Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 8 April 2013 

4/8/2013 

CONGRESS CLEARS SPENDING BILL

Congress cleared a spending package last week that averts a government shutdown and gives the Defense Department some breathing room.  What has not been averted is the sequester.  It will remove an equal amount from every non-exempt program.

 The bill funds most of the government through a continuation of the current continuing resolution, but also includes full Defense and Military Construction-VA bills that have adjusted spending levels for programs in order to protect high-priority programs and better manage the sequester. 

 Among the provisions in the bill are those that would:

 * Prohibit the Pentagon from collecting new enrollment fees for TRICARE beneficiaries;

 * Prohibit DoD from spending funds on a new commission to identify the next round of potential base closures;

* Appropriate $1.5 billion in unrequested funds for National Guard and Reserve Component equipment;

 * Provide funding for an across-the-board 1.7% pay increase for military personnel;

 * Set a ceiling on the number of active-duty military personnel at 552,100 for the Army (9,900 less than the current level);

 * Propose that the size of the active-duty Army be reduced by 72,000 between FY 2012 and FY 2017;

 * Provide $2.9 billion for Defense Department dependent schools; and,

 * Provide $40 million for impact aid and $5 million for impact aid for children with disabilities.

 The legislation is now on the president’s desk for signature.

TUITION ASSISTANCE RESTORED

An AUSA-supported amendment offered by Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., to restore funding for the military’s tuition assistance (TA) program was adopted by the Senate March 21 as part of the spending bill. 

 New enrollment in tuition assistance (TA) for service members was abruptly cancelled by the Army as part of its efforts to manage severe budget cuts mandated by Congress in the Budget Control Act of 2011.

While TA will be restored, the future program will probably be a lot different than the current program.  Eligibility rules may be tightened and the basic structure may change.  An Army Times article said that there is speculation that the Army will seek to return to the 75/25 payment model, under which the service paid 75 percent while the soldier paid the remaining 25 percent.  

Further, the legislation does not say how the cost would be covered, only that the Defense Department would have to restore funding.  Accordingly, the services are left to figure out where the money will come from.

In response to this announcement, AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., said, "The Association of the United States Army supported the amendment to restore TA funding and we thank the House and the Senate -- and in particular Senator Hagan and Senator Inhofe -- for restoring tuition assistance for our soldiers who wish to pursue educational courses to improve themselves – personally and professionally --during their off-duty time while in the service or as they transition to the civilian sector during troop cutbacks.”

Adding, “Cutting tuition assistance for our soldiers – especially those who have been down range and in harm’s way – would have been a blow to the morale of our all-volunteer force, and would have had a dramatic negative impact on the Army’s recruiting and retention efforts.”

TRICARE FOR LIFE IS NOT FREE!

A column in today’s Washington Post trots out the same tired arguments with regards to the cost of TRICARE.  One assertion regarding TRICARE For Life has us particularly irritated.  

The column states that, “Once former military personnel turn 65, they are eligible for Medicare, like everyone else. But in 2002, Congress gave them “Tricare for Life” — essentially, a free Medigap plan.”

That assertion is flat out wrong!

 When a military retiree and his or her spouse reach the age of eligibility, the Medicare system assumes responsibility for providing their health care.  To receive the full range of benefits that they have earned, military retirees have to enroll in Medicare Parts A and B and become subject to the same fees and regulations as those citizens who never served a day in uniform.  Military retirees and others enroll in Medicare Part A (in-patient care coverage) at no cost, but access to Medicare Part B (out-patient services) requires that they pay substantial monthly premiums.  

Annual Part B premium increases have not only been steep but have also proved highly erratic and unpredictable.  Between 2000 and 2011, the average Part B premium increase was nearly 9 percent per year, but it fluctuated considerably, reaching a high of 17.4 percent in 2005 and a low of zero in 2009—before spiking again to 14.6 percent for new enrollees in 2010.

 Since 2007, Medicare Part B premiums have been “means-tested”; i.e., retirees with higher individual or family incomes pay even higher Part B rates.  Effectively, military retirees who achieved higher rank during their service or succeeded in supplementing their post-retirement incomes are penalized in the health care system for their success and have no other option for accessing their health care benefits.  

Further, even as the Part B cost trends accelerate, military retirees’ access to quality care is increasingly threatened.  In an effort to control costs, existing law has triggered a series of reductions over the past decade to the funds that reimburse health care providers for delivering care to Medicare patients.  So far, Congress has passed short-term fixes every year that temporarily postpone the cuts.  However, the continued uncertainty in the program erodes health care providers’ confidence in the system and causes a great number of them to refuse service to Medicare beneficiaries, thereby reducing the availability of quality care for military retirees and their families—especially for patients who are newly eligible.

We are grateful that Congress recognized the need for the TRICARE For Life program and that they continue to protect it from those who seek to solve budget issues on the backs of our military retirees.  

CIVILIAN FURLOUGH NOTICES DELAYED

The Pentagon announced last week that they will delay the issuance of civilian employee furlough notices for approximately two weeks.  

 A statement said that the delay would allow the Pentagon to carefully analyze the impact of the continuing resolution legislation on the department's resources.  It further states that they have not made any decisions on whether or not the total number of planned furlough days for fiscal 2013 will change as a result of this delay.

AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., is not happy about the way federal civilians are being yanked around.  He feels that they are being demonized as a too highly paid, unnecessarily large work force, and is seen by many as a convenient cost containment target whose pay has been frozen by Congress for the last several years and who now face furloughs.  

 ‘Our federal civilian work force soldiers on -without pay raises and with the enormous uncertainty that the potential furlough action brings to their already frozen pay checks.  In addition to the immediate financial impact on the civilian work force, the possible furlough action has impact on military readiness, on medical care (many physicians in military hospitals are civilians), on lost spending when exchanges and commissaries are closed which then impacts the vendors who sell less to military customers and cut their work forces because of reduced demand,” Sullivan said.

While the two-week delay in furlough implementation is welcome news, AUSA urges the Department of Defense to carefully consider the myriad effects of such action on a talented and dedicated group of people as well as the nation writ large before it moves forward.

April is the Month of the Military Child

Let’s have a camp-out! We all know that military kids are great at things like moving or meeting new people. But whether they know it or not, they’re also great storytellers. With every new duty station or experience, they are building the unique story of what it means to be a military kid. April is the month of the military child, and kids, we want to hear from you. Share your Army kid story by sending us photos and videos*, poems, reflections, or drawings that show military life from your perspective. We’ll feature your collage of artwork on Facebook throughout the month.

Submit your entries to AUSA Family Programs with the subject line “Military Kid Camp-Out.” Be sure to include your name, age, and service affiliation. We can’t wait to share your stories!

*Videos should be no longer than one minute, thirty seconds. Upload videos to YouTube from your smartphone or other device, and send only the link to us. Photos should be sent in JPEG format.

Commissaries Celebrate Month of Military Child

April is the Month of the Military Child, and your commissary is celebrating with giveaways and savings for the whole family – pets included! “Children in military households face unique challenges because of the demands of military life,” said Joyce Chandler, DeCA’s acting sales director. “So, at the Defense Commissary Agency, we want to acknowledge them and do all we can to provide their families with great values on quality products they can depend upon.” DeCA’s industry partners – vendors, suppliers and brokers – are collaborating with commissaries in April to offer discounts beyond everyday savings. Overseas stores may have substitute events for certain promotional programs. Customers are asked to check their local commissary for details on dates and times of the promotions in their stores. “As we honor the Month of the Military Child, don’t miss out on these opportunities to save even more,” Chandler said. “For everyone in the family, the commissary is always worth the trip.” For promotion details, visit here .

Volunteer Family of the Year Award Nominations Now Open

The AUSA Volunteer Family of the Year Award recognizes an exceptional Army family whose dedicated volunteer service significantly contributes to improving the well-being of Army families and the local community. The winning family will receive a trip to Washington D.C. for the AUSA Annual Meeting in October, a cash prize, and a gift basket courtesy of Express Scripts.

All nomination packets must be submitted through your local AUSA Chapter via email no later than May 1, 2013. Nomination packets that are not submitted through an AUSA chapter will not be considered. Find your local chapter here, and access the nomination form below to nominate a deserving Army family you know.

2013 Family of the Year Nomination Packet

AUSA Family Programs Interstate Compact Survey

Military kids live mobile lifestyles, and although they eventually get the hang of it, continual transitions can make for disruptions to their educations. To address some of the educational issues that arise from constant relocation, DoD, Council of State Governments, and other support organizations created the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. As PCS season approaches, we want to make sure that military families are aware of the ways their new school is working to support them. Take Our Survey and let us know how the Interstate Compact is or is not working for you at the local level, and enter to win a $25 gift card!

Officials Unveil Resilience Mobile App for Health Care Providers

There’s a new mobile application designed to provide help for those that provide for others. DoD’s Provider Resilience app is the first mobile application for health care workers to build resilience for the stress in their lives. Dedicated clinicians often put their patients first, and their own needs second,” said Dr. Robert Ciulla, psychologist and director of T2’s mobile health program. “The app was designed to fit easily into the busy lives of health care workers and remind them to be mindful of their own emotional health.” The app features tracking tools for all of the important areas of a caregivers life,  featuring elements like a “burnout” scale, a vacation clock, and a quality of life scale that allows them to assess personal traumas. The app’s toolbox encourages users to reduce stress with restful breaks with educational videos, inspirational cards, patient testimonials and stretching exercises. The app is free and is available on both Android and Apple devices. Learn more here.

SpouseBuzz Summit for Spouses in the Greater Washington, D.C. Area

Looking to connect with other local military spouses while networking with military support organizations and learning about great resources? Military.com’s SpouseBuzz is hosting a two-day summit April 11-12 for military spouses stationed in the D.C. area in Vienna, VA. Instead of following the standard panel and presentation format, the summit will instead have a focus on working groups and breakout sessions so that spouses get a more intimate, personalized conference experience. Learn more and sign up today

The Pentagon Lowers the Number of its Civilian Furloughs

On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Hagel, announced that DoD civilian employees will face 13 unpaid furlough days this fiscal year rather than the previously announced 22. When sequestration first went into effect DoD announced that its 700,000 civilian employees would face 22 days of furlough in the 2013 fiscal year. Then, last week, Congress passed a Continuing resolution (CR) to fund the federal government through September 30. While the CR still included the sequestration cuts Congress shifted $10.4 billion into DoD’s operations and maintenance accounts. This was done to give DoD some flexibility when applying the cuts.

Before the furloughs start employees must be given 30 days written notice. Those letters have not been sent and will not be before, at least April 5. So the furloughs will not start until May. (Rumors are they will start in June.) This drop is very good news but 14 days still means approximately 3 weeks of unpaid leave. It also means a dramatic drop in available personnel. If we see the furloughs effecting important programs we will let you know and we ask you to do the same thing. If you find that medical appointments are delayed at MFTs or wait times at MTF pharmacies increase or a thousand different things please let us know. But, still this is a definite improvement. We will keep you informed about this ever changing situation.

DoD News Briefing With Secretary Hagel and Gen. Dempsey from the Pentagon

Yesterday Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Martin Dempsey held a press briefing at the Pentagon. Here is part of Secretary Hagel’s opening statement:

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Good afternoon. I brought one of our junior officers with me, young, handsome, vibrant. You all know the chairman, General Dempsey. 
Let me begin with a couple of comments, and first is reading a statement. I'll hit a couple of points here that may be of some interest to all of you and then open it up, talk about whatever you want to talk about. 

I just came from a lunch that I'm going to now hold on a monthly basis with enlisted men and women from across our services, men and women who are serving in the lower enlisted ranks, who are stationed in various locations in the continental United States, but also some who have recently come back from Afghanistan and other overseas assignments. 

The reason that I've asked to meet with them -- and this was the first meeting today -- was just me and the junior enlisted talk about whatever is on their minds, ask me questions, but that's reciprocal. I get to ask them questions, what they think. What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? What are their concerns? What about their family? Are they going to stay in the military? How'd they get here? What do they think? Is it -- is it better than they expected? What are their concerns? 

It's -- it's a tremendous way to humanize a relationship, but particularly important for me, as I am new here, and I think we all understand -- certainly General Dempsey does -- you can have all the technology and the advanced weapons and plans and strategies, but if you don't have the right people, it won't work. And that's not unique to the Pentagon. People are your most important asset. 

And you take care of those people, and you protect them. And you try to stay ahead of what they're thinking. And at a time that's very uncertain with budget issues and what's going on in the world, it isn't just a matter of reassuring our people -- which is one thing, and that's important, as well -- but getting their feedback. And I know Marty does this a lot, did it just recently last week when he was spending some time at different bases. 

So that's -- that's what I did here for the last hour-and-a-half. And if you want to talk about any of that, I'd be glad to respond. 

Commissaries Now to Shutter Mondays

March 26, 2013, in Featured, Spouse & Family News by Amy Bushatz

Furlough related commissary closures will happen weekly on Mondays instead of Wednesdays, starting as soon as April 21, according to a memo obtained by SpouseBuzz and Military.com.

The closure change is the result of an agreement between the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) and the union, American Federation of Government Employees Council 172, which represents the federal employees at the commissary.

If the commissary is already closed Mondays, which many are, it will instead remain closed on the next regularly scheduled open day, according to the agreement. For example, if the commissary is regularly closed Mondays but open the rest of the week, it will take each Tuesday as a furlough day.

DeCA had announced late last month that it would shut its doors on Wednesdays as a way of complying with the Pentagon’s plan to furlough employees through September as a result of sequestration budget cuts.

“While we still hope sequestration will be avoided, we must, nevertheless, be prepared and plan accordingly,” DeCA Director, Joseph Jeu wrote in the memo announcing that plan. “Consequently, after much deliberation, analysis and consideration, we developed several actions that will reduce spending to the level mandated by Congress, should sequestration happen.”

Originally the closures were supposed to kick-in the week of March 31. But the Defense Department announced last week that they are delaying all furloughs, including those of commissary employees, until at least late April.

Tuition Assistance Reinstated

If you have been following the traffic on the sequestration cuts, you know that the news changes every day. Last week, the House adopted the Senate's amendment to reverse the decision to suspend the Tuition Assistance program. There is no word yet on how the cost will be covered, but the good news is that TA will now be restored. As you breathe a sigh of relief, remember that even with this success, we’re still in a period of uncertainty. But you don’t have to wait for a program to be cancelled before you go on a search for education funding alternatives. Here are some points to keep in mind so that in the future your education plans are not threatened just because a program is.

·         Visit your nearest Education Center to speak with an Education Service Officer- they are professionals when it comes to education counseling, and will be aware of current opportunities at the installation level.

·         Contact the Student Veterans Association, an organization made up of a coalition of student veteran groups on campuses across the globe. They work to provide support and resources for veterans in continuing education at all different levels. Though their services might not be specific to your situation, they will likely have easily available information or ideas for getting your education without TA.  Visit their website for more information, and to find a chapter near you.

·         Carefully research all of your funding options before deciding to dig into your 36 month allotment of GI Bill benefits. It’s also important to know which type of GI Bill to use. 

·         While it might take a little extra work on your part, there are many funding options available through scholarships. It is free to apply, and many schools, programs, and organizations have scholarships geared specifically toward service members. In addition to looking into options at the school you plan on attending, here is a list of military focused scholarships to get you started.

·         Contact your local AUSA chapter. This is a great way to stay connected to the ongoing issue at the local level, and chapter leaders could have valuable guidance or suggestions about your next steps in securing education funding. Your local chapter might also be aware of education financial assistance available through the Association. Locate your local chapter and find out about opportunities near you!

 Providing Stability for Military Children is Essential

Military kids travel all over the world because of their parent’s career. Although these experiences can be exciting, the constant upheaval of their lives can be difficult can be difficult for them to process or manage. It’s nearly impossible to promise perfect stability when your family is always on the move, but studies show that keeping routines constant is essential to success during the moving process. “Just as adults are affected by change, so are children,” Barbara Thompson said, noting that if a parent is stressed about a move, a child can sense it and also feel that stress. Military children can go through six to nine moves while they’re growing up, and even more in many cases, so parents must be sensitive to how the disruption affects them.  Military OneSource’s Military Youth on the Move page provides school-aged kids and teens with resources and networking resources to help them transition to a new place with ease. Read more here

Healthy Base Initiative Seeks Better Lifestyles

Operation Live Well, a new Healthy Base Initiative, will assess the 13 military installations to develop a program for service members, their families, and civilians to take charge of their health through nutrition and fitness. The primary criteria for selecting the installations was based around commanders who are committed to a healthy lifestyle, sites that have places to work out and places to eat. Eight of the sites have on-base schools, and the assessments there also include each school’s fitness and lunch programs. Following the assessments, the Healthy Base Initiative will kick off in mid-June and continue for about a year, with the hope of learning how to really make a difference in bringing down obesity, promoting living healthy lifestyles, and increasing level of fitness. Installations being profiled include Fort Bragg; Fort Sill; Yokota Air Base, Japan; Twentynine Palms; Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.; Fort Belvoir, among others. Read the full report here.

Congress Told Invisible Wounds of War are Taking Toll on a National Level

Lt. Gen. Howard B. Bromberg, and other DOD leaders testified recently to the House Armed Services, Military Personnel Subcommittee hearing on suicide prevention. "While physical injuries may be easier to see, invisible wounds such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress take a significant toll on our Soldiers," he said. These invisible wounds have led to a rise in suicides among service members. The army is working to address the problem by raising awareness of invisible wounds as a national issue, taking measures to reduce the stigma behind seeking help in the military community, and providing valuable programs, such as the Army’s Ready and Resilient campaign, and resources to service members and families. The Army Strong Bonds Program has been highly effective in helping Soldiers and families develop resilience and readiness by giving them the skills necessary to cope with stress within relationships, as has Army's Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness (CSF2). CSF2 addresses precursors to suicide by connecting Soldiers and families  with master resilience trainers and the Global Assessment Tool available to families and civilians, but is a mandatory evaluation tool for Soldiers. Learn more here.

Important Tax Information for Members of the Military

For those who have yet to file their taxes this year, there are a few important pieces of information to keep in mind as you gather all of your forms and files together. The IRS highlights benefits  and exemptions specific to military members, including first time home buyer credit and the combat zone exclusion, where pay is excluded from taxes in the month in which there was service in a combat zone or hospitalization as a result of wounds, disease or injury while serving.  Many members of the military are able to get their tax returns prepared for free on or off most military bases including overseas locations. The U.S. Armed Forces participates in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program sponsored by the IRS. VITA provides free tax advice, tax preparation, tax return filing and other tax help to military members and their families. Read more about this program and what to bring to have a tax return prepared here

Much More on the VA’s Claims Backlog

All of you must have heard (yes, again) about the growing VA claims backlog. It is getting worse and worse with over 900,000 pending disability and pension claims (With the other pending cases the backlog is more than double the amount.) All the VSOs, MSOs and many other military organizations are strongly working this urgent issue. Many members of both the House and Senate are also focused on this crucial matter. This is the time that we may truly find a solution to this terrible problem. This is something we must all focus on now.

The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) completed over 1,000,000 claims in each of the last few fiscal years. But since more than 1,200,000 claims were filed in 2010, 1,300,000 new claims were filed in 2011 and 1,080,000 were filed in 2012 the VA is still falling further and further behind.

Happily, returning vets are better educated about their rights and benefits (a goal that all of us have worked at for years) so a greater number of young veterans are filing for their benefits. This is a sign of great success but it does place more pressure on the VA system. They are also filing more complicated initial claims, averaging 11 claimed disabilities. Other than a guess that the environment where the wars occurred is to blame it is not clear yet why this is happening. It is something the VA will need to study for years to come. However, it clearly makes the claims more complicated to adjudicate. Another step forward that increased the number of submitted claims was the addition of 3 presumptive conditions (Parkinson's disease, ischemic heart disease, and B-cell leukemias) due to exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

All these fact explain, in part the difficulties the VA is facing. They do not however make the delays, in any way acceptable.

On Tuesday, VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey, Army Brig. Gen (Ret.) met with several MSO and VSO representatives (including TREA’s Washington Executive Director Deirdre Parke Holleman) to explain their game plan on how they think they are going to solve the problem.
Throughout the meeting she emphasized the enormity of the problem. (Which none of us doubted.) The claims backlog includes service connected disability compensation, pension, survivors’ compensation, as well as education benefits (and vocational rehabilitation and employment) in one massive line.

She gave some interesting numbers. Of the 600,000 disability and pension claims that are delayed longer than their own set goal of 125 for adjudication (with 98% accuracy) 20% are from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The largest percentage of pending claims, 37%, are from Vietnam War veterans, then 23% of claims are from the Gulf War, followed by the 20% from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, 10% from World War II and Korea and the remaining 10% from everyone else. Of course, this is the time in life when the Vietnam era’s disabilities will worsen

She also wanted to emphasis that 78% of the pending claims are from veterans who are already receiving some VA compensation (But obviously not the right amount.)

Some initial claims and claims for changes in disability ratings take years to be decided.

It is clear that the VA is pinning all its hopes on their new web-based computerized paperless Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS). The new system includes what Secretary Hickey repeatedly referred to as a TURBO tax style of system when you can populate sections of the file and the calculations them are automatically made. They think that this will work since, they say, a similar design helped to solve the education claims backlog. She said that the program have been deployed in all 56 regional offices ahead of schedule but has not yet become fully operational.

Even if this is a perfect program (and of course it can’t be) there are still numerous problems including the glaring fact that over 60% of DoD medical records are still on paper.

The development of a single integrated electronic medical record for DoD and the VA is, at least for the moment, dead in the water. (It had been hoped that such a record would help stop a backlog from growing up for future veterans as well as, of course, provide better medical care.)

So if there is not better cooperation between DoD and the VA none of this work on the VA’s part may help.

In Secretary Hickey’s testimony before the Senate VA Committee she also said that a new organizational structure for claims would help reach the VA’s goal of eliminating the backlog by the end of 2015. She said that they were creating 3 different types of disability claims.

“The Express Lane was developed to identify those claims with a limited number of medical conditions (1-2 issues) and subject matter which could be developed and rated more quickly, including fully developed claims. The Special Operations Lane applies intense focus and case management on specific categories of claims that require special processing or training (e.g., homeless, terminally ill, military sexual trauma, former prisoners of war, seriously injured, etc.). The Core Lane includes claims with three more medical issues that do not involve special populations of Veterans. Less complex claims move quickly through the system in the express lane, and the quality of our decisions improves by assigning more experienced and skilled employees to the more complex claims in our special operations lane.”

While all of this is extremely well intended and sounds good we need to keep a very close eye to see if it works. The delays have just grown and grown for years with us being told that they were going to get control of it. Congress is as sick of waiting for this to be corrected as we are. Below is a letter from every member of the Senate’s VA Committee urging Secretary Hagel to improve the Department of Defense’s cooperation with the VA.

There is again, focus on this terrible problem and we should not let up. If you are waiting forever for a decision contact your House representative, your Senators as us in the Washington Office Even in these tough legislative times this is an improvement that we should be able to achieve. We will keep you informed about future actions and news; please keep us informed about your situation.

Article Misses Hidden Costs of Military Life

Mar 21, 2013

Sarah Smiley

A January article by David Wood for Huffington Post has risen from the dead, and it's making many military families mad -- again.

The article, "Defense budget faces cuts to personnel after decade of war," has more than 60 pages of comments, half of which were made within days of its release on Jan. 30. On page 31, however, after nearly a month of silence, the comments picked up again on March 11. Soon after, it went viral in the military community.

I don't know who dug up this relatively old column, but according to an editor's note at the bottom, "language has been added [post-publication] to clarify" some calculations, making this piece of walking-dead commentary something like Frankenstein. It's been patched up and given new life, and now it's terrorizing the military community.

Oh, and the "monster" is still evolving.

Under pressure and scrutiny, Wood has revised his text multiple times. His original opening sentence was probably the scariest of all -- "For more than a decade, Congress and the Pentagon have lavished money on the nation's 1.3 million active-duty troops and their families" -- but the word "lavished" has since been deleted.

Semantics and edit-and-rewrite-as-you-go journalism aside, Wood's biggest problem is his apples-to-apples approach to military versus civilian pay that overlooks the hidden costs of military life.

"Since 2001, total military compensation ... grew by 20.5 percent, while comparable private-sector civilian pay did not increase at all," Wood writes. "The cost of military compensation rose steeply even though the size of the active-duty force grew by only 3 percent during that period."

We military families don't understand Wood's confusion with this. The pay grew by 20.5 percent because of everything that the slightly increased force has been expected to do since 2001 -- mainly, more frequent and longer deployments.

To make his point about military and civilian pay, Wood states that an Army master sergeant who has been in the service since 9/11 and is stationed at Fort Drum makes about $85,000 a year. This number is deceiving. Also, it's highly unlikely that anyone would rise to the rank of master sergeant in 10 years. Even so, the base pay for a master sergeant with 10 years of service is about $50,000 a year. Allowances for housing and cost of living would be added to the base pay according to the location of the duty station.

But let's go with Wood's figure anyway.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's website CareerOneStop, an accountant in 2011 could expect to make about $109,900 in a year.

But the accountant is coming home every night. He doesn't leave his family for a year at a time (which often increases child-care expenses). And, in general, he doesn't move every three years (more on this below). His life isn't at the whim of the U.S. government. He can wear what he chooses, take vacation when he prefers, and besides a boss and his customers, he doesn't answer to anyone.

Yes, the accountant probably has to pay for healthcare, and he doesn't get tax-free groceries, but, well, he's making $20,000 more than the guy who's risking his life overseas.

All of the above is why Wood's whining about military shoppers' 30 percent savings on groceries at the commissary falls on unsympathetic ears. Yes, we have access to tax-free groceries, but my husband is required to buy, out of his own pay, many of his uniforms -- the same ones the military forces him to wear. We don't get a company car. And our "free healthcare" is to being seen at government-run hospitals that are equivalent in inefficiency and frustration to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Wood leaves these comparisons out, focusing only on what military families get on paper. But even those facts don't always add up.

Wood writes, "[T]he Pentagon pays all housing costs for families who live off base." This is absolutely false. The military gives us a housing allowance based on local civilian housing markets. And it's not the "lavish" market, either.

That same hypothetical master sergeant making $50,000 in base pay would get an additional $2,300 monthly for housing if he was stationed in Washington, D.C. The average rate for a 2-bedroom apartment near D.C. is $2,341.

But these figures say nothing to the fact that military families can rarely build equity in a home. In 13 years of marriage, Dustin and I have moved a half-dozen times, and we've lost money in real estate every single time.

I agree with Wood that there are many areas of wasted spending in the military. As with any government agency, it is full of redundancies, inefficiencies and frustrations. The general public will learn more about this when they, too, are in government-run healthcare. But to say that servicemembers have an overabundance of allowances and bonuses is inaccurate and frankly offensive.

While Wood is hurriedly deleting his words and "facts," making edits as the pressure ensues, may I suggest that he go ahead and backspace over the whole thing, sending this Frankenstein back to the lab?

VA Slammed for Claims Backlog

 Over the past few weeks, the Department of Veterans Affairs has come under intense media criticism for not doing more to anticipate and respond to a huge influx of claims from returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and from older generations, especially with the addition of new presumptive service connections for Vietnam and first Gulf War veterans. Lost in the din has been why paper medical records continue to comprise 97 percent of all VA claims. The answer: The Defense Department lacks a universal, fully interoperable electronic medical record system between its three military medical commands. The VA this week again offered its VistA electronic system to DOD for its consideration. As a congressionally-chartered veterans’ service organization that last year helped 125,000 veterans to recoup more than $3.7 billion in earned compensation and pension from the VA, your VFW is well aware of the backlog, and has been a leading voice inside the VA and Congress to help ensure that proper funding, staffing and training is in-place to break it. We have hope that the VA’s Veterans Benefits Management System will be able to significantly reduce the backlog, but we also recognize that VBMS will never be truly successful until military medicine joins the digital age in a joint manner.

DOD to End Tricare Prime for 172,000

 Starting Oct. 1, the Pentagon will eliminate Tricare Prime for some 172,000 military retirees and their eligible family members, forcing them to either enroll in the more costly Tricare Standard or Extra programs or exit altogether. Why? Because they reside 40 miles or more from a military treatment facility. Defense officials are touting the positives of the change by saying the other two Tricare programs offer more provider flexibility, and eliminate the annual enrollment fee. The VFW views the change as a further lessening of earned benefits, especially since Tricare Standard and Extra have more out-of-pocket expenses, which could influence personal healthcare decisions. Another very real concern is DOD will expand the program nationwide, which means DOD is making the change only to save money, not to better serve military retirees. Those impacted number 98,771 in the Tricare South Region, 37,404 in the North, and 36,706 in the West. They are being notified by mail. Provisions do allow retirees who reside within 100 miles of an available primary care manager to sign a waiver saying they don’t mind making longer drives. Lawmakers have asked the Pentagon for a full report on the impact of the reduction. To see if you will be affected on Oct. 1, enter your Zip Code at http://tricare.mil/Welcome/MediaCenter/CurrentTopics/ChangestoPSAs/PSALookup.aspx

Researchers Find Way to Test for Gulf War Illness

An article in USA Today last week says that researchers claim to have discovered that Gulf War illness can be shown to exist by the presence of a specific type of brain damage.

Using “functional” magnetic resonance image machines (fMRIs) Georgetown University researchers were able to see abnormalities in the bundle of nerve fibers that interpret pain signals in the brains of 31 Gulf War veterans.

According to James Baraniuk, senior author and professor of medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center, the research is "huge," because an fMRI allows doctors to diagnose a person with Gulf War illness quickly. It also shows that Gulf War illness is physical in nature, not psychological.

Gulf War illness is a series of symptoms that has affected more than 250,000 veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Some of the symptoms include: fatigue, skin disorders, headaches, muscle pain, joint pain, neurological symptoms, neuro-psychological symptoms, symptoms involving the respiratory system, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal symptoms, cardiovascular symptoms, abnormal weight loss, and menstrual disorders.

John VanMeter, director of Georgetown's Center for functional and molecular imaging, said that "The fibers in the Gulf War veterans have deteriorated compared to the control [group]." Those fibers interpret environmental pain, but in the case of the veterans, a tiny pulse of pressure is interpreted as a painful pinch, or normal muscle fatigue from walking a flight of stairs could be interpreted as climbing to the fourteenth floor. "They get, 'I'm in pain! I'm in pain! I'm in pain!' all the time."

According to VanMeter, most hospitals already have the MRI equipment they need to do the exam but they may need to purchase or install fMRI software, as well as to be trained to use it.

Baraniuk believes that the three areas of symptoms seen in Gulf War veterans are all different stages of the same disease and that he can prove this in a future paper.

New Military/Veterans Legislation

Even though Congress was not in session this week there was a lot of legislation that was introduced. Some of the new bills are listed below.

Senate
S.628 - A bill to amend title 10, United States Code, to extend the duration of the Physical Disability Board of Review and to the expand the authority of such Board to review of the separation of members of the Armed Forces on the basis of mental condition not amounting to disability, including separation on the basis of a personality or adjustment disorder.
Sponsor: Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT)
S.633 - A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for coverage under the beneficiary travel program of the Department of Veterans Affairs of certain disabled veterans for travel in connection with certain special disabilities rehabilitation, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT)
S.514 A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to provide additional educational assistance under Post-9/11 Educational Assistance to veterans pursuing a degree in science, technology, engineering, math, or an area that leads to employment in a high-demand occupation, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Sen. Sherrod C. Brown (D-OH)
S.515 A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to extend the Yellow Ribbon G.I. Education Enhancement Program to cover recipients of Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry scholarship, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Sen. Sherrod C. Brown (D-OH)
S.522 Wounded Warrior Workforce Enhancement Act
Sponsor: Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-IL)
S.543 VISN Reorganization Act of 2013
Sponsor: Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC)
S.495 Careers for Veterans Act of 2013
Sponsor: Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC)
S.572 Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act
Sponsor: Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC)
S.492 A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to require States to recognize the military experience of veterans when issuing licenses and credentials to veterans, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC)
S.629 Honor America's Guard-Reserve Retirees Act of 2013
Sponsor: Sen. Mark L. Pryor (D-AR)
S.521 Wounded Warrior Research Enhancement Act
Sponsor: Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-IL)
S.455 A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to transport individuals to and from facilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs in connection with rehabilitation, counseling, examination, treatment, and care, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT)

House of Representatives
H.R.1405 - To amend title 38, United States Code, to require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to include an appeals form in any notice of decision issued for the denial of a benefit sought.
Sponsor: Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV-01)
H.R.1402 - To amend title 38, United States Code, to extend the authorization of appropriations for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to pay a monthly assistance allowance to disabled veterans training or competing for the Paralympic Team and the authorization of appropriations for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide assistance to United States Paralympics, Inc.
Sponsor: Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO-06)
H.R.914 Military Religious Freedom Protection Act
Sponsor: Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS-01)
H.R.921 Chiropractic Care Available to All Veterans Act
Sponsor: Rep. Michael H. Michaud (D-ME-02)
H.R.834 Veterans' Efficiencies Through Savings Act of 2013
Sponsor: Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-NJ-02)
H.R.902 Keep Our Commitment to Veterans Act
Sponsor: Rep. Charles W. Boustany, Jr. (R-LA-03)
H.R.821 To amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to provide surviving spouses with certain protections relating to mortgages and mortgage foreclosures, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL-09)
H.R.825 Vulnerable Veterans Housing Reform Act of 2013
Sponsor: Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV-03)
H.R.806 To amend title 38, United States Code, to make permanent the requirement for annual reports on Comptroller General reviews of the accuracy of Department of Veterans Affairs medical budget submissions, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA-26)
H.R.813 Putting Veterans Funding First Act of 2013
Sponsor: Rep. Jeff B. Miller (R-FL-01)
H.R.844 VetSuccess Enhancement Act
Sponsor: Rep. Mark Allan Takano (D-CA-41)
H.R.894 To amend title 38, United States Code, to improve the supervision of fiduciaries of veterans under the laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Sponsor: Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH-06)
H.R.833 To amend title 10, United States Code, to require that the Purple Heart occupy a position of precedence above the new Distinguished Warfare Medal.
Sponsor: Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-CA-50)
H.R.883 To amend title 38, United States Code, to permit certain veterans who were discharged or released from the Armed Forces by reason of service-connected disability to transfer benefits under the Post-9/11 Educational Assistance Program, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT-03)
H.R.804 Smarter Than Sequester Defense Spending Reduction Act
Sponsor: Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO-06)
H.R.897 To amend title 38, United States Code, to expand the definition of homeless veteran for purposes of benefits under the laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Sponsor: Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA-44)
H.R.958 Women Veterans and Other Health Care Improvements Act of 2013
Sponsor: Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA-02)
H.R.864 To direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to designate at least one city in the United States each year as an "American World War II City", and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC-07)
H.R.975 Servicemember Mental Health Review Act
Sponsor: Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN-01)
H.R.810 To grant the Secretary of Defense the authority to transfer funding under a continuing resolution, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Rep. Colleen W. Hanabusa (D-HI-01)

Hagel Says Pentagon is Planning Even More Cuts

From a Bloomberg Government report:
In a speech this past Wednesday at the National Defense University the new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon is planning for spending cuts even beyond sequestration. Repeating a theme that former SecDefs Robert Gates and Leon Panetta often spoke of, Hagel said that personnel costs, new weapons systems and overhead are the “principal drivers" of spending growth that the department must address to prepare for an era of fiscal austerity.

Hagel suggested that DOD needs to ask “tough questions” about how many soldiers and civilians are required to accomplish the missions set before it, and to decide fair levels of pay, benefits and health care. This is the fight that TREA: The Enlisted Association has been fighting for the last several years, and we will ensure that the voices of the enlisted ranks are heard in the halls of Capitol Hill on these issues.

Hagel asked for time and flexibility in implementing these (as yet undefined) changes, but said that doing so will “yield large savings.” By contrast, he noted, sequestration cuts are immediate and dramatic, coming at the expense of operations, maintenance and training. Hagel also suggested that changes to DOD’s acquisition programs should take place.

Tech Firms Meet To Discuss the Uses of Avatars and Apps for Vets

On Wednesday Kogneto (a small business headquartered in NYC) and Sapient (a worldwide firm with over 10,000 employees) met with VSO representatives to discuss newly developed simulations and apps to help returning vets. The company representatives also spoke with the participants (including TREA’s Washington Executive Director Deirdre Parke Holleman) about what other needs could be served with cutting edge technology. Kognito presented demonstrations of 2 of their avatar based simulation programs, “Family of Heroes” and “Veterans on Campus.” The first is intended to train veterans and their families to adjust to the changes in post –deployment life. The second program trains college faculty and staff to serve veterans on campus. Both programs have been found to be very effective. To see the demo of the first program go to www.kognito.com/ptsd. The second can be found at www.kognito.com/products/campusvet/
Sapient’s representatives were talking about how apps should be designed and how they should not be designed. They were focused primarily on the many new VA apps.They were talking how designs can make users come back for information time and time again or designs can cause a beneficiary to sign up for an app and never come back to it. This will be the first of future meetings- so if you have any ideas or suggestions that you wish to share please contact us and we will pass it on. (If you hope to plan to develop it yourself don’t call us and be careful who else you speak to.)

UnitedHealthcare Assumes TRICARE West Region Contract

On April 1 United Healthcare Military and Veterans assumed the TRICARE West contract. You can reach them at 1-877-988-WEST (or 1-877-988-9378) or at www.uhcmilitarywest.com
The contract covers:

  • Manages enrollment, authorization and claims processing for:
    • TRICARE Prime
    • TRICARE Prime Remote
    • TRICARE Standard and Extra
    • TRICARE Reserve Select
    • TRICARE Retired Reserve
    • TRICARE Young Adult
  • Distribute marketing and educational materials
  • Manage the West Region Provider Directory
  • Operate TRICARE Service Centers
  • Operate toll-free customer service call centers (1-877-988-9378)

Below please find a short press release issued by the Department of Defense.

West Region Transitions April 1
3/29/2013

FALLS CHURCH, Va. – TRICARE beneficiaries in the West Region will get their TRICARE coverage from a new contractor, UnitedHealthcare Military & Veterans, starting April 1, 2013. By now, all West Region beneficiaries should have been notified by mail of the change.

UnitedHealthcare sent Welcome Packets to beneficiaries in February and March with information about their enhanced services, any actions they need to take and contact information should they have any questions. These packets were also sent to TRICARE For Life (TFL) beneficiaries in the West Region to notify them of the change. However, TFL beneficiaries need to take no action related to the transition. Wisconsin Physician Services (WPS) remains the TFL contractor, providing service to TFL beneficiaries across all TRICARE regions.

West Region beneficiaries with questions about their health care can contact UnitedHealthcare at 1-877-988-WEST or visit the UnitedHealthcare website at www.uhcmilitarywest.com.

The TRICARE Regional Office-West is working closely with UnitedHealthcare to ensure the continued delivery of quality health care and customer satisfaction during the transition. Both are committed to supporting military families and look forward to providing the information and assistance to help beneficiaries maximize their TRICARE health care benefits.

DoD IG Finds $900M Stockpile of Stryker Parts

Apr 02, 2013

The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.| by Adam Ashton

TACOMA, Wash. -- The Army program charged with keeping thousands of eight-wheeled Strykers running over the past decade had its eye so much on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that it neglected to keep its books.

It accumulated nearly $900 million worth of Stryker replacement parts -- most of them in an Auburn, Wash., warehouse -- with much of the gear becoming outdated even as the military continued to order more equipment, according to a Defense Department Inspector General report released late last year.

Take, for instance, the $57 million worth of obsolete infrared equipment the Army has not installed in Strykers since 2007. It lingered at the Stryker warehouse until the Inspector General called attention to it last year.

Or, the 9,179 small replacement gears called pinions the Army bought as a temporary fix for a Stryker suspension problem that surfaced between 2007 and 2009. The Army took care of the root malfunction in 2010, but kept buying pinions.

It needed only 15 of the gears. The 9,164 extra pinions are worth $572,000, the Inspector General reported.

The off-the-books equipment piled up in a sort of Army accounting netherworld.

Neither the Army Stryker Project Management Office in Michigan nor Stryker manufacturer General Dynamics took ownership of the equipment once it was delivered to the Auburn site, with each party believing that accounting was the other's responsibility.

The Stryker Project Management Office was in the wrong, the investigators wrote, leading to poor oversight of a growing equipment inventory. "This is very concerning," said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

"The military must ensure that it is spending every taxpayer dollar as wisely and effectively as possible," Smith said. "The Army claims to have taken steps to start addressing the mismanagement highlighted in the IG report, but Congress will need to do aggressive oversight to make sure this same problem doesn't happen again."

The Inspector General reported that the Stryker program and Virginia-based General Dynamics are working account for the equipment and they expect to have it properly filed by March 2014. Some of it is to be resold to help the Army recover costs.

General Dynamics had no comment. The Stryker Project Management Office did not respond by deadline Friday to written questions The News Tribune submitted on Wednesday.

The high costs identified by the Inspector General reflect the fast-paced demands of the wars, said Daniel Goure, a defense analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute think tank.

"This is truly much ado about nothing" he said. "It's essentially miscommunication."

The Inspector General released the report in late November but it got little attention aside from a blog run by a government consulting firm.

It was the second critical look from the Inspector General at how the Army pays to maintain its fleet of 20-ton Stryker infantry vehicles. The machines, developed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, saw heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The first report suggested the Army overspent on its latest five-year, $1.5 billion Stryker maintenance contract with General Dynamics by some $335.9 million, mainly by accumulating excess inventory.

The military had awarded General Dynamics a no-bid contract that promised to reimburse its expenses for maintaining the Strykers while adding a fee, giving the company little incentive to control costs. A third Inspector General report is in the works.

The Auburn warehouse is a 730,000-square-foot, government-owned facility run by General Dynamics. The company sends equipment there after the Stryker Project Management Office orders it. From there, the materials are shipped to Stryker brigades all over the world.

The Inspector General wrote that the material belonged to the Army as soon as it reached the warehouse. The Army, however, contended the material belonged to General Dynamics until the contractor installed it in new vehicles.

The Inspector General took aim at the Army's reasoning, arguing in part that it didn't make sense to wait for General Dynamics to install the equipment in new vehicles because it by definition was intended to replace parts in existing Strykers.

Under the Army's interpretation, the military "will never take delivery of the Stryker inventory, assign the inventory a value, record it in an appropriate Army property accountability system and recognize the inventory on the Army's financial statements," the investigators wrote.

Strykers joined the Army's fleet of infantry vehicles on the eve of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving the service little time to acclimate them in the Army's normal maintenance programs.

Over time, the Army usually shifts maintenance from contractors to soldiers, saving money on routine work. That transition for Strykers is happening only now that the wars are coming to an end.

Since 2003, the Army deployed Stryker brigades to Iraq and Afghanistan 17 times. The first ones departed for Iraq out of then-Fort Lewis.

The program faced one of its most severe tests in 2009, when the Army first started sending Strykers to Afghanistan. Exceptionally rugged terrain coupled with deadly insurgent mines made the vehicle less effective than it was in urban Iraq.

The Army redesigned the vehicle to provide better protection in Afghanistan, a change that saved lives but also complicated the maintenance program the Inspector General has been investigating.

"The operational environment, tempo, objectives, deployment, and utilization plans were all fluid as the threat would change in theater, creating a higher level of complexity for" improving maintenance contract oversight, the investigators wrote.

Today, about 12,000 soldiers serve in Lewis-McChord's three Stryker brigades. The base south of Tacoma has more Strykers than any other Army post.

Goure, the defense analyst, pointed to General Dynamics' success at exceeding the Army contract's target for keeping 90 percent of the Stryker vehicles in each brigade ready for combat. General Dynamics consistently hit 96 percent, a threshold that Goure called "awesome."

"You should get that in peacetime domestically, much less so in a war zone," he said.

But lawmakers and the Pentagon are growing far less tolerant of red ink than they were during the peak of the wars. The Army alone faces an $18 billion shortfall this year because of unexpected costs in Afghanistan and efforts in Congress to cut military spending.

"I am concerned about the findings in this report that point to waste and mismanagement in the Stryker program," said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee.

"At a time when important programs for military and civilian families are facing serious cuts, it's incumbent on General Dynamics and the Army to come together to address the problems raised in this report and to provide the accountability that the American people deserve," she said.

The report is full of eye-popping examples of the Stryker Project Management Office building up excessive quantities of replacement parts.

Neither the Army nor General Dynamics had an estimate for their worth on hand when investigators requested one. General Dynamics offered the total estimate -- $892 million -- with a disclaimer: "The data herein has not been verified or validated for accuracy, particularly with respect to dollar valuations."

Investigators found the Army contract included a strong disincentive that prevented General Dynamics from using the extra gear for work on other Stryker projects.

For example, the Auburn warehouse accumulated 7,568 units of replacement netting worth $892,896. The Army kept buying the material, which soldiers use to store the gear, even though there was no demand for it as a replacement part.

General Dynamics could have used the netting in manufacturing new Strykers, bringing down the cost of that program. But to use the material for new vehicles the company would have had to pay a 23.4 percent fee on the value of the unneeded replacement netting.

The investigators found $10.8 million worth of equipment that could be to use for other Stryker projects, but "the buyback charge provides a disincentive for General Dynamics to use the excess Stryker spare part inventory for other applications."

The Inspector General's scrutiny led the Army and General Dynamics to identify some gear that can be reused. The rest would be "disposed" of or resold if possible.

One example of a product finding new life came in the form of 170 empty engine containers that are no longer used. They're worth $1.1 million. General Dynamics told the Inspector General it would reuse them for a different program. 

DoD Opposes Purple Hearts for Fort Hood Victims

Apr 02, 2013

The U.S. Department of Defense says it opposes giving Purple Hearts to victims of a 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas.

A position paper, delivered by the Pentagon to congressional staff members Friday, says giving the award, for injuries sustained in combat, to those injured at Fort Hood could "irrevocably alter the fundamental character of this time-honored decoration."

The Defense Department prepared the paper in response to proposed legislation by Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, whose district includes the Fort Hood military base. His bill would award combatant status to both military and civilian casualties of the shooting, ABC News reported Monday.

Thirteen people were killed and 32 injured in the November 2009 shootings on the base. Maj. Nidal Hasan, the alleged shooter, awaits a military trial on premeditated murder and attempted murder charges.

Former Army Officer Makes His Mark as NCO

Apr 01, 2013

Army.mil/News| by Spec. Jay P. Lawrence

TROY, N.Y.--When Karen Marotz first came to New York Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Denis Topliffe's section of the 42nd Infantry Division headquarters, she was a new intelligence analyst without much experience or confidence.
 
In the span of one conversation, Topliffe saw her potential, Marotz said.

A few months later, the burly, mustachioed, fast-talking Topliffe placed Marotz as a team leader during the 42nd Infantry Division's annual training. Soon after, she had the confidence to go to Officer Candidate School.

Topliffe knows more about the officer life than most noncommissioned officers. The Albany, N. Y. resident was once an officer, but then he resigned his commission and stayed in the Army as an NCO.

In the NCO corps, he found a calling.

Wanting to be the best he could be led Topliffe to enlist in the military in 1983. After participating in a unit challenge, he won an ROTC scholarship. Soon, he was a rising officer, a captain with a wife, a teaching job, and three beloved children.
 
But then, Topliffe's life became a tangled web when a messy divorce and a deployment meant the possibility of losing custody of his three children.

Fresh off his service in the shadow of Ground Zero--the New York National Guard's multi-month response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City-- a weary Topliffe opted for the Inactive Ready Reserve.

Then he learned he was going to be activated for a deployment. Topliffe then learned that if he deployed, custody of his children would go to his ex-wife.

With the advice of Army lawyers, he made a decision that would affect the rest of his life, and his career.

"I resigned my commission, I stayed in the states, and I won custody of my kids," Topliffe said. "Resigning my commission and re-enlisting -- there wasn't a question. If that was the way I was to maintain custody of my kids, then it was going to happen."
 
For the first time in years, Topliffe was an enlisted Soldier -- this time as a sergeant. But what would seem like a setback to some became a challenge to Topliffe; he said he threw himself being the best sergeant he could be.

Now, when he speaks to his young troops -- or kids as he calls them -- he draws from his experiences as an officer, as an NCO officer, as a teacher, and as a father.

As an NCO, he found great satisfaction in working with Soldiers and maximizing their strengths. "It's the most fulfilling thing that I've ever done," Topliffe said, "going to work every day to mold Soldiers into great NCOs and officers."

Topliffe is a sergeant first class, and he said doesn't plan to stop until he gets to the top. His children have grown up, but he still has his "kids," the Soldiers he mentors into leaders before, during, and after drill.

One of those leaders, Staff Sgt. Joshua Stickle, said that over the course of seven years in the military, all under Topliffe, he's learned the importance of helping Soldiers grow. "I want to be able to take care of Soldiers as well as he does," Stickle, an East Greenbush, N.Y. resident, said.
 
Another of Topliffe's Soldiers, Marotz, now a first lieutenant in Topliffe's unit, agrees. "You can see it every time a Soldier comes back: he makes sure to introduce them and immediately makes them feel a part of the team," said Marotz, a Watervliet, N.Y. resident.
 
Soldiers like these are why Topliffe has chosen the NCO corps. Topliffe deployed in 2004 with the 42nd Inf. Div., and during his rise up the NCO ranks, he was offered both a warrant officer slot and an officer slot. And each time he refused.

"I really examined my career, and decided I'd make more of an impact on the Army and my Soldiers my being an NCO," Topliffe said. "For me, it was an honor to be an NCO." 

Expanding Hallowed Ground at West Point Cemetery

Apr 03, 2013

Associated Press| by Michael Hill

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- The West Point Cemetery has taken in graduates of the U.S. Military Academy from the age of the cavalry charge to the dawn of drone strikes. Headstones etched with names like Custer and Westmoreland stand near plots with freshly turned earth.

And after almost two centuries, the 12-acre cemetery is close to full.

The Academy and its graduates are taking steps to make more room with new niches for cremated remains and an eventual expansion of the burial grounds. The work will update a resting place for more than 8,000 people at the nation's the most venerable military academy.

"I would challenge you to find more valor in a smaller amount of space," says cemetery administrator Kathleen Silvia, who notes that 16 recipients of the Medal of Honor -- the nation's highest military award - lie here.

Marquee names here include Lt. Col. George Custer, who died along with his 210 soldiers in a battle with Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in 1876; U.S. commander in Vietnam Gen. William Westmoreland and -- buried just this winter -- Gulf War commander Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. But it's the rows of graves of never-famous soldiers that give the cemetery its quiet dignity.

Walking among the headstones recently, Silvia -- who was among the first female West Point graduates in 1980 -- points out Revolutionary War-era dead and stoops down to tidy the marker for a recently deceased colonel she admired.

Though a military cemetery since 1817, not all the graves are uniform. A few older ones are extravagant. The headstone of celebrated Army football coach Earl "Red" Blaik is shaped like football ready to be kicked off. Egbert Viele, a Civil War veteran, rests in a two-story pyramid guarded by two stone sphinxes. It is said that his fear of being entombed alive was so great that his mausoleum was rigged with a buzzer.

There is no record of it being used.

The grounds on a tree-sheltered promontory near New York's Hudson River are reserved for West Point graduates and cadets, soldiers who die while assigned to the academy, and immediate family members. While graves of famous alumni like Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur are elsewhere, some 140 to 200 people are laid to rest here each year.

Some are old soldiers whose feelings for West Point never faded away. Vietnam veteran and retired Lt. Col. Freed Lowrey, a 1967 graduate, says he will be buried here among the historic figures and his classmates who were killed in that war.

"I want to be among soldiers. I want to be among people of my own kind who have served and done so much for the nation and have sacrificed so much," Lowrey says. "I could be in Arlington, I could be in any national cemetery, but this is -- and I'm not a religious person -- I mean, West Point's almost my soul."

Mourners at Schwarzkopf's service in February were told how crucial the academy was to his life and values. On a recent chilly Friday, the cremated remains of Air Force Maj. Gen. William Strong and his wife, Virginia, were buried here amid rifle volleys and a plaintive playing of taps. Strong, Class of 1940, had a distinguished career in the Air Force. Still, he and his wife decided to be buried near his father and brothers at West Point.

Lowrey, who returned to live in nearby Fishkill, now works for the West Point Association of Graduates, which has raised more than $1.5 million for a double-sided wall with niches for cremated remains. While a space beneath the cemetery's Old Cadet Chapel has enough room to handle additional cremated remains for about a decade, plots for outdoor interments of cremated remains are expected to be depleted in about two years.

Silvia expects the first sections of the wall, which will follow a circular walkway in the center of the cemetery, will be in place by that time.

Farther down the road is a plan to expand the burial ground to a patch of adjacent land, since that option could be depleted within five years. Silvia figures that would allow another decade of burials.

Silvia says the situation boils down to basic math. Academy graduating classes can now number around 1,000, much larger than generations ago. While more than 90 graduates have died in the decade-plus of conflict since the Sept. 11 attacks, it's unclear how many are interred here.

Silvia expects construction on the cremation niche wall to begin this spring. She also is enthused about plans for a smartphone app that will allow people to punch in the name of a person buried here and locate their grave.

"These are lifelong friends of ours, and it's a very special honor for me to provide the final salute," she says.

Veterans Fight Changes to Disability Payments

Apr 01, 2013

Associated Press| by Kevin Freking

ASHINGTON -- Veterans groups are rallying to fight any proposal to change disability payments as the federal government attempts to address its long-term debt problem. They say they've sacrificed already.

Government benefits are adjusted according to inflation, and President Barack Obama has endorsed using a slightly different measure of inflation to calculate Social Security benefits. Benefits would still grow but at a slower rate.

Advocates for the nation's 22 million veterans fear that the alternative inflation measure would also apply to disability payments to nearly 4 million veterans as well as pension payments for an additional 500,000 low-income veterans and surviving families.

"I think veterans have already paid their fair share to support this nation," said the American Legion's Louis Celli. "They've paid it in lower wages while serving, they've paid it through their wounds and sacrifices on the battlefield and they're paying it now as they try to recover from those wounds."

Economists generally agree that projected long-term debt increases stemming largely from the growth in federal health care programs pose a threat to the country's economic competitiveness. Addressing the threat means difficult decisions for lawmakers and pain for many constituents in the decades ahead.

But the veterans' groups point out that their members bore the burden of a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past month, they've held news conferences on Capitol Hill and raised the issue in meetings with lawmakers and their staffs. They'll be closely watching the unveiling of the president's budget next month to see whether he continues to recommend the change.

Obama and others support changing the benefit calculations to a variation of the Consumer Price Index, a measure called "chained CPI." The conventional CPI measures changes in retail prices of a constant marketbasket of goods and services. Chained CPI considers changes in the quantity of goods purchased as well as the prices of those goods. If the price of steak goes up, for example, many consumers will buy more chicken, a cheaper alternative to steak, rather than buying less steak or going without meat.

Supporters argue that chained CPI is a truer indication of inflation because it measures changes in consumer behavior. It also tends to be less than the conventional CPI, which would impact how cost-of-living raises are computed.

Under the current inflation update, monthly disability and pension payments increased 1.7 percent this year. Under chained CPI, those payments would have increased 1.4 percent.

The Congressional Budget Office projects that moving to chained CPI would trim the deficit by nearly $340 billion over the next decade. About two-thirds of the deficit closing would come from less spending and the other third would come from additional revenue because of adjustments that tax brackets would undergo.

Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at The Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, said she understands why veterans, senior citizens and others have come out against the change, but she believes it's necessary.

"We are in an era where benefits are going to be reduced and revenues are going to rise. There's just no way around that. We're on an unsustainable fiscal course," Sawhill said. "Dealing with it is going to be painful, and the American public has not yet accepted that. As long as every group keeps saying, `I need a carve-out, I need an exception,' this is not going to work."

Sawhill argued that making changes now will actually make it easier for veterans in the long run.

"The longer we wait to make these changes, the worse the hole we'll be in and the more draconian the cuts will have to be," she said.

That's not the way Sen. Bernie Sanders sees it. The chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs said he recently warned Obama that every veterans group he knows of has come out strongly against changing the benefit calculations for disability benefits and pensions by using chained CPI.

"I don't believe the American people want to see our budget balanced on the backs of disabled veterans. It's especially absurd for the White House, which has been quite generous in terms of funding for the VA," said Sanders, I-Vt. "Why they now want to do this, I just don't understand."

Sanders succeeded in getting the Senate to approve an amendment last week against changing how the cost-of-living increases are calculated, but the vote was largely symbolic. Lawmakers would still have a decision to make if moving to chained CPI were to be included as part of a bargain on taxes and spending.

Sanders' counterpart on the House side, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, appears at least open to the idea of going to chained CPI.

"My first priority is ensuring that America's more than 20 million veterans receive the care and benefits they have earned, but with a national debt fast approaching $17 trillion, Washington's fiscal irresponsibility may threaten the very provision of veterans' benefits," Miller said. "Achieving a balanced budget and reducing our national debt will help us keep the promises America has made to those who have worn the uniform, and I am committed to working with Democrats and Republicans to do just that."

Marshall Archer, 30, a former Marine Corps corporal who served two stints in Iraq, has a unique perspective about the impact of slowing the growth of veterans' benefits. He collects disability payments to compensate him for damaged knees and shoulders as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. He also works as a veterans' liaison for the city of Portland, Maine, helping some 200 low-income veterans find housing.

Archer notes that on a personal level, the reduction in future disability payments would also be accompanied down the road by a smaller Social Security check when he retires. That means he would take a double hit to his income.

"We all volunteered to serve, so we all volunteered to sacrifice," he said. "I don't believe that you should ever ask those who have already volunteered to sacrifice to then sacrifice again."

That said, Archer indicated he would be willing to "chip in" if he believes that everyone is required to give as well.

He said he's more worried about the veterans he's trying to help find a place to sleep. About a third of his clients rely on VA pension payments averaging just over $1,000 a month. He said their VA pension allows them to pay rent, heat their home and buy groceries, but that's about it.

"This policy, if it ever went into effect, would actually place those already in poverty in even more poverty," Archer said.

The changes that would occur by using the slower inflation calculation seem modest at first. For a veteran with no dependents who has a 60 percent disability rating, the use of chained CPI this year would have lowered the veteran's monthly payments by $3 a month. Instead of getting $1,026 a month, the veteran would have received $1,023.

Raymond Kelly, legislative director for Veterans of Foreign Wars, acknowledged that veterans would see little change in their income during the first few years of the change. But even a $36 hit over the course of a year is "huge" for many of the disabled veterans living on the edge, he said.

The amount lost over time becomes more substantial as the years go by. Sanders said that a veteran with a 100 percent disability rating who begins getting payments at age 30 would see their annual payments trimmed by more than $2,300 a year when they turn 55.

TSA Allows Wounded Warriors Expedited Screening

Mar 28, 2013

Military.com| by Stephen Bajza

Current TSA procedures can be time-consuming at best and invasive at worst. Scrambling to take off your shoes and shove all your carry-on belongings into a few plastic bins is not a process commonly considered enjoyable. For those with disabilities or serious injuries, the process can be much more grueling and uncomfortable.

Fortunately for Wounded Warriors, starting today the TSA is initiating a new policy change to expedite airport screening. While veterans and servicemembers currently do not need to remove their shoes or boots at TSA checkpoints, this reform offers a new level of comfort and trust to those who have been severely injured in service to the United States.

The new TSA benefits include:

  • Expedited screening
  • Curb-to-gate service
  • Wounded Warriors will not have to remove shoes, light outerwear, jackets, or hats

This policy change comes on the heels of recent news about servicemembers and veterans experiencing difficulties at security checkpoints. In one such incident, Tucson News Now reported on a Marine travelling through security who "was forced to remove his prosthetic legs and get out of his wheelchair so agents could check it for explosives."

More than 10,000 veterans serve on the ground for the TSA, comprising almost 25 percent of the TSA's workforce. The Wounded Warrior Screening program was established in 2005 to make the screening process simple and hassle-free for wounded veterans, but this policy change is a major step. "In recognition of the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, we have revised our screening requirements to allow expedited screening for this trusted group of citizens," said John Halinski, TSA's Deputy Administrator and 25-year U.S. Marine Corps veteran.

Veterans will need to contact the Military Severely Injured Joint Services Operations Center in order to benefit from this policy change. The center can be reached via email at MSIJSOC@dhs.gov, or by phone at 1-888-262-2396. Itinerary information for the entire party will be required, and traveling companions will still receive standard screening.

For an added measure of comfort while traveling, Wounded Warriors may enroll in TSA Pre-Check™, a pre-screening initiative that allows eligible passengers to volunteer information about themselves to expedite the screening process. To be eligible for the program, an U.S. citizen must opt-in through a participating airline or enroll in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler program such as Global Entry, SENTRI, or NEXUS. Canadian citizens enrolled in NEXUS are also qualified for the program.

Current U.S. servicemembers, including Reserve and National Guard members, can use the TSA Pre-Check™ service at the following airports:

  • Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall
  • Charlotte Douglas International
  • Denver International
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International
  • Honolulu International
  • Lambert-St. Louis International
  • Ronald Reagan Washington National
  • Seattle-Tacoma International
  • Washington Dulles International

DoD Restoring Tuition Assistance for All Services

Mar 27, 2013

Military.com| by Richard Sisk

Tuition assistance programs that aid hundreds of thousands of servicemembers in gaining college educations will be restored quickly with renewed funding from Congress, Defense Department officials said Wednesday.

George Little, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, said DoD intends to implement the programs in the way they were before the suspension of new enrollments was ordered earlier this month to meet the cost-cutting demands of the legislative process known as sequester.

An amendment attached to the continuing resolution passed by Congress last week and signed by President Obama Tuesday specifically directed DOD to restore the tuition programs and "We will comply with the law," Little said.

The Coast Guard was the first of the services to state that the suspensions were being lifted. "It's going to happen, it's being re-instated," Senior Chief Dan Tremper, a Coast Guard spokesman, said of the education aid.

About 10,000 of the 42,000 active duty Coast Guard personnel usually take advantage of the school aid, and about 7,000 have enrolled this year, Tremper said.

The Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps suspended new enrollments earlier this month and advised personnel currently enrolled that they could not sign up for future courses. The Navy did not take action but did consider making sailors pay for about 25 percent of their education benefits.

Before Congress acted last week, Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, the chief of Naval Personnel, noted that the Navy had been able to avoid the tuition cuts adopted by the other services.

"We remain the only service that's continuing tuition assistance, and I think that's a testimony to how valuable we think the program is, and that we think that investment makes sense as we go forward," Van Buskirk said at an all-hands meeting at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story near Norfok, Va., the Virginia Pilot reported.

The Army currently has 201,000 personnel receiving tuition assistance at an annual cost of $373 million and the Marines have 29,000 enrolled at an annual cost of $47 million.

Cuts to tuition assistance were no longer on the table under the amendment to the continuing resolution that was sponsored by Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.),  Little said.

The current programs provide about $250 per credit hour with a ceiling of $4,500 annually for servicemembers using their off-duty time to pursue vocational courses or classes toward an associate, bachelor, masters or doctoral degree.

"I don't anticipate we'll be making any reductions," Little said, referring to the $10 billion in additional funding for DOD included in the continuing resolution.

With the additional funding, DOD is also looking at several options that could mitigate the impacts of the 22 furlough days that are in play for all 800,000 DOD civilian personnel as a result of the sequester.

"We're trying to figure out how to allocate that $10 billion," Little said. "We're sorting out the options on furloughs."

Little said exemptions from the furloughs were being considered, possibly for teachers at DOD schools, but he stressed that exemptions were among the factors "that are being sorted through right now" and no decisions had been made.

DOD had intended to send out notices to all personnel last week that furloughs were going to take place and would begin in late April, but the notices were delayed for two weeks after Congress passed the continuing resolution.