Thursday, February 18, 2010

GI Bill, Stop-Loss, VA, Burn Pits

Kimberly Hefling (AP) has a brief article about the GI Bill hotline (1-888-GI-BILL-1) today which states it will be running five days a week starting today according to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Why is this news?

The brief doesn't tell you. Operators are supposed to be on the hotline -- hence "hotline" -- answering calls. Where were they?

The US House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity dealt with some of where they were last month. From the January 21st snapshot:

The Chair [Stephanie Herseth Sandlin] then noted that the Subcommittee staff had visited Muskogee, Oklahoma's VA Regional Processing Center and Education Call Center where they discovered the Education Call Center was being shut down on Thursdays and Fridays. Veterans calling were not able to speak to anyone and the staff was working on claims. It was noted by Herseth Sandlin that the Call Center can and should be open five days via better time management. Ranking Member John Boozman noted the visit as well and how the staff were the ones who told them time could be better managed and that, "As a result of that discussion, local VA management forwarded a request to the VA's Office of Field Operations to make the changes suggested and therein lies my concern: Why does it take a suggestion from Congressional staff to raise such a common sense issue and why do those responsible at the local level need to get permission from central office?" He further noted that seven a.m. to five p.m. on the call center (from Monday through Friday) limits the opportunities for those "living outside the continental US" to speak to someone.

So there was a problem -- a big one -- and only Congress got it addressed. Had Congress not found out about it, when it would it have been addressed?

Better question: Has it been addressed? It does not appear so.

If you go to the "Contact US" page at the Veterans Affairs website, you find a number of things. First off, they're attempting to sell veterans on e-mails: "The best way to contact us is by using the Questions & Answers link on the left hand side of the page or by clicking HERE. You can send us a secure email that will usually be answered within 48 hours or less. You can also search for answers to frequently asked questions and register to be notified of any updates to the information. This contact method is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and can also be utilized worldwide."

That's the best way? 48 hours or less? That's nonsense. And you're going to be playing repeated e-mail tag with them if you have any questions or you're not clear or they're not clear on what's being said. That little message needs to be taken off the page, about it being the "best way". It's the easiest for the VA.

The best way is to speak to someone who will catch any problem and who will be able to answer any follow up question right then. What do they tell you about the phone number:

If you prefer, you may also contact us by telephone at 1-888-GIBILL-1 (1-888-442-4551). Be advised this line only accepts calls from 7:00 - 5:00 central time and you may experience long hold times.
The Department of Veterans Affairs Education Call Center is currently closed on Thursdays and Fridays so that our staff may process education benefit claims. We will be open for telephone calls Monday through Wednesday during normal business hours from 7:00am to 5:00pm Central Standard Time. We thank you for your patience as we work to process claims.
You may still submit an electronic inquiry through the Question and Answer section of our website here.
If you are overseas you can contact us via telephone during business hours, M - F 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM EDT. Students and School Certifying Officials calling from outside the United States may call the Buffalo Regional Office at 716-857-3196 or 716-857-3197. Once connected, the caller can immediately enter “option 1” to be placed in a special priority queue. This is not a toll-free number but the caller will be routed to the next available Customer Service Representative for priority service.
This is for Overseas customers only, all others should call the toll-free number or contact us via the Questions & Answers section of this website.

So now it's five days a week again (for now) and it's working hours only. Did they not hear what US Rep John Boozeman said about people outside the US or people working different hours? Apparently not. But you can call a non-toll-free number and wait in a queue. That's ridiculous and if you were at that hearing (I was), you heard the VA say, 'Oh, we'll get right on that. Oh, we'll do it. Oh, we don't extra money. We don't need anything. We've got everything we need, thank you.'

The VA is the biggest screw up of any federal department today and that's really saying something. Shinseki better hope the Dems retain control of the House after the midterm elections because Republicans are very vocal on the House Veterans Affairs Committee about how appalled they are at the VA -- for everything, including the inability to keep up graves. Shinseki better keep his fingers crossed that Dems retain their control because they've been much more patient with his continued incompetence.

We noted Marc Hall in the February 9th snapshot, Pamela E. Walck (Savannah Now) reports that Hall was in Chief Federal District Court yesterday where Judge William T. Moore Jr. refused to grant his appeal to remain in the US and he is expected to be sent to Kuwait shortly for a court-martial over his song "Stop Loss." From Walck's report:

"The more I worked on this case, the more persuaded I am that we were right on the law," said David Gespass, Hall's civilian attorney. "... There is no one else to appeal to at this point. The intent of the Army is clear. They could have tried him any time between July and December, before anyone left here (for Iraq).
"And the idea that all of a sudden, it's imperative they try him over there, outside of the light of day and the scrutiny of the public, shows they are so resistant to trying him here. It reinforces the idea they don't want the case to be scrutinized."
Gespass said it wouldn't be fiscally possible for him to travel to Iraq for the court-martial proceedings and that his client would have to rely on the military-appointed attorney.
"I have confidence in his military lawyer," Gespass said. "But ... the problem with getting witnesses there is a more serious one."
The civilian attorney said one witness stepped forward, but said she wouldn't travel to Iraq for a court proceeding.

Russia Today interviewed Iraq Veterans Against the War and World Can't Wait's Matthis Chiroux about the case.

Matthis Chiroux: Marc Hall has demonstrated (a) a lot of courage in-in writing this song. I mean the army suppressing soldiers is so widespread, the stop-loss policy destroys so many lives anyway. The fact that Marc Hall had the courage to-to speak up and to address that in his rap song in the first place is quite impressive. Second, I think very important, something that we need to call attention to in this case, is Marc Hall is not being jailed for writing the stop-loss song, Marc Hall is being jailed because he expressed to his command that he would not deploy to Iraq with his unit. And this happened during the time he wrote the song in July and he wasn't jailed until December. He was, in fact, undergoing counseling and serving with his unit. It wasn't until Specialist Hall told his command that he wasn't comfortable deploying to Iraq that they took these measures against him.

IVAW's updates page for Marc Hall is here.

Asked if the military is concerned that the song might bring attention to the stop-loss policy, Matthis responds, "Well, ma'am, I think there is already enormous attention on this policy and, in fact, this is one of the many Bush era policies that Obama has failed to make good on his promises to end. Obama said he would end stop-loss, yet it continues. Marc Hall is a victim of that. His song is an expression of-of what it's like to feel robbed by the military, what it's like to be the victim of a backdoor draft. And he put that out there and subsequently told his unit that he wasn't going to abide by those orders to deploy to Iraq and that's when they took these measures against him. There's a clear, clear history of resistance within the units in the military history spreading and we in Iraq Veterans Against the War are convinced that the command recognized this and sought to remove Marc Hall using this rap song as an excuse before others in his unit could find out that he wasn't going to deploy and could do the same thing. I mean in recent history at Fort Hood, we have Victor Augusto who refused to deploy to Afghanistan and then, after he did that, other soldiers stood up. One, in fact, flat out refused as well and also was tried by the miltiary for it. This jailing of Marc Hall is clearly the military's attempt to shut down any resistance in this unit that could come from Marc Hall's courageous stance, not just in opposing stop-loss but in opposing the war."

Meanwhile David Zucchino (Los Angeles Times) reports on the issue of the burn pits:

The noxious smoke plumes that wafted over the military base in Balad, Iraq, alarmed Lt. Col. Michelle Franco. The stench from a huge burn pit clung to her clothing, skin and hair.
"I remember thinking: This doesn't look good, smell good or taste good," Franco said recently. "I knew it couldn't be good for anybody."
She wheezed and coughed constantly. When Franco returned to the U.S., she was diagnosed with reactive airway dysfunction syndrome. She is no longer able to serve as an Air Force nurse.
Other returning veterans have reported leukemia, lymphoma, congestive heart problems, neurological conditions, bronchitis, skin rashes and sleep disorders -- all of which they attribute to burn pits on dozens of U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Burn pits were used in Iraq and Afghanistan and are not safe. Everything is burned off in them including medicines. There are many people quoted in the article saying the military needs to step up but it's not just the military. Congress needs to. Zucchino notes that Carol Porter-Shea has introduced legislation in the House for a federal registry (as there is with Agent Orange). That's great. But there's similar legislation in the Senate. Evan Bayh introduced it last year. Since October, when he appeared before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, that legislation has been held up by the Committee which should have long ago released it for a floor vote.

The following community sites updated last night:

TV notes. NOW on PBS begins airing Friday on most PBS stations (check local listings):
From the raucous tea party rallies to the painful sacrifices families
are making behind closed doors, voter angst and anger are sweeping the
country like a storm. Directly in its path: the 2010 midterm elections.
On February 19 at 8:30 pm (check local listings), NOW examines the
strong impact this groundswell has already had on electoral politics,
and what we can expect in November. Our investigation uncovers what
motivates people who've come together under the tea party banner, and how a larger dissatisfaction among voters spells trouble for incumbents
in both parties, some of whom have decided to avert the storm by leaving Congress altogether.

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now on pbs

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