Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 5 March 2014 

3/5/2014 

 

A Message about Army Knowledge Online from LTG Howard B. Bromberg

As you likely have heard, the Army is making significant changes to Army Knowledge Online (AKO).  While this effort is extremely important to improving the security of the Army's network and information, we understand that this decision impacts retired Soldiers, surviving spouses and family members.  Members of your community have expressed concern about what is happening, and I, and all senior Army leaders, have heard you.

The Army greatly values our retired Soldiers and the people who supported them throughout their service to our country.  We absolutely will not lose touch with our extended family; we are firmly committed to making sure that all Soldiers, past and present, and their loved ones stay informed and engaged.  In the long run, we hope to create a closer and even more vibrant community.

We are developing solutions for our continued communications with retired Soldiers and their loved ones.  We will keep you updated on our progress.

Once a Soldier, always a Soldier . . . a Soldier For Life!  The Army will always honor the contributions and sacrifices of every man and woman who wore the uniform, and the families who served alongside them.  Thank you for all you have done for our nation and our Army.

DETAILS OF FISCAL 2015 DEFENSE BUDGET RELEASED

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey gave reporters a preview of the President’s budget request for 2015 in a Pentagon press conference this week.  The budget will be formally presented to Congress on March 3. 

The Defense request adheres to the caps for fiscal 2015; however, DoD’s five-year budget plan exceeds spending limits in place for 2016 to 2019 by a total of $115 billion.  

Included in the budget are proposals that would: 

  • Reduce the Army’s end strength from 520,000 active duty soldiers down to a range of 440,000-450,000.  The Army National Guard would be reduced from 355,000 to 335,000 while the Army Reserve would drop from 205,000 to 185,000. 
  • Propose a one percent pay raise for military personnel and cap raises in the out years.  Raises for General and flag officers would be frozen for one year. 
  • Cut housing allowances.  Current allowances cover 100 percent of housing expenses.  The proposal would cut that to 95 percent with the remaining five percent coming from out-of-pocket.
  • Abolish the reimbursement of renter’s insurance.   
  • Reduce by $1 billion over three years, the annual direct subsidy provided to military commissaries.   
  • Consolidate TRICARE health plans and adjust deductibles and co-pays.  “We will ask retirees and some active-duty family members to pay a little more in their deductibles and co-pays,” Hagel said.  However, under the plan, “medically retired service members, their families and the survivors of service members who die on active duty would not pay the annual participation fees charged to other retirees and would pay a smaller share of the costs for health care than other retirees,” said Hagel.  No further details were given.   
  • Transfer Army Guard Apache attack helicopters to active duty units in exchange for Blackhawk helicopters. 
  • Request another round of Base Realignment and Closure in 2017. 
  • Kill the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle program. 

Although the budget request has not been formally presented to Congress yet, it is already attracting heaps of scorn from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. 

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., and fellow committee members, J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., and Rob Wittman, R-Va., criticized the proposal because it seems to “balance the budget on the backs” of servicemembers. 

McKeon also said that it would be "foolish" to change military benefits before a report is released on the issue next year while his counterpart in the Senate, Carl Levin, D-Mich., acknowledged that the Pentagon would have a "heavy challenge" convincing lawmakers to adopt some of the budget items.   

AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA. Ret., remains concerned about the repercussions the spending cuts mandated by sequestration have caused throughout DoD.  Those repercussions are evident by the reductions in this budget proposal.  Among the repercussions is a growth in the perception that military benefits might be ‘overly generous’ and need to more closely mirror private sector benefits.   

Sullivan has made a concerted effort through letters to Congress and media outreach to send the message that the automatic, mindless cuts imposed by sequestration put the nation’s defense posture at serious risk. 

It is important to remember that the budget release is only the first step in a very long and drawn out process.  The Administration can propose anything it wants.  It is Congress that we must continue to influence!  If the initial remarks made by the members of Congress and their unwillingness to adopt similar proposals are any indication, this budget request faces a long road ahead.  At the same time, we hope they will realize that their incapability to abolish sequestration permanently will only cause future budget requests to be even more radical.   

It is imperative that you let your elected officials know where you stand on this.  Go to our website, www.ausa.org, click on the “Contact Congress” button, enter your zip code and then click on the AUSA-suggested letter “Preserve Military and Veteran Benefits.”  

AUSA’S WINTER MEETING A SUCCESS 

AUSA had a very successful Winter Meeting in Huntsville, Alabama.  Representative Mo Brooks, R-Ala., spoke to the assembled guests and Vicki Plunkett, a professional staff member of the House Armed Services Committee served on one of the panels.  Six other staffers from key congressional offices visited the exhibits and spoke with senior Army leaders.

COLA CUT SOLUTION?

While Congress agrees the under-62 military retiree COLA cut should be repealed, how to pay for it has been the $6 billion question. 

The Senate voted this week (94-0) to invoke cloture on an AUSA-supported bill offered by Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., that would simply repeal the cut without identifying any offsets to pay for it.  This procedural vote cleared the way for a final vote on the bill. 

The Pryor bill may be unnecessary because on the other side of the Hill, the House easily passed legislation that would repeal the cut, but only for the current force.  It would remain in place for servicemembers who joined the military after Jan. 1, 2014.  Shortly after the House vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., signaled his willingness to go along with the House plan.  In fact, the Senate will probably vote on it today.

The major difference between the House bill and the Senate’s is that the House offered a way to pay for the repeal.  It would extend sequestration for mandatory programs for one year until 2024. 

The House bill also established a $2.3 billion fund to pay for the “doc fix.” 

Finding a permanent solution to the annual cuts in reimbursement rates for physicians who treat Medicare patients has proven to be next to impossible.  Because payment rates in the TRICARE program are tied to Medicare rates, this affects many military beneficiaries.  Each year, Congress implements short-term patches that merely make the problem worse. 

Money included in the House bill could either be used to fund another short-term patch (jeer) or for offsetting the cost of a permanent overhaul of the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) formula that is used to determine Medicare reimbursement rates to physicians (cheer).

The bottom line:  If the Senate passes the House bill today, as expected, it will be a win-win situation for AUSA and its partners in The Military Coalition.  The under-62 military retiree COLA cut for the current force will be repealed and a possible permanent solution to the SGR will be funded. 

A big AUSA salute to all of you who responded quickly to our call to action and contacted your elected officials.  It proves that grassroots efforts do work. 

AUSA PRESIDENT:  LEAVE DESIGN OF THE ARMY TO CIVILIAN AND MILITARY LEADERS

A piece of legislation AUSA does not support is a bill offered by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., that would create a congressional commission to study the structure of the Army to determine the proper force mixture of active component and reserve components. 

Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., AUSA’s President and a former Chief of Staff of the Army strongly believes that such a commission is unnecessary.  In a letter he sent to key members of Congress, Sullivan said that the commission “could damage Army readiness, and would be an impediment to the Army’s ability to implement the spending reductions required by the 2011 Budget Control Act.”

Sullivan also said that the “senior leaders of the Army components are best qualified to organize, train and equip a total force that will reflect the nation’s security needs and the Army’s role inherent in deterrence, meeting treaty obligations, supporting domestic crises and disaster relief and ultimately fighting and winning the nation’s conflicts.”

“I am confident that  senior Army leaders – active, National Guard and reserve – will work together  to carry out their responsibility to our nation’s civilian leaders  to organize, train, and equip the Army for prompt and sustained combat on land.  Protecting and defending our national interests and our nation is the goal.  Leave the design of a coherent and balanced Army to the civilian and military leaders who have been confirmed by Congress.   They can do the job, and ultimately, do it right,” Sullivan said.

BUDGET WILL AGAIN TARGET PAY AND COMPENSATION

The defense witnesses testifying last week at the Senate hearing on the under-62 military retiree COLA cut, made it perfectly clear that attacks on military pay and compensation are not ending anytime soon. 

Acting Defense Secretary Christine Fox and Admiral James Winnefeld, Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the President’s Budget request, expected March 4, will request “fine-tune adjustments” on pay and compensation.  

Among the potential targets are military pay raises which would be capped at 1 percent and changes to the current formula used to determine basic allowance for housing.  Under discussion is a plan to link the allowance to the cost of living in certain areas instead of average rental housing costs.  Let’s not forgot the annual attack to TRICARE!  Defense officials will again attempt to increase/create fees for the TRICARE health care program, including TRICARE for Life.  And again, we will fight these proposals tooth and nail.  

Fox and Winnefeld argued that military compensation, which was increased in the late 1990s when it was found to be woefully below the average American worker’s pay — “understandably,” they said — is now higher than where it should be and needs to be “placed on a more sustainable trajectory.” 

“We’re not cutting compensation.  We just need to slow the growth,” Fox said.

We’ve heard this before so we will say this again:    

In order to have a military force that is unparalleled and unchallenged, it must be large enough to deter potential enemies, and it must be manned with personnel who are properly compensated for the rigors of a profession that is unlike any other and brings with it enormous stressors both for the personnel and their families.  While our enemies grow stronger, we must not go down the road of false savings that leave defense forces too small and too weak.  The cost of rebuilding a defense force after a crisis occurs is far greater in dollars and blood than simply maintaining it.

HOUSE APPROVES VETERANS’ EDUCATION BILL

A bipartisan bill, passed by the House this week, would enable G.I. Bill recipients to receive in-state tuition rates at any public college or university in the country, not just those in a veteran’s state of residence.  

The provision, part of the G.I. Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2013 (H.R. 357) would take effect on July 1, 2016.  Currently, veterans who attend out-of state schools must make up the difference in tuition costs.  According to a College Board study, the difference averages $13,000 for a full-time student.  Currently, twenty states already have laws that allow the lower tuition rates.  The bill would require all fifty states to grant in-state tuition rates to military veterans. 

Included in the bill are other provisions that would:

§  Extend the Veterans’ Retraining and Assistance Program job training benefits through May 31, 2014.  The program is currently set to expire March 31, 2014.

§  Require stronger infectious disease reporting requirements for VA hospitals

§  Require VA health officials to obtain the consent of patients before electronically monitoring them in private patient areas

§  Implement a five year ban on performance bonuses for VA Senior Executive Service employees

§  Require more comprehensive reporting requirements for VA employees traveling abroad 

A companion bill, S. 257, was introduced by Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and was referred to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee where it awaits action. 

FINALLY…

 “I think we are firmly committed to fixing this problem.  And without those e-mails, I'm not so sure we would be firmly committed as we are.  So I just want your membership to know it matters that you weigh in, that you go visit people.  The Congress is very friendly to our military.  Sometimes we make, you know, decisions that upon a second look, maybe were not that smart.  The fact that we're responding appropriately, I think is a good thing.  But do not underestimate how urging helps.”

That’s what Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said to AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., and the other witnesses at the military retirement hearing last week.  Your voice matters!!  We cannot say it enough.  Because you vote, because you are the grassroots, your voice speaks far louder than ours.  So I urge you to use the Contact Congress feature on our website.   Let your elected officials know how you feel.  Click the Contact Congress button, put in your Zip Code and send the AUSA- suggested letters.  Start with the one titled, Repeal the Military Retiree COLA Cut.  It is Congress that we must continue to influence. 

 

Senate Fails to Pass Comprehensive Vets Bill Update

Yesterday, the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act, stalled in the Senate. Problems with the way the bill was funded prevented it from making it to a final vote, and it has been sent back to Committee. The bill contains an array of provisions, including Advance Appropriations and improvements to veterans’ health, education and survivor benefits that would have extended to all generations of veterans. The VFW thanks all of its advocates and members for calling their Senators and urging their support for this historic legislation. We will continue to work with the Committee to bring this bill to a vote, so it can be sent to the House for consideration.

House Discusses VR&E Program

On Tuesday, the House VA Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity discussed VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program. A recent GAO report found that half of the 17,000 veterans who entered the VR&E program were placed in suitable jobs; a third left before meeting goal; and others are still participating in the program. The report also noted that, on average, it took veterans six years to find employment, due in part to most of them using the program on a temporary basis. Subcommittee Chairman Bill Flores (R-TX) and his colleagues addressed the various limitations and hindrances facing disabled veterans who apply for VR&E. Several of the testifying witnesses brought forth their observations and concerns regarding the program. For more on the hearing and other information on VR&E, visit our blog.

House VA Committee Holds Health Care Oversight Hearing

On Wednesday, the House VA Subcommittee on Health held a hearing on actions taken by VHA in response to various oversight hearings held last year. Issues discussed included physician staffing, procurement, pain management, and MST treatment. During the hearing, the VA was questioned about recent media reports that the Greater Los Angeles VA Medical Center inappropriately purged thousands of exam requests in 2008 and 2009, and then destroyed veterans’ medical records to cover it up, in order to create the illusion that they were reducing the backlog. The allegations were brought forward by a former VA employee. Dr. Robert Petzel, VA Undersecretary for Health, said that these reports misrepresented the facts, calling them “scurrilous.” He stated that the LA VAMC only deleted old requests from veterans who had repeatedly failed to show up to the exams, in many cases because they moved away. Dr. Petzel further stated that medical records in the VA Electronic Health Record System cannot be destroyed. Read testimony from the hearing.

President to Award 24 Medals of Honor

On March 18, the president is set to present the Medal of Honor to 24 Army soldiers for conspicuous gallantry during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In 2002, Congress called for a review of Jewish and Hispanic American war records to ensure that those deserving of the nation’s highest medal were not denied because of prejudice. The review also found the records of others worthy of the Medal of Honor. The 24 soldiers—23 enlisted and one officer—were previously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. All but three of the medals will be presented posthumously. Read more.

Veterans Crisis Line Info

If a veteran or service member you know is showing signs of crisis, such as hopelessness, anxiety or withdrawal, call on the caring professionals at the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line who are ready to listen and provide support. The Veterans Crisis Line is a free, confidential resource that veterans, service members and their families can access anytime. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, or text to 838255 for free, confidential support, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. You can start the conversation today. Visit VeteransCrisisline.net/SpreadtheWord to download free Veterans Crisis Line materials so you can tell others how to do it, too.

 

 Blue Star Families Military Lifestyle Survey Now Open  

The voice of the military family is incredibly important to the greater conversation about community support. “Every day military families are serving on their own front lines at home. They are sustaining themselves and supporting service members who are preparing, deploying, returning or reintegrating after combat. These families are the backbone of a strong and able United States military. Therefore, we must listen carefully and address the concerns of the military families who play a central and critical role in supporting United States forces while ensuring readiness for current and future national security needs.”

The goal of the Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey is to provide concrete data and information about prominent aspects of the military lifestyle so that decision-makers can make informed choices on their behalf. Now’s your chance to contribute-take a few moments to complete the survey, and be sure to share it with other military families you know! 

 

Saving for a Child's College Education

Military parents understand the importance of saving for a child's college education. However, with college tuition rising steadily, many of them have no idea how much money they must save in order to pay for college in the future. To stay ahead of increasing costs, it's more important than ever to begin saving early and to have smart saving strategies. Even if your child won't be starting college for more than a decade, it will help to get a rough estimate of how much money you'll need to put away. You can use average tuition costs, published by organizations such as the U.S. Department of Education College Affordability and Transparency Center, which includes several lists of institutions based on the tuition and fees and net prices (the price of attendance after considering all grant and scholarship aid) charged to students.

Once you have that figure, use the national average rate of increase to get a good estimate of what college is likely to cost when it's time for your child to attend. Learn about ways to save and invest, open education savings accounts, and qualified tuition (529) plans here.

Tips for American Heart Month

Even though we generally follow the rule “if it’s not causing me any trouble, it must be fine,” it’s important to keep an eye on your heart health. February is American heart month, and below are a few tips for making sure everything stays beating steadily along. Heart disease still remains the leading cause of death in the United States. While recent studies have shown dramatic reductions in coronary artery disease among service members over the past 50 years, tobacco use and being overweight remain major risk factors that threaten to undermine this progress. As part of the Military Health System’s commitment to preserve service members’ health and ensure their medical readiness, here are five tips for maintaining heart health: fuel your body with healthy foods and beverages, keep moving, stop using tobacco – or don’t start, get enough sleep, and learn to better manage stress. Read the detailed list here.

COLA Count Still Underwater

Through four months of the count toward the January 2015 federal retirement COLA, the count remains in negative territory at -0.1 percent, following an increase of 0.4 percentage points last month in the inflation index used to set the COLA. Should the count finish in negative territory, benefits would be frozen but not reduced.

Military Compensation Commission Update

VFW Washington Office Executive Director Bob Wallace met Thursday with the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which is charged with examining how our 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. 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; education; military healthcare costs and eligibility; military exchanges, commissaries and schools; and transition and employment assistance programs, among many others. Also under discussion is a joint military medical command, which the VFW supports with Resolution 417, which was approved by delegates attending last year’s 114th VFW National Convention in Louisville. The VFW testified before the Commission in November and remains wary of their overall intent, but is appreciative of the continued two-way conversation. The Commission is required to issue their report to the White House in February 2015. For more information or to leave a public comment on their website, click here.

More Secure VA ID Cards Coming

The VA has announced the phased roll out of newly designed, more secure Veteran Health Identification Cards (VHIC). Similar to a typical health insurance card, the VHIC will display the veteran’s member ID, a new unique identifier, as well as a plan ID, reflecting the veteran’s enrollment in VA healthcare. The new 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 yet been issued a VIC. In 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. Enrolled veterans can get more information about the VHIC by visiting their VA medical facility enrollment coordinator, clicking here, calling 1-877-222-VETS (8387) or visiting their local VA health care facility. Veterans not enrolled in the VA healthcare system can apply for enrollment online at any time, call 1-877-222-VETS (8387) or visit their local VA healthcare facility.

SSA to Expedite Disability Process for Veterans

The Social Security Administration unveiled a new initiative this week to expedite disability claims by veterans with a VA disability compensation rating of 100% Permanent & Total (P&T). Under the new process, which is set to launch in mid-March, Social Security will treat these veterans’ applications as high priority and issue expedited decisions, similar to the way the agency currently handles disability claims from Wounded Warriors. In order to receive the expedited service, veterans must tell Social Security they have a VA disability compensation rating of 100% P&T, and show proof of their disability rating with their VA Notification Letter. The VA rating only expedites Social Security disability claims processing and does not guarantee an approval for Social Security disability benefits. These veterans must still meet the strict eligibility requirements for a disability allowance. Learn more about this service. For more about Social Security’s handling of Wounded Warrior’s disability claims, click here.

The VFW Joins Bush Summit on Empowering Veterans

On Wednesday, the VFW was at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas for the institute’s first summit on “Empowering Our Nation’s Warriors,” hosted by former President George W. Bush. The summit brought together leaders from the nonprofit world, as well as government, education and private sector to discuss the issues facing America’s newest generation of veterans. Also participating was Dr. Jill Biden, who discussed the White House’s Joining Forces initiative. VFW partner, Student Veterans of America, also discussed the veterans’ experience in higher education. For highlights, including video from the summit, click here.

Tricare Pharmacy Update

The VFW received an update from Express Scripts, the pharmacy contractor for TRICARE, about the TRICARE for Life one-year mandatory home delivery pilot program. The only medications that are required for home delivery under the program are name-brand maintenance medications. Generic maintenance medications and all short-term medications can still be filled at local retail pharmacies. Other key exceptions to mandatory program participation include veterans residing overseas, in nursing homes, and veterans with other health insurance plans in addition to TFL. Other exemptions and one-time overrides may be granted by Express Scripts on a case-by-case basis. To request a waiver, call Express Scripts at 1-877-363-1303. For more information, visit their website.

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.

New Veterans Legislation

A number of new bills have been introduced in Congress in the past week that pertain to veterans or their families.

H.R.4053  To amend title 38, United States Code, to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish standards for the provision of mammograms at health care facilities of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Sponsor: Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Calif.-35)
H.R.4031  To amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for the removal of Senior Executive Service employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs for performance, and for other purposes.

Sponsor: Rep. Jeff B. Miller (R-Fla.-01)
H.R.4050  To amend the Service members Civil Relief Act to provide for alternate means of proof of period of military service for purposes of the interest rate limitation.
Sponsor: Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.-10)

H.R.4037  To amend title 38, United States Code, to make certain improvements in the laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs relating to training and rehabilitation for veterans with service-connected disabilities, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Rep. Bill H. Flores (R-Texas-17)

S.2013 A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for the removal of Senior Executive Service employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs for performance, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)
H.R.4038  To direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to make certain improvements in the information technology of the Veterans Benefits Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs to process claims more efficiently, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Rep. Bill H. Flores (R-Texas-17)

S.2014  A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for clarification regarding the children to whom entitlement to educational assistance may be transferred under Post-9/11 Educational Assistance, and for other purposes.
Sponsor: Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)

Investigators Warn of Website Scam Targeting Soldiers, Families

The Army’s Criminal Investigation Command is warning about a new website scam in which criminals are attempting to take advantage of soldiers and their families.

The "My Army Benefits" website at http://www.usmilitarybenifit.org is not an official website, officials said, and is neither affiliated with nor endorsed in any way by the United States Army. The Army does, however, have an official website called "MyArmyBenefits" at http://myarmybenefits.us.army.mil that is operated by the service's Retirement Services Office.

The primary purpose of the fraudulent site is to collect soldiers' Army Knowledge Online, or AKO, email accounts and passwords, officials said. It also makes the false claim that the U.S. military has granted access to unclaimed and accumulated benefits for active duty soldiers, and that benefits not claimed within the stipulated period will be available for claims after 60 months.

Criminal Investigation Command officials strongly recommend that soldiers, Army civilians, retirees and family members avoid the website and ignore any information or claims posted on it. They also recommend deleting suspicious or unsolicited emails immediately, without response.

Most online scam attempts are easily recognizable, officials said, because they usually involve unsolicited emails or text messages. Hoax websites often contain misspelled words and punctuation and grammatical errors, they added, and often ask for private information such as an email address and password.

Officials noted that cybercrime and Internet fraud present challenges to law enforcement agencies, as criminals mask their true identities and locations and cover their tracks quickly. Websites and accounts can easily be established and deleted in very little time, they said, allowing scam artists to strike and then disappear before law enforcement agencies can respond.

Because identifying the perpetrators is difficult, people must stay alert and be personally responsible for protecting themselves and their families online.

Criminal Investigation Command provided the following advice for anyone who has received correspondence from the My Army benefits website or provided information through it:
-- Do not log in to the website;
-- Do not respond to any emails;
-- Stop all contact if you have previously responded to any emails; and
-- Immediately contact your local information assurance office if you accessed the website from a government computer or system.
From Armed Forces Press Service

Pentagon Plans to Track Military Family Suicides

The Department of Defense has begun setting up a system to track suicides among military family members.

The Defense Suicide Prevention Office (DSPO) recently told Congress that the military currently "does not have the ability to investigate, monitor, or receive notification of military family member deaths," according to the report entitled "Suicides and Military Families."

The military said it was possible to collect and analyze data on suicides among immediate military family members, but "it would require leveraging existing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), which is currently not available."

The report, which was first reported by CNN, estimated that it would take 18-24 months to set up a tracking system with a projected cost of $681,600 for the first year and $502,200 for each additional year.
Under the Prevention Office proposal, data bought from the CDC would be combined with DoD data and then aggregated into an already-existing DoD Suicide Data Repository (SDR).

The program is intended to allow the military to track family member deaths by suicide and to figure out to combat the problem and while increasing resilience in military family members
.
Military family advocates have argued the DOD was ignoring the growing problem of suicides among military family members who share the stress of 12 years of war and multiple deployments.

The community of mental health professionals has increasingly recognized the existence of secondary PTSD that family members can experience when their service member is troubled.

In 2011, Deborah Mullen, wife of the then-Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, spoke out about the military's lack of family support services and a system for tracking military family suicides. She reportedly said that she was stunned to find out that there were too many family member suicides to track, and that many military spouses are slow to receive treatment because they think that it will negatively affect their service member’s career. This idea comes from the negative stereotypes that are still prevalent among some groups in the military regarding mental illness.


Since there are no reliable statistics on military family suicides, the reporting of incidents in which wives, husbands, sons and daughters have taken their own lives has been left to local authorities.

COLA Penalty Removed for Most

Thanks in large part to grassroots advocates for bombarding their congressional offices with tens of thousands of phone calls and e-mails, Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation this week to eliminate the controversial one-percent COLA penalty on working-age military retirees. The House vote Tuesday was 326-90 and the Senate vote Wednesday was 95-3. The bill also contained a grandfather clause that extends to those currently serving, provided they were in uniform prior to the end of 2013. The legislation does not, however, remove the penalty on all future retirees who entered the military after Jan. 1. Regarding future retirees, VFW National Commander Bill Thien said "the world will remain a very dangerous and unpredictable place even after America ends its involvement in Afghanistan, and future military retirees will be required to serve just as long and perhaps sacrifice even more than their predecessors. It is in that regard that the military coalition will continue to fight for a full repeal of the COLA penalty, and we hope that this week's vote continues that conversation."

Benefits Fights Not Over

The COLA penalty was a surprise provision in last December's Bipartisan Budget Agreement. More surprises could come in March, when the administration releases its fiscal year 2015 budget recommendations. Back in August 2011, the VFW unveiled its 10 for 10 Plan, which were 10 DOD/VA programs that we believed were under threat of elimination or reduction to help pay for (then) 10 years of war. Below are the 10 programs, which are still on the radarscope based on present-day budget battles, the deficit, the continued threat of sequestration, and the recommendations to be made next year by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission:
* Change the 20-year military retirement plan to resemble civilian plans.
* Increase healthcare premiums for military families and retirees on TRICARE.
* Increase pharmaceutical fees for military families and retirees.
* Reduce COLA increases.
* End government subsidies to military commissaries.
* Eliminate DOD elementary schools stateside.
* Eliminate DOD tuition assistance programs for service members.
* Eliminate presumptive service-connected conditions for disabled and ill veterans.
* Lock out or increase fees for VA Priority Group 7 and 8 veterans.
* And lower or freeze military pay, similar to the recent three-year (FY 2011-13) freeze for federal civilians.
Become a VFW Action Corps member today and help us stop the government from balancing the budget on the backs of veterans, service members and their families. Join us at:
http://capwiz.com/vfw/mlm/signup.htm

 'My Army Benefits' Website Scam Targets Soldiers and Families  

The Army’s Criminal Investigation Command is warning about a new website scam in which criminals are attempting to take advantage of soldiers and their families. The "My Army Benefits" website is not an official website, officials said, and is neither affiliated with nor endorsed in any way by the United States Army. The Army does, however, have an official website called "MyArmyBenefits" at http://myarmybenefits.us.army.mil that is operated by the service's Retirement Services Office.

The primary purpose of the fraudulent site is to collect soldiers' Army Knowledge Online, or AKO, email accounts and passwords, officials said. It also makes the false claim that the U.S. military has granted access to unclaimed and accumulated benefits for active duty soldiers, and that benefits not claimed within the stipulated period will be available for claims after 60 months. Criminal Investigation Command officials strongly recommend that soldiers, Army civilians, retirees and family members avoid the website and ignore any information or claims posted on it. They also recommend deleting suspicious or unsolicited emails immediately, without response.  

New Online GI Bill Comparison Tool Available  

The Department of Veterans Affairs recently launched an online GI Bill® Comparison Tool to make it easier for veterans, service members and dependents to calculate their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and learn more about VA’s approved colleges, universities and other education and training programs across the country. “We are pleased that Post-9/11 Veterans are taking advantage of this significant benefit program,” said Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey. “The new GI Bill Comparison Tool will help future beneficiaries as they make decisions about what education or training program best fits their needs.”

The GI Bill Comparison Tool provides key information about college affordability and brings together information from more than 17 different online sources and three federal agencies, including the number of students receiving VA education benefits at each school. Read more about this new tool here.  

Military OneSource Offers Free Tax Filing Service and More  

Military OneSource offers extensive information concerning all your tax return needs, including access to a free return and filing service. The service allows you to complete and electronically file your federal and up to three state tax returns or filings. Your calculations are guaranteed to be 100 percent accurate or the online tax service provider will pay the penalties and interest. Learn more here.

Tricare For Life Pharmacy Update

Beginning Feb. 14, TRICARE for Life beneficiaries will be required to fill maintenance medication prescriptions through the TRICARE Home Delivery (mail-order) pharmacy system. The change stems from the recently passed FY 2013 Defense Authorization bill and is designed to save money by lowering costs for both beneficiaries and DOD. For instance, a 30-day refill of generic medication costs $5 at a retail drug store, but a 90-day refill through the mail-order pharmacy is free. For name brand medications, the cost is $13 for a 90-day mail-order refill versus $17 for a 30-day refill at a retail store. Beneficiaries living near a military hospital or clinic can continue to fill their prescriptions there and do not need to enroll in the mail order program. Additionally, nursing home patients and those with other prescription coverage are also exempt. Beneficiaries may opt out after using the mail-order refill system after the one-year trial period. TRICARE is currently reaching out to affected beneficiaries. You can enroll online or over the phone at 1-877-363-1303. For more information or to sign-up, go to http://www.tricare.mil/Home/Pharmacy/FillPrescriptions/HomeDelivery. 

Press Conference Draws Support for Senate Vet Bill

VFW offered its support for comprehensive veterans' legislation at a Tuesday press conference with Senate VA Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to call on the full Senate to pass S. 1982---the Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014. The bill would eliminate the one-percent COLA reduction on working-age military retirees, as well as extend the Caregiver's Act to all generations, and provide advance appropriations for VA's mandatory accounts, which would guarantee monthly disability and survivor checks, and GI Bill education payments, in the event of future government shutdowns. Sanders was quick to point out that this bill is the result of a bipartisan effort, and that it was written based on suggestions expressed by the VFW and other veterans' organizations. The VFW strongly supports the bill and urges its quick passage. For more details, visit our blog at http://thevfw.blogspot.com/2014/02/vfw-calls-on-senate-to-pass-veterans.html.

CFPB Briefs Military Coalition on Consumer Protection

On Thursday, The Military Coalition was briefed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. CFPB Director of Servicemember Affairs Holly Petraeus took the opportunity to directly explain the financial issues facing today's military and veterans' communities, and how these issues can be avoided through proper financial education and assistance programs. The CFPB offers a military-specific complaint process for military and veteran consumers who believe they are victims or fraud or abuse. The CFPB also works to develop new resources specifically geared toward financial literacy for the military and veterans' communities. To learn more about the CFPB's resources and Thursday's briefing, click here: http://thevfw.blogspot.com/2014/02/vfw-joins-tmc-briefing-on-consumer.html   

New System for Feedback on GI Bill and Tuition Assistance

Federal officials recently launched an online complaints system designed to root out colleges taking advantage of student veterans and their military education benefits. Complaints will be reviewed by the departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, Education and Justice, along with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Federal Trade Commission. The massive interagency effort will allow federal officials to use their findings to pressure schools into changing, or go after harsher punishment if warranted. Veterans groups hailed the move as a game-changer.

“This is going to give us the ability to identify problems and trends veterans are having, and name names,” said Ryan Gallucci, deputy legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “Prior to today, veterans and service members had nowhere to go when they were subjected to aggressive and deceptive recruiting by predatory for-profit colleges, including being lied to about a school’s accreditation, true tuition and fees,” said Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success. But veterans groups such as the VFW and Student Veterans of America in recent months have declined to attack the for-profit higher education industry, saying that anecdotes of student problems aren’t limited to any one set of schools. Read more here and on the CFPB blog.