Thursday, August 5, 2010. Chaos and violence continue, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee considers bills and amendments, governmental proxy weigh in to note their distaste for WikiLeaks, military and veterans suicides continue at an alarming rate, and more.
Today in the US, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a mark up hearing on various bills. Senator Daniel Akaka is the Chair of the Committee, Senator Richard Burr is the Ranking Member of the minority party. Chair Akaka opened the hearing declaring, "Now that we have a quorum of nine, I invite a motion to proceed to the agenda items and according to tradition we'll vote on the agenda items and then as long as five members remain present including one member of the minority amendments will be in order." Senator Jay Rockefeller made the motion to proceed. After it was unamiously approved, Chair Akaka noted the importance of the process and that any amendments to the bills would result in his seeking additional input from all the stakeholders in the system. Ranking Member Richard Burr spoke out against the tuition stipend in the Post-9/11 GI Bill which some people find -- his terms" "unweildy, confusing and unpredictable." He didn't state it but there are some who find it unfair. (There are also some veterans who have no problem with it.) Kat will, as usual, cover a unique remark by Burr and he had one today so check her site. Ava's going to blog at Trina's site tonight to note Senator Scott Brown.
For an overview, we'll note that Chair Daniel Akaka's office issued the following release on the hearing today:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, chaired by Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), approved comprehensive legislation to help veterans find jobs, simplify and improve the Post-9/11 GI Bill, get disabled veterans accurate and timely compensation, and make various improvements to VA health care.
"We must never forget that the care and benefits veterans have earned is a cost of war, and must be treated as such. I am pleased with the bipartisan input that has produced these bills, and I will work with my colleagues to move them forward during this session of Congress," said Akaka. Chairman Akaka's full opening statement is available here.
The Committee approved the following bills:
S. 3234, Veteran Employment Assistance Act of 2010 (Committee Print, as amended). To improve employment, training, and placement services furnished to veterans, especially those serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, and for other purposes.
S. 3447, Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010 (Committee Print). To amend title 38, United States Code, to improve educational assistance for those who served in the Armed Forces after September 11, 2001, and for other purposes.
S. 3517, Claims Processing Improvement Act of 2010 (Committee Print, as amended). To amend title 38, United States Code, to improve the processing of claims for disability compensation filed with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and for other purposes.
S. 3325, Veterans Telehealth and other Care Improvements Act of 2010 (Committee Print, as amended). To improve the quality of health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, to increase access to health care and benefits provided by the Department, to authorize major medical facility construction projects of the Department, and for other purposes.
S. 3107, Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2010. To amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for an increase, effective December 1, 2010, in the rates of compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for the survivors of certain disabled veterans, and for other purposes.
S. 3609. A bill to extend the temporary authority for the performance of medical disability examinations by contract physicians for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
An original bill -- S. ____ (Committee Print, as amended). To amend title 38, United States Code, to improve Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance and Veterans' Group Life Insurance and to modify the provision of compensation and pension to surviving spouses of veterans in the months of the deaths of the veterans, and for other purposes.
The bills approved today will be reported to the full Senate for consideration. For a copy of today's agenda, testimony and webcast, visit veterans.senate.gov.
S. 3234, the Veterans Employment Assistance Act of 2010 had an amendment attached to it by Burr. Akaka noted he wasn't sure he could support it. Rockefeller noted his opposition to the Burris amendment and Senator Sherrod Brown introduced a new amendment on behalf of himself, Senators Patty Murray, Rockefeller, Bernie Sanders, Senator Roland Burris and Senator Arlen Specter regarding VA employees collective bargaining abilities. We'll note this portion of exchange.
Chair Daniel Akaka: Is there any objection to making this a separate bill?
Senator Jay Rockefeller: Mr. Chairman, when you say a separate bill, does that mean it would not be -- couldn't be accepted as an amendment?
Chair Daniel Akaka: Well I feel that this is an important question that you raise here. We're only trying to skip a procedural role call vote. What I'm asking is if we can agree to debate this amendment individually? And of course, you will have an opportunity to speak and propose an amendment to this.
Senator Jay Rockefeller: Mr. Chairman, I don't mean to be anymore obnoxious than I usually am, but I thought that's what mark-ups were for?
Chair Daniel Akaka: Yes, Senator Rockefeller. We would like to separate this so that we can handle it separately and not be --
Senator Sherrod Brown: Mr. Chairman, I understand Senator Rockefeller's at least partial reservation. I know he's a co-sponsor of the amendment. Does the stand-alone -- I understand the stand-alone would make its chances of becoming a law greater then if it's part of a bill that there may be some objections to pay-fors on the floor and all of that. There won't be -- I assume there won't be those kind of objections on this. I'll do whatever the Chairman wants.
Chair Daniel Akaka: Senator?
Senator Jon Tester: Chairman, I support it as an amendment or a stand-alone bill so I ask unamious consent to be added to it as a co-sponsor. Secondly, if it increases the possibility of passage as a stand-alone, I support that. If it increases the passage of an amendment, I would support that. So as a co-sponsor of the bill I will go with whatever expedites it the quickest.
Chair Daniel Akaka: Any other comments?
Senator Jay Rockefeller: Mr. Chairman --
Chair Daniel Akaka: Mr. Rockefeller.
Senator Jay Rockefeller: -- I would withdraw my comments. It is my understanding that this would make it easier to make it become law because of negotiations with the House.
Chair Daniel Akaka: Are there any objections to separating this bill? . . . So no objections, it will be separated. Let me further say that there is merit to this amendment of Senator Brown's I agree that employees should be allowed to grieve as has been mentioned over correct compensation to which they are entitled. So let me call on any further comments. Senator Burr?
Ranking Member Richard Burr: Mr. Chairman. Mr. Chairman, I understand the intent behind the amendment. But I'm worried that we are flying blind here without having the views of the administration and others on how this amendment might impact providing care to veterans. As you know, Title 38, employees can bargain over everything except matters concerning (1) the professional conduct or competence, (2) peer review or (3) employee compensation. Senator Brown's amendment would make all compensation matters except basic rates of pay open to collective bargaining. Here are my concerns. The law granting only certain collective bargaining rights to VA employees has not been amended in 20 years. Doing so without views and without an impact assessment concerns me greatly. In this Congress, and in the last Congress, we had bills proposing to expand collective bargaining rights, both the prior administration and the current one strongly objected arguing patient care would suffer. I understand your amendment is narrower in scope. But I'm still concerned that it would have unintended consequences on care. Here's a brief list of items under your amendment which would be open to collective bargaining: market pay, performace pay, premium pay, on-call pay, [. . .] special salary rates, requirement and retention and bonuses and nurse locality pay. Are we prepared to say that we understand how extending the ability to collective bargaining over these matters will effect operations of the VA health care system? What about the cost associated with doing this? What effect does this have on our veterans health care? Do we know any of the answers to those questions? Again, I truly believe we're legislating without all the facts. Therefore, I would urge my colleagues to oppose this amendment and to wait until we have an opportunity to have some of the answers to these questions.
Chair Daniel Akaka: Senator Brown, did you --
Senator Sherrod Brown: Yes. Let me give you an example of what -why this amendment matters. A nurse in Buffalo worked all weekend to deliver H1N1 vaccines to veterans. It wasn't her normal shift, she should have been entitled by contract to 25% additional pay. She had stepped forward for work that weekend because she wanted veterans to have access to flu shots and they worked during the week. She stepped forward to assist those workers on the weekend. On her paycheck, it didn't reflect the premium pay she was entitled to. She asked her union to help out but was told she couldn't grieve this issue through the union. Now that speaks pretty clearly that this is amendment is narrow and it doesn't make any changes -- It changes the compensation exclusion in the law. It doesn't make changes to the other two exclusions: peer review and direct patient care. It has no impact -- absolutely no impact -- on management's right to determine the best medical procedures or practices for the patient.
And it continued. And we're noting it because half the hearing was spent on this. Was there really a need, for example, for Akaka's motives to be questioned? Did anyone think the Chair was secretly plotting to torpedo the proposal? Part of the exchange was give-and-take, fine. Part of it was just time wasted.
A roll call vote was called with Senators Rockefeller, Murray, Bernie Sanders (by proxy), Brown, Jim Webb, (by proxy), Tester, Mark Begich, Burris, Arlen Specter (by proxy) and Chair Akaka voting yes; Burr, Johnny Iaskson, Roger Wicker (by proxy), Mike Johanns (by proxy), Scott Brown and Lindsey Graham (by proxy) voted no. In other words, the vote was strictly on party lines.
We'll come back to the topic of veterans in a moment. Switching to today's violence in Iraq . . .
Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) reports 3 people shot dead (eight more wounded) at a Baghdad currency exchange, a Wednesday night home invasion in which 1 police officer 'His wife and a guest" were shot dead, 1 police officer shot dead Wednesday night on the streets of Baghdad and an attack on a Mosul checkpoint today in which 1 assailant was killed. Reuters notes an attack on a Sahwa checkpoint in Thar-Thar which resulted in the death of 3 Sahwa (two more injured), a Yathrib attack on Sahwa in which three bodyguards for a Sahwa leader were wounded and one police officer wounded in a Kirkuk attack.
An Iraq War veteran remains a prisoner in Iraq. Danny Fitzsimons continues to await trial in Iraq. He served in the British military for eight years and was stationed in Afghanistan and Kosovo as well as Iraq. He returned to Iraq last fall as a British contractor, or mercenary, accused of being the shooter in a Sunday, August 9th Green Zone incident in which 1 British contractor, Paul McGuigan, and 1 Australian contractor, Darren Hoare, died and one Iraqi, Arkhan Madhi, was injured. PA quotes Danny stating, "I'm making a direct plea to Mr Cameron asking him, telling him that it's a disgrace that I'm here. I served nine years for Queen and Country and I served another five years serving big British business in Iraq, you know. So, in a way that's five years serving the country as well. [. . .] I should be in hospital in Britian, in a mental hospital getting the treatment that I need. You know, I shouldn't be in a dungeon in Baghdad. Worst case scenario is guilty and death by hanging. I don't want to die. I don't want to end it here." Chris Jones, Peter Devine and Sunday Mirror reporters (Manchester Evening News) quotes Danny's step-mother Liz Fitzsimons stating, "Eric is on anti-depressants because of the terrible conditions Danny is behind held in, and it has all been a very, very stressful situation with no end in sight. Danny feels like he has been abandoned by the military. Some of the people who have been held in Iraqi prisons, and whom we have spokenw ith, have said they would rather face the death penalty than serve a life sentence in those conditions. Mentally, it must be a very, very tough for Danny because he is not being allowed outside, not getting adequate food and water and he is sharing a cell with 17 others who don't speak English, and we are very concerned. He is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder."
"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," written by Joni Mitchell, first appears on her Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm
WLBT reports an Iraq War veteran claimed up a Vaiden, Mississippi water tower and the police, fire, sheriff's department talked him down after eight hours: "The mother of the war veteran says upon his return from service in Iraq, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia." At the end of last month, the Army released a report on suicides.
Elisabeth Bumiller (New York Times) reported, "At a time of record-high military suicides, commanders are ignoring the mental health problems of American soldiers and not winnowing out enough of those with records of substance abuse and crime, a United States Army report has concluded." The report was 234 pages of text entitled [PDF format warning] "ARMY: Health Promotion Risk Reduction Suicide Prevention REPORT 2010." And as July drew to a close, James Dao (New York Times -- link has text and video) reported on and from a Department of Veterans Affairs Suicide Prevention Hot Line (1-800-273-TALK) center where Melanie Poorman was speaking to an Iraq War veteran with a loaded gun, watching a movie that had triggered memories of the war, "Over here, Rebecca talked to a drunken man who was seeing people he had killed. Over there, Katie was on the line with a bipolar man having nightmares. Across the room, Virginia tried to calm a man who had refused to take his medications and was threatening to run headlong into traffic." The rate of suicides among military and veteran population has reached crisis status. The Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board noted this week, "Sometimes, the fallout of war on the warriors isn't known for a long time. That is not the case for some of the men and women who are fighting in the long wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. If they haven't yet captured the attention of the American public, the suicide rates in the U.S. Army have sounded alarms among veterans groups, as well among those, belatedly, in the active-duty military." "Today, Mark Walker (North County Times) reports the Marines have released their suicide date for the month of July and they've found seven attempted suicides and "six suspected" ones. Walker explains that the total number of confirmed suicides this year thus far is 28 (52 was the number last year for the Marines -- the number of suicides in the Army last year was 160). Jim Vines (Lake Country Sun) writes, "Consider the facts: earlier this spring, troubling data showed an average of 950 suicide attempts by veternas who are receiving some type of treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Seven percent of the attempts were successful, and 11 percent of those who didn't succeed on the first attempt tried again within nine months. There are about 18 veteran suicides a day and approximately five by vets receiving VA care." Iraq War veteran Sgt Daniel Cotnoir tells Yadira Betances (Eagle Tribune), "It has to do with the guilt factor, that you survived and your buddy didn't." Jacob G. Hornberger (MWC News) states of military suicides, "The most popular explanations are war stress and stress at home. I've got another possible cause: guilt, arising from the wrongful killing of other human beings." Vietnam veteran Julian Garcia (Register-Pajaronian) writes, "Many of our Vietnam brothers chose to take their own lives rather than endure the horrors they had seen or committed. [. . .] What we Americans are seeing is that our young people are not prepared to handle the mental challenges presented by continual exposure to combat with an enemy that you cannot see. Hundreds are choosing to end their lives rather than endure the horrors of war over and over again." Garcia goes on to advise:
For those veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, please don't do to yourselves what we Vietnam veterans did. You need to talk about your experiences. If you do not seek help through the Veterans Administration then come to the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in your city or town. There you will find veterans who can relate to you, someone who has been there and done that, yet found the inner strength to overcome and succeed in life. You are not alone. It is when you feel alone that you lose what is most precious -- yourself.
Deb Forter, Military Families Speak Out, 617-983-0710
Jose Vasquez, Iraq Veterans Against the War, 917-587-3334
As organizations, we represent veterans and military families. We have personally carried the burden of the war in Afghanistan, along with wars past. We are glad that the truth about the war is getting out to the public with the recent 92,000 documents on Wikileaks. Hopefully, this will inspire a massive outcry against this war that is wreaking so much destruction to our exhausted and demoralized troops and their families while draining our national coffers.
Obama administration officials are trying to spin events in their favor. Their words must be carefully examined. On the one hand, in an effort to downplay the significance of the release, we are told the documents contain no new information.
On the other hand, some high ranking members of the U.S. military are trying to: 1) intimidate anyone else from doing the same thing and 2) turn public opinion against whoever leaked the current documents. Towards those goals, we are told that grievous harm will surely come to many Afghans and U.S. military personnel -- if not now then certainly later.
A more damning statement could hardly be imagined than this one from Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "The truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family."
While we certainly do not wish to see one additional person put at risk in this tragic, wrongheaded war, we must state the following as clearly as we can.
As veterans and families with members in the military, we consider statements like Admiral Mullen's to be nothing more than calculated attempts to turn public attention away from the real problem – the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan that has already caused the deaths and injuries of many thousands of innocent people all the while millions of Americans are jobless and face foreclosure or eviction.
This suffering in Afghanistan and this bleeding at home will continue as long as our troops remain in that country. Congress must stop funding this war. We must bring our troops home now, take care of them properly when they return and pay to rebuild the damage we have caused to Afghanistan.
# # #
Veterans For Peace is a national organization in its 25th year, with military service members from WWII and every conflict and period since then.
Military Families Speak Out is an organization of people opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have relatives or loved ones who are currently in the military or who have served in the military since the fall of 2002.
Iraq Veterans Against the War is a national organization comprised of active duty, guard, and reserve troops and veterans who have served since 9/11. We call for immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, reparations to the people of those countries, and full benefits for returning service members.
As we reported last week, WikiLeaks is believed to be sitting on a vast archive of secret reports from U.S. forces in Iraq similar to the trove of 76,000 documents the site made public on July 25 -- but as much as three times larger. (The site has also reportedly withheld as many as 15,000 additional Afghanistan-related documents as potential security problems.) Army Pvt. Bradley Manning, who was arrested by military investigators earlier this year on charges of unauthorized downloading and disclosure of classified information, has been quoted on the techie blogs Threat Level and boingboing as referring to "a database of half a million events during the iraq war" in purported e-mail chatter. One person familiar with the Iraq cache claims that it shows U.S. forces' involvement in a "bloodbath" in that country, although some of the most controversial material may relate to alleged abusive treatment of detainees by Iraqi security forces, rather than by Americans. It is unclear who -- besides the site's Australian founder and frontman, Julian Assange -- might be involved in vetting the unreleased documents, but a source familiar with the material says more than one person is involved in the review.
Liberal Democrats have chimed in with their own proposals to target Wikileaks. According to a report Wednesday in the New York Times, two Senate Democrats, Charles Schumer of New York and Diane Feinstein of California, are drafting an amendment to the "media shield" legislation now being considered in Congress "to make clear that the bill's protections extend only to traditional news-gathering activities and not to web sites that serve as a conduit for the mass dissemination of secret documents." The bill was originally drafted in response to a series of cases in which reporters were jailed for refusing to disclose their sources to judges, prosecutors or plaintiffs in lawsuits. In order to avoid WikiLeaks taking advantage of such a shield law, Schumer and Feinstein want to specifically exclude whistleblower sites. The Times quoted Paul J. Boyle, senior vice president for public policy at the Newspaper Association of America, the industry trade group, endorsing such a policy, which would reserve this type of First Amendment protection for "traditional news organizations subject to American law and having editorial controls and experience in news judgment." In other words, such safeguards would be reserved to the corporate-controlled media, run by people loyal to the American ruling elite and the capitalist state. The major concern of those targeting WikiLeaks and Private Manning is that the leaks of internal government documents provide evidence to justify war crimes prosecution of US government officials, past and present. To save their own skins, they want to criminalize the exposure of these atrocities, rather than the atrocities themselves.
Meanwhile Jeffrey M. Jones (Gallup) reports on the latest Gallop poll which finds 50% of respondents believe things are going "well" in Iraq while 48% believe things are going "badly." The survey, conducted in July, has a margin of error of plus/minus 4%.