Sunday, August 12, 2012

Congress and Veterans


Dona: This is a Congress and Veterans discussion and we had e-mails asking if we planned on doing another since we went several weeks without doing one.  We had a fiction edition which wouldn't allow it and we had other things.  We'd hoped to do one last week it didn't happen.  We hope they'll be others before the end of the year but that will depend on whether there are  hearings of the Veterans Committees after they come back form break and after the November election.  Our e-mail address is  I'm moderating this dicussion with The Third Estate Sunday Review's Ava, C.I. of The Common Ills and The Third Estate Sunday Review,  Kat of Kat's Korner (of The Common Ills), Elaine of Like Maria Said Paz,  and Wally of The Daily Jot.  I want to start with Kat and "Camp Lejeune (justice finally)" which she wrote last week.  What's going on there?

Kat: From 1957 to 1987, hundreds of service members and their families were exposed to toxic and harmful water at Camp Lejeune. It is believed that one million people were exposed, at least one million people.  Some live with problems as a result.  Others, like Jerry Ensminger, died as a result.  She developed leukemia because of her exposure and she died at nine years old.  Her father, retired Master Sgt Jerry Ensminger was among those working all these years to get justice.   Monday, the  Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 was signed into law.  Within the Senate, Senator Richard Burr, Ranking Member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has championed the need for justice for these victims for some time.  In his statement, Burr thanked Jerry Ensminger and Mike Partain specifically in the statement he issued along with "all of the advocates who fought tirelessly to expose this issue and right the wrongs that were done this group of Americans."

Dona: Thank you, Kat.  Who is Mike Partain?  I wondered that as I read over Kat's entry.   This is C.I. from the October 8, 2009 snapshot when Partain appeared before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee:
Michael Partain's parents were stationed at Camp Lejeune.  His mother became pregnant there, he was born on base.  Camp Lejeune residents "were exposed to high levels of tetrachloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethylene (TC), dichloroethylene (DCE), benzene and vinyl chloride in the tap water provided to my family by the Marine Corps."  In his testimony, Partain discussed the song-and-dance and outright lies between 1981 through November December 198 and, "The misrepresentation did not end with the public and the media, it extended to the EPA. On November 1, 1985, there was a meeting at Camp Lejeune between base officials and EPA representatives.  During this meeting, base officials including Robert Alexander, told the EPA that the contamination had not reached the distribution plants.  Three years later, another base official, Assistant Chief of Staff Facilities, Col Thomas J. Dalzell was quoted in the media that prior to 1983: 'At that time, we were not aware of any of these particular compounds that might have been in the ground water and we have no information that anyone's health was in any danger at that time'."  Again, among the many health problems that Michael Partain faced as a result of his exposure to these chemicals was breast cancer.

Dona (Con't): So recognition has been long overdue and we join Kat in applauding Senator Richard Burr's long leadership on this issue.  Now I'm moving on to the joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Veterans Committee which C.I. reported on with  "Iraq snapshot"  and "Iraq snapshot" and Ava reported on with  "The joint Armed Service and House Veterans hearing (Ava)."  I think House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Jeff Miller summed up the hearing best by noting, "in 1961 John F. Kennedy said we'd put a man on the moon, eight years later, we were there.  We're talking about an integrated electronic health records by 2017.  Why could we put a man on the moon in eight years and we're not starting from ground zero on the electronic health record -- why is it taking so long?" Why is it taking so long, Ava and C.I.?  You were at the hearings, you've been at hearings for, what, six years, on this topic?

Ava:  Because every VA employee lies on this issue.  That's my opinion.  The people who testify only testify for X number of years.  They retire and the problem remains.  This is ridiculous.  It's all so damn sick.  I cannot imagine, for example, that you were UCLA and your admissions computer system didn't work properly and you would, each year, pour out money for a solution and, each year, see no slution.  If you were UCLA, you'd be screaming your head off.  But the VA officials don't give a damn.  If they did this would have been taken care of.

Dona: C.I.?

C.I.: I think a lot of Committee members would agree with Ava's opinion.   And certainly, in that hearing, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was ridiculously bragging about the fact that he and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had 17 months of discussions about what the new systems needs to do.  Not only has Congress already outlined that but the commission headed by Robert Dole and Donna Shalala, the Dole -Shalala Commission, was created to come up with the list of needs and they did come up with it.  Shinseki's bragging about wasting time.  Leon Panetta takes over as DoD Secretary in the summer of 2011, there was no need for 17 months of discussion. You do what you've been assigned.  Instead, they dicked around and veterans suffered.

Dona: I wanted to ask about that.  The way I'm seeing it, if anyone sees it differently say so, you attend the hearings, I don't, when Bush was in the Oval Office, he was supposed to ensure that his Secretary of the VA and his Secretary of Defense were working on this.  And then it became Barack's job when he became President Barack Obama.  So I carry it beyond the two departments.  Anyone feel differently?

Wally: No.  No, I think you're right.  I think Robert Gates was a failure as Secretary of Defense and part of that failure is this right here.  If he was unable to work with Shinseki and with James Peake before Shinseki, if he was unable to work with them he should have gone to Bush and then to Barack.  His failure to do so doesn't impress me.  But, yeah, Dona, the two departments are supposed to be working together on this issue and the person who oversees that officially would be the president.

Dona: Okay.  C.I., you reported on US House Rep. Loretta Sanchez in that hearing.  I found that interesting, could you summarize what her office was doing?

C.I.: Yeah.  Veterans she represents in her California district have contacted her office about a number of issues including that they're ready for surgery and they're scheduled but then they VA informs them that the surgeon didn't show up and the surgeries cancelled.  And this wasn't one time or five times.  This is repeatedly and she wants to know why that is, why the VA keeps scheduling surgeries and doctors aren't showing up.  In addition, once those surgeries are cancelled, it takes Loretta Sanchez's office calling the VA to get the surgeries rescheduled.  The veterans calling on their own are stonewalled and not helped.  Only when the person on the other end knows they're talking to Congresswoman Sanchez's office is the VA able to reschedule.  As she said it shouldn't take her office calling to get surgeries rescheduled.

Dona: Okay and we're still on the VA's failure to deliver on their promises.   July 18th, the House Oversight Committee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations held a hearing.  C.I. reported on it in  "Iraq snapshot" and "Iraq snapshot" and Elaine covered it in "San Francisco to DC to NYC ay-yi-yi."  Elaine, the Chair of the House Oversight Committee itself made an appearance.  Tell us about that. And bring in Allison Hickey.

Elaine: Sure. He declared, "It's unacceptable the federal government is doing nothing but continuing to promise what they promised before."  He was talking about the VA and, goodness knows, that could describe any number of problems with the VA.  He was focused on the claims processing,  So he made a statement about how there was no progress.  Allison Hickey is with the VA and she learned, among other things, that US House Rep. Bob Filner isn't the only member of Congress that will demand answers when she appears.  She thought she could stall and that's especially a problem in the House as Wally, Kat, Ava and C.I. have noted already in these Congress and Veterans roundtables, that's especially a problem in the House where each member is given less time for questioning.  Mainly, she wanted to use May figures in July when figures for June and figures for July thus far were available.  House member Jason Chaffetz and she got into a disagreement where she played dumb about the number he was using but, as C.I. established, Chaffetz was using a current number while she was using an out-of-date one. 

Dona: In the Senate, each members gets a longer amount of time for questioning.  C.I., Elaine talked about Hickey trying to run out the clock and that is a problem that gets noted every time here.  I really think this should be addressed by Congress, these witnesses who try to run out the clock.  I also think the big news from the hearing what was you wrote about several times that week, not just in the snapshots.  What came out of that hearing?

C.I.:  At a time when the entire federal government is allegedly short of funds so the people in this country supposedly have to make do for cuts, the VA has handed out $2.8 million to 245 senior executives.  Jason Chaffetz is actually the Chair of the Subcommittee and he brought up that issue.  Hickey refused to respond.  Oh, she offered words.  They made no sense.  And she attempted to eat up time and finally just took it for the record.

Dona: Meaning that she'd get back to him on that, outside of the session and away from the cameras and reporters.  Elaine, like I do, you read the snapshots so you were familiar with Allison Hickey but this was your first time seeing her testify.  What was your impression?

Elaine: She would benefit from learning to control her emotions in a hearing unless she means to fly off the handle so much in public.  She was loud, she was defensive, it was high drama when Hickey testified.  That may be who she is.  To be honest, I was less bothered by her -- maybe because I expect officials to stonewall Congress -- and more upset with certain Democrats who felt the need to tell you how wonderful Hickey was and how lucky they were to have her before them.  I believe she's a government official.  I believe we pay her salary.  I believe if she is asked to testify before Congress, she gets her ass down to the hearing.  I don't see any need to stroke her ego or sing her praises and I lost a lot of respect for the Democratic Party that some members used their time to praise her.  It was ridiculous.

Dona: Now, I remember C.I. reporting on this, Bob Filner called out a member of his party for doing just that at a hearing.  That was a June hearing.  Who was he calling out?

C.I.: Timothy Walz.

Dona: Right.  And Ava, you were at that hearing too.  What happened?

Ava: Hickey wasn't answering questions.  We were now going into the second round and some idiots -- including Walz -- were defending her and allowing her to defocus.  Walz went into this little sermon that can be summed up as, "You poor dear having to appear before this mean committee."  And Filner told him he didn't need that, that the Committee didn't need that.  That they needed answers and Hickey needed to start answering.  Elaine's point is so true.  There are people I have no respect for.

Dona: We are short on time because we are scrambling for time.  I'm going to wind down with Ava just expanding on that thought.  Ava, go.

Ava: If you're on the veterans committee in the House or Senate, the veterans better be your first priority.  Not who is in the White House.  Steve Buyer, for example, is a GOP-er to the core.  But when he was in Congress and Bush was in the Oval Office, Buyer didn't give a damn.  He didn't sit there and fawn over Bush's officials.  He wanted to know why the hell they weren't able to provide dignity to veterans who were buried in national cemeteries.  A good question.  By contrast, I'm in no mood for Timmy Boy Walz or that stammering idiot Corrinne Brown and her vast wig collection -- all of them bad and ill fitting -- using their time to make excuses for the VA because Barack's in the White House.  And then there's Hank Johnson who truly acts as if he showed up for work stoned.  During this time period, we attended a hearing where Hank Johnson rambled around, losing his thoughts, stopping suddenly, commenting on a noise that no one else heard, saying there it was again, again no one else heard it and just rambling on like he was stoned.  And that was how he chose to 'question' -- he didn't ask one damn question -- Secretary of the VA Eric Shinseki.  He had the VA Secretary before him and couldn't think of a single question.  So he spent his entire time listing Shinseki's resume.  And hearing noises.  It was embarrassing.

Dona: Alright on that note we'll conclude and this has been a rush transcript, but you knew that didn't you?
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