From: Seavey, Mark C. [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Wednesday, March 28, 2018 5:47 AM
Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Wednesday, March 28, 2018 which is Eat an Eskimo Pie Day, National Hot Tub Day, Children’s Picture Book Day, and National Little Red Wagon Day.
This Day in History:
· At 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, the worst accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry begins when a pressure valve in the Unit-2 reactor at Three Mile Island fails to close. Cooling water, contaminated with radiation, drained from the open valve into adjoining buildings, and the core began to dangerously overheat.
· On this day in 1984, Bob Irsay (1923-1997), owner of the once-mighty Baltimore Colts, moves the team to Indianapolis. Without any sort of public announcement, Irsay hired movers to pack up the team’s offices in Owings Mills, Maryland, in the middle of the night, while the city of Baltimore slept.
· On March 28, 1915, the first American citizen is killed in the eight-month-old European conflict that would become known as the First World War. Leon Thrasher, a 31-year-old mining engineer and native of Massachusetts, drowned when a German submarine, the U-28, torpedoed the cargo-passenger ship Falaba, on its way from Liverpool to West Africa, off the coast of England. Of the 242 passengers and crew on board the Falaba, 104 drowned. Thrasher, who was employed on the Gold Coast in British West Africa, was returning to his post there from England as a passenger on the ship.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
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Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has lived in presidential purgatory for weeks.
The president has told a number of advisers that he wants to oust Shulkin, once a favorite in his Cabinet. But the White House has sent mixed messages publicly, and it remains unclear to what extent the secretary still has President Trump’s full trust. As recently as Monday, one White House aide declined to discuss Shulkin’s future while another told Fox News that the president had confidence in him “at this point in time.”
The uncertainty has left the leader of the federal government’s second-largest agency, its employees, and even senior White House officials wondering if Shulkin still officially speaks for VA. It has raised questions, too, about what’s being done to restore order at the agency after weeks of turmoil have left little doubt that Shulkin, the lone Obama administration holdover in Trump’s Cabinet, is next to go in what’s become a pronounced leadership shake-up.
What’s befallen Shulkin is a favorite tactic of Trump’s, who followed a similar approach with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and, to a lesser degree, national security adviser H.R. McMaster. The president emasculates those who fall from favor, humiliating them through media leaks and in disparaging comments to friends. The mixed signals often leave even senior White House officials guessing who will be fired and when.
“Anybody who tells you they know what he is thinking is out of their mind,” said Louise Sunshine, a former longtime Trump Organization executive. “He does not want anyone else to know what he is thinking ever. It is his way of keeping everyone on guard.”
For his part, Trump doesn’t mind it. When one adviser recently told Trump he should curb the firings and departures, he said they are “24-hour stories” and people quickly forget who held the jobs.
While the president is displeased with Shulkin following a travel scandal and reports of a mutiny inside the agency, firing him has proven complicated for a variety of reasons.
For starters, it appears the White House hasn’t coalesced around a replacement. The president and his advisers are said to be weighing whether to remove the secretary and appoint an interim administrator or wait until they identify a permanent successor, according to administration officials. Either strategy would slow progress on Trump’s campaign pledge to reform the agency.
Moreover, the agency, with 360,000 employees, has proven one of the government’s most unforgiving bureaucracies to run. Its business model seems to impede innovation. Its pace of change is painstakingly slow. Its decentralized medical system is embroiled in crisis as the health-care needs grow among veterans of the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Trump’s mercurial management style may be the greatest hurdle to finding new leadership.
“I think he wakes up every day wondering if this is the day he’s going to get fired,” said one Shulkin ally, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “He knows he is done,” although the uncertainty “is wearing on him, there is no doubt about that.”
Despite rumors of his ouster, Shulkin, who declined to comment, has kept a busy schedule, appearing on Capitol Hill, visiting VA hospitals and racing to complete a multibillion dollar project to modernize the agency’s antiquated medical records system.
Those close to the secretary say he is unlikely to quit but wants to get the medical records contract signed before he is forced to leave, a deal he sees as key to his legacy.
His predicament is no doubt familiar to others once in the president’s inner circle.
During the last few weeks of Reince Priebus’s tenure as White House chief of staff, for example, he was so widely seen as weakened that some aides said they began skipping the meetings he called. Trump, meanwhile, told him he was doing a good job, even as other aides bet on how much longer he could survive. Trump eventually announced his replacement on Twitter minutes after Priebus walked off Air Force One onto a rainy tarmac.
In the case of Tillerson, foreign diplomats and prime ministers complained to U.S. lawmakers that they did not believe the secretary of state was speaking for the administration in the final six months of his tenure because Trump had so undercut him.
McMaster used to joke to other officials in the West Wing that any day could be his last and aides said his tenuous status kept him from doing his job.
Trump’s aides frequently ask him for the status of certain Cabinet officials so they will not say anything inaccurate publicly. Not checking frequently can leave an aide “looking dumb” with yesterday’s information, according to one former senior White House official. For instance, Trump told aides for several weeks that he was planning to oust McMaster. After a story said that, he told aides to deny it — and then moved to replace him less than a week later.
Trump will see a segment on TV and begin musing for someone in a job, creating uncertainty. For example, he saw Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta on “Fox & Friends” one morning and asked an aide if he could be the next attorney general. The president has, for months, attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has so far survived the public belittling.
Whether Trump was ever truly considering Acosta as attorney general is unclear; he will sometimes ask about five or 10 names a day for different jobs.
Shulkin, say people close to him, is under no illusions that he still has the president’s confidence. He has long feared that Trump will mete out the same fate on Twitter as some of his former colleagues have.
To that end, the secretary is laying low. He is limiting his travel to destinations close to Washington, canceling plans to speak next week at an annual ski competition for paralyzed veterans in Aspen, Colo. Shulkin is concerned, allies say, about the optics following an inspector general report that criticized a trip he led to Europe last summer.
Shulkin has told those he trusts that he wants to avoid what happened to former FBI director James B. Comey, who learned of his firing last May from a television report while meeting with agents in Los Angeles. Trump wanted to fire Tillerson via tweet while he was traveling in Africa to maximize the humiliation, advisers say, but Chief of Staff John F. Kelly convinced him otherwise.
The distractions have hindered efforts to reform VA, agency officials say. The electronic-records contract has not been signed. Legislation crucial to the White House to expand veterans’ access to private doctors was left out of the government spending bill Congress passed last week after Democrats blocked its inclusion in the bill.
Shulkin’s weakened standing harmed his ability to forcefully advocate the administration’s position, observers say. Others contend Shulkin doesn’t fully support the administration’s desire for more private care. Moving forward, those involved in the negotiations say no one is certain who is speaking for the administration.
At VA, career officials try to avoid asking political appointees to make or sign off on decisions, since they don’t know exactly who is in charge or who they can trust, one current VA official said.
“The uncertainty from the White House has bled over to the VA and is jeopardizing the VA’s ability to serve our veterans,” said Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
The White House faces another hurdle. The agency has few leaders who could take over on an interim basis, and Shulkin’s deputy, Thomas G. Bowman, is unlikely to get the nod because some White House officials have questioned his loyalty to the president’s agenda.
Even in a less chaotic administration, the VA secretary oversees a decentralized bureaucracy of 360,000 employees who must be accountable to Congress and to veterans when health -are and benefits delays affect them. The oversight from lawmakers, who must agree before the agency can alter policy, can slow progress and frustrate leaders who come to the job expecting to make meaningful changes.
The turmoil and uncertainty over Shulkin’s future has left veterans’ advocacy groups, who represent one of Trump’s core constituencies, fearful that efforts to modernize VA will collapse. Many are impatient for the agency to address its many challenges, including recruiting for thousands of unfilled mental health, nursing and physician jobs.
Carl Blake, executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, said: “Clearly right now, the VA is caught in the middle of politics, but the challenge [of the secretary’s job] is just massive. What other federal agency has to deliver everything, from health care to education benefits to disability benefits to cemetery services?”
Said John Hoellwarth, a spokesman for AMVETS, “Imagine how daunting it must be to take this complex massive job in an administration that seems to enjoy firing people.”
By: Joe Gould 16 hours ago
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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump is been pushing behind closed doors for the Pentagon to pay for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, according to a new report.
The Washington Post reported that Trump suggested it in recent days to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and several advisers, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, as a means of addressing a national security risk.
Ryan reportedly offered little reaction to the idea and senior Capitol Hill officials later told the newspaper it was an unlikely prospect.
Trump reportedly noted in a separate meeting with senior aides that the Pentagon would be able to afford it after the passage of the $1.3 trillion federal spending package on Friday. In it, the Pentagon received about $700 billion, while Trump’s border wall got $1.6 billion of the $25 billion he sought.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders neither confirmed nor denied the report. She affirmed the administration is committed to the project and that Trump would work with White House counsel to ensure any action he takes is “within his rights and executive authority.”
Over the weekend, Trump hinted at his idea on Twitter.
“Because of the $700 & $716 Billion Dollars gotten to rebuild our Military, many jobs are created and our Military is again rich,” the tweet read. “Building a great Border Wall, with drugs (poison) and enemy combatants pouring into our Country, is all about National Defense. Build WALL through M!”
Two advisors told the Post that the “M” stood for “military,” though Trump has said previously that Mexico would pay for the wall.
A senior Pentagon official told the Post that shifting money appropriated to the military would require an act of Congress. An amendment to amend the fiscal 2019 budget would require 60 votes in the Senate, but Republicans hold a slim 51-49 seat majority.
“First Mexico was supposed to pay for it, then U.S. taxpayers, and now our men and women in uniform? This would be a blatant misuse of military funds and tied up in court for years,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement to the Post. “Secretary Mattis ought not bother and instead use the money to help our troops, rather than advance the president’s political fantasies.”
Sanders said Tuesday that Trump is still considering ways for Mexico to pay or the border wall, though she declined to provide specifics.
“I can tell you that the continuation of building the wall is ongoing, and we’re going to continue moving forward in that process,” Sanders told reporters at the White House.
Yet Sanders declined to elaborate on whether using military funds would actually be pursued.
“I’m not going to get into the specifics,” she said, adding that the wall is “necessary to defend the country.”
By: Kyle Rempfer 15 hours ago
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The coalition in Iraq is working to transition the U.S. Air Force into a less-kinetic role, but Islamic State holdouts across the still-fragile country demand attention.
"Actually, I think the situation has gotten a lot better since October," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Andrew Croft, deputy commander for Air, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command, Operation Inherent Resolve.
Croft described a diagonal line where ISIS fragments still remain, stretching across the northern handle of Iraq and intersecting Kirkuk — where Iraqi security forces controversially crushed Kurdish separatists in October 2017.
"We find fragments of ISIS and we work with Iraqi security forces to go after those fragments — we’ve done that in the last month or two,” Croft said.
Routing remaining ISIS fighters is a key part of an effort to shift the overall coalition mission in Iraq. For the air component, that push is towards a Coalition Aviation Advisory and Training Team.
"That is going to be the future Air Force wing,” Croft said. “It’s about 350 U.S. members, and then we’re going to use about 100 to 120 coalition members to man that wing."
This new team will push along the development of an Iraqi air force, with Iraqi forward air controllers and pilots capable of guarding the country from ISIS.
"Instead of bringing [new] people in, we repurpose current airmen who are doing jobs in support of combat operations,” Croft said of coalition forces currently in Iraq. “And as those combat operations drop off, we repurpose those airmen into that training environment, or if they’re no longer required, we take them out of Iraq and send them home."
Another area of concern for ISIS resurgence is in the Anbar region.
“As far as the numbers we find in the Anbar desert, they are [small],” Croft said. “They’re not coming from Syria that we’re seeing, although that would be a concern in the future and we’re fully aware of that possibility. But the numbers that are out there, it is small numbers, and we think they are just existing or trying to survive out there in the desert.”
Some have feared that ISIS fighters in Anbar could be bolstered by their allies in nearby Syria, where U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have begun to depart the fight in order to help their Kurdish allies fight against Turkey in Afrin, Syria.
“The Turkish actions in northern Syria … have distracted the SDF from the fight going against the remnants of ISIS,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday.
Mattis described a stretch of the Middle Euphrates River Valley in Syria that feeds into the Iraqi border, “where the remnants of ISIS still exist,” he said.
“To be more precise, you go over to Deir Ezzor, and go down that river valley toward Al Qaim on the Iraq border. That is the area,” Mattis added.
In practical terms, Mattis said this distraction means “we are no longer on an offensive effort on the ground against them [ISIS], as this [Turkish operation] has drawn off the attention.”
By ROBERT BURNS | Associated Press | Published: March 27, 2018
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis acknowledged on Tuesday that he and President Donald Trump’s incoming national security adviser, John Bolton, have different world views but predicted they will develop a working partnership.
"I look forward to working with him — no reservations, no concerns at all," Mattis told reporters at an impromptu news conference. "Last time I checked he’s an American. I’m not in the least bit concerned."
Mattis said he has never met Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations and conservation firebrand. He said he expects Bolton to pay a visit to the Pentagon soon, perhaps this week, to begin developing a relationship.
"I’ll tell you right up front: it’s going to be a partnership," he said. When a reporter mentioned that people see his world view as significantly different than that of Bolton, Mattis replied, "That’s the normal thing you want, unless you want group-think."
Bolton, who will replace Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster on April 9, has publicly advocated for overthrowing the North Korean government, possibly by force. Mattis, a retired Marine general who knows intimately the costs of war, favors diplomacy to rid the North of its nuclear weapons and has said war on the Korean peninsula would be "catastrophic." On Iran, too, Mattis would seem at odds with Bolton, who has argued for abandoning the Obama-era nuclear deal.
These and other matters of war and peace will test Mattis’ influence with Trump as his national security team is overhauled.
Mattis was sometimes at odds with McMaster, but the arrival of the hawkish Bolton, combined with the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the uncertain status of John Kelly as White House chief of staff, appears to leave Mattis more isolated than at any time since he took over the Pentagon 15 months ago.
The North Korea issue is front-and-center: Trump has agreed to meet with North Korean President Kim Jong Un by May to discuss the North’s nuclear disarmament. The unprecedented summit could be a turning point in a decades-old U.S.-North Korean standoff that Trump himself has said could end in "fire and fury" – an American nuclear attack __ to stop the North from gaining the ability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear missile.
"This is buckle-up time," retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said last week on MSNBC. "For the military I have three words: Sharpen your swords. He (Bolton) is someone who is going to reach for the military instrument."
The changes in the White House and at the State Department, while significant for Mattis, are hardly heart-stopping. People close to him sense no change in his commitment to the job; some suggest that Trump’s decision to move former Republican congressman and current CIA director Mike Pompeo to State, replacing Tillerson, could benefit Mattis in the sense that he’ll have a partner at State who is better aligned with Trump.
Publicly, Mattis has said little about the shakeup. He was in Afghanistan when Tillerson got the ax. When reporters asked his reaction a couple of days later, Mattis said he preferred not to comment on the details, although he went on to suggest that its importance was being exaggerated. He said that in all of his discussions abroad with foreign government officials and American troops, the matter was not brought up once.
"I understand why you’re asking, but I’m just pointing out that in most parts of the world this is a Washington, D.C. story," he said.
Another Washington story is Mattis and his ability to forge a workable relationship with Trump despite differences on some issues like the Iran nuclear deal, which Mattis says is flawed but worth honoring as long as the Iranians do. Mattis also has differed with the president over Trump’s wish to bar all transgender people from serving in the military, and he helped sway Trump from his inclination last year to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.
The Mattis formula seems to be simple. Out of the spotlight, out of trouble. The less he says publicly, the less he risks losing influence with Trump.
"Part of his success … is absolutely the fact that you don’t see him in the limelight terribly much," says Loren Dejonge Schulman, a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security who served in key national security positions in the White House and Pentagon under President Barack Obama. "That may be keeping him out of trouble with the White House but I think it’s setting an incredibly bad precedent in terms of Pentagon transparency."
If Mattis, who spent more than 40 years in uniform and is the first career military officer to lead the Pentagon since George C. Marshall in the early 1950s, isn’t the most experienced politician to run the military’s vast bureaucracy, he has shown a knack for staying out of trouble with his thin-skinned boss.
Mattis has even broken Trump of his habit of calling the retired general "Mad Dog," which Mattis insists was a media invention to begin with.
Trump frequently has lunch and dinners with the defense secretary and speaks glowingly of him to outside advisers. White House officials have said that Trump sometimes repeats military historical anecdotes he heard from Mattis.
Even Mattis’ few known stumbles have not dogged him. In August, for example, Mattis told sailors at a submarine base in his home state of Washington that the Navy would give them the worst and the best days of their lives, and then added, "That means you’re not some (expletive) sitting on the sidelines," he said. "You know what I mean, kind of sitting there saying, ‘Well, I should have done something with my life.’"
His language was quickly forgotten.
The episode pointed to a man who has shaped the job and not let it shape him. So much so that perhaps the most poignant criticism of his tenure has been the secrecy with which the military has handled everything from troop deployment numbers to the details of its military strategies — things that often were made public under previous secretaries.
Fox News has discovered pits as large as football fields existed next to a number of military bases during the Iraq War; makeshift junkyards, many ignited by jet fuel, left to smolder 24 hours a day. More than 130,000 vets have reported exposure; Will Carr reports from Los Angeles.
INVESTIGATIVE UNIT EXCLUSIVE – The dangers of burn pit exposures at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, Iraq, were first noticed when the U.S. military presence was at its height, but nothing was done to correct the problem, Fox News has learned.
A former Army major, who served as the base’s environmental officer back in 2004, said he warned Marez’s top brass of the dangerous chemical compounds that were being released into the air after medical waste, chemicals and trash were thrown into open-air garbage pits and set ablaze. But, he added, his warnings fell on deaf ears.
“They weren’t very receptive when I brought it up,” retired Maj. John “Doc” Nelson said in a recent interview with Fox News’ investigative unit. “We could never get an answer.”
“I’m worried about the burn pits becoming another Vietnam or Agent Orange,” he added, “and I don’t think these vets should have to wait for 25 years for someone to recognize that there’s a problem.”
During the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the burn-pit disposal method was originally adopted as a temporary way to get rid of the massive amounts of waste and garbage generated at numerous bases. A range of materials went to the pits for incineration: plastics, batteries, appliances, medicine, dead animals, even human waste. The items were often set ablaze with jet fuel as the accelerant.
Burn pits, like this one at FOB Marez, were originally considered a temporary measure to get rid of huge amounts of waste generated at bases. The array of material sent to the pits is said to have included plastics, batteries, metals, appliances, medicine, dead animals and even human waste. (Courtesy of John Nelson)
The incineration generated numerous pollutants including carbon monoxide and dioxin — the same chemical compound found in Agent Orange, which left many Vietnam vets sick after it was used as a defoliant in that conflict.
The 65-year-old Nelson says that he was able to see the dangers of the burn pits while serving at FOB Marez.
“It would literally darken the sky,” he said, recalling the large plumes of smoke that rose from the pit and hung over the base.
“I remember one day, I was standing back about 300 feet. I could still see the flames rising above the pit.”
Nelson alleges that the trash piled up at his base’s burn pit over the two years that he was there, and that the smoldering fires almost never went out.
Concerned with the safety of his fellow soldiers, Nelson raised the issue with the top brass at Marez, but he said he soon found out that bureaucracy and red tape prevented implementation of proper procedures.
“I told ‘em it’s not a matter of if, but when,” Nelson said referring to the potential for danger.
Fed up with the pace that it took to make headway on improving methods for waste disposal, Nelson, along with one of the workers for base contractor Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), took matters into their own hands. They gathered volunteers to pull hazardous materials out of the trash piles by hand before they could be added to the smoldering burn pits.
“We started putting pressure on the local level,” Nelson said. “We got some volunteers and we went in and started pulling items out of the pits.”
Marez is the same base where KBR contractor Veronica Landry worked, also in 2004. As first reported on Fox News Channel, Landry recently filed a case with the Department of Labor’s Office for Workers’ Compensation Programs, and last month a judge decreed that open-air burn pits — where thousands of chemicals were released into the air after trash and other wastes were incinerated at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan — are connected to lung disease.
“My concern was that we had SOPs [standard operating procedures] that weren’t being followed,” Ray Gelinas, a former KBR contractor who assisted Nelson in the cleanups, said to Fox News. “You just never knew what was being thrown in there.”
It was around September 2004, when Gelinas and Nelson started going to the pits, that they discovered what was being thrown in.
Major Nelson, who served as Marez’s environmental officer back in 2004, says that he warned the base’s top brass of the dangerous chemical compounds that were being released in the air as a result of the burn pits. (Courtesy of John Nelson)
“That burn pit kept bothering me,” recalled Nelson, “because I could smell it and I could see it. It never stopped burning. I was told that it was burning for a whole year before I got there and a whole year while I was there.
“I started going down to the burn pit because I was growing more and more concerned with the amount of debris, so I started taking a look and I started seeing batteries, the cadmium batteries, the lead. All of that was burning. They were putting the oils and the paints and fuels. All of this stuff, and it was leading to this creation of toxicity and I was becoming concerned about it.”
Nelson says that they also found large amounts of medical waste, like IV drips, needles, bloody gauze and even appendages.
“They would wait until the middle of the night to drop it off,” he said. “The next morning we would show up and there was all kinds of stuff in there.”
According to a 2008 KBR memo on standard operating procedure for burn pits obtained by Fox News, items that were not to be disposed of in burn pits included: propane cylinders, fuel cans, paints, fuels, oils, chemicals, ammunition, explosives, combustibles, medical waste, metals, batteries and tires.
Nelson maintains that not only were all these things put into the Marez burn pits, but there were no protocols in place during his time there.
“Nobody thought. Nobody cared,” he said.
Nelson eventually rounded up volunteers to go and pull hazardous materials out of the trash piles by hand before they were added to the smoldering burn pits. (Courtesy of John Nelson)
Nelson and Gelinas tried to correct the situation by setting up systems to control the problem.
“We did what we could to help with what we had,” he said. “We worked with some way that we could to start controlling this problem. Of course, everything stayed at our level, we never got support from the upper echelons. I don’t think anybody understood what was going on because we were supposed to have incinerators in place.”
Nelson alleges that the incinerators were purchased to properly dispose of hazardous material at FOB Marez but they were never installed and were left to rust away at a storage facility.
“If we had the incinerators in place, we could have used it for the medical waste. We could have made do,” he says, “But KBR had the incinerators already in the country [Iraq], DOD had already paid for them and they were ready to be installed.”
“They did not install them. And they had them for maybe nine or 10 months and they still didn’t install them.”
Nelson sys that they also found large amounts of medical waste, like IV drips, needles, bloody gauze and even appendages.
A spokesperson from KBR declined to comment on Nelson’s claims, instead referring to a previous statement provided to Fox News.
“At the limited number of bases where KBR operated burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, KBR personnel did so safely and effectively at the direction and under the control of the U.S. military,” read the statement. “The government’s best scientific and expert opinions have repeatedly concluded there is no link between any long-term health issues and burn-pit emissions.”
Officials with the Department of Defense’s Central Command (CENTCOM) were unable to confirm for Fox News that incinerators were bought around 2004 for FOB Marez and other bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that records were archived after three years. They said, however, that installation of any such systems might have been delayed due to procedural issues.
“As for installation, the contract with the service provider had to be modified before the incinerator could be installed,” read a statement from CENTCOM officials provided to Fox News.
Nelson alleges that incinerators were purchased to properly dispose of hazardous material at FOB Marez but were not installed. (Courtesy of John Nelson)
“The original contract called for the contractor to manage burn pits, and any change to the original contract had to be worked out between the contracting office and the service provider.”
Nelson is also a survivor of a suicide bombing that occurred at a mess tent on Marez in 2004. As a consequence of his injuries, which included severe damage to his shoulder joints, and short-term memory loss, he had to retire. His permanent disabilities left him unable to continue practicing medicine when he returned to Maine in 2005. He was unsure what he would do.
Then he started helping a few vets in his community who were having difficulty getting medical assistance and coverage from Veterans Affairs.
“I liked helping them. It gave me some purpose,” Nelson said. “So I kept helping more and more vets.”
Nearly 15 years later, Nelson is still helping vets all over Maine, and even beyond the state’s borders.
He opened an office in a building he owns on Main Street in Lincoln, about an hour north of Bangor. Vets come for his assistance in navigating the often-complex VA benefits system. He named his office after Medal of Honor recipient Master Sgt. Gary Gordon.
MSG Gordon, also a native of Lincoln, was killed in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. The engagement was the basis of the 1999 book “Black Hawk Down.” The center has pulled in volunteers to help with day-to-day office tasks as Nelson takes on more and more cases.
“I have always felt honored to help our veterans,” he said. “I care about them deeply.”
He also hopes that 150,000-plus veterans on the VA’s burn-pit registry get the assistance they need.
“I think it’s time for the VA to stop giving lip service and creating registries and start doing something with those registries," he said emphatically. "What is the research going to do for us … and how long do we have to wait?”
By: Meghann Myers 1 day ago
For as long as there has been an Army Physical Fitness Test, experts both inside and outside of the Army have known that the three events therein did not really measure how a soldier would perform in the Army’s most essential environment: combat.
But it was easy to train for and easy to administer, so it endured, despite protestations that push-ups and sit-ups measure the same thing, muscular endurance, and not strength, agility or any other domain of fitness.
After decades of back and forth over how to improve not only how the Army tests soldier fitness, but how it fosters physical wellness and prevents costly injuries, the service is charging toward a new era of readiness with not one but two new tests.
And what else is different?
Their standards are gender-neutral, a defined trend for the service since the 2017 roll-out of the Occupational Physical Assessment Test, a bare-minimum entry requirement with military occupational specialty-specific standards based on the physical requirements of the job.
In fact, Army leaders have signaled that the days may be numbered for the old APFT, effectively rendering the Army’s physical fitness standards the same for men and women across the board.
“There are many discussions about the future of Army fitness testing and the associated policy to support desired outcomes,” Center for Initial Military Training spokeswoman Stephanie Slater told Army Times. “Of the many options is the replacement of the APFT with some form of an updated test.”
Those discussion do not, Slater added, include any adjustments to the three-event test to make it more efficient.
Such a shift would not only represent a revolution in the way the Army does physical fitness, but in the way it treats male and female soldiers.
Though the Army opened up its last closed, direct-combat positions to women in early 2016, it’s a common chorus in the service that because men have to run faster and do more push-ups on the APFT, women are getting a break when it comes to the standards.
But what if that wedge disappeared?
“You can’t use that excuse, because we’re all held to the same standard,” Maj. Nick Barringer, a former nutritionist for the 75th Ranger Regiment and member of the Ranger Athlete Warrior team. “You can’t say, you know, ‘So-and-so shoots better, but they don’t have to run as fast.’ You’ve taken that out of the equation now.”
And the discussion is going on in the highest levels of the service.
“I think what we’re going to see in the future is the standards are going to be for the job,” Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told Army Times on March 12, at the Army Women’s Foundation summit on Capitol Hill. “We haven’t made a final decision yet, we’re not ready to make news yet, but we’re taking a hard look at that.”
He would leave it up to Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Army Secretary Mark Esper, he added.
“I think universal standards are the way to go,” Barringer said. “If we’re making fitness standards now to be more combat-focused, the requirements are the requirements. It doesn’t matter what sex you are.”
Two tests, one goal
As exercise science has advanced, so has the Army’s understanding of the beloved push-up, and its controversial cousin, the sit-up.
Rather than efficient measures of core and upper body strength, two attributes absolutely valuable to combat readiness, the service now recognizes that they both measure muscular endurance.
That domain is necessary to measure overall fitness, as is the cardiovascular fitness measured by the run, but in its latest push, the Army has moved to address the other three.
The Army Combat Readiness Test includes a three-repetition dead lift with more weight each time, to measure muscular strength.
There’s also a standing power throw, a single toss with a 10-pound medicine ball, to measure power through the distance one can throw it.
The service began pilot tests on the assessment last fall, and pending senior Army leadership approval, Training and Doctrine Command would like to launch initial operating capability this summer, Slater said.
If all goes well, she said, after a policy update and review of the IOC’s testing results, soldiers could be taking the ACRT for the record next year.
The Soldier Readiness Test, which is being piloted by Forces Command, on the other hand, focuses on events that approximate tasks in combat.
They include sandbag stacking, an agility drill, and a run, featuring obstacles, in full gear.
Together, the two measure similar domains of fitness, but for different reasons.
The ACRT is being developed as a TRADOC test of record to measure overall soldier fitness, while the SRT would be administered by commanders to judge a unit’s readiness as a whole.
The SRT, the results of which are not tied to individual soldier records, is on an even faster track. Piloting finished in December.
“Based on feedback from the field, we are refining a few of the tasks within the test itself,” said Paul Boyce, a spokesman for FORSCOM. “It will be ready for implementation as early as this spring, if directed.”
FORSCOM is now taking steps to create a training program, called SRT2P, to prepare soldiers for success on the SRT, which will fall into TRADOC’s burgeoning holistic fitness program, Boyce said.
“It seems like, hey, the change is really going to happen,” Barringer said. “I think this is a step in the right direction of treating soldiers like tactical athletes.
“Saying, ‘Hey, we’re not just doing push-ups, sit-ups, etc. You can dead-lift, you can do all of these other more functional movements.’ ”
Continually evaluating each of the tests will be key to determining whether the Army is accurately measuring everything it wants to measure, one health and fitness expert told Army Times.
“I think what they’ve come up with can probably answer those questions,” said Brian Schilling, the chair of kinesiology and nutrition services at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada. “They can probably test the domains of fitness like they’ve talked about.”
But among OPAT, ACRT and SRT, the testing events are varied in what they’re measuring and how.
“I think those are good things. When I look at those tests and I see they have the dead lift test in there,” he said.
“They say they’re measuring power, but it’s upper-body power. If it’s a seated medicine ball throw, it’s upper-body power. If it’s a standing backward medicine ball throw, then it’s a full-body power exercise.”
The service should also ensure that the two readiness tests are not redundant, he added.
“I mean, that’s the last thing the Army wants, where you have two of these tests and you test 100,000 people, and it comes out that they’re highly correlated with one another,” he said. “Well, that means you could have not done one of them.”
One mile, no sweat. Two miles, better yet.
“I definitely think it’s headed in the right direction. I’m a huge fan of one standard, and it’s just because from my experience going downrange — there’s no separate standards in combat,” Barringer said. “If you have to evac a soldier in combat, they’re going to weigh what they’re going to weigh.”
One thing did puzzle him, however. That pesky, ever-enduring run.
The ACRT includes your standard two-mile run, while SRT requires a 1.5-mile run in helmet and body armor, with four over-under poles to negotiate halfway through.
“The only kind of negative I would point or, I’m a bit befuddled by, would be the two-mile run. Because nowhere have I seen — on multiple deployments — any soldier leave the wire unloaded,” he said. You’re always leaving with at least 40 pounds of kit. So why are we doing an aerobic assessment unloaded?”
While the Army may very well decide to completely do away with the APFT, Schilling cautioned that the new functional fitness tests, while a great improvement, might not be able to measure everything the service needs to know.
In moving away from APFT, the Army has held onto that distance run as a measure of basic cardiovascular health.
In short, while soldiers need to be tested on their combat readiness, their commanders also want to know that they’re not at general risk for a heart attack.
“As long as there’s some sort of run component in there, they’re going to be good for the cardiovascular part,” Schilling said.
The key will be to explain the reasoning behind each bit. As Barringer said, a branded combat readiness test with an unloaded run doesn’t really have anything to do with combat.
“I honestly think the two-mile run is destructive. And why do I think it’s destructive? If you look at it, it favors the lighter, smaller soldier in a lot of ways,” Barringer said.
“And it can kind of provide a false incentive for that. ‘OK, as long as I run faster and score higher.’ But then you put that same soldier under load, and it becomes a different story.”
The SRT accounts for that, but, of course, isn’t meant to be a test that affects promotions or has any consequences for the individual.
Barringer suggested replacing the run with a five-mile march in full kit.
“If we had a loaded movement, now, all of the sudden, that soldier who is 125 pounds might realize ‘Oh, that’s hard when I’m carrying 40 pounds. Maybe I need to gain muscle, maybe I need to train,’ ” he said.
And, he added, a standard medical stress test is done while walking a treadmill on an incline. If that can accurately measure heart health, why is the run necessary?
“As far as a heart attack, I’m not a physician, but the two-mile jog — I can’t imagine it’s going to be any more indicative than a five-mile walk under load,” he said. “I would suspect you’d see similar heart rates in a five-mile march under load as you would in a two-mile jog.”
One for all
Schilling, a former University of Memphis professor, helped develop an occupational fitness test for the Navy back in 2011 with a team at the service’s personnel command in Tennessee.
The work never went anywhere, though, as the Navy decided a test requiring that much space and equipment would be too much of a burden on commanders underway.
Because, unlike in the Army, sailors are out to sea for multiple weeks or months-long stints throughout the year, sometimes with little notice, and they have to be able to do their Physical Readiness Test on a ship.
In recent years, four of the services have made moves toward gender-neutral testing.
The Coast Guard, for its part, does not have a service-wide fitness test, but uses gender-neutral standards for the many rating-specific tests given at the unit level.
The Marine Corps, an innovator with its occupationally-based Combat Fitness Test, has still held on to gendered standards, despite opening every MOS to women in 2016.
Meanwhile, the Air Force debuted job-specific PT tests earlier this year, with one standard for all.
Biologically, Schilling said, the science says that men and women’s bodies are different — healthy height-weight ratios are different for each of the sexes, as are measures of strength and endurance.
A healthy man should be able to run faster and do more push-ups than an equally healthy woman.
“If it’s for a health question, yes,” Schilling said of the need for separate standards. “If it’s for performance, no, because performance is absolute.”
Still, he added, a combination test with demand-based functional tests and a gender-standard run could cover all of the bases.
Culturally, however, one overall standard would represent a major shift in negative attitudes toward women serving in combat.
“Because as long as you have separate standards based off of sex, you’re always going to have that,” Barringer said.