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National Commander Dempsey asks: Does Congress have the will to care for vets?

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National Commander Raymond E. Dempsey capped the DAV's annual Mid-Winter Conference with a rousing testimony in Washington, Feb. 24, addressing a joint session of the Senate and House Veterans' Affairs Committees.

"The only question is whether our government has the will to live up to its obligation to all our nation's veterans," Commander Dempsey said at the congressional hearing.

Hundreds of DAV members and leaders filled the room in which the Commander testified, spilling into the hallways. They were in town for the conference and to deliver the DAWs message to their Senators and Representatives on Capitol Hill.

The Commander's testimony stressed the DAV's current top legislative priority, passage of the recently introduced Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act (see story on page 7).

"This legislation is all about making government more efficient, transparent and accountable," Commander Dempsey told lawmakers. "These are three key elements that President Obama, Congress and veterans all agree are needed in these challenging times."

The Commander's testimony was well received by members of the committees, who agreed the issues he brought up were in dire need of attention.

"You laid out an agenda for us which, I could tell you, each one of us accept," House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner (D-Calif.) told Commander Dempsey. "You said the key issue was do we have the will to do it. And that's going to be the issue."

"And you have to be involved not only in Washington, as you are here today and lobbying, but when you go back home, keep your eye on your representatives, make sure that they are voting for a VA that will, in fact, meet the needs of our veterans," Filner said. "So ... your agenda is our agenda."

DAV members at the hearing liked what they heard from both the Commander and lawmakers.

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"Today was very impressive," said Richard Robinson of Monroe County Chapter 15 in New York. "If we get half of what the politicians said they will do, we will be way ahead of where we are now. I guess we'll just have to wait and see."

"I was very pleased with the agenda Commander Dempsey brought forth," said Charles Benjamin Clarke, a member of Pennsylvania's Chapter 15. "We came down from Philadelphia to support the Commander and to hear what he and what our lawmakers had to say. I am happy with the committees' apparent willingness to immediately address the issues that need to be acted upon now. I think the outlook is much better this year than in years past."

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Rep. Tim Walz (R-Minn.) called the current way the VA is funded "absolutely unacceptable," while also calling for more effort to be put into making a "seamless transition" between the Department of Defense and the VA a reality.

"We have a moral obligation to care for our veterans, and we have an obligation for future generations to prepare for our national security." Walz said. "And caring for the warriors is a part of that. There is no separation."

Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) applauded the DAV for its advocacy for veterans and renewed his call for veterans to help push lawmakers to approve advance funding for VA health care.

"Two weeks ago, I introduced bipartisan legislation to help secure the timely funding of veterans' health care to advance appropriations," said Sen. Akaka. "You know as well as I do that too often, VA says [its] budget is subject to delay and uncertainty, hampering budget planning and threatening health care quality for wounded and injured veterans. This situation must end. I applaud DAV's advocacy for this important legislation."

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the Senate committee's ranking Republican, acknowledged the issues and talked about delving deeply into the problems.

"I've gathered from your testimony, Commander Dempsey, that there are two essential problems of the Veterans' Administration--late and insufficient funding, and uneven personnel training," Sen. Burr said. "I wonder if you think that these two problems may reinforce each other. That is, if we reform our funding mechanism, can we expect efficiency and productivity because our workforce is not preoccupied with whether it can really continue service?" he speculated.

Rep. John Hall (D-N.Y.) touched on several topics, expanding on the claims backlog.

"We will be working very hard to oversee the Claims Process Modernization Act that was passed in the last session," he said. "And hopefully, we see it implemented the way we intend and the way you, I'm sure, hope that it will be--and that's a big order, a tall order that [VA] Secretary Shinseki has to try to make those improvements happen the right way."

Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.) hit on a reoccurring point, urging veterans to voice their concerns.

"It's difficult to get up here and to walk these halls, and especially many of you because of your infirmities," he said, addressing the large crowd of disabled veterans behind Commander Dempsey. "But I can't tell you how important it is to, again, look your [member of Congress] in the eye and say, 'This is important to me, the issues that you just spoke of. You know, this is really important and they expect for you to work on our behalf.'"

In closing the joint hearing, Chairman Filner reminded veterans of their power.

"So, Commander, you have come to Washington to do something for your veterans," Rep. Filner told Dempsey at the conclusion of the Feb. 24 testimony. "We have listened. And if we don't respond in the way that I suggested as carrying out the agenda that you have laid out, you know how to get to us. And you should not be afraid to visit your congress-people at home. There [are] elections all the time."

"If they don't vote for vets, I don't know why vets should vote for any of us. That's for sure," Chairman Filner said.

Throughout the four-day Mid-Winter Conference, DAV members discussed the year ahead, leading their Departments and Chapters, developing the membership, and better advocating for and serving veterans.

Commander Dempsey urged the Commander's and Adjutant's Business Session to "educate lawmakers" about the need for advanced funding for VA health care.

He stressed the need for bipartisan support for veterans in Congress and strength and unity among the membership in support of sufficient, timely, and predictable funding.

"It is time to take the politics and partisanship out of veterans' health care by reforming the budget process," Commander Dempsey said. "Veterans deserve sufficient, timely and predictable funding."

Addressing VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, Commander Dempsey said the goals of the DAV and VA are the same. "Yours is a mission to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan," he said. "Ours is to build better lives for disabled veterans and their families. We are, and should be, working together for veterans."

Mike Steinbaughn, a member of Chapter 7 in Oakland, Calif., described the advance appropriations concept as fantastic. "It's about time someone did that," he said. "I remember when appropriations bills were delayed and the VA had to go from month to month. That's why it is so important to get Congress to stand up for veterans."

Secretary Shinseki, whose remarks followed the Commander's, failed to mention the advance appropriations plan, but he said that he welcomed DAV's "advice on how to reinforce the time-honored covenant between America and her veterans."

He assured those at the C&A business season that the Obama Administration shared their concern about correcting veterans issues. Quoting Lincoln's promise mentioned by Commander Dempsey moments before, Secretary Shinseki admitted that, "sadly, it is a duty we have sometimes failed to meet, but we have the opportunity to answer Lincoln's call during our watch."

Secretary Shinseki said that the administration has "a vision for change at the VA" and that he was fully committed to helping achieve it through training, increased outreach and accessibility for veterans.

"I'm looking at the backlog [of 800,000 claims]," he said. "I don't understand it, but I'm going to get to the bottom of it."

The Secretary said the VA would institute a culture of achievement involving "timeliness, quality, consistency of services and support." "We will be measured by our accomplishments, not by our promises. Veterans, Congress, and the American people expect that, and I do as well," he added.

National Adjutant Arthur H. Wilson told the business session that he looked forward to working with Secretary Shinseki and "helping the VA receive the sufficient, timely funds it needs to provide the great care veterans have earned."

"After a long, hard-fought battle, we are closer now than ever before to reforming the way the VA's health care system is funded," Adjutant Wilson said. "Elected officials need to know that their support for this method to provide sufficient, timely and predictable funding for veterans health care, is of vital importance to the 24 million veterans in this country."

"You, the backbone of our grassroots efforts, are vital to getting the advance appropriation bill passed," he said. "Stay in touch with your lawmakers, keeping your voices heard."

Turning to the economic problems affecting the nation, Wilson said the DAV was on very solid ground despite the negative impact this recession is having on DAV's investments. "We have long practiced wise financial responsibility," he said. "The DAV continues to generate funds through the worthiness of our cause and the exceptional, tireless work of everyone on the DAV team."

"Our responsibilities and obligations are to those we serve and those who support us in our mission," he said. "The American people honor our long-standing tradition of efficiency and careful spending. This economic downturn does not currently threaten our ability to fund our national programs of service."

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"Our first-rate reputation is serving us well," said Wilson. "Our supporters know we are an organization of the highest integrity and stewardship."

Auxiliary National Commander Sandra J. Dobmeier said members have an exciting opportunity to address Congress on the needs of disabled veterans. "We have a lot of work to do," she said. "We have a large number of new legislators who need to be educated. The Auxiliary wants to help in any way we can to get the DAV's message to Congress."

Auxiliary National Adjutant Judy Hezlep said the huge crowd at the Mid-Winter proved the dedication and support of the organization. "We are in this organization together," she said. "We dedicate the Auxiliary to supporting the programs of the DAV."

During an update on the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation presented a $100,000 donation to the Disabled Veterans' LIFE Memorial Foundation (DVLMF) for the construction of the memorial in Washington, D.C.

Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation Executive Director Gregory Bresser said the donation is to ensure that "everyone remembers the sacrifices veterans have made. It is a reminder that freedom is not free and we have paid the price for that freedom."

DVLMF Executive Director Victor Biggs thanked the DAV Departments, Chapters, and members who have financially supported the memorial. "We are much closer to where we were several years ago," he said, noting that $6.5 million remains to be raised for construction to begin. "We can make this year a banner year for breaking ground," said Biggs. "We continue to ask for your help."

Following the business session, two days of informative and educational workshops began with the Benefits Protection Team giving an inside look at the Stand Up for Veterans initiative, a vital component of DAV's continuing public policy advocacy efforts.

A standing-room-only audience heard Hyde Park Communications President and CEO Jeff Sandman explain that the program's news stories, editorials, advertisements, and on-line ads have reached 68 million Americans. The next step for the program is a grassroots campaign in support of the DAV's legislative priorities.

"You are the best story tellers," he said. "Those stories will help drive us to victory. Tell your family, tell your friends. Create a groundswell."

Downey McGrath Group, Inc., President Ray McGrath urged veterans to make their stories local. "What is frustrating for us is that lawmakers think advance funding for VA health care isn't important, and we have to change that," he said.

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"Advance appropriations for VA health care will cost our government nothing," said National Legislative Director Joseph A. Violante. "It has precedent and will improve health care for veterans at no additional cost to taxpayers."

"Stand Up for Veterans is extremely important," said Teddy Richardson, a member of Chapter 9 in Houston, Texas. "If it doesn't get advance funding, VA can't plan," he said. "Hopefully next year we won't have to come to Washington to ask for funding support."

The Service Workshop presented an overview of recent program enhancements and reviewed opportunities for Departments and Chapters to participate and support the programs. It also included an update on Combat-Related Special Compensation by U.S. Army Capt. Robert Powell, who explained the complex system in which some veterans can receive both their full military longevity retirement pay and disability compensation.

The Membership and Voluntary Services Workshop featured a presentation by National Membership Director Anthony L. Baskerville on modern Internet social networking to attract new members to Chapters and Departments. Baskerville said the DAV needs to keep current with new technology and to address younger veterans who depend on it. "If we're going to succeed as an organization, we're going to have to be attractive to the next generation of veterans," he said. "If we don't do anything, we may risk becoming little more than a memory."

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National Director of Voluntary Services Edward E. Hartman reviewed the Local Veterans Assistance Program, which provides volunteer opportunities to serve disabled veterans in their communities. He also provided updated information on the Transportation Network and other volunteer programs.

Veterans History Project Director Robert W. Patrick told the Communications Seminar that more than 60,000 veterans have been interviewed since the program began in 2001 to record the wartime personal histories of veterans. About 100 new interviews with veterans are received every day at the Library of Congress. Nearly 10 percent of the interviews have been digitized for posterity.

At the National Service Foundation meeting Adjutant Wilson noted that the Columbia Trust reported nearly $1.8 million in support and revenue during 2008. "Nearly $1.2 million was awarded as grants to Department and Chapters, all directed toward enhancing DAV services," he said. "The success of the Trust reflects the wonderful work of all our Departments, Chapters and members."

Charitable Service Trust Board Chairman Richard E Marbes reported the total support and revenue for the Trust in 2008 was nearly $8 million. "Contributions generated through donor advised funds rose 47 percent, Internet contributions increased by 31 percent and matching gifts were up 8 percent," said Marbes. "We believe this exceptional year resulted in part due to more effective communication with our donors and potential donors."

For the sixth consecutive year, the Trust received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, an independent charity evaluator. This rating means that the Charitable Service Trust excels in successfully managing finances in an efficient and effective manner.

The Mid-Winter meeting wrapped up with the Board of Directors and National Executive Committee meetings. Commander Dempsey said that the Mid-Winter has been outstanding, but there remained plenty of "hard work to be sure we protect the earned benefits of disabled veterans. We must reach out to educate lawmakers of both parties about our issues," he said. "Each of us must demand that our government make the veteran a national priority."

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"We must all put even greater emphasis on stewardship and integrity," said Commander Dempsey. "By reflecting the honor and dedication of our organization, we prove every day that the DAV is made of the finest Americans who represent one of the most honorable groups in our country--disabled veterans."

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Mid-Winter Capitol Hill Breakfast

National Legislative Director Joseph A. Violante, and Rep. Robert Wittman (R-Va.) discussd DAV's legislative goals during a Capitol Hill breakfast sponsored by DAV Departments in New England and Mid-Atlantic states. About a dozen members of Congress, several staff members stopped by to speak about vital issues with the more than 120 DAV members attending. Pictured at right are some of the U.S. Representatives who took part in the Feb. 24 event. "This was one of the best-attended meet-and-greet sessions DAV Departments have hosted for Congress," said Violante. "Our Departments did a great job putting this event together."

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Title Annotation:On Capitol Hill; Raymond E. Dempsey; Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act
Author:Wilborn, Thom; Chenelly, Joseph R.
Publication:DAV Magazine
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
Words:2780
Previous Article:New faces on veterans' panels.
Next Article:DAV takes lead in United Front.
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