20 December, 2018 08:01

Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Thursday, December 20, 2018 which is Cathode Ray Tube Day, Dot your i’s Day, Mudd Day (honoring Dr. Samuel Mudd), and Sacagawea Day.

This Week in Legion History:

· Dec. 19, 1939: The U.S. War Department accepts transfer of the commercial vessel American Legion and begins using her as USAT American Legion, a troop-transport ship.

· Dec. 20, 1919: The American Legion National Executive Committee meets in Indianapolis and elects banker Robert H. Tyndall, a legendary figure in the Indiana National Guard who fought and led in the Spanish-American War, the Mexican Border War and France during World War I, as the organization’s first national treasurer. His mission is to immediately pursue funds to keep the new organization afloat and to pay back start-up loans. Tyndall Armory, across the street from The American Legion National Headquarters in Indianapolis, is named in his honor. He would go on to be promoted to major general, 38th Infantry Division, and would be elected mayor of Indianapolis in 1942.

· Dec. 21, 1920: American Legion founding member U.S. Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. introduces a bill in the 66th Congress to authorize a return to the United States the remains of one unknown soldier who lost his life fighting in the Great War. Less than a year later, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery.

· Dec. 23, 1929: The American Legion-supported “Rogers hospital bill” (so-called due to tireless advocacy from Rep. Edith Nourse-Rogers, R-Mass.) commits $16 million to construct federal veterans hospitals nationwide. At this time, frustrated veterans are waiting for health care throughout the country, including a list of 14,000 patients at one hospital alone. With only 53 designated veterans hospitals nationwide, tuberculosis and mental illness are widespread among veterans who are relegated to insane asylums, jails and tuberculosis colonies in deserts.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

· ReBoot Camp: Senate passes last-minute effort to hold VA accountable for GI Bill screw-ups

· Military Times: VA left millions for suicide prevention unspent, report finds

· Federal Times: Shutdown less likely as White House says it will look elsewhere for border wall funds

· Military Times: Troops to immediately withdraw from Syria as Trump declares victory over ISIS

· VOA: Afghan Taliban, US Conclude Marathon Peace Talks Arranged by Pakistan

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ReBoot Camp: Senate passes last-minute effort to hold VA accountable for GI Bill screw-ups

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By: Natalie Gross   13 hours ago

After a tumultuous fall semester of inaccurate housing stipends for thousands of Post-9/11 GI Bill students, the Senate has passed a bill to hold the Veterans Affairs Department responsible for retroactively fixing these mistakes.

“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,” bill co-sponsor Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in a statement. “I’m glad that my colleagues in the Senate saw how important this issue is, and I hope this bill stays on the fast track to becoming law, so we can make this right for our veterans.”

The Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act passed the Senate by unanimous consent on Tuesday — just days before Congress breaks for the holidays and changes hands in the new year. If the legislation does not pass the House in time, it will need to be reintroduced in 2019.

“There is optimism on both sides of the Hill that we can get this across the finish line before Congress adjourns,” said a spokeswoman for Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the bill’s sponsor.

VA Sec. Robert Wilkie has already committed to retroactively reimbursing students who were underpaid this fall because of technology challenges that delayed the implementation of the Forever GI Bill, originally set to take hold Aug. 1.

The new law changed how housing stipends were to be calculated, bringing the payments in line with what active-duty E-5s with dependents receive for their basic housing allowance. It also directed VA to pay students based on the location of where they take the most classes, and not their schools’ main campus.

Officials have said they will begin reimbursing students who did not receive a cost-of-living increase this fall starting in January; however, the VA will not have the technological capability to fix location-based errors until next December.

“This legislation will hold the VA accountable by requiring the department to establish a ‘Tiger Team’ with the specific focus on solving the problem of reimbursements and ensuring the veterans receive their full housing benefit,” Boozman’s spokeswoman said.

The Tiger Team would need to be established immediately, with names and titles of the employees provided to Congress within 15 days. Every 90 days, that team would be required to update Congress 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.

It’s unclear what the House’s plans are for taking up this legislation in the coming days. A spokesperson for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs declined to comment by press time.

Military Times: VA left millions for suicide prevention unspent, report finds

By: Leo Shane III   1 day ago

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WASHINGTON — Despite public pronouncements on their continued focus on preventing veterans suicide, Veterans Affairs officials failed to spend millions available for outreach campaigns in 2018 and severely curtailed their messaging efforts, according to a new report released Monday.

The Government Accountability Office study found that of $6.2 million set aside for suicide prevention media outreach in fiscal 2018, only $57,000 — less than 1 percent — was actually used.

In addition, social media content from VA officials on the subject dropped by more than two-thirds from fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2018. Two planned new public service announcements on the topic were delayed, and no public outreach messages were aired on national television or radio for more than a year.

Veterans advocates called the report shocking and disappointing.

“At a time when 20 veterans a day still die by suicide, VA should be doing everything in its power to inform the public about the resources available to veterans in crisis,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Unfortunately, VA has failed to do that, despite claiming the elimination of veteran suicide as its highest clinical priority.”

Both VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and former VA Secretary David Shulkin listed suicide prevention as one of their main focuses for the department and their top clinical priority for the Veterans Health Administration.

The 20-a-day suicide estimate includes about 14 veterans who have had little or no contact with VA in recent months, a statistic that advocates say illustrates the need for more outreach to individuals who don’t fully understand or typically use the mental health support available from the department

In statements to the GAO, Veterans Health Administration officials blamed leadership turnover at the agency for the missteps. The department’s top suicide prevention post was vacant from July 2017 to April 2018.

“Within weeks of his arrival at VA, then-acting Secretary Wilkie appointed Dr. Keita Franklin as VA’s new suicide prevention director, and she is reviewing the spending for this important program as part of her duties,” department spokesman Curt Cashour said in a statement.

Officials also said ongoing campaigns continued to show strong success in helping make veterans more aware of the Veterans Crisis Line as well as other support services. But GAO officials said more needs to be done.

“By not assigning key leadership responsibilities and clear lines of reporting, VHA’s ability to oversee the suicide prevention media outreach activities was hindered and these outreach activities decreased,” the report authors wrote.

“As a result, VHA may not have exposed as many people in the community, such as veterans at risk for suicide, or their families and friends, to its suicide prevention outreach content.”

VA officials said new hires and “organization improvements” within the relevant offices should produce better results and resource management this fiscal year. They also plan to unveil new tracking metrics this spring, to help evaluate what tools are working best in the suicide prevention efforts.

Walz said that’s not enough.

“If VA actually wants to eliminate veteran suicide, then it has to take each of its roles in that mission seriously,” he said. “Our veterans can’t afford to have VA backslide on veteran suicide.”

To contact the Veteran Crisis Line, callers can dial 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.

Federal Times: Shutdown less likely as White House says it will look elsewhere for border wall funds

By: Jessie Bur and Leo Shane III   1 day ago

WASHINGTON — White House officials on Tuesday appeared to end their threat of a partial government shutdown over Christmas, saying they will find ways to fund President Donald Trump’s controversial border wall through other means.

At a Dec. 11 Oval Office meeting with Democratic leaders, Trump initially indicated that he would not sign funding legislation that did not include at least $5 billion to fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

At the time, Trump said that he would be “proud” to shut down the government in the name of border security.

But in an interview on Fox News Channel Tuesday morning, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the administration was reviewing a series of options to get about $5 billion in disputed funding for the wall project, but backtracked on Trump’s previous comments that he would shut down federal agencies if Democrats did not provide the money in a budget bill this week.

"At the end of the day we don’t want to shut down the government,” she said. “We want to shut down the border from illegal immigration, from drugs coming into this country and make sure we know who is coming and why they’re coming."

Sanders told reporters at a Dec. 18 press briefing that the White House plans to wait and see what Congress is able to pass before making a determination of what Trump will or will not sign. In the meantime, the administration is asking Cabinet secretaries to look for any funding in their own budgets they may be able to spare for the border wall.

She said that the White House is in contact with congressional Republicans and Democrats, negotiating a budget bill to avoid a partial shutdown this week. Lawmakers have until midnight Friday to pass a budget extension or a full-year funding deal for a host of agencies.

House lawmakers are scheduled to return to town on Wednesday for their final legislative session of the year. Senate lawmakers arrived on Capitol Hill on Monday, but have expressed frustration with the lack of progress in negotiations so far.

Without the pressure of coming to a border wall funding decision that Trump would sign off on, members of Congress are likely to have a much easier time passing appropriations for those parts of government that have not yet received fiscal 2019 appropriations.

This fall, Congress passed full-year funding for the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, meaning that a funding lapse this week would not disrupt any operations for troops and veterans support programs.

But a host of other departments — including State, Homeland Security and Justice — would see possible furloughs and program closings if a funding deal isn’t reached.

Congress has not yet indicated whether it is aiming for a continuing resolution that would push the funding decision to a later date, or full FY19 appropriations for the agencies and general government funding still on the table.

Should the House and Senate choose to pass full appropriations, the legislation would decide the fate of a potential 1.9 percent pay raise for federal employees, as well as additional funding for the Technology Modernization Fund and improvements to oversight.gov.

Military Times: Troops to immediately withdraw from Syria as Trump declares victory over ISIS

By: Kyle Rempfer   20 hours ago

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The Trump administration has ordered an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, and it remains unclear whether any troops will remain on the ground there.

The news seemingly caught the Pentagon and even local Syrian allies off-guard and runs counter to statements of many senior national security leaders.

After multiple media reports that a total withdrawal is underway, the White House said in a statement that the U.S.-led coalition is transitioning to the next phase of the campaign.

“Five years ago, ISIS was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said. "These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign. We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign."

Sanders did not provide a timeline for a departure, nor elaborate on which troops were coming home.

The move comes as Turkish leaders are threatening an invasion of Syria that could pit U.S. advisers and U.S.-backed local forces against Turkey, a NATO ally.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has remained much more opaque about the next step.

“We have started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign,” chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement Wednesday. "For force protection and operational security reasons we will not provide further details. We will continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates.”

President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that the U.S. has defeated the Islamic State in Syria, which was “my only reason for being there," he said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other top military officials tried to discourage Trump from ordering the withdrawal, saying it was a bad idea and would risk ceding control of Syria to Iran and Russia or give the Islamic State a chance to regroup, according to the New York Times.

The Wall Street Journal broke the news that the withdrawal is already being prepared. The Associated Press reported that planning for the pullout has already begun and troops will begin leaving as soon as possible.

The Pentagon initially declined to confirm the media reports, issuing an earlier statement Wednesday morning that made no mention of withdrawal.

“At this time we continue to work by, with and through our partners in the region," said Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman early Wednesday morning.

Last week, Trump administration officials appeared to brush aside the idea of a withdrawal.

“The military mission is the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Brett McGurk, Trump’s special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, told reporters at a Dec. 11 press conference. “We have obviously learned a lot of lessons in the past, so we know that once the physical space is defeated, we can’t just pick up and leave.

“So we’re prepared to make sure that we do all we can to ensure this is enduring … Nobody is saying that (ISIS is) going to disappear. Nobody is that naive. So we want to stay on the ground and make sure that stability can be maintained in these areas.”

The Syriac Military Council, a small U.S.-backed militia in Syria, told Military Times on Wednesday that they had not heard of a planned withdrawal from their U.S. allies prior to the media reports.

Officials estimate there are about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, but the precise number is not disclosed publicly. Those U.S. forces are spread across the region in a network of forward operating bases and small units of combat advisers embedded with local allies, mainly Syrian Kurds.

Ten bases, including two with air strips, where U.S. troops have previously operated in northern Syria were identified in July 2017 on a map published by Turkey’s state-run news agency. The Pentagon expressed operational security concerns with Turkey over the identification of those outposts, and they may have shifted since then.

U.S.-backed local forces have eliminated ISIS’ last major holdout in the Hajin pocket, near the Syria-Iraq border. However, ISIS still has several thousand fighters in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

ISIS has also shown an ability to launch major counter-offensives whenever U.S. air power is not in the area, such as an October incident when U.S. aircraft were grounded due to a sandstorm.

U.S. troops in Syria have worked alongside a mix of Arab and Kurdish local militias that combine to form the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Turkey has long been angered by U.S. support for Kurdish fighters, which Turkey says are members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, an ethnically Kurdish terrorist group that has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey for decades.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this week that U.S. President Donald Trump had “responded positively” to Erodgan’s demands to remove Kurdish militias from Manbij, a region where U.S. troops are posted in northern Syria.

On Monday, though, U.S. Ambassador on Syrian Affairs Jim Jeffrey appeared to contradict Erdogan.

“We think that any offensive into northeast Syria by anyone is a bad idea, and that was a position that I conveyed when I was in Ankara, that everybody from the president on down has conveyed,” Jeffrey said, according to Voice of America.

Pentagon leaders have also repeatedly stated that the U.S. must maintain a presence to ensure a lasting defeat of ISIS, as well as prevent the movement of Iranian proxy forces.

Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, backed that school of thought this fall.

“We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Bolton said in September.

Another dynamic in the whole situation is the tensions between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria. Americans and Russian mercenaries have reportedly exchanged gunfire on more than one occasion in the country.

“There have been various engagements, some involving exchange of fire, some not,” U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey said in late November. “Again, we are continuing our mission there and we are continuing to exercise our right of self-defense.”

VOA: Afghan Taliban, US Conclude Marathon Peace Talks Arranged by Pakistan

ISLAMABAD —

The United States and the Taliban have concluded two days of marathon peace talks in the United Arab Emirates, promising to meet again in the Gulf country for another round “to complete the Afghanistan reconciliation process.”

Pakistan took credit for bringing Taliban insurgents to the negotiating table to assist in the Washington-initiated bid aimed at ending the 17-year-old Afghan war.

The Afghan “reconciliation conference” in Abu Dhabi, "fructified in tangible results that are positive for all parties concerned,” said the state-run Emirates News Agency in a brief announcement Wednesday.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, led the U.S. team in the meeting, with officials of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates also in attendance.

In a message via his office’s official Twitter account, Khalilzad noted he held “productive” meetings with Afghan and international partners in Abu Dhabi “to promote intra-Afghan dialogue towards ending the conflict in Afghanistan.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in a separate statement, said, “Future negotiation meetings shall continue after deliberations and consultations by both sides with their respective leaderships.”

The talks began on Monday and were supposed to last three days, as per earlier official announcements, but neither side explained what prompted them to abruptly end the process.

Afghan government peace negotiators were also present in the vicinity, hoping to join the meeting at some stage, but the Taliban refused to sit with them.

Mujahid said the Taliban’s dialogue was exclusively with the U.S. and “the focal point” of discussions with U.S. interlocutors was the withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan.

The “biggest obstacle to peace is the occupation of Afghanistan and bringing it to an end,” the Taliban spokesman reiterated, while referring to the U.S.-led international military mission.

Mujahid again rejected as groundless reports that issues such as a temporary cease-fire, peace talks with the Kabul administration, installation of an interim Afghan government and future elections also came under discussions with Khalilzad’s team.

He described these issues as Afghanistan’s “internal matters” and went on to assert that Taliban envoys presented “documented information and proof to the participants about indiscriminate bombings against civilians and demanded its immediate halt.”

For their part, Afghan, U.S. and United Nations officials accuse the Taliban of causing a majority of Afghan civilian casualties during battlefield and other insurgent raids.

Mujahid said that Taliban officials also urged U.S. interlocutors to take into consideration “humane treatment of [insurgent] prisoners and their freedom” from Afghan jails.

Khalilzad is said to have urged the Taliban to release an American professor and his Australian colleague who were kidnapped more than two years ago. Kevin King, 60, and Timothy Weeks, 48, from Australia were teaching at Kabul’s American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) before gunmen took them hostage near the campus in August 2016.

Ambassador Khalilzad later visited Pakistan to discuss “regional security" and the "Afghan peace process” with the country’s military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

An army spokesman said General Bajwa reiterated that peace in Afghanistan is important for Pakistan and assured continued efforts for bringing peace and stability in the region.

After his brief stopover in Pakistan, Khalilzad arrived in neighboring Afghanistan to update the Afghan leadership on his engagements with regional partners and other interested parties “to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict,” the U.S. embassy in Kabul said.

Pakistan’s involvement

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who publicly took credit last Friday for facilitating the “peace talks,” reiterated Tuesday his country “will do everything within its power” to further the Afghan peace process.

“Pakistan has helped in the dialogue between Taliban and the U.S. in Abu Dhabi. Let us pray that this leads to peace and ends almost three decades of suffering of the brave Afghan people,” Khan said.

When asked about the talks in UAE, a State Department spokesperson told VOA Monday that the meetings were part of U.S. efforts to promote an intra-Afghan dialogue toward ending the conflict.

“We welcome any actions the Pakistani government takes to advance security, stability and cooperation in South Asia, including the fostering of negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan government and other Afghans, the spokesperson said.

The U.S. spokesperson also said a recent letter from U.S. President Donald Trump to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan "emphasized that Pakistan’s assistance with the Afghan peace process is fundamental to building an enduring U.S.-Pakistan partnership.”

Islamabad reaction

Officials in Islamabad have issued a harsh response to the comments by the State Department, saying they believe Washington is trying to downplay Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table in UAE.

“(The) U.S. administration has to adopt a more respectful and duly appreciating attitude towards Pakistan if it wants the cooperation to continue with same goodwill. Western media efforts to brush aside Pakistan’s role in bringing authoritative Taliban to direct talks with U.S. must end,” a source in Islamabad told VOA.

The strong reaction underscored the fragile Islamabad-Washington relationship that has lately deteriorated further.

Trump administration officials have hardened the U.S. position on Pakistan in recent months, suspending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for what the U.S. says is Islamabad’s unwillingness to act decisively against the Taliban. Pakistani authorities reject that charge, and point to the thousands of troops who have been killed fighting militants in the volatile Afghan border region.

Islamabad has long urged in talks with the United States that rival India’s growing influence in Afghanistan is a matter of concern for Pakistan. Security officials blame Indian intelligence operatives for supporting militants planning terrorist attacks in Pakistan from Afghan soil, charges both Kabul and New Delhi reject.

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