Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Friday, September 20, 2019 which is National Fried Rice Day, National Gibberish Day, National Concussion Awareness Day and National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
Today/This Weekend in Legion History:
- Sept. 20, 1944: The 26th American Legion National Convention passes Resolution 138, primarily as a plan to educate and enthuse World War II veterans about the organization they are rapidly joining. Summarized as “at least two weeks” of an “intensive course of study for selected World War I and World War II Legionnaires,” the first actual American Legion College, with a class of 63, would not begin until 1946 at the national headquarters in Indianapolis. By 1954, American Legion departments are conducting their own Legion Colleges, which become the preferred method of leadership training, and the national program is suspended. Forty-five years later, national American Legion College is resurrected and continues today.
- Sept. 21, 1937: The American Legion National Convention Parade in New York City draws national media coverage and lasts nearly 18 hours. More than 250,000 marchers and spectators line up for the event.
Today in History:
- 1565: Spanish forces under Pedro Menéndez de Avilés capture the French Huguenot settlement of Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. The French, commanded by Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere, lost 135 men in the first instance of colonial warfare between European powers in America. Most of those killed were massacred on the order of Aviles, who allegedly had the slain hanged on trees beside the inscription “Not as Frenchmen, but as heretics.” Laudonniere and some 40 other Huguenots escaped.
- On the evening of September 20, 1777, near Paoli, Pennsylvania, General Charles Grey and nearly 5,000 British soldiers launch a surprise attack on a small regiment of Patriot troops commanded by General Anthony Wayne in what becomes known as the Paoli Massacre. Not wanting to lose the element of surprise, Grey ordered his troops to empty their muskets and to use only bayonets or swords to attack the sleeping Americans under the cover of darkness.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- Military Times: VA concedes its debt collection systems leave veterans confused, frustrated
- The Hill: Negotiators kick off defense bill talks amid border wall, Iran debates
- Defense News: Space Force price tag clouds decision to formally launch, despite White House push
- Military Times: Why failure to reintegrate tens of thousands of ex-Taliban fighters is dangerous
- Stripes: New AFRICOM chief in Niger to assess security in volatile western Africa
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Military Times: VA concedes its debt collection systems leave veterans confused, frustrated
By:Leo Shane III 14 hours ago
Veterans Affairs officials acknowledged to lawmakers that the department’s debt collection practices remain “too clunky and too confusing” to ensure families aren’t left in financial jeopardy. And they promised additional reforms within the next year.
“We are too often fragmented, uncoordinated and highly variable in our processes,” said Jon Rychalski, chief financial officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs, told members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday. “Frankly, we have a way to go before we can declare success.”
Last fiscal year, VA overpayments to veterans totaled roughly $1.6 billion, on par with mistakes in previous years.
The cases include mistakes in disability payouts after beneficiary information is updated, payments that conflict with other federal benefits like drill pay, changes in college enrollment that lower GI Bill eligibility, and simple math errors by department employees.
Officials from Veterans Education Success said one in four recipients of GI Bill benefits face some time of overpayment-related debt.
The department sent out more than 600,000 debt collection notices to veterans and their families in fiscal 2018 in an effort to recover the money. Members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said too often they hear from veterans who face significant financial hardship as a result of those actions, even when they incur the debt through no fault of their own.
“VA has a lot of work ahead to reduce the number of overpayments sent to veterans,” said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H. “Receiving these notices of balance due can prove particularly burdensome to veterans living on fixed incomes.”
VA has changed policies in recent years that required withholding future checks until the debt was fully repaid, instead opting for automatic 12-month repayment plans to ease the burden.
But lawmakers and outside advocates said in many cases the debt — which often tops $2,500, according to committee statistics — is still too large to comfortably deduct from monthly payouts.
“The resultant debts owed by veterans often cause severe financial hardships for veterans and their families,” said Shane Liermann, deputy national legislative director for benefits at Disabled American Veterans.
“In many cases, the burden of repaying these debts can negatively impact a veteran’s quality of life, put them at risk of homelessness and affect their access to VA health care.”
Lawmakers pressed VA on making hardship waivers for debt collection easier to obtain, and for broader use of VA’s authority to wipe out the debt completely.
Rychalski said officials have to balance their responsibility to taxpayers to recover overpayments with veterans’ financial health, but said the department is reviewing how cases are handled to see if systemic changes are needed.
He said within the next year he expects VA to offer a new online portal where veterans can monitor any outstanding debts, and new department policies to minimize the number of debt notices sent to veterans from various sub-agencies within VA.
The department is also targeting a new online debt payment system within the next three years. Rychalski acknowledged that timeline is slower than many would like, but said the process will require coordinating a host of aging computer systems.
Lawmakers urged more speed on the solutions.
“The clock is running,” Pappas said. “Every day this isn’t enacted is a day where a veteran is potentially put in dire financial straits.”
BYREBECCA KHEEL -09/19/19 11:34 AM EDT
House and Senate negotiators officially kicked off talks Thursday to reconcile their versions of the annual defense policy bill with several thorny debates looming over them.
Chief among them is how to deal with Pentagon funding that has been tapped for President Trump’s border wall.
Negotiators will also wrangle with an amendment meant to block Trump from taking military action against Iran, a provision that has received renewed attention as Trump debates how to respond to attacks on Saudi oil facilities.
Ahead of the first official meeting — dubbed the “pass the gavel” meeting — the leaders of the Armed Services committees would not indicate where they will land on those and other issues.
“I appreciate the questions, but we’re not going to tell you how we’re going to have an outcome here at this press conference, in part because we don’t know what that outcome is yet,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters. “That’s the nature of a conference committee.”
Smith was speaking to reporters alongside Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Senate Armed Services ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).
Though Thursday marked the first formal meeting of the conference committee, staffers and key lawmakers have been talking behind the scenes for months.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon announced it was taking $3.6 billion from 127 military construction projects to build 175 miles of wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, in line with Trump’s emergency declaration at the beginning of the year.
The Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would replace that $3.6 billion, while the House’s would not.
A school of thought has emerged ahead of the NDAA negotiations that the issue is an appropriations issue not an authorization one since the projects losing money to the wall are authorized for five years regardless.
As such, questions have emerged over whether negotiators will decide to be silent on the issue altogether, kicking the fight exclusively to the government funding bill.
Smith said Thursday no decision has been made on how to handle backfilling the military construction funds.
Despite the controversial issues facing negotiators, the committee leaders expressed hope they could continue the 58-year streak of getting the NDAA signed into law.
“All four of us are determined to do everything we possibly can to make it 59,” Thornberry said. “This is not just policy differences and so forth. There are flesh and blood men and women serving our country right now all over the world who are affected by the decisions we make, as well as adversaries and allies that are watching what we do.”
In addition to the border wall and Iran, lawmakers will need to find compromises on issues ranging from U.S. military support to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen to Trump’s transgender military ban to Pentagon funds being used at Trump-owned properties.
Defense News: Space Force price tag clouds decision to formally launch, despite White House push
By:Joe Gould 21 hours ago
WASHINGTON ― A key legal change the Trump administration is seeking would enshrine a U.S. Space Force as a separate branch of the military next year ― but it could cost billions more upfront than what the Senate had planned.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., an ally of the president, indicated Tuesday he was leaning toward the move after Vice President Mike Pence personally lobbied him to include the new force under Title 10, the section of United States code that organizes the U.S. military.
“The president is very strong on wanting to have it and wanting to do it immediately and wanting to do it, obviously, before the election ― and we’re going to try and get that done,” Inhofe said about legislation to create a new Space Force.
On Tuesday, Pence spoke at the Senate Republican caucus’ weekly lunch and met with Inhofe afterward ― ahead of the formal start of negotiations Thursday between the House and Senate over their competing versions of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, a massive defense policy bill.
But Inhofe remained concerned with the potential for massive added costs and how they would be absorbed by the bill because of how the costs are scored by the Congressional Budget Office, the agency tasked with estimating costs associated with legislative proposals.
CBO estimated the administration’s Space Force proposal would add $800 million to $1.3 billion in annual costs, and between $1.1 billion and $3 billion in one-time costs.
But, according to CBO’s analysis, the Senate bill doesn’t incur those costs because it doesn’t take a key step: declaring the new service into being. Instead, the Senate set a number of conditions and a one-year timeline for the Pentagon to start building the Space Force, all aimed at cutting costs and requiring the Pentagon prove it has a vision for the new branch.
Crucially, the Senate proposal would restructure certain organizations and personnel of the Air Force into the Space Force and would not authorize new military billets or civilian hires. That’s not a distinction made by the House bill.
“The problem we have with that is if [the NDAA amends] Title 10, you have a CBO scoring problem of $3.9 billion. We’re not very excited about that figure,” Inhofe said. “It’s not going to cost that, we all know that, so what’s the rush? But there seems to be one.”
“The president wants to [establish a Space Force] that leaves no doubt in anybody’s mind that we’re ahead of Russia and China, we’re concerned about space, and we are at the top,” Inhofe said. “If we have [the Title 10 change] as part of the bill, it will accomplish that ― but it’s my problem to make that part of the bill.”
For Trump, Space Force has grown from an aside in a 2018 speech to a serious push ― which military leaders say is needed to protect the U.S. space assets vital to military communications, navigation and intelligence. Trump in August reestablished the combatant command U.S. Space Command, with approval from Congress.
Space Force, if approved by the legislative body, would be the first new military service since the Air Force was created in 1947. It would be the smallest service by far, with between 15,000 and 20,000 members.
To Todd Harrison, an influential space and budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the focus on Title 10 and the cost differences are overblown because they’re difficult to accurately extrapolate from the legislative language. Plus, a compromise bill might add the new service under Title 10 but easily skirt costs by keeping the Senate’s ban on new civilian and military hires, he said.
“The ramp-up rate is not well-defined in either bill,” Harrison said. “The Senate bill makes Air Force Space Command into Space Force with other elements to be added later, and the [House bill] creates a Space Force, but it’s not well-defined what goes in it either. It think it’s an academic distinction in terms of how they are scored.”
Military Times: Why failure to reintegrate tens of thousands of ex-Taliban fighters is dangerous
By:Diana Stancy Correll 17 hours ago
Failure to reintegrate former Taliban fighters and other combatants in Afghanistan could prompt them to join terrorist organizations like the Islamic State, according to a new watchdog report.
“If ex-combatants are not accepted by their communities or are unable to find a new livelihood, they may be vulnerable to recruitment by criminal groups or terrorist organizations like the Islamic State Khorasan, the local branch of the Islamic State active in eastern Afghanistan,” the Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a report released Thursday.
This is just one of multiple issues plaguing reintegration efforts of approximately 60,000 full-time Taliban fighters and 90,000 seasonal fighters in Afghanistan — efforts that have proven ineffective in the past.
Since 2002, the U.S. has poured approximately $65 million into a series of reintegration programs. But none of them “succeeded in enabling any significant number of ex-combatants to socially and economically rejoin civil society,” the report said.
“Programs specifically targeting Taliban insurgents did not weaken the insurgency to any substantial degree or contribute meaningfully to parallel reconciliation efforts,” SIGAR’s report said.
Reintegrating the Taliban and other combatants in a cornerstone to securing sustainable peace in Afghanistan, according to John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan.
Additionally, he said Thursday at a United States Institute for Peace event that previous reintegration efforts have fallen flat because of the absence of a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban that addresses the reintegration of former fighters.
“Without this [agreement], if fighters join a reintegration program, they and their families face enormous risks of retribution,” Sopko said. “And during a war, it’s very difficult if not impossible [at] times to provide protection for them. That risk of retribution — and insecurity more generally — was a key reason that past reintegration programs did not succeed in Afghanistan.”
As a result, SIGAR recommends that the U.S. hold off on backing a reintegration effort until a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban is secured that takes into account reintegrating former combatants. Even so, Congress should organize plans for reintegration right away, rather than waiting until discussions to conclude.
The watchdog also recommended the U.S. not support a reintegration program unless violence drops in Afghanistan, and until proper oversight is implemented.
However, even if a peace deal is arranged, Sopko warned there still could be problems. For example, Afghanistan’s suffering economy and 23 percent unemployment rate could pose challenges to reintegration.
“For fighters to come in from the cold and rejoin society, they will need access to a stable job, or they then may return to fighting or enter one of Afghanistan’s many more profitable, but illicit economic sectors, such as organized crime, kidnapping, and narcotics trafficking,” Sopko said.
Another factor to consider is the segment of more than 2.7 million Afghan refugees who are now primarily in Pakistan or Iran. In the aftermath of a potential peace agreement, these refugees would likely return to Afghanistan, placing an additional burden on Afghanistan’s job market.
“Adding tens of thousands of armed Taliban soldiers as well as their families and supporters to the mix would only exacerbate the challenge,” Sopko said.
Such an economic situation could provide a recruitment opportunity for terrorist groups like IS-K, Sopko said.
SIGAR also said reintegration efforts must also focus on other militants from state-aligned militias and other groups. Not doing so would inspire the Taliban to reject reintegration efforts, SIGAR warned.
Given these challenges, SIGAR recommended that the U.S. install a head agency or office to spearhead these efforts. A lack of such an institution has contributed to confusion about reintegration goals, the report said.
The watchdog also noted successful reintegration will depend on economic support from the U.S. and others among the donor community who are partnering with the World Bank to arrange financial and technical support for Afghanistan and its economy. Proper oversight must couple such support, the report cautioned.
Peace negotiations between the U.S., Taliban, and Afghan government have been put on the back burner after President Donald Trump called off a covert meeting with the Taliban and Afghan leaders at Camp David.
Trump said that he canceled the meeting after a U.S. soldier and 11 others were killed in a Taliban car bomb attack, and has since said negotiations with the Taliban are “dead.”
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who has spearheaded peace negotiations for more than a year, is slated to provide a classified briefing to members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday. He is also expected to provide a public hearing later on Thursday.
In addition to a review of thousands of pages of public and private documents and academic material, SIGAR’s report was based off of 51 interviews with current and former U.S., Afghan, and other government officials and academics. The report was launched 14 months ago, Sopko said.
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 19, 2019
STUTTGART, Germany — U.S. Africa Command’s Gen. Stephen Townsend met with American troops in Niger on Thursday during a visit to assess security in the West Africa region, which is grappling to counter several Islamic militant groups.
Townsend’s visit to Niger, his first since he took over as head of AFRICOM in July, came in the midst of a 90-day review ordered by Defense Secretary Mark Esper into whether the U.S. should hold force levels on the African continent steady or make additional cuts.
U.S. troops are training with their Nigerien counterparts in a country that has proven dangerous but remains central to the military’s strategy in the region.
“Niger has been a willing and engaged partner in the fight against violent extremist organizations,” Townsend said. “Niger is committed to building its defense capacity and containing and degrading terrorist networks in Africa.”
An ambush in which militants killed four U.S. soldiers in October 2017 brought intense scrutiny to operations in the country and raised questions about the purpose of the American mission. While the U.S. has scaled back some of its operations and shifted more of its focus to higher level unit training rather than joint combat patrols in Niger, there are still risks. In June, American troops escaped serious injury when the U.S. military vehicle they were traveling in hit a roadside bomb.
Despite the dangers, the U.S. appears committed to keeping forces in Niger for the long haul.
In August, the U.S. Air Force began flying surveillance aircraft out of a new base in central Niger that has been years in the making. Known as Nigerien Air Base 201 in Agadez, the site is expected to improve intelligence gathering in the region.
AFRICOM has said operations there will expand over time.
“Nigerien Air Base 201 will ultimately possess an ability to support an array of aircraft and missions to include added ISR options,” AFRICOM said in a statement, referring to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations. The capabilities that the base eventually will have “will benefit the entire region,” Townsend said.
Townsend’s visit, which included meetings with senior Nigerien defense officials and the country’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, was part of a tour through the region. Earlier in the week, he held talks with officials in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso.
Numerous extremist groups, including Nigeria-based Boko Haram, have brought instability to West Africa, including the Lake Chad basin region, which includes parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.
ISIS-West Africa has also become a top security concern for AFRICOM since it broke away from Boko Haram three years ago. That group routinely launches cross-border attacks in Niger.
While extremist groups in West Africa don’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland now, military officials worry they could, if left unchecked.
Ambassador Eric P. Whitaker said the U.S. will continue to train and equip Nigerien forces to counter regional threats.
“Our goal is to enable Niger’s defense and security forces to develop and sustain a professional force and contribute to peacekeeping efforts,” Whitaker said.