Jun 13

(To read the rest of our coverage on foreign policy, the military and the presidential primaries, please click here.)

“On Violence, what do you think of Serial’s second season on Bowe Bergdahl?”

We’ve been asked that question a lot, by friends and family, by people in the military and outside it, and by people we meet online. The whole gamut.

But usually we don’t say anything, and we haven’t written anything about Bergdahl since Serial: Season Two dropped. Which feels unusual because we dubbed Bowe Bergdahl’s release one-half of our most thought provoking event of the half year back in 2014, where we, mainly, debunked some instant criticism heaped on President Obama for securing Bergdahl’s release by the Taliban.

So why not address Serial: Season Two sooner? Fear of the rabbit hole. I (Michael C) knew that as soon as I started listening, I’d be flooded with post ideas. And I was right. As I listened to the first episode, I was flooded with ideas, which I’ll now roll out over the next several months.

But before we get there, let’s start simpler. At the beginning. With the theme music. At almost exactly 4 minutes into episode one, the Republican candidate for President says:

“In the old days, deserters were shot, right? [CHEERS]”

Usually, this is where I would let out the snark on Donald Trump and lambast this position. Except I have to be honest: I’ve made this argument. At two separate parties, I prefaced my opinion on Bergdahl--really to convey the seriousness of what he did--by saying that, in the olden times, America executed deserters.

Oops.

To be fair, just because someone is odious doesn’t mean their positions are similarly odious by default. We’ve gone at the reverse of this quite a bit in our “Quotes Behaving Badly” series. Just because Einstein said something doesn’t make it witty and just because Hitler said something doesn’t make it inherently evil.

I can admit though, I was wrong on this point. Just a moment of self-reflection reveals this to be a bad argument. And I have three variations on this theme.

1. We don’t do a lot of things in general we used to do.

For instance, slavery. America, Great Britain and all the colonial powers used to take people from their homes in Africa in chains, ship them across the sea, and hold them in bondage. This bondage was enforced through corporal punishment, torture and murder.

Society also used to sacrifice animals, which used to be a common part of religion, including the Abrahamic tradition. I mean, if you go back far enough in time, religions used to sacrifice people.

In almost every way, in every facet of society, the way we do things now is better than the past. That includes not shooting deserters. So yeah, we used to do a lot of things we don’t do any more.

2. We used to shoot people for a lot of crimes.

For instance, shoplifting, cutting down cherry trees, escaping multiple times as a slave, stealing cattle, or sodomy. So yes, we used to shoot deserters, but we used to shoot people for a lot of crimes we no longer use it for. So it isn’t a great argument.

3. We used to do a lot of things in warfare we don’t do anymore.

We’ll go into this in much more detail, but the most striking thing about the Bowe Bergdahl case, for me, is how much effort was expended in rescuing Bergdahl in the initial months after his desertion and capture. Literally, operations ground to a halt across Afghanistan to find a single soldier.

This just didn’t happen in prior wars. When B-29s flew over Germany in WWII, many of them didn’t return. Either because they were shot down, crashed or got lost. The Allies didn’t have the manpower to hunt down each missing plane. This applied to boats lost at sea and soldiers lost on the ground.

But warfare is different with an all volunteer force. We bring every single soldier back including their bodies. We’ll stop the war effort to do so, even if doing so would likely cause us to lose us the war. While the contemporary force refuses to admit this fact, we did not used to fight wars that way.

So Donald Trump is correct. We used to shoot deserters. We don’t anymore. That’s a good thing.

Jun 06

In the last few years, kick-started by the Osama bin Laden killing, Navy SEALs have dominated the military-themed universe. Of course, we were on this way early, starting with our week on Lone Survivor (as part of Eric C’s series on post-9/11 war memoirs). Since then, we’ve catalogued the films, the news stories, the political action committees and the books by and about Navy SEALs. (And listed the political inaccuracies contained therein.)

A new academic paper on this issue lays out the potential costs to the SEAL community. Navy SEAL Lieutenant Forrest Crowell, doing graduate work at the Naval Postgraduate School, has written his Master’s thesis called “Navy SEALs Gone Wild” that analyzes the degradation of the Navy SEAL’s ethos when it comes to publicity.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

“What would have happened if U.S. Navy SEALs had not killed Osama bin Laden, but rather he had been killed by a drone strike? Would President Obama’s administration have handled the publicity differently? Would the name and location of the drone operator’s unit have been released? Would the man or woman who pulled the trigger to release the missile have been lionized in mainstream American culture? Would Fox News have hired this drone operator to be a Fox News contributor, paid to comment on domestic and foreign policy? Would drone operators have materialized from the shadows to write tell-all books, star in movies, blog about sensitive drone operations, criticize the president, and run for political office on the platform that they were drone operators? (Hint: this is what many former SEALs are doing.)"

This is an amazing anecdote and really shows the stark differences between special operators and other soldiers. It also sets up the key challenge addressed by the paper: how can an elite unit that needs secrecy to thrive, survive when former members commoditize their experience?

Apparently the article has made the rounds in relatively small Naval Special Warfare community. This New York Times article describes a bit about that.

Take a read.

Jun 01

(To read all of our Lone Survivor posts, please click here. The most important post is "A List of the Mistakes and Differences Between Lone Survivor (Film), Lone Survivor (Book) and Reality" so read that first if you are new to the blog or this topic.)

As we wrote on Monday, Newsweek has a cover article on Mohammad Gulab’s struggles after saving the life of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the famed author of Lone Survivor. The piece also questions what actually happened on the mission, including some new information we wanted to highlight.

To start, Gulab’s account differs from Luttrell’s story in a number of ways. He starts by telling a different narrative about how the insurgents in the area discovered the SEALs:

“Gulab maintains the SEALs were far from the stealthy, superhuman warriors described in Lone Survivor. ] They didn’t die because they spared civilians, he says; they died because they were easily tracked, quickly outmaneuvered and thoroughly outgunned. The militants, like many others in the area, heard the helicopter drop the Americans on the mountain, Gulab claims. The next morning, they began searching for the SEAL’s distinctive footprints. The way Gulab heard it from fellow villagers, when the militants finally found them, the Americans were deliberating about what to do with the goat herders. The insurgents held back. After Luttrell and company freed the locals, the gunmen waited for the right moment to strike."

This calls into question the central argument of Lone Survivor (book) that restrictive ROE got the SEALs killed.

The next inaccuracy casts doubts on the severity of the firefight, questioning the number of rounds fired by Luttrell.

“More puzzling: While Luttrell wrote that he fired round after round during the battle, Gulab says the former SEAL still had 11 magazines of ammunition when the villagers rescued him—all that he had brought on the mission.”

In addition to those two new potential inaccuracies, the article provides further evidence that Luttrell’s account inflated both the number of enemy fighters and how many of those fighters the SEALs killed:

““[Luttrell’s claims] are exaggerated nonsense,” says Patrick Kinser, a former Marine infantry officer who participated in Operation Red Wings and read the former SEAL’s after action report. “I’ve been at the location where he was ambushed multiple times. I’ve had Marines wounded there. I’ve been in enough firefights to know that when shit hits the fan, it’s hard to know how many people are shooting at you. [But] there weren’t 35 enemy fighters in all of the Korengal Valley [that day].”

And...

“The battle, Gulab claims, was short-lived. He wasn’t on the mountain with Luttrell but says everyone in the village could hear the gunfire. Gulab scoffs at the estimate by Naval Special Warfare Command that 35 Taliban died in the battle. (A Navy spokesman declined to comment on the matter.) But the Afghan claims the villagers and American military personnel who combed the mountain for the bodies of the dead SEALs never found any enemy corpses. (Andrew MacMannis, a former Marine Colonel who helped draw up the mission and was on scene during the search and recovery effort for the dead SEALs and other military personnel, says there were no reports of any enemy casualties.)"

Here are some other thoughts on the article:

First, especially in light of the rest of the article, one shouldn’t take everything Gulab says as gospel. He’s just one source. And he clearly has a bias, as the rest of the article shows. That said, one shouldn’t take everything Luttrell says as absolutely true, which almost every journalist who interviews him does. Schneiderman took a much more nuanced approach which is missing in a lot of quick hit journalism nowadays.

Second, this is a great article by R.M. Schneiderman, but we really wish he hadn’t repeated the inaccurate details of the mission before casting doubt on them later in the article. Schneiderman questions the basic facts of the story, using the amazing work by Ed Darack and links to our posts on Luttrell’s story changes, but only after he retells Luttrell’s original, and inaccurate, story. First, it’s a long article, so a lot of people just won’t finish it. (Thanks, internet.) Even worse, a lot of research has been done by psychologists that shows how difficult it is to change people’s minds when they are presented with inaccurate information. Some readers, even if they read the facts contradicting Luttrell’s story later in the story, will still be inclined to believe him.

Third, Schneiderman includes one possible explanation for some of the inconsistencies in the book Lone Survivor:

“Robinson says he interviewed Gulab extensively, took notes and double-checked details with the interpreter, but as with Lone Survivor ], he didn’t record the interviews.”

Finally, I, Eric C, remain frustrated at the double standard that the media holds for veterans. Last year, we wrote a piece--that we couldn’t get published--after Brian Williams got in trouble for exaggerating his personal experiences in combat zones. Also last year, two different memoirs (Primates of Park Avenue and On the Run) were accused of inaccuracies, and the accusations were widely covered in the mainstream media, including hundreds of blog posts and even taking up segments on cable news and morning news.

No one, it seems, cares about veterans exaggerating their details, at least not as much as liberal professors, nannies or news anchors. I have theories why, but I’m still disappointed.

Feb 24

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

Like businessman-turned-politician Mitt Romney before her, businesswoman-turned-former-candidate Carly Fiorina wants to broadly expand the size of the American military. While she was still campaigning, she often repeated her Heritage-Foundation-and-American-Enterprise-Institute-approved talking points, especially around warships, planes and tanks.

Carly Fiorina believes we need more! Lot’s more! Here’s the (unrealistic) plan she laid out at the debate in September:

“What I would do, immediately, is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet...We need the strongest military on the face of the planet, and everyone has to know it. And, specifically, what that means is we need about 50 Army brigades, we need about 36 Marine battalions, we need somewhere between 300, and 350 naval ships, we need to upgrade every leg of the nuclear triad...”

Fiorina isn’t alone in her belief that the U.S. military needs to be larger. Jeb Bush promised to rebuild the military and increase its size and budget. Same with Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson. (According to both of the previous two links, Donald Trump both agrees and disagrees.) Cruz, Rubio and Trump all mentioned “rebuilding our military” in their speeches after South Carolina.

So I wanted Michael C to write a post explaining that while our military is smaller on the whole, it is more expensive and powerful. By far. Well, he already did...for the last election. Posted over at Tom Ricks’ blog “The Best Defense”, he explained how when it comes to the Department of Defense, even really smart business people like Mitt Romney lose their business acumen. It seems like Carly Fiorina (and possibly Donald Trump) have lost the same passion for fiscal discipline.

In that guest post, Michael C got to the core of the issue when it comes to the DoD’s budget: it isn’t about the sum totals; it is about efficiency. We pay way too much for every weapon system. And we don’t get quality anymore. The F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are over-priced monstrosities that barely fly...and don’t even fly combat missions in our current wars. But they make defense contractors a fortune.

This talking point about the military isn’t even true. The Obama defense budget is arguably the largest budget in inflation-adjusted terms ever. Claiming we need to rebuild the military is like saying you need to upgrade your vehicle as you drive off the lot in a new car. You just bought one.

More to the point, Obama isn’t even cutting the budget; he actually increased it. At least, according to reality.

Feb 10

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.

Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

At the sixth Republican debate, Ben Carson warned the world of a looming threat:

“And we have enemies who are obtaining nuclear weapons that they can explode in our exo-atmosphere and destroy our electric grid. I mean, just think about a scenario like that. They explode the bomb, we have an electromagnetic pulse. They hit us with a cyber attack simultaneously and dirty bombs. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue at that point...those kinds of things are in fact an existential threat to us.”

That does sound terrifying. And Carson isn’t the only one sounding the alarm. Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum  and Mike Huckabee all fear an EMP attack, even though experts universally agree, this isn’t a remotely real or credible threat.

You may wonder why we keep writing about how the world getting safer or why we started the year sharing good news stories. Or why we keep debunking the anti-pollyanna pundits that dominate the media. Or why we’ll keep writing about this.

Frankly, because we’re losing the battle.

Since we’ve started writing about how the world getting safer, inspired by Steven Pinker, John Horgan, Joshua Goldstein, Bruno Tertais and other’s research, the world has only got more pessimistic. (And yet safer.) We keep a collection of pessimistic or statements about our “dangerous” world, and it just keeps growing. Heck, I just listened to a Nobel Peace Prize winner who stopped a war in Liberia, complain about the amount of war today, as an argument against war being inevitable. Huh?

Most of all, this year's election proves it. In America, you can blame Republicans, especially if they’re running for president. Michael C has this thing while we’re writing up posts, where he warns me (Eric C) not to go “Daily Kos” on the writing. In other words, don’t go crazy liberal/partisan. And I try. So, instinctively, for balance, I don’t want to blame Republicans for fear-mongering. But then I heard this on NPR:

“And the Republican theme of how scary the world has become under president Obama’s watch is only getting more intense...The theme is pretty clear: the world is on fire and it’s all President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s fault...”

Not only do people think the world is a dangerous place, one side of the political spectrum has made it their main talking point for foreign policy! From Rand Paul:

“After all the sacrifice in Afghanistan and Iraq, why do we find ourselves in a more dangerous world?”

That’s from an isolationist! Or Chris Christie in the NPR article above:

“These are among the most perilous times in our nation’s recent history.”

Or Marco Rubio:

“America is in far greater danger today than it was eight years ago"

Or Jeb Bush at the seventh Republican debate:

“Well first of all, I think it's important that when we're running for the highest office in the land that we recognize that we're living in dangerous times and we have to be serious about it, that our words have consequences.”

Politicians exploit violence to their advantage, selectively over-hyping “crises”. And frankly, Republicans have perfected it, because they and Americans tend to think Democrats are “weak” militarily and on foreign policy, just like the NPR reporter explained later in that report in the link above. In 2014, that meant framing the rise of ISIS and the Ebola crisis as world-ending catastrophes. This year, during the Republican debates, it means again over-hyping ISIS, the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shootings. (But like I said, selectively. Terrorism gets top billing, but mass shootings get ignored.)

It has an effect. In other words, these politicians successfully convince their followers that the world is a mess. Reveal, the podcast by the Center for Investigative Reporting, just did an hour on Donald Trump. One of his supporters described the world this way (Min 18:00):

“My neighbor is afraid to fly. I’m not afraid to fly...Hopefully it won’t be my flight that gets blown up, but no one feels safe anymore...we live in a dangerous world. We want to know who’s coming in. They’re coming into this country, the bad people, for one reason: to kill us.”

Almost nothing in that quote is true, but it represents what a lot of average Americans mistakenly believe.

So, who’s to blame? First, obviously Republicans, for needless fear-mongering and misleading their followers. Honestly, if the economy were in the toilet, Republicans would want to talk about that instead of ISIS.

Next would be Democrats, who either believe the world is a dangerous place, as dangerous place or more dangerous place than it has ever been. (Especially your regular, civilian Democrats.) Worse would be Democrats who know we’re safe, but don’t say or do anything about it. This does not include President Obama, who stated that ISIS is NOT an existential threat at his last State of the Union. This does include the Democrats who didn’t clap.

But most of all, I blame the media. Republicans complain about a hostile, anti-Republican “mainstream media”. But that very same mainstream media over-hypes pet issues that help Republicans, like terrorism and wars in the Middle East that then benefit Republicans. As we wrote about a few years ago and last year, the media, before is incredibly pro-war/pro-intervention. (It’s not until the war turns out badly that they complain about it.)

They also rarely correct the record about how the world is getting safer. They almost never but terrorism in context of how statistically rare it truly is. (Which, ironically, is why it is so news worthy.)

We’re in a similar situation to global warming denialism of ten years ago. The world is getting safer, except today, politicians of both parties argue the opposite. It’s time the media, when reporting about terrorism, mass shootings or other acts of violence, call them what they are: anomalies. Exceptions. Otherwise, politicians will keep using it to their political advantage, arguing for killing civilians, denying immigration to one class of people based on religion, starting new wars, and loosening ROE.

Which, ironically, may actually make the world less safe.

Jan 29

(To read all of our posts on the 2016 election, check out the articles below:

- The Constitution is a Fragile Thing: Republicans Candidates and Religious Liberty

Don’t Worry about EMPs, WMDs or ISIS: Sorry, Republicans The World is Getting Safer

- ISIS, You Ain’t No Existential Threat, Bruv

Torture. Still Wrong.

Actually, the American Military is Y-uuuuge

- Obama isn't a Feckless Weakling

- What We Talk About When We Talk About Loosening ROE

- Let's Kill Women and Children: The Republicans on War Crimes)


With the U.S. presidential primaries less than a week away, we feel we need to write about them. We’ve got a few weeks worth of posts, analyzing the issues that On Violence focuses on, like foreign policy, the military and civil liberties. Those issues, though, are firmly global/international/foreign in nature. No taxes, economics, or social issues here.

Also, we’re going to tell you who we think you should vote for. Kind of. (During the last election, we just wrote about the candidates, and endorsed Obama without directly saying so.) 

Before we get into everything else, we need to disclose our politics, since those will, no doubt, shape who we think you should vote for. We’re going to put our cards on the table and say, “We’re Democrats.”

Michael C used to be a Republican. Or, at least, a moderate Republican (I mean, he grew up in California), the type of person the chattering classes endlessly praised as being the core of American politics ten or fifteen years ago. Even Eric C, an avowed socialist, could respect his balance on a number of issues, modeled after our father’s guidance that conservatism was rooted in “slow change”, a variation on Burke’s original conservative argument for tradition.

Eric C, on the other hand, went to college, and became an activist and a socialist.

It’s safe to say, we’re both firmly big D, Democrats now. For Eric C, this might be considered a moderating of his own beliefs--Thanks, Nader, for Florida in 2000!--based on electoral pragmatism. For Michael C, many of his positions haven’t changed, but really, the Republican party left him, or failed to change with the times with the rest of the country.

So take everything we have to say about the Republican candidates with that grain of salt. We still think readers will find it valuable to read our thoughts on which Republican candidate is actually the best on the (unique) issues we care about. So on the issues, which candidate do we support?

The On V Republican Endorsement is: Rand Paul

That’s right, we endorsed a candidate who has toyed with the Gold Standard. (Remember, as we wrote above, we’re not looking at domestic policy.)

To figure our endorsement, we first tried to identify any “no-Go’s”. If a candidate advocated for one of those, how could we endorse them? The one we could settle on was advocating war crimes. Being belligerent is one thing, advocating the slaughter of innocents is unconstitutional, unethical, immoral and just wrong. So Ted Cruz and Donald Trump were eliminated. (We’ll elaborate in a later post.)

The other values were as follows:

- Less war is better than more war.

- Strong civil liberties is better than hurting civil liberties. (In fact, we like the whole Constitution a bunch.)

- A smaller military and intelligence community is a good thing.

    - Diplomacy equals good.

    - Foreign aid is Grrrrr-eat!

Only the last criteria saw universal agreement between the Republican candidates. Even Rand Paul hates foreign aid.

But on the other points Paul takes issue with some of his fellow candidates. His opposition to warrantless surveillance in unparalleled. And while On Violence loves global integration, we hate war more. On that we agree with Rand Paul. (He opposes most wars; he also opposes diplomacy and international institutions too.)

The thing is, none of the candidates are international relations liberals. They are realists, or neo-cons or, in some cases, pseudo-imperialists. At least Rand Paul’s isolationism (a proper use of the term, though he disputes it) is the least harmful. In reality, we think he is a traditional foreign policy realist, which we respect. (Though his domestic policies are abysmal and terrifying, they're so unrealistic as to be non-threatening, kind of like Bernie Sanders’ stances.)

In the coming weeks, we’ll analyze most of the Republican candidates in the context of the major issues of On Violence--including ISIS, Syria, World is Getting Safer, ROE and more--mainly to show them wanting.

The On V Democratic Endorsement is: TBD

Remember, domestic policy and foreign policy rarely align. If you exclude domestic policy from this discussion--and as we said above, we are--in many ways Rand Paul is a better choice to lead our country than Hillary Clinton. (Believe me, this hurt Eric C just to type that.)

To sum up, in our view, Bernie Sanders is unelectable and has no foreign policy experience. No one knows who Martin O’Malley is. Hillary’s foreign policy is abysmal, for the exact opposite reasons Republicans say. She’ll likely intervene in places we don’t want and she doesn’t have a great record on civil liberties. It is unclear if she is an international relations liberal.

Arguably Sanders is the best choice, but it is debatable, since his track record on foreign policy is slim. (We do appreciate his focus on global warming as the largest threat facing humanity.)

So we’re not endorsing a Democrat. If you’re a Democrat, consider your choice, as far as foreign policy goes, basically moot.

That said, if this is still a race in March, we’ll consider endorsing someone.

Jan 26

If veterans appear in the news, it’s usually in a negative light. Unemployment. (California veterans have a 7% unemployment rate.) Suicide. (37% of veterans have contemplated suicide.) Homelessness. (10% of homeless are veterans in Los Angeles.) And worse, most veterans don’t know where to go to seek help.

Well, today I want to tell you a positive story about veterans.

Over the last year, a grassroots effort sprung up among veterans in Los Angeles to improve how the VA treats veterans. This movement shows how great things can happen when people, but especially veterans, take a role in their government.

A little background. In the late 19th century, several wealthy landowners donated land upon which now sits the West L.A. V.A. Campus. Over time, the VA took over control of the land--extremely valuable land in the middle of Los Angeles--and eventually entered into long-term leasing arrangements that didn’t serve the best interests of veterans.

Unfortunately, this land mismanagement couldn’t come at a worse time for veterans. According to a survey conducted by USC’s School of Social Work, after leaving the military, 51% of veterans don’t know where to get help. And the average wait time for veterans in Los Angeles is 176 days.

A few years ago, a group of veterans sued the V.A. to protest the problems in the VA and how the land--which was deeded to veterans--was being used. Another internal audit of the VA saw similar issues on the West L.A. VA Campus. So far this seems like the same bad news story you usually read without any bright spots.

That changed in January of last year. Secretary of the VA Bob McDonald agreed to settle the lawsuit and work with veterans to improve the West LA Campus. Secretary McDonald would present a new plan to renovate and revitalize the campus, and he would seek veteran input to do so. In two days, on January 28th, Secretary McDonald is set to sign off on this plan.

That’s where I got involved. (I served in the U.S. Army after graduating from UCLA from 2006 to 2011.) A group called Vets Advocacy started organizing veterans so we can make our voices heard. I didn’t have to attend meetings, analyze the VA proposal or submit personal comments. But like my fellow veterans, I felt compelled to not just watch as the VA makes policies but to help inform the policies to make the West LA Campus something great.

The energy of veterans in LA was inspiring. Hundreds of veterans met regularly to plan our course. Simply put, we achieved historic amounts of involvement. The West LA VA Campus renovation plan received over 1,000 comments, the highest number of comments in federal registrar history. Thousands more tweets and facebook messages were distributed by thousands of veterans to raise awareness of this issue.

The plan is not just historic for the amount of comments, but for what this represents. This plan represents the possibility to change the VA from being a hospital or housing shelter into a community that brings veterans together. The veteran leaders I’m working with don’t just want to make the VA function better, we want to build a community of veterans and work with the VA to improve the lives of the people who fought and sacrificed for our country.

Even better, we know that we are creating a model for the whole country. Our efforts in Los Angeles are providing a blueprint for other VA campuses around the country for how to to turn from being simply a hospital into a community.

Our fight isn’t finished. Veterans are going to keep fighting to ensure that plan puts the interests of veterans first and foremost, builds a community for all veterans and provides a model for the VA nationwide. We’re going to demand accountability and ensure the VA lives up to the promises it has made to veterans.

Knowing my fellow veterans--some of the most energetic, passionate and hard-working people in America--I know we won’t stop here. That is a great news story about our veterans.

Go to the website VATheRightWay.org to learn more about this effort. As we wrote above, this Thursday, VA Secretary Bob McDonald will address veterans about the future of the West LA VA campus and sign the new master plan for the campus.

Here are the details:

When: 28 January, 2016 at 9:30 AM

Where: Building 209 Courtyard, 11301 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA

What: Introducing the new West LA VA Campus master plan.

Who: VA Secretary Bob McDonald.

Dec 01

(Michael C is writing today on behalf of a group veterans who are working to fix some of the long-term problems plaguing the West LA VA Campus in Los Angeles. To learn more go to #VATheRightWay.org. Then please comment. There are only six days left. Today is one of Michael C’s public comments he’s submitted to the Veterans Affairs department.)

Every Veterans Day, a lot of people thank me for my service in the US Army. I’ve always wished I had a way for the people who are thanking me to give back. Well, this year I did: we have an opportunity to fundamentally change how the VA interacts with veterans in Los Angeles. Specifically, by fixing the West Los Angeles VA Campus.

The West LA VA Campus sits on land that was gifted to the VA for the benefit of Los Angeles veterans, specifically their housing and healthcare. Federal law mandates that VA land must be used for the benefit of those same veterans. A few years ago, a group of Los Angeles veterans sued the VA because the West LA Campus was being fundamentally mismanaged. Earlier this year, the VA settled the lawsuit.

As part of the settlement, for the next two weeks, the VA is collecting public comments on their plan to renovate and restore the West LA VA Campus. Many veterans, such as myself, believe that their plan is more of the same from a VA system that has failed veterans and has routinely abused this wonderful resource.

So I made my voice heard and offered a public comment And I encourage anyone reading to do the same. I want the VA to reestablish a board of governors to oversee the West LA Campus. Without this vital piece of oversight, the West LA VA Campus will continue to be mismanaged. Or worse.

Trust me, the mismanagement is real and not hyperbole on the part of veterans. Many citizens are aware of the general problems with the VA--for instance the average wait time for a veteran in Los Angeles in 176 days for an appointment, above the national average--but not aware of how the VA has inappropriately sub-leased the land on the West LA VA Campus. The VA profits off the land by renting it out to private companies like 20th Century Fox, Marriott Hotels and others. According to NPR, in the last twelve years, the VA has made between $28 and $40 million renting the land.

Of course, the VA isn’t even that good at trying to profit off the land. The Government Accountability Office estimated that millions of dollars of land use revenue went uncollected. In 2012, when they should have collected $1.5 million dollars, they only collected $700,000. And the VA also makes other long-term arrangements (called extended use leases) that drastically under-charge wealthy private organizations. For instance, the Brentwood school--a private institution that charges over $30,000 per year for elementary school--pays only $450,000 a year for its lease for a twenty acre sports facilities. My alma mater, UCLA, pays $5,000 a month to lease land for its baseball field. This is prime real estate in the heart of Brentwood that the VA rents for well below the current market rates.

But the worst part is that the money collected for these private institutions doesn’t even go to helping veterans. This despite a federal law insisting the VA use funds to pay for veteran health care.

Luckily, we have a chance to change this. As part of the terms of the settlement, the VA must present a plan to fix the issues facing the campus. And that plan must be approved by veterans. Personally, I wouldn’t sign off on the plan until the VA solves the fundamental governance issues. Unless the VA is responsible to veterans, it will not change.

An independent board of governors will give veterans a seat at the table. The only way to ensure that the VA doesn’t give away prime Los Angeles real estate in sweetheart deals is oversight by an independent board. The only way to ensure all leases benefit veterans is an independent board. The only way to address the concerns of veterans in the long term is an independent board.

The time to help veterans is now. After leaving the military, 51% of veterans don’t know where to get help. A huge number--nearly 37%--of veterans have considered suicide, and most don’t seek help. And California veterans have a 7.7% unemployment rate. We know that the VA can help prevent suicides, homelessness and unemployment; veterans just need to know where to go.

While this seems like a local issue, it isn’t. The West LA VA Campus, as the largest campus of its kind in America, can serve as a model for how to fundamentally change the VA. The lessons in governance we implement in LA can expand to Chicago, New York and other large VA campuses. If we can create a systems where veterans have a voice in changing the VA to truly serve their needs, the effects could be tremendous.

I have personally commented on the VA plan. Frankly, the plan is more of the same that veterans have come to expect from the VA in Los Angeles. I told the VA that I want to see an independent board of advisors (with veteran representation) overseeing the West LA VA Campus. I encourage all veterans and concerned citizens to join me. (Go to #VATheRightWay.org to learn more and provide a public comment.)