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.

Jan 20

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.)

As Michael C wrote about last week, the problems with police shootings are incredibly similar to the problems America faced fighting counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Editing that post, we realized we had at least three more connections between policing in America and counterinsurgency theory abroad.

1. Poor Community Relations

To bluntly summarize a major disagreement we had with the mainstream criticism of population-centric counterinsurgency: nation building works, but America (and its military) never really tried it.

Framing it simply, if you rebuild infrastructure (roads, power, cell phones, etc), provide healthcare, and stimulate the economy, the local population will have a really hard time hating you. If you’re a potential insurgent, you’re probably not going to hate the country or military that got you a job, cured your son’s club foot, and modernized your nation. But America and its military never committed to that strategy or vision of COIN. Most of the money that was spent was wasted or stolen, and way more money was spent on our soldiers’ welfare than on the local populations. (For example, Caesar salad and steak Fridays on Michael C’s base in Iraq.)

Same with local cities and municipalities in regards to poor communities. Again, probably summarizing too simply, in response to conservative pushes for lower taxes, many cities began using poor communities as a source of income to make up for lost tax revenue. (Instead of rebuilding infrastructure--a la Flint’s current water crisis--or providing quality education.) This includes cities that make citizens pay for their own legal proceedings, including being represented by a public defender, which is a constitutional right.

They then added fines on top of fines. Add to that the rise in plea bargaining instead of trials, and you have a system designed to make money at the expense of disadvantaged communities. For an anecdote, just look at Ferguson, Missouri, who went, “so far as to anticipate decreasing sales tax revenues and urging the police force to make up for the shortfall by ticketing more people.”

We haven't even mentioned civil forfeiture.

The COIN connection is pretty simple: relationships between poor, minority communities and police couldn’t be worse, and these policies explain why.

2. Night Raids

If you ask the door kickers in JSOC and SOCOM, one of the most effective tools of counter-terrorism is “night raids”. Using the advantage of darkness (because of our night vision goggles), our elite forces raid houses of suspected terrorists at night, without warning.

If you ask the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the least effective tools of counter-insurgency is “night raids”. Why? Because when a raid goes poorly, the civilians inside usually die. As Frontline reported on it in their episode “Kill/Capture”, “botched raids and harrowing accounts from Afghan citizens have sparked protests and raised serious questions about whether the raids are alienating the local population in ways that fuel the insurgency’”. The episode features several emotionally jarring stories of innocent people being killed in fights with JSOC forces. Unfortunately, night raids have resumed in Afghanistan. (It's the opposite of above; you'd have a hard time supporting a country or government that just killed your family.)

In the US, the clearest equivalent to night raids is the “no-knock warrant”. Once a non-existent tactic just 20 years ago, then a special tactic only for extreme circumstances, police around America now conduct 20,000 to 40,000 no-knock raids a year. Radley Balko’s book Rise of the Warrior Cop has several examples of completely unneeded no-knock raids that resulted in dead (sometimes unarmed) citizens and the ACLU released a report in 2014.

This isn’t limited to just these SWAT raids. A lot of the policies that police use to keep safe--the same way night raids keep special operators safe or no-knock raids keep SWAT safe--escalate the danger in the long run. I’m thinking of stop and frisk, police militarization and warrantless searches. They also terrify the population.

3. De-escalation

Running through many, but not all, of the police shootings caught on tape in the last two years is the idea that the shootings were avoidable. In many cases, the police officers never attempted to deescalate the situation.

Take the John Crawford III shooting in a Wal-mart in Ohio. Police officers storm the Wal-mart after reports a man is waving the gun around. They don’t confirm the reports. They didn’t evacuate the people. They don’t even try to make contact with him. They just fired.

It is mind-boggling the police officers didn’t try to deescalate the situation. At no point do they try to avoid violence. If anything, they assume it is happening and try to preempt it. The result is a dead citizen. And in the John Crawford III situation (or Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and others), the path to de-escalation was so simple. A recent investigation by The Week shows that a majority of police departments don’t require officers to minimize violence or deescalate the situation.

The analogy to COIN is again obvious, but harder to implement during deployment. In counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, one of the common pieces of advice I heard was to act tough. I was told something like, “the toughest [expletive] doesn’t get messed with”. Basically, US forces had to strike fear in everyone so no one dared to attack us. This basically meant some units were escalating every situation they encountered. Including driving civilians off roads, raiding houses, zip tying innocent people, arresting innocent people and more.

Did it work in the long run? Of course not, but it kept units safe in the short term.

Jan 20

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.)

Toward the end of December, the Cleveland DA failed to secure a grand jury verdict in the tragic Tamir Rice shooting. (Summary, a boy playing with a toy gun was shot by police officers within seconds of them arriving on scene.) Radley Balko in the Washington Post and German Lopez on Vox both pleaded with fellow media members to distinguish between things that are “legal” and “things as they should be”. Ideally, those two things are aligned. In the case of police shootings, they aren’t.

The police officers in Cleveland were (maybe) legally justified. It doesn’t mean they should have fired their weapons.

I can’t help but read that distinction about policing and see a connection to counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, based on my experience in and studying those two countries. For deployed soldiers, there was a wide gap between what was legal and what we should be doing. As I wrote quite a bit when we launched the blog, a lot of the techniques, tactics and procedures units used on the ground directly undermined the mission...but they kept troops safe. Like police shooting, those tactics were legal (under UCMJ).

But the connection to COIN goes beyond the “what’s legal versus what’s right” distinction. Really policing and counterinsurgency are different stops on the same spectrum. Take Jamelle Bouie’s article on Tamir Rice. It screams counter-insurgency rights and wrongs. Here is his analysis of police officers putting their lives at risk:

“Part of policing is risk. Not just the inevitable risk of the unknown, but voluntary risk. We ask police to “serve and protect” the broad public, which--at times--means accepting risk when necessary to defuse dangerous situations and protect lives, innocent or otherwise. It’s why we give them weapons and the authority to use them; why we compensate them with decent salaries and generous pensions; why we hold them in high esteem and why we give them wide berth in procedure and practice.”

How does that sentence differ from a paragraph I would have written about soldiers deploying to Afghanistan at the height of the war? One of the inspirations of this blog was the amazing contradiction at the heart of being a soldier, “Mission First, People Always”. Soldiers deploy and care more about returning home safely than fighting to win the war. This is a perfectly natural feeling, but it probably says more about whether we should have fought a war in Iraq than anything else.

The difference between policing and COIN is we have to have police officers. It isn’t optional. And we need cops to serve in high-crime areas. That said, accepting risk as opposed to hurting innocent civilians is a prerequisite of the job.

But that leads into the last COIN connection. The policies that keep officers safe in the short term endanger them in the long run. Just like Afghanistan and Iraq. And I’m not just writing about the failed war on drugs (that most police departments support because it comes with tons of federal funding). As Bouie continued in his Slate piece:

“One last point: Changing this is in the best interest of police officers. Yes, abandoning “safety at all costs” means accepting additional risk. But it also means an emphasis on de-escalation in policing, which—in communities that need good policing—engenders more trust for police departments. With more trust comes more community cooperation and more resources for solving crime. The same is true for more and greater accountability. In the long run, both create safer environments for citizens and police.”

Just like in Afghanistan and Iraq, police forces can’t do it alone. Force alone does not cow a population. And unjust force or unfair laws make a society unstable. So stopping “suspicious individuals” may find drugs or weapons, but if those things are done without probable cause, then you are creating an aura of hostility.

The future of policing isn’t better weapons, more aggression or body cameras. It is about police departments that work within and with their communities. It isn’t about staying safe, but deescalating situations to keep everyone safe, both the police and the communities they protect.

Jan 13

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", check out the articles below...

- Learnings from Kunar: Police Shootings and the Lessons of Counterinsurgency

- Winning the Battle but Losing the Crime War: Three More Connections to COIN and Police Shootings

- Wolves, Sheepdogs and the Cops I Know

Starting today, we’ll be writing about our most thought-provoking event of the year. Judging by media coverage, three issues dominated 2015: ISIS, mass shootings and police shootings. And the winner is...

Police shootings.

(Yeah, it’s not really a singular event, though our choices rarely are, like the Green Revolution in Iran (2009), Wikileaks (2010), the Arab Spring (2011), Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks (2013), and Iraq re-descending into chaos (2014) last year. Our 2012 picks (Petraeus and Benghazi) were singular events, then we paired them together.)

First off, focusing on terrorism or mass shootings would be, in some ways, a disservice to our readers. Both events remain incredibly rare, statistically. Gun violence, overall, is down in America and your chances of dying from a terrorist attack remain infinitesimally small. In short, you can’t decry buying a ticket for the Powerball and worry about terrorism...they have the same likelihood. Yet both will probably remain a part of society for a long time. Crazy people will keep using guns or bombs to scare the rest of society for political purposes (terrorists) or gain fame (mass shooters).

Ironically, as well, if we focus on those events, though we’d be telling people not to be scared, it may still have the opposite effect. On the Media explains:

“Scholarship has made more than clear, that even when the media try to debunk a rumor, that the very process of debunking tends to cement the misinformation in the minds of people who don't necessarily want the debunkitude.”

More importantly, for the “Most thought-provoking event of the year”, neither ISIS nor mass shootings inspired a lot of fresh ideas. Hence, the “thought-provoking” part. Here’s our take on the Paris attacks:

- 138 people is a very small number, statistically. That may sound cold, but it’s true. France has a population of over 60 million, and Paris over 2 million. The chances of being killed by terrorism is tiny.

- Disagree with what I wrote above? Am I being hyperbolic? Not as hyperbolic as conservatives who say, citing the deaths of 138 people out of 60 million, that ISIS is an existential threat to America.

- Our (America’s, Europe’s) reaction to this attack was a massive over-reaction. France suspended their Constitution (including a free press) and issued mass arrests.

- Then, of course, ironically, this over-reaction alienates more Muslims. Did you know that Muslims make up 70% of French prisons, but only 8% of the population?

Yeah. Covered that issue. Here’s our take mass shootings: get rid of guns. Sure, we could write a lot more proving this, but reading all the studies, more guns equals more gun deaths. Here’s our only original take: when terrorists start using lax American gun laws to attack Americans, well, that’s probably the end of gun rights. (Unless we make laws that selectively target Muslims for gun control, and well, that’s the end of religious liberty.)

But with police shootings, we have tons to say and write about. They represent something bigger, the way the state--which should have a monopoly on violence--uses that monopoly. But no other thoughts are more important than this one:

The coverage of police shootings actually represents a positive step forward for America.

The issue around police shootings (and really this goes back to 2014 with the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown) isn’t that police are shooting civilians at a higher rate. We actually don’t know if unjustified police shootings are going up or down. Law enforcement doesn’t keep good records. But what we do know, thanks to the rise in cell phone cameras, is that they’re being filmed and broadcast to the world. Technology is holding police officers accountable. It is no longer one man’s word against the dead.

And this publicity is leading to all sorts of smart, long-term positive changes to law enforcement, including body cameras for police, a rise in the prosecution of bad cops, the push to document police shootings, and the release of personnel records in police departments across America. This will change the country for the better.

And we have a lot more ideas. We’ll hit on long-running On V themes, like whether cops are wolves or sheepdogs. We’ll relate this discussion to counter-insurgency. We’ll talk about the ironies of race and gun rights. We’ll write about the philosophy of violence. Most importantly, we’ll offer solutions.

So stay tuned.

Jan 11

On Wednesday, Michael C wrote about the best news stories of 2015, highlighting the great news from last year. (Especially the story people didn’t hear about, the success of the Millennium Development Goals and the ratification of the new Sustainable Development Goals.) The world is getting better, even if most people don’t realize it.

But we weren’t the only writers with this hot (but needed) take. Here’s a collection of some other people who wrote on this same theme:

John Cassidy in the New Yorker

John Cassidy opens his collection of six good news stories basically explaining our thesis about the media and pessimism:

“But 2015, believe it or not, was also a year of positive developments, many of which were underreported. Generally speaking, good-news stories aren’t as dramatic or as salient as bad news, so journalists and news organizations tend to give them short shrift. I’m as guilty of this as anybody else. So here, as penance for my sins of omission, are some thoughts on six uplifting developments from the past twelve months.”

Agreed on all point, except we could do with a resolution trying to change going forward. He cited many of the same good news stories we did, but also hit on the successful eradications efforts of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. We’ll be using this example in the coming weeks of a news story that grabbed headlines when things were going bad, then was ignored when the problem was solved.

Charles Kenny in the Atlantic

To close the year, Charles Kenny added another collection of the massively good news for humanity, compared to the past. For example, did you know, in spite of the mass shootings...

“The latest FBI statistics, reported this September, suggested that the trend toward lower rates of violent crime in the United States that began in the early 1990s continued at least through 2014: There were nearly 3,000 fewer violent crimes that year than the year before and more than 600,000 fewer than in 1995—that’s a 35 percent decline over the period. The latest data from the UN suggests that this is part of a global trend—to take one category of violent crime, homicide rates have dropped by an estimated 6 percent in the countries for which data was available between 2000 and 2012.”

And he points out how unlikely terrorism is. We love articles that collect good news like this one. It is an especially good addition to the small “World is getting better” canon, because it rebuts the terrifying headlines that dominated the news in 2015.

Slate’s Year of Good News

Not to be out done, Slate collected a good news story for every day last year. While many of their good news stories are less substantial than Cassidy’s or not focused on long-term trends like Charles Kenny, they do reaffirm that good things happen everyday. We just don’t hear about them.

Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe

Jeff Jacoby pushes back against the notion that the world is getting worse, citing an especially silly AP article from 2008 with the headline, “Everything Seemingly Is Spinning Out of Control.” Jacoby hits many of the same issues as we did, including Ebola and the decline of crime in America. He, for instance, pointed out the rise in female literacy from the 1970s (40% globally) to 2015 (93%). He also called out all the peaceful democratic transfers of power last year:

"Thugs with weapons wrought undisputed horrors in places like Syria and Libya, yet there were democratic elections and peaceful transfers of power too — in countries ranging from Nigeria to Argentina to Myanmar to Burkina Faso. And Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for proving that democracy and pluralism could be nurtured even in the Arab world’s stony soil."

Lesley Hazleton in The Accidental Theologist

Finally, friend of the blog Don Gomez of Carrying the Gun sent this post on Twitter which has the wonderful thesis:

“In end-of-the-year phone calls from friends near and far, many express despair at the state of the world. I fully understand why, but I don’t accept their despair. In fact I can make a strong argument against it. Because what has changed is not so much the world itself, but our awareness of it.”

In 2016, let’s try to remember that thesis every day, not just at the end.

Jan 06

Usually we start the new year with our “Most Thought-Provoking Event”. And next week we will. On Violence is going to get into some very dark, ugly subject matter. Upsetting territory. Spoiler alert: the most thought-provoking event of the year will be police shootings. But before we dive into the muck, let’s make one thing very clear:

2015 was a GREAT year.

Not just a good year. A great year. Possibly the best year in human history. We live longer than ever. We live better than ever. We live safer than ever. We’re the most educated society in human history producing more (and better) art than at any time in human history. Literally, if I asked you to pick a better year than 2015, you would either pick 2015, or some other year in the past five. This isn’t our opinion; it is math.

So we need to celebrate this. In a new tradition, here is our list of the best news stories you probably heard about...just not as much as mass shootings or ISIS.

Best News Story of 2015: The Iran Nuclear Deal

Our winner for the best news story of 2015 was the Iran and P5+1 deal over Iranian nuclear enrichment. By the end of 2015, Iran shipped the remainder of its low-enriched uranium to Russia as part of the deal.

This single story averted more loss of life than ISIS, terrorism and Syria combined. A war with Iran that would have involved Israel, Europe, the US, Russia and Saudi Arabia could have caused millions of casualties. The political and economic instability would have been even more catastrophic. The US casualties alone, as we’ve written about, could have dwarfed the Iraq war in a matter of months.

Beyond just averting a terrible outcome, the Iranian nuclear deal represents a chance to bring a country the size of Afghanistan and Iraq combined back into the global fold. We can turn an adversary into an ally. The nuclear deal was the first step.

(As a bonus, when Iranian oil comes online oil prices will fall further, hurting OPEC’s cartel.)

Second Best: Sustainable Development Goals

This is really a two part accomplishment. Fifteen years ago, nations around the world agreed to try to end global poverty and child mortality, as a part of the Millennium Development Goals. In large part, the world succeeded. The number of people living on less than a $1.25 a day decreased from 47% to 14%. The number of maternal deaths in childbirth fell by nearly 50%. The deaths of kids under 5 fell nearly 50% as well.

So earlier this year, the nations of the world reconvened after years of deliberation to create a new set of goals for 2030. You might not have heard because most of the news coverage during the signing was about Pope Francis visiting the US. (He visited to speak at the SDG conference.) And let me get this out of the way: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are more convoluted and will be harder to achieve than their forerunners. These new goals are definitely more bureaucratic than the last round, but still an important tool in human advancement.

Final thought: Did you hear about this terrific news story? Probably not. Did you hear about ISIS? Our point exactly. The Millennium Development Goals did more good than ISIS could ever do evil.

Third Best: Paris Climate Accord

Perhaps you’ve noticed a trend in these good news stories. They all feature massive deals by bureaucracies to change policy. Nothing about that previous sentence is sexy, but the truth is, these sorts of agreements will change the world in ways private organizations just can’t. It’s like charity. Private groups can donate millions of dollars, but one change by the federal government can allocate more money than them combined ever could.

If you want to go in a different direction, just look at China choosing to fight global warming or the rise in green energy in America. These changes can do more than the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Federation and NRDC combined.

And similar to the SDGs, the Paris Accord has its own problems. On its own, it won’t reduce CO2 emissions enough to keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius worldwide. But the accord got pledges from nearly every nation and it has mechanisms to increase commitments over time. This political agreement combined with technological advancement is our best hope to stop global warming.

Fourth Best: Renewing Diplomatic Relationships between America and Cuba

We like allies. We especially like making allies when there’s no reason to not be allies with someone, like say a country just off the coast of Florida that we’re enemies with due to a conflict that ended 25 years earlier, in which the majority of Americans (even young Cubans) supports easing tensions.

Yeah, good call.

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.)

Nov 23

(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. Today is one of Michael C’s public comments he’s submitted to the Veterans Affairs department.)

A board of advisors.

Those four words could do more to improve the functioning and conditions of the West LA VA Campus than any plan ever could.

A board of advisors.

I wrote it again because I just like the sound of it. But really, having boards with established oversight over public institutions is a time-tested way to improve the function of government. The University of California is overseen by a board of regents. Publicly traded companies have boards of directors. Communities have established school boards and police advisory boards. Simply put, when a community wants a voice at the table over how any organization works--from a school system to police to companies--they establish independent boards with oversight authority.

A board of advisors.

The VA Campus has shown that it needs this oversight. The litany of issues that were settled in the current lawsuit all stem from not having this crucial oversight. Contracts with private companies that don’t benefit the veterans of LA? Those wouldn’t happen (or would be severely curtailed) with a board providing independent oversight. Long term leases that don’t contribute to veteran health or welfare? Those wouldn’t happen with a board providing independent oversight. A lack of housing to serve the different needs of homeless or housing-insecure veterans at the West LA VA Campus? Again, that wouldn’t happen with a board providing independent oversight.

A board of advisors.

Really, the board isn’t about fixing the current issues. In many ways, the proposed plan will solve some of the current issues, like a lack of housing for veterans and ending inappropriate extended use leases). But in ten years? Or twenty years? Or beyond? Can any plan on paper fix those issues? They can’t. Unless the VA establishes a process to ensure that the land upon which the West LA VA Campus sits is properly managed for the benefit of veterans. So that’s what I recommend...

A board of advisors.

Because whoever the VA puts in charge of running the facility won’t have the best interests of our community; he’ll want to advance his career in the VA. He or she will answer to their bosses. We need to eliminate this incentive. We need to eliminate any opportunities for waste, fraud and abuse. We need independent oversight.

A board of advisors.

Here is my proposal. (Though, any board of oversight would be better than none, even if it doesn’t follow my exact plan.) The board should consist of 7 to 9 appointed individuals. The individuals should be appointed by different stakeholders including the VA, veteran’s groups, the mayor’s office and possibly the governor’s office. The board should have a minimum of 33% veteran membership and positions should be held for a four year term. The board should have a minimal budget, but should have enough funds to conduct independent investigations and audits.

The board’s purview should include approving any land management issues. This includes approving extended use and short term leases, new housing and construction and land management decisions. The board should provide advice on any veteran issues in general, from quality of care to other issues. The board can’t control how the VA operates. That would require fixing Washington and no board in L.A. can do that. But the board can provide a voice and manage the use of the land.

And really, that is what veterans are asking for here. A voice. A seat at the table. It is the only way we can fix the long term issues plaguing the VA.