Retiree & Veteran Affairs Newsletter 15 January 2014 

1/15/2014 

 

AUSA Needs You!!!

★★★

A last minute budget agreement passed by Congress included a provision that would negatively affect the calculation of the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) for under-age-62 military retirees.  The bill would require a one percent reduction in COLA for military retirees until they reach age 62.   

As you can imagine, this ill-advised provision has created a firestorm.  In addition to meetings on Capitol Hill with lawmakers determined to repeal the provision, AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan has also sent letters to all members of Congress outlining his strong opposition to the provision and urging them to repeal it.  

Sullivan’s letter said, “Both the Administration and the Congress have stated repeatedly that any changes to the military compensation and benefits package would be grandfathered for the currently-serving force and for current retirees.  The Budget Act provision flies in the face of that pledge and breaks faith with those who have served their nation for 20 years and with those who will retire in the future, who until now had the expectation of a full COLA adjustment each year to match calculated inflation. 

“As the economy rights itself, this devastating blow to an earned deferred compensation benefit will be an enormous disincentive for retention of battle-tested military personnel.  Those currently serving will look at how today’s retirees are treated and will leave active duty, diminishing leadership in our defense forces and weakening our national security.” 

It is critical that you add your voice to his.  Please visit our website, www.ausa.org, click on the Contact Congress link, enter your zip code, and send the AUSA-suggested letter titled Repeal the Military Retiree COLA Cut.   

DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION BILL CLEARS CONGRESS.  PRESIDENT SIGNS.   

The regular order for passage of the defense authorization bill is for each chamber to pass a bill, appoint negotiators to work out the differences and then agree on a final bill that the president will sign.   

Once again, regular order failed.  Yes, Congress did manage to hammer out a final agreement and, yes, the president did sign it into law.  But again this year, it was far from the normal process.   

The House passed their version of the bill way back in June.  The Senate Armed Services Committee worked together and passed their version at the same time; however, the full Senate could not get its act together and pass a final version.   

Accordingly, defense leaders from the House and Senate combined parts of the House bill and the one approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Instead of a formal conference committee process, the compromise bill was passed by each chamber without any consideration of amendments.   

As a result, many of AUSA’s top priorities were never brought to the floor for debate.  This means that we will continue to fight for issues such as full concurrent receipt and an end to the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP)/Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) offset.   

The bottom line is that we did get an authorization bill for fiscal 2014, and, along with our partners in The Military Coalition, were successful in our fight against administration proposals to increase or establish new TRICARE fees.   

The bill authorizes $526.8 billion for the Defense Department’s base budget; $80.7 billion for overseas contingency operations — mainly the war in Afghanistan — and $17.6 billion for national security programs within the Energy Department.

 The bill also: 

  • Provides a 1 percent pay raise for servicemembers 
  • Includes over 30 provisions or reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice related to combatting sexual assault in the military 
  • Directs that the operational reserves receive a minimum 180 day notification before the cancellation of a deployment and a minimum 120 day notification before a deployment 
  • Authorizes the commander of U.S. Special Forces Command to provide additional family support services to U.S. Special Operations Forces and their families 
  • Facilitates the development of more functional, lighter, and more protective body armor 
  • Recognizes that the formula for calculating allowable private sector compensation on DOD contracts has become dysfunctional and does little to protect the taxpayer or provide transparency in government contracting. The NDAA rationalizes the cap to $625,000 and does away with the flawed formula.  
  • Prohibits DOD from initiating another round of BRAC 
  • Provides additional funding for Abrams tank upgrades and heavy equipment improved recovery vehicles 
  • Allows military retirees and family members to return to TRICARE Prime if they choose 

AUSA Family Readiness Joins #KeepYourPromise Alliance

After successfully garnering 63 million timeline views on Twitter at their first Town Hall, fourteen military family media organizations have now rallied to host a second live Town Hall, this time on both Twitter and Facebook, to ensure that Congress keeps their promise to military retirees. Calling themselves the #KeepYourPromise Alliance, they include The American Military Partner Association, Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Family Readiness, Army Wife Network, Homefront United Network, Military Family Advisory Network, Military Officers Association of America, MilitaryOneClick, Military Spouse JD Network, Military Spouse Magazine, Military Spouse Advocacy Network, My Military Life, National Military Family Association, Nextgen Milspouse, SpouseBUZZ.com, and USMClife.

The #KeepYourPromise movement started on December 14th when these military organizations pulled together grass-roots style to say "enough is enough" to the continual military benefit cuts targeted by legislators seeking to balance the national budget. A live social media Town Hall took place on December 16th, generating worldwide awareness of the "broken promise" to our veterans and military when pensions were cut in the Murray-Ryan Bipartisan Budget Act. What started with less than 10 people on a conference call quickly generated over 44,327 tweets. Americans responded in droves to support military retirees.

The first viral social media response prompted main stream media to highlight the issue via FOX news, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Associated Press, Military Times, Business Insider and more with headlines streaming the “promise” concept originally coined by the group. Although the Budget Act passed both the House and Senate quickly and was signed by The President on December 26, these military organizations are hoping for a similar online result this time around as Congress returns after their holiday break. Moving to Facebook, they garnered over 10,000 likes in 48 hours. For more information and reaction to military pension issues, visit the Facebook page for the #KeepYourPromise Alliance.

Army Emergency Relief Scholarship Application Period Open

Army Emergency Relief (AER) has announced the opening of its scholarship application period. Applications will be accepted from January 2, 2014 until May 1, 2014. AER supports both the Spouse Scholarship Program, as well as the MG. James Ursano Scholarship Program for dependent children. Scholarship specifics and the application are available on AER’s website.

Last year AER awarded 4,629 scholarships, totaling more than $10 million to Spouses and children of Soldiers. After the scholarship’s first year, they have also worked to upgrade the application software to provide more efficiency for applicants. “Applicants are able to create their own profile, submit their documentation online, and check their status,” said Tammy LaCroix, manager for AER’s scholarship programs. “This proved to be a huge time saver for both the applicants and the scholarship staff.” The entire application package for 2014-2015 must be submitted online by May 1st. This includes the application as well as the supporting documents which will be outlined for the applicant based on the data provided on the application. Most applicants will have to provide transcripts, the Student Aid Report (SAR) from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and the Soldier’s Leave and Earnings Statement (LES). This year AER will be awarding only “needs-based” scholarships, which is a change from previous years when the MG James Ursano Scholarship Program for dependent children also evaluated academic performance and leadership. Click here to learn more and apply.

Become a Military Spouse Mentor or Protégé with eMentor

January is National Mentoring Month, and you can participate in the action through a program with eMentor. eMentor is a cutting-edge online mentoring program for military personnel, veterans and military spouses. eMentor connects individuals for dynamic mentoring experiences that powerfully move them forward in their personal and professional lives. Mentors and Proteges start by completing an online profile. From there, proteges can search for and select a mentor. When the mentor accepts the protege's invitation, the relationship begins. The pair work together to establish goals, develop an action plan, and measure progress. They communicate primarily online, but may decide to talk on the phone or even meet in person. Click here to learn more.

The Exchange Promotes a Healthier You In 2014

Keeping up with those New Year resolutions to stay or get fit just got a bit easier thanks to AAFES. Operation Be Fit is a program that offers healthier choices to authorized shoppers in the Exchange’s Main Stores, Expresses, vending machines, food courts and school meal program. It also covers athletic apparel and workout equipment in an effort to promote a healthier mind and body. The Fort Bragg Exchange partnered with the installation for a week long Healthy Base Initiative kick-off event where Chef Jerome Brown, Celebrity Chef to the stars, head chef for the President’s Inaugural Ball and author of the cookbook “Eat Like a Celebrity” conducted a cooking demo at the North Post Main Store. “Events like these are a great way to emphasize the importance of being healthy and staying fit not only to troops, but their families as well,” said the Exchange’s Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony Pearson. “Operation Be Fit is great because it focuses on all aspects of health such as eating right, exercise and overall physical and mental health.” Throughout 2014, the Exchange will continue its charge in helping shoppers make healthier choices by offering themed events throughout the year at select locations. These themes will focus on developing healthy workout routines, preparing food, encouraging shoppers to enjoy the outdoors and overall healthy living.

Prepare for 2014 Testing Season with eKnowledge 90% Discount

eKnowledge is offering $250 SAT and ACT test prep programs for just the cost of providing the programs (under $20)...the fee covers everything, including: materials, shipping, student support, and streaming. The Military Donation Project is in alliance with the DOD and supported by over 100 Partners including NFL and MLB players. In 8 years, eKnowledge has donated more than 200,000 SAT/ACT programs valued over $44 million – no profit is created by the donation effort and all proceeds are reinvested to improve the program. The SAT and ACT PowerPrep™ Programs are available online or on a single DVD. Programs include more than 11 hours of video instruction and 3000 files of supplemental test prep material, thousands of interactive diagnostic tools, sample questions, and practice tests Students select the training they need and study at their own pace. You may request your programs online here.  

2014 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year Nominations Open Now

Do you know a military spouse rockstar? Are you thankful for the contributions and service of someone special in your community? Recognize their efforts by nominating them for Military Spouse of the Year! Visit the MSOY main page to learn more about nominee eligibility, rules and regulations, and program alumni. You are free to nominate as many spouses as you like during this period. Nominations will be accepted until January 17.

Push to Repeal Military Retirement COLA Cut Resumes

The push to repeal last year’s federal Budget provision that cuts the COLA for military retirees under the age of 62 has resumed just where it left off last year. Indeed, it did not stop during the holidays. For all of you who contacted your members of Congress in the last few weeks. THANK YOU. And don’t stop. Keep pushing. Keep speaking to your Representatives.

As soon as Congress returned to Washington we have all been urging that COLA cut be repealed. There are almost 20 different bills in the House and Senate from both sides of the aisle that would repeal all or part of the cut. 33 Senators have already said that they support the repeal the COLA cut, we strongly urge that the full cut be repealed before it ever goes into effect. It is unfair to all retirees and the survivors whose spouses died on active duty or due to a service connected disability not just some.

Several Senators have promised to try and amend any piece of legislation moving through the Senate to include the repeal. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) already tried to attach her bill to proposed extension of long-term unemployment benefits but was stopped by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Majority Reid then said that the COLA provision might perhaps be dealt with in the Omnibus budget bill that should be written and made public by this week. But he was unclear as to whether he was correcting this for all military retirees or only military disabled (Chapter 61) retirees.

The sticking point will clearly be what provision will be used to offset the $6.2 billion costs. Indeed, at first Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich) said that he would support Senator Ayotte’s bill. (There was great celebration for a short time in the VSO community.) However Senator Levin withdrew his support because he said he realized that the bill restored the cuts by preventing illegal immigrants from claiming a child tax credit Senator Levin will support a bill sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) to offset the cost by closing overseas corporate tax loopholes. But Republicans have refused to go along with that.

And we should never forget that many influential people and institutions like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal are in favor for this as only one of many additional cuts and changes in the military retirement system.

We expect the SASC to hold a full Committee soon on the issue. We also intend to work with Senators to try and create a bi-partisan bill that both parties could agree to support. But the rub is always how it will be paid for.

Explaining his position and his plan for a hearing Senator Levin said: “I’ll vote for it, (repealing the COLA cut) but what I want to do is focus on a hearing in case it doesn’t work that way. The main problem is that it was singled out, and how you can overcome that problem without a greater entitlement reform is one of the issues which someone needs to address in testimony.”

As you can tell everything is extremely fluid on this issue. People move and change and none of us should let up.

MCRMC’s Time Extended Until February 2015

The  Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission (MCRMC) was given more time to complete its report in the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA.) The Commission now has until February 2015 to finish its job rather than May of this year. This, of course means that the recommendations will not arrive until after the 2014 Congressional elections and that it should not effect this year’s DoD’s budget negotiations.

This will give us more time to try and influence the Commission on the importance of the military compensation package and earned benefits to all military personnel and the security or our nation.

Last week the Commission held 2 days of public hearings in San Antonio Texas. We have been told that the Commissions heard a great deal about the cut of the retiree COLA and what that would mean to the men and women who served a career in the military. We are very glad that many of you took advantage of the opportunity to speak to these influential Commissioners about these important questions. There will be additional hearings throughout the country and we hope you will attend and, if you wish, speak out at them. To keep track of where the MCRMC are going to meet go to their website at
www.mcrmc.gov

Omnibus Spending Bill Expected to be Voted on This Week

It is believed that a final agreement on the $1.012 trillion omnibus spending package for the rest of this fiscal year was completed this weekend and will be voted on by both Houses of Congress this week. This will fund the entire federal government including the Department of Defense.

The House Appropriations Chairman Rep Hal Rogers (R-KY) said:”This is a trillion-dollar bill. Using Reagan's definition of a trillion — it's a 67-and-a-half-mile-high stack of $1,000 bills — a lot of money. A year's work in 30 days time with Christmas and New Year's in it. So our staff is running on fumes. But we're nearing the end.”

While the bill was to be passed by Wednesday the plan now is that Chairman Rogers and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) would introduce a three-day extension to give the massive spending bill more time to work its way through the legislative process in both chambers.

Proposed Changes to VA Claims Process Draws Fire

On October 31st the Department of Veterans Affairs proposed changes to the disability claims process that TREA worries could create inequalities between veterans filing for a disability on paper and those filing electronically, as well as to make it harder for veterans to successfully file claims and to appeal claims that have been denied.

The VA says that the intent of the proposal is to “require the use of standardized forms to help streamline the claims process and modernize the VA system to ensure veterans and their families receive the benefits they deserve more quickly."

Thus it is possible that the new changes are only intended to slow the VA's receipt of new claims while it tries to eliminate its backlog by 2015.

However it appears that the part of the regulation that deals with filing disability claims electronically versus paper would have the effect of incentivizing the use of the electronic, or E-Benefits, system.

The changes could harm veterans who do not have access to a computer or the internet by giving paper claims second tier status. TREA opposes any action that would unfairly target veterans who are attempting to access their earned benefits merely because they do not have internet access, especially when the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) only went live in 2013.

VA needs to work much harder at reaching out and communicating to the veteran population that the electronic E-Benefits system is up and running and that it can make the claims decision process much faster before it punishes veterans who may not even be aware that an alternative to the paper-based system exists.

The rule incentivizes using the electronic system by assigning filing date in the system when the veteran executes an incomplete version online, as long as it is fully completed within a year. Meanwhile a paper claim only receives a filing date when the claim is completed.

The dates are significant because any disability compensation, once awarded, will be retroactive to the effective filing date.

Another even more worrisome part of the proposed rule governs “Notice of Disagreement” (NOD) forms that every veteran must file if they intend to appeal a denied disability claim. The rule would require that any claims to be examined on appeal must be specifically stated on the NOD form. This would bar veterans from raising any new claims during the appeals process.

TREA’s Deputy Legislative Director Mike Saunders met with the Undersecretary of the Veterans’ Benefits Administration General Allison Hickey (USAF-R) last month and at that meeting she explained that when veterans add new claims to claims that are currently in the appeals process they can seriously extend the amount of time that it takes for that appeal to go through the system.

In the interests of fairness, and in helping VA to make a serious run at ending the backlog, We will withhold judgment on this particular issue until we can investigate the actual effects of this proposal on veterans. If claims are still able to be filed as “new” claims while older claims are on appeal, then maybe the rule is not as onerous as first thought. If, however, veterans are barred from raising new claims at all while any of their claims are on appeal, we would strongly object to this provision.

It is clear that as a whole, the new rules are meant to speed up the claims process and reduce the backlog, which is a goal we all applaud. However, reducing the backlog should not come at the cost of benefits to veterans. The requirement that NOD forms specifically enumerate the claims to be heard on appeal could possibly harm veterans who send in the NOD form without writing out the claims they want to appeal, as well as veterans who develop new evidence for denied claims while they are appealing other claims. We will continue to study these important proposals.

COLA Penalty Fight Update

More than a dozen individual pieces of legislation have now been introduced in the House and Senate to remove the COLA penalty from the two-year bipartisan budget agreement that was signed into law Dec. 26. The penalty, which impacts working age military retirees and medically-retired troops, is an automatic one-percent reduction from annual COLA increases until age 62. If left unchanged, the penalty would be phased in over three years, beginning with a quarter-percent reduction in 2015, then a half-percent reduction in 2016 and the full one percent in 2017. Budget reduction advocates say the penalty would only reduce an E-7's lifetime compensation from $1.8 million to $1.7 million, but left unsaid is an E-7 retiring today only earns a taxable retirement of $25,200, which for a family of four is borderline poverty level, and that the E-7 would have to live another five decades or more to accumulate anywhere near those totals. The VFW is working with congressional allies to find a bipartisan solution to eliminate the penalty, but we still need your voice to tell Congress that this is important to keep the faith with our military of today, yesterday and tomorrow.

VFW Hears Army and NGB Chiefs

The VFW was at the National Press Club twice this week to hear Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno on Tuesday, and Chief of the National Guard Bureau Gen. Frank Grass on Thursday, discuss a range of topics, mostly concerning the budget and the way forward. General Odierno said the budget is very challenging for the 1.1 million Total Army, and even though the recent budget agreement stopped the sequester for two years, it is still a threat and hurts rebalancing efforts. Regarding recent events, he said Fallujah was very disappointing, but doesn't advocate sending boots on the ground, that standards will not be lowered just to open up the combat arms to women, that sexual assaults will not be tolerated, the Army is not in competition with the Marines in the Pacific, and that Army Guard and Reserve forces exist to complement, not replace, the active force. General Grass said the 460,000 members of the Air and Army National Guard are at their highest state of readiness ever, but also worries how to balance the force and keep it relevant during the fiscal drawdown, especially knowing that a major event, such as a New Madrid earthquake or another Category 5 hurricane, could be just around the corner. For video of both events, go to http://press.org/.

Memorial Day Concert Seeks D-Day, Afghan 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 veteran support of their two main themes: The 70th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, which coincides with the 10th anniversary of the National WWII Memorial, and the ending of the war in Afghanistan. Being sought are:

* World War II veterans who participated in the Normandy Invasion. Selected veterans will be interviewed on videotape and then honored on stage with music by the National Symphony Orchestra. A short documentary about the invasion will be broadcast as part of the concert.
* Active-duty, Guard, Reserve, or veterans who were wounded (physically or mentally) in Afghanistan, and who are willing to share their stories of combat and their transition home. Selected stories will be reenacted by well-known actors. The selected veterans and their families will also be honored at the concert.

The Memorial Day Concert on the Mall is a 90-minute live event broadcast on PBS to 10 million viewers, and performed in front of an audience of 300,000 on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Interested service members and 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/.  

 ABMC Assumes Control of Clark Veterans Cemetery

A VFW National Resolution was fulfilled Dec. 16 with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Philippine and U.S. governments to allow the American Battle Monuments Commission to assume operations and maintenance of the Clark Veterans Cemetery. VFW Post 2485 had been the caretaker of the cemetery and its 8,000 non-World War II veterans and dependents for almost two decades after Clark Air Base was closed due to Typhoon Yunya and the Mount Pinatubo eruption. Resolution 431 was submitted by the VFW Department of Pacific and approved by delegates attending the 113th VFW National Convention in Reno, Nev. It called upon the United States government to resume full operational control of the Clark Veterans Cemetery. World War II remains are interred in the American Cemetery in Manila, which is one of 24 cemeteries ABMC operates overseas. Read more at http://www.abmc.gov/events/index.php.

New Secretary of Air Force Sworn In

Deborah Lee James was sworn in as the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force on Dec. 20. She is the second woman to hold the position, after Dr. Sheila Widnall who served from 1993 to 1997. Ms. James brings with her 30 years of senior homeland and national security experience in the federal government and the private sector. She was previously the president of defense contractor SAIC's Technical and Engineering Sector, where she was responsible for 8,700 employees and more than $2 billion in revenue. She is now responsible for organizing, training, equipping and providing for the welfare of more than 690,000 active duty, Guard, Reserve airmen and civilians and their families, as well as overseeing an annual operating budget of more than $110 billion. Read her official bio at http://www.af.mil/AboutUs/Biographies/Display/tabid/225/Article/467806/deborah-lee-james.aspx