23 January, 2019 09:04

Good morning, Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Wednesday, January 23, 2019, which is Measure Your Feet Day, National Handwriting Day, and National Rhubarb Pie Day.

Today in History:

  • On this day in 1957, machines at the Wham-O toy company roll out the first batch of their aerodynamic plastic discs–now known to millions of fans all over the world as Frisbees.
  • 1849: Elizabeth Blackwell is granted a medical degree from Geneva College in New York, becoming the first female to be officially recognized as a physician in U.S. history.
  • 1922: At Toronto General Hospital, 14-year-old Canadian Leonard Thompson becomes the first person to receive an insulin injection as treatment for diabetes.
  • 1968: The U.S. intelligence-gathering ship Pueblo is seized by North Korean naval vessels and charged with spying and violating North Korean territorial waters. Negotiations to free the 83-man crew of the U.S. ship dragged on for nearly a year, damaging the credibility of and confidence in the foreign policy of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

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

    Military Times: VA’s benefits appeals process will see a dramatic changeover next month
    By: Leo Shane III | 16 hours ago
    WASHINGTON — Veterans rejected for disability benefits will have a new slate of appeals options starting next month, when federal officials will put in place an overhaul of the review process with hopes of dramatically cutting down on wait times for the complicated cases.
    Last week, Department of Veterans Affairs officials announced they will implement new appeals modernization rules starting Feb. 19. Work on the effort has been underway for more than 18 months, since lawmakers passed sweeping reform legislation on the topic in August 2017.
    Under the new rules, veterans will be given three options for their benefits appeals. All three are designed to streamline the complicated existing process for cases, which can languish for years as new evidence and arguments are introduced throughout the timeline.
    Now, VA leaders are hoping the most difficult reviews can still be completed in under a year in the vast majority of cases. Their target for cases which don’t go before the Board of Veterans Appeals is an average of about four months for a final decision.
    A successful appeal can mean potentially thousands of dollars in monthly benefits payouts for veterans who have previously been turned down for what they believe are service-connected injuries and illnesses. VA and Capitol Hill leaders hailed the changes as a long-overdue fix.
    “(This) is the most significant reform in veterans’ appeals processing in a generation and promises to improve the timeliness and accuracy of decisions for our nation’s veterans,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif.
    He promised close oversight of the work ahead, but also hope about the potential rewards for veterans.
    Committee ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., last week visited a regional office in his home state that will be involved in the new appeals process and left feeling confident in its success.
    “The VA staff feel really good about this,” he said. “They’re worked out the hiccups they’ve had, and are ready to move ahead. Getting all the training and experience is going to take time, but I walked away optimistic.”
    Veterans groups largely supported the appeals overhaul, although a few groups have expressed concerns about the new system limiting veterans options for future reviews in favor of getting faster answers.
    Under the first of the three new appeals processes, veterans can file a supplemental claim where they introduce new evidence backing their case. The appeal is handled by specialists at a regional office, who render a final decision on it.
    In the second option, veterans can request their case be reviewed by a senior claims adjudicator instead of the regional office. Those experts will review cases for clear errors or mistaken interpretations of statute. If they find mistakes, they can mandate corrections for the cases.
    Finally, veterans will also be able to appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Those cases are expected to take the longest to process, because of the legal prep work involved. Veterans can get a direct decision or request a hearing before the board.
    Portions of the new process have been implemented as pilot programs at select sites in recent months. Previously, cases involved a combination of all three options, with cases reset and repeating steps with every new submission of case evidence.
    Veterans with cases currently pending in the system can opt-into the revamped processes starting next month, or remain in the current system if they believe it will better benefit them.
    More information on the changes is available through the Veterans Affairs benefits website.

    Military Times: Coast Guard families plead with lawmakers as they prepare to miss another paycheck
    By: Leo Shane III | 19 hours ago
    WASHINGTON — Petty Officer First Class Ryan Mleziva thought his financial worries were over when he joined the Coast Guard. Now, he and his fellow service members may be about to miss their second paycheck in a row.
    “My father was laid off several times while I was growing up. I went into this career because I wanted security,” said Mleziva, who traveled to Capitol Hill Tuesday on his day off to work with advocates on highlighting the impact of the ongoing government shutdown on Coast Guard families.
    “I have full faith in the Coast Guard. I just hope our elected representatives show faith in us too.”
    Mleziva was part of a group of 30 service members, spouses and supporters who visited congressional offices to share their shutdown stories. Guard members missed their scheduled paycheck on Jan. 15, and need legislative action this week to guarantee they won’t miss their next one on Jan. 30.
    About 42,000 Coast Guard members have been required to work without pay since the start of the year, as the Department of Homeland Security operates on emergency orders because of the ongoing funding impasse between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats.
    Members of the other armed services have not seen similar disruptions because the Department of Defense received its full fiscal 2019 funding last fall. Because the Coast Guard is funded separately through Homeland Security, its members haven’t been as fortunate.
    Both the House and Senate are considering separate bills which would allow the Coast Guard to be paid even if the 31-day-old shutdown isn’t resolved. But neither has made significant progress so far.
    Jon Ostrowski, national president of the Coast Guard Chief Petty Officers Association, said without action soon, another 50,000 Coast Guard retirees will also lose out on their next benefits paycheck at the start of next month.
    “People are starting to get worried,” he said. “Now they can’t pay their rent. Many may have made arrangements with landlords or banks to help them for the first month. Missing another paycheck will hit them hard.”
    Michelle Alonso, a Coast Guard spouse who took part in Tuesday’s outreach event, said the uncertainty of the situation is draining families’ morale.
    “It’s not knowing how long this is going to last,” she said. “People are buckling down, going to food pantries, worrying whether they can pay for their kids sports, calling companies to get bills deferred and payments deferred.
    “It’s just the stress not knowing how long you can go without a paycheck.”
    Fellow spouse Susan Bourassa said she worries too many lawmakers don’t appreciate the severity of that stress.
    “We chose to make some sacrifices when we signed up or married into the Coast Guard,” she said. “We’re proud to be there. But part of making those sacrifices is that we thought there was a paycheck we could count on, through thick or thin. And here we are, not knowing what tomorrow brings.”
    Trump has insisted any budget deal include more than $5 billion for his controversial southern border wall plan. But congressional Democrats thus far have rejected all proposals that include that money, saying the president must allow the government to reopen before they negotiate on immigration policy.
    Roughly 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed or forced to work without pay during the government shutdown. In recent days, administration officials have been recalling additional personnel back to work to minimize the public effects of the shutdown, even though their paychecks remain frozen.
    Mleziva said he is looking into picking up a weekend job to help make ends meet.
    “I feel worst for my shipmates who are underway right now and don’t have that option,” he said.
    On Monday, the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf began a five-month deployment at sea despite the ongoing budget fight. In a Facebook Post, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz praised them for “voluntarily going into harm’s way without a paycheck.”
    “These U.S. service members will sail halfway across the world to protect U.S. national interests while their loved ones try to cope with financial challenges at home in this unprecedented time,” he wrote.
    Mike Little, executive director of the Sea Service Family Foundation, which helped organize Tuesday’s lobbying event, said many service members who weathered the initial impact of missing a paycheck are starting to dread the coming weeks.
    “Going forward, this is going to start looking dark for these families. They’re worried about how they pay the bills. And they just want to feel like their voice is being heard somewhere.”

    Defense News: US House votes overwhelmingly to bar US exit from NATO
    By: Joe Gould | 12 hours ago
    WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation Tuesday eveningthat seeks to bar President Donald Trump from withdrawing from NATO amid renewed concerns over his commitment to the 28-nation military pact.
    In a bipartisan 357-22 vote, the Democrat-led lower chamber sent the Senate the NATO Support Act, which would prohibit the use of federal funds to withdraw from the 70-year-old alliance. Twenty-two Republicans voted no, while 28 Republicans and 26 Democrats did not vote.
    Beyond asserting Congress’ power of the purse, the bill affirms support for NATO and its mutual defense clause, for Montenegro’s accession, for “robust” U.S. funding for the European Deterrence Initiative and for the goal that each member nation spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense by 2024.
    The action comes as trans-Atlantic ties have been frayed by disputes over defense spending, trade and America’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. After reports Trump floated the idea of a withdrawal last summer, Trump said last week, "We will be with NATO 100 percent, but as I told the countries, you have to step up,” defense spending.
    Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., sponsored the bill with backing from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. At a press conference Tuesday, the lawmakers praised the alliance for its role in ending the Cold War and in supporting U.S.-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
    “What we have to realize is that NATO is not just a transactional relationship.” Panetta said. “Our sole focus can’t just be on who pays what and who gets what. Being a member of NATO is not like being a member of a country club.”
    Engel called splintering the NATO alliance one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top goals.
    “That’s why it’s so disturbing, so troubling to see the United States sending mixed signals about the alliance or treating it as a burden,” Engel said.
    “This bill reiterates Congress’ commitment to NATO and would prohibit withdrawal from NATO. It sends a clear message to the administration that this branch of government supports the alliance,” Engel said in a floor speech ahead of the vote.
    Trump has bashed the alliance over burden sharing, made overtures to Putin and said he believes he has the authority to pull out of NATO if he chooses — even as his administration has worked to support the alliance.
    The bill had four Republican cosponsors, including Texas Rep. Will Hurd, who tweeted after the vote, “These recent votes show that there is overwhelming bipartisan support from Congress, a coequal branch of government, to value our allies and stand up to our enemies.”
    The vote followed news the top U.S. diplomat for Europe is resigning after only 16 months on the job. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell will leave his post in mid-February.
    One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., called Congress “the only check we have” after the departure of former generals Jim Mattis as defense secretary, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser and John Kelly as chief of staff — and Nikki Haley as United Nations ambassador.
    “They’re all gone now, we’re all that’s left, and its urgent and essential, therefore, that Congress play its constitutional role and take this action,” said Malinowski, a former U.S. diplomat and now a freshman congressman on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
    This measure and a similar one in the Senate, which would require Trump get two-thirds consent from the Senate to pull America out of NATO, have raised questions about the constitutional separation of powers. The bipartisan Senate bill, led by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., is cosponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and others.
    The sponsors of the House bill expressed optimism the two bills would be reconciled, suggesting that Congress’s power of the purse is solid enough footing to proceed.
    “It’s often been said the Constitution is an invitation to struggle, and what we are saying here is we are not leaving NATO without a struggle,” Malinowski said.

    Military Times: Pentagon: No changes to policy on transgender troops, for now
    By: Tara Copp | 13 hours ago
    The Pentagon said it would not implement any changes to its transgender policy for now, despite a Supreme Court ruling Tuesday that upheld the Defense Department’s limits on which transgender personnel may be allowed to serve.
    In the 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that the Trump administration may move forward with a ban on transgender service members who experience gender dysphoria, or who have transitioned to their preferred sex, from serving in the military. Four lower court cases continue to be heard.
    President Donald Trump had requested that the Supreme Court take up the issue this term, effectively hearing the case before the lower courts ruled, which the Supreme Court declined to do.
    Because there is still an injunction in place in a federal case in Maryland that is challenging the ban, no changes would be made to DoD’s policy for now, a defense official said.
    “There is still one national injunction in place, so nothing would change today,” the defense official said.
    Pentagon spokeswoman Air Force Lt. Col. Carla Gleason said the Pentagon would “continue to work with the Department of Justice regarding next steps in the pending lawsuits. As always, we treat all transgender persons with respect and dignity.”
    Until a few years ago service members could be discharged from the military for being transgender. That changed under President Barack Obama. The military announced in 2016 that transgender individuals already serving in the military would be allowed to serve openly. And the military set July 1, 2017 as the date when transgender individuals would be allowed to enlist.
    After President Donald Trump took office, the administration delayed the enlistment date, saying the issue needed further study. While that study was ongoing, the president tweeted in late July 2017 that the government would not allow “Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”
    He later directed the military to return to its policy before the Obama administration changes.
    Groups representing transgender individuals sued, and the Trump administration lost early rounds in those cases, with courts issuing nationwide injunctions barring the administration from altering course.
    The Supreme Court on Tuesday lifted those preliminary injunctions.
    In March 2018, the Trump administration announced that after studying the issue it was revising its policy. The new policy generally bars transgender individuals from serving unless they serve "in their biological sex" and do not seek to undergo a gender transition.
    The policy has an exception for transgender troops who relied on the Obama-era rules to begin the process of changing their gender, allowing them to continue to serve. The military said last year that more than 900 men and women have done so.

    Military Times: US service member killed in Afghanistan
    By: Kyle Rempfer | 17 hours ago
    One U.S. service member was killed in Afghanistan Tuesday, U.S. officials said in a short press release.
    NATO’s Resolute Support mission to train and advise Afghan government forces said that the incident is under investigation.
    “In accordance with U.S. Department of Defense policy, the name of the service member killed in action is being withheld until 24 hours after notification of next of kin is complete," the press release reads. "We will share additional information as appropriate.”
    The latest death comes less than a week after Sgt. Cameron Meddock, an Army Ranger, died from wounds he suffered while conducting combat operations in Afghanistan’s Badghis province, and while the Taliban are holding another round of peace talks with an American diplomatic team in Doha, Qatar.
    U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who is leading the U.S. diplomatic team in the quest for a political settlement to the Afghan conflict, said Sunday that the negotiations were going well.
    “Just completed [the] Pakistan leg of my current trip in the region to advance the peace process. Good meetings. I appreciate their hospitality [and] resolve to push for Afghan peace,” Khalilzad said over Twitter. “We’re heading in the right direction with more steps by Pakistan coming that will lead to concrete results.”
    Pakistan is seen as key in the negotiations due to the Taliban’s historic presence in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas that border Afghanistan. The U.S. government has often accused Pakistan of not effectively cracking down on the militant group within its own borders.
    Neither the Taliban nor U.S. and Afghan government forces have halted kinetic operations during the negotiation rounds.
    Resolute Support did not immediately answer Military Times’ query as to whether the service member’s death is connected to a Taliban attack that bombarded an Afghan intelligence service base in central Wardak province Monday.
    Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, the country’s primary intelligence agency, told local media that a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device breached the base’s security barrier. The intelligence agency’s statement said another VBIED was detonated before it managed to reach the compound. Following the explosions, the base’s remaining personnel entered into a gun battle before repelling the Taliban assault.
    The National Directorate of Security said 36 security personnel were killed and more than 50 others were wounded.
    A Taliban spokesman claimed that more than 100 Afghan government forces were killed, but the group is known to inflate numbers. The Taliban did not claim an American was killed in the attack, which is something the group normally does even when U.S. troops are not in fact killed.

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