Friday, January 20, 2012

Well they'll worry about the economy tomorrow




Yesterday at the Pentagon, something major happened (here for video, here for transcript), a sitting Secretary of Defense called a press conference to talk about sexual assault in the military. That was Leon Panetta who noted, "Let me close bys peaking directly to the victims of sexual assault in this department. I deeply regret that such crimes occur in the US military. And I will do all I can to prevent these sexual assaults from occurring in the Department of Defense. I'm committed to providing you the support and resources you need and to taking whatever steps are necessary to keep what happened to you from happening to others. The United States military has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault. And we will hold the perpetrators appropriately accountable. I expect everybody in this department to live up to the high standards that we have set and to treat each other with dignity and respect. In a military force, where the promise is to help each other in battle and to leave nobody behind, that promise must begin by honoring the dignity of every person on or off the battlefield."
Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates preceded Panetta in the office. The rate of sexual assault has been on the rise since the 90s. Yet Rumsfeld and Gates never addressed it publicly. If questioned by Congress in a hearing, they would offer some empty words. The same at a press conference. But they did not call press conferences to address the issue. Prior to Panetta, the pattern has been ignore it and know damn well that the press will assist you in ignoring it. Robert Gates spent several months in 2011 on a farewell tour with the press allegedly examining his performance but they never noted the military suicide rate and they never noted sexual assault.
So what the hell were they grading him on? (The answer was, they graded him on if they really, really loved him or just loved him. I was present for the "off the record" farewell photo ops between Gates and the press.)
Secretary Leon Panetta: When I was sworn into the office of Secretary of Defense, I said that I had no higher responsibility than to protect those who are protecting America. Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line every day to try to keep America safe. We have a moral duty to keep them safe from those who would attack their dignity and their honor. That's why I've been so concerned by the problem of sexual assault in the military. Sexual assault has no place in this department. It is an affront to the basic American values we defend and it is a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and their -- and our -- families. As leaders of this department, we're committed to doing everything we can to ensure the safety, dignity and well-being of our people. These men and these women who are willing to fight and to die, if necessary, to protect and serve our country, they're entitled to much better protection. Their families and their dependents also sacrifice and serve and so, for that reason, we have to spare no effort in order to protect them against this heinous crime. The number of sexual assaults in the military is unacceptable. Last year, 3,191 reports of sexual assault came in. But I have to tell you that because we assume that this is a very underreported crime, the estimate is that the number actually is closer to 19,000. One sexual assault is too many. Since taking this office, I've made it a top priority to do everything we can to reduce and prevent sexual assault, to make victims of sexual assault feel secure enough to report this crime without fear of retribution or harm to their career and to hold the perpretrators appropriately accountable.
There's more but we'll stop there. There was no Tailhook exposed this week. There was no rush to defuse a just breaking scandal. Panetta did what the last two serving as Secretary of Defense should have done, he showed that the Department took it seriously by making it a focus, not an aside.
Had Gates or Rumsfeld done the same at any point in their lengthy time in office (Panetta became Defense Secretary last July), they might not be the plantiffs in a law suit right now. As Burke PLLC notes:
On Feb. 15, 2011, we filed a lawsuit in Virginia federal court on behalf of 16
active duty military and veteran victims of sexual trauma, including persons
who allege they were raped by their military colleagues. The case is Cioca
et al v. Rumsfield and Gates, C.A. 11 cv 151 in the U.S. District Court of Eastern District of Virginia. Our investigation in this case continues.
Additionally, [Susan] Burke has been invited to speak on institutional failings
that have led to extensive rape and sexual assault in the military at the 2011 National Conference on Civil Actions for Criminal Acts hosted by The
National Crime Victims Bar Association and The National Center for Victims
of Crime. The conference will be held from June 20 to June 22, 2011 at the
Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Her presentation will discuss potential solutions for these issues.
If you are interested in potentially participating in this lawsuit, please contact Susan Sajadi. Read more about military rape litigation.
As disclosed before, I know Susan Burke and I know Leon Panetta. Knowing Leon is why I took a pass on this yesterday. I figured we'd string together various reports and I wouldn't have to say anything personally. But that required news actually being covered. And, of course, that so rarely happens.
At the increasingly embarrassing CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, they gave thanks for the wrecked ocean liner over the weekend. There was no news there but they had footage and opened the broadcast with it. Three days of coverage out of this, it's been a gift for Scott Pelley and for CBS Evening News . . . if not for viewers. The story was no different at ABC or NBC or PBS. (And ABC and Chris Cuomo will turn the wreck into a 'special' Friday night. Pick the bones, pick them dry. But don't pretend you've supplied news.)
Women and men in the military are at risk of sexual assault; however, victims are more often women. And, as we've seen over and over, when a story's focus can be seen as female, over and over, it gets ignored. (When Katie Couric anchored the CBS Evening News, sexual assault, breast cancer and other issues that might be seen as effecting primarily women did get covered.) The networks had plenty of time for the snow in Seattle -- a story that really only effected Seattle. They just didn't have time for major news in terms of sexual assault in the military which also included policy changes.
Secretary Leon Panetta: Over the holidays, we announced two new policies that provide greater support for the victims of sexual assault. The first policy gives victims who report a sexual assault an option to quickly transfer from their unit or installation to protect them from possible harassment and remove them from proximity to the alleged perpetrator. Second, we will also require the retention of written reports of sexual assault to law enforcement to be retained for a period of 50 years. The reason for that is to have these records available so that it will make it easier for veterans to file a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs at a later date. These two policies are the first of a broader package of proposals that we will be presenting in the coming months, many of which will require legislative action by the Congress. Today, I want to announce some additional steps that we are taking. First, I've directed the establishment of a DoD sexual assault advocate certification program which will require our sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates to obtain a credential aligned with national standards. This will help ensure that the victims of sexual assault receive the best care from properly trained and credentialed professionals who provide crucial assistance from the moment an assault is committed. Second, I have directed the department to expand our support to assault victims to include military spouses and adult military dependents, who will now be able -- this was not the case before -- they will now be able to file confidential reports and receive the services of a victim advocate and a sexual assault response coordinator. In addition, we're going to ensure that DoD civilians stationed abroad and DoD US citizen contractors in combat areas receive emergency care and the help of a response coordinator and a victim advocate. Third, because sexual assault cases are some of the toughest cases to investigate and to prosecute, I've increased funding for investigators and for judge advocates to receive specialized training. We're also putting in place one integrated data system. The data systems, frankly, were spread among the various services. We're going to put them together into one data system in order to track sexual assault reports and monitor case management so that we'll have a comprehensive data base for information available later this year. And, finally, in addition to our focus on taking care of victims and holding perpetrators appropriately accountable, we've been focusing on what more can we do to try to prevent sexual assault. Our leaders in uniform, officers and enlisted are on the front lines of this effort -- they have to be. We must all be leaders here. For this reason, I'm directing an assessment -- due in 120 days -- on how we train our commanding officers and senior enlisted leaders on sexual assault prevention and response and what we can do to strengthen that training. It's important that everyone in uniform be alert to this problem and have the leadership training to help prevent these crimes from occuring.
They missed all the above. But don't worry, that because, for example, ABC World
News with Diane Sawyer couldn't cover the sexual assault story, they missed the big news stories. No, they had time, they made time, to show the very important YouTube video of a bird playing in the snow.
My opinion? A great deal more is needed by the Defense Dept and I would include the firing of one woman we've regularly advocated for the firing of (if you refuse to testify to Congress, you should be fired, end of story). I think the words will be measured months from now in terms of whether, in practice, much changed.
But I give Leon Panetta applause for addressing the topic. Until a sitting Secretary of Defense is willing to use time to address the topic, nothing's going to change. Until a Secretary of Defense makes clear that this issue matters at the top, it's not going to matter. Leon Panetta sent a strong signal yesterday, a needed one, and became the first sitting Secretary of Defense to do so. Much more needs to be done and I hope it is but I give Leon Panetta credit for doing more than any of his predecessors have. (And I've said here and face-to-face that I will measure his performance based on this issue and the issue of suicides in the military. Those are the issues that the press should have been grading Robert Gates on.)
Another issue veterans face is exposure to Burn Pits -- veterans, service members and contractors. Stony Brook University holds the first ever Burn Pit Scientific Symposium February 13th and, in addition, there is a move towards a citizen registry:
BurnPits360 is serving as a pathway of advocacy to assist veterans, their families, and civilian contractors who have been negatively affected by toxic burn pits. Contractors were assigned the task of properly disposing of any and all trash on military installations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations in the Middle East. Unfortunately, instead of using incinerators, the contractors disposed of the waste through toxic burn pits and now thousands of veterans have been put at serious risk.
BurnPits360 is inviting anyone that has been affected from exposure to toxic burn pits and environmental hazards to sign up on the registry. We are conducting a voluntary cohort anonymous study with Dr. Szema at Stony Brook University. The study simply requires self-reporting your information on the online registry, providing a proof of military service (DD-214), a signed legal consent form, and additional questionnaires. This study will help to provide vital information to doctors and researchers that will help properly diagnose and treat the vast array of medical complications arising from these exposures. It will provide the Department Of Defense and the Department Of Veteran Affairs with data that will allow them to develop a healthcare model for specialized healthcare specific to toxic exposures and environmental hazards.
The importance of this registry is to serve as a model for all military personnel, civilian contractors, and their families to self-report injuries and deaths from toxic exposure from burn pits and other environmental hazards. It will also assist in proving causation and the correlation between the exposure and the illness, as well as determine all areas of possible exposure. It will provide the VA with the data needed to develop legislative language for the development of a compensation and pension category specific to toxic exposures.
Most importantly, this study is completely anonymous. None of your personal information will be shared at any time. (In such cases where information would ever need to be made public, it would not be done so without the members written consent, whereas the veteran, contractor, and/or their family have the option to decline to participate at that time.)
Should you be interested in participating in the study, please contact Burn Pits 360 via email [] or by telephone [361-816-4015].
Still on veterans issues,
Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. Her office notes:

For Immediate Release
January 19, 2012
Murray: 202-224-2834
Filner: 202-225-9756

Murray, Filner Request GAO Review of VA's Sterilization of Reusable Medical Equipment Policies and Procedures

(Washington, D.C.) -- Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and Congressman Bob Filner (D-CA) sent a letter to Government Accountability Office (GAO) Comptroller Gene Dodaro expressing concern over reports of shortcomings in the sterilization of reusable medical equipment. In the letter, they urge the GAO to investigate whether VA's leadership is taking appropriate actions to address these problems across the system.

"On numerous occasions, VA has reported to Congress about the various investigations it has conducted and the problems these investigations have identified, which they claim have led to the development of new processes and procedures to reduce the risk of these problems reoccurring," Senator Murray and Congressman Filner said in the letter. "However, we continue to hear about the same types of quality of care incidents at VA medical facilities and we are concerned that this is an indication that VA is not effectively learning from these incidents and subsequently translating those lessons into system-wide improvements."
The full text of the letter follows:

January 19, 2012

The Honorable Gene L. Dodaro

Comptroller General of the United States

Government Accountability Office
441 G Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20548

Dear Mr. Dodaro:

We know of repeated quality of care problems throughout the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system. Some of these problems, such as shortcomings in the sterilization of reusable medical equipment, reoccur with unacceptable frequency. This raises concerns as to whether VA's leadership is taking appropriate actions, including the appropriate disciplinary actions, to effectively address the problems across the system. On numerous occasions, VA has reported to Congress about the various investigations it has conducted and the problems these investigations have identified, which they claim have led to the development of new processes and procedures to reduce the risk of these problems from reoccurring. However, we continue to hear about the same types of quality of care incidents at VA medical facilities and we are concerned that this is an indication that VA is not effectively learning from these incidents and subsequently translating those lessons into system-wide improvements.

Therefore, we request that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conduct a review of VA's processes and procedures for responding to quality of care incidents that occur within its health care system. Specifically, we request that GAO review the following:

1. What processes and procedures does VA use to respond to quality of care incidents that occur at its medical facilities, including quality assurance reviews and disciplinary actions? To what extent do these processes and procedures compliment and inform each other? What, if any, gaps or inconsistencies exist?

2. How does VA determine which processes and procedures to use to respond to quality of care incidents? What factors contribute to why certain processes and procedures are chosen by VA over others?

3. What challenges, if any, do VA staff face when using these processes and procedures?

4. To what extent are the processes and procedures carried out consistently across VA's health care system?

5. What data, if any, does VA systematically collect with regard to its employees' involvement in quality of care incidents, including clinicians and others? How, if at all, are these data trended and analyzed? To what extent are these data used to determine what actions to take in response to these incidents?

6. To what extent does VA use the data to identify opportunities for system-wide quality improvement?

As a follow-on to the above work, we also request that GAO perform an in-depth assessment of the extent to which VA medical facilities follow the processes and procedures used to respond to quality of care incidents.

Thank you for your work to improve the care and services our veterans receive. We look forward to reviewing your findings.


Chairman Ranking Democratic Member
Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs

Ranking Democratic Member
House Committee on Veterans Affairs

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