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Much-praised GI Bill began amid controversy

   Few might remember that the original GI Bill, otherwise known as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, almost stalled in Congress before Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law in 1944.

   "Some shunned the idea of paying unemployed veterans $20 a week because they thought it diminished their incentive to look for work," according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "Others questioned the concept of sending battle-hardened veterans to colleges and universities, a privilege then reserved for the rich."

   Eventually, according to a historical account of the bill on the VA Web site, all agreed something had to be done to assimilate veterans into civilian life, especially after the government had discharged World War I veterans with little more than a $60 allowance and train ticket home.

   These days, that original GI Bill is a heralded piece of legislation.

   "In the peak year of 1947, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college admissions," the VA states. "By the time the original GI Bill ended on July 25, 1956, 7.8 million of the 16 million World War II veterans had participated in an education or training program."

  -- Jay Rey

You can read about the new GI Bill here.


Doing the right thing by our vets

   They answered the call. Now they need to be heard.

   Veterans Day was a reminder of the sacrifice made by so many on America's behalf. Thousands of veterans of the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars have come back emotionally damaged. I wrote today about Tonawanda's Denise Simmance, whose son Chris returned from the Middle East a broken man. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that fed a downward spiral of drinking, broken relationships and job loss.

   Despite several suicide attempts, his treatment by an overstressed Veterans Administration system is heavy on medication and light on spirit-healing counseling. Critics say that this is typical for emotionally damaged vets across the country, who need far more psychological counseling than they are getting. I think we need to repay our debt to them by making sure they get the care they need.

   -- Donn Esmonde

Tales from the Afghan front

   It's not everyday I get a chance to run a national development on the war in Afghanistan by local soldiers who have firsthand insight into how their ongoing experiences measure up to what's coming out of Washington, D.C.

   I had already written a story detailing what these local Guardsmen home on two-week leaves have experienced since deploying in late March to Afghanistan.

   And as you can imagine, it was a story of the wild roller coaster of war, with firefights, untimely death, and soldiers (some 300 Guardsmen from Western New York) trying to improve the lot of a society that fell under the violent yoke of theocratic zealots -- the Taliban.

  But when portions of a draft of the National Intelligence Estimate were made public and squared up with comments by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, editors at The News delayed publishing the story for one day in order to get reactions from the local soldiers, who are trying to make every precious minute home with their loved ones count.

   Graciously, Staff Sgt. James C. Parks and Master Sgt. Edwin Garris shared their insights on Friday, reacting to the dire warnings from Washington that Afghanistan could be lost if strategies do not change.

   First. Lt. Robert G. Ortt, unfortunately, was already on his way back to Afghanistan and unreachable.

   As citizen soldiers, who have lives beyond the military, it was refreshing to hear their very open opinions. They agree policies and approach need to change, if the mission in Afghanistan is going to succeed.

   More of what they have to say is in today's story.

   -- Lou Michel

A mother speaks of her pain

   In many ways, Lori Silveri has been the forgotten person in the long, painful saga involving her late son, Jonathon M. Cote.

   Cote, a former Army paratrooper working as a private security guard, was abducted in Iraq in November 2006. His body was identified and returned to the United States last week.

   Cote is formerly from Amherst, and many of his relatives … including his father, Francis L. Cote … still live in Amherst. Silveri, who was divorced from Francis Cote in 2001, now lives in Florida.

   Francis Cote has been the family's eloquent chief spokesman for the past 18 months. Until Tuesday, when she spoke to The Buffalo News in a two-hour interview, not much had been heard from Silveri.

   A former Circulation Department employee of The News, Silveri said her son's death has given her a whole new perspective on the Iraq War and the role that private security contractors play in the war.

   What does she think of the Iraq War? She has mixed feelings.

   "I think the men and women who go over there to serve in the military are heroic. My son was a hero, for what he did. These people deserve all our respect," Silveri said. "I would like some more answers from our leaders, though, on exactly why we're over there. I don't feel like we've been told the whole story."

   The News will have extensive coverage of Jonathon Cote's funeral on Friday.

   -- Dan Herbeck

   

Combat vet has mixed feelings about new allies

  Disabled Army combat veteran James Raymond's case against a mobilization order to send him to Iraq is now a national story and details of it  are circulating the blogosphere.

   Raymond, a 26-year-old University at Buffalo student, says he is honored that the Western New York congressional delegation has taken up his cause to try and block the activation order.

   He does not believe he could adequately serve in a war zone, since his Afghanistan tour of duty left him nearly deaf in his left ear and with a bum knee.

   With the media attention, Raymond says he is not so thrilled over his cause being co-opted by liberal, antiwar factions, who are publicizing his case on their Internet sites and making him out to be against the war.

   Raymond says he remains patriotic and would return to active duty if he thought he would not be a liability to fellow troops and himself.

-- Lou Michel

Three candidates, three views of Iraq

   WASHINGTON … Nearly six years into a war that was supposed to end in quick victory, one of three people will likely inherit responsibility for the future of America's efforts in Iraq.

   And all three of the main presidential contenders had a chance to hint at their visions during Senate hearings Tuesday.

   At hearings where the American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, urged an indefinite halt to troop withdrawals this summer, Sens. John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton all, in short order, spelled out how they would handle the conflict that still may define the 2008 presidential
election.
   

   McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, was predictably gung-ho, saying America was on the verge of winning in Iraq.

   "Should the United States instead choose to withdraw from Iraq before adequate security is established, we will exchange for this victory a defeat that is terrible and long-lasting," McCain said.

   But the Democrats defined victory and defeat much differently.

   "I believe we are more likely to resolve [the Iraq conflict] if we are applying increased pressure in a measured way," Obama said. "Increased pressure in a measured way in my mind includes a timetable for withdrawal."

   Meanwhile, Clinton said: "The administration and supporters of the administration's policy often talk about the cost of leaving Iraq, yet ignore the greater costs of continuing the same failed policy . . . It's time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops."

   So there you have it: three candidates, three different views on the future
of the American effort in Iraq.

   Who's right?

  -- Jerry Zremski

Iraq, freedom and the space between

  It is five years since "shock and awe" began and Baghdad was lit up in a deadly version of the Fourth of July.

  Perhaps it is a bad metaphor, using sacred images of how we celebrate Independence Day with fireworks.

   But, maybe not.

   Weapons of mass destruction aside, the goal of liberating Iraq was to create a toehold of democracy in a volatile and strategic corner of the world where the freedoms we take for granted are rare.

   In today's story of fifth anniversary reflections of local combat vets, I mention former Army Reserve Sgt. 1st Class Anthony M. Giancola's disturbing memory of an Iraqi man whose ears had been hacked off because he committed the unthinkable crime of listening to a Kuwaiti radio station.

   Giancola and his soldiers performed a number of civil affairs projects while they were in Iraq, but the one I like the best is the creation of an Internet cafe. Hooray. Let there be freedom of expression and let it be everywhere.

-- Lou Michel

Heartfelt thanks from the family of a soldier

   Margaret and Raymond Hauser, the parents of wounded soldier Michael Hauser, say they cannot thank the people of Buffalo Niagara enough for their generosity at a recent fundraiser for their son, his wife and the couple's infant daughter.

   Michael Hauser, as many will recall, was gravely injured by a suicide bomber last November when she exploded herself in front of the foot patrol he was on about 100 miles northeast of Baghdad.

   After close calls during emergency surgeries and procedures at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany, Hauser was strong enough to return to the United States and is now on the long road to recovery at the VA Hospital in Richmond, Va.

   His parents have a long list of folks they want to thank for the fundraiser that was recently held here. In their own words, from an e-mail they sent to The Buffalo News, here is what they say is an abbreviated thank-you list:

   "Ray and Margie Hauser would like to THANK all of those, kind and loving people from Western New York, who donated baskets for the Chinese auction and those who attended the benefit for our son Michael Hauser. Many people came, gave their $20 and then just left.

   "Thank you also to all those who volunteered their time and service especially our godson Tony Johnson and Amanda Fraiser, the two who came up with this whole idea of a benefit for Michael.

   "The others we also need to mention are Kiebzaks family, Alice Zielinski, Jerry Johnson, the Skinner family, the Ertel family, Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church, Tom and Marci Mateczun, Dr. Terry Burns, the Buffalo Bills and Jills, the Buffalo Press, and all those restaurants who donated pizzas, and the  Davy "Z" band.

   "We would like to thank all the military personnel and veterans who attended, also the Cheektowaga police and Cheektowaga councilmen, Mix 104 FM, Channel 2 news and Channel 4 news  and The Buffalo News."

  -- Lou Michel

Veterans find VA health care system under strain

A little more than a week ago, I met with a dozen department heads and administrative officials at the Buffalo VA to learn more about staffing and services they provide to an estimated 40,000 veterans annually.

My notebook filled up quickly.

Michael S. Finegan, director of the VA Western New York Healthcare System, made it very clear his personal goal is to make sure every veteran at the VA receives prompt and quality medical care.

No one questions these good intentions and, in fact, even VA critics say the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs works hard at its mission.

The problem, according to advocates of veterans (who are often former members of the military themselves or relatives of veterans), is that Congress is not providing enough money to increase staffing levels to properly care for veterans.

Funding has increased but, they say, not enough.

On top of this, more and more U.S. military members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are creating an influx into the VA system and in the next few years, advocates say, the surge will overwhelm it.

Today's story includes veterans who say they and other vets they know have already fallen through the cracks because of ineptness and staff shortages.

Some question why these vets should be highlighted when there are many success stories, as VA officials point out. The argument there parallels Finegan's intentions that every vet gets appropriate treatment.

Every vet should have his or her say.

-- Lou Michel

Vets denied health care over document errors

Add another cost to the price of war, an increased number of veterans who are finding out there are errors in their discharge papers.

Read my story here.

Veterans' advocates say the problem is particularly troublesome because it can cause delays in vets later receiving medical treatment and disability pensions that they earned when they went to war to protect the nation.

In addition to a backup of nearly  2,000 Army veterans seeking corrections, there are hundreds more vets from the other branches of the military pouring into the bureaucratic pipeline to have their discharge papers repaired.

On top of all this, Ronal R. Bassham, a Town of Niagara veterans advocate for United Auto Workers, says it can take years before a vet realizes he or she has a medical condition related to their military service and then, when they seek help, discovers mistakes in the documents.

He says the mental stress he suffered from multiple tours in the Vietnam War wasn't diagnosed until years later. Bassham is among several advocates who have joined ranks to draw attention to the paperwork errors. They recently met in Niagara Falls and are scheduled to meet again in April. Stay tuned for further information on the April meeting.

--  Lou Michel

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