Decency loses out to mendacity

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By Wendy Binnie

It took the BBC to dig into what may soon be a huge breaking scandal. It concerns U.S. corruption in Iraq.

You were wondering where your money was going – right? It certainly wasn’t going to American servicemen and- women, the maimed in body and soul. To the politicos who clothe themselves in our flag, here’s something to think about.

The Army has gotten rid of more than 40,000 troops since 2001. The claim is “due to misconduct or pre-existing conditions.” That’s government speak for dump the problem on society.

The facts are that these troops have been exposed to roadside mines, other ghastly scenarios and find themselves coming down with what used to be called shell-shock – sudden flashes, blinding headaches, hellish nightmares and uncontrollable tempers.

Military physicians see them briefly and throw them some pills.

In the meantime, Robert J. Stein Jr., who served as a comptroller and funding officer in 2003 and 2004 for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq after the American-led invasion, has been arrested for bribery, conspiracy, money laundering – among other charges. He schemed to use sexual favors, jewelry and millions of dollars in cash to steer reconstruction work to a corrupt contractor, according to papers filed with the court.

Stein, four other Americans, and the contractor Philip H. Bloom are involved. Stein’s plea, apparently with the understanding that he will cooperate with prosecutors, is the first to be made public.

He is accused of stealing at least $2 million in cash of American taxpayer money and Iraqi money that had been set aside for the reconstruction of Iraq by the American occupation. He also accepted more than $1 million in bribes and at least $600,000 of additional goods and cash that were the property of the CPA, the papers say. An unknown number of Reserve officers are also involved in the get-rich-quick scheme.

Meanwhile, back to our soldiers. When the pills don’t work, their CO calls them cowards and uses other indignities. And when they go to their Army physician again, they have to sign a form which automatically releases them from the service.

Then they are returned home, tossed out of the Army they love and forced to pay back their bonuses. They lose their benefits; they lose their pay; and they are denied the care they need.

This is the way we have treated 40,000-plus men and women who have given all they could to serve their country. To make things worse, they are said to have had pre-existing conditions (in some cases, the military has stumbled over itself trying to explain how soldiers can be in the service for 12 years and pass each psychological test and then suffer from a pre-existing condition or misconduct.)

The fact is this is a mechanism for saving tons of money estimated at $8 billion throughout the military. A point of fact that these GIs are suffering from PTSD and the government is denying it to save money.

In the Transparency International (TI) report, “corruption often predates hostilities and in many cases it features among the factors that triggered political unrest or facilitated conflict escalation,” says Philippe le Billon of the University of British Columbia, Canada. The report cites weak government, haphazard law and order, armed factions that need appeasing, and a scramble for rich resources as factors that render a country prone to corruption.

In Iraq, allegations range from petty bribery to large-scale embezzlement, expropriation, profiteering and nepotism. TI says it could become “the biggest corruption scandal in history.”

“I can see all sorts of levels of corruption in Iraq,” says report contributor Reinoud Leenders, “starting from petty officials asking for bribes to process a passport, way up to contractors delivering shoddy work and the kind of high-level corruption involving ministers and high officials handing out contracts to their friends and clients.”

Mark Rice-Oxley of the Christian Science Monitor reported that U.S. audits of its own spending have found repeated shortcomings, including a lack of competitive bidding for contracts worth billions of dollars, payment of contracts without adequate certification that work had been done, and in some cases, outright theft. “A report on the disbursement of Iraqi oil revenues to ministries by the Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq until last July, found a $340 million contract awarded by the electricity ministry without a public tender.

“A January report by special inspector Stuart Bowen found that $8.8 billion had been disbursed from Iraqi oil revenue by U.S. administrators to Iraqi ministries without proper accounting.”

But it is not just about Iraqis dividing up the cake. It has emerged that the Pentagon’s auditing agency found that Halliburton, the Houston oil services giant formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney, overcharged by more than $108 million on a contract.

“A Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown and Root, faces a number of investigations for overcharging, including one case where it charged the Army more than $27 million to transport $82,000 worth of fuel from Kuwait to Iraq, according to Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California.” In a written statement, Halliburton defended the cost, explaining that delivering the fuel was “fraught with danger.

Fraught with danger? Is this a sick joke? What we have allowed to be done to our service men and women will come back to haunt us in many ways – from an increased incidence of crime to increased demands on the VA to provide essential services.

In the end it will mean higher taxes for all. This, of course, doesn’t take into account the human costs.

The injured GI who returns home to a wife and family who no longer understand him. A GI who cannot adjust to society and takes his own life. A former vet and mother who can’t seem to find contentment with her loved ones.

All of these are the byproduct of a government that won’t fulfill its obligation to those who willingly forfeited their quality of life in service for their country. It is the saddest of commentaries and unbefitting a great nation like ours.

Construction is considered prone to sleaze for several reasons: the fierce competition for “make or break” contracts; permits and approvals that are open to requests for backhanders; opportunities for delays and overruns; and the physical cover-up opportunity presented by plaster and concrete. So, how to battle corruption?

Good governance is clearly the No. 1 priority, but TI identifies several other initiatives that can help improve probity. “These include vetting contractors and blacklisting those with shady records, ensuring competitive bidding for deals and assuring independent auditing and multilayered monitoring involving local communities, rotating staff in sensitive positions, and encouraging donors to disburse funds in a timely fashion to reduce pressure on local officials and prevent accounting trickery,” wrote Rice-Oxley.

There’s money galore for the grafters and grifters, but little to none for our discarded men and women who have served and sacrificed. Shame! Shame on all involved.

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Wendy England Binnie, a novelist and op-ed columnist, lives in Oak Trace Villas. Contact her at smcnews@earthlink.net.