Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Disrespected and Dismissed: Ailing Vietnam Veterans Still Seeking the Care They Deserve

Agent Orange demonstration - veteransforpeace.org
The government’s flagrant mistreatment of our troops during and after the Vietnam War is nothing less than a national disgrace, and it tragically continues to this day. It's taken 40 years for the feds to acknowledge the deaths and devastation caused by Agent Orange, the deadly herbicide developed by Monsanto to which so many thousands of our troops were exposed. And many Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals are still fighting for the care they deserve. 
A federal judge in Oakland ruled just last week that veterans who were harmed by secret chemical and biological experiments run by the government aren't entitled to medical treatment outside the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical system. As AP reports, some 8,000 U.S. veterans alleged in a lawsuit that VA failed to properly treat health problems caused by these despicable experiments.
The veteran plaintiffs say the feds exposed them to chemical agents, germs and all sorts of drugs in researching how to defend against "nontraditional" weapons attacks. The lawsuit also alleged - and this is something everyone knows is true - that the VA system is so overburdened it can't properly treat veterans now suffering health problems because of their participation in these experiments.
But U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken is unmoved. Last week she rejected most of the veterans' claims by ruling the government has attempted to reach out and offer help to them over the years. This of course is total nonsense, and makes me wonder how Wilken sleeps at night. Our troops deserve so much better. But this is nothing new. This is the way our government has treated Vietnam veterans ever since they came home. They’ve been repeatedly disrespected and dismissed.
All this reminds me of when I was covering former Senator and current Secretary of State John Kerry’s presidential campaign for Newsweek in 2004. Not only had Kerry been unfairly maligned for his honorable service in Vietnam, but during that campaign I also stumbled upon a fact no other reporter knew: John Kerry had prostate cancer, and he had been exposed to Agent Orange while skippering a Swift Boat along the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War.
Kerry’s best friend Giles Whitcomb, a Naval Intelligence officer who served alongside Kerry on the delta, was also exposed to Agent Orange, and died in 2003 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which, like prostate cancer, has been linked to the toxic herbicide. But the VA would not recognize this connection and give Whitcomb’s surviving family the benefits they had earned.
So Kerry stepped in. As I noted in my 2004 profile of Kerry in San Diego Magazine, he assisted Whitcomb’s widow, Susan, in obtaining full veteran’s benefits. In a letter written to VA shortly after Whitcomb’s death, Kerry wrote, “I commanded a PCF 94 in the Mekong Delta. I personally observed the spraying of Agent Orange for the purpose of defoliation on many river banks in the area. ... I hereby testify with absolute certainty that Lieutenant Giles Whitcomb and anyone else in that area of operations was definitely exposed to Agent Orange.”
Kerry does not believe his prostate cancer was caused by his exposure to Agent Orange - despite the fact that  medical science has linked them. But he has fought for years to help fellow Vietnam vets suffering from cancer, nerve and skin disorders and other diseases linked by medical science to Agent Orange. He was a chief sponsor of the 1991 legislation that now affords tens of thousands of exposed veterans full benefits for various disabilities.
Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that solely represents veterans with disability claims with the VA, notes on its blog this month that VA has just updated its list of Navy and Coast Guard ships that operated in or near Vietnam during the war. This list "can help Vietnam War veterans find out if they qualify for presumption of Agent Orange exposure when seeking disability compensation for Agent Orange-related diseases,” writes Bergmann & Moore’s Jess Walker.

The disturbingly long list of medical conditions presumed to be associated with Agent Orange, which can be found at VA’s websiteinclude multiple cancers, Parkinson’s, heart disease, diabetes, and much more.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

New Poll: House Republicans Not So Safe in 2014

Beltway conventional wisdom, if there is such a thing, says that while the Latino vote is a concern for presidential elections, most Republican House members enjoy gerrymandered districts and have nothing to worry about. But a new nationwide poll of 800 Latino voters in 24 Republican-held battleground districts tells a more cautionary tale for the GOP.

The survey, conducted by Latino Decisions and America’s Voice, indicates that immigration remains the most important issue among Latino voters, and shows that in these 24 districts, which stretch from California to Minnesota to Florida to New York, the Latino populations are growing, the margins of victory are small, and House Republicans face a potential loss.

“I think the message of this poll for Republicans is very clear: half-hearted (immigration) measures are not going to solve the electoral problem that they face," says Gary Segura, professor of American politics and chair of Chicano Studies at Stanford University and principal at Latino Decisions.

 "Half-measures like DREAM-lite, or no citizenship or second class status, those things are not going to solve the problem."

In the surveyed districts, 70% of Latino midterm voters disapprove of the job Republicans in Congress are doing handling immigration policy, while only 20% approve.

Among the poll's other findings: Ugly rhetoric does further damage to the brand. Two-thirds of Latino voters know someone who is undocumented. When responding to quotes from Republican Members of Congress like Reps. Steve King and Louie Gohmert that malign undocumented immigrants, the damage is clear. But after hearing positive comments (the poll tested quotes from Reps. Paul Ryan and Spencer Bachus in addition to negative quotes from King, Gohmert, and others), Latinos’ opinions of the Party improved dramatically.

           The poll also found that many Latino voters are willing to give Republicans a second chance if they set aside excuses and schedule a vote on immigration reform with a path to citizenship for 11 million aspiring Americans. Among midterm Latino voters in these districts, 62% have voted Republican at some point in their lives, 50% would be more likely to support a GOP House candidate in their district if they take a leadership role in passing immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship, even if they disagree on other issues, and 62% would feel more favorable towards Republicans in Congress if Speaker John Boehner allows a bipartisan vote on immigration reform.

Frank Sharry, executive director for America’s Voice, says this is a "a critical moment for the GOP. They can either take this opportunity to make inroads with the fastest-growing demographic in the country, or fall back on excuses and half-measures that do nothing but reinforce their current tarnished brand.”

Below is the full list of GOP districts included in the survey:

Rep. Jeff Denham (CA-10)
 Rep. Buck McKeon (CA-25 )
 Rep. Gary Miller (CA-31)
 Rep. Scott Tipton (CO-03)
 Rep. Mike Coffman (CO-06)
 Rep. Steve Southerland (FL-02) 
Rep. Daniel Webster (FL-10)
 Rep. Vern Buchanan (FL-16)
 Rep. Rodney Davis (IL-13)

 Rep. Jackie Walorski (IN-02)

 Rep. Dan Benishek (MI-01)

 Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN-06)

Rep. Joe Heck (NV-03)
Rep. Jon Runyan (NJ-03)

 Rep. Peter King (NY-02) 
Rep. Michael Grimm (NY-11)
 Rep. Chris Gibson (NY-19)
 Rep. Tom Reed (NY-23)
 Rep. Chris Collins (NY-27)
 Rep. Robert Pittenger (NC-09)

Rep. Bill Johnson (OH-06)
 Rep. Jim Renacci (OH-16)
Rep. Randy Weber (TX-14)

 Rep. Scott Rigell (VA-02)

Monday, July 22, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Is American Journalism Corrupted by Big Pharma Dollars?

There have been many breakthroughs recently in the study of adult (non-embryonic) stem cells. But the national media has all but ignored them. Most news outlets still seem to prefer perpetuating the tired and false notion that all adult stem cell researchers are con men and all patients who enroll in adult stem cell clinical trials are fools. It's simply not the case. Not any more.

Yes, there are still unethical players in this sector who take advantage of ailing, desperate patients willing to try anything. And yes, this is a relatively new field about which there is still much to learn. But a number of reputable companies that specialize in this research, including Medistem and Cytori Therapeutics, already have FDA-approved trials under way or in the pipeline for a variety of health conditions.

Evidently CBS News didn't get the memo. In a recent 60 Minutes report on adult stem cells that you can still view on the network's news site, anchor Scott Pelley breathlessly suggests that all people who work with adult stem cells are charlatans. It's an unfortunately flawed report from a network that has given us so much quality journalism. 

It doesn't take an economist to figure out what's at stake here, and not just for medical researchers. Like many major media organizations, CBS receives literally millions of advertising dollars each year from big pharmaceutical companies, some of which stand to lose billions of dollars in potential profits if some of these upstart stem cell companies are successful with their clinical trials and get their treatments to market.

I am far from anti-pharma. I am alive today because of a "Big Pharma" drug. But the pharmaceutical industry clearly doesn't want more competition from adult stem cell concerns. Example: The 60 Minutes story I mentioned above that warns of the dangers of adult stem cell companies is sponsored on the CBS website by drug giant Pfizer. I mean, could the network be any less subtle?

That the national press often ignores advances made in adult stem cell therapy is frustrating for many of the industry's CEOs and researchers, who tell me that biased media coverage has had a chilling effect on these companies' ability to raise money for their potentially breakthrough research.

Granted, 60 Minutes did expose Stem Tech labs, a company that appears to be taking advantage of patients with unproven treatments. But the TV news magazine made no mention of the fact that legitimate adult stem cell clinical trials are going on right now and are affiliated with some of this country's most esteemed medical institutions, including Yale, Johns Hopkins and Columbia.

And why would CBS ignore the work of companies such as Cytori, which is developing cell therapies based on autologous adipose-derived regenerative cells (ADRCs) to treat cardiovascular disease and repair soft tissue defects, or Medistem, which is developing technologies related to adult stem cell extraction, manipulation and use for treating inflammatory and degenerative diseases?

Medistem, whose lead product, the endometrial regenerative cell (ERC) is a "universal donor" stem cell derived from menstrual blood, recently obtained FDA clearance to begin trials in the U.S. for treatment of advanced peripheral artery disease. 

In the stem cell research world, there are embryonic, umbilical and adult stem cells. All are undifferentiated cells that can become any of the various tissues that make up the human body - blood cells, skin cells, nerve cells, etc. Researchers have wondered for years whether the genetic keys to these cells could be manipulated to deal with a variety of ailments, such as growing replacement organs.

There has been heated debate for years over embryonic stem cells on ethical and religious grounds. Many believe it is immoral to use these cells that result in the death of a human embryo. But adult stem cells don't pose this ethical dilemma, and they're showing much promise in labs worldwide.

Dr. Hugh Taylor, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences from Yale and a member of the staff of the Yale Stem Cell Center, tells me that the media is just "waiting for the next cure before it's ready to put the adult stem cell industry in any sort of positive light."

Adult stem cell research does have a few friends in some pretty high places, from the Vatican, which obviously prefers adult cells over embryonic cells on religious grounds, to the state of Texas, which now allows doctors to perform stem cell procedures if they receive approval from an institutional review board and patients sign informed consent forms. 

For that you can thank former presidential candidate and current Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who said he got relief from back pain after being injected with his own stem cells last year. Perry subsequently urged his staff to push the legislation through. 

Overall, though, adult stem cell researchers aren't getting a fair shake in the American press. And I can think of no other reason than the almighty dollars from the big, established drug companies, which I often support but not in this case.

Warren Sherman, a renowned cardiologist and director of stem cell research and regenerative medicine at Columbia, said that new adult stem cell-based treatments have emerged worldwide for diseases and maladies such as cancer, heart disease, spinal cord injury, Alzheimer's, diabetes, blindness, multiple sclerosis, autism and AIDS.

"There are dozens of adult stem cell clinical trials going on in the U.S. by legitimate companies," Sherman says. "But the media ignores this and instead chooses to focus on the charlatans in this field. I guess it makes for a better story."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Does San Diego Biotech Firm Have a Cure for Cancer?

As a journalist, cancer survivor and patient advocate, I've been subjected to my share of hyperbole from drug and biotech companies claiming to have the Next Big Thing in cancer treatment. But all the hype typically amounts to just that. However, a biotech firm in San Diego that has been flying under the radar for the past decade may just have the elusive cure for this insidious disease.

Since my cancer diagnosis in 1996, I've spent a good portion of my time investigating just about every new cancer treatment you can imagine. And I believe the novel therapy developed by Genelux Corporation, which was was founded in 2001 and has offices in California and Europe, could save countless lives and fundamentally change the way we look at cancer treatment.

Genelux, which has received little national media attention, has developed a virus-based treatment called GL-ONC1 that kills cancer cells throughout the body effectively without harming healthy cells or tissues. In animal studies for this attenuated vaccinia virus, which is from the Lister strain, more than 40 human cancers were completely eradicated. About 90 percent of the more than 10,000 mice that received the therapeutic dose were completely cured of a variety of cancers.

While a number of alleged wonder drugs kill cancer in mice, most have not worked in people. But human trials for GL-ONC1 are underway and already showing very positive results at such prestigious cancer institutions as Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York and the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, as well as in Europe. More than 60 people, mostly patients who've exhausted every other treatment option, have enrolled in these trials for a variety of cancers. 

GL-ONC1 has shown remarkable effectiveness as a single agent therapy (monotherapy) and also works synergistically in combination with chemotherapy, radiation therapy and monoclonal antibodies. At the Moores Cancer Center trial in San Diego, Genelux is being combined with chemo and radiation to treat head and neck cancers. 

Cancer survivor James Eldridge
James Eldridge, 56, a nutritionist and photographer from Ukiah, Calif., enrolled in the Moores trial in April after being diagnosed with stage IV cancer, with 26 of 52 lymph nodes turning up positive for cancer. Three weeks ago, at his first post-treatment visit, Eldridge tells The Reno Dispatch that he was scoped by his radiologist and told that there was no clinical evidence of cancer. 

"I am quite sure that Genelux has saved my life," says Eldridge. "The radiation only took care of the cancer that was in the head and neck area, whereas the virus cleared my body of any free-floating cancer cells. I believe I am cured. I hope to go back to work in a month. I'm so thankful I was a part of this trial. There are so many people suffering, I just hope this treatment gets approved as soon as possible." 

In every human trial Genelux has hosted, there are stories like this in which patients have seen their cancer wiped out. It's still early in the development process of this treatment, of course, and cancer experts are characteristically reluctant to get too excited or share details of these early pre-published results. But clinicians are clearly impressed.

Dr. Loren Mell, director of the Head and Neck Radiation and Oncology Service at Moores, runs the Genelux trial in which Eldridge enrolled. Mell tells The Reno Dispatch that while it is too early to comment specifically on the human trial results, "There are a lot of reasons to be excited about this therapy. The pre-clinical data is certainly what we like to see. It has shown to be very effective against tumors. And I would say that it has been very encouraging in human trials. We are definitely excited and encouraged by the responses so far." 

So how does GL-ONC1 work? The virus, which was used in the first smallpox vaccine two centuries ago, is delivered intravenously, then navigates through the body’s immune response to reach its target. It smartly locates and kills all cancer cells throughout the body (solid tumors, liquid tumors, cancer stem cells and metastasis). The virus has also been genetically engineered to emit light, so the progress of the therapy can be tracked. And again, it does not harm healthy cells.

When the virus enters the cancer cell, it begins to replicate rapidly and infects the cell, lighting up like a Christmas tree in the process, and letting the clinician know that cancer cells are being destroyed wholesale. When the body is cleared of all cancer cells, the lights go out and the cell debris as well as the virus are cleared from the body. 

There are virtually no side effects other than very mild fever and chills for several hours, at most. And the therapy works rapidly, sometimes as fast as a few weeks, and I've not found a situation in my extensive research of this company in which, when a therapeutic dose is given, it doesn't work - even on stage IV cancers. 

While Genelux is currently conducting Phase I/II human trials for this virus at Moores, Sloan Kettering, Royal Marsden Hospital in London and the Tubingen University Hospital in Germany, it's likely you've not heard of this treatment, or this company. I hadn't until very recently – and it's my job to know about these kinds of companies. 

Genelux puts out occasional press releases and there are references in various medical journals. And of course you can find all its clinical trials on clinicaltrials.gov. But there hasn't been much press coverage. Genelux has kept a low profile and has been conservative in its public relations. 

But in exclusive interview, Tony Yu, PhD, who heads the clinical trials, explained the treatment to me in great detail and shared with me just where they hope to go from here. 

Yu, who is quite adept at putting all the science jargon into words that everyone can understand, notes that while it's difficult to have a general summary on the human trials at this point, "We have seen complete response or no evidence of disease in all evaluable patients in the UCSD combination therapy trial."

Yu notes that Genelux has also seen conversion of progressive diseases to stable diseases in many patients in the Royal Marsden trial when the virus is used as monotherapy. "However," he adds, "please keep in mind, in that trial we did dose escalation, starting from very low dose levels and escalating to higher doses. The higher dose would be more meaningful in evaluating efficacy. In the Tubingen trial, we have demonstrated complete removal of tumor cells from peritoneal fluid after viral therapy."

In other words, it works on just about everyone who has tried it. Of course, using a virus to treat cancer is not a new study. It's been around for several decades. Besides vaccinea, other oncolytic viruses used in clinical trials are adenovirus, reovirus, measles, herpes simplex and Newcastle disease viruses. But Genelux has taken this science to new territory with this treatment. I believe vaccinia is the most promising and safest of the oncolytic viruses currently being tested.

As I said, I'm not a fan of hype and hyperbole, especially when it comes to cancer treatments. But the inspirational story of Genelux, which has survived and thrived in a very competitive world dominated by big pharma, serves as a beacon of hope for those of us who suffer from cancer and oftentimes the toxic treatment that follows. 

I believe the work Genelux is doing could result in an entirely new paradigm in the field of oncology and delivery of medicine in general. The company embraces the convergence of virology, whereby live organisms are treating live cells, as opposed to dead substances in the form of drugs, which as my fellow cancer patients know are often harder on the patient than the disease. 

Genelux hopes to soon begin several more trials for a variety of cancers. Stay tuned. I'll be following this company's journey closely here at The Reno Dispatch. Stay tuned to this national news blog for updates on Genelux.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Veteran of Afghanistan War Honors Judge Who Supported Her During Deployment

Major Aniela Szymanski in Afghanistan
It isn't written about nearly enough, but being a Reservist in the United States military during wartime is a very trying time for these individuals and their loved ones. It's undoubtedly very tough to just drop everything, put your life and career on hold, and deploy to war. Understanding and supportive bosses can make it a lot easier for our honorable reserves who are called to serve.

Major Aniela Szymanski is one of those honorable reserves. An Afghanistan War veteran, she was deployed to Helmand Province in 2011, and now serves as an appellate attorney at Bergmann & Moore, a law firm for which she proudly represents veterans and their families before the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  

Major Szymanski and Judge Robert N. Davis
After she returned from the war, Szymanski, who began her military service in 2000, was so moved by the support she had received from her then-boss Robert N. Davis, a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, she nominated him for the “Above and Beyond Award” from the Department of Defense (DoD). And recently it was announced that he won the award.

The "Above and Beyond Award" is bestowed by the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, which was established more than 40 years ago to develop and maintain support for employees who also serve in the Guard and Reserve. The award is presented to a limited number of employers who distinguish themselves in their support to employees who serve in the military.

Judge Davis's support and cooperation during his judicial law clerks' deployment to Afghanistan in 2011, including Major Szymanski, epitomizes the spirit of the award.

"Without the outstanding support for reservists such as that provided by Judge Davis, I could not continue to serve my country," says SMajor Szymanski. "Having seen first-hand what reservists bring to the fight in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa, and in every other theatre of operation, reservists will continue to be the key to the operational capabilities of our military all over the world. I encourage employers to follow the example set by the Court and Judge Davis to continue to support these needs of our military. The ability to perform my mission in Afghanistan was due largely to their support."

In 2004, Davis was nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, which has exclusive jurisdiction to provide judicial review of final decisions by the Board of Veterans' Appeals, an entity within VA. Davis is a veteran of the U.S. Navy Reserve. Here is his official Court biography

Thursday, July 11, 2013

BREAKING CANCER NEWS: New Discovery at Salk Institute Could Stunt Cancer Cell Growth

Salk Institute scientist Jan Karlseder in the lab
It's comforting to know that scientists like Jan Karlseder at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies are always looking for new and better ways to treat and even prevent cancer. And he's at it again. This time, Karlseder and his Salk team have identified why disruption of a vital pathway in cell cycle control leads to the proliferation of cancer cells. They believe that a better understanding of this process could in fact lead to the ability to influence cellular aging and, as a result, stunt cancer cell growth.

Yes, you read that right: stunt cancer cell growth. Their remarkable findings on something called telomeres, which are the stretches of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect our genetic code and make it possible for cells to divide, suggest a potential target for preventive measures against cancer, as well as aging. 

Needless to say, the implications of this research for patients are potentially profound. The findings were published July 11 in Molecular Cell.

Karlseder, a professor in Salk’s Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory and holder of the Donald and Darlene Shiley Chair, says that while these discoveries do not result in direct clinical applications, "the more we understand the underlying causes of cancer, the more likely it is that improved therapies will be developed. Understanding the exact molecular details of how partially dysfunctional telomeres arrest cell growth while maintaining genome stability could eventually allow the application of these pathways to cancer cells, thereby arresting their growth."

As usual, the research gets a little technical. Karlseder explains that telomeres are like plastic tips at the end of shoelaces because they prevent the ends of chromosomes from fraying and sticking to each other, which scrambles the genetic information and may promote cancer. They're crucial to DNA replication, tumor suppression and aging. Each time a human cell divides, its telomeres become shorter. 

When they become too short, he says, the cell can no longer divide and becomes inactive, or “senescent,” or dies. Cells can escape this fate by activating an enzyme called telomerase, which prevents telomeres from getting shorter and allows the cells to continue to grow and divide. 

Uncontrolled cellular growth is of course a primary and scary hallmark of cancer cells, and shortened telomeres have been identified in pancreatic, bone, prostate, bladder, lung, kidney and head and neck cancers.

“As telomeres shorten during normal cellular aging, they activate a DNA damage response to arrest cell growth, which protects our DNA from harm,” says Karlseder, who with his team identified that cell growth arrest due to shortening telomeres is confined to one specific portion of the cell cycle, called the G1 phase, which is the most protected stage of the cell cycle. 

“The pathways controlling G1-phase growth arrest, however, is commonly altered in cancer cells," he says, "allowing cancer cells to divide despite shortened telomeres, which can lead to the genomic instability seen in malignant cells.” 

In the study, Karlseder and his colleagues mimicked the process of cellular aging by partially removing a protein called TRF2 from the telomeres of human fibrosarcoma (a type of cancer that affects connective tissue) cells. By doing so they were able to experimentally reproduce the process that occurs naturally as cells age. 

This telomere so-called “deprotection” exposed the ends of chromosomes during certain stages of the cell cycle. 

In this state, the scientists found that telomeres exhibited a partial DNA damage response: the ends of chromosomes were protected against fusing and fraying, but cell growth was still arrested.     

“Basically,” notes lead author Anthony Cesare, a research associate in Karlseder’s lab, “there’s cell growth arrest without genomic instability. Thus, telomere aging, in normal, healthy cells and living organisms, means cell arrest, but no harmful genetic effects.”

As you might have guessed, I'm keeping a close eye on this promising research and will keep you informed. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Are Drones the U.S. Navy's Not-So-Secret New Weapon?

Drone lands on aircraft carrier - Photo by Kevin J. Steigberg/US Navy
In a surreal, almost eerie glimpse into the not-too-distant future, an unmanned airplane landed itself today on the flight deck of a United States aircraft carrier. The bat-winged X-47B combat drone, manufactured by Northrup Grumman, took off from Naval Air Station Patuxent River on a flight headed to the USS George H. W. Bush in the Atlantic off the coast of Virginia. When it reached its destination and safely set down, it became the first pilotless aircraft to land itself on the moving flight deck of an aircraft carrier at sea, according to the Navy.

Navy brass are giddy over the historic landing of the drone, which will be developed into a battlefield-ready aircraft. You can view today's event at this link. As you watch, remind yourself that there is nobody in that plane. Its safe landing relied entirely on GPS coordinates and advanced computer technology used by "pilots" many miles away.

"It isn't very often you get a glimpse of the future. Today, those of us aboard USS George H.W. Bush got that chance," Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said today. "The operational unmanned aircraft soon to be developed have the opportunity to radically change the way presence and combat power are delivered from our aircraft carriers."

There's no question that in the coming years drones will play a substantial role in the American military, and in domestic use. Navy leaders are apparently on board, but I'm not so sure the Navy's highly skilled fighter pilots are quite as enthusiastic about these slick, flying robots.

Despite their coronation of sorts today, drones also remain the subject of intense controversy among civilians, and pols. Many Americans worry that drones will potentially compromise our freedoms and be abused by domestic law enforcement, among others. There is also grave concern about the number of civilian fatalities caused by drones we've sent across the globe to kill terrorists.

As I noted in The Daily Beast a few months ago, there's even growing tension over drones in my hometown, San Diego, which is America's drone-making hub. Protests against the drones are increasing here. But so are profits for defense contractors that design and build these futuristic machines - Northrup and General Atomics - and all the subsidiary companies. Drone-related businesses in San Diego County generate a whopping $2 billion in annual revenue and have created as many as 14,000 jobs. 

Meanwhile, in Washington, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) this week threatened to block the Senate confirmation of outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller’s replacement, James Comey, because, Paul says, Mueller did not address Paul's concerns over domestic drone use.

Of course it was Paul who filibustered the Senate confirmation of CIA Director John Brennan back in March, demanding that the Obama administration clarify its policy on domestic drone use and the targeted assassinations of Americans on U.S. soil. 

But while the debate rages in Washington, the military is moving forward with its drone program. Mabus predicted today that "across the entire spectrum of military operations, an integrated force of manned and unmanned platforms is the future. The X-47B's autonomous arrested landing aboard USS George H.W. Bush shows how the Navy and Marine Corps are riding the bow wave of technological advances to create this 21st century force."

Monday, July 8, 2013

COMMENTARY: Is VA Secretary Eric Shinseki a Hero or a Villain?

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki
Eric Shinseki, the alternately compelling and confounding secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), has taken some heat in recent months. With the disability claims backlog at VA still at more than 1 million, including appealed claims, people are fed up. 

Newspaper editorial boards call the situation at VA a “national disgrace” and have urged Shinseki to quit. Time magazine said he "lacks the creativity and leadership skills” needed for this position. Amid the pressure, Shinseki allegedly submitted his resignation, only to be convinced by the Obama administration to stay on the job. No federal officials will confirm this, but several of my trusted sources in the veteran community say it happened. 

But is all the criticism of the secretary warranted? Well, yes. And no. By all accounts, Shinseki, a disabled Vietnam veteran with a calm, unflappable demeanor, has worked furiously to fix the many problems he inherited when he took over the department. It's an uphill battle implementing real change at such an entrenched bureaucracy, but he's made slow progress. And he's made some good moves.

Yes, the claims backlog and waiting times for those claims to be processed have tragically grown, but that is largely because so many more post-9/11 troops have come home. But in some areas, including conditions at VA facilities and the overall environment for veterans and their families nationwide, things are demonstrably improving for the first time in recent memory.

However, Shinseki has made some stupefyingly bad decisions. Perhaps the worst one came just weeks ago when he gutted the Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illness (RAC), an independent board mandated by Congress in 1998. 

Shinseki, who'd previously shown unwavering support for the committee, reversed course for no legitimate reason, firing or removing the committee's chair and half the panel without naming replacements. 

The fear among veterans' advocates is that Shinseki will name discredited people to the RAC, such as people who believe in VA's bogus "stress" theory for Gulf War illness. The RAC as well as the prestigious Institute of Medicine have confirmed that Gulf War illness is real, it is associated with toxic exposures. It is physical, not psychiatric. 

Just when Shinseki was beginning to look like he really cared about veterans, he pulls something this stupid, this egregious. The decision is a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands of ailing Gulf War veterans who have still not been treated. 

So now you know why I am conflicted about Shinseki. As someone who covered VA for Newsweek during the George W. Bush years, I still contend with ample evidence that things are better now than they were then. Is Shinseki an improvement over his predecessors, Anthony Principi, Jim Nicholson and Jim Peake? If you have to ask, you weren't there.

In a cover story in Newsweek in March 2007 I reported that the VA under Nicholson was an overloaded bureaucracy unprepared for the onslaught of troops returning from war and was failing America’s wounded. USA Today reported that same year that the VA’s clinics and hospitals suffered from hundreds of problems, including worn carpet, damaged floor tiles, leaking roofs and cockroach infestations. That is no longer the case.

While at VA, Nicholson reportedly defended a budget measure that sought major cuts in staffing for VA healthcare, cut funding for nursing home care, and blocked four legislative measures aimed at streamlining the backlog of veterans benefit claims. Shinseki would not defend such a budget measure.

Nicholson's replacement, Peake, wasn't much better than Nicholson. A medical doctor who'd been surgeon general of the Army, Peake's questionable moves at VA included his refusal to sign the regulation granting herbicide benefits for veterans who had Parkinson’s, heart disease and cancer. Last week I wrote here about how these herbicides, including Roundup, the most popular weed killer in the world, are linked to cancer and many other diseases. Lacking wisdom, courage or compassion, Peake refused to allow sick warriors this coverage.

Robert Walsh, a respected attorney who's represented thousands of veterans with claims before the VA, says Shinseki opened up the process to these claims and fast-tracked them early in his tenure. 

"He (Shinseki) forced the VA benefits system to work as it never had before," Walsh says. "Tens of thousands of families received VA disability benefits and in-home health assistance they desperately needed."

A commendable move by Shinseki, and it showed that things were evidently changing for the better at VA. But lame-brained moves such as decimating the RAC sort of makes us forget the good things he has done and just makes you scratch your head.  

In my recent interview for The Daily Beast with Steven Coughlin, a former VA epidemiologist, he told me the VA routinely disseminated false information about Gulf War veterans, withheld research showing a link between nerve gas and Gulf War Illness, rushed studies out the door without taking recommended fixes by an independent board, and failed to offer crucial care to veterans who came forward as suicidal.

Gutting the RAC just two months after Coughlin exposed the VA to me and a few other journalists was perhaps the most poorly timed decision of Shinseki's tenure. 

As noted by Jess Walker on the blog for Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that solely represents veteran disability cases, "The purpose of an independent advisory panel is to provide VA with invaluable input for the research needed for treatments and benefits – information that is not to be disregarded simply because it is less overwhelming than the logistics of providing treatment and compensation for 250,000 ill veterans. Gulf War veterans, like all veterans, deserve better than this."

Indeed they do. Shinseki's move to essentially quash the RAC calls into question his integrity and judgment. I'm still waiting for him to explain just why on earth he would make such a move. We're all still waiting. Nothing less than his legacy at the VA may depend on his answer.