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A Time for Political Action, not Political Grandstanding

soldier_flagA pair of high-profile Senate candidates, both Democrats, have distanced themselves from the Obama administration by calling for the resignation of Eric Shinseki, the Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary. Alison Lundergan Grimes, from Kentucky, and Michelle Nunn, from Georgia, both called for new leadership at the VA as the department investigates 26 facilities across the nation regarding allegations of treatment delays and associated deaths. Earlier this week Mr. Obama reaffirmed his support for Shinseki, his embattled Cabinet member, stating, “Rick Shinseki has been a great soldier. He himself is a disabled veteran. And nobody cares more about our veterans than Rick Shinseki.” Mr. Obama also pledged to ensure accountability throughout the VA once internal reviews are completed. The administration did force the resignation of the VA’s top health official, Robert Petzel, yet he was already scheduled to retire this year.

While the two Senate candidates sought to distance themselves from the current administration, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the House Minority Leader, implied repeatedly yesterday that the former president, George W. Bush, is to blame for the current VA scandal. While claiming that her political party has labored diligently for veterans in recent years, Pelosi remarked that Mr. Obama “sees the ramifications of some seeds that were sown a long time ago, when you have two wars over a long period of time and many, many more, millions more veterans. And so, I know that he is upset about it.” She added, “Maybe when we go into war, we should be thinking about its consequences and its ramifications. You would think that would be a given, but maybe it wasn’t. And so, we go in a war in Afghanistan, leave Afghanistan for Iraq with unfinished business in Afghanistan. Ten years later, we have all of these additional veterans. In the past five years, two million more veterans needing benefits from the VA. That’s a huge, huge increase.”

Pelosi failed to mention that in 2009 the Obama administration authorized the implementation of the COIN (counter-insurgent) strategy, a strategy focused on “winning hearts and minds,” and that the U.S. military member death toll has since nearly tripled. In the first seven years of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), under the Bush administration, the United States military lost 630 troops in Afghanistan, and 2,638 were wounded. Of all U.S. troop deaths in that nation, 73% have occurred since 2009; and in the 45 months following the implementation of Obama’s strategy, 15,036 troops have been wounded.

The VA crisis has become a platform for political grandstanding, yet the veterans who volunteered to sacrifice life and limb for their nation will not be helped by individuals who use them simply for political gain. Grimes, the Senate hopeful, claimed the current VA leadership is not in a position to restore trust with veterans, stating, “We owe a solemn obligation to our veterans, and our government defaulted on that contract. I don’t see how that breach of trust with our veterans can be repaired if the current leadership stays in place.” Unfortunately, Grimes is speaking only of the VA leadership, but the VA scandal has taken the place as a result of politicians on both sides of the aisle acting for years in ways that have produced and enabled a culture of greed and dishonesty. Those on Capitol Hill need to address this crisis carefully and thoroughly in order that our veterans are taken care of in a manner worthy of their sacrifice, and so that those who consider taking the oath of service in the years ahead do not refuse to do so because they fear that their nation will fail to honor their service and sacrifices.

FoxNews.com, “Dem Senate candidates break with Obama, call for Shinseki’s resignation” (23 May 2014)
Joel Gehrke, The Washington Examiner, “Nancy Pelosi blames George W. Bush for Veterans Affairs scandal” (22 May 2014)
Allen B. West, “U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan skyrocket under Obama” (n.d.)

“As Mad as Hell”

congressVeterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki declared he is “as mad as hell” concerning allegations of treatment delays and preventable deaths at a VA medical facility in
Phoenix, Arizona. Appearing before a Senate panel today (15 May 2014), Shinseki vowed to hold employees accountable for any misconduct. The retired Army general said during the hearing, “Any adverse event for a veteran within our care is one too many.” Shinseki said he welcomes a White House review of his department, and also stated, “If allegations about manipulation of appointment scheduling are true, they are completely unacceptable – to veterans, to me and to our dedicated VA employees.”

Barack Obama assigned deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors to review policies for patient safety and the scheduling of appointments, an assignment that was announced late Wednesday (14 May). Problems similar to those reported at the VA in Phoenix are also being reported from other facilities across the nation. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), declared that the hearing “needs to be a wake-up call for the department,” and noted that outside reviews have outlined problems related to treatment delays and healthcare quality for at least 14 years. She added, “It’s extremely disappointing that the department has repeatedly failed to address wait times for health care.” Murray called for Shinseki to take “decisive action to restore veterans’ confidence in VA, create a culture of transparency and accountability and to change these system-wide, years-long problems.” Senator John McCain (R-AZ) claimed the current administration “has failed to respond in an effective manner” to the recent allegations against the VA, and that the situation “has created in our veterans’ community a crisis of confidence toward the VA – the very agency that was established to care for them.” McCain added, “Treating those to whom we owe the most so callously – so ungratefully – is unconscionable and we should all be ashamed.”

Some congressional Republicans have joined the American Legion in calling for Shinseki’s resignation, an action resisted by both the VA Secretary and the White House. Mr. Obama stated, “While we get to the bottom of what happened in Phoenix, it’s clear the VA needs to do more to ensure quality care for our veterans.” Last week, the House Veterans Affairs Committee voted to subpoena all emails and other records in which VA officials, including Shinseki, may have discussed the destruction of “an alternate interim waitlist” for veterans seeking healthcare in Phoenix.

The day before Shinseki testified in Washington DC, federal investigators visited the Edward Hines, Jr., VA Hospital in the Chicagoland area to examine an allegation there regarding secret lists that were used to conceal extended patient wait times for appointments. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) opined that the claims targeting the Chicago facility are credible enough to warrant an expansion of the formal investigation targeting the one in Phoenix, stating, “The inspector general should immediately broaden its investigation to include Hines VA and to deliver a swift and immediate report.” Kirk observed there is a link between the facilities as Sharon Helman, the director of the Phoenix hospital, served as the director at the Chicago hospital from 2010-2012. Joan Ricard, the Illinois’ hospital’s current director, maintains there was no separate patient waitlist at that facility. She stated in a written document, “I am not aware of any occurrences of data manipulation here at Hines, past or present, and I have received no evidence or specific facts about data manipulation at the Hines VA.” However, Germaine Clarno, a VA social worker and the president of the American Federation of Government Employees VA Local 781, claims otherwise. She informed CBS news this past Tuesday (13 May) that the names of veterans were placed on secret waiting lists when they first sought appointments and were not formally booked into the system until appointment times became available within the VA’s maximum wait goal of two weeks. Clarno also reported that executives and physicians wanted “to make numbers look better for their own recognition and for bonuses.”

It was also reported today that at least three mental health officials were suspended from the Malcom Randall VA hospital in Gainesville, Virginia, after an official from the Inspector General’s office for the Washington, DC, bureau of the Department of Veterans Affairs discovered a secret waiting list containing 200 patient names. The list was found setting on a mental health employee’s disk. When news surfaced from Arizona regarding the utilization of secret lists, the upper management at the Gainesville facility offered amnesty to any employees who came forward with such lists. However, speaking under conditions of anonymity, employees stated they did not believe they would have received amnesty if they had come forward. None did, and two prior sweeps by the local Inspector General’s office discovered no such lists. Employees also mentioned that a number of veterans at the Gainesville facility committed suicide while waiting to receive mental health care.

Shinseki should be “as mad as hell” about the problematic issues plaguing the VA, but so should the White House, both sides of the aisle in Congress and in the Senate, and the American people.  The policies in place at the VA need to be overhauled, and the climate that has permitted such egregious practices to take place must be decimated and replaced with a culture of integrity.  That will not take place with a few resignations and firings.

The Associated Press, “VA hospital White House review welcomed by department head” (15 May 2014)
The Associated Press, “Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in Chicago scrutinized over alleged secret waitlist” (15 May 2014)
WCJB, ABC News, “Three suspended for falsified waiting list at Gainesville VA hospital” (15 May 2014)

Shinseki Subpoenaed

va1-copyThe Veterans Administration (VA) has long been notorious for its extended delays and patient backlogs. It has come under fire recently for a number of veteran deaths related to such delays. Last week, a House committee voted to subpoena VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to obtain documents, including emails, related to an alleged secret “waiting list” for ailing veterans at the VA healthcare facility in Phoenix, Arizona. Several whistleblowers claim that administrators ordered thousands of appointment requests to be redirected to a secret unofficial list that would prevent them from being reported; and that the names of patients who died were removed from the list altogether. Dr. Samuel Foote, who worked for the VA for decades, stated, “This was basically an elaborate scheme to cover up patient wait times.” He added, “The main problem was we had a huge demand, and we had a relatively limited supply of service. Rather than dealing with the problem, they were just covering it up.”

House committee members reported that a previous response from Shinseki in regard to these matters failed to adequately answer their questions, and several of them are calling for his resignation. The American Legion also called for his resignation, not only because of this particular controversy, but due to other controversies related to veterans’ care over the last few years as well. However, Shinseki, a retired Army general, has received vocal support from the White House, and brushed aside all calls for his resignation. Shinseki is supposed to testify at a hearing this week before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee regarding the state of the VA healthcare system.

NBC NEWS – Jim Miklaszewski & Becky Bratu, “Whistleblower Says VA Hospital Covered Up Problems, Delayed Care
CBS NEWS – Jennifer Janisch, “Email reveals deliberate effort by VA hospital to hide patient waits
FOX NEWS – Steve Centanni, “House panel subpoenas VA Secretary Shinseki for Phoenix hospital documents



We Are All Dishonored

Three executives from the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System – the director, Sharon Helman, associate director, Lance Robinson, and an unnamed employee – were placed on administrative leave as an investigation is underway to examine claims of corruption and unnecessary fatalities. The facility has been under scrutiny in recent weeks after it was alleged that as many as 40 patients may have died due to healthcare delays. The treatment delays were hidden intentionally through the use of multiple appointment lists – public lists and secret lists. Helman and the facility’s chief of staff denied any knowledge of secret lists, and claimed they discovered no evidence of patients dying as a result of delayed treatment.

The Phoenix facility is not the only VA hospital to come under fire recently. In the past year alone, facilities in Washington, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida were linked to poor oversight and delays in patient treatment. In March 2013, an unusually forceful letter was sent to the White House office that handles complaints from federal whistle blowers. It stated emphatically that problematic patterns were discovered at the VA facility in Jackson, Mississippi, and raised serious questions regarding management practices. It detailed problems from the previous six years, including inadequate sterilization procedures, chronic understaffing of the primary care unit, and missed diagnoses by the radiology department. Five of the complaints lodged at the Jackson facility came from separate individuals in different departments.

A CNN investigative report last November noted that military veterans are dying needlessly due to long waits and delayed care at VA healthcare facilities. The report stated outright that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is not only aware of the problems, but has done nothing effectively to prevent them. At the Williams Jennings Bryan Dorn Veterans Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina, many veterans waited months for simple gastrointestinal procedures (e.g., colonoscopy, endoscopy), and were dying because their cancers were not discovered quickly enough. Six such deaths were confirmed by the VA, yet medical investigators believed the number of deaths related to delays could exceed 20. The investigators reviewed 280 cases of gastrointestinal cancer patients at the facility and found that 52 were “associated with a delay in diagnosis and treatment.”

A follow-up CNN investigative report, released in January, stated that at least 19 veterans died due to delays in simple medical screenings at various VA healthcare facilities, while another 63 are dying as a result of delayed diagnoses or treatment. The report was based on an internal document from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In the Florida region, five veterans died, and 14 veterans or their families were sent disclosures notifying them that they suffered “adverse events” because of delayed or denied care or diagnosis. Two veterans died and four families were sent such disclosures or notifications in the Rocky Mountain region, and seven veterans or their families were sent disclosures in the Texas region.

Some allege that the VA has failed to provide key information to Congress and the public that demonstrates the agency’s ability to provide service-related benefits quickly, and that such an ability has virtually collapsed under the current administration. Internal VA documents, obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting and authenticated by the agency, revealed that delays faced by newly returning veterans in receiving disability compensation and other benefits are much longer than the VA has acknowledged publicly. The VA tracks and reports the average wait time as 273 days, yet the internal data indicates veterans filing their first claim – including those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, wait nearly two months longer. Those filing for the first time in major population centers wait up to twice as long – 642 days in New York, 619 days in Los Angeles and 542 days in Chicago. The ranks of veterans waiting over a year for their benefits grew from 11,000 in 2009 to 245,000 in December 2012 – an increase of over 2,000 percent.

Back in 2009, amid escalating controversy regarding procedures that exposed 10,000 veterans to the AIDS and hepatitis viruses, it was revealed that a VA facility in Pennsylvania gave substandard radiation treatments to nearly 100 cancer patients. Veterans groups and lawmakers claimed VA healthcare facilities permitted such violations because federal regulations permit doctors to conduct their services with minimal external scrutiny. One congressman declared at that time that the VA healthcare system was exhibiting signs of an “institutional breakdown.” During that same period, Joe Wilson, deputy director of the Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission for the American Legion, claimed that complacency, poor funding, and poor oversight led to the violations that failed the cancer patients in Philadelphia and possibly infected 53 veterans with hepatitis and HIV from unsterilized equipment at three VA health centers in Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. Wilson testified before Congress in 2009 that “lack of inspections” and a “lack of transparency” were to blame for the problems.

Wilson informed Fox News that poor funding aggravated the problems, with finances often misspent on repairs for aging facilities that are incapable of operating new technology and equipment in a proper fashion. The average age of VA facilities is almost 50 years, while those in the private sector are about 12 years.  Investigations conducted in 2009 revealed that systemic problems existed. Just under half of VA facilities that were given surprise inspections had proper training and guidelines in place for common endoscopic procedures, for example. A VA representative claimed back then that Eric Shinseki, VA Secretary General, and senior leaders were conducting a “top to bottom review” of the department, and implementing “aggressive actions to make sure the right policies and procedures are in place to protect our veterans and provide them with the quality health care they have earned.” However, veterans’ advocates maintained that would be insufficient, and that they had seen no evidence of changes that could remedy what they described as a broken healthcare system.

In August 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a campaign speech to veterans that specifically addressed waiting lists, denied care, and poor treatment, and promised his administration would be different. He stated, “No veteran should have to fill out a 23-page claim to get care, or wait months – even years – to get an appointment at the VA.” He added, “When we fail to keep faith with our veterans, the bond between our nation and our nation’s heroes becomes frayed. When a veteran is denied care, we are all dishonored.”

CNN Investigations, “Veterans dying because of health care delays” (30 JAN 14) by Scott Bronstein, Nelli Black, and Drew Griffin
CNN Investigations, “Hospital delays are killing America’s war veterans” (21 NOV 13) by Scott Bronstein, Nelli Black & Drew Griffin
The Washington Post, “3 at Phoenix VA hospital on leave over allegations” (1 MAY 14) by Brian Skoloff
The Washington Post – ‘The Federal Diary’, “VA’s reputation for health care takes a thrashing” (12 SEP 13) by Joe Davidson
The New York Times, “A Pattern of Problems at a Hospital for Veterans” (18 MAR 13) by James Dao
The Center for Investigative Reporting, “VA’s ability to quickly provide benefits plummets under Obama” (11 MAR 13) by Aaron Glantz
Fox News, “VA Medical System in Shambles, Veterans Groups Say” (24 JUN 09) by Joseph Abrams

The Acadamy is Right to Support Atheists

USAFA ChapelThe Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), headed by Mikey Weinstein, was contacted by seven individuals from the U.S. Air Force Academy (four cadets, two faculty members, and one staff member; six of whom Christians) regarding an announcement made in the dining facility that “Ask an Atheist Days” would be held on 19-20 March on the third floor of Fairchild Hall, an academic building. According to a member of the Cadets Freethinkers Club, the days are being held in protest over the Academy’s correct refusal to permit their group to participate in Special Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE), a long-running program at the Academy in which one night per week is set aside for various religious groups and external para-church organizations hold religious meetings for the cadets. The Cadets Freethinkers Club has been refused recognition as a SPIRE group by the Academy on the grounds that they are not a religious group, and are permitted to operate only as a club. An MRFF client who is a member of the club explained the motivation behind the event, stating the group believes it is within its rights, as a non-religious club, to set up a table and have their event announced on the same basis as other non-religious groups. MRFF believes the group should be able to participate in SPIRE, but disagrees with the manner in which the club has protested the Academy’s refusal to recognize them as a SPIRE group. According to Weinstein, the announcement made to a captive audience of cadets in the dining hall and permitting the club to set up a table in an academic building is similar to allowing an “Ask a Muslim Day” or “Ask an Evangelical Christian Day.” He remarked, “They are proselytizing for atheism.”

It may come as a surprise to some that I disagree wholeheartedly with Weinstein on this point. Weinstein and the MRFF have failed to distinguish between “proselytization” and “evangelism.” On the one hand, military members are prohibited from forcing unwanted and intrusive attempts upon others in order to convert them to a particular religious (or non-religious) view. That is, loosely, how the Department of Defense defines “proselytization.” “Evangelism,” on the other hand, occurs when military members discuss their faith (or non-faith) with others who are willing to discuss such matters. This is completely permissible.

Maj. Lonzo Wallace, Executive Officer to Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, informed MRFF that the Academy is allowing the “Ask an Atheist Days” to proceed. Weinstein objects, believing that, “Religious neutrality means religious neutrality. Whether it’s saying that Jesus is your lord and savior or saying that there is no god makes no difference. Neither is a neutral position, and neither can be promoted by the United States Air Force Academy.” Weinstein and the MRFF have failed to grasp the fact that permitting an event is not the same as promoting a particular religious (or non-religious) view. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. Therefore, if the Academy were to prevent the atheists from setting up a table and permitting cadets to ask about their perspective, then the Air Force would be guilty of violating the Bill of Rights.

Todd Starnes, Fox News, “Why does Air Force Academy encourage atheism, prosecute Christianity?” (21 MAR 2014)

Chris Rodda, Huffington Post, “MRFF Complains About Atheists Proselytizing at Air Force Academy? Surely Pigs Are Flying!” (19 MAR 2014)

Bryant Jordan, Military.com News, “Air Force Academy Sanctions ‘Ask an Atheist’ Days” (20 MAR 2014)

Tom Roeder, Military Religious Freedom Foundation, “Mikey Weinstein enraged by evangelical atheists” (19 MAR 2014)



“Revolt” at the Academy?

USAFA ChapelMikey Weinstein, head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), is again attacking religious freedom. This time the attack has been provoked at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Many of the cadets there are outraged by the attack, and the response has led Weinstein to characterize their actions as a “revolt.” He is threatening the Academy with a lawsuit unless his demands are met.

The controversy began when a cadet posted a verse from the New Testament (Galatians 2:20) on a whiteboard. Weinstein claims that 33 individuals at the Academy, 29 cadets and 4 faculty and staff, reported the verse to MRFF but did not feel comfortable reporting it to the Academy’s leadership. He claims the verse was posted for “two hours and nine minutes” before it was removed after his call. The Academy admitted this past Wednesday that a cadet leader removed the verse that was displayed outside of his dorm room because it offended non-Christians and could “cause subordinates to doubt the leader’s religious impartiality.” Several of the cadets informed Todd Starnes that the verse had been posted several months ago, and that many considered it a “source of inspiration.” After the cadet removed the verse, several other cadets posted verses from the Old Testament, New Testament, and Quran on their whiteboards – which Weinstein considers a “revolt” that needs to be suppressed.

Weinstein maintains that if the verse had been posted in the cadet’s room, it would not have been an issue. Rather, he claims it is “about the time, the place, and the manner” of the posting. He argues that posting the verse outside of a dormitory door is unacceptable and illegal because the hallway is part of the “working squadron area,” a public location where cadets assemble. He believes the verse on the personal whiteboard “created a hostile environment at the Academy.”

A spokesperson for the Academy, Lt Col Brus Vidal, stated, “The whiteboards are for both official and personal use, but when a concern was raised we addressed it and the comment was taken down.” He remarked that there is a “gray area” when it comes to a cadet’s personal room and the hallway, where the verse was posted. He also stated the whiteboards are utilized for both personal and official use. Lt Col Vidal further stated there was no misconduct on the part of the cadet in question, and that the cadet will not be punished. However, Weinstein disagreed with that assessment. He believes the incident displayed “absolute misconduct” and that the cadet should be punished. He remarked, “It clearly elevated one religious faith [fundamentalist Christianity] over all others at an already virulently hyper-fundamentalist Christian institution. It massively poured fundamentalist Christian gasoline on an already raging out-of-control conflagration of fundamentalist Christian tyranny, exceptionalism and supremacy at USAFA.”

Major General Jerry Boykin (USA, ret.), inquired, “What about the rights of the Christian cadets who have a constitutional right to express their individual faith?” He then stated, “If a scripture scares the faculty this much, then it is unlikely that they will be very effective when confronted by a committed enemy who is willing to die for his or her beliefs.” Boykin accused the Academy of violating the Constitutional rights of the cadets.

Several cadets contacted Starnes, requesting anonymity to discuss the matter. According to him, these cadets believe Christians are being treated unfairly. One of the unnamed cadets stated, “It’s been suggested that we keep our faith to ourselves. It’s even too risky to go out into the hallway and talk to a Christian friend about your faith. It’s because there are people here who are so easily offended. If someone overheard us talking about Christianity, they could file a complaint. They could say we were having that discussion in a public space.” Another cadet stated, “It’s gotten to the point where you can’t walk to class without stepping on somebody’s toes.” Other cadets noted they are fed up with the “uber-sensitivity” at the Academy. One cadet said, “People are so apt to be offended by something that is totally respectful. If you read the verse the guy put on his door – it’s a personal expression of faith. There’s nothing disrespectful about that at all.”

Weinstein vows to take the Academy to court unless every cadet who wrote a religious verse on their whiteboards is punished. The head of MRFF told Starnes, “This is an absolutely horrible, shameful disgrace. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an open rebellion like this happening at any military academy. It’s like they’re sticking their middle finger up at what the academy did.” He likened the posting of the verses to racism.

The Restore Military Religious Freedom Coalition, which includes the Family Research Council, Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel, Liberty Institute and Thomas More Law Center, announced its readiness to represent any cadet brought up on charges. Gary McCaleb, of the Alliance Defending Freedom, declared, “Suppressing religion is wrong whether it is done behind an Iron Curtain or in a dorm hallway. Certainly such raw anti-religious discrimination has no place in America’s Air Force.” Michael Berry, senior counsel for the Liberty Institute declared that the removal of the verse and any punishment that could be handed out for its publication is a violation of the Department of Defense Instruction 1300.17, a provision that protects the religious liberty of military members.

* * * * *

Billy Hallowell, The Blaze, “‘Revolt’ Over Bible Verse Removal Leads to Air Force Academy Explanation” (13 MAR 2014)

Heather Clark, Christian News (Christian News Network), “Air Force Cadets ‘Revolt’ Against Removal of Scripture from Academy Dorm White Board” (13 MAR 2014)

Military Religious Freedom Foundation, “MRFF Win Provokes Uprising by Fundamentalist Christian Cadets at USAFA”

Pam Zubeck, Colorado Springs Independent, “UPDATE: Bible verse gets Mikey going, again” (12 MAR 2014)

Todd Starnes, Fox News, “What’s going on at Air Force Academy? God’s word vs. Pentagon’s word” (13 MAR 2014)

FY 2015 Proposed Defense Budget

BudgetCutsThe Military Officers’ Association of America (MOAA) is the largest and most influential association of military officers in the United States.  Their mission is to speak up for a strong national defense and to represent the interests of military members and their families at every stage of their careers.  As the Obama Administration revealed its proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 defense budget on 4 March, MOAA noted that the Pentagon is “shifting personnel costs onto the backs of servicemembers to free up funding for other programs.”   The proposed budget includes slashing personnel compensation and healthcare benefits, a 20% cut in headquarters operating budgets, a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) round in FY 2017, and $159.3 billion in modernization and recapitalization of equipment and facilities.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel defended the  proposed budget from those who feared that steep cuts in the plan would leave the United States vulnerable in an increasingly dangerous global situation.  Overall, the Obama administration plans to slash defense spending to about $495 billion in 2015 (about $113 billion less than the levels contemplated in last year’s budget proposal). 

Specific cuts impacting military members directly include a military pay cap at a 1% raise (-.8% below the private sector wage growth) through 2017, with a 1.5% raise in 2018 and a 1.8% raise in 2019.  During the 1990s a 13.5% military pay gap between the military and the private sector led to extensive retention problems.  There is also a call for massive changes for TRICARE (the medical program for military personnel).  The proposed budget would eliminate the existing TRICARE Prime, Standard, and Extra options for military family members and for retired veterans under age 65.  The options would be replaced by a consolidated health care plan that would be most similar to the current Standard / Extra options.  The new plan is a fee-for-service program that will require all beneficiaries to cover the costs of co-pays and a deductible out-of-pocket.  Retired veterans will be required under the plan to pay an annual participation fee.  Access would not be guaranteed under the proposal.  In addition to these costs, the plan will also establish an annual TRICARE for Life (TFL) enrollment fee.  The fee will be based upon a percentage of retired pay, rising to 2% of pay per year in 2018.  It is expected that there will be a dramatic increase in pharmacy co-pays, and all beneficiaries will be required to obtain their maintenance medication refills through either a medical treatment facility (MTF) or the mail-order pharmacy.  The proposed budget also calls for increases in housing cost-shares for military families.  It increases the Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) out-of-pocket expenses until military members pay 5% of the cost.  If enacted, the BAH cuts will become effective upon a military member’s next Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move.  MOAA notes on its website, “In total, the annual loss of purchasing power for active duty personnel would be severe.”  A sergeant (E-5), for example, will lose nearly $5,000, while a captain (O-3) will lose nearly $6,000.

In addition to the cuts impacting personnel personally, the Department of Defense proposed slashing the number of active-duty Army personnel from 450,000 down to 440,000, less than 10% below its size before the 9/11 attacks.  Army National Guard and Army Reserve units will draw down by 5%, and the Army’s helicopter force structure will be reduced by 8%. The active Army’s helicopter fleet will be slashed by 25%.  The Navy will remove 11 ships from its operational inventory in order to modernize them and then return them to service with what is hoped to be greater capability and extended lifespans.  The Marines will draw down to 182,000, though an additional 900 members will be assigned to embassies.  The Air Force will be forced to retire its A-10 and U-2 fleets.


Food Stamp Increase in Military

milfoodstampsThe use of food stamps increased in 2013 among military families, with nearly $104 million worth of food stamps redeemed at military commissaries during the past fiscal year. The use of food stamps has increased steadily among military members since 2008. According to the executive director of the National Military Family Association, Joyce Raezer, some states have lowered the eligibility requirements for receiving food stamps, and that may account for some of the increase. Thomas Greer, spokesperson for Operation Homefront (a non-profit organization that helps military members experiencing financial difficulties), stated that his group received 2,968 emergency requests for food last year. While that number is down from two years ago, it is three times as high as the number in 2008. He added, “I’m amazed, but there’s a very real need [for food stamps].”


House Panel Investigates Discrimination Against Military Chaplains

congressToday (30 Jan 14) Adelle M. Banks of the Religion News Service reported, “Discrimination Against Military Chaplains Subject of a House Panel, Pentagon Unaware of Bias.”  Lawmakers grilled Pentagon officials yesterday regarding claims that military chaplains have faced religious discrimination.  The Army, Navy, and Air Force Deputy Chiefs of Chaplains stated repeatedly they were unaware of any such claims.  The deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, Virginia Penrod, informed the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel she was unable to cite specific instances in which chaplains were forced to preach a sermon or conduct a ceremony that conflicted with their beliefs.  She added, “There’s absolutely nothing in policy or code that prohibits a chaplain from praying according to the dictates of their faith.”  The hearing followed on the heels of the Pentagon releasing an updated “instruction” on religious accommodation.  Updates to the instruction, including specific policies regarding chaplains, will be completed this summer according to Penrod.

Though not dealing directly with a military chaplain, nothing was stated during the hearing, to my knowledge, which pointed to the recent episode regarding Senior Master Sergeant (SMSgt) Philip Monk.  SMSgt Monk was serving as a first sergeant at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, when his commander, an openly homosexual Air Force officer, relieved him of duty because he refused to agree to disciplinary action against an instructor over comments the instructor made regarding same-sex marriage.  SMSgt Monk stated that during one of their initial meetings, the commander “objected to one particular chaplain that she called a ‘bigot’ because he preached that homosexuality is a sin. She then said, ‘I don’t know what kind of people actually believe that kind of crap.’”

Panel members questioned whether commanders are permitted to proselytize.  Chaplain, Brigadier General Charles R. Bailey, the Army  Deputy Chief of Chaplains, stated it would be “wrong” for commanders to declare their faith was superior to others, but that private conversations related to matters of faith are permissible.  He said, “They’re never told they cannot share their own personal faith of any sort.”  In 2012, however, Lieutenant General Ronnie Hawkins, who took command of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) held a commander’s call to introduce himself.  He provided a PowerPoint presentation that included 18 of his personal rules for life.  The first was, “Always put God first, and stay within His will.”  The last was, “Always remember that God is good — all the time!”  Hawkins’ public faith was disturbing to some DISA members.  The Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) claimed to have been contacted by 21 members about the presentation, and lodged a protest.

Banks reported that several members of Congress have a different impression from the military’s top chaplains about the state of religious accommodation in the military, according to Bishop James B. Magness of the Episcopal Church’s armed services office.  Magness rightly noted, “There’s a real disconnect if things are being said to members of Congress that are not getting to the chiefs of chaplains. I don’t have a reason for why.”

Pave Hawk Down

Armed and ReadyA U.S. Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk from RAF Lakenheath was engaged in a low-flying training mission when it crashed in the Norfolk Wildlife Trust Cley Marshes Nature Reserve near Salthouse, England.  Residents heard a “heavy and very unusual” sound as the helicopter plummeted into the marshland.  Though emergency personnel, military personnel and volunteers worked throughout the night searching for survivors, a statement was released by the USAF’s 48th Fighter Wing this morning (8 Jan 14) stating that the four airmen aboard the aircraft were all killed.  Per military protocol, the names of the deceased will not be released to the public until after next-of-kin notifications (NOKs) have been made.  The cause of the crash is being investigated.  Pave Hawks are generally used for search and rescue missions, particularly for downed air crew members or other personnel in combat zones or other hostile situations.  Because of the nature of this mission, HH-60 pilots tend to fly at high speeds at very low altitudes – usually under 1,000 feet.

Please pray for the families of the deceased airmen, their fellow airmen, and the chaplains assigned at RAF Lakenheath who are now shouldering the load of crisis intervention counseling and preparing for memorial services.


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