Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Friday, January 18, 2019 which is National Gourmet Coffee Day, Winnie the Pooh Day, National Peking Duck Day and Thesaurus Day.
This Weekend in Legion History:
- Jan. 19, 1920: A newly formed national Committee on Americanism of The American Legion, along with department Americanism chairmen, appears before the Military Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives and presents an agenda that includes assistance in the naturalization and citizenship of immigrants to the United States.
- Jan. 19 – March 11, 1937: The American Legion raises over $250,000 and delivers it to the Red Cross to help victims of floods on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. As with the 1927 flood, American Legion posts and volunteers transform into relief centers and emergency workers in the devastated areas, distributing some 5,000 tons of food and 3,000 tons of clothing. Hundreds of Legionnaire-owned boats are deployed to search for victims, and a mobile radio unit from a Jamestown, NY, American Legion post is among many called into service when other communications are knocked out. More than 1 million lose their homes in the floods, which take the lives of approximately 350 people.
- Jan. 20, 1953: At the request of newly elected President Dwight Eisenhower, The American Legion organizes and leads the first of what becomes the “Salute to Heroes Inaugural Ball,” inviting all living Medal of Honor recipients to greet the new president on the day the oath of office is taken. Eisenhower, a member of James R. Cutler American Legion Post 39 in Abilene, Kan., and Supreme Allied Commander-Europe in World War II, goes on to serve two full terms in the White House.
- Jan. 20, 1961: World War II Navy veteran John F. Kennedy, a member of Crosscup-Pishon American Legion Post 281 in Boston, is inaugurated as president of the United States. During the war, Kennedy had command of two patrol torpedo (PT) boats, the 109 and the 59. He survived an attack by a Japanese destroyer and swam to safety, towing along with him a badly burned member of his crew. After serving in Congress from 1947 until 1960, he is elected president, defeating another Legionnaire, Richard M. Nixon, in one of the closest presidential races in history.
- Jan. 20, 1993: Bill Clinton, who famously met President John F. Kennedy during his participation in American Legion Boys Nation 30 years earlier, is inaugurated into office as the 42nd president of the United States. During his administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs undergoes a major overhaul, dramatically improving quality of health-care services and opening eligibility to VA medical care to all who honorably served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
- Jan. 20, 1989: George H.W. Bush, a Houston American Legion member who served as a naval aviator during World War II, is inaugurated as the 41st U.S. president. He would go on to serve as commander-in-chief during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, the Gulf War that would bring the United States into military conflict with Middle Eastern dictatorships and terrorists.
- Jan. 21, 1935: American Legion Legislative Committee Vice Chairman John Thomas Taylor appears on the cover of TIME Magazine. The World War I combat veteran who participated in the Paris Caucus of 1919 goes on to become the Legion’s chief lobbyist in Washington and fights off Depression-driven proposed cuts in veterans benefits. Believed to have worked to pass more than 600 bills to assist veterans, Taylor is later recalled to active duty in World War II, promoted to brigadier general and serves under Gen. George S. Patton in Africa, Italy and France.
- Jan. 21, 1977: Newly elected President Carter signs Executive Order No. 1 granting a full, complete and unconditional pardon to those who had violated the Selective Service Act between 1964 and 1973, including approximately 9,000 convicted of draft evasion. The American Legion had been vocal in its opposition to any form of amnesty granted to anyone who dodged the draft while others went to war. Carter had outlined his plan to pardon the violators at the 1976 American Legion National Convention in Seattle. The Legionnaires, many of whom booed the announcement, were strongly opposed to amnesty of any kind and explored legal and constitutional violations if such a pardon were to occur. Following President Carter’s order, the pardons are issued, and American Legion leaders publicly warn what such a move will mean for national security in the event of a future draft.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- Military Times: Report cites concerns with VA security staff, says former secretary used his driver to chauffeur his wife
- Navy Times: Insurer USAA offers $15M in interest-free loans for Coast Guard members during shutdown
- ReBoot Camp: Trump recently signed two veterans bills into law. Here’s how they’ll affect you.
- Military Times: Trump cancels Pelosi’s use of military aircraft for Afghanistan trip
- Defense News: Trump says US backs NATO ‘100%,’ after report he discussed withdrawal
- Stripes: Pentagon identifies three Americans killed in Syria blast
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Military Times: Report cites concerns with VA security staff, says former secretary used his driver to chauffeur his wife
By: Leo Shane III 18 hours ago
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WASHINGTON — Security officials charged with protecting the Veterans Affairs secretary were careless with travel information, collected false overtime payments and improperly acted as a chauffeur for one secretary’s wife, according to a report from the department’s inspector generalreleased Thursday.
The review dates back to 2015 and offers a host of concerns with management and operations at VA’s Executive Protection Division. It blasts leaders for “an informal and deficient threat assessment process” and lists equipment problems going unaddressed for several years.
Officials from the Inspector General’s office found few reasons to criticize former VA Secretary David Shulkin for his use of the security detail, a topic of rumor and accusations in the veterans community for several years.
The report says his requests for increased security were unusual but not improper, given threats against the office and the administration, and his use of security staff for overseas travel was in line with department policies.
However, it does criticize Shulkin for using his personal driver to transport his wife on several occasions, despite being warned that would run afoul of federal ethics rules. Investigators called it a clear violation of public taxpayer funds.
They also found that during Shulkin’s controversial trip to Europe in July 2017, three agents claimed to be providing security for the secretary when they were actually sightseeing in Sweden. Investigators said they were able to receive improper pay for the time because of the division was “without effective supervision” at the time.
One year ago, the inspector general issued a report detailing multiple ethics issues with that trip, including Shulkin improperly paying for his wife’s travel with taxpayer funds, using VA personnel to arrange sightseeing trips, and accepting tickets to a Wimbledon tennis match in violation of federal regulations.
Shulkin was fired by President Donald Trump in March 2017, in part because of his handling of the trip and the ensuing public outcry.
The new report does not detail any issues with his handling of security staff on the trip, but does criticize Shulkin for using his personal driver to transport his wife on several occasions, despite being warned that would violate federal ethics rules.
But the larger management issues within the security division point to serious problems that date back even before Shulkin’s tenure, and weren’t corrected until last year.
They include guards leaving motorcade vehicle keys in unsecure areas for convenience, sharing secretaries’ travel schedules with non-VA employees, and agents failing to wear bulletproof body armor because “agents had complained the vests were uncomfortable.”
Investigators also found numerous incidents of staff being overworked. One driver for the division had 92 instances of working more than 14 hours in a day and a stint of 19 consecutive days on duty.
In response to the report, VA officials noted management changes within the division in the last year that addressed many of the failings. They also promised administrative action against any employees who submitted false time cards or violated other department rules, and blamed the problem on Shulkin’s administration.
“Some employees willfully engaged in bad security practices because the former VA Secretary and Chief of Staff did not allow (appropriate) leadership to hold them accountable,” officials said in their response.
The department spent about $2.6 million in executive protection services in 2017, much of that in personnel base salaries and overtime costs.
The full report is available on the VA Inspector General’s web site.
Navy Times: Insurer USAA offers $15M in interest-free loans for Coast Guard members during shutdown
By: The Associated Press 13 hours ago
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SAN ANTONIO — A military personnel insurer and financial services company has donated $15 million for interest-free loans to Coast Guard members during the partial U.S. government shutdown.
San Antonio-based USAA on Wednesday announced the funds will be disbursed by Coast Guard Mutual Assistance. The American Red Cross Hero Care Center will assist.
Coast Guard personnel with dependents are eligible for interest-free loans up to $1,000. Service members without dependents are eligible for up to $750.
Officials say the loans are meant to cover an estimated two weeks of shortfalls due to Coast Guard personnel not being paid during the government shutdown, which began Dec. 22.
USAA, according to its website, offers insurance and other financial products to more than 12.8 million current and ex-members of the U.S. military and their families.
ReBoot Camp: Trump recently signed two veterans bills into law. Here’s how they’ll affect you.
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By: Natalie Gross 19 hours ago
On its way out the door, the 115th Congress passed a pair of bills aimed at improving education and other aspects of the transition from military to civilian life.
Now that President Trump’s signature has made them law, here’s what the Veterans Benefits and Transition Act and the Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act mean for veterans and military families.
1. No more punishing GI Bill students for the VA’s mistakes
Last fall, major technology failures at the Department of Veterans Affairs led to delayed and inaccurate payments for thousands of Post-9/11 GI Bill users, as the agency failed to implement a provision of the Forever GI Bill law that changed the way housing stipends are calculated.
In some cases, students grappling with late rent or mortgage bills as a result of the delays faced another challenge: Their schools charged late fees for tuition bills that VA didn’t pay on time, blocked access to campus facilities or did not allow them to register for the next semester of classes until their balance was covered.
Ashlynne Haycock, deputy director of policy and legislation for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, said members of her organization were even advised by schools to take out loans to cover tuition costs — even though the payments were late through no fault of their own.
A portion of the Veterans Benefits and Transition Act, signed into law Dec. 31, requires schools to end these practices if they want to keep enrolling students using GI Bill benefits.
“We are very excited to see this finally come to fruition,” Haycock told Military Times as the bill was making its way through Congress. “We wish it would’ve been in place when things happened with the Forever GI Bill that weren’t so great, but clearly that was a sign that this needed to happen.”
2. VA must fix incorrect payments
About those late payments. The new Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act holds the VA accountable for retroactively fixing payments that were inaccurate as a result of the technology problems.
To accomplish this, the law establishes a so-called “tiger team” to oversee these reimbursements. The team is required to report to Congress every 90 days on the reimbursement plan, and, by July 2020, report how many GI Bill beneficiaries were impacted, and to what extent.
The bill also holds the department to its promise not to collect on any overpayments made to GI Bill users.
“For many student veterans, every dime counts. That’s why the VA needs to get this right and pay student veterans the full amount of money they were promised,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in a statement. The senator co-sponsored the legislation, which also became law Dec. 31.
In a Jan. 4 address to some 2,300 student veteransattending the annual Student Veterans of America National Conference, VA Sec. Robert Wilkie assured students that anyone who was underpaid as a result of the technology issues will be made whole.
“The bottom line is: We owe you every penny that you’ve earned,” he said. “That is what the nation has promised you, and that is what you deserve.”
GI Bill users who did not receive a cost-of-living increase on their fall 2018 payments will get a check in the mail for the difference by the end of the month. The rest of the fixes won’t happen until at least December, when the VA is slated to have its updated technology systems in place.
3. More leverage with landlords
VA is also required to do something else for student veterans under the Veterans Benefits and Transition Act: provide them with electronic proof that they will be receiving housing payments from the VA. Students can then show these to landlords.
Students who live in high-cost areas, especially, can have trouble finding housing without a job to put on their application, according to a House Veterans Affairs Committee staffer familiar with the legislation. The documentation from VA would provide information for landlords, such as how much and how long a veteran will be receiving benefits that help them pay for housing.
Another provision of the new law allows the spouse of a service member who dies on active duty to terminate a residential lease for up to one year after the death without being penalized. This expands on the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which allows service members to break lease if they deploy or PCS.
4. Local help for transitioning service members
For troops transitioning out of the military, the VA will now post a list of programs and organizations that can help.
The law requires the VA to contract with a non-federal entity to identify these programs, which will include smaller, more community-based organizations, according to the committee aide.
5. Better access to jobs programs for homeless veterans
This provision of the Veterans Benefits and Transition Act is “an absolute game changer” for homeless veterans, said Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, which has been advocating for a law like this for five years.
Previously, veterans had to be either on the streets or in a shelter to qualify for employment assistance under the federal Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program. But now, veterans have 60 days after moving into housing to apply for these services.
The provision applies to veterans participating in the Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing program and a similar initiative for Native American veterans, as well as the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program. It also applies to veterans who are transitioning after being incarcerated and other recently homeless veterans, according to a summary of the legislation released by Congress.
“It’s basically the difference between housed and going back to homelessness for some of these veterans,” Monet said, adding later, “We know from our work how important this bill is to fix systemic problems that create unnecessary barriers to housing stability for veterans.”
6. Employment benefits for more reservists
Certain members of the National Guard and reserves called to active duty will have more time to use benefits under the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program, or Voc Rehab.
The program provides job counseling and other services for veterans with a VA disability rating of 20 percent or higher. Veterans that qualify must use the program within 12 years of separating from the military.
The clock gets paused for Guardsmen and reservists called to active duty. So, if they get activated for a year, they will get another year to complete Voc Rehab.
Before the new law, this did not apply to members serving under particular orders relating to national emergencies and combatant commands. As a result, such service members would lose time to use the benefit as they continued to serve. Now, the clock gets paused for them the same way as it does for their fellow Guardsman and reservists.
Daniel Elkins, legislative director at the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, said the new law will help many of the organization’s constituents. Voc Rehab benefits are “hugely important” for those who are service disabled, and this “is an extremely beneficial expansion to those benefits and long overdue,” he said.
7. Voting changes for military spouses
Military spouses can now elect to use the same residence as their active-duty spouse for state and local voting purposes, regardless of when or where they got married and whether they are currently living in that state because of military orders.
Previously, a spouse had to meet the residency requirements of a state on his or her own merit for the purposes of voting.
8. Enhanced burial rights
The new law allows spouses and children of active-duty service members to be buried in veteran cemeteries, even if they pass away before the service member — something that was previously allowed but only with the VA’s approval.
“We did expedite that,” said Patricia Lynch Watts, director of legislative and regulatory service for the National Cemetery Administration. “We tried not to make that too burdensome on the family, but there is certain information that we had to ask for, and it had to go through the process of being approved here by the secretary or the undersecretary, which could delay plans for burial by the family.”
The law also provides headstones and markers for burials in tribal cemeteries that receive grants from the VA. Watts said this corrects a previous oversight, which granted these for state veteran cemeteries but not those on tribal lands.
There are currently 11 tribal veteran cemeteries across the country and another two under construction, according to information provided by the VA.
Watts said the VA is supportive of both changes.
Military Times: Trump cancels Pelosi’s use of military aircraft for Afghanistan trip
By: Tara Copp and Leo Shane III 15 hours ago
President Donald Trump notified House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Thursday that she would not be allowed to use military aircraft for an upcoming trip to Afghanistan, citing the budget shutdown.
“I’m sorry to inform you that your trip to Brussels, Egypt and Afghanistan has been postponed,” Trump wrote in a signed letter released by the White House. “We will reschedule this excursion when the Shutdown is over.”
The letter seemed to be in direct response to Pelosi asking the president to postpone his State of the Union address, held in the House chambers of Congress, until the shutdown is over. In her notice, Pelosi said that the unpaid Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security may not be able to provide adequate security.
Pelosi’s travel had been tasked out by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and approved, the Air Force said. That travel would have mostly likely been supported by the 89th Airlift Wing and other units overseas who regularly provide transport to dignitaries, such as generals and Cabinet members. The dignitaries typically fly on C-32 or C-40 planes, which are specially outfitted 757 and 737 official government aircraft with blue and white livery.
DoD is one of the few agencies that was fully funded for 2019 and its forces, aircraft and ships are not impacted by the shutdown. The Coast Guard, which is funded under the Department of Homeland Security, has not been funded.
A defense official said it was not a resourcing issue, i.e., there were available aircraft.
Several House members were scheduled to travel with Pelosi on the trip, one of numerous congressional delegations conducted by lawmakers in connection with their other congressional duties.
Overseas trips with lawmakers are almost always handled through military aircraft. Trump in his letter told Pelosi that “if you would like to make your journey by flying commercial, that would certainly be your prerogative.”
In March 2018, Pelosi lead a similar congressional delegation to Jordan, Israel and Afghanistan with 11 other House lawmakers. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan and then-House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry arranged a similar trip to visit troops in Afghanistan in October.
The president’s move drew immediate rebuke from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who said lawmakers should not be blocked from visiting troops serving in combat zones overseas.
“One sophomoric response does not deserve another,” he said in a statement. “Speaker Pelosi’s threat to cancel the State of the Union is very irresponsible and blatantly political. President Trump denying Speaker Pelosi military travel to visit our troops in Afghanistan, our allies in Egypt and NATO is also inappropriate.”
The shutdown reached day 27 on Thursday, as congressional Democrats and Trump continue to spar over about $5 billion in funding for his controversial southern border wall project.
More than 400,000 federal workers have been required to work without pay for the last month, including most service members in the Coast Guard. Another 300,000-plus have been furloughed without pay while the budget dispute continues.
The partial shutdown has not directly affected the Department of Defense, whose budget was approved last fall.
Defense News: Trump says US backs NATO ‘100%,’ after report he discussed withdrawal
By: Joe Gould 15 hours ago
WASHINGTON — Days after a report alleged the U.S. president has repeatedly floated the idea of pulling the country out of NATO, he offered a mixed message in a Pentagon speech.
“We will be with NATO 100 percent, but as I told the countries, you have to step up,” President Donald Trump said Thursday at the Pentagon.
Speaking at the rollout of his administration’s Missile Defense Review, Trump’s remarks follow a report in The New York Times that he spoke about pulling out of the 70-year-old alliance. Trump reportedly told aides around the time of the last NATO summit in Brussels last July that he wanted to withdraw.
Trump has called NATO both “obsolete” and “no longer obsolete,” but Thursday’s remarks were all the more striking for their setting — in the Pentagon amphitheater — and the timing. Last month, one of NATO’s strongest supporters in the administration, Jim Mattis, resigned as defense secretary, citing in his resignation letter views on alliances that differ from Trump’s.
Hours after Trump’s speech, he denied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi an aircraft for a planned trip abroad. The two politicians have been clashing over the four-week government shutdown. Pelosi, D-Calif., was to lead a congressional delegation for Afghanistan and Brussels, where — according to a spokesman — she was set to meet with NATO commanders and reaffirm America’s commitment to the alliance.
Even as Trump voiced support for NATO at the Pentagon, he repeatedly commented on America’s allies, calling them “wealthy, wealthy” countries, who could easily be paying the U.S. directly for its “protection” of them, and should be, he said.
“So you’ll see big changes taking place, and we’ve had great talks with countries, friendly talks,” he said.
Speaking to the uniformed and civilian audience, Trump added: “We cannot be the fools for others. We don’t want to be called that. And I will tell you, for many years behind your backs, that’s what they were saying.”
Trump flouted his unpopularity in Europe and took credit for pressuring NATO countries to increase their defense budgets. He also said the Missile Defense Review directs the Pentagon to prioritize the sale of American missile defense and technology to allies and partners.
“We want them to be able to defend, and they are willing to pay for the finest missiles in the world,” he said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have reiterated support for NATO after The New York Times report.
A bipartisan bill to explicitly prohibit any U.S. president from withdrawing from NATO without Senate approval was introduced Thursday by Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; Jack Reed, D-R.I.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Chris Coons, D-Del.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a floor speech Wednesday that a U.S. withdrawal from NATO would be a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“That’s Putin’s dream,” Schumer said. “All the advice of our military and diplomatic leaders were against it. Somehow the president wants to do it. And who benefits the most? Putin. Who loses the most? The West.”
Ohio GOP Rep. Mike Turner, a former chairman of the U.S. delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, saw Trump’s remarks as “a very good answer” to The New York Times article.
“I was very glad the president said he was 100 percent committed to NATO; that was important following the unnamed-sources New York Times article,” Turner said Thursday after returning from the Pentagon event. “It was essential he did not back off his commitment to increase the funding spent by our NATO allies — something every president has targeted.”
Turner lauded Trump for fully funding the European Reassurance Initiative and massive military exercises while calling for an increase in the U.S. defense budget — all while France and Germany have discussed a European military force apart from NATO.
“I think the mixed signals are coming from our allies,” Turner said. “They ought to undertake an American reassurance initiative.”
Stripes: Pentagon identifies three Americans killed in Syria blast
By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 18, 2019
The Pentagon has identified three of the four Americans killed in a blast in the Syrian city of Manbij this week, including the first American servicewoman killed in combat against the Islamic State group.
The blast outside a restaurant on Wednesday left a soldier, a sailor, a Pentagon civilian and a contractor dead. The Department of Defense identified the government personnel as Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan R. Farmer, 37, of Boynton Beach, Fla.; Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) Shannon M. Kent, 35, of New York; and civilian Scott A. Wirtz, of St. Louis, Mo.
Farmer was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), based at Fort Campbell, Ky. Kent, an Arabic linguist, was assigned to Cryptologic Warfare Activity 66, based at Fort George G. Meade, Md. Wirtz was assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency as an operations support specialist.
All three died from wounds sustained in the blast, which the Pentagon said was a suicide bombing.
The Islamic State group claimed credit for the attack in the immediate aftermath. Military officials said the incident was still under investigation.
On Facebook Thursday, as news of Kent’s death spread, Navy chiefs within the small but secretive cryptologic intelligence community changed their profile photos to a Navy insignia with a black band. Many expressed their disbelieve at Kent’s death, saying she had more combat experience than most in the Navy.