Archive for March, 2013

Pentagon moves forward in restoring Tuition Assistance

Posted by Charlotte Webster

describe the imageThe Pentagon announced yesterday that it is reinstating Tuition Assistance programs which had been cut for the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force as part of the sequestration cuts.

An amendment blocking the tuition cuts was passed as part of the continuing resolution funding bill pushed through Congress last week. President Obama signed the measure into law Tuesday. 

The bi-partisan amendment was sponsored by Senators Kay Hagan (D – N.C.) and James Inhofe (R – Ok). The continuing resolution bill did not reduce the $46 billion in overall cuts the Pentagon must make to comply with sequester, but it did give the DoD more flexibility in shifting funds into its operations and maintenance accounts. 

So for all of you military students out there, it’s time to hit the books again!

How Did CBS Get Suckered By the Vietnamese Propagandists?

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Amazing Race VietnamWhen John McCain was shot down, grievously injured and bayonetted by his North Vietnamese captors, they didn’t expect him to survive for long. And they didn’t care… until they realized who he was. Lieutenant John McCain was the son of a prominent U.S. Navy Admiral. As such, John McCain was possibly a valuable asset to the communist regime – and so they made sure he got enough medical care to pull through.

Once he did, the North Vietnamese were ferocious in their attempts to use him to score a propaganda coup. They beat and tortured him severely in an attempt to get him to sign a confession of war crimes (they succeeded, on one occasion – an incident which McCain regretted for the rest of his life). They also tried to get McCain to accept an early release, despite a longstanding code that the first prisoners captured would be the first released in any prisoner swap or furlough. The North Vietnamese knew that if McCain took an early release, they could use the fact that McCain was the son of one of the most powerful admirals in the Navy to undermine morale among military troops. 

Propaganda was important to the North Vietnamese, as it was to fascist and communist forebears in Nazi Germany, Maoist China and the Stalinist USSR. Communist officials in North Vietnam were happy to have Jane Fonda, the young daughter of an American movie icon – as an honored guest and willing stooge for their own propaganda ministries. They even gave Fonda a chance to read a radio propaganda address for U.S. troops in 1972. 

I visited the (Dam Xuac) agricultural coop, where the silk worms are also raised and thread is made. I visited a textile factory, a kindergarten in Hanoi. The beautiful Temple of Literature was where I saw traditional dances and heard songs of resistance. I also saw unforgettable ballet about the guerrillas training bees in the south to attack enemy soldiers. The bees were danced by women, and they did their job well.

In the shadow of the Temple of Literature I saw Vietnamese actors and actresses perform the second act of Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons, and this was very moving to me- the fact that artists here are translating and performing American plays while US imperialists are bombing their country.

I cherish the memory of the blushing militia girls on the roof of their factory, encouraging one of their sisters as she sang a song praising the blue sky of Vietnam- these women, who are so gentle and poetic, whose voices are so beautiful, but who, when American planes are bombing their city, become such good fighters.

Fast forward to 2013. The producers of CBS’s The Amazing Race have issued an apology to veterans’ groups for offending them with a recent broadcast. Amazing Race is a reality television show in which teams of two competitors race through the streets of foreign cities searching for clues to bring them toward the finish line, decided to produce a segment in Vietnam. The country is still run by a communist totalitarian regime – and like their forebears in 1972, they were quick to seize the opportunity. Race competitors and camera crews were forced to sit through the same kind of pro-communist dog-and-pony musical revues that so captivated Jane Fonda four decades ago.

You can see a minute-long segment from the show here. In fact, I insist that you see it… and pay attention to the young contestants’ grinning reaction to it.

The result was a PR and propaganda coup for the communist North Vietnamese regime and the Ho Chi Minh personality cult – and our 20-something contestants – some of them may have been in their 30s but not much older than that – were apparently wholly unaware of what was happening.

How could this have happened? 

Consider: Some of these contestants in their mid-20s today were not even born until the mid-1980s. They were well under 10 years old when the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union collapsed. They have no personal memory of Flight 007 being downed by a Russian fighter jet over Sakhalin Island. They have no memory of the collapse of the Ceausescu government in Romania, nor any knowledge of the hatred the people had for his corrupt, totalitarian regime. They may have heard of My Lai, but not of the Hue massacres committed by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars. They have no memory of the wanton slaughter of the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia. They have no memory of nuclear blast drills in school. All of this knowledge would have had to come from their parents (who themselves were probably too young to have fought in Viet Nam).

Where people in their 40s (like me) saw Red Dawn in theaters when it came out, and at least recognized the Russians and Red Chinese and their satellite states as the most existential threat to America in generations (even if we didn’t quite buy the jingoism in the movie’s premise), we could at least figure out who the bad guys were.

They certainly weren’t getting anything approaching Cold War history in school, though. History teachers tend to struggle to get through World War Two before the school year ends. If the Cold War is covered at all, it’s a May and June afterthought, with childrens’ thoughts already turning to signing each others’ yearbooks in class and comparing summer vacation plans.

Educators today, meanwhile, are actually quoting Mao approvingly in Government publications. There were Mao Tse Tung Christmas ornaments hung on the White House Christmas tree in 2009. The President also appointed a Green Energy Czar, Van Jones, who was a member, in the 1990s, of a socialist collective called STORM, short for Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement.

Most people in Middle America are able to get some Cold War history around the dinner table in their childhoods from older relatives. But remember where our media is headquartered: New York City – in a state that’s dead last in the number of military veterans per capita.

The fact is that few of the 20- and 30-something production assistance that actually put these shows together day-to-day have any educational or cultural frame of reference to grasp the significance of Communist iconography or recognize its propaganda. This is true enough today across the country – but it’s especially true among the generally affluent Northeastern kids who self-select to become CBS production employees.

Well, we expect that of very young people. That is why we have older, more experienced executives around who can take a broader view of activities going on in their organizations. You would think the show’s executive producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, would have flagged the program and at least re-edited it to omit the offensive stage show and the trip to the B-52 memorial, or make some insertion to recognize what had happened in Hanoi. He himself is the son of German-Jewish immigrants – so you would think he would have some cultural sensitivity to the idea that people are sensitive to careless portrayals of history.

He also lives in West Los Angeles, now, with his family – which has a lot of Russian immigrants and until time took them from us, a large number of Jewish holocaust survivors.

Furthermore, Bruckheimer is also the executive producer who gave us the excellent movie Blackhawk Down.

Les Moonves, the head of CBS, has no military experience. He’s New York media, all the way.

So CBS was in the wrong, yes. But they didn’t cause this offense on purpose. Nor did the young contestants grooving and laughing at the stage production – sung in a language they couldn’t understand. This happened because younger Americans have a historical blind spot. And we have tolerated it. We tolerate it every time we see evidence of Red chic on college campuses. We tolerate it every time we let Che Guevara t-shirts go unremarked upon and unchallenged.

 

So what are your thoughts on the actions of the Amazing Race and CBS? Were these intentional insults or a result of the education our younger generation has received? Tell us your thoughts below.

Labor Department Releases March Veterans Employment Report

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Veterans Unemployment ReportThe Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the overall unemployment rate among veterans is declining. This is according to the March 20th release of the Veterans Employment Survey. The survey is backward-looking, ending with 2012.  

Some highlights:

  • The unemployment rate among male veterans fell by 1.4 percent to 6.9 percent 2012. The rate for women held roughly steady at 8.2 percent. 
  • Veterans with service-connected disabilities had an overall unemployment rate of 6.5 percent. However, veterans who are living off of disability, or who have given up looking for work, are not included in those numbers.
  • Veterans with service-connected disabilities are much more likely to work for the government than other veterans.
  • 19 percent of veterans are employed by government, rather than the private sector. This compares with 14 percent of non-veterans.
  • The unemployment rate among Gulf War-era II veterans is higher than the national average, at 9.5 percent fro men and 12.5 percent for women.
  • The unemployment for male veterans ages 18 to 24 is 20 percent. That’s much higher than the rate for their non-veteran peers.

 

Other studies have looked at the employment experiences of returning GWOT-era veterans. One study found that as many as 18 percent of returning veterans have trouble maintaining steady employment (Tanielian and Jaycox, 2008), and some 20 percent or more have symptoms of psychiatric symptoms. 

Commanders’ Clemency Under Fire from Congress and SECDEF

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Commanders Clemency ruleAmerican commanders have had clemency discretion in court martial proceedings for centuries. That means that they have broad authority to grant lenient sentences and even overturn court martial convictions if they believe it to be in the interests of justice and the efficient administration of the unit. 

This discretionary authority is granted under Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and dates back to the American Revolutionary War – has not been seriously disputed. Until now. 

What happens next strikes at the very heart of military justice and command discretionary authority.

What happened

Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, the former Inspector General of Aviano Air Base, Italy, was accused of sexually assaulting a woman who was a houseguest of Wilkerson and his wife at the time. 

Wilkerson’s accuser, a 49 year-old physicians assistant, testified that she had fallen asleep at the Wilkerson residence after a party and woke to Wilkerson touching her in her bed. According to her own testimony, the incident stopped when Wilkerson’s wife walked in and told her to leave.

There was no physical evidence presented. The case came down to conflicting testimony between Lt. Col. Wilkerson and his wife against the alleged victim. The Wilkersons, for their part, testified that nothing of the sort happened. They testified that Wilkerson did not get out of his bed that night. Ms. Wilkerson testified that the accuser had been walking around the house talking on her cell phone. Ms. Wilkerson testified that she told the guest to either go back to bed or to leave her house.

Meanwhile, according to reporting from Military Times, the judge at the hearing refused to allow any testimony that would have served to discredit the reliability of the accuser.

The members of the court martial convened found enough evidence to convict Lt. Col. Wilkerson, sentencing him to a year in prison.

But Lieutenant General Craig Franklin, commander of the U.S. 3rd Air Force, believed there was insufficient evidence to convict Lt. Col. Wilkerson beyond a reasonable doubt. He therefore exercised his clemency authority and overturned the conviction. Lt. Col. Wilkerson was released from prison, where he had been confined since his sentencing in November, and returned to duty. 

Naturally, this has politicians howling.

Two Democratic Representatives, Jackie Speier of California, and Bruce Braley of Iowa, have sponsored introduced the Military Judicial Reform Act of 2013 to strip commanders of their long-held clemency power. The two Democrats have been joined by at least one Republican, Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania.

“It is time to right an egregious wrong in our military justice system,” said Rep. Speier in a statement. “The fact that one person can overturn a punishment determined by a judge or jury flies in the face of justice. We need a military justice system for the 21st century. The one we have now is primitive and is reminiscent of a time when punishments were decided by an autocrat, not by a judge or jury.”

Additionally, the newly-confirmed Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has announced that he will be conducting a review to see whether the General “correctly applied” the UCMJ and his own clemency authority.

Clemency authority was granted to commanders for a reason in the first place.

This particular case had no physical evidence. The case relied entirely on the testimony of witnesses, and there was no witness alleging a crime except for accuser. Exculpatory evidence that may have impugned the accuser’s testimony was withheld. With General Franklin’s decision to set aside Wilkerson’s conviction undergoing a withering public assault not just from Congressional representatives, but also second-guessing all the way up to the Secretary of Defense’s office, the political climate surrounding the issue of sexual assault in the military has become toxic. 

The issue is clear: The Congressional representatives and the Secretary of Defense did not like the outcome of a particular and clearly questionable case. They are therefore attacking the entire process, including a tradition of granting clemency authority to military commanders that has served America well since the founding of the Republic.

As we see in this case, the clemency authority of the commander is a valuable check and balance against the tendency of the military to engage in witch hunt UCMJ prosecutions.

Where any decision in favor of a defendant in a sexual harassment case is liable to come under fire straight from Secretary of Defense, and potentially become a career-ender for any officer, then we can trust no prosecution. This is especially true of cases where there is no physical evidence presented, where the case comes down to conflicting testimony, and where evidence that could serve to impeach the credibility of witnesses is suppressed. Where relevant evidence is suppressed, then the commanding officer has no choice but to rely on his or her personal assessment of the character and reliability of the individuals concerned – which may actually be a quite familiar matter.

Burdens of proof in military courts martial tend to be more lenient than those in civilian courts. Rules of evidence tend to favor the government more than those in civilian courts, which tilt the playing field toward prosecutors and to the detriment of defendants. With the existing standard that requires convictions and sentences to pass muster with both a court martial board and with the commander responsible, we have a valuable check and balance.

Furthermore, while the Representatives introducing the Military Justice Reform Act of 2013 object to the possibility of a commander overturning the verdict and sentencing of a court martialing board, the practice of judges overturning jury decisions is, indeed, well established in civilian courts.

In criminal cases, judges may disregard a jury’s guilty verdict and acquit or grant a new trial if they believe the evidence was insufficient to support the decision made by the jurors. Judges may also set aside a verdict if they believe the verdict was reached on a basis that violates the U.S. or respective State constitution or if the legal theory on which the jury based their decision does not conform to the law.

Other officers will surely note the Secretary’s lack of support for their judgment here. The Secretary of Defense should be backing his commander, and protecting the general from political blowback from politicians who are not familiar with the details of the case, but yet dislike this particular outcome.

And lawmakers should not be writing laws destroying a 200-year tradition based on the unwanted outcome of a single case.

That is bad reasoning, bad policy and bad law.

Using Social Media Wisely

Posted by Christine A. Shelly

Social Media bubble smallNewton’s Third Law of Motion says that for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. If Newton were alive today, he might add a corollary to this law that says for every action, there’s a corresponding Facebook update, Instagram photo and Tweet. 

Social media is, without a doubt, one of the most revolutionary things to happen in communication since the telegraph. It’s changed the way people connect, the way we behave, the way we purchase or participate, and even the way we learn. In fact, a 12-year study by SRI International for the US Department of Education demonstrated that online students outperform students in a face-to-face classroom.

We are no strangers to technology here at Grantham. Our classrooms combine cutting edge technology with leading curriculum to create an affordable education that fits with your life – not the other way around. With technology usage in the classroom now starting as early as kindergarten, it’s no surprise that generations of students are truly comfortable with the interactive world in which we live. But  are we getting a little too comfortable?

Remember Lindsey Stone, the young woman who thought her inappropriate sense of humor would buy her a “get out of Facebook jail free” card when she posted a photo of herself in a disrespectful pose in Arlington National Cemetery? Ultimately, she was fired from her job with LIFE (Living Independently For Ever), a non-profit organization aimed at helping individuals with disabilities.

Or how about the Domino’s pizza employee who posted a questionable (to say the least) video of himself on YouTube and was subsequently relieved of his job?

Lindsey and the Pizza Guy are just a couple of a growing number of cautionary tales. Not only can a social media misstep cost you the job you already have, it can make it harder for you to get a job in the future. According to Mashable.com, a little more than eight out of every ten employers reviews candidates’ social media profiles before extending a job offer.  Whether or not you “friend” them, a hiring manager is very likely to check your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn profiles. So what do they look for? The answer might surprise you.

First of all, if you’re NOT on any social media pages, that can be a red flag for an employer. Especially if they are a prominent local or national brand. Like it or not, social media has blurred the lines between professional and personal – you and your behavior reflect on the people who hire you.

And if you’re not participating in social media, there’s usually only a few reasons why: 1) You don’t know how to use it (not a good argument for being hired); 2) You have no desire to participate (which means you wouldn’t be a brand advocate in social media channels); or 3) You have something to hide (deviant or illegal behavior, financial troubles, etc.).

Suppose you are on social media. Are those photos from last year’s New Year’s Eve party going to eliminate your shot at winning a good job (or promotion, or acceptance to college)? The answer will vary from employer to employer. There are a few simple ways to preserve your professional and your social dignity while you participate in the wide world of social media. Jobvite published this infographic that paints a pretty clear picture: recruiters aren’t just looking at your resume; they’re looking at your online presence.

A few tips to avoid becoming the next cautionary tale everyone talks about include:

1) Assume nothing is private. Ever. If you wouldn’t show it to your elderly aunt, it might not be a good idea to post it on the Internet. Never post anything you wouldn’t want to appear on the evening news. (Just ask Lindsey Stone.)

2) Watch out for hot-button topics. It’s wonderful to be passionate about a cause, but the Internet can behave a lot like a great big dinner party – which means controversial topics can turn sour on you very quickly. Unless your long-term career goal involves advocating for a specific cause, you might consider keeping political, religious, or otherwise controversially-themed posts offline.

3) Know and apply the social media policies and guidelines that are in place at your job, your school, or any other organization in which you take part.

4) Use the privacy settings on every site. Make sure you’re clear about who can view what. Just remember – privacy settings are not infallible, so don’t let them be a stand-in for common sense.

Freedom of speech is a cherished part of our Nation’s Constitution, and I would not advocate censorship or dishonesty. It’s a good idea to think about the Internet the way you might think about getting a tattoo. Whatever you put out there today, you will have to live with forever. And when you consider the growing social net each of us casts – from friends, family and colleagues to employers, congregations, future in-laws, future children or even grandchildren – it’s wise to use discretion whenever you post anything online. 

 

Ms. Shelly has spent more than a decade working in higher education. She currently serves as executive vice president for Grantham Education Corporation. Ms. Shelly is passionate about changing lives – about making college education accessible and affordable to more people and preparing students and graduates for success.

GOP Republican Wants U.S. Boots on the Ground in Syria

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Representative Mike RogersIf you loved George War One, thought three deployments to Iraq wasn’t enough or were thrilled with Afghanistan, you’re gonna love this guy.

Mike Rogers, Republican representative from Michigan and chairman of the House Intelligence Community, is calling for a U.S. military presence in Syria.

Syria is in the throes of a devastating civil war as forces in opposition to President Bashar al Assad – including groups possibly affiliated with Al Qaeda – seek to drive him from power.

Rogers is seizing on reports that some belligerents have used chemical weapons to justify a U.S. presence on the ground in Syria to help prevent chemical weapons technology and munitions from finding their way outside of Syria, where terrorists could potentially use them against American interests.

In an appearance on ‘Face the Nation,’ a CBS Sunday news show, Rogers argued for a limited military presence in Syria to help make the rebel forces “more effective.” Rogers also expressed concern that if Assad’s government collapses, then Al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah would attempt to seize the Syrian government’s stores of chemical weapons.

Rogers himself served in the Army from 1985 to 1988.

VA Refuses to Rat Out Vets to New York Law Enforcement

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Department of Veterans AffairsThe Department of Veterans Affairs has announced that it won’t comply with a new New York state law that requires mental health providers to report to authorities any patients they believe may be at risk of harming themselves or other people. According to a VA spokesperson, there are already federal laws protecting the privacy of veterans’ treatment records, and they take precedence over any state law.

The State of New York has recently passed a law that requires mental health professionals to report the names of any patient whom they believe may be likely to harm themselves or someone else. Civil liberties advocates had criticized the measure, saying that the law could be used to deprive veterans of their 2nd amendment right to keep and bear firearms. Some patient advocates also argued that the measure would possibly dissuade veterans from seeking counseling or other mental health care.

The Veterans Administration still refers veterans who have been deemed incapable of handling their own financial affairs to the federal firearms database, and which states have access too, and veterans could be denied a firearms permit on that basis. But the VA does not pass that information on to state authorities.

The law, the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013 (also called the ‘SAFE Act’) authorizes NY authorities to revoke gun permits from individuals who have been reported by their mental health professionals, and even authorizes gun confiscation. 

The measure was due to take effect on Saturday.

It is not clear how the VA policy will apply to independent contractors treating veterans under VA contracts. An email to the Department of Veterans Affairs seeking clarification on this point was not returned.

Among its other provisions, the SAFE Act bans the acquisition or importation of any magazine with a capacity of more than seven rounds of ammunition. 10-round magazines previously owned by New York residents can be retained, but cannot be loaded with more than seven rounds.

The law also authorizes New York law enforcement officials to confiscate firearms without a court order or warrant, if they have probable cause to believe an individual is mentally unstable.

Any New York resident who owns a magazine that was legal prior to the 1994 assault weapons ban, such as a 20-round or 30-round AR-15 magazine, must sell or transfer those magazines out of state, or turn them in to law enforcement officials.

The law would effectively criminalize an law enforcement officer in the state who carries a firearm with more than seven bullets. The law has no law enforcement exemption. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office is working on pushing an amendment to the law crafting a law enforcement exemption. But the Governor signed the law without one, anyway.

Last month, the Governor announced that his prosecutors would not deem law enforcement officials to be in violation of the law if they carried magazines loaded with more than seven rounds. There is no language authorizing the governor to do so within the law, however.

The SAFE Act is facing some legal hurdles – including a warning from the New York Supreme Court. The Court has notified the Governor’s office that the State of New York must show that the law does not violate the state constitution, or the court will impose an injunction on the enforcement of the law on April 29th.

Congress Saves Tuition Assistance for Everyone

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Congress reinstates Tuition AssistanceUPDATE: The Coast Guard announced Friday that it will be restoring funding for Tuition Assistance. The continuing resolution passed by Congress on Thursday applies to all military services, including the Coast Guard. Earlier reports from many news outlets, including this blog, that the Coast Guard was left out of the order, were in error.

The decision of the DoD uniformed services to suspend the popular tuition assistance program (TA) that granted qualifying servicemembers up to $4,500 per year in tuition costs, sparked a lot of complaining from the ranks. The suspension was expect to save about $250-300 million in this fiscal year alone. The Army, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard had all announced that their programs were suspended at the urging of the Secretary of Defense over the past two weeks. The Navy announced on March 20th that it planned to keep funding the benefit to active duty sailors through the end of the fiscal year, at least.

A petition to the White House to reinstate the benefit garnered over 116,319 “signatures,” as of this writing – which would have forced a formal response from the White House staff. A similar petition on Change.org generated over 42,000 signatures.

However, Congress just voted to order the Defense Department to reinstate the tuition assistance benefit. Not that they are providing any resourcing for it – they just directed the Pentagon to reinstate Tuition Assistance and cut the money somewhere else in the budget to pay for it.

That could take the form of cuts to other benefits, training accounts, military schools, maintenance, supply, and even operational and deployment budgets.

Moreover, the Coast Guard – which announced it was suspending its own Tuition Assistance program last week – was left out of the Congressional order. Congress only included the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. 

The restoration of the funds for TA is part of a continuing resolution passed by both houses of Congress on Thursday, 21 March, and is now headed to the President for signature. Two of the key players in preserving the tuition assistance benefit for servicemembers were Republican Senator James Inhofe of Nebraska and Democratic Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina.

While Inhofe was instrumental in getting the language inserting the TA benefit inserted into the bill, he actually voted against the continuing resolution, citing broader budgetary concerns. “One of the many concerns I had was that the CR failed to address critical budget shortfalls for the Department of Defense,” said Sen. Inhofe in a statement. “While certain patches were made to potentially mitigate some furloughs, it did not afford the full flexibility the Service Chiefs requested, leaving not only jobs at risk but also the readiness of our military. Although not adopted, Sen. Toomey’s amendment to reallocate $60 million in unnecessary defense funds for biofuels to the department’s operations and management budget would have also been a step in the right direction. I was also disappointed that amendments were ignored that would have held this Administration accountable for their misguided political game with how sequestration budget cuts are being implemented. It is time we end this crisis mode in Washington, and I hope that as we approach the budget debate we can look more responsibly at how to reduce wasteful, big-government spending while prioritizing and supporting our national security.”  

Senator Hagan had written a letter to the new Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, earlier this month, urging the restoration of the Tuition Assistance benefit. Hagan also voted for the Senate version of the bill.

Neither sponsor of the amendment explained why the Coast Guard wasn’t included in the language.

Assuming the President signs it, in addition to restoring the TA benefit, the bill would effectively head off a broad government shutdown, now scheduled to occur on March 27th.

Number of Veterans Waiting 1 Year or Longer for Claims Explodes 2,000 Percent Under Obama

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

VA claims backlog growsThe number of veterans waiting for a year or more to have their claims processed has exploded by 2000 percent since 2009 – the first year of the Obama Administration.

According to internal tracking documents obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the number claimants waiting 365 days or longer for their claims to be resolved has grown from 11,000 in 2009 to 244,000 as of December 2012.

More than 58,000 veterans are waiting at least two years for claims. And despite publicly-released figures that indicate that the VA takes 273 days to process a claim, internal VA documents indicate that new claims – including those from Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran – are taking an average of 315 days to resolve.

In major population centers, the wait times are frequently double that.

That is the conclusion of an investigative report, VA’s Ability to Process Claims Plummets Under Obama, by Aaron Glantz of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The report was released on March 13th. The massive drag on VA processing times occurred despite the expenditure of over half-a-billion dollars on a new computerized system. 

The picture painted by the newly-obtained internal tracking documents is at variance with the rosier picture painted by VA officials for Congress. The inconsistency prompted HVAC Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) to state that “One of the biggest oversight challenges we’ve encountered is just getting VA to engage in an honest conversation,” according to Glantz’s reporting.

Meanwhile, on the same day Glantz published his story, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee head hearing on the VA backlog, and committee members grilled VA leaders on what was being done to fix the problem.

At the March 13th hearing, Committee Chairperson Sen. Bernie Sanders (Independent – VT) asked Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey for any evidence they had that the VA would be successful in keeping the VA’s own goal of eliminating the backlog by 2015 and pushing claims processing times down to 125 days while maintaining 98 percent accuracy. (The current accuracy rate is 86 percent – meaning that when the VA finally does get round to adjudicating a claim, the adjudication is wrong about 14 percent of the time.)

The Military Officers Association of America describes the exchange further:

VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey testified that the VA’s three-part plan — “people, process, and technology” — will address the problem. She said the VA has increased its training of claims workers, piloted innovations in processes and procedures, and created “quality review teams” to ramp up accuracy and is fielding a fully-automated Veterans Benefits Management System this year that will enable online access to medical and personnel records. 

The House Veterans Affairs Committee held its own hearing on 20 March. The hearings, entitled “Focusing on People: A Review of VA’s Plans for Employee Training, Accountability, and Workload Management to Improve Disability Claims Processing” is unfolding as of this writing. However, undersecretary Hickey’s remarks have been published in advance. In them, she cites a number of obstacles the VA has had to overcome to keep pace with the flood of applicants – over 1.2 million of them last year alone. She also cited a number of improvements:

  • 1,900 new VA employees who have received Challenge Training decide 150 more claims than their predecessors per day – while posting a 30 percent better accuracy rate.
  • Five more “Challenge Training” workshops are scheduled for this year.
  • Lower-performing VA centers have been targeted for extra training under a new program that debuted a year ago. The first regional office that completed the training, called Station Enhancement Training, or SET, has increased the accuracy rating of the first site targeted by about 8 percent, and claims processing throughput by 27 percent. A second regional office completed the program in January and early indications are likewise positive.

Undersecretary Hickey also affirmed that Generation Two of the Veterans Benefits Management System – the software backbone that will hopefully enable the VA to eliminate the backlog and reduce claims processing time to 125 days by 2015 – still seems like it will roll out as scheduled. Version 4.13 was released in January, and as been a success thus far. The undersecretary stated that the system will be rolled out to all 56 offices within the year.

The American Legion also submitted a statement for the record, urging the VA to reform its internal accounting to reward employees and departments for claims correctly completed without errors, and to hire more veterans.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America submitted a statement calling for the President to convene a special commission to eliminate the claims backlog.

During the hearing, a member of the audience sat silently, holding a sign reading “Waiting 7 Years & 3 Months Claim – 2650 Days”

Oregon Man Fined $200k for Fraudulently Claiming Disabled Veteran Status to Land Government Contracts

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

SDVOSB logoThe former owner and operator of Gray Bear Construction Company (“Gray Bear”) was sentenced to a $200,000 fine for fraudulently claiming status as a service-disabled small business owner for the purpose of landing government contracts in hospital construction. He must also perform 100 hours of service at a veterans organization.

In November 2012, Witty pleaded guilty to one count of false statements. He admitted he falsely represented to the VA that Gray Bear was a Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB), even though Witty had never been certified as a service-disabled veteran. Witty admitted that as a result of his false representations, the VA awarded Gray Bear approximately $5,849,372 in SDVOSB set-aside contracts from August 2009 through May 2011, and that Gray Bear was not eligible to receive those contracts.

Inspector General George Opfer, Department of Veterans Affairs, stated that, “Mr. Witty is the 15th individual prosecuted during the past year for defrauding a VA program intended to provide preference to service-disabled entrepreneurs whose sacrifices on behalf of our Nation have earned them the right to compete for Federal set-aside contracts. We are diligently investigating others elsewhere who have similarly defrauded this program and expect additional prosecutions. We are committed to ensuring the integrity of all VA programs and will continue to diligently pursue those individuals who, by fraud and deceit, abuse these programs.”

Witty is no longer listed as a principal on the Gray Bear Construction Website. It still lists Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business on its certifications page, however.

Military Authority was able to speak with Greg Easley, the project manager for the company, who stated that the new owner, Darren Placek, is indeed a service-disabled veteran, and that Placek recently purchased a controlling interest in the company from Witty, though Easley was not aware of the precise nature of the transaction or the amount of ownership retained by either party.

Witty will not spend a single day in jail as a result of the fraud. However, a New York man convicted of the same crime will have a very different experience: John Raymond Anthony White was recently sentenced to 41 months in prison for falsely representing himself as a service-disabled veteran to procure federal contracts.

One big difference between the two cases: Witty admitted to his crime. White, in contrast, went to great lengths to deceive federal investigators, going so far as to attempt to recruit a genuine service-disabled veteran to pose as the owner.

The federal government routinely sets aside federal contracts for qualified small businesses that are owned and controlled by service-disabled veterans. Their preference status is generally greater than those enjoyed by minority-owned small businesses, veteran-owned small businesses, disabled-owned small-businesses and Section 8(a)-certified businesses. There is therefore incentive for businesses to represent themselves as service-disabled veteran small business owners, since these businesses often hold the ‘trump card’ in competitive situations for the award of federal contracts or sub-contracts. 

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