Thursday, May 26, 2011. Chaos and violence continue, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Patty Murray explores issues of veterans care, Moqtada al-Sadr stages a for-show 'demonstration,' Ali al-Lami is gunned down, and more.
Monday is Memorial Day in the United States. Today Senator Patty Murray took to the Senate floor to speak on the topic and about veterans. Her office notes that the video of her remarks can be found here.
"M. President, I come to the floor today to honor and commemorate the men and women who died fighting for our great country.
"Memorial Day is a day to honor those American heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.
"It's because of their sacrifice that we can safely enjoy the freedoms our great country offers. And it is because of their unmatched commitment that America can remain a beacon for democracy and freedom throughout the world.
"M. President, Memorial Day is a day of remembrance, but also a day for reflection. When our brave men and women volunteered to protect our nation, we promised them that we would take care of them and their families when they return home.
"On this Memorial Day, we need to ask ourselves, are we doing enough for our nation's veterans?
"Making sure our veterans can find jobs when they come home is an area where we could do more.
"For too long, we have been investing billions of dollars training our young men and women to protect our nation, only to ignore them when they come home.
"For too long, we have patted them on the back and pushed them into the job market with no support. This is simply unacceptable, and it doesn't meet the promise we made to our servicemembers.
"M. President, our hands-off approach has left us with an unemployment rate of over 27% among young veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"That is over one in five of our nation's heroes who can't find a job to support their family, and who don't have an income to provide the stability that is so critical to their transition home.
"That's why earlier this month I introduced the Hiring Heroes Act of 2011, which was cosponsored by 17 senators and garnered bipartisan support.
"This legislation will rethink the way we support our men and women in uniform when they come home looking for jobs.
"I introduced this critical legislation because I've heard first-hand from so many veterans that we haven't done enough to provide them with the support they need to find work.
"I've heard from medics who return home from treating battlefield wounds who can't get certifications to be an EMT or to drive an ambulance. And I've even had veterans tell me that they no longer write that they're a veteran on their resume because they fear the stigma they believe employers attach to the invisible wounds of war.
"These stories are as heartbreaking as they are frustrating. But more than anything they're a reminder that we have to act now.
"M. President, my bill would allow our servicemembers to capitalize on their service.
"For the first time, it would require broad job skills training for everyone leaving the military as part of the military's Transition Assistance Program. Today, nearly one-third of those leaving the Army don't get this training.
"My bill would also require the Department of Labor to take a hard look at what military skills and training should be translatable into the civilian sector, and will work to make it simpler to get the licenses and certification our veterans need.
"All of these are real, substantial steps to put our veterans to work. All of them come at a pivotal time for our economic recovery and our veterans.
"M. President, I grew up with the Vietnam War, and I have dedicated much of my Senate career helping to care for the veterans we left behind at that time.
"The mistakes we made then have cost our nation and our veterans dearly. Today we risk repeating those mistakes.
"We can't let that happen again. Our nation's veterans are disciplined, team players who have proven they can deliver under pressure like no one else.
"M. President, let's not let another year, and another Memorial Day, go by without us delivering for them.
"Thank you. I yield the floor."
Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and begun near the end of the US Civil War in an attempt at healing the nation. It continues today to honor the sacrifices of those who serve.
Spc 4 Steven A. Bohn: I was born and raised in Salem, Massachusetts. I grew up poor and worked for everything I have. I dropped out of high school with 3 1/2 credits left to graduate so I could get a full time job and help support my family. I joined the Army in 2007 after learning that a friend of mine had been killed in Iraq by an IED blast. After infantry training, I was assigned to the historic 101st Airborne Division, 1/506th Infantry Regiment. My unit deployed to Afghanistan in March 2008 to a remote base in Wardak province near the Pakistan border. The base was the size of a soccer field and held 28 of us. Conditions were pretty basic; having no running water, for example, we cleaned ourselves with baby wipes, and got to shower once a month at a forward operating base. I enjoyed the challenge of our rugged conditions. We went on hundreds of missions while holding down our outpost. But I was devasted when my best friend, Specialist Paul Conlon, from Somerville, Mass., and our first lieutenant were killed in August 2008. Still I knew I had to stay strong to survive. I was badly injured on November 6, 2008, when a suicide bomber driving a dump truck packed with 2000 lbs of explosives drove up to our outpost and detonated it. The building I was in collapsed on me and I suffered severe internal injuries and spinal injuries. I was hospitalized for a total of 6 months, and underwent two major surgeries that included resection of the small intestine, bladder reconstructive surgery and a spinal surgery. I was also diagnosed at Landsthul, Germany with mild Traumatic Brain Injury. While I know your focus today is on the transition from DoD to VA, I experienced some rough tranistions long before my medical retirement from service. After being initially hospitalized at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and then at Landstuhl Germany, I was flown to Fort Campbell, Kentucky rather than to Walter Reed where I was supposed to be sent for surgery. At Fort Campbell, I was initially assigned to a Warrior Transition Unit (WTU). When I was finally evaluated there by physicians, they realized the mistake and I was transferred to Walter Reed. After undergoing spinal surgery at Walter Reed, I was transferred to the VA Boston Healthcare Systme's West Rosbury Campus' spinal cord injury unit so that I could be closer to my family during that convalescence. Whatever coordination should have taken place between Walter Reed, West Rosbury, and the Forst Campbell WTU to which I've been assigned apparently didn't occur, because Fort Campbell threatened to put me on AWOL if I didn't return. As a result, I was flown back to Fort Campbell. Later I was returned to Walter Reed to undergo bladder surgery.
Yesterday the Committee heard from two panels of witnessess. The first panel was composed of Afghanistan War veteran Steven A. Bohn (quoted from earlier), Iraq War veteran Tim Horton and the Wounded War Care Project's James R. Lorraine. The second panel was VA's Acting Deputy Chief Officer, Mental Health Services [. . .] Antonette Zeiss and DoD's Deputy Assistant Secretary Dr. George Taylor. Senator Patty Murray is Committee Chair. From her opening remarks, we'll note the following.
Committee Chair Patty Murray: I know that VA and DoD have big challenges facing them: servicemembers and veterans continue to take their own lives at an alarming rate, wait times for benefits continue to drag on for an average of a year or far more, and the quality of prosthetic care continues to be inconsistent between the Departments. Now, in some instances, DoD and VA have come to the table to make headway on these issues, and they should be commended for that. But we still have work to do. In fact, sometimes it is the simplest fixes that for some reason the two Departments cannot come together on. A good example of this is the Traumatic Extremity Injuries and Amputation Center of Excellence that was mandated to move forward on October 14th, 2008. This new center was supposed to be a place where best practices could be shared and a resitry of these injuries could begin. But here we are two and a half years later -- and we have not seen any substantial movement toward the creation of this center. When I asked Secretary Lynn last week what progress had been made he could not provide an answer. This is unacceptable. But as our witnesses' testimony today will show, this is unfortunately not the only area where we need better medical collaboration. We have a lot of work to do to ensure that each Department knows what the other is providing to our service members and veterans. [. . .] Today, we will also further discuss the efforts to exand and improve mental health care. We do not need the courts to tell us that much more can and should be done to relieve the invisble wouds of war. Although some steps have been taken, the stigma against mental health issues continue within the military and VA care is still often too difficult to access. This had had a tragic impact. Last month, VA's Veternas Crisis Line had the most calls ever recorded in a single month -- more than 14,000. That means that every day last month, more than 400 calls were received. While it is heartening to know that these calls for help are being answered, it is a sad sign of the desperation and difficulties our veterans face that there are so many in need of a lifeline. I look forward to speaking with all of our witnesses about this most pressing issue.
Richard Burr is the Committee's Ranking Member. He had many strong points -- not surprising, he usually does. As usual, Kat will cover Richard Burr at her site, so for his opening statement, his problem with DoD and other things see Kat's report tonight at her site.
Committee Chair Patty Murray: Let me just start by saying it has been four years since the news about Walter Reed broke. In that time, some of it has changed -- some of you have talked about. But I'd like to ask each of you what you think the most important thing the two departments should focus on improving over the next four years. Maybe, Mr. Lorraine, if you would like to start.
James Lorraine: Thank you, Madam Chairman. I think the most important thing is you have to know what you know. If you don't know it, you don't. So finding who the wounded warriors are, who the veterans are, identifying -- If you want to change something you have to know who the person is you need to engage with. Right now, I'm not confident we know where the veterans are, nor do we know where there needs are. I think it's represented by my two colleagues here. That would be the number one action I would take, is finding the --
Committee Chair Patty Murray: Do you think the issue is right now nobody reaches to them or waiting for the veterans to reach out too often?
James Lorraine: Yes, Madam Chairman. What I've found is that when you talk to different government programs and non-government programs, my first question is, "How do you find the veterans in need?" And, 100% of the answers are, 'They come to us.' And I think in today's world, that's not the way we should be reaching to them. We know where they are while they're on active duty. It's that move from active duty to veterans status where we lose them. And that should be tied in a little bit closer because, once you know where the folks are and you can maintain contact with them, then you can start providing services and offer assistance.
Committee Chair Patty Murray: Mr. Horton, Mr. Bohn. What do you think we should focus on? The two departments should focus on?
Lance Cpl Tim Horton: I would say that, Chairman Murray, that we should focus on, just like he was saying, finding the veterans. A lot of veterans get lost in the system when they move back. A lot of men and women are from small country towns and there's no one there that can reach them and that's the huge problem.
Committe Chair Patty Murray: Mr. Bohn?
Spc 4 Steven Bohn: Chairman Murray: My only problem was that they didn't pay for my family to come visit me while I was getting my surgeries. My family had to come down out of their own pocket. The first surgery, my spinal surgery. The second surgery, my family couldn't afford to come down so I went through my second surgery alone.
Committee Chair Patty Murray: How far away was your family?
Spc 4 Steven Bohn: Salem Massachusetts.
His first surgery (once he was back in the US) was his spinal surgery. I believe Bohn's second surgery was his bladder surgery. Both were performed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center -- at dates very far apart and Bohn was moved around repeatedly, including to Boston, between the two surgeries. The distance from Salem, MA to Walter Reed is a (physical) distance of at least 464 to 480 miles (at least) which would take eight to nine hours to drive (at least -- and that's assuming traffic is fastly moving the entire way). It would have been very easy to get the family to Boston Logan International Airport (it's about 20 minutes from Salem to Boston by car). Most Thursdays or Fridays, I fly the opposite way, from the DC area to Boston and it's a 90 minute to almost two hour flight depending upon which airport I depart from. (Generally speaking, Reagan National Airport is the quicker one to depart from.) It would have been so easy for this to have been arranged and it would have meant so much to Bohn or anyone else going through surgery to be able to see someone before surgery and know that they would be there after the surgery. It would be reassuring and it would certainly help with the care because the patient would be in a better mind set. But no one thought to take care of this. Major surgeries for a recently returned veteran and the government plays dumb. And pretends it's normal for an already disabled or physically challenged person to go through a major surgery all by themselves. As Senator Bernie Sanders would later note on this topic, "When people come back, they're in trauma already, we have to be aggressive about reaching out." Back to the exchange.
Committee Chair Patty Murray: I think many of us forget that it's not just the service member but it's their family who's involved when somebody's deployed and specifically when they're injured. And, Mr. Bohn, let me ask you to expand on that a little bit because families and loved ones go through stress at this time as well being family members. You mentioned the travel. Tell me a little bit else about difficulties your family had during treatment and share that with us.
Spc 4 Steven Bohn: Communication was a big thing also. They didn't know. They weren't contacted until about three hours after I woke up in intensive care to see how I was doing. I know they're sitting there back, when I was getting my surgery, just panicking. You know, it's a big communication error which -- that needs to be changed.
Committee Chair Patty Murray: Okay. Anything else that we should be focused on for families that -- Communication, travel, being with the wounded warrior?
Spc 4 Steven Bohn: (nodding) Exactly.
Committee Chair Patty Murray: Mr. Horton, I was particularly concerned to hear about your difficulties with your prosethic care. It sounds like you got high quality care but it wasn't timely or responsive and you shared a little bit about how it impacts your daily life. You said that, Tell me what you mean by that, if you have to wait months or weeks?
Lance Cpl Tim Horton: There's -- The process is you go into the VA -- You actually have to call the VA and set up, there's a certain day they have a prosethic clinic and you have to be seen by them first. And you tell them exactly what you need, whether it's a new socket or a new ankle on your leg or anything like that. And then they write this down. And then they make a script and they send it to your outside provider. And from there it could take a couple of months.
Commitee Chair Patty Murray: What are you experiencing in that time period? Is that pain? Is is difficult?
Lance Cpl Tim Horton: A socket that's not fitting right which, for an amputee, that's horrible. It's like -- A little rubbing spot on the amputee is like someone having their ankle broken like terribly. So it's a big deal to me. So the time in there, that's something that really needs to be addressed.
Committee Chair Patty Murray: And how long were you in this period where you had a problem and it took you to get care?
Lance Cpl Tim Horton: It's usually -- I mean, it's usually a couple of months between every time I go to the VA. Once I get the care, it's great but the time it takes to get a prosethic leg or new prosethic is too long. And I've talked to several veterans about this and they -- they would agree on that. If you have to go through the VA, it takes . . .
Committee Chair Patty Murray: So it's waiting for an appointment, is it waiting for a speciality? Is it waiting for the right person?
Lance Cpl Tim Horton: Waiting for a phone call basically. And a lot of times, I call my prosethics in the VA a couple of times and say, "Where's this script? I need to get in here and get a leg." So I have to advocate for myself a lot That's --
Committee Chair Patty Murray: That's not the way it should be.
Lance Cpl Tim Horton: No.
Commitee Chair Patty Murray: Okay. Mr Bohn, you're experience trying to make ends meet was really troubling to hear. I learned of another veteran recently, he's a Marine officer who's recuperating at Bethesda and is receiving a housing allowance at a Camp Leijune rate so Senator Burr knows what I'm talking about when I say it's $700 less and that's a huge impact for a family. In the case of that Marine, there was a military coordinator who went out and looked for non-profit resources to help make up the differences for that. But we should be very concerned that this system was unresponsive to a military coordinator. At the very least in this case, the military coordinator did take advantage of community resources but I found that story very troubling. I wanted to ask you, Mr. Bohn, if anybody helped assist you in trying to access similar community or non-profit resources?
Spc 4 Steven Bohn: The Wounded Warrior Project directed me to a company Impact Players out of Cincinnati, Ohio which mailed me a check to help pay the differences in my bills I couldn't pay. And the Wounded Warriors, they gave me food cards, gas cards, so I could make my appointments to the VA which is an hour away from where I live in Boston. So having no gas in your car, trying to get to a VA appointment, that's kind of a struggle on its own.
Committee Chair Patty Murray: And your family? What kind of family do you have that you're responsible for?
Spc 4 Steven Bohn: I'm single. But I live myself. But I try to help out my family. Like I said, I grew up poor so I try to help out my niece, my sister, my mom, my dad.
October 6, 2009, Secretary of the Army John McHugh took part in a ceremony to resign the Army Family Covenant that his predecssor, Peter Geren, had already signed. The ceremony got considerable press attention. McHugh served on the House Veterans Affairs Committee prior to becoming Secretary of the Army. On that Committee, he was vocal about his concerns and an advocate for veterans issues. It is doubtful he's suddenly lost interest. But somewhere, something's falling through the cracks. And there was a world of difference between the experiences the Committee heard yesterday and the 'facts' they were told last week. It would appear that both DoD and the VA have a serious problem grasping what is actually happening to veterans. It all the more underscores that Robert Gates, Secretry of Defense, did not have the time he made to advocate on behalf of the State Dept's budget wants. Instead, Gates should have focused on steering his department. Gates is now doing speeches and interviews and various reflections as he does a mini-farewell tour. It would be much smarter for him to just resign and allow the incoming Secretary to take over already. Translation, Cut the farewell tour, you've been celebrated and spit-shined enough and you've done far too little. We'll come back to the hearing tomorrow and not just to note the coverage of the hearing from Kat, Wally and Ava but also to include more from Tim Horton who got less attention in this snapshot. Still on veterans issues, a number of community members from military families have e-mailed to note that some Albertsons grocery stores may be having a 10% discount for military personnel -- ID required and must be active duty, reserve or retired. In Arizona that is the case and Billie states that's the case in Texas as well. So if you have a local Albertson's check with them to see if their store is participating -- not all may be participating -- in the special discount that's going on from today through May 31st. Yesterday's snapshot covered the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing and Ava reported on it last night in "Ron Paul (Ava)" (at Trina's site) focusing on As Ava noted, "US House Rep Ron Paul has declared he's running for the Republican nomination for president. Click here to visit his website. [. . .] We're not supporting Ron Paul or against him, but we will note him because he is currently the only candidate who is against the wars."
The big news out of Iraq today is an assassination that demostrates what Carly Simon sang in "One Man Woman" (Boys In The Trees), "In the place where I come from, the people don't grow on trees (Except some of the boys), and you can't treat people like meat without being brought to your knees." It's a lesson Ali al-Lami's death illustrates today. Ahmed Chalbi's friend or lackey used his position on the Justice and Accountability Commission -- a Commission the Parliament considered closed -- to weed out challengers to Nouri and Nouri's allies in the lead up to the 2010 national elections. He used that position to declare people -- including some who held office at the time -- Ba'athists and therefore not able to run for office. As intended, he clearly influenced the elections with his actions. At one point, US Vice President Joe Biden got involved to try to get the charges resolved before the election. That worked for about 48 hours before the candidates were again barred. From AFP's Prashant Rao's Tweets on the death:
JOSH ROGIN (Foreign Policy): Good to see you in person. Yesterday, General Odierno accused two Iraqi officials – let me read the names – Ali Faisal al-Lami and Ahmed Chalabi, who were both key members of the Accountability and Justice Commission, of being clearly influenced by Iran. I'm wondering if you agree with General Odierno's comments, and are you concerned with Iran's influence over this process concerning the candidates and the election in general?
AMBASSADOR HILL: Yeah, I absolutely agree with General Odierno on this. And absolutely, these gentlemen are affected by – are certainly under the influence of Iran. These were people, or in the case of Chalabi, he was named by the CPA administrator, Ambassador Bremer, back in '03 as the head of the de-Baathification Committee. It was a committee that went out of existence two years ago, replaced by the Accountability and Justice Committee. Everyone else understood that they – that that would – that their terms expired with the expiration of the committee, except for Mr. Chalabi, who assumed by himself the role of maintaining his – a position in a new committee to which he was never named.
From the Congressional Research Office's Kenneth Katzman's March 1st report entitled [PDF format warning] "Iraq: Politics, Elections, and Benchmarks," "The Justice and Accountability Commission is headed by Ali al-Lami, a Shiite who had been in U.S. military custody during 2005 - 2006 for alleged assistance to Iranian agents active in Iraq. He is perceived as answerable to or heavily influenced by Ahmad Chalabi, who had headed the De-Baathification Commission. Both are part of the Iraqi National Alliance slate and both are Shiites, leading many to believe that the disqualifications represented an attempt to exclude prominent Sunnis from the vote."
Violence swept Iraq today. Reuters notes Col Khalid Mohammad of the Ministry of Interior was shot dead in Baghdad, an attack on a Baghdad police checkpoint left two police officers injured, a Samarra roadside bombing claimed the lives of 3 police officers with another injured, 2 corpses were discovered in Mousl, 2 police officers were shot dead in the vehicle in Baghdad and the car was then torched, a Baghdad roadside bombing injured two pople, another Baghdad roadside bombing injured a police officer, 12 corpses were discovered in Basra, a Baghdad suicide bomber took his own life and that of 2 Iraqi soldiers (seven more soldiers injured) and, dropping back to last night, a Garma roadside bombing claimed the lives of 2 police officers.
The violence is real news. Fake news dominated the morning: The 'big' 'protest' staged by Moqtada al-Sadr. Reading reports by Tim Craig (Washington Post) and Mohammed Tawfeeq and Chelsea J. Carter (CNN) you could have been left with the impression that "tens of thousands" participated in the march. Sadr City, a slum of Baghdad that's remained a slum despite all of Moqtada al-Sadr's promises to the people there, is supposed to have 2.5 million residents. The march confined itself to Sadr City. Tens of thousands would not have been a good turn out in a city region with 2.5 million inhabitants. But tens of thousands did not turn out to protest. What happened was the Mahdi militia marched through Sadr City. This is Moqtada's goon squad that killed people, that ethnically cleansed and that stole property (homes and land) as well as raped and targeted gay males and males they thought were gay with kidnapping and murder. Nizar Latif (The National) quotes Izzat al Shabander ("a parliamentarian with the ruling National Alliance") stating, "It's an open challenge to the Iraqi armed forces, the Iraqi government and Iraqi democracy [. . .] What I saw at the parade brought Hizbollah immediately to mind. This is a serious challenge to the authorities. It was like there is no government."
The protest tells us that the US intelligence community, the British and the French (as well as two Arab states) were correct when they concluded that Moqtada al-Sadr's power in Iraq was slipping. At some point, Moqtada realized he wouldn't be able to turn out the necessary numbers to continue to fool his lovers and fans among the press corps so instead he sent his militia marching through Baghdad. It was a staged event that failed to impress (outside the press corps) leading Moqtada to grant an interview with BBC News ("rare interview") in an attempt to dominate the news cycle and, most likely, to shut out the rumors that he promised Nouri al-Maliki that he would stage no protests to note the end of the 100 days (June 7th).
"Tens of thousands" did not participate. They watched. Tim Craig serves up, "The Associated Press estimated at least 70,000 marchers and well-wishers crammed Sadr City, a predominately Shiite slum that was once a hotbed of violence against U.S troops." There is a huge difference between observer and participant. The march through Sadr City (confined to Sadr City) resulted in many inhabitants stepping outside their door to see the goon squad go by. AP's Qassim Abdul-Zahra reports that approximately 70,000 people came out of their homes to shout some form of "No to America!" Wow. That would be impressive if that was even half of the Sadr City population. 250,000 would be 10% of 2.5 million. 70,000 (a generous estimate and AP isn't qualified to estimate that crowd size, just FYI -- in Iraq, they're capable of estimating up to 3,000 fairly accurately -- after that it's just guessing or supplied to them by some official) is unimpressive. Again, the parade went right past their homes. All they had to do was step out on the front yard. About two-thirds chose not to step outside their front door. Moqtada also had a dismal showing last go round. April 23rd, he attempted to stage a protest. Do you remember what happened? "Hundreds" turned out in Baghdad. Sadr City, a slum in Baghdad, has a population of 2.5 million. And only "hundreds" turned out for the protest.
So this go round, as the prospective numbers became clear to him, Moqtada decided to turn it into a march by his goon squad. And to ramp up the numbers, they wouldn't go to Tahrir Square -- he'd already learned that anything requiring even a little mobility would reduce numbers -- they'd just parade around Sadr City so curious onlookers could be counted as "participants" in his staged event. AP quotes Mohammed Moyad stating . . . Well basically what the press quoted Haider al-Bahadili stating at one of Moqtada's other staged events. The AP tries to blur it and forgets to tell you that Moyad is Mehdi militia -- just like al-Bahadili was. Is that part of the training? Does the militia go through mock drills on how to schmooze the press? While the press focused on the faux protest, real ones took place today in Nassirya -- we'll cover that tomorrow and Wil S. Hylton (GQ) reporting on war resister Phil McDowell. This is so late because the snapshot was way too long and after I dictated it, I went to do the roundtable for the gina & krista round-robin. I wasn't aware it wasn't 'hitting' the site until after we finished the roundtable. My apologies.