Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Senator Bernie Sanders raises the issue

Bernie Sanders used to be in the House.  He was the only Socialist in the House.  Then he ran for the Senate and got elected and there are many times when he has felt like a disappointment because he doesn't really lead.  In fairness, he's one Socialist.  Equally true, the Democrats won't run anyone against him as long as he plays ball.

But today he showed some of the bravery he used to in the House and I want to note that.

July 24, 2012
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday questioned why President Barack Obama has not defended Social Security against Republican calls for deep cuts in the program that benefits some 55 million retired and disabled Americans, widows and orphans. "I do not believe that we should cut Social Security," Sanders said in a Senate floor speech. "I would like to know, and I think the American people would like to know, if President Obama feels the same way. It is past time that the president told the American people in no uncertain terms that he will not cut Social Security on his watch."
Before Obama was elected in 2008, he was a strong defender of Social Security. "I agreed with him," Sanders said. "I suspect that millions of Americans voted for President Obama because of the strong stands he took in defending Social Security."  Sanders introduced legislation, modeled on a 2008 Obama proposal, to lift a cap on Social Security payroll taxes so people with earnings of $250,000 and more would pay the same share of that income as all workers.  The payroll tax is now assessed only on incomes up to $110,100 a year. 
During the past four years, President Obama has been largely silent on Social Security. The White House even failed to rebut alarming reports last year that Obama was considering Social Security cuts as part of a "grand bargain" with Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
Unlike Obama, his Republican challenger's stance on Social Security is much clearer. Mitt Romney wants to begin the process of privatizing Social Security. He wants to gradually increase the retirement age to 68 or 69. Romney also favors slowing the growth of benefits for persons with "higher incomes." Under a plan floated by Romney's allies on Capitol Hill, someone making about $45,000 a year today who retires in 2050 would receive 32 percent less in annual Social Security benefits than under the current formula. By that definition, the top 60 percent of all wage earners would be considered "higher income."
"It should come as no surprise that Republicans in Washington and Gov.  Romney want to slash Social Security.  The truth is Republicans have never liked Social Security and they have been attacking Social Security since its inception," Sanders said.
"The question, however, that millions of Americans are asking themselves today is where President Obama stands on Social Security.  Unfortunately, he has been largely silent on this issue since he has been in the White House and during this 2012 campaign."
Social Security has not contributed to the deficit or national debt.  It has a $2.7 trillion surplus and will be able to pay 100 percent of promised benefits to every eligible recipient for the next 21 years.  Even with no changes, there will still be enough funding to pay more than 75 percent of promised benefits after that. 
Sanders is chairman of the Defending Social Security Caucus in the Senate.

These are issues the press should be forcing Barack to answer on.

This is C.I.'s "Iraq snapshot" for Tuesday:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, a number of people share their hypothesis on yesterday's violence (the worst of the year thus far), Amnesty International issues a call for Iraq to halt all executions, we examine Barack Obama's claim "I will stand with our troops every single time," finish up on the MST Congressional hearing, and more.
Yesterday, US President Barack Obama delivered a speech to the VFW. Michael A. Memoli and Kathleen Hennessey reported on the speech for the Los Angeles Times and David Sider reported on it for McClatchy Newspapers. Don Gonyea (Morning Edition, NPR -- link is audio and transcript) noted it this morning in a report that quoted Barack stating, "I will stand with our troops every single time."
But you didn't, Barack, but you didn't. Not in 2009.
Dropping back to the June 9, 2009 snapshot:
This morning the New York Times' Alissa J. Rubin and Michael Gordon offered "U.S. Frees Suspect in Killing of 5 G.I.'s." Martin Chulov (Guardian) covered the same story, Kim Gamel (AP) reported on it, BBC offered "Kidnap hope after Shia's handover" and Deborah Haynes contributed "Hope for British hostages in Iraq after release of Shia militant" (Times of London). The basics of the story are this. 5 British citizens have been hostages since May 29, 2007. The US military had in their custody Laith al-Khazali. He is a member of Asa'ib al-Haq. He is also accused of murdering five US troops. The US military released him and allegedly did so because his organization was not going to release any of the five British hostages until he was released. This is a big story and the US military is attempting to state this is just diplomacy, has nothing to do with the British hostages and, besides, they just released him to Iraq. Sami al-askari told the New York Times, "This is a very sensitive topic because you know the position that the Iraqi government, the U.S. and British governments, and all the governments do not accept the idea of exchanging hostages for prisoners. So we put it in another format, and we told them that if they want to participate in the political process they cannot do so while they are holding hostages. And we mentioned to the American side that they cannot join the political process and release their hostages while their leaders are behind bars or imprisoned." In other words, a prisoner was traded for hostages and they attempted to not only make the trade but to lie to people about it. At the US State Dept, the tired and bored reporters were unable to even broach the subject. Poor declawed tabbies. Pentagon reporters did press the issue and got the standard line from the department's spokesperson, Bryan Whitman, that the US handed the prisoner to Iraq, the US didn't hand him over to any organization -- terrorist or otherwise. What Iraq did, Whitman wanted the press to know, was what Iraq did. A complete lie that really insults the intelligence of the American people. CNN reminds the five US soldiers killed "were: Capt. Brian S. Freeman, 31, of Temecula, California; 1st Lt. Jacob N. Fritz, 25, of Verdon, Nebraska; Spc. Johnathan B. Chism, 22, of Gonzales, Louisiana; Pfc. Shawn P. Falter, 25, of Cortland, New York; and Pfc. Johnathon M. Millican, 20, of Trafford, Alabama." Those are the five from January 2007 that al-Khazali and his brother Qais al-Khazali are supposed to be responsible for the deaths of. Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Robert H. Reid (AP) states that Jonathan B. Chism's father Danny Chism is outraged over the release and has declared, "They freed them? The American military did? Somebody needs to answer for it."
The US military believed that they had in custody those who had orchestrated the killing of 5 US soldiers. Barack Obama may claim this week, "I will stand with our troops every single time," but he didn't in June 2009.
He chose to stand with the British. He chose to release people believed to be responsible for the deaths of 5 US soldiers.
He did that and refused to answer questions about it -- and the timid press refused to ever ask him about it when they had him for a sit down. We know what the father of Jonathan B. Chism thought, "They freed them? The American military did? Somebody needs to answer for it."
Somebody needs to. And when Barack boasted, "I will stand with our troops every single time," he should have been booed. 5 US service members believed to be killed by the League of Righteous -- brutally killed, kidnapped and killed -- and Barack orders the release of the leaders and does so because he wants to score points with the British? No, he did not choose to stand with US troops.
And what came of the deal he made with the League of the Righteous? It didn't end there. It didn't end with the December 30, 2009 release of British citizen Peter Moore who was alive or with the three corpses Alec Maclachlan (body handed over in September), Jason Crewswell (body handed over in June) and Jason Swindelhurst (body handed over in June). That left Alan McMenemy. And we called Barack out for this deal, we've continued to call him out. But, too bad for Barack, terrorists talk. They tattle.
Alan McMenemy, sadly, was already dead. Had been dead for a long time. But his return was delayed. Dropping back to July 9, 2011:
Though Barry's 'big' deal was supposed to free all five, the League, years later, is now insisting they want a new deal (and figure Barry's just the pushover to give it to them?).
Al Mada reports they have issued a statement where they savage the US government for not honoring -- and quickly honoring -- the agreement made with them. As a result, they say Alan McMenemy will not be released.
Peter Moore, the only one released alive, was a computer tech working in Iraq. Four British bodyguards were protecting him. The bodyguards were McMenemy, Jason Swindlehurst, Alec MacLachlan and Jason Cresswell. The families of the four have continued to publicly request that Alan McMenemy be released.
They condemn the "procrastionation" of the US government after the deal was made and state that a promise was also broken when "US forces did not stop attacks" -- apparently Barack made very grand promises -- so now Alan McMenemy will not be released. The statement is credited to Akram al-Ka'bi.
What the statement really does is demonstrate what many condemned in 2009: The US government, the administration, entered into an agreement that did not benefit the US or Iraq. They freed known killers from prison. Killers of Iraqis, killers of American citizens. There was nothing to be gained by that act for Iraq or the US. At some point, history will ask how Barack Obama thought he was fulfilling his duties of commander in chief by making such an ignorant move?
Poor Barack. He made a deal with terrorists and the terrorists weren't kind enough to stay quiet about it. January 5th of this year they said they'd release the body of Alan McMenemy and did. It really was the British government's responsibility, their five citizens. The US government's responsibility should have been putting the League on trial. Certainly if you claim "I will stand with our troops every single time" that should be what you do.
But it gets worse. They were the leaders of the group behind it. There was also a name that's received a great deal more attention from the press: Ali Mousa Daqduq. He was the Lebanese that the US military kept in custody in Iraq. Possibly because he wasn't an Iraqi, the League didn't care about getting his release.
December 17, 2011, Charlie Savage (New York Times) reported on what was termed "a move likely to unleash a political backlash inside the United States." What was he reporting on? The White House's decision to release Ali Musa Daqduq to the Iraqi government, the man "accused of helping to orchestrate a January 2007 raid by Shiite militants who wore U.S.-style uniforms and carried forged identity cards. They killed five U.S. soldiers -- one immediately and four others who were kidnapped and later shot and dumped beside a road." Reporting on it the same day, Matt Apuzzo (AP) noted the reactions of two US senators.
Senator Mark Kirk (in a letter before the release): "Daqduq's Iranian paymasters would like nothing more than to see him transferred to Iraqi custody, where they could effectively pressure for his escape or release. We truly hope you will not let that happen."
Senator Saxby Chambliss (after news broke of the release): "Rather than ensure justice for five American soldiers killed by Hezbollah terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq, the administration turned him over to Iraq, once again completely abdicating its responsibility to hold on to deadly terrorists. Given Iraq's history of releasing detainees, I expect it is only a matter of time before this terrorist will be back on the battlefield."
Liz Sly and Peter Finn (Washington Post) reported that US National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor insisted that the White House "sought and received assurances that he will be tried for his crimes." Some assurances. May 7th, Daqduq was cleared of all charges. Senator Kelly Ayotte released a statement that day noting that she and 19 other US Senators lodged their objection to transferring Daqduq July 21, 2011 in a formal letter which "expressed the Senators' concerns that transferring Daqduq to Iraqi custody might result in his release and a return to terrorist activities." Those concerns were dismissed. When the May 7th verdict came down the White House demanded a "do-over" in Iraqi courts. No surprise (except maybe to the White House) the same Iraqi courts cleared Daqduq of the charges which led the July 12th fuming from the White House that appeared to be just for show:

Lara Jakes and Qassim abdul-Zahra (AP) report that Antony Blinken -- Vice President Joe Biden's national security adviser -- states that the US wants Daqduq to be hld and that they not only want to see him extradited to the US, they've already made that request. They also note, "Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar, spokesman for Iraq's Supreme Judicial Council said the appeals court ruling is final and there are no charges pending against Daqduq. Ali al-Moussawi, media adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said he was unaware of any U.S. request to extradite Daqduq."
The White House said they had made a request. Iraq said, no, they hadn't. And there's been no mention of it since -- the press really rolls over for this administration -- despite the fact that Blinken was just in Iraq last week and was holding Nouri's hand and cooing in his ear so much that Nouri was bragging to the press that the White House was siding with him and not ExxonMobil with regards to the oil deal Nouri wants cancelled (between ExxonMobil and the KRG).
Again, yesterday Barack Obama claimed, "I will stand with our troops every single time." That's the claim, the record suggests something else completely.
Why this isn't addressed is a question you should be asking of not just the media but also of politicians. Not only did Barack's action break the public claim of "We don't negotiate with terrorists" (the US government did and does), American lives, the American fallen, were judged not to matter. At a time of war, the American fallen were judged not to matter by the White House. This isn't a minor issue. If we're speaking to a group of veterans or group of family members of veterans they bring this up. They don't always know the names of all the fallen but they know Barack cut a deal and released the leaders of the League of Righteous and that he refused to prosecute Daqduq. It's only the press and the politicians that play dumb on this topic.
Did Ronald Reagan make a deal with Iran to get them not to release the hostages so Jimmy Carter would be defeated in November 1980? I'm a liberal so I've always believed it to be true. (One of the reasons I thought it was true was Robert Parry's reporting. Robert Parry's 'reporting' in the last four years has been so awful that I can no longer say, "It's true!" But, even now, I believe it.) Is there any conclusive proof? Nope. But the mainstream press -- including PBS, including Frontline -- have been more than happy to explore that possibility repeatedly over the years. Yet when they encounter a real deal, they rush to look the other way. It must really be something to know you can betray the fallen during war time and the press is never going to hold your feet to the fire. I asked a friend at CBS News about that today. If Mitt Romney picked up on it, the press would probably cover it, I was told. But when it went down, I was told, no one made a big deal out of it. I didn't know veterans' families were "no one."
Blood flowed through the streets of Iraq yesterday as bombings and shootings resulted in the most deaths in a single day of the year so far. This morning, AP notes that the death toll from Monday's attacks "has risen to 115." Reuters notes the increase and credits it in part to a Baghdad bombing and a Baquba bombing "late on Monday" which claimed 9 lives and thirty-one injured.
Commentators debate whether this was the first step in the Islamic State of Iraq's self-proclaimed "Breaking The Walls" plan. Martin Chulov (Guardian) offers:

Viewed in isolation, the attacks are serious enough: the destabilising effect on a country that shows few signs of overcoming deep distrust among its Shias, Sunnis and Kurds is worrying. So too the fact that the postwar hope -- the unifying influence of the state -- has once again been unable to stop a multi-city slaughter.
However, when seen through the prism of the rest of the region's woes, the latest events take on an even more serious perspective. Neighbouring Syria is fast sliding towards full-blown war, with a real risk of a sectarian spillover into a region that has seen hardening sectarian positions in all corners for the last 18 months.
Dan Murphy (Christian Science Monitor) offers an overview and examination of various issues.
Emily Alpert (Los Angeles Times) speaks to two analysts to get their take. From the left, Phyllis Bennis states, "This would have happened if the U.S. pulled out earlier or in another 10 years. What we left behind in Iraq was raw sectarian identity that is playing out in absolutely brutal ways." From the right, Max Boot declares, "It's not out of control yet, but it's certainly moving in a dangerous direction. The U.S. is basically AWOL." Phyllis hasn't published a piece on Iraq today. Boot did, continuing the conversation at Commentary, and arguing:
So much for the claims of American and Iraqi officials that violence is on the wane. In fact, as noted by the New York Times, "The attacks were likely to continue the trend of the first six months since the departure of American troops, when violence has steadily increased, according to United Nations statistics." If the trend continues this will mark a remarkable defeat -- and a self-inflicted one -- for American policy in the Middle East.
If only the U.S. had been able to keep troops in Iraq past 2011, the odds are that Iraqi forces would have had greater success in continuing to crack down on AQI. The U.S. presence was particularly important for providing intelligence support to the Iraqis as well as pressuring Prime Minister Maliki to share power with Sunnis so as to avoid fueling a sectarian conflagration. With the U.S. out of the picture, Maliki is busy accumulating dictatorial power and the Iraqi security forces appear to be fighting half-blind, thus allowing AQI to rise from the grave like a zombie.
CNN shares the thought of the Center for American Progress' Brian Katulis. Or 'thoughts.' He argues, as the headline notes, "It's up to Iraq's government to prevent a civil war." Interesting. It wasn't up to Iraq to decide whether or not to overthrow Saddam Hussein in March 2003. It wasn't up to Iraq when US troops left (if it had been, US troops would have left in 2003). And in terms of Brian himself, he didn't seem to think, last December, that Iraq's take on Syria was up to Iraq. No, he thought the US government should pressure Iraq to get them on board. But now? Now, it's all on Iraq. Even if the the White House insisting in 2010 that second place Nouri get a second term as prime minister is partly to blame for today's violence, there's nothing the US can do and it's all on Iraq.
Unlike Brian Katulis, I spent every year calling for all US troops and contractors out of Iraq immediately. I stand by that call. That doesn't mean there's nothing the US can do. What a stupid thought and how very telling. His mind-set is why there's war, war, war, all the time war. There are a million things that the US can do to influence the outcome. Nouri's government, for example, wants out of the UN's Chapter VII. The US can refuse to support that if certain steps aren't met. The US can refuse to deliver the F-16s Nouri lusts over, that's a bargaining chip right there. War is not the answer to everything but how telling that Brian Katulis believes it's troops on the ground or there's nothing the US can do.
On the violence and the political situation, the editorial board of Gulf News observes: "What started as a fragile coalition run by Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has become a much more authoritarian regime, which is now seen by many non-Shiites as favouring the Shiite community. This has started a serious review by many Sunni politicians of the original desire to see a strong and centralised state. They foresee many years of Shiite-dominated government and therefore have shifted to promote more devolution of power to provincial governments, along the lines of what the Kurds have already done in their provinces."
Violence continues today in Iraq. Alsumaria reports a Kirkuk bombing in which 1 child was killed and two women were injured early this morning and an attack on a police patrol in Diyala Province left 1 police officer dead and three more injured. AP adds a Tuz Khormato motorcycle bombing claimed the live osf 6 "Kurdish intelligence officials," and a Baquba mini-bus bombing claimed 3 lives and left twenty-nine people injured. Through yesterday, Iraq Body Count counts 336 killed in Iraq this month from violence.
Iraq is on track to hold the title for most executions in 2012. Amnesty International issued the following this afternoon:
Contact: Suzanne Trimel, strimel@aiusa.org, 212-633-4150, @strimel
(New York) – Amnesty International today urged Iraqi authorities to commute all pending death sentences and impose a moratorium on executions with a view to abolish the death penalty after the chief of police in the Iraqi governorate of Anbar announced on Monday a Court of Cassation decision to uphold 196 death sentences in the region.
It is unclear if the sentences have been ratified by the Iraqi presidency yet.
The announcement gave no timeline for carrying out the executions but expressed a hope that it would be soon.
"After this alarming announcement, Iraqi authorities must move quickly to commute all death sentences and declare a moratorium on executions across the country," said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.
"If the Iraqi authorities carry out these death sentences, they would nearly quadruple Iraq's already shocking execution record so far this year."
In the first half of 2012 alone, Iraq executed at least 70 people, which is already more than the figure for all of last year.
According to Amnesty International's information, in 2011 a total of at least 68 people were executed in Iraq. Around the country, hundreds of others are believed to remain on death row.
The death penalty was suspended in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003 but restored in August 2004. Since then, hundreds of people have been sentenced to death and many have been executed.
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty – the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment – in all cases without exception, as a violation of the right to life.
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.
Last week, the United Nations Security Council had a special briefing on Iraq from the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy Martin Kobler. On the issue of the death penalty, he stated:
Mr. President, Iraq retains the death penalty for a large number of crimes. I therefore reiterate the call by the Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] and the High Commissioner of Human Rights for the government of Iraq to establish a moratorium on all executions with a view to their abolition. I welcome that the authorities of the Kurdistan Region continue to implement a moratorium on carrying out executions which has been in place since 2007.
Turning to the United States . . .
Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen: As I began to prepare testimony for this hearing, I had occassion to speak with a colleague who devoted over 20 years of service to the military. He continues to serve as a civilian with the Department of Defense. I happened to mention to him that I was invited to testify before this committee on this important topic. After stating that he was about to share something with me that he had never shared with anyone, not even his wife, he told me the following story. He enlisted in the military at the age of 17. It was the late 1970s. Within the first year of his service, he was sexually assaulted by two men with whom he served, as part of an initiation process. He was humiliated and devastated. He told no one. He said, "There was no one to tell -- reporting would have made my life much worse. The stigma would have further damaged me and my career. I felt overwhelming guilt and shame." This veteran suffered the consequences of the attack, psychologically and phsically, for years. At one point he contemplated suicide and went so far as to put all his affairs in order and make arrangements for the care of his two-year-old daughter and young wife. His marriage fell apart and he and his wife separated. Fortunately, this veteran found help, reparied his marriage, and healed psychologically -- though he continues to have significant physical problems that stem from the attack that shattered his life 30 years ago. He shared his story with me now because he wants the members of this committee to understand that service members who are sexually assaulted are unlikely to report the assault to their command, to their peers, to anyone. And you can't often tell by looking at them that they've been effected -- not for years. We in the mental health profession know that it is absolutely critical for victims of sexual trauma to seek and receive assistance, support, and treatment as soon as possible.
She was speaking at last Wednesday's House Veterans Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affiars om Military Sexual Trauma. The Chair of the Subcommittee is Jon Runyan and the Ranking Member is Jerry McNerney. We covered the hearing in yesterday's snapshot and today we're emphasizing US House Rep Chellie Pingree who does not sit on the House Veterans Committee but did participate in the hearing. The hearing was divided into four panels. The first panel was Service Women's Action Network's Anu Bhagwati, Disabled American Veterans' Joy Ilem, the American Legion's Lori Perkio. The second panel was Give An Hour's Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, Connecticut Veterans Legal Center's Margaret Middleton. The third panel was Ruth Moore (joined by her husband Butch Moore). The fourth panel was DoD's Col Alan Metzler (joined by DoD's Dr. Nate Galbreath) and VA's Thomas Murphy (joined by VA's Edna MacDonald). From the second panel.
US House Rep Chellie Pingree: I'll ask this question of both of you. We see many denials where the VA says that the veteran couldn't be service connected because they were sexually assaulted prior to their military service. VA examiners tell them that their condition is related to the earlier assault not the one that occurred in the military. I think that for these veterans a service assault would at least aggravate a pre-existing condition but it seems like an inappropriate way to look at it. Do you see these types of denials in your work and do you have comments about them.
Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen: Yes. Unfortunately, one of the things that happens with victims of sexual assault is they -- If that sexual assault is untreated, they are more likely to be victims again. And so to say that because a man or a woman was sexually assaulted before they entered the military, somehow then the psychological damage that we're seeing is not related to the additional assault makes no sense psychologically -- makes no sense. It's like -- It's almost the -- In fact, it is the opposite logic that we use for combat stress. Combat stress -- we understand, we know this -- the more deployments, the more exposure to trauma, the more significant the psychological damage. We've kind of gotten that right finally. But here, we're saying the opposite. It makes no sense psychologically in any way. And, in fact, we know that victims are more likely if they are untreated to become victims in the future.
Margaret Middleton: I would say I've almost never spoken to a veteran who reported to me a case of Military Sexual Trauma who didn't also experience some sort of trauma prior to entering the military. It's very, very common in my experience. And it's just one more reason why we shouldn't hold the veterans to this unnecessary evidentiary standard because we don't need to muddy the water for the VA for our own folks who already applied the rule pretty haphazardly.
If the rule was applied to you or someone you know and you were denied, you should consider reapplying. Last Wednesday and Thursday's snapshots covered the House Oversight Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations hearing that took place last Wednesday. US House Rep Jason Chaffetz is the Chair of the Subcommittee. MST was raised in the morning and I thought the remarks might be carried over in the afternoon -- by VA witnesses or by members of Congress -- but that didn't happen.
US House Rep Jackie Speier: And then my third question is on MST. As you know, military sexual assault is absolutely out of control in the military, 19,000 cases a year. As I understand it, your reviews have found differences in denial rates between sexual assault PTSD and other PTSD cases. I'd like to know what you have found and what you are doing about it? And for those that have been previously denied, what can be done for them in terms of refiling and being reconsidered? Thank you.
Allison Hickey: Thank you, Congresswoman Speier. [. . .] I am so glad you brought up Military Sexual Trauma. It is the very first issue I grabbed the reigns on and ran with when I got on station here aside from, obviously, the backlog. And I will tell you, I'm the one that asked for us to go show -- show me what our grant denial rate is between MSTPTSD and what it is between PTSD for the other three -- combat, fear, terrorism? I asked for us to do that. I got it back and I said, "This is unacceptable." We had a 20% difference in our grant denial rate. I said, "We're going to change this process." We did. And by the way, the process is now in a segmented lane which is one of our new transformation initiatives. We have trained from the VBA person who handles it coming in the door through the exam doctor in the health administration who does the health exam. And we now have everybody trained. I just got the data last Friday that shows I have closed that gap as a result of that effort. We have increased our grants a full 35% in our MST as of last Friday because of the directions we did, the actions we took to make those right and to do those right [. . .]*
US House Rep Jackie Speier: Mr. Chairman, could I ask a follow up question? I know my time has expired.
Chair Jason Chaffetz: Feel free.
US House Rep Jackie Speier: Thank you. What are we doing about those that had their claims denied? Are we going back now and saying refile?
Allison Hickey: I am glad you asked that question as well, Congressman --
Congresswoman Speier. We are sending letters to everyone we've ever denied and saying, 'This is what we do. We've got a new process. If you feel like you were denied in error, please send it to us and we will re-accomplish it.'
Allison Hickey is the VA's Undersecretary for Benefits.
At the hearing on MST, Col Metzler testified that the Defense Dept received 3100 reports of sexual assault in 2011 and "our anonymous survey data suggests that in 2010 as many as 19,000 service members were victims of some form of sexual assault." He stressed DoD's Safe Helpine website, which includes the telephone helpline 877-995-5247, where survivors can "click, call or text."
We'll wrap up our coverage of the hearing with this excerpt from the first panel.
US House Rep Chellie Pingree: I think generally the VA is doing a good job providing counseling and treatment to victims of MST but when it comes to awarding benefits, as we've heard so much already today, MST survivors face tremendous road blocks and bureaucratic red tape. Since most attacks, as we've heard, go unreported, it's very hard for victims to provide the documentation for their claims and therein lies the source of some of our problems here. The current policy states that they will be very liberal in deciding MST cases and should accept secondary markers as proof that the assualt occurred: things like counseling reports for PTSD-MST, letters from family members citing behavioral changes, drug and alcohol abuse. But it has been our experience in my office that this policy is not being followed. The VBA remains vastly inconsistent in deciding on MST cases and what one office will accept, as we heard earlier, another might deny and still not be violating VBA policy. I think we have to be sure that VBA gives MST survivors the benefit of the doubt -- especially when so many of these survivors have lost faith in the system they swore to uphold. That's why I introduced the bill that you were asking about earlier and I appreciate the Chairman signing onto that bill. Basically, it would provide service connection for MST survivors if they provide a diagnosis of PTSD and a medical link stating the PTSD is caused by the assault -- similar to the policy in place now for combat PTSD claims. I want to be clear about this, the bad guy in these stories are the perpetrators. They're the villians and the ones who should be held accountable. But by creating this policy that denies justice to the victims and forces them to spend years and even decades fighting for the benefits that they deserve, we're deepening the wounds for those veterans and making it much harder for them to get on with their lives. Ms. Bhagwati, thank you very much for your wonderful work and for being here today and thank you to everyone on the panel. A couple of questions, you've already talked a little bit about this very issue of the VBA and how it's working. Do you think it's enough to ease the PTSD evidentiary burden for MST claimants or do you think we also need to ease the burden for other common conditions associated with MST like depressive disorders and anxiety disorders?
Anu Bhagwati: As I said in my testimony, according to the Veterans Affairs Department, PTSD is the most common health condition associated with MST but depressive disorder and other anxiety disorders can be just as life threatening and we certainly know that from the rest of the veterans community. I mean, many combat veterans are also suffering from depression rather than Post-Traumatic Stress. So, no, it's not enough just to focus on PTSD. We have veterans committing suicide every day from major depressive disorders and other very, very serious conditions and very common conditions.
US House Rep Chellie Pingree: Either of the rest of you like to answer that or talk about that?
Joy Ilem: I would agree. I mean those are certainly other factors, mental health conditions that we see associated with-with MST-related incidents.
Lori Perkio: In addition, all of the characteristics of anxiety, depression, those are all part of PTSD criteria so they should all be looked at because you never know when that claim may be eventually looked at as a PTSD claim.