Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 25 March 2014 

3/25/2014 

 

 

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. 

Sequestration and the Budget

Back in August 2011, Congress passed the Budget Control Act (BCA) to resolve the debt ceiling mess.  Lawmakers in both chambers passed this act with bipartisan support and President Obama signed it into law.  The legislation included $1.2 trillion in cuts and directed that a joint House and Senate super-committee be created to find another $1.2 trillion by Nov. 23, 2011.  Unfortunately, the super-committee failed in its mission and sequestration (across-the-board spending cuts) went into effect in 2013. 

Each year, budget cuts are split evenly between non-war defense spending and discretionary domestic spending.  Sounds fair until you realize that the overall Defense portion of the Federal Budget is only 17 percent!  Therefore, the BCA was skewed against Defense programs from the start with disproportionate sequestration cuts coming from America’s military, thereby threatening our national security.

DoD’s portion of sequestration is $52 billion per year through 2021 on top of the $487 billion already agreed to with the Army absorbing the lion’s share of the cut.  Meanwhile Congress continues to make budget decisions based on politics, not strategy.

In December 2013, the Bipartisan Budget Act hammered out by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., provided limited relief from sequestration – but only through fiscal 2015.  The measure allowed the Chief of Staff of the Army to “buy back” some readiness in the force (especially in the area of combat training center collective training), but only for a limited time.  In fiscal 2016, full sequestration of the defense budget will resume and we will be right back to where we are now – or worse.

Over the past two years sequestration has managed to set America on a path to reduced military readiness and national security.  Sequestered budgets are rapidly shrinking the nation’s military forces to unprecedented and even unacceptable levels thereby creating unready forces unable to accomplish the tasks assigned by the defense strategy.  All of this while the world security environment is becoming increasingly uncertain and dangerous.

Through sequestration of the defense budget, Congress has driven a wedge between our active military forces and our reserve and National Guard forces, most notably in the United States Army.  The irresponsibility of sequestration as a deficit reduction tactic is not only reducing the military's war winning capabilities to unacceptably low levels, it has created unnecessary divisiveness, acrimony, and demonization within the Armed Forces  between servicemembers and leaders who just months ago were serving side by side in combat.

Further, because sequestration is so skewed against the defense budget, Congress has fomented an atmosphere of fiscal desperation that leads to false arguments and false choices when it comes to the compensation and benefits provided to the servicemembers and families who make up the All-Volunteer Force.  They have forced defense leaders to try to balance excessively tightened budgets on the backs of our servicemen and women by implying 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 servicemembers who are increasingly and unfairly portrayed as an entitlement special interest group. 

The President’s fiscal 2015 budget:

§  Demonstrates the continuing effects of sequestration.

§  Puts Army endstrength on a glide path to smallest force since WWII (420,000 or less in the active Army).

§  Terminates the Ground Combat Vehicle program.

§  Terminates the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter program.

§  Cuts the Network Integration Evaluation, the Army’s effort to look at new technologies in a realistic training environment.

§  Drives wedges within the Army over helicopter redistribution, other force structure issues, and overall manpower endstrength.

§  Puts undue pressure on military personnel compensation and family programs that could have long term negative impacts on the All-Volunteer Force and potentially break faith with the military community.

The bottom line:  If sequestration if not fixed, future budgets will have across-the-board cuts even more severe than the current cuts.  It is Congress that must fix this now before more damage is done.  They must eliminate sequestration and fund our military to levels that enable all components of the Armed Forces to be adequately manned, trained and equipped to focus on the mission - and not on fighting over an arbitrarily depressed defense budget.

Get Active!!  You MUST CONTACT CONGRESS to 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.”   This is important!

AUSA PROVIDES TESTIMONY ON VETERAN’S ISSUES

Joint hearings held every year by the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees give AUSA and other service organizations the opportunity to present their legislative agendas.  AUSA Vice President for Education Lt. Gen. Guy Swan, USA, Ret., provided testimony for the joint hearing held last week.

In his statement, Swan said, “The inherently difficult nature of military service has never been more self-evident than during the current conflicts.  While grateful for the good things done for veterans, AUSA reminds our elected representatives that we consider veterans benefits to have been duly earned by those who have answered the nation’s call and placed themselves at risk – these are not “entitlements.”

Swan added, “As elected representatives, you must be responsible stewards of the federal purse because each dollar emanates from the American taxpayer.  AUSA emphasizes that the federal government must remain true to the promises made to her veterans. We understand that veterans’ programs are not above review, but always remember that the nation must be there for the country’s veterans who answered the nation’s call.”

AUSA:

·       Urges Congress to pass legislation that would authorize Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for surviving spouses of the current conflict, the same educational benefit available to their children under the Gunnery Sgt. John D. Fry Scholarships, in lieu of Dependents and Survivors’ Educational Assistance (DEA) benefits.  

·       Believes additional full time counseling staff is needed for the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VRE) program to support the increasing demand among the rising number of disabled veterans. 

·       Encourages Congress to raise education benefits for National Guard and Reserve servicemembers under Chapter 1606 of Title 10. 

·       Urges that the thousands of disabled veterans left out of the concurrent receipt of retired pay and veterans’ disability compensation legislation be given equal treatment and that the disability offset be eliminated completely. 

·       Believes that a member who is forced to retire short of 20 years of service because of a combat disability must be “vested” in the service-earned share of retired pay at the same 2.5 percent per year of service rate as members with 20+ years of service. 

·       Supports continuing congressional efforts to help homeless veterans find housing and other necessities, which would allow them to re-enter the workforce and become productive citizens.

The hearing was held shortly after the Senate failed to pass a bill, offered by Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that addressed many of AUSA’s veteran-related resolutions.  We hope that Congress can work together and pass legislation that will address these important goals. 

CLARIFICATION PLEASE!

Several weeks ago, AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., sent a letter to the House leadership expressing his opposition to a bill that would create a congressional commission to study the structure of the Army to determine the proper force mixture of active and reserve components.

The letter was misinterpreted by some to suggest that he and the Association were taking sides in the debate between the active Army and the National Guard. 

Gen. Sullivan’s current message to our members offers some clarification:

“Folks, I want to clarify my rationale for AUSA’s opposing the use of a commission to determine Army force structure.  There are several reasons why I believe it is unnecessary, in addition to the rationale I expressed in my letter to congressional leaders.  Here are some additional thoughts.

First, the Army Chief of Staff has consulted with National Guard leaders at the NGB, ARNG, and TAG levels throughout the process of proposing the appropriate mix of active component, National Guard and Army Reserve manpower and force structure.  Many Guardsmen are probably not aware of this, but the CSA can document this engagement.

Second, the need for a commission to study the organization of the U.S. Air Force was precipitated by decision making in the Air Force that did not fully include the equities of the Air National Guard.  Under those circumstances, a commission was probably warranted.  Those conditions do not exist in the Army.

Third and most importantly, my letter is a vote of confidence in General Frank Grass, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, Major General Judd Lyons, Acting Director of the Army National Guard, Lieutenant General Jeff Talley, Chief of the Army Reserve, the State Adjutant Generals, General Ray Odierno, the CSA, and John McHugh, the Secretary of the Army.  I am confident that these leaders are fully qualified and capable of assessing and adjusting the Army's structure to meet national security needs at home and abroad.  

Standing up a commission, as some advocate, indicates a profound lack of trust and confidence in these National Guard leaders and Army leaders to do what they were confirmed by the Senate to do.  

I do not understand why others question the credibility of these battle-tested National Guard leaders.  AUSA does not support undermining the authority and responsibility of these distinguished Guard, Reserve, and active officers and experts.  A commission will do just that - undermine the trust that the troops - active, Guard, and Reserve - have in their leaders.  That is unacceptable to AUSA.  We support Guard leaders, Reserve leaders, and active component leaders to get the job done.”

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. Lunch will be provided.

Military Family Advocacy Forum 
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!

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.

USC Summer Scholarship for Children of U.S. Military Families

USC Summer Programs is thrilled to announce the 2014 Provost’s Pre-College Summer Scholarship for Military High School Students at the University of Southern California (USC). This opportunity seeks to provide 8 full scholarships to students from a U.S. military family to attend the rigorous USC Summer Programs 4-Week college credit program.

USC Summer Programs students preview “freshman year” at one of the world’s leading private research universities, studying in the same classrooms and laboratories, residing in the same residence halls, and dining in the same facilities as USC undergraduates. The Office of Continuing Education & Summer Programs will cover the entire tuition and fees, airfare, room and board, and course materials for the student to attend the 4-week college credit program. To apply for this scholarship opportunity, please mail a completed application with supplemental materials postmarked by: Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Please follow the application instructions carefully to ensure that all materials are received on time; incomplete applications cannot be considered. Selected scholars will be notified by April 18, 2014.

 Application Criteria:

1. Applicants must be currently in high school grade 10th, 11th, or 12th.

2. Applicants must be the son or daughter of an active or veteran U.S. military service member,

reservist, or guard.

3. Applicants must demonstrate academic ability, maturity, and a commitment to education and

developing community.

 Click here to download the 2014 Provost’s Pre-College Summer Scholarship for Military High School Students Application.

Florida GI Bill Passes

The Florida GI Bill was developed and passed by an overwhelming bi-partisan vote of the Senate and the House—a historic piece of legislation which makes Florida “the most military-friendly state in America.”  The Florida GI Bill is a centerpiece of the Florida 2014 WorkPlan, a joint legislative agenda agreed to make Florida the “welcome home” state for America’s military missions, personnel, retirees and their families.  This legislation is particularly important to Northwest Florida, where communities, schools, the economy and values are lashed to the military bases and missions the state proudly hosts and supports. 

The Florida GI Bill:

·   extends in-state college and university tuition to all military personnel from all services,

·   provides free tuition to National Guardsmen and women to pursue on-line degrees at state universities, 

·   establishes extensive job training opportunities for persons coming out of the military,

·   offers help to retiring military who want to set up small businesses in Florida,

·   gives added preferences to veterans in hiring,

·   cuts red tape so military doctors and other health practitioners leaving the military with honorable discharges and excellent professional reputations can begin practicing in Florida without time-consuming applications, extra examinations or paying fees,

·   funds a national campaign to attract military families to come to Florida as their uniformed careers are ending,

·   provides additional state funding to buffer military missions and bases from civilian neighborhoods

Officer Women Leadership Symposium (OWLS) and Career Coaching Workshop April 3–5

The Eleventh Officer Women Leadership Symposium will be held 3-5 April 2014 at the Women in Military Service for America (WIMSA) Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.  This event is designed to inspire, inform and connect current, future and former women military officers from all the military services regardless of commissioning source.  Senior enlisted women (E7+) are also encouraged to attend.  

 

The Theme for the 2014 Symposium is “Lead In: Breaking Barriers to Success” and speaks to breaking the barriers women face that prevent them from reaching their full potential in the workplace.   Through stimulating panel discussions, keynotes, and workshops, OWLS will offer attendees the chance to network and interact with colleagues and leaders with a diverse range of expertise, interests and experiences from all the services and veteran communities. The 2014 Symposium agenda offers a wide array of presentations, workshops, panel discussions and keynotes from prominent leaders and experts sharing key leadership insights and stimulating discussion on hot topics.  Participants will have great opportunities for mentorship, while connecting with women from every level of leadership from all the services.

The Career Coaching Workshop, being held April 3, is a full day designed to assist military officer and senior enlisted women in career transition after their military service, veteran officer women who are considering a career change or are interested in improving their career success. Additional program information and registration is available here. 

Family Readiness Family Forum at AUSA LANPAC Conference

Do you live in Hawaii? Sign up to attend our educational Family Forum at AUSA'S LANPAC conference in April! Spouse employment has long been a hot-button issue in the military community. Constant relocation, difficulty continuing education, securing and maintaining licenses, and juggling responsibilities are just a few of the concerns we hear. Couple that with more online resources and platforms than you might know how to handle, and finding employment might seem even more daunting. In an effort to join the conversation and provide resources wherever you might be in your career, we are having a Family Forum at AUSA's LANPAC meeting in Honolulu this spring. The forum will feature keynote presentations from representatives from Military.com and Military Spouse Corporate Career Network, and also include a panel discussion and Q & A session. The conference is free to attend, but seating is limited, so register today!

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.  

Warrior Care Policy Launches New Caregiver Page

The Office of Warrior Care has just launched a brand new Caregiver Resource page on the Warrior Care blog. The new page, which will be updated regularly, includes factsheets, helpful tips and guides, event and webinar links, general resources, and family support resources. For a more complete list of caregiver resources, you can also access the full version of the Caregiver Resource Directory directly from the new page as well as on the NRD. 

FT Belvoir and GMU Looking for Military Families and Service Members to Participate in PTSD AND Depression Study

DC Metro area military families: Fort Belvoir Community Hospital and George Mason University would like you to participate in a study about PTSD and depression. The information shared will help design new interventions to help service members and families, and participants will have the opportunity to share experiences with families in similar situations and will have the opportunity to talk confidentially with behavioral health professionals. Learn more or sign up using the contact information below.
Email Renshaw.Lab@gmail.com or call 703.993.5662

2014 Kaplan University/American Freedom Foundation Military Family Scholarship

The mission of the American Freedom Foundation (AFF) is to honor the men and women of our armed forces and to raise awareness for their service and sacrifice. In that proud spirit, Kaplan University and the AFF joined forces to offer scholarships designed to support our military and veteran families. The program will award up to 250 scholarships each covering more than half the costs of an undergraduate degree at Kaplan University.* To apply, partial award applicants must have a 3.0 grade point average (GPA) in their most recent program of study (high school or college). For every 50 scholarships awarded one of the winners will be awarded a full scholarship, covering all tuition and fees to complete their degree of study. To be considered for the full award, a 3.75 grade point average (GPA) must be achieved in the first term of study at Kaplan University.  Applications will be accepted from the spouses or dependent children of active duty, National Guard, or Reserve service members and spouses or dependent children of United States veterans. Click here to learn more about the program and eligibility.

Filing Taxes When a Servicemember is Deployed

Filing state and federal income taxes may be the last thing military spouses want to deal with, especially when their husband or wife is deployed. However, filing tax returns doesn't have to be difficult. The Internal Revenue Service recognized that servicemembers and their families often face special circumstances, and offers advice to make filing taxes less of a burden. Learn the tips you need to know before getting started, filing extensions you could be eligible for, and all of the services available to help you along the way.  Read more here.

Armed Services Committees to Discuss Personnel Issues

Both Senate and House Armed Services Committees are scheduled to discuss military personnel issues within the proposed FY 2015 Defense Budget. Subcommittee members will hear from witnesses from DOD and the military service organization community. Sequestration and the ongoing devastating effect it continues to have on DOD looks to be one of the key items discussed. Other personnel issues include pay, commissary benefits, housing allowances, TRICARE, and the military retirement system. Check back here for our Action Alert on Sequestration and more on both Armed Services personnel hearings next week.

Compensation Commission to Meet in California

The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission will be holding two town hall meetings in Southern California next week. All service personnel, veterans, military retirees and their families are encouraged to attend because the Commission is charged with examining how the troops are compensated while in uniform, in retirement, and as veterans, and their reach includes those programs operated by the VA and Department of Labor. The meeting dates and locations are:
* March 25, from 7-9 p.m. at the Sheraton Carlsbad Resort & Spa Conference Center, 5480 Grand Pacific Drive, Carlsbad, CA 92008
* March 26, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Hilton San Diego, Harbor Island, 1960 Harbor Island Drive, San Diego, CA 92101
Among the compensation and Quality of Life programs under review are the 20-year retirement system; military pay and the tax-exempt status of allowances; concurrent receipt of retiree and disability pay; the GI Bills; military healthcare costs and eligibility; military exchanges, commissaries and schools; and transition and employment assistance programs, among many others. The VFW has met several times with the Commission and testified before them in November. We remain wary of their overall intent, but are appreciative of the continued two-way conversation. The Commission is required to issue their report to the White House in February 2015. More information on the two town hall meetings is on the Commission website at
http://www.mcrmc.gov/.

Veterans' Unemployment Drops in 2013

This week the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its employment report of veterans for 2013. According to BLS, unemployment among all veterans in 2013 was 6.6 percent -- nearly one percentage point lower than the national average. Unemployment among Post-9/11 era veterans also dropped to 9 percent, but remains significantly higher than civilian unemployment. To the VFW, this means that employment initiatives like the VOW to Hire Heroes Act have produced results, but gaps remain in services for younger Post-9/11 era veterans and female veterans. For VFW's full analysis of the BLS report, click here: http://thevfw.blogspot.com/2014/03/new-employment-figures-for-veterans.html

ALS Housing Grant Update

The VA has announced that veterans and active duty military personnel with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, will now be automatically eligible for almost $68,000 in VA Specially Adapted Housing grants to help pay for the costs of building, buying or adapting a home to accommodate service-connected disabilities. Studies have shown that veterans and military members are nearly twice as likely to develop ALS as those who haven't served. Learn more at http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2530.

Seeking Purple Heart Recipients

Close to 2 million Purple Hearts have been awarded to since the medal was created in 1932, but the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor only has the names of 193,000 recipients in its database. If you or a loved one received a Purple Heart, make sure to add your names to the Hall of Honor, along with photos and narratives of when, where and how the medal was earned. For more information or to submit, go to http://thepurpleheart.com/.

Memorial Day Concert Seeks WWII Vets

On May 25, 2014, Gary Sinese and Joe Mantegna will return to host the Memorial Day Concert on the Mall, along with Gen. Colin Powell. This year Capital Concerts, the producer of the event, is seeking World War II veterans to help commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, and the 10th anniversary of the National WWII Memorial. Some veterans could be interviewed on videotape and then honored on stage. Interested WWII veterans should contact Celia Straus, writer of the concert, at Celia.straus@gmail.com. More information about the Memorial Day Concert is at www.pbs.org/memorialdayconcert/features/.

Two Korean War MIA Recovered

The Defense POW/MIA Office announced the identification of two soldiers who had been missing in action since the Korean War. Identified are:
* Pfc. James R. Holmes, Company K, 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, was lost Dec. 1, 1950, in North Korea. He was accounted for on Jan. 14 and will be buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery in May.
* Cpl. Cristobal Romo, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, was lost Dec. 12, 1950, in North Korea. He was accounted for on Jan. 13 and is scheduled to be buried tomorrow with full military honors in Riverside, Calif.

More vets suffer from ALS, but the VA moves effectively to help

REIDSVILLE — Thomas Corbett may never know what – if anything – from his five years as a heavy-equipment mechanic in the Marine Corps brought on the disease that likely will steal from him the use of nearly every one of his muscles and, sometime in the next several years, his very breath.

Since he was diagnosed in 2012 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, Corbett, 50, said he has wondered: “Was it some of those shots I took when I was going in and out of the country? Was it something in the water at Camp Lejeune? Was there something on some of those old ships I was on?”

In fact, no one knows why U.S. military veterans are twice as likely to develop ALS than the general population, or why those who deployed during the Gulf War in 1990-91 may be twice as likely to get the disease as other troops. Although it’s still a rare illness, affecting about 30,000 people across the country, it is so devastating to its victims and their families that the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have made a mission out of trying to reduce their suffering.

“I tell people there are two different worlds for people with ALS,” said Suzanne Gilroy, senior social work manager for the North Carolina chapter of the ALS Association, the national not-for-profit group dedicated to fighting the disease and helping patients cope with its effects. “There’s the one for people who are veterans, and the one for everybody else.

“The veterans get taken care of.”

The military began to notice an increase in the number of ALS cases among troops who had deployed to the Persian Gulf and suffered from what became known as Gulf War syndrome. By the early 2000s, neurologists and epidemiologists were finding an increased incidence of ALS throughout the military, across all branches, over all periods of service, regardless of where or whether the troops had deployed.

Many were considerably younger than the average ALS patient, who is diagnosed in middle age. Most had been extremely physically fit for most of their lives.

In 2003, the VA set up a nationwide registry of veterans with ALS to find out how many were living, track their health status, collect data, including DNA samples and clinical information, and to provide a way for the VA to inform them about research studies in which they might participate. When it stopped enrolling people in the registry at the end of 2007, it had found 2,121 veterans with ALS nationwide. The dates of service ranged from before World War II to the post-9/11 war in Iraq.

So compelling were the findings that in 2008, the VA took the unusual step of declaring ALS a service-connected illness for nearly all veterans diagnosed with the disease, regardless of where or when they had served. The declaration presumes that something about their military service caused or aggravated the condition.

The declaration makes veterans with ALS eligible for monthly disability compensation, plus a monthly stipend; a monthly payment for survivors; health care for life, including prescriptions, medical supplies and specialized equipment; home-based primary care; home-improvement grants to increase accessibility and safety; vocational and occupational therapy; money for handicapped-accessible vehicles; funeral expenses and other benefits.

And, because it’s a progressive, degenerative disease that is most often fatal within two to five years of diagnosis, the VA now declares patients 100 percent disabled as soon as they’re diagnosed so they don’t have to keep going through the agency’s lengthy re-evaluation process every time their condition degrades.

“That keeps people like me from having to go back to the VA every six months and saying, ‘Hey, look what else I can’t do,’ ” said Jeff Long, a 23-year veteran who served in the Marine Corps and then the Air Force before retiring in 2008 to work in the private sector.

Loss of control

Long, who lives in South Raleigh, was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. The disease manifests and progresses differently for each patient. For Long, symptoms began with speech and respiratory problems.

“We thought maybe he had had a stroke,” said his wife, Barbara. “He started choking on his food. He kept saying he felt like his tongue wasn’t working.

”The first neurologist mentioned ALS but said he didn’t think Long had it. The second ruled out everything else – the way every ALS diagnosis is made, because there is no single test for the disease – and struggled to find a way to tell the couple.

“Doctors have a very hard time giving that diagnosis,” Barbara Long said, “because they know it’s a death sentence.

”Since identifying ALS as a disease in 1869, experts have been unable to determine a cause, find a prevention or develop an effective treatment. According to the ALS Association, the prognosis for a person who develops ALS now is essentially the same as it was 145 years ago. As the disease attacks nerve cells and pathways in the brain and spinal cord, the patient loses the ability to control muscle movement, resulting eventually in total paralysis. Patients can’t walk, move their arms, talk or breathe independently.

Meanwhile, their minds usually remain sharp.

Long, 52, is still working, but the time is coming when he’ll need to conserve the energy that requires. When he overdoes it, his wife says, he pays the price in sore muscles and halted speech. ALS patients are cautioned against over-exertion, because when they lose strength in a muscle, it doesn’t come back.

“It’s frustrating to see your abilities diminish,” Long said, his words understandable but slurred in the way of a dental patient shot full of lidocaine. “One day you can speak clearly and whistle, and the next day you sound like you’re chewing on marshmallows. One day you can do whatever you want, and the next you can’t button your shirt.

”‘My knee wouldn’t move’

Neither Long nor Thomas Corbett had ever been to the VA before they developed ALS. They rarely went to any doctor, because they were each in such good health.

Corbett joined the military in 1981, right out of high school.

“I wanted to get away from home,” he said, and from his family’s tobacco farm and the rural community in Caswell County where he grew up. After basic training at Parris Island, S.C., he was assigned to Camp Lejeune. He traveled twice to Cuba on road-building projects that lasted eight months each, did some cold-weather training in New York and Norway and was sent on a couple of cruises.

He might have served longer, but in 1986, the Marines were downsizing, and his career adviser told him there was little room for him to move up. By then, he and his high school sweetheart, Doris, had married and had their first child.

“So I decided to come back home.”

He worked a series of jobs before landing one he loved at P. Lorillard in Greensboro, where he ran a cigarette-packing machine. When he wasn’t working, he and Doris were usually outside, working on their garden or building something in their yard in the northern Piedmont, about 10 miles outside of Reidsville.

One day, he said, he was painting a new shed the couple had built when his ladder broke and he fell. He was scratched up and bruised but thought he was OK until a few days later, he started hurting. Soon, he was dragging one leg.

“There was no pain,” he said. “But my knee wouldn’t move.

He went to a physical therapist, then a chiropractor, a back specialist and finally a neurologist at Duke University Medical Center, who said, “I think I know what’s wrong with you.”

He referred Corbett to Dr. Rick Bedlack, chief of neurology at the Durham VA Medical Center and director of the Duke ALS Clinic, which started in 2000 and is now one of the largest and most comprehensive ALS clinics in the world.

 It’s one of five in North Carolina that specialize in ALS, including one that opened in Chapel Hill in January to help the growing clientele. The state ALS Association estimates there are about 600 patients with the disease in North Carolina. The VA is now treating 127 veterans in the state with ALS.

Doctor’s interest grows

Bedlack said he was always fascinated with the workings of the human nervous system. He remembers watching his brother roll down the hill in their backyard in Connecticut when they were kids, how his eyes would wobble and he would stagger when he got up. Bedlack was a young doctor at Duke in the 1990s when he saw his first ALS patient, he said, “and thought it was the most amazing and terrible thing I had ever seen.”

He was shocked that medicine had so little to offer to people with the disease.

There still is only one drug that doctors routinely prescribe for ALS patients: riluzole, which can slow the progress of the disease in some people but doesn’t reverse nerve damage or muscle weakness. But there are medications to control muscle spasms and vitamin and nutrition regimens to help maintain energy and strength. Dozens of aids and gadgets help compensate for lost abilities. Among them are canes, electric wheelchairs and computers that translate eye movement into text and electronic speech.

At the clinic, Bedlack finds patients such as Long and Corbett who are veterans and don’t know they are eligible for VA benefits, and he connects them with specialists who can help them navigate the benefits system. The clinic and others in the state offer support groups for patients and their caregivers that meet in person and by teleconference.

Recently, Bedlack began offering a telemedicine option, which allows him to see patients in their homes via Web cameras and an Internet connection. It saves patients, some of whom live hours away, the exhausting work of traveling to the clinic, and it lets Bedlack see how the patients function at home.

“Veterans, especially, don’t like to complain,” Bedlack said. “You ask them how they manage at home, and they say, ‘Fine.’ But then you get a camera in there and you see that they can’t easily step into the shower, or they can’t get into or out of bed without help. This way, I can see if they need a bedrail, or a modification to their bathroom to make things easier on them and the person who is taking care of them.

Still fighting

In the past month, at Bedlack’s recommendation, the VA helped Corbett get an electric wheelchair and a van that can accommodate it. Until then, Corbett said, he was getting out less and less, because while he can still walk using a rolling walker, it’s slow and laborious, with his big hands wrapped around the handles, his 6-foot-2-inch frame bent slightly over, and his feet shuffling into place.

Corbett is still learning to drive the joystick-operated wheelchair, and he’s waiting on a contractor to finish an estimate for renovating his bathroom and widening doors in his house so he can maneuver without bumping into things. But already, he said, he appreciates the device that he first viewed as a form of surrender to his illness.

“I’ve had to admit that I couldn’t do what I thought I could do,” he said. “That’s been rough.”

Long and Corbett say they are grateful to the VA for stepping up and improving care for veterans with ALS. They know the agency has been criticized for years for moving too slowly to process disability claims and for denying services that veterans believed they were owed.

In this case, both said, the VA has honored its promises.

Corbett and Long are honoring theirs, too.

“I’m still fighting it,” Corbett said of the disease. He’ll keep fighting for however long he has left.

He got that from the Marines.

Forbes Introduces Legislation to Protect Military Commissaries

Washington, D.C. - Congressman J. Randy Forbes (VA-04) introduced the Military Commissary Sustainment Act (H.R.4217) to prohibit funding reductions for the defense commissary system in FY 2015, pending a report of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission:

“The President’s budget request proposes to eliminate support for our defense commissaries, one of the military family’s most valued benefits. Such a cut would raise prices and reduce the savings to our military families,” Congressman Forbes said. “Reducing commissary service 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. My legislation will prevent any such reductions in the coming year, removing yet another burden that our servicemembers and their families would have to face.”

VA ID Card Update 03 ► VHIC Phase in by JUL 

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced 20 FEB the phased roll out of newly designed, more secure Veteran Health Identification Cards. 

The new cards are distinguished by additional security features and will have a different look and feel. 

In addition to being more secure, the card has been transformed into a 

Veterans Health Identification Card (VHIC). 

Similar to a typical health insurance card, the VHIC displays the Veteran’s Member ID, a new unique identifier, as well as a Plan ID, reflecting the Veteran’s enrollment in VA health care. 

“VA is committed to providing high quality health care while ensuring the personal security of Veterans,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. 

“These new identification cards are an important step forward in protecting our nation’s heroes from identity theft and other personal crimes.” 

The VHIC is personalized to display the emblem of the Veteran’s branch of service. It also provides features that make it easier to use, such as the addition of “VA” in Braille to help visually impaired Veterans, and the printing of VA phone numbers and emergency care instructions on the cards. 

The card replaces the Veteran Identification Card (VIC), which was introduced in 2004. As part of a phased rollout, starting this month, the card will only be offered to newly enrolled and other Veterans who have not been issued a VIC. 

Then, in early April, VA will begin a three month effort to automatically issue the more secure VHIC to current VIC cardholders. 

VA recommends Veterans safeguard their VIC as they would a credit card, and cut up or shred the card once it is replaced. 

While not required to receive VA health care, all enrolled Veterans are encouraged to get a VHIC. 

Enrolled Veterans can get more information about the VHIC by visiting their VA medical facility enrollment coordinator or the website www.va.gov/healthbenefits/vhic, calling 1-877-222-VETS (8387) or visiting their local VA health care facility. Veterans who are not enrolled in the VA health care system can apply for enrollment at any time by visiting http://www.va.gov/healthbenefits/enroll, Calling 1-877-222-VETS (8387) or visiting their local VA health care facility. [Source: VA News Release 20 Feb 2014] 

 More on the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission

This week the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) met with TREA to hear our concerns and recommendations about future changes and models for compensation and retirement. It was also clear to TREA’s Washington Executive Director Deirdre Parke Holleman that Chairman Alphonso Maldon, Jr and his fellow Commissioners wanted to make clear their intentions and goals.

None of us know yet what the Commission will suggest and what we will think of it. But one thing that is clear is how remarkably open they are to hearing from us and from you. First, as we told you before they still have a comment section on their website. You may not know how unusual, indeed remarkable this is. This is an opportunity you should not pass up. Just go to http://www.mcrmc.gov and hit the word comment on the bar. Tell them what your experiences are if you are retired from the military or approaching retirement? What benefits are crucial to you and your family? Or tell them how you wish your present compensation would be changes and improved. Or tell them just what you want them to know. But the Commission really does want to hear from you and this shows them to be serious and professional.

The Commissioners all also wanted you to know that the present Department of Defense proposals have nothing to do with them. This is an independent Commission and they want you to know they are independent...

DoD’s new TRICARE proposal - “Consolidated TRICARE”

Last week the Department of Defense used the FY2015 Defense Budget to propose a dramatic overhaul of the entire TRICARE program. (This is one of the proposals the Commission said they had nothing to do with.) Fundamentally the Defense Health Agency is proposing to create a new PPO and end (or incorporate) TRICARE Prime, TRICARE Standard and TRICARE Extra. After realizing that the TRICARE Prime program was costing them more money than TRICARE Standard. And after years of Congress refusing to allow them to dramatically increase the costs and co-pays for beneficiaries of TRICARE Prime they decided to propose a single new program.

This new program would include active duty family members, retirees under the age of 65 (who the building now likes to call “working age retirees) and survivors. With the HMO (TRICARE Prime) gone beneficiaries would no longer have a primary care provider that would refer the patient for all specialty care. Instead the beneficiary will arrange for their own specially treatment either within the maintained medical networks (with cost discounts) or outside the network (with higher deductibles and co-pays.

Since TRICARE Prime would no longer exist there would be no yearly enrollment fee for anyone. Instead, for retirees under the age of 65 there will be a yearly “participation fee” to stay in TRICARE. And the amounts? Just the same as the previous TRICARE Prime fees for “working age” retirees - $286 per individual, $572 for a family and up each year based on the CPI.  

Under this plan for the first time MTFs will charge some patients fees for treatment on base. Retirees under the age of 65 and their dependents (except for medically retired and survivors) will owe co-pays of $10 for a primary care visit; $20 for specialty care, $30 for urgent care and $50 for an emergency room visit. Again, all of these are on base hospitals or clinics. They will also pay higher fees and co-pays than active duty family members for both in network and out of network care providers.
Now 2 additional very important points.

Active Duty members will pay nothing for healthcare and will have first priority to be seen

And

TRICARE for Life beneficiaries as of January 1st 2016 will not pay a yearly enrollment fee. That is supposed to be true for the rest of their lives.

 After that date new TFL beneficiaries will be charged a yearly fee of will be charged 1% of their gross retired pay up to $300 a year. In 2018 the yearly fee will go up to 2% of their retired pay up to $600. After that the fee will go up with inflation.  Caps thereafter would be raised yearly to match inflation.

News From Quarterly Meeting with DHS

TREA: The Enlisted Association met with representatives from the Defense Health Agency (DHA) last week and there were several important takeaways.

DHS has finally announced how they are going to handle the “grandfathering in” of TRICOR Prime beneficiaries after Congress passed the FY 2014 NDAA that permitted beneficiaries to stay on Tricare Prime.

First, beneficiaries must live in a zip code that was a Prime Service Area (PSA) on September 30, 2013. They must also live within 100 miles of a military treatment facility (MTF).  

DHS estimates that about 80,000 beneficiaries are going to be grandfathered in, and that about 60,000 will be outside of the PSA’s as they exist now and will be forced onto Tricare Standard.

A letter to all impacted beneficiaries advising them of their “one-time” right to elect to keep Tricare Prime will be mailed next month and they have 60 days to respond, otherwise they will lose coverage.

Also, Tricare Service Centers (TSC) will end walk-in services effective April 1, 2014. Overseas TSCs will continue to offer walk-in services. Call centers are toll free and open before and after work hours. Also, there are internet and mobile app options that beneficiaries can use.

The numbers are:
North Region: Health Net Federal Services, LLC
www.hnfs.com
1-877-TRICARE (1-877-874-2273)
South Region: Humana Military, a division of Humana Government Business
Humana-Military.com
1-800-444-5445
West Region: UnitedHealthcare Military & Veterans
www.uhcmilitarywest.com
1-877-988-WEST (1-877-988-9378)
For more numbers/information, visit:
http://tricare.mil/ContactUs/CallUs.aspx

Veterans Omnibus Bill Not Dead Yet

Two weeks ago the Senate debated, and then defeated, S.1982 - the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014. This bill, which TREA supported, is over 200 pages in length and contains many provisions to help veterans that TREA has supported for a long time. It was authored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Unfortunately, the bill got caught up in politics and although it got 56 votes, it was 4 short of the 60 votes necessary to overcome a threatened filibuster. Normally, 51 votes would be enough to pass legislation but in the last few years threats to filibuster legislation have become the norm in the Senate which means that almost anything but the most non-controversial legislation must get 60 votes in order to pass.

Last week TREA President Rick Delaney, Legislative Director Larry Madison and Deputy Legislative Director Mike Saunders met with the Majority Staff Director of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to discuss veteran’s legislation and in particular, what is next with regard to S. 1982. They were assured that Sen. Sanders is committed to passing a major veterans bill this year and that he will meet with Republican Senators in order to try and reach an agreement on a bill that will pass the Senate.

We are grateful for Sen. Sanders commitment to passing significant veterans legislation and we will keep you informed about the progress of the renewed effort in the Senate in the coming weeks.

A Closer Look at the VA’s FY 2015 Budget Request

TREA: The Enlisted Association has had time to take a closer look at the VA budget request for Fiscal Year 2015. Here are some of the things that you should know the Administration is focusing on:

  • The FY 2015 budget request is for a total of $68.4 billion in discretionary funds, which is $17.8 billion more than the FY 2009 budget request. The request has gone up in every year.
  • There are 9.3 million veterans currently enrolled in VA healthcare, and the request projects a need for $56 billion in medical care funding for FY 2015, and $58.7 billion in FY 2016 (VA medical care is appropriated on a 2-year basis).
  • At the Veterans Benefits Administration, 5.1 million veterans and survivors are expected to receive disability/pension benefits, 1.2 million beneficiaries will receive educational/vocational rehab benefits, 1.5 million disability and pension claims will be processed in 2015.
  • $269 million will be spent on enhancing the electronic healthcare record using “VistaA Evolution.” TREA will hound VA to make sure they are working on interoperability between their systems and DOD.
  • $173.3 million will go towards the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) and $138.7 million for the Veteran Claims Intake Program for converting paper documents into electronic form. TREA will continue to push VBA to ensure they are meeting the needs of veterans and making progress towards ending the backlog.
  • $1.6 billion, an increase of 18% over last year, will be spent on ending veteran homelessness in 2015.
  • Of the discretionary spending accounts, 87.7% goes towards medical programs, 3.9% to benefits programs, 5.7% towards information technology, 1.7% to construction and 1.2% to various smaller programs.
  • VA has seen an increase in individual patients accessing the VA Medical System of 17.4% since 2009.

For more information, view the budget at http://www.va.gov/budget/products.asp

Pentagon requests new BRAC round

Along with the TRICARE and Commissaries and BHA proposed changes the Department of Defense is again asking Congress to approve another round of BRAC. Last week officials from the appeared before a doubtful House Appropriations Committee's Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Subcommittee

Acting deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, John Conger said that he knew that Congress had been displeased with the 2005 BRAC results but argued that was both for realignment as well as efficiency and thus did not save the amount Congress was told to expect.

This one he said would all be about efficiency.

DoD has a recent study that says that the Army is 18% over capacity (and they argue with the draw down proposed by the Administration that will grow larger. The Air Force says that in 2005 they had a 24% excess capacity and little has changed. The Navy said they too supported a new round of BRAC but did not have a reading for excess capacity.

The Committee was doubtful of the need and worried about the Administration’s low request for military construction request for fiscal 2015 of $6.6 billion. That is approximately 40% lower than the request for fiscal 2014.

The Committee thought the services were being forced to make such a low request. Ranking member Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr. (D-GA) said: “I haven't seen requests this low for a long, long time," while Subcommittee Chairman Rep. John Culberson R-TX) said that the low number was "shocking," and insufficient. “We love you and we want to help," in finding more money for maintenance and construction. 

So we can hope that this unwarranted request will be refused once again.

End of VRAP?

On March 5th the VA announced that the White House had shifted $65 million to them so enrollees in the VRAP program can finish the present semester. The program which has provided additional education for 126,000 unemployed veterans between the ages of 35 and 60 ends by statute on March 31st of this year. Below is a letter explaining how payments will be handled.

Last year Rep Jeff Miller (R-FL) introduced H.R.352 which would have extended VRAP an additional three months. On March 5th Reps. Julia Brownley (D-CA) and Mark Takano (D-CA) introduced new legislation to extend the program through Sept. 30. And Senate Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) S. 1982 would reauthorize the program for two more years.

Hopefully, this very effective program will be extended. TREA: The Enlisted Association will keep you informed on movement in this legislation. This is already very good news for present enrollees.

Colleagues and Fellow Veterans,

Many of you have heard about some changes in the VRAP program so I thought it might be useful to try and provide you with some direct information. Bottom line, given that the statute directs VA that we do not have the authority to pay VRAP benefits after 31 March 2014, the decision was made to compute and distribute a lump sum payment for those Veterans still enrolled in March 2014 to enable them to complete their current term of instruction between now and June 30th. It does not provide anyone more than the original program’s 12 months of benefits.

We have begun to compute those lump sum payments already. So, for example, if a Veteran is currently enrolled with a term/enrollment completion of 10 May 2014 – that individual would receive a lump sum for the month of April + 10 days in May. If a Veteran’s term ends on 15 July, that individual would get a lump sum payment for April + May + June – and not the 15 days in July. These payments will not be made for enrollment periods that begin after March 31. Again, this lump sum payment does not provide additional VRAP benefits beyond 12 months.

As you know, VRAP was established by the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 and began July 1, 2012. So far, we have provided more than $740 million in retraining assistance for more than 75,000 unemployed Veterans between the ages of 35 and 60 years.

School Certifying Officials must submit all VRAP enrollment certifications to VA on or before March 17, 2014 and must continue to review enrollments and report changes to VA for training pursued after March 31 through the end of the current enrollment period.

VRAP participants must verify attendance on or after March 31, 2014, for training pursued in March to receive payment. Attendance may be verified via VA’s Web Automated Verification of Enrollment (WAVE) at https://www.gibill.va.gov/wave/index.do or via the toll free Interactive Voice Response (IVR) telephone line at 1-877-VA-ECERT (1-877-823-2378). Participants should report any changes in enrollment that occur on or after April 1, 2014, to their school certifying official and to VA at 1-888-GI Bill-1 (1-888-442-4551). A reduction in training or withdrawal may result in an overpayment.  

You can help raise awareness about the end of this important program by sharing information on your website, in newsletters, and through social media channels. New information about VRAP will be posted online at: www.benefits.va.gov/VOW/education.asp

We appreciate your help in communicating this important information to Veterans.

Curtis L. Coy
Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity
Veterans Benefits Administration
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

House/Senate Discuss VA 2015 Budget

This week, the House and Senate VA Committees held hearings on VA's proposed FY 2015 budget. During the Senate hearing, Secretary Shinseki testified that the budget VA asked for was what they felt was needed, but acknowledged that the request was put together before DOD announced its plan to reduce troop size. With the possibility of a sizable increase in returning veterans enrolling in VA, Senate committee members commented that an increase may be needed. Other items discussed included implementation of VBMS and the disability claims backlog goal, access to mental health care providers, long term care programs and major construction funding. The VFW provided written testimony regarding the woefully underfunded construction programs as a part of the Independent Budget. For complete hearing information, to include the recorded webcasts from both hearings -- visit the committee websites.
For the House VA Committee website, click here:
http://veterans.house.gov/
To check out the Senate VA Committee website, click here: http://www.veterans.senate.gov/
For more about the Independent Budget and our funding recommendations for VA, click here:
http://www.independentbudget.org/


MST Bill Clears Senate

On Monday, the Senate passed (97-0) legislation to expand protections for victims of sexual assault in the military. S. 1917, the Victims Protection Act of 2014 would eliminate the "good soldier" defense and expand the role of special counsels for victims of sexual assault and rape by providing advice on the advantages of prosecution by court-martial or in civilian court. In cases of dual jurisdiction, the victim gets a say between having the case heard by a civilian or military court. It would also extend protections to students in service academies, and require that in every decision regarding promotions in the military that a commander's record on the handling of sexual-assault cases would be taken into account.


Military Family Survey Ends this Weekend

With announced Pentagon recommendations to change military pay and allowances, retirement, healthcare programs and commissaries, it is now more important than ever for active-duty, Guard, Reserve and veteran families to complete the Blue Star Families' 2014 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, which ends this weekend. More than 1,200 VFW and family members already have. The survey is available online at http://tiny.cc/2014VFW. The data collected provides real-time feedback from military families on issues ranging from operations tempo to pay and benefits, stress, caregiving and employment.

Two MIA Soldiers Identified

The Defense POW/MIA Office recently announced the identification of remains belonging to two soldiers who had been unaccounted-for since the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Identified are:
* Army Pfc. Donald C. Durfee, 19, of Painesville, Ohio. In November 1950, Durfee was assigned to Company M, 31st Infantry Regiment, 31st Regimental Combat Team, when his unit was attacked and forced into a fighting withdrawal south of the Chosin Reservoir, North Korea. He was reported killed-in-action on Dec. 2, 1950.
* Army Staff Sgt. Lawrence Woods, 39, of Clarksville, Tenn., will be buried as part of a group on March 21 at Arlington National Cemetery in a ceremony honoring the servicemen who were lost in an aircraft crash on Oct. 24, 1964. Woods and seven other servicemen were aboard a C-123 Provider aircraft that was shot down after resupplying the U.S. Special Forces camp at Bu Prang, Vietnam. Seven remains were recovered, but they could not locate Woods.
Read more about their individual stories at
http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/news/news_releases/.

HASC Chairman rejects QDR; tells DoD to start again

Last Tuesday House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) took the surprising step of rejecting the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) for 2014. The Department of Defense is required to submit a QDR every 4 years to Congress which (according to the 1997 law) will “make recommendations that are not constrained to comply with and are fully independent of the budget submitted to Congress by the president” It is also required creating a 20 year plan.

Well in these tense times with a dramatic draw down proposed the Chairman was not satisfied. He said:

“I appreciate the work that has gone into this QDR. A rigorous analysis and debate that takes place every four years as the review is put together should be immensely valuable to planners and senior commanders. Unfortunately, the product the process produced this time has more to do with politics than policy and is of little value to decision makers. For that reason, I will require the Department to re-write and re-submit a compliant report. In defiance of the law, this QDR provides no insight into what a moderate-to-low risk strategy would be, is clearly budget driven, and is shortsighted. It allows the President to duck the consequences of the deep defense cuts he has advocated and leaves us all wondering what the true future costs of those cuts will be.

“No QDR is perfect, but I have been disturbed that the review has become less compliant as time goes on. The QDR has legal standards to meet for a reason. They were designed to guide Congress and the Commander-in-Chief as we make tough choices about resources and security. The information produced by the review process could be immensely valuable, but is often withheld from those who need to understand it most. In the coming days, I will introduce legislation intended to reverse this trend. The legislation will require DoD to re-write and re-submit a compliant QDR for FY14, and could be considered on its own or incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act. In the coming days, I will consider what measures could be added to such legislation to ensure a prompt and compliant re-write.”

The Chairman’s office said that the report was unacceptable because it was:
Budget Driven: The FY14 QDR is heavily constrained by low budget levels. The law requires the QDR to identify resources not included in the Pentagon’s 5 year spending plan. The whole point of the review is to identify the budget needed to address the evolving threat.

Shortsighted: The FY14 QDR only looks out 5 years, instead of the 20 years required by law.
 
Assumes Too Much Risk: The law requires the QDR to offer a low-to-moderate risk plan for our forces and mission. By Secretary Hegel’s own admission, this QDR accepts additional risks. “

What does this mean for our concerns? Probably it will be a question of end-strengths- especially in the Army. But we will see.

Defense Budget Hits Troops Hard

DOD’s FY 2015 budget request further reduces troop strengths and military compensation and benefits. The reason is because current budget agreements have forced the Pentagon to reduce spending by $487 billion over 10 years, an amount that’s doubled by sequestration, which further jeopardizes readiness and modernization programs and the continued viability of the all-volunteer force. VFW National Commander Bill Thien said the VFW will redouble its 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. Key personnel actions proposed in the $496 billion FY 2015 defense request are:

  • Further drop the active Army from its post-9/11 high of 570,000 soldiers to 440,000, a number sequestration could lower to 420,000. Lower the Army National Guard from 358,000 to 335,000, and the Army Reserve from 205,000 to 195,000, again numbers sequestration could further lower to 315,000 and 185,000, respectively.
  • Reduce the active Air Force from 327,600 to 310,900, and Reserve from 70,400 to 67,100.
  • The Marine Corps is on pace to draw down to 182,000 Marines, a number that could go to 175,000 if the sequester continues.
  • A 1-percent military pay increase for everyone below the pay grade of O-7, and to limit future pay increases, which could recreate the double-digit, military-civilian pay gap of a decade ago.
  • Housing allowances would be gradually reduced from 100 percent of costs to 95 percent, but payments would be grandfathered for troops in their current assignments. It also appears that enlisted BAH reductions are disproportionally more than officers.
  • Create a TRICARE for Life enrollment fee for new enrollees equal to a half percent of retiree pay in 2015, and increase it to 2 percent by 2019, plus additional increases to pharmaceutical copayments, which would impact military dependents as well as retirees. DOD would also merge the three TRICARE Prime, Standard and Extra programs into one, which would create new enrollment fees and increased copayments.
  • Slash the current $1.4 billion in appropriated support to military commissaries down to $400 million, which could increase prices and the current 5-percent surcharge. DOD estimates that such decisions would lower overall commissary savings from 30 percent to 10 percent, which could close some smaller U.S. stores.

VA Budget Released

This week, the President released his FY 2015 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The $163.9 billion dollar proposal includes mandatory funding for programs such as disability compensation and pension, as well as discretionary funding for VA medical care, to include advanced appropriations. The amount represents a 6.5-percent increase over FY 2014 funding, but falls more than $4 billion short of what is recommended by The Independent Budget, which the VFW co-authors with AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans and Paralyzed Veterans of America. The VA budget request includes:

  • $7.2 billion for mental health programs
  • $238 million for readjustment counseling
  • $229 million for TBI programs
  • $173 million to continue implementation of VBMS for claims processing
  • $1.6 billion for veterans’ homelessness programs
  • $403 million for women veteran programs, and
  • $562 million for major construction and $495 million for minor construction projects

While we appreciate the increases offered by the Administration's budget for FY 2015 and for advance appropriations for FY 2016, we have serious concerns regarding the lack of commitment to infrastructure funding which we believe will undermine VA’s ability to deliver those services. Read the VFW press release.

For a complete look at the Independent Budget’s funding requirements for VA, click here.

VA to Cover Full Semester for VRAP Students

This week, VA announced that they have taken steps to extend payments for those participants using the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP). VRAP was passed as a part of the Veterans Opportunity to Work Act of 2011 and was specifically designed to cover veterans who are not eligible to receive GI Bill educational benefits. Current enrollees will now receive payments to cover them from April 1, 2014 through the conclusion of their enrollment semester or term or through June 30, 2014, whichever is earlier. Click here for more information on the VRAP program.

Take the Military Family Survey

Blue Star Families has asked the VFW to help distribute their 2014 Military Family Lifestyle Survey to active-duty, Guard, Reserve and veteran families. The survey is now available online. The data collected provides real-time feedback from military families on issues ranging from operations tempo to pay and benefits, stress, caregiving and employment.

Korean War MIA Identified

The Defense POW/MIA Office announced the identification of Army Pfc. Donald C. Durfee, 19, of Painesville, Ohio. In November 1950, Durfee was assigned to Company M, 31st Infantry Regiment, 31st Regimental Combat Team, when his unit was attacked by Chinese forces on the eastern side of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. Durfee was reported killed in action on Dec. 2, 1950. He was buried yesterday in Rittman, Ohio.