Wednesday, September 21, 2011









"As many of you know," declared Senator Patty Murray today, "my father was a World War II disabled veteran who was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds he suffered during the invasion of Okinawa. I grew up watching his struggles with the knowledge that he had sacrificed for our nation and that he asked very little in return. Then later in my life -- during college -- I worked as an intern in the Seattle VA hospital, providing physical therapy to Vietnam veterans who came home with the visible and invisible wounds of war. Those personal experiences have given me not only a very real understanding of the consequences of sending our service members into combat, but also a sense of the obligation we have to care for them when they return." Murray was speaking this morning in DC at a joint-hearing held by the Senate and House's Veterans Affairs Committees. Murray is Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, US House Rep Jeff Miller is the Chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. The primary witness appearing before them was the American Legion's National Commander Fang Wong. Also appearing were the American Legion's Tim Tetz, Michael Helm, Verna Jones and Daniel Dellinger. Helm addressed proposed post office closings when asked (and Ava will be cover that Trina's site tonight).
Wong testified that the American Legion strongly opposes the recommendation that premiums for TRICARE be increased. He reminded that US President Barack Obama spoke to the American Legion last month at their 93rd Annual National Convention and swore "that the budget would not be balanced on the backs of veterans." Wong noted that this promise would be broken if TRICARE premiums were increased -- as the proposal Barack presented to the nation on Monday recommended -- for military retirees because "military retirees are veterans."
In an exchange with US House Rep Timothy Walz, Wong called out reports and reporters who referred to "medical and retirement benefits earned by military personnel as social welfare. I resent that. We're not here looking for handouts. We earned those rights and you folks should protect those rights." On employment, he noted that the government says 'Hire veterans, hire veterans!' to private industry; however, approximately 80% of all veterans who now work in the federal government work can be found in the Dept of Defense, the Dept of Veterans Affairs or Homeland Security.
US House Rep Silvestre Reyes noted the "tough budget times" the US is in "but like you [Wong], I feel we should take care of the veterans first and foremost" and he then noted he had "signed on" to a piece of legislation on veterans identification cards, a piece of legislation he felt had good intent, but now he's found out that "there's a proposal to charge the veteran for that identification card. I don't agree with that." Wong went with a joke instead of addressing the issue. He had many laughing out loud (proposing Congress mandate that all veterans join the American Legion). But maybe addressing the issue, even only in a "I personally think . . ." manner would have done a better job of representing veterans' interest?
From the hearing, we'll excerpt this section.
Senate Committee Chair Patty Murray: I really appreciate your attention and focus on the employment of our returning heroes and I know Chairman Miller and I are both working on this. I wanted to ask you, you mentioned mandatory TAP and of course seemless transition. Do you hear a lot from your membership about the lack of certifcations service members receive? That their resumes don't show the true breadth of their skills they have learned in the military?
Fang Wong: Madame Chairman, I was fortunate to serve on the Department of Labor Advisory Committee for a couple of years and at that particular period of time TAP was one of our major concerns. We actually conducted field trips by the committee members to various military installations to see how it worked. And what we find -- this is a couple of years back -- at that time was that TAPS really needs some standardization and repackaging because we find that depending on what installation and service that you attend, they - they do different things. The - the instructions presented were really outdated and the things that they stressed mostly, perhaps it's not really close to what the service member really needs. There were some service that required mandatory -- I believe the Marines Corps is the only service that requires mandatory training. A lot of the other posts? I went to Fort [. . ] the Army post and basically it's open, you should come; however, if you're not there, it's okay. That type of atmosphere. The committee I served with, we spent a lot of time studying that and we make a lot of recommendations to the Secretary and I guess to Congress that we should do something with TAP and get some standardization because we find out from a lot of success stories of service members that we have opportunity to interview and talk to that TAP, if used properly, actually helped them prepare. The thing about that is when we take in inductees and volunteers into the service now days, DoD and the government, we, the tax payers, spend millions and millions of dollars to train them to be a professional soldier. And when the time for them to change the uniform and go back to the civilian world, perhaps we're not spending nearly as [much] time or attention to prepare them back to the civilian world where they could seamlessly go back to a normal life. Of course, you know anybody that ever served in the service, especially those great men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, nothing will ever again be normal when they go back to their world. But we should do what we can to prepare them and make sure that they get the benefit. And a lot of time, with TAP, I beliee we were not providing the opportunity or providing the tools where they could easily equate what they performed, what they were trained in the military as to what's out there in the civilian world for them. And the civilians license and agency, the certification agency, they're throwing -- I'm not saying they're bad but they're throwing road blocks up there and saying that unless you are getting this piece of paper, you're not qualified. You know, when we -- when we entrust 18, 19, 20 year-old young men and woman that volunteer to serve for our freedom, we entrust them operating machines, planes, tanks that cost millions, million, millions dollar, how can we tell them that you're not qualifed? We have to understand one thing, when the government trained this particular individaul, he or she, to me, is the most disciplined, most learnable most qualified individual because one thing that we need to understand: They love this country. That's why they serve. And we owe it to them that we do everything we can to make sure they will have a good job, they will have a good career.
Senate Committee Chair Patty Murray: Thank you, I really appreciate that. I have a number of other questions but we have a lot of members here so I'm going to turn it over to Chairman Miller.
House Committee Chair Jeff Miller: If I could just follow on with the TAP issue, Friday I was the reviewing official at Paris Island, the end of 13 grueling weeks I'm sure for some young Marines, very grueling, right? It's my belief and I want to know if you share the same belief and you talked about TAP needign to be revamped and changed, 13 weeks to make a Marine or the other boot camps, I mean I don't -- I don't think that just having them in classroom for a day or two or however long the TAP program is enough. Do you think there's a way that we can convince DoD to give a substantial amount of time at the end of the service and I know that service member is focused on really one thing and that is reuniting with their family, getting on with their life. But this TAP program is so important to that individual to prepare them for that transition. And I'd like to know what you and the Legion think about the possibility of making it a not only mandatory but a longer program?
Fang Wong: Mr. Chairman, maybe we're talking about two separate issues here. We were looking at TAP. Tap basically, they were provided to members separating from the service. And most of the time it happens at an installation. And you're right, the members will go there for maybe a week and TAP is maybe part of that one week transistion, training or orientation. What we learned, again, I refer back to the administriaton or the committee, and what we learned in a lot of institutions, they will provide the TAP training a lot sooner anybody who wants can sign up for it as then that way they can get the basic information. And then, as they're getting close to the separation day or the retirement day, they will be reinvited back. By that time, they will have the time in between to learn or figure out what he really needs or what she really needs, and able to ask some more direct questions or recieve more direct help from the instructor. And that when we interviewed some of the recently separated members, they indicated that helps a lot whereas you cram in one day, half a day and the end and the service members have a lot more on their mind to worry about that they don't have time to sit down and allow that to sink in and realize how important in preparing the resume and preparing himself or herself to be interviewed and that may not be the top priority of them. So give them an opportunity to come back. And so we do it sooner and then give them the opportunity to come back, I think that would be more helpful. The other scenario I can see is like when we are moving soldiers back from the war zone, a lot of them, we let them go home real quick. And they may still have service obligation left, but we release them and there's different opinions about how do we separate them? We ask questions: Are you okay, do feel anything different? Things like that. And we have to bear in mind, when you're young, you serve and you're away from your loved ones for a long tif that is the only gate or opportunity that stands between you and your family, I'll bet 99% of the time, that soldier will say, "No, no, no. I just want to be with my family." And so I don't know how to fix it. I don't know whether we should keep them a little bit longer or make it mandatory but that is something we need to look forward to.
At the end of the hearing, Mark Begich used his time to note that Alaska has 77,000 veterans which he stated was the highest per capita of any state.
Turning to Iraq where there's a new president, Tareq al-Hashimi. Actually, Dar Addustour explains, the Sunni vice president is actually the acting president while President Jalal Talabani is in New York attending the United Nations General Assembly. Though the president may have (temporarily) changed, Nouri and Political Stalemate II remain the same.
Starting with Nouri and his petty nature, yesterday's snapshot noted that MP Sabah al-Saadi was denying there was an arrest warrant sworn out against him and he was stating that Nouri al-Maliki was targeting him, that Nouri was deliberately keeping the three security ministries vacant in an attempt to seize more power and that Nouri was willing "to sell Iraq to maintain his hold on power." The situation continues to develop. Al Rafidayn reports that the Parliament received an arrest warrant for al-Saadi yesterday and the charges are threatening national sovereignty and integrity." They also remind that al-Saadi previously lodged the accusation that Nouri had forced Judge Rahim al-Ugeily out as Chair of the Integrity Commission. These are not separate stories. Nouri filed a complaint against him for those charges. Making those charges, Nouri insists, threatened national sovereignty and integrity. Nouri is demanding that parliamentary immunity be lifted.
The story doesn't end there. al-Saadi held a press conference. Al Mada reports that the press conference revolved around a document which revealed a plan to kill a number of members of Parliament "including me personally" as well as journalists and tribal chiefs. Numerous people have received the document including the Ministry of the Interior and security officials in various provinces; however, no one informed al-Saadi of the threat against his life. Dar Addustour notes that any such vote on lifting al-Saadi's immunity has been pushed back to Monday. Among those criticizing Nouri's move? Moqtada al-Sadr. Aswat al-Iraq quotes al-Sadr stating that the warrant is part of "building a new dictatorship" and "we suggest to Premier Maliki to stop these moves for the Iraqi reputation, because political action is build on partnership, not demotion."