Good morning folks, today is Thursday, September 24, 2020 which is Kiss Day, World Maritime Day, National Horchata Day and National Cherries Jubilee Day.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- The Hill: Official: Pentagon has started ‘prudent planning’ for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May
- Stripes: House approves bill ordering VA to change gender-exclusive motto
- Military.com: Senators Push to Extend Care to 34,000 More Veterans for Agent Orange Diseases
- Military Times: Lawmakers question VA approach on burn pits, advance bill to help military toxic exposure victims
- Military.com: Trump Bans DoD Diversity Training That Suggests US Is Racist
- TB Times: Florida veteran groups buckle under pandemic hit, learn new ways to stay afloat
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The Pentagon has started planning to have zero U.S. troops in Afghanistan by spring, though orders have not yet been issued for a full withdrawal, a Defense Department official said Tuesday. “I’d like to make it clear that [Defense Secretary ] has not issued orders to reduce military personnel below this 4,000 to 5,000 level in Afghanistan, although we are conducting prudent planning to withdraw to zero service members by May 2021 if conditions warrant, per the U.S.-Taliban agreement,” David Helvey, the official performing the duties of assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security at a hearing.
The comments come as President Trump has been touting U.S. troop drawdowns in the region in the final stretch of the campaign as evidence he is delivering on his promise to end America’s “endless wars.”
Officials have said they expect to be at about 4,500 troops in Afghanistan by November.
The comments also come as the Taliban and Afghan government have started peace talks in Doha, Qatar, aimed at ending the 19-year war.
But the two sides remain far apart on issues as basic as a cease-fire and women’s rights. And even as they sit down to talk, violence in Afghanistan rages, with Monday reportedly the bloodiest day of fighting since negotiations began a week ago.
The intra-Afghan talks were called for in the agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban in February.
The agreement also laid out a timeline for a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to deny safe haven to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to attack the West.
Even as planning has begun for a full withdrawal, U.S. military officials have said the Taliban has not met its counterterrorism commitments.
“The Taliban has still not shown conclusively that they’re going to break with al Qaeda,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said earlier this month. “So there are still some things out there that concern me about the Taliban’s either ability or willingness to comply with all the terms of the deal.”
On Tuesday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s envoy for Afghan peace talks, said the Taliban has taken “positive steps” toward breaking with al Qaeda, though he said the Taliban has more work to do and would not answer a question in an unclassified setting on whether Taliban leaders have instructed their fighters to break from the terrorist group.
“We look for more steps before we are satisfied, and I believe that once we reach 4,500, we’d do an evaluation of ties and actions that they have taken and make decisions based on that,” Khalilzad said at the hearing.
The U.S. withdrawal is contingent on the counterterrorism commitment, not the outcome of intra-Afghan talks or the Taliban reducing attacks on Afghan forces.
But Khalilzad said Tuesday that "by any measure, current levels of violence are too high," adding that "we know that reductions are possible."
U.S. lawmakers have been critical of the deal with the Taliban, warning the insurgents cannot be trusted and expressing concerns the drawdown is based more on Trump’s political calendar than national security needs.
“Despite multiple indications that the Taliban have not fully met their commitments under the February agreement, the Trump administration has steadily withdrawn U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which has ceded much of our leverage to help shape the future of Afghanistan for its people and our national security interests,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), chairman of the subcommittee.
“While we are all eager for our sons and daughters in uniform to return home, it is also important that we do not needlessly or recklessly bargain away the rights and freedoms that the Afghan people have gained at such a huge cost in American, Coalition, and Afghan lives,” he added.
Helvey insisted any withdrawal by May will be “fundamentally conditions based.”
“We’ll be watching very carefully to assess the conditions of Taliban compliance with the terms of its agreement, and that will be used to inform decisions on further and future withdrawals,” he said.
Pressed on enforcement of the agreement, Khalilzad said “we are freed” from the deal if the Taliban does not uphold its commitments.
“That’s why I say it’s conditions-based,” he said. “That means if they don’t deliver on their commitments, we don’t have to withdraw forces. We could adjust our force posture. Those are decisions that our management will have to make.”
Updated at 1:53 p.m.
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES
Published: September 22, 2020
WASHINGTON — The House passed bipartisan legislation Tuesday to change the Department of Veterans Affairs motto to be more inclusive of women who served.
The VA motto, which has been the same for 61 years, is a quote from President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1865: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”
The Honoring All Veterans Act would change the motto to read, “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those ‘who shall have borne the battle’ and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.”
The House approved the bill Tuesday without objection. It was sponsored by Reps. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Brian Mast, R-Fla., and gained the support of Republican members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the ranking Republican on the committee, said the legislation would ensure “the brave service of all veterans, men and women alike, is rightfully honored by VA’s mission statement.”
Some female veterans and advocates, such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, have pushed for a gender-neutral version of the motto since 2017. The VA initially rejected the proposal. More recently, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has sought new ways to engrain the motto within the department.
Wilkie announced in May his intent to install plaques inscribed with the VA motto, using male-only pronouns, in 145 cemeteries nationwide. The first plaques were installed this summer.
In August, Wilkie dedicated the plaque installed at the Camp Butler National Cemetery in Springfield, Ill., the town where Lincoln lived before becoming president.
“Today’s VA welcomes all veterans, including the 10% of all veterans who are women. The words that brought us here should not to be diluted, parsed or canceled,” Wilkie said at the dedication. “The words that brought us here ought to be preserved as they were spoken and displayed so every generation understands the origin of America’s progress in becoming the most tolerant nation on earth.”
The bill moves on to the Senate, which must approve the measure before it can be sent to the White House. It’s uncertain whether the Senate will consider the legislation.
Also on Tuesday, the House approved five other bills regarding veterans, one of which would prohibit the VA from collecting copayments from any veteran who is a member of a Native American tribe. Another measure would standardize treatment options for veterans diagnosed with prostate cancer and would allow them more access to clinical trials.
22 Sep 2020 Military.com | By Patricia Kime
Senators have ramped up efforts to add three new diseases to the Department of Veterans Affairs‘ list of Agent Orange-related diseases, pressing the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to include them in the final version of the national defense policy bill.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and 45 other senators sent letters Tuesday to leaders of the committees, imploring them to amend the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to add bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinsonism to the VA’s list of conditions linked to herbicide exposure in Vietnam and elsewhere.
The bipartisan group, including four Republicans, said an amendment is needed to support 34,000 "frustrated and desperate veterans living and dying from these health conditions."
"Tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans suffer from these three conditions due to their military service, yet these veterans continue to be denied the care and benefits they have earned and desperately need," they wrote.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in 2016 deemed the three illnesses to be associated with exposure to defoliants used during the war.
But VA officials have not added them to the list, saying they are waiting for the results of two studies — the Vietnam Era Health Retrospective Observational Study, or VE-HEROeS, and the Vietnam Era Mortality Study — to be reviewed for publication before announcing a decision on whether to broaden the presumptives list.
VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said Tuesday that the department continues to wait for the study results that will "guide decisions on this issue."
"VA has no announcements on changes to the list of Agent Orange-related presumptive conditions," Noel said. "VA is committed to regular review of all emerging evidence of adverse impacts to Veterans from Agent Orange, but the department will not be announcing new presumptive conditions until this additional research is complete to support an informed decision."
The academies also linked hypertension to Agent Orange in 2018, but the amendment sent to the Armed Services committees does not include the condition, which also is among the most common diseases that affect the elderly.
The department estimates that providing disability compensation and benefits to veterans affected by any of the four conditions, including hypertension, would run between $11.2 billion and $15.2 billion, depending on interpretations of a court ruling.
But the VA has not released an estimate for covering the roughly 34,000 veterans for the three conditions listed in the proposed amendment.
The House and Senate have both passed their versions of the fiscal 2021 defense bill and a group of members from both chambers is supposed to meet to confer on a final draft. However, the conferees have not been named and a date has not been announced for the conference, making it unlikely that a vote will occur before the Nov. 3 election.
The amendment named in the letter, S.A. 1972, passed the Senate with 94 votes. A similar amendment was introduced in the House by Rep. Josh Harder, D-Calif. Thirty veterans groups and military groups support the proposals.
Many of the senators who signed the letter have constituents affected by at least one of the three conditions. Tester has pressed the VA for years to announce a decision.
"The truth is that more and more veterans are dying every single day because this administration refuses to do the right thing and pay for the cost of war. I’ll be continuing to fight tooth and nail until we push this bill across the finish line," Tester said.
16 hours ago
On the same day that House lawmakers questioned whether Veterans Affairs officials are doing enough to help veterans with serious injuries believed caused by burn pits, Senate lawmakers advanced legislation to extend new testing and benefits for veterans who have suffered a range of toxic exposure injuries.
The separate moves are part of a larger push on Capitol Hill of late on the issue of toxic smoke from burn pits used in the recent wars. Last week, a coalition of advocates (including comedian Jon Stewart) rallied last week in favor of separate legislation to grant presumptive disability status to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because of widespread exposure to the airborne contaminants.
On Wednesday, the Senate legislation — sponsored by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and backed by a coalition of veterans advocates — was approved by the chamber’s Veterans’ Affairs committee and could be taken up by the full Senate in coming weeks.
It would establish an independent “Toxic Exposure Review Commission,” charged with identifying and investigating allegations from troops and veterans, as well as broaden testing and presumptive benefits status for some related conditions.
In a statement, Tillis said the legislative momentum "is a positive step to ensure that all veterans are given a fair and uniform process to receive the health care and benefits to which they are entitled.
“After working alongside veterans who were stationed at Camp Lejeune [where groundwater contamination sickened many troops and family members] and fighting for servicemembers exposed to toxicants from burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was clear that the men and women who served our country deserve better.”
Members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee confronted department officials on that issue on Wednesday, saying that despite overwhelming evidence of past military toxic exposure illnesses, officials have been reluctant to grant disability benefits to burn pit victims.
VA officials said of 12,582 veterans disability claims related to burn pits filed in the last 13 years, only 2,828 have been approved. That means about 78 percent of claims have been dismissed for lack of evidence or a clear medical connection with the burn pit smoke.
Laurine Carson, VA’s deputy executive director for policy and procedures, said the department is continuing to review recent findings from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine which suggested connections between burn pit smoke and illnesses like respiratory failure and rare cancers, but also lamented the lack of clear scientific evidence.
She said the department encourages veterans to sign up with VA’s Open Burn Pit Registry, which already have more than 200,000 names.
But lawmakers said that registry provides little immediate help for veterans dealing with burn pit illnesses, and said department officials need to find a quicker way to address the problem.
“We may not have all the answers on burn pit exposure soon, if ever,” said Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., chairwoman of the committee’s panel on disability assistance. “What we do know is that it’s making people very sick. And I can’t tell these people to sit down to wait another 10 years because quite frankly, some of them might not have another 10 years.”
In addition to Tillis’ bill and a measure from Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., on the presumptive benefits status for burn pit exposure, lawmakers in the House and Senate are considering several measures as part of the annual defense authorization bill that would also address testing and medical care for veterans facing those health issues.
If they become law, the combination of the measures could result in the most productive session for burn pit advocates in years, if ever.
However, Congress faces a complicated and condensed legislative schedule for the rest of 2020, due to the pending November election and anticipated Senate confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice.
President Donald Trump issued a sweeping executive order Tuesday banning the military’s use of diversity training programs that suggest that the United States is "an irredeemably racist and sexist country."
The move is an extension of a prior ban that applied to government workers; the latest order would also block the agencies from paying for "divisive" training programs supplied by federal contractors.
Trump said his order is aimed at combating a "pernicious" ideology taking root in the U.S. that "some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans."
"Unfortunately, this malign ideology is now migrating from the fringes of American society and threatens to infect core institutions of our country," he said in the order.
However, nothing in the order should be construed as prohibiting discussion of what he called "divisive concepts," so long as the discussion is conducted "in an objective manner and without endorsement," Trump said.
The order also directs the DoD and other agencies to assign "at least one senior political appointee responsibility for ensuring compliance with the requirements of this order."
In Twitter posts Tuesday night, Trump wrote, "A few weeks ago, I BANNED efforts to indoctrinate government employees with divisive and harmful sex and race-based ideologies. Today, I’ve expanded that ban to people and companies that do business with our Country."
He added, "Americans should be taught to take PRIDE in our Great Country, and if you don’t, there’s nothing in it for you."
The service branches had already begun assessing their diversity training programs following Trump’s Sept. 4 executive order and guidance issued by the White House Office of Management and Budget.
The guidance from OMB Director Russell Vought warned that training programs supplied by federal contractors could be smoke screens meant to indoctrinate those participating "to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda."
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and several service leaders have recently stressed the importance of discussing diversity issues in the wake of the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in May.
Floyd’s death prompted nationwide protests and spurred an internal review at the Defense Department to improve diversity and inclusion.
"I believe we are a more capable Marine Corps as a more diverse force," Berger said Wednesday during the annual Modern Day Marine exposition.
"It’s not about being politically correct," he added, but about having "diversity of thought" to outsmart the enemy.
"I’m not talking about a particular skin color; I’m talking about a diverse force," Berger said. "I am absolutely convinced [that] too much similarity, too much of ‘we look all the same, think the same, got the same background,’ we’re going to get killed because we’re going to end up with solutions that we’re all familiar with, but they’re easy to counter."
Since Floyd’s death, military leaders have been open in addressing the need to combat discrimination in the ranks and their concerns over minority troops having to serve at bases and posts named for Confederate generals.
At a July 9 House Armed Services Committee hearing, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said he worried about "those young soldiers who go onto a base, a Fort Hood [Texas] or a Fort Bragg [North Carolina] or a Fort Wherever, named after a Confederate general."
"They can be reminded that that general fought for an institution of slavery that may have enslaved one of their ancestors," he said. "I had a staff sergeant when I was a young officer [at Fort Bragg]. He said he went to work every day on a base that represented a guy who enslaved one of his ancestors."
The installation is named for Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg.
Commanders have also been candid in noting their own shortcomings in facing up to the challenges posed by discrimination.
At a June 11 town hall meeting at Camp Humphreys in South Korea, Army Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said he was "strongly affected by what happened back in the States" after George Floyd’s death. "I feel personally a lot of anger and disgust and concern about what’s happened."
In his 38 years in the Army, Abrams said that the issue of racism "has been considered taboo to discuss," but the time has now come for candid dialogues.
"If you look like me," meaning a white officer, "now is the time to listen," he said. "I’ve tried real hard to be part of the solution."
But he added that he had realized "I had fallen way short" in the effort to eliminate racism in the ranks.
In June, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy launched "Project Inclusion," described in an Army statement as an effort to build "cohesive teams" and "identify practices that inadvertently discriminate."
However, the Army stumbled in one of its first efforts to implement the project.
In emails sent July 6 to promote a town hall meeting on diversity at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, the Army listed Trump’s "Make America Great Again" slogan as a possible indicator of covert white supremacist sympathies.
"Convert white supremacy [sic]" could be indicated by such phrases as "Make America Great Again;" "Eurocentric Curriculum;" "English-Only Initiatives;" "Bootstrap Theory;" and "All Lives Matter," according to the flier.
The Army later said that it was sent in error and inadvertently included material from a non-government website.
"The Army does not condone the use of phrases that indicate political support," the service’s statement said. "The Army is and will continue to remain an apolitical organization."