VVA Testimony VVA Testimony
VVA Testimony


            

Statement
of
 

VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA

  

 

Submitted By

 Richard F. Weidman
Executive Director
for Policy and Government Affairs

Before the

Subcommittee on Defense
Committee on Appropriations
United States Senate

Regarding

FY 2007 Appropriations

May 24, 2006

 



Chairman Stevens, Ranking Member Inouye, and distinguished Senators of the Defense subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, on behalf of VVA National President John P. Rowan and all of our members, we thank you for giving Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) the opportunity to make our views known about the fiscal needs of America’s service persons and our soon-to-be veterans. 

THE SEARCH FOR AMERICA’S MIA/POWS 

First and foremost, I wish to note that the highest priority of VVA for twenty-five years has been, achieving the fullest possible accounting of those who are still unaccounted for in Vietnam. Today there are 1,805 missing and unaccounted for since the end of the Vietnam War since 1975; 1,380 in Vietnam, 364 in Laos, 54 in Cambodia and 7 in PRC territorial waters.  VVA commends the Defense Prisoners of War and Missing in Acton Office (DPMO) for their outstanding work in assisting with the recovery of our missing Americans.   

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) budget for 2006 fell about $3.6 million short and caused the cancellation and scaling back of many investigative and recovery operations. VVA urges Congress to ensure JPAC receives the dedicated funding level of $65 million in FY07 and that JPAC funding be a mandatory single line item budget just as DIA’s Stoney Beach Team and DPMO so that these accounting operations don’t have to compete with other funding priorities.  

Mr. Chairman, every President since President Gerald Ford has noted that the Nation’s highest priority is the fullest possible accounting for our Missing in Action (MIAs), whether they be Prisoners of War or that this activity be recovery of remains, and returning these remains to American soil. In any case, resolution for the families involved is essential and we urge this distinguished body, as we approach Memorial Day and as “Rolling Thunder” is bearing down on the Capitol in honor of POW/MIAs, and to press for the fullest possible accounting of our MIAs and POWs, to ensure that the resources are there to do the job right. 

TRICARE 

VVA strongly opposes the inordinate and unfair increases being discussed for TriCare recipients. These increases would impose yet another disincentive for patriotic Americans to serve their career in uniform defending our nation, and do great injustice to those who have already done so, and to their families.

DoD claims rising health costs impinge on weapons programs. The Joint Chiefs endorse the fee hikes because their leaders tell them that this is the only way there will be enough money to fund needed weapons systems, new equipment, and other materiel needed for the defense of the nation.

For senior Department of Defense leadership to juxtapose caring for service members and former service members when they become veterans with acquiring hardware is so outrageous that it should be cause for public chastisement by the President. If memory serves, the leadership of the Senate Armed Services Committee did rebuke that official at the first public declaration, in a bi-partisan manner. Yet the persistent pattern that would translate this unfortunate attitude into policy and practice continues unabated. You have the ability to call a halt to this affront to the men and women of our Armed Forces by stopping the proposed sharp increases in TriCare cost-shifting to the service members and their families.

 Those who prepare the Defense budget request assume the changes will save money by causing hundreds of thousands of retirees to stop using their earned military benefits. This is a morally wrong policy. Top DoD leaders continue to say fees should bring military closer to civilian practices.  Military service is not analogous to civilian-sector jobs. Some of those who maintain that it is would better understand if they had personally had the honor and privilege of serving our country in the military, particularly during wartime. Any comparison with private sector benefits and health care practices is simply mistaken and inappropriate.

Traditionally, providing first rate military medical and retirement benefits have helped make up for the pay differentials with the private sector, and serve as something of a reward for enduring many years of often very difficult service. The medial care of retirees is not low-cost or no-cost.  Rather, it is a “pre-paid” medical cost by virtue of a hard twenty years or more of military service and sacrifice. Recruiting problems today show few Americans are willing to pay that heavy premium for that benefit.

VVA notes that the DoD proposed increases for health care would far outstrip annual retired pay increases and would greatly erode retired compensation value. Again this year, as was the case in the last few years, Congress wisely has refused to accept VA health fee increases for veterans who are not service connected disabled who had served as few as two years.

Tripling and quadrupling fees for those who served their best adult years in uniform would be even more inappropriate than charging non-career veterans exorbitant fees at VA. Our government has a moral obligation to provide benefits commensurate with the extraordinary commitments it demands from career service members.

VVA notes that dramatically raising TriCare to what for many retirees will be virtually unaffordable levels will also drive many retirees, particularly those who are service-connected disabled, into what is already an overburdened and under-funded VA healthcare system.  While the care at VA is excellent when access is gained, there just are not enough personnel to meet the demand as it is. The additional burden of driving retirees to that system will only displace the burden in an inappropriate manner.

 Although we would certainly hope this is not the case, perhaps it is the explicit or inadvertent wish of some at DoD to foist their responsibilities for the health of service members and former service members off onto the VA in a less than responsible manner. Whether this is the intent or not, it would certainly be the effect. However, we trust that this Subcommittee will not allow such tactics, recognizing that caring for the men and women who have faithfully and honorably served our nation is in fact an indispensable element of the essential cost of national defense, and keeping America free.

ELIMINATE THE “WIDOWS” TAX

VVA strongly urges that FY 2007 must be the year that we as a Nation move to eliminate the “widow’s tax.” I speak of course of the situation in which there is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) vs. the Survivor Benefits Plan (SBP) annuity payments. VVA encourages the Senate not wait for the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission report to do what is so clearly the right thing. VVA urges that you end the dollar-for-dollar deduction of VA benefits for service-connected deaths from survivors' SBP annuities.

Further, we urge that you move the effective date of the thirty-year paid-up SBP coverage to Oct 1, 2005, (This measure affects retired military who pay for SBP). VVA believes that there is no justification for further delay in eliminating what is essentially an unjust tax on widows of our service members.

RESEARCH: EXTRACORPOREAL SHOCKWAVE THERAPY (ESWT)

The number and variety of burns and other terrible wounds afflicting OIF/OEF Veterans have caused great problems with regenerating tissue and skin over significant sections of the bodies of our wounded soldiers and Marines. VVA participated in a briefing last weekend with Admiral Donald Arthur, Surgeon General of the Navy, and many key staff of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center (Bethesda) regarding ESWT or a private company, Tissue Regeneration Technologies (TRT), which is bringing this technology to the United States, made this compelling presentation. All are intersted in bringing this hopeful new technology to our wounded.   

The MTS 180 multiwave device is quite simple to use, takes minimal time and effort to apply, and most importantly has been demonstrated clearly to do no harm.  There will be a direct benefit for US soldiers wounded in battle should this be approved.  TRT believes, as does the clinical staff at WRAMC and NNMC, that the multiwave device can provide much quicker healing of the war wounds presented and thus save limbs from amputation and have each young man and woman return to a more normal life with their families after their duty in the military.  The device promises to have a huge impact on those patients who have a difficult time recovering from wounds received in the line of duty. 

Research on this therapy worldwide has demonstrated ingrowth of new blood vessels in areas lacking such, destruction of bacterial pathogens, production of growth factors and other processes that lead to healing of tissues (bone and skin) in a rapid fashion. TRT has agreed to donate a device to the WRAMC, assist in writing the protocol, and provide Dr. Wolfgang Schaden (with TRT) expertise, training and guidance for a study involving those wounded men and women.  The Henry M. Jackson Foundation has agreed to assist in supporting this effort.  The end goal, should the  device prove efficacious, would be to provide devices on the field of battle that would readily support limb-and life-saving therapy. 

          What is needed is approximately $17 million specifically designated  large-scale study that would involve WRAMC, NNMC, and hopefully the Uniformed Services University (USU), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in assembling a combined Institutional Review Board (IRB), and for actually conducting a rigorous clinical outcomes study of this seemingly extraordinary tool. 

          An additional benefit of ensuring that this is collaborative effort or with a common protocol IRB is to set the stage for many other vitally needed clinical research projects that are likely to dirctly and immediately help to provide even more magnificent care than our grievously wounded are already receiving today. The cooperation of the Department of Veteran Affairs is all that is needed to make this a complete loop, and assist with strengthening the continuum of care for the seriously wounded and injured. 

DISPOSITION OF THE AIR FORCE HEALTH STUDY (AFHS) DATA & SPECIMENS 

          The Air Force Health Study (AFHS), more commonly known as the “Ranch Hand Study,” is coming to a close. This study, which has spanned more than twenty five years (1979 to the end date of September 30, 2006), has produced a wealth of data about the participants. In addition, there are more than 60,000 blood and tissue samples (biospecimens) that the AFHS never had the time or resources to even test, much fully analyze.  

In response to the mandate of being directed to do so pursuant to Public Law 108-183, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs contracted with the the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies of Sciences to consider the question of whether this data and biospecimens should be retained for future analysis and additional study; and, if so, where the repository of these biospecimens and data sets should be, in order that the integrity of the data and physical samples be preserved and that the chain of custody be maintained.  

The IOM recommended three possible sites for this repository, assuming that arrangements and permission can be obtained from the National Archives: one of the two Epidemiological Information and Research Centers (ERICs) of the Department of Veterans Affairs; and, the Medial Follow Up-Agency (MFUA) of the Institute of Medicine.  

Vietnam Veterans of America testified that the only one of these three that everyone could have full confidence in was MFUA, as it has a history of exemplary and impartial scientific work extending back to at least World War II. However, any of these three options need additional resources to take on this burden. The IOM estimated that it will take up to $300,000 per year to manage and support the custodian’s data management responsibilities, and approximately the same amount to care for the biospecimens. First-year costs would be higher because of the transfer and set-up costs.  

The time is short, and the funds to maintain the data and biospecimens must be available on October 1, 2006 in order to maintain the chain of custody, keep the freezers on for the biospecimens, and handle all the myraid activities that must be done.  Further, the IOM recommended that a minimum of five years would be needed, with at least $250,000 for small grants, to discover whether the reposited material and data are of the unique scientific value they are assured to have. 

For all of the reasons outlined above, VVA strongly urges the Subcommittee to make available $1 million for FY 2007, with a commitment of $800,000 in each of the succeeding four fiscal years, and direct that the data be transitioned to the Medical Folow-Up Agency (MFUA) of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the national Academies of Science (NAS). Further, VVA asks that report language direct the Air Force to ensure that there is no lapse in the transition, and that the physical integrity and chain of custody be fully maintained, whether by Air Force personnel or by the current contractors working on the AFHS. 

HEALTH CARE SCREENING FOR DEPLOYING AND RETURNING TROOPS 

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. This must include a face-to-face mental health care encounter. VVA is greatly perturbed by reports of troops on heavy medications being sent to the war zones, and of those who receive mental health profiles while in Iraq or Afghanistan being sent back into combat situations. 

The traditional role of military medicine has always been “Force Readiness,” i.e., how quickly can service members be returned to full duty with a minimal expenditure of resources, and delivery of treatment as far forward as possible. In the past ten years, there has been an effort to shift to a model of “Force Health Protection” that seeks to safeguard to long-term health of the individual service member and reduce or avoid severe health consequences of military service in the future. However, when there is a situation such as exists today, where virtually every service member (or member of the National Guard or Reserves) is needed to maintain the mission, “Force Readiness” trumps all other considerations.   

MENTAL HEALTH & PTSD  

The problem is that sending troops back into the war zone for a forced second or third tour, including those who already have Post-Traumatic Stress  (PTSD) problems, is to ensure that the severity and chronicity of the problems that these individuals will suffer in the future will be much more acute. News reports that many who are already on medication, including psychotropic and/or heavy anti-depression medications because of mental health problems stemming from their previous tour(s), are also being forced to deploy yet again are really disturbing.  

DoD has long discriminated against anyone who has come forth to report any such problems, causing service members who wish to stay in the service and wish to be promoted not to seek help from military medical personnel, but rather to self medicate and/or seek help at their own expense from civilian sources. Now it seems that DoD wants to have it both ways, i.e., not promote these service members but still send them back to the war zone knowing this will worsen and/or exacerbate their condition. How many suicides or breakdowns in the field will it take to stop this shortsighted approach?  

Similarly disturbing are reports that both Army and Navy physicians have been forbidden to use the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), as a valid diagnosis. Rather, we understand that military physicians at many sites are instructed to use “combat stress,” or “personality disorder,” or other euphemisms in their notes, despite the fact that these euphemisms are not defined, validated, or recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the American Medical Association (AMA), or any other legitimate medical entity. This is apparently being done despite the fact that many of these individuals clearly meet all or many of the fourteen classic symptoms of PTSD. Why would anyone do that? The answer is that because it is not a recognized diagnosis, it does not qualify the service member for a medical retirement. 

Because our newest veterans appear to be suffering the psychological stresses and disorders in far greater numbers than even the Vietnam generation, it is imperative that after deployments a system of acute stress counseling and PTSD counseling be emplaced, a system that is funded by DoD and delivered by VA personnel and private practitioners. What is need is some sort of “firewall.”  If the individual gets better, then he or she will pass their pre-deployment face-to-face mental health encounter, and be stronger for having admitted to the problem and getting effective help. If they are experiencing mental health difficulties, then that same clinical encounter will screen them out, whether they have sought treatment or not. 

This counseling must be made available to Reservists and members of the National Guard and their families in addition to active-duty troops when they have returned. As about sixty percent of the Guard and Reserve members live in towns of 2,500 or less, there needs to be creative solutions in order to get these folks the help they and their families so often need. To treat PTSD in the service member or veteran, one must treat the whole family or the chances of success are greatly diminished. Currently there is little or nothing being done for the Guard and Reserve members, or their families, who are far from any military hospital, or even a VA facility. 

In this same regard, reports persist that the problem documented by Senators Bond Leahy (co-chairs of the National Guard & Reserve Caucus in the Senate) three years ago that National Guard & Reserve troops were waiting inordinately long periods for medical care at military medical facilities has not gone away, and in fact is again becoming widespread. Much of the problem, VVA believes, is that like most of the military, the military medical organizational capacity has been too far downsized in the name of “streamlining” and “modernizing.” We urge the Subcommittee to increase the funding allocation for the number of physicians and allied healthy care personnel for FY 2007,with appropriate report language that directs DoD to track the care and waiting periods of these individuals, who are so vital to the total force concept, to ensure that they are not being treated as “second class citizens” in the military medical system, thereby worsening the medical conditions of these soon-to-be veterans. 

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 pleased that both the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs seem now to be taking this seriously, finally explicitly acknowledging sexual trauma as a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) 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. VVA urges you to include report language directing a comprehensive 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 military, and to explore such mechanisms to achieve quality assurance on uniformity of enforcement such as a worldwide Internet address and a nationwide toll-free number, that would be staffed by counselors 24/7 trained to effectively  assist, counsel, and refer service members (or family members) who have been the victim of sexual assault. VVA believes that only by means of such a mechanism that is not dependent on local command can there be uniformity of quality assistance and equal application of justice.  

Further, VVA urges that report language direct DoD to do a better job of establishing a continuum of care for victims with the VA, so that these individuals go from the military into appropriate care at the VA nearest to their home.

NATIONAL VIETNAM VETERANS LONGITUDINAL STUDY (NVVLS) 

While it is not specifically within the purview of this Subcommittee, VVA brings to your attention the requirement in Public Law 106-419, The Veterans’ Benefits and Health Care Improvement Act of 2000, that the VA contract to do a follow-up to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, done some twenty years ago. Several of the distinguished Senators on this Subcommittee are also on the Military Construction and VA Subcommittee, and all of the distinguished Senators are on the full Appropriations Committee. VA has delayed, dithered, and is now refusing to do the replication of the earlier study, utilizing the very same people – veterans who served in Vietnam, veterans who served in the Vietnam Era but who did not serve in Southeast Asia, and a non-veteran cohort matched for socio-economic and educational factors. The VA is now refusing to do the study, and is in defiance of the law and of the Congress. VVA believes that some in the VA and the Office of Management & Budget do not want to complete this study because of what they believe the results will be in terms of lifetime mortality and morbidities of combat veterans. As such, they are being contemptuous of the law and the Congress by their continued refusal. 

As the judiciary is loath to do so in cases such as this (where there is a dispute between the other two branches of government such as a study mandated by the Congress and the Executive branch does not do it), only the Congress can compel the Executive branch to complete this legally mandated study, and the only means to that is by means of the appropriations process. This study, known as the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study (NVVLS), 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 nature and scope of the health problems of Vietnam veterans. The results of this study will also greatly assist Congress in planning not just for the health care needs of Vietnam veterans, but anticipating the long-term health care problems of our troops risking their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world today.  

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. 

TRANSITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM MUST BE MANDATORY FOR COMMANDERS 

The greatest barrier to benefits and entitlements that soon-to-be separated veterans face is that they simply do not know about them. The “Transition Assistance Program” (TAP) has been developed in the past twenty years to help remedy this situation. Unfortunately, this program is very uneven. This is due partly because it is an ancillary duty for most of the people involved, whether they be from the VA, the state workforce development agency (funded by the Department of Labor-Veterans Employment & Training Service), or others in the veterans service matrix. The most important thing that this committee can do is direct that sufficient resources be allocated for this program, and that successfully and effectively mounting TAP sessions for all personnel be made a mandatory item on the Officer Efficiency Report and evaluation for commanders.  

It is imperative for their future and the well-being of the nation that the transition from service member to fully employed veteran be achieved in the overwhelming majority of cases. This includes providing all the assistance needed especially for disabled veterans, to be able to obtain and sustain meaningful employment at a living wage. Much of the key to accomplishing this goal is simply provides useful information and educating the departing service member. Former service members who successfully transition into civilian life are the very best recruiters the services have, and a better-administered TAP program will greatly aid that effective and speedy transition. 

          Mr. Chairman, this concludes my remarks. Again, VVA thanks you for the opportunity to present our views here today regarding a number of essential points regarding the FY 2007 Defense Appropriations legislation.


VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA
Funding Statement
May 24, 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
 


RICHARD WEIDMAN 

Richard F. “Rick” Weidman serves as Executive Director for Policy & Government Affairs of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). 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, and from 1998 to the present, 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 (NY) as statewide director of veterans’ employment & training (State Veterans Programs Administrator) for the New York State Department of Labor from 1987 to 1995. 

He has served as Consultant on Legislative Affairs to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), Senior Advisor to the Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee of the New York State Assembly, and served at various times on the VA Read adjustment 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 in veteran affairs. He has testified many times before the Congress, the Institute of Medicine, and other forums, regarding the health care, rehabilitation, and multiple other needs of veterans, particularly disabled veterans. 

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.

E-mail us at govtrelations@vva.org

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