Category Archives: Veterans Affairs

Returning Troops Denied Water, Bathrooms Under Quarantine

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(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Zach VanDyke via AP)

MILITARY TIMES

 “It wasn’t the welcome home that U.S. soldiers expected when they returned from war zones in the Middle East in the past week.

When their planes landed at Fort Bliss, Texas, they were herded into buses, denied water and the use of bathrooms, then quarantined in packed barracks, with little food or access to the outdoors.

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“This is no way to treat Soldiers returning from war,” one soldier told The Associated Press in an email.

The soldiers posted notes on social media about the poor conditions. Their complaints got quick attention from senior Army and Pentagon leaders. Now changes are under way at Fort Bliss and at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where the first soldiers placed under quarantine also complained of poor, cramped conditions.

Quarantining troops on military bases is becoming a greater challenge for military officials. While continuing missions and training, they also have to try to prevent the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus by enforcing two-week quarantines of soldiers who have spent months overseas.

In one of Bragg’s remote training areas, large white tents have popped up over the past few days to house hundreds of 82nd Airborne Division troops returning to the base from Afghanistan and Middle East deployments. The tent city, being called Forward Operating Base Patriot (FOB Patriot), materialized almost overnight, after commanders realized the limits of the barracks when troops began arriving on Saturday.

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said senior leaders were looking into soldiers’ complaints and seeking answers from Fort Bliss. Pentagon chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters that Defense Secretary Mark Esper had heard about the problems and “his response is, we can do better and we need to do better.”

Hoffman said the commander at Fort Bliss has met with all of the quarantined soldiers and “talked through some of their concerns. The spokesman added, “We are going to do better. This is something unusual for all these bases to be handling, and they are doing the best they can.”

In the early days of the quarantine, soldiers at Fort Bliss posted photos on social media showing foam food trays dotted with small piles of peas and rice. On Thursday, in an email statement, Fort Bliss described changes that have been made.

“The dining facility we initially used could not keep pace with demand,” said the statement. “The portions were inadequate, and led to our number one complaint. Fort Bliss leaders saw photos and immediately took action.”

One soldier, in an email to the AP, said when soldiers got off the plane from Afghanistan, they were loaded onto buses and did not get water or permission to use the bathroom for hours.

“We can’t walk down the hall, go outside, or exercise. We finally received drinking water at 0900 this morning,” said the soldier, describing Day Two. “The Army was not prepared, nor equipped to deal with this quarantine instruction and it has been implemented very poorly. ”

The AP is not identifying soldiers who described the conditions, in order to protect their identity so they could speak freely and not worry about potential reprisals.

Fort Bliss said that the food service plan has already increased to give troops three hot meals a day and that soldiers are now getting donated snacks and are allowed to order food and have it delivered to a central location. The troops are also allowed to go outside more and will get more access to gym equipment.

Another soldier at Bliss, who had been deployed to Kuwait, said in a message that the food has gotten better and troops are now allowed to go outside more. But as they begin Day Six there, packages have been held up and there has been no access to laundry facilities.

At Fort Bragg, some of the first soldiers to return on Saturday were sent to rooms in barracks that had been quickly emptied. Soldiers previously living in those rooms were moved to make room.

According to officials, soldiers are being separated into groups that returned from overseas together for the two-week quarantine. But realizing the need for more space, the 82nd Airborne decided on Saturday to build a new facility, and on Monday morning the first tent stakes were being pounded into the ground.

Because the area has been used for training in the past, workers were able to quickly bring in and hook up shower and toilet trailers and set up food tents and other facilities. By Thursday, several hundred troops had already moved in.

The 82nd Airborne’s 3rd Brigade has been deployed to Afghanistan, and is steadily returning home. Members of the 1st Brigade had gone to Kuwait and Iraq to help bolster security due to threats from Iranian-backed militias. Some members of that group have also come home.

According to Army Lt. Col. Mike Burns, a spokesman for the 82nd Airborne, FOB Patriot will be able to hold as many as 600 soldiers, but numbers have been changing as adjustments are made. He said Maj. Gen. James Mingus wanted to ensure that the returning troops knew “we were proud of what they accomplished and were doing everything we can to take care of them and stop the spread of the virus.”

Of the 1,700 82nd Airborne troops that have returned so far to Bragg, a bit less than half are housed in barracks and at FOB Patriot, and the rest are in quarantine in their homes. As of Friday about 200 were at FOB Patriot.

Anyone who exhibits symptoms of the virus will go into isolation and medical treatment.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three weeks to six weeks to recover.”

https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your-military/2020/03/20/military-works-to-improve-conditions-for-quarantined-troops/

Experienced Young Military Professionals Discuss The Future of Warfare

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following two articles by a Middle East war veteran at West Point and a Navy military lawyer contemplating warfare technology and the law should be carefully read by the American Public. These young gentlemen are highly visible in their fields. They and their peers are the future leadership of our country.

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“MODERN WAR INSTITUTE AT WEST POINT” By Matt Cavanaugh

“Victory’s been defeated; it’s time we recognized that and moved on to what we actually can accomplish.

We’ve reached the end of victory’s road, and at this juncture it’s time to embrace other terms, a less-loaded lexicon, like “strategic advantage,” “relative gain,” and “sustainable marginalization.”

A few weeks back, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Harvard Professor Steven Pinker triumphantly announced the peace deal between the government of Columbia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). While positive, this declaration rings hollow as the exception that proves the rule – a tentative treaty, however, at the end, roughly 7,000 guerrillas held a country of 50 million hostage over 50 years at a cost of some 220,000 lives. Churchill would be aghast: Never in the history of human conflict were so many so threatened by so few.

One reason this occasion merited a more somber statement: military victory is dead. And it was killed by a bunch of cheap stuff.

The term “victory” is loaded, so let’s stipulate it means unambiguous, unchallenged, and unquestioned strategic success – something more than a “win,” because, while one might “eke out a win,” no one “ekes out a victory.” Wins are represented by a mere letter (“w”); victory is a tickertape with tanks.

Which is something I’ll never see in my military career; I should explain. When a government has a political goal that cannot be obtained other than by force, the military gets involved and selects some objective designed to obtain said goal. Those military objectives can be classified broadly, as Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz did, into either a limited aim (i.e. “occupy some…frontier-districts” to use “for bargaining”), or a larger aim to completely disarm the enemy, “render[ing] him politically helpless or military impotent.” Lo, we’ve arrived at the problem: War has become so inexpensive that anyone can afford the traditional military means of strategic significance – so we can never fully disarm the enemy. And a perpetually armed enemy means no more parades (particularly in Nice).

Never in the history of human conflict were so many so threatened by so few.

It’s a buyer’s market in war, and the baseline capabilities (shoot, move, and communicate) are at snake-belly prices. Tactical weaponry, like AK-47s are plentiful, rented, and shipped from battlefield to battlefield, and the most lethal weapon U.S. forces encountered at the height of the Iraq War, the improvised explosive device, could be had for as little as $265. Moving is cost-effective too in the “pickup truck era of warfare,” and reports on foreign fighters in Syria remind us that cheap, global travel makes it possible for nearly anyone on the planet to rapidly arrive in an active war zone with money to spare. Also, while the terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba shut down the megacity Mumbai in 2008 for less than what many traveling youth soccer teams spend in a season, using unprotected social media networks, communication has gotten even easier for the emerging warrior with today’s widely available unhackable phones and apps. These low and no-cost commo systems are the glue that binds single wolves into coordinated wolf-packs with guns, exponentially greater than the sum of their parts. The good news: Ukraine can crowdfund aerial surveillance against Russian incursions. The less-good news: strikes, like 9/11, cost less than three seconds of a single Super Bowl ad. With prices so low, why would anyone ever give up their fire, maneuver, and control platforms?

All of which explains why military victory has gone away. Consider the Middle East, and the recent comment by a Hezbollah leader, “This can go on for a hundred years,” and his comrade’s complementary analysis, that “as long as we are there, nobody will win.” With such a modestly priced war stock on offer, it’s no wonder Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies agrees with the insurgents, recently concluding, of the four wars currently burning across the region, the U.S. has “no prospect” of strategic victory in any. Or that Modern War Institute scholar Andrew Bacevich assesses bluntly, “If winning implies achieving stated political objectives, U.S. forces don’t win.” This is what happens when David’s slingshot is always full.

The guerrillas know what many don’t: It’s the era, stupid. This is the nature of the age, as Joshua Cooper Ramos describes, “a nightmare reality in which we must fight adaptive microthreats and ideas, both of which appear to be impossible to destroy even with the most expensive weapons.” Largely correct, one point merits minor amendment – it’s meaningless to destroy when it’s so cheap to get back in the game, a hallmark of a time in which Wolverine-like regeneration is regular.

This theme even extends to more civilized conflicts. Take the Gawker case: begrudged hedge fund giant Peter Thiel funded former wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the journalistic insurrectionists at Gawker Media, which forced the website’s writers to lay down their keyboards. However, as author Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out – Gawker’s leader, Nick Denton, can literally walk across the street, with a few dollars, and start right over. Another journalist opined, “Mr. Thiel’s victory was a hollow one – you might even say he lost. While he may have killed Gawker, its sensibility and influence on the rest of the news business survive.” Perhaps Thiel should have waited 50 more years, as Columbia had to, to write his “victory” op-ed? He may come to regret the essay as his own “Mission Accomplished” moment.

True with websites, so it goes with warfare. We live in the cheap war era, where the attacker has the advantage and the violent veto is always possible. Political leaders can speak and say tough stuff, promise ruthless revenge – it doesn’t matter, ultimately, because if you can’t disarm the enemy, you can’t parade the tanks.”

https://rosecoveredglasses.wordpress.com/2019/05/15/military-victory-is-dead/

JIA SIPA

By JOSHUA FIVESON

A new chapter of the international order The automation of war is as inevitable as conflict itself.  Less certain, however, is the international community’s collective ability to predict the many ways that these changes will affect the traditional global order. 

The pace of technology is often far greater than our collective ability to contemplate its second and third order effects, and this reality counsels cautious reflection as we enter a new chapter in the age-old story of war and peace.

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“Robots have long presented a threat to some aspect of the human experience.  What began with concern over the labor market slowly evolved into a full-blown existential debate over the future of mankind.  But lost somewhere in between the assembly line and apocalypse stands a more immediate threat to the global order:  the disruptive relationship between technology and international law.

Jus ad Bellum

Jus ad bellum is the body of international law that governs the initial use force.  Under this heading, force is authorized in response to an “armed attack.”  However, little discussion has focused on how unmanned technologies will shift this line between war and peace.

Iran’s recent unprovoked attack on one of the United States’ unmanned surveillance aircraft provides an interesting case study.  Though many saw the move as the opening salvo of war, the United States declined to respond in kind.  The President explained that there would have been a “big, big difference” if there was “a man or woman in the [aircraft.]”  This comment seemed to address prudence, not authority.  Many assumed that the United States would have been well within its rights to levy a targeted response.  Yet this sentiment overlooked a key threshold:  could the United States actually claim self-defense under international law?  

Two cases from the International Court of Justice are instructive.  In Nicaragua v. United States, the Court confronted the U.S. government’s surreptitious support and funding of the Contras, a rebel group that sought to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.  Nicaragua viewed the United States’ conduct as an armed attack under international law.  The Court, however, disagreed.

Key to the Court’s holding was the concept of scale and effect.  Although the U.S. government had encouraged and directly supported paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua, the Court concluded that the scale and effect of that conduct did not rise to the level of an armed attack.  Notably, this was the case regardless of any standing prohibition on the United States’ efforts.

So too in Islamic Republic of Iran v. United States, more commonly known as the “Oil Platforms” case.  The Court analyzed the U.S. government’s decision to bomb evacuated Iranian Oil Platforms in response to Iranian missile and mining operations throughout the Persian Gulf.  Among other things, the Iranian operations injured six crew members on a U.S. flagged oil tanker, ten sailors on a U.S. naval vessel, and damaged both ships.  The Court nonetheless rejected the United States’ claim of self-defense because the Iranian operations did not meet the Nicaragua gravity threshold and thus did not qualify as “armed attacks.”  

Viewed on this backdrop, however contested, it strains reason to suggest that an isolated use of force against an unmanned asset would ever constitute an armed attack.  Never before have hostile forces been able to similarly degrade combat capability with absolutely no risk of casualty.  Though the Geneva Conventions prohibit the “extensive destruction” of property, it is another matter completely to conclude that any unlawful use of force is tantamount to an armed attack.  Indeed, the Nicaragua and Oil Platforms cases clearly reject this reasoning.  This highlights how the new balance of scale and effect will alter the landscape that separates peace and war.

Even assuming an attack on unmanned technology might constitute an armed attack under international law, there arise other complications regarding the degree of force available in response.  The jus ad bellum principles of necessity and proportionality apply to actions taken in self-defense, and the legitimate use of “defensive” force must be tailored to achieve that legitimate end.  A failure to strike this balance runs contrary to long-held principles of international law. 

What, then, happens when a robotic platform is destroyed and the response delayed?  Does the surrogate country have a general right to use limited, belated force in reply?  Maybe.  But a generalized response would likely constitute armed reprisal, which has fallen into disfavor with customary international law. 

To be lawful, the deferred use of defensive force must be tailored to prevent similar attacks in the future.  Anything short of this would convert a country’s inherent right to self-defense into subterfuge for illegal aggression.  Thankfully, this obligation is simply met where the initial aggressor is a developed country that maintains targeting or industrial facilities that can be tied to any previous, or potential future, means of attack.  But this problem takes on new difficulty in the context of asymmetric warfare.   

Non-state actors are more than capable of targeting robotic technology.  Yet these entities lack the traditional infrastructure that might typically (and lawfully) find itself in the crosshairs following an attack.  How, then, can a traditional power use force in response to a successful, non-state assault on unmanned equipment?  It is complicated.  A responsive strike that broadly targets members of the hostile force may present proportionality concerns that are unique from those associated with traditional attacks that risk the loss of life. 

How would a country justify a responsive strike that targets five members of a hostile force in response to a downed drone?  Does the answer change if fewer people are targeted?  And what if there is no question that those targeted were not involved in the initial act of aggression?  These questions aside, a responsive strike that exclusively targets humans in an attempt to stymie future attacks on unmanned equipment does not bear the same legal foundation as one that seeks to prevent future attacks that risk life.  The international community has yet to identify the exchange rate between robotic equipment and human lives, and therein lies the problem.

Jus in Bello

Robotic warfare will also disrupt jus in bello, the law that governs conduct during armed conflict.  Under the law of armed conflict, the right to use deadly force against a belligerent continues until they have been rendered ineffective, whether through injury, surrender, or detention.  But the right to use force first is not diminished by the well-recognized obligation to care for those same combatants if wounded or captured.  An armed force is not required to indiscriminately assume risk in order to capture as opposed to kill an adversary.  To impose such a requirement would shift risk from one group to another and impose gratuitous tactical impediments

This sentiment fades, however, once you place “killer robots” on the battlefield.  While there is little sense in telling a young soldier or marine that he cannot pull the trigger and must put himself at greater risk if an opportunity for capture presents itself, the same does not hold true when a robot is pulling the trigger.  The tactical feasibility of capture over kill becomes real once you swap “boots” for “bots” on the ground.  No longer is there the potential for fatality, and the risk calculus becomes largely financial.  This is not to say that robots would obligate a country to blindly pursue capture at the expense of strategy.  But a modernized military might effect uncontemplated restrictions on the traditional use of force under international law.  The justification for kill over capture is largely nonexistent in situations where capture is tactically feasible without any coordinate risk of casualty.

Design is another important part of this discussion.  Imagine a platoon of “killer robots” engages a small group of combatants, some of whom are incapacitated but not killed.  A robot that is exclusively designed to target and kill would be unable to comply with the internationally recognized duty to care for wounded combatants.  Unless medical care is a contemplated function of these robots’ design, the concept of a human-free battlefield will remain unrealized.  Indeed, the inherent tension between new tech and old law might indicate that at least some human footprint will always be required in theater—if only after the dust of combat settles.

Reports from China suggest that robots could replace humans on the battlefield within the next five years, and the U.S. Army is slated to begin testing a platoon of robotic combat vehicles this year.  Russia, too, is working to develop combat robots to supplement its infantry.  This, of course, raises an important question: what happens if the most powerful, technologically adept countries write off traditional obligations at the design table?  Might often makes right on the international stage, and given the lack of precedent in this area, the risk demands attention.

Law of the Sea

The peacetime naval domain provides another interesting forum for the disruptive effect of military robotics.  Customary international law, for example, has long recognized an obligation to render assistance to vessels in distress—at least to the extent feasible without danger to the assisting ship and crew.  This is echoed in a variety of international treaties ranging from the Geneva Convention on the High Seas to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  But what becomes of this obligation when ships of the future have no crew?

Navies across the world are actively developing ghost fleets.  The U.S. Navy has called upon industry to deliver ten Large Unmanned Surface Vehicle ships by 2024, and just recently, the “Sea Hunter” became the first ship to sail autonomously between two major ports.  This comes as no surprise given the Navy’s 2020 request for $628.8 million to conduct research and development involving unmanned surface and sub-surface assets.  The Chinese, too, have been exploring the future of autonomous sea power.  

This move highlights the real possibility that technology may relieve the most industrially developed Navies of traditional international obligations.  Whether fortuitously or not, the size of a ghost fleet would inversely reflect a nation’s ability—and perhaps its obligation—to assist vessels in distress. 

This would shift the humanitarian onus onto less-developed countries or commercial mariners, ceding at least one traditional pillar of international law’s peacetime function.  This also opens the door to troubling precedent if global superpowers begin to consciously design themselves out of long-held international obligations.

The move to robotic sea vessels also risks an increase in challenges to the previously inviolable (and more-easily defendable) sovereignty of sea-going platforms.  In 2016, for example, a Chinese warship unlawfully detained one of the United States’ underwater drones, which, at the time, was being recovered in the Philippine exclusive economic zone.  The move was widely seen as violating international maritime law.  But the Chinese faced no resistance in their initial detention of the vessel and the United States’ response consisted of nothing more than demands for return.  Unlike their staffed counterparts, unmanned vessels are more prone to illegal seizure or boarding—in part because of the relatively low risk associated with the venture. 

This dynamic may increase a nation’s willingness to unlawfully exert control over another’s sovereign vessel while simultaneously decreasing the aggrieved nation’s inclination (or ability) to use force in response.  This same phenomenon bears out in the context of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, for which the frequency and consequence of hostile engagement are counter-intuitively related.  But unmanned sea vessels are far more prone to low-cost incursion than their winged counterparts.  This highlights but one aspect of the normative consequence effected by unmanned naval technology, which, if unaddressed, stands to alter the cost-benefit analysis that often underlies the equilibrium of peace.”

https://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/online-articles/disruptive-technology-and-future-international-law

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Joshua Fiveson
Joshua Fiveson 

Joshua Fiveson is an officer in the U.S. Navy and a graduate of Harvard Law School.  Fiveson previously served as the youngest-ever military fellow with the Institute of World Politics, a national security fellow with the University of Virginia’s National Security Law Institute, a national security fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a leadership fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.  Fiveson also served as a John Marshall fellow with the Claremont Institute and a James Wilson fellow with the James Wilson Institute. 

Veterans And Caregivers Can Now Shop Military Commissaries On-Line

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MILITARY .COM

Nearly 4 million veterans and caregivers who were granted privileges to shop at commissaries and exchanges Jan. 1 can finally enjoy access to online features, a Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) news release said.

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“However, the new patrons’ access to American Forces Travel (AFT), the official Morale, Welfare and Recreation travel site, is still spotty, according to the latest AFT Facebook post.

Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war, veterans with any service-connected disability, and caregivers registered with the VA’s Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers program became eligible to shop at commissaries, exchanges and MWR facilities beginning Jan. 1.

Since then, these new shoppers have experienced issues, including not being able to bring guests on base and trouble accessing MyCommissary and AFT online portals.

Related: Your Questions Answered: New Commissary Access for Vets and Caregivers

DeCA officials said they had to work with Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC), which is used to confirm shopping privileges, to let new patrons register their Commissary Rewards cards online to access coupons and to use, as available, the Click2Go curbside service.

“In the event a new shopper is still receiving an error message when trying to create an account, they should check with the [Department of Veterans Affairs] to ensure their information and privileges are correctly entered into the system,” DeCA system engineer Clayton Nobles said in a statement. “For those receiving a new Veterans Health Identification Card (VHIC), there may be a delay between when the veteran receives the card and when the system allows them access. This delay can take up to 30 days.”

Eligible veterans must have a VHIC to access bases for shopping or MWR use.

Customers who had access before Jan. 1, such as retired service members, Medal of Honor recipients and veterans with a service-related disability rating of 100%, are not affected.

Meanwhile, AFT is still updating its customer database of “millions of records.”

“We have sent examples to DMDC and they were able to see why some patrons are having issues,” AFT said on Facebook, the only place it is providing updates on the issue. “We will let you know when that resolve has been made and then ask you to try logging on again. Records are being updated every hour.”

But some veterans are getting tired of waiting.

“No luck today. Last week they said it would be fixed this week,” one Facebook user wrote. “The week before, it was going to be fixed last week. I sent a private message this afternoon and got an automated response to call the DMDC help desk at 1-800-727-3677. That number is for the Commissary. After 35 minutes, someone answered the phone and said they could not help me to get verified.”

https://www.military.com/daily-news/2020/02/28/online-commissary-privileges-finally-available-newly-eligible-shoppers.html

$876 Million In Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Contracting Fraud Dishonors Veterans

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Image: Georgia Tech Contracting Education Academy
PLEASE SEE https://contractingacademy.gatech.edu/tag/sdvosb/ FOR REPORT AND DETAILS

WASHINGTON TECHNOLOGY

The sad truth is that each time a government contract is awarded to a company falsifying its status as a SDVOSB, other veterans operating legitimate, eligible small businesses are denied opportunities that they’ve earned through their service to our nation.

It’s up to us to ensure these opportunities are safeguarded for our veterans today and tomorrow. It’s the honorable thing to do.

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“Ensuring that each veteran receives our full respect and support as he or she transitions back to civilian life is one of our duties as a nation.

While the personal sacrifice made by our veterans is impossible to measure and represents a debt that can never fully be repaid, it is vital that Americans do what we can to protect the benefits and services our nation’s veterans have earned. 

Extending opportunities to entrepreneurial veterans who have suffered service-related disabilities is one way our nation honors their extraordinary service. The Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (“SDVOSB”) procurement program was established in 2003 as an extension of the federal government’s policy to maximize procurement opportunities for small businesses. The program provides opportunities for SDVOSBs by establishing a goal that at least 3 percent of all federal contracting dollars be awarded to service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses each year.

Three percent of federal contracting dollars may seem like a small amount—but the reality is this program represents billions of dollars in opportunity for our nation’s veterans. Unfortunately, over the years, this program has become a lucrative target for fraud and abuse. In fact, in a sobering December 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office focused on contracting fraud with the Department of Defense, one of the most rampant forms of abuse documented relates to contractors falsely claiming eligibility for contracts set aside for small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans. 

Schemes in which well-resourced, large companies either create fraudulent SDVOSBs or manipulate existing SDVOSBs to capture federal set-aside contracts for themselves are on the rise. These schemes are robbing our nation’s veterans of opportunities that they earned through their service. This is why it is critical that we understand the rules involving contracts set aside for SDVOSBs, as well as how to identify SDVOSB fraud.

First, let us look at the rules of SDVOSB procurement. In order to be eligible for a set-aside or sole-source SDVOSB contract with the federal government, a firm must meet four criteria. First, the firm must be a small business. Second, the company must be at least 51-percent owned by one or more service-disabled veterans. Third, a service-disabled veteran must hold the highest position in the company—such as the role of CEO—and be responsible for the day-to-day operation of the firm. And finally, the eligible veterans must have a service-connected disability.

It’s also worth noting that while SDVOSBs can join forces with large companies to bid on government contracts, to qualify for an SDVOSB set-aside opportunity, at least 51 percent of the net profits earned by the joint venture must be distributed to the SDVOSB and the SDVOSB needs to play the lead role as project manager on the project.

Even though these rules should be easy to understand and follow, the lure of securing set-aside government contracts worth billions of dollars is too much for some large business owners to resist, often leading some to commit fraud by creating small businesses to serve as a “pass through” entity to illegally win SDVOSB set-aside contracts. For example, the Virginia-based defense contractor ADS, Inc. and Luke Hillier, ADS’s former Chief Executive Officer, collectively agreed to pay the United States nearly $37 million to settle allegations that they violated the False Claims Act by fraudulently obtaining federal set-aside contracts reserved for small businesses that ADS was ineligible to receive. Specifically, ADS settled allegations that it had established a “pass through” small business named MJL Enterprises led by a former ADS employee who happened to be a service-disabled veteran. The lawsuit further alleged that ADS managed MJL’s day-to-day operations and supplied the necessary logistical services to allow MJL to perform under its SDVOSB set-aside contracts. In turn, MJL brought in more than $70 million in small business set-aside government contracts that ADS otherwise would not have been eligible to receive.

In the case of ADS, the punishment for allegedly using a fraudulent SDVOSB was severe. Hillier’s settlement of $20 million is among the largest secured against an individual in the history of the FCA. In addition to the $20 million settlement announced by the DOJ in August 2019, the firm also paid the U.S. government a settlement of $16 million in 2017 related to the same conduct.

So, what can be done about the issue? The GAO report underscores that the Defense Department should be doing more to verify who actually owns and manages the companies that supply the agency with goods and services. That sounds great, but the reality is the complex system that includes thousands of vendor companies and hundreds of thousands of contracts and subcontracts makes this kind of additional oversight a herculean task.

Another solution is to encourage those with insider knowledge of potential SDVOSB fraud to come forward as whistleblowers. Whistleblowers with direct knowledge about the ownership and management structure of these organizations are uniquely positioned to shine a light on fraudulent schemes that may otherwise never be uncovered.”

https://washingtontechnology.com/articles/2020/03/03/insight-miller-disabled-vet.aspx

Increased Veteran Banking Options Under VA/AMBA Partnership

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Image: https://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/70643/announcing-veterans-benefits-banking-program/

MILITARY TIMES

Some veterans may have better access to banking now, through a partnership between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Association of Military Banks of America.

It’s especially beneficial for those who haven’t been able to open bank accounts in the past, which hampers their ability to get their VA benefit funds by direct deposit.

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“The VA delivers about $118 billion each year in benefits and services for veterans and their families. About 250,000 veterans and beneficiaries receive their benefits through a pre-paid debit card or paper check, and may not have a bank account.

An added plus is that these banks are already familiar with the financial needs and challenges of service members, and can also support veterans with financial education and resources tailored to their needs, said Paul Lawrence, under secretary for benefits for the VA. Some of the participating banks have branches on bases, but they also have a large number of branches outside the gate, which will be accessible to veterans, said Andia Dinesen, vice president of communications and operations for AMBA.

There are currently seven banks participating in the Veterans Benefits Banking Program: Armed Forces Bank; Bank of America; First Arkansas Bank and Trust; Fort Hood National Bank; FSNB; Regions; and Wells Fargo. Dinesen said other banks and credit unions are welcome to join the effort, too.”

For more information, visit https://www.benefits.va.gov/benefits/banking.asp.

https://www.militarytimes.com/pay-benefits/2020/02/17/veterans-get-more-banking-options-under-new-va-partnership/

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Is Treatable

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San Diego artists stop to appreciate one of the paintings featured in the Combat Arts exhibit in the Southwestern University art gallery, featuring art by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with post-traumatic stress. (Sgt. Ken Scar/Army)

MILITARY TIMES

“Warrior Care Network Academic Medical Center (AMC) partners at Emory University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Rush University, and UCLA Health use tailored combinations of evidence-based, complementary, and alternative therapies.

Veterans who are struggling to do a brave thing — seek care because PTSD is treatable and treatment works.”

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“A recent study conducted by researchers at the New York University and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has led many to believe the leading evidence-based psychotherapies for post-traumatic stress disorder do not work for up to two-thirds of patients.

Our findings at Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) show very different results for veterans participating in our two- and three-week intensive outpatient programs (IOP) provided by our Warrior Care Network Academic Medical Center (AMC) partners at Emory University, Massachusetts General Hospital, Rush University, and UCLA Health. They all use tailored combinations of evidence-based, complementary, and alternative therapies within their IOP.

Under our IOP, veterans receive upwards of 70 hours of direct clinical care — more than a year’s worth of traditional therapy.

For the almost 2,000 veterans who have completed IOP with the Warrior Care Network, the results are extremely promising.

Veterans completing IOP show a clinically significant reduction in PTSD symptoms (measured using the PCL-5), and these lower levels are relatively sustained 12 months following treatment.

This decreased symptomology tends to result in increased functioning — empowering veterans to more actively engage in life.

Remarkably, our IOP program has a greater than 90 percent completion rate — double the national average. We believe this is due to a variety of factors including the condensed time period (two to three weeks), our cohort model where small groups of veterans start the program together and graduate together, and the inclusion of evidence-based therapies with alternative and complimentary therapies.

While we appreciate the discussion generated by the JAMA article on the challenges of delivering mental health care and the need for future research and better treatment models, we are concerned about the researchers’ approach of collapsing veterans’ results within active-duty military and civilian results due to wide variations in cultural characteristics and treatment goals and methods.

While mental health care challenges are a global issue, it is important to remember that the military is a collectivist culture that places the group and mission over the needs of the individual. This dynamic, combined with the potential for increased and prolonged exposure to traumatic events, may increase service members’ risk for specific mental health challenges.

These cultural differences are compounded when military members leave active duty following inadequate transition assistance support programs and begin assimilating back into civilian culture. Many veterans may feel isolated during this period and struggle with their mental health as they attempt to find their new cultural identities and reengage in civilian life.

Even within the military community, treatment goals, results, and completion rates differ between the active-duty and veteran populations and the broader civilian population.

Our outcomes and results treating veterans seems to outpace other methods in clinical reduction of depression and PTSD, overall completion rates, and patient satisfaction scores.

Differences between active-duty service members and veterans may be driven by desired outcomes. For instance, active-duty members may be more interested in managing symptoms of PTSD so they can continue their careers effectively. Whereas, veterans may tend to be more interested in symptom reduction, thereby increasing functionality, and reducing the impact on their families.

Countless articles and studies in the multicultural psychology field have warned against comparing minority, veterans in this case, with majority groups, such as civilians, as results may serve to further normalize the majority group culture.

Comparing military and veteran to civilian results may only further highlight the differences in the smaller military population when compared with the larger U.S. population.

There exists a large body of research that indicates that evidence-based treatment does work, however the effect tends to vary at the individual level.

To better determine which therapies work best for individuals, WWP invested in and is promoting research into biomarkers for PTSD.

With better understanding of these biomarkers, medical experts will be better able to tailor current therapies to individual patients and develop new models of care.

Until we gain a better understanding of individual differences in reacting to and recovering from trauma, we advocate for combining evidence-based therapies with complementary and alternative methods in an intensive outpatient format.

In conclusion, we welcome and support the need for further dialogue, discussion, research and innovation in the field of PTSD treatment, but suggest caution in how findings are disseminated and interpreted.

It falls on researchers and community partners to ensure that the dissemination of results provide both realistic expectations of treatment and refrain from creating additional barriers to care.

Most importantly, we strongly urge veterans who are struggling to do a brave thing — seek care because PTSD is treatable and treatment works.

https://www.militarytimes.com/opinion/commentary/2020/02/14/wounded-warrior-project-ptsd-is-treatable-and-treatment-works/

The Danger of Fibbing Our Way Into War

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“THE PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT (POGO)

Presidents seem to have an especially troublesome time with the truth when it comes to showing toughness……U.S. military response to an imaginary attack in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam in 1964.

……. Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction to justify his 2003 invasion of Iraq. …the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani shortly after the general landed at the Baghdad airport in neighboring Iraq on January 3.

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“Many recall Winston Churchill’s statement on the need to sometimes fudge facts. “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies,” he told Josef Stalin on the British prime minister’s 69th birthday in 1943.

What folks may not know is where he uttered those words: Iran.

Presidential rhetoric matters. And love him or loathe him, President Donald Trump isn’t bosom buddies with the truth. In today’s political environment, a lot of what used to be viewed as disqualifying for a president to say has been upended by our 45th. But one bright shining line should remain: The words he speaks as commander-in-chief should be true.

Trump’s boasting has highlighted a novice’s emphasis on weapons—shiny hardware—rather than on “software”—the troops and the training that are arguably more important.

The lives of Americans in uniform are too precious, and the nation’s credibility too important, to be frittered away by a president playing loose with the truth in a pursuit of political advantage or simply out of ignorance. Yet that is what is happening, and nowhere is that more clear than in the recent fracas with Iran.

Presidents seem to have an especially troublesome time with the truth when it comes to showing toughness. President Lyndon B. Johnson played loose with it when he pushed for a U.S. military response to an imaginary attack in the Gulf of Tonkin off Vietnam in 1964. President George W. Bush exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction to justify his 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Trump fired a fusillade of fibs in the wake of his decision to order the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani shortly after the general landed at the Baghdad airport in neighboring Iraq on January 3. He seemed to exaggerate the imminence of the threat Soleimani posed (the U.S. had put him on a kill list last June), and declared the Iranian general had been ready to attack four unidentified U.S. embassies. There’s no doubt that Soleimani was a bad actor, with his Quds force responsible for sowing terror across the Middle East and for killing Americans. There’s no doubt that the region, and the world, is better off without him. But Trump’s faux facts surrounding the killing are dangerous because they could let Washington and Tehran stumble into a war. There’s a reason President Teddy Roosevelt said that it’s best to speak softly and carry a big stick.”

After nearly 20 years of winless wars following 9/11, and a Pentagon budget that is well above the Cold War average, U.S. national security spending has never been a more target-rich environment. That is why the Project On Government Oversight’s Center for Defense Information has launched The Bunker, a precision-guided e-newsletter targeting your inbox most every week.Sign Up

Churchillian lies only work when they are salted among truths. But Trump’s fabrications are more routine than rare. According to the Washington Post, Trump has made more than 16,000 false or misleading statements since taking office. That’s an average of about 15 a day, seven days a week.

Make no mistake about it, Soleimani’s death was a good thing. I well remember the pain felt by U.S. troops following their invasion of Iraq when insurgents’ crude roadside bombs were replaced with so-called “explosively formed penetrators” developed by Iran that pierced armor and killed the soldiers inside. But baiting a terrorist, or his sponsor, carries its own risk. Most critically, it means that if the terrorist—and Soleimani was a terrorist in Iranian government garb—calls Trump’s bluff, Trump will be forced to back up his bluster with young American blood.

In an apparent effort to discourage Iran from taking action after Soleimani’s death, Trump warned that the U.S. was primed to retaliate bigly if Iran retaliated. “The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World!” Trump tweeted January 5, two days after a pair of Hellfire missiles took Soleimani out. “If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way … and without hesitation!” But his spending estimate was a five-fold whopper. The Trump administration has spent “only” about $400 billion on new military hardware (the rest has paid for more boring items like troops, training, beans, and boots).

Even when he’s plainly wrong, the president dodges. After Iran responded to Soleimani’s death with a January 8 missile barrage aimed at U.S. bases in Iraq, the president declared that “no Americans were harmed.” It turns out, there were delayed diagnoses in at least 64 U.S. military personnel of traumatic brain injuries resulting from the missiles’ warheads that had detonated nearby. Instead of acknowledging those injuries, the president minimized TBIs—the signature, and invisible, wound suffered by U.S. troops in the post-9/11 wars—as “headaches.” His comments triggered ire from veterans and veterans’ organizations trying to help the nearly half-million U.S. troops diagnosed with brain injuries since 2000.

(Source: @realDonaldTrump on Twitter)

As U.S. skepticism surrounding the wisdom of the Soleimani hit mounted, Trump hyped the imminent threat the Iranian general posed to U.S. facilities and personnel. “I can reveal I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies,” he told Fox News January 10, in a double-weasel-worded bank shot. Unfortunately, reporting has shown no one else—not the U.S. diplomats in any embassies nor Secretary of Defense Mark Esper—was aware of the plot.

It contributed to a sense of chaos inside the U.S. government as everyone from cabinet officers to junior military officers struggled to retroactively jury-rig explanations for the verbal hand grenades the commander-in-chief was tossing their way. His enablers in government pivoted to praising the U.S. intelligence about Soleimani in general, and not the harder-edged claims about timing and targets.

(Source: @realDonaldTrump on Twitter)

The president’s claim quickly foundered on the facts. On January 13, three days after making it, Trump dismissed it all as a kerfuffle ginned up by “the Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners.” After all, “it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!” he tweeted in reference to Soleimani.

It was as if Emily Litella of 1970s-era Saturday Night Live fame were sitting behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, looking straight into the camera. “Never mind,” Litella, played by Gilda Radner, would chirpily say after screwing up something markedly less important than war and peace.

No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, this kind of thing matters. U.S. relations with nations in the Middle East have suffered following its 2003 invasion of Iraq. And with scant credibility at home or abroad, Trump has no reservoir of truth to draw on to reassure the American public and nervous allies that he has anything more than a wing-it strategy.

Trump’s boasting has highlighted a novice’s emphasis on weapons—shiny hardware—rather than on “software”—the troops and the training that are arguably more important. “The quality of military personnel is what matters most in any military force,” the Army said in a 1991 report in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, the last time the U.S. military could claim a clear-cut victory. “Weapons are useless unless deployed in the hands of capable and well-trained people.”

On Christmas Eve, during the traditional presidential telephone calls to troops far from home, Trump told an Air Force officer that “you didn’t have brand new airplanes” until Trump occupied the White House. “You were not doing well,” he said, “And now you have all brand new.”

(Source: Congressional Budget Office, “The Cost of Replacing the Department of Defense’s Current Aviation Fleet,” page 2.)

Well, not quite. “The Army’s and the Department of the Navy’s aviation fleets are relatively new, but the Air Force operates many older aircraft,” the Congressional Budget Office noted in a January 15 report. “On average, the Army’s aircraft are 14 years old, and the Department of the Navy’s are 16 years old; the Air Force’s aircraft, on average, are 28 years old.”

The Air Force Times, an independent newspaper, reported last summer that the readiness of Air Force aircraft slipped to its lowest level in at least six years in 2018. In 2012—midway through Barack Obama’s tenure as president—77.9%of aircraft were ready to fly. By 2017—Trump’s first year in office—that figure had fallen to 71.3%. And in 2018 it had dipped to 69.97%. And fraying readiness has led to a spate of deadly military accidents.

What’s really depressing about Trump’s arms-length relationship with the truth is that he turbocharges the military-industrial complex’s self-licking ice-cream cone reflex. In the wake of Soleimani’s death, calls arose for boosting defense spending, which already tops the Cold War average. Hawkish cheerleaders for military action were echoing that line to their cable TV audiences, without revealing their lucrative alliances with defense contractors.

The illusion in all this chest-thumping and wallet-pumping is that money can buy victory. But the hubris wrought by fat military budgets has too often let the U.S. sleepwalk into war. The nation believes what the politicians and generals say, and what defense-contractor brochures declare (for example, per Trump: “We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World!”).

That’s especially the case when Congress fails to meet its obligation to debate, and vote on, the wisdom of declaring war. Restoring that constitutional duty would do two things: we’d go to war far less and we’d prevail far more. Too often, war has become a White House reflex, with Congress and the public serving as not-so-innocent bystanders. Yet the nation tends to become numb to such conflicts after a month or two, in part because its advice was never sought. That lets the Pentagon wage war so long as U.S. casualties are minimal.

What’s amazing about Trump’s Iran over-reaching is that it wasn’t necessary, given Soleimani’s key role in killing hundreds of U.S. troops. But instead of sticking to facts, the president chose fiction.

It was just such slippery language that greased the skids to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, based on the false claim that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

We need to take care that Trump’s all-too-real weapons of mass delusion don’t trigger another one.

Center for Defense Information

The Center for Defense Information at POGO aims to secure far more effective and ethical military forces at significantly lower cost.”

https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2020/01/the-danger-of-fibbing-our-way-into-war/

VA Developing Cyber Careers Program Filling Gaps In Workforce

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Image: Purdue University Global

“FEDSCOOP”

The Cyber Workforce Management (CWM) plans to identify work roles across every single position within VA and its IT office and establish qualification requirements for each role that all of government can use..”

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“The Department of Veterans Affairs is developing a cybersecurity career program to fill gaps in the NICE Cybersecurity Workforce Framework.

VA’s Office of Information Security stood up a Cyber Workforce Management (CWM) program across the broader Office of Information and Technology (OIT), which determined existing NICE Framework roles didn’t meet all of VA’s mission needs. The NICE framework, developed by the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, prescribes knowledge, skills, abilities and tasks (KSATs) to work roles like a cyber defense analyst.

“There are gaps in the framework. Medical is not in there, med cyber — jack of all trades, master of medical devices,” Stephanie Keith, CWM program manager, said during a panel discussion at the 2020 Health IT Summit. “But where are the cybersecurity aspects of that? At VA we’re looking at how we develop what that work role looks like.”

“I’m not about unique requirements for an agency,” Keith said. “I’m about federal national standards.”

CWM is also standing up a cyber training academy pilot to teach employees baseline skills associated with the work roles. Baseline skills for, say, a cyber defense analyst should be the same at every agency so they’re portable, Keith said.

Training for new work roles covering positions like healthcare technology managers and informaticists should happen at the device level, not the network level, she added.

VA employees further removed from technical positions still require cyber training as well in areas like early detection and zero trust, said Paul Cunningham, chief information security officer at VA.

“We’re never going to get medical teams to be primarily cybersecurity. It’s not their mission; we shouldn’t expect it,” Cunningham said. “But we should make it very easy for them to help us as first-line defenders recognize when things are not operating correctly.”

Free Military Tax Help – Check Out These Other Helpful Tax Tips

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The Defense Department has tax centers available at many installations for active-duty service members, dependents and retirees. (Ida Irby/Marine Corps)

MILITARY TIMES

“As of today, you can download free tax preparation software, provided through the Defense Department’s Military OneSource MilTax program for service members and spouses.

It’s also available to those who leave the service for one year after separation or retirement.

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“When it comes to taxes, one of the most important things military members and spouses should remember is that there’s free, professional help available through the military. And as of today, free tax assistance has already begun.

The Internal Revenue Service will start accepting and processing tax returns on Jan. 27.

For the single service member with even the most basic tax return, that could mean a savings of around $150, which includes the estimated cost of the federal tax software as well as costs for state tax software. MilTax provides the software to file federal and up to three state tax returns for free. The savings rack up as the tax returns get more complicated. Each year about 200,000 military families file their taxes for free through MilTax.

Through the MilTax program, you can also get free tax help from tax consultants trained on the unique tax situations specific to service members and their families. One of the top reasons that service members and spouses come to these tax consultants is for help with multiple state tax returns, said Erika Slaton, associate director of outreach and engagement for DoD Military Community Support Programs. They’re available year-round, but as of today, there are extended hours, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern time.

At many military bases, there are free in-person tax preparation services at military Volunteer Income Tax Assistance locations, through the military legal assistance offices. Check with your nearest installation legal office to find out if and when the services will be offered. The volunteers who provide this service, primarily military members, must go through a rigorous certification process to earn tax-preparation certification from the Internal Revenue Service.

Take advantage of this free, expert help. “The last thing you want is to be down range and get a letter from the IRS that says you owe money,” said Army Lt. Col. Theodore Byrne, executive director of the Armed Forces Tax Council.

Byrne provides some tax reminders for service members and spouses.

* Are you one of the more than 400 military families who received money in 2019 under the new programs for reimbursement for the spouses’ professional re-licensing costs? That money is taxable, Byrne said. The service branches started implementing their reimbursement programs last May and June, for these costs resulting from relocation. One Navy spouse said the Navy has withheld 25 percent in federal taxes from the reimbursement. But unless there’s a law in the future that changes it, the reimbursement is counted as taxable income, Byrne said. Information was not immediately available from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service about whether service members who received the reimbursement will receive separate tax statements, or if it is included in their W2 forms.

*Many service members and spouses aren’t aware of a 2018 law allowing military spouses to choose the service member’s state of residence as their own, regardless of whether the non-military spouse had ever lived there. Byrne said he’s encountered a number of military members who aren’t aware of that change. Check the online information of the state where you’re stationed to determine what you need to do to inform the state of your chosen residence, such as updating the state income tax withholding information with your employer. You’ll need to be able to document why you’re a resident of one state rather than the state where you’re living, Byrne said.

Under the long-standing Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), troops can maintain their legal residence as they are required to move around with the military, which allows them to vote and pay taxes in their state of legal residence, without having to pay taxes in two states. A significant number of troops claim their legal residence in states that have no state income taxes — Florida, Texas, Alaska, Nevada, South Dakota, Washington and Wyoming. Now, military spouses can claim a state based solely on their service member’s state of legal residence. If you make the change now, it’s effective in tax year 2020, going forward.

A provision in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act expands these rights under the 2018 law by allowing spouses to use the same state of residence as their service member for any purpose, to include the registration of a business, regardless of the date of marriage. More and more spouses have started their own businesses, and are moving those businesses with them.

Before you make the decision about your state of residence, consult with the tax consultants at Military OneSource or the tax experts at the nearest installation legal office, Byrne said. This is a decision that must be well researched, on the part of the service member as well as the spouse, in looking at various consequences.

And if you own your own business, check with these tax experts to find out how this expansion of the law to include spouses who own businesses affects how you would file your taxes.

*Avoid common mistakes — such as entering the wrong Social Security number.

*Keep an eye out for tax statements various institutions may be sending you by email. With the barrage of electronic information we get, you might forget you asked your bank to send your tax statement with interest earned by email, Byrne said. The Internal Revenue Service gets that information too, and they’ll match it up…. and find you. It could cost you penalties and interest.

*Start gathering your tax documents now, and keep them in one place as you receive them. Slaton advises. Before you start the process of preparing your taxes, call Military OneSource and talk to a tax consultant about your needs, or check with the installation’s tax center.

*Deadline for filing is April 15. However, if you’re a member of the military serving in a combat zone or a contingency operation, you generally have at least 180 days after you leave that area to file and pay taxes. Again, your tax consultant and military legal experts are well versed in these situations and can provide more information.”

https://www.militarytimes.com/pay-benefits/2020/01/22/free-military-tax-help-starts-today-and-check-out-these-other-helpful-tax-tips/

Vets Housing Vouchers In The Thousands Go Unused

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A program with a proven track record to help homeless veterans is being under-utilized and Congress wants to know why. (Getty Images)

MILITARY TIMES

VA Homeless Program Office acknowledged 14,000 vouchers went unused last year, even though an estimated 38,000 veterans are still considered homeless.

The department has about 650 case management positions currently vacant.  Federal hiring rules coupled with the slow pace of federal contracting rules have made filling the positions and processing more vouchers difficult.

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“Lawmakers want to know why thousands of housing vouchers for destitute veterans are going unused each year despite almost 38,000 potential recipients still living on the street.

The answer, Veterans Affairs officials testified on Tuesday, is a combination of hiring problems within the federal agency and rising rent costs in areas of the country with some of the largest homeless veterans populations.

Outside advocates warned that without solutions to those problems, the national goal of ending homelessness among veterans will remain stalled.

“Every veteran deserves safe and permanent housing,” said Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “We’ve got to pair investments in affordable housing with housing-first initiatives in order to see true success.”

At issue are the Housing and Urban Development/Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, launched in 2008. Over the last 11 years, in coordination with community groups, the program has provided direct housing payments to veterans in an effort to provide a stable living situation, allowing them to more effectively deal with other health and employment issues.

Outside advocates have lauded the vouchers as a key tool in driving down homeless numbers among veterans. The total number of veterans without stable housing nationwide has dropped by half over the last decade, with most of the decrease coming between 2010 and 2016.

As of last fall, more than 90,000 HUD-VASH vouchers were in use.

But Keith Harris, national director of clinical operations in the VA Homeless Program Office, acknowledged at a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday that about 14,000 vouchers went unused last year, even though an estimated 38,000 veterans are still considered homeless.

Part of that problem is a result of paperwork issues. The department has about 650 case management positions currently vacant (about 16 percent of the federal workforce handling the vouchers). He said if the positions were filled, “HUD-VASH could house over 6,000 additional veterans.”

But Harris said the slow pace of federal hiring rules coupled with the slow pace of federal contracting rules have made filling the positions and processing more vouchers difficult.

In addition, Housing and Urban Development officials acknowledged that in some regions across the country, federal calculations for the voucher amounts have not kept pace with local housing costs.

That issue, lawmakers said, needs a faster fix from VA and HUD bureaucrats.

“All over the country, in places like California and Florida, these vouchers aren’t enough,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla. “Part of the reason these vouchers aren’t being used is they aren’t helpful.”

Federal officials promised they are working on both issues, although affordable housing issues will take wider efforts from local communities and real estate firms.

VA and HUD leaders also looking at expanding eligibility criteria for voucher recipients, to give more veterans access to the financial support.

The hearing was held one day after House lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a measure to extend the homelessness vouchers to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges, who are excluded from a host of current VA health and transition benefits.

Harris said the department supports the idea, and estimates as many as 6,000 of the nearly 38,000 homeless veterans spread across the country today could have an other-than-honorable discharge.

The annual point-in-time count for federal homelessness estimates is scheduled for next week, although results from that work won’t be made public until this fall. While veterans homelessness dropped by half over the last decade, the rate among the entire U.S. homeless population decreased by only about 11 percent.

Both lawmakers and VA officials cited that statistic as evidence that their veteran-focused programs are effective. The next step, they said, is making sure they are more efficient and more fully used.

“We have a responsibility to abolish chronic homelessness for veterans, and strengthening the HUD-VASH program is an important first step,” said Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif.”

https://www.militarytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2020/01/14/thousands-of-housing-vouchers-for-veterans-went-unused-last-year-hurting-efforts-to-end-homelessness/