Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 14 April 2014 

4/14/2014 

 

AUSA ON THE HILL

AUSA’s Assistant Director for National Guard Affairs Stan Crow and Isabelle Slifer, Assistant Director for Army Reserve Affairs represented AUSA at Guard-Reserve Caucus breakfasts held in both the House and Senate last week.

Sponsored by AUSA and some of their Military Coalition partners, these recurring breakfasts give the National Guard and reserve leadership the opportunity to present their top three priorities.

The featured speaker at the House breakfast was Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense, Christine Fox.  Fox provided insight into how the Defense Department formulated its budget request for fiscal 2014 and pointed out that at the same time the total force is significantly changing, the budget must still meet the strategic needs of our National Security.  She emphasized that a balance must be reached with end strength numbers and the way the Services are trained, armed and equipped.  She also acknowledged that lower end strength numbers carry a risk and that the department is willing to accept that risk with regards to long-term protracted ground operations.

The message provided at both events by the Guard and reserve leadership was similar.  The Chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Frank Grass, said that his top three priorities are solid training for troops, predictability of deployments and end to sexual assaults.  He supports keeping some operational capability in the Guard.   He is concerned about aviation assets and keeping the National Guard in the game.  Also, he supports having a Commission look at ground forces affected by the Budget Control Act after 2020.  

Lt. Gen. Jeff Talley, Chief Army Reserve, would like to see sexual assaults eliminated, wellness of the Soldiers; i.e., suicide prevention, a Total force that is properly manned and trained.

Maj Gen. Judd Lyons, Acting Director, Army Guard, would like to see properly train- and equip-ready units for Federal and State missions with the National Guard as the military first responder to protect the Homeland, build the State Partnership program (currently involves 65 foreign Nations), take care of Family & Soldiers by ending sexual assaults and creating suicide prevention programs.

All of the leaders commented on the tight defense budget and the continuing impact of sequestration.

PROGRESS ON VA CLAIMS BACKLOG

Officials from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) announced that their current backlog of claims pending more than 125 days is at its lowest point in three years.  The backlog, reduced from 611,000 one year ago to 344,000 claims pending today, is a 44 percent reduction. The VA also said the accuracy of the decisions on disability claims has improved.

VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said that a paperless system, better training of claims workers and improved communications systems not only have helped reduce the backlog but also set up a system to prevent future backlogs. 

The news was certainly welcomed by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.  “The VA has assured me that it is on track to eliminate by the end of next year what everyone agrees have been unacceptable delays in processing claims,” Sanders said. “I welcome the progress that has been made and I intend to continue working with the VA to make sure that goal is achieved.”

Legislation proposed by Sanders would require quarterly reports to Congress on efforts to eliminate a backlog by the end of 2015.  VA would have to detail both the projected and actual number of claims received, pending, completed and on appeal.

The VA Backlog Working Group, a group of senators who meet regularly to brainstorm VA reforms, released a report in March which analyzed the many factors that contributed to the backlog.  Chairs of the VA Backlog Working Group, Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., along with Sens. David Vitter, R-La., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., have introduced the 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act, legislation designed to reduce the claims backlog.

“The backlog has been a persistent and inexcusable problem,” said Sen. Casey. “Our Nation’s heroes shouldn’t have to wait for months or more for their claims to be addressed.  It is unacceptable that some veterans in Pennsylvania have waited a year or longer to get their disability claims processed, such as 345 days in Pittsburgh and 309 days in Philadelphia.  Veterans deserve a comprehensive and permanent solution to this problem, and our hope is that this legislation will ensure we reach that goal.”

Details of the 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act:

Title I – Benefits Claims Submission.  This section is designed to encourage, assist, and educate veterans on the benefits of submitting a completed claim, when possible, as well as reinforce the services available to help a veteran complete a claim.

§  Includes proposals to improve veterans’ access to information about the claims process;

§  Provides Veterans Service Organizations and veterans’ preferred secondary contact with better access to information;

§  Authorizes monetary benefits to incentivize developed claims submission.

Title II - Reforming Practices of Regional Offices.  Personnel and management must be given tools to perform efficiently. This section requires the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to make structural changes that increase accuracy and efficiency at the regional office level in the following ways:

§  Calls for audit of regional offices of the Veterans Benefits Administration;

§  Ensures improved accountability and oversight of VARO management;

§  Provides resources to VBA employees and implements changes in process that allows VBA employees to move claims through the electronic benefits awards structure more efficiently;

§  Improves transparency to the public on the size and scope of the current backlog.

Title III - Government Response. This section holds the government accountable and helps to ensure the claims process is a priority.

§  Demands greater cooperation from federal agencies to transfer requested information;

§  Presses VBA employees to process information it receives from these agencies in a timely fashion.

Sullivan: Sequestration “biggest danger facing today’s military” 

4/7/2014 

Gen. Gordon Sullivan, USA, Ret., president of the Association of the U.S. Army

The biggest danger facing today’s military is not terrorism, global instability or the proliferation of weapons. It’s the danger of our ignorance if we let history repeat itself. In our zeal to quickly cut federal spending we have accepted an increased level of risk to our national security because of unwillingness by our political leaders to think twice before dropping the ax.

We’ve been in this situation before, and we didn’t like the outcome. In 1898, then-Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing wrote about the state of post-Civil War defense policies, noting that many people believed there would never be another war. “Pacifism was predominant,” he wrote. “As the national debt had grown, partly as a result of pensions, retrenchment had been the political cry of both parties, and appropriations for defense had been constantly reduced. The people throughout the country were almost exclusively occupied with their own personal affairs to the neglect of such considerations. Nobody listened to those who realized the wisdom of maintaining an adequate army and advocated it.”

More than 100 years ago, the siren song of reductions in defense manpower was luring the unsuspecting onto the shoals of unpreparedness for future conflict. Pershing’s reflection on post-Civil War defense spending highlights a trend that began just after the American Revolution, and seems to continue driving contemporary decisions. This cycle of readiness followed by unpreparedness has repeated itself all too often throughout our history. Cuts are made with little relationship to reality or logical predictions about future defense requirements. In today’s lexicon, those cuts and reductions are called “sequestration.” 

Many national political leaders have been remiss in explaining to the American people why sequestration is so devastating to our national security. Mandating that federal spending cuts come equally from defense and non-defense programs sequestration sounds equitable, except for the fact that the U.S. defense budget represents only 17 percent of all annual federal spending. This disruptive legislation is indicative of a government seemingly unable to function as a responsible democracy. It is patently unresponsive to the needs of a nation that is part of a rapidly changing world in which predicting the future is virtually impossible. It locks the nation into a creaky, slow moving, lockstep budget process that is irresponsible and unaccountable, and ignores the world around it. This phenomenon is well understood in Washington, yet when I ask elected and appointed officials what they are doing to turn this situation around I just get a lot of shoulder shrugging. It is disappointing and worrisome, to say the least.

I shake my head at the drastic cuts in military manpower being contemplated. While that might save money in the short term, what will be the future cost in blood? Sadly, after almost every conflict the “peace dividend” left our armed forces unbalanced and unready — the ultimate consequence of which was an enormous loss of life in the inevitable next conflict. After World War I, where Pershing headed the American Expeditionary Force, manpower plummeted because there were to be “no more wars.” So when World War II inconveniently disrupted that thinking, it took four years to build a well-trained fighting force and another year for it to prevail. After that war, troop levels plummeted again. Then came the Korean War and, predictably, an inadequate force paid heavily. The cycle has continued to repeat: atrophied fighting forces announcing to potential enemies that America’s land forces are too small, so now is the time to challenge U.S. national interests.

Those who refuse to acknowledge that the United States will ever again become involved in a large land operation have set us on a path to a too-small active military force. Urbanization and globalization indicate that future military operations likely will be more manpower intensive, not less. Some believe our land forces can be easily reinforced by just mobilizing our reserves or by simply recruiting more soldiers when needed. Recent history has shown us, however, that it takes the U.S. Army as much as two years to recruit, organize, train and equip a newly formed brigade combat team – that’s not rapid enough in today’s security environment where crises like the Crimea can emerge literally in days (again, think Korea in June 1950) and can fester for years, as in Syria. So, we must rely entirely on the force we have – active, Guard, and reserve. But with the effects of sequestration steadily decreasing the size and readiness of our military, the depth of the force and its ability to mobilize is being severely degraded. The United States must have a military force that is large enough to deter potential enemies, and it must be manned with the best people – people who are properly compensated for the rigors of a profession that is unlike any other and brings with it enormous stressors on both themselves and their families.

Sequestration is also having a devastating effect on the defense industrial base. In both the Defense Department’s own industrial facilities and in commercial industry, sequestration cuts are putting our ability to equip a mobilized force at growing risk. I am alarmed that there is a gross lack of awareness among national leaders how dire this situation is becoming. 

And sequestration has also led to growing international doubt about America’s credibility as an ally and partner. I am convinced we must be seen as a reliable ally - if not, we are on a very slippery slope to disaster. Credibility can only be found in the perception of strength and national resolve to meet our treaty commitments with balanced, trained and ready forces.

Similarly, adversaries are most certainly watching the steady decline of American military power and will be tempted to take more and more risk to challenge U.S. leadership. We are already seeing this. Moreover, with the shrinking of America’s military strength comes the increased chance of strategic miscalculation by potential enemies. A credible force – not just a reasonably sized force – provides a deterrent effect.

All of this explains the dire warnings we hear from uniformed and civilian defense officials about our military’s decreasing ability to carry out its mission. Why don’t elected and appointed officials own up to this misguided management of our national defense and fix it? This time let’s not repeat history. Let’s maintain our best weapon – our fighting men and women – in the numbers and quality that will keep us ready when inevitability brings us the next war.

AUSA ON THE HILL

AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., provided testimony for the record to a hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee.

Sullivan’s primary message to the panel:  End sequestration permanently before more damage is done and before we are left with an inadequate national defense force!

In his testimony, Sullivan said, “AUSA believes that the primary source of the budget challenges that face the Department of Defense (DoD) is the devastating effect of the sequestration provision of the Budget Control Act of 2011. 

“The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 mitigated the sequestration spending cuts for FY 2014 and 2015.  However, the original sequestration cuts scheduled for FY 2016 thru 2021 remain in effect and will exacerbate the situation by continuing to place national security at risk.

“Sequestration has created a perception that the troops “cost too much” and are to blame for our growing military unreadiness.  The facts do not bear this out and the troops know it.  But it has sown a growing distrust among service members who are increasingly and unfairly portrayed as an entitlement special interest group. 

“America will remain the world’s greatest power only so long as it continues to fulfill its reciprocal obligation to the only weapon system that has never let our country down — our extraordinarily dedicated, top-quality, All-Volunteer career force.” 

Sullivan said that not only is sequestration and a declining defense budget having an adverse effect on military readiness, “we are also seeing an emergence of international doubt as to the credibility of the United States as a reliable ally and partner.  I am convinced we must be seen as a credible ally - if not, we are on a very slippery slope to disaster.  Credibility in this context is found in the perception of strength and national resolve to be responsive to our treaty commitments with balanced, trained, and ready forces.

“Similarly, adversaries are most certainly watching the steady decline of American military power and will likely take more and more risk to challenge U.S. leadership.  Moreover, the decline in United States military strength can lead to strategic miscalculation by potential adversaries.   A credibly sized forced – not just a reasonably sized force – provides a deterrent effect that is withering under the constraints of sequestration.”

Please add your voice to Gen. Sullivan’s and contact your elected officials and urge them to end sequestration permanently.  Go to our website, www.ausa.org, click on the Contact Congress link, enter your zip code and click on the AUSA-prepared letter to Congress titled “End Sequestration Permanently.” 

ARMY BUDGET OFFICIAL:  DEEPER SPENDING CUTS LIKELY

One of the Army’s top budget officials gave key congressional staff members a run-down of the service’s fiscal constraints last week at AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfare breakfast. 

Lt. Gen. Joseph E. Martz, Military Deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Financial Management & Comptroller), told the audience that the while Army’s current fiscal footing is a “glass half-full” the deepest spending cuts were likely still on the horizon. 

Last year was a bad year, Martz said, because “that's when sequester took effect and large-unit training exercises were canceled.”  He explained that when the sequestration execute order was issued March 1, 2013, too much was taken out of the overseas contingency operation, or OCO, budget, which needed funding for items such as aviation, which remained in high demand in Afghanistan despite troop and equipment reductions.  Additionally, as equipment came back it needed to be reset.  The result was that "we had to make (the money shortfall) up ourselves. That drove canceling things like training," he said.

"Everybody’s going, 'Holy smokes, this is terrible,'" Martz said of the current budget crunch.  "I'm not saying what's going to happen," he added, “Well don’t use the hard adjectives too quickly because you may run out of them.  Keep some in reserve.”

Martz said that the Army’s the priorities -- as dictated by the Army secretary and chief of staff -- are readiness, balanced with manpower and modernization.  That balance is needed to carry out the Army's strategy, which is "prevent, shape and win."  Readiness includes training exercises and it also includes professional education and development, along with programs from the Ready and Resilient Campaign while modernization priorities include missile and cyber defense, aviation, science, technology and research.

The Army has requested $121 billion for fiscal year 2015, down from the $125 billion Congress provided for 2013. 

Odierno: Army faces 'tough' choices in uncertain fiscal times

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, April 8, 2014) -- The chief of staff of the Army told senators "tough" choices must be made in uncertain fiscal times, and up to 46 percent of active brigade combat teams might need to be cut if full sequestration hits in 2016.

Gen. Ray Odierno testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee today, at a hearing on the active Army and Reserve force mix related to the Defense Authorization request for fiscal year 2015 and the Future Years Defense Program.

Other witnesses were Gen. Frank Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, and Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Talley, the chief of the Army Reserve and commanding general of the U.S. Army Reserve Command.

"We must make tough but necessary choices," Odierno said. "We must ensure we have the best Army possible, even under full sequestration."

He said if full sequestration returns in fiscal year 2016 and beyond, the reduction of up to 46 percent of brigade combat teams, or BCTs, in the active Army would be accompanied by a cut of 22 percent of the BCTs from the National Guard. He said that would result in the Army going from a mix of 51 percent active and 49 percent Reserve Component, to a 54 percent reserve and 46 percent active-component mix.

"The Army will be the only service in which the Reserve Component outnumbers the Active Component," he said. "We believe under these fiscal constraints, it's appropriate."

FISCAL YEAR 2015 REQUEST

Odierno said under the current fiscal year 2015 budget request, the active Army will reduce from a wartime high of 570,000 to 490,000; the Army National Guard from 358,200 to 350,200; and the Army Reserve from 205,000 to 202,000 Soldiers.

He called the fiscal year 2015 budget request a "balanced and responsible way forward."

"It allows the Army to reduce and reorganize forces, but incurs some risk to equipment modernization programs and readiness," he said.

Odierno said under the fiscal year 2015 budget request, the Army will decrease its end strength through fiscal year 2017 to a total Army of 440,000-450,000 in the active Army, 335,000 in the Army National Guard, and 195,000 in the Army Reserve.

"This should be the absolute floor for end-strength reductions," he said.

"In order to execute the defense strategy, it is important to note that as we continue to lose end strength, our flexibility deteriorates as does our ability to react to a strategic surprise," he told the committee.

"Our assumptions about the duration and size of future conflicts, allied contributions and the need to conduct post-conflict stability operations are optimistic. If these assumptions are wrong, our risk grows significantly," he said.

SEQUESTRATION RISK

With sequestration-level caps in fiscal year 2016 and beyond, Odierno said the Army could have to reduce its total end strength even further -- to 420,000 in the active Army, 315,000 in the National Guard, and 185,000 in the Army Reserve.

From the wartime highs, that end force strength reduction would be 213,000 Soldiers from the total force, he said. The active Army would represent 70 percent of those reductions, compared with 20 percent from the National Guard and 10 percent from the U.S. Army Reserve, Odierno said.

RESERVE COMPONENT RISK

Grass said the uncertain fiscal environment in the future will certainly impact the National Guard. These challenges come at a time, he said, when the country is facing "asymmetric and conventional threats from state and non-state actors."

He said any cuts that would drop the Guard force below the proposed 335,000 "present too high of a risk in my view, not only in terms of the threats we face overseas, but also in the homeland."

Talley said Odierno's directive for an Army Reserve end strength of 195,000 by 2017 is an "acceptable risk" to sustain a ready and operational reserve force.

However, if the Army Reserve is forced to go down to 185,000, that would "negatively impact our ability to provide technical enablers, skills and capabilities vital to success in many missions," he said.

AVIATION RESTRUCTURE

Odierno said an initiative to restructure the total force's aviation will allow the Army to eliminate obsolete airframes, sustain a modernized fleet, reduce sustainment costs, and efficiently organize itself to meet operational commitments and imperatives.

As part of the Aviation Restructure Initiative, the Army will inactivate and eliminate three complete combat aviation brigades from the Active Component and will move all of the LUH-72s from active-component units to Fort Rucker, Ala., in order to train the pilots across all components, he said.

The National Guard will maintain 10 aviation brigades, and the Army will move Apaches to the Active Component, while increasing the fleet of UH-60s by sending 111 of the most modern Blackhawk helicopters to the National Guard. The National Guard will also retain all LUH-72s and CH-47s, he said.

Odierno said that as a result, the Active Component will be reduced by 687 aircraft, or 86 percent of the total reduction. The National Guard will be reduced by 111 aircraft, or 14 percent of the total reduction.

The Aviation Restructure Initiative will result in better and more capable formations that are able to respond to contingencies at home and abroad, he said.

"My goal remains to sustain the National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve as an operational reserve," he said. "To accomplish this, we must take moderate reductions to overall end strength in order to invest in appropriate training and sustainment levels."

(For more ARNEWS stories, visit www.army.mil/ARNEWS, or Facebook at www.facebook.com/ArmyNewsService, or Twitter @ArmyNewsService)

House Armed Services Talks Beneficiary Proposals

On Wednesday, the VFW provided written testimony to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel regarding FY 2015 budget proposals that may reduce healthcare and benefits for active duty, retirees and their families. In our testimony, we reminded committee members that we are a nation still at war with obligations that put our service men and women at risk. Reducing compensation, healthcare or other benefits on the backs of those who served and their families should not be part of any proposal within DOD. The committee heard from two witnesses from The Military Coalition: Mike Hayden, Military Officers Association of America, and Rick Jones, National Association for Uniformed Services. Both discussed the long-term consequences many of the DOD proposals will have on service members and their families. Committee members all agreed that they would like to wait for recommendations from the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission before agreeing to any changes or reductions in benefits. Read the VFW's testimony. Watch the recorded hearing.

Committee Asks VA for Explanation on Healthcare Delays/Deaths

This week, the House VA Committee held its third hearing focused on patient safety and preventable deaths within VA medical facilities. The line of questioning focused on the 23 deaths that were the result of delays in treatment at VA and the unresponsiveness to requests for more information from the committee. Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) opened the hearing with harsh words for VA, noting his frustration with the lack of information provided to the committee. Other committee members also raised serious concerns about the lack of accountability for the deaths that occurred as a result of delays in care. GAO and VA Inspector General Representatives stated that VA has responded to their recommendations and have taken steps to improve its medical appointment wait times and scheduling oversight to ensure quality healthcare is provided to veterans. To watch the recorded hearing or to read submitted testimony by witnesses, click here.

The VFW Joins Capitol Seminar on Rural Veterans

On Tuesday, the VFW was on hand at the U.S. Capitol for a seminar hosted by The Home Depot Foundation and the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) to discuss the unique challenges faced by rural veterans and present HAC's new report on housing rural veterans in America, entitled "From Service to Shelter." The Council's report qualitatively studied the unique characteristics of rural veterans and the challenges in delivering services to meet their needs. The seminar also featured two panels to discuss federal resources for rural veterans and examples of local programs that have helped satisfy the needs of the community, as well as members of the House and Senate who discussed ways they were working to better serve rural veterans. For more details about the seminar and the report on rural veterans, click here.

Veterans Crisis Line

The Department of Veterans Affairs relies on groups and individuals to spread the word about the Veterans Crisis Line, a free, confidential resource for veterans, service members and their loved ones. If someone you know shows signs of crisis, encourage him or her to call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat or text 838255 for support. There are other simple actions to take to help veterans access the care they earned and deserve. Help spread the word, because it matters. Learn more.

Congress on Two Week Recess-Time to Schedule a Visit

Congress headed home to their district offices for a two-week recess today. During the extended recess, we urge all of our advocates to attend a town hall meeting or schedule an appointment with your member of Congress. To find information on your member's schedule and how to schedule a meeting or invite them to speak at your Post, sign up for their newsletters, and see what bills they support, visit the House website and type in your zip code. When you meet with your member of Congress, be prepared to discuss critical veterans and military quality-of-life issues. Ask them what they plan to do about Sequestration. Initiate a conversation about other key issues like advance appropriations for all VA programs, in-state tuition for student-veterans, protecting military quality-of-life programs and working to expand veterans' caregiver benefits. An in-depth look at these issues can be found in our Advocacy in Action booklet and as part of our 2014 Priority Goals

Volunteers Needed for Reading of Names

Volunteers are being sought to help with a first-ever Reading of the Names of Iraq and Afghanistan war dead over the Memorial Day weekend in Washington, D.C. Sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and supported by the VFW and many others, the names will be read aloud chronologically beginning at 9 a.m., May 24, on the east knoll of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and continue until almost 6 p.m. Those interested in volunteering can register starting at 8 a.m., Monday, April 14, at www.vvmf.org/rotn. Each volunteer will read 15 names. As VFW National Commander Bill Thien said, "The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. is proud to support the Reading of the Names initiative because it remembers those who fell, and it reconfirms to their families and comrades-in-arms that service, sacrifice and patriotism will never be forgotten."

Three MIAs Recovered

The Defense POW/MIA Office recently announced the identification of remains belonging to three American servicemen who had been missing in action since World War II and the Korean War. Recovered are:

  • Army Air Forces 1st Lt. Louis L. Longman, 26, of Clinton, Iowa, who was buried April 12, in Rock Island, Ill. On April 16, 1944, Longman was piloting a P-38J Lightning aircraft that didn't return to base after a bomber escort mission against enemy targets on New Guinea.
  • Army Pfc. Arthur Richardson, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division, was lost on Jan. 1, 1951, in South Korea. He will be buried with full military honors at a location yet to be determined.
  • Marine Corps Cpl. William S. Blasdel, Company H, 3rd Battalion, 11th Regiment, 1st Marine Division, was lost Oct. 28, 1953, in North Korea. He will be buried with full military honors this spring in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

AUSA Military Family Advocacy Forum 

Have questions and uncertainty about sequestration and its effects? We have the answers! Join us for a forum to unravel the most pressing issues and concerns with representatives from several key military family support organizations who will address these important community topics as they relate to the potential effects on the military and your benefits. Following the panel discussion, we’re turning it over to you! Participants will have the opportunity to voice their opinions and have their questions answered in a town hall-style open forum. Interact with local organizations and support programs at the on-site exhibit fair 

April 25, 2014 Newport News Marriott at City Center

740 Town Center Drive, Newport News, VA 23606

Registration: 0930 Forum: 1000- 1200 Lunch: 1215-1330

Exhibit Fair: 1330-1500

We're delighted to be joined at this event by our friends from Operation Homefront, National Military Family Association, AFA, and AUSN! This is sure to be an exciting and informative forum- spread the word with people you know! Seating is limited, so please register here to attend this event!

Nominate a Family for the 2014 AUSA Volunteer Family of the Year Award

The 2014 AUSA Volunteer Family of the Year Award nomination period is now open! This award recognizes an exceptional Army family whose dedicated volunteer service has contributed to improving well-being for both the Army and the local community. The award is open to all active duty, National Guard, Reserve, retiree, Army civilian and surviving families. Nominations must be submitted through local AUSA chapters. Award winners will receive a trip to Washington, DC for the 2014 Annual Meeting in October. This year we are also excited to partner with American Freedom Foundation and Kaplan University, who will award an as yet to be determined number of partial and full scholarships to selected spouses of nominated families. All spouses of nominated families are eligible to compete for these scholarships. Click here for more information, eligibility requirements, and Award FAQs.

 VA, DoD Team Up to Improve eBenefits by Migrating National Resource Directory

The Department of Veterans Affairs, in collaboration with the Departments of Defense and Labor, will be integrating the National Resource Directory (NRD) into eBenefits to improve access to health care, benefits information and more. Veterans will be able to find enhanced self-service capabilities and resources from one site, improving access to information and assistance. The NRD offers more than 15,000 resources that have met quality assurance criteria to ensure that every program and organization listed is acting in good faith and making a positive difference for wounded warriors, Service members, Veterans, their families members and caregivers.

While some functionality will change, the majority of existing capabilities will still be available after the integration allowing the NRD to continue to address the needs of wounded warriors, Service members, Veterans, their family members and caregivers by providing direct access to resources. Integrating the NRD into eBenefits is just one step the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) is taking to improve access to health care and benefits for wounded warriors, Service members, Veterans, their family members and caregivers. eBenefits users can also now seamlessly access MyPay with single sign on and order prescription refill, secure messaging with physician and view medical appointments through the MyHealtheVet Blue Button.

For more information, go to https://www.ebenefits.va.gov or call VA’s toll-free number at 1-877-222-VETS (8387) or email the NRD at infonrd.osd@mail.mil.

Women's History Month

Take a look at the special report put together in tribute to the incredible women of our Armed Services of yesterday and today. Read through the President’s and Defense Department’s proclamations, profiles of currently serving high-ranking officers and inspiring service members of years past, a detailed timeline of service starting in 1775, and much, much more. Browse through scholarship and grant information, commentary and editorial, and current events and celebrations here.

One Year “Doc Fix” Patch Signed into Law

And yes yet another report on the “Doc Fix” Last week the Senate passed a 1 year “Doc Fix” patch and the President signed it. The patch stopped a 24% pending cut in reimbursement to doctors who treat Medicare patients that would have gone into effect on Tuesday April 1st. The Senate passed it by a healthy bipartisan 64-35 vote.  

But it was a disappointment to both the new Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Representative Dave Camp (R-MI) who had been trying to negotiate a permanent fix. When it became clear that there was no agreement as to how to pay for such a permanent fix this deal was negotiated by Speaker of the House Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Leader Reid (D-NV) negotiated the year patch.

This is the 16th patch of the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) since it became law and we can all count on being here again next year.  

TREA-Led Congressional Breakfast Provides Window into Washington Fights

The Military Coalition (TMC) is a group of over 30 military and veterans organizations that work together on issues of common concern. TREA is a leader in the coalition, with TREA’s Washington staff sitting as co-chairs of four TMC committees: Guard-Reserve, MWR & Military Construction, Tax, and Survivors. In addition, they sit as members of several other committees.  

Last Wednesday the Guard-Reserve Committee, which is co-chaired by TREA Legislative Director Larry Madison, sponsored the annual House (of Representatives) Guard-Reserve Caucus breakfast. The purpose of this event is to bring together the leaders of each of the Reserve Components of the U.S. Armed Forces with members of the Guard-Reserve Caucus of the House of Representatives and allow the Reserve Component Chiefs to let the House members know what their top 3 needs for the coming year are.  

The co-chairs of the House Guard-Reserve Caucus are Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), with Hunter have been a Marine Reservist and Walz being an Army National Guard retiree (and TREA Life Member). They were the co-hosts of the breakfast.  

The guest speaker was acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox. Ms Fox explained and defended the Department’s proposed budget for the 2015 fiscal year.  In her address, Ms Fox repeated the Department’s complaint about Sequestration (the automatic spending cuts to United States federal government spending in particular categories of outlays that were initially set to begin on January 1, 2013). Although Congress partially restored funding to DoD last year, more automatic cuts are scheduled to go into effect in coming years and she stated that the proposed cuts this year are nothing compared to what the cuts will have to be in coming years if Sequestration is not changed. A number of the Reserve Component Chiefs echoed her complaint about Sequestration.  

However, later in the event, when Rep. Hunter had a moment to speak, he pushed back against Secretary Fox and the Chiefs and told them that Sequestration was a fact of life, was not going to be repealed, and that they needed to get used to it and plan accordingly. 

In addition, the split between the active Army and the National Guard was publicly displayed when GEN Frank Grass, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau and a sitting and voting member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke in favor of appointing a new commission to settle the differences between the active Army and the National Guard regarding the size and structure of the Army and its Reserve Components – something the active Army strongly is opposed to.  

All in all, it was one of the most interesting breakfast meetings the Guard-Reserve Committee has ever hosted. It demonstrated publicly the fight for scarce resources that is taking place at the top levels of the Defense Department and it was fascinating to watch.

 VA Announces Backlog Reduced by 44 Percent in One Year

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced last week that the compensation claims backlog has been reduced by 44 percent since the peak in March 2013 and that on average veterans are waiting 119 fewer days for a decision than they were a year ago.

 Additionally, the backlog is at its lowest point since March 201. That’s when the number of claims spiked as VA opened up access for Vietnam Veterans with claims related to Agent Orange exposure.    The accuracy of claims decisions has improved from 83 percent in 2011 to 91 percent today, according to a VA press release.

According to the Washington Post, VA data shows that the number of claims stuck in the processing system for more than 125 days had dropped to 344,000, compared to a high of about 611,000 a year ago.

However, VA’s resolution of cases at the claims level has led to a surge in the volume of appeals cases. That number has grown by 50 percent to more than 250,000 since President Obama took office, and the Board of Veterans Appeals has said the amount could double before 2018.

Further, there have been some reports that some VA offices have been cutting down on the claims backlog by simply throwing out some of the hardest to resolve cases. TREA: The Enlisted Association is meeting with Veterans Benefits Administration officials about the issue later this month.

We will keep you updated on this important topic.

Navy Moving Towards Ending Tobacco Sales

It seems to be an almost forgone conclusion that the Navy will be ending sales of all tobacco products by the fall of this year. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has announced that he is studying the issue but everyone thinks he has already reached the decision to stop sales both on bases and in Ship stores.  

The possible ban was first reported in the” Navy Times.”

Then last week “Stars and Stripes” reported that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is looking at banning tobacco sales from all military installations. Stars and Stripes reported:  

“As the Navy considers banning tobacco sales on all bases and ships, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave a strong endorsement of the review Monday, and suggested that he would be in favor of a ban. …… I don’t know if there’s anybody in America who still thinks that tobacco is good for you….. We don’t allow smoking in any of our government buildings. Restaurants, states, [and] municipalities have pretty clear regulations on this. I think in reviewing any options that we have as to whether we in the military through commissaries [or] PXs sell or continue to sell tobacco is something we need to look at. And we are looking at it. And I think we owe it to our people.” 

Recent studies have shown that members of the military smoke more than their civilian counterparts. A 2011 DoD study showed that 24% of the military smokes while 20% of civilians of the same age smoke. More dramatically it showed that 60% of Marines had used some form of tobacco in the preceding 12 months. 

In a memo from Jessica Wright, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and Dr. Jonathon Woodson assistant secretary of defense for health affairs  on March 14th and obtained by the Military Times the Department of Defense estimated that tobacco use costs DoD approximated $1.6 billion a year in medical costs and lost work time. It also estimated that 175,000 of current active duty smokers will eventually die from a smoking related illness or complication. They then said: 

"Although we stopped distributing cigarettes to our service members as part of their rations, we continue to permit, if not encourage, tobacco use… The prominence of tobacco products in retail outlets and permission for smoking breaks while on duty sustain the perception that we are not serious about reducing the use of tobacco." 

If sales of tobacco products in Commissaries and Exchanges are stopped; it will surely mean a drop in Exchanges’ profits. And that will mean a drop in MWR support. In FY2012 military stores had $711.4 million in sales and $125.7 million in profits. Tobacco sales also bring in shoppers who then buy additional products.

Even so, tobacco sales at military bases have steadily dropped for the last 20 years. In 2013 sales in Navy Exchanges have dropped 12% in the last 5 years sales at AAFES have dropped 24% but 2013 still accounted for 6% of total sales.  

But the expected ban seems to be just the next in several previous steps. Commissaries stopped discounting cigarettes in 1990s.The Navy eliminated smoking breaks and required designated smoking areas be set up away from non-smokers in offices, surface ships and submarines. Then in 2010 it banned smoking in submarines. 

AAFES is under great pressure to also stop selling tobacco products. 

Of course Congress may weigh in. Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) a Marine Corps veteran and member of the HASC wrote a letter to Navy Secretary Mabus after hearing about the proposed ban. He said: 

"While I recognize the Navy believes removing tobacco products would help in 'maximizing the readiness' of sailors and Marines, it's my belief that the Navy should worry less about intruding on the personal decision-making of these same sailors and Marines, while creating added burdens in the process.  

Banning on-base sales of tobacco "limit — and in some cases restrict — access to legal products that service men and women choose to purchase on their own…..Overall, removing tobacco sales is perceived more as a political decision, intended to make a point, than it is a decision that supports our sailors and Marines — regardless of personal feelings on the individual and legal use of tobacco products….Having spent time around Marines and sailors through multiple deployments, I believe there are far more immediate priorities for the Navy and the Marine Corps, all of which require your leadership and attention.”  

It is not clear what other members of Congress may think. If it goes though it will demonstrate a dramatic cultural, and practical shift from the days of “smoke them if you’ve got them.”  

If you have an opinion on this matter now is the time to contact your Senators and Representative.

Senate May Still Pass Large Veterans Bill This Year

Members of The Military Coalition (TMC) have been working to revive S. 1982, the large veteran’s omnibus bill that went down to defeat in early March.  

TMC met with professional staff of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee last week and reiterated our support for the bill even while voicing some level of concern over the sheer size of the bill, the politics surrounding the bill in an election year, and the sources of funding used to pay for the bill.

This bill has nearly something for everyone in the veterans community: it expands the Caregiver Act to veterans of all wars, not just Post 9/11 veterans and their families, it would expand access to VA healthcare to veterans who are currently uninsured by expanding priority group 8, it would allow the survivors of Post 9/11 veterans to be eligible for the full Post 9/11 GI Bill, it expands eligibility for in-state tuition for Post 9/11 GI Bill users, it expands the time period for the Veterans Retraining and Assistance Program (VRAP) among many, many other initiatives.  

Congressional Hearings for the Week of April 7th

This is going to be another busy week on the Hill. The House Armed Services has scheduled 6 hearings this week. Yes, six. Of most importance to us is the hearing on Thursday when spokesman from The Military Coalition and the National Military and Veterans Alliance will testify about the Administration’s proposed Department of Defense speak about the Administration’s DoD budget proposal for FY2015. TREA’s Washington staff strongly supports, deeply involved and works very hard in both groups. We are very pleased that the Personnel Subcommittee is holding this hearing. (We are also very interested that they are not as they normally do inviting a DoD panel to testify at the same time the Coalition and Alliances speak. We have no idea if this is a significant change. Please remember that you can watch all these hearings live by going to the HASC web page.

Interesting Tibits

On April 1st (Not a Joke) the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a new rule requiring that after May 1st 2018 all new cars (and buses and trucks) will be required to have “rearview technology” to meet their new rear visibility standards.

The economy added 192,000 jobs in March while the unemployment rate remained at 6.7 percent, the Labor Department reported Friday. Job growth was a little disappointing.

On Tuesday the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Clinic will cut the ribbon and open their new Women’s Health Clinic. According to the VA the clinic will offer “female” Veterans comprehensive and gender-specific health care in a newly-renovated 7,168 square foot space which boasts an increased number of spacious exam and procedure rooms, more restrooms, a space for complementary and alternative therapies and a larger waiting area with computer access. On-site mammography will also be available soon. “

VA Appropriations Clears Subcommittee

Yesterday, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Constructions and Veterans Affairs cleared their draft funding bill for FY 2015. The bill matches the Administration’s budget proposal for VA which is significantly below what the Independent Budget (IB) called for to meet the healthcare and benefit needs of veterans. Among the critical concerns for VFW and its IB partners are the serious underfunding of construction, IT and medical services accounts to include Advance Appropriations for FY 2016. Total funding calls for $71.5 billion in discretionary funds for VA and military construction accounts. The full Appropriations Committee will take up the legislation next week. Read the House Appropriations press release. For complete IB funding levels, click here.

VA Health Subcommittee Discusses FDA Safeguards

This week, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health discussed safeguards used when identifying recalled tissue products at VA medical facilities. The safety of products used to repair skin, restore broken bones or improve function and feeling from other wounds was the topic of a recent GAO report. The report, released on Wednesday, identified concerns with the completeness and accuracy of VHA's inventory and their ability to accurately identify all recalled products within medical inventories. VA Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health and Administrative Operations, Philip Matkovsky, testified that VA can significantly improve how they track inventory of tissue and other biological implants and have established a work team to identify improvements and is expected to complete its review and recommendations toward the end of FY 2014. For more information about the hearing, click here.

House Discusses VA Responses to Congress

This week the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hosted a hearing to address long wait times for VA to respond to Congressional requests. VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson was the only witness before the committee, outlining his plan to improve communication between his agency and Congress. Gibson had to answer difficult questions from the committee, which is concerned that the average inquiry to VA takes 143 days to receive a response. Learn more about the hearing and view it in its entirety.

Congress Holds Hearings on DoD Proposed Benefit Cuts

Last week the Personnel Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on the Defense budget for FY 2015 that has been put forth by the Department of Defense. In addition to hearing from officials from the Pentagon leadership, they also heard from representatives of The Military Coalition.

During the testimony from Pentagon officials, they stated numerous times that the DoD budget proposal would not cut military compensation, but rather would slow its increase. However, TMC believes that is playing fast and loose with words. The DoD proposal would give active duty personnel a 1% pay raise in FY2015 and “basic pay raises in future years will be similarly restrained, though modest increases will continue.”

The problem with that, of course, is that the purpose of a pay raise in the military is to at least keep up with the rate of inflation. It can also be a reward for excellent performance or, as has been the case in the last several years, a mechanism to put military pay on par with work in the private sector. But arbitrarily holding a raise to 1% and “restraining” them in the future is most likely to result in that pay being worth less and less as inflation continues. And, in fact, it amounts to a pay cut.

That’s why TMA opposes anything less than a pay raise that, at a minimum, makes up for inflation.

Other things that came out in the testimony from DoD officials is that the money DoD wants to cut from support of commissaries means that products purchased at the commissary will cost more. Instead of saving about 30% compared to the same products in a commercial grocery store, commissary shoppers would only save about 10%.

The Defense Department also wants to reduce the basic housing allowance, reduce the utilities subsidy, and eliminate the renters’ insurance subsidy. In the health care area DoD wants to increase the cost-shares for TRICARE and the co-pays for the pharmacy for active duty families, and establish a new enrollment fee for TRICARE-for-Life. Current TFL beneficiaries would be grandfathered in.

DoD officials also stated that only about 25% of the nation’s youth who are in the age range for military service meet the basic qualifications for service. And of that 25%, only about 14% are inclined to join the military.

Those are the young people DoD hopes to recruit with the new package of reduced benefits.

On the same day as the Senate hearing, the Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing where personnel officials from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and the Department of Defense testified. According to them, currently serving personnel are willing to trade pay cuts for improved training and equipment. But according to an article on Military.com, “…the personnel officials who offered testimony before the subcommittee could offer only personal anecdotes to back up their belief that troops would welcome pay and benefit cuts. No survey results were offered.”

TMA believes politics are what drives these proposed cuts from DoD, not sensible personnel policies. We oppose the Pentagon’s proposals and are fighting hard to stop them.

During the Senate hearings, many of the Senators expressed doubt about the DoD’s proposed cuts and challenged the DoD officials about them. Subcommittee Chair Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was very skeptical of the DoD officials and told them so. She also admonished all of the veterans groups present that they needed to put a face of the cuts. She said DoD is talking about the numbers and that’s what Senators and staffers look at because they are dealing with the federal budget. But she reminded us that those cuts are more than numbers. They affect real people and that we must make members of Congress hear from those people.

We urge you to contact both of your Senators and your Representative and let them know you oppose the DoD cuts. Unless they hear from, DoD might win this battle and your promised and earned benefits are going to be cut.

Iraq War Vet Pushes Vet Suicide Bill in Senate

Senator John Walsh (D-MT), a decorated Iraq war combat veteran, introduced S. 2182 last week. The bill aims to reduce the number of military veterans who commit suicide.

22 veterans commit suicide every day.

One of the principal aims of the bill is to give veterans more time to receive mental health treatment. Veterans currently have five years of free healthcare from the Department of Veterans Affairs once they separate from active duty. Sometimes it can take longer than five years for service members and veterans to realize they're experiencing the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress and other mental injuries.

Walsh's bill would extend the time to receive mental health treatment from five years to 15 years.

The legislation also seeks to improve the quality of mental health care providers by making their jobs more competitive with the private sector, introduces a pilot program that would allow a students studying mental health to have their loans repaid if they work for the VA, calls for annual reviews of care programs within the Defense Department and the VA to ensure resources are being used effectively to help service members and vets struggling with mental health issues, requires VA and DOD to integrate their electronic health records, and streamlines the way the Pentagon and the VA prescribe medication.

Currently, VA and DOD don’t provide the same pharmacy drug lists. So a service member can be prescribed one drug while they are in the service but won’t have access to it once they transition over to VA’s healthcare system.

Senator Walsh’s office is waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to “score” the bill (give a cost estimate).

Other New Veterans Bills

S.2179  A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to waive the minimum period of continuous active duty in the Armed Forces for receipt of benefits for homeless veterans, to authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to furnish benefits for homeless veterans to homeless veterans with discharges or releases from service in the Armed Forces under other than honorable conditions, and for other purposes.

Sponsor: Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA)

H.R.4344  To amend title 38, United States Code, to establish a presumption of service connection for mental health conditions related to military sexual trauma.

Sponsor: Rep. Dina C. Titus (D-NV-01)

H.R.4335  To amend title 38, United States Code, to clarify that the estate of a deceased veteran may receive certain accrued benefits upon the death of the veteran, to ensure that substituted claims are processed timely, and for other purposes.

Sponsor: Rep. Dan Maffei (D-NY-24)

New Bills to proposed to Protect Commissary Benefit

There are new bills in the House and Senate that would protect the Commissary benefit, at least until there is a report issued by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. H.R. 4217 the Military Commissary Sustainment Act was introduced by Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA) would prohibit a reduction of funding for the commissaries this fiscal year pending the report from the MCRMC. S.2075 is an exact companion bill introduced by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA)

When urging passage of his bill Rep. Forbes noted:” "Reducing commissary services is essentially cutting the pay of those who volunteer to wear this nation's uniform and is an unacceptable breach of faith with our warriors and their families.

There is also H.R. 3996 introduced by Rep. Tim Griffin (R- AR) pending in the House. It would prohibit the closure or reduced operation of military commissary stores and exchange stores before January 1, 2017. “

This is all good news but we must remember that we don’t know what the Commission will recommend. We must not just depend on them to reach the right conclusions. It is essential that you contact your representatives and tell them of the importance of this and other of your earned benefits to you and your family.

March is Women’s History Month-and Women Veterans are Honored

You may or may not know that March was Women’s History Month. It is a growing celebration in Washington and both the VA and the White House has used it as a chance to focus on the accomplishments of women veterans.

First the VA rolled out the story of 4 fascinating women who served in the military for the last 150 years. They are:

“Sarah Emma Edmonds joined the United States Army to “fight for her country” in the Civil War. She disguised her sex and used the name Frank Thompson. A nurse in the Second Volunteers of the United States Army, she was unique because she able to remain in the army for several years and was successful as a Union spy, while impersonating a man.

 Cathay Williams, born in Independence Mo., was the first African American female to enlist, serving in the United States Army as William Cathay. She was a Buffalo Soldier, passing herself off as a man. She survived smallpox and several other illnesses. She was one of the first women to enlist in the Army and was the first African American woman to do so.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker volunteered for the Union Army as a civilian nurse, as the Army had no female surgeons. She was finally awarded a commission as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon,” becoming the first-ever female U.S Army surgeon. She often crossed battle lines to treat the injured civilians and was captured by Confederate troops and arrested as a spy. She was released and went on to supervise orphanages, become a writer and lecturer, advocating for women’s rights. Walker is the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.

Eileen Collins: an inspiration too many young women reaching for the stars. Irene

Kinne Englund was born in El Paso, Texas. She piloted military aircraft during World War II as a member of the Women Air Force Service Pilots. She transported medical patients, ferried military aircraft and towed aerial gunnery targets. Because she was such a skilled pilot, she was one of the few women to be awarded Veteran status by the military.

Eileen Collins grew up reading about famous pilots such as Amelia Earhart and other women pilots who inspired her to earn a pilot’s license. During Operation Grenada in 1983, she flew evacuated medical students and their families out of Grenada. In 1998, Eileen Collins became the first Woman Space Shuttle Commander. She is an inspiration to many young women who are also reaching for the stars. “

http://www.va.gov/health/NewsFeatures/2014/March/Remarkable-Women-Veterans-in-American-History.asp#sthash.L7sMxzNO.dpuf

Then on March 25 the Administration honored 10 of today’s women veterans as Champions of Change at the White House. The White House said they were “10 local women veteran industry leaders for their incredible contributions to our nation’s business, public, and community service sectors.”

Here is the list. To read their amazing biographies go to the Champions of Change website at:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/champions

  • Erica Borggren, Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Chicago, Ill.
  • Martha Daniel, President and CEO Information Management Resources, Inc., Aliso Viejo, Calif.
  • Mary Johanna Forbes, Assistant Director for Veterans Services for the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, Dupont, Wash.
  • Ellen Houlihan, Vice-Chair, Board of Directors, West Point Association of Graduates, Allen, Texas
  • Sonia Jo Kendrick, Founder of Feed Iowa First, Hiawatha, Iowa
  • Stacey Young-McCaughan, Director of Research for the STRONG STAR Consortium, Llano, Texas
  • Dana L. Niemela, MSW, Coordinator of the Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program, Denver, Co.
  • Coral Wong Pietsch, Judge, United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, Honolulu, Hi.
  • Graciela Tiscareño-Sato, CEO and Founder of Gracefully Global Group LLC, Hayward, Calif.
  • Deborah Scott Thomas, Founder, President & Chief Executive Officer of Data Solutions & Technology, Inc., Edgewater, Md.

Senate Hears Military Compensation, Benefits Proposals

The Pentagon's FY 2015 budget submission came under fire at a Wednesday hearing by the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel. At issue is the negative impact the proposed compensation and quality of life program changes could have on a military still at war, proposals that include another 1 percent pay raise, reduced housing allowances, increased TRICARE health and pharmaceutical fees on dependent families and retirees, and creating economic conditions that could force some stateside military commissaries to close, among others. The VFW will be submitting testimony for the record, but as stated previously, VFW National Commander Bill Thien blames the continued threat of sequestration for forcing the Defense Department to continue to shrink the size of the military and their benefits to meet ever-declining budgets. "Sequestration jeopardizes readiness and modernization programs and the continued viability of the All-Volunteer Force, which is why the VFW will redouble our efforts to work with Congress and the administration to end the sequester and help bring financial stability to a military that is still at war, and who will still be required to operate in a very dangerous and unpredictable world." Watch video of the subcommittee hearing at http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/hearings/active-guard-reserve-and-civilian-personnel-programs_03/26/14.

Busy Week for House VA Committee

The House Veterans' Affairs Committee had a busy week of hearings with all four House Veterans' Affairs Subcommittees hosting hearings to discuss pending legislation under their jurisdiction. The VFW was on hand to testify at all four of the hearings. Below are some of the bills that were under consideration:

* H.R. 2527 which would allow VA to provide veterans with counseling and treatment for sexual trauma that occurred during inactive duty training.
* H.R. 3387, Classified Veterans Access to Care Act, legislation would require VA to develop standards and disseminate guidance to ensure that veterans who participated in sensitive missions or were assigned to sensitive units are able to access mental health services.
* H.R. 3593, VA Construction Assistance Act would reform VA's construction process by coordinating with others in the industry to include design/build architectural experts and the Army Corps of Engineers.
* H.R. 3671, provides a cost-of-living increase to recipients of veterans' disability compensation, and dependency and indemnity compensation at the same rate as Social Security benefits.
* The COLA is tied to the annual CPI and social security index increases which are .
* H.R. 4037, Improving Veterans' Access to Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Act of 2014 would ensure that VA's VR&E program provides rehabilitative services to veterans in need. It also calls for more accurate metrics to measure successes within the program.
* H.R. 4038, Veterans Benefits Administration Information Technology Improvement Act of 2014,
* demands that VA prioritizes the completion of its information technology (IT) solution for processing VA education benefit claims.
* H.R. 4151, Veterans Education Survey Act of 2014, legislation that would capture statistical information from student veterans currently using their GI Bill benefits.
* H.R. 4191, Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act requires VA to accept private medical evidence as credible for use during the disability claims process for rating purposes.
For highlights from this week's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing, click here:
http://thevfw.blogspot.com/2014/03/vfw-testifies-on-va-construction.html
For highlights from this week's Economic Opportunity Subcommittee hearing, click here:
http://thevfw.blogspot.com/2014/03/vfw-testifies-on-education-employment.html
To view a list of witnesses and read the VFW's prepared remarks from this week's Health Subcommittee hearing, click here:
http://veterans.house.gov/hearing/%E2%80%9Clegislative-hearing-on-hr-183-hr-2527-hr-2661-hr-2974-hr-3508-hr-3180-hr-3387-hr-3831-hr
To view a list of witnesses and read the VFW's prepared remarks from this week's Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee hearing, click here: http://veterans.house.gov/hearing/legislative-hearing-on-hr-2018-hr-2088-hr-2119-hr-2529-hr-3671-hr-3876-hr-4095-hr-4102-hr

VFW Calls for VRAP Extension

This week the VFW joined Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA) and other veterans' advocates for a press conference on Capitol Hill, calling on Congress to extend the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP). VRAP is an education benefit program for older unemployed veterans that was commissioned through the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, but is scheduled to expire on March 31. The VFW has heard student veteran advocates praise the program, but also share concerns about some of its restrictions. For highlights from the press conference and to see how the VFW is working to extend and improve VRAP, click here: http://thevfw.blogspot.com/2014/03/vfw-calls-on-congress-to-extend-vrap.html

Purple Heart Survey

The VFW was asked by the Pentagon to comment about whether the Purple Heart eligibility criteria should be changed to include service members who are injured or killed by acts of violence, regardless of where they are stationed. We discovered a lot of VFW members have yet to take the Purple Heart Survey because it's in a "members only" section of the VFW website that they either didn't know about or know how to access. We have since added a link to the log-in section on our homepage at www.vfw.org. Your VFW membership number is required to gain entry. The survey closes on Monday, March 31.

TBI App Now Available

Traumatic Brain Injuries extend far beyond combat veterans, and to meet the needs of veterans and others who have suffered mild to moderate concussions, the VA has developed "Concussion Coach," a mobile application that provides tools to assess symptoms and facilitate the use of coping strategies. The app is intended to support, not replace professional treatment or rehabilitation therapies. The app is available for Apple mobile devices at https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/concussion-coach/id713590872?ls=1&mt=8, and will be made available for Google Play later this year.

D-Day 70th Anniversary Planning

According to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France is offering to provide D-Day veterans and a guest with roundtrip transportation from Paris to Normandy, and lodging, meals and transportation while in Normandy for the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord this June 6. Travel to/from Paris is an individual responsibility. Paris-based VFW Benjamin Franklin Post 605 is assisting by collecting the names of VFW and other D-Day veterans planning to attend. Please e-mail the following information as soon as possible to Chuck Steiner at VFW Post 605 at cjsteiner@aol.com.
* Full name, age and home address of veteran (include home/cell phone and e-mail, too).
* Indicate if a D-Day veteran, Normandy campaign, or WWII veteran.
* Escort or guest's name (if more than one, so indicate).
* Special needs (e.g., wheelchair).
* Dates of planned attendance (arrival to and departure from France).
If unable to send by e-mail, address regular mail to: Chuck Steiner, VFW Benjamin Franklin Post 605, 4 rue du General Leclere, 92130, Issy-les-Moulineaux, France. Other WWII veterans who plan to attend should forward this information, too, as the French Government may also extend similar support to them. Be advised, however, that the in-country support is subject to revision.

National Memorial Day Concert Seeks D-Day Vets

 The 2014 National Memorial Day Concert will commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day with a special tribute. Concert organizers are looking for a small, representative group of D-Day veterans who could attend and participate in the program on Sunday, May 25, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In addition, there will be a limited number of seats at the concert reserved for WWII veterans. Contact Events Manager Anne Maginnis at 202-554-4620 or amaginnis@capitalconcerts.org. This is a correction to what they provided for last week's Washington Weekly.