Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Not so Frank Barney







Sure. Well first it was an act of Congress that put this all into place, the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. And it will take an act of Congress to repeal it. You know, when I was a Democrat -- and I've only been in Congress, as you know Susan, for two and a half years -- you know I used to have a hard time and I used to criticize President Bush when we would pass laws and he would have these executive signing statements that basically would say, "I know Congress passed such and such, but we're going to ignore that part of it." That's not having the proper respect for co-equal government.








Today is Veterans Day in the United States. Yesterday the US Senate held a hearing on homeless veterans. The hearing was held by the Housing, Transportation and Community Development Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. Senator Robert Menendez chaired the subcommittee hearing which heard from the VA on the first panel and from the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Steve Berg, Coalition for Homeless Veterans' Melanie Lilliston, GI Go Fund's Jack Fanous, Iraq War veteran Lila Guy and Vietnam veteran William Wise. We'll note the personal remarks on homelessness from the hearing.

Lila Guy: As you've already said, I spent a year in Iraq, from 2005 to 2006 and during that time I was in Kirkuk, Iraq. But I had four children at home and a husband. But when I came back home, about a month after we got home, they informed us that we would be redeploying in less than a year, you know, after we had come back and my husband was not happy. He was not in the military but he decided that, you know, it was just not something that he wanted to do and so he just left. And so at the time I had three children. Me and the children were at Fort Campbell and we were doing field training and things like that. I didn't have anybody to watch the kids for me or whatever while I went to the field for thirty days. And I had to ask my mom to come and stay with me for -- so I could do two weeks of training. And after all of that, I just could not, I couldn't do it anymore. It was I was having issues just trying to readjust to being back home and taking care of kids and all of that kind of stuff. So I ended up getting out of the military on a hardship discharge. So when I got out, I had nothing because it was such an abrupt discharge. I didn't have anything, no where to go. And I drove home. All I had was my car and my kids So I drove home to my parents' house and I stayed there for awhile. And I ended up having another baby and my father said, "You know, you can't, we don't have enough room so you going to have to find something." But at that time I had still not found a job. I had four kids now in one room in a two bedroom house with my parents. And so I sent an e-mail to Congressman [Joe] Sestak and he asked and I informed him of my situation. I was in school, I was a full time student but I just didn't have the money. I had no place to go and I asked him could he help me and they sent me to the VA and they just started a pilot program for the HUD-VASH [Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing] -- I mean not a pilot, but it had just started and I was like one of nine of the people to be the first on the program. And it took about a year before I actually got into a house and during that time it was -- it was really stressful because I'm watching as you know all of the people who are in charge -- it was only person. They finally brought in another person and by the time he came, they had about 150 applicants and they were supposed to be having meetings with us coming to our house and all of that kind of stuff but they couldn't do it because they didn't have enough people so -- But anyway I got a house through the HUD VASH program. It's a four bedroom house and it's a beautiful -- it's a nice house just to transition but I thank the HUD VASH program for being there for me when I needed them because I really didn't have any other -- any other choice or whatever. With the HUD VASH program, I really believe in it because I'm -- my situation could have been a lot worse and I see a lot of people that are when we go to the meetings a lot of other people that are in the HUD VASH program that are literally, you know, living on the street and who have mental illness. As I was listening to his [Jack Fanous] statement and it was true to me because I see so many -- not just veterans but soldiers as soon as they come back with so many mental issues and like he said the transition is hard. And they teach you to go and train and fight and do all those things but they don't teach you how to live a normal life when you come back. You know, they don't teach you how to take care of your kids or pay all your bills or whatever. A lot of that stuff is all clumped into together. But once you're out in the real world those things are not there for you. There's nobody to say, "Well this is what you need to do, this is next step" or whatever. A lot of those people are lost. There are a lot of veteran programs but most veterans don't know what things -- what options are out there for them. So it just so happened that I was able to reach out to somebody that could help me but a lot of those people don't know, they don't have those resources. So I just thank, I thank the HUD-VASH program for -- for all that they done for me because it's given me an opportunity to move on with my life. I'm still a full time student and I'm doing the vocational rehabilitation program. And so all of those programs are all different but every time you have to reach out to somebody, you're reaching out here, you're reaching out there, it's frustrating. And a lot of those people don't have the patience to deal with those kind of things so if there was some way that those things could be pushed together -- not necessarily pushed together but given them the opportunity to be able to say, "Well these are the options that you have. These are the things that are out there for you." It would help a lot of these soldiers out a lot because they don't have anybody as their liaison to say, "Look you can do this, that and the other." So I just thank you for allowing me to be here. Thank you.

[. . .]

William Wise: I'm pretty much here to endorse the long term residential programs like the one I'm in in Winslow. Having been in short term programs, in and out of psych wards and programs and then thrown back out in the private sector the long term residential program has provided me with the time to really address -- asses and address the issues of a veteran and to use our military skill, our military training experience and training and turn that into a skill set to learn how to transition out. It's a very good program. And I think the time -- the time that you're there is so important. Short term is not going to work, the 120 day program, at least not for me. Had I know about the VA program earlier, it had probably been like 4th down and 99 before I even tried to call the 1-800 number, you know what I'm saying. I come from a generation where it's nothing but a scratch, I can handle it. And so it was a long time coming before I got to the point where I sought someone to get a new play to run and I still probably would have run my own play. I don't know what else to say about that except I really, really enjoyed that program. It saved my life. I've created a balance where I can see something instead of trying to assimilate, I can take my own self and go on and that's all I have, thank you.

Chair Robert Menendez: Mr. Wise what program were you talking about.

William Wise: Veterans Haven. Veterans Haven in Winslow. It's a two-year vocational and residential -- I mean vocational and transitional arrangement. You know, two years and after completion, with a certain income, you can go to get housing assistance as long as you stay in the state of New Jersey. I leave in March and that's where I plan to stay, in Jersey.

Lisa Chen (ABC News) reports that a third of the homeless population currently is made up of veterans: "Assistant Secretary of Housing Mercedes Marquez says that since February, HUD has funded over 136 programs that specifically target programs, and a partner program between HUD and the VA started in FY08, called the HUD-VASH [Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program] is funded at $75 million annually and serves over 20,000 homeless vets, including many who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan." Susan Campbell (Hartford Courant) also covers the issue noting the estimated 131,000 homeless veterans around the country with approximately 5,000 in Connecticut alone and that the strain those assisting veterans already is expected to increase as more veterans are created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"They gave me a gun" he said
"They gave me a mission
For the power and the glory --
Propaganda -- piss on 'em
There's a war zone inside me --
I can feel things exploding --
I can't even hear the f**king music playing
For the beat of -- the beat of black wings."
[. . .]
"They want you -- they need you --
They train you to kill --
To be a pin on some map --
Some vicarious thrill --
The old hate the young
That's the whole heartless thing
The old pick the wars
We die in 'em
To the beat of -- the beat of black wings" -- "The Beat of Black Wings," words and music by Joni Mitchell, first appears on her Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm.

As is too often the case, turnout for the hearing yesterday was sparse; however, I'm referring to senators. The visitor section was actually fairly well packed. We'll note the following exchanges from the second panel.

Chair Robert Menendez: Mr. Berg, you said about the VA needs to take leadership at a local level. Can you expound on -- what exactly do you mean by that, 'they need to take leadership at the local level'?

Steve Berg: I think that there's two things -- two things I mean by that. One is within a community, in every community in this country, there's people working on the issue of homelessness. There's HUD funded programs, there's HHS programs, there's VA programs. A lot of the times those programs don't necessarily work together around veterans, around the simple things if you're really going to be serious about reducing and ending veterans homelessness in the community, you have to find the veterans who are homeless, find the veterans who are about to be homeless, make sure that somebody is doing that and then find the housing resources that are going to be available and the other kinds of resources that are going to be available, going to be needed for those veterans. So it's a matter of reaching out to different people in the community, to leaders in the community, to federally funded programs, to private programs, bringing them together around this task of in this community we're going to identify veterans who are homeless and we're going to get them into housing until and chip away at the number until we reduce the number to zero.

[. . .]

Chair Robert Menendez: Mr. Fanous, you talked about fragmentation, so if you had a magic wand and could make what you think is the best coordinated effort to take place, what would it be?

Jack Fanous: Well, honestly, Senator, I believe that the most important thing would be to have all the stakeholders who are providing care for veterans, they should be localized and put into one location. When a veteran has to travel from the VA in one part of the state and has to go to the Social Security administration in another part of the state and then he has to go to Social Security -- to Salvation Army or the GI Go Fund and he has to drive all over the state, many times they don't have enough money to put gas in their car. It just gets that simple that the facilities all have to be together in one centralized location which is something that we are hoping to work on the city of Newark which is to create a mall of services, just a one-stop, a legitimate one-stop mall of services where one office would be Social Security administration and one office would be the VA and one office would be various non-profits that can support veterans. If a veteran can just walk into one spot which is kind of what the VA's War Related Illness Injury Center has at the VA where they try to handle all medical issues at one point. If you can try to handle all issues completely -- veterans issues -- from the Department of Labor, every single one of those departments, is the best chance you're going to have to help the veterans. Otherwise, it's going to stay fragmented because if a veteran goes to the VA and he talks to one person, he might not know that he has to go to the Social Security administration, he might not be getting the right information. Which is what happens every day, I see it every single day in my office.

And do you ever see a female veteran? It's really appalling for an organization to send a speaker who repeatedly refers to veterans as "he." Even more so when you grasp that Fanous is the executive director. In the real world, Susan Kaplan (WOMENSENEWS) reports, "Despite growing numbers of homeless female veterans, Jackie K's House is one of only two transitional housing programs for female veterans in the country, says Jack Downing, director of Soldier On, the nonprofit group that founded Jackie K's House in 2005. Meanwhile, the number of women enlisted in the U.S. military and reserves today continue to grow." And it is really appalling how little Congress does to show that they care about the issue. They can show they care about it by inviting people who can speak to the issue. They rarely bother and it is insulting (and a female veteran stopped me after the hearing yesterday to ask that I include that it was insulting in the snapshot -- sorry to her that it's a day after the hearing) when not only are the voices of those working on female veterans issues shut out of the conversation, but the men who are invited repeatedly use language that portray "veterans" as a term only for men. Vietnam Veterans of America's Marsha Four is one of the few women who has been invited by Congress this year to testify on a panel about veterans issues -- that's veterans issues in general. There are people, such as US House Rep John Hall, who have chaired female veterans hearings and they deserve praise for that; however, why is that every time the hearing is on veterans in general, women veterans are either treated as an after thought or just ignored?

Appearing before the House Veterans Committee on June 3rd, Four explained, "There certainly is a question of course on the actual number of homeless veterans -- it's been fluctuating dramatically in the last few years. When it was reported at 250,000 level, two percent were considered females. This was roughly about 5,000. Today, even if we use the very low number VA is supplying us with -- 131,000 -- the number, the percentage, of women in that population has risen up to four to five percent, and in some areas, it's larger. So that even a conservative method of determining this has left the number as high as [6,550]. And the VA actually is reporting that they are seeing that this is as high as eleven percent for the new homeless women veterans. This is a very vulnerable population, high incidents of past sexual trauma, rape and domestic violence. They have been used, abused and raped. They trust no one. Some of these women have sold themselves for money, been sold for sex as children, they have given away their own children. And they are encased in this total humiliation and guilt the rest of their lives." The number of homeless veterans is expected to rise as more and more deployed begin returning home. That's for men and women. And equally true is that the number of women veterans who are homeless is expected to rise. When women veterans go homeless, more often that also means that children go homeless. That is less often the case for male veterans (less often -- it still does happen but less so).

For the record, it's not just a matter of putting a woman in a chair. It needs to be a woman qualified to speak on the issues and with few exceptions, Congress repeatedly invites women who know nothing about other female veterans and have nothing to offer. For example, if you're a parent, if you're a single parent and the primary parent for your children, if you're qualified to speak on women's issues you wouldn't waste time saying that it's just like when you're a man. Especially if you were a woman with children who was homeless. You're helping no one with your constant refrain of "What he said" or idiotic statements about leaving the military and "now I'm a female again." Really? The army issued you something in the place of a vagina? They removed it? I can be rude. I can be really rude. I'm biting my tongue.

But let's high road it and say that, yes, sometimes a member of Congress does ask the right questions (for instance, Senator Menendez did yesterday) but there is no one present who can answer the questions and that still falls back on the Congress. That's the reality. And let's put the blame where it also goes: with ourselves. If you're a woman and you're actually invited to testify before Congress, grasp that you are taking part in a very rare moment. Women are rarely invited to testify before Congress, even at this late date. So if you're invited, try having some self-respect. Even if you have to fake it.

Tonight on PBS' The NewsHour, Betty Ann Bowser reports on Iraq War veteran Jeremiah Workman and PTSD (and online currently, there's a NewsHour webextra of Staff Sgt Workman talking about his PTSD). (Yesterday there was a report on Iraqi refugees -- link has text, video and audio options -- which we'll try to highlight later in the week.)

Don't take no tidal wave
Don't take no mass grave
Don't take no smokin' gun
To show how the west was won
But when the curtain falls, I pray for peace
Try to remember peace
In the crowded streets
In the big hotels
In the mosques and the doors of the old museum
I take a holly vow
To never kill again
Try to remember peace
-- "Living With War" written by Neil Young, from his album of the same name

Veterans Day was covered on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show today. The first hour featured VA Assistant Secretary Tammy Duckworth, Washington Post's David Finkel (The Good Soldiers) and Peter van Agtmael (Second Tour Hope I Don't Die). For the second hour, Page is joined by Stars and Stripes Leo Shane, Jericho Project's Tori Lyon, Survivor Corps' Scott Quilty, Yellow Ribbon America's Brad White and Sun Valley Adaptive Sports' Tom Iselin. The Diane Rehm Show archives its broadcasts and you can stream at no charge. Susan Page was today's guest host (Diane's on an NPR cruise with listener supporters).

Susan Page: And you know, I know there are a lot challenges in meeting the needs of veterans. I wonder if the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, are there challenges for the VA different in some way for these wars than for previous ones?

Tammy Duckworth: Well, yes, there are some key differences. Number one, they are being redeployed multiple times whereas in previous wars they were generally only deployed for their one year as was the case in Vietnam for example. Now there were many Vietnam vets who volunteered for additional deployments but it's actually a matter of course for Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans to have two, three and even four deployments under their belts. We also have for the first time a large percentage of female veterans who are facing combat and we're finding some really interesting results out of that. For example, 50% -- I'm sorry, 45% of all of our female veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have actually come to the VA to get medical care.

Susan Page: Interesting. And I know that it was almost precisely five years ago today that the helicopter you were in, serving in Iraq, was shot down. You lost your legs in that accident. I wonder thinking about that very personal experience, when it came to the programs that were available, what mattered to you the most? What made the biggest difference for you?

Tammy Duckworth: Well the biggest difference for me was being cared for at a facility where there were other veterans and then also just the amount of amazing rehabiliative care that I received at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] and at VA. And the transition from Walter Reed, which is DoD [Defense Dept] to VA had to be as smoothly as possible because I was still in recovery and it's so critical for our warriors when they're in that -- their early stages of recovery -- of reintegration and recovery -- to get full support.

Susan Page: And what didn't work so well, did you think, in your own experience?

Tammy Duckworth: Well what didn't work so well -- this is one of the first things I brought up to [VA] Secretary [Eric] Shinseki when he interviewed me -- was the fact that we did not have a seamless transition of our military records from DoD to VA. When I left Walter Reed with my full medical records and I went to my VA hospital for the first time, I had to strip down to prove that I was an amputee. Even though he could see that I was an amputee and he had the medical records from the surgeon who amputated my legs. And we're immediately fixing that. Back in May of this year, [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates and Secretary Shinseki agreed to a program where we're going to develop virtual, lifetime, electronic records. So that from the day you raise your hand to enlist in the army to the day that you're laid to rest in one of our national shrines, your records follow you. And this will be a momnumental change in how VA and DoD hand off and care for our veterans.

Susan Page: One of the things that I think has alarmed many Americans is the-the suicide rate among returning veterans which seems very high and I wonder why do you think that is so?

Tammy Duckworth: I'm sorry. Could you say that again? You cut off for just a minute. I'm calling from a cell phone.

Susan Page: Why do you -- you know we've been, we've read a lot about the rate of suicides among returning veterans and it seems such a -- such a tragedy. Why do you think there is this high suicide rate?

Tammy Duckworth: Well there's a couple of things going on and this goes back to what I said earlier about our veterans going on multiple deployments -- two, three, four rotations -- whereas in previous wars they did not go for as long. You also have veterans coming home and surviving far more greivous injuries such as myself who would never have survived [in earlier wars]. And also I think that we're just more vigilant now. In previous wars, a lot of veterans suffered for a very long time without a diagnosis and without people realizing they were suffering and I think we're just doing a better job of diagnosing people. In fact, in 2008, VA diagnosed over 442,000 patients with PTSD. This is something that certainly wasn't done after Vietnam when we called it "combat fatigue" and after WWII and Korea when we called it "shell shock." So I think we're more vigilant, we're finding more of them but also that they're facing multiple, repeated exposure to combat condition.

Susan Page: And do you think that the VA does a good job now screening for PTSD or do you still think there's a ways to go?

Tammy Duckworth: I think that we still have improvements to make It's not just VA, it has to be a VA - DoD partnership. I think we're better than we were five years ago when I first went over to Iraq.

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