Tuesday, March 7, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, double bombings hit Tal Afar, over 50 Emo kids have been killed in the last weeks, Saddam Hussein's daughter rejects rumors flying around about her, US Senators call for US troops in Afghanistan to come home, the VFW outlines budget concerns to the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees, and more.
We'll always open with a serious call to bring US troops home. There is a bi-partisan effort in the Senate calling for US troops to come home from Afghanistan. Senator Patty Murray's office issued the following:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Murray Press Office (202) 224-2834 Wednesday, March 7, 2012
MURRAY JOINS BIPARTISAN CALL TO BRING TROOPS HOME FROM AFGHANISTAN
Twenty-Four Senators Tell President it's Time to Focus Nation-Building on American Jobs
(Washington, DC) -- Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee and member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, joined a bipartisan group of 24 Senators today in calling on the President to bring American combat forces home from Afghanistan. As the Senate considers the 2012 Highway Bill on the floor this week, the Senators pointed out that the total dollar amount spent in both Iraq and Afghanistan to date would provide enough funding to rebuild the American interstate highway system five times over.
"We simply cannot afford more years of elevated troop levels in Afghanistan. We are spending roughly $10 billion in Afghanistan each month at a time when we're making tough sacrifices at home. Your recent budget calls for $88 billion more for the war in Afghanistan in 2013. If this money is appropriated, we will have spent a total of $650 billion in Afghanistan. A majority of Americans worry that the costs of the war in Afghanistan will make it more difficult for the government to address the problems facing the United States at home. They're right," the Senators wrote.
In June 2011, Sen. Murray spoke on the Senate floor to discuss her views on the need for a sizable and sustained troop drawdown in Afghanistan, and to outline her concerns over the unseen human costs of war.
Led by Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), the letter also included: Patrick Leahy (D-VT); Jeff Bingaman (D-NM); Tom Harkin (D-IA); Barbara Mikulski (D-MD); Herb Kohl (D-WI); Ron Wyden (D-OR); Dick Durbin (D-IL); Chuck Schumer (D-NY); Maria Cantwell (D-WA); Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ); Bob Menendez (D-NJ); Ben Cardin (D-MD); Bernie Sanders (I-VT); Sherrod Brown (D-OH); Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI); Tom Udall (D-NM); Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY); Al Franken (D-MN); Joe Manchin (D-WV); Rand Paul (R-KY); and Mike Lee (R-UT).
Complete text of today's letter follows below:
March 7, 2012
The Honorable Barack Obama The White House 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama:
We write to express our support of a transition of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from a combat role to a training, advising and assistance role next year, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated was his intention on February 1st, 2012. Although we would prefer a more rapid reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the statement made by the Secretary is a positive step towards ending the decade long war.
It is time to bring our troops home from Afghanistan. The United States intervened in Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda's safe haven, remove the Taliban government that sheltered al Qaeda, and pursue those who planned the September 11th attacks on the United States. Thanks to the exceptional service and sacrifice made by the American Armed Forces and our allies, those objectives have largely been met. We should continue to confront America's enemies wherever they are through targeted counterterrorism operations and end the large scale counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan.
We simply cannot afford more years of elevated troop levels in Afghanistan. We are spending roughly $10 billion in Afghanistan each month at a time when we're making tough sacrifices at home. Your recent budget calls for $88 billion more for the war in Afghanistan in 2013. If this money is appropriated, we will have spent a total of $650 billion in Afghanistan. A majority of Americans worry that the costs of the war in Afghanistan will make it more difficult for the government to address the problems facing the United States at home. They're right.
Our troops and their families have made unimaginable sacrifices during the past ten years of war in Afghanistan. Over 1,900 American troops have been killed and over 14,300 have been wounded. Thousands more return home with invisible wounds that will make it difficult to ever again enjoy life the way they did before the war.
There is strong bipartisan support in Congress to change course in Afghanistan. The majority of Americans want a safe and orderly drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. In May, the U.S. House of Representatives nearly passed an amendment to the FY 2012 National Defense Authorization Act requiring a plan to accelerate the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan. A similar amendment introduced by Senators Merkley, Lee, T. Udall, and Paul was passed by the U. S. Senate on November 30th.
We look forward to reviewing the report required by Section 1221 of the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which will set benchmarks to evaluate progress toward the assumption by the Afghan government of lead responsibility for security in all areas of Afghanistan. In light of the comments made by Secretary Panetta on February 1st, we would also be interested in learning more about how quickly U.S. troops will be coming home, the number and purpose of troops that might remain in Afghanistan and for how long a period, and the costs and savings of accelerating the completion of combat operations. Nonetheless, we welcome his announcement and encourage you to take every possible step to end the large scale combat operations in Afghanistan and transition our effort to a targeted counterterrorism strategy.
Today the Veterans of Foreign Wars appeared before Congress in a joint-hearing of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chair is Patty Murray. Let's note this from her opening statements.
Chair Patty Murray: Last month, I set down with veterans from across my home state when we were out at home over recess and I heard from veterans who time and again couldn't get access to VA mental health care in a timely way, who weren't getting the type of treatment they need, talked to women veterans who told me about their ongoing struggles to get specialized care and time and time again from veterans who shared their stories about the claims system that just wasn't working, veterans told me about the obstacles to employment that they continued to face. Some told me that they're even afraid to write the word "veteran" on their job application, for fear that those who have not served will see them as damaged and unstable. We passed last year the Vow to Hire Heroes Act and I want to thank Chairman Miller and everyone for their work on that. It was a great first step in tackling the high rate of veteran unemployment but it was only that, a first step. We have to focus now on building partnerships with private companies -- large and small -- to make sure that they have the information and tools they need to hire and train our veterans. We need to take advantage of the great sea of good will across the country from those who want to do the right thing and hire a veteran and as part of that effort we also need to beat back the myth and disinformation about the invisible wounds of war. No matter the challenges on the battlefield, we owe it to our veterans to give them a fair shot as they look for work when they come home. That's why the litmus test for hiring veterans can't be fear or stigma of PTSD or mental health issues. Instead, it must simply be whether a veteran is qualified for the job at hand. So I will continue to highlight the tremendous skills and leadership and talent our veterans bring to the table and I will continue to work with employers across the country to make sure our veterans can find good paying jobs here at home. And while we focus on jobs we can't lose sight of our veterans who are heading back to school. Before veterans commit their GI Bill benefits, we need to make sure they have the right information to make the best choice about their education and the school they choose. I'm pleased to say that in the next couple of weeks, I'll be introducing a bill that targets how educational institutions are recruiting our veterans and make sure veterans are given a clear picture about an institution's track record with other veterans. But whether is education or jobs or mental health or claims system that isn't working, each of those challenges serves as a constant reminder of the important work ahead to fuffill our obligation to our nation's veterans.
Senator Richard Burr is the Ranking Member of the Senate Committee. The Ranking Member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee is US House Rep Bob Filner. The Chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee is US House Rep Jeff Miller and we'll note this from his opening statement.
Chair Jeff Miller: Sequestration is in fact probably one of the top issues out there and it could be dealt with pretty quickly. Unfortunately, I've been trying to work for eight months now to get some type of a resolution from the administration and I can't. I've asked the Secretary and I've written a letter to the president. We've asked for all types of folks to come forward and say whether or not sequestration does in fact apply. And I'm sure you've already heard about it while you're up here but there is a conflict in the law. The newest law that was passed basically says you are in fact exempt from sequestration but unfortunately right now there's some -- some discrephancy. So I filed a bill on the House side that basically says that veterans health care and veterans benefits are exempt from sequestration. It will clarify totally the problem for the future so we won't have to ever contend with this again. And I ask you, as you're making your visits on the Hill, to talk to your senators, talk to your members of Congress and certainly on the House side ask your folks to sponsor this one-and-a-half page piece of legislation. Around here, one-and-a-half pages is pretty rare, most of it is thick stuff. This is pretty easy and it basically says veteran dollars are exempt from sequestration.
The VFW was represented on the panel by Commander-in-Chief Richard DeNoyer, Executive Director Robert Wallace, Director of National Veterans Service William Bradshaw, Director of National Legislative Service Raymond Kelley and the Chair of the National Legislative Committee Louis C. Stifano.
DeNoyer noted in his opening remarks, "Americans will soon forget what these warriors and veterans have done for our great nation." I am of a different opinion: Americans will soon forget what the government has done to these men and women. DeNoyer is absolutely right that there is a time limit on national interest and it's already fading. The VFW is focusing on issues that their membership feels are important. Other veterans organizations should make sure that they are representing the needs their members rank most important.
For the VFW, DeNoyer explained that two of the big issues involve transitioning to civilian life which has to do with education and employment. (Wally's weighing on education tonight at Rebecca's site.) On unemployment, he gave these figures: Iraq and Afghanistan veterans unemployment rate in February 2012 was 13.1% ("compared to 7.7% among all veterans) and that "nearly a third of young veterans are unemployed, more than 20% of women veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are unemployed."
The other two concerns were medical. First, are the veterans getting the treatment they need? The VFW is concerned over the suicide rate and that more work needs to be done on providing assistance and on removing any stigma on asking for assistance. They are also concerned with the stigma that some people may be placing on veterans who suffer from PTSD or other wounds. That's a brief summary, Ava's going to cover those remarks at Trina's site tonight. That was the first part of the medical. The second concern of the medical for the VFW is the facilities themselves which are in need of repairs, in need of expansion and, in some cases, needing to be replaced.
We'll note this exchange between DeNoyer and Chair Patty Murray.
Chair Patty Murray: [. . .Y]ou mentioned about our newest student veterans needing to be able to get accurate information and have realistic expectations about the academic programs they choose so they can make their best choices about how to use their GI Bill benefits. As this Committee looks at this issue in the coming months, I want to ask you what are some of the key points that we should keep in mind as we look at this?
Richard DeNoyer: We need to provide veteran students with a clear understanding of what colleges offer and what their requirements are and what the requirements of the school are? It seems that many are using the GI Bill for the 21st Century and are not aware of their requirements before they get into school. They are not aware of graduation requirements, curriculum requirements and it would be our recommendation to have a centralized office that they could go to to get this information and that would be one of the solutions that we would encourage to do that.
Chair Patty Murray: Okay I appreciate that because I want to make sure --
Richard DeNoyer: That would help the state approving agencies also with their juridiction over colleges and so forth.
Chair Patty Murray: Okay. So they use their GI Benefit well since they can only use it once we want to be sure that they get good information.
Richard DeNoyer: That's right.
Chair Patty Murray: I appreciate that. I want to ask you -- and thank you for the VFW's really great work on the Independent Budget and for highlighting some of the major and minor construction for VA. As we talked about, the President's budget for construction is less than the Independent Budget recommendation. I know that you and I share the same concern about the VA's request. We need to take a hard look at the gap between the funding the VA needs to bring its facilities up to date and the funding that's now actually been requested by the department. In my home state of Washington, this is very important. We want a new pain clinic, a new spinal cord injury ward in Seattle, a new fire structure in Walla Walla. These are all critical infrastructure projects that are not going to get done for a great deal of time and I wanted to ask you if you could kind of share with the members of this Committee what this gap in funding will mean across the country?
Richard DeNoyer: Well access is the key to many of the facilities particularly those that provide speciality care. We're concerned the space, with the quality of the care and we believe that many of these are old and antiquated or maybe need to be renovated or even replaced. Safety is also an issue that we are concerned about to with some of these buildings. The seismic conditions. And, therefore, it nets down to access for specialty care and also safety.
Chair Patty Murray: Okay. Safety and access. Alright, I appreciate that. Commander, I really appreciated your comments about tasking the high rates of unemployment for returning veterans -- and for your leadership and work on this issue. This is something I care deeply about and I know we've got a lot of work ahead of us. As I talk to veterans and to employers, it has been really troubling to me to hear so many veterans who tell me directly that they don't write the word "veteran" on their resume when they apply for a job because of the fear that they have of the stigma attached to PTSD and mental health issues. I know we've got a lot of work ahead of us to address the misinformation about the invisible wounds of war but I wanted to ask today through your work on this, what strategies have you found to be most effective in fighting against the type of misinformation that many of our men and women are facing in terms of the invisible wounds of war.
Richard DeNoyer: Well first and foremost, Madam Chairman, we believe that today's military are the best educated, best qualified, best experienced individuals that America has ever fielded in an army. And they come home and they're completely qualified. They have skills that they could easily integrate into civilian society and the civilian workforce. Unfortunately, there seems to be a gap, a misunderstanding, between the skills that the military provides and the skills that they're looking for in civilian society. We believe that that could be easily resolved. The mental health issue, on the other hand, we propose a screening on mental health before the individual even goes into combat and a screening when they come back and periodic screenings afterwards. We also propose immediate care if needed -- mental health care -- as quickly as possible and only the pharmaceutical drugs used if absolutely necessary so that drug dependence doesn't result in that. And we feel that this would be -- hopefully, resolve these problems.
He was speaking of drug dependency and the need for care in prescribing drugs, a new study on PTSD finds that veterans are being overly medicated. The Universty of California, San Francisco (UCSF)'s Steve Tokar reports on the study conducted by UCSF and the San Francisco VA Medical Center which found that veterans being prescribed opiates for PTSD and/or pain are "more likely to receive higher dose prescriptions, two or more opiate prescriptions and concurrent prescriptions of sedative-hypnotics such as valium." And while that is serious all by itself, the study also found that "all veterans who were prescribed opiates were also at significantly higher risk of serious adverse clinical outcomes, such as drug and alcohol-related overdoses, suicide and violent injury, with the risk being most pronounced for veterans with PTSD." Dr. Karen Seal was the lead author of the study and Tokar notes:
Seal explained that previous studies have shown that patients with PTSD may experience physical pain more intensely because of either lowered pain thresholds or disruption of the production of endorphins – opiates secreted naturally in the brain and body. PTSD, an anxiety disorder, may be a cause, itself, she said. "The more anxious you are, the more likely you are to be attuned to pain symptoms, which in turn, make you more anxious, which makes the pain worse, so it becomes a vicious cycle." To break that cycle, Seal and her co-authors recommend that the VA continue to extend its current stepped approach to treating patients who have both pain and PTSD. "Fortunately," she said, "the elements of that approach are in place, or can be put in place, throughout the VA health care system." Seal said that those elements include Patient Aligned Care Teams (PACTs), which align primary care physicians with nurse care managers, mental health providers, pharmacists and social workers. "For patients presenting to primary care with pain, PACTs are important step in the direction of better care," she said. "Patients requiring more intensive treatment can 'step up' to multi-disciplinary specialty pain management and PTSD services that are available at most VA medical centers. And the VA is also a leader in providing evidence-based combined cognitive behavioral therapy for PTSD and pain. Finally, she said, the VA is "making strides" to implement pain management guidelines developed by the VA and the Department of Defense that discourage the overuse of opiate medications in favor of anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy, exercise, relaxation techniques and complementary alternative medicine such as acupuncture. "Even in remote VA clinics and isolated rural areas, many of these resources can be tapped through the use of video teleconferencing with pain experts at the medical centers, as well as online," said Seal. She recommended that veterans visit the VA site MyHealtheVet at www.myhealth.va.gov.
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Today, the Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations (O&I) held an oversight hearing to examine the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) construction contracting practices. The Subcommittee examined the proposed construction of the community based outpatient clinic in Savannah, Georgia as a case study of VA construction contracting practices nationwide.
"We have evidence of similar dubious practices taking place at other locations, and our intent is to have VA fix the problems and conduct necessary oversight at all of its construction sites," stated Rep. Bill Johnson (OH-6), Subcommittee Chairman of O&I.
Rep. Johnson noted that the Subcommittee brought these matters to VA's attention last year, but VA ignored them and continued their flawed process, "This Subcommittee contacted VA last year with several specific concerns about this site in Savannah with the hopes of helping VA conduct better business. The response was disheartening; despite the specific concerns cited, VA dismissed the Subcommittee's efforts to reach out and work together, instead giving a cursory response."
Johnson expressed further dissatisfaction with regard to the way VA worked through the acquisition process. "VA stumbled through [this] process, using an incomplete and careless appraisal process that according to many involved in commercial real estate lacks common sense. To veterans, taxpayers, and Congress, the resulting concern is that VA is failing to get the best value."
VA witnesses failed to adequately answer how their initial estimate of needs in Savannah had been so significantly miscalculated, and admitted to not being forthcoming to Congress about significant changes to the size and scope of construction projects. Based on its interpretation of a long-standing practice, VA has provided notice to Congress of large-scale changes only after new leases had been executed, prompting members of the Subcommittee to suggest changes were needed to improve transparency and oversight.
Construction delays, faulty contracting practices and cost overruns were other major failures discussed by the Subcommittee during today's hearing. Noting that these delays reach beyond contracting, Johnson stated that "veterans in need of services are the ones being harmed by delays, cost overruns, and failure to thoroughly analyze costs and benefits associated with every alternative."
We're pressed for space, I know. But that hearing was important and I don't know that even AP filed a report on it (usually you can count on AP if no one else for veterans hearings in Congress).
"New barbaric attacks started against the Iraqi LGBT in many cities like Baghdad and Basra while using inhumane methods such as hitting the head and body parts of gay victims with building concrete blocks repeatedly till death or by pushing them over high building roof which took place in Basra city. The actions of killings, torture, and dismembering against those who were described as "adulterous" by Islamic Shia militias, besides hanging lists on the walls of several sections in Al-Sadr city and in Al-Habibea region, had all terrorized the society at large and especially the Iraqi LGBT community, knowing that those attacks are directed against anyone suspected with gay practices or appearance.
"The first killings took place on the sixth of February 2012 and continued or rather escalated till the current days. One of the hanged lists in Al-Sadr city included the names and addresses of 33 person, while other lists included other tens of names in other areas. News confirmed that 42 gay men were tortured and killed so far, mostly by concrete blocks, while some by dismembering.
"The Islamic militias in Iraq believe that the religious family should consist of a male husband and a female wife, and is the cornerstone of building a pious Islamic society. Such an institution is handed to the males to rule and control. Under such an institution, they deny the right-to-life, or rather they command a death sentence against all who do not fit under the religious description of a family.
"Based on those rules, the campaigns of honor killings happen against women and LGBT under the same token. Just as women face honour killing as a result of extra marital affairs, the lesbians and the gays face the same destiny because of their sexual practices which do not relate to marriage.
"We call on all freedom-lovers of the world, the women's and human rights organization and governments in the advanced world to put pressure on the Iraqi government to provide protection to the lgbt in Iraq, and establish legislation for defending their right to life, and criminalizing all aggressions against them. We demand also a full enquiry into the groups and criminal behind the killing campaign and that they get full punishment from the legal and correctional system."
A recent wave of violence in Iraq has resulted in the kidnapping, torture, and killing of about 40 people perceived to be gay or lesbian, with the murder weapon sometimes being a concrete block to the head. The killings began in early February after an unidentified group put up posters with death threats against "adulterous individuals" in largely Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and Basra, reports the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The threats listed the targets' names and ages, and gave them four days to change their behavior or face divine retribution. Some of the murders have been carried out by smashing the victims' skulls with concrete blocks or pushing them off roofs of tall buildings, says a report from two other groups, the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq and Iraqi LGBT.
Evan Mulvihill (Queerty) notes, "Hillary Clinton made her landmark speech to the UN on the issue in December, and we have seen some commitment to activity in Ecuador and Honduras. But in the Middle East, we haven't seen any commitment to intervention --yet." Huffington Post covers the story here. No, the New York Times couldn't find the story. Did you really think that they would?
Receiving more attention is today's double bombing. Adn Kronos International notes a car blew up in Tal Afar and, "when a crowd of people gathered at the scene" after, a suicide bomber set off a second bombing. Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) observes, "The Tal Afar bombing followed a familiar pattern often associated with al Qaida in Iraq -- an explosion followed by another a few minutes later, after rescuers had arrived to assist the victims of the first bomb." Prensa Latina adds, "No organization attributed responsability for the attacks. The government and the police said the perpetrators were members of Al-Qaeda and said Taafalar is in a strategic area between the border with Syria and Mosul." Mohamad Ali Harissi (AFP) counts 14 dead in the bombings with fifteen more injured according to Tal Afar Mayor Abid al-Al Abbas.Earlier today, Nayla Razzouk and Khalid al-Ansary (Bloomberg News) report, "Iraqi Construction and Housing Minister Mohammad Saheb al-Darraji escaped unharmed when a car bomb exploded near his convoy in Baghdad today, injuring six of his bodyguards, the ministry said." Mohammed Tawfeeq (CNN) reports 1 person was killed and four were left injured and that al-Darraji "was not part of the motorcade" al-Darraji is a member of the Sadrist movement. Jamal al-Badrani (Reuters) notes a Baghdad minibus bombing claimed 2 lives. Sahar Issa (McClatchy Newspapers) notes 1 person died in a Haditha bombing and three other people were injured while a Garma roadside bombing claimed the life of 1 police officer and left two more injured. Many reports speculate that the attacks are intended to negatively impact the planned Arab Summit scheduled to start in Baghdad on Marcch 29th. The big news on the potential summit; however, is Hoshyar Zebari has announced United Nations Seretary-General Ban Ki-moon will attend. Actually, there's other big news but it's only Arabic outlets reporting so we'll assume no one in the US press reads Arabic? Is the alternative that US press is yet again lying to the American people? Al Mada reports on a move by the Baghdad-based government to get US forces to protect Iraqi air space for the Baghdad summit.
Instead of addressing security concerns, Nouri al-Maliki and his forces would rather go in search of mystics and monsters. Last month, for example, there was the 'big bust' in Baghdad of the "sorcerers" for practicing "voodooism" has not increased the safety in Iraq They also waste time chasing vampires. They call Emo kids that. Apparently, they believe Iraqi youth has been overtaken by a vampire outbreak. The oh-so-modern Baghdad brought to you by Nouri al-Maliki. Al Mada reports that Parliament is offended by the attacks on Iraq's Emo youth while at the same time they note that Emo is criminal behavior and goes against human rights. Ahmed Hussein (Al Mada) reports that Emo youth are considered aliens, other-worldly, are targeted for "liquidation" the same as Iraq's LGBT community. And they're confused with Satanists, vampires and more. It sort of reminds you of when the Twilight crowd comes to Southpark Elementary and the Emo kids are outraged to be considered Twighlight wannabes by the uninformed. Dar Addustour reports that 56 of Iraqi's Emo Youth have been killed. And please note, the security forces consider the Emo kids to be a top security priority. Are you starting to understand why the current government can't provide protection to the citizens of Iraq?
When not wasting their time obsessing over Emo kids, the security forces obsess of Raghad Saddam Hussein. Who? Saddam Hussein's daughter. Al Bawaba reports that she's issued a strong denial of the repeated rumors that, from Jordan, she's orchestrating an attempt to overthrow Nouri al-Maliki. Her response to the rumors includes the following:
Some press reports said I was in contact with senior military officers in Iraq and providing them with funding to toplle the current government. That is not true. How can I think of staging a coup against ag overnment supported by the military and protected by the most advanced intelligence and monitoring technologies? The time for coups is long gone and nobody does that nowadays. [. . .] Iraqis have enough on their plate. They are oppressed by a ruthless occupation and a tyrannical government, both supported by the military.
So they fear a woman in Jordan, they fear Emo kids and their own LGBT community. A lot of fear in Nouri al-Maliki's Iraq. The tone's set at the top.