Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day and Veterans Issues

Twenty miles left to the show
Hello, my old country, hello
Stars are just beginning to appear
And I have never, in my life before been here

And it's my heart, not me, who cannot drive
At which conclusion you arrived
Watching me sit here, bolt upright
And cry for no good reason at the Eastering sky

And the tilt of this strange nation,
And the will to remain for the duration
Waving the flag
Feeling it drag
-- "Good Intentions Paving Co.," Joanna Newsom (Have One On Me)

Today is Memorial Day. US Senator Kent Conrad notes:

For many of our soldiers returning from war, the battle does not end when they come home. All too many veterans today face Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms like anxiety, anger, and depression as they try to adjust to life after war. We cannot sweep these problems under the rug. PTSD is real. More must be done to educate veterans, families and communities about this illness and the resources and treatments available to them.
I recently learned about the efforts of North Dakota National Guardsmen to draw attention to PTSD and pay tribute to Staff Sgt. Joe Biel, their friend and fellow member of the 164th Engineer Combat Battalion. Biel suffered from PTSD and took his life in April 2007 after returning to North Dakota following his second tour in Iraq.
The efforts of Sgt. Biel's friends to raise awareness of PTSD inspired me to draft a Senate Resolution declaring June 27 National PTSD Awareness Day. This campaign is all about awareness, assuring our troops -- both past and present -- that it's okay to come forward and say they need help. They need to know that it's a real sign of strength, not weakness, to seek assistance.
I will present Sgt. Biel's friends from the 164th Combat Engineer Battalion with a copy of the Senate Resolution on Wednesday, June 2, at the Fargo VA Medical Center. If you are in the area, I encourage you to join me in this effort to raise public awareness about PTSD.
Again, the event will be held Wednesday, June 2, at 10:00 am at Fargo VA Medical Center, 2101 Elm Street North in the UND Atrium.
I hope you can join us.
United States Senate

Terry Gross notes Memorial Day by offering a repeat of a March interview with Military Times' Kelly Kennedy (Fresh Air, NPR
), Law & Disorder explores ongoing wars, Korea and military tribunals (in all news segments from Michael Ratner, Michael Smith and Heidi Boghosian), Amy Goodman uses the hour of Democracy Now! to offer Noam Chomsky explaining inequities and the last two can be listened to at the WBAI archives in addition to the show links.

Alright. There are two Congressional committees tasked with covering veterans' issues: the House Veterans Affairs Committee (Chair Bob Filner) and the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (Chair Daniel Akaka). Veterans' issues and service members' issues may come up with other committees (the House Armed Services Committee, for example) but those are the two committees tasked with addressing the issues. How good of a job are they doing?

A poor job is the response of those who participated in the surveys for this entry. 72% of the 5,003 respondents were veterans who live in rural communities and, as such, they'll get greater focus. An initial survey was sent out and then follow ups were done. "A poor job"?

84% selected that response (other choices were: Excellent, good and fair). Why poor? Repeatedly veterans cited the lack of information as to what the committees were doing. (Committees also includes subcommittees.) It was repeatedly noted that the press did not cover the hearings, it was repeatedly noted that CSpan did not air the hearings (surveys started in April). Visits to the committee websites did not offer sufficient information and forget committee members.

We cover the committee hearings (more on that near the end) in snapshots here. That includes noting more than the Chair and Ranking Member. Some comments made during the hearings led veterans to search out the Congress members' website hoping to find more that was said on the topic or a statement on the topic but that was rarely the case. The Republicans on both committees have their own webpages and those only got more complaints because when items (such as ranking member's statements) were posted, they were posted a week or two after the fact.

A rural veteran in Virginia summed up the selection of "poor" best when he stated that it was "a poor job because finding out what they're actually doing is so difficult. Maybe they're working overtime to help but you can't tell it by the websites."

Veterans repeatedly stated that it was difficult to track proposed legislation and expressed a desire for the committee websites to have a page devoted to proposed legislation, noting which had passed, which had been sent to the floor and which was still in committee.

Streaming issues were addressed at length. Repeating, CSpan is not broadcasting these hearings. Veterans around the country are attempting to follow with either live streams or archived streams. Specific problems and requests:

1) The Senate committee's method of streaming (live and archived) is preferred by 62% of those streaming (only 59% of all respondents had streamed a hearing). It's preferred because it streams on the page, no pop up viewer required. This is helpful to those with dial up. I have no idea why that is. Possibly a player that pops out requires more than their systems can handle but rural veterans -- with all systems and platforms -- preferred the Senate Veterans Affairs Committees streaming and all veterans with dial up internet preferred it.

2) Podcasting of hearings is not an option that currently is offered but its one that veterans would prefer. Reasons include better quality from podcasting than attempting to stream, able to catch (download) a podcast overnight and watch (with no streaming issues) the next day and the portability podcasts provide.

3) Those with streaming and/or hearing issues wondered why neither committee provides a written transcript. Many felt that no committee offers that. Wrong. The House Foreign Relations Committee (chaired by Howard Berman) offers a transcript. There's a delay in it posting -- sometimes two weeks, sometimes a month or longer -- but they offer it.

4) Veterans of the current wars participating in the survey feel that PTSD is an important issue but feel that other wounds -- hearing, blindness, loss of limb -- top three cited and in that order -- are not being addressed in committee hearings.

5) Biggest complaint from all veterans in the survey was the feeling that the VA's handling of the Post-9/11 GI Bill was largely swept aside by both committees. (Fall 2009 tuition and expense checks did not go out in a prompt manner, by December 2009 many veterans continued to wait and even as late as March 2010, a number were still waiting for their fall 2009 checks.) Repeating, this was with all veterans. Community member Eli, a Korean War veteran, explained that "the delay and the cover up [Shinseki knew by March 2009 that the huge delay would take place, he was informed of it and he confirmed it by hiring an outside contractor to research it] showed a complete disregard for veterans and then the Congress' refusal to get tough with the VA demonstrated that veterans' issues were not important even when they get press coverage and that issue actually got press coverage." Repeatedly, it was noted that there was no full committee hearing on this issue from either the House or the Senate. [Shinseki was scheduled to testify before the scandal broke and, after it broke, the hearing was held -- touching on the previous topic and, in passing, on the scandal. US House Rep Stephanie Herseth Sandlin chaired a subcommittee hearing on the issue. She and US House Rep John Boozman were the only members of Congress earning praise in the survey on this issue.]

6) Cancelations. People outside of the immediate DC area have to make plans to attend a hearing. That frequently includes travel which can be a hardship for anyone but especially if you have a physical disability. There was a feeling that meetings are canceled much too easily. Outside the survey, there was a subcomittee hearing on military sexual assault this month. Though not canceled, it was nothing but witnesses reading their opening statements. A female veteran had traveled by Greyhound to be at the hearing (not to testify). She could not believe that the hearing was being cut short so that a foreign president could speak to the Congress. Some cancelations are beyond the committees and that one was. But Congressional leadership and the White House better start thinking about what they're putting on hold when they want to pimp some dignatary. The Congress is supposed to be doing the people's business. If a foreign official wants to speak, there's a place for that: It's called the State Dept.

7) Family issues. 49% expressed the Congressional committees were not doing enough to cover family issues for veterans. Of that 49%, 83% felt that any studies of military families and problems they are facing should be conducted and overseen by non-military doctors.

8) The National Guard. Veterans of the current wars ranked this higher than family issues, that Guard issues were repeatedly ignored and that the Congress, quoting, "has not caught up to the reality that the Guard is serving overseas in combat."

Those were the major issues of those surveyed. The easiest to address is the issue of communication via the two Committee's websites. There is not enough information being provided which is why the committees were ranked "poor" by so many respondents.

Leaving the committees, issue number seven (family issues) also led to criticism of my coverage because I skipped out on a hearing on that topic (family members exposure to dangerous chemicals while living on base). I sat in on a different hearing because we'd covered that topic before and I felt the other hearing was more pertinent. I would say that I hugely misjudged pertinence there and was grossly mistaken. My apologies for that.

In terms of communication on what's being done, note this:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Kawika Riley (Veterans’ Affairs)

May 28, 2010 (202) 224-9126


WASHINGTON, D.C. –Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) introduced S. 3447, a bill to improve the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits program. Akaka introduced the bill yesterday to provide a starting point for discussion among Members of Congress, veterans service organizations, and concerned Americans who want to improve this important benefit program.

“The World War II GI Bill changed my life, and my generation,” said Akaka, one of three current senators who attended college on the original GI Bill. “Hundreds of thousands of troops and veterans are already using the new GI Bill to pursue their education. Now that we have seen the benefit in action, this new legislation can improve the existing framework. I look forward to working through a comprehensive legislative process to pass a good improvement bill,” said Akaka.

Senator Akaka chaired an oversight hearing on the implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill on April 21: LINK

Akaka cosponsored the Post-9/11 GI Bill of Rights Act and was a strong supporter of its passage in 2008. When former President Bush threatened to veto the bill, Akaka vowed that he would fight back. The bill was signed into law on June 30, 2008 and took effect last August.

To read Senator Akaka’s introductory remarks on the bill in the Congressional Record, click here: LINK


Kawika Riley

Communications Director

U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs

Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), Chairman

We've noted that already (on Saturday) and we'll also include it in Tuesday's snapshot (there's no snapshot today). I will try to do a better job of noting that. In addition, we often link to Veterans' Today but it is also now on the permalinks to the left.

The e-mail address for this site is