6 March, 2019 09:49

Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Wednesday, March 6, 2019 which is Alamo Day, Ash Wednesday, National Oreo Cookie Day and Stop Bad Service Day.
This Day in History:

  • 1857: The U.S. Supreme Court hands down its decision on Sanford v. Dred Scott, a case that intensified national divisions over the issue of slavery.
  • 1965: The White House confirms reports that, at the request of South Vietnam, the United States is sending two battalions of U.S. Marines for security work at the Da Nang air base, which will hopefully free South Vietnamese troops for combat. On March 1, Ambassador Maxwell Taylor informed South Vietnamese Premier Phan Huy Quat that the United States was preparing to send 3,500 U.S. Marines to Vietnam. Three days later, a formal request was submitted by the U.S. Embassy, asking the South Vietnamese government to “invite” the United States to send the Marines. Premier Quat, a mere figurehead, had to obtain approval from the real power, Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu, chief of the Armed Forces Council. Thieu approved, but asked that the Marines be “brought ashore in the most inconspicuous way feasible.” The Marines began landing near Da Nang on March 8.
  • On this day in 1820, President James Monroe signs the Missouri Compromise, also known as the Compromise Bill of 1820, into law. The bill attempted to equalize the number of slave-holding states and free states in the country, allowing Missouri into the Union as a slave state while Maine joined as a free state. Additionally, portions of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of the 36-degrees-30-minutes latitude line were prohibited from engaging in slavery by the bill.
  • 1951: The trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg begins in New York Southern District federal court. Judge Irving R. Kaufman presides over the espionage prosecution of the couple accused of selling nuclear secrets to the Russians (treason could not be charged because the United States was not at war with the Soviet Union). The Rosenbergs, and co-defendant Morton Sobell, were defended by the father and son team of Emanuel and Alexander Bloch. The prosecution includes the infamous Roy Cohn, best known for his association with Senator Joseph McCarthy.

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

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Stripes: Trump creates task force to combat veteran suicide

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 5, 2019

WASHINGTON –- President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday creating a Cabinet-level task force that he promised would “mobilize every level of American society” to address the crisis of suicide among veterans.

The PREVENTS initiative, short for the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and the National Tragedy of Suicide, includes the secretaries of Veterans Affairs, Defense, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security. Over the next year, the task force will be responsible for working with public and private sectors to better understand the underlying factors of suicide and plan methods for addressing it at state and local levels. The White House plans to provide grants to state and local governments to support the initiative.

“To every veteran, I want you to know that you have an entire nation of more than 300 million people behind you,” Trump said. “You will never be forgotten. We are with you all the way.”
A senior administration official speaking on background Tuesday said they envision the initiative becoming similar to the Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing and its Support Services for Veterans, which uses housing grants and referrals to end veteran homelessness.

When asked about the cost of the effort, the official didn’t have a budget or grant-size estimate or know the exact source of the funding. Trump said his administration would work with Congress to pass legislation authorizing the new grants.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the Republican leaders of the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees, issued statements in support of the order.
“We look forward to working with the administration on this effort,” Isakson said.

Part of the initiative will put focus on reaching veterans who don’t use the Department of Veterans Affairs. According to the latest VA data, 20 veterans die by suicide every day. Of those, 14 are not receiving VA health care.

Suicide among veterans continues to be higher than the rest of the population, and younger veterans are particularly at risk. New VA data released in September showed the rate of suicide among veterans ages 18 to 34 had significantly increased. For every 100,000 veterans in that age group, 45 committed suicide in 2016, the most recent data available.

Trump signed the order Tuesday at the White House, surrounded by representatives from a dozen major veterans groups. One of them, AMVETS, issued a statement supporting the new task force but asking for more urgency as the Cabinet members create their roadmap.

“It … begs the question of what steps our government will take to actively curb veteran suicide while this blueprint is being developed over the next 365 days,” the statement reads. “If the statistics hold true over the next year, over 7,000 lives will be lost before full implementation is realized. The reality is ‘crisis’ has no patience, and neither should we.”
The executive order was the second one Trump has signed to address the issue of veterans’ mental health. Last year, he signed one to pave the way for servicemembers to be enrolled automatically in the VA when they leave the military –- an attempt to eliminate barriers to mental health care in their first year after service.

When asked about the progress of that effort Tuesday, the senior administration official said only that it was “moving along.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, called Tuesday’s order a "step in the right direction."

"But we’ve got to keep taking an all-hands-on-deck approach when it comes to efforts to expand veterans’ access to mental health care and to improve our nation’s suicide prevention efforts," Tester said in a statement.

In a separate effort Tuesday, Tester announced he was drafting legislation also aimed at suicide prevention.

The bill aims to support servicemembers as they transition from the Defense Department to VA health care, Tester said during a news conference hosted by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. It would also increase veterans’ access to remote health care, “cut the red tape” at the VA and vet centers, and invest more money into treatments such as yoga, animal therapy, meditation and acupuncture, he said.

Tester also promised accountability for the VA’s mental health and suicide prevention outreach efforts.

The VA faced criticism in December, when the Government Accountability Office revealed the agency used less than 1 percent of its budget for suicide prevention outreach in fiscal 2018. Of the $6.2 million obligated, the VA had spent only $57,000 by September, the last month of the fiscal year.

“Look, we are in crisis with suicides right now in this country, and the VA needs to step up,” Tester said. “The VA needs to lead on this issue.”

Tester said he planns to introduce the bill “very soon.” He urged veterans to call their elected officials and ask them to support the legislation once it’s introduced.

“Time is of the essence,” he said.

Staff writer Rose L. Thayer contributed to this report.

Military Times: A plan to end Afghanistan War: Declare victory and give $2,500 bonuses to vets
By: Leo Shane III   17 hours ago
WASHINGTON — Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is proposing giving all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans a one-time $2,500 payout and declaring victory in Afghanistan in what he is billing a cost-saving move for America.
“It’s important to know when it’s time to declare victory and leave a war,” the Republican said in a Facebook video posted Tuesday morning. “I think that time is long past.”
Paul, a Republican lawmaker known for his libertarian views and tense relationship with party leadership, said the payout to veterans would cost taxpayers more than $7 billion, but it would also be “an immediate savings of 83 percent when compared to the current yearly cost of nation building.”
Pentagon estimates put the total costs of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 at around $6 trillion. Paul said ongoing overseas missions in the global war on terror total more than $50 billion annually.
“We don’t need to be wasting that $50 billion, and there is no doubt much of it is wasted,” he said. “When are they (the Afghanistan government) going to pay for their own stuff? Why does Uncle Sam have to be Uncle Sap and pay for everything?”
Paul intends to introduce the legislation in coming days.
The idea follows calls from President Donald Trump in the State of the Union to begin a drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, arguing that “great nations do not fight endless wars.”
About 16,000 U.S. troops are still deployed to Afghanistan in support and training roles. Pentagon leaders have said that too quick a drawdown from the nearly 18-year-old war could destabilize the region and allow terrorist groups to regain a foothold in the country.
More than 2,400 U.S. military personnel have died since the initial invasion of American forces in 2001.
Paul said under his plan the “peace dividend” bonus for veterans would be required to be paid out within one year of the official end of the war. More than 3 million Americans served in the two wars.
He also said that the annual savings from cutting off the war funds should be used for domestic infrastructure projects and other priorities. He called spending American money overseas “incredibly insulting” to taxpayers.
“It’s time to declare our mission over and the war won,” he said. “It’s time to build here and not there.”
Washington Examiner: Trump ‘100%’ on board with keeping some troops in Syria
by Diana Stancy Correll
| March 05, 2019 02:36 PM
President Trump told lawmakers this week he’s "100%" on board with keeping some U.S. troops in Syria, less than three months after announcing a complete withdrawal.
Trump declared in December that the Islamic State was defeated and he was ordering all U.S. troops in Syria sent home. That decision faced backlash from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and was a factor in James Mattis’ resignation as secretary of defense.
The president reversed course last month, with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders saying that "a small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time."
A bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers of Congress sent the president a letter applauding his change of heart.
“We support a small American stabilizing force in Syria,” the lawmakers wrote Feb. 22. “We agree that a stabilizing force, which includes a small contingent of American troops and ground forces from our European allies, is essential to ensure stability and prevent the return of ISIS.”
After Trump received the letter, he highlighted a paragraph emphasizing the lawmakers’ goals for U.S. involvement in Syria.
“Like you, we seek to ensure that all of the gains made in Syria are not lost, that ISIS never returns, that Iran is not emboldened, and that we consolidate our gains and ensure the best outcome in Geneva for American interests,” the paragraph read. “Those are all important objectives.”
“I agree 100%. ALL is being done,” Trump wrote on a copy of the letter, adding his signature.
Trump acknowledged this past weekend in his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference that a “small group” of troops would remain in Syria but simultaneously reaffirmed his commitment to bringing troops home.
"We’ll leave a small group of guys and gals. But we want to bring our people back home,” Trump said. “We want to bring our people back home. It’s time. Been in these wars. We were going to be in Syria for four months. We ended up five years. This fighting — they just like to fight."
Stripes: House VA committee launches investigation of bots using fake news to target veterans, servicemembers
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 5, 2019

WASHINGTON – The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs launched an investigation Tuesday into “anonymous internet actors” impersonating congressionally chartered veterans service organizations in an effort to scam veterans and servicemembers.
The committee chairman, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., announced the investigation. In a statement, he said foreign actors are using “shadowy practices” to disseminate false information to servicemembers, veterans and their families.

“Our veterans served in uniform to guard against threats to our democracy just like those posed by these internet bots and trolls intent on sowing division and spreading misinformation,” Takano said. “Congress has a responsibility to stamp out these anonymous individuals and protect our country from threats foreign and domestic.”
The committee is in a fact-finding stage and is planning to hold meetings with stakeholders about the issue.

Democrats, who now control the House, are focused on increasing transparency, accountability and “finding ways to protect democracy,” said a committee staff member who spoke Tuesday on the condition of anonymity.

“This is a theme running throughout the party right now,” the staff member said.

Vietnam Veterans of America has investigated the issue since 2017, when the organization discovered a Facebook page using its name and logo. The page posted politically divisive posts and was followed by nearly 200,000 people – tens of thousands more than the official VVA page.

Facebook Inc. disabled the page after determining it violated VVA’s intellectual property.
Kristofer Goldsmith, associate director for policy and government affairs at VVA, discovered the page in mid-2017. Since then, he’s worked to shut down more fake accounts that target veterans and servicemembers with disinformation.

Goldsmith argued Monday that foreign trolls were targeting the military and veterans community to “weaponize and turn a profit off our patriotism.”

“Veterans organizations have been forced to play defense against a deluge of anonymous overseas actors who work day and night to deceive Americans — stealing our names, logos and reputations to gain their trust,” Goldsmith wrote in an editorial published in Military Times.

Goldsmith said Tuesday that he’s “basically been playing a game of whack-a-mole,” in which he identifies an imposter account and has it disabled, only for it to be created again under a new email address.

During the past several months, Goldsmith has been updating House Democrats about his efforts. He shared with them more than 100 pages of notes and thousands of screenshots.

“Doing it alone has been overwhelming, frankly, so I’m glad to know that [the committee] is going to be helping with this,” he said. “It’s a huge relief that at least I have somebody else’s eyes on this stuff.”

A study from Oxford University in 2017 found Russian operatives used Twitter and Facebook to disseminate “junk news” to veterans and servicemembers.

Researchers with Oxford’s Project on Computational Propaganda, which is studying how Americans were affected by disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election, found trolls and bots targeted military personnel and veterans with propaganda, conspiracies and hyper-partisan political content. The population of veterans and servicemembers contains “potentially influential voters and community leaders” because of the trust the public places in them, the study states.

Though the issue has the attention of the VA committee, Goldsmith argued the FBI needs to become involved to track and identify the people behind the fake accounts.
“I believe an investigation by the FBI is appropriate,” he said. “Until we find the people behind the avatars and impose a cost on them, they have no incentive to stop.”

Military.com: Veterans Receive Golden ‘Tickets’ Canceling Their Medical Debt

5 Mar 2019
Military.com | By Patricia Kime
It sounds crazy and looks like a scam: a golden envelope containing a letter that says part or all of your health care debt has been erased.
But for thousands of veterans and family members, the mailings, which have been going out since 2016, have been the winning ticket for getting out from under a mountain of medical bills.
In the past three years, RIP Medical Debt has quietly erased roughly $65 million worth of medical debt for veterans, family members, National Guard and reserve members, notifying them by mail of the action, according to retired Army Col. Mikel Burroughs, vice president of military and civilian debt acquisition and relief at RIP Medical Debt.
The random acts of kindness are not just reserved for former military service members. Since beginning its mission in 2014, the nonprofit has forgiven about $435 million worth of medical debt for civilians with significant bills who are living at less than twice the poverty level, are insolvent or have more than 5 percent of their gross income going to health care debt.
The idea began when two collections industry executives, Craig Antico and Jerry Ashton, decided to establish a nonprofit to provide a tax-deductible means for individuals and donors to give money to forgive unpaid medical debt for those in dire need.
RIP Medical Debt works like this: Donors and organizations raise the funds needed to purchase medical debt from the companies that hold it after hospitals, providers, ambulance companies and agencies have exhausted their efforts to collect payment. RIP buys the debt for a penny — or less — on the dollar, so if a philanthropist donates $50,000, the non-profit can erase $5 million in debt.
Working with the debt holders, it finds patients in dire straits and gleans the list specifically to find veterans. Some of those get the yellow envelope.
Ashton, a Navy veteran, wrote in HuffPost last year that when they first started their nonprofit, they noticed "a surprising percentage of the people whose debt we were abolishing were active-duty military and veterans."
"Like many Americans, I believed that America takes care of the medical needs of the men and women who have served our country," he said.
Instead, he found that veterans may face mounting medical bills while waiting to get into the Department of Veterans Affairs system or they aren’t eligible for care at the VA. Plus, Burroughs noted, they may get into debt because their family members aren’t covered.
"A lot of veterans just get stuck in the quagmire," Burroughs said.
Ashton cited the example of a 73-year-old veteran who went to a local hospital for cardiac arrest. While he was there, hospital staff notified the VA medical center that the veteran needed emergency bypass surgery. The VA center said it would send an ambulance to pick him up and transport him there, 75 miles away. But the veteran already was being prepped for surgery.
The VA then declined to pay the veteran’s outstanding $36,000 bill, because, according to the VA, the veteran had "refused emergency transport." He depleted his savings and took out a loan but still couldn’t pay off the debt, according to Ashton.
"We are vigorously taking up causes as personal as this," he wrote.
The charity started off slow, running in the red through 2015 while setting up the mechanisms for executing the plan. It received a significant boost in donations and legitimacy in 2016 when John Oliver ran a segment on his HBO Last Week Tonight show about the debt-buying industry.
In an attempt to highlight the dark side of the business, Oliver started his own company for $50 and purchased $15 million worth of medical debt for 9,000 patients, paying roughly $60,000 for the debt, along with the patients’ personal and financial information, including their Social Security numbers. At the end of the segment, Oliver turned the debt over to RIP.
Those who receive yellow envelopes do not need to take any action, which means if someone mistakes the envelope for junk mail and tosses it, the debt is still abolished.
The forgiven debt counts as a gift; those who receive the yellow envelopes do not have to pay taxes on it and it is not considered income. Also, under the requirements of the deal, the debt seller must notify all three major credit reporting agencies to ensure that the adverse information is removed or noted in the patients’ files.
Many of RIP’s donations come from individual donors and corporations that raise money specifically for the charity. In January, the McClatchy Foundation launched a fundraising effort in more than 30 newspapers, raising enough money to forgive debt for at least 730 veteran and military families. NBCUniversal is also a major partner.
Burroughs, who runs the veterans program at RIP, also is a donor. He will ride 7,727 miles this summer on his motorcycle to raise awareness and funds for the cause. His goal of $50,000 will help clear $5 million in debt.
In addition to working with debt holders, RIP Medical Debt officials have started reaching out directly to hospitals, physician groups and ambulance companies to offer their services. But they’d like to hear from them as well, Burroughs said.
"They are sitting on inventory they will never collect, and this is a great opportunity for hospitals to bring some revenue back in and also do something for their communities," he added.
Burroughs said one of the most difficult challenges of the program is having to explain to people that RIP Medical Debt simply can’t pay the bills of individuals who reach out. He added that the organization is trying to figure out a way to help, but haven’t yet "cracked the code."
"More than 10,000 people have contacted us saying they need help, but we can’t do that at this point. We’re working on it," he said.
Burroughs estimated that RIP Medical Debt mailed out between 60,000 and 70,000 envelopes last year. He said that for many, they are "a lifesaver."
"You can imagine that these veterans are getting hounded for financial debt, and they already have anxiety or depression or post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury. This is a big relief," he said.