Veterans and the DAV
Secretary tells veterans' group there is no substitute for the VA
Speech to DAV touts accomplishments, outlines challenges ahead
Somedays, the Department of Veterans Affairs catches more criticism than any other federal agency.
That was not the case Saturday in a packed ballroom at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel. The national convention of Disabled American Veterans greeted VA Secretary Robert McDonald with a standing ovation and applauded his remarks.
He took the opportunity to defend the department against congressional critics, including those who have talked about privatizing the VA, and to tout its accomplishments.
The research arm of the VA, he said, performed the first liver transplant and invented the shingles vaccine. The department is the largest employer of nurses in the nation and boasts the lowest foreclosure rate on the home loans it guarantees.
"There is no substitute for the VA," he said. "Veterans need the VA. Americans need the VA."
The DAV crowd applauded when McDonald said the number of veterans awaiting benefit decisions had been cut in two years from 611,000 to slightly more than 100,000, a task accomplished partly with mandatory overtime.
The audience also applauded his promise to end veteran homelessness. "We're not going to rest," he said, "until every veteran has a roof over their head every night."
McDonald also spoke of challenges lying ahead.
While the numbers of veterans are declining, demands for VA medical care are not.
McDonald attributed that to several factors: The veteran population is aging and needs more medical care. More than a decade of war and higher survival rates from severe injuries have yielded a younger group of veterans with complicated health problems. And the federal government has decided, after decades of debate, to treat Agent Orange exposure as a possible cause of many diseases, including cancers.
In addition, "we know we still have too many veterans waiting for care," he said.
McDonald's speech set the stage for another convention event Monday, when he will face House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., a leading critic of VA scandals and construction problems, for a panel discussion.
One likely topic: the half-finished VA hospital in Aurora, which began with a $604 million construction budget in December 2011 and busted that budget by a billion dollars.
The secretary barely mentioned that project during his speech.
But in a media briefing afterward, he said he feared "if we don't get something solid" from Congress to complete construction, its opening will be delayed further.
"Nationally, this is a huge issue," he said. "It would be lunacy to not finish the hospital."
While the VA and Congress have yet to agree on a financing plan, McDonald expressed confidence that they will.
"I don't know of a single member of Congress who wants to punish a veteran," he said.
David Olinger: 303-954-1498
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National September 11 Memorial & Museum, photo courtesy National September 11 Memorial & Museum – http://www.911memorial.org/
Each of us has our story. On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I could have been standing in the lobby of 7 World Trade Center, next to a work colleague who was there when the first plane hit the towers. A few days earlier, I was pulled from that trip to New York, with instructions to travel on the 12th or 13th. I wasn’t there as the planes struck, and the follow up trip never happened.
Instead, I was in Washington, D.C., at my desk at Secret Service headquarters when the terrorists attacked. We watched on TV the news of planes crashing in New York, Washington, Pennsylvania. We watched as one tower fell. Then another. And then 7 World Trade. The Secret Service had offices in building 7. Our people, many of them friends, were among some of the first responders on site, and among those evacuating with so many other New Yorkers.
Federal offices in D.C. were closed down, but I stayed at work. Our office was busy not only responding to the media about the safety of the president and other protectees, but we were busy accounting for our employees assigned to New York. I drove home late that night, greeted as I crossed the 14th Street Bridge southbound by the smell of burning fuel and the sight of flames and water hoses still leaping high from the Pentagon. For the first time, I let myself break down and cry. In the years since, I have continued to shed tears on this anniversary for those who died, thinking of the friends and family they left behind.
The Secret Service lost one employee that day, Master Special Officer Craig J. Miller. From what we know, Craig, an Army Veteran of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and Bronze Star recipient, used his military and Secret Service emergency response training and went into the towers. He died trying to help others get out.
– Megan Moloney
I was the managing editor of a small daily newspaper on 9/11 and I remember it starting as a rather a slow news day locally, so I asked my team to scour the AP wire and find a story to fill the last open space on the front page of the paper while I stepped out to meet with my friend Rose.
We were about 10 minutes into our meeting when her legal assistant open the door and said a plane had just flown into the World trade Center.
“An air traffic controller or someone is going to be in big trouble,” I remember saying to her, thinking it must have been a Cessna or some other small commuter plane involved in a freak accident. Other than that our conversation didn’t skip a beat until her assistant came in again and told us “a second plane just hit the other tower.”
Rose said something like, “What in the world is going on?” as we both stood up. I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but I knew it was no accident and I had better get back to the paper because this story was going to be big. Little did I know at that very moment, how big the story really was and how much it would change us as people and change us as a nation.
Days later, I drove by a smoking Pentagon on my way to an interview to see if I could come back to active duty and serve again. I got the job and spent the next five years writing about and reporting on some of the most patriotic men and women to ever have worn the uniform.
Sept. 11 is, to me, what Pearl Harbor was to my grandparents and great-grandparents – a horrible day that will forever live in infamy, but also an example of America’s resolve, patriotism and willingness to root out evil wherever it threatens democracy, freedom and our way of life.
– Gary Hicks
National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, Defense Dept. photo by R. D. Ward (2008) – http://pentagonmemorial.org/
It was my sophomore year in high school and I was outside playing soccer on a chilly morning. The loudspeaker starts mumbling. No one could really make out what it said other than “Planes” and “New York.” “Whatever,” I thought, back to soccer.
As soon as I left the locker room to head to my next class I noticed an eerie excitement in the hallways. I overheard someone say “Dude! Two planes just hit the twin towers in New York!” No one knew anything more.
I tried calling my dad to see if he knew anything but the phone networks were down. During the next class period everyone huddled around a computer, but the networks were bogged by everyone else trying to do the same.
By German class later that day, we knew just enough details to know that America was under attack, not just New York. A few close friends and I tried to brainstorm what we could do to help. It quickly turned to revenge, but we still didn’t know to whom we should direct our anger.
At the first football game of the season, I ran in to a close friend of our family who was involved in law enforcement intelligence on the national level. I simply asked him “Who did it?” He replied, “Al Qaeda without a doubt.” This was before the media or government officially pinned the attacks to Al Qaeda.
The fact that he knew what many people wanted so desperately to know left an impression on me. If he knew, many other officials must know. Why didn’t they stop it? I, like the nation, had so many questions, so much anger.
It was the same family friend who took me out to lunch when he heard I was thinking of joining the military. I learned that he was an U.S. Air Force Vietnam Veteran. He said I had two options, “Join the U.S. Air Force and be treated the best or join the U.S. Marine Corps and be the best.”
Flipping through the U.S. Marine Corps recruiter’s “job book” I came across intelligence. I remembered how it felt to not know during 9/11. Maybe I could be part of the solution? I never wanted that helpless feeling again. I asked the recruiter “when can I leave?”
Like thousands of others, 9/11 played an important role in my decision to join the military. I take comfort in the fact that when it counts, there are thousands of other Americans ‘playing soccer,’ ready to serve their country.
– Tim Hudak
The news of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks first hit me on a crisp, but sunny fall afternoon in Würzburg, Germany. It couldn’t have been a more beautiful day. I was stationed in the country where I had long dreamed of living. I had a job I enjoyed, as an Army journalist in the Public Affairs Office of the famed “Big Red One,” First Infantry Division.
On this particular day, our leadership had even released us a few hours early to go home to our families. Just as I exited the installation, Leighton Barracks, I got the call to come back, with very little explanation; but the tone of the conversation was enough to alert me that something really serious was coming our way.
Moments later, I joined my colleagues in listening to CNN Europe on TV. We hovered over the computer for any updates we could glean from Internet news sources, our expressions eventually turning from confusion to disbelief.
Just after the attacks, no one knew what to expect next. It wasn’t long before we were assigned to stand on 12-hour guard duty shifts just outside of the installation gates and ordered to remain in the company area. As a married soldier living off-base, I became temporarily separated from my husband who was similarly confined to his own unit in nearby Kitzingen.
I recall sleeping on the floor of my female colleague’s barracks room, because there was nowhere else to go, and quickly having to go on shift in “full battle rattle” at a moment’s notice—hearing loud knocks echo off the doors down the hallway, and wondering when I would called upon.
It has been 13 years, and yet the memories are still fresh. We didn’t suffer nearly as badly as those who were impacted personally by the attacks, but we were quickly jolted back to reality. Despite all of our public affairs duties and training, we were quickly reminded of the fact that we were all soldiers first and foremost.
– Jennifer Sardam
Flight 93 National Memorial, photo courtesy National Park Service – http://www.nps.gov/flni/index.htm
I was sitting in my first-period history class at Edinburg North High School when the TV in the corner of the room turned on. The TV sets were controlled from the library, so we all thought somebody had programed a movie to our class by mistake. It only took a few seconds to realize it wasn’t a movie and that it wasn’t just an accident. I don’t remember doing anything other than watching the news that morning, and as the bell rang for the next period we just sat in our seats not knowing what it all meant.
When I finally realized the magnitude of what I saw, and how many people were affected in New York and D.C., I couldn’t help but feel an obligation to do something for them and my country. We did what we could in our small South Texas town, but unfortunately I was just a senior in high school at the time. I would, however, end up serving in the Marine Corps as an infantryman a few years later. While September 11 wasn’t the only reason I enlisted, it influenced my overall decision to join.
What I find interesting now is the fact that many of the younger children who watched the same news as I did that that day are now the 18 and 19-year-olds still fighting in Afghanistan. The day I will never forget may have been 13 years ago, but we are still feeling the impact of it today.
– Rey Leal
I was in a makeshift storage area we had set up for video editing on the ninth floor of VA’s Central Office producing the eleventh VA News since the show began.
Glancing over at the old TV tuned into the Today show, I thought I was looking at a movie trailer until I turned on the sound and listened until the second plane flew into the other tower. I hurried to see if my colleagues were aware. Only a few were, but rumors quickly circulated about car bombs and a similar attack on the Capitol.
Our photographer, Robert Turtil, and I rushed to the windows in our office overlooking Lafayette Park, the White House and to the west beyond the Potomac River. In just a few seconds we noticed smoke on the horizon. It was the Pentagon.
Robert took some pictures and then I said, “You know we need to get out of here. Who knows what might be coming next.”
I had driven to work, so I grabbed a friend at VA who also lives in Prince William County – 30 miles down Interstate 95. As safely as possible, I hurried to get past the Pentagon before I-395 was blocked. People were streaming out of its massive parking lots, jumping the jersey walls and guardrails to cross the Interstate to safety.
All the way down I-95, we passed a steady northbound stream of police, fire and EMS vehicles, sirens blaring and lights flashing, responding to calls from D.C.
I believe if the plane had come over the top of the Pentagon the White House would have become the target and Robert and I may have had a much closer view of the devastation. We still talk about how incredibly fortunate we were that day 13 years ago.
– Ken McKinnon
The attacks of 9/11 were meant to drive fear into Americans hearts and render the nation ineffective both at home and abroad. The killing of Americans was the terrorists’ means to their end. They failed. America’s resolve was never stronger.
Today, the Vantage Point team remembers the fallen, honors those who protect and defend us and asks what more can we do serve each other and our nation in their honor.