Monday, July 28, 2014

Thunder In The Mountains: A Towering Work of Literary Nonfiction From A Gifted New American Author

Craig Collins was a rising journalist in the 1980s when he took a sharp turn along his career path and headed toward the presumably greener pastures of the corporate world. It proved to be a wise move. Collins found great success as an executive at several Fortune 500 companies and then founder of several tech companies.

But he evidently never lost his passion for writing, or his talent. Collins' first book, Thunder in the Mountains: A Portrait of American Gun Culture (Lyons Press), which debuts this fall, is not some predictable vanity project from a former executive with too much time on his hands. It is in fact a towering new work of literary nonfiction.

Powerful and skillfully written, Thunder in the Mountains is as its subtitle suggests a portrait of American gun culture. But at its core it is a poignant and heartbreaking coming-of-age story. Collins recounts his personal and family history as well the history of the American West, sharing stories that have at least one thing in common: guns and the unthinkable destruction they can bring.

Growing up in the rough-hewn Great Basin -- Pocatello, Idaho; Carson City and Winnemucca, Nevada; and Bishop, California -- Collins was surrounded by and enamored of guns from a young age. And that's how we first meet the author, who pulls us in immediately with a starkly poetic account of a hunting trip he took with his father and brothers in a remote area of Northeastern Nevada when Collins was 13. 

During the hunt, Collins, who was already an adept rifleman, accidentally shoots himself in the foot with a high-powered deer rifle. The unthinkable pain and near-death experience that followed -- yes, you can die from a shot in the foot -- undoubtedly triggered his first realization that amid the glory and mythology of guns there is a darker, truer story.

That darker, truer story is told in this book, which like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five seamlessly and effectively jumps back and forth in time. It's an exhilarating read. Filled with both manly bravado and sensitive introspection, Thunder in the Mountains' dichotomous nature is a reflection of its author, an educated CEO and exceptional writer who lives happily in the suburbs of San Diego, but who, too, is a country boy with a deep affinity for and understanding of the great outdoors. And he still hunts.

There is a duality to all of us, of course. I've never met anyone who isn't in some way conflicted. But Collins wears his contradictions well. His reverence and rebelliousness somehow coexist comfortably. 

The masculine resonance of this book pays fitting homage to Ernest Hemingway, whose spirit must loom large in Collins' world. Hemingway killed himself with his favorite shotgun in his Ketchum, Idaho home, a few months after Collins was born in nearby Pocatello. 

Notwithstanding the unsubtle Hemingway influences, Collins has carved out his own commanding, cogent and caring voice. The book is smart, yes, but what struck me most is its profound decency. There is a prevailing kindness in Collins' words that reminded me a bit of Bite the Bullet, the underrated 1975 Western epic written and directed by Richard Brooks. In that literate and sadly overlooked film, which is ostensibly about a grueling 700-mile horse race, the humanity of Brooks' script shines through. Like Collins book, the film also takes a rare and brave stand against another staple of the Old West: cruelty to horses.

With this remarkably assured debut, Collins has managed to capture the stirring spirit of an antiheroic 1970's Western and at the same time completely strip away the romance and bravado of guns. No small task. His description of what it ACTUALLY feels like to be shot is superbly detailed, and his description of how fast a bullet actually travels is shocking. At least it was to me.

Apparently getting shot for real isn't like it is in the movies, where guys take a bullet in the gut and keep charging, keep fighting. It usually doesn't work that way for real, Collins explains.

While Thunder in the Mountains takes a sober look at the evil guns can do, it is anything but a professorial diatribe. Pardon the cliche', but I found it almost impossible to put this book down once I got started. Collins writes with utter confidence because he clearly knows he is a master of language, but more importantly, he also knows he can probably shoot better than you. He knows how it feels to pull the trigger and hit his target. He can also probably talk more eloquently and accurately about the mechanics of a shotgun or the physics of a bullet being fired than you.

But Collins also knows all too well the consequences of our country's time-tested obsession with these ridiculous weapons, which make it so bloody easy to kill. Just a quick pull of our index finger can cause unthinkable damage. The very nature of The Gun seems almost cowardly, when you think about it. Put the gun down and fight like a man, right?

I grew up in the Midwest and was pheasant hunting with friends by the time I was in middle school. We used a 12 gauge shotgun. But I tired of hunting by the time I was in high school. I never killed anything bigger than a pheasant, and never intend to. I quickly lost whatever passion I had for firing a shot at another living thing. No matter how you camouflage it, shooting a gun never felt like sport to me. 

In subtle and eloquent ways Thunder in the Mountains will make you question whatever you previously thought about guns, whether you love them, hate them or are indifferent. Soaring above the sea level of a typical memoir, this is a unique and important piece of art that has a firm grasp of American culture. 

And it marks the welcome arrival of an important new American author to the nation's literary landscape. I hope and suspect we'll be hearing more in the coming years from Craig Collins.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

EXCLUSIVE: Has Congress Been Bought Off To Support World's Most Expensive And Troubled Weapon?

Remember Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the brash, defiant Congressman and former Top Gun pilot who in 2005 saw his political career implode when he admitted taking more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors? Cunningham, who was jailed for using his influence to steer tens of millions of dollars in government contracts to these companies, has been called the most corrupt Congressman in modern American history. 

But is he really that much worse than the current members of Congress who are still taking millions from defense contractors and supporting their weapons projects -- even when they don't work and cost the taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars?

Yes, billions. Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jet, which Time magazine last year called the most expensive weapon ever built, is also one of the most troubled. Beset for years by cost overruns, delays and technical problems, the aircraft, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, was grounded last month because of an engine fire on the runway at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

The Wall Street Journal reports that while the Pentagon has approved the F-35 to resume limited flying, the fire kept the aircraft from making a planned trip across the Atlantic for its overseas debut. Meanwhile, the GAO reports that the F-35, which on its good days can reportedly fly faster than the speed of sound, is now expected to cost a whopping $396 billion by the time it is completed.

Clearly we can't afford this plane. But Congress keeps green-lighting it anyway. Why? Well, maybe it has something to do with the fact that Lockheed Martin gave more than $12 million to members of the Senate and the House of Representatives from 2001 through 2013.

It is no big surprise that by unanimous voice vote, Senate appropriators today again approved more funding for procurement of the F-35 for fiscal year 2015. The Department of Defense appropriations bill that includes the funds will now get a vote on the Senate floor.

The amount of money Lockheed Martin has spent trying to curry favor in Congress, presumably for the F-35 as well as the company's other projects, is staggering. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, is the biggest winner in the House's race for Lockheed bucks. She received $226,150 from Lockheed Martin from 2001 through 2013, according to MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization that reveals money’s influence on politics.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chair of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, received $66,500 from Lockheed Martin from 2001 through 2013, according to MapLight, which notes that this is 4.4 times as much as the average for a U.S. Representative ($15,072).

Frelinghuysen's committee originates the annual House legislation that funds the F-35 procurement program.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill), chair of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, received $74,200 from Lockheed Martin from 2001 through 2013, according to MapLight, which notes that this is 4.8 times as much as the average for a U.S. Senator ($15,382). 

Durbin's committee originates the annual Senate legislation that funds the F-35 procurement program.

Does this pass your smell test? I mean, c'mon, members of Congress, don't insult our intelligence. If this isn't a classic example of quid pro quo, I don't know what is. Don't even try to convince me that this aircraft is so badly needed that it is worth nearly $400 billion. 

Remember, these pols who love throwing gargantuan amounts of cash at this airplane are the same people who refuse to invest in education, immigration, Veterans Affairs, and countless other more worthy recipients because, dammit, we have to get a handle on big government spending!

We have the strongest military in the world, folks. Without the F-35, which has been arguably the most expensive spending disaster in our nation's history. It's time to shelve this behemoth. Let it die. Move on.  

Can you even imagine how many good things could be purchased for nearly $396 billion? Or, here's a better idea: give that money back to us! If you're worried that this will take jobs away, don't. There are plenty of other defense contracts to keep the folks at Lockheed Martin, which reportedly beat out Boeing for the coveted F-35 contract way back in 2001, very busy and happy.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Veterans Affairs Crisis: Is It About The Money?

Thirty years ago, President Ronald Reagan gave America a good chuckle during one of his debates with Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale when the president  said with mild exasperation, "Well... there you go again!” That's undoubtedly what many Republican pols are thinking again today in response to the Senate testimony of Sloan Gibson, acting chief at the Department of Veterans Affairs:

"Well, VA... there you go again!"

Gibson, who in May replaced VA Sec. Eric Shinseki, who was forced to resign amid the exploding scandal at the department over falsified wait times for ailing veterans at hospitals across the country, boldy told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee that VA needs a whopping $17.6 billion in additional funds over the next three years to effectively address the agency's problems.

Gibson said the funding would address improvements and additions in clinical staff, space, information technology, and benefits processing "necessary to provide timely, high-quality care and benefits." Specifically, the money would be used to hire 10,000 healthcare providers over the next three and ½ years, including 1,500 physicians, and would also be used to expand capacity at community clinics and other healthcare facilities and lease an additional 77 facilities.

"I am convinced we are going to see some productivity enhancement but it also means we have some investments to make," Gibson said. 

Not surprisingly, Gibson's pitch got mixed reviews from the Committee. Democrat Sen. Jon Tester from Montana supported the idea, while Republican Sen. Mike Johanns from Nebraska was unimpressed, saying that it "sounds so similar to what we heard over the years. 'I need more money. I need to be bigger, faster, grander. I need a bigger bureaucracy. I need to hire more people’ and on, and on and on. I think what you need personally is competition. If you can’t clean up your act, guess what. You lost out.... I don’t think you need billions and billions of dollars.”  

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fl), who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, had this more characteristically thoughtful, if still critical response to Gibson's request.

"“I am committed to giving VA the resources it needs to provide our veterans with the care and benefits they have earned. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few months, it’s that we can’t trust VA’s numbers," Miller said today in a statement. "That includes the $17.6 billion in additional funding Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson asked for today. Given that this figure seems to have magically fallen out of the sky today – after years of assertions from VA leaders at all levels that they had nearly every dollar and every person necessary to accomplish VA’s mission – it would be an act of budgetary malpractice to blindly sign off on this request." 

Miller added that VA has had "hundreds of millions more in medical care funding than it could spend every fiscal year since 2010. So if VA truly needs this additional $17.6 billion, that would mean the VA administrators involved in past department resource allocation decisions are either incompetent, disingenuous or both.” 
Miller makes some very valid points. It is virtually impossible to trust anything that comes from a VA executive these days. But while Gibson’s formula, which represents a 20 percent increase from the $78 billion Congress already allocated for the department, sounds inflated, it's actually more palatable than the $35 billion over ten years that the Congressional Budget Office reportedly said would be needed to allow veterans who are suffering from long waits to see private doctors. 
The House and Senate have reportedly both passed bills to address this and other VA needs, but the CBO's numbers have some members of Congress shaking their heads in disbelief.

It’s fairly easy to predict how this will all play out. I don’t think even Gibson expects stingy House Republicans like Paul Ryan and Michele Bachman, who as I've reported here have called for reductions in veteran benefits in recent years, to fully support the plan. But there will likely be some additional funding for VA as a result of all this. Just how much is anyone's guess.

Some Republicans, even those like Miller of Florida who generally support veterans, will agree to some budget increases, I suspect, but will also point to this proposal from Gibson as just another misguided expenditure by the Obama administration. And some Democrats who are locked in re-election battles with Republican up-and-comers may also take issue with the largesse -- if only to appear fiscally frugal and to not appear too liberal or too supportive of the agency or the president.

Given the depth and breadth of the VA scandal, though, it's hard to blame any pol for his or her reluctance to spend billions more on a department that has a "corrosive culture," as Gibson recently acknowledged. But some of my most trusted sources insist that the wait times and many of the embattled agency's other ills are indeed the result of the lack of resources needed to hire enough doctors and other quality healthcare staff. 

It isn't a popular sentiment these days. But there may be something to it.

"It really is about money,” insisted Dr. Sam Foote, the physician and whistleblower who worked at the Phoenix VA for 23 years. He was the one who first brought the wait times scandal into the light. 

“The story here, the most important point, is that there is a horrible mismatch between demand for care in Phoenix and VA's ability to provide it,” said Foote. “That is what is driving all the shenanigans. People are dying while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA, and rather than admit that they can not provide for the demand, they are playing games."

Foote, who for the record is a staunch critic of Obamacare, said these "games," which include the falsification of wait times, are common throughout the VA system, not just in Phoenix.

"This all started in the mid-90s when the World War II population was going away, and VA predicted that by 2005, there would only be about 3.5 million veterans to take care of," he said. "They closed clinics and operating rooms in the late 1990s, and then the war came and the floodgates were opened. VA has been behind and trying to catch up ever since."

One respected veterans advocate, who asked for anonymity because the advocate works regularly with Congress, agreed with Foote. The advocate took it a step further, saying that said Congressional leaders don’t provide enough appropriations to VA. 

“No one in Congress wants to raise taxes to pay for the rest of the war,” the advocate said. “That is, our wounded, injured, ill, and disabled veterans.”

The advocate added that Congressional leaders "don’t hire enough professional staff to provide long-term, thorough oversight of VA. Even though VA is the government’s second largest department, most individual Hill offices lack a full-time subject matter expert to brief Senators and Representatives so VA has adequate funding to meet increasing demand for healthcare and disability benefits. In the worst case, some Hill professional staff are too busy defending VA to provide oversight of VA".

The advocate also suggested that VA leaders in Washington DC don’t provide enough oversight of local facilities. "There are so few oversight visits from DC that they are swatted away like pesky flies," the advocate said. "The end results are autonomous kingdoms at VA hospitals and regional offices with little to no accountability."

It will be interesting to see what Congress does from this point on. After the Senate hearing today, SVAC Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) said the House and Senate have been making "significant progress in the last month” on their respective bills to fix a broken VA system, and that there will be an agreement very soon. 

“Millions of veterans are counting on us to do so,” Sanders said. “We can’t afford to make them wait any longer for the care and services they have earned and deserve."