Retiree & Veteran Affairs News 18 June 2015
CALL TO ACTION! Despite a veto threat from the White House, the Senate kicked off consideration of the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill last week.
AUSA has a big problem with some of the provisions approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) last month. These include provisions that would only provide a 1.3 percent pay raise instead of 2.3 percent; reduce Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH); reduce funding for commissaries and double TRICARE pharmacy co-pays over ten years.
“The FY 2016 SASC mark proposes a 1.3 percent pay raise cap (vs. a 2.3% raise mandated by law). This would be a third straight years of pay caps, with four more years planned. The past three years have had the smallest pay raises in 50 years; this is not the appropriate message to send to our men and women in uniform after 13 years of war,” states a letter sent to the Senate by AUSA and its partners in The Military Coalition.
The SASC also adopted language that not only reduces BAH by up to 5 percent for military families, for married servicemembers living together, BAH would be restricted to the spouse of higher rank. Troops living together would be hit with a 25 percent cut in BAH.
The White House came out strongly against this provision (Section 604) yesterday. A Statement of Administration Policy, said that the provision “would restrict BAH for uniformed service members who are married to another member and limit BAH for members who choose to share housing with other members. BAH is a part of every member’s regular military compensation and is designed to provide a cash housing allowance. Section 604 would impose a significant marriage penalty when a member is married to another member. This section would penalize members who choose to reside with other members as compared to those members who choose to reside alone or share housing with nonmembers. This action would seem to conflict with the fundamental fiscal responsibility required of our service members.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that implementing this provision would reduce the monthly BAH for dual-service couples by an average of $1,100 (or $13,200 per year) in 2016.
Commissaries take a hit in the Senate bill. AUSA has joined our partners in the Coalition to Save our Military Shopping Benefits to strongly protest the proposed changes to the commissary benefit. Key lawmakers in the Senate have been notified that we strongly oppose provisions that would:
· Cut $322 million from the commissary funding.
· Authorize an increase in prices across the board to reimburse the appropriation for transportation of products to overseas commissaries.
· Remove the requirement that commissary products be sold at cost and authorizes DoD to raise prices to fund operating expenses.
· Change the requirement of the surcharge to be used only for maintenance, modernization, and building of new stores by adding language that allows for the purchase of operating supplies
· Direct the Secretary of Defense to submit a report on a plan for privatization, in whole or in part, of the commissary system.
· Require a pilot program on privatization on no fewer than five commissaries chosen from the Defense Commissary Agency’s largest U.S. markets.
We have thrown our support behind Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who will introduce an amendment that would change the provisions mandating a privatization plan and pilot program to one that calls for a feasibility study instead.
YOU CAN HELP!! Act now and let your elected representatives know how you feel about these provisions. Visit the AUSA webpage, www.ausa.org, click on the Legislative Agenda link and then click on “Contact Congress”. Enter your zip code and then on the AUSA-suggested letter, “Preserve Our Military Benefits.” Since the bill is on the Senate floor now, time is critical.
The Administration’s main objection to the bill is that it authorizes a level of defense spending next year in accordance with federal spending caps known as sequestration, but circumvents those caps by increasing the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund which is not subject to the spending limits. Earlier this year, GOP leadership added about $40 billion to the war fund to appease defense hawks and secure their votes.
A Statement of Administration Policy released June 2 states, “First, the President has been very clear about the core principle that he will not support a budget that locks in sequestration, and he will not fix defense without fixing non-defense spending. Sequestration levels will damage our ability to restore readiness, advance badly-needed technological modernization, and keep faith with our troops and their families.
“Unfortunately, the bill fails to authorize sufficient funding for our military’s priorities in the base budget, and instead uses Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding in ways that leaders of both parties have made clear are inappropriate. Shifting base budget resources into OCO risks undermining a mechanism meant to fund incremental costs of overseas conflicts and fails to provide a stable, multi-year budget on which defense planning is based. The use of OCO funding to circumvent budget caps in defense spending also ignores the long-term connection between national security and economic security and fails to account for vital national security functions carried out at non-defense agencies.”
In response, Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said, “This legislation doesn't end sequestration, unfortunately. Believe me, our committee would have done so if the NDAA were possible, or capable, of it, but it is not. The NDAA is a policy bill. It deals only with defense and national security issues," he added. "It does not spend a dollar."
HOUSE PANEL APPROVES DEFENSE SPENDING BILL There is progress on another piece of defense-related legislation to report.
The House Appropriations Committee approved a $579 billion defense spending bill for fiscal 2016 which includes a 10 percent boost in equipment procurement, a 3 percent increase for operations and maintenance funding, and enough money for a 2.3 percent military pay raise next year. But it also includes the inflated $88.4 billion Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund.
This bill has also drawn fire from the White House. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Shaun Donovan sent a letter to Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., alerting him of his “serious concerns about this legislation, which would underfund these important investments in the base budget and instead rely on budget gimmicks that have been criticized by members of both parties."
The bottom line: As Congress and the White House moves towards a showdown over fiscal 2016 spending, the fate of both the House and Senate defense authorization bills and the House appropriations bill is uncertain. The White House has served notice that it will not approve any additional defense spending unless spending caps are lifted on domestic programs as well.
AUSA President Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, USA, Ret., had said repeatedly that sequestration must end. Budgetary gimmicks will not be necessary once it does. We need to stop talking and start acting.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 18, 2015
VA Expands Disability Benefits for Air Force Personnel Exposed to Contaminated C-123 Aircraft
WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today published a new regulation that expands eligibility for some benefits for a select group of Air Force Veterans and Air Force Reserve personnel who were exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange through regular and repeated contact with contaminated C-123 aircraft that had been used in Vietnam as part of Operation Ranch Hand (ORH). VA published this regulation as an interim final rule so that it could immediately begin providing benefits to eligible Air Force veterans and Air Force Reserve personnel who submit a disability compensation claim for any of the 14 medical conditions that have been determined by VA to be related to exposure to Agent Orange. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald made the decision to expand benefits following receipt of a 2015 report by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine (IOM) on Post-Vietnam Dioxin Exposure in Agent Orange-Contaminated C-123 Aircraft. This VA-requested report found evidence that as many as 1,500 to 2,100 Air Force and Air Force Reserve personnel who served as flight, medical and ground maintenance crew members on ORH C-123 aircraft previously used to spray Agent Orange in Vietnam were exposed to the herbicide. “Opening up eligibility for this deserving group of Air Force veterans and reservists is the right thing to do,” said Secretary McDonald. “We thank the IOM for its thorough review that provided the supporting evidence needed to ensure we can now fully compensate any former crew member who develops an Agent Orange-related disability.” Under this new rule, Air Force and Air Force Reserve flight, medical and ground maintenance crewmembers who served on the contaminated ORH C-123s are presumed to have been exposed to herbicides during their service, thus making it easier for them to establish entitlement for some VA benefits if they develop an Agent Orange-related presumptive condition. In addition, for affected Air Force Reserve crew members, VA will presume that their Agent Orange-related condition had its onset during their Reserve training. This change ensures that these reservists are eligible for VA disability compensation and medical care for any Agent Orange-related presumptive condition, and that their surviving dependents are eligible for dependency and indemnity compensation and burial benefits. The interim final rule can be found on the Federal Register: www.federalregister.gov/public-inspection. VA will immediately begin processing claims and issuing benefits to eligible Air Force crew members. VA encourages reservists who were assigned to flight, ground or medical crew duties at Lockbourne/Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Ohio (906th and 907th Tactical Air Groups or 355th and 356th Tactical Airlift Squadron), Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts (731st Tactical Air Squadron and 74th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron) or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, International Airport ( 758th Airlift Squadron) during the period 1969 to 1986, and developed an Agent Orange-related disability to file a disability compensation claim online through the joint VA-Department of Defense web portal, eBenefits ( https://www.ebenefits.va.gov/). VA also has identified several active duty locations where ORH C-123 aircraft may have been used following their service in Vietnam. Active duty personnel who served in a regular USAF unit location where a contaminated C-123 was assigned and who had regular and repeated contact with the aircraft through flight, ground or medical duties during the period 1969 to 1986, and who develop an Agent Orange-related disability, also are encouraged to apply for benefits. For more information on applying for these benefits, including the affected units, Air Force Specialty Codes and dates of service for affected crew members, and a listing of Agent Orange-related conditions, visit www.benefits.va.gov/compensation/agentorange-c123.asp. In order to avoid unnecessary delay of benefits, claimants should annotate “(C-123)” after each Agent Orange related disability in Part II, Block 14 of VA Form 21-526 or Section I, Block 11 of VA Form VA Form 21-526EZ when filing on eBenefits. Example: Diabetes (C-123). If claimants have any of the following documents, they should be attached to their application: Discharge, separation papers, (DD214 or equivalent) USAF Form 2096 (unit where assigned at the time of the training action) USAF Form 5 (aircraft flight duties) USAF Form 781 (aircraft maintenance duties) Dependency records (marriage & children's birth certificates) Medical evidence (doctor & hospital reports) VA will process all claims related to C-123 exposure at the St. Paul, Minnesota, VA Regional Office. Claims not filed through eBenefits should be mailed to the following address (or faxed to 608-373-6694): Department of Veterans Affairs Claims Intake Center Attention: C123 Claims PO Box 5088 Janesville, WI 53547-5088 Individuals with specific benefit questions related to herbicide exposure on C-123s may call VA’s special C-123 Hotline at 1-800-749-8387 (available 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. EST) or e-mail [email protected].
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE June 16, 2015
VA Partners with Richmond International Raceway to Increase Veterans’ Access to Benefits RICHMOND, Va. –
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today announced a partnership with the Richmond International Raceway (RIR) to promote greater access and awareness to VA benefits and services at the upcoming NASCAR races on Sept. 11 and 12 in Richmond. The partnership with RIR is part of VA’s “Summer of Service” initiative designed to encourage and grow the number of individuals and organizations serving Veterans in their communities. As part of a series of activities beginning this summer to reach Veterans, Servicemembers and their families, VA will honor past and present military members during the Pole Qualifying and Federated Auto Parts 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. VA’s Mobile Vet Center will be onsite with a team of health and benefits experts who can answer Veterans’ questions, share information and help Veterans and family members’ access VA benefits and services. As part of the collaboration, RIR will offer Veterans and their families a 70-percent discount on tickets for the Sept. 11 race, as well as their traditional military discount on tickets for the Sept. 12 race. “The best way to reach Veterans is to involve partners that engage Veterans in the communities where they live,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald. “Through innovative partnerships like this and our Summer of Service initiative, we have the opportunity to reach Veterans and their families who may not realize they are entitled to VA benefits and services or who may not know where to go for assistance,” said McDonald. Prior to the Richmond race, VA and RIR will hold a “Driving VA Benefits and Services Home” event Sept. 10 at the Richmond VA Medical Center featuring NASCAR drivers, RIR representatives, VA benefits and services outreach staff, and a NASCAR pace car. These outreach events are part of the larger MyVA initiative, which is dedicated to improving the Veteran experience and increasing customer-service access points in communities where Veterans live. “Richmond International Raceway is proud to partner with such an important organization as the Department of Veterans Affairs,” said RIR President, Dennis Bickmeier. “NASCAR is a very patriotic sport, and we pride ourselves on supporting the men and women who have served and are currently serving our country. There’s no better way to do that than by partnering with VA to set the field for the Federated Auto Parts 400 ‘Last Race to Make the Chase.’” These outreach activities at NASCAR events expands VA’s community footprint and increases awareness of benefits and services available to Veterans, Servicemembers and their families. As the number one spectator sport in the country, NASCAR has more than 75 million race fans, one third of which are active duty Servicemembers or Veterans. In addition to the upcoming RIR activities, VA participated in six other NASCAR events and will conduct outreach at three more during the remaining 2015 race season. VA’s health and benefits experts will be onsite to bring VA benefits and services directly into the community. Look for VA at Michigan International Speedway (Aug. 15-16), Darlington Raceway (Sept. 5-6) and Chicagoland Speedway (Sept. 18-20). For more information about tickets and to learn more about the September RIR event, visit www.benefits.va.gov/benefits/nascar-outreach.
Soldier Missing From WWII Accounted For
The Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) announced today that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, missing since World War II, have been identified and are being returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
U.S. Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. John W. Herb of Cleveland, Ohio, will be buried June 18, in Arlington National Cemetery. On April 13, 1945, Herb was assigned to the 368th Fighter Squadron, 359th Fighter Group, 1st Air Division, as the pilot of an P-51D Mustang. His aircraft sustained damage while strafing German aircraft on the ground. During Herb's attempted landing in an open field southeast of Hamburg, Germany, his aircraft crashed. Herb's wingman reported seeing the wreckage burning in the field. Herb was reported killed in action. His remains were not recovered during the war.
In 1950, the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC) investigated Herb's loss, but was unsuccessful in finding his remains.
In June 2014, a DoD team working in the vicinity of Gudow, Germany, interviewed several locals who recalled a U.S. aircraft striking a tree and burning. The locals also reported that the pilot was severely injured in the crash and had been shot by a German soldier who removed him from the wreckage. The witness also stated that his remains were buried near the crash site. The team excavated the suspected burial site, recovering remains and aircraft wreckage.
To identify Herb's remains, scientists from DPAA used circumstantial evidence and
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died. Today, more than 73,000 are unaccounted for from that conflict.
For additional information on the Defense Department's mission to account for Americans, who went missing while serving our country, visit the DPAA website at www.dpaa.mil or call 703-699-1420.
Tips to Keep Veterans from Falling Down
Over 60% of falls happen at home and 30% happen out in the community.
By Hans Petersen
Monday, June 15, 2015
You can help to prevent falls by making your health a priority.
Health problems, and changes in your vision, walking, and even balance are a few reasons why you may become more likely to fall. Taking certain kinds of medications may also increase your risk of falls. Improving your health, exercising, and taking safety precautions can help you avoid a fall. Talk to and work with your health care provider to manage health problems and to review your medications. If you have your health under control, your risk of falling is lessened.
How health problems can increase your fall risk.
Health problems like low blood sugar, high or low blood pressure, muscle weakness, low endurance, and joint pain are examples of symptoms that may result from chronic health conditions or diagnoses that you are living with. They can be managed, but they don’t go away. Chronic health problems put you at greater risk of a fall. This is because they can affect many parts of your body. They may cause problems with movement, balance, or vision.
Do you get weak or dizzy? Tell your health care provider.
Your health care provider can work with you to help prevent a fall. Notify your provider if you have symptoms such as leg weakness or dizziness that could raise your risk of falling. Have your provider or pharmacist review all the medicines you take, even over-the-counter medicines. As you get older, the way medicines work in your body can change. Some medicines, or combinations of medicines, can make you sleepy or dizzy and cause you to fall.
Discuss your concerns, health practices, nutrition, and exercise routine with your health care provider. And ask whether you need any tests to assess your risk of falling.
Any medication, even an over-the-counter medication, could increase your risk of falling.
Medications — even ones you buy over the counter — can cause side effects that lead to a fall. Common medications that can cause these kinds of side effects include blood pressure, heart, pain, and sleep medications, and antidepressants. Also, the way your body reacts to medications can change as you age. So certain medications that were fine in the past may cause side effects now. Your health care provider (such as your doctor or pharmacist) can help review your medications and make changes if needed.
Old glasses and inner ear problems can affect balance.
Problems with vision or hearing can lead to falls, so do the following to reduce your fall risk:
· Get your eyes checked at least once a year. You may be wearing the wrong glasses or have a condition like glaucoma or cataracts that limits your vision. Poor vision can increase your chances of falling. Take time to adjust to new glasses.
· Get your hearing checked at least every other year.
· Have your doctor check your inner ear for problems that may affect your balance.
Over 60% of falls happen at home and 30% happen out in the community.
To make your home safer:
· Remove things you can trip over — like papers, books, clothes, and shoes — from stairs and places where you walk.
· Remove small throw rugs or use double-sided tape to keep rugs from slipping.
· Keep items you use often in cabinets you can reach easily without using a step stool.
· Have grab bars put in next to your toilet and in the tub or shower.
· Use non-slip mats in the bathtub and on shower floors.
· Improve the lighting in your home. As you get older, you need brighter lights to see well. Hang light-weight curtains or shades to reduce glare. Consider night lights or motion sensor lights.
· Have handrails and lights put in on all staircases.
· Wear shoes both inside and outside the house. Avoid going barefoot or wearing slippers.
· Consider padding sharp edges of furniture to prevent fall-related injuries.
Eat breakfast and drink plenty of water — unless you are on fluid restrictions.
If you don’t get enough to eat or drink, you can become dizzy and fall.
· Your sense of thirst decreases with age, so drink water throughout the day.
· Eat breakfast. Plan regular meals.
· Ask your provider whether you need supplements. These can help strengthen your bones and muscles to help prevent falls. They can also help prevent fractures if you do fall.
Call your health care provider if you have these symptoms.
Be sure to call your health care provider if you fall and are hurt. Also, call if you have any of these signs, symptoms, or concerns:
· Worrying about falling.
· Feeling lightheaded or dizzy more than once a day.
· Falling suddenly without getting dizzy.
· Losing your balance often or feeling unsteady on your feet.
· Having osteoporosis (brittle bones), which puts you at increased risk of fall injuries.
· Taking blood thinners.
· Feeling numbness in your legs or feet, or noticing a change in the way you walk.
Good News on Commissary Front
For the last few weeks, we have been warning you that your Commissary benefit was in serious jeopardy. We asked you to contact your Senators to urge them to reject the SASC’s NDAA provision that would cut $322 million from the FY2016 DeCa appropriation. (a full third of the funding) and vote against variable pricing and the immediate privatization of 4 commissaries while DoD would be required to produce a plan to privatize all the commissaries by 2017.
We have some very good news- but (of course) more work needs to be done. “The Senate Appropriations Committee has voted to restore the entire $322 million cut to the DeCA Appropriations proposed by DoD and adopted by the SASC as part of their version of the 2016 NDAA. Since the House Appropriations Committee also restored the $322 million reduction this is not a conference topic and commissary funding has been fully restored!”
So what work is left for this year? (Don’t think for a moment that this will come up again next year.) There are 2 Senate Amendments pending for the National Defense Authorization Act H.R.1735. SA1887 would authorize the full spending of the restored $1.4 billion appropriated commissary budget for FY2016 NDAA and SA1728. This amendment would stop the move to privatize the commissaries for a year. SA1887 is sponsored by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) while SA1728 is sponsored by Senator Jim Inhofe (R-GA) and Senator Mikulski. It has already garnered 18 bi-partisan cosponsors (Sen John Boozman, John (R-AR), Sen Richard Burr (R-NC), Sen Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Sen Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Sen Tim Kaine D-VA), Sen James Lankford (R-OK), Sen Ed Markey (D-MA), Sen Barbara Mikulski (D- MD), Sen Lisa Murkowski R-AK), Sen Patty Murray (D-WA), Sen Bill Nelson (D-FL), Sen Mike Rounds (R-SD), Sen Brian Schatz (D-HI), Sen Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Sen Thom Tillis (R-NC), Sen David Vitter (R-LA), Sen Mark Warner (D-VA).
Part of Senator Inhofe’s argument is that Congress is waiting for a report it ordered on Commissary cost cutting that it ordered DoD to provide in last year’s NDAA. It is expected to be completed in July. This is very important. We must stop this attack on the commissary benefit. Please do not let up. Continue to contact your Senators. (The House has already voted against these year’s proposals.
Hacking of federal employee records may be broader than first thought (And it always looked very broad)
While the Administration has announced that as many as 4 million federal employees’ records held by the OPM have been stolen the American Federation of Government Employees allege that the breach is even larger. The union’s president J. David Cox sent to OPM director said that “… We believe that the Central Personnel Data File was the targeted database, and that the hackers are now in possession of all personnel data for every federal employee, every federal retiree, and up to 1 million former federal employees."
This file contains the records of “non-military, non-executive branch employees.” It does not cover employees in the legislative or judicial branches of the federal government. The union alleges along with social security numbers and personnel records the hackers stole military records and veterans' status information, address, birth date, job and pay history, health insurance, life insurance, and pension information; and age, gender and race data. ) Presumably the military and veteran information is only for those who after being in the service then worked as a civilian executive employee. But we are still checking on that. And even if that is correct a huge number of veterans and military retirees work at some time as federal civilian employees.)
On Thursday, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) stated that the theft was carried out by the “Chinese.” Previously Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee said that the hacking was carried out by Chinese Intelligence.
On Friday, another shoe fell when OPM revealed that, a separate data base containing background information (called SF-86 data) for job applicants and applicants for security clearances had also been compromised. This information includes, we are told, applicants’ financial histories and investment records, children’s and relatives’ names, foreign trips taken and contacts with foreign nationals, past residences, and names of neighbors and close friends and probably more.
If you are now a civilian executive federal employee you should have already received notice that your information may have very well been compromised, what steps are being taken and what you should do. But if you ever worked as a civilian federal employee or for a contractor with a security clearance you should be vigilant.
We will keep you informed about this extremely worrisome matter.
Female Veteran Suicide Rate Astronomical Compared to
Last week the LA Times published an article that called the rate of suicide among female veterans “staggering.” Their description is spot-on. The suicide rate of female veterans aged 18 to 29 is 39.6 per hundred thousand. For comparison, their similar-aged female civilian counterparts commit suicide at a rate of 3.4 per hundred thousand. That number for female veterans is nearly 12 times that of the one for civilians, and it is simply unacceptable.
For comparison, the rate among male veterans 18 to 29 years old was 83.3 for veterans and 17.6 for non-veterans, which at nearly five times is not nearly as stark a contrast as the female veteran suicide rate, but it is also clearly unacceptable. There are several theories as to why the numbers are so high for female veterans. One reason is that female veterans use and are familiar with firearms. In the civilian world, women attempt suicide more than men, but accomplish it at a lower rate because they use less lethal means such as pills. Men tend to use firearms at a higher rate to attempt suicide, as do female veterans. Another possibility is the prevalence of military sexual trauma – the military estimates that as many as 10 percent of women have been the victims of rape, and another 13 percent have been the victims of unwanted sexual touching. Those same numbers seem to indicate that men are the victims of sexual assault in the military at least as frequently, so military sexual trauma cannot be the only reason.
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs recently put out a press release claiming that veterans who receive health care from the VA commit suicide at a lower rate than veterans who do not receive care from the VA. While this is an important fact to point out, it simply may be that veterans who go to the VA tend to seek out more help in general. However, it can’t hurt to get more people going to the VA, particularly if they are in need of healthcare, be it mental or physical.
Veteran suicide has been a major focus of military associations in recent years, most recently by supporting the passing of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act as the first action taken by Congress this year. It is clear that the fight is not over. We will fight to help all veterans here in Washington DC, but if you or anyone you know needs help please have them call the Veterans Crisis Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. United we stand.
DoD Audit Woes Continue –
It still doesn’t know where it spends its money
In 1990, Congress passed the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, which requires almost every major and minor federal agency to produce financial statements that can pass an independent external audit each year. Now, 25 years later, the US Department of Defense (DOD) is the only agency that still cannot be audited.
DoD has set a date of 2017 by which it will be ready for an audit, but many outside of DoD remain very skeptical, given its track record. We have been calling for DoD to be audited for a long time. It is outrageous that whenever DoD faces budget cuts one of the first places it looks to cut is the pay and benefits of military personnel. The fact is, DoD has no idea where it spends all its money. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has placed various parts of the DoD’s financial management on its “High-Risk” list since 1990. According to the GAO, the issue is so bad that the department does not know how many people are on its payroll, and doctoring the ledgers is a standard practice.
In April, Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced the bipartisan Audit the Pentagon Act of 2015, (H.R. 942) co-sponsored by Mike Burgess (R-Texas) and five others. A different bipartisan bill ( S. 327) by the same name is also pending in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), co-sponsored by Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and four others.
The need for this legislation was highlighted again this week when ForeignPolicy.com reported that last year it appeared the Marines Corps had become the first office in DoD to meet the audit standard. However, it turns out that was not the case. As the report said, “In a sign of the mess that is the Pentagon’s accounting system, in March the leadership of the Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General revoked the Marines' passing grade after it was discovered that members of its own audit team had ignored or covered up obvious flaws in the Corps’ books.”
The report continued, “ … Daniel Blair, deputy inspector general for audits, has been demoted to a lower-ranking position following an investigation into the fudging of the Marine Corps audit. The fact that the Marines didn’t actually pass the test – despite senior defense officials shouting from the rooftops that the building is finally on the right track -- counts as a pretty big blow to the Pentagon, which is struggling to meet the congressionally-imposed 2017 deadline to get its books in order, just like every other federal agency.”
We will continue to push to force DoD to be held accountable and get its books in order so it can be audited. As you know, there were major proposals this year, some of which will be enacted, to change both the military retirement and health care systems. It appears the retirement system will be changed and that there will be a major effort next year to change the health care system.
Unfortunately, when these changes are made, it is usually the service members who end up with the short end of the stick. We continue to believe that if DoD knew where it spent its money they could not continue to justify cutting the pay and benefits of military personnel.
Secretary of the Army approves Arlington Burial for Louisiana Guardsman
Secretary of the Army John McHugh announced today that he has approved an exception to policy that will allow a Louisiana guardsman killed in a March 10th helicopter crash off the coast of Florida to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Staff Sgt. Thomas Florich was one of 11 service members killed when their Black Hawk crashed in heavy weather near Pensacola, Florida. Because Florich was on a training mission, his family's request for burial at Arlington was originally denied by the cemetery's executive director; a subsequent review by an advisory panel unanimously supported that decision based on the cemetery's strict eligibility requirements for in-ground burial.
"As the nation's premiere military cemetery, Arlington National Cemetery holds a unique place in the history and hearts of the United States," said McHugh. "Because of the overwhelming number of requests for burials - and the limited space available - stringent criteria for in-ground burials were enacted to ensure that an otherwise eligible veteran or service member would not be denied their right to be buried at Arlington. "
After reviewing the Florich family's request, McHugh agreed that there was a "compelling justification for granting this request for an exception to ANC's interment eligibility criteria." McHugh specifically noted that while Florich was training in his capacity as a member of the National Guard, others who were killed were considered to be on active duty and were therefore eligible for burial at Arlington without an exception to policy. That anomaly led McHugh to reverse the Army's earlier decision.
"As the U.S. military evolves, reserve and National Guard service members train alongside their active duty counterparts with increasing frequency," McHugh wrote in a subsequent memorandum. "When these service members tragically lose their lives while training side-by-side for the same mission in defense of our nation, it is fitting to afford them the same burial privileges."
McHugh has since ordered a review of the Code of Federal Regulations - which governs eligibility for interment and internment at Arlington - to see if changes may be needed.
"As the cemetery's stewards since 1864, the United States Army has a duty and responsibility to ensure that we are able to meet the needs of eligible veterans and service members who desire Arlington National Cemetery as their final resting place," he said. "To do that, it's important that we continue to uphold its standards and traditions, but at the same time, recognize the service and sacrifice of deserving veterans and military personnel. Staff Sgt. Florich is clearly deserving of this honor and his nation's thanks."
We Support Service Member Student Loan Affordability Act
We are well aware of the burden that pre-service student loans can have on many military families. The Service member Civil Relief Act (SCRA) protects service members from high interest rates by capping interest rates at 6% on pre-service student loans. However, currently the law states that if a service member consolidates or refinances, that new loan is no longer eligible for this protection. This prevents them from taking advantage of both the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and the interest rate cap.
It is essential that Congress act to allow service members to keep a 6% interest rate on their loans while also being eligible for loan forgiveness in the future. This is why TREA supports the Service Member Student Loan Affordability Act, which is HR 2718 in the House of Representatives and S. 1557 in the Senate, which would allow pre-service private or federal student loan debt to be consolidated or refinanced will enable service members to enroll in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program while they are serving and still take advantage of the 6% rate cap under SCRA.
Too Many Generals?
The Government Accountability Office has raised concerns about the number of general and flag officers, and aides to the generals and admirals, in part because it couldn’t figure out total expense costs because there is no cost data available and no clear definition of what constitutes an aide.
What to watch: A full report is required next year listing all the costs associated with generals and admirals, including security details, government travel, housing costs for enlisted and officer aides, support staff and official residences, with justification for the expenses.
AUSA Hosting TRADOC Professional Forum
The Virginia Colonial Chapter of AUSA will host the 33rd Annual Forum on June 24 and 25 at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Speakers include Gen David Perkins, Training and Doctrine Command commanding general; Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the Army Capabilities Center director; and Thomas Greco, TRADOC’s intelligence director. Panel discussions will include maneuver concepts and learning for Force 2025, combat vehicle force modernization, realistic training and cognitive dominance.
What to watch: An awards dinner will feature the presentation of the chapter’s MacArthur Award to Sergeant Major of the Army Daniel A. Dailey. For more information or to register/sponsor, visit www.vccausa.com.
SECDEF VSO/MSO Conference
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter hosted veteran and military service organizations at the Pentagon on Wednesday to discuss challenges and threats his department faces with an uncertain budget and more global demands on a force in transition. Ending sequestration is his number one priority — as well as the proper care and treatment of wounded, ill and injured service members, the families of the fallen, and outreach efforts to the younger generation to encourage them to serve. Among his many concerns and that of other senior briefers were:
- How to manage risk with an inconsistent budget. DOD must have fiscal clarity, because an inconsistent budget and the looming return of sequestration in FY 2016 directly impacts capability, capacity and readiness.
- There is more demand for U.S. forces than we have forces. Aside from ongoing troop reductions, America’s overseas presence is one-third what it was 25 years ago. This weakens our ability to deter, shape and influence, plus it gives potential adversaries — who already have the luxury of picking the time and place — the ability to close on any fight faster than U.S. forces.
- The morale of mid-career NCOs and officers, who are critical to the future force.
Opportunities were also discussed, including the current military personnel system and DOD’s new blended military retirement system proposal:
- The military personnel system must change and adapt to future times, and some serious thought is being given to eliminating the current “up or out” promotion system, while still maintaining the basic requirement that military leaders are grown, not appointed. The officer corps, for example, is too fixated on promoting based on time and grade. Discussed was the possibility of hiring the most talented cyber warriors and starting them in higher ranks, for example. Or having officers willing to serve possibly 30 years, but with the full understanding that they would never rise above a certain rank in that career field. Or allowing service members “time off” to have children or do something totally different, and bring them back in without penalty. Everything is on the table to attract and retain a new generation of warriors.
- Regarding retirement, DOD’s plan mirrors that of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, but with no lump sum option, and would include the government match throughout someone’s career. Plan success, however, hinges on the elimination of the 1% COLA penalty that goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2016, for all new enlistees, should they stay the requisite 20 years. DOD’s plan is based on a building block approach of increased benefits that rewards longevity. Currently, only 17% of service members reach retirement age. DOD’s plan would provide some type of portable retirement account to 100% of service members, should they reach the two-year point.
Denver Construction Continues
Congress has passed legislation to continue construction of the Denver VA Medical Center, avoiding a second shutdown. This extension gives VA and Congress approximately five months to find a long-term solution so the project can be funded through completion without further work stoppages. The VFW will continue to work with VA, Congress and other stakeholders to ensure this project is completed.
House Hearing on Prescription Mismanagement
On Wednesday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation held a hearing to discuss VA’s management of high dose pain medication. Committee members urged VA to properly monitor the health condition of veterans with suicidal thoughts or tendencies. Another concern is veterans who might turn to illicit drugs if VA eliminates or curtails prescription pain medication without proper alternatives, or if VA fails to renew prescriptions in a timely manner due to appointment wait time issues. VA discussed programs it is implementing to reduce their providers’ reliance on pharmaceuticals to treat mental health and manage pain. View a video of the hearing.
Hearing on VA’s Fiduciary Program
On Thursday, The House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs held a hearing to explore VA’s fiduciary program. When a veteran who receives a disability or pension payment from VA can no longer effectively manage their finances, VA is obligated to provide a fiduciary. The Committee’s goal is to make sure the fiduciary program is effective for the veterans who need it. To watch the hearing, click here.
Defense Appropriations Bills
Yesterday, the House passed a $578.6 billion Defense Appropriations bill. The bill provides a $24.4 billion increase from Fiscal Year 2015 appropriations and is $800 million above the President’s request. The President has issued a veto threat over policy riders that prohibit the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The Senate Committee on Appropriations voted 27-3 to advance its version of the Defense Appropriations bill. The Senate version provides $575.9 billion for defense programs. Stay tuned to the Action Corps Weekly for updates on these important bills.
Four MIAs Identified
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced the identification of remains belonging to an Air Force pilot lost in World War II and three Army aircrew from the Vietnam War. Identified are:
- Army Air Force 2nd Lt. Jimmie D. Collins III, 22, of Sylacauga, Ala. On June 21, 1944, Collins was the co-pilot of a B-24H Liberator returning from a bombing mission near Berlin when it crashed near Hoofddorp, Netherlands. Also aboard were nine other airmen. One parachuted out and was captured by German forces; the other nine, including Collins, were reported as killed in action. Collins will be buried with full military honors in his hometown on June 29. Read more.
- Army Chief Warrant Officers 3 James L. Phipps of Mattoon, Ill., 24, and Rainer S. Ramos, 20, of Bellingham, Wash., were the pilots of a UH-1C Iroquois (Huey) helicopter that was shot down in Quang Tin Province, South Vietnam, on Jan. 9, 1968. Also aboard were door gunners Staff Sgt. Warren E. Newton, 18, of Canby, Ore., and Spc. Fred J. Secrist, 19, of Springfield, Ore. The crew was assigned to Troop C, 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, 14th Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade. A U.S.-led recovery team was able to recover the body of Secrist soon after the shoot-down, but not the other three, who will be buried as a group with full military honors on June 17 at Arlington National Cemetery. Read more.
Secretary of the Army John McHugh will step down, the Pentagon announced June 9. He will depart sometime before Nov. 1, staying on long enough to afford President Obama the chance to appoint a successor. "Every soldier is better off because of his hard work and vision, and so is the country," Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in making the announcement.
The hearing for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier who disappeared only to turn up five years later in Taliban hands, has been delayed. The Army will conduct the Article 32 hearing – similar to a civilian grand jury hearing – on Sept. 17 at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, National Public Radio reported. It initially had been scheduled to take place July 7. The Associated Press reported that Bergdahl's civilian defense lawyer, Eugene E. Fidell, requested the delay because more time was needed to sort through relevant information.
Upon learning that the "Salute to the Troops," which took place at 14 NFL stadiums, was in fact a Defense Department promotion at taxpayers' expense, three lawmakers took to the Senate floor to express their displeasure. "Football fans across America learned … that several NFL teams were honoring … not out of a sense of patriotism but for profit," said Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. In total, the Army National Guard spent roughly $7 million during the course of three seasons to sponsor the promotion at NFL games. The three senators are sponsoring legislation that would bar such expenditures in the future.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 10, 2015
VA Launches Community-Based Employment Service for Homeless Veterans Securing Stable, Long-term Employment A Key Step To End Veteran Homelessness WASHINGTON –
The Department of Veterans Affairs today announced a new employment program aimed at helping job-ready Veterans exiting homelessness, and those on the brink of homelessness, gain stable and long-term employment. The new program, Homeless Veteran Community Employment Services (HVCES), relies on Community Employment Coordinators (CECs) who know their communities and can work with local employers to identify suitable jobs based on a Veteran’s skills and abilities. “Securing long-term, stable and fulfilling employment is important for Veterans who are exiting homelessness or are at-risk of becoming homeless,” said VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald. “We know that finding gainful employment can change the life of a Veteran. This new program is a key component of the overall strategy to prevent and end Veteran homelessness.” Each VA Medical Center (VAMC) will have a dedicated CEC who will be responsible for connecting homeless and at-risk Veterans to appropriate VA and community-based employment services. The goal is to establish relationships with employers who may be able to hire Veterans while VA provides the necessary support services to ensure each Veteran’s transition back into the workforce is successful. CECs also will work with existing VA employment programs and local workforce development organizations to identify other employment-related resources for this subset of the Veteran population. Veterans exiting homelessness offer a diverse skillset that is applicable to many different fields and leadership roles within organizations. VA offers a variety of wraparound services including health care, housing assistance and other VA supports to increase the likelihood of on-the-job success. Employers who are interested in hiring a job–ready Veteran exiting homelessness should contact a local CEC who can work with them to find local Veteran candidates with applicable skillsets. Visit www.va.gov/homeless/cec-contacts.asp for a list of the CECs in your local area. More information about VA’s homeless programs is available at www.va.gov/homeless. If you know a Veteran who is homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless, refer him or her to a local VAMC, where homeless coordinators are ready to help. Veterans and their families can also call 1-877-4AID-VET to get connected to VA services. #
Big Drop Forecast in Vet Population
Department of Veterans Affairs population data projects the number of veterans in the U.S. will fall below 20 million by about 2020 and below 15 million by 2040 as World War II and Korean conflict generations disappear and there is a sharp decline in Vietnam veterans. Cold War and Post-9/11 veterans, who make up about 30 percent of the veteran population today, will make up about 55 percent by 2040, according to the projections.
What to watch: A generally younger population of veterans will need different types of help from the VA.
Ebola Research Saved Lives
Army Vice Chief Gen. Daniel B. Allyn has praised the Army’s efforts to find a vaccine for the deadly Ebola virus that spread through West Africa. Development and clinical trials of the vaccine helped stop the number of fatalities, once projected to reach 1 million cases, at 11,000, Allyn said. “That is 989,000 lives saved,” he said.
What to watch: Medical research by the Army Medical Command plays an important role in having a globally deployed or forward-based force, and the attention given to the Ebola effort could help secure more funding for researchers in the future.
Pending Health Care Legislation Hearing
On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing to consider a number of veterans’ health care related bills. Committee members discussed ways to improve women’s health care at the VA, address veteran homelessness and the importance of ensuring veterans are able to continue mental health medication treatments that work for them when they transition from DOD health care to the VA. Senior Legislative Associate Carlos Fuentes offered the VFW’s support for most of the bills and recommendations to strengthen others. In his testimony, Fuentes urged Congress to ensure veterans are not taken off effective treatment regimens when they leave military service simply because their VA medical facilities do not carry the medication they need. To read the testimony or view a video of the hearing, click here.
The VFW Testifies Before Economic Opportunity Committee
On Tuesday, VFW Senior Legislative Associate Brendon Gehrke presented testimony before the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. This bill hearing addressed multiple issues that are part of the VFW’s Priority Goals, including VA employee accountability, improvements to the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) and the Vocational Rehabilitation program, as well as moving the Department of Labor – VETS program under the authority of the VA. Watch the full hearing.
House Holds Hearing on Provider Payments
On Wednesday, the VFW was in attendance for a House Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee hearing entitled, “Assessing VA's Ability to Promptly Pay Non-VA Providers.” Several private medical providers offered testimony, stating that the VA has historically been slow to reimburse them for the care they provide to veterans in their communities. In response, the VA stated that they are taking steps to address the problem, and have processed 21 percent more payment claims in 2015 than during the same time period last year. Still, members of the Committee are considering additional improvements, including the possibility of contracting out the payment system to a third party, similar to the way it is done under Medicare and TRICARE. The VFW believes that prompt payment for non-VA providers is critical, and we will continue to follow this issue.
Important Bills Introduced This Week
Two bills the VFW has supported in the past have been reintroduced this week. On Wednesday, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Isakson introduced S. 1493, to make a Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) for veterans’ benefits. The VFW has consistently supported COLA increases to ensure veterans’ benefits are not eroded by inflation. On Tuesday, Congressman Tonko reintroduced H.R. 2622, the Fort McClellan Health Registry Act. This bill would establish a health registry to conduct comprehensive studies of toxic exposures at Fort McClellan. Ensuring veterans who were exposed to Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) during their service at Fort McClellan receive the care and benefits they have earned and deserve has remained a top priority for the VFW. The VFW’s National Legislative Service will continue to push Congress, the Army and VA to study the health effects of toxic exposures at Fort McClellan. Stay tuned to the Action Corps Weekly for updates on these important bills as they move through the legislative process.
The VA Announces Initiative to Expand Burial Options for Urban Veterans
The National Cemetery Administration (NCA) has launched the Urban Initiative to provide burial options for urban veterans who wish to be inurned closer to home. The Urban Initiative is the result of an independent study from 2008 that found an increased interest in cremations among veterans. NCA surveys have also found that veterans in major metropolitan cities choose not to use national cemeteries because of travel and distance barriers. Due to lack of sufficient sites large enough to accommodate casketed burials in large metropolitan cities, NCA plans to establish columbarium-only national cemeteries in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Indianapolis and the San Francisco Bay area. Learn more.
D-Day 71st Commemoration
Visitors to Washington, D.C., are invited to the National World War II Memorial at noon, tomorrow, to commemorate the 71 years since 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany. Joining in the commemoration will be hundreds of WWII veterans from Honor Flight Austin (Texas), Lake County Honor Flight (Illinois), and North Coast Honor Flight (California), as well as the great-grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, former Air Force fighter pilot Elliott “Toby” Roosevelt III, who will offer remarks on behalf of the family. For a listing of this and other events at the WWII Memorial, click here.
National WWI Memorial Design Competition
A design competition is underway for a new National World War I Memorial that will be built a block away from the White House in Pershing Park. Centennial Commission officials set up a two-stage competition that is open to all. Participants are asked to submit narrative and graphic descriptions that respond to the competition's design goals. Judges will then select those entries for further development. The commission will have final decision on the selected design, based on the recommendation of a jury. The submission deadline is July 21, with the finalists to be announced on Aug. 4. Learn more.
Two WWII MIAs Identified
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced the identification of remains belonging to two Americans missing and unaccounted for since World War II. Returned are:
- Army Pvt. Arthur H. Kelder, 26, from Chicago. Assigned to Medical Corps, 2nd General Hospital in the Philippines, Kelder survived the Bataan Death March, but succumbed to a host of complications in a Japanese POW Camp on May 7, 1942.
- Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Robert W. Ward, 22, of Pontiac, Mich. Assigned to the 387th Bombardment Group, 9th Air Force, Ward was copiloting a B-26C on a bombing mission near Mayen, Germany, when it was shot down by enemy fighter aircraft on Dec. 23, 1944.
VA moving Forward on Denver Replacement Facility, Transformational Plan
Plans submitted to Congress
WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today submitted a plan to Congress to move forward on the Denver Replacement Medical Center.
"The delays and cost overruns that have plagued the Denver Replacement Medical Center campus are inexcusable," Secretary Robert A. McDonald wrote in his letter to Congress. "I respectfully request that Congress take action to allow us to move forward so that construction on the Denver Replacement Medical Center in Aurora does not shut down later this month." The full text of the letter is included in the link below.
VA is committed to completing the construction of the Denver replacement hospital to serve the 390,000 Veterans and their families of the Colorado area.
In addition to detailed construction and funding plans for the Denver facility, VA also released updates outlining progress made in areas such as accountability, access, homelessness and other priorities, as well as the MyVA Transformational Plan.
"VA is changing. It will take time to fully implement these changes, but we at VA are committed to work with Congress on this and many other challenges and opportunities as we transform VA into the Veteran-centric, customer service-oriented organization Veterans have earned and deserve," McDonald wrote.
The full text of the documents released are available for download here:
VA to Conduct Nationwide Series of Events to Celebrate Women Veterans Experts to Discuss Benefits and Answer Women Veterans’ Questions
WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will conduct a series of one-day events to raise awareness and celebrate the stories of women Veterans. The events, to be held in five locations across the country, will provide an overview of services and benefits available to women Veterans. Experts will be available to answer Veterans’ questions, and exhibitors will share information on their many resources. “We have found that our women Veterans often put the needs of others’ first,” said Elisa Basnight, Director of VA’s Center for Women Veterans (CWV). “We encourage them to make themselves a priority, to learn about the benefits and services which they’ve earned through their dedicated service. We are bringing our experts to them, where they are.” VA staff, as well as local community supporters and agencies that assist women Veterans, will be available for face-to-face interaction. All VA facilities are encouraged to participate in activities to celebrate and honor the women who answered the nation’s call. The scheduled events and local activities are part of a new national VA campaign, Women Veterans: Celebrating Our Stories of Service, which launched in late March 2015. The vision for the national VA campaign was born out of the realization that when our women Veterans from all eras and generations surrender the uniform, they retain the intangible—that combination of resolute resilience and the unbeatable skills they will incorporate into their reintegration and readjustment process. Through this campaign, CWV will be engaged in going to these women Veterans to raise the awareness of VA’s commitment to them, and to facilitate the conversation around what more needs to be done in serving the unique needs of women Veterans. The sessions for women Veterans will be held between June and September at the following locations: St. Petersburg, FL – June 12, 2015 San Diego (Oceanside), CA – July 10, 2015 Houston, TX – August 7, 2015 Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN – September 14, 2015 Washington, DC – September 22, 2015 Women Veterans represent one of the fastest growing segments of the Veterans population—about 9.2 percent of the total Veterans population. Today there are an estimated 2 million women Veterans nationwide. VA continues to improve benefits and services for women Veterans and is diligently transforming its culture to embrace this growing population, through other collaborative initiatives with Federal/state/local governmental and non-governmental stakeholders. For more information about VA’s Women Veterans Campaign and VA’s commitment to women Veterans, visit www.va.gov/womenvet. ###