American Legion Daily News Clips 5/31/18

From: Seavey, Mark C. [mailto:mseavey@legion.org]
Sent: Thursday, May 31, 2018 4:43 AM

Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Thursday, May 31, 2018 which is National Autonomous Vehicle Day, National Macaroon Day, National Smile Day and National Meditation Day.

This Day in History:

· The famous tower clock known as Big Ben, located at the top of the 320-foot-high St. Stephen’s Tower, rings out over the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, for the first time on this day in 1859.

· 2005: W. Mark Felt’s family ends 30 years of speculation, identifying Felt, the former FBI assistant director, as “Deep Throat,” the secret source who helped unravel the Watergate scandal. The Felt family’s admission, made in an article in Vanity Fair magazine, took legendary reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who had promised to keep their source’s identity a secret until his death, by surprise. Tapes show that Nixon himself had speculated that Felt was the secret informant as early as 1973.

· 1902: In Pretoria, representatives of Great Britain and the Boer states sign the Treaty of Vereeniging, officially ending the three-and-a-half-year South African Boer War.

· Just before four o’clock on the afternoon of May 31, 1916, a British naval force commanded by Vice Admiral David Beatty confronts a squadron of German ships, led by Admiral Franz von Hipper, some 75 miles off the Danish coast. The two squadrons opened fire on each other simultaneously, beginning the opening phase of the greatest naval battle of World War I, the Battle of Jutland.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

· WSJ: Veterans Affairs Department Gets a New Acting Secretary

· Military.com: ‘We Call Him Forrest Gump:’ What Robert Wilkie Would Bring to the VA

· Military Times: Why the HUD secretary says the increase in homeless veterans is concerning

· WaPo: Veterans’ group to bury remains left at the Vietnam Wall

· Military Times: Why should the US stay in Afghanistan? Here’s what the top commander there said.

· Denver Post: National veterans cemetery dedicated in southern Colorado

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WSJ: Veterans Affairs Department Gets a New Acting Secretary

Peter O’Rourke, the agency’s chief of staff, replaces Robert Wilkie, who President Trump has nominated to become VA secretary

By Ben Kesling

WASHINGTON—The White House on Wednesday announced a new acting secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, ending days of confusion about who is in charge of the massive federal agency.

Peter O’Rourke, the VA’s chief of staff, replaces Robert Wilkie, who President Donald Trump has nominated to become VA secretary. Mr. O’ Rourke was elevated to the acting secretary position on Tuesday, according to an announcement from the White House released Wednesday morning.

Mr. Wilkie had to vacate his acting position because of civil-service procedural regulations. The move sets necessary groundwork for a confirmation hearing. The White House hasn’t provided a timeline for the hearing and didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee doesn’t have a confirmation timeline, according to Amanda Maddox, spokeswoman for committee chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.). The White House hasn’t provided all the necessary paperwork, she said, adding, “We’ll do our part to expeditiously vet and process the nomination once the paperwork has been submitted.”

Mr. O’Rourke is a Navy and Air Force veteran, according to his VA biography, and served as the executive director of a VA office established to protect whistleblowers before becoming VA chief of staff.

It is unclear when Mr. Wilkie stepped down from his job as acting secretary. On Tuesday afternoon, a top VA official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter said that other high-ranking officials were confused about who was serving as acting secretary and unsure if Mr. Wilkie had stepped down.

A VA spokesman on Tuesday referred all questions to the White House, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Wilkie initially took over the helm of the department after the ouster of then-Secretary David Shulkin in March, following a controversy involving a taxpayer-funded official trip to Europe the previous year.

He was appointed over the department’s deputy secretary, Thomas Bowman, who typically would have been given the job but who has faced resistance from White House insiders unhappy with his performance at the department.

On Wednesday, the VA announced Mr. Bowman was again bypassed for the acting secretary job and would soon retire from the VA.

Mr. Bowman, during a tour last week of the headquarters of Amvets, a veteran advocacy group, said he wanted to be named acting secretary, according to Joe Chenelly, Amvets’s national executive director who was on the tour.

Mr. Bowman said he likely would retire if he were again bypassed, though it would upset him because as a Marine Corps veteran he had never quit anything, Mr. Chenelly recalled.

Mr. Bowman’s retirement will take effect on June 15, according to the VA. The VA didn’t respond to a request to speak with Mr. Bowman. The White House released a statement thanking him for his many years of service.

The VA is the second-largest federal agency, with more than 370,000 employees. The agency is responsible for, among other things, providing health-care services to veterans. It has struggled in recent years following a 2014 scandal involving long wait times for VA hospital appointments.

Military.com: ‘We Call Him Forrest Gump:’ What Robert Wilkie Would Bring to the VA

Robert Wilkie, President Donald Trump’s choice for VA secretary, has already given the Senate a primer on his views on health care for troops and veterans, citing his experience as the son of a thrice-wounded Vietnam veteran and referencing his work managing personnel matters for the Pentagon.

He was tapped for the position after Trump’s previous nominee, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, the White House physician, withdrew amid allegations of drinking on the job and other improper conduct.

Wilkie was acting VA secretary until Wednesday when the White House said he was stepping down from the post to get around a section of the U.S. Code barring an acting secretary from taking the permanent job.

Wilkie has maintained a relatively low profile amid the chaos. But his statements to lawmakers at a confirmation hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee last November offer clues to his background and priorities.

"I have been privileged to see this military life from many angles: as a dependent, as the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier, as an officer with a family in the military health care system, and as a senior leader in the White House and the Pentagon," he told the committee.

Wilkie made the remarks in testimony and in written responses to questions at his confirmation hearing as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ pick to become the Pentagon’s under secretary for personnel and readiness.

In that post, he had charge of the Pentagon’s sprawling Defense Health Agency until he was moved to the Department of Veterans Affairs in March as acting secretary amid turmoil over the angry departure of VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin.

Wilkie’s most recent job on Capitol Hill was as a top aide to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina. In backing his nomination as under secretary, Tillis described Wilkie as a wonky workaholic devoted to the military’s mission.

"He has a grasp of history that is unparalleled," Tillis said. "We play a game in my office called ‘Stump Robert.’ We haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

"We also call him ‘Forrest Gump,’ " the senator said, a possible reference to Wilkie’s ability to exceed expectations.

"There is not a single story he can’t put in context with some experience he had in his working career or dating back to the Roman times," Tillis said, prompting laughter from the committee.

When Wilkie was nominated for the VA post, Tillis said, "Robert is one of the most honorable and decent human beings I’ve ever worked with, and anyone who knows him has seen his drive to serve his country and his passion for honoring our nation’s veterans and service members, qualities that will be tremendous assets at the VA."

Wilkie, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, formerly served as an intelligence officer in the Navy.

The 55-year-old lawyer received his bachelor’s degree from Wake Forest University in North Carolina and a law degree from Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans. He received Master of Laws in International and Comparative Law from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.

In both his oral and written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Wilkie referred to his father, retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Leon Wilkie Sr., who died last year.

His father’s awards included three Purple Hearts, four awards of the Bronze Star (one with Combat "V" device), four awards of the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the senior Parachutist Badge and the Ranger tab.

Wilkie also expressed views on accountability for personnel working in the military health system and options for private care that put him in line with the Trump administration’s plans for the VA Mission Act, which passed the Senate last week.

In addition, Wilkie said the military’s health system is too reliant on paper records. Earlier this month, as acting secretary, he awarded a 10-year, $10 billion contract to Cerner Corp. of Kansas City, Missouri, for electronic health records at the VA.

"For our families, the military health system has been slow to keep up with modern medical advances for conditions like autism and other behavioral disorders," Wilkie told the committee.

He also said he is determined to bring down the veteran suicide rate, which was Shulkin’s top priority at the VA.

"We still have military families making their medical appointments on paper. And P&R [Personnel and Readiness], in accord with the direction of this committee, is consolidating our multiple military health care systems into one streamlined and efficient military health care administration," he said.

That effort appears to track with the VA Mission Act, which aims to consolidate seven community and private-care options under the existing Veterans Choice program at the VA into one program.

When asked for his opinion on the greatest threat to the sustainment of the military health system, Wilkie said it is "the inability to transform the military health system into a much leaner and more efficient organization that still meets the warfighters’ and beneficiaries’ needs."

He added that he is looking for "increased efficiencies that result in substantially enhanced care for service members and their families, as well as the more effective allocation of resources."

"I believe we need to look at all options to managing the cost of DoD health care," including more reliance on the private sector, Wilkie told the committee.

"The potential for greater efficiency and effectiveness is substantial," he said. "It also includes looking at how the department buys health care from the civilian sector to emphasize outcomes and promoting healthy lifestyles among our beneficiaries to reduce the demand for health services."

As opposed to Shulkin, who was the only Obama administration holdover in Trump’s Cabinet, Wilkie was a long-time Republican aide on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

He briefly came under scrutiny at the Republican National Convention that nominated Trump in 2016 over allegations that he worked with two other Republican aides to keep a mention of Russian aggression against Ukraine out of the Republican platform

The allegations were never proven, and there has been no evidence that Wilkie has been targeted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

"I come from a family with military service going back over 175 years," Wilkie told the Senate Armed Services Committee last November, adding that he was raised at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

As a young aide, Wilkie said he learned from Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, a bedrock conservative known as "Senator ‘No,’ " that "to truly represent North Carolina, one must understand Highway 24," which runs between the Marine base at Camp Lejeune and the Army’s Fort Bragg.

"That is the road that connects 45 percent of the entire Marine Corps in the eastern part of our state to the place [Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island] calls the ‘hub of the universe’ — Fort Bragg," he said.

Wilkie previously served in the Pentagon as assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs in former President George W. Bush’s administration. He began serving as under secretary for personnel and readiness last Nov. 30.

Wilkie’s nomination to head the government’s second-largest department after the Pentagon drew accolades in his home state.

"Robert truly has a heart for veterans," his friend, Rep. Richard Hudson, R-North Carolina, whose district includes Fayetteville next to Fort Bragg, told the Fayetteville Observer. "That, coupled with his deep understanding of what management and policy changes need to be made to clean up the VA, is what we need to keep our promises to veterans."

Military Times: Why the HUD secretary says the increase in homeless veterans is concerning

By: Leo Shane III   16 hours ago

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WASHINGTON — Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson says he is concerned by the nationwide rise in homeless veterans last year, but not pessimistic.

“We’re not happy about it, but we recognize what is going on,” he said in an interview with Military Times on Wednesday.

“I don’t want to lose sight that numbers continue to go down in the rest of the country. In places where I have visited, they are begging for (veterans). There are jobs, there is housing. But it’s hard to get people to move. So we need to come up with local solutions.”

Carson’s comments came after a speech at the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans’ annual conference, where hundreds of housing advocates gather for three days of discussion on best practices on outreach and support for veterans in distress.

This year’s event is the first in seven years that participants are faced with a backslide in their progress on the issue. Federal estimates on the number of homeless veterans nationwide declined from 74,000 in 2010 to about 40,000 in 2016, but saw a small rise last year.

“It is easy to feel discouraged to see that number tick up even a little bit, after you’ve been working for so hard for so many years,” said Kathryn Monet, chief executive officer for NCHV.

“It’s a setback for the movement, and it’s terrible for the veterans. But we don’t want to lose sight of what we have accomplished across the country. We don’t want to look at this number and say ‘we’re never going to get there.’”

At the group’s 2017 conference, Veterans Affairs officials announced they were backing off the department’s long-established goal of “zero homeless veterans,” calling it an unrealistic mark set by former President Barack Obama’s administration.

But VA and HUD leaders have insisted that change was more about establishing new metrics than abandoning the idea of ensuring housing and support for every American veteran. Carson reiterated that in his speech to the conference, calling it a responsibility for the country to care for its former military members.

Carson noted that nearly all of the increase in homeless veterans in the 2017 estimates came from three states, with California presenting the largest challenges. Without those areas, the nation saw a decrease in homeless veterans of about 3 percent.

“But we can’t just exclude that,” he told the crowd. “We have to focus on where the problem is occuring. And we have to figure out what we can do to alter the situation there.”

He blamed the part of the problem on high housing prices and “regulatory barriers” that President Donald Trump’s administration has worked to undo. Part of the push to help homeless veterans this year will be a closer examination of existing support programs, to see which can be copied or amplified to provide more benefit.

One of those is the popular HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, which provides vouchers and support services to veterans unable to afford rent costs. VA officials had proposed changes to the program late last year, raising concerns among advocates who have praised the vouchers as a key to getting thousands of veterans off the streets.

Carson praised the program as a “model” for interagency collaboration and said he has spoken to VA officials about continuing the vouchers uninterrupted.

He hopes to use those kinds of efforts in coordination with private sector advocacy as well. On Wednesday, officials from the The Home Depot Foundation announced at the conference that they reached their goal of investing $250 million in veteran-related causes two years early, to include a host of homeless assistance efforts.

“I’m optimistic, particularly because a lot of agencies are working together now,” Carson said. “That’s really the key. Finding ways to empower people, that’s a big part of it, but also finding ways to take down obstacles.”

The next round of estimates on the nationwide homeless veterans population is expected to be released in late 2018. But Carson said he already knows that the data will show that “more work still needs to be done.”

WaPo: Veterans’ group to bury remains left at the Vietnam Wall

The National Park Service has reached an agreement with a nonprofit veterans’ organization to take custody of cremated remains left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and bury them with honors at a private in-ground vault in Virginia.

The Missing in America Project will take possession of the 80 sets of cremains that have been left at the memorial through the years, as well as any future cremains that are left, the Park Service said in a statement.

They will be inurned with full military honors at an in-ground vault at a private cemetery in Manassas, the statement said.

The purpose of the MIA Project is to locate, identify and inter with dignity the unclaimed cremated remains of American veterans, according to the organization’s website.

Leaving mementos at the memorial’s Wall has been a tradition since the polished stone landmark bearing the names of the 58,000 Vietnam War dead was dedicated in 1982.

Hundreds of thousands of letters, photographs, jungle boots, stuffed animals, sculptures, dog tags, college rings, a motorcycle, cigars, a piece of a helicopter rotor blade and human remains have been left.

The artifacts are gathered and stored in the Park Service’s large Museum Resource Center in suburban Maryland.

Human remains have also been left, sometimes at the behest of the deceased or a family member. The cremains — some in containers, some scattered — have been left since 1990, officials said.

Four were left there over the Memorial Day weekend.

In the fall, the Park Service placed signs at the Wall asking people not to leave human remains.

“We’re not really equipped,” Laura Anderson, curator for the Mall and Memorial Parks, said in January. “I imagine it’s a big decision — what do you do with your loved one — especially if somebody is asking to be left here. You want to honor those wishes. But we’re not allowed to accept them.”

The human cremains were kept in a locked metal cabinet with the windows papered over at the resource center. No date for the transfer or burial has been set, the Park Service said.

Brigitte Corbin, of the MIA Project, said the remains will be kept in their original containers and placed together in a vacant, spacious underground vault that has been donated by the cemetery. She declined, for now, to identify the cemetery.

She said any relatives who don’t approve of the move can contact her and pick up the remains.

Mike Litterst, a Park Service spokesman, said: “It’s a decades-old problem that we’re very pleased to have a solution for.”

Military Times: Why should the US stay in Afghanistan? Here’s what the top commander there said.

By: Tara Copp   15 hours ago

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It’s been two years since Army Gen. John Nicholson assumed command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

He led the mission as President Donald Trump authorized changes to allow for more offensive operations against the Taliban and announced a new South Asia strategy that aims to ultimately bring reconciliation and a negotiated peace to Kabul.

Nicholson’s tenure comes to an end amid highly visible gains, such as the Afghan Air Force launching and sustaining their own air operations. However, it also comes amid reports from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction that Taliban forces have increased the percent of Afghanistan they control, and that the numbers of trained Afghan security forces have declined.

The Pentagon announced Tuesday that Army Lt. Gen. Scott Miller would serve as the next top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

In a teleconference from Kabul with Pentagon reporters Tuesday, Military Times asked Nicholson why, after 17 years, the U.S. should continue to send its sons and daughters to Afghanistan? Why should the U.S. military stay?

“Thanks for the question,” Nicholson said. “It’s really important, and it’s been a long war.”

“There is a threat from this region to our homeland. So our choice is fairly simple: We either keep the pressure on them here, or they bring the fight to our doorstep,” he said.

Nicholson stressed that since U.S. forces first arrived in October 2001, “our country has not been attacked from Afghanistan.” There are still more than 20 designated terrorist organizations that operate in Afghanistan, including the Islamic State-Khorasan, which took root in Afghanistan around 2015.

Because Afghanistan has not yet been able to stabilize, it’s meant those terror organizations have had ample population to recruit from, Nicholson said.

“It’s too soon to take the pressure off,” he said, noting that ISIS-K remains a threat.

There are about 15,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 100,000 troops a year. Fiscal year 2018 operations are expected to cost about $45 billion, according to Pentagon officials’ testimony to Congress earlier this year. As of May 25, 2,264 U.S. service members have been killed there, according to Department of Defense casualty statistics.

Nicholson said Afghan forces have made important gains in repelling attacks and conducting offensive operations. However, he did not expect a time where there would be no conflict there.

“This is Afghanistan, there will always be violence. But if we achieve an increased degree of stability and a lowering of the violence to a level that the Afghans can manage, then it’s going to be much easier to keep pressure on these terrorist groups.”

“Preventing these terrorists from launching attacks out of this area — again, largest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world ― is the principal reason why we’re here,” Nicholson said.

Does that mean that U.S. forces are there to stay, if the principal mission is now to prevent those groups from further constituting?

“Once we achieve the ends of the South Asia strategy, a reconciliation that lowers the violence to a level that they can manage, then our presence … that will be the time to re-assess our presence,” Nicholson said.

Denver Post: National veterans cemetery dedicated in southern Colorado

COLORADO SPRINGS — A national veterans cemetery two decades in the making was dedicated Friday near Colorado Springs.

The ½-square mile (1.5-square kilometer) Pikes Peak National Veterans Cemetery is expected to accept its first burials in October. The property is currently pastureland and has a view of Cheyenne Mountain and Pikes Peak.

Retired Army Col. Vic Fernandez and Colorado’s congressional delegation aided the two-decade lobbying campaign for the cemetery. The Department of Veterans Affairs had maintained that Fort Logan National Cemetery 68 miles (109 kilometers) away in Denver adequately served the state’s needs.

VA Undersecretary for Memorial Affairs Randy Reeves said Friday the cemetery will honor the region’s dead and keep their memories alive.

Cemetery director Paul LaGrange says the cemetery is expected to take care of eligible veterans and their families for 100 years.

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