Retiree & Veterans News 14 May 2013 

5/14/2013 

 

AUSA ON THE HILL

AUSA’s strong opposition to proposed TRICARE fee and copay increases was a topic at a recent meeting between Vice President for Education Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, USA, Ret.; Director of Government Affairs Bill Loper and professional staff members of the House Armed Services committee.  

In addition to the healthcare fee proposal, the group discussed the proposal to provide military personnel with a paltry one percent pay raise and the use of chained CPI to calculate cost of living increases for retired pay.  

If you recall, it was the House Armed Services Committee who essentially blocked the Pentagon's plan to drastically raise fees last year.  AUSA's meeting with the key staff members was very productive.  

Later, Swan and Loper met with the military legislative assistant to Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.  Wilson, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, has repeatedly voiced his opposition to the fee increase proposal.  

In a recent editorial, he said, “The Department has asked Congress to increase TRICARE enrollment fees on military retirees as well as institute new enrollment fees on our over 65 military retirees who use TRICARE for Life.  In the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress authorized the Department to increase TRICARE enrollment fees equal to the Cost of Living Adjustments to retirement pay.  Since then, the Department has repeatedly asked for further increases, while at the same time requesting the authority to reprogram in excess of $1.3 billion from the Defense Health Program to other priorities outside of healthcare. The Department should honor the commitments that it has made to our military retirees and, as the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Military Personnel, it is not right to ask these retirees to shoulder any more of the burden.  The same holds true for our over 65 military retirees who use TRICARE for Life; they should not be subject to new enrollment fees while the Department continues to have excess funds within their healthcare programs.”

 AUSA agrees.  

PROGRESS ON THE "DOC FIX"?

We remain cautiously optimistic that Congress might finally be on track to solve the problem that is the “doc fix”.  

The “doc fix” refers to short-term funding Congress passes to keep the amount paid to physicians who treat Medicare/TRICARE beneficiaries stable.  

In 1997, Congress created the Sustainable Growth Rate or SGR, in order to control Medicare spending by tying it to the rest of the economy’s growth.  It worked fine for the first few years; however, as health care costs started outpacing the economy, it failed and left the entitlement with a multi-billion dollar shortfall.

Congress has two choices - they can either cut the already-too-low payments or they can find additional funding.  They fear (correctly) that physicians will opt out of treating Medicare/TRICARE beneficiaries making it even more difficult to find medical care especially in rural areas. 

At a House and Ways Committee hearing last week, Republican lawmakers unveiled a three-part system for replacing the SGR.  The plan would repeal the flawed formula and then provide physicians with a period of stable payment updates.  After that, payment levels would be based on quality of care and value as measured by standards endorsed by physicians.  They would then have several new payment models to participate in and get payment adjustments.  

While the Democratic response to the GOP plan was positive overall, the committee’s Ranking Member Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said, “The chairman’s outlines are a good start, but without more detail, we can’t know if there is common ground.  Next we’ll be drafting.  I hope we can work together on the drafting.”

Committee Chairman Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas said, “I do look forward to working with my friends on the other side of the aisle when we start talking about how to pay for an SGR solution.  We will eventually have to go down that hard road, not only to pay for an SGR fix but also to address our spending problem.”

 We know it won’t be easy, but at least there is an initial plan and serious discussion on how to fix the problem. 

 AUSA ON THE HILL

AUSA’s Vice President for Education Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, USA, Ret., and Director of Government Affairs Bill Loper represented AUSA at a military association roundtable hosted by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to discuss issues important to the associations.  

Among the 24 Democratic members in attendance were the ranking members of several committees including Veterans’ Affairs, Budget, Appropriations subcommittees on Homeland Security and Military Construction/VA as well as several members of the House Armed Services Committee.

Much of the discussion focused on the VA disability claims backlog.  As of 13 April, about 852,000 claims were awaiting decision, and 69 percent (about 590,000) of those had been waiting more than 125 days – which is the VA’s official definition of a backlogged claim.  Of those claims, 37 percent have been filed by Vietnam-era veterans, 23 percent by Gulf War-era veterans, and 20 percent by post-9/11 war veterans.

 If you recall, a couple of weeks ago, Lt. Gen. Swan attended a meeting hosted by the Chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.  The claims backlog was also the main topic at that meeting.  Could this finally be the issue in which members of Congress can find common ground?  We certainly hope so.

AUSA PRESIDENT TO CAPITOL HILL: ARMY'S BUDGET MUST BE INCREASED

AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan sent a letter to key House and Senate lawmakers in response to testimony given to them by the Army’s top leaders.  

Army Secretary John McHugh told the House Armed Services Committee that "we're at a dangerous crossroad," explaining that shortfalls in the overseas contingency operation budget, coupled with sequestration, continuing resolutions and lack of a budget, are taking a toll on readiness, efforts at modernization and morale.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno testified that the budget "allows us to plan for and mitigate risk associated with declining defense budgets, but that “it is imperative we gain predictability in our budget process.  If we don't, then we'll be unable to effectively manage our resources and it will be impossible to make informed decisions about the future of our Army."

 One of the committee members said that he is "deeply troubled" not only by the Army's fiscal difficulties but by its shrinking force.  He asked if the end strength continues to fall -- coupled with the effects of continued sequestration -- would the Army be able to respond effectively were two major contingency operations to occur simultaneously, or at least one major contingency and a smaller one.

Odierno replied that, "We'd have significant issues meeting anything more than one contingency -- if we can meet even one contingency.”  Odierno also noted that "We're not as ready as we were in 2001”, and that "history has taught us that if we are off balance, the enemy will seek advantage."

 This message alarms Gen. Sullivan.  In his letter to lawmakers he said, “While I hesitate to use the  term, “hollow Army”, what I see in the immediate future is furloughed Army civilians, most undeployed active component units untrained for immediate deployment, Army pilot training backlogged, flying hours cut, crew certification falling, deferred battle loss replacement that will take years to recover, deferred facilities maintenance that will negatively impact the quality of life of Soldiers and their families, and cancelled schooling and individual Soldier and unit training  that will lower professional leader development and unit readiness for future operations.”

 As a former Army Chief of Staff, Sullivan urged Congress to increase Army funding for FY 14 from the levels proposed in the administration’s budget.  "From my perspective, in an exponentially more dangerous world, we are about to fund our Army at a level that will leave it, at best, in stasis or more likely, falling backward into unreadiness,” he said.

 AUSA and its leadership will continue to push this message to Capitol Hill in upcoming meetings and engagements.  

 Focus Mobile App for Military and Veteran Families

The UCLA Nathanson Family Resilience Center (NFRC) is pleased to announce the release
of the new FOCUS On the Go! family resilience gaming and resource app for iPhone and iPad. FOCUS On the Go! is a free app designed to engage children in learning and practicing key resilience skills and providing educational resources that are consistent with the Families Over Coming Under Stress™ (FOCUS) model for parents and families. FOCUS On the Go! includes four games that reinforce skill building around problem solving, emotional regulation, and family communication. Like the traditional FOCUS program, FOCUS On the Go! aims to improve family resilience and help build strong relationships during times of transition in the family. “This mobile app is a fun and engaging tool for busy Military and Veteran families and their children.

They are able to connect and learn new ways to communicate and stay strong in the context of the family’s daily lives.” FOCUS On the Go! includes a suite of games to help children, adolescents and parents build resilience skills. Family members play alongside Buddy Bear to practice identifying and talking about feelings and to collect tools for calming down in challenging situations. Children and families can solve problems in Bear Necessities, create a story and share it in Comic Creator, catch relaxation tools in Bear Chill, and search for feeling words in Feeling Finder. FOCUS On the Go!  offers games and resources appropriate for the whole family, not just children. Parents can spend time with their children while they find feeling words or create a comic. Within the Parent’s section of the app, they can also watch videos and download activities to do as a family. Visit the website to learn more, and download Focus on the Go! to your Apple products today!

Military Spouse Appreciation Day Celebrated

President Obama issued a proclamation designating May 10 as Military Spouse Appreciation Day. The proclamation begins, “As long as there have been courageous men and women willing to protect our Union and our ideals, there have been extraordinary spouses at their side -- patriots in their own right who serve and sacrifice in ways many cannot fathom. They are moms and dads who take up the work of two during deployments, shuffling their careers and packing up their lives whenever our nation calls. They are dedicated employees at our businesses, committed volunteers in our communities, and essential caretakers for our wounded warriors. America's military spouses are at the core of our Armed Forces, and on Military Spouse Appreciation Day, we celebrate their contributions to keeping our country safe.” In addition to this proclamation, the First Lady held her annual luncheon hosting military spouses. She shared the sentiments about the strength and dedication of military spouses that often goes unnoticed. Read this great article about what makes military spouses so special, and be sure to celebrate the amazing spouses in your life even after the designated day.

The Arts and the Military Blog Salon

As more service members continue to return home from combat, new approaches to healing and reintegration are being explored. The arts community offers creative new ways to navigate the sometimes difficult experiences our returning service members and their families face. Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, is holding a week-long blog “salon,” that will feature articles from subject matter experts, health care professionals, and artists taking on the call to action and discussing the possibilities of arts integration in the military community. Themes will include: Promoting Health and Wellness, Aiding Community Reintegration, Enriching the Public Narrative, and more. Visit the Americans for the Arts blog to read new entries throughout the day all week, and for an in-depth look into how the arts community is currently engaging with the military community, read the latest Animating Democracy trend paper, written by a former military kid.

Commissaries Feel Hiring Freeze, Fear Budget Cuts

Base commissaries face turbulent times as staff vacancies swell under a federal hiring freeze, employee furloughs remain a worry and the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) digests budget guidance for fiscal 2015 that will force new efficiencies on stores and possibly deeper cuts to store operations.

The guidance directs at least a five percent ($70 million) cut to the $1.4 billion annual taxpayer subsidy needed to run 252 base grocery stores.  It also directs DeCA to develop options to accommodate deeper cuts, as much as one third of the subsidy, without impacting commissaries overseas. Factors in favor of commissaries weathering another budget storm, include strong support from Congress, and commitments from the President and First Lady Michelle Obama to expand job opportunities and healthy lifestyles for veterans and military families, which base grocers do. Read more here.

AUSA Signs on in Support of Bills for Military Families

AUSA recently backed two letters of support through the Military Coalition (TMC). One concerns raising age of eligibility for CHAMPVA to 26 years old, regardless of the child’s marital status (S 325). The second bill supports The Military Spouse Job Continuity Act of 2013 (HR 1620), which will help support military spouses who wish to maintain a career by providing a tax credit to offset the cost of obtaining a new state-specific license or certificate when the family is ordered to move. AUSA is concerned with all issues pertaining to easing some of the difficulties of military family life, and we will continue to monitor this legislation closely.

Month of the Military Child Celebration Online Now

AUSA Family Programs recently held a celebration in honor of the Month of the Military Child, and the program is now available to view online.  Our first speaker series featured Shannon Maxwell, author of Big Boss Brain and Our Daddy is Invincible, and Dorinda Silver Williams, author of Sparrow and other publications. Maxwell and Williams presented on the growing need for ways to reach out to youth who have been impacted or affected by a parent or loved one’s visible and invisible wounds of war, and the ways their books work to meet those needs. We are thankful to all who attended, and send special thanks to the Wounded Warrior Project for their generous donation of copies of Big Boss Brain for the event. View the video of the event here.

Celebration in Honor of Month of the Military Child

AUSA Family Programs held a celebration in honor of the Month of the Military Child. The speaker series featured Shannon Maxwell, author of Big Boss Brain and Our Daddy is Invincible, and Dorinda Silver Williams, author of Sparrow and other publications. Maxwell and Williams presented on the growing need for ways to reach out to youth who have been impacted or affected by a parent or loved one’s visible and invisible wounds of war, and the ways their books work to meet those needs. We are thankful to all who attended, and send special thanks to the Wounded Warrior Project for their generous donation of copies of Big Boss Brain for the event.

Real Warriors Campaign Offers Resources for Military Families

Celebrate the Month of the Military Child by spending time with your loved ones and learning about the importance of family resilience and readiness. The Real Warriors Campaign offers tips and resources to help military families manage the unique challenges they may face as part of military life, such as communicating with children about deployment, transitioning through a reunion or coping with psychological health concerns. In April, join the Real Warriors Campaign in celebrating military children for their heroism, courage, sacrifices and resilience. Here are five ways to celebrate the military child in your life:

1.    Build strong bonds by participating in family activities. The Month of the Military Child is a great opportunity to find new ways to build trust and strengthen family relationships. Find fun and educational resources to try with your children here.

2.     Say ‘thank you’ with an e-card. Send an e-card today to the military child in your life to show your love and appreciation and thank them for their courage and commitment.

3.    Communicate with your children. Transitions impact the entire military family, so it’s important to talk with your children to understand how they’re feeling about changes at home. The more you know about your children’s concerns, the easier it will be to help them adjust and ease their anxieties. Read the article “Helping Toddlers to Preteens Communicate about Changes” for tips on how to start the conversation. 

4.    Take the fun outside! Outdoor retreats give military children and families the opportunity to reconnect through fun, collaborative activities such as camping, hiking and canoeing. The following organizations offer retreats specifically designed for military families:
a. National Military Family Association- Operation Purple Family Retreats
b. Sierra Club Military Families and Veterans Initiative
c. Lone Survivor Foundation

5.    Stay connected during deployments. It can be difficult for families to stay in touch or feel connected when a parent is deployed. Use the tools and resources highlighted in the article, “Stay Connected with Deployed Parents” (http://realwarriors.net/family/children/stayconnected.php) to help your children keep in touch with a deployed parent.

Visit the Real Warriors Campaign website, www.realwarriors.net, for more tools and resources for military families such as brochures and  video profiles of Real Warriors and their families sharing their experiences of reintegration, including how they helped their children cope with the transition.

Members of the military community can connect confidentially with a trained health resource consultant 24/7 by calling the DCoE Outreach Center at 866-966-1020, emailing resources@dcoeoutreach.org or using the live chat at http://www.realwarriors.net/livechat.

Career Planning for Military Spouses

With the continual relocation, keeping kids busy, or even deployments, being a military spouse is a full time job in itself. Considering the mobility of the military lifestyle, many spouses have a difficult time maintaining employment from duty station to duty station. More than 25% of military spouses are currently without a job and actively pursuing work, but what do you do when you move constantly and can’t find a job? There are a number of options, including starting your own business or becoming licensed or certified in a career field with high portability. Spouses should also venture out online, as many employers now offer remote positions in addition to numerous freelance opportunities available to you. Read on for more ideas to shape a career that you can take wherever your military life sends you.

Joining Community Forces Website Redesign

Joining Community Forces (JCF) would like to announce the redesign of their website.  JCF expands on First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Biden's "Joining Forces" campaign by focusing attention on community-level efforts to support Service members, Military Families and Veterans. Their mission is to maximize the impact of community resources (civilian and military) to veterans, Military members and Families in order to build resilience and foster a community network that is both sustainable and relevant. Changes to the site include new content such as: best practices, publications, surveys, and training materials.  They’ve also expanded their contact and resources section to telephone, email, and website links for every state under "Connect to Your State". Each month a state or organization will be highlighted, who has excelled in developing community capacity within their state or community. JCF has also launched a mobile site, which makes it easier to view their site on the go. 

TRICARE Temporarily Eases Rules

TRICARE West Region Prime enrollees referred for specialty care from April 1 up to May 18, 2013 do not need authorization before seeking care. The authorization requirement has been temporarily waived due to delays by UnitedHealthcare Military & Veterans in processing referrals. The waiver does not apply to beneficiaries using TRICARE Standard, TRICARE For Life or Prime enrollees with the US Family Health Plan, which is available in some areas of Washington state. West Region beneficiaries can obtain more information and sign up for updates at TRICARE's West Region Transition webpage at www.tricare.mil/westtransition.

AAFES Offers Online Savings

Army and Air Force Exchanges worldwide are providing a variety of exclusive savings through the mail and online. Exchange shoppers in the continental United States can text Exchange to 95613 for additional savings delivered to their mobile devices. Shoppers who "like" the Exchange on Facebook at www.facebook.com/aafes.bx.px can receive coupon offers. Customers can also log on to ShopMyExchange.com at www.shopmyexchange.com and check the Savings Center to see what "Super Daily Specials," "Weekly Promotions" and "Advertised Specials" are available. Complete details concerning coupon redemption, shopping and saving at the Exchange are available at the Exchange website

Atlanta Braves Military Appreciation Day

The Atlanta Braves will honor military personnel when they hold their annual military appreciation day May 18. The team is offering 2-for-1 upper box or outfield tickets to all customers with a valid military ID. Tickets must be purchased at the Turner Field ticket windows only and cannot be purchased online. Upper box tickets are $24, while outfield tickets are $36. As part of the event, 180 military members will be on the field during a special pregame ceremony. First pitch for the game between the Braves and Dodgers is set for 7:10 p.m. For more information on the team, visit the Atlanta Braves website.

For more on military appreciation discounts, visit the Military Appreciation Month page

Helping Homeless Veterans

In 2009, President Obama and VA Secretary Shinseki announced the goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. Together with partners and supporters nationwide, VA is attempting to meet that challenge through the Homeless Veterans Outreach Initiative. Read more about the initiative on VA's VAntage Point Blog.

New AAFES Shopping Guide

Servicemembers can add some sizzle to the summer with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service's free summer shopping guide featuring the hottest trends in fashion and furnishings with irresistible value. This season's 36-page guide, arriving at Exchange stores May 15, offers a variety of brand name merchandise. The Exchange provides free standard shipping with use of a MILITARY STAR(R) card or on orders of $49 and above. Prices in this all-services guide are valid through June 30, 2013, for all authorized Exchange customers. Orders can be placed by mail, fax or phone. Toll-free orders can be placed from the United States, Puerto Rico or Guam at 800-527-2345. Authorized customers can also shop the 2013 Summer Shopping Guide online at shopmyexchange.com.

Military Spouse Appreciation Day

Today is Military Spouse Appreciation Day. The celebrations has already included a Military mothers and children Tea Party, held yesterday at the White House (please see the picture below) and the naming of Alicia Hinds-Ward, the spouse of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Edwinston J. Ward of the 113th fighter wing at Joint Base Andrews, Md., as military spouse of the year.

Below is the President’s Proclamation declaring the day:

As long as there have been courageous men and women willing to protect our Union and our ideals, there have been extraordinary spouses at their side -- patriots in their own right who serve and sacrifice in ways many cannot fathom. They are moms and dads who take up the work of two during deployments, shuffling their careers and packing up their lives whenever our nation calls. They are dedicated employees at our businesses, committed volunteers in our communities, and essential caretakers for our wounded warriors. America's military spouses are at the core of our Armed Forces, and on Military Spouse Appreciation Day, we celebrate their contributions to keeping our country safe.

Just as we are bound by a sacred obligation to care for our men and women in uniform, we are equally responsible for making sure their loved ones get the support they deserve. My Administration has taken steps to uphold that special trust, from investing in childcare and education for military families to providing mortgage assistance for military homeowners. Through First Lady Michelle Obama's and Dr. Jill Biden's Joining Forces initiative, we have partnered with the private sector to expand hiring for military spouses and veterans.

We have also called on states to streamline credentialing and licensing procedures that hinder too many military spouses when they move from duty station to duty station. Military spouses with professional experience should not have to wait for work, and our businesses should not have to go without their skills. By simplifying the certification process, we can help ensure the financial stability of our military families, strengthen our Armed Forces, and spur growth throughout our economy. To learn more and get involved, visit www.JoiningForces.com.

In the past few years, we have seen every part of our society come together and make a real commitment to supporting our military families -- not just with words, but with deeds. Yet, we must do more to honor the profound debt of gratitude we owe our military spouses. Their strength and resolve reflects the best of the American spirit, and on this occasion, let us pledge once more to serve them as well as they serve us.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim May 10, 2013, as Military Spouse Appreciation Day. I call upon the people of the United States to honor military spouses with appropriate ceremonies and activities.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this ninth day of May, in the year of our Lord two thousand thirteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-seventh.
Barack Obama 

Problems in Tricare West Region Transition; Temporary Waiver of Requirement for Tricare Prime Prior Authorizations

On April 1, United Health Military and Veterans took over the TRICARE West region contract. As we have previously reported there were serious problems in their call centers and serious delays in processing referrals. The call center times have been increased to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. throughout the region. However, TRICARE Prime beneficiaries are still having serious trouble in reaching United and getting required authorizations for specialty care. Because of these problems DoD has waived the authorization requirement in the west region from April 1 though May 18 (if there are further waivers we will let you know.) Below is the TRICARE Management Activity’s (TMA) press release. It explains how enrollees should proceed to get the waiver. If you are having problems with referrals and authorizations in the West Region please let us know at TREA: the Enlisted Association know at the Washington Office and we will try to help. (Please ask for Deirdre Parke Holleman when you call.)

TRICARE Eases Authorization Rules for West Region Beneficiaries

FALLS CHURCH, Va. – TRICARE West Region Prime enrollees referred for specialty care from April 1 up to May 18, 2013 do not need authorization before seeking care. The authorization requirement has been temporarily waived due to delays by UnitedHealthcare Military & Veterans in processing referrals.

TRICARE Management Activity (TMA) leadership acted to waive the authorization requirement for TRICARE covered services, reducing the impact of delays on Prime enrollees while UnitedHealthcare takes action to reduce backlogs since it began delivering health care support to the West Region on April 1, 2013.

During the waiver period, West Region Prime enrollees seeking specialty care should request two items from their primary care manager (PCM): a paper copy of their referral (or ask that it be sent via fax to the specialist), and a copy of a waiver letter from UnitedHealthcare authorizing the care. The letter can also be downloaded from the provider section of www.uhcmilitarywest.com.

As always, beneficiaries who feel they are in need of emergency care should call 911 or go to the nearest hospital emergency room. TRICARE Prime enrollees must contact their PCM within 24 hours or the next business day after receiving emergency care.

The waiver does not apply to beneficiaries using TRICARE Standard, TRICARE For Life or Prime enrollees with the US Family Health Plan, which is available in some areas of Washington state.

Since the start of the new West Region health care support contract on April 1, UnitedHealthcare’s website and call center have experienced heavy usage and now, referral and authorization delays.

TMA officials are working closely with UnitedHealthcare to address issues, reduce backlogs and ensure beneficiaries get the quality health care and service they deserve. TMA leadership is closely monitoring UnitedHealthcare efforts to improve their customer service.

West Region beneficiaries can get more information and sign up for updates at www.tricare.mil/westtransition. 

Estimated Cases of Military Sexual Assault Increase

A new report out this week said that the estimated number of military sexual assault and related crimes has increased roughly 35 percent over the past two years. Congress and the White House took turns this week being outraged by the Pentagon’s inability to get ahead of this problem even though much attention has been focused on it over that time period.
This, along with the arrest of the Air Force officer in charge of that service’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit last week on sexual battery charges, has led to a tough week for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel while Congress and the White House are promising to take action on the issue.
“The bottom line is, I have no tolerance for this,” Obama was quoted in the Washington Post as saying. “If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period.”

Congress has introduced legislation that changes the Uniform Code of Military Justice to enhance the prosecution of sexual-assault cases, give more legal support to victims, and would prevent commanders from overturning jury verdicts.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has been particularly outspoken on the last subject. This week she held up the appointment of Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms to become vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command. General Helms was a crew member of the space shuttle Endeavour and the first U.S. military woman to travel in space.

However, Senator McCaskill is demanding more information about Helms’s previously unpublicized decision to overturn the conviction of a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. That Air Force officer had been convicted of charges of aggravated sexual assault.

This is the second incidence of the perceived abuse of commander’s prerogative that Senator McCaskill has been outspoken about in recent months.

The Pentagon used anonymous surveys and sampling research to estimate that 26,000 personnel experienced “unwanted sexual contact” last year, up from about 19,300 in 2010, according to an ongoing Defense Department study.

The study was conducted that way because military officials believe that many victims are reluctant to report sexual assault or formally press charges because they fear retaliation or ostracism from their units. The Pentagon recorded 3,374 sexual-assault reports last year, compared with 3,192 in 2011.

However, that methodology does raise some red flags; military officials could suspect abuse where none is taking place. Precautions should be taken to ensure that no “sexual abuse witch hunts” take place.

Cost-Of-Living Adjustment for Veterans Proposed

Veterans’ benefits would rise to keep pace with inflation under legislation, S 893, introduced on Wednesday by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Unlike most federal government programs that receive a COLA increase veterans benefits are not raised automatically. Instead a bill needs to be proposed every year.

The bill was cosponsored by other VA Committee members: Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.V.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.).

The cost-of-living adjustment would boost benefits for veterans with service-connected disabilities and for their survivors. It is projected that more than 4.2 million veterans and survivors will receive compensation benefits during the next fiscal year.

“Providing adequate financial compensation to our veterans and their families is our responsibility as a nation,” said Sanders. “We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude for their service and sacrifices and these adjustments ensure that we fulfill that obligation.”

“The men and women who have suffered service-related injuries while serving our nation and their survivors deserve to be compensated at a rate that reflects the current cost-of-living,” Burr said. “One of my top priorities as ranking member is to ensure that they receive the assistance and care they have earned through their brave service.”

The Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2013 would increase compensation benefits on December 1, 2013. in accordance with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index, the same index that determines the annual rate adjustments for Social Security benefits.

Chairman of House VA Committee Offers Amendment to Bar VA Executive Bonuses For 5 Years

On Wednesday Representative Jeff Miller (R-FL), the Chairman of the House VA Committee, introduced an amendment to the pending GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2013 that would stop all performance bonuses for VA’s senior executives for the next 5 years. The Washington Examiner, a DC, had recently revealed that in the last 5 years members of VA’s senior executive service at the VA’s National Headquarters and in some of the regional offices received approximately $16.9 million in merit bonuses. This occurred at the same time that the VA backlog had exploded. Since 2009 the time to process a disability claim has doubled to 325 days. A blistering statement issued by the Chairman explained:

 “The fact that so many VA executives collected huge performance bonuses year after year while continually failing at their jobs calls into question whether department leaders even know the meaning of the word ‘accountability.’ Unfortunately, it’s taken the national crisis that is the benefits backlog and a media firestorm surrounding the department’s bonus scandal for VA leaders to realize that rewarding failure only breeds more failure. While recent VA decisions to forego certain executive bonuses and review others are steps in the right direction, they don’t go nearly far enough. VA owes every American an explanation for why it rewarded failing executives with bonuses, and we are calling on the department to conduct a top-to-bottom review of its performance appraisal system to prevent similar outrageous payments in the future. Until we have complete confidence that VA is holding executives accountable – rather than rewarding them – for their mistakes, no one should get a performance bonus. Period. That’s why I’m introducing this legislation, which would ban VA executive bonuses for five years.”

The VA announced that senior VBA (Veterans Benefits Administration) executives will not receive bonuses for FY2012 (2011 is the last year that figures are public) The VA said that money from the bonuses will be “reinvested to accelerate the elimination of the backlog.” There will certainly be more on this story and on the VA backlogs. We will keep you informed on this crucial situation and issue.

Virginia University Grants Navy Vet In-State Tuition Status

In an update to a story that TREA: The Enlisted Association wrote about several months ago, the Washington Post reported that George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia has decided not to appeal the ruling of a Fairfax County judge that Virginia resident and Navy veteran Stephanie Kermgard was entitled to in-state tuition.

The difference between in-state tuition and out-of-state tuition is a difference of about $18,000 per year.

George Mason University (GMU) has taken a number of in-state tuition cases to the Virginia Supreme Court and won. But since this one involved a veteran the outcome was different. The Virginia General Assembly just passed a law that goes into effect July 1 that essentially gives all veterans in-state tuition. The law wouldn’t affect Kermgard since she is finishing her bachelor’s degree this month, but the university decided that the state of Virginia had made its public policy toward veterans known.

GMU officials say they are making sure that all of the university’s 2,300 veterans know about the in-state tuition law change.

Kermgard, 29, moved to Charlottesville in 2004, enlisted in the Navy in 2005, was deployed in the Middle East, and then transferred with her husband to Washington state in 2007. When the couple ended their time in service in 2011, they moved back to Virginia.

Though Virginia law states that “Virginia domicile is not lost when the military member leaves the Commonwealth pursuant to military orders,” and Kermgard had continued to pay Virginia taxes, GMU ruled that she had moved back to Virginia for “educational purposes,” based off of a statement made in her application essay rather than to be a bona fide resident of the Old Dominion.

Kermgard’s husband applied for in-state tuition at Northern Virginia Community College and was granted it immediately.

Kermgard appealed GMU’s decision about her out-of-state status internally three times and was denied each time. Then she hired a lawyer, took her case to Fairfax County Circuit Court and won. Circuit Judge Robert J. Smith said Kermgard’s veteran status “changes everything. She left Virginia clearly because of military orders, and she has established domicile before.” He ordered GMU to classify Kermgard as an in-state student. Lawyers for GMU filed their notice of appeal with the Virginia Supreme Court, but withdrew it last week, Wynn said.

Both Kermgard and her lawyer, Amanda DeFede, were pleased that the case had ended but unhappy with how it unfolded, saying that the way GMU handled it caused unnecessary delay and cost her thousands in legal fees on top of those she already paid.  

Just To Make Sure You Heard: Drone Medal Decision

Last month we wrote in the Update that after enormous controversy the Pentagon had rescinded its plan to create “Drone Operator” medal. But we have found that many people are still concerned and had not seen the conclusion of this controversy. So here it is again:

Decision Announced on Medal for Drone Operators
A few weeks ago we reported on the controversy that had arisen over the creation of a new Distinguished Warfare Medal that was to recognize extraordinary achievement by unmanned aerial vehicle pilots and cyber warriors. The Department of Defense had planned to rank the medal below the Distinguished Flying Cross, but above the Bronze Star and Purple Heart – two medals earned only through service on the battlefield. Because of this, veterans groups, including TREA: The Enlisted Association, protested that this was inappropriate. The Distinguished Warfare Medal should not be ranked above battlefield medals.

Upon assuming office, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel acknowledged the controversy that had arisen and announced that he would review the Distinguished Warfare Medal. This week the Defense Department announced that Secretary Hagel has eliminated the medal. Instead, service members who directly affect combat operations without being present will be recognized through distinguishing devices that will be affixed to already existing awards.

In a written statement Hagel said, “The Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the concurrence of the service secretaries, have recommended the creation of a new distinguishing device that can be affixed to existing medals to recognize the extraordinary actions of this small number of men and women. I agree with the Joint Chiefs’ findings, and have directed the creation of a distinguishing device instead of a separate medal.” 

The SecDef’s Adjunct Advisers

By Gordon Lubold

Hagel holds close an informal group of adjunct advisers. Not long after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived at the Pentagon, he asked aides to convene a meeting of top veterans and military organizations as well as other defense-focused non-profit groups A few weeks later, on March 21, a group of individuals from 26 different organizations assembled in the Pentagon's E-Ring for a two-day roundtable for briefings Hagel and other officials regarding military operations, the defense budget and sequestration. They also discussed personnel issues like sexual assault prevention, tuition assistance, military community and family policy programs, and suicide prevention and military health system programs. That was the beginning of what is a growing relationship between Hagel, his staff, and a number of these outside groups. Now that informal advisory group has become the go-to for Hagel and his aides. It is convened regularly, typically by conference call. Since February, there have been nine such phone calls or meetings.

Hagel will confront a lot of "people issues." Although the group is weighted heavily toward veterans organizations, like the VFW and IAVA -- a reflection of Hagel's interest in veterans issues -- it also includes military support organizations, like the Air Force Association or the Navy or Marine Corps leagues. Topics of the conference calls, sometimes coordinated at the last minute before a major announcement, run the gamut from the Defense of Marriage Act to the presence of carriers in the CENTCOM region to Hagel's meeting with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. "He's not doing this because he is a nice guy, but I think he knows that on his watch there will be and he will have to resolve a lot of people-related issues," one regular participant who asked not to be identified told Situation Report. "To his credit, he wants to engage a variety of veterans and military support organizations.... He is grounding himself in the right way." The group learns how the secretary is thinking, and the secretary and his staff use the feedback they receive privately to see how an issue may play in public. Participants who spoke to Situation Report say such a group can help the secretary avoid the kind of sand trap that the controversial drone medal landed in under then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's watch. "It gives us a heads-up," Drew Davis, a retired Marine two-star who now serves as the executive director of the Reserve Officers Association. The group had been first organized under then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, but has been invigorated by the number of times Hagel has called on it. Davis participated in the March 21 meeting after Hagel first arrived and a number of the subsequent conference calls since. "It makes the [military support organizations and the veterans service organizations] actually feel like they are more connected to the decision-making process rather than just have their advocacy happen up on the Hill," he told Situation Report. "Having it at the secretary level is something that is new and great. It makes us feel as if we actually have input."

Vegas rules. The individuals are asked to keep the content of the discussions private, but unlike former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who demanded his own uniformed officers sign non-disclosure agreements on budgetary and other issues, the group abides by a gentleman's agreement not to talk publicly about the deliberations in the room or on the calls. One participant says the discussions so far have not been heated but not without their disagreements. "It's been very cordial, but there have been discussions where it's not all of one mind and one view."

Top aides coordinate the meetings. Pentagon press secretary George Little and acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright were directed to set up the first meeting; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Community and Community Outreach Rene Bardorf and Little now organize the sessions on an as-needed basis. Key players also include Lt. Gen. Curtis "Scap" Scaparrotti, director of the Joint Staff, and Mike McCord, deputy comptroller, who gets involved in budget-related issues in particular.

This is the kind of thing such meetings produce: The discussions the group had about the controversial Distinguished Warfare Medal contributed to Hagel's decision on the matter. Some members told Hagel the idea of the drone medal was "insane" and that it should be downgraded; others spoke of the importance of recognizing an emerging type of warfare. In the end, Hagel eliminated it altogether. Then AMVETS, which is represented in the group, posted a story on their site heralding the decision: "AmVets applauds Secretary Hagel's Medal Decision." (That story here.) Members of the group who spoke with Situation Report give credit to Hagel for this kind of outreach. But their independence is still important, and group members don't see this as a way to be co-opted by Hagel or his staff, either. "I'm not drinking his Kool-Aid," said one.

Who's in Hagel's inner (outer) circle? Representatives from more than 25 groups attended the March 21 meeting at the Pentagon, and a dozen or more of them participate in some of the many conference calls Hagel or his staff have directed. The groups include: The Air Force Association, the Association of the United States Army, the Marine Corps League, the Military Officers Association of America, the Navy League, the Reserve Officers Association, the American Legion, AMVETS, Armed Services YMCW, Blue Star Families, Disabled American Veterans, Fisher House, the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans Association, the Military Child Education Coalition, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the National Guard Association of the United States, the National Military Family Association, Operation Homefront, Student Veterans of America, Transition Assistance Program for Survivors, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring our Heroes Program, the USO, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and the Wounded Warrior Project.

Reviews Threaten Commissary Benefit

By Karen Jowers 
Staff writer

RICHMOND, VA. — Commissary officials are conducting at least three short-fuse cost-cutting reviews, each of which could significantly reduce access to the benefit by either shutting down some stores or shortening their hours.

■A directive from the Pentagon comptroller requires the Defense Commissary Agency and others to look at cutting its $1.4 billion annual budget by up to 33 percent, while focusing operations on supporting troops stationed overseas. That would cut deeply into operating funds from stateside stores.

This directive also requires commissary officials to come up with a separate, short-term plan to save 5 percent of overall costs, and was due in early May.

■DeCA, like all Defense Department agencies, must review its headquarters staffing under an initiative dubbed the Strategic Choice and Management Review.

■Commissaries will be studied by the Compensation Commission, mandated by Congress to review the value of all military pay and benefits programs. Although the commission has not yet been appointed, defense officials have been preparing data in advance.

Most worrying to military advocates is the requirement to develop a plan to cut up to 33 percent of the commissary budget. This review is due in early July, according to DeCA Director Joseph Jeu, who spoke at a conference here April 24.

Jeu said he considers this an “opportunity” for DeCA to be involved in shaping any changes in how the commissaries will operate. He noted that cuts made since the agency was created in 1992 have whittled the budget by $700 million a year.

“I don’t think there are too many agencies that can say they reduced their budget costs by 50 percent,” when inflation is taken into account, Jeu said. Without these cuts, the DeCA budget would have been on a trajectory to be more than $2 billion. The cuts have been achieved in part by reducing DeCA staff by 2,500 people over the years.

Salaries make up about 70 percent of the commissary’s operating budget; the next biggest line item is the cost of transporting groceries overseas, required by law to be paid by taxpayers. As such, shaving another 33 percent from DeCA’s operating budget would translate into closing stores and cutting hours, said Pat Nixon, a former Marine who is also a former DeCA director.

“That fundamentally changes the availability of the benefit,” said Nixon, now president of the American Logistics Association, a trade group whose members sell products and services to commissaries and exchanges.

Overseas troops and families are significantly more likely to use commissaries. About 13 percent of the active-duty force is stationed overseas, not counting Hawaii and Alaska, but they accounted for 24 percent of overall customer sales from October through February.

That means they’re about twice as likely to use the stores than those in the U.S., even before accounting for retirees, who overwhelmingly use stateside stores.

Nixon said the working group will come up with multiple scenarios to save the 33 percent, and is considering one in which some stores would close in metropolitan areas with multiple commissaries.

That could still have an impact on patrons. In the Hampton Roads, Va., area, for example, a family in Chesapeake, Va., has a 3-mile drive to the commissary at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard; about 12 miles to stores at Norfolk Naval Station and Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek; 16 miles to Oceana Naval Air Station; and 21 miles to Langley Air Force Base.

In looking at ways to trim DeCA costs, officials should consider the impact of DoD’s current review of overseas bases, said Rene Campos of the Military Officers Association of America. She noted that DeCA could see future savings if DoD reduces its overseas footprint and some stores are not needed.

“There are so many things going on, we’re concerned something’s going to be missed or misinterpreted without input from beneficiaries,” Campos said. “If dollars are driving the decision, chances are the beneficiaries are not going to be on the best side of that bottom line.”

Deeper changes — such as anything affecting the current 5 percent surcharge on goods, or taxpayer funding of employees’ salaries or overseas transportation costs — would require  

New Phase for myPay

The Spring 2013 myPay release will affect all users and be phased in over the next five months, beginning May 11. It requires users to change their passwords every 60 days using stronger 15- to 30-character passwords. Beginning in May, groups of users will be required to establish new passwords when they attempt to access their accounts. The Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) expects it will take four months before all users have updated their passwords. DFAS plans to send email alerts 10 days before expiration of a user's password. Customers logging into myPay using DOD computer access cards or a similarly encrypted federal identification card will not be required to enter a password to log in to myPay. More information on the myPay Spring 2013 release and the new password requirements is available at the DFAS website

DoD's New TAP GPS Program

A senior DOD official told the House Armed Services' Subcommittee on Military Personnel April 24 that the Department of Defense (DoD), in concert with the military services and interagency partners, is successfully implementing the department's revamped Transition Assistance Program. The new TAP, now in its second phase of use, is known as the DOD Transition Assistance Program: Goals, Plans and Success, or TAP GPS. The core of the redesigned TAP establishes the new career readiness standards, extends the transition preparation through the entire span of servicemembers' careers, and provides counseling to develop their individual transition plan. DoD is putting into place the Military Life Cycle Transition model by the end of fiscal year 2014. A video of the April 24 committee hearing is available on the House Armed Services Subcommittee website

National Memorial Day Parade Scheduled

The 2013 National Memorial Day Parade is set for Monday, May 27 at 2 PM along Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C. In addition to the many hundreds of veterans and active duty personnel, this year's event will feature country star Trace Adkins, wounded warrior and Dancing with the Stars winner JR Martinez, actors Gary Sinise & Joe Mantegna, Miss America 2013 Mallory Hagan, and American Idol winner Taylor Hicks. For more details on the parade and how to volunteer, visit the National Memorial Day Parade website. For more updates and content on Memorial Day, visit the Military.com Memorial Day page

Exchange Features Pet Contest

With the Army & Air Force Exchange Service's Patriot Family "Just Say Treat" contest, a pet picture and 50 words could be worth $300. The contest has been launched at www.shopmyexchange.com and the Exchange Facebook page. Shoppers need only to submit a photo of their pet (or pets) along with a 50-word or less description for a shot at a $300 Exchange gift card. For more information and links to enter the Patriot Pet "Just Say Treat" contest, go to shopmyexchange.com/patriotfamily or visit the Exchange Facebook page at www.facebook.com/aafes.bx.px.   

AAFES Rewards Good Grades

The Army & Air Force Exchange Service is rewarding military students in grades 1-12 who maintain a "B" or better average with the "You Made the Grade" program. The program has rewards schoolchildren around the world with a coupon booklet listing a multitude of free products and discounted offers. Students can receive a "You Made the Grade" booklet by simply presenting a valid military ID and proof of an overall "B" average at their local Exchange store. Those eligible may receive one coupon booklet and submit one drawing entry each qualifying report card. For more information, visit a nearby Exchange store. Each store's contact information, including store hours, is available through the "Exchange Stores" link at www.shopmyexchange.com.

Army Wife Network Field Exercise Registration

Army Wife Network is holding a "Field Exercise" on Fort Eustis May 16th and 17th! This event will allow military-affiliated people in the area the opportunity to connect, learn about helpful resources available to them, in addition to lunch, gift bags, and other giveaways.  The event is not just open to Army spouses, but everyone involved in the military community of all service branches. Sign up to attend this empowering event as a networking opportunity and to learn some military life "survival" tips. Visit www.armywifenetwork.com to learn more and register today.

Family Service Members' Group Life Insurance Benefit Changes

Service members married to other service members are no longer automatically enrolled in the Family Service members’ Group Life Insurance program, Pentagon officials said. The change was effective Jan. 2, and to date affects about 4,500 service members. No changes have been made to the Service members Group Life Insurance program in which all service members are enrolled. SGLI provides up to a $400,000 payment to a service member’s beneficiary, while the Family SGLI term insurance benefit provides a payment to a service member of up to $100,000 upon the death of a spouse or $10,000 for dependent children. The Veterans Affairs Department administers the program. There are no changes for personnel who were auto-enrolled before Jan. 2, nor are there changes for military members married to civilian spouses, Martin said.  

Hiring our Heroes Making Great Progress

There are 207,000 unemployed veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hundreds of thousands more are not looking for work because of injuries or other reasons but could enter the labor market over time. “When they hit the job market, employers don’t always recognize the high-quality, high-tech skills our newest veterans have gained in the military. They don’t understand the leadership that they’ve shown under extraordinary circumstances,” President Obama said. “So, too often, just when these men and women are looking to move forward in the next chapter of their lives, they’re stuck in neutral, scraping together odd jobs just to pay the bills.”

Since President Obama’s challenge in August 2011, American businesses have hired or trained 290,000 veterans and military spouses, and have recommitted to hiring an additional 435,000 by 2018. Upon being urged by the First Lady, businesses continue to get more and more creative.  Wal-Mart is telling any veteran who has served honorably that if they need a job in the year after they separate from the service, they can have one at Wal-Mart.  The Blackstone Group is setting up a program where each of its 50,000 managers is pledging to hire one veteran.   With the Iraq war over and the war in Afghanistan drawing to a close, more than one million service members are projected to leave the military in the next several years. Hiring our veterans and military spouses will not only help them manage the transition, but shows them that our nation truly honors their service, not simply with words, but with real, concrete action that will profoundly impact their lives long after they leave the military.
Read more here

SpouseBuzz Spouse Experience

In the Washington, DC area and looking to connect with other military spouses in your community? Consider registering for the SpouseBuzz Experience taking place May 7th at Quantico, VA. SpouseBuzz takes the informal approach to helping military spouses navigate the roads of military life with interactive panel discussions and break out groups. This Spouse Experience will include tips to a healthy relationship, financial guidance from USAA, networking opportunities, and working groups that provide tips from the experts—other military spouses. Sign up for free today!

DoD Responds to Internet-Spun Religious Freedom Rumors

Internet posts making the rounds claiming that the Defense Department will court-martial service members who espouse Christianity are not true, a Pentagon spokesman said today.
“The Department of Defense places a high value on the rights of members of the military services to observe the tenets of their respective religions and respects, [and supports by its policy] the rights of others to their own religious beliefs, including the right to hold no beliefs,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said in a written statement on the issue. “The department does not endorse any one religion or religious organization, and provides free access of religion for all members of the military services,” he added. Internet posts are attributing a statement that superior officers who try to convert those under their command should face court-martial to Mikey Weinstein, president of the Albuquerque, N.M.-based Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and are identifying him as a Pentagon advisor, Christensen noted. Read more here.

Defense Department Backs Military Spouse Training and Careers

With military spouse unemployment at 26%, many organizations and programs are working to make more opportunities available to them.  The Department of Defense is highlighting services and career opportunities offered through the spouse employment and career opportunities program. It includes avenues such as the Military Spouse Employment Partnership, comprising more than 160 employers who hire military spouses as a priority, networking through social media, an e-mentoring program, and participation in Hiring Heroes and the Joining Forces initiatives, she said. And program counselors are available on installations to support spouses throughout their employment life cycle, she added.  Networking is a very important way to find information and careers, and the MilSpouse eMentor Program, and the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation focus on this aspect. In addition to career portability, many spouses find it easier to connect online, which has prompted most organizations and programs to have a social media component to the services and information they offer. Read more here.

VA Says No Bonuses for Senior Officials

On Monday of this week a spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that senior officials who oversee disability claims will not be given bonuses this year. Instead, the money will be used to help reduce the backlog.

According to the Associated Press, a total of $2.8 million was paid out in senior executive bonuses in fiscal year 2011. The top bonus paid was $23,091, which was give to three VA staff members. However, the VA spokesman making the announcement did not say how many people would be affected or how much money in total would be involved.

There has been growing criticism of the VA over the soaring number of disability claims that are waiting to be adjudicated. While this has been a problem that has been going on for years, and one that TREA constantly lobbies on and complains to Congress about, the number of claims pending for longer than 125 days ballooned from less than 200,000 to nearly 500,000 in fiscal 2011.

The AP reported that the VA and other federal departments routinely give bonuses to Senior Executive Service employees who are not political appointees. Political appointees are not eligible.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) was quoted as saying that he is pleased the bonuses will be withheld. “One can only wonder what effect this sort of policy may have had if VA had instituted it years ago,” Miller stated.

New Legislation Introduced in Congress

S.734 - A bill to amend title 10, United States Code, to repeal the requirement for reduction of survivor annuities under the Survivor Benefit Plan by veterans' dependency and indemnity compensation.
Sponsor: Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)

H.R.1521 - Disabled Veterans Red Tape Reduction Act - To provide for a five-year extension of the authority of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide for the conduct of medical disability examinations by contract physicians.
Sponsor: Rep. Sean P. Maloney (D-N.Y.-18)

H.R.1464 - Military Mental Health Empowerment Act - To amend title 10, United States Code, to provide notice to members of the Armed Forces, beginning with recruit basic training and the initial training of officer candidates, regarding the availability of mental health services, to help eliminate perceived stigma associated with seeking and receiving mental health services, and to clarify the extent to which information regarding a member seeking and receiving mental health services may be disclosed.
Sponsor: Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.-07)

H.R.1443 - Tinnitus Research and Treatment Act of 2013 - Directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to: (1) recognize tinnitus as a mandatory condition for research and treatment by Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Auditory Centers of Excellence, (2) ensure that research is conducted at VA facilities on the prevention and treatment of tinnitus, and (3) ensure VA cooperation with the Hearing Center of Excellence established by the Department of Defense (DOD) to further research on tinnitus.
Sponsor: Rep. Michael H. Michaud (D-Maine-02)

H.R.1492 - To establish the Commission on America and its Veterans - Establishes as an independent commission the Commission on America and its Veterans to: (1) submit to the President and Congress suggestions for ceremonies and events to acknowledge the wars recently fought and the heroism displayed by members of the Armed Forces; (2) report to the President and Congress on Commission findings, conclusions, and recommendations with respect to any deficiency in how the United States welcomes back such members; (3) begin convening conversations on the effect of war on members, their families, and the local communities, as well as addressing the reintegration experience and the gap between the military, veterans, and civilian life; and (4) submit to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) recommendations regarding activities of the Office of Armed Services and Veterans Public Outreach (established under this Act).
Sponsor: Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.-07)

H.R.1490 - Veterans' Privacy Act - To amend title 38, United States Code, to prohibit the recording of a patient in a facility of the Department of Veterans Affairs without the informed consent of the patient.
Sponsor: Rep. Jeff B. Miller (R-Fla.-01)

H.R.1452 - Filipino Veterans Fairness Act of 2013 - Deems certain service performed before July 1, 1946, in the organized military forces of the Philippines and the Philippine Scouts as active military service for purposes of eligibility for veterans' benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, in determining eligibility under this Act, to take into account any relevant service documentation, including documentation other than the Missouri List (the list of all discharged and deceased veterans from the 20th century).
Sponsor: Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.-14)

H.R.1463 - Military Suicide Reduction Act - Requires the Secretary of Defense (DOD) to provide a one-on-one mental health assessment for each member of the Armed Forces deployed in support of a contingency operation once during each 180-day period of such deployment.Requires that, if the Secretary determines that such assessment cannot be performed by personnel trained and certified to do so, the Secretary shall ensure that the assessment is conducted using an Internet-based questionnaire. Requires, in such case, that the commanding officer (CO) of such member also complete a separate questionnaire containing the CO's observations with respect to the mental health of that member. Requires such questionnaires to: (1) be reviewed and acted upon by trained and certified mental health personnel, and (2) be accorded appropriate privacy under requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.
Sponsor: Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.-07)

S.700 - Troop Talent Act of 2013 - Directs the Secretaries of the military departments, to the maximum extent practicable, to make information on civilian credentialing opportunities available to members of the Armed Forces (members) beginning with, and at every stage of, their training for military occupational specialities, in order to permit such members to: (1) evaluate the extent to which such training correlates with skills and training required for various civilian certifications and licenses, and (2) assess the suitability of such training for obtaining and pursuing such certifications and licenses.

Requires the information made available to: (1) be consistent with the Transition Goals Plans Success program, and (2) include information on the civilian occupational equivalents of military occupational specialties.

Requires such Secretaries to make available to civilian credentialing agencies specified information on the content of military training provided to members.

Allows members or veterans to use educational assistance provided through the Department of Defense (DOD) or the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in pursuit of a civilian certification or license only if the successful completion of a curriculum fully qualifies such student to take the appropriate examination and be certified or licensed to meet any other academic conditions required for entry into that occupation or profession.

Requires the military occupational specialties designated for a military skills to civilian credentialing pilot program under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 to include those specialties relating to the military information technology workforce.

Directs the VA Secretary to reestablish the Professional Certification and Licensure Advisory Committee (under current law, terminated on December 31, 2006). Provides additional Committee duties, including the development of: (1) guidance for audits of licensure and certification programs in order to ensure high-quality education to members and veterans, and (2) a plan to improve outreach to members and veterans on the importance of licensing and certification and the availability of educational benefits.
Sponsor: Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.)

S.735 - Survivor Benefits Improvement Act of 2013 - Allows dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) paid through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to the surviving spouses of veterans to be increased for months occurring during the five-year (under current law, two-year) period beginning on the date of entitlement.
Provides that the remarriage after age 55 of the surviving spouse of a veteran shall not bar the furnishing of VA DIC, health care, and housing loans.
Authorizes the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide, to any spina bifida-affected child of a veteran who served on active duty in Thailand beginning on January 9, 1962, and ending on May 7, 1975, and was exposed to a herbicide agent during such service, the same health care, vocational training and rehabilitation, and monetary allowance required to be paid to a similarly-affected child of a Vietnam veteran.
Directs the Secretary to carry out a two-year pilot program to assess the feasibility and advisability of providing grief counseling services for the surviving spouses of veterans who die while serving on active duty.
Sponsor: Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.)

VA Secretary Shinseki Issues Statement Regarding Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

A MESSAGE FROM THE SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month 2013

Our country’s cultural richness stems from the many immigrant and native legacies which bind us as one Nation from many peoples. Our strength as a Nation resides in the hearts and minds and spirit of our people, united in preserving freedom and justice, and in our willingness to work hard to earn our own way. Asian and Pacific Islander Americans have contributed enormously through language, the arts, music, literature, science, and medicine, adding their own hopes and dreams, to the countless threads that give color and resilience to the fabric that is America.  

Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month commemorates both the arrival of the first immigrant Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, linking our Nation’s east and west coasts. So many Chinese immigrants were instrumental to this uniting of the continent. And so many Asian and Pacific Islander Americans since have likewise served and sacrificed for our country. More than 292,000 of them have defended this Nation. Over 67,000 men and women of Asian and Pacific Islander descent currently serve on duty in our Armed Forces around the world.

America is safer, and our democracy is stronger, because of their service in uniform. These Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, from the first brave immigrants to today’s generation of vibrant Americans, have made positive and lasting contributions to the greater good of our society.

Their impact has been truly significant—from operating small businesses to leading multinational corporations; from teaching in our most rural classrooms to lecturing in our greatest universities; from volunteering to care for the sick and homeless to commanding the formations which defend us, preserving peace in a dangerous world. Asian and Pacific Islander Americans are fully interwoven into every aspect of American life, bringing with them the hopes and dreams to build an ever-greater America.

On behalf of the Department of Veterans Affairs, it is a privilege to celebrate the rich histories of all Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, including over 22,000 of our co-workers, during this month which honors their heritage.

White House Pushes U.S. Businesses to Hire Veterans & Spouses

This past Tuesday the White House announced a large new effort to reduce unemployment and improve job training and qualifications for veterans by getting US businesses to pledge to hire 435,000 veterans and military spouses over the next five years while training another 161,000 for in-demand jobs.

Private equity firm Blackstone, Wal-Mart and UPS are among the major American brands that are committing to hiring hundreds of thousands of veterans and spouses according to reports. Wal-Mart had previously announced that it would find a job for any veteran with an honorable discharge within a year after they leave the service.

In addition to the hiring initiative, the White House announced on Tuesday that there will be opportunities for up to 161,000 service members to receive industry-recognized, nationally-portable certifications necessary for 12 high-demand technology professions, including computer programmers, quality assurance engineers, and IT security analysts. For information on that initiative, visit:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/04/29/fact-sheet-administration-partners-industry-get-service-members-credenti

According to Secretary of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Eric K. Shinseki about 1 million new veterans are expected to enter the labor force over the next five years. But many veterans are having a tough time finding jobs, with those that are currently serving in the National Guard and Reserve having the highest overall unemployment rate, along with female veterans.

There are currently 207,000 unemployed veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hundreds of thousands more are not looking for work because of injuries or other reasons but could enter the labor market over time.

According to President Obama’s remarks on Tuesday, employers are having problems recognizing the “the high-quality, high-tech skills” veterans have learned in the military.

Tuesday’s announcement is part of the administration’s “Wounded Warriors” program, led by the offices of first lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Biden. According to administration figures, the program began in August 2011 and has resulted in the hiring of 290,000 veterans or military spouses.

In addition to problems translating skills learned in the military into skills required to succeed in the private sector, spouses who may be experienced nurses, paramedics or lawyers lose their license to practice when they move from state to state, as military service members are often required to move every two to three years.

Other examples of commitments that have been made by US companies to hire returning veterans include:

BNSF Railroad committed to hire 5,000 veterans and military spouses in the next five years.
UPS committed to hire 25,000 in the next five years.
Home Depot committed to hire 55,000 in the next five years.
McDonald’s committed to hire 100,000 in the next three years.
Walmart committed to hiring any veteran that served honorably the year after they separate from the service.
Deloitte will double its veteran hiring over the next three years.
USAA pledged that 30% of its new hires will be a veteran or military spouse.
The Blackstone Group challenged each of the 50,000 managers at its affiliated businesses to hire at least one veteran.
AT&T committed to creating an online military talent exchange.
The International Franchising Association has helped more than 4,300 veterans own their own business since 2011.
The U.S Chamber of Commerce just held its 400th hiring fair since last March for veterans.

SVAC Focuses on Making Sure Veterans Know About Benefits

The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing last week about how the Department of Veterans Affairs is reaching out to make veterans aware of benefits they are entitled to receive.

“In many areas, the VA does an enormously good job, but no matter how good the programs are it doesn’t mean anything if veterans don’t know about them,” Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said.

“We are making progress but more needs to be done. I am especially impressed that 55 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are utilizing VA health care today. That’s a very impressive number,” Sanders added. “On the other hand, we must be cognizant that a 2010 survey found fewer than half of the 22 million veterans in the United States are accessing any VA benefits.”

Tommy Sowers, VA’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, testified at the hearing that the VA is improving outreach efforts. VA is deploying mobile vet centers in rural areas, establishing more community based outpatient clinics, providing mental health crisis line services and strengthening partnerships with other federal agencies, state, city and local governments, he said.

In order to make sure you and every veteran you know is aware of the benefits available to them, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the VA’s website (http://www.va.gov/) and Military.com’s listings of state veterans’ benefits (http://www.military.com/benefits/veteran-state-benefits/state-veterans-benefits-directory.html). There are very likely benefits at the VA or in your state that you or somebody you know is not aware of.

Congressional Veterans Jobs Caucus Meets

On this past Tuesday the Congressional Veterans Jobs Caucus (CVJC) met in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. The Congressional Veterans Jobs Caucus aims to draw attention to the many barriers veterans face as they seek employment after the end of their time in service..

The CVJC was briefed by Mr. Ted Daywalt, CEO & President of VetJobs.com. Currently VetJobs.com is the leading military employment program site on the internet. The presentation revolved around sharing information on veterans’ employment initiatives as well as some of the challenges that returning warriors face in the private sector job market.

The most pressing issue identified by Mr. Daywalt was the Department of Defense’s (DOD) “operational reserve” policy. This is the policy that has developed over the last forty years of using the National Guard and Reserve to augment the active duty during contingency rotations all over the world.

To put it frankly businesses, particularly small businesses, cannot afford to hire National Guard and Reserve (G-R) members when their commitment to their country is going ensure that they are away from their homes at least one out of every five years. It simply doesn’t make economic sense to hire the G-R when there are plenty of civilians available who are going to be physically present and able to earn money for the business 100% of the time, rather than 80% of the time. This is why the unemployment rate for the G-R is at 28%, and it shows no signs of coming down any time soon.

TREA’s Legislative Director Larry Madison, co-chair of The Military Coalition’s (TMC) Guard & Reserve Committee, has been focusing in on this issue for the last several years. He was briefed on the issue by civilian leaders over at the Pentagon and asked them point-blank, “Why would an employer hire somebody who is guaranteed to not be around for an entire year?” The best answer anybody could come up with is “patriotism.” We at TREA are all for patriotism, but at the end of the day that doesn’t pay the bills or put food on anybody’s table. It’s high time that the Pentagon begins living in the real world as they flesh out this “operational reserve” policy in the coming years.  

Female Deserter Gets Jail, Bad Conduct Discharge

FORT CARSON, Colo. - A female soldier in the U.S. Army pleaded guilty Monday to two counts of desertion after fleeing to Canada to avoid a second tour of duty in the Iraq war.

Pfc. Kimberly Rivera was sentenced to 10 months in prison and a bad-conduct discharge after entering her plea at a court-martial.

Rivera, 30, was a wheeled-vehicle driver in Fort Carson's 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and served in Iraq in 2006. She has said that, while there, she became disillusioned with the U.S. mission in Iraq.

During a two-week leave in the U.S. in 2007, Rivera crossed the Canadian border after she was ordered to serve another tour in Iraq.

The Colorado Springs Gazette reported that when judge Col. Timothy Grammel asked Rivera on Monday how long she remained absent, Rivera replied: "As long as I possibly could, sir. ... I intended to quit my job permanently."

After fleeing to Canada, Rivera applied for refugee status but was denied.

Rivera then applied for permanent residency, but Canadian immigration officials rejected that application, too. Authorities also rejected her requests to stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Rivera was first ordered to leave Canada or face deportation in 2009, but she appealed that decision. The mother of four faced another deportation order issued in 2012.

She was arrested at the U.S. border and taken into military custody.

Roughly 19,000 people signed an online petition in Canada protesting Rivera's deportation order, and rallies were held in a number of Canadian cities calling on the government to let her stay in the country.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the U.S. veterans organization Veterans for Peace also protested the deportation order.

During her sentencing hearing, government lawyers argued that Rivera, who was granted leave shortly into her tour to work out marital issues, failed to return because her husband threatened to leave her and take their children, The Gazette reported.

Rivera's civilian defense attorney, James Matthew Branum, argued that Rivera never filed for status as a conscientious objector because she didn't know the option was available to her. He said Rivera should have been informed about it when she met with a chaplain in Iraq over concerns that she couldn't take a life, The Gazette reported.

In 2012, the War Resisters Support Campaign, a Canadian activist group, estimated that there were about 200 Iraq war resisters in Canada. It said two other Iraq war resisters who were deported, Robin Long and Clifford Cornell, faced lengthy jail sentences upon their return.

Long was given a dishonorable discharge in 2008 and sentenced to 15 months in a military prison after pleading guilty to charges of desertion.

The lower house of Canada's Parliament most recently passed a motion in 2009 in favor of allowing U.S. military deserters to stay, but the Conservative Party government was not persuaded.

During the Vietnam War, as many as 90,000 Americans won refuge in Canada, most of them to avoid the military draft. Many were given permanent residence status that led to Canadian citizenship, but the majority went home after President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty in the late 1970s.

Some Canadian politicians say the situation is different now because Iraq war deserters like Rivera enlisted in the U.S. military voluntarily.