Good morning, Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Tuesday, November 27, 2018, which is Giving Tuesday, National Electric Guitar Day, Pie in the Face Day, and Turtle Adoption Day.
Today in American Legion History:
- Nov. 27, 1979: Orville E. Kelly, a 49-year-old member of American Legion Post 52 in Burlington, Iowa, announces in the media that he has been approved for VA disability compensation for lymphatic cancer related to ionizing radiation exposure in 1957 and 1958 during 22 atomic tests he witnessed in the Marshall Islands. He dies seven months after the decision, which the VA argues does not set a precedent for veterans seeking disability benefits for other service-related radiation exposure. The decision, however, is cited in efforts to obtain recognition and benefits for others exposed during military service and for those who came into contact with Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and with burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Following his death, Kelly’s widow, Wanda, assumes leadership of the National Association of Atomic Veterans, which works to gain government acknowledgement and treatment for conditions related to radiation exposure in the military.
Today in History:
- 1965: The Pentagon informs President Johnson that if General Westmoreland is to conduct the major sweep operations necessary to destroy enemy forces in Vietnam during the coming year, U.S. troop strength should be increased from 120,000 to 400,000 men. Also on this day: The Viet Cong release two U.S. special forces soldiers captured two years earlier during a battle of Hiep Hoa, 40 miles southwest of Saigon. At a news conference in Phnom Penh three days later, the two Americans, Sgt. George Smith and Specialist 5th Class Claude McClure, declared that they opposed U.S. actions in Vietnam and would campaign for the withdrawal of American troops. Although Smith later denied making the statement, U.S. authorities announced that the two men would face trial for cooperating with the enemy. Also on this day: In Washington, nearly 35,000 war protestors circle the White House for two hours before moving on to the Washington Monument. Dr. Benjamin Spock, Coretta Scott King, and activist Norman Thomas were among those who gave speeches.
- 1942: Guitar legend Jimi Hendrix is born in Seattle. Hendrix grew up playing guitar, imitating blues greats like Muddy Waters as well as early rockers. He joined the Army in 1959 and became a paratrooper but was honorably discharged in 1961 after an injury that exempted him from duty in Vietnam. In the early 1960s, Hendrix worked as a pickup guitarist, backing musicians including Little Richard, B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, and Sam Cooke. In 1964, he moved to New York and played in coffeehouses, where bassist Bryan Chandler of the British group the Animals heard him. Chandler arranged to manage Hendrix and brought him to London in 1966, where they created the Jimi Hendrix Experience with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. The band’s first single, “Hey Joe,” hit No. 6 on the British pop charts, and the band became an instant sensation.
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NPR: Connecticut VA Opens Its Doors To ‘Bad Paper’ Veterans
November 26, 2018 | 4:45 PM ET | Heard on All Things Considered | QUIL LAWRENCE
For an estimated 500,000 veterans, being put out of the military with an other than honorable discharge is a source of shame and an obstacle to employment. "Bad paper," in most cases, means no benefits or health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs — even when the problems that got them kicked out were linked to PTSD, traumatic brain injury or military sexual assault.
But last month, Connecticut opened state VA resources to vets who can show that one of those conditions is linked to their discharge. For veterans like Thomas Burke, now a youth minister at Norfield Congregational Church, it’s part of a long path to recovery.
"When I first started looking for jobs, I did not want to be a youth minister to kids, because my PTSD stems from a traumatic event where I failed children," says Burke.
Burke did two combat deployments with the Marine Corps within the space of one year. After a rough tour in Iraq, he found himself in southern Afghanistan, based in a tiny village, living close to civilians. Burke had been trained in the local language, and he connected with the village kids. In one photo, Burke is in combat gear, playing with 15 laughing boys on a dusty road. He says local boys helped out — they would tell them where IEDs were. He grew to love them and they loved him back.
"They’d bring us bombs," he says. "On one of those occasions they were bringing us [a rocket-propelled grenade], and it ended up exploding on them."
When Burke heard the blast, he and other Marines rushed out to find eight of the kids from that photo dead.
That sent him into a spiral — the local hashish was plentiful and many soldiers used it. Burke started smoking heavily and got caught.
Suddenly a promising young Marine was getting kicked out with an other than honorable discharge — a sort of scarlet letter for a veteran, which many say is worse than never having served at all.
Burke was flown to his home base in Hawaii, where a mix of prescriptions and street drugs made things worse. Then, he flew back home.
"I took a plane to Connecticut and slit my wrists in a state park," he says.
Veterans with an other than honorable discharge have higher rates of suicide. They’re at higher risk of homelessness. Mental health issues can snowball with economic ones: When employers ask about military service, they also ask about discharge status — so for job prospects, it is worse than never having served.
"These individuals up till now were denied clinical support services and other programs and benefits, and we believe in many cases may have resulted in a worsening of their conditions," says Thomas Saadi, Connecticut’s commissioner for veterans affairs.
Saadi says it makes both moral and practical sense to help these vets before they’re in crisis. And that’s what Connecticut is now doing, thanks in part to the efforts of veterans like Burke.
After Burke’s failed suicide attempt, the VA made a rare exception, and he was able to get services. He started down a different path — to become a pastor.
And he joined a push to change the law around other than honorable discharge. He found allies in the state Legislature, like Republican Rep. Brian Ohler, also a combat vet.
"When we testified before the Veterans Affairs Committee, [Thomas] and I were sitting right next to each other," says Ohler. "And I said the only difference between Thomas and I is a piece of paper — one that says honorable discharge and the other that says other than honorable."
It took years of lobbying, but as of last month, Connecticut veterans whose other than honorable discharge is linked to PTSD, brain injury or sexual assault will qualify for state health care and benefits, including tuition to state schools.
The national VA is changing too — earlier this year Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., pushed through legislation that makes VA mental health care available nationwide to veterans with other than honorable discharges, though it has been slow to roll out.
For Burke, helping get recognition and treatment for other bad-paper vets has been part of feeling whole again. When he hears kids laughing, it still triggers memories of Afghanistan, but he can smile through them now.
"The opportunity to work with children fills me with the spirit and life and joy in a way that I can’t even explain, because it also makes me recognize how far I’ve come from the person who got back from war," says Burke.
Defense News: US lawmakers urge Trump to arm Ukraine, break silence on Russian blockade
By: Joe Gould | 14 hours ago
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are pressuring U.S. President Donald Trump to take a tougher line on Moscow after an incident at sea between Ukraine and Russia, which is ratcheting tensions between the two neighbors.
Several lawmakers expressed concerns after the Ukrainian navy said Russian ships fired on and seized three of its artillery ships Sunday, wounding six Ukrainian crew members. Russia also closed the Kerch Strait, a key waterway between the Azov Sea and Black Sea, placing the two countries the closest they’ve been to open conflict since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
The incident suggests U.S. and European actions have failed to deter Russian aggression and raised the question whether Trump will attempt to rally allies.
As the conflict unfolded on Sunday, Trump hit European partners with a Twitter attack over NATO burden-sharing: “The European Union, for many years, has taken advantage of us on Trade, and then they don’t live up to their Military commitment through NATO. Things must change fast!"
Though several world leaders have blamed Russian aggression in the incident, Trump seemed reluctant to do so Monday when reporters asked how he felt about the clash. Trump said, “not good. Not happy about it at all,” adding, “we do not like what’s happening either way. And hopefully it will get straightened out.”
On Monday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said Trump was sending the wrong message, that NATO is divided and unwilling to react, just as Russian President Vladimir Putin is testing its resolve.
Engel, likely to become the committee chairman when the House comes under Democratic control in January, called for a unified and forceful response from the U.S. and its allies, short of war.
“We have to work with our allies in the NATO alliance, and what bothers me is President Trump has trashed the NATO alliance,” Engel told Defense News on Monday. “It’s very difficult when you have the president cozying up to Putin once again, not having a very strong response so far — letting Putin think there will be a lot of handwringing and talk, but not a lot of action.”
“I think it was pretty poor taste and timing for the president to issue a statement about burden-sharing at a time when Russian expansion is full blown,” Engel added. “That sends a message to Russia that we’re thrashing our allies and not going to be willing to work in tandem with them and the NATO alliance.”
Engel also repeated his support for sending Ukraine defensive weaponry, which could make Putin reconsider engaging in aggression.
“If Putin starts seeing Russian soldier fatalities, that changes his equation,” Engel said.
Spain and Germany on Monday joined European Union calls on Russia to release Ukrainian sailors and ships, while U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley — during a United Nations Security Council meeting Monday — called on Russia to “immediately cease its unlawful conduct” in the Black Sea.
Russia, meanwhile, called Ukraine’s actions “dangerous” and said the three Ukrainian vessels illegally crossed into Russian waters.
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., threatened new sanctions on Russia, and called for a coordinated response between the U.S. and its European allies.
“If Putin continues his Black Sea bullying, the United States and Europe must consider imposing additional sanctions on Russia, inserting a greater U.S. and NATO presence in the Black Sea region and increasing military assistance for Ukraine, as called for in the [2018 defense policy law],” Inhofe said in a statement Monday.
Congress authorized the government to provide Ukraine with air defense and coastal defense radars, naval mine and countermine capabilities, and littoral-zone and coastal defense vessels as part of the 2018 defense policy bill.
That legislation was a response to Ukraine losing two-thirds of its naval fleet, which mostly was based in Sevastopol when Russia annexed Crimea.
Ukraine has approximately 71 combat aircraft — older Su-27s and MiG-29s, according to the “Military Balance 2018” of the International Institute for Strategic Studies — and no modern air defense system it might have used to contest Russian actions over the Kerch strait. Its navy is less equipped — one frigate, 10 other surface combatants — and in no shape to challenge Russian dominance of Kerch.
“A new Russian use of force may not compel Trump to respond, but it could energize Congressional efforts to outflank him with additional Russian sanctions,” Byron Callan, a defense sector analyst for Capital Alpha Partners, said in a note to investors. “There is not much time left in the lame duck session of Congress, but these efforts could gain new life in January-February.”
The U.S. and Ukraine were in “close discussion” for Washington to supply another tranche of lethal weapons for Kiev’s fight in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told reporters Nov. 18, a day after Klimko met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, Bob Menendez, D-N.J., in a statement on Monday urged Trump to commit to strong actions before the president meets with Putin at the G20 summit this week.
“Once again, the Kremlin has shown that it only respects a strong adversary that is willing to stand up to bullies,” Menendez said.
Menendez called for tougher sanctions, additional NATO exercises on the Black Sea and for the U.S. to send more security aid to Ukraine, “including lethal maritime equipment and weapons.”
Menendez also warned the president against a repeat of his display at the U.S.-Russia summit in July, where Trump embraced Putin’s assertion that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, over the analysis of U.S. intelligence agencies and his national security advisers.
“At this precarious time, the U.S. cannot afford a weak performance by President Trump at the G20, like we saw in Helsinki. Mr. President this is your opportunity to finally show American leadership in defense of our principles and our close allies across Europe,” Menendez said.
Congress, Menendez added, should pass the bipartisan “Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act,” sponsored earlier this year by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. The bill adds measures to strengthen NATO and fight cybercrime, as well as new Russia sanctions on “persons that facilitate illicit and corrupt activities, directly or indirectly, on behalf of Vladimir Putin.”
In a tweet on Monday, the Republican co-chairman of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, Sen. Rob Portman, of Ohio, condemned Russia’s “unprovoked and unwarranted aggression” against the Ukrainian navy in the Azov Sea. He also called the blocking of the ships “an unlawful, hostile action” and said the U.S. "should join the international community in condemning it.”
Portman credited the administration for authorizing the use of lethal aid and facilitating the transfer of two excess Coast Guard patrol boats to the Ukrainian navy.
“That being said, we can, and should look to do more for the Ukrainians with both lethal and non-lethal aid,” Portman said in a separate statement on Monday. "We need to help the Ukrainian people to not only build their military capabilities, but also strengthen their democratic institutions. I will continue to take every opportunity to find ways to help Ukraine — legislatively and otherwise. They are a valued ally who need and deserve our continued support.”
The ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s sea power subpanel, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., called on the United Nations to “sanction this outrage.”
Courtney expressed support for the Ukrainian navy’s right to pass through the Kerch Strait, as governed by international law and bilateral agreements — “not arbitrary Russian diktats ‘closing’ access to Ukrainian territorial waters.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Military Times: Americans and Russians have exchanged gunfire in Syria more than once
By: Kyle Rempfer | 19 hours ago
American forces have clashed with Russian fighters in Syria on more than one occasion.
The details come from an interview Ambassador James Jeffrey, U.S. special representative for Syria engagement, did with Russian media outlets last week.
The interview transcript was subsequently published on the U.S. Embassy in Moscow website.
Jeffrey was asked by the Russian journalists to verify details of a February incident involving a mix of Russian mercenaries and pro-regime Syrian fighters who attacked U.S. and local partner forces in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province. The Pentagon said the U.S. troops called for close-air support to defend their outpost, allegedly killing up to 200 enemy fighters.
There were no American casualties, but one partner force fighter was wounded.
“Can I ask you for some details on that firefight? Did it actually happen and how many casualties were recorded?” a journalist from Kommersant asked Jeffrey.
“There have been various engagements, some involving exchange of fire, some not,” Jeffrey said. “Again, we are continuing our mission there and we are continuing to exercise our right of self-defense.”
The Russian journalist then asked Jeffrey to provide details on the other dozen incidents, but he would not, citing operational security concerns.
“We don’t comment on specific military actions of that nature. U.S. forces are legitimately in Syria, supporting local forces in the fight against Daesh," Jeffrey said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State terror group. "As appropriate — and this has occurred about a dozen times in one or another place in Syria — they exercise the right of self-defense when they feel threatened. That’s all we say on that.”
The February attack was the most widely publicized one involving a clash between U.S. and Russian forces.
Although the Russians were reportedly mercenaries working for Wagner Group, a private military company, the fighters have been accused of acting as an expendable paramilitary unit for the Kremlin. They have been documented fighting in both the Syrian Civil War and the War in the Donbass in Ukraine.
Prior to conducting airstrikes on the Russian and Syrian mixed unit in February, the Pentagon said its local commanders had deconflicted the strikes with their Russian counterparts.
“Coalition officials alerted Russian officials of the [partner force] presence in Khusham [Deir ez-Zor province] via the de-confliction line well in advance of the attack,” a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Syria said at the time.
Russian officials had reportedly assured U.S. commanders they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity of that area, the spokesman said.
The Russian mercenary and pro-regime assault involved T-55 and T-72 main battle tanks with support from multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars, as well as an approximately battalion-sized dismounted formation.
The U.S. contingent on the ground called in airstrikes that reportedly killed hundreds of enemy fighters.
The attack occurred in eastern Syria’s oil-rich Deir ez-Zor province.
“We suspect Syrian pro-regime forces were attempting to seize terrain [U.S.-backed fighters] had liberated from Daesh in September 2017,” Col. Thomas Veale, a spokesman assigned to the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq, said in February. “[Pro-regime forces] were likely seeking to seize oil fields in Khusham that had been a major source of revenue for Daesh from 2014 to 2017.”
Associated Press: Hawaii’s false missile alert leads to new recommendations to prevent mistakes
By: The Associated Press | 12 hours ago
HONOLULU — The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general is recommending changes to the nation’s emergency alert system after Hawaii officials in January mistakenly warned the public about an incoming ballistic missile.
The report calls for mandating that software vendors include message preview and cancelling features in their alert software. It recommends requiring that software vendors provide training to officials using their products.
The agency issued the report last week after U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii asked it to examine the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s role in the false missile alert.
Multiple investigations blamed the alert on human error and inadequate management safeguards — factors outside FEMA’s purview.
The recommendations don’t address those causes, but address alert problems identified in other states.
FEMA says it agrees with the recommendations.