A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

February 2000/March 2000

Government Relations

A More Responsible Budget, Though Not In Line With IBVSO

By Philip A. Litteer, Chair, Vva National Government Affairs Committee, And Rick Weidman, Director of Government Relations

President Clinton, in his request to Congress, has asked for an increase of $1.5 billion in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budget for the 2001 fiscal year. In testimony before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs February 17, VVA applauded the administration for submitting a more responsible budget request compared to the original submittal. In that same hearing, however, VVA reiterated its full support of the Independent Budget of the Veterans Service Organizations (IBVSO), which calls for about $200 million more than the administration request.

VVA expressed concern about how appropriated funds are used to help veterans become as well as possible. VVA believes that the dollar amounts are important, and the VA should use those dollars in the most effective and efficient manner. As the multi-volume VA budget was unavailable at the time of the hearing, VVA had difficulty determining whether the budget request was adequate.

There has been no thorough assessment to determine the true health care needs of the veterans of all generations in each section of the country. The VA says it must close, sell, or rent some facilities because they have no current use. While VVA is not caught up in the "edifice complex'' that no VA building or property should ever be let go, our members and leaders ask, "Why are those beds empty when veterans need care and are waiting many months for appointments?''

It is time for the VA to do a thorough assessment of the total health-care needs of veterans, with the focus on a holistic view of what is needed to make veterans as well and as whole as possible. The additional focus should be on the totality of the wounds of war and derivative conditions.

All VVA members should contact their senators and representatives and urge them to support the IBVSO figure of a $1.7 billion increase in the VA budget appropriation for FY 2001, and to educate them about the need for the VA to conduct a thorough assessment of the total health care needs of veterans.

West L.A. Land Giveaway

VVA strongly objects to the VA leasing extremely valuable land to the exclusive Brentwood School in West Los Angeles for an estimated $300,000 per year, when the land apparently is worth more than $1 million an acre. The key point for VVA is that the headlong rush to sell off or give away resources for purposes other than helping veterans is not in the national interest, much less in the interest of our nation's veterans. In this particular instance, VVA maintains that the rush to accommodate this wealthy school is a scandal in the making that the administration can ill afford.

Veterans Initiative Trip

VVA Vice President Tom Corey led a Veterans Initiative (VI) mission to Vietnam in late February that continued to press for the fullest possible accounting of those who still remain missing from the war. An additional mission of this trip was continuing to work with the Vietnamese and the United States governments toward the goal of conducting joint Vietnam-U.S. scientific studies in Vietnam on the impact of exposure to Agent Orange on people and ecosystems. Toward this end, VVA Agent Orange/Dioxin chair George Claxton and Linda Schwartz, VVA Special Adviser on Veterans Health Care, accompanied the VI delegation.

In discussions held at the Vietnam Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment (MoSTE) in Hanoi, Dr. Nguyen Ngoc Sinh, director of the Department of Environment, announced a willingness to participate in meetings of Vietnamese and American scientists to plan for joint Agent Orange research in Vietnam. Sinh said that Vietnam is ready to begin these meetings in the near future, possibly within the next 60 days. The delegation also met with U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam "Pete'' Peterson on the Agent Orange and the POW/MIA issues. Ambassador Peterson has been very supportive of VVA and the Veterans Initiative.

Corey and the VI delegation met with the Veterans Association of Vietnam (VAV) on the issues of those who remain missing from the war and those who suffer from the effects of Agent Orange. Lt. Gen. Vu Xuan Vinh, executive board member of the VAV, expressed his hope that Vietnam Veterans of America would continue to advocate for further assistance from the U.S. Government and non-governmental organizations to move toward joint research on Agent Orange, which his organization considers to be a humanitarian issue affecting Vietnamese and Americans.

Hearings on "Ranch Hand''

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chair of the Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs, and International Relations of the House Committee on Government Reform, will hold an oversight hearing on Agent Orange and the "Ranch Hand'' study being conducted by the U.S. Air Force. Slated to testify are the General Accounting Office, which recently conducted a study of "Ranch Hand,'' and officials from the Air Force, the National Academy of Sciences, the Food and Drug Administration, and the VA. Also testifying will be scientists who can shed light on what can be salvaged from the millions of dollars and thousands of hours of volunteer time expended on this botched effort.

Vietnam veterans and their families deserve a better effort than the Air Force has expended. VVA also has called for additional studies of Agent Orange and Gulf War illnesses that are government funded but independently conducted.

As a prelude to the hearing, Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), with assistance from VVA national Board member and Vermont VVA State Council President, John Miner, held a public forum in Montpelier, Vermont, February 26. VVA national Agent Orange/Dioxin vice-chair Paul Sutton conducted a symposium on Agent Orange for some hundred veterans who had journeyed through the snow to learn more about the issues that will be addressed in the upcoming hearing. Rep. Sanders is a member of the Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs, and International Relations that will conduct the March 14 hearings on "Ranch Hand,'' and has consistently supported Chairman Shays in the effort to prompt more proper government action on Agent Orange and on Gulf War illnesses.

Gulf War Veterans

It has been nine years since the end of the Gulf War, and despite the approximately $140 million that the Pentagon has spent on investigating Gulf War undiagnosed illnesses, the government is no closer to resolving the issue than it was in the early nineties when it first surfaced.

Unfortunately, all signs point to a hollow closure of the issue by the Pentagon. In a recent meeting at the Pentagon between Bernard Rostker, Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses, and veteran service organizations, several new reports were released regarding various toxins and possible causes of Gulf War Illnesses. These reports ranged from Water Use to Chemical Agent Resistant Coating (a paint commonly used for military vehicles) to a Case Narrative on Fox (chemical reconnaissance vehicle) Alerts in the 24th Infantry Division. Not one of the reports contained anything substantive. Rostker indicated that his office of two hundred (with a yearly operating budget of $30 million) is planning to scale down its operations.

The forced administration of the anthrax vaccine to U.S. military personnel continues to be of major concern to many current service members. Reports abound of service members falling ill after taking anthrax shots. Upwards of three hundred military personnel have refused to take the shots, often at the expense of their careers and possible jail time.

VVA appreciates the vigilant efforts of Rep. Shays to rectify this situation. Shays' subcommittee recently released an 83-page report on the Pentagon’s use of anthrax. The report says the anthrax vaccination has not been adequately tested, is unsafe, and it recommends the anthrax shots be suspended.

VVA President George C. Duggins has written repeatedly to Secretary of Defense William Cohen about the inadequacies of Rostker's performance, only to be answered with generalities, usually in letters written by Rostker himself. VVA will continue to work with our friends in Congress and elsewhere to get proper treatment for veterans exposed to Agent Orange and for the men and women who suffer from Gulf War illnesses.

Vietnam Memorial Stamp

The United States Postal Service unveiled a new Vietnam Veterans Memorial commemorative stamp January 11. VVA Vice President Tom Corey, VVA Executive Director Ed Croucher, and others from VVA joined Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Jan Scruggs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, and U.S. Postal Service officials at the unveiling. We are grateful for the stamp, however, VVA will continue to press for the Postal Service to make this stamp available in a format that can be used to send mail--not just as a commemorative product.

Hepatitis C

Outreach events in five cities on March 31 and April 1 will test veterans for hepatitis C. The events are jointly sponsored by the American Liver Foundation, VVA, The American Legion, DAV, PVA, AMVETS, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and will occur in Houston, Phoenix, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. The idea is to increase awareness of the need for veterans to get tested.

Ken Moore, coordinator of the Subcommittee on Hepatitis C of the VVA National Veterans Health Task Force, and VVA Chapter 20 (Rochester, New York) have compiled informational packets on how to work with local VA Medical Centers to conduct effective outreach, awareness, and testing programs for hepatitis C. President George C. Duggins has encouraged all VVA state councils and chapters to participate in this effort.

Chapter 20 has worked with the VA medical staff in western New York to conduct two testing programs and is sharing its expertise with other chapters. An event took place in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 3-4, 2000, and another will take place in Miami, Florida, on March 24-25. VVA Chapter 83 (Delaware), led by VVA service officer Terry Baker, will conduct a Hepatitis C Awareness Day on Saturday, May 6, at the VA Medical Center Auditorium in Wilmington, Delaware.

All VVA chapters are encouraged to work with their local American Liver Foundation chapters, VA Medical Centers, and others to insure that veterans get tested and treated.

Legislative Action Center

The Government Relations Department has a new legislative action center on the VVA web site. The action center will enable members to contact their representative and state legislators concerning veteran issues, respond to legislative alerts, find out what's happening in Congress, search veteran bills, and check out the executive branches of the federal government.

The address is: http://www.capweb.net/vva/

Veterans Preference

Even though the Veterans Employment Opportunities Act of 1998 reaffirmed veterans’ preference in federal civil service employment, veterans' preference is facing an attack that could make it irrelevant in federal hiring practices. Currently pending before the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) in Washington is a class-action case filed by non-veteran Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) applicants, claiming that veterans have an unfair and illegal advantage due to veterans' preference.

This motion was originally unopposed by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and was allowed to proceed for more than two years without any notice to the veteran ALJ applicants. On April 22, 1999, the MSPB ruled in favor of the appellants and against the veterans. Four veterans have appealed to MSPB. The case is now under review. If the initial decision holds, it will have dire consequences for veterans' preference throughout the federal government.

OPM has now appealed the case, with strong support and prodding by Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), ranking Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. VVA continues to monitor the case and has ensured that members of Congress and OPM know how important veterans' preference and the outcome of this case are to VVA, to its members, and to all American veterans.

G.I. Bill For Education

There is momentum on Capitol Hill for a new G.I. Bill. The current G.I. Bill pays $536 a month but falls short of covering the cost of today’s college education. Both Rep. Bob Stump (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Evans introduced bills last session providing for generous education benefits that would have covered near or the full cost of a veteran's undergraduate education. These bills, however, never left the House. A modest measure in a Senate omnibus bill last session would have raised the G.I. Bill to $600 a month, yet the bill never left the Senate.

During this session, a major effort is under way by a coalition of veteran service organizations, including VVA, and higher education associations to promote a new G.I. Bill. The coalition has offered its version of the G.I. Bill to Congress for consideration. It would provide an annual benchmark set at the average cost of a four-year public university, or $975 per month.

On March 1, there was a press conference at the Capitol regarding this proposal for a new G.I. Bill. It was well attended. Many senators and congressmen spoke. It was covered in all the major media. Look for a new G.I. Bill this session, and let your member of Congress know that it is time for a meaningful G.I. Bill.


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