Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Thursday, March 14, 2019 which is Genius Day, Legal Assistance Day, International Ask a Question Day and National Children’s Craft Day.
There will be no clips tomorrow as we will not be in the office. Enjoy St. Patrick’s Day and the Legion Birthday.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- Brainerd Dispatch: The Centennial Commander: Reistad visits Brainerd American Legion
- WaPo: VA chief Robert Wilkie has pushed to be the next Pentagon chief
- Stripes: Veterans groups appeal to Trump over benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans
- Military.com: DoD and VA to Host Closed-Door Conference on Burn Pits
- Star Beacon: American Legion turns 100 years old on Friday
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Brainerd Dispatch: The Centennial Commander: Reistad visits Brainerd American Legion
By Gabriel Lagarde on Mar 13, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
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For the Centennial Commander, it was something of a homecoming.
Well, for Brett Reistad, the official title is National Commander of the American Legion, the highest office in the veterans organization and one—which the moniker alludes to—he took the reins of in the 100th year of the Legion’s storied history, a century after the end of World War I.
During a breakfast put on by Legion Post 255 in downtown Brainerd, Reistad fulfilled his role—one part ceremonious and steeped in tradition, the other friendly and grounded in a dry, no-nonsense kind of way. Brainerd was a leg in a statewide tour—which, in and of itself, is a stop in a journey for the Legion’s leader through all 50 states, as well as destinations abroad.
"The idea is to connect with the local Legionnaires that I represent. To get a chance to talk with them one on one, to find out what their concerns are, what their issues are," Reistad said when the festivities wound down.
But for the native Virginian—veteran and ex-cop, amateur historian and lover of strawberry shortcake—Tuesday’s waffle gathering comes full circle in its own way. The Legion may be celebrating its centennial, but it’s been less than six months since Reistad was elected at the national convention in Minneapolis. Since then, it’s been a whirlwind, much of it centered around stumping for the social and political interests of American war veterans.
The Minnesota American Legion sports 70,000 members enrolled in nearly 540 posts across the state. Currently, the organization features nearly 2 million members, which renders it the largest organization and advocacy group for wartime service veterans in the country.
Reistad lauded bills circulating around Capitol Hill, which would relieve Congress of its authority to dictate who and when war veterans are eligible for membership with the American Legion, and instead grant this authority to the Legion itself through a charter amendment.
"In the past, the dates have been corresponding with what Congress deems war era dates. So you have your World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Desert Storm and post-9/11," Reistad said. "Currently, what we’d like to do is change that to give the Legion authority to accept members who served Dec. 7, 1941, to the present day."
In the meantime, Reistad said turning away deserving veterans simply because they didn’t serve during a particular set of dates is a disheartening experience and amounts to treating these former soldiers as "second-class citizens."
Veterans and suicide
Reistad noted about 22 veterans die from suicide each day—an epidemic, he said, the Legion is actively battling against through promoting suicide prevention education, as well as providing resources for veteran mental health. He noted the Legion is partnered with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs in this endeavor.
"I feel for the veterans and their families every time I hear that happens," Reistad said. "I think what we can do is put a focus on that issue, we can find ways to steer those veterans to treatment to stop that from happening. It’s a community problem as much as an individual problem."
Blue Water Navy Bill
Reistad noted the American Legion has been advocating for the passage of a bill—dubbed the Blue Water Navy Bill—that would grant the same kinds of protections, benefits and resources for victims of Agent Orange to not only land-based or inland-waterway veterans, but also affected members of the National Coast Guard and Navy just off the coast.
While the bill failed again in December, Reistad noted this isn’t the first time the Legion has faced stiff opposition—pointing, in particular, to an independent study the Legion founded in 1989 to study the effects of Agent Orange in the first place. This study, along with lobbying by the Legion, Reistad said, led to a number of bills that aid affected veterans to this day.
So called "blue water veterans," or service members just off the Vietnam coast, but still down wind of the toxic deforestation activities, should not be excluded, he noted, especially when there’s plenty of evidence to show detrimental effects as a result.
"That’s a big focus right now," he said.
Beyond providing a unique kind of structure and camaraderie indelible to military life, Reistad said, the Legion has a litany of achievements it can look back at, after 100 years, and be proud of. Included in the list, but not exclusive to, the Legion has been instrumental in:
• The creation of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
• The establishment of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or the G.I. Bill (and its subsequent iterations).
• The enactment of the Agent Orange Act of 1991.
• Veterans preference, or essentially the practice by which the federal government grants military veterans preference in job searches and the recruitment process.
• The establishment of veterans committees in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of representatives.
• The establishment, in part, of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery.
WaPo: VA chief Robert Wilkie has pushed to be the next Pentagon chief
By Lisa Rein ,
Seung Min Kim and
March 13 at 5:00 AM
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, whose career has long gravitated to military matters, has promoted himself to the White House to be President Trump’s next secretary of defense, according to people familiar with his efforts.
His internal campaign comes as Trump has yet to formally nominate a candidate to replace Jim Mattis, the retired Marine general who quit last December over differences with the president. Mattis’s deputy, former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, has been auditioning for the role as acting secretary since early January.
Shanahan is widely expected at the Pentagon to be nominated as permanent secretary, but officials have said there’s no certainty about his elevation until a White House announcement. The president has been known to change his mind on personnel decisions.
Shanahan’s limited foreign policy experience, particularly with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has prompted some uneasiness on Capitol Hill. A few Senate Republicans have openly criticized his unwavering loyalty to the president, particularly on Trump’s controversial announcement that he was withdrawing troops from Syria, and questioned whether he could disagree with Trump in private when appropriate. He did not serve in the military.
Wilkie is in only his eighth month leading Veterans Affairs, which he took over following a tour as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness at the Pentagon. He has pitched himself to top White House officials as an experienced hand in defense policy and running large bureaucracies, according to an administration official and another person close to the administration who requested anonymity to discuss personnel matters.
Wilkie, 56, often says he was born in “khaki diapers.” He is a former Navy reservist and lieutenant colonel in the Air Force reserve and son of a soldier severely wounded during the Vietnam War. His career has taken him from Senate staffer to the National Security Council and the Pentagon, where he was assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs from 2006 to 2009.
It’s unclear whether Trump has considered him as a serious candidate for defense secretary, although the president is said to hold him in high regard.
VA spokesman Curt Cashour said in an email that Wilkie “remains 100 percent focused on his job as VA secretary.”
“He is proud to serve the Veterans of this country and is honored to be a part of the record pace of reform at the department under President Trump’s leadership,” Cashour wrote.
Wilkie is working to restore morale at the second-largest federal agency after a long period of turmoil under Trump, when a gap in leadership and political infighting led to an exodus of top career staff. Veterans will continue to be a key constituency for the president as he seeks reelection, and VA is one of the few corners of the government where the proposed budget the White House released Monday included a spending increase.
Wilkie is tackling major challenges for veterans as he balances an administration priority to increase veterans’ access to private doctors outside VA. Democratic lawmakers have criticized him for a lack of transparency in the process. Wilkie also is overseeing an expensive overhaul to VA’s antiquated medical-records system and an expansion in assistance provided to caregivers for military families.
His staff stumbled last fall when computer problems resulted in delayed or miscalculated housing allowances to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan under the Forever GI Bill. But his reviews overall have been largely positive.
“I think he’s a very qualified man,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “I would hate for us to lose him under any circumstance.”
The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), was more blunt, saying that Wilkie’s departure would return VA to a state of turmoil.
“That’s a problem because you need continuity within the VA,” Tester said. He said he understood why Wilkie might be attracted to the defense position, but “we make a commitment to our veterans, and that VA secretary is an important position. If we don’t have a good person there, good things don’t happen to our vets. I get it, but I’m very concerned if that’s the case.”
Shanahan is scheduled to give his first congressional testimony as acting secretary this week, when he is sure to face tough questions about Trump’s defense policies. The appearance promises to be a key test for an official whose career has been spent in aviation rather than foreign policy and who would become one of the administration’s most visible Cabinet members.
Missy Ryan and Paul Sonne contributed to this story.
Stripes: Veterans groups appeal to Trump over benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 13, 2019
WASHINGTON – Ten national veterans organizations pleaded with President Donald Trump on Tuesday, asking him to direct the Justice Department not to appeal a recent federal court decision that could extend benefits to thousands of Vietnam War veterans.
The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled 9-2 in January that “Blue Water” Navy veterans, those who served aboard ships offshore during the war, are eligible for benefits to treat illnesses linked to exposure to the chemical herbicide Agent Orange.
The Justice Department and Department of Veterans Affairs have until the end of the month to seek a review of the case from the U.S. Supreme Court. VA General Counsel James Byrne said last month that the agency hadn’t decided whether it would appeal but officials were “taking it under advisement.”
Veterans and lawmakers have asked VA Secretary Robert Wilkie not to contest the decision. On Tuesday night, 10 groups appealed directly to Trump.
“On behalf of the undersigned veterans service organizations and our millions of members, we urge you to direct the Justice Department NOT to appeal the U.S. Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit decision,” they wrote in a letter to the president.
The court ruled in favor of Alfred Procopio, Jr., 73, who served on the USS Intrepid during the Vietnam War. Procopio is one of tens of thousands of veterans who served aboard aircraft carriers, destroyers and other ships and were deemed ineligible for the same disability benefits as those veterans who served on the ground and inland waterways.
The decision came 10 years after the VA denied Procopio’s disability claims for diabetes and prostate cancer.
At issue was interpretation of the current law, which allows easier access to disability benefits for veterans who “served in the Republic of Vietnam” and suffer from one of a list of illnesses linked to the Agent Orange. The herbicide has been found to cause respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s disease and heart disease, as well as other conditions.
The court determined territorial seas should be included in the definition of “Republic of Vietnam” – a point the government disputed.
For Procopio and other Blue Water Navy veterans, the decision could result in thousands of dollars of disability benefits each month. John Wells, one of the attorneys on the case, estimated 50,000 to 70,000 veterans could become eligible for benefits.
The ruling followed a failed effort in Congress last year to approve the benefits.
The House voted unanimously in favor of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act last year, but the legislation stalled in the Senate after Wilkie voiced his opposition, citing high costs and insufficient scientific evidence linking Blue Water Navy veterans to Agent Orange.
The House and Senate reintroduced the legislation at the start of the new congressional session.
The top lawmakers on the veterans affairs committees – Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Reps. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Phil Roe, R-Tenn. – said in February that they would attempt again to pass the legislation.
The 10 veterans groups argued Tuesday that the court decision authorizes the VA to make the benefits available now, without having to wait for legislation.
“We call on you to direct [Wilkie] to immediately begin implementing this decision so that justice is finally provided to the men and women who served in Vietnam, suffered from the devastating long-term health effects of Agent Orange exposure, but who today are denied the benefits and health care they have earned,” they wrote.
The letter was signed by Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Fleet Reserve Association, Association of the United States Navy, Vietnam Veterans of America and Military Officers Association of America.
“Mr. President, a veteran is someone who at one point in their life wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America, for an amount up to and including their life,” the groups concluded. “We ask that you and our grateful nation take another step towards meeting that commitment.”
13 Mar 2019
Military.com | By Patricia Kime
Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs officials are meeting this week in Arlington, Virginia, for a two-day symposium on burn pits and airborne pollutants but, as with previous Joint VA/DoD Airborne Hazard Symposia, the meeting is closed to the public and press.
The symposium’s purpose, according to documents from the first meeting in 2012, is to "provide an opportunity to discuss what we know, what we need to know and what can be done to study and improve care" for veterans and troops who "might have suffered adverse health effects related to exposure to airborne hazards, including burn pit smoke and other pollutants."
Attendance is tightly controlled, with Pentagon and VA officials convening to discuss topics such as a joint action plan to address potential health conditions related to exposure, the VA’s Airborne Hazards and Burn Pit Registry, monitoring deployment environments and the impact of exposures on the Veterans Benefits Administration, according to a copy of the first day’s agenda obtained by Military.com.
Members of several veterans service organizations and advocacy groups have been invited to speak, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, Burn Pits 360 and the Sgt. Sullivan Circle.
But those veterans’ representatives are allowed to attend only a handful of sessions on the first day, March 14, including opening remarks and segments on outreach and education, as well as a brown-bag lunch during which they can discuss concerns and issues.
All events scheduled for March 15 remain unpublished.
Neither the VA nor the DoD responded to requests for information on the event. Veterans advocates also declined to discuss the meeting or their participation, with some expressing concern that they would be prevented from receiving future invites.
Thousands of troops serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere were exposed to airborne pollutants while working and living near burn pits used to dispose of trash, medical waste and other types of refuse at area military bases.
Some have developed a chronic lung disease, constrictive bronchiolitis, while others have developed skin rashes, autoimmune disorders and various types of cancer, including glioblastoma, a brain cancer rarely seen in young adults, that they believe are related to burn pit exposure.
Veterans and advocates have pressed the VA for years to recognize these illnesses as related to burn pit exposure and want them to be considered "presumptive" conditions, a designation that would automatically qualify them for disability compensation and health services.
The VA says it lacks the scientific evidence to directly tie burn pit exposure to certain diseases but has granted service connection for several conditions associated with burn pits, deciding each claim on a case-by-case basis.
In 2011, the Institute of Medicine reviewed all available studies, reports and monitoring data on burn pit utilization and combustibles exposure and concluded that there was not enough evidence or data to draw conclusions about the long-term consequences of exposure.
More than 140,000 veterans have enrolled in the VA Burn Pit and Airborne Hazards Registry.
From June 2007 through Nov. 30, 2018, the VA received 11,581 claims applications for disability compensation with at least one condition related to burn pit exposure. Of those, 2,318 had a burn pit-related condition granted, according to VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour.
During the same time frame, the VA processed nearly 13.5 million claims; burn pit-related claims made up less than a tenth of a percent of those claims.
"VA encourages all veterans who feel their military service has affected their health to submit a claim, which will be adjudicated using the latest scientific and medical evidence available," Cashour said.
The Pentagon and VA are developing a way to track environmental exposures in service members starting with the day they enlist. The Individual Longitudinal Exposure Record, or ILER, will record potential and known exposures throughout a service member’s time on active duty. A pilot program is set to begin Sept. 30.
But those who have suffered exposures in the past 30 years will need to rely on Congress to pass legislation to assist them, the Defense Department to continue researching the issues, and the VA to approve their claims.
Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America, Wounded Warrior Project, IAVA, Disabled American Veterans, the Fleet Reserve Association, the Military Order of the Purple Heart and Military Officers Association of America all have made burn pit and toxic exposure issues a top legislative priority this year.
Several lawmakers, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, have introduced legislation that would require the DoD and VA to share information on troops’ exposure to airborne chemicals and provide periodic health assessments for those who were exposed.
The meeting is to take place at the Veterans Health Administration National Conference Center in Crystal City, Virginia.
Star Beacon: American Legion turns 100 years old on Friday
By BRIAN HAYTCHER bhaytcher
7 hrs ago
The American Legion was formed in France on March 15, 1919.
Legion posts in Ashtabula are planning events to commemorate the 100th anniversary. Conneaut’s Legion post, which has been in existence almost as long as the Legion itself, will be hosting a member appreciation week starting at the end of July, post commander Larry Latva said.
The Conneaut post will also be hanging up a banner commemorating a century since the Legion was founded.
“We’ve actually been commemorating it since our national convention in August,” Deputy Director of Media Relations for the American Legion John Raughter, said. Nationally, the American Legion is celebrating the anniversary through Veterans Day, he said.
He added that, while the Legion does have a national commander and central office, they are at heart a local organization. “We think the local observances are more important than anything we do here,” Raughter said.
On the Legion’s calendar for the anniversary are numerous events, including a murder mystery party at one of the Illinois districts of the American Legion, but no national events.
The American Legion is commemorating the event in different ways, though, including a partnership with the United States mint for a series of commemorative coins.
The American Legion’s website also has a list of the commemorative merchandise the Legion has produced, including apparel, a decanter and a number of posters.
The Ohio Department of the American Legion is hosting a ball on Friday in Columbus, with proceeds from the event going to the Legion’s scholarship fund.
There are also American Legion posts in Ashtabula, Geneva, North Kingsville and Andover.
The American Legion was formed in France in 1919 by members of the American Expeditionary Force, waiting for a boat home, according to the Legion’s website. In its first year the legion grew to 850,000 members, Raughter said.
Since then, the Legion has championed various causes, including the GI Bill and veterans health care.
Originally a group of self-described world-weary World War I veterans, the Legion was expanded to be a group for veterans of all wars. The Legion is apolitical, according to its constitution, though it lobbies in support of veteran’s issues.
Ernie Barbey, of the Ashtabula Post, spoke highly of the American Legion post. “We’re a big family,” Barbey said. “(The legion) is all about helping veterans. We’re not a post that sits back.”