Legislative News Update 15 March 2010 

3/15/2010 


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



       
 

In this issue:

  • Congressmen Join Forces to Address Suicide Rates
  • AUSA Legislative Agenda Discussed at Hill/Pentagon Meetings
  • MYCAA Program Resumes Operations 
 

★★★


CONGRESSMEN JOIN FORCES TO ADDRESS SUICIDE RATES


AUSA along with the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) hosted a program on mental health in the military last week.  Freshman congressman Rep. Michael McMahon, D-N.Y. was the featured guest.

McMahon explained to attendees how he teamed with another freshman congressman from Florida to introduce legislation providing for follow-up counseling and other services to help reduce the number of suicides in the armed forces.  He said Rep. Thomas Rooney, R-Fla., approached him about co-sponsoring bills to assist in that effort.  “There are some issues that transcend partisanship.  [We] were very concerned about the high rate of suicide in the military.  The statistics are just sobering.” 

The Department of Defense reported 349 suicides in 2009.  McMahon said that suicide statistics kept by the Department of Veterans Affairs show an increase over the last four years of 28 percent.

“Stigma is always a problem,” which is one reason one of the bills calls for mandatory screening of all service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. 

McMahon said that congressional appropriators with the strong backing of Defense Secretary Robert Gates set aside $500 million to begin the screening and provide the support for follow-on treatment.  However, the appropriation bill’s language did not require the screening and support if DoD said it did not have enough mental health professionals for the program at the start.  The department is short several hundred professionals in the behavioral science fields.

McMahon suggested that the Defense Department partner with civilian organizations such as Give an Hour (featured in the January 2010 AUSA NEWS) to fill the gap.

“Suicide may not always be preventable [but] intervention is a way to do it, with counseling.”

McMahon said that he would be taking back to Capitol Hill ideas on how to broaden the screening and counseling programs to service members families, to government employees and contractors who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Drawing on his constituents' experiences following the terrorist attacks upon the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, he said, “We’re still fighting to get mental health services for those involved,” but who were not necessarily first responders.  “It’s a parallel to what we have in the military.”

In introducing the discussion, LTG Theodore Stroup, AUSA’s Vice President for Education, said the 1.2 million men and women on active duty and serving in the reserve components “have gone over [to combat zones] in higher frequency” than any other generation serving the nation since it was founded.

The seriousness of these invisible wounds was recognized as early as the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862.  He said that in later wars they were called shell shock or battle fatigue.

Stroup called today’s service members “a national treasure” and said that the passage of McMahon’s and Rooney’s bills would “have a major impact on our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen.”

Clark Murdoch, senior adviser in CSIS’s International Security Program, said, “The cultural issue is much broader than in the military.”  Adding, “The society as a whole is far behind the military” in trying to address mental health issues.

As to why he became involved, McMahon said, “I feel … that this is my duty.”


AUSA LEGISLATIVE AGENDA DISCUSSED AT HILL/PENTAGON MEETINGS


AUSA Government Affairs Director Bill Loper along with other members of the Military Coalition's Guard/Reserve committee met with Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Defense for Reserve Affairs (Manpower and Personnel) Nancy Boyda in her Pentagon office last week to discuss Yellow Ribbon reintegration efforts, Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) issues, TRICARE Reserve Select outreach, and “gray area” retiree issues among others. 

Mr. Loper also visited with the military legislative assistant for Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.  Attending the meeting with him were members of the Military Coalition's Veterans’ committee.  They discussed several veterans’ issues important to AUSA and the Coalition.

MILITARY PAY RAISE, TRICARE AND DWELL TIME TOPICS AT SENATE HEARING

The Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee received testimony last week from the Pentagon’s top personnel leaders as well as representatives of the Military Coalition, a group of 34 military, veterans and uniformed services organizations of which AUSA is a member. 

New Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Jim Webb, R-Va., assured the witnesses of “continuous and active oversight of all our military personnel matters through hearings, through consideration of the Department of Defense budget and legislative proposals, and also through day-to-day interaction with you and people who work with you.”

Webb didn’t mince any words when discussing the decision in 2007 to extend soldier deployments in Iraq to 15 months with only a year back home between deployments.

“I said, ‘First of all I can’t believe you’re going to do that.  I don’t think there’s any operational requirement…to put that kind of pressure on our people.  And then you’re going to have challenges on the other end.’  And quite frankly, we’re seeing that,” Webb said, alluding to record suicide rates, high divorce rates and service demands for stress counselors.  He also reminded the witnesses that he fought to stop 15-month deployments, with a mandate of one month home for every month deployed. Now, nothing is more valuable then increasing dwell time between deployments, he said.

Thomas R. Lamont, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs agreed.  “We have any number of programs that are well intentioned, well resourced.  It doesn’t matter.  There is nothing more important than exactly what you say,” Lamont said, “the dwell time of our soldiers with their families and others to help them decompress.”

The Military Coalition representatives testified on several initiatives important to AUSA including the pay raise for military personnel.  AUSA and the Coalition urge Congress to add at least one-half percentage point to the 1.4 percent military pay raise proposed in the defense budget.

With respect to TRICARE, Coalition Co-Chair Steve Strobridge, USAF, Ret., expressed the Coalition’s gratitude that the new defense budget didn’t propose any TRICARE fee increases, and urged the panel to include language in this year’s defense bill to acknowledge that career military people pay huge, in-kind and up-front premiums through decades of service and sacrifice over and above fees paid in cash.  He also urged the subcommittee to stop a scheduled Oct. 1 increase of more than $110-per-day above the current $535-per-day TRICARE Standard in-patient copay.

Coalition witnesses expressed support for the President’s initiative to end the disability offset for all medically retired members, with the ultimate goal of ending the disability offset to retired pay.

Webb and the Subcommittee’s Ranking Member, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., acknowledged concerns over rising personnel costs, particularly for health care, and each noted TRICARE fees haven’t been raised on beneficiaries since 1995.  Neither senator endorsed raising fees now, though Graham questioned whether TRICARE can be sustained without doing so.

Coalition representatives urged that Congress end the deduction of VA survivor benefits from military Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) annuities. 

In response, Webb noted he is one of 55 co-sponsors of an AUSA-supported bill that would end reductions in SBP annuities.  He added, “My father paid into SBP for 28 years.  “When he died in 1997, they took it out of my mother’s social security.  Luckily, we had that situation fixed. But we will give the situation you mentioned a hard look,” Webb told Coalition representatives.

 
MYCAA PROGRAM RESUMES OPERATIONS


This Newsletter recently reported that the Department of Defense abruptly suspended a program that gives qualified military spouses up to $6000 in tuition assistance to help them pursue portable careers. 

In response, AUSA contacted the co-chairs of the new House Congressional Military Family Caucus to lend its support to efforts by the caucus members to determine the reason for the shut down of the program and how to restart the popular program.   

We are pleased to say that the MyCAA program resumed operations on March 13, for military spouses who currently have existing MyCAA accounts. 

Tommy T. Thomas, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy announced that those who have an existing account will have access to the entire Web site, including the ability to create and have financial documents approved.

He also said that they are currently developing long-term options for the program and expect to announce the details soon.  Until then, no new accounts can be created. 

AUSA will continue to follow any developments in this program and keep you informed.