On an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon, a small bus escorted by motorcycles with POW/MIA flags flying next our country’s flags pulled into the parking lot of the American Legion in Colonial Beach.
A group representing the Concerned Veterans for America arrived on a mission to tell the American public about critical issues facing our veterans, active duty military and, for that matter, the nation. In this election year, the organization is hoping to spread the word that “We can do better.”
Steve Russell led the unit that captured Saddam Hussein. On Saturday, he appeared in Colonial Beach to raise awareness about veteran issues.
Pete Hegseth serves as chief executive officer for the CVA and oversees all areas of the organization. Previously he was executive director of Vets for Freedom from 2007 to 2011 where he grew the organization to over 95,000 members. Hegseth was an infantry officer in the Army National Guard. Recently, he returned from a deployment in Afghanistan, where he was an instructor at the counterinsurgency training center in Kabul. He also has served in Iraq with the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, as an infantry Platoon leader in Baghdad in 2005, as a Civil-Military Operations Officer in Samarra in 2006 and additionally he served in Guantanamo Bay for a year with his National Guard Unit. He holds two Bronze Stars and a Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
Hegseth stood at the podium and welcomed those who attended. He began by giving a brief introduction of the other two speakers who were there, and introduced Kirk Harris the Virginia State director who waved at the crowd.
Hegseth paused, and then with great passion described the plight of our active military and veterans. Our military sign a contract to uphold our freedom and defend us with their lives and in return for giving up so much it is understood our government will provide them with educational opportunities and provide them with health care and other limited benefits. Pete said these benefits are not “Welfare” but part of the contract.
“Government spending and debt pose a threat to our nation’s ability to honor this contract,” he said.
The CVA advocates for honoring those commitments by demanding that our leaders embrace fiscal responsibility. He spoke about the unemployment rate for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan being over 2 percent higher than our national average. Security cuts known in D.C. as “sequestration” will compound this problem. Officials estimate the US Army could see layoffs of as many as 24,000 enlisted personnel and up to 5,000 officers. The Marine Corps could shrink by 20,000. Sequestration was originally supposed to be a last resort and was never expected to actually happen.
In a recent poll of veterans, 72 percent cited the weak economy and the national debt as their top concern. Approximately 890,000 pension and compensation claims remain unfulfilled at the Veterans Administration. This is more than twice the backlog that existed in 2008 and it now takes a minimum of 240 days to process a claim. Absentee Ballot requests from military personnel have decreased in 2012. In some states they are down 70 percent from 2008. CVA has urged the DOD to abide by the 2009 Military and Overseas Voter empowerment (MOVE) Act to remove obstacles to military voting.
Following Hegseth at the podium was Steve Russell, who served 21 years in the United States Army as an infantry officer, deploying operationally to Kosovo, Kuwait,Afghanistan and Iraq. While a battalion officer in Iraq, he led the unit that helped catch Saddam Hussein. He later authored the book, “We Got Him!: The Hunt for Saddam.” He is currently a Senator from Oklahoma but is not running for reelection. He is the chairman and founder of Vets for Victory, an organization that works to better the lives of America’s military men and women. He has a small business in Oklahoma and is also a motivational speaker.
Continuing along the same theme as Pete Hegseth he reiterated some of the concerns of the CVA. Speaking of the state of our security he added “are we more secure today than before?… Al-Qaida is running over our embassies…” Russell went on to say how important it is to get the word out and to tell everyone to make sure they vote. Senator Russell then introduced Gold Star Wife Jane Horton. Her husband Christopher Horton was an Army sniper killed in action on Sept. 9, 2011 in Paktyia, Afghanistan. Horton was recently appointed to serve and assist in General Odierno’s Survivor Assistant Advisory Group. Her passion is to remain influential in making sure the voices of those left behind in war are heard.
Jane stood behind the podium with tears in her eyes. “I’m OK until I hear Steve talk,”she said.
She held up a picture of a young smiling man in uniform.
“This is Chris” she said. “He loved his country and died for it.”
She spoke of a love letter her husband had sent her about his love for her. Later when I spoke to her she told me she wished she had had the chance to have a child with him. That was all taken from her. Jane is in her late 20s and no sooner than had their lives begun than it was over for them. She continues to advocate for survivors and is fiercely passionate about her love of country and feels she is carrying on for Chris.
The speakers then took questions from the audience. Many of the questions were about the issue of sequestration. One woman asked how this would affect her young son who was planning on a military career. Russell answered saying that in effect with all the cuts in personnel it will be harder to get into the military but he should not give up.
One interesting question was when a women asked: How will sequestration affect a family with no military ties? The answer was tied to the economy. With so many military out with no jobs, with so many installations affected, with less disposable income, businesses dependent on the money brought in would suffer.
There was much food for thought under that bright October Sun. There are many more questions to ask of our elected officials. With just over two weeks to go to election it is a huge burden on all of us.