26 September, 2018 06:11

Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Wednesday, September 26, 2018 which is Johnny Appleseed Day, National Dumpling Day, National Pancake Day and Lumberjack Day!
This Day in History:

  • 1960: For the first time in U.S. history, a debate between major party presidential candidates is shown on television. The presidential hopefuls, John F. Kennedy, a Democratic senator of Massachusetts, and Richard M. Nixon, the vice president of the United States, met in a Chicago studio to discuss U.S. domestic matters.
  • 1945: Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, a U.S. Army officer with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Vietnam, is shot and killed in Saigon. Dewey was the head of a seven-man team sent to Vietnam to search for missing American pilots and to gather information on the situation in the country after the surrender of the Japanese.
  • 1580: English seaman Francis Drake returns to Plymouth, England, in the Golden Hind, becoming the first British navigator to sail the earth.
  • On this day in 1820 the great pioneering frontiersman Daniel Boone dies quietly in his sleep at his son’s home near present-day Defiance, Missouri. The indefatigable voyager was 86.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

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Stripes: Wilkie’s first hearing as VA secretary: Four issues he’s likely to address

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 25, 2018
WASHINGTON — Robert Wilkie is slated to appear before lawmakers this week for the first time since he took over as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs two months ago.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee scheduled a hearing, “State of the VA: a 60 Day Report,” for Wednesday afternoon, where senators are expected to ask Wilkie about his plans for implementing several major, congressionally mandated reforms.

Wilkie, a former Pentagon official, was sworn in June 30 after months of political infighting under former VA Secretary David Shulkin. His dismissal this spring led to an exodus of other VA leaders.

Veterans groups are looking to Wilkie to bring stability to the embattled agency, and they expect to hear Wednesday how he plans to do it.

“I think he’s really walked into a tough situation,” said Bob Wallace, executive director of Veterans of Foreign Wars. “He’s really got a full plate in front of him, but I think he’s capable of meeting the challenge. I think he’s the right person at the right time for the VA.”
Here are a few issues Wilkie is likely to be asked about.

Implementing the VA Mission Act

Chanin Nuntavong, a director with the American Legion, said Wilkie has “huge undertakings” to tackle at the VA. The biggest could be implementing the VA Mission Act, a $52 billion, far-reaching bill approved in June that overhauls the VA’s private-sector care system and extends benefits to more veteran caregivers.

Most of what’s in the Mission Act is supposed to be implemented by June 2019, but there are already concerns about whether the VA will meet that goal.

The Mission Act outlined dozens of deadlines for the VA to submit progress reports to Congress. Three reports were due Sept. 4. Of those, two were several days late and one still hadn’t been submitted as of Tuesday, according to the office of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

The missing report pertains to the VA’s progress with extending benefits to veteran caregivers. The Mission Act mandates that the VA provide benefits, such as monthly stipends, health care and medical training, to caregivers of veterans injured before May 7, 1975.
“VA needs to be hitting these early milestones if it’s going to meet the later ones,” Tester said at a Sept. 5 hearing. “It needs to do better.”

Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative advocacy group, has also expressed concern about the VA meeting the deadlines, particularly those regarding the new program for private-sector medical care.

“It’s important for the VA to meet these deadlines to show that one, they’re taking this seriously, and two, they’re going to be transparent about it and show they can be trusted,” said Dan Caldwell, executive director of CVA. “If they can’t meet a deadline on a report for Congress, how can they be trusted to run the whole program?”

The Mission Act does away with the Veterans Choice program, which was created in 2014 to allow some veterans to receive medical care in the private sector, but only when they live more than 40 miles driving distance from a VA facility or their wait for a VA appointment would be more than 30 days.

Some claim the Choice program was implemented hastily, and many veterans thought the rules were too rigid. Under the Mission Act, Choice expires in June, and a new system is supposed to take its place.

The new law gives the VA secretary broad authority to create rules for when veterans can go into the private sector. In early October, the VA is supposed to report to Congress about its progress creating those rules.

“It’s going to be very revealing,” Caldwell said. “I anticipate a really intense bureaucratic battle between that October deadline and June 2019, the deadline to roll out the actual program.”

Leaders with the VFW and American Legion said they would provide their input to Wilkie about the new program.

“Secretary Wilkie has let us know that he will be asking for our input throughout this while process,” Nuntavong said. “I truly believe he’s going to uphold those promises.”

Overhaul of electronic health records

Wilkie is also likely to hear questions about a massive project to overhaul the VA’s electronic health records.

In May, the VA signed a 10-year, $10 billion contract with Cerner Corp. in Kansas City, Mo., to replace its antiquated electronic health record system – a project intended to allow veterans to track their care through the VA, Department of Defense and private medical providers.

The fiscal 2019 budget approved by Congress last week included $1 billion to start the process.

Previous efforts to overhaul the system have failed, leading veterans groups and Congress to call for intense oversight of the project. The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs established a new subcommittee to oversee it.

“If successful, it will be one of the linchpins of a more responsive, agile and efficient VA,” said Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., chairman of the new subcommittee, speaking at its first hearing this month. “If mismanaged, I fear a daunting and disappointing setback.

Far too often we only take an interest in a government project when it has already become a public scandal. This time must be different.”

There have been some early concerns because of the unexpected departure of Genevieve Morris, who was selected to lead it. She resigned in August, citing differences with VA leadership.

John Windom, the new project leader, said this month that Morris’ departure had no negative effect.

“There are no continuity issues within our office,” he told lawmakers Sept. 13. “From our perspective, we feel like we have no gaps in leadership.”

Wallace said he thought Wilkie’s experience at the Pentagon would aid the process.
“He’s not going in there and trying to establish a relationship with DOD – he’s got one,” Wallace said. “Hopefully that means the money we spend this time get this done right.”

Vacancies in health care

Under orders from Congress, the VA released new data this month that revealed more than 45,000 job vacancies – meaning about one in 10 jobs is unfilled.

Most of those are within the VA health care system, where there were 40,456 vacancies as of June 30.

As the VA works to expand its private-sector care program, some veterans groups are concerned about eroding resources toward VA health care. Federal unions have also been protesting the vacancies, which they argue is a concerted effort by President Donald Trump’s administration to weaken the VA.

“I hope he addresses the vacancy issue,” Nuntavong said. “It’s important because veterans need to get their care. As these servicemembers transition out, we want to make sure VA hospitals are ready to receive them.”

The VA blamed part of the problem on a nationwide shortage of medical professionals. But at a public hearing this month, Tester questioned whether the agency was doing everything it could to fill the open jobs. He described it as the “biggest problem at the VA.”

“I have some serious concerns about the department’s ability to address workforce shortages,” Tester said. “These vacancies continue to be the biggest barrier for health care for our veterans, and the VA isn’t taking the matter seriously enough.”

Benefits for Blue Water Navy veterans

It’s likely Wilkie will also be asked about legislation that’s become a point of contention in recent weeks.

Wilkie has been at odds with dozens of veterans groups over whether to extend Agent Orange benefits to Navy veterans who served on ships off the coast during the Vietnam War.

The Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, HR 299, aims to provide disability compensation and VA health care to former to “Blue Water” Navy veterans, some of whom have fought for years to prove they suffered from ailments caused by the dioxin-laden herbicide Agent Orange.

Wilkie came out in opposition of the bill, citing high costs and insufficient scientific evidence. Veterans groups have responded, angry about the VA’s stance.

“I think that will be spoken to,” Wallace said. “I know there are a number of senators who are supportive of it, so I’m sure they’re going to be talking about that.”

The hearing starts at 3 p.m. Wednesday and will be streamed live on the committee’s website at veterans.senate.gov.

Military Times: The White House just revealed massive mission creep in Syria. Here’s why.
By: Kyle Rempfer and Todd South  12 hours ago
to More1.4K
The Islamic State is on the brink of total military defeat ― but don’t expect U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria to be coming home anytime soon.
The Islamic State’s caliphate has collapsed. They have almost no territory remaining except for a small piece of eastern Syria and the militants appear to have very little combat power left.
At the same time, ISIS is losing its international influence as terrorist attacks in the West are declining. And the latest intelligence reports suggest the group has very little ― if any ― operational control over its affiliate groups in other countries in Africa and beyond.
Yet top U.S. officials at the Pentagon and the White House are avoiding anything that sounds like a declaration of victory.
Many experts believe that’s because U.S. leaders want to maintain public support for other ground-level missions in the region that are harder to sell to the American people, politically.
But so far, no one has stood at the Pentagon podium and directly said that balancing regional threats like Iran and “Shia influence” is part of the current policy or strategy.
“Never give up a sales pitch that’s working,” said Barry Posen, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I don’t think that somebody’s going to step up and say, ‘We’ve finished the job we came to do. It’s time to leave’.”
“The great thing about the [ISIS] mission is it was already sold to the American people," Posen said.
Officially, the only mission for U.S. troops on the ground in the region ― including about 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 2,200 in Syria ― is to defeat and destroy ISIS.
But recently the White House has begun to reveal a massive new mission on the horizon for U.S. troops in the Middle East: containing Iran.
National security adviser John Bolton on Monday said countering Iran’s influence in Syria and elsewhere is a major goal of the U.S. military mission in the Middle East.
“We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Bolton said, signaling a fundamental shift from the current counter-terrorism operations to a mission focused more on geopolitical maneuvering and proxy warfare.
Bolton’s comments echo sentiments that are widely shared among the think tank experts and hawkish defense officials in Washington who allude to the real purpose of U.S. forces as balancing against regional threats like Iran.
“I would prefer to keep U.S. troops there indefinitely, because they also serve a purpose in blocking Iran’s freedom of movement and access to lines of communication that would connect western Iraq with Lebanon,” said James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation.
“I think, particularly, it would be a mistake to abandon the small garrison at Al Tanf, at the Syrian-Iraqi border and near Jordan.”
The forward operating base at Al Tanf, manned by dozens of U.S. troops, but far from the concentration of ISIS, is one example of a larger strategic mission cloaked in the mantle of counter-ISIS operations.
Al Tanf is located at the strategic border area between Iraq, Syria and Jordan. The Marine Corps recently conducted a “show of force” mission near Al Tanf as a reaction to a potential Russian military operation in the region.
For years, Syria has festered with rival militias and foreign fighters, including Iranian-backed militias and Russian military forces, both supporting Syria’s embattled regime led by President Bashar Al Assad, as well as Kurdish forces and Turkish-backed groups vying for control over Syria’s north.
But some experts suggest that the very presence of Americans may be what ultimately stalls ISIS’ demise.
Pentagon leaders warn that it’s still possible for the extremist group to re-emerge, and so a continued U.S. presence in Syria has been long justified.
But many experts disagree with that logic.
ISIS thrives in chaos. Initially, the extremist group was able to grow and seize territory because of the chaotic Syrian civil war and sectarian tensions that festered in Shiite-dominated Iraq.
Allowing low-grade warfare to continue in Syria is likely to benefit the group by providing the stateless, lawless, war-stricken environment where insurgencies flourish.
“The argument that ISIS is going to come back if America leaves Syria seems spurious to me,” Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said.
“ISIS has never spread in a country where there’s a strong state,” Landis said.
Now, ISIS has already shifted back to a grass-roots insurgency, similar to the group’s previous iteration that was known as al-Qaida in Iraq.
The original insurgency led by al-Qaida in Iraq grew in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion and the U.S. attempt to supplant Saddam Hussein’s largely Sunni government with Shiites, sparking intense sectarian violence.
The eight-year U.S. military mission there that ended in 2011 helped to quell that insurgency. But it boiled over again in 2014, in part because Assad’s regime was roiled by a civil war and had largely abandoned eastern Syria, allowing ISIS the space to set up a capital for its caliphate.
Both the Iraqi and Syrian regimes have strengthened in recent years. Landis said the most effective strategy for the complete elimination of ISIS is to foster peace, stability, a strong state and economic reconstruction.
Landis suggested that the U.S. should get out of Syria and “allow the country to knit itself back together.”
“What America is doing today, which is dividing Syria without spending significant money to rebuild, is going to open the doors for al-Qaida or ISIS to come back,” Landis said.
“We’re just keeping this hollowed-out region, hollowed out,” he said.
The focus on ISIS
Despite the recent comments from the White House about leaving troops in Syria to contain Iranian influence, the Pentagon has not yet articulated any military mission with that aim.
“Right now our troops inside Syria are there for one purpose, and that’s under the U.N. authorization about defeating ISIS,” Mattis said Monday.
Mattis downplayed any tension with the White House, saying he and Bolton were “on the same sheet of music.”
Mattis said the U.S. presence in Syria is based on United Nations-led peace talks for Syria rather than Iran’s activities.
“It’s the Geneva process and the Geneva process has got to come to a conclusion if we are to see this end,” Mattis said.
Nevertheless, Mattis acknowledged concerns about Iran and its malevolent influence. Mattis has voiced concerned about Iran for years, dating back to his time as the commander of U.S. Central Command under former president Obama.
“As part of this overarching problem, we have to address Iran,” Mattis said.
“Everywhere you go in the Middle East where there’s instability you will find Iran. So in terms of getting to the end state of the Geneva process, Iran, too, has a role to play, which is to stop fomenting trouble.”
The U.S. exercises influence in Syria from the Kurdish areas in the country’s northeast. The U.S.-backed SDF controls much of that region, while Turkish-backed rebels control select portions of the north.
And whatever dream that previously existed of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq has largely died. U.S. leaders have shown little willingness to offend their NATO ally Turkey in favor of such a move, as exemplified in the Manbij region stand-off.
Keeping portions of northern Syria under Turkish control, though, would satisfy some of the United States’ geopolitical ambitions: It weakens Assad and keeps Syria poor.
“The anti-Iran, anti-Russia policy wonks want to deny reconstruction to Syria because they don’t want to reward Russia and Iran by having an asset that’s worth something,” Landis said. “They would prefer Syria poor and broken down, rather than a Syria that can re-arm.”
“By denying them northern Syria, you’re keeping them weak,” Landis added.
And therein lies a fundamental problem.
The Syrian state is only going to heal if it reunites, because if there are provinces not under his control, Assad will wage war. And without a strong, united Syria, ISIS will have room to grow again.
The end of counter-ISIS operations?
It’s been nearly a year since Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said: “The caliphate is on the run, we’re breaking them.”
The final phase of U.S.-backed military operations against ISIS will likely wrap up later this year.
The Syrian Democratic Forces — backed by U.S.-led airpower and artillery — are in the final phase of a push to eliminate remnants of ISIS in eastern Syria.
The airstrike campaign against ISIS is tapering off. By July 2018, the latest data available, the Inherent Resolve mission has conducted a little more than 3,000 weapon releases for the year. That’s compared to nearly 28,000 for the same time period through July 2017, roughly 17,000 through July 2016, and almost 14,000 through July 2015.
The group’s ability to direct attacks on Western countries appears to be waning. An annual U.S. State Department survey of global terrorism noted a 23 percent drop in terrorist attacks in 2017 as compared to the previous year. That’s the third year of declining attacks. The report notes that much of the decrease is due to successes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
It’s unclear whether the ISIS affiliates beyond Iraq and Syria, in places like Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere, pose a significant threat beyond their local region or to the U.S. homeland.
“There are remnants of ISIS in Iraq and Syria that are capable of launching local terrorist attacks, but I think many of the attacks in Western countries are conducted by ISIS wannabes,” Phillips said.
Thomas Mockaitis, a professor at DePaul University and consultant for the Center for Civil-Military Relations at the Naval Postgraduate School, was blunt in his assessment.
“Terrorism is a persistent nuisance, a problem, but not an existential threat,” Mockaitis said.
Though he sees a need to maintain pressure on ISIS, he is critical of the over-militarized response to ISIS, arguing that a balance of approaches is what it will take to truly defeat the group’s ideology, which is what it exports when other groups attach themselves to its message.
A government official with knowledge of the work of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS but who was not authorized to speak to the media told Military Times that the counter-ISIS mission is “evolving” but still necessary.
The official acknowledged that the threat from ISIS affiliates outside its core in Iraq and Syria does not necessarily reflect that the group has a real global reach or influence.
“Some people portray it as ISIS the inkblot expanding all around the world,” the official said. “It’s more of a rebranding of local terrorist groups to take on the branding of ISIS.”
Several pre-existing groups, such as former factions of al-Shabbab in East Africa and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, have taken exactly that tactic of attaching themselves to the ISIS brand.
Despite professed allegiances, the numbers just are not there. Across the entire continent of Africa there are an estimated 6,000 ISIS-affiliated fighters, according to data from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
And after a U.S.-Filipino assault in Marawi last year, current reports put the number of remaining ISIS fighters at about 200, according to the Pentagon.
Yet despite the exponential decline in enemy fighters, U.S. investment is increasing.
Last year’s total budget for the Philippine operation was $32.4 million. Next year’s budget seeks $108.2 million, a third of which is devoted to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
That includes plans for five military facilities dotting the islands. The larger strategy builds a partnership with the Pacific Ocean nation that could help counter China.
ISIS in Afghanistan
Experts said it’s questionable whether ISIS-type territorial gains could emerge in areas such as northern Africa or Yemen.
But ISIS has created a powerful brand, one that was boosted by its battlefield victories in Iraq in 2014.
That global brand was attractive to struggling groups elsewhere, such as Afghanistan’s ISIS offshoot — dubbed Khorasan province, or ISIS-K.
“Although the ideological links between the Afghan-based group and the main group in Iraq and Syria are strong, the organizational and operational links I think are very attenuated [weak],” Phillips said.
That sentiment was echoed by Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal.
Roggio said that ISIS-K’s presence in Afghanistan is at least partially made up of disaffected Taliban. And while the group swore allegiance to the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and is certainly an official ISIS province, it has yet to be seen that the disconnected groups share much other than propaganda.
“When it comes to the insurgency in Afghanistan, the Taliban is still the major threat. Compared to the Taliban, ISIS’ presence is minimal,” Roggio said. “But they are persistent. They have a nucleus there and are hard to get rid of, just like in Iraq and Syria. They take their lumps but they’re capable of regenerating. Their message resonates with a certain segment of the jihadist community.”
ISIS-K’s presence in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, for instance, was large and it continues despite the large amount of resources the U.S. military allocated to uproot them from there, according to Roggio.
Several Army Green Berets have died in anti-ISIS-K operations in Nangarhar this year.
ISIS-K tends to magnify its presence by conducting particularly brutal suicide attacks against local civilians.
The Taliban also conduct suicide attacks, but most of these incidents are targeted against foreigners and government offices, Roggio said. ISIS-K’s strikes, meanwhile, tend to be of a more brutal variety, like hitting non-profit offices focused on caring for children.
That brutality turns away some even within the Taliban. But were a peace settlement between the Afghan government and Taliban to occur, Roggio hypothesized that ISIS-K could be a landing spot for hardliners in the insurgent group who oppose such a move.
Roggio doesn’t see a peace settlement happening soon, and if it did, the Taliban would still have the network to fight ISIS-K. This was evident when the Taliban routed another ISIS stronghold in the northern Afghan province of Jowzjan.
More than 200 ISIS fighters surrendered to the Afghan government, a decisive victory for the Taliban.
The Taliban have remained a cohesive fighting force for the past 17 years.
“If the Taliban were to turn their guns on them [ISIS-K], they wouldn’t stand much of a chance,” Roggio said. “The Islamic State just doesn’t have the reach, or the recruiting base or the infrastructure that the Taliban has in Afghanistan. … ISIS isn’t utilizing the tribal structures that the Afghan Taliban have mastered. The Taliban know all the politics in the area and have all the contacts in Pakistan.”
Compared to the Taliban, ISIS is small, limited in its range, and mostly appeals to the more violent and simplistic jihadists.
And it’s still unclear whether ISIS affiliates in Afghanistan, or elsewhere, actually pose a threat to the U.S. homeland. But if U.S. officials decide that they do, the prescription to the ailment will have to be more than using the military as a placeholder.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is cautious about what plan, if any, the U.S. government has for these regions if the U.S. does decide ISIS is an existential threat.
“The fact is we want to get out,” Cordesman said. “It’s been too long a war.”
He echoed Landis’ sentiments regarding the lack of planning and funding for reconstruction that could result in ISIS elements maintaining local control for long periods through targeted terrorist attacks on the local population.
“And the problem you also have is we have yet to show we have any strategy that we have to create a reconstructed, redeveloped Iraq that meets needs over time,” he said.
“I think the country is tired,” he said. “I think the U.S. military is tired of what seem to be open-ended wars.”

Air Force Times: Air Force eyes Legion of Merit for drone crews, and maybe someday the Distinguished Flying Cross
By: Kyle Rempfer  12 hours ago
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The Air Force is mulling whether to award the Legion of Merit to drone pilots and sensor operators for the first time, fresh off awarding in July the first-ever "R" devices to drone crews for remote combat, Col. Julian Cheater, the commander of the 432nd Wing, said in an interview with Air Force Magazine.
Cheater’s wing is based out of Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, a major hub for MQ-9 Reaper drone operations.
Authorized in 2016, the “R" device was designed to recognize airmen who have participated in “hands-on employment of a weapons system that had direct and immediate impact on a combat operation,” according to the Air Force. Actions that qualify airmen for the device can be performed in any domain, including cyber, but do not expose the individual to hostile fire.
The July ceremony awarded "R" devices to drone pilots and sensor operators with Meritorious Service medals and Air Force Commendation medals.
However, some airstrikes conducted by drone operators may merit an award higher than those two, Cheater told Air Force Magazine. Components of the Air Force are now reviewing some past drone engagements for a possible Legion of Merit, the highest award authorized for an R device under Air Force regulations.
The Legion of Merit is generally awarded to officers at the rank of colonel and higher, or enlisted service members who are chief master sergeants. The drone community, though, is flush with second and first lieutenants flying combat strikes and perhaps younger airmen should be considered for the award, according to Cheater.
“The ones in my mind that may be worthy [involved] an extremely time-sensitive moving target, where significant friendlies are at risk, or the level of difficulty is extreme,” Cheater said.
Cheater told Air Force Magazine “there may be” a possibility of awarding Distinguished Flying Crosses with "R" devices one day.
"In the future, it may evolve to that point, but right now we are operating within the regulations available to us," he said.
The award decorations board plans to meet again next month for another round of "R" device awards, with “quite a few more” candidates this time around, according to Air Force Magazine.
The origins of the "R" device itself are controversial, and the possibility of incorporating more medals in the award process will likely meet some degree of push-back. In 2013, there was a proposal to create a Distinguished Warfare Medal and give it an order of precedence higher than some awards for valor in combat, despite being designed for service members who were not exposed to hostile fire.
After a hail of criticism from many combat veterans, who argued vehemently that the order of precedence was wholly inappropriate, the proposition was rejected.
Instead, Air Force officials created the "R" device to attach to lower-level medals. The “R” device is authorized for placement only on the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal and Air Force Achievement Medal.
Still, some view the struggle for an "R" device as a step toward recognizing the increased significance drone operations play in modern warfare.
“As the community grows, recognizing RPA Airmen achievements with the ‘R’ device is another step toward normalizing remote operations relative to other weapon systems,” according to a Creech Air Force Base press release.
Military Times: Mattis: Jury is out on women succeeding in combat jobs
By: Lolita C. Baldor, The Associated Press  14 hours ago
to More502
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is offering a dim view of females serving in infantry jobs, telling Virginia Military Institute students that the jury is out on whether women can succeed in combat.
Mattis says there are too few women in the infantry ranks to provide enough data on how it’s going. He says he has asked top Army and Marine leaders for information to determine if having women in the infantry is a strength or weakness.
“There are a few stalwart young ladies who are charging into this, but they are too few,” Mattis said during a visit to VMI, which is in Lexington, Virginia. “Clearly the jury is out on it, but what we’re trying to do is give it every opportunity to succeed if it can.”
The Army has seen an increase in the number of women in combat units, including in infantry jobs. In the Army, almost 800 women are serving in infantry, cavalry and fire support, across five divisions.
So far, there are 51 female infantry officers and 253 women in the enlisted ranks of the infantry, according to the Army. Another 51 women are serving in the officer and enlisted ranks in the Army Reserve. In addition, 17 women have passed the Army’s grueling two-month Ranger course.
As of late August, there were just 26 female enlisted Marines in the infantry and one female officer, according to the Marine Corps. More broadly, however, the number of women in Marine combat units that were previously open only to men has grown steadily, from 254 last year to 382 this year — a 50 percent increase.
In early 2013, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta opened the door to women serving in combat jobs. The military services studied the issue, and in their final recommendations only the Marine Corp leaders argued for an exception so they could keep certain infantry and ground combat jobs open only to men. In December 2015, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter rejected the Corps’ request and ordered all combat posts be opened to women.
Responding to a question from a male student, who described some of his female classmates as fierce, Mattis said the issue must be resolved by military officers who are objective and understand that the natural inclination is to have service open to all. But, he added, "we cannot do something that militarily doesn’t make sense."
Mattis likened the issue to having someone break into your house and having to decide "who grabs the baseball bat" to protect the children and "who reaches for the phone to call 911." He didn’t offer suggestions on what the answer would be.
The Army and Marine Corps have acknowledged that the number of women seeking infantry jobs will probably be small. And women have struggled to pass the demanding training courses.
This year, for the first time, female Marines were allowed to attend the previously male-only entry-level course at the Marine Combat Training Battalion at Camp Pendleton, California. Before that, women only attended combat training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Because of the growth, Army leaders earlier this year decided to integrate female officers into infantry and armor brigades at three additional military bases: Fort Carson in Colorado, Fort Campbell in Kentucky, and Fort Bliss in Texas.
The increase — from two bases now to five — means there will be women in infantry and armor units at 45 percent of the Army installations that have combat brigades. Until now, the integrated units were only at Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Staff writer Meghann Myers contributed to this report.

Omaha World Herald: Bellevue woman who cracked German codes in WWII is buried with British military honors
By Steve Liewer / World-Herald staff writer
When British art student Jean Briggs turned 18 in the fall of 1943, she put her artistic aspirations on hold to serve her country, her king and the Allied cause.
Briggs enlisted in the Women’s Royal Navy Service and soon, against her better judgment, was dating a U.S. Army Air Corps B-17 pilot named John Watters.
They courted during the war and married soon after, raising six children as John Watters rose to the rank of Air Force colonel.
But Jean Briggs Watters could keep a secret. During the war, while still a teenager, she ran a “bombe” machine that decoded German military messages. She was part of the ULTRA effort that broke the German ENIGMA code, a top-secret military program that wasn’t revealed until the 1970s.
“She never told anyone,” said their son, Robin Watters, a retired Navy rear admiral. “She was fully aware of the gravity of what she was doing. It was haunting to her, what might happen if she made a mistake.”
On Monday, Jean Watters, who died Sept. 15 at her home in Bellevue at the age of 92, received a rare tribute: burial at Omaha National Cemetery with British military honors. The Union Jack draped her casket.
She was buried next to her husband, who had died June 30 at age 101.
“They had a 72-year marriage, just like in the movies,” Robin Watters said.
Jean Annette Briggs was born Oct. 15, 1925, in the town of Bury St. Edmunds. She was the oldest of three sisters, quiet and a wonderful artist.
Her youngest sister, Pamela Smith, known to family since childhood as “Babbie,” described Jean as proper, and a bit aloof. Smith, now 87, also married a U.S. Air Force officer and moved to the United States.
Jean attended art school in Cambridge, England, but turned down a deferment to join the Navy.
Actually, Jean was decoding German messages, one of about 10,000 people — three-fourths of them women — who worked for the master codebreaker Alan Turing on the project. The ULTRA effort was spotlighted in the 2014 movie “The Imitation Game.”
John Watters survived more than 25 perilous bombing missions over northern Europe, and the two were engaged soon after V-E Day. She was given leave from her Navy service to marry him. The family moved from place to place with the Air Force, including tours in England and Guam, and, finally, at Offutt Air Force Base. They retired in Bellevue in 1969.
Jean Watters made her children’s birthday cards by hand and was a skillful painter. She loved cooking and gardening, and playing cards and mahjong.
“This sweet, soft-spoken lady with the English accent could, and would, cut you off at the knees while playing Hearts,” her family wrote in a tribute.
Soon after her husband’s funeral in July, she invited Capt. Paul Dunn of the Royal Navy to tea. He is a British military liaison at U.S. Strategic Command.
He and two other officers attended Monday’s funeral.
“With our links to the Royal Navy, we feel it was fitting,” he said.
Robin Watters said his mother would have been thrilled by Monday’s service, which featured a sole bagpiper in a kilt. He played “Amazing Grace” and the “last post,” which is similar to taps.
He said she was shaped by the sobering circumstances in Europe as she came of age.
“She had a seriousness, and a sense of duty,” he said. “She was a really special lady. But she was tough. She did the hard things.”

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