Thursday, April 23, 2009

He doesn't understand the law








In Iraq today, multiple bombings, multiple deaths. Al Jazeera noted this morning a Baghdad bombing today which "targeted a police patrol in the Karrada district" with a death toll of 28 and fifty injured. Michael Christie and Jon Boyle (Reuters) added that, along with the 28 killed in Baghdad, a Muqdadiya bombing claimed 32 lives. Reuters state that both bombings were suicide bombings. Jomana Karadsheh and Cal Perry (CNN) explain that the death toll in Muqdadiya rose from 32 to 45 and that twenty-eight is the wounded toll thus far and that the bombing targeted Iranian pilgrims. Timothy Williams (New York Times) notes the toll rose again, to 47, combines the two bombings for a total death toll of 75. Unlike CNN which describes the Baghdad bomber as wearing a "suicide vest," Williams says it was a "suicide belt" and that the bomber was a woman. Corinne Reilly, Sahar Issa and Laith Hammoudi (McClatchy Newspapers) also report a female bomber in Baghdad. They and Timothy Williams mention an arrest. CBS News has that as well: "Iraqi officials told CBS News Terrorism consultant Ali al-Ahmed Thursday that [Abu Omar] al-Baghdadi had been arrested. . . . If true, the arrest could deliver a significant blow to an intensified campaign of attacks - the latest which included two separate suicide bombings that killed at least 54 people Thursday." Ernesto Londono and K.I. Ibrahim (Washington Post) provide context, "The assertion, made by Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, the spokesman for Iraq's security forces, was startling because many intelligence officials believe Baghdadi is a mythical figure created to give the Sunni insurgent organization an Iraqi face. Iraqi authorities in the past have made similar claims that turned out to be incorrect." The 'capture' may be true and it may, indeed, have taken place today. Then again, it may be an attempt to distract from the large death toll from the two bombings. Back to the bombings, Aseel Kami (Reuters) quotes Diyala Province Governor Abdulnasir al-Muntasirbillah stating, "I just left the hospital of Baquba. The scenes there are catastrophic. Words can't express it. It is a dirty, cowardly terrorist act." [Muqdadiya is in Diyala Province]. Usama Redha and Raheem Salman (Los Angeles Times) observe, "The two attacks bore echoes of the worst violence from Iraq's civil war and was certain to fuel fears that the security strides of the last year and a half were fading away."

This morning US House Rep John Hall chaired a hearing by the House Armed Services Committee's Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. It was some hearing. Full of embarrassments from both sides listening in Congress as well as from the witness table. One Congressional member took the hearing for a Mary Kay Convention, another thought it was the time to go crazy and vent all your hatred for US government and, from the witness side, one thought a hearing was a license to lie. Repeating, it was some hearing.

It started off slowly and normally enough with Hall, after noting that New York soldiers stationed in Afghanistan had told him on a recent trip that they want more bandwidth and better showers, making opening remarks. "Today," Hall explained, "we are here to consider legislation, the Compensation Owed for Mental Health Based on Activities in Theater Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Act or the COMBAT PTSD Act, H.R. 952. During the 110th Congress and most recently during an oversight hearing held on March 24, 2009, the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs revisited Congress' intent in establishing presumptive provisions to provide compensation to combat veterans under Section 1154(b) of title 38." Hall noted that the Veterans Affairs Dept appeared to be interpreting qualifications narrowly and that his bill is about "clarifying and expanding the definition of 'combat with the enemy' found in section 1154(b) to include a theater of combat operations during a period of war or in combat against a hostile force during a period of hostilities."

The first panel was John Wilson (Disabled American Veterans), Barton F. Dutchman (National Veterans Legal Services Program), Norman Bessel (American Ex-Prisoners of War) and Richard Paul Cohen (National Organization of Veterans' Advocates, Inc.).

"The definition of what constitutes combat with the enemy is critical to all veterans in a combat theatre of operations," stated John Wilson reading his prepared remarks aloud ( click here), "whether the issue is service connection of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other conditions resulting from combat. The current high standards requried by the Department of Veterans Affairs' internal operating procedures for verifying veterans who 'engaged in combat with the enemy' are impossible for many veterans to satisfy, whether from current or past wars." He noted the various reasons that can prevent someone from being seen (by the VA) as "engaged in combat with the enemy" and offered women serving in Iraq:

The female soldiers who accompany male troops on patrols to conduct house-to-house searches are known as Team Lioness, and have proved to be invaluable. Their presence not only helps calm women and children, but Team Lioness troops are also able to conduct searches of the women, without violating cultural strictures. Against official policy, and at that time without the training given to their male counterparts, and with a firm commitment to serve as needed, these dedicated young women have been drawn onto the frontlines in some of the most violent counterinsurgency battles in Iraq.
Independent Lens, an Emmy award-winning independent film series on PBS, documented their work in a film titled Lioness which profiled five women who saw action in Iraq's Sunni Triangle during 2003 and 2004. As members of the US Army's 1st Engineer Battalion, Shannon Morgan, Rebecca Nava, Kate Pendry Guttormsen, Anastasia Breslow and Ranie Ruthig were sent to Iraq to provide supplies and logistical support to their male colleagues. Not trained for combat duty, the women unexpectedly became involved with fighting in the streets of Ramadi. These women were part of a unit, made up of approsimately 20 women, who went out on combat missions in Iraq. Female soldiers in the Army and Marines continue to perform Lioness work in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I would like to highlight the issues faced by Rebecca Nava as she seeks recognition of her combat experience and subsequent benefits for resulting disabilities. Then US Army Specialist Nava was the Supply Clerk for the 1st Engineering Battalion in Iraq. In conversations with her and as seen in the film Lioness, she recounts several incidents. Two of those incidents are noted in my testimony today.
The first is the roll-over accident of a 5-ton truck that was part of a convoy to Baghdad. In this accident, the driver was attempting to catcuh up with the rest of the convoy but in doing so lost control of the vehicle. The five ton truck swerved off the road and rolled over, killing a Sergeant who was sitting next to her, and severely injuring several others. Specialist Nava was caught in the wreckage. She had to pulled through the fractured windshield of the vehicle. While not severly injured in the accident, she did suffer a permanent spinal injury.
Another incident occurred wherein she was temporarily attached to a Marine unit and her job for this mission was to provide Lioness support for any Iraqi women and children the unit contacted. It was a routine mission patrolling the streets of Ramadi. Before she knew it, the situation erupted into chaos as they came under enemy fire. She had no choice but to fight alongside her male counterparts to suppress the enemy. No one cared that she was a female -- nor did they care that she had a Supply MOS -- their lives were all on the line -- she opened fire. The enemy was taken out. During this fire fight she also made use of her combat lifesaver skills and provided medical aid to several injured personnel.
This and other missions resonate with her to this day. When she filed a claim with the VA, she was confronted with disbelief about her combat role in Iraq as part of Team Lioness. Specialist Nava filed a claim for service connection for hearing loss and tinnitus but was told that she did not qualify because of her logistics career field. Since she does not have a Combat Action Badge, she cannot easily prove that the combat missions occurred which impacted her hearing.

Wilson observed that Nava's "lack of recognition for her combat role can be multiplied countless times for other veterans also caught in the fog of war." Later in the hearing, he would return to Nava to point out her struggle and how she had a team following her in Iraq, recording her (for the documentary) and still was denied and that most service members do not have a document of their service (example: "So we have a troop who has a camera following her around in Iraq [. . .] How much more of a problem is this for other veterans who do not have the visibility she has.") She does not Norman Bussel stated, "To refuse PTSD compensation to veterans because their job titles are not synonymous with combat is unconscionable. There's more than the money involved. Even more important is the colossal insult of telling a combat veteran that he didn't fight for his country. That is an unnecessary stressor to stuff into his or her already overlowing load of emotional baggage." (Bussel read his prepared remarks, click here.) Cohen observed in his opening remarks:

You've heard justice delayed is justice denied well justice denied increases frustration among our combat veterans, increases their anxiety, increases their depression, increases their anger, increases their betrayal -- a sense of betrayal from the VA and, by extension, from the whole country.

Cohen's opening remarks are not the same as he prepared statement in the record (click here for his prepared statement). Stichman noted:

Under current law, VA has to expend more time and resources to decide PTSD claims than almost every other type of claim. A major reason that these claims are so labor intensive is that in most cases, VA believes that the law requires it to conduct an extensive search for evidence that may corroborate that the veteran's testimony that he experienced a stressful event during military service. According to the VA, an extensive search for corroborating evidence is necessary even when the medical evidence shows that the veteran currently suffers from PTSD, and mental health professionals attribute the PTSD to stressful events that occurred during military service.

Click here for Stichman's prepared remarks (which he read into the record). We'll focus on two strong exchanges before we get to the goofballs. US House Reps Ann Kirkpatrick and Ciro Rodriguez were on focus and raised real issues. First Kirkpatrick.

Ann Kirkpatrick: I just spent two weeks in my district meeting with veterans and there's so much anger about how they're being treated by the administration and specifically with regard to PTSD. I've met with veterans who said that -- how difficult it was to show the service connection. One veteran in particular was a Vietnam veteran and he told me how painful it was to try to track down his patrol finding out that so many of them had died since their days in the service. I finally was able to locate someone across the country who was able to validate the service connection. The other problem is also the lack of trained mental health care professionals specific to PTSD in some of these communities. And again they said, 'Please take back to your community our request that we have trained mental health counselors in PTSD in the Veterans Administration' and how specific that is to their treatment in those who qualify. My concern, and my question is for you Mr. Wilson, for a veteran who has PTSD or thinks they have it and can't show the service connection, where do they go for treatment? What services are there for them?

John Wilson: It's a good question. While I was in the field, I also had veterans come through with the same issues -- Vietnam in particular, some WWII -- their entire team wiped out. So who did they go to for support for their particular claim? No letters -- as we were talking about here -- and the distinguished gentleman was providing letters still postmarked from someone overseas at the time, excellent evidence typically. Why that claim was denied, I am not sure. It would, I think normally, I hope, it would be granted. It's difficult circumstances as I say and I have encouraged those people to go back and meet with their reunion websites for people who may be part of that unit, who may be able to provide, perhaps, some other story of 'Yes, I saw Johnny there on that -- on that truck going to that combat zone all geared up.' Those kind of things may all be of benefit. But it is nonetheless very difficult and the fog of war? How is it that you're going to appoint a stenographer or a court reporter, a videographer to accompany each person on that combat? You cannot. It's very difficult circumstance. I would contend that the VA does have the means before it in order to grant those benefits by looking at the lay evidence that a veteran submits and looking at the times, places and circumstances of that particular event, they should in fact be able to grant the service connection. But it nonetheless is a problematic condition.

Ann Kirkpatrick: And for those people who can't -- can't show the connection, are there other places they can go for help?

John Wilson: Ma'am, I wish I could find those. None that I'm aware of.

Ann Kirkpatrick: Mr. Chairman, let me just make one other comment. I asked the veterans I was meeting with if they were concerned about people applying for PTSD treatment who may not really qualify and they said "No." No. The risk really is that those who need treatment are not going to seek it out because of the current system and they emphasized over and over again that they were promised medical treatment for life when they enlisted and that that promise has been broken.

Now for Ciro Rodriguez. He'll refer to some past experiences prior to Congress (and prior to being in the Texas legislature). He's speaking of when he was with Bexar County Department of Mental Health and with Intercultural Development Research Association. Also he had a statement put in the record (click here).

Ciro Rodriguez: Let me also just add that the same people that might suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorders initially are the same ones that might not even be aware of the fact that they're suffering it. And a lot of times that's not acknowledged until much later after a lot of difficulties. And it's kind of like, you know, example of getting burned out at work and you're not sure why but it was, you know, an example I can give you in terms of my experience working with the mentally ill, staying there until seven, eight o'clock at night, taking the work back home with me and then all of the sudden telling them, 'No, I can't see you, it's after five.' And it's something wrong. And it doesn't dawn on you until very much later in terms of what's happening to you. The same thing applies with Post Traumatic Stress Disorders and the system is not equipped to handle or to even reach out to those individuals that are not even aware that they're suffering from that. And be able to be aggressive and be able to reach out and work with some of the invidviduals. Your testimony. One of you mentioned the fact that a lot of them deal with it indirectly by going to prescription drugs and going to alcohol and other illegal drugs -- in terms of coping with it. And somehow we've got to get the system to be more responsive. I know the legislation on HR 952 directly addresses the strereotypes by helping to relax the evidentary standards to deployment on a combat area and we know that when you go -- the first two soldiers that were caught, [. . .] remember that one lady that was a cook and the other was a mechanic. [Rodriguez is referring to Shoshana Johnson and Patrick Miller who were part of US Army 507th Maintenance Company which was ambushed March 23, 2003. They were POWs -- along with James Riley, Edgar Hernandez and Joseph Hudson -- until April 13, 2003. Jessica Lynch was part of this unit; however, she was taken to an Iraqi hospital. Anna Mulrine (US News & World Report) spoke with all three -- Lynch, Johnson and Miller -- for a March 18, 2008 article.] Those were the ones that were captured. And it's hard when you get into those situations, especially what we have in Afghanistan and Iraq, that at any given time, you'll be asked to do other things besides your so-called duites as you're there and some of those might not be translated in terms of -- so that you'll be able to justify in the future. So we need to give them the benefit of the doubt under those circumstances and be able to.

[. . .]

Barton Stichman: The point you made about people not recognizing that they have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or being in denial about it I think relates to this legislation. A lot of people don't realize that they have it for a long time and then they get treatment and then they apply for benefits. So it may be years, many years, after they finish their military service. And so in order to win benefits for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in a situation where the VA doesn't believe that they served in combat with the enemy at that point and time, they're going to have to go out and get corroborative evidcne which is very difficult. The length of time effects their ability to do that.

Ciro Rodriguez: Mr. Chairman, I know I've gone over my time.

John Hall: Do you have another question?

Ciro Rodriguez: Just a little statement. [To Stichman] What you've indicated is so true and that that's one of the things the system has to be responsive to in terms of meeting those needs. And as a person goes through denial, you go through a process where you even not acknowledge certain things that might have occured that other people there will tell you, 'No, this and this transpired.' Because you might be going through guilt and other things as you go through that, that you might not have responded as appropriately as you should have and those kind of things and sometimes that's not cleared up until you have time to go through those and be able to think about what actually occurred.

Throughout the hearing, the witnesses did not buy into the notion that veterans were faking PTSD to get some of that 'easy' and apparently 'glorious' treatment. Norman Bussel would respond to the John Hall's question (Hall does not believe that claim either) that "the America veteran does not come in for treatment because he feels there is a stigma and he's ashamed of how he feels" so it doesn't make sense that some veteran would insist he or she was suffering from PTSD when they weren't. Bussel stated they were "in a horrendous state" when they came for help. Bussel also spoke of the harm being done currently with the denial of PTSD claims, noting that the veterans "feel like they are being called liars [when] they're combat experience is denied." He explained his WWII records took forever to catch up with him. And that "in Iraq and Afghanistan," "those records are just kept" which would say you were in combat. He spoke of the collatoral damage on families and veterans relationships as a result of a veteran being denied.

Let's turn to the goofballs. And it's bi-partisan. We have one from each side of the aisle.

Suggestion: US House Rep Deborah Halvorson might want to leave out her personal tales ("I found out I wasn't so tough") and attempt to learn the issue she's talking about. For example, there's no excuse in a hearing on PTSD for a member of Congress to believe it is "PTSB." And Mary Kay Cosmetics is not well served by their chirpy alumni Halvorson failing to learn House procedure, "I yield back -- or I reserve the balance of my time for later!" It's April 23, 2009, long past time for the War Hawk Halvorson to get her act together. Harsh? If you think that's harsh, you don't know Little Debbie.

Democratic Debbie was saved from winning Fool for a Day by US House Rep Brian Bilray who came across like someone who'd gone off their meds. Whether it was floating a theory that those working at the VA hated veterans -- apparently from the top of the VA down to the custodians -- or working in multiple attacks on "welfare" and the "welfare system," Bilray was a rage of beauty to behold. Was anyone spared his toxic accusations? You might think so but around the time he was griping about fire fighters with respitory problems and how they 'claimed' it was from their work but they might be smokers, you realize Bilray had a lot more issue to work out than even the full staff of the VA could assist him with if they worked around the clock just on him.

How bad was it? We already noted Subcommittee Chair John Hall does not believe there is this mad craze of veterans faking PTSD for the 'glory' and 'glamor' but Hall had to pursue that on the record because Bilray had insisted this was a reasonable and reasoned hypothesis and one that should be considered at length (and he certainly spoke of it at length). Another example? As the first panel wound down, Hall felt the need to declare, "I do not intend by this legislation nor do those that support it to minimize or cast aspersions on the value or the bravery of those who have fought in direct combat, in intense firefights, who signed up and served as Special Forces, those who have seen combat of the most intense type." Why did he have to clarify what should be obvious? Because he was responding to Bilray. Yes, Bilray even argued that eliminating a few of the hoops veterans are forced to jump through was somehow doing harm to other veterans. Bilray was a piece of work.

So that's a Democrat and a Republican who made fools of themselves but remember we said a witness did as well. Which one? Not any on the first panel. The second panel is where Bradley G. Mayes would show up, the VA's Compensation and Pension Service cruncher. He was so offensive that had Bilray stood up and screamed, "See! That's what I mean about the VA hating vets!" it probably would have been the first time in his life that the world would have found it hard to disagree with Bilray.

Mayes sniffed:

The short title of the legislation we are discussing today indicates that the intent behind it is principally to ease the burden on veterans in proving their service-connection claims based on PTSD, which is a goal that the Department shares. However, we are concerned about the scope of the bill and also believe it would unduly complicate the adjudication process.
In furtherance of our mutual objective of simplifying the adjudication of wartime veterans' PTSD claims, the Department currently has under development an amendment to our regulations to liberalize in certain cases the evidentiary standards for establishing an in-service stressor for purposes of service connecting PTSD. This amendment would relax in some situations the requirement for corroborating evidence that a claimed in-service stressor occurred. We also recently completed a rulemaking that eliminated the requirement for evidence corroborating the occurrence of a claimed in-service stressor if PTSD is diagnosed in service.

His prepared opening statement can be read [PDF format warning] here but note that he did not deliver it exactly as written (the quote above is word-for-word what he said and word-for-word what was prepared ahead of time). Words were not Mayes' friend such as when he spoke of POWs from past war and declared "an individual was incarcera -- er, interned by the enemy."

Subcommittee Chair Hall registered Mayes strong opposition to the proposed legislation and explained that if this were left to the VA alone and they handled it, it would be under rule making. Rules can be changed, Hall noted, with administrations. So "should that be a consideration" as to whether or not the issue should be resolved by law or by rule?

Mayes inisted he'd never seen or even been aware of efforts -- ever -- to roll back rights for veterans. And no one challenged that assertion.

March 19, 2005, CNN was reporting on Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell's response to Bully Boy Bush's weekly address: "He maintained that budget cuts include 'a $350 million reduction in veterans home funding, which wipes out at least 5,000 veterans' nursing home beds." April 10, 2005, Karen Blakeman and Dennis Camire (Honolulu Advertiser) reported, "President Bush's proposed 2006 budget would * Drastically cut financial support for up to 80 percent of the veterans in the nation's 129 state-run homes. * Let the VA reduce the number of nursing-home beds from the 13,391 required by law. * Put a hold on $104 million in grants slated to rehabilitate and build new state veterans homes." Among the many, many other reports on this 2005 move by the then-administration, you can refer to Joel Wendfand (People's Weekly World) and you can drop back to 2004 for Edward Walsh (Washington Post). There are plenty of other examples we could offer. It would do no good; however. Mayes had insisted "I just can't envision that" when Hall had offered that administrations change and they can change rules (but not laws) to weaken veterans' benefits.

Mayes was pompous and an idiot. (When he's especially proud of one of his responses, he tilts his head to the left, to the right and then tosses his head back. No, it's not attractive.) The hearing was on what topic? PTSD. And the hearing was about whether or not people suffering from it are getting the help they need. So when Hall asks you for the number of those diagnosed with PTSD and the number of the backlog for those who have been diagnosed, you really should never respond, "I would have to get that for you." Exactly what topic did Mayes think he was attending the hearing to discuss? And as Hall pointed out, Mayes refers to the backlog himself on page three of his prepared statement. Apparently the statement was prepared but Mayes was not. He also had prepared remarks about "combat operations" in his written statement and Hall wanted to ask Mayes about that topic. Mayes declined to answer and announced he was "going to defer" that issue to his handler Richard Hipolit. Hipolit speaks like William Hickey (with a wheeze) and has all the charm of an ambulance chasing divorce attorney -- and why do you think that is? Maybe the next hearing could be about the qualifications of those appearing before the panel and how they managed to snare government jobs?

Might the legislation proposed save the VA time and money? A basic question. But Hall had to go through the process of pulling teeth and bringing in Vietnam and Agent Orange before he could get even a weak and qualifed "yes" from Mayes. He blathered on about, "I think, for me, the difficulty [. . .] is because the disaease [ . . .] we know Agent Orange was sprayed in the Republic of Vietnam [. . .] but with PTSD, the difficulty in trying to define what parts of the world at different times in our history . . ."

What an idiot. Agent Orange has been used around the world. It is a problem (a huge one) for Vietnam veterans because they served in Vietnam. PTSD is a problem for veterans because of the experiences while they served. This is not complicated. Mayes wants to make it complicated. But if Agent Orange were used in Iraq, it would be an issue for today's veterans. It has nothing to do with Vietnam, it has to do with the battlefield. Repeating, Agent Orange was used all over the world. It is a hazard during Vietnam because US troops were in Vietnam. That's where they were exposed to it. PTSD is related to where you were exposed to the theatre of war and/or combat. It is not as difficult as Mayes (intentionally) tries to make it out to be.

Hall attempted to nail Mayes down repeatedly but he was like Liquid Metal, always sliding away -- largely by refusing to be consistent in his remarks.

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