Monday, February 13, 2012

Veterans issues: Burn pits, suicides, PTSD, employment, homelessness

This morning at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, the first ever Burn Pit symposium is taking place. It will run all day at the Health Sciences Center, Level 3, Lecture Hall 5. Imagine, just for a second, what the symposium would be like if, instead of columns about parades, across the country last week, the same people writing those columns instead wrote of the symposium. And grasp for a minute that this wasn't an accident. People will always be drawn to writing about something as non-controversial as a parade as opposed to something as real the suffering some veterans and contractors face as a result of exposure to burn pits. One is about clapping and crowds, the other is about sickness and death. One's just a waste of time, the other's really important and life or death. One continues the war machine, the other demands that the government that sent people into these war zones foot the bill and provide care for those who were injured.

And that difference is why you're not going to see much coverage of the burn pit symposium in the media. And that includes the so-called 'independent' media. What's happened and what continues to happen to veterans, the needs that are not being met, they're not going to cover that. They can be shamed into a single article, if we're lucky. But it's an election year so for the 'independent' (Democratic Party organ) media like The Nation, et al, it's stick your fingers in your ears and say "La, la, la" -- can't cover reality in an election year. It might hurt Barack. Must not talk about it.

So don't expect independent media to lead on coverage of the symposium. Maybe we'll get two or three stories from major outlets. (Local most likely.) Maybe a column or two three weeks from now.

But calling for a parade? Oh, that's an easy one to write any day of the week, whether it's an election year or not. It's the easy thing to do.

Greg Jaffe (Washington Post) reports
on the family of Maj Jeff Hackett who took his own life in June 2010. Gen James Amos contacted attorney John Dowd to see if he could do anything about getting Hackett's widow and four sons some assistance since Hackett clearly had PTSD. Jaffe reports:

Almost two years later, the high-level intercession by the Marine commandant and the Washington lawyer has produced little from the federal government for Hackett's widow. The inability of Dowd to wrest any money from the Department of Veterans Affairs shows the limits of what the federal government can do for families of service members who kill themselves as a result of mental trauma.
Dowd and a team of nine lawyers have fought unsuccessfully for the past 18 months to persuade the VA and Prudential Financial, which administers a life insurance program for veterans, to pay a $400,000 claim to Danelle Hackett.

They took his monthly premiums, they admit he was under some 'stress,' they won't pay a dime. And yet they want to pretend that they're taking PTSD seriously? How do you take it seriously when you refuse to admit it exists if that means the government has to pay? You're not taking it seriously. And the message is being received. The Daytona Beach News-Journal reports:

Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who are living in Volusia and Flagler counties and may be struggling with post traumatic stress disorder are invited to a meeting next Monday about a free, new therapy being conducted by the University of Central Florida.
Project SPEAK, a suicide prevention program at UCF Daytona and Daytona State College, will host the meeting in collaboration with the Trauma Management Therapy Project at UCF. It will be at noon in the Daytona State/UCF Joint Use Facility (Building 140), Room 115, on Daytona State's campus at 1200 W. International Speedway Blvd., Daytona Beach.

Peggy McCarthy (The Day) reports
on another serious veterans issue: being homeless. Andy and Miriam Miranda live with their young son in a New Haven shelter. Andy's a veteran, they both have degrees and were teachers and their home was foreclosed during these economic hard times. McCarthy reports an emerging trend for homeless veterans is that it's no longer a single veteran but families. Connecticut saw 15 veterans family appealing for help via the homeless programs in 2008 but last year saw 135 families which mirrors what's happening on a national level (2010 saw "an 86 percent increase over 2009"). Patrick Clemens (The Tennessean) expects an increase in the number of homeless veterans, "Currently, Nashville/Davidson County has 600-700 homeless veterans. This number has remained constant for years, and the makeup of veterans also is little changed. Sixty-two percent of homeless veterans served in the Vietnam War era or previously. Very few of these homeless veterans served in the global war on terror. This is about to change. The number of veterans returning will be the largest since the end of the Vietnam War, and we will see a significant increase in the number of homeless veterans in Nashville/Davidson County."

The economy and the lack of jobs aren't going to decrease the number of homeless veterans (or the number of homeless persons period). Chris Earl (Gazette) reports on Sgt Matthew Macke who is 27-years-old and has been looking for a job for three months now:

Macke is one of 178,000 recent veterans looking for work, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. With January unemployment numbers declining nationally, the percentage of jobless service members from these wars also is down — 9.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, when it was 15.2 percent a year earlier. The national unemployment rate for all populations last month was 8.3 percent.

On the employment front, Robert Longley ( notes some very disturbing news:

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) says that instead of hiring veterans for jobs traditionally held be veterans such as caring for military cemeteries and processing benefit claims, the VA has been outsourcing the jobs to private contractors.
According to AFGE, many of the entry level jobs being outsourced by the VA are the very jobs veterans returning from combat deployment depend on to help them transition back into civilian life.
AFGE contends that the VA's outsourcing practices, which began and thrived during the George W. Bush Administration, continue and have become even more prevalent under the Obama Administration.

If you're new to that inability of the VA to hire veterans, that's disturbing. If you're not new to the topic, it's appalling. And the VA should consider themselves very lucky that US House Reps John Hall, Deborah Halvorson and Stephen Buyer are no longer in Congress because they were among the loudest and strongest voices calling out the VA's inability to hire. Dropping back to the September 24, 2009 snapshot for that day's US House Veterans Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs chaired by John Hall to note this exchange between then-US House Rep Deborah Halvorson and the VA's Acting Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, National Cemetery Administration Steve L. Muro regarding jobs, VA jobs, that weren't going to veterans.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: I'm really concerned with something that just came up with the fact of this outsourcing of jobs. Can you explain to me what's happening with outsourcing of our jobs? Are they truly being taken away from veterans and going to other companies and not our veterans?

Steve Muro: Well, let me explain what we've done. As we open new national cemeteries, we keep certain jobs in-house: the internments, the rep work. And we do the headstone and mowing, we contract that out. We have increased FTEE [Full Time Equivalent Employee] in our system, we're up to 1600. So we're doing in-house work and some contract -- same thing at some of our closed cemeteries where it is more difficult to get employment. The gentleman spoke about south Florida, it actually took us two years to fully staff that cemetery with-with veterans, those that were willing to apply. We had a high turnover there because of the cost of living. So in many areas, the cost of living has forced us to look at other ways to get the work done. But we still, each year we've increased our FTEE, all our new cemeteries open with approximately 15 FTEE to manage the cemetery so we are keeping the-the internment work in-house, we're keeping the rep work and all of the public affairs type work in-house. The mowing, the trimming and the setting of headstones, we do contract out.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: Well because we're doing everything in our power to create opportunities for veterans, I don't want to be embarrassed when I hear that veterans' cemeteries and groups like yourselves are going outside of our veterans groups. So --

Steve Muro: And those -- those that we're hiring are disabled veterans companies. We are hiring with disabled veterans companies.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: Because?

Steve Muro: So we are giving the work to veterans. We work with VBA [Veterans Business Association] to hire OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom], OAFs [Operation Afghanistan Freedom] instead of going through different training programs. Each network -- we have five networks throughout the system -- are required this year and last year to hire 5 OAF and OIFs. So we are hiring vets. You know, 70% of our employees are veterans.

US House Rep Deborah Halvorson: Okay, I just want to make sure that that's happening. I mean, as you know, we're doing everything to make sure that, because we're having more and more veterans come back, and I just want assurances that we're doing everything we can to make sure that we're hiring veterans, we're giving incentives to hiring veterans. I don't want to be talking about our Veterans Administration, of all people, aren't doing what -- We can talk all the time, but until we practice what we preach, you know, that's not doing us any good.

Steve Muro: And I understand that and we are.

That was 2009. The problem continues. Robert Longley reports it has gotten worse. This is appalling.

Related, Deborah Halvorson is running for Congress again. I'm not endorsing her -- if I endorse, I'm only endorsing in races I'm able to vote in. I'm in the 8th Congressional District in San Francisco, Halvorson is running in the 2nd Congressional District in Illinois. I don't know where she stands on every issue. I know she was a strong voice in VA hearings and I know she didn't impress me at all when she got to Congress but she improved and learned very quickly, so much so that she could have chaired hearings by the end. If you're interested in veterans issues and in that voting district, you should check out her campaign to see if she's someone you'd like to support. (I can grade her very strongly, very favorably on hearings but that's all I really know -- that and her voting record on veterans issues. I don't know how she is on other issues. If she's in your voting district, do your home work and see if she's worthy of your vote.)

On this week's Law and Disorder Radio -- a weekly hour long program that airs Monday mornings at 9:00 a.m. EST on WBAI and around the country throughout the week, hosted by attorneys Heidi Boghosian, Michael S. Smith and Michael Ratner (Center for Constitutional Rights) -- topics explored include an update on Mumia Abu-Jamal, Phyllis Bennis on the US government targeting Iran, and Nellie Hester Bailey evaluating the first three years of the Barack administration. She is also the host of Inside Housing on WHCR 90.3 FM Monday evenings from six to seven p.m. EST and the co-host of Black Agenda Radio with Glen Ford (airs each Monday at 4:00 pm EST on the Progressive Radio Network). And, on WBAI currently, through noon EST, you have Heidi Boghosian and Michael Smith live. It's fundraising time and they're anchoring the three hour block for Law and Disorder this morning. They've had call ins, played interviews and offered thoughts on Occupy Wall Street and more.

Naomi Wolf (Al Jazeera) notes Iraqi film maker Oday Rasheed and his latest film Qarantina which played at the Museum of Modern Art last month:

Now Rasheed reflects on his country's turn toward religious extremism: he describes a pre-invasion Iraq in which women were professionals and fairly emancipated, whereas now women wear headscarves under pressure, "for a peaceful life". His friend, a young Iraqi actress named Zahra Zubaidi, had to flee the Middle East after having played a rape victim in Brian de Palma's film Redacted; she has since emigrated to New York.
Constant intimidation by religious extremists and political factions is the intellectual's fate in Iraq today. And yet Rasheed refuses to be discreet: "Everything I believe, I believe in it," he says. "I cannot lie or not answer the questions."

The e-mail address for this site is

law and disorder radio
michael s. smith
heidi boghosian
michael ratner