Friday, March 07, 2014







John Rowan: [. . .] We have just recently in conjunction with the Veterans Legal Service Clinic at Yale Law School put out a report on the illegal personality and adjustment disorder discharges by the Coast Guard.  This is the tip of the iceberg of what's going on in the military with bad discharges.  I-I worked on a program 40 years ago dealing with Vietnam veterans with bad discharges.  Half-a-million people came out of the Vietnam era with a bad paper discharge -- most of them administrative nonsense.  We overturned many of them but unfortunately there's still many of them out there and we're concerned the same thing is happening again.  And as the military downsizes, it starts to throw people out, they're going to take any excuse to get people out the door.  And an unsuspecting 20-year-old who doesn't know they're signing their life away, is putting a noose around their neck for the rest of their lives, is susceptible to manipulation. 

John Rowan is the national president of Vietnam Veterans of America.  He was speaking this morning at the joint House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committtee hearing.  Also appearing to offer testimony was National Guard Association of the US's Peter Duffy, the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs' Clyde Marsh, Jewish War Veterans' Robert E. Pickard, AMVETS' John Mitchell, Militatry Order of the Purple Heart's Ron Siebels, Retired Enlisted Association's Rick Delaney, Military Officers Association of America's Robert F. Norton and Blinded Veterans Association's Mark Cornell.

Last week, February 25th, the two Committee held a joint hearing as well.  Many members were absent from that hearing.

Acting Senate Chair Richard Blumenthal:  He [Senator Bernie Sanders] could not be here today because, indeed, he is helping to  manage the bill, the comprehensive bill that's under consideration this week before the United States Senate and indeed, I may have to leave early, I will have to leave early to assist him in that effort. 

The comprehensive bill was S.1982 "The Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014."  And it failed to pass the Senate.

This morning, one of the witnesses raised that failure.

Ron Siebels: Congress has proved that it has the wisdom and compassion to accomplish great things.  But for some reason, the wall between the parties often hinders progress.  The military's success is achieved because the different branches work together and never let each other down.  That's one of the reasons the military is well respected.  We believe Congress can dramatically upgrade  its own public image cordial compromise instead of carving party lines in the sand. We thank Senator Sanders and every co-sponsor of Senate bill 1982.  We think that well constructed legislation would have resolved many of the issues you're being confronted with now. We fully understand there are costs and balances  so Congress can meet their promise to veterans. With that in mind, I offer my personal suggestions.  I would get a portion of it from bonuses paid to under performing VA executives who have not reduced the lingering backlog of VA claims.  I'd get some of it from the rapidly expanding social benefits VA paid to people who have never contributed anything to anyone in America.  

I want to note an exchange from the hearing.

Senator Mark Begich: On women's veterans' issues, this is a continued, growing opportunity in a way -- and I say in a positive way -- women are joining the military in greater number than before but more veterans are coming into the system and because of that there's more requirements and more issues we should be focused on.  Can you each tell me -- and, Ron, I'll ask you and then I'll go to Col Norton specifically -- what are those one or two things that you think that we could be doing better specially around women veterans.  Ron, I know introduced me to a woman that's running your efforts within the [Militatry Order of the] Purple Heart which I think is fantastic and I give you a lot of credit for that.  So could you give me a little thought there.

Ron Siebels: Yes, Senator.  Obviously MST [Military Sexual Trauma] is a big issue. The other thing is homelessness.  The fastest growing segment is women veterans.  I talk to a lady not long ago.  She's living out of a car.  She's a single mom, two kids, living out of a car.  She needs help.  She can't even afford to go to a hospital with a sick kid, can't even get her kids registered for school.  Those women need some help.  And I don't know all the answers but that's why I applaud the VSOs and staff who are bringing women's veterans issues to the forefront.  Women are veterans too and they're serving this country very well.  And most of the women when they get out of the service, the first thing they look at is taking care of their kids, taking care of their families.  Guys like us, we want to get back with the guys, we want to get back into the groove.  Well women look at those things a little different.  They've veterans too, they're just like us but they do have some separate issues so I don't really have the answers but I think those answers lie within people like Wendy Buckingham who I appointed our National Women's Director and Wendy's here today and if you ever want a chance to meet a lady that's doing a terrific job for  veterans spend some time with Wendy Buckingham sitting here behind me.  She's doing a fantastic job, I'm so proud of her.  But we need more people like that to get involved, people that care, people that know what they're doing.  And if we do that, I think we'll extract the answers you're looking for, Senator.  I don't know if I've answered your question but hopefully I have.

Senator Mark Begich:  No, that's good, Ron.  Let me also say, Col Norton, before you comment, I know when you, in your commentary, you made a note and I wanted to restate it because I know the Chairman's here now, thank you for your comment on Chained CPI.  I too, like the Chairman [Bernie Sanders], don't believe we should be messing with Chained CPI, it should not be part of the equation when it comes to our Social Security, veterans benefits, I think it really does a disservice -- long term, what it does is take away benefits, pure and simple, so thank you for those that mentioned it.  But on the women's issues, you had mentioned in your testimony and I just wanted to tap on that for a second if I could.

Robert F. Norton:  Yes, Senator, thank you.  I would say first of all it is a cultural issue to begin with overall in the VA system.  As you know, it's largely a male dominated enterprise, if you will, at this point.  The VA needs to be more welcoming and more responsive to the unique needs of women veterans.  For example, I know Senator Sanders will probably mention the great initiative in his state  where they opened up a separate entrance for women veterans at the hospital in Vermont.  Unemployment is a huge issue.  Higher unemployment among female veterans than among male veterans -- that is a big issue.  Especially because, as Mr. Siebels mentioned, a lot of women veterans are single parents and so they have that additional complication.  Thirdly, of course, is the alarming number of women veterans -- as well as male veterans -- who have been sexually assaulted in military service.  So counseling, medical intervention, pyschiatric, psychological, social work support for our women veterans in the VA is very important.  That's a provision in a bill that's sponsored out of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee as you know, thank you.

I'm noting the exchange for a reason.  This was a solid hearing.  So was last week's joint-hearing.

That's not been the case.

The joint-hearings from VSOs are the VSO making a presentation which is prepared remarks (submitted in writing ahead of time) that they read out loud.  Some statements can go on for 30 minutes.

I get, I've been at these hearings for 8 years now, I get that you can just want to leave.

And in the past, that's what's really happened.  Credit to House Chair Jeff Miller and Ranking Member Mike Michaud and Senate Chair Bernie Sanders and Ranking Member Richard Burr as well as everyone on the two committees.  They have changed the rush to say, "Thanks for coming!  You know where the exits are!"

Instead, last week's joint hearing and this week's has made a point to use this opportunity to ask the witnesses specific questions.

I don't consider this minor.

I'm already ticked off that the United Nations Security Council takes regular reports on Iraq without ever asking one single question.  It's a waste of time.  Stop holding the hearings, stop having people fly in to testify, just post online the written statements they plan to read.

Good for the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees for using this opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.  It's not minor and I say thank you and, last week, I spoke to three veterans at the joint-hearing who were also happy that the members of the Committee had questions following the presentations.  It' not a minor thing and praise to the leadership of both Committees for this change.

We're not done with today's hearing.

John Rowan:  One, we support Senator Gillibrand in her efforts to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act and we hope the Senate votes on that this afternoon. 

That's from Rowan's opening remarks.  Last week, an important bill was killed in the Senate, as we already noted above.  Today, it repeated.  The important bill Rowan spoke of did not pass.

Tom Brune (Newsday) reports, "Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's bill to fundamentally revamp the military justice system for sexual assault victims hit a wall Thursday when it failed to advance in a procedural vote.  An unusually bipartisan majority in the Senate voted 55-45 to break a filibuster of her bill, but that fell short of the 60 votes needed to clear it for a final vote. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) lost two co-sponsors and couldn't win over undecided senators."  Donna Cassata (AP) points out, "Conservative Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky backed her effort, while the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, opposed the measure."

Stacy Kaper (National Journal) reports:

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand blamed the White House's lack of support for the failure of her sexual-assault bill in the Senate on Thursday, and she vowed to keep fighting to reform the military justice system.
"I made my greatest case, I advocated for this position, this reform, and the president has been very clear: He wants to end sexual assault in the military, he wants it to be further studied, and he wants to see progress and whether it's been accomplished in the next year," the New York Democrat said at a press conference after her bill went down.
When asked if she would have succeeded if President Obama had pushed for her bill and whether she was disappointed by the White House's lack of support, she quickly answered, "Yes, yes."

Senator Gillibrand's office issued the following statement after the vote:

March 6, 2014

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand delivered the following remarks Thursday following the vote on the bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act, which despite having the support of a bipartisan majority of the Senate, fell five votes shy of breaking a filibuster.

Senator Gillibrand’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

I want to first thank my colleagues who stood so strong and united in this effort from the very beginning. Your leadership truly made the difference to gain the support of a majority of the Senate.

From the very beginning – this was never about being a Democratic idea or a Republican idea. It was just the right thing to do – that people of good faith from both parties could unite around.

And I want to thank the retired Generals, former commanders and veterans of every rank for making their voices heard – to make the military they love so dear as strong as it can be.

And I want to especially thank all the survivors. We owe our gratitude to the brave survivors who, despite being betrayed by their chain of command, continue to serve their country by fighting for a justice system that will help make sure no one else suffers the same tragedy they did. Their struggles, sacrifice and courage inspire me every day.

They may not wear the uniform anymore, but they believe so strongly in these reforms that for a full year now, they marched the halls of this Congress, reliving the horror they endured, telling their stories, in hopes that no one else who serves our country has to suffer as they did.

Tragically, today the Senate failed them. Despite earning the support of the majority of the Senate, we fell five votes short of overcoming the 60-vote filibuster threshold. But we will not walk away, we will continue to work harder than ever in the coming year to strengthen our military.

Without a doubt, with the National Defense bill we passed, and Senator McCaskill’s Victims Protection Act, we have taken good steps to stand up for victims, and hold offenders accountable.

But we have not taken a step far enough. We know the deck is stacked against victims of sexual assault in the military, and today, we saw the same in the halls of Congress.

For two full decades, since Dick Cheney served as the Defense Secretary during the Tailhook scandal that shook the military and shocked the nation, we’ve heard the same thing: “zero tolerance” to sexual assault in the military.

But the truth is in the results, and that’s “zero accountability.”

I always hoped we could do the right thing here – and deliver a military justice system that is free from bias and conflict of interest – a military justice system that is worthy of the brave men and women who fight for us.

But today the Senate turned its back on a majority of its members.

As painful as today’s vote is, our struggle on behalf of the brave men and women who serve in our military will go on. We owe so much to those who bravely serve our country, and I will never quit on them.

For the men and women who sign up to serve our country for all the right reasons – only to be twice betrayed by their chain of command – if they can find the courage to make their voices heard to strengthen the military they hold so dear– we have to keep up this fight.

We will continue to the fight for justice and accountability. That is our duty.

The truth is there is "zero accountability."  She is correct.  Her bill will most likely pass.  Maybe in the next Congress, in fact.  And there will be a time in the near future where a Vermont VA won't need separate entrances for women.  Those entrances are to keep the women from being harassed.  When John Hall served in the US Congress, he explored these issues at length.

The women veterans aren't facing catcalls or abuse from veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan War.  It's from veterans a little older -- because doesn't always mean smarter.  For them, female veterans aren't that common.  But for veterans of today's war, it's a different story.  As they age through the system, there will be less need for separate entrances.  And Senator Gillibrand is so very right to connect what happened today to the 90s Tailhook scandals.

What she did today, the fight she took to the Senate floor?

There was nothing like that during Tailhook.

There was outrage.  There were promises, few of which were kept.

But did you get a sense that there was a real fighter on the Senate floor for this issue back then?

I didn't.

I do with Senator Gillibrand.  And when the time comes that she leaves the Senate, there will probably be at least ten more strong senators following in her footsteps because of the fight she's mounted.

I wish the bill had passed today.  It should have.  But her fighting for the bill -- before and after the vote -- is a victory that is making an impression on the country and on future members of the Senate.

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