Thursday, October 25, 2007

Braley Launches Probe into Iowa National Guard Education Benefit Snafu

The adage goes: There’s the right way, the wrong way and the Army way. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, intends to find out which way the Army took when it shortchanged thousands of National Guard soldiers on their GI Bill educational benefits, including over 600 members of the Iowa National Guard's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry, based in Waterloo. Braley announced Wednesday that, at his urging, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is launching a formal congressional investigation into the matter.

“When the Pentagon’s ineptitude leads to soldiers and their families being denied the benefits they deserve, it is Congress’ role to provide oversight, accountability, and answers,” Braley said in a press release. “While I am glad to see the Army moving quickly to correct its error and give these troops the benefits they’ve earned, the Pentagon’s explanation of what went wrong in the first place leaves many unanswered questions.”

One question that sparked Braley’s interest in spearheading a congressional probe is whether or not the Army deliberately shortchanged the soldiers. To qualify for GI Bill educational benefits, soldiers must serve 20 consecutive months on active duty, with orders reflecting a call to active duty of 730 days. Despite serving the longest continual deployment of any ground combat unit in Iraq and easily exceeding the 20-month requirement, many members of the 1-133rd were denied GI Bill benefits because the wording of their orders left their call to active duty several days short of the 730-day requirement. A number of these soldiers had individual orders written for 729 days, one day short of qualifying for full-time benefits.

“Serious questions remain about why and how this happened in the first place,” Braley wrote in a letter to House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs Chairman John Tierney, D-Mass. “While I’m hopeful that the cases of the members of the 1-133rd will all be resolved before classes begin next spring, the question of why the Army worded soldiers’ orders just one to five days short of the 730-day requirement, when the Army clearly knows that this is the threshold for receiving Montgomery GI Bill Benefits, is still unresolved.”

Moreover, Braley has concerns about the Army’s expediency of the matter, given that a number of these soldiers are stuck in limbo regarding their future education plans. “While I am pleased that these soldiers’ cases are to be considered as a group and on a expedited basis by the Army Board of Correction of Military Records, I remained concerned about the timeliness of this process, since the records corrections process can often take months,” Braley wrote. “This problem has caused much unnecessary stress and hassle for these National Guard members, and has jeopardized their ability to enroll in colleges and universities throughout the country for the spring 2008 semester.”

Another component of the investigation will look into whether any other National Guard troops have been denied benefits under similar circumstances, currently or in the past. In a letter sent to Braley late Wednesday, Waxman and Tierney confirmed their intention to work with Braley to investigate the situation in a letter.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

After Long-Fought Battle, Veterans Suicide Prevention Bill Passes

For many combat veterans returning from war, the battle doesn’t end on the battlefield. It continues at home with the mental scars. As soldiers return from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, many are ill-equipped to deal with emotional issues stemming from deployment, and sensing no other way out, they tragically take their own lives.

Congress, led by the tireless efforts of the Iowa delegation, has taken measures to reduce the high suicide rates among veterans. After a long-fought battle, the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act (H.R. 327) overcame its last congressional hurdle Tuesday when it passed in the House for the second time by a vote of 417-0.

Introduced by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-3rd District, the bill directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop and implement a comprehensive program addressing suicide prevention. The bill is named after Joshua Omvig, from Grundy Center, Iowa, an Iraq War veteran who served in the Army Reserve and took his own life in December 2005 after an 11-month deployment.

“I’m very pleased that both chambers have passed H.R. 327, and it’s now ready to be signed by the President,” Boswell said in a press release. “A recent article in USA Today reported that the number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the VA has jumped almost 70 percent in the past year. The time to act is now.”

“I commend Joshua’s parents, Randy and Ellen Omvig, who have suffered this personal tragedy, but have helped endless veterans and their families,” Boswell added. “They have advocated for improving all mental health services at the VA and have assisted countless veterans navigate the VA system.”

Although suicide rates are difficult to confirm and accurately gauge, the VA inspector general in a report last May noted that Veterans Health Administration mental health officials estimate 1,000 suicides per year among veterans receiving care within VHA and as many as 5,000 per year among all living veterans.

"Unfortunately, suicide prevention has become a major part of our responsibility to both active duty and to our veterans," Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, told the Associated Press. "It's a terrible statistic," he said. "As many Vietnam veterans have now committed suicide as died in the original war. That's over 58,000."

The bill, authored by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, is designed to help address PTSD among veterans by requiring the Veterans Administration to develop and implement a comprehensive veterans suicide prevention program, provide 24-hour mental health care services to veterans, and requiring that a suicide prevention counselor be available at every VA facility.

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the hidden combat wound. Veterans suffering from PTSD are often the last to know they have a problem,” Rep. Bruce Braley, D-1st District, said in a statement. “In the past, many veterans returning from war have suffered silently from this illness without the help and support they need.”

“Joshua Omvig’s experience puts a human face to PTSD. His death stands as a stark reminder of the impact PTSD can have on veterans and their families,” Braley added. “Passing the Omvig bill into law is so important because veterans coming home and suffering from PTSD deserve the screening, treatment and resources they need to ensure their long term mental health.”

The bipartisan bill unanimously passed in the House March 21 by a vote of 427-0 before moving on to the Senate, where it hit a procedural snag. Led by the efforts of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the bill was expected to overwhelmingly pass going into the August recess, until it hit a procedural road bump when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., put a hold on the bill, citing duplication and second amendment concerns, which Harkin said were “bogus.” Undeterred, Harkin kept fighting for the bill’s passage and solicited fellow Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to help persuade Coburn to lift the hold. Their bipartisan effort paid off, and the bill cleared the Senate hurdle Sept. 27.

Before the vote, Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, delivered a speech on the House floor in support of the bill. “I rise today in strong support of the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act,” Loebsack said. “This bill was one of the first that I co-sponsored as a new Member of Congress. I did so because I believe that we have a moral obligation to care for those who have worn our country’s uniform. I urge the president to quickly sign it into law so that these vital mental health services can reach our nation’s veterans.”

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Politics of Biden’s MRAP Bill Hits Home in Iowa

Just as Beau Biden, a captain in the Delaware National Guard, had predicted in August at the Iowa Democratic Party Veteran’s Caucus Presidential Extravaganza in Des Moines, the vote on the emergency funding for the war in Iraq war has come back into play. Beau, the attorney general of Delaware, spoke on behalf of his father, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, and told the room full of veterans that his father’s Democratic rivals’ “no” vote on the funding, despite the attached Biden amendment to fast track funding and production for the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, would come back to haunt them.

Beau’s words, prefaced with a common Biden family phrase “mark my words,” recently hit home in Iowa a few days ago when four members from the Ottumwa-based 833rd Engineer Company were wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq. While patrolling an area near the Iraqi city of Samarra, an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated next to their vehicle. Two of the soldiers were seriously injured and flown to a military hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, while the other two were treated and returned to duty.

"They were in an RG-31 armored vehicle," Lt. Col. Gregory Hapgood, chief spokesman for the Iowa National Guard told the Des Moines Register. "If they'd been in a Humvee, they would have been killed. A Humvee couldn't have withstood the explosion."

Biden’s Democratic rivals, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and Barack Obama of Illinois, voted against the bill but have stated they support appropriations for the MRAP– just not when it is specifically tied to an Iraq war funding bill that has no timelines for bringing the troops home. There’s the political rub that Beau alluded to in August. By voting against the funding bill, the Democratic candidates chose to send a political message to President Bush while simultaneously garnering support from the anti-war voting contingency.

In doing so, they risked the possibility of delaying production of vehicles that will protect the troops in what soldiers on the ground call “real-time”– meaning the next five minutes of their lives, which could be their last. In the war zone, there is no such thing as political time, and Beau, whose unit is scheduled to deploy to Iraq early next year, understands this difference. Beau also understands how the Republicans operate and how they will use such a vote against the Democrat who wins the nomination. Now that the MRAP issue has hit home in Iowa, Beau’s prediction has moved from the abstract to the concrete, something that may resonate with Iowa voters.

Asked about his differences with Clinton, Edwards and Obama on when to end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home, Senator Biden was quick to highlight this distinction at a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids today. “Clinton, Edwards and Obama say they cannot commit to bring our troops home until 2013. How can they say that, when they and the rest of the candidates ripped the skin off my back in May, when I was the only Senator running to vote to fund the troops?” Biden asked 150 people gathered at the 238 Teamsters’ Union.
“I voted to give our troops all the protection they needed. How can the three leading candidates, one of whom took out advertising in Iowa saying we need to vote “no,” say they’re going to keep troops there until 2013, yet they’re not going to fund them?” Biden asked. “Folks, that’s what I mean when I say we need to start telling the American people the truth. They’re telling you what you want to hear: End the war. But they are acknowledging they can’t end the war with any plan they have.”

Related reading: John Carlson’s column, “Biden Takes a Hit by Funding Vehicle That Saved Iowans” (Des Moines Register)

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Friday, October 19, 2007

Lawmakers to Propose Job-Protection Measure for Returning Iowa Soldiers

The last thing Iowa’s National Guard and reserve soldiers need to worry about while deployed to war is whether or not they’ll have a job when they return to their civilian lives. Knowing this, the federal government passed USERRA (Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act) to help protect the soldiers' jobs, and now Iowa lawmakers want to enact a measure that would give the state more power to enforce the law.

At a Statehouse news conference Thursday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, and Rep. McKinley Bailey, D-Webster City, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, announced the proposed legislation. While the federal law requires employers to hold a position for a returning soldier, backers of the new proposal contend that if an employer is not fully compliant with the law, a soldier’s only recourse is to file a lawsuit that can take years to resolve.

"It puts some more teeth into it," said McCarthy. "It's a more streamlined process, a process that's closer to home."

Employers, however, are no longer held liable if the position or business itself was discontinued during the time of the employee’s deployment. The proposal in Iowa would create possible criminal charges for violators and make the appeals process less cumbersome. It also would require employers to reimburse military members for pay lost during the time their jobs were denied to them.

To help illustrate the federal law’s shortcomings, Capt. Pam Reynolds, a physical therapist from Ames who served a 15-month deployment beginning in 2006, accompanied the lawmakers at the press conference. Upon returning from her service, Reynolds was told she could apply for a physical therapist position at Green Hills Retirement Community in Ames, a similar job but with lower pay.

"Most of us coming back are just wanting to get into the community," Reynolds said. "We definitely don't want to be where I'm standing right now. We just want back into our normal routine. While many veterans realize that federal law protects their jobs, the understanding is vague and many don't know how to react, Reynolds said. "We know there's a law out there," she said. "We don't know what it means."

To help bridge such gaps the Department of Defense created the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) to help educate soldiers and employees about the federal law. The all-volunteer program also works with employers regarding their responsibilities. “We’re not litigators. We are just here to help enhance communication between employer and employee to help resolve any conflicts,” ESGR State Chair Barry Spears told the Iowa Independent. “We’ve had a good track record in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been here, and we have not had a problem go unresolved.”

Most of the problems that do arise are namely because of misunderstandings, misinterpretation, or because of ignorance on behalf of either the employer or the employee said Spears. “In my line of work, I’ve introduced preventive measures to help keep these types of problems from arising and the same thing holds true with my work at ESGR,” said Spears, who is vice president of Iowa Health System -- which is responsible for managing hospital across Iowa.. “When there’s a deployment, by law, we go and do a mode briefing, and when the soldiers come home we do a de-mode briefing.” Moreover, the ESGR has placed posters on every bulletin board in every armory in the state that advertises their services.

On the employers’ side of the equation, the ESGR attempts to reach out and educate employers while simultaneously soliciting their support. The ESGR adopted and implemented its “Five Star Statement of Support Program” for employers, which is designed to help them put into place practices that will minimize or even eliminate problems. Another facet of the program is to inform and educate employers about their rights and responsibilities towards their employees who serve in the Guard and reserves.

Spears said he has heard of only a few cases in which employers were not compliant with USERRA, all of which were the result of being uninformed. Asked whether Iowa needed a law that would enforce the current federal regulations, Spears said that anything that can be done to help support these civilian member is important. “That’s why we should work hard to take care of them, so they don’t have to worry about these types of problems when they return from deployment,” Spears said.

Originally Posted on "Iowa Independent"

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bush Administration Treats Iowa’s Guard Like Temp Workers

While the front-end costs of funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hold steady, the Bush Administration keeps finding ways to skim costs on the back end. Using a cost-cutting technique perfected by the booming temporary-worker industry, the Bush Administration has not only exhausted the National Guard to supplement the surge in Iraq, but has also shortchanged soldiers upon their return by denying them full-time education benefits.

Referred to as the “Ironman Battalion,” over 600 members of the Iowa National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry, who recently returned from Iraq after a 22-month deployment, found out they don’t qualify for full-time educational benefits under provisions of the Montgomery GI Bill. To qualify, soldiers must have served 20 consecutive months on active duty, with orders reflecting a call to active duty of 730 days. Despite exceeding the 20-month requirement, many members of the 133rd are currently being denied these benefits, because the wording of their orders leave their active duty call just short of the 730-day requirement.

Soldiers who qualify for Montgomery GI Bill benefits can receive up to $894 per month to be used for educational expenses, which can be used for up to 10 years after leaving the service. Reserve soldiers who do not qualify for GI Bill benefits can receive up to $660 per month under the Reserve Education Assistance Program (REAP). These benefits expire when reserve members leave the service. Members of the Minnesota National Guard 1st Brigade, 34th Infantry—whom the 133rd deployed to Iraq with—are experiencing a similar problem.

Each soldier has individual orders, and in some cases they were for 725 to 729 days of active duty - just short of the 730 days required, Lt. Col. Gregory Hapgood, public affairs officer for the Iowa National Guard told the Des Moines Register. "So they've spent the better part of two years of their lives on active duty, a great deal of that in combat, and to come up a couple days short on orders and be denied benefits just doesn't seem judicious," Hapgood said.

Iowa’s Commander-in-Chief, Gov. Chet Culver was quick to defend the 133rd and went on the offensive by sending a letter to Army Secretary Pete Geren. Culver’s letter expressed his “extreme disappointment” and requested the Army to reconsider its decision denying education benefits to members of the 133rd. “As you are aware, these soldiers were deployed longer than any other ground combat unit with a tour of 22 months foregoing time with family and employment responsibilities -- all while risking their own lives for longer than anticipated,” Culver wrote. “Beyond our respect, these soldiers deserve the benefits provided by a grateful nation for their honorable service. Anything less is simply unacceptable.”

The news also sparked the ire of members representing both sides of Iowa’s political delegation, including Reps. Tom Latham, R-4th District, and Bruce Braley, D-1st District. Both members also sent letters to Army Secretary Green this past week expressing their concerns about the denial of the 133rd’s educational benefits.

Latham said he was very concerned that the orders for some soldiers brought them within one or several days of the 730 days on active duty needed to earn full GI Bill benefits. "These soldiers have clearly earned active-duty education benefits by serving a full two years on active duty, and it would be unfair to deny them based on a technicality," Latham wrote.

Braley, aware of the bureaucracy at the federal level, also voiced concerns in his letter by honing in on expediency factors while simultaneously holding the military accountable. “I also request that you provide me with information on all of the steps that the Army and the Army Board for Correction of Military Records are taking to ensure that these cases are resolved quickly and smoothly, and that you provide me with a timeline detailing when the Army Board for Correction of Military Records will take up the cases, when a decision will be made by the Board, and when the members of the 1-133rd can expect to be granted the full Montgomery GI Bill benefits that they so deserve,” Braley wrote.

Because Guard members educational benefits expire once they leave the military, it’s imperative that the Army remedy the situation before it’s too late. Hapgood admitted to the Des Moines Register that there is no quick and easy fix to the problem. "You're talking about something that has to be fixed at the Department of the Army level," he said.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Iraq War Veteran Turned Iowa Congressman Endorses Biden

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware received the endorsement of Iowa State Representative McKinley Bailey, D-District 9, a returning Iraq war veteran. Bailey, 26, is the youngest serving Democratic member of the Iowa State Legislature Bailey appeared along with Iowa House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and explained why Iowans should support Biden for the Democratic nomination for President.

"After returning from serving in Iraq, I quickly grew frustrated by my impression that leaders in both political parties did not understand the fundamental challenges to ending the war in Iraq," Bailey said in a press release. "When I first learned of Senator Biden's plan, I realized that was the ticket - a political solution, not a military one. I am endorsing him because from day one, our next president must make decisions on the direction in Iraq and I am convinced Senator Biden has the knowledge and experience to bring our troops home without leaving a situation that requires another generation of Americans to return in a decade."

Biden noted in a press release, "McKinley is one of Iowa 's most promising political leaders and I am proud that he has pledged to support my campaign. I am in awe of all that he has already accomplished, including his exemplary work on behalf of his fellow veterans."

Bailey is a veteran of five years of service in the United States Army. Bailey was a paratrooper with the elite 82nd Airborne Division and led his Tactical Signals Intelligence Intercept Team on more than 100 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the University of Iowa, where he earned a BA in International Studies, McKinley founded and served as President of the University of Iowa Veterans Association.

Elaborating on his frustrations with the political parties, Bailey was quick to point his finger at the Republicans and their handling of the war.” They did not understand the situation at all,” Bailey told the Iowa Independent. “The strategies they were using when they sent us over was to treat the civilians like a hill that you to walk over to get to the enemy. That just doesn’t work. Iraqis are an extremely complex culture with lots of different religions, ethnic groups, and then beyond that you have tribes, clans and lots of divisions. If you want to win, you have to understand that.”

“I work in military intelligence and we sent reports stating that we were going about this all wrong, but we kept getting ignored over and over,” Bailey said during a telephone interview. “I think that the Bush administration still does somehow think that they will one day kill all the bad guys and that will be the end of it. It’s far more complex than that.”

Despite being a Democrat, Bailey was not willing to let his party’s leaders off the hook, so easily, in particular those members calling for a quick withdrawal. “Some Democrats are guilty of thinking we can just pack up and leave, and that’s just not feasible,” Bailey said. “There’s a lot of good people in Iraq who are on our side, and they and their families will be killed if we pack up and leave. They’ve trusted us and done everything we’ve asked of them, and we can’t abandon them.”

“We can’t stay there forever either. We have to have a rational and reasonable plan to get out of there without leaving Ira in a state of chaos, and that’s where I think Senator Biden steps in,” Bailey said. “When I first read Biden’s plan for Iraq over a year ago, I wasn’t thinking in terms of a presidential context, but I do remember thinking that somebody in D.C. finally gets what is going on.”

Asked what other reason, besides the war Iraq, as to why he’s endorsing Biden, Bailey responded that it’s too hard to separate the war from any of the other issues. “This is what really matters to me. I’ve been there, I’ve lost friends there, and ultimately the Iraq war was one of the guiding factors in my decision to endorse Senator Biden,” Bailey said.

Another important factor for Bailey’s endorsement decision was Biden’s vote to supplement the funding in Iraq, which included Biden’s MRAP (Minde Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) amendment. “When you’re running in a Democratic primary, that certainly was not the most popular vote, politically, and as a legislator, I genuinely appreciated Biden’s courage to vote for what’s right and not what’s politically expedient,” Bailey said. “With Biden as president, I think we will see this courage applied in lots of other areas. I don’t want to sound like a one-issue voter, but I think most of Democratic candidates share fairly similar stances on the issues. It’s Biden’s experience, leadership, institutional knowledge and ability to get things done that separates him from the rest of the field.”

Elected in 2006, Bailey defeated three-time Republican incumbent George Eichorn by a 10-point margin and represents District 9, which covers all of Wright County and parts of Hamilton and Webster Counties. Bailey is the eleventh Iowa legislator to endorse Biden, including his leader, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Des Moines. "We are excited to have McKinley join the Biden team here in Iowa," McCarthy said in a press release. "His work with veterans as well as his own service to our country will prove invaluable to helping Joe Biden win the Iowa caucuses."

I'm with Joe: Rep. McKinley Bailey

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Biden Uses Bipartisan Successes to Sharpen Contrast with Democratic Rivals

While Delaware Sen. Joe Biden’s Democratic presidential rivals keep talking “experience” and “change” on the campaign trial, Biden used his 34 years of experience last month to harness change in D.C. the old-fashioned way: bipartisanship. During the last week of September, Biden reined in bipartisan support to help pass two amendments to the Defense Authorization Bill. And now Biden is touting these successes to highlight his leadership capabilities, which may prove troublesome for his Democratic rivals who opposed the Iraq funding bill in March for political reasons.

Sen. Biden stops to take questions from reporters at last month's Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola

Biden’s plan for Iraq, which establishes a federal system in Iraq overwhelmingly passed Sept. 26 by a vote of 75-23.During the vote, Biden's plan secured the support of key leaders in the U.S. Senate from both parties, including Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., former Chairman John Warner, R-Va., Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and presidential candidate Sen. Sam Brownback, who co-authored the amendment.

Last December, Biden became the first Democrat to oppose President Bush's proposed surge of additional troops in Iraq, stating at the time, that the only way to end this war was to build a bipartisan consensus opposed to President Bush's policy. "For the first time in this incredibly divisive national debate we've been having about Iraq, a strong bipartisan majority of senators – including fully half of the Republicans – has voted to change course," Biden said in a press release. "It's the first time there is some real hope that we can put ourselves on a course to leave Iraq without leaving chaos behind."

Two days later, Biden’s bipartisan legislation (Amendment 3075) passed in the Senate. The amendment to the Department of Defense Authorization Bill boosts funding for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles by $23.6 billion, allowing the Army to replace all of its up-armored Humvees in Iraq with the MRAPs. Roadside bombs are responsible for 70 percent of casualties in Iraq – they are by far the most lethal weapon used against our troops. Mine Resistant Vehicles can reduce those casualties by more than two-thirds.

“We have no higher obligation than to protect those we send to the front lines,” Biden said in a press release. “While we argue in Washington about the best course of action in Iraq, our troops on the ground face Improvised Explosive Devices, Rocket Propelled Grenades, Explosively Formed Penetrators, sniper fire and suicide bombers every day. I am heartened to know that my amendment—with the support of Democrats and Republicans working together—will provide technology and equipment that will save American lives on the ground in Iraq.”

Biden has vowed to uphold America’s contract with the troops on the ground, regardless of the political consequences. “As long as we have a single soldier on the front lines in Iraq, or anywhere else, it is this country’s most sacred responsibility to protect them,” Biden has repeated on the campaign trial, including a stop at Prairie Lights in Iowa City.

Sen. Biden uses his speaking notes to demonstrate the MRAP's capablities to a crowd gathered at the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City during a Sept. campaign stop

This promise and Biden’s vigilance for pushing the MRAP legislation has resonated with Iraq veterans in Iowa, including James D. Mowrer, who recently returned from a 16-month deployment to Iraq while serving with the Iowa National Guard’s 133rd Infantry Battalion. Mowrer, now the state coordinator for Veterans for Biden, cited these reasons why he wanted to work for Biden on his return.

“This is a perfect example of Senator Biden’s leadership, “Mowrer told the Iowa Independent. “Joe Biden can bring Americans together to tackle the toughest issues ahead of us. Americans on the ground in Iraq need to know, without a doubt, that whoever the next commander-in-chief is, that they will always provide the troops under their command with the best leadership and proper equipment.

Over the last six months, Biden has repeatedly called on the administration to make the construction and deployment of MRAPs and protection from Explosively Formed Penetrators a national priority and to investigate the military’s failure to field this technology sooner. "When our commanders in the field tell us that these Mine Resistant Vehicles will reduce casualties by 67 to 80 percent, I cannot understand why the Administration’s wartime budget request falls far below the stated needs of our folks on the ground,” Biden said in a press release. “Providing our troops with the best possible protection should be a shared top priority. When American lives and limbs are on the line, giving anything less that 100 percent is not enough.”

Although Biden’s Democratic presidential rivals supported the Sept. MRAP legislation, this was a point of contention the first time Biden’s MRAP amendment came up for a vote as part of the Iraq $120 billion emergency spending bill in March. The measure included a Biden amendment allocating $1.5 billion to fast-track the MRAPs. The Senate approved the legislation 80-14, with Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Barack Obama of Illinois casting votes against the bill.

Biden took a lot of heat from the anti-war contingency that has argued his “yes” vote on the funding bill signaled a continued support of Bush’s failed policies in Iraq. Biden has countered on the campaign trail in Iowa that some things are worth losing an election over. “The funding was not for the war but for the troops,” Biden said at a stop in Iowa City. “When pushed, my colleagues who voted against that bill said they were trying to make a point. I don't make points about the physical safety of the kids we send to war. I don't want to fly any false colors with you. It's time to tell the truth, and the truth is that as long as we have troops over there, I will provide every single thing within my power to provide for their safety.”

This is where the support-the-troops rhetoric may prove troublesome for Biden’s campaign rivals. All of them have gone on public record indicating their support for the troops in Iraq before opposing or voting against the supplemental funding bill. Biden has been quick to point out that his opponents voted against funds for the troops to make a political point by sending a message to Bush. During an appearance at the Iowa State Fair, Biden said, “What did some of my colleagues say to why they voted against the money? They said they voted against the money to make a political point. Well, there is no political point worth my son’s life. There is no political point worth anybody’s life out there. None.”

With the recent passage of the second MRAP amendment, Biden’s rivals in the Senate were able to show their support the troops without fearing repercussions from the anti-war base. In doing so, Biden’s senatorial colleagues have cast a cloud of ambiguity on where they stand regarding troop funding. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards helped contribute to the ambiguity while speaking on “Meet the Press” this past Sunday. When asked by Tim Russert, “You now are in favor of cutting off funding, aren’t you?”, Edwards responded with “No, sir. No.”

Five months ago, just before Congress was to vote on the supplemental funding bill in March, Edwards urged Congress to defeat the bill. “Any compromise that funds the war through the end of (the) fiscal year is not a compromise at all -- it's a capitulation,” Edwards said in his remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations. “Every member of Congress -- every member of Congress should stand their ground on this issue and do everything in their power to block this bill.”

Edwards’ comments on Sunday prompted Biden to issue the following statement in Iowa Monday:

“I call on all the candidates running for the Democratic nomination for President -- regardless of their differing views of how to end war in Iraq -- to support our troops while they are there and as they are coming home. It is the one sacred obligation that we have to protect our men and women who are sent into battle.”

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Obama Launches Testimonial Ad to Combat Critics Doubts

To combat critics and political rivals who question the experience of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the campaign launched a new ad in Iowa featuring the testimonial of retired four-star General Merrill A. McPeak, who served in the Air Force for over 35 years. Gen. McPeak also served as a member of the Joints Chief of Staff and a combat pilot during the first war in Iraq.

“As a combat pilot and Air Force Chief during Desert Storm, lives depended on my judgments, and judgment is what we need from our next commander in chief,” McPeak says in the ad. Barack Obama had the foresight and courage to oppose the Iraq war from the start, showing courage and insight from the start that others did not.”

Obama’s new ad caps the campaign’s week-long “Judgment to Lead” tour in Iowa. In addition to McPeak’s endorsement, Obama received a testimonial earlier in the week from Ted Sorensen, former advisor to President John F. Kennedy, who introduced Obama at campaign stops. Sorensen drew parallels between Kennedy and Obama to help illustrate the tour’s underlying motifs: judgment and courage.

During a press-conference call, Gen. McPeak reiterated the ad’s message as to why he is committed to supporting Obama. “He has precisely the kind of judgment and courage that we need as our next commander in chief. The lives are at stake in combat and decisions are too important to rely on business-as-usual, inside-the-beltway kinds of conventional thinking,” McPeak said. “Obama wants fundamental change and to take the country into a new direction, and that’s what I want, and that’s what I hope the American people want as well.”

When asked to describe the circumstances surrounding his relationship with Obama, McPeak said that he had gotten to know Obama over the past six to eight months, but they had been on the same page before they met. “I’ve been writing op-ed pieces speaking out against the war in Iraq before the first invasion, so I’ve been on the same wavelength as the Senator,” said McPeak. “Frankly speaking, among this group of Democratic presidential candidates, I think he’s head-and-shoulders above them when it comes to possessing the best judgment to serve as our next commander in chief.

During the conference call, Obama’s Campaign Manager David Plouffe put any rumors to rest that the ad’s launch date was moved forward to counter the recent patriot-pin flap. Sensing his cue, Gen. McPeak chimed in about the latter. “The pin flap is kind of business-as-usual, gotcha politics,” McPeak said. “I think the Senator understands that patriotism is hard work. If you could do it by just putting a flag on your lapel, that would be pretty easy. Patriotism is hard work that comes from the heart, not the clothing. I think the American people are wise enough to understand the difference between this kind of petty symbolism and the real substance, real courage, and real judgment that Obama brings to this ballgame.”

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Senate Passes Harkin Provision Increasing Services for Guard and Reserve Families

Inspired by the Iowa National Guard’s 133rd Infantry Battalion, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, authored a measure that will increase support for families of those deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The provision, first introduced as the “Coming Together for Guard and Reserve Families Act,” works to strengthen the family assistance program and ensures adequate resources for Guard and Reserve families throughout the deployment cycle. Harkin’s provision was part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the U.S. Senate passed Monday by a vote of 92-3.

Harkin was compelled to introduce the measure after President Bush decided to escalate the number of troops deployed in Iraq. Soon thereafter, more than 600 Iowa soldiers with the 133rd Infantry of the Iowa National Guard were notified that their combat tours in Anbar Province would be extended to 16 months – the longest deployment of an Iowa National Guard unit since World War II. Harkin received scores of anguished letters and calls from their family members, who were already struggling – largely in isolation – with the stress of having their loved ones deployed in one of Iraq’s most violent regions.

“The Iraq war has required our national guardsmen and their families to make tremendous sacrifices. As I saw so clearly in the letters I received from the families of Iowa’s 133rd Infantry, the stress these deployments wreak upon soldiers’ families can be devastating,” Harkin said in a press release. “The Senate passed a bill that honors our national guardsmen by ensuring their families have support they need during their loved one’s deployment. We owe it to our brave soldiers abroad to ensure that we do all that we can to support their families here at home.”

Included in the Senate’s NDAA bill are Harkin’s measures to expand and strengthen the existing family assistance program. These measures authorize the secretary of defense to take these steps:

--Strengthen the family assistance program to provide family support staff to work with National Guard and Reserve families throughout the deployment cycle.

--Provide follow-up and referral information with family members of National Guard and Reserves for mental-health and family-support issues six months post-deployment.

--Create outreach programs to target professionals in child care, education, mental health and health care for the special needs of children in military families. The program will also provide outreach to parents for supporting children during the deployment cycle.

Originally posted on the "Iowa Independent"