Sen. Warner talks VA, Russia with state's veterans

Sen. Mark Warner drew laughter and applause from the crowd of veterans gathered in Williamsburg Friday as he joked at Congress' expense.

His opening one-liner: "I bring you greetings from a strange place."

Warner kicked off the Virginia Veterans of Foreign Wars' annual conference at the Fort Magruder Conference Center shortly after 10 a.m.

More than 150 VFW and VFW auxiliary members heard updates on relevant legislation making its way through Congress, and listened as he spent nearly half of his time — 18 of 40 minutes — to talk about Russia's interference into the 2016 presidential elections.

"I want to tell you what we do know … maybe other than the President, there's no one in our intelligence community, in our defense community that rebuts the facts," Warner said. "What the Russians did in our elections in 2016 was an attack on the United States of America."

The statement reverberated throughout the room as applause erupted.

Warner, Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman, explained how Russian hackers used social media to spread fake news to influence voters.

He called the meddling "21st-century warfare.".

"What concerns me is, when you start using information as a weapon, as you start using fake news as a weapon, you change a lot of the basic rules of warfare," Warner said.

VFW State Commander Tom Gimble said lawmakers are always invited to the annual conference.

"They give us a good update on veteran's legislation in Virginia," Gimble said. "They're very supportive of veteran's issues."

Warner said the Department of Veteran's Affairs, while better than it was in 2014 at the height of a scandal about how long veterans had to wait before being seen at hospitals, has work to do.

Things are getting accomplished in Congress, he said, attributing the success to veteran's care being a bipartisan issue.

Warner pointed to the bills the House of Representatives and the Senate passed this session making it easier to hold VA employees accountable.

"I think there are an awful lot of people who work at the VA who do a great job," Warner said and after a long pause adding, "but there are also some folks that work at the VA that don't treat veterans with the respect they deserve. One of the things we have to make sure ... is we've got to make it easier that if you've got someone that's not performing, you can fire them."

The room exploded with excitement with his last four words. People clapped and hollered in agreement.

Warner said his greatest frustration was the delay in building two new VA hospitals in Virginia — one in Virginia Beach and the other in Fredericksburg. He said Congress budgeted the money build them, but hit a snag with new Congressional Budget Office rules.

"I give you my personal commitment that we're going to stay on this, we're going to get that additional facility opened on the Southside," Warner said. "These are not political promises, these are benefits that you are owed that you have already earned."

Halifax resident and auxiliary member Grace Elliott appreciated hearing Warner say that.

"We like to hear it straight from the horse's mouth," Elliot said. "If it comes from his mouth, we trust he's telling us the truth and not just being political."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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