Thursday, April 24, 2008

The VA

Gordon Erspamer, the attorney who brought the lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs that went to trial this week in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, is a big, unresponsive government agency's worst nightmare.
He's a rainmaker attorney for a major firm in the city who has set aside time to take legal action that doesn't earn a penny. And besides that, he's got a compelling and personal back story and a chip on his shoulder to prove it.
Erspamer's cause since the late '70s has been the rights of armed forces veterans, and this week's trial has the VA squirming over a shocking rate of suicides among vets and has captured the national spotlight.
The trial led the CBS Evening News this week, and Erspamer says he's getting thousands of e-mails and calls from veterans and media outlets.
Five years ago, he admits, the American public probably couldn't have told you what post-traumatic stress disorder was. Now they are not only aware of the number of vets who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD - Erspamer estimates it will be one-third of the 1.7 million who served - but they are ready to look critically at how they've been treated.
"If you add up the veterans' suicides among those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and compare it to the total combat deaths, the veteran suicides are higher," says Erspamer, who introduced a VA e-mail at the trial that showed an average of 18 vets a day are committing suicide. "The VA doesn't want that out."

The above is from C.W. Nevius' "Attorney leading suit a veteran in battling VA" (San Francisco Chronicle). That's a look at the attorney leading the fight. Yesterday in the Senate, the VA came under questioning. From Armen Keteyian and Pia Malbran's "VA Official Grilled About E-Mails" (CBS News, link has text and video):

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) deputy chief, Gordon Mansfield, was questioned Wednesday by members of congress in Washington about allegations that the VA tried to cover up the true risk of suicide among veterans. “I am very angry and upset,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., during a Senate hearing on veterans issues. Murray asked Mansfield how the public should trust the VA when "every time we turn around we find out that what you're saying publicly is different from what you're saying privately?”
Internal e-mails made public this week as part of a lawsuit in San Francisco federal court show what appears to be the deliberate attempt by top VA officials to conceal the number of suicides and attempted suicides by veterans. In one email message titled "Not for the CBS News...," the VA's head of mental health Dr. Ira Katz wrote "Shh!" and then claimed there were 1,000 suicide attempts per month by veterans under the care of the agency. The e-mail was written last February when CBS News was questioning the VA about the number of veterans who have tried to kill themselves.

Also covering yesterday's hearing is Les Blumenthal with "Murray: VA lied about vets' suicide attempts" (Seattle Times):

"The suicide rate is a red alarm bell to all of us," said Murray, D-Wash., adding that the VA's mental-health programs are being overwhelmed by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans as the department seeks to downplay the situation. "We are not your enemy, we are your support team, and unless we get accurate information, we can't be there to do our jobs."
Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Gordon Mansfield apologized during a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing, saying he did not think there was a deliberate attempt to mislead Congress or the public.
But Murray was skeptical, saying the VA has shown a pattern of misleading Congress when it comes to the increasing number of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan seeking help and putting a strain on Department of Defense and VA facilities and programs.
Murray said she spoke with VA Secretary James Peake and demanded that he fire the man in charge of the department's mental-health programs, Dr. Ira Katz. The senator said Peake has not responded to the request.
"I used to teach preschool, and when you bring up a 3-year-old and tell them they have to stop lying, they understand the consequences," Murray said. "The VA doesn't. They need to stop hiding the fact this war is costing us in so many ways."

Turning to US politics CBS and AP note:

Including Michigan and Florida, Clinton has 15.1 million to Obama's 15 million - a lead of about one-half of a percentage point for Clinton. Without Michigan and Florida, Obama has 14.4 million to Clinton's 13.9 million - a lead of about 1.7 percent for Obama. Neither total includes the primary vote total from Washington state, since it doesn't count toward the nomination and the party awards delegates based on its caucus.

Florida and Michigan held their primaries. Their delegates may or may not be seated but people turned out to vote in record numbers in both states. In Florida, the election pulled in over a million voters and more than had voted in the five previous contests. If Barack doesn't want them counted, too damn bad. I'm sure the Bully Boy would prefer Hurricane Katrina's aftermath didn't get covered but that event took place as well. The press' job is not to tell news in a way that is pleasing to Obama, it's to report what happened. The only way the Florida and Michigan votes don't count is if the states are allowed to revote. Primaries took place, that is not in dispute. The only thing in dispute is whether or not the DNC will allow the states' delegates to be seated at the convention. That's a party matter but it's public record that Michigan and Florida voted and it's public record that the only one preventing a revote is Barack Obama. Too bad for him that you don't determine what is and what isn't news by whether or not he likes it. He had the chance to join Clinton in the proposed re-vote. He really had nothing to lose because she won both primaries. The only thing he had to lose was the reality that he can't win big states being trumpeted by the news. Unless re-dos take place, the states have held their primaries and regardless of what the DNC does or does not do with delegates those voters are part of the popular vote.

Any outlet refusing to include that count isn't really in the news business. News isn't determined by whether or not it pleases one candidate. (And this was our opinion community wide in 2007. This has nothing to do with Clinton winning the state. CBS and AP also make the mistake of saying that Iowa's votes aren't known -- a caucus. That they don't have a popular vote. They do have a popular vote and anyone paying attention in 2007 would have seen the op-ed in the New York Times on just this topic and why Iowa's Democratic Party needed to release that total after the caucus took place.)

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