Monday, December 31, 2012

What has sadly been lost this week amid all the chatter about the so-called fiscal cliff is the fact that members of Congress are already threatening to throw our veterans under the bus. And it is nothing short of despicable.

Back in September, I reported for Newsweek/The Daily Beast that an unidentified Senator tried to block disabled veterans and their survivors from getting a cost-of-living adjustment to their benefits. The Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) increase for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits, which typically passes the House and Senate without opposition, was cleared by Senate Democrats but was unconscionably placed on a “secret hold” by an unidentified Republican senator.

Under obscure and preposterous Senate rules, a single Senator can anonymously keep a bill from advancing toward a vote with what is called a “secret hold.” The senator in this case was never identified - though several off-the-record sources told me who he was. I wish I could tell you all so you could flood his office with angry emails and letters. 

Anyway, that Senator eventually dropped the hold and the measure, HR 4114, which provides a meager 1.9 percent increase in disability benefits for veterans and surviving spouses, matching the planned increase in Social Security benefits, was ultimately approved on Nov. 13, the first day the Senate reconvened. 

But now, according to several reports, Congress may decide to slash these fundamental benefits. According to a statement on the website of Bergmann & Moore, a respected law firm that solely represents veteran disability cases, Congress could cut these benefits by thousands of dollars, which would be disastrous, especially for disabled veterans and their families living on a fixed income.

As the Washington Post reports, a change in how annual cost-of-living adjustments are calculated could mean that veterans who started receiving VA disability benefits at age 30 would have their benefits reduced by $1,425 at age 45, then $2,341 at age 55, and then $3,231 at age 65, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Rick Maze at Army Times also covered this issue, which has sparked understandable outrage among veterans and veteran advocates. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the incoming Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has denounced this absurdly misguided austerity measure. 

“We must do deficit reduction, but not by cutting programs for people who lost arms, legs and eyes defending our country,” said Sanders.

When the House passed the COLA bill in July, House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said, “Veterans have enough to worry about without the added stress of not knowing if their cost-of-living adjustments will be held up in a political tug-of-war. We have an obligation to the men and women who served this nation to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep the promise made to them.”

Sanders and Miller are both correct. While these two pols rarely agree on anything, they recognize that maintaining our veterans' disability benefits should never be a partisan issue. 

So, as you read all the reports this week about the so-called fiscal cliff, don't forget that Congress is already threatening to throw our veterans under the bus. And if this bothers you as much as it bothers me, contact your area representative in the House and the Senate and tell them, in no uncertain terms, that this just isn't right.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

West Side Story: The Greatest High School Football Game Ever Played?

West Des Moines Valley vs. West Des Moines Dowling: America's best high school rivalry?

Talk about your Friday Nighty Lights. It was 35 years ago that arguably the greatest high school football game in America was played, and the greatest high school rivalry was born. And the game wasn't played in Texas. Or California. It was played in Central Iowa. 

The game in 1977 between the Valley Tigers and the Dowling Maroons, both of West Des Moines, Iowa, was epic. It created a high school rivalry that USA TODAY and others have called one of the greatest in the nation. Well, I say it is the best in the nation.

OK, I'm admittedly biased. I was a senior at Valley that year. But judge for yourself. If you're not familiar with the game, or the rivalry, sit back and enjoy the story.

It was the fall of 1977. The Bee Gees topped the charts. President Jimmy Carter was trying again, and failing again, to cut inflation. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner would soon fire another manager. And Dowling's football team was expected to boast yet another perfect record in the Metropolitan Conference in Des Moines.

An absolutely dominant program in the disco decade, Dowling had never lost a conference game to that point, winning an unbelievable 64 straight against Des Moines opponents since the Metro was established in 1968 (the conference changed and expanded to the Central Iowa Metropolitan League - CIML - in 1991).

But the seniors at Valley - Dowling's burgeoning rival - were undaunted. They felt this was the year they would finally defeat the mighty Maroons. They talked about it and prepared for it all summer, and on an electric late-September weekend, they set out to prove it.

While most games don't live up to the hype, this one surpassed it. For drama, significance and pure emotion, the epic Valley-Dowling clash of 1977, which was played out before standing-room-only crowds over two consecutive nights because of lightning and heavy rain, was arguably the greatest high school football game ever played in America, and without question the greatest game ever played in Iowa.

Lee Crawford, Valley's head coach at the time, told me once that it was easily the most exciting game of which he'd ever been a part. "I coached a lot of games in my 35-year career, but I was never involved in one quite like that one, before or since," said Crawford. "It had a lot of meaning for the school and the community. It was big. No, it was huge."

Galvanizing the city's west side, the game, which kicked off the intense rivalry that still exists between the two west-side schools, was the first of many big games for Crawford-coached teams at Valley, which had been a good-but-not-great team in the conference for so long. But even more significantly, it represented the end of Dowling's football invincibility in the city.

For Steve Flood, Valley's senior center that year and a lifelong friend of mine, beating Dowling meant everything. "I must have seen 10 Valley-Dowling games growing up, and every year they would crush us," Flood once told me. "We worked hard all summer preparing for our senior season, but the truth is there was one game most of us were looking toward."

The game was billed as a battle between the city's two flashiest quarterbacks, Valley's Richie Safren, also a good friend to this day, and Dowling's Rory Vacco - both seniors. "It was a huge game. Richie and I both went on a cable TV talk show to talk about the game," Vacco once told me. Vacco was the backup quarterback at the beginning of that season to then-junior Bob Hanson, who went on to basketball stardom at the University of Iowa and the Utah Jazz and Chicago Bulls.

But when Hanson broke his collarbone, Vacco moved into the starting spot. Hanson, who by then already set his sights on a basketball scholarship, never played football again.

"I would have started that year either way, at quarterback or receiver, but it was too bad Bobby got hurt because a lot of people wonder to this day what would have happened if he would have played in the Valley game," Vacco said. "I was faster, but Hanson was a better passer, and we had the talent to run both types of offenses."

As kickoff approached, there was an abundance of confidence and nervousness in both locker rooms. "We were relaxed and nervous at the same time, but man were we pumped up," said Ken Wilson, a hard-hitting special-teamer for the Tigers that year who also remains a close friend to this day. "We had a sense of purpose, and nothing was going to stop us. We just had the feeling this time was going to be different."

To no one's surprise, the game quickly developed into a defensive struggle. The only scoring in the first half came late in the first quarter when Valley's Steve Lindgren hit a 45-yard field goal - the longest, and sweetest, of his career. "I grew up in the shadow of the (Valley) stadium on Sixth Street (in West Des Moines). I spent hours there by myself kicking field goals, hoping someday we'd beat Dowling," Lindgren once told me. "Just being a part of that game was the biggest thrill of my life to that point."

By halftime, everyone knew they were witnessing something for the ages. But with the skies getting darker, they also knew the game was in real danger of being stopped. Sure enough, just before the players were to return to the field, the rain and lightning came, and the athletic directors from both schools agreed to postpone the affair. Feelings among the players were mixed over who would benefit most from the 23-hour delay.

"We thought it was an act of God," Rick Henson, Valley's senior wide receiver, once told me. "But considering that Dowling was a Catholic school and our quarterback was Jewish, we weren't sure which god was behind it."

Most of the Dowling players wanted to get back on the field as quickly as possible to prove they were still unbeatable. "When we went into the locker room, we were behind but we still felt that physically we were beating them up," said Dowling's Vacco. But when the game was postponed, Vacco noted, "it changed everything. We prided ourselves on conditioning. Valley had six or seven guys that played both ways (offense and defense); we didn't have any. We felt we could have worn them down in the second half."

That night, few players or coaches on either team got much sleep. "It was the longest halftime of my career," said Crawford, who on Saturday afternoon reviewed the game films and made a few adjustments to the blocking scheme that helped free up his freelancing quarterback. "They (Dowling) were stunting and containing Richie (Safren) on the outside," he explains. "We changed the blocking set-up a bit to free him up."

Dowling's starting defensive tackle and team captain, Frank Harty once told me that the changes Crawford made took him right out of the game: "Nothing against (Dowling Coach Jim) Jorgensen, but Lee (Crawford) absolutely out-coached him in that game."

After reviewing the films and putting his players through a light workout, Crawford went home to rest up. As he lay on the couch, he says he received an omen: "I was watching the Oklahoma-Ohio State game on TV, and Oklahoma, which ran the wishbone then like we did, upset the Buckeyes. When that game ended I jumped off the couch and said, 'We're gonna win this thing!'"

By game time Saturday, the bleachers were bulging and the sidelines were 10-deep with fans. No official count was made because tickets were sold the previous night and this night the gates were left wide open. But estimates ran as high as 10,000, including high school football coaches, players, and fans from as far away as Grinnel and Oskaloosa.

The first score of the second half came with just over a minute gone in the third period when Valley's Safren pitched the ball to senior wide receiver Henson, a city track champ who sprinted 50 yards to the end zone. "Richie's pitch was behind me and low, but I turned around and grabbed it, and all I could see was green grass," Henson once told me. "I ran past the Dowling bench on the way to the end zone and just said 'see ya'."

Dowling coach Jorgensen later complained that Safren was down before he gave up the ball to Henson. "It was a blown call," he told the Des Moines Register after viewing the film. "He (Safren) was sitting down when he made the pitch."

A little over six minutes after Henson scored, Safren took it in himself from the 16, putting the game virtually out of reach. When the clock ran out, the scoreboard read "Valley 17, Dowling 8." Dowling's dynasty was finally over, and the Valley faithful went wild. Chanting "we're number one," thousands of fans flooded the field like so many Jim Valvanos looking for a player to hug. Police protected the goal posts, but the celebration was unstoppable. 

"It was total euphoria," recalled Crawford.

Said Valley's Flood, "As I walked very slowly back to the locker room, I just kept looking up at the scoreboard. It took a few days for it to really sink in that we had won."

By midnight, most of West Des Moines - it seemed - was celebrating at the house of Sam Bernabe, a Valley senior that year whose postgame get-together quickly became the mother of all high school parties. "It went beyond anyone's expectations," Bernabe once told me. "The police tried to contain it to just our house, but it got to the point where it took up several neighbor's yards and the street. But the police cooperated 100 percent; they were great. Everyone had a good time."

There were, however, some ugly aftershocks to this game. In an unfortunate act, a Valley player and some friends spray-painted "VHS #1" on signs around the Dowling campus. Then, in an ugly retaliation, a few Dowling players spray-painted racist comments - and, inexplicably, their jersey numbers -  on the Valley building, and broke a number of the school's windows. Players on both sides were disciplined; the Dowling players were kicked off the team.

Dowling's Frank Harty, who was not involved in the vandalism incident, apologized before Valley's student council. "For me, the loss on the field was terrible but what happened afterward was worse," Harty told me. "There was no excuse for that, and I know to this day the guys involved regret it. My dad went to Dowling and my kids will go to Dowling. It's something we're all still ashamed of."

But today, most players on both sides agree that, for the most part, this was a healthy rivalry whose passions remained on the field. Dowling's Vacco told me, "For most of the guys, I don't think there ever were any hard feelings. It was a huge game, a great rivalry then and now, but it was just a football game."

John Hayes, who was in his first year as Dowling's athletic director in '77, told me once that the game forever changed the face of Des Moines high school football. "It used to be Roosevelt, but Valley became our number one rival after this game," said Hayes, who noted that while both teams "played their hearts out, it's as if the adrenaline was all gone for us by the second night. Richie (Safren) really hurt us with the option."

However, Hayes added, "I always like to remind people that it took Valley two days to beat us."

Jeff Morris, the Maroons' place-kicker and starting offensive guard who missed a 31-yard field goal as time ran out in the first half, put the game in perspective: "It was a tough loss, but it wasn't the end of the world. Valley has beaten Dowling enough times since that it doesn't mean as much to them. But the parents still remember the game."

Valley went on to win its first Metro championship that year - the first team other than Dowling to win one - before falling to Sioux City Heelan in a sub-freezing away game in the first round of the state playoffs. But no one remembers much about the bitter-cold Heelan loss. It's the Dowling win that will be remembered. Because it transcended football.

The men and women who attended Valley High 35 years ago will tell you that this one football game created a unique bond at the school that went beyond the football field and lasted the rest of that year, especially among the seniors. The chant "17-8" echoed in the hallways, classrooms, and locker rooms for months.

"The win seemed to bring the whole school together," said Mike Stauffer, a starting offensive tackle on that Valley team, and my best friend then and still. "It's hard to explain, but everyone just got along after that - the way a high school should be. It was a magic year."

Mike is right. It was indeed a magic year. All because of that game. That epic game.

Friday, December 21, 2012


On Thursday, I received a rather self-congratulatory press release from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announcing that it is initiating new efforts to cut red tape for veterans waiting for their disability benefits. On the very same day, it was revealed that nearly 20,000 veterans died while waiting for the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to process their claims.  

The Bay Citizen newspaper reported the deeply troubling news that during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, VBA, which is part of the VA, paid a staggering $437 million in retroactive benefits to the families of 19,447 deceased veterans who still had outstanding claims when they died.

This shocking revelation, which was uncovered by investigative journalist Aaron Glantz, is a bombshell that may finally force an urgently needed overhaul of the beleaguered VBA, where nearly one million veterans currently wait an average of nine months for a decision.  

The fact that almost 20,000 veterans died while waiting for their claims is both a tragedy and a disgrace. This news should be the subject of an A-1 story in every newspaper, a cover story in every magazine, and the lead story on every news broadcast. But sadly, it has not gotten the widespread coverage it deserves.

“How many veterans need to die before this mess is cleaned up?" asks Paul Sullivan, a Gulf War veteran and one of the nation's leading veteran advocates. Sullivan, who once worked at VA and now works at Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that represents only veterans, says flatly, "No more delays, and no more errors. That's what the goal should and must be.”

This issue originally came to light when Veterans for Common Sense sued VA in 2007. The groundbreaking lawsuit, which I've covered for The Reno Dispatch and for Newsweek/The Daily Beast, forced VA to reveal that a few thousand veterans died each year while their claims languished at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA) in Washington, DC.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told the Bay Citizen that the data confirmed the worst fears of many veterans and members of Congress.  

“The common refrain we hear from many veterans is, ‘Delay, deny, wait till I die,’” said Miller, who called the burgeoning backlog of benefits claims a “national embarrassment.”

Miller is absolutely right. But his outrage begs the question: Where is President Obama? He has repeatedly pledged his commitment to veterans, and has specifically promised to address the backlog of veteran disability claims. It's time for the President to step up and have a dialogue with the American people about this issue. 

He should call a press conference today to address this latest news, and share with all of us just what he intends to do about it.

So, just what are VA’s current rules for expediting claims? At BVA, an elderly veteran can ask for advancement on the board’s docket, a request for a faster review. However, at VBA’s 57 regional offices, there are no regulations mandating that VBA provide expedited handling in cases of age, a terminal condition, homelessness, or financial hardship such as foreclosure or eviction. 

If a veteran tells VBA he or she is homeless, VBA often voluntarily provides faster service, with a goal of processing the claim in 45 days or less.

Unfortunately, VBA usually refuses to expedite claims in the face of urgent need by a terminal veteran. In one legal case that is represented by Bergmann & Moore, a 90-year old World War II veteran’s claim still awaits action after more than four years at VBA.  

Are new VA regulations and/or Congressional action needed to fix this problem, so fewer veterans die while waiting? Absolutely. Is it time for Miller and others in Congress to act, and for the President to get directly involved? Definitely.

Meantime, the VA's curiously timed press release on Thursday said the VA is cutting red tape for veterans by eliminating the need for them to complete an annual Eligibility Verification Report (EVR). VA will implement a new process for confirming eligibility for benefits, and staff that had been responsible for processing the old form will instead focus on eliminating the compensation claims backlog.

Historically, beneficiaries have been required to complete an EVR each year to ensure their pension benefits continued. Under the new initiative, VA will work with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) to verify continued eligibility for pension benefits.

“By working together, we have cut red tape for Veterans and will help ensure these brave men and women get the benefits they have earned and deserve,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in a statement.

Shinseki, himself a Vietnam veteran, seems like a sincere man who cares about his fellow veterans. But to date his efforts, and the efforts of all the politicians in Washington DC combined, have fallen short. 

Of course, there was no mention in the VA's press release this week of the shocking number of veterans who are dying while waiting for their claims to be processed. This is a national crisis. We need to address it with very serious measures, and we need to do it now. Our veterans have bravely fought for us. Now it's time for us to fight for them.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Many lives have been saved by a personalized vaccine for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer called BioVax ID. But inexcusably, BioVax ID, which has been around since 1994, remains unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is unavailable to many patients.

The FDA says it denied a request for accelerated approval for this vaccine from the company, Biovest, because the vaccine does not fill an unmet need. But patients and patient advocates I've spoken to across the nation strongly disagree.

Betsy de Parry, a respected author, patient advocate, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma survivor, recently wrote about the vaccine, pointing out that data from three clinical trials spanning 18 years shows the duration of response to this vaccine increased, on average, by more than a year, although some patients have remained disease free for many years. 

And importantly, she wrote, "not a single patient has experienced a serious, adverse vaccine-related event, which makes the vaccine less toxic than existing treatments."

Sounds to me like a legitimate reason for moving this product forward, and quickly. But the Feds turned down the company's request to apply for approval under the agency's Accelerated Approval Program, which allows for earlier approval of drugs that treat serious disease and fill an unmet need. The FDA told the company to conduct another clinical trial and then come back with another request for approval, which will take years. 

But now patient advocates and patients are speaking out. A petition urging the FDA to accelerate approval of BioVax ID is getting a lot of national attention. I urge readers of this blog to please sign the petition here. It will save lives.

There are many promising new cancer treatments that are delayed, often needlessly, by the FDA. Out of more than 900 new cancer drugs in the pipeline, the FDA did not approve a single new drug for lymphoma this year. The Feds are dropping the ball here and not serving the needs of cancer patients. 

Yes, part of the FDA's mandate is to keep us safe. But the other part of the FDA's charter is getting new, safe and effective drugs to the market. That means you and me. In its fears over the first, the FDA is lagging on the second part of its mission. 

The BioVax ID vaccine has 18 years of trial data and no serious vaccine-related adverse events. Considering its safety, there is absolutely no justifiable reason why the FDA can't grant this vaccine an application for accelerated approval so the company can go out and raise the millions of dollars it needs to do the phase III trial and get this approved. 

It's the right thing to do. And you can help get this moving. Let your voice be heard. Please join me in signing this petition for the benefit of cancer patients nationwide. And stay tuned to this blog for news about this vaccine and other very promising cancer treatments.