Military Update: Veterans size up new House panel chairman
January 11, 2007
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the new chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, speaks with enthusiasm for any and all initiatives that might help veterans improve their quality of life.
But Filner is seen as such a partisan and his rhetoric can be so imprecise that some veterans’ advocates wonder what this firebrand will achieve as chairman.
In an interview on his priorities, Filner said he was “very excited” to take control “because a lot of things weren’t done in the last few years that should have been done for veterans.”
Under Republicans, “veterans had to fight like a special interest” for benefits. He said his predecessor, Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., locked arms with the Bush administration and with Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson on an unspoken goal of downsizing the VA health system. Filner’s evidence: “When you have continued recommendations of new fees for enrollees, when you keep out the lower priority veterans, you are trying to downsize.”
In wartime, he said, troop morale depends on “knowing they are going to be treated well when they get home.” Bigger VA budgets and better benefits, he said, should be seen “as a cost of war.”
He supports the Democrats’ entire “GI Bill of Rights for the 21st Century,” which includes a $3 billion increase in VA health spending to cut wait times for patients and to expand access to more categories of veteran; an end to the ban on concurrent receipt of military retirement and VA disability compensation for the remaining 400,000 military retirees with disabilities; an end to the offset in survivor benefits for widows who also receive VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation; and a boost in Montgomery GI Bill benefits to cover full college tuition, room and board.
“Most of these things have already been part of our platform, so it’s hard to backpedal,” Filner said. But he cautioned that Democrats also promised to restore budget discipline, so gains for veterans will have to be phased in over several years. His first priority is education benefit reform, he said. Yet after 14 years on the VA committee, Filner sounded surprisingly misinformed on the prized MGIB.
“It was updated in 1986 or 1987, but it’s completely out of date,” he said. “Some things just need to be updated to take account of inflation. If you try to get an education out of the GI Bill, it only covers about 20 percent of the cost of college. We want it to cover the full cost, like it used to.”
When challenged on his 20 percent figure, Filner continued: “It has a certain fixed amount. And it covers very little now because it’s never been raised since the ’80s. It’s stuck at, whatever, $1,000. I forget the exact amount — like $700 or $800 a month — which you can’t go to school on.”
In fact, since 2000, Congress has raised full-time MGIB benefits by 65 percent, from $650 a month to $1,075. The last adjustment was made Oct. 1.
An advocate for MGIB reform called Filner’s remarks “ridiculous. He isn’t even paying attention.” Active-duty MGIB covers roughly 75 percent of the nationwide average cost of tuition, room and board to attend a public university, triple the 20 percent Filner cited. Also, since 1993, active-duty MGIB benefits have been adjusted annually for inflation using the government’s Consumer Price Index.
Filner might have confused active-duty MGIB with Reserve MGIB, which pays full-time students only $309 a month and has been raised only 17 percent since 2000. But Reserve MGIB doesn’t fall under the VA committee’s jurisdiction.
Filner’s confusion over MGIB didn’t surprise one vet advocate.
“The veterans’ committee assignment didn’t mean a darn thing to him when he was there in the minority. I just frankly don’t think he did very much,” he said.
Filner, 64, fell in line for the chair based on seniority after Rep. Lane Evans of Illinois retired for health reasons. Still, he was challenged by Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine. Filner got a 24-20 endorsement in the Democratic steering committee and was confirmed by the Democratic caucus on a 112-to-69 vote.
The New York City native moved to San Diego in 1970 where he was a history professor for 20 years at San Diego State University. Elected to Congress in 1992, his district encompasses the southern half of the city and a population that is “55 percent Latino, 18 percent Anglo, 15 percent Filipino and 12 percent African-American,” according to Filner’s Web site.
Any knowledge gap Filner must close on VA benefits might be a consequence of 12 years in the minority with no strong role in shaping vet programs.
But Filner as chairman is particularly interested in addressing post-traumatic stress disorder among returning veterans. He said “several hundred” veterans of the Iraq war have committed suicide. Asked if that figure was based on VA statistics, he said, “We’re having trouble getting the suicide stuff. [VA officials] just don’t want to even admit this is going on. I have seen differing figures, but it looks to me like there have been several hundred. And … 98 percent of them could have been prevented if people had recognized the situation.”
For example, Filner said, he heard from a female Army captain whose husband, also in service, “exhibited all the classic signs” of PTSD when he returned from Iraq. Yet he killed himself before his illness was diagnosed.
“They didn’t know what it was. They went through marriage counseling, and nobody said, ‘How about PTSD?’ ” As chairman, Filner said, “we want to stress mental health. I would like to see a kids’ Sesame Street kind of thing. There must be a million children of recentlydeployed, now-deployed, will-be-deployed troops, and they ought to know what PTSD is, so that if Dad comes home, Mom comes home, and they slap around the other one, the kid could say, ‘Daddy you have PTSD. You better get to a clinic.’ But then there have got to be resources to do it.”
A VA spokesman said the department is not ignoring suicides among returning war veterans. In fact it is conducting a scientific study of all causes of death in that population. Dr. Ira R. Katz, who leads the study, said in a June 2006 paper on suicide prevention that veterans of current wars might face greater risks of suicide. One factor is the higher incidence of head trauma and brain injury from roadside bombs.
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