Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Monday, November 26, 2018 which is Cyber Monday, Good Grief Day and National Cake Day.
This Weekend in Legion History:
- Nov. 22, 1963: Immediately following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, World War II U.S. Navy veteran Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as president of the United States. A member of Memorial Highway American Legion Post 352 in Blanco, Texas, Johnson was a seated member of Congress on June 21, 1940, when he was appointed to serve as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Three days after Pearl Harbor, he was called to active duty and later served under Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific Theater, where he received the Silver Star. As president, Johnson would be commander-in-chief through the tumultuous early years of the Vietnam War.
- Nov. 23, 1934: American Legion Past National Commander James Drain is appointed to serve both as the organization’s national treasurer and as national judge advocate at the same time.
- Nov. 24, 1968: The American Legion joins forces with Indiana high school basketball coach Sam Wiley in the development and promotion of National Family Week, an effort adopted by multiple community and faith organizations to strengthen the American family at a time of increasing divorce rates.
- Nov. 26, 1943: American Legion National Commander Warren Atherton calls on service officers nationwide to collect and wire testimonies of cases where newly discharged, disabled veterans are lacking government support. In less than 24 hours, 1,536 such testimonies arrive at national headquarters.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- Military Times: Here’s how troops, veterans could be affected by the latest government shutdown threat
- Military.com: Post-9/11 GI Bill Payment Delays Nearly Over, VA Leaders Promise
- Military Times: Confirmation of new Veterans Affairs CIO takes new urgency in light of recent GI Bill benefits problems
- Stripes: One of a kind’: Tuskegee Airman receives Congressional Gold Medal
- Military Times: Mattis explains new roles, authorities at border
- Army Times: Army Ranger killed in combat operations in Afghanistan
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Military Times: Here’s how troops, veterans could be affected by the latest government shutdown threat
By: Leo Shane III and Joe Gould 4 days ago
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WASHINGTON — Lawmakers will face yet another threat of a partial government shutdown when they return to Capitol Hill next week, but this one carries much less significance for military families andveterans than many of the last showdowns.
Both Republicans and Democrats have downplayed the possibility of a shutdown in recent days, saying they believe the two sides can agree on final details of seven still unresolved full-year spending deals for federal agencies. Before the mid-term elections, Congress extended their budgets until Dec. 7.
President Donald Trump has also signaled optimism about a deal, but last week told reporters at the White House he thought now could be “a good time" for a government shutdown if lawmakers don’t back funding of his plans for a border wall in the southern U.S. states.
"If I was ever going to do a shutdown over border security, when you look at the caravans, when you look at the mess, when you look at the people coming in, this would be a very good time to do a shutdown," he said.
Among the spending bills still to be finalized are those for the Departments of Justice, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, State and Homeland Security. Missing from that list are the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, because lawmakers finished work on those appropriations measures earlier this year.
That means even if the White House and Congress can’t reach an agreement on the outstanding appropriations issues by the Dec. 7 deadline, those budgets will continue unaffected for the rest of the fiscal year.
But even though troops’ paychecks and veterans services won’t be affected, another partial government shutdown could have secondary impacts on those groups.
A State Department shutdown, for example, could mean troops deployed to allied countries overseas would see some overseas services curtailed, and troops in Afghanistan and other combat areas could see civilian colleagues’ schedules upended by personnel limits.
Department facilities would be minimally staffed, and chiefs of mission would decide which personnel are “excepted” from the shutdown because their work is essential to national security. Others would be furloughed.
Consulates can remain operational so long as there are sufficient fees to support their operations, according to the most recent shutdown guidelines.
In addition, international aid payments to U.S. allies could be stalled while the funding issues are sorted out.
Shutting down the Department of Homeland Security could prove problematic for troops deployed along the southern U.S. border. Nearly 6,000 active-duty troops and 2,100 Guardsmen deployed to the region could see border patrol activities cut or canceled in coming weeks, further confusing the role of support forces there.
The vast majority of Homeland Security employees will remain on the job if the government shuts down, a department spokesman told CQ during the last budget stalemate. About 90 percent are considered essential staff because of the law enforcement missions of many of its agencies.
The Coast Guard operated at 80 percent, but its services to maritime commerce and recreational boating would cease, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.
VA officials work closely with HUD leaders on a host of homeless outreach efforts throughout the year, and a disruption in their funding could mean reducing or temporarily canceling some of those efforts.
For now, lawmakers are continuing work to avoid a shutdown. Whether Trump’s comments hurt or help that process remains to be seen.
“We believe Democrats and Republicans should stick with their agreement and not let President Trump interfere,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters last week. “Every time he interferes, it gets bollixed up.”
21 Nov 2018
Military.com | By Tom Philpott
Blaming old computers and unanticipated software challenges, the Department of Veterans Affairs saw its pending claims inventory from Post-9/11 GI Billparticipants peak in mid-September at 207,000, three times higher than normal for the start of a fall semester.
The sudden backlog caused payment delays for the housing allowance that student veterans rely on to pay monthly rent and other living expenses.
The backlog now is down two-thirds, to 73,000. But 11,000 of the remaining claims are more than 30 days old, and 1,000 are more than 60 days old, violating the VA standard to process GI Bill claims within 28 days, officials conceded to the House Veterans Affairs’ subcommittee on economic opportunity last week.
Lawmakers criticized VA leaders and legacy computer systems that seem to defy modernization despite Congress allocating hundreds of millions of dollars year after year for VA information technology upgrades.
VA officials in turn cited a web of aging and interconnected computer systems, but also a new law that added mind-boggling complexity to a GI Bill allowance, depending on where, when and how students use their benefits.
Paul R. Lawrence, VA’s undersecretary for benefits, vowed that GI Bill users won’t be inconvenienced by systemic payment delays again in the 2019 spring semester. But he also warned that housing allowance payments still might not be accurately calculated by then because the software challenges persist.
Officials responsible for administering GI Bill benefits, and others for reprogramming computers to ensure timely and accurate payments, testified that they underestimated the complexity of changes directed by the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, signed into law in August 2017.
That law also is called the "Forever GI Bill" because it eliminated the 15-year time limit on using Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for veterans given final discharges or releases from active duty on or after Jan. 1, 2013. It removed the same time limit for children of deceased service members who became entitled to GI Bill benefits on or after that date, and for surviving spouses using the Fry Scholarship program.
However, to pay for these and other benefit enhancements, the new law also changed in two ways how the Post-9/11 housing allowance feature is calculated for new users to save billions of dollars. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that GI Bill allowance savings will total $3.4 billion through 2027.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill allowance is set to match the military Basic Allowance for Housing rate for married enlisted members in paygrade E-5. That rate varies by housing locale and is adjusted annually to keep pace with local rental costs.
The first change made by the Colmery Act required that the allowance be based on where students physically attend classes rather than the location of colleges or schools where students are enrolled. So, if a college is headquartered in a city but students takes courses at smaller town campuses or online courses from suburbia or rural residences, the allowance falls. Current GI Bill users, however, are protected from the change; it applies only to students who initially enroll in classes on or after Aug. 1, 2018.
The second allowance change also applies prospectively, to veterans who first use their GI Bill on or after Jan. 1, 2018. This change takes account how Congress has dampened the value of military housing allowances in recent years by adopting a five-year plan to curb inflation adjustments to rates by a full percentage point per year.
Congress had exempted the GI Bill stipend from this initiative. The Colmery law repealed the rate protection for new student veterans. Those who began using their GI Bill before Jan. 1, 2018, continue to receive the higher non-adjusted allowance rate for E-5, which the military no longer uses.
As late as July this year, VA officials had reassured lawmakers that despite the complexity of these changes, and rising difficulty making software changes across separate older computer systems, the changes would be made in time to avoid significant payment delays for the fall semester. That forecast was wrong. The House subcommittee last Thursday pressed officials to explain why.
Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, its chairman, reminded Lawrence that four months ago the VA promised delays would be short and would not significantly impact students. Yet some student veterans are "in pretty bad situations" from allowance delays "and we’re hearing from them."
What particularly irked Arrington and his colleagues, he said, is that, after missing its own mid-August deadline to have software upgrades completed, the VA refuses to set another deadline so lawmakers can hold the department to account.
"VA still does not know when they will be ready to deploy proper payments to GI Bill recipients," Arrington said. "I find the delays simply unacceptable" particularly those "stretching over 60 days. Some of these guys are going to have some real hardship, maybe even personal family crises, as a result of this."
Lawrence said the VA continues "to work on getting this right." Previously, allowances were set using the schools’ facility codes for main campuses. The new law recognizes that students can earn multiple credits at different locations, including with internships, externships, seminars and workshops. Using Zip Codes of locations where students earn credits is the new way for setting allowances, and software must capture the location where most semester credits are earned.
That requires new, more complex computations, and it’s all "far more complicated than originally estimated," Lawrence said. "We’re planning for the possibility we may not have the new software ready for the spring semester. Should that happen, we’ll be prepared to process claims as we have been doing to ensure students continue to receive their allowances, and schools will receive their tuition payments. We will continue to do that for as long as necessary."
For student veterans getting higher allowances than the new law allows, the VA won’t seek reimbursement, Lawrence promised. The VA’s director of education service, retired Maj. Gen. Robert M. Worley II, underscored that point to skeptical lawmakers.
Because of delayed software changes, Worley said, "We are paying incorrect housing to our beneficiaries. Depending on when they started school, some of those beneficiaries are receiving about $69 more than they should be getting because we haven’t applied the new DoD rate to them. Others who are existing students already are not receiving a less-than-one-percent increase that was implemented with the DoD rates" and should have been applied to student allowances Aug. 1.
"We don’t have the breakout of exact numbers as to which is which," Worley said. "But we will not go back and try to recover the overpayments once the [information technology] fix is in. And where we have underpaid our beneficiaries, we will make them whole at the time the IT fix goes into effect."
When that will occur is unclear. Lawrence, Worley and the IT team supporting the GI Bill said software solutions to complex rate calculations are still being written for installation across several legacy computer systems and then testing, a process that is months old and could take several more months to complete.
Meanwhile, the old, inaccurate allowance rates must suffice, Lawrence said.
"This fall, 460,000 veterans went to school using the GI Bill. The allegation of widespread veteran homelessness due to missed payments is false," he said.
"We have received very few what I would call confirmed cases of anyone actually being evicted" because they couldn’t pay their rent, Worley said.
Any veteran experiencing financial hardship because of unpaid GI Bill claims can request expedited claim processing and get a check or bank deposit within three to five days, Worley said. They should call 1-888-GIBill1 or (888) 442-4551.
Military Times: Confirmation of new Veterans Affairs CIO takes new urgency in light of recent GI Bill benefits problems
By: Leo Shane III 4 days ago
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WASHINGTON — A key remaining piece of business for the Senate in the final weeks of the 115th Congress will be confirming a new head of technology issues for Veterans Affairs, a post that has come under greater scrutiny with the ongoing problems processing GI Bill benefits this fall.
A vote on the nomination of James Paul Gfrerer, picked to be the next chief information officer for the department, could come as early as next week, when the Senate returns from Thanksgiving break.
His appointment process has been non-controversial thus far, but became more urgent in recent weeks as lawmakers began questioning problems with VA information systems that have contributed to delays in payouts of thousands of GI Bill stipends this semester.
“We’re in a mess here because [VA’s] IT doesn’t work,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., at a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing earlier this month.
He blamed the “debacle” in part on questions surrounding the information technology office’s management.
Gfrerer, a Marine Corps veteran, was nominated by the White House in late July and easily approved by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in mid-September.
The biggest obstacle to his final approval has been the congressional schedule, since the mid-term election scuttled all but a few weeks of work over the last two months.
But getting a permanent replacement for the CIO post has become an ongoing saga for the administration. Since the last assistant secretary — LaVerne Council — stepped down in January 2017, the position has been filled by a series of acting officials, raising questions about the stability within the department.
In April, current acting CIO Camilo Sandoval took over the post, and his appointment drew immediate concerns among congressional Democrats.
Sandoval, an Air Force veteran, served as the data operations director for Trump’s presidential campaign and was linked to the controversial use of private social media data by the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. Administration officials have defended his appointment, calling him an expert in innovative financial technology.
In recent months, Sandoval has overseen work on transitioning the department’s electronic medical records to the same system as the Department of Defense, an ambitious project expected to take more than a decade and $16 billion to implement.
Lawmakers have also expressed concerns with management of that project, noting that multiple lower-level posts handling that work are also vacant.
Department officials have said all of the work remains on schedule. They’ve blamed the GI Bill processing problems on outdated technology and overly complicated processing requirements instead of a lack of leadership within the agency, but they have also pushed for faster action on Gfrerer’s confirmation.
At his confirmation hearing in September, Gfrerer said among his top priorities would be “stabilizing” the department’s technology platforms. He also promised more accountability within his office and regular communication with lawmakers on progress of major department initiatives.
The Senate for now is scheduled to meet for three more weeks before the end of session in December. But that timeline could change based on confirmation votes and other business.
Stripes: One of a kind’: Tuskegee Airman receives Congressional Gold Medal
By GLENN ROLFE | Delaware State News via AP | Published: November 24, 2018
GEORGETOWN, Del. — More than seven years after her death, Artishia Mae Conaway Stephens finally has her Tuskegee Airman wings.
And they are golden.
Conaway Stephens — who served in the U.S. Army Air Forces and U.S. Air Force from 1945 to 1949 and died at 87 in 2011— posthumously received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest distinguished civilian award, during a luncheon ceremony Saturday at the CHEER Community Center.
Family members, including daughters Marcealeate Ruffin of Georgetown and Stephanie Stephens of Claymont and grandson Robert Ruffin Jr. of Boston, accepted the Congressional Gold Medal presented by U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester. The medal recognizes Conaway Stephens being officially vetted as a documented original Tuskegee Airman.
"It’s pure excitement," said Marcealeate Ruffin. "When we were younger, we heard the stories, but it was like — whatever. But now that we are older, we understand what an accomplishment that it was. My family and I have been overwhelmed with the love, the honor and the respect you have shown to our mother."
"I’m beyond proud. I’m virtually speechless," said Stephanie Stephens. "I just wish she was here to witness this and receive all of the accolades. That is the only sad part about today."
"I’ve got to echo my mom and my aunt," said Robert Ruffin. "I’m very proud and very excited that my grandmother is being honored in this way. It brings back a lot of lessons that she taught me when I was young — to be brave, to be a leader and to think that you can accomplish anything. I think her participation in the Tuskegee Airmen and being one of the leaders there is something that has been a driving force in my life and inspiration."
A graduate of Howard High School in Wilmington and the Berean Business College in Philadelphia, Conaway Stephens served in the military as a clerk-typist/stenographer. She was assigned to the 99th Squadron, a division of the Tuskegee Airmen commanded by the late four-star Gen Benjamin O. Davis Jr. She attained the rank of staff sergeant.
The Tuskegee Airmen, often called the Tuskegee Experiment, was an Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African Americans who were pilots, navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, ground crew, flight instructors and support personnel who kept planes in the air and in service.
Conaway Stephens enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps in June 1945 and was honorably discharged as a highly decorated airman on Dec. 23, 1949. During her military assignments she was awarded the World War II Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal and Army Commendation Ribbon.
"Today, we honor a documented original Tuskegee Airman," said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. David B. Rich, of the John H. Porter First State Chapter/Tuskegee Airmen Inc. "It is truly our honor to know that Tuskegee Airmen are still represented and honoring those who served. As we know a lot of our originals have passed, but not forgotten. We are proud we were able to get this done with the family here to say, ‘Thank you.’"
After her military service, Conaway Stephens worked for 39 years as a state of Delaware employee, for many years as secretary at the William C. Jason Comprehensive High School in Georgetown, and after that school closed as a bookkeeper at Delaware Technical & Community College’s Georgetown Owens Campus.
Tuskegee Airmen served during an era of racial inequality. A Tuskegee Airmen battle cry is that before the Air Force shattered the sound barrier, these airmen shattered the race barrier.
Retired USAF Brig. Gen. Ernest Talbert of the John H. Porter First State Chapter said Artishia Stephens’ story is truly remarkable.
"Tuskegee Airmen spoke about the ‘Double V’ — victory overseas and victory at home," said Talbert. "Miss Stephens fought a third battle and that was the battle for women to establish their place in the airmen’s society as well. So, we honor her for a number of things here this evening."
"Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war and they helped change our nation," added Talbert. "The medal that we’re doing is a small part to ensure that the story of Artishia Stephens will be told and honored for generations."
Blunt Rochester filled with emotion during the medal presentation.
"All of a sudden I got very emotional. And I think it is because when I look at this picture, it reminds me that I am standing here . . . . representing our state and being a servant because of a woman who came before me and who was of service; a person who served," said Blunt Rochester. "This medal is the highest civilian honor that Congress gives out. She is being awarded the highest medal for service to our country, service to our state whether it was working in the field of education and service to our community. I am humbled to be here on behalf of the United States Congress, presenting this gold medal to Staff Sgt. Artishia Stephens."
Recognition of the Tuskegee Airmen reached a high point Feb. 28, 2006, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen, the largest group ever to receive the award. On March 27, 2006, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation, authorizing then-President George W. Bush to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen.
Reba Hollingsworth, who was a teacher at the William C. Jason High School, shared some remembrances.
"Artishia Stephens was a professional all the way, a no-nonsense secretary who was dedicated to the students, the faculty and the community. She was the liaison between the administration and the faculty. Artishia Stephens was one of a kind," said Hollingsworth.
"As I have gotten older, I see how a woman who maybe 4 feet 11, maybe 100 pounds was never ever afraid to tell me whatever was on her mind," said Mr. Ruffin of his grandmother. "It is a blessing. It means the world to us that you are all here."
"Being the child of a military person can be interesting," said Marcealeate Ruffin, the oldest of Conaway Stephens’ two daughters. "She was in the military during a time that you could stay in once you got married, which she did, but once you became pregnant you had to leave. So, when she became pregnant with me, she left. Had the policy been what it is today she would have been career. She loved her family, but the military was a close second. Many people have said to me, ‘I didn’t know your mother was in the military.’ But then they said that once they learned, it wasn’t surprising, because she was sharp, to the point and no nonsense."
Military Times: Mattis explains new roles, authorities at border
By: Tara Copp 4 days ago
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Hear Defense Secretary James Mattis tell reporters in a huddle that, though the Trump administration has expanded troops power to include lethal force at the border, there are so far no armed soldiers deployed there. "We don’t have guns in their hands right now," Mattis said.
Hours after the White House signed a late Tuesday night directive expanding the authorities of U.S. troops at the Mexican border, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with reporters at the Pentagon to explain what the new policies mean for the domestically deployed forces.
The memo, which was signed by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, instructs Mattis that all “Department of Defense military personnel” may “perform those military protective activities that the Secretary of Defense determines are reasonably necessary to ensure the protection of federal personnel, including a show or use of force (including lethal force, where necessary), crowd control, temporary detention and cursory search. Department of Defense personnel shall not, without further direction from the President, conduct traditional civilian law enforcement activities.”
On what’s changed:
Mattis said Wednesday that while the authorities for U.S. troops along the border have expanded, the Standing Rules for the Use of Force for troops deployed to the border have not changed — unless he decides they need to.
The memo directs Mattis to decide which authorities border troops may need to carry out their duties.
“If I change the mission then something like that could happen,” Mattis said. “We have no intent of doing that right now.”
Mattis said any use of the new authorities would be shaped by what follow-on requests he gets from Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
“I now have the authority to do more,” Mattis said. “Now we’ll see what [Nielsen] asks me for.”
On use of force:
While the memo authorizes up to the lethal use of force, Mattis emphasized that the vast majority of forces on the border are not armed and would stay that way. Use of force would be carried out by “unarmed MPs” using shields and batons, he said.
“There is no armed element going in,” Mattis said.
“We are not doing law enforcement. We do not have arrest authority,” Mattis said. “Now the governors could give their [National Guard] troops arrest authority — I don’t think they’ve done that — but there is no arrest authority under Posse Comitatus for the U.S. federal troops. That can be done but it has to be done in accordance with the law.
The memo authorizes troops to be used to provide “temporary detention and cursory search,” something they are not allowed to do under Posse Comitatus. Mattis said the use of forces in either role would be minimized to prevent them from crossing that line.
“Detention, I would put it in terms of minutes," Mattis said. "In other words, if someone’s beating on a border patrolman and if we were in position to have to do something about it, we could stop them from beating on them and take them over and deliver them to a border patrolman who would then arrest them for it.”
“There’s no violation of Posse Comitatus," Mattis said. "There’s no violation here, at all. We’re not going to arrest, or anything else. To stop someone from beating on someone and turn them over to someone else — this is minutes, not even hours, OK?”
On what it means for when troops come home:
Mattis said some of the troops may be extended past the current Dec. 15 orders deadline.
“Some of those troops certainly will be home [by Christmas] but some troops may not be, or some new troops may be assigned to new missions,” Mattis said. “This is a dynamic situation.”
“It’s mission dependent,” he added. “If they [DHS] say they want additional miles of wire, that is going to take additional time.”
Army Times: Army Ranger killed in combat operations in Afghanistan
By:Michelle Tan 19 hours ago
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The Pentagon on Sunday released the name of the soldier killed this weekend in Afghanistan.
Sgt. Leandro Jasso, 25, was deployed in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. He was wounded by small arms fire while conducting combat operations in Khash Rod district, in Afghanistan’s Nimruz province.
He was immediately treated and medically evacuated to the nearest medical treatment facility, in Garmsir district, in neighboring Helmand province, where he died Saturday of his wounds, according to U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
The incident is under investigation.
Jasso was a team leader assigned to 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. He was on his third deployment to Afghanistan.
A native of Leavenworth, Washington, Jasso enlisted in the Army in August 2012, according to USASOC. After completing initial entry training and airborne school, he successfully completed the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program and was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
His awards and decorations include the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the Ranger Tab, the Combat Infantryman Badge and the Expert Infantryman Badge.
“Sgt. Jasso was a humble professional who placed the mission first, lived the Ranger Creed and will be deeply missed,” said Lt. Col. Rob McChrystal, commander of 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, in a statement.
Jasso is the 10th U.S. service member killed this year in Afghanistan.