ACCOUNTABILITY IN THE WHITE HOUSE -- (House of Representatives - June 28, 2007)
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Mr. ALTMIRE. Thank you, Mr. Hodes. It is an honor to see you here tonight, as well as Mr. Klein from Florida.
We are at our 6-month point. We have one of our freshman colleagues in the Chair tonight. Mr. Hall from New York is serving as the Speaker pro tempore this evening. We are in the Chamber here tonight; we are talking about the first 6 months. We are talking about what is certainly the most important issue facing the country, as anyone would agree, which is the war in Iraq.
We are talking about accountability. As the gentleman pointed out, we have a President that seems to be struggling with accountability right now.
If you look at what has happened in Iraq, we talk about the surge. We are going to have this report in September on whether the surge has worked. We all pray that we get good news in September, that General Petraeus is going to come in and give us an accurate assessment and, hopefully, that assessment will be that things are turning around.
But it does not appear at this point that that is the case. In fact, as you well know, Mr. Hodes, the last 3 months where the surge has been fully in effect and we have been over there, have been the bloodiest 3 months in the 4 1/2 years we have been in Iraq. The last 3 months have been the worst 3 months. That does not bode well for the effectiveness of the surge.
As you said, we are over 3,500 now that have been killed and 25,000 injured, wounded and that is just a tragic situation.
I was able to tour Walter Reed soon after that incident came to light with the Washington Post, and perhaps you gentlemen did as well. What strikes you when you meet these men and women, they are the bravest and the brightest and the best this country has to offer. To think that we have a situation where we were giving them substandard care in a military hospital, and in the Department of Defense, we chronically underfund our VA health care systems all across the country. So you have the Defense health care system that Walter Reed was a part of, and that was a disgraceful situation; then on the other hand, for the past several years, we have chronic underfunding of the VA health care system.
So when we talk about this administration's record with regard to accountability and what happens after these brave men and women come home, we have the issue of multiple deployments where the Guard and Reserve families have to struggle with multiple deployments and extended deployments going from 1 year to 18 months. Some of these veterans are small business owners or work in small firms where they have to go to their employer and say, I have to go over to Iraq, I have to serve this country. Of course, the employer says, that is wonderful, you have my support. Then they have to go back a second time, maybe a third.
Again, for the ones that own their own business and are the person that is running the business, how are they going to keep that business afloat? It affects the family. It affects the children. This has so many repercussions. Every segment of our society is impacted by it. But we have a President that has been given the views of the American people--we are going to talk about that tonight--but they have been disregarded.
Sixty-nine percent of the American people think we are heading down the wrong road in Iraq and that we need to change course. Instead, we get more of the same. We have an administration that was given a blueprint for success by the Iraq Study Group 6 months ago now, 7 months ago. Instead of following it, or at least looking at it, it was promptly discarded.
We have an administration that has ignored the advice of his generals on the ground. Whenever they tell him something he doesn't want to hear, they have resigned or they are fired. So I lack the confidence that this administration is going to be able to view the Iraq situation as anything more than ``stay the current course.'' We all know that we need a different course.
We were talking about accountability. I did just want to tell one story that is related to the way this administration views our men and women and the families that are serving this country. I had a constituent in town today. She is an 84-year-old Gold Star mother. Her son was killed in 1969 in Vietnam. She has not been to Washington, D.C. She has not seen the Wall with her son's name on it, the Vietnam War Memorial. She called our office 2 weeks ago and explained her situation. She said, ``I am bringing my two daughters, who are obviously grown now. They are the sisters of the serviceman that was killed in 1969. They are going to come down together as a family for the first time.'' Her goal, her life-long dream, was to tour the White House. So we called the White House. As you certainly know, there is a 6-month waiting list. But there is an exception in special circumstances. One of those circumstances, we were told, you were probably told, were for Gold Star families.
They can get in and take that tour of the White House.
So we were told, sure, they are welcome. We sent the information over, and then we promptly got a phone call saying, well, no, no, that exception only works for Iraq and Afghanistan Gold Star families, not for Vietnam era families.
So we had to call back this 84-year-old woman who wanted to see the Vietnam War Memorial and her son's name on the wall for the first time, and wanted to tour the White House, it was her lifelong dream, and we had to tell her well, I am sorry, we are not going to be able to do that, because the White House does not allow that.
Then it came to my attention that we as Members of Congress in very rare circumstances are allowed to take groups down and put them in the line if we appear with them. So I called her and I said, you know, I am going to just do this myself.
So today we took her down and we put her in the line and she got her tour of the White House.
So I sent a letter to President Bush and I said, there is two issues here. One is this policy is ridiculous. How can you justify putting one group of families who have suffered the greatest loss imaginable in the service of our country ahead of another group of families? How can you put one generation of military Gold Star families ahead of another?
The second issue is, what is the policy? Can you explain it? What is the justification for it? And please change it. That was the situation. I was fortunate as a Member of Congress, I was able to get Ms. Boyer in. But, unfortunately, you wonder how many people around the country have made a similar effort and were unable to get in on this tour.
So, I really thought this was a disgraceful situation, and I did want to bring it to the attention of my freshmen colleagues, because this is something that just happened today. And I think it is indicative of the treatment that our military families are getting from this administration.
I talked about the fact that we have had 6 consecutive years prior to this one of chronic underfunding of our VA healthcare system. You see the result at Walter Reed, what happens when you don't provide enough funding for these institutions. Unfortunately, we as a nation were doing that over the last several years.
But this Congress took a step in the right direction to resolve that by providing the largest increase in the history, 77-year history of the VA health care system, and in the 6 months we have been here, we have voted for $13 billion in increased funding for the VA healthcare system.
We have also voted to increase screenings and treatment for traumatic brain injury, which is now the signature issue for the Iraq war veterans. Many of the people who would have perished in previous wars, because of increased technology and military equipment, we have a lot of amputees and we have a lot of head injuries. So the issues we face are different from issues we faced in previous wars with regard to treating the men and women that come home.
So we are going to screen them and we are going to treat them for traumatic brain injury and we are going to make that part of what we are doing in the VA healthcare system.
So this Congress has taken a step in the direction of honoring our Nation's veterans, and I am proud at our 6-month point of our first term in Congress that we can go home over the July 4th recess and talk about the fact that no Congress in the history of the Congress has ever done more for our Nation's veterans than we have, in just 6 months. So I am proud to talk about that.
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Mr. ALTMIRE. I was struck in hearing my Pennsylvania colleague, the gentleman from Pennsylvania (Mr. Sestak), I believe the highest ranking military officer ever elected to Congress; and so much of the rhetoric that revolved around the discussion that this House had on Iraq was, you guys don't have any experience, you don't know what you are talking about.
All you want to do is tie the hands of the generals on the ground, and you need to leave this up to the experts.
What we have heard tonight is an expert, one of the military's foremost military experts that we are fortunate to have not only in this House of Representatives, but in our freshman class with us.
We heard a strategy for success, and we heard someone who has been there and seen it firsthand. What struck me was the fact that the President has probably had these discussions, and he has probably had people come to him and offer solutions. Maybe not the identical solutions that Admiral Sestak has, but differences of opinion. And the problem is, this administration has not shown a willingness to listen to differences of opinion.
I talked about it earlier. Generals are reassigned if they come in with a difference of opinion. Public opinion certainly doesn't matter. The facts on the ground certainly don't matter.
I was watching earlier, and I don't know if you had the opportunity to walk through some of the facts of what is going on on the ground in Iraq right now. We hear a lot of things on TV about, is the surge working, is it not working. I will let my colleagues decide.
In November of 2003, the number of insurgents in Iraq was 5,000. That is a pretty high number. In March of 2007, the most recent month for which data is available, there were 70,000 insurgents in Iraq as estimated by the Brookings Institution. So 5,000, 4 years ago; 70,000, today.
The number of multifatality bombings in May of 2004 was 9; in May of 2007, last month, it was 42. To me that does not indicate that we are making progress or there is a light at the end of the tunnel. And the numbers of people killed, both civilian and American servicemen, we talked about that earlier, it is exponentially more now.
Clearly, we need a new direction, and we need people like Admiral Sestak, like anyone who is willing to take a hard look at this and offer an alternative solution, like the Iraq Study Group. This is a group of experts who got together, spent a great deal of time studying this issue, making very thoughtful recommendations to the American people, to the White House, and they were promptly disregarded.
Not only were they disregarded, but the course of action that they recommended, diplomacy with the other actors in the region, a training force rather than an offensive force, these are things that we are going in the exact opposite direction. We didn't just discard it, we have gone opposite to what they recommended.
I would say once again that this discussion is healthy. We have four of us here that have opinions, and there are a lot of opinions, and that is the way it should be. I would agree with the gentleman from New Hampshire (Mr. Hodes) that I hope the same type of discussion is taking place on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case.
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