Category Archives: Wounded Warriors

The Rewards of Mentoring – Helping Success Stories Like “Thunder Road”

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It was a pleasure to assist with the business plan for “Thunder Road” seven years ago.

Today it is a vital, growing organization, serving veterans, the disabled and a tri-state community out of Decorah, Iowa.

Photo:  Michelle McLain-Kruse at “Thunder Road”

Thunder Road

PLEASE ENJOY THE VIDEO BELOW

http://www.thunderrode.org/

 

Driving School Scammed VA out of $4M in Vet Tuition

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“FEDERAL TIMES”

“Alliance School of Trucking enrolled veterans to attend the school and instructed them to claim tuition and fees funding from the VA through the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

[They] then told the veterans they wouldn’t have to attend the classes, but could still collect housing and books fees supplied by the VA, while tuition payments were disbursed directly to the school.

According to an April 6 federal indictment, Alliance School of Trucking owner Emmit Marshall, 50, of Woodland Hills, and the school’s director, Robert Waggoner, 54  created student files with fake documents and submitted bogus enrollment certifications, netting the school $2.35 million in tuition fees and another $1.96 million in education benfits — like housing and, in some cases, books — paid to veterans from 2011 to 2015.

“The VA offers generous benefits to veterans who have put their lives on the line to safeguard America,” said acting U.S. Attorney Sandra R. Brown in a statement. “Fraud schemes, particularly those involving schooling for veterans, compromise the system designed to help veterans after they complete their service. Taxpayers who fund these programs also suffer when benefit programs are subject to waste, abuse and fraud.”

Agents with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General arrested Waggoner on April 13 and Miller was scheduled to turn himself in on April 18.

The pair is expected to be arraigned in U.S. District Court for the District of Central California on a nine-count indictment of wire fraud. If convicted, Miller and Waggoner could face a maximum 20-year sentence in federal prison for each count.”

http://www.federaltimes.com/articles/truck-driving-school-owner-arrested-for-scamming-va-out-of-4m-in-vet-tuition-truck-driving-school-owner-arrested-for-scamming-va-out-of-4m-in-vet-tuition-truck-driving-school-owner-arrested-for-scamming-va-out-of-4m-in-vet-tuition

 

National Service Narrows Military-Civilian Divide

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Basic Training Photo Credit: Spc. Emily R. Martin/Army

“AIR FORCE TIMES”
“Since 1974, America has depended on an all-volunteer military for our national defense.
Even in the face of 15 years of war (and counting), the all-volunteer force has proven to be sustainable at the present levels with relatively little adjustment to its selection criteria.
Overall, this force has performed magnificently, in many cases exceeding the expectations of the original architects and surprising many of the naysayers.
While this is good news, especially for those who abhor a draft, it has not been without unintended consequences.

Our nation today faces a growing military-civilian divide, both cultural and societal. Less than one-half of one percent of Americans currently serve in uniform, while the 99-plus percent realize the benefit while bearing none of the burden. Not only do most American families have no one in the military, most do not even know someone who is now serving. This is especially true within the higher economic strata, to include the majority of our nation’s lawmakers.

As a result, most Americans know little or nothing about what life is like for our military families who serve and sacrifice on our behalf. This does not make for a healthy society.

One ray of hope to offset this divide has been a growing interest in national service in a civilian capacity as a way to get more Americans involved. Only about one in four young Americans can even meet the requirements for military service, which makes non-military service options even more important.

While there is much to be said for requiring all young people to serve a year or more in some capacity of national service, that is simply a non-starter in today’s environment. It turns out, however, that a purely voluntary program is already enormously successful.

In fact, demand for very poorly paid national service positions, such as those supported by AmeriCorps, exceeds the availability of these positions many times over. There is an increasing thirst among our nation’s 18- to 24-year-old population to get involved in something bigger than themselves, and, yes, altruistically to “make a difference” in this world.

National service in a civilian capacity still requires a degree of sacrifice on the part of its participants, including financial deprivation and what we might call the “opportunity cost” of a year or more of their lives. The benefits, however, far outweigh these costs, and that’s one reason the demand is so high.

One need look no further than the “greatest generation” and what they subsequently achieved for themselves and for the nation as a direct result of their having served in World War II.

Of course, these veterans, as today’s, were “battle hardened,” which is not likely to be the case for those engaging in civilian national service.

The real benefit to those who served came in the form of maturity, self-discipline, management and leadership experience, and the camaraderie that derived from shared experience, especially with teammates of diverse backgrounds to which they might never have otherwise been exposed.

The thousands of businesses who have been hiring our current generation of veterans have quickly discovered it is not an act of charity, rather it’s the smartest thing that they could be doing for their enterprises. The same can be said for those who hire young Americans coming out of a year or more of national service.

The benefits of national service are legion. What makes the case more compelling is that, by doing their share, these young men and women are actually helping to bridge the military-civilian divide and adding to the moral fiber of our communities and our nation.

We’re stronger as a nation because so many of our young men and women selflessly serve, whether in uniform or in a civilian capacity. Both contribute to “providing for the common defense.”

The recently released federal budget proposal, however, would wipe out this critical element of our national strength by zeroing out both AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National and Community Service, the little-known federal agency that runs national service programs, including AmeriCorps and Senior Corps.

This proposal ignores the enormous return on investment that these very small budget lines represent, especially in comparison to the defense budget, which these programs actually complement.

This would be a tragic outcome for both the nation and those individuals in national service.

There is nothing partisan about national service, which for over eight decades has enjoyed bipartisan support at all levels of government. The Kennedy-Hatch Serve America Act of 2009 came about following the 2008 election campaign during which both John McCain and Barack Obama gave their enthusiastic endorsement of national service.

The subsequent passage of that legislation significantly increased the number of AmeriCorps positions available for young Americans to serve their country. We must not lose this momentum.

The signatories to this piece have all proudly served our country in uniform. We strongly believe that a national civilian service program is a vital component of our strength as a nation. We urge the administration to rethink this small, but critical, budget item, and we urge our congressional representatives to ensure that both the AmeriCorps program and the Corporation for National and Community Service are fully funded.
Air Force Gen. John A. Shaud (ret.)
Army Gen. William G. T. Tuttle (ret.)
Salisbury is chairman of the Critical Issues RoundTable, an informal non-partisan group of retired senior military leaders who meet regularly in Washington to discuss contemporary issues of national importance. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Military Times or its staff.
Co-signers:
Army Lt. Gen. Henry J. Hatch (ret.)
Navy Rear Adm. Cameron Fraser (ret.)
Navy Rear Adm. David T. Hart Jr. (ret.)
Army Maj. Gen. Leo M. Childs (ret.)
Army Brig. Gen. Clarke M. Brintnall (ret.)
Army Brig. Gen. Gerald E. Galloway (ret.)
Air Force Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Hemingway (ret.)
Air Force Reserve Brig. Gen. John A. Hurley (ret.)
Army Brig. Gen. Richard L. Reynard (ret.)
Army Brig. Gen. Anthony A. Smith (ret.)
G. Kim Wincup
Army Col. Charles B. Giasson (ret.)
Army Reserve Col. Herman E. Bulls
Army Col. George W. Sibert (ret.)
Army Col. John P. Walsh Jr. (ret.)
Army Col. Francis A. Waskowicz (ret.)
Army Lt. Col. William T. Marriott III (ret.)
Army Lt. Col. Palmer McGrew (ret.)
Army Capt. Douglas A. Cohn (ret.)
Army Capt. Joan S. Grey (ret.)
Glen L. Archer III
Jan C. Scruggs”

New Website Competes VA Hospitals

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VA Competiton

Image:  “Cartoon Stock”

“MILITARY TIMES”

“WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs wants its medical centers to compete over patients, and they’re launching a new online tool to make comparison shopping for health care easier.

The new “access to care” site, launched Wednesday but expected to be refined significantly over the next few weeks, will allow veterans to see how regional VA health centers stack up against each other on wait times, available services and customer satisfaction.

Poonam Alaigh, acting under secretary for health at the department, said the goal is to both increase transparency over the state of VA health services and provide veterans a way to better customize their own care.

Would-be patients willing to travel significant distances can find regional offices with shorter average wait times for primary and specialty care than nearby facilities. Individuals in metro areas can choose between sites based on customer response ratings.

“There’s competition now,” she said. “They’re going to start losing patients if they don’t start watching the patient experience piece.”

The site is the latest step in a three-year response to the 2014 VA wait-times scandal that forced the resignation of several senior department officials, including then VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Hospital administrators were found to have manipulated wait-time data to better meet department standards, and in some cases gain bonuses for facility improvements.

Alaigh dismissed concerns about the new public comparison site creating similar incentives for dishonesty, saying the focus is on accountability and public awareness. And she said unrelated to the site, VA has implemented new data-monitoring algorithms to detect similar manipulation in the future.

But she acknowledged the site will highlight “the good and bad” of current facility performance.

For example, on the site now, visitors can track wait times for new patient primary care appointments for every VA facility in the greater Phoenix area, the center of the 2014 scandal. For the VA clinic in nearby Anthem, Arizona, the average wait is 11 days. For the clinic in Casa Grande south of the city, it’s 56 days.

“I want to use this to help build accountability,” she said. “I don’t want this to be a punitive thing. It also has to be a tool for us to redirect resources to needed areas.”

The site also includes comparisons of standardized health data to other regional, non-VA hospitals, although only a small number of VA sites are currently listed. Alaigh said more will be added in coming weeks.

So will a feedback button for veterans to ask questions about facility offerings and better contact information to help veterans contact medical centers. Alaigh called the site “rushed” and “far from perfect” but said officials wanted to get the available data in veterans hands as quickly as possible.

VA officials for years have promised both better access to medical treatments at department clinics and better customer service throughout the agency, but have received mixed reviews on the work so far from veterans groups and lawmakers.

http://www.militarytimes.com/articles/va-website-medical-care-access-competition

 

 

New Campaign to Highlight Strong Women Vets (VIDEO)

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Women Veterans

Image:  “Military Times”

“MILITARY TIMES”

“Women now total nearly 11 percent of veterans in America, and roughly 20 percent of all veterans under the age of 50.

It [the campaign] features short stories on four women: a former helicopter door gunner and amputee, a refugee-turned-soldier-turned-dentist, an airman who later pursued acting, and a breast cancer survivor who became a physical fitness coach.

The #ShesBadass campaign, launched on the last day of Women’s History Month, includes stories of women veterans discussing their service, post-military life and challenges. The group, whose stated goal is to change public perceptions of veterans in America, released a new online video Friday to spread that message.

“When I tell people I’m a veteran, I kind of get that look: ‘Which country?’” said Tigon Abalos, one of the veterans featured in the video. “I have to say ‘U.S. Army veteran.’”

The campaign comes amid dramatic changes for women service members in recent years, including the opening of all combat jobs to women and the recent nude photo sharing scandal that has highlighted issues of misogyny and harassment in the ranks.

Got Your 6 Director of Content Kate Hoit, an Iraq War veteran, said she hopes the video serves as wake-up call for the public and a resource for her peers.

“My goal was to help defy stereotypes and put a face to a new generation of veterans. And I think we accomplished our goal,” she said.

“So the next time someone says, ‘You were in the military? But you’re so small,’ or ‘you don’t look like a veteran,’ just show them this video. And then tell them to kindly f*** off.”

Lawmakers and veterans groups have lobbied for better Veterans Affairs services in recent years as those numbers have risen, but advocates say the department still needs major changes in aging hospitals and outdated policies to fully embrace the needs of women veterans.

Got Your 6 officials are also hoping that women currently serving and out of the military will use the #ShesBadass hashtag on social media to share their own stories, bringing more public attention to their role in their communities.

Got Your 6’s newest public service campaign wants to remind Americans that military women aren’t just a key part of America’s fighting force.

They’re also badass.”

http://www.militarytimes.com/articles/gy6-campaign-badass-women-veterans

 

Army Vet: “Disgraceful Gun Bill Endangers Veterans”

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(Photo: M. Spencer Green, AP)

“USA TODAY”  By Lindsey Donovan

“Every day, 20 veterans take their lives — not surprisingly, two-thirds of them use a gun.

Yet in the midst of this crisis, our elected officials voted to remove from the background check system nearly 170,000 records of veterans with severe mental illnesses.

These veterans will now be able to purchase and possess firearms, even if they have been determined to be incapable of managing their own affairs.

I am a proud veteran of the Army. The seven Army Values are a part of my moral DNA. Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage are at the heart of who I am today.

These values serve as the backbone to every servicemember who has served or is still serving in our armed forces, and they deserve better than what our federal lawmakers have given them. Instead of protecting our most vulnerable veterans — men and women with severe mental illness — the House recently passed a bill that made it easier for them to get guns.

Our veteran population is facing a devastating suicide crisis

How did we get to a point where the gun lobby’s bottom line means more to our lawmakers than the health and safety of those who have bravely served this country?

This issue hits the raw nerve of individuals who have lost their husbands, wives, children and friends to suicide. For me, it’s personal. Though I am a proud veteran, I am also the proud wife of a U.S. soldier. My husband has completed three combat tours in Iraq and a fourth in Afghanistan. Anyone who has been a witness to what multiple wars and deployments can do to soldiers and their families knows that war is hell. We send them over to do a mission and welcome them back expecting them to go on as usual. But it never works that way. Transitioning back to “normal” is sometimes too much to endure and for some, in the blink of an eye, it can seem like the only way out is through the barrel of a gun.

My own experience is what fuels me to speak out and urge our lawmakers to take a stand against this very dangerous bill. Shortly after my husband’s last deployment, a soldier who served in his unit died by suicide with a gun. It happened a few days after we saw that soldier. The shock I felt was indescribable. And the pain and sorrow I felt for those left behind, I hope to never feel again. To this day I still think about that individual. I don’t so much concentrate on the why, but the how. It was the gun, a deadly means to a tragic end.

In basic training, I was assigned a “battle buddy.” We were each other’s keeper; we had a duty to one another, a bond cemented by a shared experience. I look at my fellow veterans in the same terms, staying true to the Warrior Ethos of “I will always place the mission first, I will never accept defeat, I will never quit and I will never leave a fallen comrade.” Granting access to firearms to veterans who have been deemed mentally incompetent by the Department of Veterans Affairs is not looking out for the men and women who so courageously served our country. It is a disgrace, and it is far from patriotic.

As a gun owner, a veteran and a volunteer with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, I know this is not a Second Amendment issue. This is an issue about common sense. This is an issue about moral courage and fortitude to stand up and fight to keep our most vulnerable veterans safe from gun violence. The House bill on veterans is the second attempt to roll back gun laws in Congress. Just last month, President Trump signed a law reversing a requirement that the Social Security Administration submit records of mentally impaired recipients to the gun background-check system.

I won’t sit idly by and watch this latest affront to our safety. Our veterans deserve better, our active-duty military deserves better, than lawmakers who cater to the gun lobby and ignore the crisis of veterans and suicide. The well-being of our veterans should be the priority, and our lawmakers should reject this dangerous legislation.”

“Lindsey Donovan, an Army veteran married to an active-duty soldier, is a volunteer leader for the Georgia chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, part of Everytown for Gun Safety.”

http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/03/29/gun-bill-endangers-mentally-ill-veterans-suicide-army-vet-column/99740790/

Veteran Employment Bill Passes Senate

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“MILITARY .COM”

“Through the U.S. Department of Labor, the HIRE Vets Act would allow businesses to display “HIRE Vets Medallions” on products and marketing materials.

These medallions would be awarded as part of a two-tiered system — Gold and Platinum — associated with specific hiring and retention goals each year.

Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley, announced Monday that the U.S. Senate has passed his bill, HR 244, the Hire Vets Act of 2017.

The bill already passed the House of Representatives in February. Cook had reintroduced this bipartisan bill earlier this year. It was introduced last Congress and passed the House with unanimous support, but was unable to pass the Senate before the end of the year. The bill now heads back to the House for final passage as the Senate made minor technical changes to it.

This legislation would promote private sector recruiting, hiring and retaining of men and women who served honorably in the U.S. military through a voluntary and effective program, according to Cook’s office.

Specifically, it would create an awards program recognizing the meaningful and verifiable efforts undertaken by employers to hire and retain veterans. The program is designed to be self-funded.

“The HIRE Vets Act is an opportunity for Americans to see which companies truly live up to the employment promises they make to veterans,” Cook said. “Veterans who serve this country honorably shouldn’t struggle to find employment, and this bill creates an innovative system to encourage and recognize employers who make veterans a priority in their hiring practices.

“I’m grateful this bipartisan bill has passed so resoundingly in both the House and the Senate. I expect it to quickly receive final approval from the House and look forward to it being signed into law soon.”

The program also establishes similar tiered awards for small and mid-sized businesses with less than 500 employees. To ensure proper oversight, the Secretary of Labor would be required to provide Congress with annual reports on the success of the program with regard to veteran employment and retention results.

A member of the House Natural Resources, Armed Services, and Foreign Affairs Committees, Cook served as an infantry officer and retired as a colonel after 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. During his time in combat, he was awarded the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. He represents the 8th District, which includes all of the High Desert, in the House of Representatives.”

http://www.military.com/daily-news/2017/03/28/veteran-employment-bill-passes-senate.html

VA Finalizes Benefits for Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune Victims

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“MILITARY TIMES”

“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. ”

For more information, visit the VA web page.

 

 

What We’re Fighting For

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

“THE NEW YORK TIMES” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014 National Book Awards

Phil Klay

 

Veterans Administration Patchwork System Eats Most Of $4B Tech Budget

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“DEFENSE ONE”

“VA, with its history of failed large-scale IT projects that cost taxpayers billions of dollars, is again grappling with IT issues.

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.

Roe said the push for commercial-off-the-shelf solutions is encouraging, but tempered his enthusiasm. Congress has increased VA’s appropriations for IT an average of 7 percent over the past five years with little to show for it. While the Defense Department opted to go commercial for its electronic health records system two years ago, VA still grapples with whether to build its own system or follow DOD.

“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.”

Roe also voiced disgust at VA’s failed $5.3 million cloud migration contract.

“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”

http://www.defenseone.com/technology/2017/02/vas-patchwork-system-eats-most-its-4b-tech-budget-congress-wants-stop/135254/