Veterans Affairs refuses to provide voter registration for wounded vets
John Byrne
Published: Thursday April 10, 2008

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VA suggests voter registration not held because it's partisan

At a quiet 1999 ceremony in MaComb County, Michigan, a plainspoken former Texas governor delivered a patriotic speech to commemorate Veterans' Day.

But none of the eight veterans interviewed by The New York Times after the ceremony promised George W. Bush their vote.

A new report Thursday reveals that Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Peake told two Democratic senators his department will not help injured veterans register to vote before the 2008 election.

"VA remains opposed to becoming a voter registration agency pursuant to the National Voter Registration Act, as this designation would divert substantial resources from our primary mission," Peake said in an April 8th letter to Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and John Kerry (D-MA) acquired by Steven Rosenfeld at Alternet.

Peake refers to a 1993 law that allows government departments to engage in voter registration efforts, Rosenfeld says.

What this means is that many injured veterans still in VA hospitals who can't find means to register outside of their facilities will effectively lose their right to vote. Wounded veterans who have moved must re-register at their "new addresses" or file for absentee ballots in order to participate in the presidential and other elections.

Peake defends the decision by saying that a court recently ruled the VA's limits on "partisan political activities" "does not on its face violate [veterans'] First Amendment' rights," Rosenfeld notes, without articulating how registering veterans is a partisan activity.

Peake added, "VA shares your commitment to assisting veterans in exercising their Constitutional right to vote."

The court ruling he's appears to be referring to is Patrick Griffin v. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, in which a Federal Circuit of Appeals court upheld the VA's rules governing the conduct of those who practice "free speech" -- or protest -- in government graveyards.

Among other things, the VA prohibits "partisan activities, i.e., those involving commentary or actions in support of, or in opposition to, or attempting to influence, any current policy of the Government of the United States, or any private group, association, or enterprise."

Sens. Kerry and Feinstein fired off a letter in reply.

"The Department of Veterans Affairs should provide voter materials to veterans," Feinstein wrote, according to Rosenfeld's report. "I believe the cost of providing these voter materials is minimal. It's a small price to pay for the sacrifice these men and women have made in fighting for our nation's freedom. I am disappointed."

"You'd think that when so many people give speeches about keeping faith with our veterans, the least the government would do is protect their right to vote, after they volunteered to go thousands of miles from home to fight and give that right to others," Kerry said. "And yet we've seen the government itself block veterans from registering to vote in VA facilities, without any legal basis or rational explanation."

Veterans' Affairs other scandals

It isn't the first time the Bush Administration's Department of Veterans' Affairs has been accused of slighting the nations thousands of Iraq vets. In 2005,'s Mark Benajamin revealed that military naval hospitals were delivering grossly subpar treatment to vets.

Before he hanged himself with his bathrobe sash in the psychiatric ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Spc. Alexis Soto-Ramirez complained to friends about his medical treatment. Soto-Ramirez, 43, had been flown out of Iraq five months before then because of chronic back pain that became excruciating during the war. But doctors were really worried about his mind. They thought he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving with the 544th Military Police Company, a unit of the Puerto Rico National Guard, the kind of unit that saw dirty, face-to-face combat in Iraq.

A copy of Soto-Ramirez's medical records, reviewed by Salon, show that a doctor who treated him in Puerto Rico upon his return from Iraq believed his mental problems were probably caused by the war and that his future was in the Army's hands. "Clearly, the psychiatric symptoms are combat related," a clinical psychologist at Roosevelt Roads Naval Hospital wrote on Nov. 24, 2003. The entry says, "Outcome will depend on adequacy and appropriateness of treatment." Doctors in Puerto Rico sent Soto-Ramirez to Walter Reed in Washington, D.C., to get the best care the Army had to offer. There, he was put in Ward 54, Walter Reed's "lockdown," or inpatient psychiatric ward, where the most troubled patients are supposed to have constant supervision.

At that time, Walter Reed officials wouldn't discuss Salon's findings: "We are satisfied that there is a very high level of patient satisfaction with their treatment."

The Washington Post's Dana Priest delivered a stunning series on the failures at the hospital in her series, "The Other Walter Reed," for which she and her newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize.

"Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold," Priest wrote. "When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses."

Veterans' advocates are incensed about the VA's decision not to allow registration at military hospitals.

"During a time of war, our Nation has a special and sacred duty to assist our fellow citizens who have defended our Constitution with their lives - our military veterans -- with registering to vote and with voting," Paul Sullivan, Veterans for Common Sense executive director, told Rosenfeld. "We encourage VA to allow non-partisan voter registration drives at VA facilities so that as many veterans as possible can actively participate in our democracy -- we owe our veterans no less for standing between a bullet and our Constitution."