7 March, 2019 13:50

Good afternoon Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Thursday, March 7, 2019 which is National Cereal Day, Nametag Day, National Be Heard Day, and National Crown Roast of Pork Day.

This Day in Legion History:

· March 7, 1919: Stars and Stripes publishes an invitation to the Paris Caucus, calling on “Veterans in AEF in Liberty League.” Liberty League is Lt. Col. Eric Fisher Wood’s preferred name for the new association. Organizers expect about 300 to attend. Roosevelt, Jr., however, would not be one of them. He returns to the United States before the caucus is called to order, in part to begin promoting the yet-to-be-born American Legion.

· March 7, 1919: What would become regarded as the first post of The American Legion, General John Joseph Pershing Post Number 1 in Washington, D.C., is organized and makes plans to apply for the first charter of the as-yet-unnamed organization. It receives a charter on May 19, 1919. The St. Louis caucus of May 8-10, 1919, determines that Legion posts cannot be named after living persons, so Pershing Post 1 is renamed George Washington Post 1.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

· Stripes: VA contracting at ‘high risk’ for wasting tax dollars

· Military Times: Lawmakers to DoD: You knew about water contamination. Why haven’t you done more?

· Military Times: Arizona senator reveals she was raped by a superior officer while in the Air Force

· Stripes: Advocates for sexual assault victims create one-stop support site

· Military Times: Here’s what’s coming next in the battle over burn pit benefits

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Stripes: VA contracting at ‘high risk’ for wasting tax dollars

By NIKKI WENTLING | Stars and Stripes | Published: March 6, 2019

WASHINGTON —The Government Accountability Office on Wednesday declared Department of Veterans Affairs contracting, which topped $26 billion in 2017, is a “high risk” area of government, susceptible to waste and mismanagement of taxpayer money and in need of more oversight.

The GAO, a leading government watchdog agency, presented a biennial report to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on government programs that are vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement. After a government-wide review, the GAO added two new areas to its latest report, one of them being VA contracting.

The VA spent $26 billion in fiscal 2017 to contract for goods and services – one of the largest procurement budgets across the U.S. government, said Gene Dodaro, who leads the GAO. The watchdog found outdated acquisition policies, little oversight and an unreasonable workload on its contracting officers, among other risks.

“They have outdated policies and practices and haven’t been able to save a lot of money,” he told the oversight committee. “Many purchases are being made under emergency situations.”

Dodaro specifically brought attention to how the VA purchases medical supplies.

Contracting officers rushed orders of a large amount of medical supplies that could’ve been routinely purchased, he said. Those emergency purchases accounted for 20 percent of the Veteran Health Administration’s overall procurements in fiscal 2016, totaling nearly $2 billion, the GAO report states.

Other watchdog groups have recorded problems during the past two years with how the VA buys medical supplies.

According to documents released last year by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the VA hospital in Durham, N.C., spent more than $1.3 million on medical supplies that it didn’t need or use. The logistical problems there were analogous to issues the VA Office of Inspector General discovered in 2017 at the Washington DC VA Medical Center, where roughly $150 million in medical supplies were not inventoried.

The GAO began focusing its attention on VA contracting in 2015. Since then, the watchdog made 31 recommendations for the agency, 21 of which haven’t been implemented.

In addition, overall VA health care remained on the high-risk list this year. It’s been there since 2015, following the discovery of veterans suffering long waits for treatment at VA facilities.

Of the 35 areas of government on the list, seven made progress since 2017, Dodaro said. VA health care wasn’t one of them.

“Unfortunately, many of the areas haven’t really changed that much since our last update,” he said. “Veterans health care remains a problematic area.”

In its newest report, the GAO listed VA health care as one of nine areas that need special attention from Congress and the White House.

The agency cited a “lack of progress” and noted ongoing issues at the VA with accountability, information technology, staff training, ambiguous policies and cost efficiency.

Leadership instability at the agency was partially to blame for the problems, Dodaro said. Since VA health care was added to the list, the department has been led by three secretaries: Bob McDonald, David Shulkin and Robert Wilkie.

“So that shows you at the very top of the department how much turnover there’s been,” Dodaro said. “As a result of that, the VA — to this day — does not yet have a good plan for addressing fundamental causes of why we put them on the list. It’s prevented them from dealing with some very underlying management problems.”

Dodaro has met with Wilkie, the current secretary, and said he is hopeful Wilkie can make progress. Wilkie designated a team of people to work with GAO staff, Dodaro said.

Nikki Clowers, managing director of health care for the GAO, said vacancies among other top VA jobs have caused confusion and delays.

The agency is still without a permanent undersecretary of health – a position that’s gone unfilled since 2017. The job requires a presidential appointment and confirmation by the Senate. VA official Richard Stone has taken on those duties on a temporary basis.

“When you have those vacancies and not clear policies or clearly defined roles and responsibilities for those in acting positions, it can cause confusion,” Clowers said. “And we’ve seen that.”

Military Times: Lawmakers to DoD: You knew about water contamination. Why haven’t you done more?

By: Tara Copp   18 hours ago

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The Pentagon’s decision not to take action to protect military families from decades of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals until a 2016 Environmental Protection Agency warning did not sit well with members of Congress, who questioned Defense Department leadership on the issue at a hearing Wednesday.

“To put it charitably: it is unclear why DoD feels justified in passing the buck to the EPA," said House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on the environment chairman Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif. “Particularly in light of evidence suggesting DoD’s awareness of the toxicity of the chemicals since the early 1980s.”

Rouda and ranking member James Comer, R-Ky., heard testimony from EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Dave Ross and Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment.

The perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemical compounds in question are found in everyday household items, but they were concentrated in firefighting foam the military used until just last year.

But at least one other DoD installation, Fort Carson in Colorado, use of the chemicals was stopped in 1991 after an Army Corps of Engineers study looked at harmful chemicals at its installations.

“Aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) is considered a hazardous material in a number of states,” the 1991 study, which was obtained by Military Times, read. “Firefighting operations that use AFFF must be replaced with nonhazardous substitutes.”

DoD has previously said that until the 2016 guidance from EPA on recommended exposure level limits, it did not know the severity of its exposure problem, which spurred it voluntarily providing filters and shutting some water sources, EPA’s guidance is not enforceable,

In March 2018, at the direction of Congress, DoD published its first-ever assessment of each contaminated base where the compounds had been found in either on-base or off-base water sources. More than 126 locations were identified — some with exposure levels hundreds of times greater than EPA’s 70 parts per trillion recommendation.

Since the release of the list, scores of families and veterans have contacted Military Times with stories of families or neighbors with cancer, or children with birth defects. Hope Martindell Grosse, who attended Wednesday’s hearing, is one of them.

Grosse grew up in a neighborhood that was across the street from the firefighting training center at Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster, in Pennsylvania.

Her family and others in the neighborhood relied on their private well for water. Now, not only that well, but a public water well installed in the late 1990s is shut down — with remaining levels of PFAS at more than 1200 parts per trillion,

Her father died in 1990 at age 52, from cancer. Three months later, at age 25, Grosse was diagnosed with cancer as well. She has successfully fought it since, but “anytime something is wrong with my health — just about anything — I am immediately filled with a crippling fear that it is cancer,” she said in testimony submitted for the hearing.

Military Times: Arizona senator reveals she was raped by a superior officer while in the Air Force

By: Leo Shane III16 hours ago

WASHINGTON — Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, a former Air Force colonel and one of the first female combat veterans elected to Congress, revealed she was raped by a superior officer during her military career but kept the attack secret out of fear of reprisal.

“Like so many women and men, I didn’t trust the system at the time,” she said during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I blamed myself. I was ashamed and confused. I thought I was strong but felt powerless. The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways.”

The revelation came as the committee heard from other military sexual assault victims, and questioned Pentagon officials on whether have done enough to address the problem.

Earlier this year, the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office found the number of service academy cadets reporting unwanted sexual encounters increased almost 50 percent over the last three years, to 747 incidents in 2018.

That news has spurred a series of hearings and legislative proposals in recent weeks aimed at changing cultural norms within the military, and forcing more aggressive action by Defense Department leadership.

McSally, a Republican lawmaker who has been an outspoken voice on issues of equality of women in the ranks, served in the Air Force from 1988 to 2010. She was the first military woman to fly in combat after the military lifted rules barring them from those pilot posts, and provided close-air support during operations in Iraq and Kuwait as part of Operation Southern Watch.

She did not say when the assault occurred or who her attacker was, but did say she did not discuss it with anyone until years later.

“Later in my career, as the military grappled with (sexual assault) scandals and their wholly inadequate responses, I felt the need to let some people know I too was a survivor,” she said. “I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences was handled.

“I almost separated from the Air Force at 18 years of service over my despair. Like many victims, I felt like the system was raping me all over again.”

Despite that experience, McSally said she does not support legislation to remove sexual assault and harassment crimes from the rest of the military justice system. A number of advocates have pushed for that move, saying that military leaders have repeatedly shown they are not equipped to properly respond to the crimes or handle their prosecution.

“I share the disgust of the failures of the military system,” she said. “But it is for this very reason that we must allow, we must demand, that commanders stay at the center of the solution and live up to the moral and legal responsibilities that come with being a commander.

“We must fix those distortions in the culture of our military that permit sexual harm.”

McSally was appointed to the open Arizona Senate seat after losing the November election against Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. During that campaign, McSally told the Wall Street Journal that she was sexually abused as a teen by a high school track coach.

McSally is one of three Iraq War combat veterans in the Senate today, including Iowa Republican Joni Ernst and Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth. Duckworth was on hand at the subcommittee hearing for McSally’s announcement and was among senators who praised her courage and insight on the issue.

McSally called the problem of sexual assault in the ranks a threat to national security.

“Commanders have a moral responsibility to ensure readiness of their units,” she said. “That includes warfighting skills, but demands the commander cultivates and protects and enriches a culture of teamwork, respect, and honor.

“Any conduct that degrades this readiness doesn’t just harm individuals in the ranks, it harms the mission and places at risk the security of our country.”

In a statement following the hearing, Air Force officials issued a statement saying "the criminal actions reported today by Senator McSally violate every part of what it means to be an airman. We are appalled and deeply sorry for what Senator McSally experienced and we stand behind her and all victims of sexual assault.

"We are steadfast in our commitment to eliminate this reprehensible behavior and breach of trust in our ranks.”

Stripes: Advocates for sexual assault victims create one-stop support site

By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 5, 2019

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Two women have joined together to help victims of sexual assault in the military find justice in a system they say often regards victims as an afterthought.

Survivors United is a sexual-assault victims advocacy group that offers a one-stop shop of resources at www.survivorsunited1.com. At the site, visitors can find information and links to other sites for help reporting a sexual assault and coping with its aftermath.

Adrian Perry, a Marine Corps spouse, and Kylisha Boyd, a civilian, are the group’s co-founders. Survivors United is a start-up organization, but both women said they have the backing of others.

“You just have no clue where to begin or what to do next,” Perry said, referring to the aftermath of a sexual assault. “We strive to be the organization that is in the trenches with the survivor, fighting with them, so that they can be heard, whatever they choose to do.”

The website offers instructions for each individual and situation, whether as an active-duty servicemember, National Guard and Reserve, transitioning servicemember or civilian. The site has information on the difference between confidentially reporting a crime and an investigation undertaken by a military command.

It provides legal statutes and rights as far as seeking prosecution inside or out of the military system; information on obtaining special victims’ counsel; how to file a Freedom of Information Act request for pertinent case files; how to report reprisal; resources and treatment options.

It also provides forms and information on how to contact members of Congress if a victim feels his or her case has been swept under the rug.

Perry’s role as a survivors’ advocate took root in summer 2016, when her daughter, age 6 at the time, told her family that Daniel Wilson, a Marine Corps colonel, had touched her inappropriately.

Wilson was convicted by a court-martial in September 2017 of sexual abuse of a child as well as six counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and absence without leave. He was sentenced to 5 ½ years in prison.

From the start, Perry said, her family became entangled in a bureaucratic web of military law enforcement and judicial proceedings where nobody seemed to fully comprehend their rights or available options.

The process itself seemed disproportionately callous and unfair toward victims, she said.

Perry wanted to make sure that no other family had to go through a similar situation, so she teamed with Boyd and launched Survivors United in February.

“You’re not always made aware of all of your rights,” she said. “Our main goal is to be able to provide people with knowledge and empower survivors so that they can move forward and figure out the way ahead after an assault like this.”

Boyd said she was sexually assaulted by a U.S. servicemember in Virginia in 2016. Navigating the military justice system was an eye-opening experience that led her to advocacy, she said.

“It is difficult to get a conviction in any prosecution of a sexual assault,” she said. “I was completely unprepared for the events following the initial report. The dynamic of military involvement added another layer of difficulty and complexity.”

Boyd said her civilian status made it hard to obtain legal help in her case; she said she got no legal assistance from the military and could not find a local lawyer interested in taking on the military.

Ultimately, Boyd said, the servicemember was acquitted at a bench trial by a military judge.

“Overall, my experience with the military justice system was one disappointment after another,” she said.

“In the beginning, I hoped that the military would be proactive in securing vital evidence from my attacker — defensive wounds, forensic evidence, text messages revealing his guilt, etc. … None of this was obtained from him. This is a systemic issue where the victim is the sole source of evidence during investigation.”

Each branch of the military does have victim advocates, Perry said.

In Perry’s case, she said more emphasis was placed on the rank of the accused and his service record than on the evidence. Wilson, who at the time was on the II Marine Expeditionary Force general staff at Camp Lejeune, N.C., was also accused of sexually abusing a second daughter and plying the third with alcohol.

The Perry family sued the Marine Corps for $25 million for the pain and suffering of their three daughters and for long-term mental-health treatment. The Marine Corps has denied the claim, Perry said. The family plans to file for reconsideration before filing a lawsuit in federal court.

Perry said that when they called the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to report Wilson, they were unaware of the process and their rights. A full understanding of these rights, available options and procedural issues were not explained in layman’s terms, she said.

At times, Perry said, she and her family felt they were the ones under investigation. They were shocked, for example, when they were asked to give up their mobile devices, but Wilson was not required to do so in the search for evidence.

Perry has become a fierce advocate for her family but also for anyone else who has experienced sexual assault, Boyd said.

“Adrian and I saw in each other the struggles we shared, and both wanted to lessen the load for others going through the process,” she said.

Military Times: Here’s what’s coming next in the battle over burn pit benefits

By: Leo Shane III   21 hours ago

WASHINGTON — House lawmakers on Tuesday advanced legislation to improve tracking of troops’ exposure to toxic chemicals from war zone burn pits, but the real political fight over how to help those ailing veterans is set for later this spring.

A group of lawmakers led by California Democrat Rep. Raul Ruiz is planning a push to classify combat burn pit exposure as the presumed cause of a range of lung diseases for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, opening the door for easier access to medical care and disability benefits.

The proposal is likely to face fierce opposition from VA leadership, which has emphasized the need for clear scientific links between war zone exposures and illnesses later in life before making large-scale benefits decisions.

The department’s official position is that “research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure” to burn pits.

But advocates say those scientific shortcomings have more to do with poor monitoring than a lack of proof of the dangers that burn pits present. They point to a host of rare cancers, respiratory illnesses and other health problems among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that cannot be dismissed as coincidental clustering.

“The study for this illness … can take up to 20 years,” Ruiz said at a press conference with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America before Tuesday’s House vote. “We don’t have the time for that.

“There’s no perfect study, but there is enough evidence to determine there is a high enough suspicion of a link. We have veterans who are dying, so we have to act on that suspicion.”

In recent years, much of the focus in Congress on burn pits has centered on improving research to inform future benefits decisions.

Tuesday’s legislation — sponsored by Ruiz and Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio — would allow family members to submit information into VA’s Burn Pit Registry, giving the department information on veterans who passed away from suspected toxic exposure illnesses or who are too sick to access the list themselves.

Wenstrup said in a statement that the move will “ensure the VA has more accurate records for veterans exposed to burn pits, so we can better serve those with service-related illnesses.”

Sen. Tom Udall, R-N.M., has introduced companion legislation in his chamber and called the idea a way “to gather more information so that veterans can receive the answers they deserve and the medical treatment they have earned.”

Nearly 170,000 veterans and current service members have entered information in the registry since it was launched five years ago. Ruiz said that information is invaluable, but he warned that policy makers need to see that as a first step and not an end goal.

Ruiz, a former emergency room doctor and medical school administrator, said his personal review of available research literature shows a clear connection between the burn pits and pulmonary issues, lung diseases and cancers.

His proposed legislation would allow any veterans who can show burn pit exposure to receive “priority group 6” status for VA care — putting them ahead of veterans without any service-connected problems seeking appointments in the department’s health system — and lessen the standard of proof to receive disability benefits for burn pit veterans with lung diseases.

He compared the problem to the issue of Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War. The department took until 1991 to recognize exposure to the chemical defoliant in that war as the likely cause of a host of illnesses, and is still fighting the exposure claims of some sailors who served in ships off the coast there.

Melissa Bryant, chief policy officer for IAVA, said veterans from recent wars have already waited long enough on burn pit research and analysis.

“We have known about his problem for years,” she said. “We’re going on almost two decades already. We see this as our Agent Orange. And we know how long it took for that to be declared a presumptive condition.

“We will not stand for that happening to our generation.”

Moving vets exposed to burn pits to the front of the line for medical care may have only a nominal cost for VA, but making burn pit exposure a presumptive condition for disability benefits is likely to run into the billions of dollars. Ruiz said the costs of his proposal have not yet been finalized.

But, like the scientific questions surrounding the issue, he called the cost concerns beside the point of the problem.

“VA has been really good at coming up with excuses as to why they shouldn’t be covering Agent Orange for so many years,” he said. “Our Vietnam veterans understand that song and dance so much.

“For this generation, we have to stop it as soon as they start talking about excuses.”

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