Dec. 13 is the birthday of the National Guard. According to Military.com, “In a move that would create the first militia on the North American continent, the Massachusetts General Court in Salem issued an order on Dec. 13, 1636, requiring all able-bodied men between 16 and 60 years old to create a standing Army for protection.”
Today, the Army National Guard (and Air National Guard, created after World War II) are active across the country and around the world. Here are some things you may not know about the service branch.
1. Each member of the National Guard is sworn to uphold two constitutions: federal and state. (via military.com)
2. Two presidents have served in the National Guard in its modern structure: Harry S. Truman and George W. Bush. (via military.com)
3. Celebrities who served in the National Guard include actors Tom Selleck, John Amos, Bob Crane and James Garner. (via military.com)
4. The term "national guard" was popularized by Marquis de Lafayette to describe each state's militia. It didn't become an official term until 1916. (via military.com)
5. National Guard soldiers have fought in every single war since its founding. (via We Are The Mighty)
6. Air Guard units have deployed a variety of aircraft and support units to defend the 2,500 square miles of air space around Washington, D.C. (via https://listosaur.com)
7. The Washington, D.C., National Guard is the only federal militia in the National Guard. It is controlled by the president. (via www.part-time-commander.com)
8. Three of the first five divisions to enter World War I were from the National Guard. (via www.part-time-commander.com)
9. The National Guard has its own museum in Washington, D.C. According to its website, “The National Guard Memorial Museum is the first and only national museum dedicated to telling the story of the National Guard.” Go to www.ngef.org/national-guard-memorial-museum to learn more.
10. In 2016, the National Guard was added to the American Legion Spirit of Service Award (https://www.legion.org/convention/243179/minneapolis-award-recipients), designed to celebrate volunteer activity among active-duty servicemembers in the different military branches.
Owners of unused vehicles can donate them for tax breaks while also benefiting American Legion programs. Proceeds from each auction sale via Charitable Auto Rides Service, Inc. (CARS) will go toward Legion charities and programs.
The American Legion Vehicle Donation Program strives to accept most vehicles, including cars, trucks, trailers, boats, RVs, motorcycles, campers, off-road vehicles, planes, heavy equipment and farm machinery. CARS will pick up vehicles at a time convenient to the donor at no cost.
Those wishing to donate a vehicle should fill out a form online at www.legion.org/donate/auto or call (844) 453-4466. For more information about the program, go to https://legion.careasy.org/faq.
If you have questions about the donation program, such as when you’ll receive your tax receipt or if you need your vehicle title, visit www.legion.org/donate/auto for answers.
Content provided courtesy of USAA
You might find yourself hoping to hear back from a few prospective employers on some careers you applied for. Here’s a list of 14 things you can do to make a strong finish and start a new beginning.
1. Use this “downtime” to create new versions of your résumé.
Over time, you might recognize the fact that the original version of your résumé needs to be modified to meet specific career choices. Does your résumé contain words that match the job description? Word choice is important and creating a résumé that reflects your skills that align with the job in question can help. Having more than one résumé, with each one tailor-made for a specific position, is the key.
2. Follow up appropriately with those you’ve been in contact with.
With respect to the fact that anyone you’ve interviewed with (along with any and all administrative assistants or employees) can now be seen sprinting toward the finish of 2019, you need to figure out how much communication is enough communication. Did you send or answer all the follow-up emails during the “post-interview” phase of getting hired? Careful attention to how you follow up (or whether you follow up again if no response) needs to be considered. You don’t want to overstep your bounds, appear desperate, or otherwise seem too pushy.
3. Review ALL of the positions you’ve applied for, even if you’ve been sent a rejection letter.
Companies change all the time. The position you submitted your résumé for earlier in the year might have a late-breaking position open today. As mergers, acquisitions, and new divisions of an existing company spring up, you might find a position that just opened up. Just like panning for gold, you just never know until you revisit places you’ve searched before.
4. Keep current not only on what’s happening at each company you’re interested in, but in the industry as well.
As mentioned above, with change being constant, you’ll fare better if you aware of what’s happening within a particular company or within the market segment in question. For example, if you follow a specific type of industry and learn that new laws and regulations take effect in 2020, you might be able to leverage this information to showcase your current awareness of the industry in an interview setting. What’s more, if your skills and abilities demonstrate a particular proficiency related to these changes, you can shine above the other candidates for the position. Keep current on what’s happening.
5. Take advantage of the post-holiday sales.
Do you like to save money? Just after the holidays, you can count on things to go on sale. What better time to upgrade your wardrobe, purchase that new briefcase or computer, or buy plane tickets to a career fair or trade show so you can get in front of potential employers.
6. Brush up on those interview skills.
Just like all those things you did while in uniform — physical fitness tests, weapons qualifications, promotion board preparation, etc. — interviewing is a perishable skill. You need to continue to practice your answers to interview questions so that they don’t sound canned or unnatural. Once those words leave your mouth, there’s no turning back. Find a friend or relative or someone that can play employer/hiring manager so you can keep your skills sharp.
7. Re-connect with your professional and personal references.
The last thing you want to happen is to have a prospective employer reach out to one of your references and get a “disconnect”. What I mean by disconnect is not only a bad or disconnected phone number, but a “disconnect” in what you told your reference about the work you wish to pursue, and the information shared during the reference check. Make sure everyone is on the same sheet of music, so to speak.
8. Clean up your online presence.
More and more, prospective employers perform some serious data-mining in an effort to find “fool’s gold” — those crazy things you might have posted online. We’re all guilty of posting things we maybe shouldn’t have — especially given the fact that much of what we post can be easily and erroneously taken out of context. But, I think it is important to pay close attention to your posts and pages. As a general rule; clean them up if you think Grandma might blush.
9. Seek out new networking opportunities.
You can expand your network easily these days with just a few mouse clicks or the old fashioned way. Join a group on your favorite social media website. Attend a meeting at your local civic organization. Next time you go to the VA, stop by the employment assistance office. Go to the military-centric organizations that have their fingers on the pulse of who’s hiring. All kinds of organizations exist out there and you can simply make a new friend and connect with the larger military community.
10. Set goals.
A new year means a new set of goals. You need to set realistic goals. Use this time to plan your next move and make a plan for success. And remember, a goal needs to have a specific date attached to it.
11. Stay connected with people who can help you get to where you want to go.
Think about your military career — did you do it all alone? Of course not. You had lots of people screaming at you at the beginning, and maybe throughout your career. On a serious note though, some of the people you served with know what life on the outside is all about. People you served with have job leads. People you served with can help you stay positive now, just like they did when times were tough while in uniform. And let me just say, the challenges you’ve faced while in uniform pale in comparison to your challenge of getting hired. You already have that “stick-to-it” attitude that will serve you well as you move closer to getting hired.
12. Tell a POSITIVE story.
Ever been around someone who complains all the time? Have you ever been around someone who absolutely drains you while you’re in their presence? Remember a fun time you had up until the point someone became a “buzzkill”? My advice to you: Don’t become that person. Think about it. Would you hire someone who lives in a world of negativity? If you let negative thoughts override you, the best you have to offer will be smothered. The end result, you’ll have a long road to travel until you arrive at “Hired!” Ask those around you how you come across. Ask them to be honest, and then be honest with yourself. Strive to keep the most positive attitude possible and watch how people respond to you, especially a prospective employer.
13. Take a break now and then.
You can sometimes become obsessed with getting hired and avoiding the unemployment line. You need to maintain balance in all you do in order to keep your sanity while awaiting the call for an interview or an offer letter. You might consider making a solid plan in which you schedule your job-hunting time. For example, you already have the habit of physical fitness nailed as a result of your military upbringing. Maintaining an exercise schedule now will do what it did while you wore the uniform — that workout helped keep you healthy, mentally alert, and focused at the start of your day! Make sure to get plenty of sleep so that your mind is razor sharp during any preparatory tasks, phone interviews, and live interviews. And, have some fun while you wait for that good news that’s bound to happen at some point.
14. Finally, stay encouraged.
Take a moment and think about your entry into military service. What did you really and truly know about the military before your first day in uniform? Who did you know who you could reach out to and ask questions about the military? How did you feel the first day you had your drill instructor screaming in your face versus the day that same person shook your hand and congratulated you on a job well done? Can you name the people in your unit that called cadence, spoke or yelled encouraging words to you when you thought you’d fall out of a run? Or maybe you served in a combat zone with people who had your back. Do you remember things they did to encourage you to make it through? The point is that you’re about to enter a new phase in life. Just like when you ventured into the unknown military life, your next journey has a lot of uncertainty. But the things you experienced while in uniform prepared you for life out of the uniform. You will succeed if you surround yourself with people who have your best interests in mind. Remember that you already have a track record of success.
A Rising Sun was the first sign to Sterling R. Cale that something was off. But rather than the sun, it was Mars, the god of war, that would become his uninvited and all too-frequent companion throughout a military career that spanned from World War II through the Vietnam War.
Cale was a 20-year-old Navy hospital pharmacist mate stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. On that fateful morning, he had just eaten breakfast and was walking to the receiving station when he noticed strange activity on battleship row.
“How come they are bombing the battle wagons?” he asked himself. “’No, we don’t train on Sunday! Must be some sort of National Guard or Reserve activity… But then, as I was watching, a plane came by with the Rising Sun on the fuselage, and I said, ‘My God, those are Japanese planes!’”
At that point, Cale’s life and the fate of the world were forever changed. Cale, a weak swimmer at the time, still recalls walking into shallow harbor waters to retrieve wounded and dead bodies over the next couple hours. “I only picked up 46 people,” he recently said to The American Legion. “Some of those people were dead already. Some of the people were badly burned, and I would try to pick them up, and the skin would come right off their hand. Some of them were just tired because they were blown off the ship or jumped and had to get ashore.”
Now 98, the life member of American Legion Post 17 in Honolulu has told the story of his Pearl Harbor experience thousands of times. It is a story that he frequently shares with the handful of living survivors and visitors to the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. “In the last 10 years we talked to 25,000 students from fourth grade on up to college. We told them all about it. Japan didn’t like to let anybody in their country know how they attacked our country and our ships.”
Just as Pearl Harbor marked the beginning of U.S. entry into World War II, it was the first exposure Cale had to combat. A farm boy from Macomb, Ill., Cale enlisted in the Navy with the intention of serving in the dirigible airship program at Lakehurst, N.J. The 1937 Hindenburg disaster led to the eventual cancellation of the program and a change in Cale’s plans. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cale was attached to the 1st Marine Division, where he would serve as a corpsman at Guadalcanal.
“I actually treated the wounds of Japanese prisoners, the same as our Marines,” Cale said. Having been thoroughly immersed in Navy and Marine Corps life, Cale transferred to the U.S. Army in 1948. Two years later, he was asked by his captain at the 5th Regimental Combat Team, “Are you ready, Cale? You’re going to Korea.”
Cale didn’t just go to Korea – he was entrenched in North Korea. “We kept mowing down people coming across the Chinese river. I said, what’s wrong with people? They didn’t know when to stop. The Japanese didn’t know when to stop… Only thing different with the Chinese is when they came across the river, only one guy would have a weapon. The rest would have farm implements… scythe, sickle, machete, hoe, waiting for the first guy to get killed so they could get a weapon.”
The tenacity of the enemy wasn’t the only concern for Cale. Explosive booby traps set by North Koreans and subzero temperatures added to what he described as a hell on earth. “I slept at night with a grenade in each hand because the North Koreans were coming down and slitting throats. If anybody like that came near me, I’d just have to open one hand and we’d both be gone.”
It would not be Cale’s last experience in a war zone. In 1955, he was sent to Vietnam as part of a 19-member American team assigned to observe the French presence there. In total, Cale spent nine years in Vietnam as a soldier and later as a State Department official. His duties ranged from military intelligence to medical support. Lt. Col. John I. Gilbertson, an infantry advisor with the Cay Mai School, highlighted Cale’s service in the region with an effusive letter of commendation.
“In summary, the five years of total service in South Vietnam have really paid off,” Gilbertson wrote in the mid-1960s. “By teaching English to officers, soldiers, and their families, by his knowledge of the people, their language, customs and taboos, MSgt. Cale was able to realize the real, intimate trust, that is so often illusive in an advisory function. His model behavior and appearance, his friendly but businesslike manner with all Vietnamese peoples has produced outstanding results from an academic standpoint, but more importantly, it has meant untiring efforts to cement the bond of friendship between the Vietnamese people and the U.S. advisors representing the government of the United States, and is in keeping with the current policy of U.S. military participation in Civic Action Programs which benefit the people of an underdeveloped country.”
Cale, who would retire from the Army as a command sergeant major, continued his employment with the government until his final assignment working at the officers club in Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks. At age 83, his 57-year government career was over.
In the afterward of the book. “Sterling Cale: A True American,” Cale’ son, Sterling V. Cale, wrote.
“Through my father’s story, we have been able to share one man’s sacrifices for his country. We hope that the citizens of the U.S. continue to recognize the efforts of its military personnel and honor their unique stories. May we take the life of one man and his family to heart, and emulate it to continue our country’s great legacy and remember the sacrifices that were made for our freedom.”
Today, Cale is believed to be the last living military Pearl Harbor survivor still residing in Hawaii. His home is just a few miles from where the attack occurred. And he never forgets it.
“It’s always on my mind,” he said. “I know what happened, how it happened (but) I can never understand why it happened.”
Did you know that of the 12,000 American Legion posts, more than one-third — 4,600 — do not have an Auxiliary unit?
That’s troubling to American Legion National Commander Bill Oxford and American Legion Auxiliary President Nicole Clapp. In a new public service announcement, they are calling on posts to grow their Legion Family by starting units. https://www.legion.org/legiontv
“Those 4,600 communities are not just lacking an Auxiliary unit,” Clapp said. “They are lacking the vital services an Auxiliary unit provides to veterans, military members and their families.”
Oxford agrees, noting the support that posts get from their units in communities large and small across the United States and beyond.
“For posts without units, I urge you to create a unit to help support the mission,” he said. “We are all one team — in support of our comrades, our nation’s veterans.”
Posts that want to start a new unit are encouraged to download and use a how-to guide created by the Auxiliary.
The American Legion’s Blood Donor Program, which came into existence to help with the World War II effort, continues to produce more than 70,000 pints a year. The annual Legion blood drive, which continues through Dec. 31, was one of many ways The American Legion responded in the aftermath of the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor bombing. This report’s “Moment in History” reflects on how Hawaii Legionnaires fought fires, helped with traffic and refugees after the bombing.
The report also quantifies the value of American Legion contributions to VA hospitals — both at the national and local levels, more national youth scholarships and a big month of aid through the Temporary Financial Assistance program.
Click here to see this month’s report and visit www.legion.org/membership/impact for previous months.
National Commander James W. Bill Oxford is heading to a Christmas reception at the White House after wrapping up a productive tour of the Department of Hawaii, Taiwan and Australia where he engaged with top military and diplomatic leaders.
While in Taiwan, Oxford met with President Tsai Ing-Wen, along with Republic of China ministers of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Foreign Affairs and its National Security Council.
“The best way to ensure peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific is to maintain strong Taiwan-U.S. relations, so that together, we can defend democracy and freedom,” Tsai told the commander’s delegation. “I would like to thank The American Legion for always supporting these shared beliefs. I would also like to thank the Legion for vigorously supporting the Republic of China (Taiwan) through concrete actions. That includes passing resolutions urging the U.S. government to sell defensive weapons to Taiwan, and inviting representatives chosen by our Veterans Affairs Council to participate in your annual meeting (convention) each year.”
Tsai, who made a videotaped address to delegates at The American Legion national convention last August, emphasized the importance of The American Legion’s relationship with Taiwan during her meeting with Oxford on Nov. 27.
“Under National Commander Oxford’s leadership, I hope that our Veterans Affairs Council will continue to closely cooperate with The American Legion,” she said. “Working together, we can strive for the wellbeing of veterans so that our comrades can all enjoy a sense of security and dignity in retirement.”
While in Hawaii, Oxford met with officials from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, U.S. Pacific Air Forces, the VA Medical Center and The American Legion. The American Legion Department of Hawaii also includes two posts in Australia. While in Australia, Oxford met with Governor-General David Hurley and senior U.S. embassy officials.
Implementation of the Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks (MISSION) Act last summer overhauled how veterans receive their health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The legislation included provisions to consolidate community care programs into a single, streamlined service; reforms the VA health-care infrastructure; and expands VA’s Caregiver Support Program to eligible veterans who were injured prior to Sept. 11, 2001.
Among the changes was one involving emergency room care for veterans in a non-VA facility – a change that was called for by The American Legion.
During a public commentary period, The American Legion was given the opportunity to provide feedback to VA’s Central Office (VACO) on MISSION Act proposals. The American Legion sent five comments back to VACO, including one regarding veterans receiving emergency care in non-VA facilities.
American Legion Department of Minnesota Service Officer Jeremy Wolfsteller reviewed that particular piece of the MISSION Act and said VA took to heart the Legion’s comments. Suggested by the Legion and implemented by VA is a policy that now authorizes VA to pay and cover through VA’s third-party administrator* the cost of non-VA unauthorized emergency care for veterans if the ER provider is in VA’s community care network.
Prior to the MISSION Act, a veteran using emergency room services had their claim sent to Montana, where non-VA ER claims are processed under U.S. Code 1725 and U.S. Code 1728 – making for a much longer and more difficult approval process with stricter criteria.
“That’s huge,” Wolfsteller said. “What that means is that right now, TriWest has all these providers, say, in Minnesota, and a veteran breaks his leg and has to go to the ER. If it’s a life-threatening situation and that provider has to be in VA’s third-party network with TriWest, if the veteran notifies VA within those policies … now the VA just pays those medical bills locally.”
Those “policies” are requirements veterans must meet after receiving their emergency care:
• The facility must be an in-network community care provider.
• The veteran must notify VA within 72 hours of the start of receiving emergency care.
• The veteran must have been seen at a VA facility within the past 24 months.
• A prudent layperson, rather than a medical expert, must also have determined that the veteran did need emergency care.
Veterans using a non-VA community care provider for emergency services who follow the same policies will have their claims forwarded to TriWest for review.
Wolfsteller said many veterans may not know of the emergency room care changes and has been trying to get the word out in Minnesota. “It was because the Legion brought this (change) forward,” Wolfsteller said. “VA has started incorporating at the local level to pay those bills. (The Minneapolis VAMC) went from, over the last couple of the years, only approving 35 percent of non-VA unauthorized emergency (care claims) to 80 percent over the last four months.”
*OptumServe (the federal government health unit of Optum and part of UnitedHealth Group) was awarded the contract to Community Care Network Regions 1, 2, & 3. TriWest was awarded Region 4. Contracts have not yet been awarded for Region 5 or Region 6. Click here for a state-by-state breakdown of regions.
Located along John F. Kennedy Boulevard East, overlooking the Hudson River and with a real estate developer’s dream view of the New York City skyline, American Legion Post 18 in Weehawken, N.J., seems to be located in a prime spot to make a positive impact in its surrounded North Hudson County community.
But more than two years ago the post was at risk of closing. There was little in the way of community involvement, and the post was struggling financially.
But a group of post-911 veterans have led the charge in turning around the 100-year-old post, more than doubling its membership while bringing the post back into the role of a community staple.
Both Chris Page and Troy Robert Mack joined Post 18 in early 2017. Mack, who served in the U.S. Army from 2004-2009, needed some time after his service before joining a veterans service organization. “It was a long road home from Iraq,” he said. “I needed, and God blessed me with, time to heal. By 2017, I felt I was at a place where I could stand up in front of the mirror and the community and be of use. I looked for opportunities to be of use to my neighbors.”
The situation at Post 18 provided Mack, now 39 and the post’s first vice commander, with that opportunity. “I understood that The American Legion was a platform for continuing to serve,” he said. “For me, the (Legion’s) Four Pillars were not just catchphrases. They’re things about which I truly believe and I think are worth dedicating one’s time to pursue.”
Page, who was active duty in the Army from 1992-1999 and currently is a sergeant first class in the Army reserves moved into the role of post commander, one he still has today, less than a year after joining the post. The 44-year-old had recently returned from the Middle East when he came to Post 18 with a few friends to see if he could help turn the post around.
“It was pretty sad,” Page said of Post’s 18 situation. Page eventually reached out to state American Legion leadership, and steps were taken to remove the prior post leadership in late summer of 2017.
Page provided a financial analysis of the post and developed a plan to pay off all the post’s debt by the end of summer 2019. He also took over as post commander in the beginning of 2018.
Page said he envisioned “a kind of holistic approach to the community.” That included helping veterans in need while teaming up with other agencies to benefit the entire community.
Engagement in the community recently has included:
• Hosting two naturalization ceremonies that naturalized 52 U.S. citizens. The most recent took place in November and naturalized 22 citizens from 14 different countries. Voter registration also took place at the event.
• Hosting a Family Fun Halloween Bash in October that was open to children of all ages and featured both games, entertainment, face painting, arts and crafts, and information for parents that included resources on family health, respite services, and support for intellectual and developmental disability.
• Hosting its first Women’s Wellness Day in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The event brought together a wide range of health-care providers, along with legal and financial services’ nonprofits. “That was important to our membership because of the need for greater attention to health and wellness needs of our female veterans,” said Mack.
• Bringing back the tradition of marching in Weehawken Memorial Day parade; in 2018, Post 18 member and U.S. Army veteran Lucy Del Gaudio was the parade’s grand marshal. “This town had never had a female grand marshal … which was a huge first for us,” Page said.
• Hosting mourning ceremonies for veterans who pass away with no family in the area, including one recent Korean War veteran. “We made sure there was an appropriate military ceremony,” said Mack, who served as the ceremony chaplain. “We did the best that we could to honor some of those military traditions. It’s something we’ll do for any of our local veterans who might not be able to have a wake or a proper funeral service. That’s something that Chris and I were very passionate about bringing back.”
• And on Veterans Day of this year, members of the post went door to door in the community to perform buddy checks on older members of the post.
“That’s kind of like the overarching mission from the get-go: helping the community (and) being more community-focused,” Page said. “We allow the Scouts to have meetings here. Church groups. All sorts of great events that reconnect us with the community.”
That kind of engagement has brought in more Legionnaires. The post’s membership has climbed from around 30 when Page and Mack joined to nearly 70. The post also has an active Auxiliary unit comprised of both male and female members.
Many of the post’s members are younger veterans. Thirty-two-year-old Adam Kerr, who served in the Army from 2009-2013, serves as both the post and Hudson County sergeant-at-arms. He already was a member of the Legion but transferred to Post 18 in 2018 after seeing what was happening there through his work with The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that connects veterans with under-resourced communities.
“It was a big thing, coming here and seeing (the post) being started up again,” Kerr said. “And I think a big part of it, too, was being around post-9/11 guys. At my previous post I was the youngest guy by 30 years. I transferred here, could appreciate this leadership, and that was it. Being a part of it coming back and being a legitimate, respectable post.”
Craig Vogel, 30, served in the Army from 2012 until this year and said he wasn’t thinking about joining a veterans service organization – until he connected with Page. “This is a great way for veterans to connect with each other,” Vogel said. “My civilian friends will never have that same connection that I have with fellow servicemembers. When I was in New York City I didn’t feel like there was (a veteran support network). When I moved to New Jersey and met Chris, I was like ‘there’s a support structure here that if I ever had a problem I couldn’t talk about with a regular civilian, I’d have buddies here.’ And I want to be there for someone who says ‘hey, I’m having a rough time here.’ That’s what we do for each other.”
Legionnaires who were members of the post before the current revitalization are “over-the-moon happy about it,” Page said. “We’ve had nothing but positive feedback.”
While Page and Mack are the leaders of a group responsible for turning things around in Weehawken, they refuse to take all of the credit. The pair both praised Hudson County Legion leadership for their mentorship as the post has rebounded.
“That’s been one of the real blessings for me as a Legionnaire: being able to say I’ve got some great big brothers and big sisters who’ve shown us the way,” said Mack.
Page has looked back at the post’s history and saw a centerpiece within the Weehawken community. It’s a role he, Mack and the rest of Post 18’s membership are dedicated to maintaining and expanding.
“Our vision has been to ensure (the post) is grounded in the community (and) make sure it provides a statement about the same principles to which we pledged our service,” Mack said. “That’s been a truly rewarding experience for all of us.
“It helps drive our membership. And it helps reposition The American Legion for whatever the 21st century has in store for us. We shouldn’t just exist for the sake of existing. The heart and soul of it all is to provide a platform for service.”
As the year comes to a close, the fate of multiple big-ticket issues including health care and education benefits impacting thousands of service members and veterans remain uncertain with only a few legislative days left and federal employees eyeing Christmas vacation.
New Year’s kick-off for Blue Water claims
The Department of Veterans Affairs will start processing Agent Orange disability claims Jan. 1 for Blue Water Navy veterans though lawmakers are skeptical the VA will be ready.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said his department will work through the December holidays to prepare for a long roster of veterans claiming overdue benefits. Estimates range from 90,000 to more than 400,000 veterans could be entitled to Blue Water claims.
The Blue Water Navy Act of 2019, which was signed into law in June, states veterans aboard American vessels off Vietnam’s coast between Jan. 9, 1962, and May 7, 1975, are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide, and might be entitled to disability benefits.
Suicide bill to expand care beyond VA
A House bill aimed to combat the crisis of veteran suicides by giving federal funds to programs outside the VA is expected to move forward despite some tense exchanges between lawmakers and the VA. There are multiple versions of the bill on the table, including a compromise from Republicans that aims to quell some concerns from Democrats. The VA estimates the program will cost $85 million for three years, but that amount could change.
Wilkie’s office lobbied congressional offices to get support for the bill, drawing the ire of House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs chairman, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif. Takano contended Wilkie stepped out of line interfering in negotiations over the bill.
Wilkie got into a tense exchange with Takano at a hearing over the measure, saying committee leadership is focusing too much on the process instead of the bipartisan support to expand mental health care and that action has to be swift after years of efforts have seemingly had little impact. Takano pressed Wilkie with questions on oversight limitations, concerned federal dollars could be unaccounted for and that there aren’t clear standards for which organizations get elevated at taxpayers’ expense.
Despite the squabbling, Takano and Wilkie said they are confident some version of the measure will see progress by Christmas.
Hearing on military housing crisis
After a series of news reports, hearings, and lawsuits filed by military families that have pushed for base housing reform, there is a hearing in both chambers of Congress this week on substandard housing conditions at bases across the country.
The three service secretaries and four service chiefs testified Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The House on Thursday is set to question representatives of some housing companies about substandard conditions provided to military families.
The crisis has been a hot button issue for years in the military, drawing near universal indignation within the ranks and families highlighting shockingly poor living conditions with health hazards, dodgy infrastructure, and generally poor upkeep from private companies contracted to provide housing.
GI Bill on the southern border
National Guard troops who have deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border have not been accruing GI Bill benefits, despite President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration entitling soldiers to federal benefits, and universal agreement on Capitol Hill and veteran advocacy groups that some troops have been seemingly short-changed and not given a lot of answers.
Maj. Gen. Dawne Deskins, director of manpower and personnel at the National Guard Bureau, told lawmakers in October that the issue just recently reached the Defense Department. National Guard and DoD officials said the Pentagon is reviewing the issue, but it remains unclear whether soldiers will get their education benefits ahead of the spring semester.
Congressional staffers are working with defense officials on a fix. However, two top Republicans on the House VA committee wrote a letter in September to the defense secretary, asking for the Pentagon to explain what’s holding up benefits for soldiers. They have not yet received a response.
Some unit leadership have told soldiers that they aren’t entitled to GI Bill benefits for their domestic service, spurring confusion within the ranks. However, some troops are getting letters from the VA instructing them on how to attain GI Bill benefits for their southern border deployment.
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