Saturday, October 02, 2010

The underworked president







Today Chuck Raasch (Gannett News Services) notes, "Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said he expects suicide and other post-combat problems to intensify as soldiers return to home and family. And as part of the push to cut federal deficits, the Pentagon almost certainly will face this new front with smaller budgets." Raasch quotes Mullen's stating he's "hoping to avoid any massive cuts." Is he worried about the service members health? (National security comments right after may cast some doubt on that.) Yesterday the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing entitled "The True Costs of the War." Committee Chair Bob Filner noted the efforts to attack veterans benefits. From Filner's opening remarks:
Every Congressional appropriation for war, in my view, should include money for what, I'm going to call it, a veterans' trust fund that will ensure the projected needs of our wounded and injured soldiers are fully met at the time that their going to war is appropriated. It's not a radical idea. Business owners are required to account for their deferred liability every year. Our federal government has no such requirement when it comes to the deferred liability of meeting the needs of our men and women in uniform even though meeting those needs is a moral obligation of our nation and a fundamental cost. It does not make sense fiscally, it does not make sense ethically. If in years past, Congress had taken into account this deferred fiscal liability and moral obligation of meeting the needs of soldiers, we would not have the kind of overburdened delivery system that we have today in the Veterans Administration. And would veterans and their advocates on Capitol Hill have to fight as hard as they do every year for benefits that should be readily available as a matter of course? Would they have to worry as much as they do today that these benefits will become targets in the debate over reducing the federal budget? Listen to this statement by one of the co-chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility -- that's trying to figure out how we balance our budget -- former Senator [Alan] Simpson said, "The irony is that veterans who saved their country are now in a way not helping us to save this country in this fiscal mess." That is, they should defer their health and welfare needs because of a budget problem.

Chair Filner and US House Rep Walter Jones both spoke of the need to create a Veterans Trust Fund to ensure that veterans benefits are not under attack under the current system where they are funded according to how much money is in the budget (as opposed to wars which are funded by passing the bill on to future generations). Among those testifying before the committee was economist Joseph E. Stigliz who stated, "And the reality then is that under the pay-go current framework that supporting these obligations that we've undertaken to our veterans has to compete with every other expenditure. And -- and there will be pressure. And the reference to the Debt Commission, the reference to former Congressman Simpson's testimony is evidence of that kind of pressure that will be put on veterans expenditures."
We covered the first panel in yesterday's snapshot and we'll note panel two and panel three today. Panel two was composed of retired officers, Maj Gen John Batiste, Maj Gen William Nash and Col James McDonough. Panel three was composed of Paul Sullivan (Veterans for Common Sense), Lorrie Knight-Major (mother of Iraq War veterans Sgt Ryan Christian Major who was critically injured by a Ramadi bombing), Iraq War veteran Corey Gibson and Ret Lt Col Donna R. Van Derveer, Iraq War veteran..
From the second panel, we'll note this exchange. Maj Gen John Batiste had spoken of a huge gulf "between resources and the needs of veterans" and "a void between the VA Central Office, the range of VA medical centers and regional state offices and local veteran service organization. Federal and state governments are not aligned to serve veterans and their families."
Chair Bob Filner: I was hoping -- You said some kind words about our great [VA] Secretary [Eric] Shinseki, I thought that he would, from experience be able to impose some stuff on the bureaucracy. It looks like it's working the other way.from my observations. Because, in the army, when he says something, it gets carried out. In a bureaucracy [shrugs] who knows? And besides the people that have to tell you that it's being carried out? [Shrugs.] I don't -- I'll just give you one example of how I had asked General Shinseki in his first meeting, his first appearance here in front of this committee, I asked him about suicide coordinators because we had, you know, that were supposed to be -- 'I've been told that there's a suicide coordinator at every hospital.' And I said, 'You know, I'm only a private and you're a general but let me tell you that you have to look beneath what you just heard or what you've been told. The janitor who has a 10% suicide coordinator thing now by his name is probably in some hospital or a half-time person here or someone untrained there. And you got to go beyond, you know?' If that was an army, his army staff telling him, he could rely on it. But I don't think he could rely on it with -- with the bureucracy here. So how do you get through that to get to some of the stuff you're talking about?
Maj Gen William Nash: Well I know that General Batiste will have some comments on this as well but I would just start out the response is that two years is a very short time when you're trying to overcome years and years of less than brilliant management. And the key to it in my view is not unlike the approach the services have taken and the emphasis on professional development of your workforce in parallel with your day to day working. You know we send off army officers to school all the time. Okay? We take them out of the operating force -- more and more difficult when you're fighting the wars that we've been fighting for the last nine years, there's been a modifcation of that -- but for years, even in WWII, we took people out of the force for purposes of education and, during times of peace, we did it even more so. So if you don't set up a system to develop your work force, you're never going to get better, you're going to keep fighting the same battles day in and day out. And, as administrations change, all too many people turn over. And so the professional force has got to be developed in such a manner that it provides the continuity. So when the Secretary of Veterans Affairs gives an order, there's a reasonable expectation it will be carried out uniformly throughout the force.
Moving to the third panel, Paul Sullivan noted his organization's support for a Veterans Benefits Trust Fund. He also noted that, via Freedom Of Information requests, Veterans For Common Sense had come up with a number of figures such as aprproximately 2.2 million US service members have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars thus far and that VA has "treated approximately 565,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran patients at VA medical facilities. The one thing that is surprising is that the numbers keep rising at the same rate even though there are comments that the wars are de-escalating and troops are coming back." The number of disability claims filed by Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans is 515,000 so far. He also stated, "There are 100 new first-time veteran patients treated at VA for each battlefield death reported by the military. A second bullet point, there is one new VA patient every five minutes from these two wars."
Lorrie Knight-Major spoke of her son's wounds and his medical treatment. Stop-loss is referred to as "the backdoor draft." And how it has been carried out is that a service member is informed that he or she is being stop-lossed and, as a result, his/her discharge date has changed and been pushed back. Knight-Major's son Ryan was critically wounded in the Ramadi bombing and that bombing took place "five days after his original discharge date". Stop-loss wounds, stop-loss kills. It's not just a benign policy that Donald Rumsfeld thought up and Robert Gates has continued to implement. Knight-Major spoke of the hardships on the wounded and on the families of the wounded. There were few VA resources that were available to the families. Non-profits were the ones that allowed her son to, for example, have an IBOT (a specialized wheelchair furnished by the Independence Fund) and a dog Theodore (via Paws 4 Liberty), "Theodore is a three-year-old Belgian Shepherd and has truly made the biggest impact on Ryan's independence. Theodore helps Ryan with retrieving dropped items, helps him navigate crowded areas and helps him relieve and mitigate his PTSD symptoms." These resources and others that that would help are resources that families and veterans have to find on their own, Knight-Major explained, noting how she was to learn of Rebuilding Together via "word of mouth." (Rebuilding Together was able to renovate the home, adding an elevator, accessible bathroom,etc.)
Lorrie Knight-Major: If the nonprofit organizations had not provided assistance, would it have been acceptable to the government for my son to have been placed in a nursing home? Would it have been acceptable to the government for my son to have lived isolated in a basement because he didn't have a means to be transported to the main areas of the house? Would it have been acceptable for my son to require sleep medications or someone in his room nightly forhim to sleep? Is this what the government considers to be the true costs of the war?
Iraq War veteran Corey Glass detailed the problems with receiving care including, "Mental health services are paramout for our returning combatants. My interview upon returning from Iraq to decipher whether I needed mental health services or not was to be marched into a gym, separated from my family by a piece of glass, and asked if I wanted to see my family or do I feel I need to talk to someone about my feelings at this time."

RECOMMENDED: "Iraq snapshot"
"Iraq sets a new record"
"Cutting benefits?"
"I Hate The War"
"Go Flush Yourself"
"Noodles in the Kitchen"
"The recall, the economy"
"Kate Clinton and other uglies"
"I'm with 37% of Americans"
"Party Girl"
"Terry's month of men"
"look what they've done to my show"
"2 men self-embarrass"
"We are in trouble"
"Daytime talk shows"
"Music and Iraq"
"And Ann Powers becomes part of the problem"
"Pelosi's damning confession"
"Foreign Correspondent"
"Hillary on the rise, Michelle on the fall"
"Held hostage"
"Silverstein's out, Horton we're stuck with"
"Barack and the economy"
"He thought it would be more fun"

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