Legislative Newsletter Update 3 August 2009 


Legislative News is AUSA Government Affairs Directorate's 
weekly electronic newsletter, and is published 
every Monday when Congress is in session. 


In this issue

  • Confirmation Hearing for Secretary and Under Secretary of the Army Held
  • Defense Appropriations Bill Passes House
  • Service Dogs for Veterans

Confirmation Hearing for Secretary and Under Secretary of the Army Held

Rep. John McHugh, D-N.Y., nominated to become President Obama's Secretary of the Army, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week for his confirmation hearing.  McHugh has served in the House of Representatives for 16 years.  His district includes Fort Drum, N.Y.

McHugh told the panel that he had few illusions about the challenges the service – “fatigued by eight years of constant conflict” -- faces in the years ahead and said “far too often” soldiers return home "to a support mechanism … that falls short.”  He added, “It all comes back to people.”

“I’ve visited our wounded warriors at home and abroad,” he said, “and in each visit, I have been struck how these heroes, facing pain and loss and uncertainty, ask only one question: What else can I do to serve?  We can ask no less of ourselves.  How can we succeed in repaying even a partial measure of the devotion they render to all of us each and every day?  That will be the key motivation when I wake every day,” he added.

McHugh said he planned to review the range of support programs the Army offers soldiers and families to ensure they are known, understood and effective. 

With regards to issues related to mental health and suicide prevention, McHugh said, “I think the Army is moving in the right direction” on mental health and suicide prevention, “but we have a long way to go.”  He said the five-year study the Army is undertaking with the National Institute of Mental Health was important, but “we can’t take five years” to help troubled soldiers.  He noted that after two years the Army is about half way to meeting its goal of adding 200 mental health professionals to its clinics and hospitals.

McHugh also said that adding 22,000 soldiers over the next three years will help fill units and over time begin to increase the dwell time for soldiers at home.

McHugh, who served as ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said bringing the Army back into balance would be “a tough challenge” and one that it and the Department of Defense could not do alone. 

He called on other federal departments to exercise their “soft power” [expertise in law, governance, business, etc.] in confronting a host of issues that go beyond military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In looking at Army modernization, McHugh he would work with Congress in extending the reform legislation to cover the 80 percent of the contracts not covered by the acquisition reform legislation.  He also said that adding 20,000 acquisition civilians to the defense work force would also help save money in the long term.  There is “too much money out there, too much money to be wasted” that would be “better spent on these men and women out there” defending the nation.

Also appearing before the committee was Joseph Westphal, who was nominated to be the Army’s next Under Secretary.  Westphal, who previously served as Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, has held high academic posts at the University of Maine and Oklahoma State University.

Westphal said he would work to build a strong secretariat to match “an excellent Army staff.”

In 2003, AUSA presented McHugh with its Outstanding Legislator Award for his service as the co-chairman of the House Army Caucus, a bi-partisan group that works with the Army to raise the visibility of the Army’s needs, to inform members of Congress of the importance of the nation’s conventional capabilities and to assist the Army on presenting its programs to Congress.

After his nomination was announced, AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., said, “The President could not have made a better choice to serve as Secretary of the Army.  Congressman McHugh is the right man, at the right time and in the right place to lead this nation’s largest land fighting force – America’s Army – and the thousands of men and women, many serving in harm’s way, who have volunteered to keep us free,” Sullivan added.

If confirmed by the Senate, McHugh will succeed Army Secretary Pete Geren, a former Texas congressman who also served on the Armed Services Committee.  The Senate is expected to vote on McHugh and Westphal's confirmation this week before they leave on their August recess.

Defense Appropriations Bill Passes House

The House of Representatives easily passed their version of the fiscal 2010 Defense appropriations bill (H.R. 3326) by a 400-30 vote last week despite a White House veto threat over funding for the Joint Strike Fighter alternative engine and the VH-71 presidential helicopter.

The House did back the Obama Administration’s push to end production of the Air Force’s F-22 fighter program by shifting more than $300 million for building new planes to other accounts.

Other items of interest in the bill include:

* A 3.4 percent military pay increase.

* $122.4 billion to fully fund the requested end strength levels for active duty and Selected Reserve personnel.

* $8.3 million to pay troops $500 for every month their term of service will be involuntarily and arbitrarily extended in 2010.

* $29.9 billion to provide troops top of the line medical care.  This includes $500 million for traumatic brain injury and psychological health.

* $2.2 billion for the wounded, ill and injured programs.

* $472.4 million for Family Advocacy programs.  The bill fully funds Family Support and Yellow Ribbon programs. 

* $20 million for Army National Guard Family Assistance Centers and reintegration.

* $11 billion for critical readiness training so that troops are prepared to successfully perform their missions.

* $613.6 million to procure additional Stryker vehicles, and safety and survivability equipment for the Stryker fleet.

* $2.3 billion for the continued development of the restructured Future Combat Systems Program.

The bill also includes funding for operations and maintenance, and military personnel requirements for ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to support preparation to begin withdrawal from Iraq, consistent with President Obama’s plans. 

Due to the added burden of supporting contingencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, $2.6 billion was transferred from base DoD funding for military personnel and $14.6 billion was provided for the Overseas Contingency Operations Transfer Fund that will allow DoD budget flexibility due to the highly variable nature of the costs to rebalance US forces between Iraq and Afghanistan, and to begin the redeployment from Iraq.

Additionally, $5.1 billion was provided which will allow defense personnel, not contractors, to perform critical department functions.  The bill also reduces contracted advisory and assistance services by $51 million, and includes general provisions to stop further conversions by the Department of Defense from government functions to contractors.

The Senate is not expected to take up its version of the defense appropriations bill until September.

Service Dogs for Veterans

The Senate passed legislation that would provide service dogs to more disabled veterans. 

Introduced by Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., The Service Dogs for Veterans Act would create a pilot program within the Veterans’ Administration and would partner with non-profit groups which train service dogs. 

The pilot program would pair dogs with 200 veterans who have mental or physical disabilities or injuries and would operate for three years during which time the National Academies of Science would study its effectiveness.

“As someone who's spent time with our troops on USO tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, and met wounded warriors at Walter Reed and Bethesda, I feel a real obligation to the men and women who have risked life and limb on our behalf,” said Sen. Franken.

“There’s a huge return on investment here.  Service dogs can do amazing things, and there is evidence to suggest that increasing their numbers would reduce the alarming suicide rate among veterans, decrease the number of hospitalizations, and lower the cost of medications and human care.

“I believe it is enough simply to improve the lives of those of whom we asked so much. But this program isn't just the right thing to do.  It's the smart thing to do.  This small investment will pay dividends for these veterans for years to come.

“I have seen firsthand the therapeutic effects of service dogs assisting individuals,” said Sen. Isakson.  “The potential they bring for the therapy and treatment of soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries should be studied.”

The bill was incorporated into the Defense Authorization bill for fiscal year 2010.

AUSA has provided financial support for the VetDogs program, started last year by the non-profit Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind in Smithtown, N.Y. 

The program provides service dogs for injured veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.  The service dogs help the vets with balance and fetching, and are taught to react in emergencies.

For more information call 1-866-VETDOGS or visit the VetDogs website, http://www.guidedog.org/vetdogs.htm.