28 January, 2019 06:17

Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Monday, January 28, 2019 which is Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, Rattlesnake Roundup Day, Data Privacy Day and Daisy Day.
This Day in History:

  • At 11:38 a.m. EST, on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Christa McAuliffe is on her way to becoming the first ordinary U.S. civilian to travel into space. McAuliffe, a 37-year-old high school social studies teacher from New Hampshire, won a competition that earned her a place among the seven-member crew of the Challenger. She underwent months of shuttle training but then, beginning January 23, was forced to wait six long days as the Challenger‘s launch countdown was repeatedly delayed because of weather and technical problems. Finally, on January 28, the shuttle lifted off.
  • 1917: American forces are recalled from Mexico after nearly 11 months of fruitless searching for Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who was accused of leading a bloody raid against Columbus, New Mexico.
  • 1975: President Gerald Ford asks Congress for an additional $522 million in military aid for South Vietnam and Cambodia. He revealed that North Vietnam now had 289,000 troops in South Vietnam, and tanks, heavy artillery, and antiaircraft weapons “by the hundreds.” Ford succeeded Richard Nixon when he resigned the presidency in August 1974. Despite his wishes to honor Nixon’s promise to come to the aid of South Vietnam, he was faced with a hostile Congress who refused to appropriate military aid for South Vietnam and Cambodia; both countries fell to the communists later in the year.
  • On January 28, 1959, the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League (NFL) sign Vince Lombardi to a five-year contract as the team’s coach and general manager.


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Federal Times: Trump drops wall funding demand, reaches deal to end the government shutdown
By:Leo Shane III 2 days ago
That would include about 50,000 members of the Coast Guard, who have been required to conduct their normal security and rescue operations without pay since the start of the year. If the budget dispute is resolved in the next few days, servicemembers would avoid missing their next scheduled paycheck on Jan. 30.
In a Rose Garden address, Trump said he would urge Congress to rapidly adopt the deal and “make sure all employees receive their back pay very quickly.” Lawmakers are expected to vote on the measure as early as Friday evening.
Democrats agreed to the three-week funding plan after Trump dropped his insistence that any measure include more than $5 billion in funding for his controversial border wall project in southern states.
Trump said instead lawmakers will convene a bipartisan conference committee on border security to examine the issues.
“After 36 days of spirited debate and dialogue, I have heard from enough Democrats and Republicans that they are willing to put partisanship aside — I think — and put the security of the American people first,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security, State Department and numerous other federal agencies have been operating under emergency contingencies since Dec. 22, when their current funding legislation expired.
The Senate unanimously passed a compromise plan to keep those departments operating days before that deadline, but Trump announced he would not support that plan because it did not include $5.7 billion for his controversial border wall project in southern states.
Since then, congressional Democrats and Trump have traded political shots but few realistic compromise plans.
Republican leaders in the Senate have pushed aside numerous measures passed by the Democrat-lead House that would re-open the government, but did allow votes Thursday on a Trump-backed proposal and another without the border funds. Both failed.
Friday’s move by the White House comes amid increasing public awareness of the shutdown effects.
Administration officials had moved to minimize the fallout from the shutdown, keeping some departments open by requiring employees to work without pay. National parks were allowed to stay open with skeleton staffs. Homeland security officials shifted funds so Coast Guard members wouldn’t miss their final December paychecks (though they did miss their mid-January ones).
But those effects have been compounding in recent days, including hundreds of thousands of government workers missing their second paycheck on Friday. Financial experts said the shutdown has slowed national economic growth. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi forced Trump to cancel next week’s scheduled State of the Union address in lieu of the ongoing fight.
How quickly some of those issues can be resolved with the latest deal remains to be seen. Federal workers could see backpay arriving in their accounts as early as the end of the week. Coast Guard members could as well, although it’s unclear if that money would arrive with their next scheduled paycheck or at another time.
Coast Guard retirees had been warned in recent days their Feb. 1 benefits could be disrupted by the ongoing shutdown, but the new deal could prevent those problems.
However, the deal only provides funding for 21 days. If lawmakers and the White House cannot reach an agreement on the border wall funding before mid-February, the government could again be forced into a partial shutdown.
Military members, along with Defense and Veterans Affairs Department employees, are not directly affected by this shutdown because their agency budgets were approved last fall.
TAL: National commander calls on Congress, White House to work out differences
Jan 25, 2019 Jan 25, 2019
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American Legion National Commander Brett P. Reistad expressed relief Friday on behalf of some 800,000 federal workers, including more than 41,000 active-duty members of the U.S. Coast Guard, after President Trump reopened the federal government following a record-long partial shutdown that had forced them to work and serve without pay for most of the last month.
“This is welcome news for thousands of veterans employed by the U.S. government and for active-duty personnel serving in the U.S. Coast Guard who have suffered financial hardships over an impasse not of their making,” Reistad said. “The American Legion shares President Trump’s concerns about U.S. border security and illegal immigration, but a continuation of the government shutdown was not making America safer nor more secure, so President Trump did the right thing by opening a three-week window to work out differences with Congress on the border issue. Now, we expect those differences resolved to keep us from finding ourselves back in the same spot on Feb. 15.
The American Legion has been able to assist thousands of junior enlisted Coast Guard members with dependent children at home through its Temporary Financial Assistance program, funded through the Legion’s Veterans and Children Foundation. “Missing one paycheck when you are fulfilling your duty thousands of miles away from your family can be disastrous, especially when there are children at home,” Reistad said. “American Legion TFA grants have helped Coast Guard members maintain financial stability.”
The Legion called for, and continues to support, a provision to protect members of the Coast Guard from the payroll effects of government shutdowns – an exemption afforded to other branches of U.S. military service.

BBC: Taliban talks: Will negotiations lead to peace in Afghanistan?
27 January 2019
The "significant progress" said to have been made during six days of talks between US officials and the Afghan Taliban suggests that both sides are serious about trying to find a peaceful solution to a 17-year conflict that has scarred Afghanistan.
But with the Taliban currently refusing to hold direct talks with Afghan officials, and negotiations relating to "unsolved matters" still to continue, what has actually been agreed during the meetings in Qatar?
Secunder Kermani, the BBC’s Afghanistan correspondent, and senior Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai, look at what we know so far about the talks, and what it could mean for the future of the country and the foreign forces operating there.
How significant were the talks?
Both the Taliban and US officials have said "progress" was made in the latest set of talks in Qatar, and despite continuing violence on the ground in Afghanistan, there seems to be a growing momentum to the peace negotiations.
Leading analyst Ahmed Rashid told the BBC the talks were "enormously significant" and that "we’ve never been as close… to an end to the civil war in Afghanistan".
The talks lasted for six days – longer than any of the other previous set of discussions that have been held during recent months.
In the middle of the talks last week, the Taliban announced one of the group’s founding members, Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader, would be appointed the new head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, after recently being released from detention by Pakistani authorities.
Mr Rashid said Mullah Barader "had a record of wanting peace and stability" and could help persuade grassroots members to accept any deal that is reached.
What was discussed?
The "progress" made seems to relate to two key issues:

  • When will American-led forces be withdrawn from Afghanistan?
  • A commitment from the Taliban that the group will not allow international jihadist groups like al-Qaeda to use the country as a base in the future.

A senior Taliban official who attended the talks told the BBC that both sides had agreed to form two committees to draw up detailed plans on how to implement agreements in principle on these topics.
The Taliban leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the committees would "identify routes for the withdrawal, and how much time is needed. We suggested six months, but are flexible".
He said the committees would also produce concrete proposals on how the Taliban can sever any links to al-Qaeda, and would start work within the next week. The Taliban source added that another meeting with the US would likely take place in early February.
Another source in the Taliban told the BBC that once an agreement had been drawn up, they would attempt to get other countries or international organisations to act as guarantors for it.
What about a ceasefire?
Both sides have said further talks are necessary to resolve outstanding issues.
What remains unclear is how a ceasefire fits into current discussions. The Taliban position seems to be one that can only be declared once a withdrawal date for international forces has been agreed.
A separate high ranking Taliban official suggested that the group was nervous about agreeing to a ceasefire before having established a firm settlement, as it could be difficult to convince grassroots fighters to take up arms again, after having laid them down.
The other crucial issue is when the Taliban will agree to begin talking directly to the Afghan government. The Taliban official said the "committees" due to be established would also produce recommendations on this.
So far, the insurgents have only engaged with the US, dismissing the administration of President Ashraf Ghani as "puppets."
What’s the Afghan government’s view?
In pointed comments at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Switzerland earlier this week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said 45,000 members of the Afghan security forces had lost their lives since he took office in 2014.
"It shows who is doing the fighting," he said.
When asked about the progress of talks in Qatar, President Ghani responded tersely that the aim of the meetings was "to bring the Afghan government and the Taliban into face-to-face discussions and negotiations… then, the larger issues of the US presence and other international issues will be addressed".
Many analysts have interpreted those comments as revealing a concern amongst Afghan authorities that they are being excluded from the discussions amidst the rush to bring the conflict to an end. US President Donald Trump is believed to be growing increasingly frustrated by the continued US presence in the country.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation who has led talks for the American side, seemed aware of these concerns when he tweeted he was travelling to Kabul to brief President Ghani and said that any deal "must include an intra-Afghan dialogue."
The discussions between the Afghan government and the Taliban are likely to be even more complicated and delicate than the discussions that have been held so far.
They would have to include agreements on the role of women’s rights and democracy in an Afghanistan where the ultra-conservative Taliban are a significant part of the political mainstream.
What happened in previous peace talks?
Previous attempts at peace have failed in their early stages.
In 2015, talks between Afghan officials and the Taliban in Pakistan broke down after news emerged of the death of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar – with whose authority the Taliban team was supposedly meeting.
Whilst in 2013, talks in Qatar were cancelled when the then Afghan President Hamid Karzai was angered by the presence of a Taliban flag at the group’s offices in Qatar, and felt his authority was being undermined.
Reuters: As West turns on him, Venezuela’s Maduro flexes military muscle
Vivian Sequera
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro oversaw a display of the army’s Russian hardware on Sunday, with anti-aircraft flak and tank rounds pounding a hillside to show military force and loyalty in the face of an international ultimatum for new elections.
Maduro, 56, is confronting an unprecedented challenge to his authority after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president, citing a fraudulent election. Guaido has won wide international support and offers amnesty to soldiers who join him.
On Sunday, Israel and Australia joined the countries backing the 35-year-old leader, and President Donald Trump’s administration said it had accepted Venezuelan opposition figure Carlos Alfredo Vecchio as the country’s diplomatic representative in the United States.
Early on Sunday, alongside Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, Maduro watched a platoon of soldiers release volleys of rocket-propelled grenades, machine-gun anti-aircraft fire and tank rounds at hillside targets, the Russian ordnance kicking up clouds of dust at the Fort of Paramacay, an armored vehicle base.
Maduro said the display showed the world he had the backing of the military and that Venezuela’s armed forces were ready to defend the country. Maduro says Guaido is taking part in a coup directed by Trump’s hardline policy advisers, who include Cold War veterans John Bolton and Elliott Abrams.
“Nobody respects the weak, cowards, traitors. In this world, what’s respected is the brave, the courageous, power,” Maduro said.
“Nobody should even think of stepping on this sacred soil. Venezuela wants peace,” he said. “To guarantee peace, we have to be prepared.”
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro takes part in a military exercise in Valencia, Venezuela January 27, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS
From Feb. 10 to 15, the military is planning larger exercises that Maduro described as the “most important in the history of Venezuela.”
The show of force was accompanied by a government publicity campaign online based on the slogan “Always Loyal, Never a Traitor,” and followed a high-profile defection by the country’s top military diplomat in the United States on Saturday.
The Fort of Paramacay, about two hours west of the capital, Caracas, was itself the site of an uprising in 2017, when about 20 soldiers and armed civilians attacked the base. The leader of the attack, which was quickly subdued, said he was calling for a transitional government.
Maduro on Sunday denounced an alleged conspiracy aimed at spreading rebellion in the army, saying thousands of messages were being sent to soldiers every day over WhatsApp and other social media platforms from neighboring Colombia. He later jogged with soldiers and boarded an amphibious vehicle at a navy base.
Guaido also sent a message to the military on Sunday, asking for support and ordering it not to repress civilians during an event in which supporters handed out copies of a proposed amnesty for people accused of crimes in the Maduro government.
“I order you not to shoot,” he said. “I order you not to repress the people.”
At a U.N. Security Council debate on Saturday, Russia and China strongly backed Maduro and rejected calls by the United States, Canada, Latin American nations and European powers for early elections.
Both Russia and China are major creditors of Venezuela. Since the government of Maduro’s late mentor, Hugo Chavez, the OPEC nation has invested heavily in Russian weaponry, including Sukhoi fighter jets and heavy armor.
The strategic alliance was in evidence last year, when two Russian nuclear-capable bombers landed in Venezuela. Reuters reported on Friday that private military contractors who do secret missions for Russia flew into Venezuela to beef up security for Maduro.
Pompeo to the UN: ‘no more games’ on Venezuela
In an interview that aired on Sunday, Maduro rejected a European ultimatum to call elections within eight days and said Guaido violated the constitution by declaring himself interim leader. He said European nations should leave Venezuela, if they so wanted.
“Fortunately, we don’t depend on Europe. And those arrogant, overbearing attitudes, looking down on us, because we are ‘sudacas,’ inferior to them,” he told CNN Turk.
“The leaders of Europe are sycophants, kneeling behind the policies of Donald Trump,” he said, adding he was open to dialog and that meeting Trump was improbable but not impossible.
Washington urged the world on Saturday to “pick a side” on Venezuela and financially disconnect from Maduro’s government.
Bolton, the White House national security adviser, warned on Sunday against violence or the intimidation of American diplomats in Venezuela or Guaido, saying such action would trigger a response from the United States.
Venezuela has sunk into turmoil under Maduro, with food shortages and protests amid an economic and political crisis that has led millions to leave the country and with inflation seen rising to 10 million percent this year.
Britain, Germany, France and Spain all said they would recognize Guaido if Maduro failed to call new elections within eight days, an ultimatum Russia said was “absurd” and the Venezuelan foreign minister called “childlike.”
The United States, Canada, most Latin American nations and many European states say Maduro stole his second-term election win last May. The former union leader cruised to victory after blocking the main opposition candidates from running. Turnout was low.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan voiced his support for Maduro in a phone call on Thursday.
ReBoot Camp: Millions of GI Bill dollars are going to questionable schools — and it could soon be billions: VA watchdog
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By:Natalie Gross 2 days ago
Millions of dollars have gone toward educating student veterans at ineligible, delinquent schools, due to inadequate oversight by state-based agencies in charge of approving school programs for GI Bill funds, a recent audit by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General found.
Because of a lack of “effective controls to ensure the proper review, approval and monitoring of programs” at these agencies and the VA, investigators write that the VA “could not provide reasonable assurance” that students using the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for school received a quality education.
Infractions by schools listed in the report include misleading claims about accreditation status or student outcomes that violated Federal Trade Commission advertising guidelines.
Auditors estimate more than 11,000 students using the GI Bill to pay for school were enrolled in these and other wayward programs during the inspector general’s year-long investigation, costing the VA about $585 million in improper payments. If these problems persist, auditors estimate those numbers could climb to 17,000 students and $2.3 billion over the next five years.
Tanya Ang, vice president of the nonprofit Veterans Education Success, said oversight from both state approving agencies and the VA is critical to ensure schools are not deceiving military students.
“It is imperative that military-connected students are able to pursue a post-secondary education with the utmost confidence that their program will indeed help them accomplish their academic and career goals and that they will be equipped to be strong contributors to the American workforce,” she said in an email. “VA’s approval of a program to accept education benefits communicates to potential students that the school is deemed a quality school.”
The VA Veterans Benefits Administration, tasked with overseeing state approving agencies, or SAAs, technically complied with the law, the report states. But it “generally took a hands-off approach” in this role and did not ensure SAAs were meeting legal requirements and preventing schools’ possible abuse of education benefits.
Thus, the VA “did not ensure the adequate protection of students and taxpayers,” according to the report.
In its recorded response to the findings, the VA objected to the inspector general’s characterization that it had taken a “hands-off” approach and requested that this be stricken from the report — an objection the Office of Inspector General said had no merit. The VA also said that while it acknowledged several areas for improvement, the report “demonstrates a lack of understanding or appreciation of the complexities of the VA and SAA relationship.”
VA spokesman Curt Cashour said in an email that federal law dictates SAAs have “almost exclusive authority to approve, suspend, withdraw and monitor most programs approved for GI Bill students.” The VA as a federal agency is generally prohibited “from exercising supervision or control over SAAs.”
When asked how the VA ensures the quality of programs educating student veterans, Cashour said the department will not contract with poor-performing SAAs, and the VA also has the authority to suspend payments to schools approved by SAAs without sufficient legal basis.
What state approving agencies do
Joe Wescott, national legislative director for the National Association of State Approving Agencies, describes the role of SAAs as “gatekeepers of quality.”
SAAs have contracts with the VA to assess and approve school programs seeking to enroll students using the GI Bill. To be considered, Wescott said, programs must have a brick-and-mortar presence in the state, be financially stable and either be accredited or have a proven record of successfully teaching that program in the state.
Other parts of the evaluation cover a program’s curriculum, tuition costs and advertising practices. SAA representatives also visit campuses to observe classes and interview administrators and instructors.
In addition, SAAs are now responsible for compliance surveys, which are federal financial audits unrelated to the approval process. This responsibility formerly fell under the VA but is now split between staff at VA regional offices and SAAs.
But while the list of SAA responsibilities has grown in recent years, the funding remained stagnant for more than a decade, until a slight increase in fiscal 2018.
Another recent report focused on SAAs — this one from the Government Accountability Office — found that limited funding had impacted their ability to provide appropriate training to staff, travel to geographically dispersed schools, and provide technical assistance and training to schools. Funding for SAA contracts, now at $21 million, is approved by Congress and allocated through the VA.
The New Mexico and Alaska state approving agencies pulled out of their contracts with the VA all together, leaving VA to do the groundwork for approvals in those states. SAA officials in California, the state with the largest number of student veterans, almost did not renew, citing lack of funds.
Though the Alaska SAA started its contract with VA again in 2017, its director said the addition of compliance surveys was the main reason the agency pulled out for five and a half years. It lacked sufficient funding to conduct them.
“I know that we are the gatekeepers of quality. But our attention has been diverted from the gate too much in the past several years,” Wescott said. “When we go out to schools, we shouldn’t be looking for the missing $50 from a payment. I’m not making light of that; we want veterans to be paid correctly, and we want them to be paid in approved programs. But we should be looking to see that programs are properly licensed and are properly accredited.”
Problematic practices
In their investigation, auditors drilled down on 175 programs at 70 schools approved by SAAs in California, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Oregon in 2015 and early 2016. Of these, 35 programs, approved by six of the seven SAAs, had unsupported or improper approvals, unreported or delayed reports of changes to programs, or potentially erroneous, deceptive or misleading advertisements.
For example, one school in New Jersey claimed in its catalog that its placement services division helps find jobs for more than 90 percent of students within one month of graduation, yet the school was unable to provide data to support this. Another school in Mississippi used the VA’s official seal on its website, potentially making it appear as though the school was part of the federal agency.
The large majority of schools with infractions, 83 percent, were for-profit institutions, though the VA and Wescott noted that these types of institutions were disproportionately represented in the sample size. (Investigators explain in the report that they weighted the sample to ensure any differences in the proportions did not bias the results.)
Wescott also took issue with the way investigators drew broad conclusions about SAAs from their study of only seven. They also did not take into account the financial constraints these agencies have experienced in recent years, he said.
Part of the challenge listed in the report is a lack of “effective, sufficient controls, to continually review and evaluate programs after they have been approved.”
Wescott said that ideally SAAs would be able to rely on schools, or even accreditors, to alert the agencies whenever changes are made to an approved program.
“We just don’t have the resources and staffing to go out there every quarter and say, ‘OK, what’d you guys change this quarter?’” he said.
However, he said, SAAs can still learn from the findings and take this opportunity to reevaluate the role of these agencies across the nation.
“I think the major takeaway is that SAAs need to give more attention to their original mission, which is their most important mission, and that is the approval and oversight of quality programs for our veterans," he said. “Can we do a better job in the approval area? Yes. Given the time to devote to it, yes we can.”

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