Friday, May 07, 2010

Spreading the pain







Sardasht is a city in Iran with a largely Kurdish population. It's in the northwest region of Iran which put it close enough to Iraq that Saddam Hussein would attack it with a fly over that dropped chemical weapons back in 1987. Sardasht Osman was an Iraqi journalist who disappeared earlier this week while reporting with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He was kidnapped. AFP reports his corpse was discovered this morning and his family has buried him. He was 23-years-old, a college student (kidnapped from Salaheddin University) and he reported for Ashtiname magazine. Kurdish Media notes that Kamal Rauf, Ahmad Mira, Asos Hardi and other Kurdish journalists have issued a statement which includes:

To kidnap a journalist in the regional capital; taking him outside the Kurdistan region; and killing him, raises serious questions. This act cannot be done by one person or small group of people. That is why we believe in the first instance that the Kurdistan Regional Government and the security forces should take the responsibility. We must take maximum step to find this perpetrators responsible. [. . .] We, as a group of Kurdistan's writers and journailsts, believe that kidnapping and threatening of journalists have increased rapidly, and cannot be accepted anymore.

Reporters Without Borders condemns the murder:

Reporters Without Borders voiced concern about the decline in the press freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan in a release yesterday, noting that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the two parties that control the region, seemed to have reached an agreement to muzzle the press and restrict the freedom of journalists as much as possible.
"Many reports and op-ed pieces have been published in which Kurdish journalists and intellectuals are unanimous in voicing their concern about the current situation and their determination to defend press freedom," yesterday's press release said (,37382.html).
The city of Erbil, where Osman was kidnapped, is mostly controlled by the KDP, whose leader, Massoud Barzani, is Kurdistan's President. His son, Masrur Barzani, heads the KDP's security services.
Osman is the first journalist to be murdered in Iraqi Kurdistan since Soran Mama Hama, who was gunned down outside his home in Kirkuk on 21 July 2008. Aged 23 (like Osman), he wrote articles critical of local politicians and security officials for the magazine Leven. He had repeatedly been threatened and warned to stop his investigative reporting but his courage and professionalism pushed him to continue (,27900.html).

Iraq's Journalistic Freedoms Observatory calls for the KRG to conduct an investigation into the kidnapping and murder of Osman. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement which includes:

Authorities in both cities must conduct a thorough investigation into the murder of Sardasht Osman and bring those responsible to justice, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Unidentified gunmen approached Osman on the campus of the University of Salahadin in Arbil, where he was a final-year English student, beat him and dragged him into a white passenger car, said Rahman Gharib, a representative of the Metro Center, a local press freedom group. Police in nearby Mosul found his body with his university ID shortly after midnight today, Gharib added.

We'll come back to Iraq later in the snapshot but right now we'll head over to DC.
"During the 110th Congress," Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin declared this morning, "we held a series of hearings that focused on employment opportunites for veterans. These hearings included the VR&E programs that seek to assist our injured service members and help veterans obtain employment after their military service. As a result of those productive hearings, we were able to expand the VR&E programs by authorizing the VA Secretary to provide waivers for severaly injured veterans seeking to participat in the Independent Living Program, increasing the cap for participation in the Independent Living Program, requiring the VA to report to Congress on the measure to assist veterans participating in VR&E and authorizing a multi-year longitudinal study on VR&E. Today's hearing will allow us to learn more about what the Administration is doing to implement these new changes and to address the concerns raised over the past year."

She was bringing to order a hearing of the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. She is the chair and US House Rep John Boozman is the Ranking Member and he used his opening statements to share a concern, "In short I'm very concerned about the time it takes to enter rehab. According to VA data, it takes an average of about 54 days to determine eligibility, 118 days to develop a rehab plan and 200 days to find a job following completion of the customized rehab program. That's 372 days. That does not include the average of 615 days spent completing the rehab program which brings the total average time in rehab to employment to 987 days."

VR&E is the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program and each veteran (or qualifying active duty service member about to be honorably discharged) receives their own plan which focuse on either/or/both employment and life goals. Both the veteran and the Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor sign off on the plan which can be updated. Ruth Fanning, of the VA, was the first panel and she explained, "VR&E's primary mission is to assist veterans with disabilities that are service related to prepare for and obtain sustainable employment. Robust services are individually tailored to each veteran's needs. Services begin with a comprehensive evaluation to help Veterans with understanding their interests, aptitudes and transferable skills. Next, vocational exploration focuses veterans' potential career goals with labor market demands, available training, and individual needs and preferences."

Fanning also noted in her opening remarks that the first job many veterans -- true whether they return with a disability or not -- accept will be a "transitional job" that they take while making plans for the future. Or for making ends meet.

She expanded on that in response to questions from US House Rep Thomas Perriello, "Often times, the first job, as well all know, isn't the right job or the best job. And we do know that veterans want to -- they tell us that they want to get a job immediately after discharge just to normalize themselves back into civilian life."

Last night, Betty wrote about NPR's The Story which featured Iraq War veteran Javorn Drummond as the guest for the first half-hour. Host Dick Gordon explained that "20% of those who come back from war are coming back to no work." Drummond shared his story which included a rough re-adjustment to civilian life, a lack of interest about the Iraq War from people he encountered and a rotten job market. His transition job, while he devised his long-range gaols, was at a pig slaughter house in North Carolina. He is now in college on the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

We'll note this portion of today's hearing.

Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: I guess the question is there does seem to be some concern among veterans about the average time it takes once they submit an application to start receiving services and I'm wondering if that tracks with the uptick you've seen

Ruth Fanning: We've seen a slight uptick in terms of our goal for making an entitlement decision. We're within 10% of the goal. We're not currently at the goal, we're about 10% over. The same is the case with the phase to develop a rehabilitation plan and there is overlap with those two cycles. They're not linear in that the entilement ends and then the evauation portion starts. There's some overlap in those - those two cycles. But there is a slight uptick. We're still -- within 10% is not bad. It's something we can get down. And we're actively working with the Office of Field Operations and with our staff to try to reduce that timeliness. And I can tell you that's part of my reason behind launching into the BPR and looking for ways to streamline. I think that some of the paperwork could be reduced and that could make the timeliness a little more effective. I would like to also mention that the time to develop a rehabilation plan which currently we're allowing 105 days is -- so just three and a half months approximately -- that there is always going to be a need for some time on average for that process. We're working with veterans to look at the labor market, to understand their skills and aptitudes, to understand their interests, to understand the transferable skills that they bring to the table and how they can build on those, to understand all the options that they have for their futures and then to make some decisions. That is a process. And so we don't want to be prescriptive and tell a veteran when he comes in the door what job he or she should seek. We want them to go through that process and make informed decisions that is best for them. So there always will be some time in that process because it's a counseling process. Now, saying that, do I think it could be shortened? I do. And that's somethng that I'm very committed to finding every way possible that we can make it shorter because if a veteran comes to us who's not employed and needs work, I don't want him to wait three months. I don't want him to wait three weeks if we can avoid it. We want to get services started as quickly as we can.

Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: Well I appreciate that and, you know, you had responded to a question from Mr. Perriello about the transitional jobs. And your response was, you know, very impressive in terms of the recognizing that that often times is not a good fit, that transitional job, and the importance of keeping the veteran sort of looped back into your program. Do you track that somehow? I mean is the transitional job separate from the rehabiliation plan and the career development stage? Is this just what they go through TAP, maybe your office, your program helps identify that transitional job. Are they in the transitional job during the time that they're working to develop a rehabilitation plan?

Ruth Fannning: Uhm, a good majority of veterans in voc rehab are in transitional jobs. Most of them -- even if they're only supporting themselves -- and a good majority of them have families -- they need to work even if they're pursuing voc rehab. As generous as the VR&E program is, the stipend that we have is not sufficient to pay rent and buy food and pay all the expenses of daily life. So most veterans are working -- at least part-time -- some in work study programs, some in transitional full time jobs. Obviously, obviously from a rehab counselor perspective, some kind of work that's continuing to build their resume is a good thing. But we don't want -- ideally we don't want to see someone having to work full time while they're in college. It extends the period of time before they can really get into that right career.

Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: Okay.

Ruth Fanning: So a happy medium would be good but we recognize and understand that veterans need transitional jobs. If we're helping them find them, or we're working with DoL [Department of Labor] in that process, what we're focused on is: Let's make sure it's a job that's aligned with the ultimate career goal so that it's a job that will make them more marketable when they are ready to enter that career.

Subcommittee Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: And I guess, let me ask one more question before recognizing Mr. Bilirakis, when and how does the VR&E program determine or declare as such that a veteran's been rehabiliated?

Ruth Fanning: We track suitable employment first of all. So many veterans actually enter suitable employment while they're still in training and that's the ideal scenario. They are hired as a co-op and they're completing college and also in the job leading toward the job that they really want. A lot of veterans get jobs in their last semester of college, when they're ready to graduate. So as soon as they enter suitable employment, we start tracking it in our data system. We don't declare a veteran rehabilitated until they've completed the goals of their program and we can determine that they are suitably employed and that the employment is stable. And for at least a sixty day period. So a veteran may graduate on May 1st, get a job on June 1st. Maybe they have some initial bumps in the road and we learn that they need some adaptation or some kind of accomidation on the job. We assist with that. Once that stability has been gained, then sixty days beyond that point, we can close the case as rehabiliated.

The US Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is chaired by Senator Daniel Akaka and his office notes:
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, held an oversight hearing yesterday on the state of care for troops and veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury. Akaka praised VA and DOD for making significant progress since a hearing on this issue in 2007, but cautioned that serious obstacles remain in providing the seamless, quality care that is needed by those suffering from what has become the signature wound of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Just a few years ago, the government knew very little about how to treat troops and veterans suffering from TBI. Since then, TBI care has improved dramatically, but we must continue to improve timeliness and enhance partnerships between the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense and the private sector. As long as we have any veterans with undiagnosed TBI, any partnerships with community providers left untapped, or any research left undone, there is still work to do," said Akaka.
The hearing brought together officials from VA and DOD and experts from academia and the private sector to discuss recent progress and highlight areas where improvement is needed. Chairman Akaka also invited Jonathan Barrs, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom working to overcome TBI, and Karen Bohlinger, wife of Montana's Lieutenant Governor and mother of a former Army Special Forces soldier suffering from the injury, for their first-hand accounts.

More information about the hearing including statements, testimony and the webcast is available here:

You can also refer to yesterday's snapshot which covered some of Senator Jon Tester's remarks in the hearing and Chair Akaka's exchange with DoD's Dr. Michael Jaffee.

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