3 January, 2019 10:07

Good morning, Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Thursday, January 3, 2019, which is Festival of Sleep Day, J.R.R. Tolkien Day, Memento Mori Day and National Write to Congress Day.

Today in History:

· 1924: Two years after British archaeologist Howard Carter and his workmen discovered the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen near Luxor, Egypt, they uncover the greatest treasure of the tomb–a stone sarcophagus containing a solid gold coffin that holds the mummy of Tutankhamen.

· On January 3, 1967, Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who killed the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy, dies of cancer in a Dallas hospital. The Texas Court of Appeals had recently overturned his death sentence for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald and was scheduled to grant him a new trial.

· On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower signs a special proclamation admitting the territory of Alaska into the Union as the 49th and largest state.

· On this day in 1993, backup quarterback Frank Reich leads the Buffalo Bills to a 41-38 overtime victory over the Houston Oilers in an American Football Conference (AFC) wild card playoff game that will forever be known to football fans as “The Comeback.”

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

· Military Times: New in 2019: VA’s health care rules will be completely rewritten this year

· Military Times: New in 2019: Advocates hope to reignite debate over long-term effects of burn pits

· Military Times: Trump insists he fired Mattis, says former defense secretary was ‘not too good’ at the job

· Marine Corps Times: Marine veteran detained by Russia on suspicion of espionage was an admin clerk while in the Corps

· New York Times: The Army, in Need of Recruits, Turns Focus to Liberal-Leaning Cities

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Military Times: New in 2019: VA’s health care rules will be completely rewritten this year

By: Leo Shane III | 14 hours ago

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has been promising expanded health care choices for veterans dating back to his election campaign in 2015.

But 2019 could be the year his administration actually makes that happen.

Veterans Affairs has been working on expanded community care rules for veterans’ medical appointments since last summer, when Congress approved the VA Mission Act. Details of that work are expected to be released in early 2019, and a full set of new regulations is scheduled to be released in early spring.

Among other priorities, the legislation mandated a retooling of the department’s policies for veterans seeking private-sector care, a massive undertaking that supporters have hailed as giving more flexibility and freedom to veterans who face long lines at VA hospitals and clinics.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in December hailed the work as part of “a real transformational period at the department.”

But critics have attacked the work as the first step toward privatizing key parts of the VA mission.

Democrats, including House members who will be taking control of the chamber this year, have promised intense oversight into the new outside care rules, to ensure they aren’t written to siphon off needed federal resources to private businesses.

As written, the legislation requires VA to remain a core coordinator of veterans health care plans but also to ensure “the scheduling of medical appointments in a timely manner,” “continuity of care and services,” and “no lapse in health care services.”

That leaves a significant amount of work to be settled in the details of VA’s implementation plan.

Currently, the VA’s Choice program — the best known and most used of the community care programs — is restricted to veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or face a wait of more than 30 days for VA services.

The new programs will likely jettison those rules in favor of a looser set of guidelines, including language for veterans who face “an unusual or excessive burden” getting their care at VA facilities.

Veterans groups have advocated for more flexibility for care options but also warned against abandoning the current Veterans Health Administration, a key safety net for millions of veterans across the country.

A congressional hearing previewing the Mission Act implementation work was scheduled for early December but was postponed due to the death of former President George H.W. Bush. That has only added more mystery and urgency to the drafts under consideration by top VA officials.

Military Times: New in 2019: Advocates hope to reignite debate over long-term effects of burn pits

By: Leo Shane III | 14 hours ago

WASHINGTON — Toxic exposure from combat burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan isn’t a new topic, but veterans advocates hope it will get new attention in 2019.

Several groups — most prominently, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America — in recent months have been pushing the issue back into the public spotlight, in hopes of spurring more public policy reaction from lawmakers.

The hope is that Congress and Veterans Affairs officials can move more quickly on research and support services before another generation of former military personnel starts showing grave health effects from the chemical poisoning.

In fact, much of 2018’s veterans policy on Capitol Hill revolved around Vietnam veterans’ exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange during that conflict. Decades later, the substance has been linked to numerous rare cancers and other detrimental health effects, and veterans groups are still lobbying VA to expand their illness definitions to expand veteran benefits.

Younger veterans see comparisons in that fight with the burn pits. The trash fires — some small, short-time disposal areas, others massive waste burns fueled by gasoline — often contained a mix of different dangerous chemical fumes.

But because the size and composition varied from base to base, collecting hard scientific evidence on the adverse health effects has been difficult.

Advocates have pushed for expanded research and better tracking tools for veterans exposed to the fires. Lawmakers have been sympathetic but also slow to action on the issue.

Meanwhile, while health care is available to veterans facing serious consequences from toxic exposure, VA officials have been leery to extend disability benefits to those veterans without a better scientific backing.

The use of unregulated burn pits has all but disappeared for U.S. troops overseas, but the health effects won’t fade away as quickly. Advocates insist they need to remind Congress and federal officials of that fact as often as possible.

Military Times: Trump insists he fired Mattis, says former defense secretary was ‘not too good’ at the job

By: Leo Shane III | 16 hours ago

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump claimed he had fired Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and said his progress in Afghanistan was “not too good” during a meeting of his new Cabinet at the White House on Wednesday.

The comments come just two days after Mattis stepped away from his Pentagon leadership post and show an increasing level of animosity between the commander in chief and his former military leader.

Mattis announced his resignation from the Cabinet post on Dec. 20, saying the move would allow the president to find “a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours.” In his resignation letter, he took aim at Trump’s past criticism of foreign allies and his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria in the months ahead.

Mattis had planned a departure date of late February, but Trump announced just three days later that Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan would assume the acting defense secretary role on Jan. 1, forcing the former Marine Corps general out early.

Initially, Trump called Mattis’ departure a “retirement” and praised the outgoing defense secretary for “tremendous progress” in implementing his plans to build up military funding and readiness.

But on Wednesday, with Shanahan in attendance for a White House leadership meeting, Trump suggested that Mattis had underperformed in his job.

“What’s he done for me? How had he done in Afghanistan? Not too good,” Trump said.

“I’m not happy with what he has done in Afghanistan. And I shouldn’t be. I wish him well. I hope he does well. As you know, President [Barack] Obama fired him, and essentially so did I. I want results."

Mattis was relieved of his U.S. Central Command leadership post months early in 2013 because of concerns from some in the Obama administration he had become too aggressive in policy recommendations to counter Iran.

Last month, during his Shanahan announcement, Trump also mentioned the Obama firing and suggested that Mattis was less popular than the media has portrayed him.

“When President Obama ingloriously fired Jim Mattis, I gave him a second chance,” Trump tweeted. “Some thought I shouldn’t, I thought I should. Interesting relationship-but I also gave all of the resources that he never really had. Allies are very important-but not when they take advantage of U.S.”

A Military Times poll conducted in late September found that nearly 84 percent of troops had a favorable view of Mattis’ work leading the armed forces. Among officers, the figure was almost 90 percent.

Mattis’ departure has drawn significant concern from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, many of whom have publicly praised Mattis’ steady demeanor and military knowledge for helping moderate some of Trump’s impulsive policy decisions.

On Monday, in a farewell letter to Defense Department employees, Mattis wrote that the military’s leadership “remains in the best possible hands” and encouraged all troops and civilians there to “keep faith in our country and hold fast, alongside our allies, aligned against our foes.”

At the Cabinet meeting, Trump pushed back on reports of a rapid troop withdrawal from Syria, confirming only that it will happen “over a period of time.” He also repeated his claims that Islamic State fighters have been defeated in the Middle East, despite military commanders’ past public comments expressing reservations about declaring victory in the region.

“I’m the only person in the history of our country who could really decimate ISIS," Trump said. “Everyone gives me credit for decimating ISIS … but I’m the only one who could do that and get bad publicity.”

He said that Syria “was lost long ago.”

“We are talking about sand and death,” he said. “We are not talking about vast wealth.”

Shanahan spoke at the Cabinet meeting before the president’s comments on Mattis, and did not offer a response to the remarks afterwards. He said the military has been working closely with the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies on southern border security efforts.

“The threat is real, the risks are real,” he said. “We need to control our borders.”

Marine Corps Times: Marine veteran detained by Russia on suspicion of espionage was an admin clerk while in the Corps

By: Shawn Snow | 17 hours ago

A Marine veteran arrested Friday in Moscow on suspicion of espionage does not boast the resume of a covert intelligence agent ― at least in not in his Marine Corps background.

Paul Whelan served in the Marine reserves for nearly 14 years as an administrative clerk and received a bad conduct discharge for several charges related to larceny following a conviction at a special court-martial on Jan. 14, 2008, according to the Marine Corps.

Whelan attained the rank of staff sergeant in 2004, and was separated from the Corps on Dec. 2, 2008. He had joined May 10, 1994, and had deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He served as an 0151, administrative clerk, 0149, administrative chief, and his last duty station was Marine Air Control Group 38 Headquarters, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing aboard Miramar, California, according to his service record book.

Since 2017, Whelan has been working as the director of global security for BorgWarner, a Michigan-based auto parts supplier. He was arrested Friday, according to The Associated Press.

The former Marine was in Moscow attending a wedding when he was arrested on Friday. Russian Federal Security Service stated Whelan was caught carrying out an “espionage operation.”

His brother, David Whelan, posted a message on Twitter from the family saying that his lack of communication on Dec. 28 “was very much out of character for him.”

Just before his arrest, Whelan had taken a group of wedding guests on a tour of Kremlin museums and then failed to show up for the wedding, his brother said in an interview.

“We are deeply concerned for his safety and well-being. His innocence is undoubted and we trust that his rights will be respected,” the family statement reads.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday while on a visit to Brazil that the U.S. is “hopeful within the next hours we’ll get consular access to see him and get a chance to learn more.”

Pompeo was in Brazil for the inauguration of new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

The Russian government says it’s now allowed Whelan to have access to U.S. consular representatives. A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Minister is quoted by state news agency Tass and private agency Interfax as saying access was granted Wednesday.

The Russian spying charges carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

New York Times: The Army, in Need of Recruits, Turns Focus to Liberal-Leaning Cities

By Dave Philipps | Jan. 2, 2019

SEATTLE — Army recruiters in Seattle can earn a Friday off for each new soldier they enlist. But in a city with a thriving tech industry and a long history of antiwar protests, the recruiters haven’t gotten many long weekends.

“It’s no secret we’re a little behind,” Sgt. First Class Jeremiah Vargas, who heads the city’s recruiting station, told four recruiters at a morning pep talk in early December. With a week left to go in the 30-day reporting period, he wrote the station’s goal — eight recruits — on a white board, and then the current tally: two.

“What do we need to make mission?” he asked.

One recruiter responded with a shrug, “A miracle.”

The Army is not quite counting on miracles, but after falling 6,500 soldiers short of its goal nationwide for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, it is trying a new strategy that might seem almost as unlikely.

Rather than focus on more conservative regions of the country that traditionally fill the ranks, the Army plans a big push in 22 left-leaning cities, like Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle, where relatively few recruits have signed up.

“We want to go into Boston, Pittsburgh, Kansas City,” Maj. Gen. Frank Muth, the head of Army Recruiting Command, said. “These are places with a large number of youth who just don’t know what the military is about.”

The approach may seem like hunting for snow in Miami. But Army leaders say that all they need to attract enlistees in those cities are a surge of recruiters and the right sales pitch.

The pitch they have used for years, playing down combat and emphasizing job training and education benefits, can work well when civilian opportunities are scarce. But it is a tough sell these days in a place like Seattle, where jobs are plentiful and the local minimum wage of $15 an hour beats the base pay for privates, corporals or specialists.

Instead, General Muth said, the Army wants to frame enlistment as a patriotic detour for motivated young adults who might otherwise be bound for a corporate cubicle — a detour that promises a chance for public service, travel and adventure.

“You want to do a gap year?” the general said. “Come do your gap year in the Army.” (Figuratively speaking, of course: Enlistees commit to serve for two to six years.)

For decades, Army recruiting has relied disproportionately on a crescent-shaped swath of the country stretching from Virginia through the South to Texas, where many military bases are found and many families have traditions of service. Young people there enlist at two to three times the rate of other regions.

By contrast, in the big metropolitan areas of the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, young people are less likely to have a parent, teacher or coach who served in the military, which can be a major factor in deciding to enlist. And in those regions, many high schools openly discourage recruiters from interacting with students.

When the Seattle recruiters visit schools, they are sometimes met by antiwar “counter-recruiting action teams” who call attention to civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and the high rate of sexual assault in the military.

“Legally, the high schools have to let us in, but a lot of times, they’ll just ignore our calls,” Sergeant Vargas said. “A lot of schools don’t want us to talk to their kids. They want them to go to college, and see the military as a last resort.”

Parents can be just as leery. “They say ‘Thank you for your service, but stay away from my kid,’” said Capt. Carlos Semidey, the Seattle recruiters’ company commander.

Those cold shoulders were easy to ignore when the jobless rate was above 6 percent and the Army’s most dependable recruiter, Sgt. Hard Times, was driving high school graduates to enlist. But now, unemployment has fallen to 50-year lows.

“Whenever that happens, the Army faces recruiting challenges,” said David R. Segal, a sociologist who advises the military on recruiting. “But they have always doubled down on areas where they know they can get results. This is a 180-degree turn.”

The Army has begun redirecting its marketing toward digital-native urbanites and suburbanites who are eager for excitement. Out went the Army’s sponsorship of a drag-racing team; in are teams of soldiers who compete in mixed martial arts, CrossFit, and competitive video gaming, or e-sports.

Ads on network sports broadcasts are being scaled back in favor of targeted ads on Facebook and Twitch, Amazon’s live-streaming gaming platform. Recruiters will soon be required, not just encouraged, to post on Instagram.

“Kids aren’t watching network TV anymore,” General Muth said. “They are not at the mall. And they don’t answer calls from numbers they don’t know. But we know they want to serve their community, so we have to start that conversation with them.”

Unlike the Army, the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy were able to meet 2018 recruiting goals — in part because each requires less than half the Army’s numbers.

But squeezed by the same forces, all military branches must sweeten their enlistment deals, adding sign-up and retention bonuses and loosening medical standards on childhood conditions like asthma and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The Navy is even offering a “golden ticket” that allows some enlisted personnel to take a year off and return with the same job and rank.

The Army has had to change tactics before to fill its ranks, and it has sometimes stumbled. Toward the end of the draft in the early 1970s, the Army updated its slogan to say “The Army wants to join you,” and dispatched recruiters on motorcycles to hold “rap sessions” with prospects, talking about how the Army was loosening up on haircuts and early-morning formations, putting beer machines in barracks and teaching sergeants to not to be so square. The Marine Corps quickly made fun of the attempt at cool, and the campaign came to be reviled in the Army as well.

This time, the Army plans to focus on blue cities with traveling interactive exhibits that showcase Army careers in health care, engineering and computing. Its sky-diving team and its touring rock band will work to draw crowds, and top brass will speak at events promoting leadership and patriotism. The Army is also putting hundreds of additional recruiters in the field and increasing enlistment bonuses.

But some experts question whether the plans will make much of an impression on the target audience.

“They need to see that the Army is made up of people like them,” said Emma Moore, who studies Army recruiting at the Center for a New American Security, a research institute in Washington. She added, “Coders, engineers, women — there are a lot of people out there that the Army could use that don’t see themselves as having a place.”

The Seattle recruiters often feel as if they are getting nowhere. Two of them stood for hours at a recent job fair in the shadow of the Space Needle without getting a single prospect. An ultimate Frisbee coach with an engineering degree stopped to talk, but he said later that he did it mostly because they “looked a little lonely.”

At a high school event later in the day, students were happy to sign up to for a skateboard raffle, but none made an appointment to meet with a recruiter.

Even those who walk in to the recruiting station are not a sure bet. Myles Pankey, 19, fit the profile of a blue-city adventure seeker, showing up in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. A year after graduating from one of the city’s top high schools, he was working construction, which paid well but bored him. Following in his accountant father’s footsteps held no appeal, he said; he wanted a challenge.

“If I were you, I’d go infantry,” Sergeant Vargas told him. “There’s an $11,000 bonus right now if you can ship in a few weeks.”

They talked for more than an hour about opportunities in the Army, but Mr. Pankey said he felt pulled in many directions. His mother and father weren’t crazy about him enlisting, he said. His boss, a former Special Forces soldier, had talked up the experience, but another friend who had served in Vietnam called it a terrible idea. None of his high school friends had joined, so he’d be going on his own. He finally told the sergeant he would wait a week before making up his mind.

“I can get a good job here, but I want to serve my country,” Mr. Pankey said on his way out. “I guess I have some thinking to do.”

A week later, there was a slot open in the airborne infantry, with a $10,000 bonus. Mr. Pankey signed up.

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