Ross Spears, Peter Brown, Bethany "Skylar" James, Zamesha Dominique, Chrisopther Scott Magaoay, Jared Hood, James Burmeister, Jose Vasquez, Eli Israel, Joshua Key, Ehren Watada, Terri Johnson, Clara Gomez, Luke Kamunen, Leif Kamunen, Leo Kamunen, Camilo Mejia, Kimberly Rivera, Dean Walcott, Linjamin Mull, Agustin Aguayo, Justin Colby, Marc Train, Abdullah Webster, Robert Zabala, Darrell Anderson, Kyle Snyder, Corey Glass, Jeremy Hinzman, Kevin Lee, Mark Wilkerson, Patrick Hart, Ricky Clousing, Ivan Brobeck, Aidan Delgado, Pablo Paredes, Carl Webb, Stephen Funk, Blake LeMoine, Clifton Hicks, David Sanders, Dan Felushko, Brandon Hughey, Logan Laituri, Jason Marek, Clifford Cornell, Joshua Despain, Joshua Casteel, Katherine Jashinski, Dale Bartell, Chris Teske, Matt Lowell, Jimmy Massey, Chris Capps, Tim Richard, Hart Viges, Michael Blake, Christopher Mogwai, Christian Kjar, Kyle Huwer, Wilfredo Torres, Michael Sudbury, Ghanim Khalil, Vincent La Volpa, DeShawn Reed and Kevin Benderman. In total, at least fifty US war resisters in Canada have applied for asylum.

Information on war resistance within the military can be found at The Objector, The G.I. Rights Hotline [(877) 447-4487], Iraq Veterans Against the War and the War Resisters Support Campaign. Courage to Resist offers information on all public war resisters. Tom Joad maintains a list of known war resisters. In addition, VETWOW is an organization that assists those suffering from MST (Military Sexual Trauma).
Yesterday in the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs they examined benefits.  During the hearing US Senator Patty Murray
I think there's a lot of important bills in front of us today but before I talk about them, I do want to bring up the topic of great concern to everybody here and that is the tragic incidents of veterans' suicides and the VA's attempts to conceal the true numbers from Congress.  Mr. Chairman, we all know that there are sincere health care professionals across the VA who are doing their very best to find and help veterans who might be considering suicide.  Those health care professionals face tremendous challenges -- enough challenges with winning the trust of veterans today who aren't convinced that the VA is in their corner.  But their jobs are really made a lot more difficult when they are fighting the perception that the VA is more concerned with p.r. than in getting the veterans help with the services that they need. Now yesterday the VA had the chance to tell the public about what happened.  Secretary Peake and Dr. Katz testified in front of the House Veterans Affairs Committee about the cover up and based on their testimony yesterday, I have to say, Mr. Chairman, I am greatly concerned  about the transperancy and truthfulness of the Department.  We all know Congress has to have accurate information if we are going to provide the VA with the resources it needs and make informed policy decisions.  And we've got to get this right so that the veterans benefits programs we're talking about improving today have a maximum impact.  So Mr. Chairman, I just want to reiterate my concern about that to you.  Now we do have a number of bills before us, I look foward to the hearing them.  I do want to say that I want to commend Senator Webb for his tremendous work on the GI Bill.  I'm very proud now to be a co-sponsor of that bill.  I know that the Department of Defense and VA are currently opposing it but I think that he has really worked to make this bill work for today's world and I really want to commend him for the tremendous amount of work and this great presentation that he put in front of us.  I think recognizing the needs of today's forces is absolutely critical for retention and I believe his bill does that. 
Murray wasn't just noting a hearing the day before (see here and here for that hearing), she was also noting the very real frustration with the Veterans Affairs Department on the part of the Congress which includes begging off and blowing off the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.  This was a consensus that went beyond party lines.  Republican Richard Burr would vocalize the frustration for the committee in the hearing. 
At the opening of the hearing, Senator and committee chair Daniel Akaka noted the various bills under discussion:           
First, S. 2617, the "Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2008" would increase the rates of compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for the survivors of certain disabled veterans, among other benefits, effective December 1st of this year.  
Many of the more than three million recipients of these benefits depend upon the tax-free payments not only to provide for their own basic needs, but for the needs of their families as well.  Without an annual COLA increase, these veterans and their families would see the value of their hard-earned benefits slowly diminish.  We, as a Congress, would also be in dereliction of our duty to ensure that those who sacrificed so much for this country receive the benefits and services to which they are entitled.           
S.2309, the proposed "Compensation for Combat Veterans Act," would ease the evidentiary requirements facing veterans who file claims for disabilities incurred while serving in a combat zone.  During oversight visits to regional offices, Committee staff has identified a number of cases where service medical records of veterans serving in combat areas are missing.   Discussions with physicians who have served in those areas confirm that records are not always made or maintained.  As a result, combat veterans have had claims denied or unduly delayed.  This bill would result in faster and more accurate decisions.          
The "Veterans' Rating Schedule Review Act", S. 2737, addresses the authority of Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.  This legislation would give veterans a legal recourse to challenge portions of the rating schedule that fail to conform to the law.    
S. 2825, the "Veterans' Compensation Equity Act" would provide a minimum disability rating for veterans receiving medical treatment for a service-connected disability.  In the course of its oversight work, Committee staff has found a great deal of inconsistency in the ratings assigned to veterans with minor, but chronic conditions.  This bill would ensure that any veteran requiring continuous medication or the ongoing use of an adaptive device, such as a hearing aid, would receive at least a 10 percent rating for that disability, entitling them to a minimum level of compensation.       
In the area of readjustment benefits, I have introduced two bills that would help servicemembers and veterans return to their civilian lives.  S. 2471, the "USERRA Enforcement Improvement Act of 2007", which I co-authored with Senator Kennedy, would strengthen the employment and reemployment rights of returning servicemembers by imposing compliance deadlines on federal agencies.  It would also implement measures to reduce inefficiencies and improve the information collected by the government on USERRA compliance.           
S. 2864, the "Training and Rehabilitation for Disabled Veterans Enhancement Act of 2008", would improve VA's Independent Living program, which serves veterans whose disabilities render them unable to work.  The bill would eliminate the annual cap on the number of enrollees in the program and shift the program from a discretionary pilot initiative to a mandatory program.  It would also make improvement in quality of life -- an explicit objective of training and rehabilitation services of the Independent Living program.          
Finally, I have introduced two complimentary bills that would improve the opportunities available to veterans for home ownership.  The first bill, S. 2768, would temporarily increase the maximum loan amount for certain VA-guaranteed home loans.  The second bill, S. 2961, would raise the maximum guaranty limit on refinance loans and decrease the equity requirement for those who want to refinance to a VA-backed loan.             
As is the case every Session, the biggest hurdle for implementation of these bills into law is cost.  I am working to find appropriate offsets within the Committee's jurisdiction.  
Finally, I am pleased to see S. 22 back on the agenda this morning.  I have worked hard with Senator Webb to develop this proposal, and I believe that the measure as we have it before us this morning is a good one.  I am certain that it would not only be a vastly improved readjustment benefit for our newest generation of veterans but it also gives the armed forces a valuable recruitment and retention tool.  As one of the 8 million veterans who attended school on the original GI Bill after World War II, I am committed to seeing that this legislation go forward.
Those were the items up for discussion. The VA wasn't prepared to discuss many of them.
Senator Richard Burr:  Thank you to the VA for being here and if I could take the opportunity to reiterate what the Chairman said: I guess our choice, when testimony doesn't come on time, is just not to have people testify. That may be what the Veterans Administration is attempting to do -- is not come up here and have to do it.  Maybe sort of egging us on to just ignore you.  I've committed to the Chairman before and I will stay committed.  Something's going to change.  The testimony has to come.  And I realize -- and have been lobbyied not to say this -- because there was additions to the hearing today from the standpoint of legislation it we don't get delays.  We don't get the opportunity to say I'm just not going to be ready tomorrow so we'll just put if off or we'll delay when it happens nor does any agency of the federal government.  I'm sorry that the three of you have to sit there and take this because I know with every ounce of knowledge that I have that it's not your fault.  And all I can do is ask you to be an effective communicator back through the chain to say this can't happen anymore.  It must stop. 
A big debate during the hearing was between Senators Jim Webb and Lindsey Graham.  Graham wanted "tranferability" for veterans meaning that a veteran could transfer benefits to his or her spouse or family member.  Graham appeared to be attempting to derail Webb's bill with his comments and Webb noted it was a false issue on the part of the Defense Department.   They have the power, under the law, to implement a pilot program to explore that and have for many years.  Only the Army, in 2006, attempted to do so.  Out of 17,000 service members, only 300 elected to transfer the benefits.  Webb did not see this as a pressing issue and stressed that if the DoD did or does, they already have the power to implement pilot programs.  He spoke of all the years his father spent in night school -- graduating college when Jim Webb was a high school senior -- and how transferability might have been a concern to him were it available but something to keep in mind is that the government needs to be very careful when you take a benefit away.  Webb noted that no one in the government is skilled to look into family dynamics.  Which might be (or might not be), him making the point that a service member might, for instance, transfer their education benefits to a spouse and marriages can break up.  What happens then?  And (this is me) carrying this even further, if education benefits could be transferred, what's to prevent them from being dubbed community property in any divorce settlement? 
The VA is for it and may be for it simply because if the benefit is transferred to a spouse or child then the service member loses it.  This could effect retention because some might transfer their benefit in good faith and full knowledge only to have circumstances change five to ten years later, want to leave the US military but, having given away their education benefits, decide that they would stay put.   There's really no reason to be bringing up the issue (as Graham and the VA were) other than to stall Webb's bill (or kill it).  Webb's bill is not dependent upon that issue being resolved and does not mention that issue. 
For a government agency that's opposed to a bill (as the VA is to Webb's), stating
"Senator, I don't want to speak any futher on this issue because it really is something that the Department of Defense needs to address" really doesn't cut it.  If you're opposed to it, you need to be clear what your opposition to it is.  If you can't be, you should probably stay silent.   As Webb noted repeatedly, if DoD decides transferbility is an issue, they have "available in the law" the right to implement a pilot program to determine whether this is a pressing issue to veterans.  Except for one pilot program carried out by the Army, no one has elected to do so.
Webb's bill largely seems to upset the VA (by their remarks and not by my speculation) is the issue of payments.  Currently, VA witnesses testified, they cut two checks: full-time training or part-time training.  There was whining on the part of the VA that there would be a new system covering tuition, a living stipend and a book stipend. 
Webb asked if his bill (S22) getting objections from the VA only on the transferability aspect means that they approve of all the other aspects?  The VA witnesses couldn't answer that clearly but, pressed by Webb, said "If we could rank the concerns, that would probably be right at the top."  Webb's bill has 56 co-sponsors and that includes Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, Barbara Boxer, Olympia Snow, John Warner, Harry Reid. 288 members of the House are supporting it -- including Reps Tammy Baldwin, Don Young, Shelley Berkley, Corrine Brown, Lynn Woolsey, Rush Holt, Sheila Jackson Lee, Peter DeFazio, Ellen Tauscher, Henry Waxman and Maxine Waters.  Webb offers a (PDF format warning) overview of the bill here.  Last month Florida's The Ledger published an editorial advocating for the passage of Webb's bill entitled "Pass Better G.I. Bill."  The editorial notes that presumed GOP presidential nominee John McCain is opposed to the bill.
RECOMMENDED: "Iraq snapshot"

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