Monday, November 29, 2010

Shed No Tears for The Agent Orange Equity Act

First, open a window and allow fresh air into your room...there will be several stinkbombs in what you are about to read.

Next, some background.
In August of 2008 a group of Veterans gathered online in secret and wrote a letter to Bob Filner, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Filner had introduced the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2008 a month earlier. It was designed to restore the benefits to Veterans who Congress intended to include in the original Agent Orange Act of 1991, but the Department of Veterans Affairs had taken away in a series of illegal steps starting in 1991 by barring Veterans who served in Thailand, Laos, and/or Cambodia [TLC] during the Vietnam War, then in 1993, by barring the "Blue Sky Air Force", those aircrews who flew combat, cargo, transport, and medevac aircraft over South Vietnam; and finally in 2002, by barring any member of the Blue Water Navy who served off the coast of South Vietnam and did not set foot on the ground. Illegal? At each step of the way, the DVA failed to put any of those changes to the policy, or to their policy manuals out for public comment as required by the Administrative Procedures Act. Each of those changes were, and still are, illegal.

That secret group, comprised by about 30 or so Air Force Veterans from TLC, and at least three Blue Water Navy Veterans, requested that Filner add additional groups of Veterans who did not receive the Vietnam Service Medal - VSM [or its equivalent, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for Service in Vietnam or AFEM-VN], but specifically requested Veterans who received the Vietnam Campaign Medal, or VCM,, issued for service of 6 months or longer in areas outside of the Vietnam-TLC Theater of War, but in support of the war effort there; and specifically requested coverage for Veterans who served on Johnston Island, where Herbicides were gathered after the cessation of spraying in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

The addition of those outside groups, which included Johnston Island, Guam, Okinawa, the Republic of the Philippines, Korea, Panama, and other locations involved with the transport of herbicides to Vietnam, and their storage in those locations, ran the cost of the bill right out of the ballpark, making it too expensive for a Congress winding down the second year of the 110th Congress. The bill died in Committee, sunk under its own weight. Stink Bomb #1

Fast forward to the spring of 2009.
After a long delay, in April, 2009 representatives of the Veterans Association of Sailors of the Vietnam War [VASVW] visited Chairman Filner to urge him to reintroduce the bill. He agreed after expressing some concern about the cost. [As you will see, he was not addressing the exact same bill he introduced in July of 2008, but rather a version that was closer to what had sunk under its own weight after the addition of the outside groups noted above to the bill.] After promising us seats at the bill's legislative hearings, Filner also detailed a staff member to work with VASVW toward passage of the bill.

The following week, as promised, Filner introduced the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2009, HR 2254 [and six months later a Senate version, S.1939 was introduced by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.] As soon as we read the bill, we contacted the staffer to explain that the bill, as worded, contained some errors. The inclusion of Johnston Island was incorrect, and the use as an eligibility qualifier of the Vietnam Campaign Medal should have been corrected to the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for Service in Vietnam. The staffer defended the wording as correct and would not agree to a change no matter what we said. Stink Bomb #2 And so, HR 2254/S.1939 was as doomed from the start as HR 6562 was in 2008 after the secret group's list was added to the bill.

Do not cry for the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2009...
...it was never intended to be passed. As introduced, it was, quite simply, Too Damned Expensive! Regardless of the spending spree of the 111th Congress, the AO Equity Act of 2009 was prohibitively expensive. Stink Bomb #3

We researched and argued the numbers, but the whole time we were doing so, we were counting on getting to those hearings to get the language fixed. We made countless visits to Congressional offices [both houses] and talked to staff about the language of the bill, and how it should be corrected to make the bill strictly restorative. We were, in all but one office, that of Senator James Webb, successful in winning support for the bill on those terms: No Johnston Island, no VCM, replaced by the AFEM-VN. That made the bill completely restorative.

We were never permitted access to Chairman Filner after that April, 2009 meeting. Either Filner, or his staff acting on their own, barred any appointment requests, and letters, faxes and emails to Filner from VASVW. And of course, there were no legislative hearings. None. Filner pawned off a hearing on the Agent Orange Longitudinal Study as a sop to the only VASVW representatives to get to see him in 18 months.

The language of the 2009 bill was the result of the secret group's letter in August of 2008. The specific inclusion of Johnston Island and the Vietnam Campaign Medal is a direct link to that letter.

That, then, is twice the secret group has sunk the bill. Our understanding is that as late as mid-October, about 6 weeks ago, The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association [BWNVVA] was still advocating for the inclusion of those external groups in the bill. For all we know, they still do. We have no information to the contrary. Two and a half years of legislative advocacy down the drain is one thing, but the premature deaths in poverty of so many Veterans is something else entirely.

"A Veteran's worst enemy is another Veteran."
And there is no excuse for it. In September of 2008, we visited Chairman Filner and gave him copies of two bills, one a restoration act, fleshed out to cover and protect full retroactive benefits regardless of whether the Veterans appealed a denial or not, and the other a supplemental act that covered not just Guam, or Okinawa, or Korea, but any Veteran of the Vietnam Era, who had NOT received the VSM or the AFEM-VN, but served anywhere else in the world where dioxin based herbicides were used, stored, or shipped through. Filner claimed he liked them. We spread them around, even gave them to other advocacy groups. So, they had two years to write their own bill, or advocate for introduction of the one we wrote. They did neither, which makes their culpability that much worse. In their zeal to "leave no one behind," they left everyone behind -- twice! Stink Bomb #4

Why would the DVA strip benefits from so many Veterans?
We simply do not know why they would go against the sound advice of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who recommended in his 1991 report to the DVA [that was used as a guide for writing the Agent Orange Act of 1991], a broad based, simple qualifying factor, such as the Vietnam Service Medal [or the AFEM-VN], and a qualifying dioxin-related disease to grant presumptive eligibility of exposure. Better, he said, to grant benefits to a few who were not exposed and get 99% of those who were, than to limit the qualification and let many who were exposed fall through the cracks.

We do not know. But we do have ideas. One is that some legal factor would create another class of dioxin poisoned Veterans that would force a new class action suit to be opened up against not only the chemical companies that produced the herbicides, but also the US Government/Department of Defense for ordering the overly dangerous formula of the mix in the barrels and despite the pleadings of at least one chemical company, refusing to allow any danger warnings or symbols to be placed on the barrels filled with the rainbow herbicides.

Another is to re-channel the money Congress appropriated for the benefits of those who were removed from eligibility by the DVA, and use it for other purposes. Some of those purposes might be, for example, bonuses for their mid and upper-level management, land and building acquisition, and especially in recent years, the funding of the Rural Health Centers expansion, which would include land acquisition, building design, construction, local permits, medical equipment and supplies, the hiring and training of staff at each facility, and the current overhead for each facility.

We think it would be infinitely less expensive to issue a Medical Coverage card to each Veteran eligible for health care, and let that Veteran go wherever he chooses for treatment, with the exception of Service Connected disabilities, which would require at least regular monitoring, and/or treatment at a VA Medical Center.

Either way, to the best of our knowledge, the Congressional appropriation for AO Benefits for BWN, TLC, BSAF Veterans and their survivors, is still in place, but is being spent on other things. And that is Stink Bomb #5.

Last Best Hope
Pray. Pray like you never have before. There is still a glimmer of hope for a bill this session, another effort to come at it from a different direction and get a different bill, the Agent Orange Restoration Act, passed this session. Congress is only in session for a few more days. Pray. Pray that we can finally slay this monster that is prematurely killing us in poverty.

Wait a while yet, then you can close that window.

VNVets

”It is a stain on this nation's honor that 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."-- VNVets

"The concept that Agent Orange, and its effects, stopped dead in its tracks at the shoreline is simply too illogical, and too ludicrous to accept. What does that say about the Obama Administration and his Department of Veterans Affairs?"--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

"It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious."--President George Washington

Copyright © 2005-2010: VNVets Blog -- Now in our Sixth Year of Service to Veterans; All Rights Reserved. Reprinting or copying of the contents of this blog without the express permission of the author is unlawful.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Thanksgiving Wish


May the blessing of a bountiful harvest spread over your homes and keep you from the wolves of hunger,

May the blessings of friendship spread over your lives and keep you from the lions of loneliness,

May the blessings of love spread over your hearts and keep you from the depths of hate,

May your paths always be smooth and level and keep you from the grasping fingers of temptation,

May your life be ever blessed with the love from family that will keep you in riches beyond measure.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Though we are mostly without this year, we must still be ever thankful for that which we do have.

Before I take my first bite of turkey on Thursday, I will raise my glass to toast you all, my shipmates and friends here and gone. And then I will toast to the last Thanksgiving...without benefits.

VNVets

”It is a stain on this nation's honor that 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."-- VNVets

"The concept that Agent Orange, and its effects, stopped dead in its tracks at the shoreline is simply too illogical, and too ludicrous to accept. What does that say about the Bush Administration and his Department of Veterans Affairs?"--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

"It follows than as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious."--President George Washington

Copyright © 2005-2010: VNVets Blog -- Now in our Sixth Year of Service to Veterans; All Rights Reserved. Reprinting or copying of the contents of this blog without the express permission of the author is unlawful.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day: A Sermon on Sacrifice

Last year we participated in a special service honoring Veterans at a local church. We joined the Pastor of the church in the Sermon, in which we attempted to define sacrifice as it pertains to our Veterans, and indeed, to all persons. Here is that Sermon.

Pastor: Introduction

When I began to consider our Veteran’s Day observance and how to plan worship, the first thing I had to consider was the assigned scripture reading. When I saw that it was Hebrews, with an emphasis on Jesus as a sacrifice, it seemed a perfect reading to explore on this particular Sunday. Sacrifice is a word that we throw around pretty freely, and yet seldom pause to consider what it really means. This seems an excellent occasion to do just that.

The Letter to the Hebrews is a puzzling, and sometimes disturbing book of the Bible. It is easily overlooked since it is not a letter written by Paul, and also because its language is very strange to us. It is the language of temple, priest, altar, atoning blood …Old Testament terms that we thought we had left behind in the New Testament. It is unfamiliar territory for which we have no point of reference. But the book of Hebrews does center on a word that we use quite frequently: sacrifice.

Our task this morning is to clarify what we mean by the word “sacrifice”, and to examine the distinction between the sacrifice made on our behalf by Jesus Christ, and the sacrifice made on our behalf by our military veterans. How is it the same, and how is it different?

Response: A brief statement about the importance of a Veteran’s Day observance.

The word Veteran stems from the Latin word vetus, meaning old. We think of Veterans that way, yet, today we look around and see those we call Veterans of a much younger age. The parades are no longer for the old men in tight suits and campaign hats, but also for younger men and women, who have borne the battle.

Barely a month before his death, Abraham Lincoln strode to the rostrum on the steps of the United States Capitol Building and gave one of his greatest speeches -- his Second Inaugural Address. The Great Emancipator ended his short speech with words that have echoed down the long and dusty halls of history:

"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."
The long Civil War was ending, and Lincoln knew it. His thoughts had already turned to reconstructing the nation torn apart by a war that killed more than a half-million men. And in those thoughts Lincoln chose to lay the groundwork “…to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan…”

Today, those words still hold as a receipt for a debt owed by a nation that sends its young folks off to war as surrogates for its citizenry, as representatives of a National Policy, and as the purveyors of Democracy, Liberty, and Freedom. During that time, they are called troop, soldier, sailor, Marine, airman, Coast Guardsman…but once that service is ended, they are, forevermore, Veterans of the United States military.

As Veterans, they deserve a special place of honor in our society, and our culture, for they have written a blank check, backed by their own life and limb, and serving in place of all of us who do not go, and to keep us all free.

Pastor: The General Definition of Sacrifice

Sacrifice is a word people use when they find themselves indebted to someone or some group for things that sustain life or rescue life. [Peter Schmiechen defines sacrifice, 53-54, Saving Power] People speak of their parents making sacrifices. We honor people who speak the truth and who suffered consequences for it, such Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King. We describe the loss of life in war as a sacrifice made to defend a nation or made for a cause like freedom.

The word sacrifice has these general uses when we wish to refer to something done for us, without concern for self. When the sacrifice involves the shedding of blood, we reach a level that has power far beyond what we can estimate in words. ‘Sacer’ means holy and ‘facere’ means “to make”. As Gil Bailie points out in his many writings on sacrifice-- that does not really define the many ways in which “sacrifice” is used since there are many ways of “making holy” that are not sacrifices, and sacrifices that, in effect, make nothing holy. The recent shooting at Foot Hood

Response: The nature of sacrifice as offered during war

On September 12th, 1861, a 25 year old farmer from nearby southern Lancaster County left his farm, and family and marched off to war against the Confederacy with the 79th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the Lancaster Rifles. In late 1863, this two year regiment reenlisted en masse, earning the right to proudly display the word “Veteran” on their Battle Colors -- the 79th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Nearly four years after his enlistment, Sergeant William T. Clark returned to that farm, older by those four years, experienced in soldiering, and nursing wounds that would eventually kill him four decades later. Clark, wounded three times at the Battle of Perryville, KY, in 1862, and again at the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga, would serve as the Judge of Elections in November of 1864 when members of his regiment proudly voted for Abraham Lincoln’s reelection.

Clark’s blank check cost him the partial use of one arm and issues with his intestinal tract due to his wounds, and a lifetime of battling malaria from his time in the deep south. During his nearly four years in the 79th Pennsylvania, Clark, and the Regiment, spent less than 60 nights under a roof.

On September 29th, 2006, another 25 year-old’s blank check was cashed. Petty Officer Michael Monsoor, a United States Navy Seal, already a recipient of the Silver Star and the Bronze Star for courage and gallantry above and beyond the call of duty, gave his life in Service to his country, and to his fellow Seals. His official citation reads as follows:

"FOR CONSPICUOUS GALLANTRY AND INTREPIDITY AT THE RISK OF HIS LIFE ABOVE AND BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY AS AUTOMATIC WEAPONS GUNNER FOR NAVAL SPECIAL WARFARE TASK GROUP ARABIAN PENINSULA, IN SUPPORT OF OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM ON 29 SEPTEMBER 2006. AS A MEMBER OF A COMBINED SEAL AND IRAQI ARMY SNIPER OVERWATCH ELEMENT, TASKED WITH PROVIDING EARLY WARNING AND STAND-OFF PROTECTION FROM A ROOFTOP IN AN INSURGENT HELD SECTOR OF AR RAMADI, IRAQ, PETTY OFFICER MONSOOR DISTINGUISHED HIMSELF BY HIS EXCEPTIONAL BRAVERY IN THE FACE OF GRAVE DANGER. IN THE EARLY MORNING, INSURGENTS PREPARED TO EXECUTE A COORDINATED ATTACK BY RECONNOITERING THE AREA AROUND THE ELEMENT’S POSITION. ELEMENT SNIPERS THWARTED THE ENEMY’S INITIAL ATTEMPT BY ELIMINATING TWO INSURGENTS. THE ENEMY CONTINUED TO ASSAULT THE ELEMENT, ENGAGING THEM WITH A ROCKET-PROPELLED GRENADE AND SMALL ARMS FIRE. AS ENEMY ACTIVITY INCREASED, PETTY OFFICER MONSOOR TOOK POSITION WITH HIS MACHINE GUN BETWEEN TWO TEAMMATES ON AN OUTCROPPING OF THE ROOF. WHILE THE SEALS VIGILANTLY WATCHED FOR ENEMY ACTIVITY, AN INSURGENT THREW A HAND GRENADE FROM AN UNSEEN LOCATION, WHICH BOUNCED OFF PETTY OFFICER MONSOOR’S CHEST AND LANDED IN FRONT OF HIM. ALTHOUGH ONLY HE COULD HAVE ESCAPED THE BLAST, PETTY OFFICER MONSOOR CHOSE INSTEAD TO PROTECT HIS TEAMMATES. INSTANTLY AND WITHOUT REGARD FOR HIS OWN SAFETY, HE THREW HIMSELF ONTO THE GRENADE TO ABSORB THE FORCE OF THE EXPLOSION WITH HIS BODY, SAVING THE LIVES OF HIS TWO TEAMMATES. BY HIS UNDAUNTED COURAGE, FIGHTING SPIRIT, AND UNWAVERING DEVOTION TO DUTY IN THE FACE OF CERTAIN DEATH, PETTY OFFICER MONSOOR GALLANTLY GAVE HIS LIFE FOR HIS COUNTRY, THEREBY REFLECTING GREAT CREDIT UPON HIMSELF AND UPHOLDING THE HIGHEST TRADITIONS OF THE UNITED STATES NAVAL SERVICE."
For his extraordinary courage, his country awarded him the Medal Of Honor.

Navy Seals wear a distinctive gold pin combining a trident, anchor and Eagle. At his funeral, Navy Seals lined up on each side of his coffin and as it passed, each one slapped his Seal pin into the wooden lid as a final tribute to their fallen brother.

Petty Officer Michael Monsoor’s blank check was paid in full.

Pastor: The nature of sacrifice in scripture

The book of Hebrews takes the Old Testament notion of sacrifice and casts it in New Testament terms. [N.T. Wright, 94f, in Hebrews for Everyone] In the old system, the priests went daily into the Temple (the successor of the wilderness tabernacle) and the high priest went annually into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. Sacrifices were made as part of those rituals. In the “old” notion of sacrifice- the people were rescued from sin by the life of the sacrificial animal. Their sins were symbolically placed on the sacrificial animal, as a substitute for them. People could begin again, with a clean slate.

N.T. Wright says that Hebrews points to an inherent flaw in the old system. If my car is not working, and I have to take it back to the mechanic week after week—he obviously has not succeeded in fixing it. The fact that the old sacrifices had to be made over and over again meant that they had not gotten to the root of the problem.

Hebrews explains that all along, the tabernacle or Temple was always a temporary substitute for something brand new being worked out by God. The new sacrifice system spoken of in Hebrews is not the blood of animals, but the blood of the Messiah. Finally, the sacrifice of Jesus reaches deep inside of us, to transform us at the core of our being. We are not washed clean, we are made brand new. The priests stood daily at their sacrificial duties. Jesus doesn’t have to offer his sacrifice anymore. It is complete.

When Jesus submitted to those who killed him rather than exercising violence, the temple veil was torn in half and something brand new happened on that darkest of days. An event that first seemed to be so terrible and final was transformed by Christ into a brand new way of existence. We worship a God who chooses to suffer violence rather than meet it in kind. God enters into humankind’s 10,000 year cycle of violence and thus breaks the cycle forever.

Response: Where and how does love operate in the actions of the warrior who goes forth on our behalf?

In the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 15, verse 13, Jesus instructs us:

“…Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
In this way, Jesus defines sacrifice as an act of love. Not an act of hate, or an act of war, but an act of love. So who is it that is the object of this love? Well, it is those who serve with the Veteran most assuredly, and any Veteran can tell you that the bond between those who serve in war together indeed creates a “band of brothers." Some Veterans will deny this bond, calling it brotherhood, but we know it is love, for so Jesus showed us. Did he not lay down his life for all of us? Did he not choose to allow others to end his life in a most horrible fashion, knowing full well what was in store for him, and did he not do so without remorse, without a second thought? And that love extends back to us…to you…to me…to all of us, for did He not go in our stead? Did the Veteran not go in our stead?

And so, it is love that causes men like William Clark to leave a verdant farm and loving family to march off to war, and to stand shoulder to shoulder with his friends, neighbors and fellow soldiers, braving the heat and ferocity of battle, even though wounded.

And men like Michael Monsoor, who laid down his life for his friends.

Those blank checks are far too often paid for in blood and breath, tears and trauma, yet…yet…they were written and tendered with love.

Pastor: Conclusion:

How do we compare the sacrifices made by our Veterans and that made by Jesus on the cross?

1. Both are both costly and precious
2. Both are made in love
3. But only the sacrifice of Jesus shows us the way out of the cycle of violence in which we have been held for millennia.

Jesus lived a non-violent life and through his life teaches us to do the same. But the Christian Church has been ambivalent about war since the theory of just war was developed by St. Augustine. The theory assumes that non-violence is the norm for Christians, but expresses conditions in which we can ignore these fundamental Christian teachings.

We are still locked into a cycle of violence that sends out substitutionary sacrifices (Military men and women), because we are unable to live in the way that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. We have not yet learned the new way of being that Jesus demonstrated for us, in his sacrifice. In Christ, God is creating a new way of being, a new community of reconciliation by resisting and overcoming the power of the world with God’s saving power.

By Jesus’ resistance to violence he breaks the cycle of violence. “It is possible” proclaims the cross! “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” With these words, Jesus inaugurates a new age. We have only to embrace this wondrous love, and show it in our own lives and actions to help usher in this new age. We best honor our Veterans by working for peace, so that this generation of warriors might be the last.

End

VNVets

”It is a stain on this nation's honor that 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."-- VNVets

"The concept that Agent Orange, and its effects, stopped dead in its tracks at the shoreline is simply too illogical, and too ludicrous to accept. What does that say about the Bush Administration and his Department of Veterans Affairs?"--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

"It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious."--President George Washington

Copyright © 2005-2010: VNVets Blog -- Now in our Sixth Year of Service to Veterans; All Rights Reserved.