Thursday, September 23, 2010






"Today," declared US Senator Daniel Akaka this morning, "much of our focus will be on Vietnam veterans and Agent Orange. However, it is important to note that the same process is already in place with respect to presumptions related to the first Gulf War. And, as many know, we are just beginning to hear about the consequences of exposures to potential toxins in connection with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and exposures at miitary installations -- such as Camp Lejeune and the Astugi Naval Air Facility." Much, much earlier this morning, Mother Jones published Kate Sheppard's "Does KBR Have a Secret Get-out-of-Court-Free Card?" which opens:
After a group of Oregon National Guard troops sued KBR in 2009, claiming they'd been exposed to toxic chemicals at Iraq's Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Facility, an unusual deal between the military contractor and the Army came to light. Tucked inside its multibillion-dollar contract to rebuild the facility was a clause, the contents of which remain classified, that could shield the contractor from legal liability -- in essence, what could amount to a get-out-of-court-free card.
The deal raises questions about why the Army agreed to insulate KBR -- and how many other contractors might have similar agreements in place -- and for months, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has pressed the Pentagon for answers. On Thursday, he plans to introduce legislation that would require the Pentagon to inform Congress whenever indemnity agreements are made, which he hopes will effectively put an end to the kind of secret deal that KBR appears to have secured. "Our war contracting process does too little to ensure that contractors act with the best interests of our troops and taxpayers in mind, and we're going to change that," he says.
Today's hearing was on an important topic and it's one that never is out of the news for long. Senator Akaka is the Chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee and his office notes of today's hearing:


WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, held an oversight hearing today on the existing VA process for presuming service-connection for veterans' disabilities. Looking beyond the recent expansion of Agent Orange-related presumptions, witnesses and committee members discussed potential improvements to the process to be used in connection with possible exposures to future generations.

"By granting 'presumptions,' VA creates a blanket assumption of service-connection for a group of veterans, bypassing the standard process for disability claims. The process Congress set in place for Agent Orange presumptions serves as a precedent for Gulf War Illness. We have a responsibility to set up an appropriate process for potential toxic exposures from Iraq, Afghanistan, and on military bases where there may be environmental hazards. It is critical that the process for establishing presumptive disabilities is sound, science-based, and transparent," said Akaka.

The Committee's witnesses included Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and former-Secretary Anthony Principi, as well as medical and scientific experts.

More information about the hearing including statements, testimony and the webcast is available here:


Kawika Riley

Communications Director and Legislative Assistant

U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs

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

In opening remarks, Senator Patty Murray explained that she supported DoD and VA coming up with a registry to track and document the effects that various exposures cause. We're pointing that out because next month it will be one year since Senator Evan Bayh testified at a mark up hearing advocating for a registry to aid Iraq and Afghanistan wars. That proposal has not left the Comittee. It needs to, it needs to go to a floor vote although, honestly, as this late date and with money being what it is in elections, it's doubtful it could pass the full Senate.
Senatator Bernie Sanders: What we are talking about today is the ongoing costs of war. This is what war is about. And war is about more than bullets and guns and airplanes. War is about making sure that we care of the last veteran who served in that war and that we do that person justice. And if we don't want to do that, don't send them off to war. But if you make that decision that's the moral responsibility that we have.
Nice words and I don't doubt that Sanders means them. I also don't doubt that benefits are on the chopping block. Jordan Fabian (The Hill) reported at the start of the month, "Alan Simpson, the GOP co-chairman of President Obama's fiscal commission, on Tuesday questioned some disability benefits paid to veterans, saying they are 'not helping' the nation's debt crisis." That's the Catfood Commission (Ruth has credited Corrente's Lambert with coming up with that phrase). The Committee that Congress refused (rightly) to create so Barack did it without them. It plans to attack Social Security -- not at all surprising considering the make up of that Commission -- and it does aim to go after military benefits. May 19, 2010 the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing where a bit of reality started to show and Senator Scott Brown suddenly changed the topic and no one brought it back up. From that day's snapshot:
Senator Scott Brown: I'm wondering if you could just tell me what benefits might be at risk at this point and time? Any specific issues that we need to focus on that we're missing or falling through the cracks?

Thomas Pamperin: Benefits that are currently being delivered that might be taken away?

Senator Scott Brown: Right. Things that we -- that you're saying, "You know what? We got to keep our eye on this."

Thomas Pamperin: Uh - uh, we'd be glad to - to give you a more extensive response in - in the future. Uh . . . My - my concern is that the nation clearly --

Senator Scott Brown: Can I interrupt just for a second?
If you're thinking Brown wanted to explore the cuts Pamperin appeared to be anticipating, you're wrong. Here's what happened:
Senator Scott Brown: Can I interrupt just for a second? I may have kind of thrown that out there. I guess what I'm concerned with is making better use of current law, the things that we have in place that we may not be exhausting properly, we may not be getting the full benefit of.

In addition to the snapshot, Wally reported on it at Rebecca's site and you can also see Third Estate Sunday Review's "Scott Brown's so pretty."
The potential 'cost-cutting' measures were not discussed then although the witness appeared prepared and willing to do so. Today we heard US Senator Jim Webb babble on and, when he's insincere, his voice cracks. It was like the episode of The Brady Bunch where the kids are set to record a song but Peter's voice begins changing and won't stop cracking. As he used opening remarks to recount his entire resume at length -- everything but working the counter one night and giving a veteran a free milk shake -- that voice cracked and cracked. Why was that such a hard thing for him. "We have a duty," Webb insisted as he added coughs to his bag of tricks. And "this is not simply a cost item." Oh, now you may be getting why Webb was freaking out.
If not, join us as we drop back to the June 15, 2010 snapshot:
WAVY reports (link has text and video) that victims of Agent Orange (specifically Vietnam era veterans) could recieve addition beneifts for B-Cell Leukemia, Parkinson's disease and coronary heart disease. Could? A US Senator is objecting to the proposed changes by VA. Jim Webb has written VA Secretary Eric Shinseki that ". . . this single executive decision is estimated to cost a minimum of $42.2 billion over the next ten years. A regulatory action of this magnitude requires proper Congressional review and oversight." Besides, Webb wrote, "Heart disease is a common phenomenon regardless of potential exposure to Agent Orange." That is really embarrasing and especially embarrassing for the Democratic Party (Webb is a Democrat today, having converted from a Reagan Republican). It also goes a long way towards explaining Webb's refusal to get on board with Senator Evan Bayh's bill to create a national registry that would allow those Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans to be able to receive treatment for their exposures without having to jump through hoops repeatedly.
And if you doubted that Webb was about to try to pull out the axe on Vietnam veterans benefits, you had to only give him a few more seconds as he began bemoaning that the law was written one way (yes, he is a 'framers' intent' and 'original construction' type politician) and then expanded (to "dual presumptioms both based on very broad categorizations"). What are the expansions? It's been expanded to allow payments to Vietnam Veterans suffering from Parkinson's disease, ischemic heart disease and hairy cell leukemia. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is not someone we praise blindly here (to put it mildly) but the hearing was really about Shinseki's 'performance,' specifically with regards to expanding the categories -- based on medical and science evidence -- qualifying for payments.
There's a whole dance going on beneath the hearing that few will ever notice. If there was anything sadder than Webb's remarks it was Senator Jon Tester who felt the need to praise Webb "for asking some very tough questions." To watch some of the senators today was to be aware they appeared to think leukemia, heart disease and Parknson's is little more troubling than adult acne.
Senator Roland Burris was one of the most straightforward and it's too bad that the Democratic Party establishment loathed him because, as usual, when veterans needed an advocate on the Committee, Senator Burris could be counted on. "There's no price that we could put on what we can do with those veterans suffering from those chemicals that were sprayed throughout that country." "Budget shortfalls," Burris noted, were no excuse for not providing for veterans. Was it telling that Jon Tester walked out while Burris was making that statement? Maybe he was just needed elsewhere. Although that certainly doesn't explain the ugly glare visible on his face as he left, now does it?
In his opening remarks, Shinseki made it clear that it was "my decision" to expand the presumptions. (He varied from his written remarks -- starting with his first sentence which, as written, thanked Ranking Member Richard Burr who was not present and instead Shinseki thanked Johnny Isakson -- who wasn't present in the room at that time but did take part in the hearing.) Shinseki noted that VA was directed by the Agent Orange Act of 1991 to expand presumptions when any "positive association" could be determined.
Senator Mike Johanns wanted to know "how much of it [Agent Orange] was used in Vietnam?" Shinseki stated that "19 million gallons of Agent Orange was dispersed over Vietnam" ("according to our best records") and it was done via spraying from planes. (Jim Webb does not believe that much was used. He is pretty sure at least some was used, apparently approximately one heaping tablespoon but other than that . . .) Senator Sanders noted that the Vietnamese and their exposure was intentionally ignored and his belief was that a thorough study on the impact of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese was not done by the US government because the government wanted to have the default position of "We don't know" when confronted with veterans suffering from exposure to Agent Orange. (For those too young to have lived through it, the 1991 act on Agent Orange is the best example of how the US government repeatedly and consistently ignored the needs of veterans. And prior to the act being passed, there were years and years of veterans being told it was all in their head or they were faking or they really weren't sick.)
"I looked at these nine studies that you referred to in your testimony," Webb stated and then pretended to be qualified as to evaluate them. I wasn't aware that Webb had an MD. Maybe he's a WebMD?
Shinseki pointed out that "Congress had an opportunity to review my decision and decide to do its part" and obviously agreed. So what was the hearing for? It was a waste of time because Webb wanted to have a hissy. Please note, we never got a hearing by the Committee in trying to determine why fall 2009 tuition payments to veterans under the Post 9/11 GI Bill arrived as late as March and April 2010. That effected people's lives. That effected veterans' children. And there was no oversight, there was no hearing. But Webb and Tester wanted to pitch a fit. Tester being convinced that 'bad' veterans are hidden away somewhere who "pounds a couple of packs of cigarettes a day and a like amount of alcohol" to get extra monies from the government claiming heart disease. I'm not really sure what "a like amount of alcohol" is to a "couple of packs of cigarettes" -- one is liquid. Is Tester that stupid, really? And could he next hop on a scale since we're paying his medical bills as well since he serves in the US Congress and since, when he was in profile returning to his seat, he so closely resembled William Conrad. What are you pounding, Tester? And why are we paying for it? If you want to talk risk factors on veterans and claim that its your playground to do so because of tax payer monies, let me repeat, we the tax payers pay for your health care Jon Tester -- for the rest of your life. Maybe it's time we started imposing penalities on Congressional members with "risk factors"? Especially those who know they can't win an argument against Agent Orange exposure so they try to create this little side dialogue that's both meaningless and insulting.

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