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
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
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
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.
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
application for funding to be granted should this bill be enacted.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
VETERANS of AMERICA
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.
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:
of Government Relations
Veterans of America.
585-4000 extension 127