Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Wednesday, May 20, 2020, which is the day after Ben Roethlisberger getting in trouble with the Governor of Pennsylvania for getting a haircut. The Patriots don’t play them this year, but I’m hoping Roger Goodell suspends him for at least 8 games. You can’t just go wild and get your haircut in the middle of a pandemic! You should do it yourself, and butcher it. Which is what I did to my kids, which is why one looks like he has mange and runs away when I touch the clippers.
Since I am in the office this morning, here is the second half of May from This Day in Legion History.
- May 16, 2014: One day after testifying in a Senate hearing about the steps necessary to repair employee accountability problems at VA, Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel resigns, amid growing pressure over the Phoenix appointment scandal.
- May 18, 1944: The House, after a racially motivated debate over the “52-20” provision to pay all newly discharged veterans $20 a week for a year, finally passes the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, by a unanimous vote. The American Legion does not budge from its position that the benefits must apply equally to all honorably discharged veterans, regardless of skin color.
May 19, 1971: The Wall Street Journal publishes an article quoting critics who describe The American Legion as “slowly fading away… an anachronism, an echo from a past left far behind” that is losing influence and struggles to recruit Vietnam War veterans for membership. Eighteen years later, in 1989, The American Legion would begin a seven-year stretch of membership exceeding 3 million, fueled largely by increases among Vietnam War veterans. While the 1946 membership of 3,326,556 was an all-time high, the record was nearly snapped in 1992 when membership hit 3,115,340. Membership increased about 500,000 over the 25 years after the 1971 article was published. May 28, 1918: Maj. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., successfully leads a 26th Infantry Regiment company in the first U.S. offensive of World War I, the Battle of Cantigny. He is gassed nearly to blindness and refuses evacuation, but his company’s raid is a breakthrough victory, and he receives the Silver Star. He is promoted to lieutenant colonel. May 28, 1984: President Ronald Reagan acts as next of kin and accepts the internment flag for a then-unknown soldier of the Vietnam War, whose remains are added to the crypt at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. May 29, 1946: Dr. Leonard Rowntree, chairman of The American Legion’s Medical Advisory Committee, presents a check for $50,000 to a little-known and financially struggling non-profit organization called the American Heart Association. The Legion’s National Rehab Committee had been authorized to spend $25,000 to help the AHA, and the American Legion Auxiliary raises $25,000 to match it. At the time, as heart disease is accounting for one in four U.S. deaths, The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary seize the opportunity to take a national leadership role to “inaugurate a nationwide program in the study, prevention and treatment of rheumatic heart disease.” The funding leads to American Legion-sponsored heart research and provides the AHA a springboard to life-saving work that continues today. May 30, 1920: Paris Post 1 Commander Col. Francis Drake represents The American Legion to help oversee Memorial Day observances for fallen U.S military personnel buried in temporary cemeteries across Europe. May 30, 2014: Gen. Eric Shinseki resigns as VA secretary three weeks after The American Legion calls for him to step down. Additional cases of VA appointment falsification around the country are revealed by whistleblowers. President Obama appoints Sloan Gibson interim secretary. May 30, 1921: Four unknown American soldiers of the Great War are exhumed from their graves in France. Sgt. Edward F. Younger, a highly decorated and combat-wounded veteran, selects the third casket from the left, whose remains are sent to Arlington National Cemetery for entombment. The other three are interred at the Meuse Argonne Cemetery in France, where they remain today. The chosen unknown soldier would lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., until ceremonies at Arlington on Nov. 11, 1921. May 30, 1969: Cabin John Bridge, which opened in 1962 to connect Fairfax County, Va., with Montgomery County, Md., across the Potomac River, is renamed American Legion Memorial Bridge during the organization’s 50th anniversary commemoration. Today, nearly 250,000 travelers a day cross the bridge, which has five lanes in both directions, as part of Interstate 495, the Capital Beltway. May 30, 2011: The 10 World War II sailors of the USS American Legion who died off the coast of New Zealand in June 1943 are honored in a ceremony at Kapiti, near Paekākāriki Beach. A memorial monument to honor them is installed the following year, on the 70th anniversary of the tragedy.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
Politico: ‘Hard stop’: States could lose National Guard virus workers
WRAL: Lack of military funerals during pandemic frustrates families of veterans
Stripes: Congressman urges VA to open cemeteries for Memorial Day
Military Times: FBI: Shooter at Pensacola Navy base coordinated with al-Qaida
WaPo: For most of Afghanistan war, U.S. ‘never really fought to win,’ Trump declares
***Herald Tribune: When the helpers cannot help
***Contains a quote from TAL.
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Politico: ‘Hard stop’: States could lose National Guard virus workers
The Trump administration’s order ends deployments on June 24, just one day before thousands would qualify for education and retirement benefits.
By ALICE MIRANDA OLLSTEIN
05/19/2020 04:30 AM EDT
More than 40,000 National Guard members currently helping states test residents for the coronavirus and trace the spread of infections will face a “hard stop” on their deployments on June 24 — just one day shy of many members becoming eligible for key federal benefits, according to a senior FEMA official.
The official outlined the Trump administration’s plans on an interagency call on May 12, an audio version of which was obtained by POLITICO. The official also acknowledged during the call that the June 24 deadline means that thousands of members who first deployed in late March will find themselves with only 89 days of duty credit, one short of the 90-day threshold for qualifying for early retirement and education benefits under the Post-9/11 GI bill.
The looming loss of crucial frontline workers, along with questions about whether the administration is shortchanging first responders, would require a delicate messaging strategy, the official — representing FEMA’s New England region — told dozens of colleagues on the interagency call.
“We would greatly benefit from unified messaging regarding the conclusion of their services prior to hitting the 90-day mark and the retirement benefit implications associated with it,” the official said.
Top National Guard and other federal officials on the call did not dispute the June 24 cutoff or raise the possibility of an extension. In a statement, FEMA acknowledged that President Donald Trump’s current order for the federal government to fund the troops expires on June 24. But a National Guard spokesperson said a decision to extend the deployments could still be made in the coming weeks.
“We’re not there yet on the determination,” the spokesperson, Wayne Hall, said. “Nobody can say where we’ll need to be more than a month down the road.”
Governors and lawmakers in both parties have been pleading with the White House to extend the federal order for several more months or until the end of the year, warning in a letter to Trump that terminating federal deployments early in the summer just as states are reopening “could contribute to a possible second wave of infection.”
More than 40,000 Guard members are currently serving under federal orders known as Title 32, which grants them federal pay and benefits but puts them under local command, in 44 states, three territories and the District of Columbia — the largest domestic deployment since Hurricane Katrina.
Tens of thousands of them have been working full-time since early March on a wide range of sensitive and dangerous tasks, such as decontaminating nursing homes and setting up field hospitals, along with performing tests for the virus. They’ve provided a crucial backup for understaffed and underfunded state public health agencies trying to contain the pandemic.
The cost of the deployment is as much as $9 million per month for every 1,000 troops, according to the National Council of State Legislatures — an expense that states would have to shoulder should Title 32 expire. In addition, state deployments do not count toward federal education and retirement benefits.
The 45,000-member National Guard Association and some state officials told POLITICO that they suspect the Trump administration timed its orders to limit the deployment to 89 days — one short of the number that would qualify the earliest participants for certaineducation and retirement benefits.
Guard members must serve for 20 years to qualify for a pension at age 60. But for every 90 days serving during a federal emergency, Guard members can move up that retirement by three months. Ninety days of service also qualifies members for 40 percent off the tuition at a public college or university.
Because the National Guard members have to self-quarantine for two weeks before returning to civilian life to ensure they don’t spread the virus after serving on the front lines, states could lose their services in early June.
Trump’s original order calling up Guard members to help with the coronavirus crisis had been scheduled to expire on May 31. With the deadline approaching, Colorado’s entire congressional delegation — Republicans and Democrats alike — wrote to the president asking for an extension until the end of the year. Senators from New Hampshire, Connecticut, West Virginia and Illinois sought an extension through the fall. And several officials, including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, have written letters asking for an extension until at least June 30.
Instead, the White House issued an unusual 24-day extension that terminates the deployment mid-week.
“It seemed kind of weird to me,” said retired Brig. Gen. J. Roy Robinson, president of the National Guard Association, the advocacy group for Guard members. “It’s a Wednesday. And it also coincides with 89 days of deployment for any soldiers who went on federal status at the beginning. I was getting all kind of calls about it and I said, ‘It’s probably just a coincidence.’ But in the back of my mind, I know better. They’re screwing the National Guard members out of the status they should have.”
The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The National Guard’s Hall countered that the 90-day threshold is cumulative, meaning members could qualify for both early retirement and GI Bill education benefits on their next federal deployment.
“If someone’s new in the Guard, they won’t be able to make that 90 days in one shot,” Hall acknowledged. “But if two months from now they’re called up for a hurricane or flood, they can make it then. The goal here is not to hurt Guardsmen.”
Nonetheless, federal deployments are relatively rare, and the practical impact of a June 24 cutoff would be toprevent many Guard members from claiming potentially valuable benefits, the National Guard Association said.
Meanwhile, as the national death count climbs toward 100,000, many states are depending on Guard members to help enact testing programs, deep-clean public facilities and perform the kind of contact tracing of people exposed to the virus that’s necessary to help states reopen—and say those needs will not go away anytime soon.
In Washington state, for example, Guard members comprise about a third of the state’s contact-tracing force, working to identify coronavirus outbreaks and locate people who have been exposed. More than 500 Guard members are currently performing such duties. According to the governor’s office, hundreds more are running community operations that have tested more than 1,600 people, assembled more than 28,000 testing kits and delivered nearly 14 million pounds of food to food banks and struggling families.
Casey Katims, the federal liaison for Gov. Jay Inslee, said that while the state will do what it can to keep Guard members on duty if the federal deployment ends in June, “that footprint will necessarily be smaller without federal support.”
“All of the missions are going to continue for months to come,” he said. “The need for testing, the need for meals, the need for contact tracing don’t disappear on June 25. So if the administration allows [Trump’s order] to expire, that will mean fewer personnel to assist Washington in each of these critical missions.”
In North Dakota, a state with one of the highest per capita testing rates and the lowest rate of fatalities, more than 100 National Guard members have been running mobile testing sites since April, testing between 350 and 750 residents each day in places like the Fargodome parking lot, Grand Forks’ Alerus Center and Standing Rock High School.
“Local public health is somewhat understaffed, so we bring the bodies,” Major Waylon Tomac explained in a recent promotional video for the National Guard.
Another 30 or so members have been deep-cleaning long-term care facilities that have recently seen outbreaks — spraying disinfectant and wiping down every surface. Still more have been working the night shift at the state’s labs, assembling coronavirus test kits.
Col. Tad Schauer, the director of military response for the North Dakota National Guard, told POLITICO that while his team is currently planning to wrap up its operations by June 24, it stands ready to keep working if the Trump administration extends the deployment or Gov. Doug Burgum asks it to transition to “State Active Duty.”
“The people of North Dakota have been exceptional in fighting Covid-19 and we’re here to support the state and its citizens regardless of our federal or state status,” he said.
The May 12 conference call was one of a series of interagency meetings the Trump administration has convened daily during the pandemic. On those video conference calls, senior officials from HHS, FEMA and other government agencies update participants on the progress made on various fronts — including ongoing efforts to ramp up testing, acquire and distribute protective equipment and monitor hot spots around the country.
During that meeting, the official who raised the June 24 deadline was identified as “Russ” from FEMA’s Region 1, which includes Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Captain Russell “Russ” Webster, the regional administrator whom the White House also tapped in March to be New England’s coordinating officer for federal recovery operations, did not confirm or deny that he was the one speaking on the call when contacted by POLITICO.
While some Guard members could continue the same work under State Active Duty after the June deadline, the National Guard Association has warned that without federal orders and funding, most states won’t be able to “support significant Guard deployments.”
In addition to being unable to accrue time toward federal retirement and tuition benefits, Guard members under State Active Duty are ineligible for the military’s health insurance for active duty members — an issue Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) are seeking to address in a new bill.
The health coverage question is especially pressing during a pandemic. The National Guard confirmed to POLITICO that as of Monday, 1,158 members have been diagnosed with Covid-19, including 617 active cases.
The National Guard notes that members whose federal active status expires can enroll in a different health insurance program, TRICARE Reserve Select. But that program charges members and their families significant premiums, deductibles and co-pays that regular TRICARE does not, and it doesn’t cover any dental care or pharmaceuticals.
Robinson, while pushing for the passage of the Ernst-Manchin bill, said he’s disappointed in the Trump administration’s treatment of Guard members risking their health during a pandemic.
“They’re working side-by-side with doctors, nurses and first responders,” he said. “And we’re going to cut them off and send them home with no health care coverage while they transition back to their civilian life. Not to mention, some of their jobs may have evaporated since they were deployed.”
WRAL: Lack of military funerals during pandemic frustrates families of veterans
Posted May 18, 2020 7:31 p.m. EDT
By Gilbert Baez, WRAL Fayetteville reporter
SPRING LAKE, N.C. — The military suspended funerals with full honors for veterans two months ago because of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing concerns.
The lack of an honor guard, "Taps" and other tributes is troubling to the families of some veterans who have recently died.
"It’s very hard," said Linda Wise, whose family had to stand 100 yards away Monday as her father was buried at Sandhills Veterans Cemetery near Fort Bragg.
SFC Benoit "Frenchy" Trudeau, 91, retired after 27 years in the Army, serving in posts in Japan, Vietnam and South Korea.
Catherine Mangum also was buried at the veterans cemetery in Spring Lake. Her son said he had to fight to get someone to come and fold her American flag for the family.
"I want every veteran to have that," Michael White said. "I don’t want to have someone else like me to go 40-something straight hours with no sleep, contacting every single body I could to get this to happen for my mother. It’s ridiculous. It shouldn’t happen."
It’s unclear when military and state officials will lift the restriction on military honors. The Sandhills Veterans Cemetery already has a backlog of more than 50 military funerals that need to be scheduled for honors.
Trudeau’s family is taking the matter into their own hands.
"Someone is going to play Taps, and we’re all going to honk our horns – a 21-honk salute," Wise said.
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES
Published: May 19, 2020
WASHINGTON — Congressman Brian Mast on Tuesday criticized a decision by the Department of Veterans Affairs secretary to restrict public ceremonies at national cemeteries during Memorial Day weekend.
The Florida Republican wrote a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie urging him to reverse his decision to hold only brief, private ceremonies at the 142 national cemeteries operated by the department. Mast argued Americans should have the freedom to recognize the holiday as individuals or in groups.
“While I understand your desire to limit large gatherings, the reality is that the government cannot manage the risks for each individual,” Mast said in a statement. “Every person in our country, especially on a day like Memorial Day, should have the freedom to mourn and pay their respects in the manner they judge is best for themselves and their groups.”
During a typical year, the day is marked with large public gatherings to honor fallen veterans and service members. There are wreath-laying ceremonies, and flags are placed at each gravesite. This year, there will be no flag placements.
“Restricting Memorial Day ceremonies and preventing the tradition of volunteers placing our beautiful flag on each grave flies in the face of the freedoms that so many have died to protect,” Mast said.
National cemeteries will open from dawn to dusk on Memorial Day for people to visit gravesites, but visitors cannot attend the brief wreath-laying ceremonies, the VA said. Those ceremonies will include a moment of silence and the playing of taps. Some of them will appear on livestream on the National Cemetery Administration’s social media pages.
Visitors are asked to distance themselves, and the VA is urging people to visit on the Friday, Saturday or Sunday before the holiday to avoid crowds on Memorial Day.
“This year, by necessity, will be different from past Memorial Day observances,” Wilkie said last week in a statement.
Arlington National Cemetery, which is operated by the Army, announced Friday that it would allow entry during Memorial Day weekend only to family pass holders for the purpose of visiting gravesites. Families must have masks with them in case they can’t maintain social distancing, and they won’t be permitted to visit any of the cemetery’s historical sites.
Mast represents Florida, which began reopening this week. Businesses such as restaurants, malls, libraries and gyms were able to reopen with restrictions, and some beaches opened – a decision critics have blasted as dangerous.
Mast argued it was “appalling” that beaches will be open on Memorial Day but full access to national cemeteries would be restricted.
Military Times: FBI: Shooter at Pensacola Navy base coordinated with al-Qaida
Eric Tucker, The Associated Press
1 day ago
The gunman who killed three U.S. sailors at a military base in Florida last year repeatedly communicated with al-Qaida operatives about planning in the months leading up to the attack, U.S. officials said Monday, as they lashed out at Apple for failing to help them open the shooter’s phones so they could access key evidence.
Law enforcement officials discovered contacts between Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani and operatives of al-Qaida after FBI technicians succeeded on their own in breaking into two cellphones that had previously been locked and that the shooter, a Saudi Air Force officer, had tried to destroy before he was killed by law enforcement.
“We now have a clearer understanding of Alshamrani’s associations and activities in the years, months and days leading up to his attack,” Attorney General William Barr said at a news conference in which he sharply chastised Apple for not helping unlock the phones.
The new details, including that Alshamrani had been radicalized abroad before he arrived in the U.S., raise fresh questions about the vetting of Saudi military members and trainees who spend time at American bases. The announcement also comes amid tension with the U.S. over instability in the oil market during the coronavirus pandemic and as the Trump administration faces criticism that it has not done enough to hold the kingdom, which has tried to improve its international image, accountable for human rights violations.
The criticism directed at Apple could also escalate divisions between the U.S. government and the massive technology company, which has rejected the characterization that it has been unhelpful. The company said Monday that it does not store customers’ passcodes, does not have the capability to unlock passcode-protected devices and believes that weakening encryption could create vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers.
Alshamrani was killed by a sheriff’s deputy during the Dec. 6 rampage at a classroom building at Pensacola Naval Air Station. He had been undergoing flight training at Pensacola as part of instruction offered at American military bases to foreign nationals. Besides the three sailors who died, eight other people were injured.
Once unlocked by the FBI, U.S. officials said, the phones revealed contact between Alshamrani and “dangerous” operatives from al-Qaida in the Arabian Pensinsula, or AQAP, including the night before the attack. They also revealed that he had been radicalized since at least 2015, before he arrived in the U.S., and had meticulously planned for it.
Alsharamni created minicam videos as he cased a military school building and saved a will on his phone that purported to explain himself — the same document AQAP released two months after the shooting when it claimed responsibility for it, said FBI Director Chris Wray, who called the attack “the brutal culmination of years of planning and preparation.”
“He wasn’t just coordinating with them about planning and tactics,” Wray said. “He was helping the organization making the most it could out of his murders.”
Asked whether al-Qaida had directed or merely inspired the attacks, Wray said it was “certainly more than just inspired.”
It was only with access to the phones that U.S. officials were able to establish certain suspicions as facts.
The Justice Department had asked Apple to help extract data from two iPhones that belonged to the gunman, including one that authorities say Alshamrani damaged with a bullet after being confronted by law enforcement.
Wray said Apple provided “effectively no help” in unlocking the phones, and that FBI technicians did it on their own — though he did not say how.
Barr used Monday’s press conference to forcefully call on Apple to do more to cooperate with law enforcement.
“In cases like this, where the user is a terrorist, or in other cases, where the user is a violent criminal, human trafficker or child predator, Apple’s decision has dangerous consequences for public safety and national security and is, in my judgment, unacceptable,” Barr said.
In a statement Monday, Apple said it had provided the FBI with “every piece of information avaialble to us, including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts.” It rejected the idea of weakening encryption for law enforcement’s benefit.
“It is because we take our responsibility to national security so seriously that we do not believe in the creation of a backdoor — one which will make every device vulnerable to bad actors who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers,” the statement said. "There is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys, and the American people do not have to choose between weakening encryption and effective investigations.
Law enforcement officials had previously left no doubt that Alshamrani was motivated by jihadist ideology, saying he visited a New York City memorial to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and posted anti-American and anti-Israeli messages on social media just two hours before the shooting.
Separately, AQAP, al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, released a video in February claiming the attack. AQAP has long been considered the global network’s most dangerous branch and has attempted to carry out attacks on the U.S. mainland.
In January, U.S. officials announced that they were sending home 21 Saudi military students after an investigation revealed that they had had jihadist or anti-American sentiments on social media pages or had “contact with child pornography.”
Barr said then that Saudi Arabia had agreed to review the conduct of all 21 to see if they should face military discipline and to send back anyone the U.S. later determines should face charges.
Operational training for Saudis at multiple U.S bases was suspended soon after the shooting, but the Pentagon announced in February that it had given the Navy and other military services conditional approval to resume.
Barr said Monday that the Saudis have been cooperative and have worked with the Pentagon to buttress the vetting process.
WaPo: For most of Afghanistan war, U.S. ‘never really fought to win,’ Trump declares
May 18, 2020 at 9:03 p.m. EDT
President Trump on Monday declared that the United States had “never really fought to win” in Afghanistan, except early in the nearly two-decade-long war, making a sweeping statement about military efforts as thousands of U.S. troops continue to serve, and sometimes die, in counterinsurgent operations there.
In a series of tweets, the president pushed back against a May 17 Wall Street Journal editorial cautioning against abrupt decisions regarding Afghanistan, where U.S. officials are seeking to facilitate a peace deal between Taliban militants and the Afghan government ahead of a planned reduction in U.S. forces.
“Could someone please explain to them that we have been there for 19 years,” Trump wrote. “The Taliban is mixed about even wanting us out. They make a fortune $$$ out of having us stay, and except at the beginning, we never really fought to win.”
“We are more of a police force than the mighty military that we are, especially now as rebuilt. No, I am not acting impulsively!” he said.
Since the war began in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, more than three-quarters of a million Americans have deployed to Afghanistan, and more than 2,300 U.S. troops have died. During President Barack Obama’s troop surge, about 100,000 military personnel were arrayed across the country, fighting to win remote areas from Taliban control.
Over the past year, the military mission has focused on pummeling militants with airstrikes and supporting Afghan forces in an effort to induce the Taliban to embrace political talks outlined in a Feb. 29 U.S.-Taliban deal. That deal halted U.S. attacks on the Taliban and outlined a path toward an American departure.
Officials have declined to give an exact number for the U.S. force, which serves there as part of a NATO-led coalition, but said the number is being brought down to 8,600 this spring as an initial step in the recent agreement.
While officials have acknowledged that the war has been locked in an extended stalemate and that many hard-won battlefield gains have not been sustained, Trump’s commentary was unusual for a commander in chief. Typically, presidents have heaped praise on military efforts no matter their outcome.
At other moments, Trump has also lauded the military effort in Afghanistan, including during a surprise Thanksgiving visit last year. Speaking to troops at a U.S. airfield outside Kabul, Trump praised troops who had deployed to “defend liberty” since the start of the war and those who “continue to serve heroically to stamp out terrorism and to eviscerate the enemies of civilization.”
It remains unclear how quickly further reductions will follow if peace talks, already delayed, do not begin or progress. Trump, who has spoken about his desire to end the war since he was a presidential candidate, has repeatedly expressed frustration about the conflict and the resources it has involved.
“You can only hold someone’s hand for so long,” he said in March, referring to Afghanistan.
Richard Fontaine, who served as foreign policy adviser to late senator John McCain (R) and is now chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, said that “anybody who said we didn’t fight to win would have a hard time explaining Obama’s surge, when the military unleashed very serious operations again the Taliban.”
The Taliban, meanwhile, has continued to demonstrate its resilience, conducting attacks that have resulted in a surge in Afghan casualties this spring. So far in 2020, four U.S. troops have died in hostile action. Last year, almost 20 died.
U.S. military officials have said that even if a peace deal can be reached, a significant counterterrorism threat will remain given the presence of al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants.
In its editorial, the Wall Street Journal appeared to voice concern about a sudden withdrawal order.
“The Taliban know that President Trump is eager to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country, preferably before Election Day in November, so he can claim a diplomatic victory,” the editorial read. “But that gives the Taliban an incentive to bide their time in the hope of goading Mr. Trump to do something impulsive.”
A Pentagon spokesman referred questions about the president’s tweet to the White House. The White House did not provide a comment.
Julie Tate and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.
***Herald Tribune: When the helpers cannot help
By Billy Cox
Posted May 17, 2020 at 6:01 AM
Death of a role model to wounded veterans encourages others to reconnect
SARASOTA — “I began writing at 3:46 in the morning on April 19, 2020. I’ve been drunk on red wine since the previous night. I haven’t slept. I haven’t stopped suffering. My own personal hell has been reignited, in light of present circumstances affecting us all.”
Motivational speaker Rory Hamill was losing altitude. The disabled Marine corporal had been here before, back in 2012, as he sat in his car, contemplated his gun, round chambered. Thoughts of his children pulled him back from the brink.
Hamill swerved from the abyss into public service, promoting his own resilience as an example for others. He was determined to keep a record of that journey, even amid the downward spiral of gravity.
“This pandemic,” Hamill pressed on last month, “although viral in nature, alludes to what happens to us as human beings, when we are stripped of our outlets and are deprived of our ability to socialize.”
When the news of Hamill’s suicide rippled out of New Jersey last week, the loss scattered shock waves across many of the 45,000 nonprofits dedicated to supporting America’s veterans. Hamill’s record still lingers in cyberspace, through videos, newspaper articles, a “60 Minutes” interview, and exhortations on his website:
“In light of my injuries, I learned that helping others, helps myself. No obstacle is impassable; by endurance, we conquer.”
Hamill, 31, encountered the impassable obstacle amid the national isolation. And as a result, everyone is taking inventory of mental health issues inside their own military circles.
“The wounded veteran community is fairly tight-knit, and when something like this happens, the word gets out,” said Kevin Kenney, an Army veteran and director of Operation Patriot Support (OPS) in Bradenton.
“We’re noticing quite a few (suicides) in the wounded veterans community. And when Cindy told me there were more this week, including one who was a mentor — that’s significant.”
Like OPS, Cindy McGrew’s Operation Second Chance, headquartered in Maryland, promotes solidarity by sponsoring fraternal-bonding retreats for wounded veterans. Since the COVID-19 lockdown, McGrew says she’s had to terminate 38 events nationwide; Kenney’s OPS has shelved five Florida outings.
“We’ve had to cancel everything. And since April 3, I’ve lost four guys who’ve taken their lives. Four that I know of,” said McGrew. “Two of them, I thought were doing so well. But they’re not able to get out, they’re sitting at home drinking, they’re self-medicating, they’re not making their appointments …”
It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going to happen — emotionally, psychologically, to the public at large — once the coronavirus infections began their roller-coaster ascent in March, igniting shelter-in-place rules. Even so, given the unique issues shouldered by many veterans, the nonprofit Bob Woodruff Foundation issued a forecast on April 1.
Drawing on data platforms from 3,000 organizations serving veterans in 45 states, the Foundation reviewed the top five occupations most likely to employ former service personnel, an estimated 1.2 million veterans. It reported that one in five will lose their jobs, a daunting prospect given that roughly half those individuals between the ages 25 and 54 retain maybe $3,000 to $4,000 in their combined savings and checking accounts.
But finances and employment weren’t the only elements in the report, called “Veterans and COVID-19.”
“Loneliness can lead to a host of negative health consequences,” the 22-page paper stated, which can lead to depression, sleep disruption and physical decline. “Veterans who relied on sponsored activities and events that fostered community and social interaction may be especially vulnerable.
“Crisis lines often do not have surge capacity,” it continued, “leaving some calls, chats or texts for help unanswered during times of crisis.” But crisis hotlines could also be at risk, “many of which are dependent on tenuous funding streams, and that could be threatened due to competing resource demands in the wake of COVID-19.”
Two years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs released a study indicating 20.6 veterans take their lives every day. But according to Dr. Matt Miller, the VA’s Acting Director for Suicide Prevention, Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, getting a final tally of how the coronavirus is impacting those numbers will likely take years, because of cumbersome data-gathering controls across multiple state and federal agencies.
The Veterans Crisis Line, however, is answering 99.98% of its calls despite a jump in virus-related calls, from 1% in early March to 22% by month’s end. Miller also cautioned about painting combat veterans with broad brushstrokes.
“There’s a range of experiences, and it needs to be considered individually,” he told the Herald-Tribune. “It’s really difficult to make accurate conclusions across a really wide group like combat veterans.”
* * *
Rory Hamill was on his third combat tour when his right leg was blown off by a hidden explosive while he was sweeping a compound in Afghanistan, on Feb. 13, 2011. Four years later, he was among half a dozen leathernecks interviewed by CBS’ Scott Pelley during a reunion of Golf Company, 2nd Marines, 8th Battalion, with whom Pelley had in embedded in 2009.
By the time he joined the Ocean County Prosecutors Office in Toms River, New Jersey, in 2018, Hamill was an accomplished speaker. Alternately gregarious and introspective, he drew audiences into a pin-drop silence when discussing the day he contemplated suicide eight years ago, after leaving the Corps. But “I’m in a much, much better place now,” he assured listeners. And his pitch was consistent.
“Once you find … there’s likeminded individuals like yourself, and you realize you’re not alone, that’s where you realize you start to heal,” Hamill often insisted. “That’s what I want to bring to the world. I want people to realize that it’s OK not to be OK.”
He participated in a short documentary called “Love Your Fate,” an approximate translation of the Latin words he had tattooed just above both sets of knuckles. The cameras followed him through his rigorous daily iron-pumping regimen, and gave him a forum to explain how his life’s mission was to elevate and inspire his peers to push harder.
Ocean County’s 40,000 military veterans represent the highest concentration in New Jersey, and when Hamill joined the court’s prearrest diversionary program as a mentor, it was a perfect fit, says Renee White in the prosecutor’s office. She called him “larger than life.”
In January, appearing with Medal of Honor recipient Leroy Petry, Hamill brought his suicide prevention message to troops at U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden in Germany. He was a celebrity judge for a Valentine’s Day bakeoff fundraiser for the American Heart Association in the prosecutors’ office. When the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders rolled out in March, Hamill called White to make sure she was OK.
As recently as two days before his body was discovered in Lakehurst on May 1, White says “Rory was picking out classes” for the master’s degree in social work he planned to earn at Monmouth College. A spokesperson for the Lakehurst Police Department said death records on suicides are not released to the public.
White’s co-workers are starting a scholarship fund, in Hamill’s name, for veterans hoping to pursue social work degrees at Monmouth in order to assist their comrades in arms.
“His therapy was helping others, because he was the consummate helper. And when you take that away from someone … what happens to helpers when helpers can’t help?” White wondered. “We’re all still in shock.”
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At Operation Patriot Support, activists are responding with a grass-roots project called Operation Roll Call. It wants the public, civilians and military alike to pick up the phone, call a veteran and inquire about their well-being, to ask what sort of help they may need.
“It doesn’t matter who,” said Kenney. “Everybody knows a veteran.” He then wants that veteran to contact another, and to pay it forward.
A top-down version of that effort was initiated by the country’s oldest and largest veterans service organization more than a year ago. It’s called the Buddy Check Program, and the American Legion is encouraging its veterans to go through old membership lists and reconnect with folks who’ve gone quiet for awhile.
“This was even before the pandemic, because we’ve seen combat veterans isolating, having trouble reintegrating into society,” said Josh Hastings, the Legion’s TBI/PTSD program coordinator. “So we knew that isolation could increase the risk of mental health issues, anxiety and depression. But not to the extent we’re seeing. I do know this program is exploding right now.”
Among the ironies is that ad hoc digital communities, often properly blamed for perpetuating social isolation even during the best of times, may be the last best hope for a lifeline to veterans hanging on by a thread.
“I heard about (Hamill’s) suicide last night, and it brought me to tears,” said Army veteran Jose Belen of Orlando. “So many veterans are already dealing with things that have suicide on the table for them. And now with COVID coming on, it acts as a force multiplier.
“We already know, like it or not, we’re going to have 8,000 veteran suicides this year. But what’s it going to be now? Are we going to go from 22 a day to 44 a day?”
An Iraq war survivor, Belen was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress after a tour that included the accidental gunning down of children. He became addicted to VA-prescribed opioids when he returned home.
Plagued by suicidal ideation, he described the horrors of withdrawal in a Herald-Tribune special report about veterans rallying for the federal descheduling of cannabis. Belen is now part of a lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration that may wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Belen and his Army unit pals hold yearly gatherings in Texas at the grave of a buddy who was killed in action. But it took his wife to point out something that should’ve been obvious.
“Danielle said you know, Jose, one thing I’ve noticed is, when y’all get together, there is no PTSD, you guys are like children,” said Belen, whose nonprofit support group is called Mission Zero. “But I’ve noticed on that last day, it’s like a bomb goes off, because a lot of us cry because we’ve got to leave each other.”
Feeling the creep of depression amid this social-distancing phenomenon, with “my mind starting to go to places,” Belen decided to host an online “Veterans Happy Hour” Zoom chat on Friday afternoon, April 24. After promoting it on social media, “at least 20” showed up.
He put another one together the following week and drew 50 participants. “Veterans Happy Hour” will now be a regular weekly hangout for sharing frustrations, encouragement and resources.
“These guys, man, they don’t know each other, and I don’t know all of them, either. We just talk,” Belen said. “We start out like, hey, you’re in a safe place here, why don’t you tell us about yourself, your service, and why it means so much, and what’s going on in your life?
“We put a lot of stuff out there. And you know what? Nobody leaves. They’re engaged the whole way, from 4:30 to 6. At the end, we say, if there’s a veteran who wants to remember a brother or a sister, let’s talk about them. And we close the call with 22 seconds of silence before we log off.”
Jose Belen’s story sounds familiar. He remembers sitting in a car, in the driveway, with his gun, thinking about pulling the trigger. Then he got this picture of his kids in his head.
“And I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to die.’ And I don’t think any of those 22 a day want to die, either, but at that moment they had no one to pull ’em off the ledge. Only by the grace of God was I able to do it.
“Now, I know I have 22 opportunities to save a life, every day, not lose them,” he said. “If we can reach a veteran who’s in that place, and let them see there’s an army of brothers and sisters out there, just like them, you can see their faces, talk to them, they know — it can be a beautiful thing.
“And that’s what I want to do.”