Sunday, May 29, 2011

Our Veterans Are Not 'Freeloaders'

Fox Business’s John Stossel says that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is a “clumsy government bureaucracy, and I have little faith they make good judgments when deciding who needs help, and who freeloads.” He lumps veterans’ benefits with agriculture subsidies and government insurance programs that help the wealthy who don’t need it. To fairly criticize the VA and government agencies is one thing, but to call veterans “freeloaders” and the VA guilty of handing out money to fraudsters is quite another.

I recently began receiving VA medical benefits for the first time and I was pleasantly surprised by the efficiency and responsiveness of the Department of Veterans Affairs. I served nine years in the Army and received a Purple Heart after two tours in Iraq. To get into the VA system, I simply had to show my discharge paperwork and financial details to demonstrate that I was not above the financial need threshold. This prevents those who have an income over a certain amount from, as Stossel would put it, “freeloading.”

It is a well-known fact that healthcare is exceedingly expensive in America today. It is also an unfortunate fact that many veterans, such as me, don’t make much money. Young veterans’ unemployment has been reported to be near twice the national average. Without VA medical benefits, many of us would have to make the choice between paying for healthcare and paying other costs. I’ll admit that it weren’t for the VA I would probably assume the risk that nothing bad will happen to me in favor of paying for rent, groceries, and gas.

Much of the debate about the VA is wrapped up in the wider entitlements debate, which includes Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Critics inflate the size of the issue. These other benefits are available and required to be paid into by every American who later uses them when they become eligible. Only roughly 1% of Americans have served in the military and, even then, not every veteran receives or is eligible for VA medical care.

Although it has not been my experience, there are stories out there about the VA providing lavish healthcare benefits to veterans. Critics have complained about the VA funding chair lifts or ramps where the veteran claims they would have been fine without it. One of the best qualities of VA medical care is that the doctors are in charge. In private healthcare, the insurance companies tell the doctor what they can do. And I can vouch for the fact that most veterans would treat broken bones with ibuprofen, a glass of water, and a little walk.

Veterans aren’t looking for a handout; they have earned these benefits. Everyone recognizes the sacrifices our troops make for the country. Military service causes the very illnesses and injuries VA medical care treats. Think of all the running, marching with rucksacks, jumping out of planes and off trucks, and exposure to loud noise, dangerous chemicals, and foreign environments and diseases, not to mention the hazards of combat.

Veterans are entitled to VA benefits not simply because they wore the uniform and are taxpayers, but because serving in the military directly caused their health issues. It doesn’t matter if a service member never saw combat or was never injured while on duty; all the running, jumping, and marching will cause health issues. It’s a rough life. The same cannot be said for other entitlement programs that are based on the criteria of simply paying in to get benefits out later.

If we no longer want to pay for these benefits, how can we ask our young men and women to volunteer to serve? Some critics make the argument that our troops know the risks and drawbacks when they sign up. I don’t recall knowing at 18 years old that I would have my eardrums blown out at 23 or that my lower back and knees would be 60 years old by the time I turned 30. The risks are not always apparent, and to require our troops to assume the risk without compensation is to make suckers out of them to save the rest of us a couple bucks.

I waited three years before I went to the VA because of the stories I heard from fellow veterans about thick bureaucracy, red tape, and horror stories about VA mistakes. I know other eligible vets that still don’t use the VA for those same reasons. However, I have found these worries to be inflated or just plain untrue. There are problems with every government agency, and a look at other government agencies and even private sector healthcare providers shows that these things happen everywhere. To call vets “freeloaders” and the VA a waste is disgraceful, dishonest, and disrespectful to our troops.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Oil Transport: A Big, Fat, Slow Soft Target for Attacks

Despite a slight let up, the national average gas price is still close to $4 a gallon. That is up more than a dollar a gallon from a year ago. Last week, Chicago topped the list as the most expensive city to buy gas in with an average price of $4.44 a gallon. 70% of Americans say that these extreme costs are causing their families financial hardship. It’s no wonder Congress wants to investigate the oil companies because these prices are criminal. Beyond the continued assault on our paychecks, oil leaves us vulnerable to armed assaults by groups that oppose America and its allies and their economic and security consequences.

Unfortunately, to put gas in your car requires it be moved thousands of miles by giant sea tankers and then trucked overland to your local station. It burns a whole lot of gas just to get gas to the pump. Worse yet, imagine the difficulty and expense of getting diesel fuel to our troops downrange in hostile territory. By some estimates, it costs us $100 a gallon to get fuel to our soldiers from the source to their vehicles. As a Purple Heart recipient, I can personally vouch for the danger our troops face in convoys transporting fuel because I had to do it daily in Iraq.

Oil and gas transport is a huge and soft target for terrorism, which we all need to be mindful of after the threats of retaliation following the death of Osama bin Laden. Experts have long been concerned about the vulnerability of sea tankers and land-based fuel convoys. In uniform in Iraq and Kuwait and again as a military contractor there I witnessed incredibly long, slow-moving, and under-protected convoys of fuel trucks. Last year NATO fuel convoys in Pakistan came under multiple attacks and more have come just this week. Elsewhere this week, an oil tanker was attacked off the Gujarat Coast in Indian waters. Last summer a Japanese oil tanker was attacked in the Strait of Hormuz off Oman. There have also been attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Malacca off Indonesia. Attacks by Somali pirates in the Persian Gulf continue to be a security issue for oil transport.

The ridiculous cost of gas to consumers is already bad enough, but if you add to it the huge national security vulnerability it creates, continuing to be dependent on oil is dangerous and especially so for our troops downrange. It is time to move on.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Funding for DoE/ARPA-E for Our Security and Future

This article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice on 6 May, 2011.

When it comes to the budget and debt, the knives have come out in Washington. And the key phrase seems to be, “everything is on the table.” Conservatives want to put our energy security and independence on the table, as well. And it seems they want to do it for reasons more political than fiscal. The debt must be trimmed, but it cannot come at the expense of our national or future energy security.

Recently The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, published a report supporting greatly scaling back funding for the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), calling much of what it does “wasteful and unnecessary.” They claim that the DoE must stick to its role of promoting national and economic energy security from “traditional” sources. They also cling to the conservative article of faith that the private sector can innovate better without government support.

With the national gas price average hovering around $4 a gallon following two years of steady price increases, the DoE’s efforts to research new fuel technologies seem to be very necessary and no waste. DoE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is working on non-oil liquid fuels from abundantly available domestic sources that would eventually produce significantly cheaper prices at the pump.

ARPA-E is based upon the model of a more famous agency: DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Though others claim it, the truth is that DARPA invented the internet, as well as GPS technology, advanced microchips, and even Velcro. Additionally, they developed stealth technology, guided missiles, and unmanned aerial drones, all of which have greatly contributed to the success of our military.

ARPA-E and DARPA have been praised as models of “lean” bureaucracy and focus on high-risk, high-reward ideas within a relatively small budget. They also highlight the fact that the government can drive innovation. This pays dividends not only for our energy needs and national security, but for our economy as a whole, since the private sector tends to build on these innovations. The private sector application of the internet, GPS, and nuclear energy are examples. We wouldn’t have nuclear power if it weren’t for the government’s Manhattan Project, and imagine business without the internet or transport without GPS.

The Heritage Foundation report claims that the private sector can do the job better. The facts tend to disagree with them. Many of the research projects cited in the report as private sector examples of new energy research and development are in fact public-private partnerships, receiving vital funding from federal agencies such as the DoE, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the military.

Recent business trends, especially since the economic downturn, show that private companies are not willing to invest large amounts of money in new research and development. The energy sector invests only 0.3% of its revenue in new R&D projects. Another inconsistency is that the report claims to support a continuing role for ARPA-E but wants to cut out virtually all of its funding. ARPA-E was only recently fully funded as part of the 2008 stimulus plan, and conservatives essentially want to pull the plug already, while claiming to support it.

Why would anyone be against these agencies? Cutting the DoE budget would only save a very small amount of money and would come at great expense as oil prices continue to rise and America falls behind in the energy race. Clearly, part of it is ideological. Conservatives believe, falsely, that energy research should stay with the private sector, despite government research and funding being responsible for its development. The other part is political. President Obama has unveiled the development of new energy technologies as a vital part of his Energy Security Blueprint. GOP conservatives have shown themselves ready to stand in the way of anything the White House wants.

Again, conservatives are playing political games with national security. Our energy future requires an investment now and shouldn’t fall victim to ideological or political gamesmanship. The benefits of continuing energy research are clear for our national security and independent energy future. It will benefit American families by cutting our dependence on volatile and expensive petroleum; eliminate our dependence on importing foreign oil; keep our troops from having to secure our energy sources overseas; cut business’ energy costs; create new jobs and private-sector industries; and lead to clean, American sources of energy and technology we can market elsewhere. We can afford to pay a small price now for these dividends in the future.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Pipeline to Terrorism

This article also appeared on the Operation Free blog ( on 8 May, 2011.

High fuel prices threaten our fragile recovery and, unfortunately, there are people in the world that would love to do just that. Oil is already expensive, despite the fact that right now supply is plentiful and demand weak. Any interruption in the supply of oil now would cause prices to shoot up even higher. Opponents of oil-hungry America and its allies are catching on to this.

The world is crisscrossed with hundreds of thousands of miles of oil pipelines and experts consider them an easy and vulnerable target for terrorist attacks. Their great lengths through harsh terrain make them impossible to adequately protect and if a single break can shut a line down for weeks, imagine what a well-placed explosive device can do.

Just this month, Qaddafi’s forces in Libya attacked rebel-held oilfields there to halt production. There have been multiple insurgent attacks on pipelines in Iraq this year. Yemeni oil production has declined since 2006 due to attacks there and pipelines are a favorite target of the Kurdish PKK rebels in Turkey. Outside the Middle East, there have been multiple militia attacks against lines in Nigeria, a major oil supplier to the U.S., and rebel attacks on oil targets as close to the U.S. as Mexico.

Our own pipelines here in America show the vulnerability as well. In 2002 a drunken Alaskan hunter was convicted for shooting an oil pipeline, one bullet causing a hole that halted flow for three days. In 2006 a break spilled 250,000 gallons across the North Slope. A government report identified the trans-Alaska pipeline, which carries 12% of America’s domestic oil supply, as a major safety concern.

Our continued dependence on oil leaves not only our wallets vulnerable to price spikes, but puts our economy as a whole in danger and remains a threat to our national security. We need to turn off the pipelines for good and move away from oil.