20 March, 2019 08:58

Good morning, Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Wednesday, March 20, 2019, which is the first day of spring, Alien Abduction Day, International Astrology Day, International Day of Happiness, International Earth Day, Proposal Day, Won’t You Be My Neighbor Day, and World Storytelling Day.

Today in History:

  • On this day in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson notifies Alabama’s Governor George Wallace that he will use federal authority to call up the Alabama National Guard in order to supervise a planned civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
  • 1995: At the height of the morning rush hour in Tokyo, Japan, five two-man terrorist teams from the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, riding on separate subway trains, converge at the Kasumigaseki station and secretly release lethal sarin gas into the air. The terrorists then took a sarin antidote and escaped while the commuters, blinded and gasping for air, rushed to the exits. Twelve people died, and 5,500 were treated in hospitals, some in a comatose state. Most of the survivors recovered, but some victims suffered permanent damage to their eyes, lungs, and digestive systems. A United States Senate subcommittee later estimated that if the sarin gas had been disseminated more effectively at Kasumigaseki station, a hub of the Tokyo subway system, tens of thousands might have been killed.
  • 1968: Retired U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Shoup estimates that up to 800,000 men would be required just to defend South Vietnamese population centers. He further stated that the United States could only achieve military victory by invading the North, but argued that such an operation would not be worth the cost. Also on this day: The New York Times publishes excerpts from General Westmoreland’s classified end-of-year report, which indicated that the U.S. command did not believe the enemy capable of any action even approximating the Tet Offensive. This report, Shoup’s comments, and other conflicting assessments of the situation in Vietnam contributed to the growing dissatisfaction among a large segment of American society with the Vietnam War.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

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

    Stars & Stripes: Congressmen urge FBI to investigate bots targeting veterans with fake news
    By Nikki Wentling | Stars and Stripes | Published: March 19, 2019
    WASHINGTON — Four congressmen urged the FBI on Tuesday to investigate “foreign entities” believed to be targeting servicemembers and veterans online with false information.
    Reps. Gil Cisneros, D-Calif., Don Bacon, R-Neb., Ted Lieu, D-Calif., and Greg Steube, R-Fla., wrote to FBI Director Christopher Wray, asking for an investigation into “suspicious” social media accounts that could be impersonating veterans service organizations.
    “Online influence and psychological operations against trusted civilian community leaders like our nation’s veterans are novel threats that demand law enforcement attention,” they wrote.
    The request for an FBI investigation follows an announcement earlier this month from the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which launched its own review into foreign actors using “shadowy practices” to disseminate false information to veterans, servicemembers and their families.
    The committee is in a fact-finding stage and is planning to hold meetings with stakeholders about the issue.
    Cisneros, a Navy veteran, is a member of the veterans affairs committee and the House Armed Services Committee. He asked for an FBI investigation “in order to identify and dismantle these cyber threats before they cause harm,” he said.
    Vietnam Veterans of America, a congressionally chartered veterans service organization, has been looking into the issue since 2017, when it discovered a Facebook page using its name and logo. The page posted politically divisive posts and was followed by nearly 200,000 people – tens of thousands more than the official VVA page.
    Facebook Inc. disabled the page after determining it violated VVA’s intellectual property.
    Kristofer Goldsmith, associate director for policy and government affairs at VVA, has worked to shut down more fake accounts that target veterans and servicemembers with “divisive propaganda,” he said.
    Though the issue has the attention of the veterans affairs committee, Goldsmith argued earlier this month that the FBI needs to become involved to track and identify the people behind the accounts.
    “The problem is persistent, widespread, and presents a threat to the force and the veterans community,” Goldsmith said Tuesday in a statement. “We’re glad that Congressman Cisneros and the members are taking this issue seriously, and we hope that Director Wray will too. Depending on social media companies to stop bad-actors is not enough — we need to hold the people behind these fraudulent online avatars accountable.”
    A study from Oxford University in 2017 found Russian operatives used Twitter and Facebook to disseminate “junk news” to veterans and servicemembers.
    Researchers with Oxford’s Project on Computational Propaganda, which studied how Americans were affected by disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election, found trolls and bots targeted military personnel and veterans with propaganda, conspiracies and hyper-partisan political content. The population of veterans and servicemembers contains “potentially influential voters and community leaders” because of the trust the public places in them, the study states.
    In their letter, the four congressmen asked Wray whether the FBI was aware of the problem and if the agency had taken any action to combat it.
    “As the federal law enforcement agency responsible for criminal and counterintelligence investigations, we respectfully request answers to our questions below about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s work to combat such predation,” the letter states.
    The Military Coalition — a group of 32 military and veterans organizations that includes VVA, as well as Veterans of Foreign Wars and Wounded Warrior Project — listed cyber protection for veterans and servicemembers as one of their policy goals. The group said it wants to encourage Congress, the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense to investigate the online targeting of servicemembers and provide training and online protection where necessary.

    Military Times: Is anybody tracking health issues from mold and other military housing hazards?
    By: Karen Jowers | 11 hours ago
    Military family advocates are questioning whether officials are tracking and treating the health issues that are linked to their military housing rife with mold, rodent infestation, lead paint, and other issues.
    The issues with these problems in military housing started with families’ concerns about health, noted Karen Ruedisueli, deputy government relations director for the National Military Family Association. “It does seem that some families were exposed to some hazardous issues within their installation housing,” she said during a Tuesday meeting of the DoD Military Family Readiness Council.
    That association would like to see a collaboration of the Defense Health Agency with housing officials, “to make sure that families who believe they are suffering ill health effects as a result of their housing health hazards, are receiving appropriate treatment, either in the direct care system or in the civilian network of providers,” said Ruedisueli, a member of the council.
    DoD is collecting data on the health effects, said Dr. Terry Adirim, deputy assistant secretary of defense for health services policy and oversight.
    In addition, a team of DoD’s housing and environmental staff and the Defense Health Agency’s public health staff is looking at the issue to determine whether there are gaps in policies and procedures, she said, and whether a more expansive risk assessment is needed for children who are beneficiaries in the DoD health care system.
    The team is also looking at the process through which children’s toxic blood levels get reported to installation public health officials, Adirim said. Council member Dr. David Rubin, of Children’s Hospital Association, noted that if a child living on base has an elevated lead level and is living on the installation, that probably indicates a risk to other children living on the installation, too.
    DoD housing officials are also looking at their processes to make sure residents understand their options to talk to the medical team on the installation any time they have a concern about their housing, regardless of whether they live on or off the base, said Pat Coury, principal director for facilities and housing in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment. “The housing office should be helping direct them to the right people,” she said. “We want to be sure everyone understands the process.”
    Some families have reported that even after they visited their military health care providers and those providers wrote letters about the need for the problems to be fixed because of a health hazard, or the family should be moved, the housing companies didn’t act.
    But this issue is important not just to the families living in houses now with problems that could be affecting their health, but to those who lived in those houses previously, Ruedisueli said. Because military families move so frequently and the occupants of the houses change very quickly, Ruedisueli said, she asked if DoD is reaching back to families who lived there, at least fairly recently. That’s one of the issues the team is exploring, Adirim said.
    Robert McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, told the council that defense officials are working on key efforts to address the problems long term, such as a tenant’s bill of rights which he hopes will be completed within 60 days. Among other things, that document would provide for some method of withholding rent from the private company if a tenant’s problems have not been addressed in a timely manner.
    Another effort will be to ensure there’s a tenant advocate in the military housing communities, with defined role and responsibilities.
    Military officials are also restarting command training on the issue. Previously, this was part of training for installation commanders and senior non-commissioned officers, on dealing with the program of privatized housing. “Over time, it slid off the table,” McMahon told the council.
    Families have been frustrated that there was no one to turn to on the military/government side when they couldn’t get results from their privatized housing company. The effort to address these problems long term will extend throughout the military command structure, to convey that “we have to do better,” he said.
    Executives of the privatized companies have a similar understanding, McMahon said, noting that he has met with them three times over the last 45 days, and the conversations and focus will continue.
    “I expect them to get us there," McMahon said. "If they don’t come willingly, we will get to the point that we will modify their behavior one way or another.
    “I would just as soon have them do that voluntarily, and I think that’s what will happen.”

    Military Times: VA’s caregiver program losing top official at a critical moment
    By: Leo Shane III | 18 hours ago
    The Veterans Affairs Caregiver Support Program is about to lose its top official as concerns mount about delays to a planned expansion of the benefit later this year.
    Department officials confirmed Tuesday that Meg Kabat, director of the program, will leave that post on April 3 “to pursue private-sector employment opportunities.” The move leaves another key leadership void at the department, although VA staff downplayed those concerns.
    “The National Caregiver Support Program Office is staffed by dedicated and knowledgeable employees who will ensure the efforts Meg led continue without interruption,” Veterans Health Administration Chief of Staff Larry Connell said in a statement. “VA plans to name Meg’s replacement in the near future.”
    Kabat, who has worked in the caregiver office for more than eight years, was praised for “positively impacting tens of thousands of veterans and their families” during her tenure at VA.
    But the caregiver program has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months as officials prepare for a mandated expansion of stipends to families of veterans who served before 2001. That work was supposed to start on Oct. 1, but concerns over technology shortfalls may force a postponement.
    VA officials have until that date to certify whether their new information technology system is ready to support expansion of the program. Department spokesman Curt Cashour said staff is working “to implement a new commercial-off-the-shelf IT solution” with plans for deployment in coming months.
    “VA strongly supports the expansion of its caregiver program and stands ready to work with Congress to ensure that all aspects of the law are implemented,” he said.
    The expansion could grant monthly stipends to more than 41,000 veteran families in coming years, more than doubling the current number of stipend recipients. Under legislation passed last summer, the department is scheduled to phase in the payouts over two years after the IT certification takes place.
    Veterans groups have expressed alarm over current program operations, noting that staffing and support levels for the workload today aren’t enough.
    Last August, an inspector general investigation found shortfalls in the program’s processing and monitoring procedures. Last month, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., expressed dismay that department officials have failed to address reports of improper dismissals from the program, even after VA Secretary Robert Wilkie promised to fix those past problems.
    Earlier this month, in testimony before the Senate, Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander B.J. Lawrence warned that VA officials need to move quickly on getting those fixes in place.
    “Pre-9/11 veterans should not be forced forgo the choice of staying at home with their loved ones in lieu of inpatient long-term care simply because VA is to slow to fix issues it has known about for years,” he said.
    Whether Kabat’s departure effects that effort remains to be seen. Lawmakers have expressed concerns about the large number of vacancies within department leadership in recent months, including a lack of permanent appointees for the department’s deputy secretary post and top health official.

    Military Times: Arthritis can hit troops and vets hard. Here’s how advocates want to respond.
    By: Joshua Axelrod | 16 hours ago
    As active-duty personnel and veterans feel the damaging effects of arthritis stemming from their service, advocates are pushing Congress to dedicate more money for research on potential ways to treat and prevent the disease.
    Veterans are more likely to develop arthritis than civilians, according to an October 2018 study. Other studies indicate that osteoarthritis is the second-leading cause of military discharge, behind combat wounds.
    “A lot of the progress to be made with arthritis is about prevention,” said Dr. Colin Edgerton, a former Army rheumatologist and current chair of the American College of Rheumatology’s Committee on Rheumatological Care.
    “It’s about stopping those injuries before they occur so that that person is not looking at early joint replacement surgery and disability at a point in life where they otherwise would not have had that,” he said.
    During his time in the military, Edgerton was primarily responsible for treating soldiers with musculoskeletal disorders. As part of his job, he had to judge whether soldiers with arthritis or similar degenerative issues needed to be medically discharged or not.
    “I was acutely aware of the impact that had on readiness and on the individual’s lives,” he said.
    Arthritis encompasses over 100 diseases, including mechanical (or degenerative) and inflammatory ones, the latter of which involves immune-system disorders like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, according to Edgerton.
    Service members who suffer knee injuries while deployed are at an increased risk of developing arthritis, he said. One recent study found that one in five military members with a knee injury developed radiographic arthritis before age 30.
    This can be “a real career-ender for a soldier” and lead to mobility issues earlier in their lives than expected, Edgerton said.
    “That veteran then will be looking at a knee replacement in their early 40s versus a peer in the civilian world that may not have been subjected to a mechanical injury getting a knee replacement in their 60s or 70s,” he said.
    The Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs budget for fiscal-year 2019 does not specifically identify arthritis as a subject area of concern. Edgerton and the ACR want arthritis to be listed as a “line item,” meaning it would be designated as a research subject worthy of increased focus and given more funding.
    “If there was a dedicated line in that research budget for arthritis, that would go a long way toward establishing kind of a sustainable focus on arthritis, since it is such a high-impact disease in the military population,” he said.
    For perspective, the CDMRP allocated $130 million for breast cancer research in 2019.
    Arthritis was listed in the Army’s 2018 Medical Research and Material Command medical research program as an area of interest. However, arthritis research only received slightly more than $6 million in funding.
    The congressional Arthritis Caucus did issue a dear colleague letter asking that arthritis be made a line item in the 2019 CDMRP, but to no avail.
    Edgerton is hoping 2020 is finally the year Congress makes arthritis research the priority he and his organization believe it should be.
    “Just three years ago we kind of recognized that this is something that needed to be done and each year we … get more support,” he said. “So we hope this is the year that we actually get it done.”

    The Hill: Judge says Trump cannot implement transgender military policy
    BY REBECCA KHEEL – 03/19/19 05:22 PM EDT
    A federal judge on Tuesday said her injunction preventing President Trump’s transgender military policy from taking effect remains in place days after the Pentagon released a memo to implement the policy.
    In a three-page order, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia wrote that “defendants were incorrect in claiming that there was no longer an impediment to the military’s implementation of the [transgender policy] in this case.”
    Asked whether the order will affect plans to implement the policy on April 12, a Pentagon spokeswoman said the department is “consulting with the Department of Justice on next steps.”
    The spokeswoman referred further questions to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.
    Last week, acting Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist signed a memo implementing a policy that would ban most transgender people from serving in the military. The memo makes the policy effective April 12.
    The memo came roughly a week after a federal court ruled to lift the last of the injunctions preventing Trump’s policy from taking effect.
    A federal judge in Maryland ruled he had no choice but to the lift the injunction after the Supreme Court in February ruled 5-4 to lift two other injunctions.
    But the Trump administration and advocates for transgender troops continued to fight over whether a fourth injunction remained in place despite the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia’s January ruling to lift it.
    The plaintiffs in that lawsuit argued the injunction holds until they decide whether they want a rehearing in front of the appeals court’s full bench. The deadline for them to decide is March 29.
    In Tuesday’s court order, Kollar-Kotelly agreed, saying the D.C. Circuit Court’s judgment is not final until it issues a mandate after the deadline passes.
    “On October 30, 2017, this court ordered defendants to maintain the status quo as it relates to the accession and retention of transgender individuals in the military. That preliminary injunction remains in place until the D.C. Circuit issues its mandate vacating the preliminary injunction,” she wrote. “Lacking a mandate, defendants remain bound by this court’s preliminary injunction to maintain the status quo.”
    The transgender advocacy groups serving as co-counsels in the lawsuit touted Kollar-Kotelly’s order, saying it makes “crystal clear” the Trump administration cannot move forward with the policy.
    “The Trump administration cannot circumvent the judicial process just to fast track its baseless, unfair ban on transgender service members,” Jennifer Levi, the director of the Transgender Rights Project of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, said in a statement. “The dedicated transgender troops who show up every day to do their duty and serve their country deserve justice, and that includes requiring this administration to follow the ordinary rules of judicial process.”

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