The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

May/June 2005
GOVERNMENT RELATIONS
 
 

Truth To Power: VVA's Congressional Testimony

BY AVERY TAYLOR, CHAIR, VVA GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS COMMITTEE,
WITH VVA GOVERNMENT RELATIONS STAFF

Every year, the U.S. House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees meet in joint session to hear testimony from the major veterans service organizations. On April 14, VVA President Thomas H. Corey, accompanied by Government Affairs Chair Avery Taylor, Veterans Affairs Chair Bruce Whitaker, and Government Relations Director Rick Weidman, delivered VVA’s message.

These sessions are usually staid and formal. But this year VVA delivered a forthright message that brought the audience to applause and even to its feet several times. These are difficult times for veterans advocates. We’re printing VVA’s testimony (slightly edited) here. It’s your organization; it’s your message. —Ed.

Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.):
It’s an honor and a privilege to introduce to the committee my constituent, personal friend and adviser, and current president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Mr. Thomas Corey.

Tom entered the Army and was sent to Vietnam in 1967, where he served as a squad leader with the 1st Air Cavalry Division. While engaged in an assault against enemy positions on January 31, 1968, he received an enemy round in the neck, which hit his spinal cord and left him paralyzed. After a long hospitalization, Tom returned to his family in Detroit. He moved south to my hometown of West Palm Beach in 1972.

He has been and continues to be involved in veterans’ advocacy. He has received numerous awards for his work on behalf of veterans and the disabled. Tom has returned to Vietnam many times, working on POW/MIA and Agent Orange issues. He was also the first recipient of the Vietnam Veterans of America Commendation Medal, VVA’s highest award for service to veterans, their families, and their community.

I sincerely appreciate the advice and counsel he has given me over the years. It’s a great opportunity to introduce him to you, Chairman Buyer [Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.)], and members of the committee.

VVA President Thomas H. Corey:
Mr. Chairman, ranking members, and other distinguished members here today: On behalf of the membership of Vietnam Veterans of America, we are grateful for this opportunity to present to you VVA’s legislative agenda and policy initiatives. I will briefly summarize these priorities and ask that our written statement be part of the record.

This statement reflects our position on issues affecting homeless veterans, Agent Orange, PTSD and other mental health issues, compensation and pension benefits, women veterans, employment training and business opportunities for veterans, and taking care of our Gold Star moms and other survivors of our KIAs.

Mr. Chairman, our highest national priority is the fullest possible accounting of our POW/MIAs. VVA advocates increased resources to deploy more search teams
in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Korea, and other parts of the world where American soldiers are still in battle.

Chairman Buyer, you’ll recall VVA recognized your leadership on this issue with an award in 1998. We know you’ll continue to press for the fullest possible accounting, and we look forward to working closely with you, particularly with regard to our Veterans Initiative program.

Chairman Craig [Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho)], we applaud your efforts to make more dollars available for VA health care, as well as for state veterans’ homes and VA nursing homes. We thank you, Mr. Buyer, for endorsing funding for veterans’ homes. We hope to work with you on issues vital to the well-being of veterans and their families.

As you heard from our colleagues and other VSOs, the foremost legislative priorities for us are always twofold. First, we need to achieve sufficient funding for VA medical programs for the next fiscal year.

What the president has proposed, we maintain, is arguably $4 billion short. Without additional dollars, there will be staff cuts at every Medical Center in the nation.

Second, we hope you will see the wisdom of creating a mechanism that will insure in every budget cycle sufficient sustainable funding to enable the VA to properly care for the veterans who depend upon it to meet their health care needs.

By “sufficient,” we mean funding that at least matches the per capita funding increases for Medicare patients, funding that takes into account annual medical inflation to insure the VA of a reliable, predictable, and consistent level of funding.

I know that many of you have visited Operation Iraqi Freedom and Iraq Operation Enduring Freedom returnees at Bethesda Naval Medical Center or Walter Reed Army Medical Center or the military hospital or VA Medical Center in your home state. Most of you have some idea of the trials and dangers military service poses to those who are intimately acquainted with its violence and deprivations.

Many of your colleagues and most Americans do not really comprehend the sacrifices made by those who don the uniform to defend the Constitution and the liberties we hold dear.

The resources must be there to properly care for them. We must leave no veteran behind. This care must be considered part of a continuing cost of national defense.

Many of us have grown weary of the tired platitudes and empty praise of our troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why? Because when they come home—some of them physically broken, too many of them mentally or emotionally shattered—we hear that these newly minted veterans somehow will drain the national treasury. The undersecretary for personnel and readiness for the Department of Defense is quoted as saying, “The cost of veterans’ benefits are taking away from the nation’s ability to defend itself.” This is absurd and shameful, and an apology is warranted.

(APPLAUSE)

If it is the will of the American people to constrict the benefits to which veterans are statutorily eligible, VVA challenges Congress here and now to propose, introduce, hold public hearings and debate whether America wants to limit access for certain veterans who are now deemed unworthy to receive VA health care.

The administration has pointed to the increases it has called for. And you and your colleagues have seen fit to grant them over the past four years to fund the VA. These increases, however, have failed to keep pace not only with medical inflation, but also with increases for services by veterans in priority groups.

In the President’s budget proposal, we see the writing on the wall. The enhanced restraint discussed by OMB in testimony in February before the House Budget Committee would eliminate more than one million veterans from the VA health care system—one million veterans.

Some have no service-connected disabilities, but their economic fortunes may be teetering. Others have service-connected disabilities that are rated zero percent compensable. They may be required to pay up to $500 to use the VA medical services. Please note that these men and women generate 40 percent of the third-party reimbursement to the VA coffers.

Please note, too, that this is not a temporary exclusion. To relieve the short-term pressures, for priority 8, this is a planned exclusion intended for the next 20 years. Chairman Buyer, we must tell you that many of your public comments and statements in the past few months have been disturbing and hurtful, and quite frankly, insulting to many of our members.

(APPLAUSE)

They have been taken as a direct and personal attack on our honor and integrity, both as a group and as individuals. VVA has no wish to diverge from our longstanding policy of focusing on the needs of veterans rather than on political parties, partisan politics, or personalities. VVA wants a free, open, and intense debate and dialogue on issues without our integrity or that of our fellow VSOs being called into question. We believe that caring for veterans is not a Democratic cause; it is not a Republic effort; it is an American issue.

(APPLAUSE)

It is one that cuts across all party affiliations. Rather than cut back and give less, it is time to do more. We call on you to enact the bill introduced this week by Congressman Lane Evans that recognizes and deals with the human tolls taken by PTSD and other mental health disorders derived from their experiences on the battlefield.

And we call on the President and Congress to take the first steps toward drafting a real national plan that meets the needs of men and women serving in the military. There must be a comprehensible, coordinated effort akin to what America did for World War II veterans.

Let us not thwart, injure, or impede another generation of American veterans as happened to Vietnam veterans. It is time for our public officials, veterans organizations, recent returnees, and leaders from the private sector to fashion a truly comprehensive response to the needs of OEF/ OIF veterans returning today.

Elements of such a plan must address the needs of veterans suffering from PTSD and other psychological maladies. It must include real transition assistance and health care, employment and small-business assistance. The most intensive efforts must be devoted to the catastrophically wounded.

Such a national undertaking will give real meaning to what otherwise is the empty promise of a plastic yellow ribbon. We must leave no veteran behind.

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Members, and other distinguished members: This may be the last time I come before you as national president of Vietnam Veterans of America. It is my sincere hope that you will heed our words and will read our statement and not be party to any attempt to marginalize those who have served our nation with honor. Let us work together. Let us do the right thing. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.):
I appreciate the gentleman’s testimony. Like many in this room, I come from a family of rich military heritage, following my grandfather and his two brothers in World War I, and my father from Korea, and my brother is on active duty right now just up at Fort Meade, as a colonel. And I’m one of three who continue to serve in Congress and still wear the uniform….

I serve in the Army Reserves and graduated from the Citadel, following my father and my brother’s footsteps….

So considering where we have been in the military dimension, it’s not hard to understand what motivates all of us in our common cause.

As military men and women we’ve all subscribed to what I believe are a core set of values and they serve us well in uniform and they continue to guide us in our lives, long after many of us pack away the uniform.

Those values are duty, honor, courage, respect, integrity, commitment, and service above self. They are more than words to all of us. They are a common bond and they are equally our identity and we rely upon them to guide us through a lot of different turmoil for which we find, whether its in our private life or in our public life or in our business….

So when you joined veterans service organizations, you brought those values with you. The veterans service organizations then define themselves based on core principles and core values because you also must refer to them as you guide yourself in legislation.

So whenever organizations chartered by Congress to be non-partisan get out of kilter, I’ll say it. Because when I wear the uniform, no one ever asks me if I was a Republican or Democrat. When I serve on the Armed Services Committee, we try to work in a bipartisan fashion and this committee has a long history of working in a bipartisan fashion.

You may disagree with me, Mr. Corey, but I want you to know that my internal make-up and my moral compass demands that I never, ever step before the disabled, the special needs, or an indigent. That is my internal compass. And if you disagree with that, I respect you.

Corey:
Since you mentioned my name, I’d like to respond to you.

In my statements, I said I’d like to work with you and the committee and that we need to move on. But there were statements that were made that needed to be addressed, and it hurt a lot of people in our organization, in this room, and I just wanted to clear that up. Let’s move forward and do what we have to do to take care of our veterans. Thank you.

   

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