Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Thursday, September 5, 2019 which is International Day of Charity, National Be Late For Something Day, National Cheese Pizza Day and National Shrink Day. (And also my 9th Anniversary of wedded bliss!)
This Day in Legion History:
· Sept. 5, 1919: The Senate passes legislation to grant a federal charter to The American Legion.
· Sept. 5, 2000: The American Legion presents its first “Spirit of Service” awards to active-duty military personnel who conduct volunteer community service in their off time.
This Day in History:
· On September 5, 1836, Sam Houston is elected as president of the Republic of Texas, which earned its independence from Mexico in a successful military rebellion.
· 1877: Oglala Sioux chief Crazy Horse is fatally bayoneted by a U.S. soldier after resisting confinement in a guardhouse at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. A year earlier, Crazy Horse was among the Sioux leaders who defeated George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana Territory. The battle, in which 265 members of the Seventh Cavalry, including Custer, were killed, was the worst defeat of the U.S. Army in its long history of warfare with the Native Americans.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
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September 4, 2019
The U.S. is closing in on a deal with the Taliban that is designed to wind down America’s 18-year war in Afghanistan, but the best indication of how risky the pact may be is this: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is declining to sign it, according to senior U.S., Afghan and European officials.
The “agreement in principle” that U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has hammered out in nine rounds of talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar would take the first tentative steps toward peace since U.S. and allied forces deployed to Afghanistan following the attacks on 9/11, according to senior Afghan and Trump Administration officials familiar with its general terms. Defense Secretary Mark Esper was scheduled to discuss the closely held details of the deal with President Donald Trump in a Sept. 3 meeting, according to senior administration officials. If Trump approves and a deal is struck, it could begin a withdrawal of some 5,400 U.S. troops, roughly a third of the present force, from five bases within 135 days.
But the deal doesn’t ensure several crucial things, those familiar with the discussions tell TIME. It doesn’t guarantee the continued presence of U.S. counterterrorism forces to battle al Qaeda, the survival of the pro-U.S. government in Kabul, or even an end to the fighting in Afghanistan. “No one speaks with certainty. None,” said an Afghan official taking part in briefings on the deal with Khalilzad. “It is all based on hope. There is no trust. There is no history of trust. There is no evidence of honesty and sincerity from the Taliban,” and intercepted communications “show that they think they have fooled the U.S. while the U.S. believes that should the Taliban cheat, they will pay a hefty price.”
That may explain why Pompeo declined to put his name on the deal. The Taliban asked for Pompeo to sign an agreement with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the official name of the government founded by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996, four U.S., Afghan and European officials familiar with the discussions tell TIME. Having the Secretary of State sign such a document would amount to de facto recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political entity, and he declined to do so, the Afghan officials say.
Pompeo’s office declined to comment before publication of this story. After it was published, Pompeo said through a spokesperson that he might sign if Trump and all parties struck a deal. “There is no agreement to sign yet. If and when there is an agreement that is approved by all parties, including President Trump and if the Secretary is the appropriate signatory, he will sign it,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus emailed TIME Wednesday evening.
There are two alternatives. Khalilzad himself may sign it. Or the U.S. and the Taliban may simply issue a joint statement, supported in turn by the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and a number of other countries, including Japan, Russia and China, two Afghan sources familiar with the deliberations tell TIME.
That diplomatic sleight of hand might solve the signature problem, but it won’t do much to address the core challenges facing those who want to give peace in Afghanistan a chance after four decades of war. As it stands, the agreement would set the stage for the withdrawal of most American forces by the end of November 2020 if the Taliban do three things: open negotiations with the U.S.-backed Afghan government; reduce violence near areas U.S. forces control; and keep foreign militants out of the areas they control, according to current and former U.S., Afghan and European officials, who all spoke anonymously to describe the sensitive and fractious deliberations.
U.S. military and intelligence officers and diplomats who have served in Afghanistan worry that once a withdrawal is underway, it will be irreversible, given Trump’s promise to end the U.S. involvement in the war there, the fast-approaching 2020 U.S. elections and the absence of public support for the war. The price of peace, they fear, might include reversing much of the hard-won progress towards building a stable country over nearly two decades of war. These officials fear a roll back of civil, human and women’s rights in Afghanistan; a weakening of the national, regional and local governments; the deterioration of anti-Taliban military and law enforcement forces; and a rise in corruption.
It is “not clear whether peace is possible,” nine former high-ranking U.S. officials, including a former deputy secretary of state, warned in a Sept. 3 letter distributed by the Atlantic Council. “Secondly, there is an outcome far worse than the status quo, namely a return to the total civil war that consumed Afghanistan.”
That risk was made plain Monday, when a massive, deadly Taliban car bomb exploded in Kabul, just as Khalilzad was concluding an hour-long interview promoting the tentative peace deal to an Afghan news outlet. It was a reminder that as it now stands, the agreement does not require the extremist Islamic group to reject terrorism or stop attacking Afghan forces, officials say. The talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government are expected to begin in Oslo shortly after a U.S.-Taliban agreement is finalized, officials say.
For their part, the Taliban have assured their fighters that the U.S. will withdraw all foreign troops within a little more than a year. In their communications with their rank and file, Taliban officials also go light on mentioning any “conditions” that would give the Americans the right to freeze or reverse the troop withdrawal, Afghan officials familiar with the Taliban communications tell TIME.
Taliban commanders have radioed their followers to “prepare for victory” by welcoming Afghans who sided with the Americans rather than engaging in bloody revenge, a senior Afghan official said. Senior Taliban officials have bragged to other foreign officials that all you have to do to defeat the Americans is refuse to surrender, and ultimately, the Americans will give up, a former senior U.S. official told TIME.
“The Taliban’s goals for Afghanistan have not changed,” said Bill Roggio, of the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It seeks to eject the U.S., reestablish its Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and impose its Islamic government.”
Still, the agreement may be the best deal the U.S. and its allies can get to head off a pre-emptive pullout of U.S. troops in time for the 2020 U.S. elections. Military officials have long known they need to reduce the number of troops to a smaller, cheaper footprint to mollify U.S. policymakers tired of writing checks after 18 years of war, and a U.S. public that doesn’t understand why the troops are still there.
For Afghan officials, or at least the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, it’s a final insult and a dark turning point in relations with Washington. Publicly, Ghani has tentatively, though not officially, embraced the deal. But privately aides tell TIME that they have heard shouting matches between Ghani and Khalilzad in Kabul over the last two days, with Khalilzad telling Ghani that he’s got to accept this deal because Afghanistan is losing the war.
The disagreements range from the petty to the existential: Afghan-born Khalilzad won’t give a draft of the Taliban agreement to Ghani, the elected Afghan president, and a university classmate of Khalilzad’s, the aides say. Ghani won’t yield on holding Afghan presidential elections that are likely to hand him another five-year term, complicating the nascent Oslo talks with the Taliban.
Each man has given some quarter, with Khalilzad publicly conceding that it’s likely too late to cancel the Sept. 28 election, and Ghani agreeing to send a delegation to Oslo to start talks with the Taliban in the last week of September, just before the voting. The 15-person delegation includes three women, but the names won’t be announced until just before the talks begin, Afghan officials said.
Everyday Afghans, for their part, don’t know whom, if anyone, to trust. But they know Trump wants out, even if it means outsourcing their conflict to Afghan adversary Pakistan. As the violence continues and horror stories re-emerge of public floggings and summary executions in areas the Taliban control, a grim repeat of their puritanical decade in power until the U.S. drove them out after 9/11 for giving al Qaeda a sanctuary.
Says the Afghan official who participated in the briefings with Khalilzad: “If the U.S. decides to leave, we can’t stop them.” Who in Washington will take responsibility for the decision is another matter.
–with reporting by John Walcott/Washington
By: Meghann Myers 13 hours ago
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Several schools and weapons ranges, as well as hazardous waste treatment, special operations and a host of other facilities are on the chopping block following Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s Wednesday decision to reallocate $3.6 billion in defense spending away from military construction projects in favor of helping build barriers along the US-Mexico border.
The delayed programs were chosen largely either because they were upgrades or replacements to existing facilities, a senior defense official told reporters in a Pentagon briefing Wednesday, or because their contract award dates are not scheduled for a year or more.
“What we have on the list are [recapitalization] projects, projects for which we have an existing capability that can last in a temporary way until we can get the backfill we’ve requested from Congress to complete them,” the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said.
In total, the list included 43 projects in 23 states ― two of which had been slated for cancellation ― along with 21 in three U.S. territories and another 63 in 20 partner nations abroad.
Now, they are all delayed in favor of 11 new projects that will make up 175 miles of new or reinforced border barriers, officials announced Tuesday.
“We’ve been given a lawful order by the president to respond to this crisis on the border, and we’re doing that,” the senior official said Wednesday.
Over a dozen of those delayed projects were slated for hurricane-ravaged areas like Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In Tyndall’s case, the senior defense official said, replacing a fire/crash rescue station was lower on the list of priorities versus the multi–billion dollar rebuild of the base following last year’s Hurricane Michael.
“Timing-wise it doesn’t make sense for us to build a fire rescue station immediately when we’ve got the whole infrastructure plan to build,” the official said. “When we discussed this project, we hadn’t had that hurricane yet.”
In the case of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, their combined 13 projects are in support of Hurricane Maria relief, the official said, but are more long-term projects that wouldn’t have gotten underway until past fiscal year 2020, when the Defense Department intends to get its new border wall push off the ground.
“We’re fully committed to the recovery effort for Maria, and the projects on the list, we think, are not going to be delayed because of how far out in the future they are,” the official said.
Big-ticket items include:
· A storage facility at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, at $119 million.
· Bechtel Elementary School at Camp Mctureous, Japan, at about $95 million.
· A pier and maintenance facility in Bangor, Washington, at about $89 million.
· A storage facility at Royal Air Force Fairford, United Kingson, at $87 million.
· Spangdahlem Elementary School at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, at about $79 million.
A number of land and and air infrastructure projects in the United Kingdom, Hungary and Slovakia, part of an ongoing effort to deter Russian aggression in Europe, could also fall by the wayside in favor of the border wall.
The Tuesday announcement created a backlash across Congress, as well as a call to provide the Pentagon that funding they have requested.
"The decision by the President to divert funding meant to support U.S. national security interests so that he can build a border wall only makes us less safe,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, said in a statement addressing four projects on hold in his state. “Taking money away from our military – including funding to support critical projects here in Virginia – will mean we are less equipped to tackle threats here at home and abroad.”
Trump confirmed to reporters in the Oval Office on Wednesday that Esper has spoken with members of Congress to let them know of his decision and how it would impact their states or districts.
“I think he felt good about it. He feels it is a national security problem. I do, too,” Trump told reporters. “When you have thousands of people trying to rush our country, I think that’s national security.”
Democratic lawmakers, who have refused to fund border wall projects, expressed outrage that the administration had gone around them to get a wall built, then asked for more money to fill in the gap created by the reallocation.
House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said in a Wednesday statement he regrets that the president had to use military funds for border construction.
“It is important that Congress now restore the military construction funding diverted for border security,” he said. "Failing to do so only forces our troops to pay for political discord in Washington.”
There are no guarantees, however, the official said. The Pentagon, in anticipation of this move, asked for $3.6 billion to cover these existing projects in its FY 2020 budget request, which would allow it to cover border construction and its existing plans.
“We’re very focused right now on working with Congress to get the back-fill that we’ve requested and we need,” the official said.
The hope, the official added, is that if Congress does not provide more funds, that at least for the overseas projects, the local governments will chip in.
“We have routine conversations with our allies and partners about burden-sharing in general,” the official said, and on Wednesday DoD policy officials reached out to those countries to specifically discuss the projects on the list.
“We have requested the full amount, but I think we also want to work with our partners to see if there’s burden-sharing possibilities,” the official said.
To check out all the proposed projects at risk of being delayed in the United States and its territories, click here.
For those projects overseas that are being shared with foreign governments, go here.
By: The Associated Press 21 hours ago
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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — A Department of Veterans Affairs employee has pleaded guilty to leaking the medical records of Richard Ojeda as the former Army major was running for Congress.
Federal prosecutors announced Tuesday that Jeffrey Miller has acknowledged accessing the medical records of six veterans when he was working for the VA’s benefits administration.
Authorities say the 39-year-old Miller took a picture of Ojeda’s records then sent the image to an unnamed acquaintance. Ojeda was elected to the West Virginia Senate in 2016 and stepped down to run for U.S. president in 2020. He dropped out of the race in January.
Ojeda says the records were distributed among high-ranking Republicans to derail his campaign for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District in 2018. He sued the VA for documents related to the agency’s investigation of Miller.
Ojeda lost to current Rep. Carol Miller. Her spokeswoman says the congresswoman isn’t related to Jeffrey Miller and that she has never seen the medical records.
4 Sep 2019
Military.com | By Patricia Kime
A bipartisan group of congressmen is pressuring the Department of Veterans Affairs to extend health benefits and disability compensation automatically to veterans battling illnesses thought to be caused by exposure to open-air burn pits.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Florida, and Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-California, have both introduced legislation that would direct the VA to study illnesses thought to be related to exposure to the toxic fumes emitted by waste disposal sites in Iraq and Afghanistan and designate any linked illnesses as presumed to be caused by exposure, thereby automatically qualifying affected veterans for VA health care and disability benefits.
Both also have signed on to support each other’s bills, while Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas; Rep. Peter King, R-New York; and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, have thrown support behind Ruiz’s bill.
Bilirakis, who introduced the same measure in 2018, said the government needs to heed the lessons of Vietnam veterans, who fought nearly 20 years to establish a presumptive service link for exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic herbicides.
"It’s not a coincidence that so many of the exposed veterans are all suffering from the same diseases," Bilirakis said in a statement last month. "We saw similar patterns with veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange in earlier wars. Sadly, many of those veterans died while the VA took decades to study the issue."
Ruiz named his bill after Air Force Staff Sgt. Jennifer Kepner, a medic who served in Iraq in 2004 and died in 2017 of pancreatic cancer, which her family said was caused by exposure to the massive 10-acre burn pit at Balad.
Kepner left behind a nine-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son, as well as her husband, Ben Kepner.
"At the beginning of the fight, we were denied care and help from the VA, not once, but twice. When you are going through that nightmare, the last thing you want is letters from the VA saying, ‘There is nothing we can do,’" Kepner said in a statement released by Ruiz’s office.
"Jennifer Kepner was a hero who courageously battled pancreatic cancer while fighting for her fellow veterans suffering from pulmonary conditions and rare cancers linked to burn pit exposure," Ruiz said. "[Her] empathy and courage continue to inspire me in this fight for our veterans to get the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve."
Either bill would have to survive the lengthy legislative process to become law, but there is a growing lobbying effort among veterans service organizations, as well as support among members of Congress to help service members with respiratory diseases, cancer and other debilitating illnesses their physicians say were caused by environmental exposures.
The VA has not designated any illnesses as presumed to be related uniquely to service in Iraq or Afghanistan, with the exception of Gulf War veterans who served in Southwest Asia. Medically unexplained chronic multisymptom illnesses, often referred to collectively as Gulf War Syndrome, are considered service-related.
In addition, any personnel diagnosed with a chronic disease within a year of leaving active duty are encouraged to apply for disability compensation, as their illnesses are likely to be service-related, and those diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, automatically qualify for health care and benefits.
In 2011, an arm of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reviewed all existing scientific literature and available data on burn pits and occupational exposure to smoke and found that there was insufficient evidence to connect any illnesses in veterans to burn pit exposure.
The organization also found, however, that air quality and pollutant data taken and kept by the Defense Department and military services in Iraq and Afghanistan was scant or incomplete.
At their peak, the Defense Department and military contractors ran 250 burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of garbage, industrial waste, hospital discards and trash. As of March 2019, nine remained active