Sunday, May 27, 2007

Honor the Fallen Every Day

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania - 1863
After the guns became silent, the cleanup began. It started with the wounded -- thousands of wounded. Those not already in hospitals in the many barns nearby, and not already on their way back to Virginia as Lee pulled his men back from the costly repulse at Gettysburg, those that still lay on the blood soaked fields, and among the trees and rocks of this ground were gathered up and swiftly borne away to fill the hospitals again.

First the living, and then the dead. The somber task of burying the Union dead began before the battle was done, and continued for well over a day. In most cases, they were buried where they fell.

The grave diggers were often criticized for their levity while going about their grim work, but in reality, it was simply a mechanism to deal with the horrors of so many mangled bodies…and if the sight of that didn’t reach you, the smell surely would. And so they would make small jokes about how this one smelled, or what he looked like he did back home: farmer, merchant, teacher, schoolboy…

After the Union dead were interred, it would take two more days to bury the Confederate dead. Meanwhile, there were tens of thousands of horses, mules and livestock that were rotting on the battlefield. They, too, had to be disposed of. There were a large number of dead horses in the small garden of the Widow Leister farm, where Major General Meade made his headquarters. Slaughtered by Confederate artillery that overshot its intended mark on Cemetery Ridge, the horses died by the dozen on the reverse slope. Later, Lydia Leister would burn their bones, and sell the ash/bone mix as fertilizer. She made about $30.

Local attorney David Wills realized almost immediately not just the importance of the battle, but the importance of the battlefield. He began to buy up portions of it for a memorial association he founded. By mid-summer, he had contacted Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, and obtained approval to go ahead and construct a “National Soldiers and Sailor’s Cemetery” at Gettysburg. A location on the west slope of Cemetery Hill, adjacent to the old Evergreen Cemetery was obtained, and a design was approved. A group of local African-Americans won the contract to disinter the Union dead from their makeshift graves on the battlefield and after identification of the remains at least as to the state for which the soldier had fought, reinter them in the new cemetery.

When that task was finally completed in the 1880s, there were 3,577 men from fourteen northern states buried in that graveyard. Since then, veterans and fallen from all of America’s wars have added more than 3,000 interments to that number.

For all of that, only one person has truly caught the essence of the events here, and the cost, and what the men bought with their blood. And on a cool November afternoon in 1863, he put the matter quite clearly:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we may take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

He put no hate in his speech, nor disrespect of the enemy. He placed the enormous toll of the battle into the perspective of the new United States that would emerge from the war – a new nation that was no longer divided by the issue of slavery, a nation united.

In Europe at the time, the nationalism movement had been underway for a half-century or more, and resulted in wars between nations. In America, our Civil War defined how we, the United States of America, would be viewed by those outside our nation, and how we would perceive ourselves. It gave us an identity that all Americans could claim, a single spirit, a national unity.

In all of America’s other major wars combined (The Revolution, War of 1812, Mexican War, Spanish American War, WW I, WW II, Korea, Viet Nam, Gulf War I), the total killed is approximately 590,360.

In the Civil War, approximately 617,000 Americans fell in combat, or from accident or disease while serving. Almost a million more were wounded. Countless more were starved in Prisoner of War Camps.

There must be something about this “experiment in Liberty” that we call a nation that drives men and women to sacrifice themselves in such numbers for it.

Do not wait for Memorial Day, but practice regularly your sincere honoring of our Fallen Warriors. Visit a National Cemetery, a Veteran's Hospital or an observance of Memorial Day. Whatever you do, do something to honor those who gave their lives in the service of this nation, so “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

VNVets

Copyright © 2007: VNVets Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Nicholson's Sins

There is the question of his involvement in the Fitzsimmons Army Hospital land sale deal for the new VA hospital in Colorado.

There are the numerous data security breaches that have the potential to cost millions of Veterans, and those who treat Veterans much anguish, and money through Identity Theft.

There is the strong implication of cronyism in the news that many senior politically appointed DVA executives received massive performance bonuses for a system with far too many problems to reward anyone’s performance. On top of that, there is the obvious conflict of interest in the fact that many who received bonuses sat on the review boards that awarded the bonuses! Some of these bonuses went to men who botched the Congressional VA Budget Request in 2005.

There are the recurring incidents of Veterans needing help and getting lost in the system.

There are recurring incidents where potentially suicidal Veterans are denied treatment, and shortly after that denial, commit suicide.

There are the whispers of Walter Reed-like conditions at VA hospitals around the country, all the while the DVA cranks out press release after press release bragging about how good the treatment is. [If you’ve visited a VA Hospital lately, you know how the treatment is. If you’ve gone for treatment, you know even more what it is like, how long you must wait, and often, being denied treatment.]

There are the ongoing problems where Veterans transitioning from active military medical care, including our Wounded Warriors, suffer ungodly delays in having the VA take over their treatment and their benefits. The delays frequently force Wounded Warriors onto the streets as homeless because the DVA is so bogged down in a quagmire of its own making. One major culprit is the failure over the past fifteen years of the DVA to acquire a data exchange agreement with the Department of Defense [also a guilty party in this!]. Two computer systems with [perhaps] different internal languages, but handling the same data, are unable to sit down and map out a simple data exchange where DoD data on wounded Veterans is transferred instantly to DVA computers. There is no excuse for this. The task to set it up should take no more than three to six months.

All of this smells worse than road-kill.

All of this is on Jim Nicholson’s watch.

Add to all of that the fact that Jim Nicholson, who did a Vietnam Tour as a Blue Water Sailor, is fighting to deny benefits to his shipmates under Agent Orange Presumptive rules.

[Note:  The above information is incorrect.  As several readers have pointed out, Nicholson is a West Point Graduate, and served 8 years as a Ranger, and 22 in the Army Reserve.  We apologize for including Nicholson in the Blue Water Navy Group.  He is obviously unqualified and unfit for inclusion.]

Even worse is the strong sense of those Blue Water Sailors that Nicholson’s actions are being taken to protect the chemical companies who made the dioxins and declared them safe, from the emergence of a whole new class of litigants lining up to sue them.

We believe this to be a heinous and immoral decision where money takes precedence over human lives, especially over lives he is sworn to protect.

We would like to see Nicholson canned by the President, but this President is far too loyal to his political appointees. He is loyal to a fault, and sometimes beyond, as in this case. We are NOT anti-Bush, and believe strongly in what he has done over the past six years. We simply feel he has been too loyal to Nicholson.

We would also like to see Nicholson investigated by Congress for all of the malodorous occurrences listed above.

We would also like to see him charged for his actions in the Blue Water Navy case. At best his actions are criminally negligent, and because of the potential reasoning behind it, may descend into manslaughter for the deaths brought on by the long waits, and denials based on a policy that in the end, may have no basis other than corporate protectionism at the expense of thousands of Veterans’ lives. If it is ever proven that Nicholson is in fact fighting the Blue Water Navy benefits to protect the chemical companies, then he will go down in history as the biggest mass murderer in American history. Indeed, he may anyway.

We would swear that no man who has done what Nicholson has done since assuming the post of Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs could possibly have ever served honorably in the United States Navy, 
and Nicholson did not.  

VNVets

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." -- President Abraham Lincoln

"Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious." --
President George Washington

Copyright © 2007: VNVets Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Op-Ed Piece for Newspapers

Between the lines below is an op-ed piece written about our precarious situation with the VA. Please feel free to copy it and paste it over your own signature and send it as an op-ed, not a letter to the editor, to your local newspapers. You may, if you wish, credit the VNVets Blog for it.

We have offered it to the NY Times, Phila., Inquirer, and the Hanover, PA, Evening Sun.

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Op-Ed

Navy Vets fight for benefits, legacy.

During the Vietnam War almost 19 million gallons of dioxin based defoliant [Agent Orange, Agent White, Agent Blue, etc] were sprayed up and down the length of Vietnam.

Since the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of our Vietnam Veterans have been receiving disability pensions from the Department of Veterans Affairs [DVA] for exposure to Agent Orange [and other defoliants]. Until 2002, this included those Navy Veterans who gave "service in offshore waters", as the legislation puts it. This class of Veterans is referred to as "Blue Water" sailors.

However, in 2002, the DVA changed its policy and began denying "presumptive eligibility" to Naval Veterans who only served offshore, and did not set foot on land, or travel up rivers and estuaries. Those who had been receiving Agent Orange benefits had those benefits stopped and were told to repay everything they had received!

There are tens of thousands of Blue Water Sailors who have been denied help for the cancers and diabetes and other diseases presumed to have been caused by Agent Orange. They are dying by the dozens every day. [A veteran's claim for benefits dies with the veteran.]

At the heart of the matter is the DVA's insistence that there was no exposure at sea, no matter how close to the coast a ship got. Naval vessels, such as the Destroyers and Cruisers on the “gun line”, got as close as a quarter mile from the beach on gunfire support missions where our naval guns would support Army, ARVN, and Marine operations inland within ten to fifteen miles of the coast. Other ships and small boats would patrol on Operation Market Time, stopping and searching small Vietnamese boats in a campaign of interdiction of supplies for the Viet Cong guerrillas. During that time, such craft were exposed to spray from nearby aircraft and helicopters that would drift in clouds on prevailing westerly winds out over the sea. From time to time, the spraying aircraft would circle out over the water with its sprayers going, and a ship would be doused with the dioxins if it was unfortunate enough to be under the flight path. It happened.

But even more horrifying was the result of a study done by our Australian Navy friends, who were right there with our own Blue Water Sailors. Suspicious at being told not to make fresh water from sea water through the ships' evaporator system [desalinization], the Australians guessed it had to do with Agent Orange. So they set about conducting a test where they ran sea water, with simulated Agent Orange contaminated runoff in it, through a ship's evaporators. What they discovered was that the evaporation process would not remove the contaminant, but instead, enhanced it by concentrating it. The Aussies just began paying their Blue Water sailors benefits for exposure to Agent Orange.

So, they bathed in it, drank it in their coffee, cooked with it, and even drank it almost straight right from the water fountains on board ship.

Ergo the DVA's policy excluding Blue Water sailors is incorrect, in fact, as well as in its ignorance of the original enabling legislation’s language. But they will not back down. Last summer, a claim appeal by a former Navy Commander reached the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims [CAVC]. In Haas v. Nicholson, Commander Haas claimed that his ammunition ship was directly sprayed while close in shore supplying small vessels with ammunition. The Court agreed with Haas, and ruled in his favor, declaring the DVA's 2002 policy improper, and reinstating benefits to Blue Water Veterans. That meant thousands of claims that were on the way to denial were suddenly given new life and hope. By December, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson had issued a memo ordering all Haas-related cases stopped, and held in abeyance while he appealed the case. While the CAVC told the Secretary he could not make law and to continue processing the claims in a January ruling [mandamus -- Ribaudo v. Nicholson], the Secretary was finally granted a stay during appeal. The case is now at the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit [docket number 2007-7037]. Briefs are still being filed.

Meanwhile, good men are dying. Men who proudly and faithfully served their country in time of war, often in combat, and who were exposed to the defoliants used in Vietnam, are dying. The surviving Veterans, and their families, and the widows and families of these Veterans already dead are denied the basic services and financial aid accorded to other combat Veterans disabled during their service. Tens of thousands of them are already dead of any of a variety of cancers, complications from Diabetes Mellitus [Type II], and other diseases such as peripheral neuropathy, porphyria, and non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Tens of thousands more are suffering from the lung or liver cancer, skin cancers, and other diseases associated with exposure to dioxins.

There is the story: Secretary Nicholson's craven indifference to the suffering of those he is sworn to protect is forcing men to die without coverage, without providing for their families, and in many cases, unable to afford a funeral. Those still alive sit disabled, wondering if their wives will be able to keep their home after they die. Many of them cannot afford all the medications or treatments that inclusion would provide. And so they try to die with dignity, try to die without bitterness at a government agency that exists, as President Lincoln put it, "...to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan...", but does not do so.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has become a deadlier and more difficult adversary to the American Veteran than any they have ever faced on a battlefield.

The Blue Water Navy Veterans need to get public pressure applied to Secretary Nicholson to do the right thing, and drop the appeal. In the end, they believe in the Haas decision, and that it will be upheld no matter how high in the court system it goes. Haas brought the DVA back into line with the original language of the enabling legislation. But by delaying, Nicholson is letting men die without the benefits, and in some cases, letting them die premature deaths that could be avoided if they could afford medical coverage and prescription coverage, and attendant care as well. Remember, a man's claim dies with him. Nicholson is counting on this to keep occurring at an increasing frequency as long as possible in order to save money.

Should you wish to do some checking to get this whole story, there is an excellent website called "Blue Water Navy" at:
http://bluewaternavy.org/. You can find all the documentation you could need to understand the situation. That site has pretty much all the links on it to court decisions, scientific studies and even a report commissioned by the DVA and written by none other than Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, that the DVA suppressed for over a decade, and now chooses to ignore. Its evidence is strong and scientific, and is damning to the DVA.

Not only does the public need to know about this, but so does Congress.

To the DVA this fight is about money, and nothing else. To the Blue Water Veterans, it is not only about survival for themselves, and their families, it is also about their legacy as forgotten warriors in a war no one can forget.

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Send it to your TV station or any reporters you know, and get them working on the story. And don't forget your congressman and Senator!

VN Vets

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." -- President Abraham Lincoln

"Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious." --President George Washington

Copyright © 2007: VNVets Blog; All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Stepped in what?

The outraged headline screamed, “Bonuses in spite of vet cuts!” It headed a front page column that spoke of bonuses to government employees. Bonuses. Bonuses from a “cash-strapped VA” which “gave staffers up to $33,000.”

The article beneath the headline details the awarding of “more than $3.8 million in payments by a financially strapped agency straining to care for thousands of injured veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan.” Apparently bonuses went to a number of higher-up who were responsible for crafting “the VA’s flawed budget for 2005 based on misleading accounting.” Another top level exec, the deputy undersecretary for benefits, who helps manage a disability claims system that has a backlog of cases and delays averaging 177 days in getting benefits to injured veterans.” The article goes on to describe the bonuses as “the most lucrative in government.”

These are performance bonuses ladies and gentlemen.

Can you imagine how much the Department of Veterans Affairs [DVA] would have stiffed the American taxpayers if they had been running things correctly?

The DVA has been very proactive in dodging a well deserved bullet caused by the Walter Reed Army Hospital scandal a few months back. They should have been painted with guilt by association, for their operations in many cases mirror what was found at Walter Reed in a disgusting insult to our Wounded Warriors. Press releases touted the various studies done by DVA researchers on heart disease, and how the DVA in the wake of the Walter Reed situation was hiring a paltry 100 more patient advocates.

It started in 2005 with the dishonest accounting practiced by those executives who wrote the budget request for the DVA, eventually leading to a request for funding to cover a $1 billion dollar shortfall.

Then we had to peel back layer after layer of the cover up of the data security breach when a VA employee lost a desktop in a home robbery that contained the personal data [names, addresses, dates of birth, and Social Security Numbers] of over 25 million Veterans. Later there was another data breach.

Then we come to the money wasting performance of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson, who authorized this press release today to try to ward of the criticism over the “performance bonuses.”
Statement from VA Press Secretary Matt Burns On Performance Awards to Some Senior Career Civil Servants WASHINGTON (May 3, 2007) -- VA and its leaders are committed to providing the best possible care and services to our nation's veterans. To best fulfill that commitment, VA needs to be able to retain knowledgeable and professional career civil servants. VA often must compete with significantly higher private sector salaries to keep its career executive leaders.

One of the tools the Congress has given government agencies to help keep experienced career executives in public service is performance-based awards, which make their compensation more competitive with the private sector. Without such tools, VA would be much less likely to retain its most experienced career civil servants - which could reduce the quality of services provided to veterans and increase costs to taxpayers in the long run."

# # #

Background on VA Budget: VA and the Administration have requested a budget of nearly $87 billion for VA in FY 08. This budget proposal represents a 77 percent increase in the overall budget since FY 01, and more than 83 percent more for health care spending. With the continued support of Congress, the Administration's FY 08 budget will provide VA with the resources it needs to continue its important mission.
Pardon us, but we see this press release as the reason for the title of this post: it is something you must scrape off your shoe before entering your house.

Bonuses for the DVA employees have risen sharply since 2002 when they averaged $8,120 per year until it was more than doubled to $16,713 just three years later! During the same period the whole U.S. government averaged from a little over $12,000 per year average to $13,814 in 2005.

So while the DVA press release brags about the 83% increase in healthcare spending over roughly the same period shown above, they were enjoying a 100% increase in their bonuses.

Indeed, the bonuses are legal, authorized by legislation all the way back in the late 1970s. However, there is something wrong with this reasoning.

As taxpayers, we do not want our employees [those who work for the government] to work and make careers in which they get rich, we want committed employees who are in their positions because of earning it the hard way, through merit. Bonuses send the wrong signal to the employees.

If, as the DVA press release deceptively insists, the bonuses are used to compete with private industry in keeping good, qualified personnel working in government, then it is, based on the performance of the DVA, a complete and abysmal failure. These are generally political appointments to start with, and as such, they have no business receiving bonuses for doing their jobs. Instead, they have a salary which they agreed to accept when they accepted the appointment. So these bonuses are simply a ruse to further reward the appointees for political favors performed while in office, such as cutting expenses to save budget money so the President can continue to divert money to fund the War in Iraq.

We do not oppose the War, indeed, we see this in part as being a result of the squeeze Congress has put on the President. Nevertheless, the bonus system must go, and not just in the DVA.

But that is not all that needs to go. Secretary Nicholson needs to go, too! And immediately, if for no other reason than the fact that he has approved these bonus versions of highway robbery committed on the American Taxpayer and done so while crying the blues over lack of funding, dishonestly submitting a dishonest budget, and in general, run the DVA into the ground where. There is little guarantee of information privacy, signaling a total loss of trust from the people who absolutely must rely on the DVA for their health care and other benefits.

And then, there is the Blue Water Navy business, were Nicholson is spending oodles of money to avoid paying Naval Veterans of the Vietnam War benefits under Agent Orange. It is despicable that he should do this as he is a Naval Veteran of the Vietnam War, which shows how much he is lacking in integrity, that he would let shipmates die before agreeing to pay their claims and treat them.

We believe this to be criminal negligence, and have previously called for his resignation a number of times here. We hope that this time you readers will heed our call to contact your Senators and Congressmen and demand Nicholson’s job, and those of his political cronies, too. Ask for, no, demand an investigation into Nicholson’s actions since becoming the Secretary. Perhaps a closer look into the new VA Hospital deal at the former site of the Fitzsimmons Army Hospital, and the mega-millions that a Colorado contractor made on the land sales of a property the Department of Defense should have deeded directly to the DVA! That smells so bad the stench is overwhelming.

Nicholson has done nothing to recommend him as Secretary and everything that has happened negatively has been his responsibility. His decisions are suspect enough to warrant criminal investigations. In the meantime, get him out of town, NOW! Before he does any more damage.

Nicholson has created a Department of Veterans Affairs that "...has become a deadlier and more difficult adversary to the American veteran than any they have ever faced on a battlefield." That is grounds for firing. We can only pray that he never received a "performance bonus".

VN Vets

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." -- President Abraham Lincoln

"Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious." --
President George Washington

Copyright © 2007: VNVets Blog; All Rights Reserved.