Martin Luther King Day Message
A couple of weeks ago I was at a Chamber luncheon where Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) was the guest speaker. He talked about lobbyists and why they exist. His point was that lobbyists fill in when citizens are not active. Then he looked at me and said: “Take John Wells sitting over there. He’s been chasing me around Capitol Hill for six years now.” He recognized that I was a citizen and not a lobbyist and he indicated that is what is needed. He’s right, citizens for whatever reason are just not getting involved-or at lest not getting involved the right way.
Today we celebrate Martin Luther King Day. MLK is and should be a hero to all because he got involved and worked hard to correct injustice. The fact that we honor him shows that he took a stand for what he believed in and brought about change. He got involved!
It is easy to sit around and be bitter. The world has plenty of whiners, bitchers and moaners. Certainly MLK could have done that. Instead he stepped out to promote something that he believed in, racial justice, and helped to perfect the freedoms guaranteed by our Bill of Rights. He did not accomplish this through revolution or bomb throwing or even starting fist fights. Nor did he post poison messages on Facebook. He accomplished his goal by working hard, not giving up and being a great example for all of us. He also rejected divisiveness - instead loving his enemies and trying to bring everyone together.
Today our nation is very polarized. The 24 hour news cycle and such instantaneous communication such as e-mail, Facebook and web sites have contributed to that polarization. Everything has been reduced to a sound byte which is often usually inflammatory and often inaccurate. Too many people spend their time posting hate messages on their Facebook page. These sites take things out of context and spin the facts or sometimes even falsehoods in such a way as to place those who disagree with them in a bad light. “Occupy Democrats” is one of the worst sites although there are plenty of conservative sites that match them in both ferocity and fiction. These propaganda sites, as I call them, add nothing to the national conversation and instead increase the polarization and unfortunately fan the hate that one side of the spectrum feels for the other.
I think that MLK would shake his head in sadness if he was alive today, since we have ignored the lessons he taught us. We throw sound bytes at each other that are accusatory rather than helpful. Perhaps we should remember that MLK’s message was one of love and not hate. One of truth rather than fiction. One of togetherness rather than divisiveness. The biblical directive that “He who is without sin should throw the first stone,” is one that we have chosen to ignore if not forget.
Part of the problem is that we do talk past one another rather than talking with one another. After all, it’s easier to re-post something from the propaganda sites than to actually try to accomplish something beneficial to all. It is easier to demonize an opponent than to try to work with them. I am reminded of the conversation that often takes place among brand new military Chaplains when they report for Chaplain schools. These schools bring together Chaplains of all faiths. Normally the conversations start with “You believe!” Eventually it would become “But I believe.” Finally after some time, the conversation would become “I see, we both believe.” The search for common ground is something that MLK strived for and something that we have abandoned.
So if you wish to honor MLK, don’t just sit on your butt in front of a computer and re-post propaganda. Pick you issue. Educate yourself on both sides of the issue. Don’t reject those who disagree with you, but see if you can come to a mutual solution. Often time both parties have the same goal but they disagree on the methodology. We need to focus on the problem. Our country, and of course our government, have become too concerned with methodology at the expense of results. That stifles the innovativeness that has made our country great. The emphasis should be on solving the problem with an awareness that the problem and the solution may vary from one part of the country to another.
So get involved. You can’t change the world but you can change a little piece of it. That is what MLK did and that is why we should honor him. Put yourself at risk. Re-posting is easy. Get off your butt, spend some money and do some work. Once you have chosen your area of concern (I have chosen veterans issues) then do something about it Define your problem. Talk to people on all sides of the issue. Don’t demonize anyone but incorporate and address their concerns. Then take it to the appropriate governmental body. Be succinct. Your Senator, Member of Congress or staffer will have 15-20 minutes. Don’t keep them sitting there. Present them with a proposal in writing and give an oral overview.. Have a supplemental package with your supporting information. Address costs and offsets to pay for your bill. Use independent studies not propaganda studies. Reduce your argument to one page (that’s how Congress works, folks). Yes you are going to be hit with questions. Be prepared to answer them or better than that incorporate known questions and objections into your presentation. Don’t use power point - the offices are not set up for it. Lap briefs work best.
When I started going to Congress in 2010, I used to be greeted with a bit of wariness. As they found out that I was not a paid lobbyist, the interest level increased. Over the course of a few years we have built up a positive reputation on Capitol Hill. We shoot straight and we are not afraid to say, “I don’t know but I’ll get back with you when I find out.” When we first started we used to see an attitude of “OK what do you want.” Now it’s “Come in, sit down, we’ve heard about you guys, let’s hear what you have to say.” We visit both parties and all ideologies within that party. We do not see just Republicans or just Democrats. We do not address political ideologies. We merely state the facts and why we are pushing for a solution. Next month I will have visited every office of every Member of Congress who will see me (only one will not) and the office of every Senator. Today our organization and our goals are on the Congressional radar. I have testified before both the House and Senate Veterans Committee and know Members of Congress and Senators of both parties. I believe we are respected by both parties. We did not gain that respect by reposting from propaganda groups, but by working and respecting everyone.
That didn’t happen overnight. When I first went up there I looked around kind of dazed saying “Golleee, this is Congress.” It took a lot of work and yes a lot of my own money and the money of others who have contributed to Military-Veterans Advocacy over the last two years. So while I don’t have the hubris to compare myself with MLK, I can say I have tried to follow his principles.
So if you don’t like lobbyists, fill the gap. You cannot do that by sitting around re-posting propaganda. If you are physically able, get off your butt and go do something. If you are financially able spend a little money. Join a Committee, start a non-profit but for God’s sake work to bring us together as a nation and stop pushing us apart.
I once apologized to Senator David Vitter’s wife, Wendy, because I bugged him so much. She laughed and said not to worry he enjoys it when citizens come forward and raise their issues. I know that I was a pain in the posterior to some of these folks, but I think they liked it too. They tell me it just does not happen enough.
Do you think MLK would have been so successful if he had merely hired a lobbyist? No I Don’t think so. He had the sense to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. He didn’t sit back and dish out sound byte sized propaganda. He got involved in a productive way. Why don’t you?
Two very important anniversaries occurred this November. The first, occurring onNovember 6, was the 57th Presidential election. The second, which helped make the first possible, is the 93rd observance of Veterans Day. Today I read numerous emails from politicians and other public officials of every stripe, party and ideology praising efforts of our veterans. Public officials and citizens alike will often take some time to recognize and honor veterans. Recently, the words "Thank you for your service" have come to warm the cockles of many veterans, young and old. Unfortunately, the actions of our government do not always echo the warm words. The government promises to not leave us behind, many veterans have trouble catching up.
I have worked in VA law since before I came an attorney, taking my own case up to the Supreme Court of the United States. My frustration with the VA and with the veterans law system was part of the reason why I became an attorney. A system that advertises itself as non adversarial and paternal is instead confrontational and dismissive. Bureaucracy has replaced benevolence and it seems that many in government consider veterans an interruption fo their work rather than the reason for it.
When I was up in Washington this past September I had the opportunity to meet with the staff members from the House and Senate Veterans Committee. I challenged them to call the toll free veterans hotline and see how long it took to get an answer. My advice to them was to put the phone on speaker and continue their work because they would wait a very long time for an answer. My average wait time is 90 minutes. Many of you have certainly waited longer. I will be back in DC next week and will look forward to asking them about that experience or whether they even tried it.
The veterans hotline, or perhaps I should say cold line, – you can die of old age waiting for an answer – is one symptom of the problem Backlogs are increasing. When I first filed a claim took six months to resolve. My last request for a reassessment is at eleven months and counting. We have continued to throw money at the problem with no success. Instead we have hired more government workers who do not know how to process claims or simply refuse to do so.
At the center of the problem is the Board of Veterans Appeals. Currently, over 50% of the appeals from the Board are remanded back from the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims because they are not ready for the court to consider. Most of them are then returned to the Regional Office. The process takes months and years to resolve. None of the records, or at least not may of them, are digitalized. Paper files are mailed back and forth and sit for days on end in mail rooms. Each time a file is returned, it must go through the intake process. Papers go missing or are duplicated and the file grows fatter while the veteran grows older.
There is no compatibility between the DOD records and the VA system. Medical and service record should be seamless. They are not. Different systems, different record keeping procedures and different programs that do not talk to each other.
In the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, three judgeships were vacant for most of the year. One still is. Congress authorized additional judgeships but they were not filled. As a result, the backlog continues to grow.
Attorneys are not allowed to participate for pay at the Regional office level. As a result, Veterans Service Officers throughout the country, of varying education, background and knowledge, file the initial claims. They often do not have complete access to all medical records and must wait until the Claims file is complete before requesting it. More importantly, the VA has no outreach program to train the VSOs, leaving them to their own devices or to receive the training their sponsoring organization provides. No lessons learned or videos on how to file a claim have been distributed by the VA.
To top it off, the Regional Offices use the VA M 21-MR manual to process claims, while the Board of Veterans Appeals and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims uses the Code of Federal Regulations.
The answer to the problem is simple. Process the claim quickly and do it right the first time. Train the people reviewing the claim and train the people submitting the claim. Scrap the veterans hotline and allow the preparer to talk directly with the reviewer. Stop filling up the file with useless paperwork and communicate.
Have you ever read a statement of the case that the VA issues if the veteran wishes to appeal a denial? 3/4 of it is taken up with quotations from statutes and the Code of Federal Regulations - many of which are inapplicable to the case. These quotes are the actual language of the statute or regulation and not summarized in layman’s terms. As an attorney my eyes sometimes glaze over when reading these documents. Just think about the poor guy or gal out there trying to do it on their own.
Bottom line, the Veterans benefits system as become more about form than substance This must change. St. Tammany President Pat Brister has appointed a Veterans and Military Advisory Counsel that is trying to take on some of these problems. A new non-profit, Military-Veterans Advocacy Inc., will be starting up next year. And Loyola Law School has expressed an interest in establishing a Veterans Legal Clinic.
These are starts in the right direction but true reform must come from Congress. Much work must still be done to ensure that there is adequate treatment and compensation for the victims of Agent Orange, Gulf War Syndrome and new victims of the burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must work hard to establish Veterans Courts to process veterans who are charged with minor offenses that are symptomatic of PTSD.
The nation of Australia has fought beside the United States in every war of the last and current century. They have taken the lead in caring for their veterans and track the physical and mental health of every veteran from time of discharge until their death. Unlike our own system, they outreach to veterans and their families and work tirelessly to discover new areas where veterans treatment is required. Perhaps it is too late to establish such a program for the veterans of past wars - the numbers may be too great. But we can start with the veterans of today and over time keep the promise made by President Abraham Lincoln, "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."
Everyone talks the talk on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and occasionally Armed Forced Day. It is time to walk the walk 365 days of the year. We have just finished electing a President and a Congress. There were a few words bandied around by both parties but where is the plan? Where is the action? As veterans and as those who support veterans, it is time for us to demand action and not words from our elected leaders. When we meet our Congressmen and Senators ask them what are you doing for veterans. Take a minute to educate yourself. All bills filed are online www.thomas.gov. Use the search engine for the word veteran and you will find dozens of bills supporting veterans. The texts of the bills are available as well as a list of sponsors. If your Congressman and Senator is not a co-sponsor to a bill that you think is meritorious, ask them why. Carry a copy of the bill with you and let them look at it. Then require a response. Or write them a letter and ask the same question. These letters are read and the Congressmen and Senators are briefed on them. I know when I meet with staff members and occasionally with Members of Congress. They tell me when they have heard about the issue from their constituents. Always remember – they work for you.
I hope that I have not painted too bleak a picture because believe it or not, the system works. But it only works if you make it work. The VA needs to be overhauled but it will not happen until enough people contact Congress and demand it. Individual letters from constituents rather than mass emailouts is the best approach.
We enjoy our freedom today because of our veterans. It is time to put action behind the words. Veterans are being left behind. That needs to stop. Not only must we include those returning today but we must do a better job of taking care of those who have served before. We must work together to ensure that all veterans receive the care and the benefits they have earned. Thank you.
The current health care debate reminds me of one of the most memorable episodes of the 1960's Sci-Fi series, The Twilight Zone. In this episode, a middle aged librarian, played by Burgess Meredith, stood before an enormous dias while a unformed bureaucrat repeatedly screamed that he was "obsolete!" The term "obsolete" was a code word for euthanasia and/or execution. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s reference to "death panels" invokes this scene. While not as dramatic as the Twilight Zone setting, many veterans claim that federal government health care "death panels" have been operating for decades by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The VA is required to provide free medical care to veterans who suffer from service connected illnesses or disabilities. Unfortunately, many of the reviewers who adjudicate these claims lack the medical or legal training or experience, to determine who actually suffers from service connected disabilities.
In the VA system, a veteran must first apply to the local Regional Office for benefits. After a six to nine month wait, the veteran may receive a compensation and pension exam, conducted by a VA doctor which may or may not validate his claim. Even if a disease or defect exists, the veteran must still show that it is service-connected. Although the VA is required to assist the veteran in developing a "well grounded" claim, the reality is that little or no assistance is provided. Rejection at this stage is common place.
The veteran may appeal a rejection to the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA) and appear before a Veterans Law Judge hired by and paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans often wait years for these hearings. Although the system is supposed to be non-adversarial the burden is on the veteran to convince the BVA to overrule the Regional Office. In many cases, the BVA rules against the veteran or remands the matter back to the Regional Office where it will languish for additional months or years before being rejected again.
A veteran may appeal a decision of the Board of Veterans Appeals to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, a court unique to the VA. Unfortunately this court is limited in its jurisdiction and can generally examines only legal issues. Factual review is extremely limited. Again the pace is excruciatingly slow and a decision by the court will take many months.
For decades the VA refused to allow attorneys to practice before the BVA or the Regional Office. Although volunteers and paid employees of service organizations tried valiantly to represent the veteran, they were not experienced attorneys. It was an unfair fight and the losers were the veterans. Even now, attorneys cannot be compensated until after the Regional Office has rendered their initial decision.
The key to solving the real and perception problem is the BVA. Thorough preparation and a fair non-adversarial hearing can go far to resolving the issues. This process allows the veteran to go one on one with a Veterans Law Judge to make his case. The careful application of laws and regulations to the facts should be the watchword of the BVA. The Veterans Law Judges must ensure that the issues are fully vetted and strive to make the right decision the first time. This will eliminate the need for costly and time consuming remands and increase the confidence of the veterans in the system. More importantly, it will allow scarce funding to be utilized for veterans benefits and not procedural missteps. Hopefully it will end the comparison of the VA health benefits system to the feared "death panels."
President Obama's choice of General Eric Shinseki for Secretary of Veterans Affairs was a good one and the process appears to be slowly improving. It is certainly headed in the right direction. A comprehensive approach at the BVA level will streamline the claims process and provide needed guidance to the Regional Offices to assist in their initial adjudication of veterans' claims.
John Wells is a proven leader and tirelessly works to defend the United States.