7 January, 2019 08:37

Good morning, Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Monday, January 7, 2019, which is Orthodox Christmas Day, Harlem Globetrotters Day, I’m Not Going to Take It Anymore Day, International Programmers Day, National Old Rock Day, and National Pass Gas Day.

Today in American Legion History:

· Jan. 7, 1921: The American Legion Weekly magazine announces among the members to serve a one-year term on the new national Americanism Commission is Fiorello H. La Guardia, future governor of New York and eventual mayor of New York City.

· Jan. 7, 1927: Originally sponsored by George L. Giles American Legion Post 87 in Chicago and known as the South Side Giles Team, the all-black basketball stars who would become the Harlem Globetrotters make their debut in a game at Hinckley, Ill. Later sponsored by the Savoy Ballroom and known briefly as the “Savoy Big Five,” the Harlem Globetrotters would go on to entertain more than 144 million fans in 122 countries worldwide.

· Jan. 7, 2014: On a windy, 7-degree morning, future American Legion National Commander Brett Reistad of Virginia presents new Carhartt cold-weather wear to the caisson platoon of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment – the famed “Old Guard” – at Arlington National Cemetery. A former member of the Old Guard himself, Reistad delivers jackets, shirts and underwear donated by Carhartt for soldiers who work with horses around the clock to prepare and train them for funeral services at the national military cemetery.

Today in History:

· On this day in 1789, America’s first presidential election is held. Voters cast ballots to choose state electors; only white men who owned property were allowed to vote. As expected, George Washington won the election and was sworn into office on April 30, 1789.

· On January 7, 1999, the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, formally charged with lying under oath and obstructing justice, begins in the Senate. As instructed in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist was sworn in to preside, and the senators were sworn in as jurors. Congress had only attempted to remove a president on one other occasion: the 1868 impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, who incurred the Republican Party’s wrath after he proposed a conservative Reconstruction plan.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

· Military Times: VA Sec. on GI Bill problems: ‘We owe you every penny that you’ve earned’

· Military.com: Senators Want Answers on Unspent VA Suicide Prevention Funds

· Military Times: As shutdown continues, lawmakers look to pay Coast Guard

· Associated Press: National security adviser Bolton outlines conditions for US pullout from Syria

· Defense News: The top three Pentagon officials are ‘acting’ in their jobs. Does that matter?

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Military Times: VA Sec. on GI Bill problems: ‘We owe you every penny that you’ve earned’

By: Natalie Gross | 2 days ago

ORLANDO, Fla. — Veterans Affairs Sec. Robert Wilkie told a large gathering of student veterans Friday that his No. 1 priority for the VA in 2019 is quality customer service.

That’s why the VA will correct inaccurate payments made to thousands of student veterans last fall. Stymied by technical problems, the department has been giving students the wrong housing stipend amounts for months and continues to do so — long after the Aug. 1 deadline Congress gave VA to calculate housing stipends under revised rules.

“The bottom line is: We owe you every penny that you’ve earned. That is what the nation has promised you, and that is what you deserve,” Wilkie said, addressing some 2,300 student veterans attending the annual Student Veterans of America National Conference via livestream, after his plans to attend in-person were cancelled last minute because of travel restrictions amid the government shutdown.

The Forever GI Bill, which became law in 2017, required VA to change the way it calculates housing stipends in two ways. One mandated that VA alter stipends for new students to match what the Department of Defense pays its E-5s with dependents. The other instructed VA to calculate stipends based on the campus where students take most of their classes, rather than the school’s main campus, which has traditionally been used to determine housing stipends.

VA wasn’t able to make either change by the initial deadline. But fixes are on the way, according to Wilkie.

GI Bill users who were shorted as a result of the first of those problems will receive a check in the mail for the difference by the end of the month, Wilkie said. Any veterans who were overpaid will be allowed to keep the extra money.

A solution to the campus problem will not come until December 2019. VA recently ended its contract with Booz Allen Hamilton, its initial partner for this part of the project. The department plans to have a new contract awarded by next month to another vendor, which it expects to correct the campus-based stipend problems in time for the spring 2020 semester.

At that point, the department will retroactively correct payments for students who would have received a larger housing allowance attending a branch campus, rather than their school’s main campus.

In his remarks after the secretary’s, Student Veterans of America President Jared Lyon called last fall’s delays “unacceptable” and said the “reset will allow the VA to step off on the right foot and create a better path that will better serve students and schools."

“While the reset was needed, our work is not done. This new situation means a new process, and SVA will continue to be there ready to speak up on behalf of those most directly impacted by VA’s decisions," Lyon said.

Wilkie assured student veterans that under his leadership, they have a permanent seat at the table at the VA and are “now at the center of our operations.”

He urged any veterans experiencing financial hardship because of the delays to reach out to the department to get their payments expedited.

Military.com: Senators Want Answers on Unspent VA Suicide Prevention Funds

4 Jan 2019 | Military.com | By Patricia Kime

A group of 21 Democratic senators has asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to explain why it spent just $57,000 of $6.2 million budgeted for paid media advertising campaigns directed at suicide prevention in fiscal 2018, a deficiency they called "appalling" for its lack of oversight.

The lawmakers, led by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, demanded a full accounting of the $17.7 million budgeted by VA for suicide prevention outreach, which includes both paid advertising such as radio spots, billboards and digital ads, as well as unpaid outreach such as public service announcements, social media and the VA’s own Crisis Line website.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the VA developed 47 pieces of social media content in 2018, down from 339 in 2016; failed to air any public service announcements on radio or TV for more than a year; and did not develop any new paid advertising for 2018 despite having a budget of $6.2 million.

A GAO report published in November blamed the decline in outreach on leadership turnover and reorganization within the VA.

During the time frame examined by the GAO, the VA’s suicide prevention efforts shifted from suicide prevention to mental health outreach, primarily due to reorganization of the suicide prevention offices in 2017. For three months, the job of national director for suicide prevention was vacant. In October 2017, Keita Franklin, then the head of the Defense Suicide Prevention Office, was detailed to the VA as acting national director. She was named permanent director in April 2018.

VA staffers told the GAO that, for an extended period, leadership simply wasn’t available for meetings to discuss outreach activities.

In response, the senators wrote a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie on Dec. 20, calling the lapse in outreach due to staffing issues a "dereliction of VA’s responsibility to veterans."

"Dysfunction at VA cannot be the excuse for the lack of a plan to execute suicide prevention outreach," the senators wrote. "Efforts to prevent suicide must remain at the forefront of the Department’s care of veterans."

In congressional testimony and response to the GAO report, VA officials said they used $1.5 million — not $57,000 — of the $6.2 million and have conducted outreach events and created a PSA that wasn’t included in the GAO report, a partnership with Johnson & Johnson featuring Tom Hanks, part of the "Be There" campaign.

According to the VA, its suicide prevention coordinators reached nearly 2 million people at 18,836 events; touched 18 million people by social media during one week in October alone; and help nearly 2,000 callers a day to the Veterans Crisis Line, the department’s suicide prevention hotline.

"This year, I’m making sure that we are spending the funding 100 percent," Dr. Steven Lieberman, the executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, said at a joint Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees hearing Dec. 19. "We certainly have obligated all the dollars, and we have plans to reach out, including social media, this year. We have to get it right."

According to VA data, veterans account for 14 percent of all suicides in the U.S., and the suicide rate among veterans is 1.5 times greater than for non-veterans, when adjusted for age and gender.

Between 2015 and 2016 — the most recent years for which data are available, and before the substantial slide in outreach, according to the GAO — the suicide rate among young veterans ages 18 to 34 climbed substantially, from 40.4 deaths per 100,000 population to 45 suicides per 100,000.

Many of the senators who signed the letter were present at the Dec. 19 hearing when Wilkie and Lieberman discussed the GAO report and its recommendations. Most were not satisfied with the VA officials’ responses.

"Forgive me, but we’ve seen this movie before," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. "We’ve seen a slew of secretaries who have made commitments and promises, and we are expressing the frustration and impatience that is well-founded in fact."

In addition to requesting a full accounting of the $17.7 million, the senators asked the VA to consult with experts to develop metrics to track public health campaigns and measure their success.

Military Times: As shutdown continues, lawmakers look to pay Coast Guard

By: Leo Shane III | 2 days ago

WASHINGTON — With fears the partial government shutdown could drag on for weeks, the Senate is moving legislation that would pay Coast Guard service members, even if the budget stalemate continues.

This week, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., introduced the “Pay Our Coast Guard Act” to keep paying personnel even during a lapse in appropriations.

The exemption also would cover Coast Guard retired benefits, death gratuities and other related payouts.

Seven other senators — three Republican and four Democrats — already have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill and Senate leaders fast-tracked the legislation so that the chamber could vote on it as soon as next week.

If the shutdown continues another week, it will imperil paychecks scheduled for Jan. 15 to more than 50,000 members of the Coast Guard.

About 42,000 of them are required to report to work without pay because they’re deemed essential employees.

Salaries for members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are not affected by the latest government shutdown because the Department of Defense had its full fiscal year funding approved last fall.

But the Coast Guard is funded through the Department of Homeland Security, one of multiple agencies whose budgets lapsed late last month amid a squabble between the White House and congressional Democrats over President Donald Trump’s controversial southern border wall project.

After a week of warning that the shutdown would halt all Coast Guard paychecks, service officials announced on Dec. 28 that Homeland Security officials had found a work around to cover about $75 million needed for the Dec. 31 pay period.

But they also warned that if the shutdown continued they would be unable to repeat that action for the mid-January paychecks.

On Friday, Trump called his most recent meeting with Democratic leaders on the budget impasse “productive” but also confirmed that he told lawmakers he was prepared to keep the government shutdown “for months or years” if they don’t agree to adequately fund his border wall project.

“We won’t be opening the government until this (immigration problem) is solved,” he said. “It’s a bigger problem.”

The Senate legislation — which would also have to be adopted by the House and signed by the president — is among several proposals being discussed on Capitol Hill to blunt some of the impact of the shutdown on about 800,000 federal workers.

More than half of the employees are required to continue working without pay. The others have been furloughed since Dec. 22.

Coast Guard officials insist most of their operations have continued uninterrupted during the funding lapse.

Service exchange locations are scheduled to remain open for now, as will day care centers on Coast Guard bases but several public affairs and public outreach offices have been shuttered.

Cuts to child care subsidies and non-essential travel also loom in the coming days.

Thune’s pay legislation had drawn support from more than a dozen veterans organizations, who say the Coast Guard should be safeguarded from political bouts.

“Many of our members have little tenure in the Coast Guard, which hasn’t allowed ample time for saving enough money to sustain the lapse in even one paycheck,” said Coast Guard Enlisted Association National President Casey Lawrence in a statement. “Many of our members feel that they have been overlooked due to the potential pay lapse.”

Mike Little, executive director for the Sea Service Family Foundation, said passing the legislation early in the new Congress would send a strong message of support to the Coast Guard.

“This shutdown has taken away from valuable time (servicemembers) should have been using to enjoy their families, but instead they spent it stressed beyond belief,” said Little, a Coast Guard spouse.

The Senate is scheduled to return Tuesday to Capitol Hill.

Associated Press: National security adviser Bolton outlines conditions for US pullout from Syria

By: Zeke Miller, The Associated Press | 19 hours ago

JERUSALEM — President Donald Trump’s national security adviser said Sunday that the American military withdrawal from northeastern Syria is conditioned on defeating the remnants of the Islamic State group and on Turkey assuring the safety of U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters.

John Bolton said there is no timetable for the pullout, but insisted the military presence is not an unlimited commitment.

“There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem before heading to Turkey on Monday, where he will be joined by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford. “The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.”

Those conditions, he said, included defeating what’s left of ISIS in Syria and protecting Kurdish militias who have fought alongside U.S. troops against the extremist group.

Bolton’s comments were the first public confirmation that the drawdown has been slowed. Trump had faced widespread criticism from allies about his decision, announced in mid-December, that he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. Officials said at the time that although many details of the withdrawal had not yet been finalized, they expected American forces to be out by mid-January.

“We’re pulling out of Syria,” Trump said Sunday at the White House. “But we’re doing it and we won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone.”

Trump’s move, which led to the resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, has raised fears over clearing the way for a Turkish assault on the Kurdish fighters. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.

Bolton said the U.S. is insisting that its Kurdish allies in Syria are protected from any planned Turkish offensive — a warning he was expected to deliver to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this week.

"We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States," Bolton said. He said that in upcoming meetings with Turkish officials he will seek "to find out what their objectives and capabilities are and that remains uncertain."

Trump has made clear that he would not allow Turkey to kill the Kurds, Bolton said. "That’s what the president said, the ones that fought with us."

Bolton said the U.S. has asked the Kurds to “stand fast now” and refrain from seeking protection from Russia or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “I think they know who their friends are,” he added, speaking of the Kurds.

Jim Jeffrey, the special representative for Syrian engagement and the newly named American special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition, is to travel to Syria this coming week in an effort to reassure the Kurdish fighters that they are not being abandoned, Bolton said.

Turkey’s presidential spokesman called allegations that his country planned to attack the U.S.-allied Kurds in Syria "irrational" and said Turkey was fighting terrorism for national security.

In comments carried by the official Anadolu news agency, Ibrahim Kalin said the Kurdish fighters oppressed Syrian Kurds and pursued a separatist agenda under the guise of fighting ISIS. “That a terror organization cannot be allied with the U.S. is self-evident,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told ABC’s “This Week” that the conditions raised by Bolton were “obvious,” and Smith criticized the conflicting messages from the Trump administration.

"We don’t want ISIS to rise again and be a transnational terrorist threat and we don’t want our allies, the Kurds, to be slaughtered by Erdogan in Turkey," said Smith, D-Wash.

Bolton said U.S. troops would remain at the critical area of al-Tanf, in southern Syria, to counter growing Iranian activity in the region. He defended the legal basis for the deployment, saying it’s justified by the president’s constitutional authority.

The U.S. is also seeking a “satisfactory disposition” for roughly 800 ISIS prisoners held by the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition, Bolton said, adding talks were ongoing with European and regional partners about the issue.

Bolton was to have dinner with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Sunday to discuss the pace of the U.S. drawdown, American troop levels in the region, and the U.S. commitment to push back on Iranian regional expansionism.

Bolton was expected to explain that some U.S. troops based in Syria to fight ISIS will shift to Iraq with the same mission and that the al-Tanf base would remain.

Bolton also was to convey the message that the United States is "very supportive" of Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, according to a senior administration official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss Bolton’s plans before the meetings and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Bolton on Sunday also toured the ancient tunnels beneath the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. He watched a virtual reality tour of the historic site and dined there with his Israeli equivalent, as well as U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer.

Visiting American officials typically avoid holding official meetings in parts of east Jerusalem, which is contested between Israelis and Palestinians. Trump, however, also toured the area in a previous visit.

Israel annexed east Jerusalem after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 war, a move not recognized by most of the international community. Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Defense News: The top three Pentagon officials are ‘acting’ in their jobs. Does that matter?

By: Aaron Mehta | 2 days ago

WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump announced Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan would become the acting secretary of defense, it created vibrations down the Pentagon chain of operations — suddenly leaving the top three spots at the department filled by acting individuals.

But functionally, does it matter?

Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist has been tapped to perform the duties of the deputy secretary, leaving deputy comptroller Elaine McCusker to fill Norquist’s day-to-day job. Meanwhile, the No. 3 in the department is supposed to be the chief management officer, but that job has been empty following the Nov. 9 resignation of Jay Gibson from that role; Lisa Hershman is currently the acting CMO.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Buccino told reporters Friday that "Acting Secretary Shanahan will serve in this capacity at the pleasure of the President and consistent with governing law.” which, combined with recent comments by Trump, may be an indication the president is in no rush to replace the acting secretary.

The good news for the Department of Defense? Experts believe the department’s internal mechanisms will keep the building chugging along, at least in the short term. The more complicated news? Those tabbed with the “acting” label sometimes struggle with getting their way in that same bureaucracy.

In terms of authorities, Shanahan should have no issue stepping into the secretary role, thanks to work that was done in the late 1980s through the Goldwater-Nichols reforms, says Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps general who served as staff director in the Senate during the Goldwater-Nichols debates.

Goldwater-Nichols prepared for a “disability or vacancy in the SecDef position and put in statute the succession of the Deputy and the statute is clear that individual exercises the full powers of the SecDef,” Punaro wrote in an email. “So everything in DoD is now subject to the ‘authority, direction and control’ of Pat Shanahan.

“No one — adversary, ally, congress, American public, other members of the administration — should consider Pat Shanahan as a ‘caretaker’ or ‘hampered’ by the term ‘acting.’ He is, as we say in the Marine Corps, a ‘full up round.’ ”

Marc Cancian, a former Pentagon and Office of Management and Budget official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agrees Shanahan legally has the full authorities. And more broadly, Cancian said, the other vacant or acting positions won’t matter as much if Shanahan is able to effectively drive the ship.

“I’m one of those people not too impressed by arguments about vacancies, if there is strong leadership at the top,” he said. But he points out that just because someone has power doesn’t mean that individual knows how to effectively use it, nor that everyone will listen. “The bureaucracy is just going to do its thing. It chugs along,” he added.

Cancian also wonders if Shanahan will be able to effectively convey the department’s message to Congress, particularly to Democratics, who now run the House of Representatives and are skeptical of defense spending increases.

And Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former Pentagon and National Security Council staffer now with the Center for a New American Security, says to watch carefully if Shanahan is effectively able to use the levels of power.

“In any instance where a DoD senior leadership role is held by someone with only temporary authority, you can be almost certain that they will lose every argument to anyone with bigger political, analytic or institutional guns,” Schulman said.

In particular, Schulman raises concerns about the civil-military divide, an issue that has been growing for years but one which experts worry has been exacerbated during the first two years of the Trump administration.

“With that being the case, it’s worth keeping an eye on how the Joint Staff and the services react to this new leadership dynamic, particularly given the sense that civilian oversight is waning in many instances,” she said. “With Shanahan’s lack of military and policy experience, I hope he finds strong advisers in [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] to help him manage what is going to be a crazy spring.”

One area that will be impacted by the shifting responsibilities, Cancian said, is the push for management reform.

“I think that is going to lose momentum” with the CMO spot empty and Shanahan and Norquist taking on bigger roles, Cancian predicted. “I don’t think it had much momentum to begin with, but whatever little momentum it had will be gone.

"Six months ago there was a lot of talk about management reform, but you don’t hear about any big changes that are in the wind. If they were working on something truly big, you would hear the screams from the Pentagon, which tells me whatever is coming is not going to be that big.”

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