Good morning Chairman Craig, Senator Akaka, and other
distinguished Members of this Committee. It is my privilege this morning to
present to you the thoughts and views of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA)
on the funding priorities and issues of significance for veterans and our
It has been said many times, only half-jokingly, that Americans have the
shortest attention span of all mammals. What makes headlines today most of
us forget about six months from now. Remember Chandra Levy?
Veterans, though, have long memories. We remember why we served, what we
saw, what we did when we donned the uniform to serve our country. We
remember our comrades, those who died and most of the rest who were forever
changed by having donned the uniform.
We also remember last July, when Congress and the Administration were
embarrassed by the revelation that the Department of Veterans Affairs was
$800 million in the hole in meeting its health care obligations. After a
flurry of meetings and a spate of publicity, Congress moved quickly, if
belatedly, to do the right thing for veterans, even as this shortfall grew
by several hundred million dollars as the VA suddenly “discovered” it was
treating 103,000 OEF and OIF veterans rather than 26,000. Some 144,000 of
our newest veterans are now being treated at VA facilities.
To your credit, and for this we thank you, you closed this budget gap by
adding $1.5 billion to the VA’s FY’05 operating budget. And you added
another $1.2 billion in “emergency funds” for the current fiscal year which,
we fear will still not be enough for the VA to maintain its current level of
care, even with a reported $1.1 billion carryover in the VA’s budget. You
cited, correctly, some of the problems inherent in how the VA predicts the
usage and attendant costs of its health care operations. While we are hardly
omniscient, VVA’s budget projections and those of the Independent Budget
were right on the money, again.
FY’07 Budget This year, we believe the Administration’s budget
request, despite the hype, is short by at least $4.2 billion, $1.9 billion
of which would open enrollment to Priority 8 veterans who were “temporarily”
restricted from enrolling in the VA’s health care system in January 2003. If
the ban on statutorily eligible Priority 8s continues, VVA believes the
budget for health care is still short by some $2.3 billion.
The real effect of this shortfall is felt in the VISNs, in the VA medical
centers, where the real work – patient care – is done. Next time you are
back home, next time you visit one of the VA medical centers in your state,
ask around how they’re doing with the current budget constraints. We think
you’ll be surprised by what you learn.
VVA believes that the budget for veterans’ health care should not be capped
by the need to control the deficit – a need that is exacerbated by tax cuts
that benefit the wealthiest among us – but by the needs of the eligible
veterans who choose to utilize the VA for their health care.
We’ve said this before and we’ll say this again: Had the VA’s health care
budget not been flat-lined for four years just as eligibility reform was
opening the system to hundreds of thousands of deserving veterans, we would
be discussing a budget $8- to $10-billion greater than it has been, than
what is proposed for FY’07.
This year, yet again, we dispute the numbers in the Administration’s budget
request. It is not enough money, even to properly take care of those already
in the system. Along with the other veterans’ service organizations, VVA
will expend countless hours and considerable energy arguing about and
fighting for funding that is sufficient to meet the needs of the veterans
the VA serves.
This is one battle we should not have to wage. Instead, we should be working
together to fashion a formula for funding the VA’s health care operations.
We challenge Congress here and now: Form a bipartisan group to meet, study
the issues and options, hold hearings, and recommend legislation that would
fundamentally change the way in which veterans health care is funded to
ensure adequate funding for veterans’ health care.
VVA believes, in concert with other eight VSOs that comprise The Partnership
for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform, that a fair funding formula can be
arrived at, one that won’t bust the budget, one that recognizes our nation’s
obligations to veterans and is indexed to medical inflation and the per
capita use of the VA health care system.
Adjudication Backlog What sometimes gets lost in the debate over
sufficient funding for veterans’ health care is the continuing backlog in
the adjudication of claims at the Veterans Benefits Administration. More
than 525,000 cases have been in various stages of adjudication for far too
long now. The VA projects this situation will get worse, yet only requests
funding for 130 new employees for all of the VBA for FY 2007. Congress needs
to ensure that the new platoon of adjudicators is properly trained,
supervised, and, along with their supervisors and managers, held accountable
for their work.
We believe that Congress must demand an explanation from the VA as to why it
takes upwards of two and a half years to adjudicate cases. Congress must
demand that the VA not only develop but put into practice a real strategy
for unclogging the system. (The VA might try to triage cases, akin to what
military medical personnel do as casualties are brought in from the field of
battle.) There’s no reason why a veteran who has all of his paperwork in
order in making a claim for, say, tinnitus must wait a year or more. There
should be no reason why his claim can’t be adjudicated in sixty to ninety
Greater Accountability We do not make the argument, however, that
budget reform is an end in and of itself. It is, rather, a means to an end.
It must be accomplished hand-in-hand with real changes in how VA senior
managers and middle managers perform. Give “attaboys” and bonuses to those
who have earned them; give warnings and sanctions to those who have not done
their jobs well. Please do not get us wrong: The overwhelming number of
those who work at the VA are dedicated to helping veterans, and we applaud
the efforts they make every day. But better management – and training -- is
needed if efficiencies are to be increased.
Expanded Outreach According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, there
are more than 25 million veterans in the United States today. Only around
one-fifth of them have any real interaction with the Department of Veterans
Affairs. However, many of them, particularly in-country Vietnam veterans,
are eligible for compensation for several maladies incurred during their
military service – and far too many remain unaware of the benefits to which
their service entitles them.
These are not just veterans who have been having difficulties coping with
life. As an example, in speaking with one Navy veteran, we learned that he
had served in-country in Vietnam. When he mentioned that he had suffered
with prostate cancer, we asked if he knew that this was service-connected
compensable, presumptive to exposure to Agent Orange. This was news to him.
And he is a lawyer with the IRS here in Washington, D.C.
VVA believes that the VA has an obligation to reach out to all veterans to
ensure to the maximum extent possible that they know what benefits they have
earned, and they know how to access these benefits. This is starting to
happen as VA personnel are assigned to the bases where active-duty personnel
transition to civilian life and veteran status. This, however, is hardly
We commend to you legislation – S. 1342 – introduced by Mr. Feingold that
would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a separate
account for the funding of the outreach activities of his department – and a
sub-account for the funding of the outreach activities of each element
within the department. This legislation would assist states in carrying out
programs that offer a high probability of improving outreach and assistance
to veterans – and to their spouses, children, and parents who may be
eligible to receive veterans’ benefits. We urge members of this committee to
seriously consider holding hearings on this bill.
This morning, rather than offer a laundry list of issues and priorities, VVA
is focusing on specific issues that demand our best efforts to achieve and
warrant your attention and support.
Fee-Basis Health Care Approximately 60 percent of OEF/OIF service
members, particularly in the National Guard and the Reserves, come from
rural areas. Despite the VA’s network of clinics, too many of these
returnees and other veterans do not live near a VA clinic or medical center.
They are at a distinct disadvantage in accessing VA health care. When the VA
cannot provide the highest quality care, within a reasonable distance or
travel time from a veteran’s home, the VA has a duty to provide care via a
fee-basis provider of choice for service-disabled veterans. VA personnel who
deal with these veterans must be aware of their duty in this regard.
This most assuredly does not mean that the VA should begin to dismantle its
network of healthcare facilities and outsource, or privatize, VA services,
as some might encourage. It does mean that Congress must ensure that every
effort is made so that veterans – particularly our newest veterans – receive
timely care from providers.
Military History The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) must become
a true “veterans health care system” instead of a general health care system
that happens to be for veterans. Without taking a complete military history
of its patients, this is just not possible. We cannot state emphatically
enough the need for VA clinicians to take a complete military history as a
matter of course for all veterans currently in or entering the VA health
care system. This must be part of the automated patient treatment record, so
that it can be keyed to training, be the basis of clinical reminders based
on the veterans’ military record, and focus the general mindset of all
clinicians at VA toward being a true “veterans health care system.”
What is true for VA clinicians is true as well for private clinicians. A
medical professional who knows a patient is a veteran, and knows a patient’s
military history, should have a better idea about what that patient may have
been exposed to, what emotional trauma were faced that will have ongoing
physical and/or mental repercussions.
Military Sexual Trauma It has become clear in the last decade that
sexual harassment and sexual abuse are far more rampant than what had been
acknowledged by the military. Reported instances of sexual harassment and
abuse represent only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. While we are
gladdened that both the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs seem now
to be taking this seriously, even acknowledging sexual trauma as a crime in
the Defense Authorization Act of 2005, there is still a long road to travel
to change the current atmosphere that conditions victims of sexual abuse to
not report this abuse to authorities. We urge Congress to call for a review
of the penalties for military sexual trauma under the Uniform Code of
Military Justice to determine if the penalties are commensurate with the
offenses, and to act to ensure uniform enforcement in all branches of the
VVA also shall seek, via legislation or regulation, to re-authorize the
biennial report of the Advisory Committee on Women Veterans, to be submitted
to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs for response and then to Members of
Congress; and we shall seek as well legislation to provide contract care,
for up to 14 days post-delivery, for infants born to women veterans who
receive delivery benefits through the VA.
VA Research - Perhaps the coalition of Friends of VA Medical Care and
Health Research endorsing a $48 million increase in appropriations for
medical and prosthetics research – and $45 million for facilities
improvements – did not reach the right ears yet. It should be clear to all,
however, that the $13 million “hit” the VA research budget will take if the
Administration’s proposal is approved is unconscionable, particularly in a
time of war. Research may not reap immediate benefits, but research is
critical in finding answers to the unique medical problems of veterans, and
treatments that ease pain and save lives. The VA research program results in
discoveries that advance the fields of mental and physical rehabilitation,
increase research on blast injuries and burns, study means to improve the
quality of health care delivery, and continue investigation on addressing
chronic diseases and their complications.
VVA urges a significant increase, not any decrease, in funding VA research.
VVA also calls for a separate line item of $25 million in Research &
Development funds to fund the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study (NVVLS),
with report language compelling the rapid resumption and early completion of
this vital study. (See further explication below.)
Agent Orange Far too many in-country Vietnam veterans are afflicted
with serious, life-threatening diseases at a relatively young age, diseases
that we believe are borne of exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides,
defoliants, and desiccants during their tour of duty in the jungles and rice
paddies of Southeast Asia. Congress must provide the funds for study by
reputable scientists into the long-term health effects of dioxin, the
culprit element in Agent Orange. Some of this research must focus on the
intergenerational effects of exposure on the children – and on future
generations – of Vietnam veterans.
Even though VVA agrees that funds should no longer be expended on the flawed
Air Force Ranch Hand Study, we fully intend to work to ensure that the data
gleaned from this study, as well as the tissue samples, are properly stored
and accessible for legitimate scientific study.
Lung Cancer and Veterans As the VA acknowledged in 1994, there is
mounting evidence of a “positive association” between exposure to herbicides
– like Agent Orange – and the subsequent development of respiratory cancers.
Additionally, a series of studies over the past 20 years has linked military
service to higher smoking rates and smoking-related diseases and deaths.
Because lung cancer is usually not diagnosed until late stage, making
treatment costly and not very effective – the mortality rate for lung cancer
is 85 percent – VVA urges Congress to mandate that the VA institute an early
detection and screening program for all veterans – and especially Vietnam
veterans – at high risk for this lethal cancer.
Project 112/SHAD VVA has been and will continue to work diligently to
ensure the passage of The Veterans’ Right to Know Commission Act (H.R.
4259). This legislation, introduced by Reps. Mike Thompson (D-California)
and Denny Rehberg (R-Montana), would empower an independent commission to
delve into the history and non-disclosure of information to American service
members who participated in the testing of chemical and biological
substances as part of the Project 112/SHAD program.
This bill is about achieving justice for those Americans whose health may
have been compromised by toxic elements to which they were exposed. Most
were exposed unwittingly. The VA acknowledges that at least 70,000 service
members may have been exposed in tests that go back to the end of World War
II. Those still living, and the survivors of those no longer with us, should
be provided with the information they need to resolve questions about their
health, and to make claims for service-connected disabilities derived from
their participation in these tests.
Additionally, the legislation entitling a veteran who was in one of the
Project 112/SHAD tests to medical services at the VA must be reauthorized
and extended; and we extend our thanks to Senator Brownback for his
leadership in this realm. VVA strongly recommends that the VA be required to
issue a national protocol for these physicals based on the agents, simulants,
tracers, and decontaminants to which 112/SHAD veterans were potentially
PTSD and Substance Abuse VVA believes that the National Vietnam Veterans
Longitudinal Study (NVVLS), a follow-up to a study done some twenty years
ago, must be funded – and the VA compelled to immediately re-initiate this
statutorily mandated study and bring it to an early and proper conclusion.
The NVVLS represents the last best chance we have of understanding the scope
of the health of Vietnam veterans. Line-item funding for this study and
strong explicit report language are needed to compel the VA to fulfill its
responsibility to comply with the mandate set by Congress in Public Law
106-419, The Veterans’ Benefits and Health Care Improvement Act of 2000.
Just as important, Congress must take the necessary steps to ensure that the
organizational capacity and funding of the VA’s mental health programs for
the diagnosis and treatment of the neuro-psychiatric wounds of war are
restored to at least the level of effort that existed in FY’96. So many
veterans of the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are returning home haunted
by their experiences. We do a disservice to them if we do not provide the
necessary mental health services that they require.
As all of us are aware, PTSD has been a hot topic of late. The 108th
Congress authorized and funded the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission
to research and make recommendations as to how service-connected disability
compensation is adjudicated, if the manner in which the VA adjudicates
claims is in accord with the intent and will of Congress. The very existence
of this commission, combined with the VA’s ill-advised – and now revoked –
decision to conduct a retrospective review of some 72,000 cases in which
veterans were granted 100 percent disability compensation for PTSD, has left
many veterans fearing that their benefits will somehow be reduced or taken
The VA is obliged to use as a guidepost for the diagnosis of PTSD the mental
health standards set forth in the current edition of the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. VVA believes
strongly that if VA adjudicators are properly trained and supervised, if
they follow the VA’s own “Best Practices” manual, the hubbub surrounding the
variation in awards for PTSD would be silenced. The VA specifically and
firmly refuses to utilize its own “Best Practices” for PTSD adjudication.
Now, four years after the completion of the manual, and having refused to
use it to train clinical or adjudication staff, or to issue a directive on
its use – or to even distribute a copy of the manual – the VA is awaiting
the results of a study by the Institute of Medicine to let VA officials know
if how they adjudicate PTSD claims is the “gold standard” or if they need to
do things differently. We have been monitoring this closely, and we will
continue to monitor it to ensure that veterans whose lives have never been
quite the same since they came home from a war – from a jungle or desert or
rice paddy or metropolis – are protected from any undue or hasty changes in
Employment, Training, and Business Opportunities VVA will continue to
work to ensure that all provisions of executive orders, public laws, and
legislation pertaining to the employment, training, and business
opportunities for all veterans, and especially for service-disabled
veterans, be enforced. State, local, and federal agencies that work
diligently to meet the spirit and intent of these provisions should be
rewarded; any attempts to weaken the provisions should receive appropriate
For the Secretary of Labor to continue to implement the Jobs for Veterans
Act as it has been is astonishing. A recent Government Accountability Office
report is far too kind to the Department of Labor, which has made no
progress in the past three years to put in place a system to gather
information to learn if the Jobs for Veterans Act is actually working and
meeting the intent of Congress. In fact, the DOL has done nothing of
consequence to implement “priority of service” for veterans, particularly
disabled veterans and returning service members.
In fact, there is no real national strategy to assist returning veterans,
including National Guard and Reservists, who are unemployed or
under-employed – and some 15 percent of our newest veterans have yet to find
gainful employment. Similarly, there is no effective mechanism in place for
enforcing veterans’ preference, and we have an Administration that appeals a
case against a disabled veteran who had finally won his case before the
Merit System Protection Board pursuant to The Veterans Employment
Opportunities Act of 1998.
It is imperative that re-education and work skills upgrades, including
self-employment, be made a priority by those agencies of government that
provide these services, especially considering the battalions of seriously
and permanently disabled veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Additionally, VVA implores Congress to begin an investigation into the
disparities of the Compensated Work Therapy programs in the Veterans Health
Administration, which we believe is just not doing the job they were created
to do, of creating a bridge to permanent employment.
Homeless Veterans It is a national scandal that so many men – and,
increasingly, women – who have served our nation now do not have a roof over
their head, a place to call home. Although there are many reasons that have
caused them to become homeless, they deserve our best efforts to help them
salvage their lives.
Public Law 107-95, The Homeless Veterans Assistance Act of 2000, must be
sufficiently funded and its provisions fully implemented – including the
maximum appropriations stipulated in a variety of homeless assistance
programs. Furthermore, we believe that congressional action is necessary to
readdress what has emerged as a difficulty: VA Homeless Grant and Per Diem
funding must be considered a payment rather than a reimbursement for
expenses, an important change that will enable the community-based
organizations that deliver the majority of these services to operate
effectively and to require that the Department of Housing and Urban
Development comply with section 12 of P.L 107-95 authorizing 500, additional
HUD/VASH vouchers in FY03, FY04, FY05 and FY06. HUD acknowledges in a letter
of December 5, that these funds have not been appropriated and that housing
needs of homeless American is one of the top priorities, of the department,
if this is so, then why are they leaving about 2,000 homeless veterans’
without the most vial resources they need a safe and secure place to live by
not asking Congress to appropriate these vouchers.
Compensation and Pension To promote uniform claims decisions, current
policy must be changed to permit VA staff and VSO service representatives to
collaborate in developing uniform training materials, programs, and
competency-based re-certification exams.
VVA also seeks to secure a pension for Gold Star parents, many of whom are
in dire financial straits and have lost the son or daughter who might have
been able to assist them in their old age.
For currently deployed or soon-to-be deployed troops, VVA believes that
greater financial protections are warranted for their security and the
security of their loved ones. For the survivors of those who die in military
service, we seek a permanent prohibition of offsets of Survivor’s Benefit
Plan and Dependency & Indemnity Compensation.
Finally, a change in the law is necessary to permit service members wounded
in combat and placed on temporary disability status to be considered as
remaining on active duty for the purpose of computing leave and retirement
A New Generation of Veterans The force readiness plan being developed
by the Pentagon at the behest of Congress must include a full medical
examination, to include a blood draw and a psychosocial history by a
qualified clinician, for all troops prior to their deployment overseas and
upon their redeployment.
Because our newest veterans appear to be suffering the psychological
stresses and disorders in far greater numbers than even we of the Vietnam
generation, it is imperative that a system of acute stress counseling and
PTSD counseling be emplaced, a system funded by DoD and delivered by VA
personnel and private practitioners. This counseling must be made available
to Reservists and members of the National Guard and their families in
addition to active-duty troops.
POW/MIA The fullest possible accounting of the fate of American
service members who had been Prisoners of War or who had been declared
Missing in Action has long been a keynote of Vietnam Veterans of America. To
further VVA’s long-standing efforts in this regard, we urge Congress to
appropriate additional funds to put more teams on the ground to conduct
searches for remains in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
VVA also urges that all documents relevant to the status of POW/MIAs be
declassified and released to the public; and we ask Congress to pass a
resolution urging the government of Vietnam to provide all relevant wartime
records and to continue to repatriate the remains of American service
members that have been recovered.
Finally, we seek funding for a public awareness program to inform all the
families of those still listed as POW/MIA of the need to provide DNA family
reference samples for potential identification of recovered remains.
To lose a son or daughter, father or sister or mother or brother is
difficult enough for families to deal with. To not know the fate of their
loved ones places these families in emotional limbo. We must do all that we
can to bring closure to them. And to all of us.
Attach please find as an addendum the VVA 2006 Legislative Agenda & Policy
Thank You To conclude, the members and their families of Vietnam
Veterans of America, and the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America,
thank all of you in Congress who have served our nation, and those of you
who continue to serve veterans and their families as members of this
committee. I will be more happy to answer any question you may have.
Never Again Will One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another
VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA
March 30, 2006
The national organization Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) is a non-profit
veterans membership organization registered as a 501(c)(19) with the
Internal Revenue Service. VVA is also appropriately registered with the
Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives in
compliance with the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995.
VVA is not currently in receipt of any federal grant or contract, other than
the routine allocation of office space and associated resources in VA
Regional Offices for outreach and direct services through its Veterans
Benefits Program (Service Representatives). This is also true of the
previous two fiscal years.
For Further Information, Contact:
Director of Government Relations
Vietnam Veterans of America.
(301) 585-4000, extension 127
John Rowan was elected National President of Vietnam Veterans of America at
VVA’s Twelfth National Convention in Reno, Nevada, in August 2005.
John enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1965, two years after graduating from
high school in Queens, New York. He went to language school, where he
learned Indonesian and Vietnamese. He served with the Air Force’s 6990
Security Squadron in Vietnam and at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa helping to
direct bombing missions.
After his honorable discharge, John began college in 1969. He received a BA
in political science from Queens College and a Masters in urban affairs at
Hunter College. Following his graduation from Queens College, John worked in
the district office of Rep. Ben Rosenthal for two years. He then worked as
an investigator for the New York City Council and recently retired from his
job as an investigator with the New York City Comptroller’s office.
Prior to his election as VVA’s National President, John served as a VVA
veterans’ service representative in New York City. John has been one of the
most active and influential members of VVA since the organization was
founded in 1978. He was a founding member and the first president of VVA
Chapter 32 in Queens. He served as the chairman of VVA’s Conference of State
Council Presidents for three terms on the national Board of Directors, and
as president of VVA’s New York State Council.
He lives in Middle Village, New York, with his wife, Mariann.
Richard F. “Rick” Weidman serves as Director of Government Relations on the
National Staff of Vietnam Veterans of America. As such, he is the primary
spokesperson for VVA in Washington. He served as a 1-A-O Army Medical
Corpsman during the Vietnam War, including service with Company C, 23rd Med,
AMERICAL Division, located in I Corps of Vietnam in 1969.
Mr. Weidman was part of the staff of VVA from 1979 to 1987, serving
variously as Membership Service Director, Agency Liaison, and Director of
Government Relations. He left VVA to serve in the Administration of Governor
Mario M. Cuomo as statewide director of veterans’ employment & training
(State Veterans Programs Administrator) for the New York State Department of
He has served as Consultant on Legislative Affairs to the National Coalition
for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), and served at various times on the VA
Readjustment Advisory Committee, the Secretary of Labor’s Advisory Committee
on Veterans Employment & Training, the President’s Committee on Employment
of Persons with Disabilities - Subcommittee on Disabled Veterans, Advisory
Committee on Veterans’ Entrepreneurship at the Small Business
Administration, and numerous other advocacy posts. He currently serves as
Chairman of the Task Force for Veterans’ Entrepreneurship, which has become
the principal collective voice for veteran and disabled veteran
Mr. Weidman was an instructor and administrator at Johnson State College
(Vermont) in the 1970s, where he was also active in community and veterans
affairs. He attended Colgate University (B.A., 1967), and did graduate study
at the University of Vermont.
He is married and has four children.