Monday, November 12, 2012

Veterans issues and the failure of Shinseki

Veterans Day was yesterday officially.  Some areas did things on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and yesterday.  Some will have parades or ceremonies today.  Or as Jessica Gresko and Kevin McGill (AP) word it, "Saturday marked the first of what will be three days of Veterans Day commemorations across the United States."   Diana Marcum (Los Angeles Times) reports:

In the 11 years since the wars began in Iraq and Afghanistan, 725 service members from California have been killed.Many died young -- 41% were not yet 22. Sixty-three were still teenagers.
They were fun-loving singles. Forty-seven were engaged. They were married, leaving behind 307 wives and husbands. They had children -- 432 sons and daughters.

San Francisco held their parade yesterday.  The San Francisco Chronicle's Justin Berton offers text and Rashad Sisemore offers photos.  From Berton's text:

Iraq war veteran Tyson Reis, 28, walked in his first Veterans Day parade Sunday, and to his eyes, the sidewalks were filled.
"I've never seen this much support in one place," said Reis, a Marine who marched alongside his father, Tom Reis, 59, a retired Navy man. "It gets
to me. I look at this woman on the brink of tears" - he nodded at a woman who stood alone on a mostly empty Market Street waving an American flag - "and it reminds me of my mother. ... I'm loving this."

San Francisco's KGO provides video and notes 100 homeless veterans took part in the parade.  
Matthew Hay Brown (Baltimore Sun) speaks to young veterans of today's wars:

While most of the nation's young men served during World War II, and the United States maintained a draft that drew broadly from the country for the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, military service now is increasingly the province of a shrinking minority of Americans. The number who have been to war in the last decade amounts to less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.
"It's isolating," says Patrick Young, the coordinator of veterans services at Towson. "There's a disconnect between people serving in the military and the civilian populace that benefits from their service.
"It's not necessarily a bad thing," says Young, 29, a former Marine who deployed twice to Iraq. "It's just the reality. … Where in World War II you had a majority of people who had gone through some of the same experiences, or at least was forced to put their lives on hold for an effort that everybody thought was righteous, now you come back, and [some people] who haven't served assume you're crazy or think you have some sort of mental disorder."
Richard Tarlton, the student coordinator for the Vets2Vets program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says most civilians are "very, very kind."

Veterans of today's wars?  There are 1.8 million of them under the age of 35, Leigh Hornbeck (Albany Times Union) notes, including:

Marissa Strock joined the Army at 19, disenchanted with college and minimum-wage jobs. By 21, she was a double amputee, the victim of a roadside bomb in Iraq. Her outlook today is a mixture of sadness, anger and grit as she plans her wedding and a return to school.
Andy Davis saw friends die, then tried to fit in as a college student. His four years as an Army Ranger led him to a career as a veterans' advocate. The military spends years training warriors, he says, but only weeks teaching veterans how to return to civilian life.
Max Mincher joined the Marine Corps looking for adventure. Now, he's looking for more appreciation from the government that sent him to war.
And Chris Gray loved the order and discipline of the Marine Corps. After his tank was blown up, he underwent dozens of surgeries to fix his burned body. Now, he lives on his own while he contemplates what to do with the rest of his life.

Mincher's not the only one seeking more appreciation from the government.  Kathleen Miller (Bloomberg News) reports on Iraq War veteran Jeremy Barnhart who is attending college and gets his medical appointments via announcements delivered by FedEx and if the appointments conflict with his classes, there is no calling in to reschedule, he has to wait for another package to arrive with a new appointment:

“How many circles do I have to run in to get the care that I need?” said Barnhart, 39, who served as a medic and is studying to become a physician’s assistant. “It’s a powerless feeling to be in a system like this.”
President Barack Obama has pledged to serve veterans “as well as they’ve served us.” Yet to veterans like Barnhart the VA’s bureaucracy can bring more agony than reward. With as many as 1 million troops due to become veterans in the next five years, on top of the 22.3 million already in the system, the agency is staggering under backlogs in disability compensation claims, bottlenecks in mental health care and criticism over a general lack of accountability.

In the last four years, all VA can point to is an increased backlog in VA claims.  Despite all the money Congress has thrown at the problem, the backlog has only grown.  It is still growing.  If you're among the million or so veterans waiting for your claim to be properly adjudicated, you're aware of the delays.  If you've sat in Congressional hearings, you're aware of the delays.  But how much is the average person aware of?  Are they aware that not only has Congress increased the VA's budget year after year but they've offered money for new hires and the training of them but have been rebuffed on that in the last four years?  Are they aware that VA has stated it would take too long to train and pull claims adjusters away from making claims?

Probably not.  Like they aren't aware that, when Eric Shinseki took over as Secretary of the VA, he was told that the Post 9/11 GI Bill would not be able to make the college payments in a timely manner in the fall of  2009.  He knew it months ahead of time.  Neither he nor anyone else in the administration made Congress aware of the looming problem.  When the fall semester rolled around in 2009, veterans were planning on those checks.  They took out loans to cover tuition and books, they spent their own money, they did whatever they could to stay afloat and enrolled as they waited and waited on the checks that did not come.   October 14, 2009, he told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs:

Secretary Eric Shinseki: I'm looking at the certificates of eligibility uh being processed on 1 May and enrollments 6 July, checks having to flow through August. A very compressed timeframe. And in order to do that, we essentially began as I arrived in January, uh, putting together the plan -- reviewing the plan that was there and trying to validate it. I'll be frank, when I arrived, uh, there were a number of people telling me this was simply not executable. It wasn't going to happen. Three August was going to be here before we could have everything in place. Uh, to the credit of the folks in uh VA, I, uh, I consulted an outside consultant, brought in an independent view, same kind of assessment. 'Unless you do some big things here, this is not possible.' To the credit of the folks, the good folks in VBA, they took it on and they went at it hard. We hired 530 people to do this and had to train them. We had a manual system that was computer assisted. Not very helpful but that's what they inherited. And we realized in about May that the 530 were probably a little short so we went and hired 230 more people. So in excess of 700 people were trained to use the tools that were coming together even as certificates were being executed. Uhm, we were short on the assumption of how many people it would take.

Let's remember too what the VA did in real time: Blamed veterans.  The VA said the veterans filled out the wrong form or their schools did.  They stalled and stalled.  And even when Eric Shinseki spoke the truth finally in an open hearing, the press bent over backwards to avoid reporting it.  Some veterans were still waiting as December rolled around and the semester ended.  Some children of veterans did without Christmas as a result of the VA's refusal to get their act together.  The VA didn't suffer.  Christmas bonuses continued at the VA.  And all these years later, they still haven't fixed the damn problem.

At the start of last month, Katie Davis (NBC 10 -- link is text and video) reported that veterans at the Community College of Rhode Island still hadn't received their tuition payments and that "payments to CCRI and other schools are way behind schedule and there's no sign of many stipend checks."

I sat through those 2009 hearings.  By 2010, there were fewer and fewer questions.  The House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs FAILED veterans.  The problem never should have happened.  Eric Shinseki should have been called out for concealing the problem.  Instead the Committees worked to make sure it was just another thing declared in a public hearing that was never explored or the topic of a press release.  The VA swore this was a one time thing and by the next fall semester there would be no more problems.  And yet, three years later, the problems continue.

Where are the Congressional Veterans Affairs Committees?

Veterans Day is a day (several actually) for many to pretend to care.  But those who care actually do something.  Eric Shinseki has had four years to get the VA in order.  Instead, the backlog's increased, he's failed to inform Congress of known problems and he's failed to fix those problems despite insisting that he would.

Is his entire term a failure?

No.  And he has accomplishments.

But his failures are too significant and they are the sort that should result in dismissal.  And you can make it all about the implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Rights Bill if you want, you can ignore the other failures.

Veterans have suffered.  Their families have suffered.  It never should have happened.  But it did and only after it happened in the fall of 2009 did Congress get informed that Shinseki was told from the start there would be problems.  Shinseki and other VA officials told Congress this was a one-time thing and by next fall (fall 2010) there would be no problems.  There were problems, the same problems.  And now it's fall 2012 and the problems continue.

At what point is there accountability?

There's been none for four years.

In better news on Veterans Day . . .

ton Township's Mall at Partridge Creek was a good stopping point for veterans on the Sunday and Monday because the mall's California Pizza Kitchen was offering "a complimentary pizza and non-alcoholic beverage" for veterans and active duty military service members on those two days."


  California Pizza Kitchen  offers "a complimentary pizza and non-alcoholic beverage" for veterans and active duty military service members today.

On this week's Law and Disorder Radio,  an 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 addressed include the way Hurricane Sandy effects have not been fixed in New York, what the re-election of Barack Obama means for the Drone War and more, the Holy Land Case, a speech on Palestine from attorney Diana Buttu and Ray McGovern on Barack's kill lists.

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