Category Archives: Veterans Affairs

What Mark Thompson Has Learned Covering the Military for 40 Years

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Image:  “Otherwords.org”

“Scant public interest yields ceaseless wars to nowhere”

 

“Straus Military Reform Project – Center for Defense Information at POGO”

“It turns out that my spending four years on an amusement-park midway trying to separate marks from their money was basic training for the nearly 40 years I spent reporting on the U.S. military.

Both involve suckers and suckees. One just costs a lot more money, and could risk the future of United States instead of a teddy bear.

But after 15 years of covering U.S. defense for daily newspapers in Washington, and 23 more for Time magazine until last December, it’s time to share what I’ve learned. I’m gratified that the good folks at the nonpartisan Project On Government Oversight, through their Straus Military Reform Project, are providing me this weekly soapbox to comment on what I’ve come to see as the military-industrial circus.

As ringmaster, I can only say: Boy, are we being taken to the cleaners. And it’s not so much about money as it is about value. Too much of today’s U.S. fighting forces look like it came from Tiffany’s, with Walmart accounting for much of the rest. There’s too little Costco, or Amazon Prime.

There was a chance, however slight, that President Trump would blaze a new trail on U.S. national security. Instead, he has simply doubled down.

We have let the Pentagon become the engine of its own status quo.

For too long, the two political parties have had Pavlovian responses when it comes to funding the U.S. military (and make no mistake about it: military funding has trumped military strategy for decades). Democrats have long favored shrinking military spending as a share of the federal budget, while Republicans yearn for the days when it accounted for a huge chunk of U.S. government spending. Neither is the right approach. Instead of seeing the Pentagon as the way to defend against all threats, there needs to be a fresh, long-overdue accounting of what the real threats are, and which of those are best addressed by military means.

The Defense Department’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which is supposed to do just that every four years, has become an engine of the status quo. The Pentagon today is little more than a self-licking ice cream cone, dedicated in large measure to its growth and preservation. Congress is a willing accomplice, refusing to shutter unneeded military bases due to the job losses they’d mean back home. The nuclear triad remains a persistent Cold War relic (even former defense secretary Bill Perry wants to scrap it), with backers of subs, bombers and ICBMs embracing one another against their real threat: a hard-nosed calculus on the continuing wisdom of maintaining thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert.

Unfortunately, it’s getting worse as partisan enmity grows. It’s quaint to recall the early congressional hearings I covered (Where have you gone, Barry Goldwater?), when lawmakers would solemnly declare that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” The political opposition’s reactions to Jimmy Carter’s failed raid to rescue U.S. hostages held in Iran in 1980 that killed eight U.S. troops, and to the loss of 241 U.S. troops on Ronald Reagan’s peacekeeping mission in Beirut in 1983, was tempered.

But such grim events have been replaced Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi and Donald Trump’s Jan. 29 special-ops raid in Yemen. Rancid rancor by both sides cheapens the sacrifice of the five Americans who died. It only adds a confusing welter of new rules designed to ensure they aren’t repeated. Yet mistakes are a part of every military operation, and an unwillingness to acknowledge that fact, and act accordingly, leads to pol-mil paralysis. It’s amazing that the deaths of Glen Doherty, William “Ryan” Owens, Sean Smith, Chris Stevens and Tyrone Woods seem to have generated more acrimony and second-guessing than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in which 6,908 U.S. troops have died.

There is today a fundamental disconnect between the nation and its wars. We saw it in President Obama’s persistent leeriness when it came to the use of military force, and his successor’s preoccupation with spending and symbolism instead of strategy. In his speech to Congress Feb. 28, Trump mentioned the heroism of Navy SEAL Owens, but didn’t say where he died (Yemen). Nor did he mention Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, where nearly 15,000 U.S. troops are fighting what Trump boldly declared is “radical Islamic terrorism.”

But he did declare he is seeking “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.” His $54 billion boost would represent a 10% hike, and push the Pentagon spending, already well beyond the Cold War average used to keep the now-defunct Soviet Union at bay—even higher.

“We are going to have very soon the finest equipment in the world,” Trump said from the deck of the yet-to-be-commissioned carrier Gerald R. Ford on Thursday in Hampton, Va. “We’re going to start winning again.” What’s surprising is Trump’s apparent ignorance that the U.S. military has had, pound-for-pound, the world’s finest weapons since World War II. What’s stunning is his apparent belief that better weapons lead inevitably to victory. There is a long list of foes that knows better.

It’s long past time for a tough look at what U.S. taxpayers are getting for the $2 billion they spend on their military and veterans every day. It would have been great if Trump had been willing to scrub the Pentagon budget and reshape it for the 21st Century. But the U.S. has been unwilling to do that ever since the Cold War ended more than 25 years ago. Instead, it simply shrunk its existing military, then turned on a cash gusher following 9/11.

I know many veterans who are angered that their sacrifice, and that of buddies no longer around, have been squandered in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I recall flying secretly into Baghdad in December 2003 with then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The bantam SecDef declared on that trip that the U.S. military had taken the “right approach” in training Iraqi troops, and that they were fighting “well and professionally.” Last month, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the fifth man to hold that job since Rumsfeld, declared in Baghdad that the U.S. training of the Iraqi military is “developing very well.” His visit, like Rumsfeld’s 14 years earlier, wasn’t announced in advance.

Even as Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, tries to chart a path forward in Iraq, it’s worth remembering that he earned his spurs 26 years ago as a captain in a tank battle with Iraqi forces.

If we’re going to spend—few would call it an investment—$5 trillion fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Syria, and Yemen), don’t we, as Americans, deserve a better return?

The problem is that the disconnect between the nation and its wars (and war-fighters) also includes us:

  • Our representatives in Congress prefer not to get their hands bloodied in combat, so they avoid declaring war. They prefer to subcontract it out to the White House, and we let them get away with it.
  • Through the Pentagon, we have subcontracted combat out to an all-volunteer force. Only about 1% of the nation has fought in its wars since 9/11. We praise their courage even as we thank God we have no real skin in the game.
  • In turn, the uniformed military services have hired half their fighting forces from the ranks of private, for-profit contractors, who handle the critical support missions that used to be done by soldiers. The ruse conveniently lets the White House keep an artificially-low ceiling on the number of troops in harm’s way. We like those lower numbers.
  • Finally, we have contracted out paying for much of the wars’ costs to our children, and grandchildren. We are using their money to fight our wars. They’ll be thanking us in 2050, for sure.

Until and unless Americans take responsibility for the wars being waged in their name, and the weapons being bought to wage them, this slow bleeding of U.S. blood and treasure will continue. “We have met the enemy,” another Pogo once said, “and he is us.”

http://www.pogo.org/blog/2017/03/military-industrial-circus-national-security-column.html

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2By: Mark Thompson, National Security Analyst

Mark Thompson Profile

Mark Thompson writes for the Center for Defense Information at POGO.

 

U.S. Xpress Offers Truck Driver Apprenticeship Program for Vets

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U.S. XPress Apprenticeship Program

Image: ” U.S. Xpress”

“U.S. Xpress launched its Military Recruitment Initiative back in July 2016 as part of the company’s commitment to providing veterans with an opportunity to start a new career in the growing logistics industry.

Don Davis and his wife, Rebekah nearly doubled their combined income when the two military veterans became commercial truck drivers and started making long-haul trips between Chicago and the East Coast for the Chattanooga-based U.S. Xpress Enterprises.

“We’re used to being away from home in the military,” said Dan Davis, a 33-year-old veteran of the Army and Navy who twice served in Iraq. “Truck driving is definitely a great career if you don’t mind spending time by yourself, which a lot of us did in the military.”

Davis used his GI bill to get his commercial drivers license through a truck driving school and continues to receive GI benefits to supplement his income through a veterans apprenticeship program that U.S. Xpress joined last month.

As part of the Post 9/11 GI Bill Apprenticeship Program, veterans may receive tax-free educational benefits while training with U.S. Xpress to become truck drivers or diesel technicians. Participants can receive up to $25,700 from the Veterans Administration over a two-year period, depending on their years of military service, on top of their salary from U.S. Xpress.

Professional truck drivers can usually expect to earn between $50,000 and $70,000 based upon which driving opportunity the veteran qualifies for at U.S. Xpress. Combined with the GI Bill benefits, military veterans in the apprenticeship program can earn up to $82,000 in their first year with the company.

If a veteran chooses to enter the program as a diesel technician, they can expect to earn between $35,000 and $50,000 depending upon experience and performance.

The GI bill benefits, which typically take 90 days or so to process, are granted tax-free to the recipients.

Wayne Roy, a 31-year-old Marine who served from 2004 to 2008 as a motor mechanic in the military, joined U.S. Xpress last August after going through truck driving school and is able to supplement his drivers’ pay with what is left on his GI Bill.

“I love to travel, and this helps me make this transition into what I hope to make my career,” Roy said.

U.S. Xpress hopes more veterans use their GI Bill benefits to go into truck driving. According to the American Trucking Association, the industry needs at least 25,000 more truck drivers, and the shortage of drivers is likely to increase as qualified drivers age and retire and the demand for truck shipments increases along with the economy.

“We value the strong work ethic and leadership experience veterans can bring to our company,” said Eric Fuller, chief operating officer for U.S. Xpress. “Beyond that, veterans have a sense of productivity, accountability and a ‘can-do’ attitude that will serve them well in trucking, which is why we look to hire veterans in every aspect of our company.”

U.S. Xpress launched its Military Recruitment Initiative back in July 2016 as part of the company’s commitment to providing veterans with an opportunity to start a new career in the growing logistics industry.

“Our veterans have always played an essential role in keeping our country strong, and now, we want veterans to put their skills to work as a U.S. Xpress truck driver and serve our country in a new way — one that will help keep the transportation industry moving forward and our economy strong,” said Fuller.

“I truly believe our new apprenticeship program will help make this possible by giving veterans added financial stability as they transition out of the military and into a new career.”

https://www.stripes.com/news/veterans/u-s-xpress-offers-apprenticeship-program-for-vets-to-fill-truck-driver-jobs-1.457208#.WL296W_yvcs

 

These College Students Invent Things for the Pentagon And Maybe Find a Business

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“WASHINGTON POST”

“After a test run at Stanford University last spring, the accelerator is starting similar courses at least a dozen universities.

A Pentagon-funded unit called the MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator, gives students a modest budget to try to solve military problems using off-the-shelf products.

The Defense Department’s Hacking for Defense program (which, despite its H4D handle, does not focus on cybersecurity) is a graduate school course designed to let students invent new products for the military. Students without security clearances — including some foreign nationals — are put to work on unclassified versions of real-world problems faced by military and intelligence agencies.

The University of Pittsburgh, University of California at San Diego, James Madison University and Georgetown University are among those trying to replicate Stanford’s success.

To spearhead its effort, Georgetown hired a former Special Operations Marine with a deep Rolodex and a long history of doing business with the Pentagon.

Chris Taylor’s first career had him jumping out of airplanes and serving on hostage rescue teams as part of the Marine Force Recon unit, an elite intelligence-gathering team tasked with “deep reconnaissance” missions in dangerous combat zones.

He became an instructor in the unit’s amphibious reconnaissance school, where he taught enlisted Marines skills such as how to covertly approach military installations from the sea and survive undetected in the wilderness.

“He’s been good at teaching, leading and just selling ideas for a long time,” said Bob Fawcett, a retired Marine who worked with Taylor at the Force Recon training program.

Taylor spent evenings studying accounting as he worked toward a college degree, the first step in a lucrative career on the business side of the Bush administration’s military buildup.

He became a top executive at Blackwater Worldwide, the private security firm that was at the forefront of a booming mercenary industry working in Iraq and Afghanistan, until its reputation took a turn for the worse over a deadly shooting involving its employees that launched a congressional inquiry and was eventually ruled a criminal offense.

He served at private security firm DynCorp and founded a small but profitable company called Novitas Group, which handled job placement for Veterans.

His next challenge: helping Georgetown’s students navigate the Pentagon.

One team of students in Taylor’s class is working for the Army Asymmetric Warfare Group, a Pentagon sub-agency, to find new ways to track social unrest in crowded foreign cities by mining Twitter and Facebook. Another group of students is trying to combine augmented reality technology with advanced facial recognition software, hoping to build something that would allow U.S. forces to constantly scan crowds for individuals known to be a threat. Another team is looking for ways to counter the off-the-shelf drone fleets that the Islamic State claims to employ.

“This is like the greatest educational experience you could possibly have if you’re interested in national security,” Taylor said.

The program’s managers in the government say the main point is to familiarize techies with the Pentagon’s mission, but their trial run at Stanford also showed a degree of success in spinning off businesses.

In Stanford’s trial run, four out of eight student teams raised additional money, either from the government or from private investors, to continue their work beyond the course.

One is a satellite imaging company called Capella Space. The company’s founders had initially hoped to sell satellite imaging services to government space agencies, but pivoted toward the private sector after interviewing more than 150 industry experts as part of Stanford’s course.

“We realized that if you really want to work with the government in what you’re doing, they want you to be a commercial company — with commercial revenue — and they want to be a subscriber to your service,” said company founder Payam Banazadeh.

Capella Space has a satellite launch planned for the end of year, which it hopes will be the first step in sending 36 ­shoebox-size satellites into space. The company is funding it with an undisclosed amount of venture capital raised from Silicon Valley Venture investors including Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang.

It remains to be seen whether efforts at other universities will have the same success.

Even before Georgetown’s class launched, for example, the university’s strengths and limitations were already on display. Georgetown is known for deep connections to the Washington establishment but is overshadowed by other elite universities in certain technical disciplines. It does not have an engineering school, for instance.

One of the problem sets that the government sent for Georgetown students to work on would be on an unclassified basis for the National Security Agency, following in a Stanford team’s footsteps.

Taylor touted the opportunity to work with the NSA in seminars advertising the course, but couldn’t find a group of students that he thought had enough technical knowledge to take on the challenge.

But those who did join Taylor’s course are making early progress. Just a few weeks into the program, students looking for a way to track terrorists using social media had come up with a prototype that they coded on their own.

The group spent the class working through ways of quickly translating posts from Arabic and more easily geo-locating individual tweets and Facebook posts. Taylor wondered aloud whether the system might be enhanced if they paid social-media users small sums of money for what details they knew about the posts.

Next, he wants to open the course to other Washington-area universities, poaching engineering students from rival colleges around the region.

“Imagine what we can achieve when [national capital region] universities band together with a unity of effort toward national security problem solving,” he said in an email.

“It. will. be. awesome.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/business/capitalbusiness/these-college-students-invent-things-for-the-pentagon-and-maybe-find-a-business/2017/02/19/558ac8f0-ea25-11e6-80c2-30e57e57e05d_story.html

 

What We’re Fighting For

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Image: United States Army soldiers transported Iraqi detainees captured during Operation Steel Curtain in 2005. CreditJehad Nga

“THE NEW YORK TIMES” 

After spending 13 months in Iraq, I think back to the stories that defined, for me, what it meant to be an American at war, and the reasons I was proud to wear the uniform.

After seeing violence go down not because we managed to increase our lethality but because we improved our ability to work with Iraqis, I became convinced that there were other stories of war equally important for Americans to understand.

When his convoy was ambushed during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, First Lt. Brian Chontosh ordered his Humvee driver to head straight into the oncoming machine gun fire. They punched through, landing in a trench full of heavily armed Iraqi soldiers. Lieutenant Chontosh and his Marines leapt out and he ran down the trench firing away, dropping one enemy soldier after another. First his rifle jammed, then he ran out of ammunition, so he switched to his pistol. He shot it dry, reloaded, and shot it dry again. So he picked up an AK-47 from a dead Iraqi, fired that dry, picked up another AK, fired that dry, picked up a rocket-propelled grenade, fired it, and led the group back to the Humvee, their attack having almost completely cleared the trench. Almost.

One Iraqi was playing dead, fiddling with the pin of a grenade. Lieutenant Chontosh had no ammo, but on the ground were a couple of M-16 rounds from when his rifle had jammed. He grabbed one, loaded, and before the Iraqi could pull the pin, Lieutenant Chontosh locked eyes with him and shot him dead. All told, according to the journalist Phil Zabriskie’s account of the ambush in “The Kill Switch,” Lieutenant Chontosh had killed about two dozen people that day.

When I was a new Marine, just entering the Corps, this story from the Iraq invasion defined heroism for me. It’s a perfect image of war for inspiring new officer candidates, right in line with youthful notions of what war is and what kind of courage it takes — physical courage, full stop. We thought it was a shame more Americans didn’t know the story.

Midway through my deployment a Marine arrived on base with severe wounds. He’d been shot by an enemy sniper, and the medical staff swarmed around his body, working frantically, skillfully, but it wasn’t enough. He died on the table.

Normally, there’d be a moment of silence, of prayer, but the team got word that the man who killed this young Marine, the insurgent sniper, would be arriving a few minutes later. That dead Marine’s squadmates had engaged the sniper in a firefight, shot him a couple of times, patched him up, bandaged him and called for a casualty evacuation to save the life of the man who’d killed their friend.

So he arrived at our base. And the medical staff members, still absorbing the blow of losing a Marine, got to work. They stabilized their enemy and pumped him full of American blood, donated from the “walking blood bank” of nearby Marines. The sniper lived. And then they put him on a helicopter to go to a hospital for follow-up care, and one of the Navy nurses was assigned to be his flight nurse. He told me later of the strangeness of sitting in the back of a helicopter, watching over his enemy lying peacefully unconscious, doped up on painkillers, while he kept checking the sniper’s vitals, his blood pressure, his heartbeat, a heartbeat that was steady and strong thanks to the gift of blood from the Americans this insurgent would have liked to kill.

This wasn’t just a couple of Marines and sailors making the right decision. These weren’t acts of exceptional moral courage in the way Lieutenant Chontosh’s acts were acts of exceptional physical courage. This was standard policy, part of tradition stretching back to the Revolutionary War, when George Washington ordered every soldier in the Continental Army to sign a copy of rules intended to limit harm to civilians and ensure that their conduct respected what he called “the rights of humanity,” so that their restraint “justly secured to us the attachment of all good men.”

American soldiers outside Mosul, Iraq, in 2008. CreditJoao Silva/The New York Times

From our founding we have made these kinds of moral demands of our soldiers. It starts with the oath they swear to support and defend the Constitution, an oath made not to a flag, or to a piece of ground, or to an ethnically distinct people, but to a set of principles established in our founding documents. An oath that demands a commitment to democracy, to liberty, to the rule of law and to the self-evident equality of all men. The Marines I knew fought, and some of them died, for these principles.

That’s why those Marines were trained to care for their enemy. That’s why another Marine gave his own blood to an insurgent. Because America is an idea as much as a country, and so those acts defend America as surely as any act of violence, because they embody that idea. That nurse, in the quiet, alone with that insurgent, with no one looking as he cared for his patient. That was an act of war.

After I left the Marine Corps, I met a veteran named Eric Fair. He was quiet. He wrote strange and affecting stories about guilt and alienation, and at first he didn’t tell me much about his past. Only over time did I learn that he’d been an Army Arabic linguist before Sept. 11, and then had signed up as a contractor and gone to Abu Ghraib prison in January 2004, all things he would later write about in his memoir “Consequence.”

Back then Abu Ghraib was a mess, he told me. Thousands of Iraqis, some of them insurgents, plenty of them innocent civilians caught up in the post-invasion chaos, and far too few qualified interrogators to sort it out. And the information they were seeking — it was literally life or death.

So Eric began crossing lines. Not legal lines — he followed the rules. But moral lines, personal lines, lines where it was clear that he wasn’t treating the people in his interrogation booth like human beings.

One time, it was with a boy captured with car batteries and electronic devices. The boy said his father used the batteries for fishing, an explanation that Eric found absurd. So, he used the approved techniques. Light slaps, stress positions. The boy eventually broke and, weeping, told Eric about a shop where his father delivered the electronics.

When a unit was sent to raid the shop, it found half a dozen partly assembled car bombs. “It was an enormous adrenaline rush,” he told me. He’d used techniques he now considers torture and, he thought, saved lives.

So, naturally, he kept using them. There were a large number of detainees caught with car batteries, all of them with the same story about fishing. With them, Eric would go right to the techniques designed to humiliate, to degrade, to make people suffer until they tell you what you want to hear. But Eric didn’t get any more results. No more car bomb factories. Just a lot of broken, weeping detainees.

Eventually, he told a fellow contractor the ridiculous fishing story, and how he wasn’t falling for it, and the contractor told him: “Of course they fish with car batteries. I used to do it in Georgia.” The electric charge stuns the fish, a simple method for an easy meal.

Eric isn’t sure how many innocent Iraqis he hurt. All he knows is how easy it was for him to cross the line. Just as with that wounded insurgent there was a codified set of procedures set in place to help guide Marines and Navy medical personnel to make moral choices, choices they could tell their children and grandchildren about without shame, for Eric, there was a codified set of procedures beckoning him to take actions that he now feels condemn him.

He doesn’t even have the consolation of feeling that he saved lives. Sure, they found a car bomb factory, but Abu Ghraib was a turning point. In 2003, thousands of Iraqi soldiers had begun surrendering to the United States, confident they’d be treated well. That’s thousands of soldiers we didn’t have to fight to the death because of the moral reputation of our country.

Abu Ghraib changed things. Insurgent attacks increased, support for the sectarian leader Moktada al-Sadr surged, and 92 percent of Iraqis claimed they saw coalition forces as occupiers rather than liberators or peacekeepers. WikiLeaks later released a United States assessment that detainee mistreatment at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo was “the single most important motivating factor” convincing foreign jihadists to wage war, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal said, “In my experience, we found that nearly every first-time jihadist claimed Abu Ghraib had first jolted him to action.” Our moral reputation had started killing American soldiers.

So, yeah, they found a car bomb factory. Once.

Eric has a relationship to his war that’s much different from mine. Yet we were in the same war. And Eric did what our nation asked of him, used techniques that were vetted and approved and passed down to intelligence operatives and contractors like himself. Lawyers at the highest levels of government had been consulted, asked to bring us to the furthest edge of what the law might allow. To do what it takes, regardless of whether such actions will secure the “attachment of all good men,” or live up to that oath we swear to support and defend the Constitution.

What to make of that oath, anyway? The Constitution seems to mean different things at different times and places — whether in my unit’s dusty little combat hospital, or in Eric’s interrogation booth, or in a stadium where a crowd cheers a presidential candidate vowing to torture his nation’s enemies. We live in a democracy, so that document can be bent and twisted and re-formed to mean whatever we want it to.

If we choose to believe in a morally diminished America, an America that pursues its narrow selfish interests and no more, we can take that course and see how far it gets us. But if we choose to believe that America is not just a set of borders, but a set of principles, we need to act accordingly. That is the only way we ensure that our founding document, and the principles embedded within, are alive enough, and honorable enough, to be worth fighting for.

Which brings me back to Brian Chontosh, that man with such incredible skill at killing for his country. Years after I left the Corps I was surprised to learn that he didn’t really put much stock in his exceptional kill count. He told Mr. Zabriskie this about killing: “It’s ugly, it’s violent, it’s disgusting. I wish it wasn’t part of what we had to do.”

When people ask him if he’s proud of what he did, he answers: “I’m not proud of killing a whole lot of people. That doesn’t make sense to me. I’m proud of who I am today because I think I’ve done well. I think I’ve been honorable. I’ve been successful for my men, for the cause, for what’s right.”

Brian Chontosh doesn’t dwell on the dead, but he does wonder whether there were times when, perhaps, he need not have killed. One of these is that last soldier in the trench. He’ll remember him, trying to pretend he’s dead but wiggling a bit. “It’s not a haunting image,” he told Mr. Zabriskie. “It’s just — man. I wonder. I wonder if I would have just freaking grabbed the dude. Grabbed his hand, thrown the grenade away or something. I could have got him some medical treatment.”

If he had, then that enemy soldier would have ended up with a unit like mine, surrounded by doctors and nurses and Navy corpsmen who would have cared for him in accordance with the rules of law. They would have treated him well, because they’re American soldiers, because they swore an oath, because they have principles, because they have honor. And because without that, there’s nothing worth fighting for.”

Phil Klay is the author of the short-story collection “Redeployment.”

2014 National Book Awards

Phil Klay

 

Over 70 Veterans Administration Positions Exempt from Federal Hiring Freeze

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“MILITARY TIMES”

“Department of Veterans Affairs officials on Friday released a breakdown of what positions will be exempt from the recently enacted government-wide hiring freeze, detailing a host of medical and psychological specialties.

The freeze, announced by President Trump on Monday, prevents any new civilian government hires who did not receive a job offer before Jan. 22. Military members are excluded, as are positions “necessary to meet national security or public safety responsibilities.”

On Tuesday, acting VA Secretary Robert Snyder released a statement saying his department would “exempt anyone it deems necessary for public safety, including frontline caregivers,” in keeping with the order.

But the fact sheet released by VA on Friday goes further, detailing exemptions in a host of specialties and at 24 to-be-opened department sites “to ensure the minimum staffing required to become or remain operational.”

Those sites include the new VA hospital in Denver, Colorado, the recently completed new medical center in New Orleans, a new site in New York City and four sites in California.

Support positions to finish construction processes will also be exempt, but on a case-by-case basis to be approved by the VA secretary.

Not included in the list are specialists who handle benefits claims, an issue that has been problematic for the department in recent years.

The number of first-time claims that took more than four months to complete ballooned in 2013 to more than 600,000 before staffing plus-ups, mandatory overtime and new processing systems helped bring it down to around 90,000 cases today.

On the medical front, exempted positions include individuals who “provide direct patient care, without which the safety and welfare of veterans would be at stake.”

That includes general medical staff, pharmacists, social workers, nurses, dietitians, prosthetic specialists and psychologists, among others.

It also includes workers on the Veterans Crisis Line, as well as security and maintenance personnel for VA clinics.

And Snyder also opted to exempt some National Cemetery Administration positions “directly involved with the burial of veterans and eligible family members” in keeping with the public health and safety clauses of the presidential order.

Earlier in the week, a group of 55 Senate Democrats — including every party member in the Senate — sent a note to Trump asking him to exempt all of VA from the hiring freeze, noting the potential impact on both veterans seeking services and veterans seeking employment.

Veterans make up nearly one third of the federal workforce.”

http://www.militarytimes.com/articles/va-hiring-freeze-list-exempted-positions

VA By the Numbers: Has the Department Made Progress?

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“MILITARY TIMES”

“A broader profile than just the medical aspects of the department.

Here’s a look at some key facts and figures on where the department stands today, based on current officials’ own statistics and assessments of operations since current VA Secretary Bob McDonald took office in August 2014.

** The VA budget totals $176.9 billion for fiscal 2017, almost twice the budget total when Obama took office in fiscal 2009 ($93.7 billion) and almost four times the total when the war in Afghanistan began in fiscal 2001 ($48.7 billion).

Of the 2017 total, roughly $77.4 billion is set aside for discretionary programs, and the rest for disability, medical and education benefits, along with other mandatory spending.

** VA employed about 365,000 workers in fiscal 2016, up about 88,000 people from when President Barack Obama took office in 2009. Employee bonuses and discipline has been a constant fight for department leaders in recent years, with critics saying they do too little to root out lazy or incompetent bureaucrats.

In fiscal 2015, about one-third of all VA employees were veterans.

** Roughly 9 million veterans were enrolled in VA health care at the end of fiscal 2016, about 42 percent of the nation’s veterans population. That number was 7.8 million in fiscal 2009, roughly 33 percent of the total U.S. veterans population at the time.

Part of the increase is due to troops returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the department has also seen increases in the usage rate from older generations.

** About 58 million medical appointments were scheduled by VA in fiscal 2016, an increase of almost six percent in two years. Almost a third of those appointments were scheduled with doctors working outside the VA system, in private clinics.

** More than 542,000 veterans were rated as 100 percent disabled at the end of fiscal 2016, giving them access to a wide range of payouts and benefits. In fiscal 2009, that number was 265,000. Again, part of that increase is attributable to the current wars, but a large part also reflects an aging veterans populations with worsening service-injuries from decades ago.

** About 93 percent of veterans medical appointments are being scheduled within 30 days, according to department data from December 2016. That’s down about 1 percent from fall 2014, when department officials began tracking patient wait times in the wake of nationwide scandals about delayed appointments and cover ups.

The average wait time for mental health care appointments is 4.5 days, roughly the same as the wait over the previous two years. The wait for primary care is 5.7 days (down from 6.7 in fall 2014) and the wait for specialty care is 10.2 days (up from 7.5 days in fall 2014).

** And 8,481 patients on VA lists have been waiting more than four months for appointment requests, a number that swelled to more than 10,000 in early 2016.

** More than 960,000 veterans received some type of education benefits through VA in fiscal 2016, up from around 265,000 in fiscal 2009.

The biggest contributor to that jump was passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2010, which offered a full four years tuition at state universities and a housing stipend to troops who served at least three years after 2001.

** An average of 20 veterans a day committed suicide in fiscal 2014, the latest information available. Past research had pegged that number at 22, but those estimates were drawn from fewer states and contained problematic guesses. It’s unclear whether recent mental health efforts by VA have driven down the suicide rate.

** About 96,000 first-time benefits claims were “backlogged” as of Dec. 31, 2016. A claim is considered overdue if it isn’t completed within 125 days.

Obama promised to bring that number down to zero by the start of 2016. The backlog peaked at about 611,000 cases in March 2013 and was down as low as 70,000 cases in fall 2015, when VA officials announced that zeroing out the backlog completely was likely impossible and could unnecessarily rush some cases.

** Another 303,673 benefit cases that are pending in the department’s appeals system, as of Dec. 31, 2016. That’s up from about 181,000 cases at the end of 2009. The cases typically take three or more years to fully complete.

** More than 2.6 million VA home loans were awarded in fiscal 2016, up about 500,000 eight years earlier.

** Federal researchers estimate that 39,472 veterans were homeless as of January 2016. That’s down from about 75,600 veterans on the streets in 2009, when Obama announced plans to house every veteran in America by the end of 2015.

So far, 33 communities and three states have been certified as “effectively” ending veterans homelessness, meaning they have the resources to rapidly house all veterans in in their community facing financial distress.”

http://www.militarytimes.com/articles/va-numbers-obama-trump-new-administration

 

Defense Officials Approve Expanded Veterans Online Shopping Benefit

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Image:  Stars and Stipes.com

“MILITARY TIMES”

“Honorably discharged veterans could be able to shop online at military exchange websites as early as Veterans Day, barring any objections from Congress.

The change in Defense Department policy would open up online exchange shopping privileges to about 18 million more people. It won’t apply to shopping at brick-and-mortar exchange stores.

A defense official confirmed a letter announcing the change was signed Wednesday by Peter Levine, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. Copies were sent to lawmakers on four House and Senate committees, and if no objections are raised within 30 days, officials with Army and Air Force Exchange Service and Navy Exchange Service Command expect to be able to implement the new benefit by mid-November.

The change requires no taxpayer dollars; the expected increase in exchange profits would bring in more money for programs in the military community. DoD officials determined that a change in law was not required to extend the benefit, but notified Congress of their intent to change policy.

AAFES and NEX now have online shopping sites that are open to all eligible military exchange shoppers regardless of service branch – www.shopmyexchange.com andwww.mynavyexchange.com, respectively. Those eligible are limited to active duty, Guard and reserve members and retirees, along with dependent family members, and 100 percent disabled veterans (and certain others). But most of those who leave the military before retirement – about 90 percent of veterans – aren’t eligible to shop at exchanges.

Pentagon officials have been deliberating whether to extend the benefit for nearly three years.  In 2014, AAFES CEO Tom Shull said he proposed the idea as a way to give “a modest benefit to honor the service” of those who left the military before retirement age. He noted that among this group are many veterans with four, five or more combat deployments in the post-9/11 era.

Retirees won’t be the only beneficiaries, according to an internal DoD document: Expanding the online customer base will strengthen the exchanges’ online business to better serve the customers, and the expansion is expected to “conservatively double the exchanges’ online presence,” thus yielding better prices for customers and more competitive merchandise.

Exchanges sell items at a discount, without a sales tax, and any profits after operating costs are either returned to the services’ morale, welfare and recreation programs, or used for construction and other improvements to stores.

Thus, officials expect the expanded benefit will also help shore up the financial situation of morale and recreation activities, which have been under budget pressures. Exchange officials project between $18 million to $72 million in extra profits each year when the program is fully implemented and matured. Based on the exchanges’ current dividend policies, the extra profits will add about $9 million to $36 million in dividends to installation morale, welfare and recreation programs. Generally, half of exchanges’ profits go to MWR and half go to improve facilities.

Since 2014, AAFES officials have been working toward the goal of preparing for an expanded customer base, including revamping and relaunching their website. One issue will be verifying eligibility: The Defense Manpower Data Center serves as the sole source for verification of military customers and has electronic records that could verify about 87 percent of veterans.

Veterans not in the system will be able to update their files. Initial DMDC setup costs of about $500,000 will be reimbursed by AAFES, according to an internal document.”

http://www.militarytimes.com/articles/defense-officials-approve-expanded-veterans-online-shopping-benefit

VA Secretary Robert McDonald’s Advice To Vets

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veterans-affairs-secretary-bob-mcdonaldcnn                                   Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald(CNN)

“MILITARY TIMES’

“In my mind, there is no single human endeavor that leads to greater transformation than education,” McDonald said.

The secretary also recommended that the student veterans look for careers that continue the service that they began in uniform.

“What more important blessing could there be than to be able to have a positive impact on the life of another person? What a positive impact you can have.”

McDonald said he became the VA secretary to do just that. But he expressed frustration with the politics inherent in the role.

“When I listen to the political dialogue, I sometimes get incensed,” he said. “Should we privatize the VA, you know, so the healthcare companies of America can make more money? Should we ask veterans to go to private sector doctors who may not know anything about post traumatic stress?”

McDonald dedicated a large section of his speech to giving veterans four pieces of advice:

  1. Consider your life’s purpose: “Please think about what your purpose is in life, and you will find that if you do that, it will animate the rest of your life,” McDonald said. He added that it’s OK to change your mind a few times. “But you’re living your life every single day, wouldn’t it be good to lead it in a certain direction, toward purpose?”
  2. Set big goals: “As you think about your purpose, think about your goal and make sure your goal is big enough to overcome all your fears,” he said. McDonald recalled how he was unable to become an Eagle Scout because he was afraid to swim. But he passed several much more difficult swimming tests while attending West Point. “Why? Because I had a goal that was bigger than my fear.”
  3. Work for an organization that shares your values and purpose: “Find a company that has a purpose congruent with your own,” McDonald said. “That’s where you’re going to be spending the majority of your waking hours, and you want to make sure you’re achieving your personal purpose, while also achieving the corporate purpose.”
  4. Never stop learning: “I’ll tell you a secret, but you’ve got to promise me you’ll keep it secret: What differentiates those who succeed in business … is maintaining that ability to learn. You’ve got to learn new things all the time,” McDonald said. The most important things students learn in school aren’t any particular facts or equations. It’s how to learn. And learning should not stop once you graduate, he added. “Things are going to change and you need to change too, and the only way to do that is to continue learning.”

http://www.militarytimes.com/articles/va-secretary-robert-mcdonalds-advice-to-vets

 

 

Pentagon Quietly Acknowledges Recent U.S. Military Wounded in Iraq and Syria

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US. army soldiers stand next a military vehicle in the town of Bartella

Image: Reuters

“MILITARY TIMES”

“At least 14 American military personnel have been wounded in combat since the start of October while battling Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to Defense Department data reviewed by Military Times.

The numbers suggest that more U.S. troops are being sent closer to the Islamic State’s front lines.

The sudden increase accounts for nearly half of the 30 wounded-in-action reports that the U.S. has publicly acknowledged since the ISIS campaign began in August 2014, and coincides with two ongoing offensives targeting the terror group’s strongholds in both countries: Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, the Islamic State’s self-declared capital.

It’s a sensitive topic for the Pentagon and the White House, which has made painstaking efforts to minimize any perception that American forces are actively engaged in ground combat despite steadily increasing force levels in both theaters where now more than 5,500 U.S. troops are deployed.

At least eight American troops have been killed in action since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve, according to figures maintained in the Defense Casualty Analysis System, a comprehensive database charting American combat casualty information dating to the Revolutionary War. The most recent occurred Nov. 24 in a Syrian villagelocated north of Raqqa. Another 23 Americans have died in nonhostile incidents while supporting the war on ISIS.

Of the 14 wounded-in-action reports since October, eight stem from unspecified incidents recorded in December. That’s the highest monthly tally since March 2016.

Citing Defense Department policy, a Pentagon spokesman declined to elaborate on the spike in casualty reports or the scope of any recent injuries, saying only that it “should not be considered to be the result of one incident, or even a series of closely-related incidents.”

“The Department of Defense does not routinely release detailed information regarding service members who are wounded in action,” said Army Lt. Col. Myles Caggins III. “This is due to concerns about operational security and about releasing health information that may be protected” under federal privacy laws.

Among the 30 troops who’ve been wounded in action while battling ISIS, 15 are Marines, according to Defense Department data. The remaining 15 incidents involve 11 Army personnel, three from the Navy and one from the Air Force.

Eight of the 15 cases involving Marines occurred last March, after the U.S. established a fire base on the fringe of ISIS-held territory near Mosul. One Marine was killed by a rocket attack that wounded four others there. It’s unclear how or precisely where the other four Marines were wounded that month, although the fire base did experience repeated attacks until their task force pulled out in June.

Another six Marines were among the eight U.S. troops wounded throughout December, according to Defense Department data. One appears to be Staff Sgt. Patrick Maloney, whom friends, family and fellow Marines have identified as a dog handler assigned to the service’s elite 2nd Raider Battalion out of Camp Lejeune in eastern North Carolina. Maloney, whose condition was publicized by friends seeking to raise money for the Marine’s family, suffered a head injury as a result of enemy action in Iraq on Dec. 30, an acquaintance of his told Military Times this week.

It’s unclear specifically where in Iraq that incident occurred. U.S. officials will not acknowledge it, nor will they confirm that any Marine Raiders are operating there as part of the counter-ISIS campaign. It’s been reported previously that elements of other elite special operations units — namely the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force — are active on these battlefields.

“We do not discuss specifics of special operations personnel in the interest of operational security,” a military spokesperson in Baghdad said via email.
Officials with Marine Special Operations Command in North Carolina have not addressed questions posed by Military Times seeking details about the the Raiders’ activity as part of Operation Inherent Resolve.

As the battles for Mosul and Raqqa intensify, the U.S. has dispatched additional military advisers to assist allies fighting in and around each city.

In Iraq, the number of coalition advisers has doubled to about 450, Air Force Col. John Dorrian said Wednesday. They include special operations forces, combat engineers and intelligence specialists, troops who are closely partnered with Iraqi units fighting to retake the city. Some have been sent inside Mosul, he added.

“They’re with [Iraqi] headquarters elements in most cases,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said Thursday, noting at least one instance in which U.S. advisers have been partnered with an Iraqi army battalion. “With the conventional Iraqi forces, they’re providing advice and assistance at the division levels with the leadership. … Some of those headquarters elements are moving as the forward line of troops moves, and certainly there are Iraqi commanders who are closer to Mosul now than they were previously.

“I want to make clear that not all these folks are specifically tied to Mosul,” Cook added. “We have advisers right now, for example, in Baghdad. We have advisers at various locations, installations that may be supporting Mosul. I mentioned Qayyarah again, Camp Swift,” both of which are south of Mosul.

In Syria, there are about 500 American troops closely partnered with militias battling to reclaim territory from the Islamic State. The last increase, totaling 200 U.S. troops, was announced by Defense Secretary Ash Carter in early December.”

San Diego – Model Hub For Veteran Startup Businesses

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San Diego Image: Wikipedia Commons/ VOSB Overlay VOSB .com

“NEW YORK TIMES”

“About 229,000 military veterans live in San Diego.

San Diego’s start-up community has grown exponentially over the past 15 years, and veterans have found homes within it, said Mark Cafferty, the chief executive of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. The region has more than 25 incubators and accelerators for start-ups.

Sumner Lee, a former Navy helicopter pilot who also spent several years working for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, or Spawar, in San Diego, leveraged his experience to help start Fuse Integration in 2010. Fuse, a design engineering firm, focuses on networks and software. Its software tool allows the Navy to monitor network systems on its ships, Mr. Lee said. Revenue, which he said is under $10 million, grew 35 percent in the past year.

According to research from the United States Small Business Administration, veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than those without active-duty military experience.

“If you look across all sectors of San Diego’s economy — life sciences, telecom, biotech, health care, I.T., sports innovation, medical and wearable devices, clean tech — you will find entrepreneurial hubs,” Mr. Cafferty said. “Over time, growth has transformed our region’s economy into a diverse mix of high-growth industries, some with direct ties to defense technology. This can be largely attributed to the veterans who stay here.”

Yet veterans still face some daunting challenges in transitioning from the military to private-sector entrepreneurship. To address those issues, several groups have set out to help veterans navigate the complexities of starting a small business.

One of the biggest hurdles is access to capital, said Carlos E. Figari, director of the SoCal Veterans Business Outreach Center in Carlsbad, Calif.

“When you’re starting a brand-new business and you don’t have any type of business track record because you’ve been serving in the military, it’s very hard to get a loan or find investors,” he said. “If you are starting a company that’s directly connected to the experience obtained while you were in the military, then you have a network to tap. But if you want to open a Subway, that’s a totally different story.”

Veterans who aspire to be entrepreneurs often lack solid knowledge of the industry in which they want to operate, Mr. Figari said. Some, he added, may struggle to understand that as business owners, they will have several jobs, not one.

To address those challenges, nonprofit groups and former service members have created programs to give veterans the training they need. Mr. Figari’s group, for instance, provides general entrepreneurship training to veterans in eight counties in Southern California.

Other groups offer more extensive training, like the Rosie Network, a nonprofit that helps small businesses in San Diego started by veterans or their spouses. This year, the Rosie Network opened the Military Entrepreneur Development Center, an accelerator program for entrepreneurs who are on active duty, are veterans or are spouses of military personnel. It also offers Service2CEO, a free, 12-month small-business development program.

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Isaac Wang’s start-up company, War Foodie, sells specialty coffee and coffee presses. It was inspired, he said, by the “really bad” coffee he had in the Navy. CreditAdam Fedderly for The New York Times

Nick Norris, a former member of the Navy SEALs, went through the Rosie Network’s training after leaving the military in 2013.

His experience in the Navy led him to help found Predator Warpaint, a camouflage paint with sunscreen protection. The SEALs, along with members of other military branches, train outdoors using camouflage face paint, but military-issued sunscreen “is a rarity,” Mr. Norris said.

Predator Warpaint adopted technology often used in the surfing industry — a sport that defines San Diego’s beach culture — and created a camouflage paint that contains SPF 50 sunscreen. The Rosie Network, Mr. Norris said, helped his company make critical connections for building sales channels to the military and to hunters, who buy it online. A Kickstarter campaign raised $30,000 in seed money.

Rather than finding investors or securing a loan, Isaac Wang, a former surface warfare officer in the Navy, chose to finance his start-up, War Foodie, which sells specialty coffee and coffee presses, himself.

The inspiration for it came from his experience in the Navy. “The coffee is really bad,” Mr. Wang said. His company, now two years old, sells its wares in both military and expat communities globally.

Many of those leaving the service, however, may not know if they are suited to run their own businesses.

The Honor Foundation helps veterans address that question in its 15-week program, which trains and prepares former Navy SEALs to either start their own companies or to get a job. One-third of the Honor Foundation’s graduates trained as entrepreneurs, said Joe Musselman, the organization’s founder.

One of them is Charles Matranga, who finished the program in June. Mr. Matranga was a member of the Navy SEALs for 26 years. During that time, he handled a host of business issues, including managing budgets, people and capital. Now, he said he is “translating those skills into corporate America skills.”

This year he helped start Exitus Technologies, which makes a wearable security device that can connect its user to a network of friends and emergency medical workers with the push of a button.

Many of San Diego’s ex-military personnel have found a home in the tech sector, which also dominates the region with companies like Qualcomm, Sapphire Energy and General Atomics. These kinds of technology ventures need engineers, especially electrical, aerospace and communication engineers, who are plentiful in San Diego.

“It’s a good talent pool for us,” said Josh Wells, a former Navy pilot and a founder and chief executive of Planck Aerosystems, which created a technology that enables unmanned drones to take off and land autonomously from a moving vehicle onto a ship. So far, Planck has raised $1.9 million in seed funding.

Alan McAfee spent seven years as a Navy corpsman before being discharged in 2007 because of an injury. Mr. McAfee learned about Fab Lab, a nonprofit community space in San Diego’s Makers Quarter that gives members access to tools, technology and training for digital fabrication.

There, he created an entrepreneur-in-residence program in which participants collaborate and support one another. In exchange, they volunteer at least five hours per week at the lab. About 20 percent of Fab Lab members are active-duty military or veterans.

“There is something interesting about the intersection of the maker movement and the veteran population,” said Katie Rast, a founder and the director of Fab Lab. “I think there is a call to action that really speaks to those who have served, knowing you have been the creator of something that has use in the world.”

It was at Fab Lab that Mr. McAfee got to know the founders of Robo3D, a 3-D printing company. He then joined the company about 18 months ago as a partner and vice president of engineering.

The company has just raised a second round of funding and is preparing for an initial public offering. “I love working with start-ups,” Mr. McAfee said. “The intensity, the pace, the flexibility and how competitive it all is.”