28 June, 2018 08:46

Good morning, Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Thursday, June 28, 2018, which is INTERNATIONAL CAPS LOCK DAY, National Handshake Day, Insurance Awareness Day, and Paul Bunyan Day.

Today in American Legion History:

· June 28, 1938: Columbia Pictures releases “Squadron of Honor,” a murder mystery Hollywood film set at an American Legion National Convention. Promoted as “100,000 Legionnaires on a Manhunt!” the film stars Don Terry as “Blaine,” a young Legionnaire who wants to find the real culprit after police wrongly suspect a pacifist munitions executive. The film includes actual footage from an American Legion convention.

Today in History:

· On this day in 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie are shot to death by a Bosnian Serb nationalist during an official visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. The killings sparked a chain of events that led to the outbreak of World War I by early August. On June 28, 1919, five years to the day after Franz Ferdinand’s death, Germany and the Allied Powers signed the Treaty of Versailles, officially marking the end of World War I.

· Writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his family leave San Francisco for their first visit to the South Seas on this day in 1888. Stevenson, an adventurous traveler plagued by tuberculosis, was seeking a healthier climate. The family finally settled in Samoa, where Stevenson died in 1894.

· 1965: In the first major offensive ordered for U.S. forces, 3,000 troops of the 173rd Airborne Brigade–in conjunction with 800 Australian soldiers and a Vietnamese airborne unit–assault a jungle area known as Viet Cong Zone D, 20 miles northeast of Saigon. The operation was called off after three days when it failed to make any major contract with the enemy. One American was killed and nine Americans and four Australians were wounded. The State Department assured the American public that the operation was in accord with Johnson administration policy on the role of U.S. troops.

· 1972: President Nixon announces that no more draftees will be sent to Vietnam unless they volunteer for such duty. He also announced that a force of 10,000 troops would be withdrawn by September 1, which would leave a total of 39,000 in Vietnam.


· Washington Post: VA nominee Robert Wilkie told to fix the agency’s morale crisis

· Task & Purpose: He’s a servicemember and child of a war-wounded vet. Can he succeed as the next VA chief?*

· NPR: Smithsonian reveals winning design for new Native American Veterans Memorial

· Reuters: U.S. agency asks military to house up to 12,000 immigrants

· Military Times: Why the US military won’t stop Russian and Syrian forces from violating a cease-fire

* — includes quote from The American Legion.

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Washington Post:VA nominee Robert Wilkie told to fix the agency’s morale crisis

By Lisa Rein | June 27 at 6:51 PM

Senate lawmakers told Robert Wilkie on Wednesday that he will face a workforce beset by poor morale if he is confirmed to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that he must fix the problem if he is to stabilize the troubled agency.

“Of all the challenges we have at VA, morale may be the biggest problem,” Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) told Wilkie during the 90-minute confirmation hearing, where the senior Pentagon official pledged to “shake up complacency” at the second-largest federal department and implement a health-care overhaul that would expand private care for veterans.

“You are getting an agency that has problems, that’s in need of help,” Isakson said. “There are no excuses anymore. Failure is not an option. We want to fix it before things fester.”

Sen. Jon Tester (Mont.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, was more blunt, telling Wilkie that under the Trump administration, internal politics have undermined VA’s mission of serving veterans.

“We are seeing VA leadership — none of whom have been confirmed — lash out at anyone seeking true transparency,” Tester said, describing an agency that has become so politicized that career senior leaders are departing in droves.

“Recently we have seen VA political appointees work actively and publicly to undermine a secretary and deputy secretary who were unanimously confirmed by the Senate,” Tester told Wilkie, referring to President Trump’s firing in March of then-Secretary David Shulkin and the ouster last month of the agency’s No. 2 official, Thomas Bowman. Shulkin had accused political operatives at VA of undermining him and plotting to remove him.

Many of the departing career employees “are concerned that sound policies and ideas are being increasingly marginalized at the expense of political interests,” Tester told Wilkie.

“I hope you agree that that type of behavior undermines the VA’s mission.”

Wilkie, 55, tried to reassure the committee that he would stand up to the White House and VA’s political leadership to improve veterans’ care even if it meant disagreeing with Trump on occasion.

“I have been privileged to work for some of the most high-powered people in town,” said Wilkie, who started his career as an aide to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and served Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“They pay me for my opinions and I give those to them.”

Wilkie also promised not to interfere with the work of the agency’s inspector general, who has said that acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke has denied him records for an investigation. O’Rourke has come under fire from lawmakers for inaccurately calling the watchdog someone who “works for him,” according to internal correspondence released in recent weeks by Democrats.

Wilkie, an Air Force reserve officer and the son of an Army artillery commander who was severely wounded in Vietnam, is now in charge of military personnel policy for the Trump administration. He has spent three decades working in Washington on military and national security issues, developing deep connections on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

Wilkie grew up visiting American battlefields with his father and developed a lifelong fascination with military history. His ancestors fought for the Confederacy.

He was pressed by some committee Democrats to explain his past embrace of divisive cultural issues during a long career working for polarizing political figures.

Wilkie counts Helms, a five-term Senate firebrand who denounced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and once called gay people “weak, morally sick wretches,” as a mentor. He defended Lott, who lost his leadership post after defending Strom Thurmond’s segregationist campaign for president decades earlier.

Wilkie also was a member and supporter of organizations dedicated to preserving Confederate memorials and honoring the Confederacy.

“I will say, and I say it respectfully, I welcome the scrutiny of my entire record,” he told Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). He said that an article published this week in The Washington Post “seemed to stop at my record about 25 years ago.”

“If I had been what The Washington Post implied, I don’t think I would have been able to work for Condoleezza Rice or Bob Gates or Jim Mattis,” Wilkie said, referring to the former national security adviser and former and current defense secretaries.

Wilkie said he has passed as many as nine FBI background investigations.

As for his attendance at ceremonies honoring Confederate figures until the mid-2000s, he said, “those events in those days were big events” attended by senators and House members and accepted by Republican and Democratic administrations.

“I stopped doing many of those things at a time when that issue became divisive,” he said.

“I do believe that . . . we honor all veterans.”

Asked by Hirono how he came to rebut a Democratic proposal in 1997 to ensure equal pay for working women, Wilkie said proposed changes to the measure were made by others on Lott’s staff. He also said he did not remember making the change in question.

Asked Wednesday whether he thinks that women, including veterans, should have to finish high school to receive government benefits, Wilkie said, “That would never enter my mind.”

Wilkie said that if confirmed, he would carry out the mandate of newly passed legislation that calls for expanding private health care for veterans. But he said private care would not replace VA, a long-standing fear among Democrats.

“VA for all intents and purposes is a socialized health-care system,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Wilkie. “Will you vigorously oppose any effort to privatize it?”

Wilkie assured him that much of VA’s care “can never be duplicated.”

“When our veterans walk into any VA facility, they converse with men and women who speak the unique language of military service.”

Wilkie said he would work to make the agency “agile and adaptive” to a computer-savvy generation of veterans demanding better customer service than they receive now.

“When an American veteran comes to VA it is not up to him to employ a team of lawyers to get VA to say YES,” Wilkie said. “It is up to VA to get the veteran to YES — that is customer service.”

He pledged to hire doctors and nurses to fill thousands of vacancies across the VA system, particularly in rural areas.

He cited a raft of “administrative and bureaucratic” issues he saw firsthand during the eight weeks he has served as acting secretary. He said he would fix them by modernizing VA’s cumbersome medical appointment system, shifting its paper-based disability claims to an electronic system and improving an antiquated human resources operation to serve a changing population of veterans, half of whom are younger than 65.

Previous VA leaders have had similar goals. Wilkie argued that the issue for VA is “not with the quality of medical care but with getting our veterans through the door to reach that care.”

Task & Purpose: He’s a servicemember and child of a war-wounded vet. Can he succeed as the next VA chief?*

Includes quote from The American Legion
By JAMES CLARK and JEFF SCHOGOL on June 27, 2018

The son of a soldier wounded during the Vietnam War, he claims he was born in in “khaki diapers.” Now, former Department of Defense under secretary for personnel and readiness Robert Wilkie seems poised to wade into the mess that is the Department of Veterans Affairs — and, if all goes according to plan, restore good order and discipline to the troubled agency.

At Wednesday’s confirmation hearing, Wilkie fielded questions from the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs regarding his personal connection to the U.S. military, his long career in public service, and his vision for the VA.

As Military Times’ Leo Shane noted in April, while nobody who makes it that far is guaranteed the job, no senator has voted against a nominee for VA secretary since the position was elevated to a cabinet post in 1988. But in today’s political climate — where, say, past support for Confederate memorials could complicate a nomination as much as toxic leadership — anything seems possible.

Here’s what we know of Wilkie’s personal and professional history — and how his resume prepares him for what’s been described as: “One of the most difficult jobs in government.”

For starters, who exactly is Robert Wilkie?

Wilkie served in the Navy Reserve from 1997 to 2008, during which he helped support operations in Liberia, Albania and the Middle East as a psychological and information warfare officer. Since 2008, Wilkie has served in the Air Force Reserve and is the special assistant to the Air Force vice chief of staff, according to his official biography. He’s a graduate of the Air Command and Staff College, Joint Force Staff College, U.S. Army War College, and College of Naval Command and Staff, and has a stack personal commendations.

But his ties to the military stretch beyond his own “modest service” he said at the hearing.

Growing up, he passed the local veterans hospital on his way back from school in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where “we could not help but read the sign at the entrance: ‘The price of freedom is visible here,’” he said. His great grandfather fought in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918 during World War I, and as a child impressed upon him the “cost paid by ordinary Americans caught up in the incommunicable experience of war,” Wilkie continued.

And he’s seen service from the perspective of a military child, even joking during his testimony that when he was sworn in at the Pentagon as the undersecretary of defense for personnel readiness, “it was referenced that I was born in khaki diapers and I think my attitudes toward that and leadership flow from having been in that world my entire life.”

Wilkie’s own father was the recipient of three Purple Hearts, and five Bronze Star Medals, one of which included a combat “V” device. The elder Wilkie, an Army artillery officer, was severely wounded during the invasion of Cambodia and spent a year in a Navy hospital in Hawaii.

“My own life changed when my father returned from his second tour in Vietnam,” Wilkie said at the hearing. “I watched the agonizing recovery and that experience was on my mind when I was asked to come to the VA.”

What are his qualifications?

The VA is the second-largest cabinet-level agency just behind the Pentagon. It’s comprised of three separate administrations, the Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration, and the National Cemetery Administration; accounts for a nearly $200 billion budget for fiscal year 2019; and a workforce of more than 360,000 employees responsible for providing care and services to more than nine million veterans. The VHA alone oversees the country’s largest integrated healthcare system with 170 VA Medical Centers and 1,061 outpatient sites.

Fortunately, Wilkie has a history of managing, and operating in, massive bureaucracies, having spent years at the Department of Defense — the only agency larger than the VA — and his work there is instructive.

In November 2017, the Senate confirmed Wilkie as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. Prior to then, he served as assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs from 2006 to 2009. During his time at the Pentagon, Wilkie helped draft the Use of Force Agreement in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, said Pentagon spokeswoman Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason. He also worked on the task force that helped usher in the MRAP, which saved countless lives on the IED-laden battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In his current capacity as undersecretary of personnel and readiness, Wilkie has led an effort to make close combat soldiers and Marines more lethal, which has included eliminating unnecessary training for servicemembers — a major part of streamlining sprawling bureaucracies. He has also spoken with senior lawmakers about ending requirements that servicemembers be promoted by a certain time in order to stay in the military. Nor is Wilkie without experience at the VA, or on Capitol Hill, and for two months filled in as acting secretary until he was tapped to be President Donald Trump’s pick for the post.

In other words, wrangling an institution’s unique manpower needs should come naturally to Wilkie.

How’re things looking at the VA right now, and how did we get here?

Wilkie is coming into the VA at a turbulent time. Dr. David Shulkin was ousted from his position as VA chief in March after a travel scandal quickly snowballed, thanks in part to political sniping that played out in the media between the embattled chief, who alleged he was the target of a pro-privatization agenda, and those who argued he was attempting to shift attention from the original scandal.

The abrupt departure of Shulkin, an Obama-era holdover, preceded three months of uncertainty over who would lead the federal government’s second-largest bureaucracy. Wilkie was tapped by President Trump to be his nominee for the top spot at the department after the previous pick, White House physician Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, withdrew his name amid accusations of unprofessional conduct — accusations that included creating a hostile work environment, drinking on the job, and improperly prescribing medication, all of which Jackson denied.

All of this is to say, that the VA has had a gap in stable leadership in recent months, and the lack of continuity poses some considerable challenges.

What are the major obstacles facing a new VA chief?

Staffing remains a problem at the VA, and not just at the top level: As of March, there were roughly 33,000 vacancies across the department, and more employees are leaving, according to NPR, and The Washington Post. But the impact of having top-level vacancies can’t be dismissed out of hand.

“In these interregnums, department employees engage in hedging behavior,” Joe Plenzler, American Legion’s national director for media relations told Task & Purpose. This amounts to kicking “the can down the road on major decisions because they don’t want to initiate long-term programs that the next secretary may abruptly change.”

Which makes sense for a department that makes course corrections incrementally and relies on consistent efforts from the secretary to: improve access-to-care; ensure accountability; overhaul its medical record system; trim down its waitlist and appeals backlog; and plan for a future where there’s mounting interest in supplementing VA health services with private-sector care.

“If confirmed as secretary, the biggest mission will be implementing the policy and procedures for the Mission Act,” John Hoellwarth, a spokesman for AMVETs told Task & Purpose.

The VA Mission Act is designed to overhaul the troubled Veterans Choice program, which allows veterans to seek care outside of the VA in certain cases, and would also increase the assistance provided to caregivers for military families.

“One of the things that sticks out about the Mission Act, and one of the things he’ll probably find most challenging, is trying to develop a system to insure that the community care veterans receive out in their community is up to snuff, that there’s some degree of accountability,” Hoellwarth said.

At the hearing, Wilkie addressed the concern — one that has been brought up by veterans groups and lawmakers in the past: Will privatizing aspects of veterans care ultimately reduce the quality of that care, given how complicated many vets’ injuries are, and how specialized their treatments must be?

“I believe in the centrality of VA to care,” Wilkie said. “I will also say that there are things that VA does that will never be replicated in the private sector: Spinal cord injury; traumatic brain injury; rehabilitative services; and prosthetics audiology services for the blind.”

One idea, it seems, is to insist that the department keep one hand on the wheel at all times. That way it’s less an issue of VA funds going to a private sector doctor, and more a matter of ensuring VA expertise gets to the patient.

“I do believe that if we believe that the veteran is central then we can also make the argument that as long as the VA is the central node with his care and he has a day to day experience with the VA,” he added. “That reinforces, I think, the future of the VA.”

NPR: Smithsonian reveals winning design for new Native American Veterans Memorial

June 26, 2018 | 11:32 AM ET | Kat Chow

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has announced the winning concept for the National Native American Veterans Memorial: Multimedia artist Harvey Pratt’s Warriors’ Circle of Honor will incorporate a large, upright stainless steel circle set above a stone drum in the center of a circular walkway with intricate carvings of the five military seals.

The memorial will sit on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and Pratt envisions a clear view of the U.S. Capitol’s dome from there. As Smithsonian.com has reported, Pratt’s use of circles suggests "the cycle of life and death, and the continuity of all things." The stone drum, it adds, symbolizes an invitation for people to "harmonize their experiences" with one another to the "silent rhythms" of the drumbeat.

Pratt was born in Guthrie, Okla., and is a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations. He’s a veteran of the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam from 1962 to 1965. He also worked as a forensic artist for years, creating witness description drawings for law enforcement.

Pratt tells NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly that he hopes his design will function as an architectural piece rather than just a work of sculpture — something that people can become a part of.

He says he can picture people taking a seat on the benches tucked into the drum fountain and reflecting on their own experiences with the military. He also hopes that it might be a cathartic place for some veterans.

"Most nations have veterans tell stories about what they did," Pratt says. "People can come in there and do that and be comforted, and get rid of some things that are on their minds that bother them."

More than 150,000 veterans identified as American Indian and Alaska Native in the 2010 census. And according to the U.S. Department of Defense, there are more than 20,000 active duty servicemembers in the military who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.

The memorial was selected unanimously by an eight-person jury of Native and non-Native artists, designers, museum directors and veterans. It acknowledges the history and service of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian veterans, according to the museum’s director, Kevin Gover, who is a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.

Gover says that throughout the process of helping plan the memorial, he has met thousands of Native American veterans who have demonstrated over and over their commitment to the U.S.

"These veterans are perfectly aware that they are serving a country that had not kept its commitments to Native people, and yet they chose — and are still choosing — to serve," Gover says. "This reflects a very deep kind of patriotism. I can think of no finer example of service to the United States and the promise it holds."

The memorial will break ground on Sept. 21, 2019, and be unveiled in late 2020.

"I want it to be a place of healing and comfort, and a place that’s hopefully going to be built on love," Pratt says.

Reuters: U.S. agency asks military to house up to 12,000 immigrants

JUNE 27, 2018 | 8:27 PM | UPDATED 10 HOURS AGO

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military has been asked by the Department of Homeland Security to house and care for immigrant families totaling up to 12,000 people, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, in the latest sign the military is being drawn into a supporting role for President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

The Pentagon said in a statement that the military had been asked to provide the capacity to house 2,000 people within 45 days.

If facilities were not available, semi-separate, soft-sided camp facilities capable of sheltering up to 4,000 people were to be constructed at three separate locations, the Pentagon said.

In the face of outrage at home and abroad over his crackdown on illegal immigration, Trump was forced last week to abandon his policy of separating children from parents who are apprehended for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Pentagon said the Department of Homeland Security preferred the facilities for migrants be in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico or California for access and supervision and to comply with the so-called Flores settlement provision that reasonable efforts be made to place minors in the geographic area where the majority were apprehended.

The 1997 Flores agreement set policy for the detention of minors in the custody of immigration officials.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the military was preparing to house immigrants at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and Goodfellow Air Base in San Angelo, Texas.

The U.S. military, and Mattis in particular, have stressed that it is simply providing logistical support to the Department of Homeland Security, which deals with immigration issues.

Last week, the U.S. military said it had been asked by the government to get ready to house up to 20,000 immigrant children.

Military Times: Why the US military won’t stop Russian and Syrian forces from violating a cease-fire

By: Kyle Rempfer | 14 hours ago

Syrian regime forces, buoyed by Russian air power, have pushed into rebel territory in the Syrian city of Deraa, violating the de-escalation zone agreement negotiated between the United States, Russia and Jordan last year.

However, the U.S. military will not be stepping in to enforce the failing cease-fire.

While the U.S. State Department expressed concern over the offensive, a message to locals from the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, has made it clear that American forces have no intention of stepping into the fray.

“We are still advising the Russians and the Syrian regime not to take any military action that violates the de-escalation zone in Syria’s southwest,” the June 19 message reads.

“But we need to clarify our position: We understand you need to make your decision based on your interests and the interests of your families and faction, as you see them. You should not base your decision on the assumption or expectation of military intervention by us.”

“This decision is in your hands alone,” the message concludes.

Al-Monitor reported it confirmed with U.S. State Department officials that the message was authentic.

When asked what sort of message this sends to other U.S.-backed groups in Syria, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, Pentagon officials said the situations are not the same.

“To be clear, the coalition does not back ‘rebels’ in Syria, and we are not operating in territories under the regime’s control,” Army Col. Thomas Veale, a spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition, told Military Times.

“Operation Inherent Resolve and its SDF partners are not engaged in the Syrian civil war against the Assad regime and its supporters, nor do we seek to be,” he added. “We remain focused on our mission to defeat ISIS and set conditions for follow-on conditions to increase regional stability.”

The Deraa offensive is especially concerning given the destabilizing effects it could have on nearby Jordan, as well as Israel’s Golan Heights.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said that Washington leadership appears to be in agreement that Assad is going to retake rebel land not actively claimed by a foreign power, like Turkey and the United States.

“Washington seems to have decided that Israel can look after itself on the Golan [Heights] and can draw red lines for Iran in Syria,” Landis added. “Israel would like the U.S. to step up to this task and has suggested that there could be a future war in Syria over Iranian influence, but this is probably heavy breathing. Iran is in no condition to go to war against Israel and would surely lose. Israel has claimed unimpeded success in bombing Iranian hardware, missile sites, and bases in Syria.”

The lack of a desire to push back against Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces also lends credence to the idea that the SDF will eventually be urged to negotiate with the Russian-backed regime.

The SDF units — comprised of Kurdish and Syrian fighters — have been repeatedly told to focus on the anti-ISIS mission that remains unsettled in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.

The coalition was forced to hold an “operational pause” in the fight against ISIS in March, after Kurdish SDF members went north to fight Turkish forces in Afrin, Syria.

Kurdish forces also appear to be losing their bid to stay in northeast Syria’s strategic town of Manbij after a deal between U.S. and Turkish officials will reportedly necessitate their departure.

”The SDF is trying to hedge its bets,” Landis said. “Its leaders have called for opening talks with Damascus about federalism and autonomy agreements. The recent deal that the United States came to with Turkey in Manbij, is a bad sign for the Kurds.”

Only months earlier, U.S. leaders said they would not cede ground in Manbij. But now, reality appears to have sunk in, as the United States still needs Turkey and is willing to make concessions to Ankara to keep relations from deteriorating, Landis said.

“Deraa is further proof that the U.S. is trimming its commitments in Syria,” he added.


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