VVA Testimony VVA Testimony
VVA Testimony
 

Testimony of

VIETNAM VETERANS of AMERICA

Presented by

John Rowan
National President

Before the

Subcommittee on Disability Assistance & Memorial Affairs
of the
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee

Regarding

14 Bills

June 12, 2008

 
 

Good morning, Chairman Hall, Ranking Member Lamborn, and other Members of this distinguished Subcommittee.  On behalf of the members of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), we thank you for the opportunity to appear here today to share our views on several of the bills up for consideration. We ask that our full statement be entered in the record, and I will briefly summarize the most salient points of our statement.

We’d like to begin with H.R. 5954, which would provide veterans for presumptions of service connection for purposes of benefits for diseases associated with service in the Armed Forces and exposure to biological, chemical, or other toxic agents as part of Project 112.

We think some background is relevant here. Some seven years ago, VVA first learned of the then top-secret tests done at the height of the Cold War under the rubric of Project 112. These included the SHAD tests conducted mostly in the waters of the South Pacific as well as on land in Alaska, Hawaii, and several other venues in the United States and Canada; these tests were designed to measure the lethality of biological agents and simulants for agents, e.g., bacillus globigii for bacillus anthraxis, and the ability of U.S. vessels to repel them. They also included tests of hallucinogens and other pharmacological agents, mostly but not exclusively at Edgewood Arsenal and Fort Detrick. In the former tests, sailors and other military personnel were participants, not test subjects; in the latter tests, military personnel were very definitely the test subjects. Some tests, like the SHAD tests, commenced under Project 112; others, particularly the testing at Edgewood and Detrick, began as far back as 1952.

Thanks to the efforts of Navy veterans like Jack Alderson of California, and John Olsen of Montana, and Norman LaChapelle of Tennessee (although he wasn’t always from there), VVA became very interested in the possible long-term health effects of exposure to the agents and simulants that had been tested and the chemical decontaminants that had been used to “clean” ships and tugs after a test, or individual trials in a test, were completed. When we first approached the Department of Defense, we were stonewalled; eventually, DOD owned up to having planned some 134 SHAD tests and having completed 50 of them. We never learned as much as we would have liked to learn about the Edgewood and Detrick tests, in part because of the composition of our Task Force on Project 112/SHAD, which was heavily weighted with SHAD veterans.

We applauded Congressmen Mike Thompson and Denny Rehberg when they introduced H.R. 4952 in the 109th Congress. We applaud them again for introducing H.R. 5954 in this Congress. We endorse H.R. 5954, but with these caveats:

Because chemical and biological agents are not necessarily toxic, language concerning exposure to “a biological, chemical, or other toxic agent . . .” is not quite correct. Also, if pharmacological products and hallucinogens are not embraced under “biological agents,” they must be specified at the risk of inadvertently eliminating from the pool of veterans covered by this act several thousand veterans who were in fact test subjects.

By essentially covering veterans who served from “approximately 1963,” those who participated in tests prior to that year also would not be covered. This would be a miscarriage of justice, inasmuch as testing conducted during the 1950s was subsumed under “112” when Secretary of Defense McNamara divvied up the functions of the Department of Defense into some 150 different functions. Covering these veterans does not represent a “fishing expedition.” DOD is now maintaining a registry of Project 112 veterans (as well as registries of veterans who participated in lewisite and mustard gas testing during World War II, and veterans who were part of any other tests of chem-bio agents not embraced under Project 112).

VVA supports H.R. 5954, with the noted caveats, because it represents a simple measure of justice. Veterans whose health has been adversely affected by exposures during their military service warrant health care and compensation for conditions shown to be positively associated with such exposures.

H.R. 1197, The Prisoner of War Benefits Act of 2007, would repeal the currently required 30-day minimum period of internment prior to the presumption of service connection for certain diseases for purposes of the payment of veterans' disability compensation; it would add diabetes (type 2) and osteoporosis to the diseases already covered.

As with H.R. 5954, veterans (in this case former POWs) would be covered “whenever the Secretary [of Veterans Affairs] determines, on the basis of sound medical and scientific evidence, that a positive association exists” between an experience of military service and the occurrence of a disease in humans. This of course assumes that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and that bureaucratic structure, including the notoriously anti-veteran bureaucrat’s bureaucracy of Office of Management & Budget (OMB), will act in a fair and impartial manner. Often, nothing approximating veteran-friendly or even impartiality is evident. In fact the opposite is more often than not the case.

The flaw in the scenario of looking to the scientific evidence is that quite often the government will not fund the needed research, and all too often there is no reason for others to provide the resources to do such research, so the veteran is left bereft as the government either will not give the veteran access to key information citing “national security” when in fact it is only the desire to escape culpability for damage done to the long term health care of veterans, or they will not fund the research needed to prove the case one way or another..

VVA endorses H.R. 1197, even though we recognize that it may be difficult to secure passage because of “pay-go” rules, unless an appropriate offset can be found. Frankly, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should immediately seek a full review by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) reading Parkinson’s disease. If it turns out that there is too little epidemiological evidence regarding veterans as determined by IOM then the Secretary should be bound to fund such independently conducted research as to be able to provide sufficient evidence that will indicate whether there is evidence of statistical association or not.

H.R. 3008, the Rural Veterans Services Outreach and Training Act, would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out a program to make competitive grants to provide financial assistance to state departments of veterans affairs for the training of rural county veteran service officers in order to improve outreach and assistance to veterans, as well as their spouses, children, and parents, who may be eligible to receive veterans' or veterans-related benefits and who are residing in rural counties.
It is difficult to disagree with the goals of this legislation. However, before VVA can support H.R.3008, it needs a bit of tweaking.

Veterans service organizations, too, supply veteran service officers to assist veterans and their dependents and survivors in filing claims with the Veterans Benefits Administration. Should not the VSOs, too, therefore, benefit from the largesse of this act? To direct grants of up to $1 million annually exclusively to and for county veteran service officers does a disservice to organizations like VVA, DAV, VFW, and the American Legion who provide effective representation to veterans.

Another weakness of this bill is that it does not recognize the reality that some state and county service officers do not provide representation before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, and other organizations, e.g., VSOs, will not take on the cases of veterans in the appeals stage. BVA representation ought to be mandatory for a county’s application for funding to be granted should this bill be enacted.

We must also quibble with the definition of a county veteran service officer. What is missing from this definition is that (s)he must be accredited by the VA. Without this proviso, the law opens up the possibility that uncertified service officers can be trained and employed who do not meet VA requirements.

Lastly, there must be some sort of quality assurance and accountability mechanisms built into this bill to ensure that what is really need – high quality representation by trained and dedicated individuals who will help veterans residing in rural areas know the benefits to which they are entitled and skilled help in receiving those benefits – is actually the outcome that this proposed program is likely to achieve.
If modified to meet the above criteria, then VVA would endorse such a bill.

VVA applauds the impetus behind proposals such as this as the shape of our current active duty force is the most rural we have had in a century. Almost 40% of this active duty force (including deployed National Guard and Reservists) come from towns of 25,000 or less, according to DOD sources. Therefore, we (collectively) must rethink the paradigm of the way in which we deliver veterans’ benefits and services of all types, whether it be the size and location of national cemeteries, or medical care, or assistance in learning about and securing hard earned veterans’ entitlements and services.

H.R. 3070, The Disabled Veterans' Caregiver Compensation Act, would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to pay monthly compensation of $234 to a veteran if and while totally disabled and in need of regular aid and attendance and while unpaid aid and attendance is provided by an adult family member who is dependent upon such veteran for support.

VVA’s only question is: Why $234? Where did this figure come from? Is it subject to annual COLA increases? Despite these questions, VVA does support enactment of H.R. 3070, although we think that this monthly amount is ridiculously low, and demeans the quality of care now given by adult family members, and does not even begin to make up for income lost when a spouse or parent or other quits work or takes only part time work in order to have the time to care for the veteran.

H.R. 3795, The You Were There, You Get Care Act of 2007, presumes specified diseases, and any other disease found by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to result from exposure to depleted uranium or the byproducts of the burn-off that occurs when a depleted uranium munition penetrates a target, among those diseases that will be presumed to be service-connected (and therefore compensable) when appearing in radiation-exposed veterans.

Perhaps the critical element in this bill is the provision for independent medical study to determine diseases that may result from exposure to depleted uranium. If, as is the case with dioxin, there is compelling medical and scientific evidence that points to a positive association between exposure and the onset of a particular disease, then an exposed veteran surely warrants care and treatment and compensation. If enactment of this bill leads to greater knowledge about the potential health effects of exposure to depleted uranium, if it can clear up some of the controversies over the claimed adverse health effects of exposure, then it is worth the time of Congress to enact it.
Keep in mind, however, that depleted uranium has been in production since the late 1960s and has been tested in weaponry at such places at the Davy Crockett range in Hawaii. Is it fair to troops who may have been exposed to DU in these tests not to be covered for possible harm incurred during their service?

VVA supports H.R. 3795, but recommends expanding the group of veterans to include all who were potentially exposed, including those involved in testing this weapon.

H.R. 4274, The Gold Star Parents Annuity Act of 2007, would direct the Secretary of Defense to pay a special pension to each person who has received a Gold Star lapel button as a parent of a member of the Armed Forces who died while serving.

VVA has long supported a pension for Gold Star Mothers who, in their old age, we would like to believe would have been assisted by their son or daughter had (s)he not died during a period of war or afterwards because of illness or injuries incurred during military service. Frankly, however, the starting point for date of death should be retroactive to at least include the parents of those killed in Vietnam, even though the payments would only begin from the date of enactment forward.

VVA at every level, local, state, and national, has a great deal of contact with these wonderful people, many of whom are active in American Gold Star Mothers organization. Many of them are clearly struggling today. We would suggest that a further modification of the proposed legislation be made so that such payments would not begin until at least age 50, unless the individual recipient can show an extreme hardship.

VVA also strongly urges the Committee to take action to end the “widows tax,” and to work with your colleagues in other Committees of the Congress to stop the shameful action of offsetting Dependency & Indemnity Compensation (DIC) at VA by the amounts received under the Survivor’s Benefits Program (SBP) at DOD. The current “offset” is akin to reducing the amount of DIC because the service member had a life insurance annuity with Metropolitan Life or some other private insurance company. They paid premiums into the SBP for many years, and so it a paid for benefit, and it is outrageous to deduct that amount from the DIC. It is nothing short of an unjust “widows tax.” It is way past time to rectify this injustice.

Additionally, VVA has testified many times about the crying need to increase the amount of monthly payments under DIC. It is simply an egregiously paltry amount that is paid to these dependents, and leaves many Gold Star Wives below the poverty level. This is simply just not right nor just. The founding principle of veterans’ benefits is “To Care for Him who hath borne the battle, and for his widow and orphan” in the great phrase of President Abraham Lincoln. Frankly, we are just not living up to our obligation in this regard, and DIC must be significantly increased as soon as possible.

VVA applauds the motivation of Congressman Walsh and this distinguished body, but believes that it is the older parents who are in most dire need today, and deserve to be included as a priority. Further, the significant and valid needs of the surviving spouses must be addressed with at least as much urgency as the significant and valid needs of the older Gold Star parents.

H.R. 5155, The Combat Veterans Debt Elimination Act of 2008, would prohibit the Secretary of Veterans Affairs from collecting certain debts owed to the government by any veteran who dies as a result of a service-connected disability incurred or aggravated while serving in a theater of combat operations in a war after the Persian Gulf War or in combat against a hostile force after September 11, 2001, if the Secretary determines that the termination of collection is in the best interests of the United States.
It is hard not to endorse this bill. One quibble that is perhaps little more than theoretical: What if a veteran who owes the government money is called back into service, or chooses to reenlist, and then dies in a combat theatre of operations before a claim for a service-connected disability has been adjudicated by the VA? VVA believes that debt should be negated if he or she died in the line of duty, and not passed on to the veteran’s survivors.

VVA also believes that given the disaster that has been made of the system of adjudicating claims that it is way past time to end the current rule of “the claim dies with the veteran.” VVA recommends that if a veteran dies, and a claim has been pending for more than 90 days, that said claim automatically be turned into a DIC claim for the survivor(s), and that when finally settled, that if such a claim is successful that full benefits up until the hour of death be paid, and that the payments for DIC begin at that moment retroactively.

The veteran and their family should not be penalized for the poor leadership and stewardship of the system that is supposed to adjudicate veterans’ claims, for, as General Bradley was fond of saying when he led the VA: “we are here to meet the veteran’s needs, not our bureaucratic needs.”

H.R. 5448, The Full Faith in Veterans Act of 2008, would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to accept as sufficient proof of service-connection of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) alleged to have been incurred in or aggravated by active military service a diagnosis of PTSD by a mental health professional, together with a written determination that such PTSD is related to the veteran's service, if consistent with the circumstances, conditions, or hardships of such service, notwithstanding that there is no official record of such incurrence or aggravation during such service.
With all the focus on PTSD these days – Is the VA refusing in at least some locations to diagnose PTSD in cases to somehow save money? (VVA thinks this may be the case, as events at Temple VAMC in Texas have shown recently). Is there a battalion of “shirkers” out there who will fake symptoms in order to get some free money? (VVA has good reason to believe this to be a fevered delusion of one notorious “scientist” who never has any real data, but who shouts out this garbage nonetheless.) does address some pressing and timely issues. It does, however, have certain flaws.

Part of the purpose of H.R. 5448 is “to improve the diagnosis and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.” Well, Dr. Peake neither diagnoses nor treats personally, but more importantly, this bill has nothing to do with diagnosis and treatment; rather, it is about service-connection. Also, while this bill addresses PTSD, it neglects other mental disabilities linked to one’s military service, which may also (and often is) directly linked to military service, particularly in dangerous situations.

Furthermore, as evidence in support of this bill, VVA reminds the Committee that the Doherwend, et.al. study published in August of 2006 that revisited the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS) went back to all who claimed exposure to traumatic events in that 1986 survey/study. The researchers then tried though searching unit histories, after-action reports, newspaper and other news coverage, and other sources and tried to objectively show that the violent event did occur at the time and place self-reported by the veteran. What they found was that 91% of the claims could be verified as having occurred, at least there was written or printed materials that substantiated the veterans’ professed exposure was either proven, was shown to be likely, or was at least proven to be plausible. Insofar as the other 10% or so of claims of traumatic events, the researchers stressed the fact that they could not find any substantiating records certainly did not mean that the event self-reported by the veteran did not occur. War is by its very nature messy and confusing, and often things happen that are not fully recorded, even though neat and tidy documentation is supposed to always happen according to the military’s bureaucracy. Those of us who have been in a war zone know that the reality is often different.

Further, the VA Office of the Inspector General Report No. 05-00765-137, “Review of State Variances in VA Disability Compensation Payments” randomly sampled about 2,300 claims folders that had been adjudicated as being 100% for PTSD (many were 100% only when combined with individual unemployability) from a number of VA Regional Offices, in both large states and rural states. After a protracted uproar regarding charges by the OIG in press statements alleging fraud, the 2,300 files were sent to the Office of the Undersecretary for Veterans Benefits. He assembled a team that went through each claim carefully to weigh the evidence, and thoroughly asses each case. Out of the roughly 2,300, only two were found to merit full scale investigation by the IG, and these two were forwarded back to IG to further investigate. Ultimately the IG found that there were significant errors made in these two cases, but could not find any evidence of fraud or intent to fraud.

This stands as a solid testimonial to the integrity and honor of those who file PTSD claims. VVA believes that many who legitimately do suffer from PTSD have their claims denied because there are no immediate documents that the individual veteran can access to prove his or her case. (The VA has the resources and the access to secure the evidence if their “duty to assist” were not constantly being made into a mockery by the way they actually do business.)

This legislation is long overdue, and is much needed. As long as reasonable plausibility is established as to the traumatic event, and the VA is directed to use proper diagnostic tools to determine that the individual in fact has PTSD (which they often do not, due to poor training, poor leadership, poor measurement metrics, and cost cutting taking precedence over best clinical procedures), VVA supports H.R. 5448.

H.R. 5454 would establish a presumption of service connection for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis if a veteran develops a 10 percent degree of disability or more at any time. Although it is unclear from what we’ve read of this bill, we assume that veteran must have served during the Persian Gulf War. This being the case, VVA supports enactment of this bill.

H.R. 5709, The Veterans Disability Fairness Act, would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out quality assurance activities with respect to the administration of disability compensation.

This bill, while well-intentioned, seems to ask for the obvious: to help ensure “the accuracy and consistency across different offices within the Department of the treatment of claims for disability compensation, including determinations with respect to disability ratings and whether a disability is service-connected.” Yet anything that will help the VA achieve accuracy and consistency in this regard is to be commended. Competency based testing of all VBA employees and those accredited to represent claimants, full meaningful accountability for supervisors and managers, and generally solid leadership from the top down would go a long way toward cleaning up the mess that this system has become, as well. The lack of proper automation of this system has been covered by all concerned so often that the yawning need for progress on this front goes without repeating.

Hence, VVA endorses H.R. 5709.

H.R. 5985, The Compensation for Combat Veterans Act, would “clarify the service treatable as service engaged in combat with the enemy for utilization of non-official evidence for proof of service-connection in a combat-related disease or injury.”

While we had difficulty deciphering just what the above seems to mean, we do not have difficulty in understanding that the definition of a “combat veteran” under this act is a bit broad. While it is true that even a well-protected rear area in South Vietnam could be subject to mortar and rocket attacks and infiltration by sappers, the construct that simply to be in a combat zone means one should be treated “as having engaged in combat with the enemy” doesn’t hold up. It demeans those troops who in fact do engage in combat with the enemy.

A clerk in Long Binh in 1970, while in a putative combat zone, lived in effect in a city. To give him, or her, the same status as an infantryman is simply wrong. On the other hand, we know many veterans, of both Vietnam and the current conflicts, who had military jobs that were ostensibly “non-combat” such as engineers or truck drivers who in some case had much more direct engagement with the enemy under hostile fire than some who had an infantryman’s designation. Today the military recognizes at least some of these persons with a combat action badge. However, that is not the case for those who served in Gulf War I, Vietnam, or earlier conflicts.

The notion that only those with a Combat Infantryman’s Badge (CIB) have been exposed to combat, or the hazards of a combat theater of operations, is far too narrow. The notion is this bill may well be far too broad. There needs to be further development work regarding the intent of this bill, and whether there is a better way to achieve that objective. Further, at least part of what may be the intent of this bill may well be covered by HR 5448.

VVA cannot endorse H.R. 5985 in its present form without further work, and without better understanding the aim of this proposal, which is not immediately ascertainable.

H.R. 6032 would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide wartime disability compensation for certain veterans with Parkinson's disease.

There is significant scientific evidence that associates the onset of this malady with one’s military service in Vietnam veterans in particular, due to exposure to Agent Orange, Agent Pink, and the potpourri of other poisons in the toxic soup in which we lived and fought during the Vietnam War, VVA has no difficulty in supporting enactment of this bill.

On H. R. 6114, The SUNSET (Simplifying and Updating National Standards to Encourage Testing of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus) ACT of 2008, VVA takes no position.

H.R. 6122 would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to develop and implement a comprehensive policy on the management of pain experienced by veterans enrolled for VA health care services.

It seems to us that the Veterans Health Administration already takes a pro-active interest in pain; certainly, just about every veteran who is examined by a nurse is asked about his/her level of pain. Still, while this bill seems a bit redundant with what the Department is already doing, VVA supports its enactment, particularly with regard to the VA’s program of research into acute and chronic pain suffered by veterans.

VVA thanks the Subcommittee for the opportunity to comment on these bills, and will be pleased to reply to your questions.

JOHN ROWAN

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 the 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 were 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.

VIETNAM VETERANS of AMERICA
Funding Statement
June 12, 2008

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 facilities 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

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