Ex-VA Boss: Elderly Vet Claims Worsen Backlog
House Votes To Block More DoD Furloughs In 2014
U.S. Military Vows To Put Women In Combat Roles By 2016
Judge To Decide More Than Manning’s Fate
Decidedly Dysfunctional House Pressures Veterans Affairs Leaders To Be More ProductiveMilitary.com
Ex-VA Boss: Elderly Vet Claims Worsen Backlog
Jul 24, 2013
Military.com| by Bryant Jordan
A former Department of Veterans Affairs chief questioned if veterans in their later years are filing claims from conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease that may have more to do with aging than their military service.
In 2010, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki added illnesses such as heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and leukemia to the conditions VA officials can presume in Vietnam veterans to be caused by Agent Orange exposure. Others on the list include Type 2 diabetes, Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, and respiratory cancers, among them lung cancer.
Anthony Principi, a Vietnam War combat vet who led the VA under President George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said the addition of these illnesses makes it much harder for the VA to determine what may have come from exposure and what from old age.
These decisions not only caused the backlog that today has Iraq and Afghanistan veterans waiting a year and longer for action on their claims, but have increased the compensation budget by millions annually, Principi said.
In some cases, men in their 70s and older are being awarded a 100 percent disability based on a finding that they cannot work, Principi said. These veterans are essentially receiving the same compensation as a soldier who lost both legs in Afghanistan.
“Why are we doing this?” Principi asked in an interview with Military.com. “I served a year in Vietnam. … My dad died of prostate cancer. I’ll probably die of prostate cancer.”
And because there is no time limit on filing, he could file even when he is in his 90s, Principi said. If he then died of cancer, his widow “would get the same amount of compensation as the widow of someone killed in Afghanistan.”
Of the roughly one million claims filed each year, he said 80 percent come from pre-9/11 vets. Thirty-seven percent are filed by Vietnam veterans, and another 11 percent by veterans who did not serve in a conflict.
Meanwhile, about 6,000 American troops have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and about 50,000 or so have been wounded or injured. That means their contribution to the claims backlog is tiny when compared to past wars, Principi says.
“I think the [VA] has lost its focus. We are doing a disservice to the men and women hurt in harm’s way or in training accidents preparing to go into harm’s way,” he said.
Principi acknowledged he played a part in the growing backlog, as President George W. Bush’s VA secretary in 2002, when he signed a Clinton administration regulation making Type II diabetes compensable for Agent Orange exposure.
He said his decision was the right one then, but it’s time to place some timeframe limits on the presumptive.
Peter Gaytan, executive director of The American Legion, said his organization defends the presumptive and the right of eligible veterans to file claims for them. The Legion commissioned a study proving the long-term effects of Agent Orange on those who served in Vietnam.
“Barring veterans from the benefits they have earned is not the best way to go about eliminating the claims backlog.” Gaytan said in an email to Military.com. “Presumptive conditions are based on sound medical research, and their effects should never be marginalized. … The effects of battle are borne in many ways and some of them aren’t so obvious. Does that mean we grant benefits only for the most obvious wounds of war? The American Legion doesn’t think so.”
The best solution, says Gaytan, is improved efficiency.
“A more constructive response to the claims backlog has been VA’s Fully Developed Claims program, which The American Legion has been involved with since last December,” he said. Legion case officers working with veterans are increasingly filing FDCs, he said, which move through the system in an average of about 120 days. That means they never become part of the backlog, he said.
Principi said he is not surprised the veteran service organizations are not supportive of putting some kind of limit on when a veteran can file a claim for a presumptive condition. Groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans and The American Legion have all supported past decisions to expand the listing of conditions presumed to be caused by Agent Orange exposure.
However, in private, Principi said leaders of these veterans organizations know a change is warranted.
“The [veterans’ service organizations] know there needs to be a change — several of them told me privately that I’m correct, that I’m right,” Principi said. “But they can’t speak out publicly. … But I would hope again that people would come together and look at it rationally.”
Darin Selnick, a retired Air Force captain and member of the organizing committee of Concerned Veterans for America, said VSOs are membership organizations and they are going to advocate for their members. And that means encouraging veterans to take advantage of any legitimate program or benefit.
“When I got off active duty, the DAV would say, ‘whether you have anything or not, just file.’ They [claims] are still being pushed,” said Selnick, who belongs to The American Legion. “If you’re 80 years old, is it possible you’re going to have hearing loss? Sure. But I’ve got veterans who VSOs ask if they want to file a claim for hearing loss” for service long past.
Fixing the problem means getting the VA back to its original mission of taking care of the war-wounded and the families of the fallen, says Principi, something he acknowledges will be a tough sell in Washington.
“There doesn’t seem to be any will [in Congress] to address any of the tough issues. If they can’t address national security, you think they’re going to address this? I don’t think so,” he said.
The Army Times
House Votes To Block More DoD Furloughs In 2014
Move could force more budget cuts in other programs
By Rick Maze, Staff writer
The House added a whole new wrinkle to concerns about military readiness and budget cuts on Tuesday by passing legislation barring furloughs for civilian workers in fiscal 2014.
Passed by voice vote as an amendment to the 2014 defense appropriations bill, the legislation sponsored by Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., prohibits the Defense Department from spending any money to implement civilian furloughs beginning Oct. 1, 2013.
Lamborn said the vote is “a first step toward restoring sanity to the defense budget and restoring pay to our nation’s civilian defense workers.”
Although the amendment was bipartisan, Lamborn still took a dig at the White House, saying he proposed the legislation “to make sure the Obama administration can no longer play politics with the lives and jobs of our civilian defense workers.”
The vote comes as 650,000 defense civilian workers are just starting to take 11 scheduled furlough days as a cost-cutting measure to cope with the $37 billion across-the-board sequestration cuts required when Congress and the White House failed to reach an agreement earlier this year on spending and deficit reduction.
There are increasing concerns that an even bigger, $52 billion sequester would occur in fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1, because the Obama administration and Congress appear no closer to an agreement.
In preparation for possible 2014 cuts, DoD does not intend to do more civilian furloughs, but is instead planning for potential layoffs. In a so-called “Plan B” letter to Congress, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did not rule out more furloughs but said an involuntary reduction-in-force of civilians is one of the steps being planned in case sequestration carries into 2014.
Barring furloughs would limit Pentagon options, making layoffs not just more likely but also deeper, according to congressional aides. Inability to absorb short-term budget cuts from civilian furloughs also could force DoD to make deeper cuts in other programs, such as military personnel.
Hagel has already warned sequestration in 2014 could result in a freeze in promotions and reassignment moves and lead to the cancellation of discretionary recruiting and retention bonuses.
Lamborn’s amendment wasn’t the only furlough protection passed by the House on Tuesday. Also by voice vote, the House passed an amendment prohibiting civilians who are paid from working capital revolving funds from being furloughed, a move that would protect many depot workers, and another amendment to exempt National Guard dual-status technicians from furloughs.
The working capital amendment was sponsored by Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., and the National Guard technician amendment was offered by Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss.
The Senate will not take up the measure until after Labor Day.
U.S. Military Vows To Put Women In Combat Roles By 2016
By David Lerman, Bloomberg News
Officials from all military service branches told Congress today they can open combat positions to women by 2016 without lowering physical or performance standards.
Six months after the Pentagon announced it was lifting a ban on women serving in ground-combat units, military officials charged with implementing the policy said they’ve started the studies needed to make it work.
“I don’t envy you,” Representative Joe Heck, a Nevada Republican, said today at a hearing by the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel subcommittee. “As you know, there’s not universal acceptance of this concept.”
Ending the ban will open as many as 237,000 positions to women by January 2016. The three-year process will require what officials describe as a methodical review of the physical standards needed for each combat job to determine how best to measure fitness and whether some positions will need to remain restricted to men.
“We’re not going to lower standards,” said Juliet Beyler, the Defense Department’s director of officer and enlisted personnel management. “It’s not a matter of lowering or raising standards. The key is to validate the standard to make sure it’s the right standard for the occupation.”
While women have been a permanent part of the military services — as opposed to separate auxiliaries — since a 1948 act of Congress, they have long been excluded from infantry, artillery and other ground-combat jobs. After a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan that sent more than 280,000 female troops into war zones, Pentagon leaders and women who served have said gender discrimination no longer makes sense.
“I’m real excited to get this done,” said Representative Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat, who described the task as providing equal opportunity for women. “Combat performance is an important issue when people are looking at moving up in all of these organizations.”
The plan wasn’t embraced as whole-heartedly by all members of the panel.
Representative Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican, said she was worried that integrating women into small ground-combat units risked an increase of sexual assaults in the ranks.
“Have you anticipated what’s going to happen?” Walorski asked. “What’s happening now doesn’t work. Is there research? Is there a plan?”
Beyler said expanding opportunities for women is part of the Pentagon’s strategy to combat sexual assaults. “The more we treat service members equally, the more likely they are to treat each other with respect,” she said.
For the Marines, where women are 7 percent of the force, “it’s going to be a crawl-walk-run process, but we’re looking at that,” said Marine Corps Lieutenant General Robert Milstead, deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs.
Representative Niki Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat, suggested men and women may need different training to reach the same standards.
“Yes, you want the standards to be gender-neutral, but you may need to train for the standards in different ways in order to have success,” Tsongas said.
Milstead said the Marines already have gender-specific boot camps. “They need to be nurtured different,” he said. “They just need different steps as they go. They get to the same place. They’re Marines.”
The path to the front combat lines may be most complicated for special-operations forces, such as those that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
“Our concerns about integration generally center upon the impact on unit cohesion,” Major General Bennet Sacolick, director of force management and development for the U.S. Special Operations Command, said in written testimony.
Sacolick said his command has asked RAND Corp. to provide an independent analysis of qualification standards, with an assessment to be completed by July 2014 and recommendations to be submitted by July 2015.
Army Lieutenant General Howard Bromberg, deputy chief of staff for Army personnel, said he’s prepared to respond to misperceptions that standards will be lowered.
“We’re going to have to lay the facts out,” he said.
The use of valid, equal standards for men and women should make clear the fairness of job qualifications, he said.
“We’re going to eliminate males in some cases,” Bromberg said. “A standard’s a standard.”
Judge To Decide More Than Manning’s Fate
Lind prefers to keep low profile, but ruling in highly public case may be far-reaching
By Billy Kenber
From her position on the bench, Judge Denise Lind, an Army colonel, is just feet away from the slight, bespectacled private whose fate has been placed in her hands.
For more than seven weeks, Lind has presided over the biggest trial of her career, the court martial of Bradley Manning. And the imminent verdict – Lind’s alone to decide – could have far-reaching implications for the future leaking and publication of classified defense information, according to press freedom and civil liberties groups.
Closing arguments in the trial of Manning, a former intelligence analyst in Iraq, begin Thursday. If he is convicted on all charges, the 25-year-old faces life in prison for passing 700,000 classified military and diplomatic documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
Lind’s handling of the trial has already drawn the ire of Manning’s supporters who accuse the judge, a 53-year-old career officer, of favoring the government. They have cited her recent decision to let stand the most serious charge, aiding the enemy. Lind accepted the prosecution’s argument that Manning should have known that al-Qaeda could access the material once WikiLeaks posted it.
“I think it’s just outrageous for her to support the notion that essentially any leak to the Internet of classified information is aiding the enemy,” said Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers, a classified official history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
But Lisa Schenck, associate dean for academic affairs at the George Washington University Law School, where Lind teaches, said the judge is a model of fairness.
“She’ll go through every bit of evidence and every element of proof, and she will be 100 percent sure that the government meets its burden,” Schenck said. “She is the most thorough person that you could put on that trial.”
Born Denise Rose Fitzgerald on Dec. 18, 1959, Lind grew up in Upstate New York, close to the U.S.-Canada border. She was an only child in a family with no history in the military, friends said. She surprised her parents by signing up for the ROTC while studying political science at Siena College, a small, Franciscan liberal arts college in New York state.
John Christian, a classmate at Siena, said that at the time there were few women in the ROTC, which trains commissioned officers and requires a “tough physicality.”
“It was swimming upstream, moving against the norm, so you really had to have more backbone and idea of where you wanted to go,” said Christian, who recalled Lind as a hardworking and serious student who was “clearly towards the higher end academically.”
After graduating in 1982, Lind went to Albany Law School, where she met her future husband, Scott. The pair enlisted in the Army’s legal division, the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps.
Fourteen years ago, while studying for a master’s degree in law, Lind wrote her thesis on what was to prove a remarkably prescient topic: the media’s right of access to military cases.
In a published version, she indicated that she supported opening up military justice to scrutiny, arguing that existing restrictions on access to proceedings “violate the media First Amendment right of access.”
But some of the Manning case has been heard behind closed doors, and Lind rejected requests for official transcripts to be provided, forcing supporters to crowd-source funding for their own stenographers.
“If you read her article, she gives the appearance of someone who would be eager to see greater transparency in military courts,” said Shane Kadidal, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights. However, when the center made an application seeking the release of transcripts, filings and court orders, Lind rejected the requests, which Kadidal described as “a slap-dash treatment of what we thought was a pretty serious issue.”
Lind, a registered Democrat, according to voting records, has been a military judge since 2004. Her only previous brush with public attention came in 2010, when she presided over the case of Col. Terrence Lakin.
Lakin, an Army flight surgeon who refused to deploy to Afghanistan because he believed “birther” conspiracy theories that President Obama was not born in the United States, was sentenced to six months in military prison.
According to friends, Lind prefers to keep a low profile and doesn’t read newspaper or online reports about herself.
Schenck, who met Lind in 1999 when they shared an office in the criminal law division at JAG’s Rosslyn headquarters, described her as someone who “reads criminal law for fun.” Lind has continued to teach a summer course at George Washington University during the Manning trial.
“There’s no down time with Denise Lind. She’s intense; she’s really intense,” said Schenck, describing her friend as a keen skier and someone who runs five miles every day.
“If she doesn’t run, she’s, like, totally wired,” she added.
Under the military justice system, Manning could have elected to be tried by a panel of officers and enlisted personnel. Instead, he decided to be tried by a single judge.
Lind cannot have failed to notice some of the intense scrutiny she is under and the political attention the case has attracted. She reacted angrily when a covert recording of Manning’s testimony was posted on the Internet, and activists wearing black T-shirts with the slogan “Truth” have been in a Fort Meade, Md., courtroom every day.
Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said it has been “disappointing to see that almost every ruling, whether they’re major or minor, seems to go against the defense.” Other activists highlighted Lind’s rulings on Manning’s right to a speedy trial – the defendant spent three years in pretrial confinement, but the judge found the delays had been “reasonable.”
Schenck said Lind has already been informed that she will take up a new position, as a judge on the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, when the Manning trial ends. And she said Lind will not be swayed by the politics of the case.
“She’s oblivious to the media,” Schenck said. “She’s not afraid to do the right thing. If the guy was not guilty, she would acquit him.”
The Washington Post
Decidedly Dysfunctional House Pressures Veterans Affairs Leaders To Be More Productive
By Joe Davidson
The notably unproductive House wants to cut the pay of top Veterans Affairs officials if the department doesn’t significantly reduce its disability claims backlog by next year.
Legislation approved by the House would slice 25 percent from the pay of the agency’s senior political leadership if a goal is not met. The portion of disability claims 125 days old could not exceed 40 percent by July 1 next year. As of Saturday, 65 percent of the claims were more than 125 days old, according to VA.
Wages – from the department’s secretary through the assistant secretaries – would be cut for a three-month period from July 1 through Sept. 30, 2014.
“The pace with which the VA is examining claims is unacceptable and must be fixed,” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), the sponsor of the provision, said in a statement. “When a soldier puts his life on the line for this country, he shouldn’t be left waiting a year for help when he gets home. . . . If the leadership at the VA cannot reduce the backlog, they should see their pay cut.”
The department already has stopped giving bonuses to some of its senior executives.
“Based on VBA’s [the Veterans Benefits Administration] organizational performance goals, senior executives will not receive performance awards for FY 2012,” said Victoria Dillon, acting press secretary. “Instead, the funds will be reinvested to accelerate elimination of the backlog.”
Across the agency, bonuses dropped from $3.3 million in 2009 to $2.3 million in 2012.
Despite Kingston’s contention, there has been progress on the backlog.
“Today, VA has the lowest total claims inventory since August 2011,” Secretary Eric K. Shinseki told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Louisville on Tuesday. “Barring any changes in entitlements, this number will continue to decline, and VA remains committed to eliminating the backlog in disability claims in 2015.”
During the past three months, “the backlog has dropped from 591,000 to 515,000,” he said. “Claims over two years old have dropped from over 42,000 to about 1,700.”
If that’s not enough for Kingston, fair enough. But perhaps his pay cut solution also should apply to Congress, particularly the House and especially the Republicans who control that chamber.
Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, criticized the House bill as politically motivated and said it ignored progress that the VA is making in reducing the backlog.
At a Wednesday afternoon news briefing on Capitol Hill, Sanders jokingly suggested that House members instead consider docking their own pay based on the legislation they pass. “Those guys would end up owing money,” he said.
But it’s no joke.
Citing a report by Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute, my colleague Chris Cillizza wrote last week that “the 112th Congress (2011-2013) got less done than any Congress in more than six decades.”
A recent Huffington Post headline also tells the story: “113th Congress on Pace to be Least Productive in Modern History.” The article, updated on July 11, said that “the current Congress has had just 15 bills signed into law so far, the fewest in recent history.”
That has real ramifications for the government and its staffers, but apparently it’s fine with the top man in the House, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “[W] e should not be judged on how many new laws we create,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “We ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal.”
Republicans are even refusing to cooperate on a new budget, which directly affects federal agencies, their workplaces and employees. The Senate and the House have approved separate spending plans, but Republicans refuse to agree to a conference committee that would work out differences in the bills.
“We have called upon the speaker of the House to appoint conferees to negotiate on the budget,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told his colleagues Tuesday. “He has refused.”
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, unconvincingly placed the blame for no House conferees on Senate Democrats. The usual practice, he said, is for “the House and Senate Budget committee leaders to come to an agreement on a framework before formally appointing conferees. . . . It is difficult, obviously, to reach such an agreement when the Senate Democrats’ budget never, ever balances.”
Federal employees, more than the average citizen, know from experience that is more than just another political gambit. No budget means uncertainty – uncertainty for employees and uncertainty for their ability to serve the public.
“By not going to budget conference – let’s be clear,” Van Hollen said. Republicans “want to take us right up to the cliff of government shutdown in the beginning of October, next fiscal year. They’re talking about once again rolling the dice and playing a game of chicken as to whether or not the United States pays its bills on time.
“That is no way for the federal government to conduct itself.”
Steve Vogel contributed to this report.