U.S. Sen. Jim Webb vows to protect veterans’ interests

Jim Webb, a take-charge senator who in just his second year conceived of and negotiated passage of the new GI Bill, made clear Wednesday he will continue to influence issues that affect military members, their families and retirees.

Webb, D-Va., has more leverage now as new chairman of the Senate armed services’ personnel subcommittee. He also has more knowledge of, and curiosity about, military people and policy than arguably anyone in Congress.

At his first hearing, Webb called as witnesses the four political appointees who have day-to-day control of personnel policy in the Pentagon.

Webb promised “continuous and active oversight of all our military personnel matters through hearings, through consideration of the Department of Defense budget and legislative proposals, and also through day-to-day interaction with you and people who work with you.”

Lawmakers and leaders have “no greater responsibility,” he said, than “to care for our service members and their families.”

Webb indicated he’s still upset with the Army chief of staff’s decision in 2007 to extend soldier deployments in Iraq to 15 months with only a year back home between deployments.

“I said, ‘First of all I can’t believe you’re going to do that,’ ” he said. “I don’t think there’s any operational requirement … to put that kind of pressure on our people.”

Webb reminded witnesses he fought to stop 15-month deployments, with a mandate of one month home for every month deployed. Now, nothing is more valuable then increasing time between deployments, he said.

Thomas R. Lamont, assistant secretary of the army for manpower and reserve affairs, endorsed those comments.

“We have any number of programs that are well-intentioned, well-resourced,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. There is nothing more important than exactly what you say.”

The son of a career Air Force officer, Webb said he knows what it’s like to have a parent deployed for long periods and to change schools almost yearly.

Webb, 64, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, distinguished himself in combat as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam, served as chief counsel on the veterans affairs committee, wrote best-selling novels, and was Navy secretary and assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.

“I’m the father of a Marine who had some hard time in Iraq,” he said. “I’m also the father-in-law of a Marine infantry sergeant who is now, at the age of 24, looking to be deployed for the fourth time, coming this July.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Webb that of “all the people in the Senate, you’re clearly the most qualified person to lead this subcommittee right now.”

Webb and Graham allowed only glimpses of their goals for this year. They openly supported only a few priorities listed by The Military Coalition, an umbrella group for 34 military and veterans associations, who had five representatives also testify before the panel.

Both senators expressed worry over rising personnel costs, particularly for health care, and each noted Tricare fees haven’t been raised on beneficiaries since 1995. Neither senator endorsed raising fees now.

Graham said he wants to expand an early-retirement provision for the reserve passed in 2008 so that it applies to any reserve or guard member mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001.

Webb was silent on the coalition’s call to add another .5 percent to the proposed 1.4 percent military raise for next January. Graham said, “We all wish it could be more but we do have budget problems up here.”

To comment, send e-mail to milupdate@aol.com or write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111.

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