Sustained Outrage

Homelessness a problem for Iraq and Afghanistan vets

In case our readers missed it, CBS News’ 60 Minutes aired a powerful segment yesterday (watch the video here, read the story here) on the growing ranks of homeless veterans in America. Correspondent Scott Pelley went to Stand Down, an annual gathering for veterans that started in 1988.

Back then, it was an emergency response to homelessness among Vietnam vets but, 23 years later, [co-found and soldier-turned-clinical psychologist Jon] Nachison is welcoming the generation from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stand Down is a three day campout that’s part job fair, part health clinic, part sobriety meeting. The name is a military term for the time when a solider can put down his weapon and stop fighting. The homeless go for a shot at redemption.

A few things really stand out from the piece.

— Two million Americans have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

— Of those, 800,000 have been deployed more than once.

— 250,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have asked for mental health treatment.

— The Veterans Administration told CBS that 9,000 Iraq and Afghanistan vets are already homeless.

Interestingly, the latest figures from the Congressional Budget Office estimate that the cost of treating veterans will only grow by 45 to 75 percent by 2010, to between $65 and $89 billion.

Although veterans from recent conflicts will represent a fast-growing share of enrollments in VA health care over the next decade, the share of VA’s resources devoted to the care of those veterans is projected to remain small through 2020, in part because they are younger and healthier than other veterans served by VA.

The 60 Minutes piece also does a good job at showing how slippery the slope from barracks to homelessness can be. Every soldier has a different story, and I don’t mean to generalize, but it’s easy to see a recurring pattern. A soldier returns from combat experiences with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (possibly made worse by a concussive head wound, particularly prevalent in Iraq and Afghanistan), and has trouble acclimating to civilian life. He or she might try to self medicate with drugs and alcohol, and end up with a substance abuse problem, which in turn might result in problems holding down a job, money problems, and strained relationships with loved ones, all of which contribute to homelessness.

Stand Down, and its heroic efforts to help struggling veterans connect with much-needed avenues of support, is a reminder of how the men and women who have put themselves in harms way for our country deserve better treatment — medical and otherwise — when they get home. And as a society, we need to make sure we don’t criminalize veterans for behavior that really requires treatment, not punishment.

Time for another look at stories we read this week.

In a story that’s got much of the sports world buzzing, former NFL agent Josh Luchs admitted in Sports Illustrated that he routinely paid college athletes he hoped to land as clients. “The lunches, the money each month, the bail, the concert tickets, those were all NCAA violations, of course, but in my mind I wasn’t doing anything wrong,” Luchs wrote in his first-person piece. Luchs was suspended by the NFL’s Players Association in 2007, effectively ending his career as an agent, but he maintains that payments continue to be common practice today. “Anyone who thinks it doesn’t go on needs to look at all the schools currently being investigated by the NCAA for contact between players and agents, places like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. It goes on everywhere,” he wrote.

Thanks to budget cuts, public defenders in Minnesota are now carrying twice the caseload recommended by the American Bar Association, MinnPost.com reported. Since 2008, the number of public defenders has dropped roughly 17 percent, causing some in Minnesota’s legal community to worry about the quality of service that these overworked attorneys can provide to their clients. As one judge put it: “Quality is sacrificed for efficiency. We are fast becoming the courts of McJustice.”

Even if you’re not using your real name, the information you’re posting online may be harvested and sold, thanks to the burgeoning “scraping” industry, the Wall Street Journal reported. Firms that collect and market personal data about internet users operate in a gray legal area, according to the report, and there is no national law that requires companies to remove online information even if requested by the individual who posted it. There are also services dedicated to linking real names to the pseudonyms of online posters and commenters.

KBR’s secret deal with the Pentagon

I haven’t written anything about sodium dichromate in a while, in large part because it hasn’t been in the news in West Virginia very much since U.S. District Judge Frederick Stamp dismissed two lawsuits filed by West Virginia National Guardsmen against KBR in August, ruling that he lacked jurisdiction to preside over the cases.

A brief refresher: The guardsmen alleged that KBR, a former Halliburton subsidiary, negligently exposed them and other soldiers from Oregon and Indiana to the highly carcinogenic chemical as they provided security for civilian contractors at the Qarmat Ali water plant in 2003. On its part, KBR has maintained that it was not responsible for the presence of the chemical at the facility, and that American and British soldiers and contractors were not exposed to dangerous levels of the chemical, according to tests performed by the military and KBR. (You can read previous posts here, here, here and here.)

This week, The Oregonian published this story about how members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation have proposed legislation intended to keep the Pentagon from cutting secret deals with contractors — which stay hidden as the terms of the contract are classified — which indemnify the contractor and force taxpayers to pay for any damages.

Oregon Democrats on Wednesday moved to stop the Pentagon from cutting secret deals with war contractors and to keep taxpayers from bailing out negligent contractors.

U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader, and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, introduced a bill in both houses to boost Congressional oversight of defense contracts worth more than $1 million, revoke immunity for harm caused by a contractor’s misconduct, and limit immunity in future agreements.

The legislation is the strongest response yet to an Oregon lawsuit against Kellogg, Brown and Root, a former subsidiary of Halliburton. Twenty six Oregon Army National Guard veterans have sued KBR, saying managers downplayed or dismissed their exposure to a cancer-causing chemical early in the Iraq war. During depositions in U.S. District Court in Portland, a KBR attorney revealed he’d secured a secret agreement that requires taxpayers — not KBR — to pay for any death, injury or property damage during the Restore Iraqi Oil contract.

“We’re trying to come up with a ‘Never again’ policy,” Wyden said. “The private contractor who takes irresponsible risks with our soldiers is going to have to pay a price.”

(My emphasis.) So even if they are found legally responsible for the exposure of hundreds of soldiers and civilians to a highly toxic chemical, KBR won’t have to pay for it, taxpayers will. Because they cut a secret deal with the Pentagon. Julie Sullivan’s article continues:

Last week, Blumenauer redoubled his pressure on KBR. In a Sept. 23 letter, he again asked the Defense Department to declassify the entire KBR contract. And, he asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to list any contractors granted similar immunity. Earlier this summer, the Army insisted KBR’s agreement was unique. But Blumenauer said he has since learned some contractors may have similar protection under the 2003 Defense Appropriations Act or with other branches of the service.

“No company that has done wrong can be allowed to hide behind the government,” Blumenauer wrote. “No government agency can be allowed to hide behind a veil of secrecy.”

Blumenauer also released a research report of allegations against KBR and was troubled by the apparent lack of accountability.

He said he was responding to the plight of the Oregon soldiers who suffer breathing, skin and stomach problems from hexavalent chromium exposure. “For me, it’s keeping faith with the more than two dozen people whose lives were turned upside down.”

In 2003 before the invasion of Iraq, the Army Corps of Engineers signed a no-bid contract with KBR to restore oil production after combat ended. A key site was a Soviet-built plant at Qarmat Ali where water from the Tigris River was injected to drive oil in nearby fields to the surface. The water was treated with sodium dichromate, a rust fighter that contains hexavalent chromium, a well-documented carcinogen.

The Inspector General reported Sept. 17 that 977 men and women from Oregon, Indiana, West Virginia and South Carolina National Guard units and the Corps of Engineers served at the plant. Among them were 277 Oregon Guard between late April and July 2003.

But the troops didn’t know piles of fine orange powder that coated their uniforms was dangerous until 2008, when KBR employees testified of their own health problems at Senate hearings on contractor waste, fraud and abuse.

You can read more about the proposed legislation here, and you can join me in following the Oregonian’s coverage of the sodium dichromate issue here.

It’s time for another installment of stories that made us sit up and take notice this week:

In the wake of four apparent suicides over the weekend, including an apparent murder-suicide, officials at Fort Hood in Texas promised to take steps to identify individuals who may be at risk, the Austin American-Statesman reported. There have been 14 confirmed suicides (and six suspected suicides) at the base in 2010, compared with 11 in 2009 and 14 in 2008. Army suicide rates have doubled since 2005, and more and more soldiers are stationed at the base as a result of troop withdrawals from Iraq.

An alleged global scheme to steal millions of dollars from U.S. bank accounts using computer viruses has resulted in more than 60 people being charged, including 19 people who were arrested in London on Tuesday, according to this account from the Wall Street Journal. So-called “money mules” were supposed to open bank accounts in the U.S., where they would receive wire transfers made possible by a virus that steals a person’s usernames and passwords from his or her computer. The scheme also targeted small and midsized businesses and municipalities, according to the article.

A private intelligence contractor hired by the Pennsylvania State Police produced information that was “often inaccurate and almost always useless,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported as the director of the state police’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation testified before a Legislative committee. Moreover, the questionable intel distributed by the Institute on Terrorism Research and Response, which included reports “on the activities of citizen groups that posed no obvious threat to public safety, including student protesters and opponents of natural-gas drilling,” were widely disseminated. “I likened it to reading the National Enquirer: Every so often they have something right, but most of the time it’s unsubstantiated gossip,” the director said.

Here’s another installment of stories that earned our admiration this week:

The number of contractors killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during the first half of 2010 is higher than the number of military fatalities, reported ProPublica.org, which compared U.S. Labor Department figures to information from the Pentagon. This marks the first time in U.S. history that corporate casualties in war zones — which are often under-reported — have outpaced military losses, the article notes. “A recent Congressional Research Service report found that the heavy use of contractors had exposed troops to supply shortfalls, wasted taxpayer money, and stirred anger among locals,” the article states.

An appeals court in Miami overturned a 33-year-old ban on gay adoption in Florida, finding it unconstitutional, the Miami Herald reported. The three-judge panel concluded that there is no “rational basis” for banning gay people from becoming adoptive parents. The article quotes the court’s opinion, which is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court: “Given a total ban on adoption by homosexual persons, one might expect that this reflected a legislative judgment that homosexual persons are, as a group, unfit to be parents. No one in this case has made, or even hinted at, any such argument. To the contrary, the parties agree ‘that gay people and heterosexuals make equally good parents.'”

A high-quality recording of the broadcast of Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, which ended with a walk-off home run by Bill Mazeroski, was found in Bing Crosby’s wine cellar, of all places, the New York Times reported. Crosby, a part-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, couldn’t bear to watch the games as they happened, and hired a company to make a recording of the NBC broadcast that he could watch later. During that era, television stations didn’t normally keep copies of games for their archives, so the newly discovered recording is a monumental find, not just for fans of the victorious Pirates and the losing New York Yankees, but for baseball fans everywhere.

What we’re reading: U.S. Supreme Court edition

Here’s a set of Supreme Court-related stories from this past week that we admired.

It’s rare that a current member of the U.S. Supreme Court gives an interview, so when Associate Justice Stephen Breyer sat down with Fresh Air host Terry Gross (admittedly to promote his new book, Making our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View), we read and listened to every word. The Clinton appointee described his vision of the Constitution as a living document, meant to adjust to changes in American values over time. “Words on paper, however, no matter how wise, are not sufficient to preserve a nation,” Breyer writes in his book. “Benjamin Franklin made this point when, in 1787, he told a Philadelphia questioner that the Constitutional Convention had created ‘a republic, Madam, if you can keep it.'”

The Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the door for corporate spending in elections, and during the current cycle, G.O.P. allies have been outspending their Democratic counterparts, the New York Times reported. But it is not necessarily coporations that are driving the spending, but interest groups that enable the donors to remain anonymous. “The situation raises the possibility that a relatively small cadre of deep-pocketed donors, unknown to the general public, is shaping the battle for Congress in the early going,” the article states.

The case of an Arizona eighth grader who was strip-searched by school officials looking for ibuprofen inspired Andrea Soros to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union, according to the Wall Street Journal. Soros, daughter of billionaire political activist George Soros, told the Journal that in this period of global and national change, “civil liberties are being called into question and are under threat.” Soros was in the Supreme Court chamber when ACLU lawyers argued the case, which resulted in the justices ruling by a margin of 8-1 that the search had violated student Savana Redding’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Once again, here’s a glimpse at some of our colleagues’ work that we admired this week.

Reporter Clive Goodman and investigator Glenn Mulcaire of News of the World, a British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, have pleaded guilty to hacking into the cell phones of members of England’s royal family, the New York Times reported. And now, lawsuits allege that even more celebrities may have been victimized. The story noted: :A dozen former reporters said in interviews that hacking was pervasive at News of the World. ‘Everyone knew,’ one longtime reporter said. ‘The office cat knew.’”

Americans are worried about the safety of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico, but 80 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported. In the few inspections made by the Food and Drug Administration, inspectors find filth, antibiotics, chemicals and pathogens, reports Andrew Schneider. Just looking at shrimp as an example, improperly run foreign shrimp farms pack their ponds to raise more shrimp per acre. The overcrowding breeds dangerous waste and disease. Some producers use quantities of antibiotics, disinfectants and pesticides that would be illegal in the United States.

While researching the increase in the attention paid to cold cases in the San Diego area, a reporter with the VoiceofSanDiego.org noticed that murders get solved at a significantly different rate in the area depending on which department investigated. While the city of San Diego solved around three out of four murders, two jurisdictions in the county have solved less than half of the murders that occured over the last decade.

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have warned residents of Pavillion, Wy., not to drink the water and to ventilate while using water to bath or wash to avoid explosions, Propublica.org reported. Pavillion is the site of significant drilling for natural gas. The agency’s testing found “benzene, metals, naphthalene, phenols and methane in wells and in groundwater,” although officials said it was too soon to tell whether the contamination came from the gas drilling.

Another Thursday, another batch of stories we admire.

After a three-year legal fight, the Jackson County (Ore.) Sheriff must pay almost $44,000 in legal fees after the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that he wrongly withheld the names of people with concealed handguns from the Medford Mail Tribune. The newspaper was trying to determine how many teachers had permits to carry guns after a local teacher sued the county for permission to carry a gun on school grounds. “We really had no desire to see the sheriff spend money on legal fees instead of patrol deputies, but we also think it’s important to make sure that public officials follow the law themselves and that they make every effort to keep public records open to the public,” said Mail Tribune Editor Bob Hunter.

Building on a New Yorker profile of libertarians David and Charles Koch, two billionaire brothers who have given millions to right-wing causes, Propublica.org noted that David Koch’s company Koch Industries has lobbied to keep the Environmental Protection Agency from designating formaldehyde as a carcinogen. Koch, a cancer survivor himself who was appointed to the National Cancer Institute in 2004 by President George W. Bush, has given extensively to cancer research, while Koch Industries has given to Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., who helped delay the EPA’s efforts to officially link the chemical to cancer in humans.

On the eve of the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, an ongoing joint investigation by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Frontline and ProPublica.org has revealed that New Orleans police officers were told they could shoot looters. In the days following Katrina, police shot 11 civilians, although none of the officers implicated or charged in the shootings has invoked the order to shoot as justification for their actions. A one-hour Frontline documentary, “Law and Disorder,” has begun airing on PBS stations nationwide.

With all the talk of the “Reading Revolution” spurred by e-books and other digital devices, the Atlantic took a look back at 10 previous watershed moments in the history of literacy. “Communications legend Harold Innis suggested that the history of culture itself was characterized by a balance between media that persisted in time — think stone inscriptions and heavy parchment books — and those offering the greatest portability across space, like paper, radio, and television,” author Tim Carmody noted. It’s a nice reminder that the ways that humans communicate information have been shaken up and become obsolete before, and somehow we all adjust.

It’s Thursday, which means another opportunity to take note of some other media stories that we’ve admired this week.

What’s it like being a 21st century president? Todd Purdum, Vanity Fair’s national editor, recently spent a day shadowing President Obama, and the resulting article offers a compelling glimpse at the challenges that confront America’s chief executive on a daily basis. “[T]he modern presidency—Barack Obama’s presidency—has become a job of such gargantuan size, speed, and complexity as to be all but unrecognizable to most of the previous chief executives,” Purdum wrote. “The sheer growth of the federal government, the paralysis of Congress, the systemic corruption brought on by lobbying, the trivialization of the ‘news’ by the media, the willful disregard for facts and truth—these forces have made today’s Washington a depressing and dysfunctional place.”

Heard of nanosilver? It can keep your socks from stinking and your baby’s teething ring from hosting bacteria. A Swiss company may be the first to get approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to use it on consumer products. But what happens to the particles, as they wash into the environment — whether that’s the water supply or your body? The effects are not so well known. EPA may give the company four years of conditional approval to market and test the results, writes longtime public health
reporter Andrew Schneider
.

Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise has joined with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to encourage states to revamp their approach to digital education, Eduction Week reported. A 50-member council will develop a list of best practices, including online and virtual schools, classroom technology, equity, security and privacy, and digital content.

Marcellus drilling concerns continue

Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

Environmental problems associated with oil and gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale continue to get a lot of attention across the region and in West Virginia.

Just last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency postponed one public meeting on its study of hydraulic fracturing because of worries about the size of the crowd — perhaps 8,000 people or more — expected. EPA is working on plans to reschedule.

In West Virginia, Vicki Smith at The Associated Press did a story about the industry’s complaints regarding a proposal that drillers have to come up with plans and post bonds for repairing any damage they do to small rural roads.

Meanwhile, Pam Kasey of The State Journal reported that the state Division of Highways plans to begin using gas well brine to treat West Virginia highways this winter.  Pam explained:

With regard to salts, the agreement sets maximum concentration levels for chloride and sodium and a minimum level for the combination of those salts and calcium — all related to the brine’s freezing temperature.

With regard to other aspects of natural gas well brine, the memo establishes levels for pH, iron, barium, lead, oil and grease, benzene and ethylbenzene.

For each new source of brine to be used on roadways, DOH has to submit an analysis of these criteria to the DEP.

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