“Former service members exposed to contaminated water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune over a 35-year period can now apply for veterans disability benefits, under a new federal rule finalized Tuesday.
The move is expected to affect as many as 900,000 veterans and cost more than $2 billion over the next five years.
In a statement, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin called the move “a demonstration of our commitment to care for those who have served our nation and have been exposed to harm as a result of that service.”
It comes after years of lawsuits and lobbying by veterans groups who said tens of thousands of troops and their families were exposed to unhealthy levels of contaminants from leaky fuel tanks and other chemical sources while serving at the North Carolina base from the early 1950s to the late 1980s.
In 2012, Congress passed a law providing free medical care for troops and family members who lived at the base and later developed one of 15 illnesses. But that measure did not include the authority to extend VA disability benefits to those veterans.
The new rule will allow that, for veterans who suffer from one of eight diseases that VA officials have said are definitely connected to adult exposure to the water contamination. Those issues are leukemia, aplastic anemia (and other myelodysplastic syndromes), bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Parkinson’s disease.
Labeling the illnesses as presumptive conditions allows veterans to provide only proof of their medical status, and not evidence the conditions are linked to a specific event or exposure.
VA officials will accept applications from any service member who spent at least 30 cumulative days at the base, whether that service was on active-duty, reserve or National Guard status.
Veterans have a year to file the benefits claims, and and if approved will receive payouts from their date of filing. ”
Image: United States Army soldiers transported Iraqi detainees captured during Operation Steel Curtain in 2005.CreditJehad Nga
“THE NEW YORK TIMES” By Phil Klay
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.
I was sent to Iraq in January 2007 with a logistics unit, the sort unlikely to engage in Chontosh-style heroics. We managed the key parts of an army people often forget about: truck drivers, engineers, explosive disposal specialists, postal workers — and, crucially, doctors.
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.”
The agency’s CIO says there’s no clear plan for replacing custom-built systems, two of which are more than 50 years old.
This time, it isn’t a single program bleeding taxpayer dollars that is troubling Congress. Rather, it’s the agency’s aging IT systems, two of which are more than 50 years old, according to testimony from Dave Powner, director of IT management issues for the Government Accountability Office.
The age of some of VA’s oldest systems and its disproportionate spending on legacy technology clearly bothered several members of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
“It appears 86 percent of the money in IT is used for maintaining systems,” said Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who pressed VA Chief Information Officer Rob Thomas about what industry best practices for legacy spending were. Earlier, Powner had revealed that only about $400 million of the over $4 billion VA spends annually on IT is used to research and develop new systems.
Our numbers are out of kilter from industry; we’d like to see 60 percent on maintenance and 40 percent on development,” Thomas said. “Right now, we’re turning at 85 to 90 percent sustainment, and we have to shrink that.”
Thomas told the committee VA stood up a modernization effort last year aiming to decommission old systems, close data centers and attempt to make a dent in the agency’s legacy spending. Thomas said that effort could help lead VA toward a buy-over-build approach to IT, which he himself supports.
“My fear is that I’ve been sitting here eight years, listening to how it will get better, and I realize we have a lot of good, smart people working on this, and it’s obviously not easy,” Roe said. “But there are a lot of COTS products that can do scheduling and billing.”
“That money could have paid for so many other things,” Roe said. “Like 70 entry-level nurses in Johnson, Tennessee.”
VA’s consolidation of data centers is generally behind the rest of government. Despite being the fourth largest IT spender among all agencies, VA has closed only 20 of its 356 data centers, ranking 19th out of the 24 agencies GAO studied.
Powner said VA’s reported data center savings of $15 million since fiscal 2011 are pennies compared to the $2.8 billion other agencies saved collectively over the same period. VA also has yet to meet any metrics established by the Office of Management and Budget. To better keep tabs on progress at VA, Powner recommended the committee call VA personnel to Capitol Hill for quarterly updates. The committee agreed.
“We need to have clear transparency on what progress is being made, and when the goal posts change,” said Powner, referring to schedule slippages that are apt to occur in large software projects.
Thomas said VA has many large IT decisions to make in the near future, beginning as soon as President Donald Trump’s nominee for VA secretary, David Shulkin, is confirmed. Chief will be determining whether VA will transition to a commercial electronic health records system, though when pressed, Thomas said he had no idea how long it might take.
DOD is beginning pilots of its new EHR system, but its $9 billion contract was awarded almost two years ago. Acquisitions of that scale take time, and VA would be reluctant to cut corners given the scrutiny it is under.
Ranking member Tim Walz, D-Minn., said he wouldn’t suffer another decade of health records issues between VA and the Defense Department, and was disappointed to learn—from Powner—there still isn’t a seamless transition of health data for troops who transition to veterans. He called on Congress to demand interoperability between VA and DOD.
“I have to tell you, I cannot talk to a veteran and justify why we’re going to spend countless dollars for two systems that do not communicate and do not improve veterans’ experience,” Walz said. “We need to demand interoperability for one system and be responsible. Ten more years of it, I can’t stand it.”
If VA were to transition to a commercial EHR system, Thomas said the department would not necessarily have to use the same Leidos- and Cerner-developed system the Pentagon uses. Other commercial platforms should be interoperable, he said”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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:
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?”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“America didn’t just lose the war, and the lives of 58,000 young men and women; Vietnam changed us as a country. For many people, it eroded the notion, once nearly universal, that part of being an American was serving your country.
It made us cynical and distrustful of our institutions, especially of government.
In the early spring of 1967, I was in the middle of a heated 2 a.m. hallway discussion with fellow students at Yale about the Vietnam War. I was from a small town in Oregon, and I had already joined the Marine Corps Reserve. My friends were mostly from East Coast prep schools. One said that Lyndon B. Johnson was lying to us about the war. I blurted out, “But … but an American president wouldn’t lie to Americans!” They all burst out laughing.
When I told that story to my children, they all burst out laughing, too. Of course presidents lie. All politicians lie. God, Dad, what planet are you from?
Before the Vietnam War, most Americans were like me. After the Vietnam War, most Americans are like my children.
But not everything about the war was negative. As a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, I saw how it threw together young men from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and forced them to trust one another with their lives. It was a racial crucible that played an enormous, if often unappreciated, role in moving America toward real integration.
And yet even as Vietnam continues to shape our country, its place in our national consciousness is slipping. Some 65 percent of Americans are under 45 and so unable to even remember the war. Meanwhile, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our involvement in Syria, our struggle with terrorism — these conflicts are pushing Vietnam further into the background.
All the more reason, then, for us to revisit the war and its consequences for today. This essay inaugurates a new series by The Times, Vietnam ’67, that will examine how the events of 1967 and early 1968 shaped Vietnam, America and the world. Hopefully, it will generate renewed conversation around that history, now half a century past.
What readers take away from that conversation is another matter. If all we do is debate why we lost, or why we were there at all, we will miss the truly important question: What did the war do to us as Americans?
Vietnam changed the way we looked at politics. We became inured to our leaders lying in the war: the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident, the number of “pacified provinces” (and what did “pacified” mean, anyway?), the inflated body counts.
People talked about Johnson’s “credibility gap.” This was a genteel way of saying that the president was lying. Then, however, a credibility gap was considered unusual and bad. By the end of the war, it was still considered bad, but it was no longer unusual. When politicians lie today, fact checkers might point out what is true, but then everyone moves on.
We have switched from naïveté to cynicism. One could argue that they are opposites, but I think not. With naïveté you risk disillusionment, which is what happened to me and many of my generation. Cynicism, however, stops you before you start. It alienates us from “the government,” a phrase that today connotes bureaucratic quagmire. It threatens democracy, because it destroys the power of the people to even want to make change.
You don’t finish the world’s largest highway system, build huge numbers of public schools and universities, institute the Great Society, fight a major war, and go to the moon, which we did in the 1960s — simultaneously — if you’re cynical about government and politicians.
I live near Seattle, hardly Donald J. Trump territory. Most of my friends cynically deride Mr. Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again, citing all that was wrong in the olden days. Indeed, it wasn’t paradise, particularly for minorities. But there’s some truth to it. We were greater then. It was the war — not liberalism, not immigration, not globalization — that changed us.
In December 1968, I was on a blasted and remote jungle hilltop about a kilometer from the demilitarized zone. A chopper dropped off about three weeks of sodden mail and crumpled care packages. In that pile was a package for Ray Delgado, an 18-year-old Hispanic kid from Texas. I watched Ray tear into the aluminum foil wrapping and, smiling broadly, hold something up for me to see.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s tamales. From my mother.”
“What are tamales?”
“You want to try one?” he asked.
“Sure.” I looked at it, turned it over, then stuck it in my mouth and started chewing. Ray and his other Hispanic friends were barely containing themselves as I was gamely chewing away and thinking, “No wonder these Mexicans have such great teeth.”
“Lieutenant,” Ray finally said. “You take the corn husk off.”
I was from a logging town on the Oregon coast. I’d heard of tamales, but I’d never seen one. Until I joined my company of Marines in Vietnam, I’d never even talked to a Mexican. Yes, people like me called people like Ray “Mexicans,” even though they were as American as apple pie — and tamales. Racial tension where I grew up was the Swedes and Norwegians squaring off against the Finns every Saturday night in the parking lot outside the dance at the Labor Temple.
President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the military in 1948. By the time of the Vietnam War, the races were serving together. But putting everyone in the same units is very different than having them work together as a unit.
Our national memory of integration is mostly about the brave people of the civil rights movement. Imagine arming all those high school students from Birmingham, Ala. — white and black — with automatic weapons in an environment where using these weapons was as common as having lunch and they are all jacked up on testosterone. That’s racial tension.
During the war there were over 200 fraggings in the American military — murders carried out by fragmentation grenades, which made it impossible to identify the killer. Almost all fraggings, at least when the perpetrator was caught, were found to be racially motivated.
And yet the more common experience in combat was cooperation and respect. If I was pinned down by enemy fire and I needed an M-79 man, I’d scream for Thompson, because he was the best. I didn’t even think about what color Thompson was.
White guys had to listen to soul music and black guys had to listen to country music. We didn’t fear one another. And the experience stuck with us. Hundreds of thousands of young men came home from Vietnam with different ideas about race — some for the worse, but most for the better. Racism wasn’t solved in Vietnam, but I believe it was where our country finally learned that it just might be possible for us all to get along.
I was at a reading recently in Fayetteville, N.C., when a young couple appeared at the signing table. He was standing straight and tall in Army fatigues. She was holding a baby in one arm and hauling a toddler with the other. They both looked to be about two years out of high school. The woman started to cry. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, “My husband is shipping out again, tomorrow.” I turned to him and said, “Wow, your second tour?”
“No, sir,” he replied. “My seventh.”
My heart sank. Is this a republic?
The author and veteran Karl Marlantes discusses the legacy of the Vietnam War in a clip from “The Vietnam War,” a 10-part documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that will air on PBS in September.Video by PBS
The Vietnam War ushered in the end of the draft, and the creation of what the Pentagon calls the “all-volunteer military.” But I don’t. I call it the all-recruited military. Volunteers are people who rush down to the post office to sign up after Pearl Harbor or the World Trade Center gets bombed. Recruits, well, it’s more complicated.
When I was growing up, almost every friend’s father or uncle had served in World War II. All the women in town knew that a destroyer was smaller than a cruiser and a platoon was smaller than a company, because their husbands had all been on destroyers or in platoons. Back then it was called “the service.” Today, we call it “the military.”
That shift in language indicates a profound shift in the attitudes of the republic toward its armed forces. The draft was unfair. Only males got drafted. And men who could afford to go to college did not get drafted until late in the war, when the fighting had fallen off.
But getting rid of the draft did not solve unfairness.
America’s elites have mostly dropped out of military service. Engraved on the walls of Woolsey Hall at Yale are the names of hundreds of Yalies who died in World Wars I and II. I counted three who died in Vietnam and none since.
Instead, the American working class has increasingly borne the burden of death and casualties since World War II. In a study in The University of Memphis Law Review, Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen looked at the income casualty gap, the difference between the median household incomes (in constant 2000 dollars) of communities with the highest casualties (the top 25 percent) and all the other communities. Starting from almost dead-even in World War II, the casualty gap was $5,000 in the Korean War, $8,200 in the Vietnam War, and is now more than $11,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Put another way, the lowest three income deciles have suffered 50 percent more casualties than the highest three.
If these inequities continue to grow, resentment will grow with it. With growing resentment, the already wide divide between the military and civilians will also widen. This is how republics fall, with armies and parts of the country more loyal to their commander than their country.
We need to return to the spirit of the military draft, and how people felt about service to their country. The military draft was viewed by most of us the same way we view income tax. I wouldn’t pay my taxes if there wasn’t the threat of jail. But as a responsible citizen, I also see that paying taxes is necessary to fund the government — my government.
People would still grumble. We grumble about taxes. People would still try to pull strings to get more pleasant assignments. But everyone would serve. They’d work for “the government,” and maybe start to see it as “our government.” It’s a lot harder to be cynical about your country if you devoted two years of your life making it a better place.
Let the armed services be just one of many ways young people can serve their country. With universal service, some boy from Seattle could find himself sharing a tamale with some Hispanic girl from El Paso. Conservatives and liberals would learn to work together for a common cause. We could return to the spirit of people of different races learning to work together in combat during the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War continues to define us, even if we have forgotten how. But it’s not too late to remember, and to do something about it.”
“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.”
“Scholarships for Service” is tailored specifically to search for scholarships that are available to those in the military community.
The tool can help those with any affiliation – active- or reserve-component members, veterans, retired military personnel and military family members.
There are more than 3,000 scholarships available to those with various affiliations in the military community, offered from organizations ranging from the military relief societies to associations for Seabees and 82nd Airborne Division troops, to name just a few.
The Fisher House Foundation has helped provide scholarships to military children and spouses for 17 years, and recognized through that work the need to help families search further, according to the group’s CEO, Ken Fisher, in a statement announcing the new tool.
Because of this involvement, he said, “we routinely received calls asking if we knew of any other financial resources available to help service members, veterans, and their families with college funding. We did the best we could to pass on information about other scholarship programs, but we came to recognize that we were only scratching the surface and needed to do more.”
Unlike other scholarship search tools, Scholarships for Service is tailored specifically to search for scholarships that are available to those in the military community.
“We get questions about scholarships all the time,” said Brian Gawne, a retired Navy captain who is vice president of community relations for Fisher House Foundation.
Fisher House Foundation developed Scholarships for Service search tool with AdmitHub, which specializes in college application support, scholarship search assistance, and enrollment advising. Plans call for refining the tool as more users try it out, Gawne said; programmers already have added additional organizations, offering newer scholarships, to the database.
Students or students-to-be enter brief background information and education goals, and the tool will quickly identify potential military-affiliated scholarships. With each offering comes a summary of eligibility requirements, points of contact and links to the scholarship provider’s website. Students can have a PDF file of the results emailed to them.
Neither Fisher House Foundation nor AdmitHub collects any data from the site, Gawne said.
“You don’t have to register, we don’t collect information. We just wanted a pure service,” he said. “There won’t be any emails afterwards, because we don’t sell anything to marketing agencies. … If nothing else, it gives a sense of how many scholarships there are out there.”