14 February, 2019 07:16

Good morning, Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Thursday, February 14, 2019, which is Valentine’s Day, International Book Giving Day, National Ferris Wheel Day, National Organ Donor Day, and Read to Your Child Day.

Today in History:

  • On February 14, 2018, an expelled student entered Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and opened fire, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others, in what became the deadliest shooting at a high school in United States history.
  • 1929: In Chicago, gunmen in the suspected employment of organized-crime boss Al Capone murder seven members of the George “Bugs” Moran North Siders gang in a garage on North Clark Street. The so-called St. Valentine’s Day Massacre stirred a media storm centered on Capone and his illegal Prohibition-era activities and motivated federal authorities to redouble their efforts to find evidence incriminating enough to take him off the streets.
  • Sir Alexander Fleming was a young bacteriologist when an accidental discovery led to one of the great developments of modern medicine on this day in 1929. Having left a plate of staphylococcus bacteria uncovered, Fleming noticed that a mold that had fallen on the culture had killed many of the bacteria. He identified the mold as penicillium notatum, similar to the kind found on bread. On February 14, 1929, Fleming introduced his mold by-product called penicillin to cure bacterial infections.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

  • CNN: mseaveywith “Remove” in the subject line. If you have received this from someone who forwarded it and would like to be added, email mseavey.

    CNN: Coast Guard families were pushed to their breaking points in the shutdown. They don’t expect it to be the last
    Analysis by Brianna Keilar, CNN Anchor |Updated 3:07 PM ET, Wed February 13, 2019
    Washington (CNN) — "I have stood watch when the Coast Guard didn’t have the budget to buy toilet paper," Amanda Morales, a Coast Guard veteran, tells me. "We had to bring our own from home."
    Doing more with less is something Coasties, as they call themselves, simultaneously celebrate and bemoan.
    Their motto is "Semper Paratus," Latin for "Always Ready," though they joke that their motto is actually "Semper Gumby" — "Always Flexible."
    But when the longest government shutdown in history left the Coast Guard as the sole military branch without a paycheck last month, it pushed many families to their breaking points.
    Even as President Donald Trump considers signing a bipartisan border security proposal that would keep the Coast Guard running after Friday, the community fully expects they’ll be staring down another funding lapse in the future.
    After all, this latest shutdown drama was the fourth threat to the Coast Guard’s livelihood since the beginning of 2018.
    ‘The redheaded stepchild’
    "We are a branch of the military. You would be surprised how many people don’t know that," says Amanda Gibbs, whose husband has served for four years as an information technology specialist. The couple has five children.
    The Coast Guard evokes images of search and rescue operations, maybe during Hurricane Katrina, or guys jumping out of helicopters wearing snorkels and fins — and that’s accurate, but only part of the picture.
    The Coast Guard has a myriad of other roles: seizing drugs from smugglers, intercepting pirates, inspecting ships in ports, stopping illegal fishing in domestic and international waters and augmenting the US Navy during wartime, as well as all of the support staff it takes to pull off these wide ranging missions. And some of those rescue swimmers dangling from helicopters are now women.
    Guardsmen can be at sea, or "under way," for months at a time, often with very limited communication with their families. Many of the cutters in the fleet are old and have limited telephone capabilities.
    Coast Guardsmen (as they’re called whether they’re women or men) are deployed all over the world and have fought and died in every war since 1790, when Alexander Hamilton created this seafaring force.
    The work is risky and their families worry they might not come home.
    Stacey Benson has been a Coast Guard spouse for 13 years, since her husband left the Army. Her husband, a chief petty officer, is a maritime law enforcement officer stationed in Astoria, Oregon.
    "When he deploys, his main job is to board vessels. He’s looking for drugs. He’s the first person on the boat (most) of the time. People driving the vessels may have guns or knives," she says. "You don’t know if they’re going to come home."
    "When a tanker went down during a hurricane, my husband’s ship was right there. I was sick with worry because they went into danger themselves to try to save others," says Jessica Manfre, who lives in Cape May, New Jersey. Her husband is a senior chief petty officer and has been in the Coast Guard for 18 years.
    "There’s times I would pick him up from a long deployment and we’d be met with a Drug Enforcement Agency team at the pier, handcuffed drug dealers being escorted off as they caught them trying to bring in cocaine into our country."
    The Coast Guard community, like other branches, is incredibly proud of its service.
    "I’ve taken part in saving almost 1,500 lives," says Amanda Morales, who was first stationed on remote Kodiak Island in Alaska, serving as an operations specialist, answering distress calls from civilians on the water and monitoring rescue crews. "There aren’t that many jobs out there that can give you that job satisfaction."
    "They selflessly risk their lives to make sure others have a chance at survival," says Mary Nelson, a spouse living in Jacksonville, Florida. Her eldest son is also in the Coast Guard. "They ensure the safety of complete strangers on a daily basis. What wife or mother wouldn’t be proud knowing their husband or son is a true hero, day to day?"
    With only 42,000 active duty members, the Coast Guard is not even a fourth the size of the next smallest branch, the Marines.
    Their budget is miniscule compared to the Army or Navy. And because the Coast Guard performs some domestic law enforcement functions, including boarding vessels in the US to inspect for and seize illicit drugs, it is funded by the Department of Homeland Security. Funding for DHS has been hung up repeatedly in Congress.
    The Army, Navy and Marine Corps, housed under the Department of Defense, are guaranteed pay in the event of a government shutdown. The Coast Guard is not.
    "We don’t get the recognition I feel the service deserves," Morales says. "We joke that we are the redheaded stepchild."
    Shutdown pain
    "We lost so much sleep," Nelson says, anxiously eyeing the next potential lapse in funding this Friday. "We also own a home at our previous duty station and our tenants are active duty Coast Guard as well, so the panic of needing to cover two mortgages with zero paycheck coming in was very real for us."
    As members of the military, Coast Guardsmen are prohibited from wading into politics. Spouses, almost all women, have taken up the mantle of raising awareness about the financial strife caused by the shutdown.
    Though Morales left the Coast Guard, her husband is still on active duty and the couple has a 6-month-old daughter. She fires off stories of what families did to get by. She knows one career service member with a college education who took a second job delivering pizzas.
    Morale among service members, according to these spouses, plummeted as they worried about feeding their families — even as the Coast Guard, unpaid, broke ice to allow commerce on the Great Lakes, conducted rescues, seized millions of dollars in drugs, intercepted illegal migrants and responded to chemical spills.
    "If you can imagine, we have five children and my husband is our sole provider," says Gibbs, which is common in the Coast Guard as one parent shoulders responsibility for the children while the other is deployed or at sea. Coast Guard spouses, like those in other branches, often struggle to find gainful employment while moving every few years.
    "My husband felt like he wasn’t providing for us. His morale was rock bottom."
    Gibbs’ husband has only been in the Coast Guard for four years, joining relatively late at the age of 31. His monthly income is $2,000, she shares, noting that the pay scale for service members is public, and that it’s important Americans realize that some members of the armed forces are living below the poverty line.
    "They still had to risk their lives for the rest of the nation on a daily basis and not even know how they’d be putting food in the mouths of their own family at the end of that same day," said Mary Nelson.
    Stacey Benson organized a food bank in Astoria, serving, by her careful count, a total of 2,347 people in the two weekends it was open. That included furloughed federal workers as well as active duty and retired Coast Guard members.
    Jessica Manfre opened a food bank to serve local Coast Guard families in New Jersey, Delaware and the Philadelphia area.
    Amanda Morales crowdfunded $25,000 for the relief organization that serves the Coast Guard community.
    These were the moments that brought these families a much-needed morale boost even as they watched what was happening in Washington with a mix of bewilderment and desperation. And now they’re afraid they will be affected by another shutdown.
    "I want members in Washington to know that we are real people," says Gibbs. "That we have lives. That we don’t get paid hardly anything to do what we do and to take that away from us for their own agenda is devastating."
    Proposed changes
    On Wednesday, Coast Guard spouse Michael Little, is leading an effort to pressure Congress, visiting members’ offices to deliver packages of letters from every major military and veteran service organization.
    "I want to tell the government why we need to make sure the Coast Guard is paid in shutdowns going forward," Little says.
    His wife is an active-duty hospital corpsman and he is a Navy veteran, now running a consulting firm and a nonprofit called the Sea Service Family Foundation.
    Recently, a bill in the Senate and a bill in the House would have continued appropriations to the Coast Guard for pay and allowances for service members, civilian employees and contractors, retired pay, and the payment of a death gratuity, funeral travel and basic allowance for housing of members of the Coast Guard dying on active duty.
    In the House, the proposal hasn’t made it out of a Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee.
    In the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) blocked the bill, arguing it left federal workers out in the cold.
    "We could do a whole lot more good by funding and opening up the government for everyone," Schumer argued.

    Military Times: Black mold, rodents, lead paint in privatized housing: No rent until it’s fixed, military spouses say
    By: Karen Jowers | 6 hours ago
    Military spouses suggested to lawmakers one immediate way, for starters, to fix problems like mold, lead paint, termites, mice and other issues in privatized military housing: allow families to withhold rent payments until the issues are resolved.
    Spouses testified before senators Wednesday, then watched as senators grilled company officials, and DoD and service officials, about the problems. All the officials admitted there have been breakdowns in the system, and assured senators they are making a commitment to address the systemic problems.
    Robert McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, told the senators that what he heard from the spouses “reinforced what we already know, that we collectively have to do significantly better."
    McMahon said that working with DoD attorneys to look at possibly withholding rent payments to the companies “would be prudent, to ensure [privatization] partners respond rapidly.” The privatized housing rent payments are generally the service member’s Basic Allowance for Housing, paid by allotment.
    John Henderson, a retired colonel who is assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy, said he agreed that residents should have the ability to choose whether or not to pay their rent if they feel the landlord isn’t giving them a safe place to live.
    “That makes the landlord responsive financially to the resident,” he said. “I think there should be rebates for untimely repairs, for power outages” and other issues, he said, adding that some privatized companies already do that.
    Wednesday’s hearing is the beginning of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s efforts to address the problems.
    “Our service members and their families deserve high-quality, affordable housing. One mistake is too many,” said committee chair Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma. He noted that the privatization initiative started in the 1990s as an effort to address housing managed by the government that was in disrepair.
    “We need necessary reforms to ensure accountability and excellence in privatized housing,” Inhofe said.
    The spouses testified about their difficulties in getting the companies to take their complaints seriously — even as black mold was growing out of walls, floors and ceilings, and entire families were getting sick. There was also difficulty determining who, if anyone, in the military establishment was holding the companies accountable. The families are left with no recourse.
    “I first became aware of the crisis-level military housing issues at Keesler Air Force Base where termites fell out of light fixtures into our beds,” said Marine wife Crystal Cornwall. She said the housing office at Keesler in Mississippi told her that termites in her home are to be expected because of the region.
    “At Camp Pendleton, we lived with pervasive mold issues and unjustifiable move-out charges,” she said, and were charged $700 for carpet replacement.
    “The housing representative used a black light and moisture stick to find stains unseen by the naked eye. When I disputed the validity of these charges, I found no path to resolution with the housing company, Camp Pendleton, or with my husband’s former command.”
    Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., said she was “infuriated” by what the spouses described.
    "This is disgusting,” said the retired Air Force colonel. "Instead of being partners with our troops to make sure our way of life is kept safe and free, they left you hanging. They put you in harm’s way. This is so wrong.”
    She said the chain of command needs to be involved, be responsible “and has to be able to poke fingers in the chests of these companies and say, ‘Fix it now, or you’re done.’”
    Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., questioned the companies, and DoD and service officials about the contracts and incentives, and how the military makes sure the companies are meeting their obligations. It’s primarily through the surveys, although the Army and Air Force have initiated investigations into some aspects of the housing issues.
    “Those surveys did not alert you to the mice, the mold, the lead poisoning,” she said.
    “These contracts are bad enough as they are, virtually guaranteed profit, in return for which they’re supposed to provide decent housing. The one tool you’ve got is to say there’s got to be some performance evaluation. To give away 95 percent of the performance based money at the same time that we’re hearing from the people who live in this housing, that it’s rat infested, it’s dirty, that things leak… it’s just not right not using the tools Congress gave to you on behalf of our service members.”
    Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., told the company officials that the testimony suggested the system is broken, and that it is evident to the families, but not to the companies.
    For their part, the companies said they are working on various initiatives such as setting up people and mechanisms to better interact with residents. For example, Balfour Beatty Communities has created new resident engagement specialist positions, to make sure residents’ concerns are being heard, said Christopher Williams, the company’s president. Recently they hired a nationally known environmental firm to review their mold and moisture inspection policies, and are taking steps to implement those recommendations.
    “Military families understand that quality housing does not mean entitlement to elegant mansions,” said Marine wife Crystal Cornwall. “We simply ask for homes free of mold, pests, lead, and other hazards. …. As parents, we want safe places for our children to sleep at night.”

    Military Times: Disabled vets scammed in $2 million bribery scheme
    By: Joshua Axelrod | 14 hours ago
    A Veterans Affairs Department official steered disabled veterans to questionable schools in exchange for bribes from school officials, according to the Justice Department.
    James King, the VA official in question, on Tuesday pleaded guilty to accepting about $160,000 in bribes. In return, law enforcement officials say, he directed participants in VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program to Atius Technology Institute and Eelon Training Academy, generating more than $2 million in VA revenue for the schools.
    Both schools were the subject of repeated complaints from veterans, who said they provided a poor-quality education, and both misled the VA about their costs and program details.
    Yet King pushed disabled vets in the program to attend the schools, despite these red flags and regardless of the vets’ individual interests or educational needs.
    VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program provides education and career help to disabled veterans, including counselors to advise them and help paying for the education and training they need to land a good job in their chosen field.
    King’s co-conspirators in the bribery ring were Albert Poawui, Atius’ owner; Sombo Kanneh, one of Poawui’s employees at Atius; and Michelle Stevens, who owned Eelon. Atius claimed to specialize in information-technology courses, while Eelon claimed to provide digital-media training.
    Poawui and Kanneh admitted in their pleas that they had struck a deal with King in which Poawui would give King 7 percent of all payments from the VA to Atius. King continued to help place veterans in Atius programs despite “repeated complaints about the poor quality of education” there, according to the DoJ news release.
    As part of this arrangement, Poawui and Stevens made numerous false claims to the VA about what was really going on at Atius and Eelon.
    Powaui lied to the VA about the number of hours per week veterans were able to attend Atius classes, saying they were enrolled in up to 32 hours a week of class time, even though Atius only offered a maximum of six weekly class hours.
    Stevens made a fake attendance sheet for eight students showing they were in Eelon classes that they did not attend on specific days, even including dates on which no classes were held.
    The VA was clearly suspicious of both schools, as it audited Atius and had “an ongoing investigation into Eelon following complaints by students about the poor quality of education,” according to the DoJ release.
    The VA’s Office of the Inspector General partnered with the FBI’s Washington Field Office for the investigation.
    The four participants in this scheme cost the VA $2,217,259.44 between August 2015 and December 2017, the DoJ reported. Poawui paid King more than $155,000 in that time period, with Stevens chipping in another $3,000.
    King pleaded guilty to charges of bribery, wire fraud and falsification of documents. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Friday, Feb. 15.
    Poawui was sentenced to 70 months in prison with three years of supervised release and was also ordered to pay the VA back $1.5 million. Kanneh was sentenced to 20 months in prison with three years of supervised release and was ordered to forfeit the $1.5 million she helped embezzle, plus an extra $113,227.30 in restitution.
    Stevens was sentenced to 30 months in prison with three years of supervised release and ordered to forfeit $83,000 and pay the VA $83,000.
    Nicole Navas, a DoJ spokeswoman, said her department does “not have any additional statements beyond our pleadings and previous press announcements on this case.”

    Air Force Times: Former Air Force tech sergeant who defected to Iran charged with spying
    By: Kent Miller | 17 hours ago
    A former Air Force counterintelligence specialist, a technical sergeant, who defected to Iran about five years after leaving the Air Force, has been charged with revealing classified information as well as research about her former colleagues to representatives of the Tehran government, prosecutors said Wednesday.
    A Justice Department indictment charges former Air Force Tech. Sgt. Monica Elfriede Witt, who defected in 2013 and is currently at-large, along with four Iranian hackers who, prosecutors say, used the information she provided to target former colleagues in the U.S. intelligence community.
    The indictment says the four Iranians were acting on behalf of the government-linked Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. All four remain at large.
    Witt, who was born in El Paso, Texas, joined the Air Force on Dec, 17, 1997, and served as an airborne crypto linguist, according to information provided by the Air Force. She later changed jobs and became a special agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. Her last assignment before separating as an E-6 on June 12, 2008, was with the 2nd Field Investigations Squadron, Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, the Air Force said.
    Her awards and decorations include the Air Medal, three Air Force Commendation medals and three Aerial Achievement medals, according to the Air Force.
    "It is a sad day for America when one of its citizens betrays our country," said Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division.
    Jay Tabb, the FBI’s top national security official, said the FBI had warned Witt before her defection that she was a vulnerable target for recruitment by Iranian intelligence but that Witt had ignored those warnings.

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