Veterans and military personnel issues set to become a major focus in the presidential campaign (MilitaryTimes)
Veterans reform and military personnel issues are set to take center stage in the presidential election as candidates prepare for the final months of their marathon campaigns. On Thursday, officials from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America announced plans for a Sept. 7 town hall forum with both Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Party candidate Donald Trump on “national security, military affairs and veterans issues.” The event will be in New York less than a week after both candidates address American Legion members during their annual convention in Cincinnati, covering similar topics. The extended focus on veterans issues just as the campaign enters its final three months should put a boosted national spotlight on military community issues that many veterans worry the general public often overlooks. “The quality of the discussion around veterans issues has now reached a long-overdue tipping point,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of IAVA. “Finally, we’ll be able to focus the candidates and the national media on issues like veterans suicide, VA reform, support for women veterans and defending the GI Bill. “After 15 years of war, it’s about time.” Both candidates have offered robust veterans and military reform plans in recent months, but the details of those plans have gotten far less scrutiny from the general public than topics like trade and the economy. Clinton has promised an overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs without moving patients and resources outside the system. She has also vowed to protect GI Bill benefits and promised a host of personnel policy changes to provide military families more flexibility and control in duty assignments. Trump outlined a 10-point plan for veterans reforms in July, including more access to civilian sector doctors for veterans waiting too long for VA appointments and stricter accountability within the department to root out waste and incompetence. But beyond appearances such as the candidates’ speeches at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in July, details of those plans haven’t received much discussion or attention. That’s in part due to military-related gaffes by Trump. In the last few weeks alone, he has worked to deflect criticism of a Gold Star father and explain awkward comments about receiving a Purple Heart as a gift from a veteran. But it is also due to broader interest in the candidates’ foreign policy plans, an issue that routinely ranks among the top concerns of voters. While important, veterans groups have said that what happens to troops after the wars overseas needs to be elevated in national discussions as well. The IAVA forum, to be broadcast on NBC networks, will be held in New York City just before the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Details on the format and moderators will be announced in coming weeks.
GOP rep, vets groups slam VA art purchases (The Hill)
A Republican congressman and two veterans groups slammed the Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday for spending millions of dollars on art. “It’s disgraceful that the VA put money toward these purchases as veterans waited weeks, sometimes months, on end to see a doctor,” Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) said in a written statement. “The VA’s repeated failure to provide veterans with urgently needed care is unacceptable. The agency should focus on fulfilling its obligation to our nation’s veterans instead of buying fancy artwork.” At issue is a July report from nonprofit government spending watchdog Open the Books and Cox Media that said the VA spent $20 million on artwork from 2004 to 2014. Among the purchases were $330,000 for a glass-art installation, $21,500 for an artificial 27-foot Christmas tree and $1.3 million for the installation of a rock sculpture outside a mental health center, according to the report. The VA has said art helps create a healing environment. The report sparked fresh anger at the VA wait-time controversy, with Republicans demanding answers and calling for a halt in the VA buying art. Last week, Buchanan too called for a freeze in buying art at the VA. On Friday, he announced two veterans groups are backing his call. Dan Caldwell, vice president of policy and communications at the conservative-backed Concerned Veterans for America, called the VA’s priorities “flawed.” “The VA’s flawed priorities are actively hurting our veterans — on the backs of American taxpayers,” he said in a written statement. “While veterans nationwide are struggling to receive basic health care, the VA is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on sculptures.” Anthony Hardie, the director of Veterans for Common Sense, highlighted the suicide hotline, which has come under fire for calls going to voicemail, as an example of what the VA needs to address before spending money on art. “There are much more pressing needs and systemic problems at VA facilities around the country that need to be addressed before the VA spends millions of taxpayer dollars on lavish new artwork,” he said, “including fixing VA’s suicide hotline so it can always provide immediate assistance.”
Retired General predicts Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino WWII veterans this year (NBC News)
A bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to Filipino veterans who served in World War II will get done by the end of September, retired Gen. Antonio Taguba predicted at a community meeting in San Francisco last weekend. The retired general, who came to prominence by leading an investigation into the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, has made honoring Filipino veterans his primary focus until the end of the current session of Congress. “There is no plan B,” Taguba told a group of mostly elderly veterans and their families. “To be emotional about this, I would hate to see you again and say we failed the mission.” Though the effort to get basic cash and VA benefits restored for the veterans took decades, Taguba was confident about this bill. “We’re not going to fail this year,” Taguba told NBC News. He said there would be no next year because people realize it’s time to honor these veterans now. “We’re going to Congress and the community and say this bill has nothing to do with anymore benefits or any more immigration,” he added. “This bill is basically to give our thanks for service.” The proposal calls for medals to honor the service of the more than 250,000 Filipinos who answered the call of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941 to defend the U.S. in the Philippines. The bill has already passed the Senate and so far approximately 205 of 290 supporters needed in the House of Representatives, according to Taguba. “We’re knocking on doors to get 85 more,” Taguba said at the meeting. “Because you cannot wait another year. You’ve already waited 75 years. You’re not going to wait another year.” Taguba said the bill will cost the U.S. about $30,000 for one medal, but that community groups are already mobilizing to raise funds to get as many as 20,000 replicas made for all living veterans, as well as surviving spouses and children of deceased veterans. He said a big part of the problem is identifying where the veterans are. Taguba said records show between 11and 15 die each day, but there is no list that shows where living veterans might be. Another challenge Taguba said is that many people, even Filipino Americans, are unaware of the history of the Filipino veterans of World War II. The group to be honored includes those in the Philippines who served as guerrillas and Philippine Scouts, as well as those Filipinos who came early to America and joined the U.S. Army during the war in exchange for citizenship. The inclusive bill will also honor those veterans who have not been officially recognized by the VA for benefits. “We’re not going to exclude you from getting recognition,” Taguba said.
Veterans rally for better healthcare at Vietnam Memorial Wall (Press of Atlantic City)
Veterans rallied in front of the city’s Vietnam Memorial Wall on Friday to urge the Veterans Administration to improve their access to healthcare in South Jersey. About 100 people held up signs and spoke about long waits for doctor visits, lengthy administrative battles to get acknowledgment of disabilities stemming from military service and ailments from Agent Orange they say are still being ignored. “The V.A. has a saying, ‘deny, deny until the vet dies,’” U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Metchnik of Wildwood Crest said. He served in the Air Cavalry in Vietnam in 1967 to ’68. “I’m about to be a grandfather. I’m hearing stuff about Agent Orange that affects children and grandchildren. It scares the hell out of me,” he said. “I’m not sure the V.A. is looking at answers enough.” John Mink, 71, of Stone Harbor and Haddon Township, served in Vietnam in 1969 and ’70 and now battles ischemic heart disease and prostate cancer. He had a heart attack at age 41. “I personally have three symptoms related to my exposure to Agent Orange. The V.A. has treated me. It’s important to call attention to the fact that there’s still a long way to go,” he said. Mink said he is worried that the dioxin he was exposed to through Agent Orange could lead to genetic health problems for his children and grandchildren. “Government officials sometimes forget what happened 50 years ago. But there’s a growing body of proof,” he said. Veterans held up signs reading “PTSD Silent Killer” and “Agent Orange Kills Veterans.” Nancy Wesley, of Wildwood, joined the rally in honor of her late husband, Alvin. “He served at Fort Dix. He was one of the lucky ones. He didn’t get shipped out,” she said. “The V.A. isn’t taking care of our vets as they should be. And I think it’s still going on with the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Make sure they can get well again,” she said. SueAnn Casey, of Wildwood, attended to support her husband, John, who served in the U.S. Navy. “The veterans need a lot of help. It’s sad they have to wait months for appointments. And psychiatrists never call them back. It’s a disgrace the way they treat veterans,” Casey said.
Veterans group wants to end MCAS Miramar Air Show (Stars and Stripes)
There is a debate playing out in the pages of the Union-Tribune Thursday morning over the MCAS Miramar Air Show which will roar into and over San Diego skies next month. A local veterans group says the annual aviation extravaganza glorifies war and the machinery used to kill, maim and destroy, and it is calling for the show to end. Marine Corps officials, however, argue the three-day event showcases what it takes to lead the nation and the world. San Diego Veterans for Peace says it has embarked on a five-year plan to shut down the show and it is asking the public to stay home. The organization wants people to reject what they call the effort to glamorize militarism and the opportunity for the military industrial complex to promote its products used in death and destruction. “The Miramar Air Show — just don’t go,” wrote the group’s past president. “Given our quagmire in the Middle East it’s high time that we gave some thought to how our politicians and military contractors promote war as the answer to our problems,” argued Dave Patterson. Patterson also said the show puts highly-trained military personnel at risk in the entertainment effort and he cited the death of a Navy Blue Angels pilot who was killed June 2 when his jet went down during practice for an air show in Tennessee. But in an opposing piece, Marine Corps First Lieutenant Gabriel Adibe counters that the event showcases the resources it takes “to lead not only the nation but the world with respect to spreading goodwill and saving lives.” Adibe, who is deputy director of public affairs for Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, said the show also allows the military to show its appreciation for the public, strengthen its bonds with the community and showcase the commitment that comes from those who serve. And beyond that, he said, it is patriotic. “The air show is a sight to behold and an experience that makes hearts swell with pride for our nation and those that protect it every single day,” Adibe wrote. The show this year, which draws as many as 500,000 people, is scheduled for Sept. 23 – 25.
WWII POW receives long overdue medal (ArmyTimes)
World War II veteran Charles Stenger received a long overdue Prisoner of War Medal this week, more than 70 years after he was captured during the Battle of the Bulge. Lt. Gen. James McConville, the Army G-1 (personnel), presented the medal to Stenger in his home in Rockville, Maryland. Stenger, who is now 94, said he was proud to receive the medal and honored by the soldiers who attended the small ceremony, according to an Army News Service story. During the Battle of the Bulge, Stenger fought in the Schnee Eifel salient of Belgium, serving as a medic with the 423rd Infantry Regiment, which was attached to the 106th Infantry Division, according to the Army News story. On Dec. 21, 1944, Stenger’s regiment was overrun and surrounded by the Germans. Stenger and his fellow soldiers fought back, but it quickly became clear that they would all be killed. Stenger found a piece of white cloth and surrendered the remaining men; he was one of 6,697 prisoners captured during the surprise German offensive, according to Army News. “I just felt, ‘God, when is this damn thing going to get over?’” Stenger said in “American POWs of World War II: Forgotten Men Tell Their Stories” by Tom Bird. “I kind of saw us all as caught up, the guards, everyone, in this one lousy situation. We are there because we are there, that’s all.” Stenger was held at multiple prison camps until the end of the war. During one of the moves, he was locked inside a boxcar that was strafed by allied forces. Stenger was blown completely outside of the boxcar, landing on his back, Army News reported. The injuries he suffered from that explosion and completely frozen feet rendered him 100 percent disabled, Stenger’s wife, Mary Lou Guandolo, said, according to Army News. After the war, Stenger was honorably discharged from the Army. He went on to serve as a psychologist in the Veterans Administration, which is what the Department of Veterans Affairs was called then, according to Army News. Stenger talked about being a POW in a 2003 article in the Washington Post. “It can be a pretty rough experience,” said Stenger, who at the time was a consultant to the American Ex-Prisoner of War Association. “You are under the total control of somebody who doesn’t give a damn whether you live or die. You are totally vulnerable and helpless.” His own experience as a POW helped him connect with fellow former POWs who sought help from him at the VA. Stenger served in the VA from 1947 until his retirement in 1980. After World War II, prisoners of war were not given a separate medal, according to information from the Army. The POW Medal in its present form was authorized by Congress and signed into law in 1985, according to information from the Army. In 1994, the Stenger family requested a review of his eligibility. The Army found that Stenger was entitled to the award, but the physical medal was never presented to him. The medal was finally awarded to Stenger this week after the case was again brought to the Army’s attention earlier this month.
3 veterans honored & laid to rest as part of Missing In America Project (CBS Pittsburgh)
Three veterans were laid to rest this morning at the Cemetery of the Alleghenies. It was part of the Missing in America Project for unclaimed veterans. Two of the veterans laid to rest were Marines, who served in Vietnam. The third served in the U.S. Air Force. Both of the firefighters who honored the procession and combat veterans who attended the ceremony said it was important for the men to be remembered. High above Interstate 79 in Cranberry, the American flag waved in the wind Friday morning. “The flag is 10×20 foot flag. It’s our biggest flag in our fleet,” said Dennis Kimmel, a volunteer firefighter with the Cranberry Volunteer Fire Department. “Our tower here will extend 100 feet to raise it as high as we can.” Firefighters from the Cranberry Volunteer Fire Department raised the flag, as a symbol of thanks, to veterans. Those whose remains were never claimed, or never had a burial, are escorted by police and veterans, from Butler County, to the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Washington County. “Anytime we can come out and honor our vets, we want to do that,” said Kimmel. As the procession passes, firefighters stand at attention and salute. Once at the cemetery, there is a ceremony, with full military honors, a 21-gun salute and the final call of duty, Taps, is played. The Missing in America Project started in 2006. It’s designed for veterans who might not have surviving family, or whose family can’t bury their loved one. Combat veterans participate to show their respect. Those laid to rest Friday were Gary Howard Gayhart, David Andrew Zulick and Alvin Lee Swain. “It’s just nice to remember these people even though they may have no family or friends who remember them, but we try to,” said Don Fulton, a Vietnam Veteran who rode his motorcycle in the procession and attended the funeral. Fulton said it’s never too late to say thank you, to those who served. “It’s just a nice thing to remember the people who gave them the freedom,” he said. The Cemetery of the Alleghenies has hosted ceremonies as part of the Missing in America project since 2010. It was the first cemetery in Pennsylvania to do so.