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POLITICS-US:
Embattled Veterans Official Resigns Post
Aaron Glantz*
SAN FRANCISCO, 29 Feb (IPS) - Another high-ranking George W. Bush administration official has resigned. The Department of Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Benefits Daniel Cooper quit Thursday amid mounting criticism over a backlog of disability claims for injured veterans that runs six months long and an appearance he made in a fundraising video for an evangelical Christian organisation where he said Bible study was more important than doing his job.

Cooper has been under fire for using his office to proselytise for evangelical Christianity ever since he appeared in a 2004 fundraising video for Christian Embassy, which carries out missionary work among the Washington elite as part of the Campus Crusade for Christ.

In the video, Cooper says of his Bible study, 'It's not really about carving out time, it really is a matter of saying what is important. And since that's more important than doing the job -- the job's going to be there, whether I'm there or not.'

Cooper's declaration inflamed veterans who saw the number of veterans waiting for the Veterans Administration (VA) to decide their disability claims balloon to 400,000 on his watch, with the average veteran waiting six months for a decision from the government.

'He was clearly a fundamentalist Christian first and essentially a government paid missionary for his particular world view of the gospel of Jesus Christ,' said Mike Weinstein, who runs the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. 'The fact that he's gone obviously is good.'

Spokespersons for the Department of Veterans Affairs refused to grant an interview for this story.

In a statement, Bush's Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake praised Cooper, saying, 'Dan Cooper's leadership, management savvy and personable touch were indispensable in guiding VA benefits programmes into the Internet era and adapting the department to the needs of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.'

Most veterans groups disagree.

'Cooper was in charge of and responsible for massive injustice for hundreds of thousands of veterans who slipped through the cracks waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for disability benefits,' said Paul Sullivan, executive director of the group Veterans for Common Sense.

'He was fully aware that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were putting a burden on VA in 2004 and he did nothing,' Sullivan added. 'In 2005, he was told again. He did nothing. In 2006, he was told again. He did nothing. In 2007, when the Walter Reed scandal broke, all Cooper could do was say that he would make some marginal changes.'

Cooper's resignation -- for 'personal reasons' -- comes two on the heels of President Bush's signing two months ago of the Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act, which has numerous provisions designed to lessen the bureaucracy that wounded veterans face when they return home from Iraq or Afghanistan. Veterans' advocates say they hope Daniel Cooper's resignation will lead to serious changes in the way the VA does its job.

But Matt Cary, the president of Veterans and Military Families for Progress, says the Bush administration has been slow to implement key reforms.

'I'm concerned that agencies that are this large and have been institutionalised for a long time will have difficulty in streamlining this and moving it quick enough to alleviate the needs of veterans and their families,' Cary told IPS.

More than 263,000 veterans have received treatment from the VA after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Close to 250,000 have filed disability claims. A new book released this week co-authored by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates that 700,000 U.S. war veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually file for disability.

'They need to have this income,' Cary said. 'If it's a disabled veteran, then the spouse needs to stay home and take care of that veteran and the faster that they can move this process along, the easier it will be for that spouse to be able to go to work and provide additional income for their family.'

Pentagon studies show about 20 percent of returning veterans (320,000 people) suffer from physical brain damage called traumatic brain injury. Government studies also show that as many 50 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans (800,000 people) suffer from the psychological injury post-traumatic stress disorder.

Daniel Cooper's resignation is effective Apr. 1. Under federal law, a search commission will be put together to present recommendations for Cooper's successor to the secretary to propose to the president for appointment. The VA's under-secretary for benefits is subject to Senate confirmation and serves at the pleasure of the president.

*Aaron Glantz has reported extensively from Iraq and on the treatment of U.S. soldiers when they return home. He is editor of the website www.warcomeshome.org and will be co-hosting Pacifica Radio's live broadcast of the Winter Soldier hearings from Mar. 14-16.



(END/2008)