From Mark Seavey:
Good morning, Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Monday, May 21, 2018 which is American Red Cross Founders Day, National Memo Day, Rapture Party Day and National Waiters and Waitresses Day.
This Weekend in American Legion History:
- May 19, 1971: The Wall Street Journalpublishes an article quoting critics who describe The American Legion as “slowly fading away… an anachronism, an echo from a past left far behind” that is losing influence and struggles to recruit Vietnam War veterans for membership. Eighteen years later, in 1989, The American Legion would begin a seven-year stretch of membership exceeding 3 million, fueled largely by increases among Vietnam War veterans. While the 1946 membership of 3,326,556 was an all-time high, the record was nearly snapped in 1992 when membership hit 3,115,340. Membership increased about 500,000 over the 25 years after the 1971 article was published.
Today in History:
- 1881: In Washington, D.C., humanitarians Clara Barton and Adolphus Solomons found the American National Red Cross, an organization established to provide humanitarian aid to victims of wars and natural disasters in congruence with the International Red Cross.
- 1542: On the banks of the Mississippi River in present-day Louisiana, Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto dies, ending a three-year journey for gold that took him halfway across what is now the United States. In order that Indians would not learn of his death, and thus disprove de Soto’s claims of divinity, his men buried his body in the Mississippi River.
- 1927: American pilot Charles A. Lindbergh lands at Le Bourget Field in Paris, successfully completing the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight and the first ever nonstop flight between New York to Paris. His single-engine monoplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, had lifted off from Roosevelt Field in New York 33 1/2 hours before.
- 1932: Five years to the day that American aviator Charles Lindbergh became the first pilot to accomplish a solo, nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, female aviator Amelia Earhart becomes the first pilot to repeat the feat, landing her plane in Ireland after flying across the North Atlantic. Earhart traveled over 2,000 miles from Newfoundland in just under 15 hours.
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Military Times: In another surprise, Trump names Wilkie as the next VA secretary
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday named acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie his latest pick to be the next permanent head of that department in the administration’s latest attempt to bring stability to the second-largest federal bureaucracy.
The surprise announcement — at a prison reform summit at the White House — appeared to catch even Wilkie off guard. Trump introduced Wilkie in a line of other Cabinet secretaries by saying that “I will be informing him in a little while, he doesn’t know it yet, that we are going to be putting his name up for nomination to be Secretary of the Veterans Administration.”
Wilkie has served as acting secretary since the firing of David Shulkin 51 days ago, amid a travel scandal and questions about his leadership style.
Trump’s first pick to replace Shulkin, former White House physician Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, withdrew his name from consideration last month after allegations emerged about unprofessional behavior and medication mismanagement in his role as the administration’s top doctor.
Wilkie, who has been serving since last fall as the Defense Department’s under secretary for personnel and readiness, has received generally positive reviews from veterans groups and lawmakers since taking over the top VA role.
But both AMVETS and VoteVets.org have openly challenged his appointment to the post, saying that Trump illegally bypassed VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman in installing Wilkie in the temporary leadership role.
Trump at Friday’s event apologised for ruining the surprise, but also praised Wilkie for his work in recent weeks to advocate for sweeping legislative reforms to the department’s community care programs.
Just days prior, Wilkie said that his top priorities as interim VA head would be to work with lawmakers on that reform plan — the House passed it on Wednesday, the Senate is expected to follow suit next week — and to finalize a deal for an electronic health records overhaul, which took place Thursday afternoon.
Wilkie, 55, is an Air Force Reserve colonel who previously spent time in the Navy Reserve and the son of an Army artillery commander. He has spoken frequently about growing up on military bases, and of the challenges his family faced in dealing with his father’s combat injuries.
He served in the Pentagon under Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld as an assistant secretary, and previously special assistant to President George W. Bush for national security affairs.
He also served as a senior advisor to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., prior to his recent Pentagon appointment, and was touted as a worthy replacement for Jackson by Tillis in recent weeks.
In a welcome message to staff last month, Wilkie promised to continue to build a customer-service focus for veterans programs and to tamp down agency infighting.
“Customer service must start with each other,” he said in a video release. “Not talking at each other, but talking with each other across all office barriers and across all compartments. If we don’t listen to each other, we won’t be able to listen to veterans and their families.”
Department leadership has been in disarray since the firing of Shulkin, who accused political appointees within the White House of working to privatize VA operations and undermine his reform efforts. Administration officials have denied those allegations.
Those privatization concerns are likely to face Wilkie when he comes to Capitol Hill for his confirmation hearings.
In recent weeks, Wilkie’s staff at VA have denied accusations of trying to shift substantial financial resources outside the department’s health care system to benefit private companies, but have also insisted that the medical demands of America’s veterans are too expensive to force federal VA clinics to handle the entire workload.
No timetable has been set for that confirmation hearing. The process typically takes a month of background checks and preparatory work before the Senate will schedule a date, although Wilkie’s confirmation for the Pentagon post just last year may help shorten that timeline.
In a statement, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., praised the choice.
“As acting secretary of the VA, I’ve enjoyed my time getting to know Robert Wilkie and working alongside him to advance community care legislation through Congress,” he said. “I look forward to learning more about his long-term views for the VA, including how he plans to implement the VA MISSION Act when it becomes law.”
Stripes: Trump picks Wilkie to lead VA in surprise announcement
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPESPublished: May 18, 2018
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced Friday his intent to nominate Robert Wilkie as the next secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Wilkie has been serving in the role in an interim basis since March 28.
Trump made the surprise announcement Friday morning at the White House during a public speech about prisons and the criminal justice system. He said Wilkie, who was in the audience, has done an “incredible job” at the VA.
“I’ll be informing him in a little while – he doesn’t know this yet – that we’re going to be putting his name up for nomination to be secretary of the veterans administration,” Trump said.
“I’m sorry that I ruined the surprise.”
Trump’s previous nominee for the job – White House physician Ronny Jackson – withdrew from consideration April 26. His nomination quickly fell apart after unnamed coworkers alleged Jackson was a toxic leader, drank on the job and doled out controlled substances.
Following Jackson’s failed nomination, Trump said he had another candidate in mind – someone with “political capabilities.”
Wilkie was rumored to be among possible picksfor the past several weeks. Others included Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., former Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
Trump chose Wilkie to temporarily lead the VA after he fired former VA Secretary David Shulkin in March. Wilkie came to the VA from the Pentagon, where he worked as the undersecretary of personnel and readiness.
Wilkie is a former adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
“Robert holds pragmatic and common-sense views on modernizing the agency and upholding its core mission of providing veterans with the best health care, resources and support possible,” Tillis said in a prepared statement.
Wilkie served as an officer in the Navy and Air Force before working as a senior leader at the Pentagon under former secretaries of defense Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld. His father was an Army artillery commander.
If confirmed by the Senate, Wilkie will continue leading the VA, the second-largest federal agency with more than 375,000 employees and a nearly $200 billion budget.
When Trump announced Jackson’s nomination in March, the response from the veteran community was resounding uncertainty.
“We don’t know this guy,” AMVETS Executive Director Joe Chenelly said at the time.
The reaction to Wilkie’s nomination Friday was more positive. Many veterans and advocates in Washington know him, and they like him.
“The acting secretary has taken it upon himself to work closely with the [veterans service organizations] to better understand the needs facing our nation’s heroes,” Disabled American Veterans said in a prepared statement. “With more than a decade of service as an undersecretary for the Department of Defense, Mr. Wilkie has considerable experience navigating federal government policies.”
In March, Wilkie, 55, walked into an agency reeling from Shulkin’s firing and the months of chaos and infighting that led up to it. Garry Augustine, director of DAV, said Wilkie “stabilized things.”
Some advocates have raised concerns about the number of VA leaders leaving the agency since Shulkin was fired. The most public exits in recent weeks include Scott Blackburn, VA chief information officer, Dr. Amy Fahrenkopf, acting deputy undersecretary for health for community care, and Dr. Christopher Vojta, principal deputy undersecretary for health.
VA employees who have left since Shulkin’s firing were “wedded to the status quo and not on board with this administration’s policies or pace of change,” agency spokesman Curt Cashour said.
Major veterans organizations have sought to end what they’ve described as a “tumultuous chapter” at the VA that began before Shulkin was fired.
They want a permanent leader in place, and they asked the Senate on Friday for a speedy confirmation.
“The VA has been without Senate-confirmed secretary for 51 days, and we urge the Senate to schedule a confirmation hearing quickly,” said American Legion Commander Denise Rohan in a prepared statement. “The department deserves strong, competent leadership at every level to ensure our veterans receive the benefits they so richly deserve for their selfless service to our great nation.”
The timeline of Wilkie’s confirmation process was uncertain Friday. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said he looks forward “to sitting down with him again to have an in-depth conversation about his vision and plan for the VA.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the committee chairman, said he wanted to learn more about Wilkie’s long-term plans for the VA.
In April, the VA released a list of Wilkie’s priorities as acting secretary that included working with Congress to pass the VA Mission Act, major reforms that would increase private-sector medical care, among other changes. The House approved the bill Wednesday by a vote of 347-70, and the Senate is scheduled to vote on it next week.
On Thursday, Wilkie signed a $10 billion contract with Cerner Corp. in Missouri to overhaul the VA’s electronic health record system – a plan that began in June under Shulkin.
Also Thursday, Wilkie appeared before the White House press corps for the first time to accept a $100,000 check – Trump’s first-quarter salary that he donated to the VA Caregivers Support Program. Wilkie said he was “deeply, deeply grateful… for the opportunity to serve America’s veterans.”
His main goal, the VA said last month, was to “restore regular order” at the agency “by working closely with the White House to implement the president’s priorities.”
There were some reservations Friday about Wilkie’s nomination. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America wants to ensure Wilkie stands against “privatization” of the agency. Many groups worry that an aggressive expansion of veterans’ care into the private sector will erode VA resources and eventually dismantle the agency. Shulkin blamed his ouster on White House insiders working at the VA who saw him as an obstacle to privatization.
“We look forward to seeing if Wilkie plans to expand privatization at VA, which veterans nationwide continue to overwhelmingly oppose,” IAVA founder Paul Rieckhoff said in a prepared statement. “Most of all, we look forward to a rigorous confirmation hearing and public vetting.”
If confirmed, Wilkie will be the seventh VA secretary since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
AP: Trump catches Wilkie off-guard with VA secretary nomination
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a surprise announcement that caught the candidate off-guard, President Donald Trump said he’ll nominate acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to permanently lead the beleaguered department.
Trump spilled the news about Wilkie at a White House event Friday on prison reform as he introduced Cabinet members in attendance. When Trump got to Wilkie, he said, “I’ll be informing him in a little while — he doesn’t know this yet — that we’re going to be putting his name up for nomination to be secretary.”
Trump added, “I’m sorry that I ruined the surprise.”
The president had already appeared impressed with Wilkie, saying publicly last month that he’s been doing a “great job” at VA. On Friday, Trump upped his assessment of Wilkie’s job performance to “incredible job.”
Wilkie has led the VA since Trump fired David Shulkin in March amid an ethics scandal and mounting rebellion within the agency. Trump then turned to Ronny Jackson, the Navy doctor who had been his personal physician, but Jackson abruptly withdrew last month amid allegations about his professionalism.
Wilkie, 55, is a former Pentagon undersecretary for personnel and readiness who oversaw a new policy aimed at stemming harassment in the military after an online nude-photo sharing scandal rocked the Marine Corps. The Senate had confirmed him unanimously for the post.
At the VA, Wilkie has sought to rebuild morale at a department beset with inner turmoil and rebellion over Trump’s push to expand access to private care. On Thursday, he announced a major $10 billion contract with Cerner Corp. to overhaul electronic health records for millions of veterans, a 10-year project that aims to improve mental health care and ease access to private providers.
Wilkie’s selection reflects Trump’s desire to have a steady hand leading the government’s second-largest department following the abrupt withdrawal by Jackson, who had never managed a large workforce. The Pentagon is the government’s largest department, with more than 700,000 employees.
Veterans groups expressed support for the nomination.
Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans’ Washington headquarters, said he considered it a “good sign” that Wilkie seemed receptive to hearing from veterans’ service organizations.
“We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to work with him and his staff,” Augustine said. “He’s doing what he needs to do to get up to speed.”
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said veterans “need a committed, focused leader who will always put veterans above politics.” He said Wilkie “will have to prove to millions of veterans nationwide that he is up to this mammoth, sacred leadership task.”
Dan Caldwell, executive director of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America, called Wilkie an “outstanding choice.”
“He is somebody who has shown that he can manage the department in a time of immense change,” Caldwell said. “He unequivocally supports the president’s agenda for reforming the VA and we think that he will be on the same page as the White House.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he enjoyed working with Wilkie in his acting capacity. He did not announce a date for Wilkie’s confirmation hearing.
Trump has sought an aggressive expansion of the Choice program to make it easier for veterans to see private doctors outside the VA system at government expense. A proposal is nearing passage in Congress, with a Senate vote slated for next week, but its scope will be determined in part on how the next VA secretary implements provisions that loosen restrictions on when a veteran can see a private doctor if he or she feels dissatisfied with VA health care.
The VA faces numerous problems demanding immediate attention, including the multibillion-dollar revamp of electronic medical records — which lawmakers fear will prove too costly and wasteful — and a pending budget shortfall in the Choice program.
Wilkie, an Air Force and Navy veteran, and son of an Army artillery commander, had strong backing from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine. He is seen as a skilled manager with more defense expertise than some other candidates with more political experience, such as former Rep. Jeff Miller, who chaired the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Wilkie served President George W. Bush as an assistant secretary of defense. He also served as senior adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., before becoming a Pentagon undersecretary in 2017.
Jackson, Trump’s previous nominee, is a career military doctor lacking significant management experience. While he was well-liked, even many Republicans questioned his ability to lead the VA.
After Jackson withdrew, White House officials said Trump planned to evaluate his next nominee more thoroughly. Wilkie was among several candidates White House staff interviewed.
Trump had indicated he intended to pick someone with a more political background, hoping such a person would better navigate the turbulent confirmation process in a narrowly divided Senate. Wilkie has experience shepherding two defense secretaries through Senate confirmation.
Army Times: 82nd Airborne modifies memorial service rules after online backlash
By: Michelle Tan 2 days ago
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The 82nd Airborne Division has changed course just weeks after deciding to allow commanders to choose an alternate, pared down memorial service for paratroopers who die by suicide.
“The 82nd Airborne Division recently received a lot of feedback on our division’s policy for memorial ceremonies,” said Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, the division spokesman, in a statement to Army Times. “After careful consideration and consultation with specialists in this field of work, we will modify our memorial ceremony policy.”
In the future, all memorial ceremonies for soldiers who die by suicide will contain the following elements: prelude, posting of the colors, the national anthem, an invocation, a memorial tribute, readings, an address, memorial prayers, a silent tribute or roll call, music, benediction, the firing of volleys, and the sounding of taps, Buccino said in a statement.
Army Times first reported on April 24 that the 82nd Airborne’s leaders had decided to allow commanders to choose from two different kinds of ceremonies: The regular ceremony with the usual complement of military courtesies, and an alternate ceremony, created for soldiers who died by suicide and those who died by misconduct, that allows units to omit a handful of courtesies
Those courtesies include the final roll call, firing of volleys and sounding of taps, among others, according to a course of action decision slide provided to Army Times.
“The decision to allow for an alternate memorial ceremony in the event of paratrooper suicide was made in an attempt to reinforce the value of life and the reliance we place on one another,” Buccino said at the time. “This decision does not equate suicide with paratrooper misconduct.”
Feedback on social media was swift, with many arguing that troops who die by suicide should not be treated differently, especially if they were combat veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress.
An online poll of Army Times readers showed 85 percent of more than 2,200 respondents said memorial services should be the same regardless of the cause of death.
On Friday, Buccino said the feedback the division received was “powerful and greatly appreciated.”
“We are thankful for the continued conversation and ideas about how we can continue to fight for the preservation of life of our paratroopers,” he said. “Our original intent was to save lives — period. We believe this new adjustment to the Division’s policy will assist in meeting this intent.”
Army Times: Lawyers claim anti-malarial drug to blame for soldier who killed 16 in Afghanistan massacre
By: Meghann Myers 2 days ago
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The legal team working for a former 2nd Infantry Division soldier convicted of a 2012 mass murder in Afghanistan is making another push at an appeal.
A review petition filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on May 16 alleges that prosecutors disregarded evidence that an anti-malarial drug given to troops could cause violent behavior, as well as indications that Aghan villagers flown in to testify as witnesses against former Staff Sgt. Robert Bales were enemy combatants.
Bales’ attorneys argue that the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, which heard the case in 2017, was mistaken when it ruled that the case’s original prosecutor did not have to disclose the side effects of mefloquine when building a case against him.
“Bales presented the Court of Appeals with unchallenged expert medical affidavits that the United States ordered him to take the anti-malarial drug mefloquine, and that he was laboring under its long-lasting adverse psychiatric effects, including symptoms of psychosis, when on his fourth infantry combat tour he left his post and committed 16 homicides,” according to the petition.
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales is seen in a March 2012 Army photo. Bales, who murdered 16 Afghan villagers in 2012, says he had lost compassion for Iraqis and Afghans over the course of his four combat deployments. (Army/Tacoma News-Tribune via AP)
The filing also alleges that Panjwai district villagers who made statements at Bales’ 2013 sentencing were not innocent bystanders, and the prosecution knew it.
“What went undisclosed, however, was that some of the Afghan sentencing witnesses left their fingerprints on improvised explosive devices, that is, on bombs on the fields of battle in Afghanistan. That suppressed fact changed their legal status from noncombatants under International Humanitarian Law to that of unlawful belligerents or brigands, potentially targetable under the Law of War,” the petition says.
Bales pleaded guilty to 16 counts of murder in 2013, a deal that allowed him to avoid the death penalty. He retold the events of March 11, 2012, as part of that agreement.
He detailed how he had been using steroids to put on weight before he got drunk on Camp Belambay and made his way into nearby villages, shooting down men, women and children, then setting their corpses on fire.
Bales was sentenced to life without parole at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His attorneys have since been working on an appeal to reduce his sentence to life with the possibility of parole.
Military Times: Veterans fear Congress has forgotten about the military’s burn pit problems
By: Leo Shane III 2 days ago
WASHINGTON — For years, Veterans Affairs leaders and administration officials have promised they won’t let health issues surrounding burn pit exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan become another “Agent Orange” in the community.
Now, advocates and a handful of lawmakers are worried it already has.
“The level of awareness among members of Congress on the problems from burn pits is abysmally low,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii and an Army National Guard soldier who served in Iraq in 2004-2005. “Too few understand the urgency of the issue.”
Gabbard and Afghanistan war veteran Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., recently introduced new legislation dubbed the Burn Pits Accountability Act to require more in-depth monitoring of servicemembers’ health for signs of illnesses connected to toxic exposure in combat zones.
The legislation is also serving as a springboard for renewed discussion about the lingering problem of burn pits, used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of a wide variety of waste and suspected in a wide array of unusual cancers, respiratory illnesses and other health complications from the post-9/11 generation of veterans.
On Thursday, numerous veterans advocates joined Mast and Gabbard at a Capitol Hill press conference to support their legislation but also to highlight the issue, fearing that the once talked-about topic is now becoming an afterthought.
“We’ve had an overflow of veterans sharing their stories, especially in the last few months,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “Our members feel like their bodies are under attack. And they’re calling for help.”
More than 141,000 veterans and current service members have enrolled in VA’s Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, which allows individuals to document their experiences and illnesses with the department.
But those entries are voluntary, and advocates believe the total number of troops impacted by the poisonous fumes from the pit is significantly higher, since nearly every individual who deployed in the recent wars had some exposure to the burn pits.
“Even when someone in the military is aware that burn pits existed out there, that doesn’t mean they’re aware of who is affected,” Mast said. “They often ask if you were assigned to a job where you (worked with the pits). And if you weren’t, how could this possibly affect you?
“They don’t understand that’s not how the military works.”
Both Gabbard and Mast said the military and VA can do more to be proactive with the problem of burn pit exposure, especially in light of the spotty record with Agent Orange exposure during Vietnam.
Decades passed before many rare illnesses linked to the chemical defoliant were acknowledged by either department or authorized for health and disability benefits. Advocates said they fear bureaucratic indifference will mean years of suffering by the current generation of veterans before the proper medical and financial support is put in place.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee members will hold a hearing on the issue next month. Meanwhile, IAVA and numerous other veterans groups have been meeting with lawmakers to find a path ahead, either on the Gabbard/Mast legislation or another plan.
Army Times: Vietnam War veteran to get Distinguished Service Cross for heroism
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SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. — A Tucson man who served in the U.S. Army and fought in the Vietnam War will be presented the nation’s second-highest military award during a ceremony Tuesday at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista.
Army officials say Frank Crary is getting the Distinguished Service Cross for his extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty during combat in 1966,when Crary served as a rifleman in a reconnaissance platoon in the 1st Cavalry Division.
An Army statement says Crary exposed himself to enemy fire by attacking a North Vietnamese machine gun that was among enemy positions that had pinned down his unit.
The statement says Crary acted “with total disregard for his own personal safety” when he jumped up, ran toward the machine gun position, flanked it and killed the enemy.