<![CDATA[Army Times]]>https://www.armytimes.comFri, 14 Jul 2023 04:18:11 +0000en1hourly1<![CDATA[House Dems bail on defense bill as GOP votes to repeal abortion policy]]>https://www.armytimes.com/congress/2023/07/13/house-dems-bail-on-defense-bill-as-gop-votes-to-repeal-abortion-policy/https://www.armytimes.com/congress/2023/07/13/house-dems-bail-on-defense-bill-as-gop-votes-to-repeal-abortion-policy/Thu, 13 Jul 2023 23:21:05 +0000WASHINGTON ― House Democrats are jumping ship on the traditionally bipartisan defense authorization bill after Republicans passed amendments overturning the Pentagon’s new abortion travel policy and restricting transgender medical care.

Republican leaders put the amendments to the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act on the floor to placate the Freedom Caucus, which had threatened to stall procedural votes on the $874 billion bill.

An amendment from Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, passed 221-213 to ban the military from providing troops with paid travel leave to receive abortions in states where it’s no longer legal. Another amendment from Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., passed 222-211 to ban sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy for transgender troops.

“It’s outrageous that a tiny minority of Republicans is getting to dictate what exact amendments come to the floor,” said Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, which controls floor amendments. There are at least 45 members in the Freedom Caucus. McGovern accused Republicans of turning a “bipartisan bill to a hyper-partisan one by loading it up with every divisive social issue under the sun.”

After the amendments passed, Democrats who usually support the defense bill announced that they would now vote against final passage. The House’s No. 3 Democrat, Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, said he would vote against the final bill because of the amendments. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee who helped usher it to the floor last month, told Defense News that he would now vote against it as well.

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., a veteran and Armed Services Committee member supportive of the original bill, also vowed to vote no.

“I’m not going to support a bill that directly attacks the men and women who have sworn an oath to defend this country and give their life to this country,” said Crow. “I’m not going to bail Republicans out.”

The loss of Democratic support means Republicans can only afford a few defections within their party for final passage and rely on fiscal conservatives who typically oppose the defense bill. Earlier on Thursday, House Oversight Committee Republicans held a hearing hammering the Pentagon for its repeated failures to pass an audit, highlighting the growing clout among fiscal conservatives within the party.

But Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole, R-Ark., told Defense News “I feel pretty good about where we’re at,” expressing optimism Republicans would stick together and pass the final bill in a vote expected on Friday.

The House Appropriations Committee advanced a separate defense spending bill in June over Democratic objections to similar language that would overturn the Pentagon’s abortion and transgender medical care policies. Should the House pass defense legislation overturning those policies, it will run into opposition from the Democratic-held Senate and the White House.

However, the Freedom Caucus failed to secure enough support to ban Ukraine military aid. An amendment from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., to impose a blanket ban on all security aid to Kyiv failed 70-358.

A narrower provision from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., would have cut $300 million in long-term aid to Kyiv from the bill’s Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. The Taylor Greene amendment also failed 89-341.

The House also voted down 217-198 an amendment from Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., that would have undone the bill’s language restricting the Biden administration’s efforts to retire the B83 megaton gravity bomb, which is 80 to 100 times more powerful than the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. Blumenauer’s amendment put him in line with the White House, which released a statement earlier this week asking Congress to remove the B83 language.

The House Rules Committee has put 370 amendments to the bill on the floor and votes are expected to continue through Friday.

Chip Somodevilla
<![CDATA[Army colonel gets $975,000 in sex assault case against Hyten]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/07/13/army-colonel-gets-975000-in-sex-assault-case-against-hyten/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/07/13/army-colonel-gets-975000-in-sex-assault-case-against-hyten/Thu, 13 Jul 2023 17:56:02 +0000A retired Army colonel has reached a court settlement of nearly $1 million in a sexual assault lawsuit against Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The settlement with the U.S. government ends more than four years of investigations, reviews and congressional digging into the matter, which delayed — but ultimately did not defeat — Hyten’s nomination for vice chairman in 2019. He served two years and did not seek a second term.

Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser, who served as Hyten’s aide in 2017, filed the lawsuit, and in the settlement reached in U.S. District Court in California on Wednesday, the federal government will pay her $975,000.

FILE - Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser speaks to members of the media following Gen. John Hyten's confirmation hearing to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 30, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP, File)

“It is my sincere hope that the successful outcome in my case will embolden other survivors of military sexual violence to come forward — no matter how high ranking the perpetrator,” she said in a statement Thursday.

In an interview with The Associated Press in 2019, Spletstoser said Hyten subjected her to a series of unwanted sexual advances by kissing, hugging and rubbing up against her in 2017 while she was one of his top aides. She said she repeatedly pushed him away and told him to stop, and that he tried to derail her military career after she rebuffed him.

Hyten vigorously denied her allegations during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in July 2019, with his wife seated behind him and Spletstoser looking on from a short distance away. An internal Air Force investigation determined there was insufficient evidence to charge him or recommend discipline. And a senior Air Force official said at the time that investigators also found no evidence Spletstoser was lying. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.

It is not uncommon for the U.S. government to pay out large sums of money to settle lawsuits, but a sexual assault case against such a high ranking military officer is far more rare.

The number of reported sexual assaults in the military has increased nearly every year since 2006. And while the services have made inroads in making it easier and safer for service members to come forward, it still remains a highly unreported crime.

Hyten’s nomination was delayed for months while senators pored over thousands of pages of documents and interviewed the general and Spletstoser. The eventual Senate vote of 75-22 to confirm him reflected a bit more opposition than most military nominations, which usually get near-unanimous support.

Ten of the “no” votes came from female senators, including Vice President Kamala Harris, who was then a senator from California, and Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, a survivor of sexual assault while in college and the only Republican to vote against him.

Spletstoser’s attorney, Ariel Solomon, said in a statement Thursday that the legal payout “stands out as the only known settlement paid by the government for a sexual assault case brought against a member of the United States military.”

Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

Andrew Harnik
<![CDATA[House Republicans argue for discipline of ‘bad apples’ at VA]]>https://www.armytimes.com/federal-oversight/congress/2023/07/12/house-republicans-argue-for-discipline-of-bad-apples-at-va/https://www.armytimes.com/federal-oversight/congress/2023/07/12/house-republicans-argue-for-discipline-of-bad-apples-at-va/Wed, 12 Jul 2023 22:21:08 +0000House lawmakers discussed a bill Wednesday that would expedite firing of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employees and limit appeals of those decisions.

Republicans have called it a restoration of accountability for veterans and Americans who are “fed up with bad VA employees” not being appropriately disciplined, said House Veterans Affairs’ Committee Chairman Mike Bost, a Republican from Illinois.

“Veterans are at the core of the mission, not bureaucrats,” he said at the hearing.

VA does not support the bill, saying when there appears to be a delay in addressing a case of misconduct, which Bost questioned, it’s not because the agency is lacking power to deal with it. It’s because it takes time to conduct a thorough investigation, said Rondy Waye, executive director of Human Capital Programs at the agency.

A perceived delay on the front end would be there whether the agency used the bill’s procedures or not, he added.

The Restore the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability Act, introduced last month by Bost and supported by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), clarifies similar legislation signed by President Donald Trump in 2017. However, that law has been mired by legal challenges at federal courts, the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

Lewis Ratchford, the agency’s chief security officer, said in his statement that VA is concerned the bill would continue to throw up time-consuming legal objections, “creating uncertainty and potentially leading to a continued pattern of overturned disciplinary actions.”

For that reason, Secretary Denis McDonough said in March the agency wouldn’t be using some of the authorities, saying that the law “wasn’t really helping us manage our workforce as much as it was getting us in front of federal judges and other administrative bodies,” Military Times previously reported.

Patrick Murray, the legislative director at Veterans of Foreign Wars, said while the original law may have been rendered inert by legal interference, the new bill would fill gaps and allow for proper implementation.

For several years, and increasingly so as the agency has taken on more services for burn pit victims, Congress has been on the VA’s doorstep asking about workforce accountability. In 2014, there were questions about whether employees were being appropriately dismissed in connection with a scandal about juked performance metrics.

Montana Republican Matt Rosendale said the 2017 act led to a 50% increase in removal actions.

Trump signs VA accountability measure into law

“I have yet to understand why this legislation is necessary right now when VA has been clear that they already have the authority they need to discipline employees,” said Mark Takano (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in an emailed statement to Federal Times. “I am concerned about the due process issues we saw with the 2017 law, with VA spending a lot of time in court over the last few years for legislation they said left them no better off.”

“Under the old law, employees were often subject to discipline or termination that was completely out of line with the alleged poor performance or misbehavior,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, to Federal Times. “Right now, the department is experiencing a staffing crisis. Should the VA Accountability Act be restored, these issues will only be exacerbated, and our nation’s veterans will suffer the consequences.”

Some those who opposed the 2017 bill have said the Restore Act’s underlying philosophy resembles that of Schedule F — a plan by the Trump administration to curb employment protections and due process that are inherent to the merit-based civil service.

Part of the bill proposes aligning disciplinary processes for middle managers with those used for the Senior Executive Service, prompting concerns that more severe consequences intended for high-profile employees would become applicable to lower GS-level or wage-grade supervisors when the nature of the work is not necessarily the same.

There’s also concern from agency leaders that harsher policies will create a chilling effect while the agency is going through hiring surges to accommodate implementation of an August law that expands health care coverage for possibly millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic fumes from burn pit fires.

“If you diminish the rights to VA employees below those for the rest of the government, below the doctors and nurses and others, for example, caring for active duty military, [you have] a situation where the VA can’t recruit effectively,” said Daniel Horowitz, AFGE’s deputy legislative director.

Unions are also balking at a provision of the bill that says procedures would supersede collective bargaining agreements.

The VA has the second-largest federal workforce behind the Department of Defense with nearly 400,000 employees and issues roughly 4,900 to 5,000 disciplinary actions a year on average.

“We need to consider what is best for veterans and VA and whether this is something VA actually needs,” Takano said.

With reporting by Military Times’ Leo Shane.

Staff Sgt. Jackie Sanders
<![CDATA[CQ Brown decries hold on nominations in hearing to head Joint Chiefs]]>https://www.armytimes.com/air/2023/07/11/cq-brown-decries-hold-on-nominations-in-hearing-to-head-joint-chiefs/https://www.armytimes.com/air/2023/07/11/cq-brown-decries-hold-on-nominations-in-hearing-to-head-joint-chiefs/Tue, 11 Jul 2023 18:30:32 +0000WASHINGTON — Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown avoided setting off any major fireworks during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday to serve as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, maintaining his reputation as a nonpartisan officer.

But he forcefully laid out the impact that a blanket Senate hold on hundreds of senior military confirmations, including his own, is having on the readiness of the joint force.

“We have strong deputies, but at the same time they don’t have the same level of experience going forward,” Brown told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “In addition to the senior officers, there’s a whole chain of events that goes down to our junior officers. And that has an impact.”

Brown said the holds on senior military officers instated by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., also prevents junior officers from moving up the chain of command, hindering their careers. He noted that if the Senate doesn’t promote the senior officers, they remain in their current positions, “blocking the spot for someone else.”

Additionally, he said it impacts the families of staffers and junior officers as well, preventing them for planning their futures amid uncertainty over where they’ll be based.

“Whether it’s school, whether it’s employment, whether it’s the fact that they already sold their home because they thought they were going to move and are now living in temporary quarters, that creates a challenge,” said Brown. “We will lose talent. The spouse network is alive and well, and the spouses will compare notes.”

Tuberville started a blanket hold on senior military confirmations in February, demanding that the Pentagon rescind its new policy providing paid travel leave for troops to travel to receive abortion services if they’re stationed in states where it’s no longer legal. He was not in the room when Brown outlined the impact his military holds have had.

Democratic lawmakers are reluctant to devote limited floor time to confirming otherwise non-controversial military nominees usually confirmed unanimous consent, even for senior leaders like Brown. Senate Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., noted on Monday that it would take 84 days to confirm all 253 promotions held up on the Senate floor if senators did nothing but vote on them for eight hours a day.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who chairs the military personnel panel, noted that Tuberville’s hold will soon affect approximately 650 military confirmations, significantly lengthening that 84-day timeline.

‘Nonpartisan’ aims as chairman

President Biden in May nominated Brown, 60, to be the nation’s next top military officer. If confirmed, he would succeed current Joint Chiefs chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley.

During his hearing, Brown was praised by most senators for his experience and leadership ability, and he appeared to have broad support on the committee.

Brown stressed to senators how important it is to maintain the military’s distance from politics in his hearing, and pledged to set a personal example of remaining nonpartisan if confirmed as chairman. Still, he could not avoid questions on several controversies that have ensnared the armed forces in recent years, including racial and diversity issues and the COVID-19 vaccine.

Brown said he would expect the rest of the force to exhibit the same nonpartisanship he promised to demonstrate — but he also asked civilian leaders not to pull the military into political debates.

“We need to stay out of politics, and stay nonpartisan, nonpolitical,” Brown said. “And at the same time, advocate that our civilian leadership not to bring us into political situations.”

A simmering debate over whether diversity and inclusion initiatives were appropriate in the military erupted late in the hearing, when Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., began his questioning of Brown by asking, “Do we have too many White officers in the Air Force?”

Schmitt criticized Brown for signing onto an Aug. 9, 2022, memo titled “Officer Source of Commission Applicant Pool Goals,” that updated the service’s racial, gender and ethnicity demographic goals for the pool of officer applicants.

That memo, which was also signed by Air Force Sec. Frank Kendall, then-Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones, and Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond, called those applicant goals “aspirational,” and called for Air Education and Training Command and the U.S. Air Force Academy to come up with diversity and inclusion outreach plans to achieve those goals.

Schmitt pointed to the memo’s goal of having an applicant pool that is 67.5% White, and characterized it as saying that is what the service’s population of officers should be. This, Schmitt said, would amount to “a reduction, essentially, of about 9% of the White officers.”

Brown said the memo was on application goals, not what the actual makeup of the officer corps should be, and that the percentages were based on nationwide demographics.

The Air Force was not advocating for racial quotas, Brown told Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., which are against the military’s policy.

During the hearing, Brown said the Air Force’s efforts to improve diversity are important to give airmen of all backgrounds a chance at excelling.

“All they want is a fair opportunity to perform,” Brown said. “And by providing that fair opportunity, they do not want to be advantaged or disadvantaged or discounted based on their background.”

In his own roles as a fighter pilot, instructor and commandant of the Air Force Weapons School, Brown said that he wanted to earn all his advancements based on his own merits, not because of his background.

“I didn’t want to be the best African-American F-16 pilot,” Brown said. “I wanted to be the best F-16 pilot.”

Recruiting challenges

At the same time, he said, the Air Force needed to make an effort to reach out to multiple populations across the nation, so they know what opportunities are out there, while not compromising on their qualifications or merit.

“Young people only aspire to be what they know about,” Brown said. “If they don’t know anything about the military, and we don’t outreach to them, we may miss some tremendous talent. But they’ve got to be qualified, because we’re a merit-based organization.”

And with the military facing serious recruiting challenges, Brown said it will be even more important for officials such as himself to “reconnect with the nation” and talk about the opportunities military service can provide.

Some Republican senators also pressed Brown on what he would do as chairman to restore to service about 8,000 troops who were kicked out of the military for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Brown indicated an openness to allowing some of those discharged troops to reapply and return to service on a case-by-case basis, as long as the vaccine refusal was the only negative mark on their record. But he noted that, as chairman, he would not be in the chain of command to make such decisions, and could only offer his advice to leaders of the individual services.

Schmitt said allowing those troops to reapply isn’t good enough, and said they should be reinstated with rank and back pay.

Lessons from Ukraine, and modernizing

Brown also endorsed multiyear procurement as a means to bolster munitions production, pointing to the Pentagon’s fiscal 2024 budget request for multiyear authorizations to buy items like the Patriot surface-to-air guided missile system and the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System. He argued that doing so would “help provide predictability to the defense-industrial base, to their supply chains and to their workforce.”

He noted that the war in Ukraine has “exposed” underlying issues in the defense-industrial base, such as the ability to surge munitions production. Additionally, he endorsed a Pentagon plan to transfer weapons from U.S. stockpiles to Taiwan under the same authority that President Joe Biden has used to arm Ukraine.

Brown said that munitions sent to Ukraine and Taiwan “are somewhat different just based on the environment that they’re operating in, but there are some that are similar.”

Asked about lessons drawn from the Ukraine war, Brown said the conflict has highlighted the importance of air power.

“From my own perspective as an airman, the value of airpower and having watched what either side has been able to do or not do, but the value of innovative air defense and how that’s been helpful to the Ukrainians in defense of their nation,” said Brown.

He also highlighted how logistics challenges have hampered Russia’s would-be-conquest of Ukraine, and the difficulty of measuring a military’s will to fight. Additionally, he said it stressed the value of using intelligence before a crisis occurs.

In his three years as Air Force chief of staff, Brown has pushed his service to modernize and prepare for a fight against an advanced adversary such as China — an effort he dubbed Accelerate Change or Lose.

Brown reiterated the importance of modernizing to be able to meet a new threat, even if it means sacrificing one’s “own parochial interests.”

That can be a challenge, he acknowledged. But he pledged to carry that mindset into his new role heading the joint chiefs, if confirmed.

“The challenge there is having all of our service members understanding the big picture, and why this is so important, why we need to modernize, and what’s at stake,” Brown said. “Then you step away from your own parochial interests and then we do what’s best — not just for your part of the organization, but what’s best for the entire organization.”

Alex Wong
<![CDATA[Pentagon policies debate, Joint Chiefs confirmation on tap this week]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/07/10/pentagon-policies-debate-joint-chiefs-confirmation-on-tap-this-week/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/07/10/pentagon-policies-debate-joint-chiefs-confirmation-on-tap-this-week/Mon, 10 Jul 2023 14:00:00 +0000While House lawmakers will spend the week debating new policies for the military, senators will question the man who will be charged with carrying out those changes.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a nomination hearing for Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., President Joe Biden’s pick to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Brown is expected to face tough questioning from Republican members, but his biggest obstacle will be Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who has a hold on more than 200 Defense Department nominees over the military’s abortion access policy.

A few hours after that hearing, the House Rules Committee will set the parameters for floor debate expected to begin this week on the annual defense authorization bill, which contains hundreds of policy changes for the Pentagon in the coming year. More than 1,500 amendments were submitted by lawmakers for the draft bill in recent weeks, but only a small fraction of those are expected to be considered.

Democrats in the chamber are expected to push back against GOP efforts to limit abortion access, transgender medical care limits and other social issues included in the measure. But Republicans are expected to use the measure to reinforce their campaign priorities ahead of negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Senate later this summer.

Both sides hope to have a final product for lawmakers to consider by early fall. Whether Brown can be confirmed in the same timeline is unclear.

Tuesday, July 11

Senate Armed Services — 9:30 a.m. — G-50 Dirksen
The committee will consider the nomination of Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Wednesday, July 12

Senate Armed Services — 9:30 a.m. — G-50 Dirksen
The committee will consider the nomination of Gen. Randy George to serve as Chief of Staff of the Army.

House Veterans' Affairs — 2 p.m. — 360 Cannon
Pending legislation
The committee will consider several pending bills.

Senate Select Intelligence — 2:30 p.m. — 216 Hart
The committee will consider the nomination of Lt. Gen. Timothy Haugh to be the Director of the National Security Agency and Michael Casey to be the Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

Senate Veterans' Affairs — 3 p.m. — 418 Russell
Pending legislation
The committee will consider several pending bills.

Thursday, July 13

Senate Commerce — 10 a.m. — 253 Russell
Coast Guard Budget
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan will testify on the fiscal 2024 budget request for her service.

Senate Foreign Relations — 10:30 a.m. — Capitol S-116
Pending Business
The committee will consider several pending bills and pieces of legislation.

Evan Vucci
<![CDATA[Why the US is willing to send Ukraine cluster munitions now]]>https://www.armytimes.com/flashpoints/ukraine/2023/07/07/why-the-us-is-willing-to-send-ukraine-cluster-munitions-now/https://www.armytimes.com/flashpoints/ukraine/2023/07/07/why-the-us-is-willing-to-send-ukraine-cluster-munitions-now/Fri, 07 Jul 2023 00:22:19 +0000The United States has decided to send cluster munitions to Ukraine to help its military push back Russian forces entrenched along the front lines.

The Biden administration is expected to announce on Friday that it will send thousands of them as part of a new military aid package worth $800 million, according to people familiar with the decision who were not authorized to discuss it publicly before the official announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The move will likely trigger outrage from some allies and humanitarian groups that have long opposed the use of cluster bombs.

Proponents argue that Russia has already been using the controversial weapon in Ukraine and that the munitions the U.S. will provide have a reduced dud rate, meaning there will be far fewer unexploded rounds that can result in unintended civilian deaths.

Here is a look at what cluster munitions are, where they have been used and why the U.S. plans to provide them to Ukraine now.

What is a cluster munition?

A cluster munition is a bomb that opens in the air and releases smaller “bomblets” across a wide area. The bomblets are designed to take out tanks and equipment, as well as troops, hitting multiple targets at the same time.

The munitions are launched by the same artillery weapons that the U.S. and allies have already provided to Ukraine for the war — such as howitzers — and the type of cluster munition that the U.S. is planning to send is based on a common 155 mm shell that is already widely in use across the battlefield.

In previous conflicts, cluster munitions have had a high dud rate, which meant that thousands of the smaller unexploded bomblets remained behind and killed and maimed people decades later. The U.S. last used its cluster munitions in battle in Iraq in 2003, and decided not to continue using them as the conflict shifted to more urban environments with more dense civilian populations.

On Thursday, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said the Defense Department has “multiple variants” of the munitions and “the ones that we are considering providing would not include older variants with (unexploding) rates that are higher than 2.35%.”

Why provide them now?

For more than a year the U.S. has dipped into its own stocks of traditional 155 howitzer munitions and sent more than 2 million rounds to Ukraine. Allies across the globe have provided hundreds of thousands more.

A 155 mm round can strike targets 15 to 20 miles (24 to 32 kilometers) away, making them a munition of choice for Ukrainian ground troops trying to hit enemy targets from a distance. Ukrainian forces are burning through thousands of the rounds a day battling the Russians.

Yehor Cherniev, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, told reporters at a German Marshall Fund event in the U.S. this spring that Kyiv would likely need to fire 7,000 to 9,000 of the rounds daily in intensified counteroffensive fighting. Providing that many puts substantial pressure on U.S. and allied stocks.

The cluster bomb is an attractive option because it would help Ukraine destroy more targets with fewer rounds, and since the U.S. hasn’t used them in conflict since Iraq, it has large amounts of them in storage it can access quickly, said Ryan Brobst, a research analyst for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

A March 2023 letter from top House and Senate Republicans to the Biden administration said the U.S. may have as many as 3 million cluster munitions available for use, and urged the White House to send the munitions to alleviate pressure on U.S. war supplies.

“Cluster munitions are more effective than unitary artillery shells because they inflict damage over a wider area,” Brobst said. “This is important for Ukraine as they try to clear heavily fortified Russian positions.”

Tapping into the U.S. stores of cluster munitions could address Ukraine’s shell shortage and alleviate pressure on the 155 mm stockpiles in the U.S. and elsewhere, Brobst said.

Is using them a war crime?

Use of cluster bombs itself does not violate international law, but using them against civilians can be a violation. As in any strike, determining a war crime requires looking at whether the target was legitimate and if precautions were taken to avoid civilian casualties.

“The part of international law where this starts playing (a role), though, is indiscriminate attacks targeting civilians,” Human Rights Watch’s associate arms director Mark Hiznay told The Associated Press. “So that’s not necessarily related to the weapons, but the way the weapons are used.”

A convention banning the use of cluster bombs has been joined by more than 120 countries, which agreed not to use, produce, transfer or stockpile the weapons and to clear them after they’ve been used. The U.S., Russia and Ukraine haven’t signed on.

Where have they been used?

The bombs have been deployed in many recent conflicts, including by U.S. forces.

The U.S. initially considered cluster bombs an integral part of its arsenal during the invasion of Afghanistan that began in 2001, according to HRW. The group estimated that the U.S.-led coalition dropped more than 1,500 cluster bombs in Afghanistan during the first three years of the conflict.

The Defense Department had been due by 2019 to stop use of any cluster munitions with a rate of unexploded ordnance greater than 1%. But the Trump administration rolled back that policy, allowing commanders to approve use of such munitions.

Syrian government troops often used cluster munitions — supplied by Russia — against opposition strongholds during that country’s civil war, frequently hitting civilian targets and infrastructure. And Israel used them in civilian areas in south Lebanon, including during the 1982 invasion.

During the monthlong 2006 war with Hezbollah, HRW and the United Nations accused Israel of firing as many as 4 million cluster munitions into Lebanon. That left unexploded ordnance that threatens Lebanese civilians to this day.

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has been criticized for its use of cluster bombs in the war with the Iran-backed Houthi rebels that has ravaged the southern Arabian country.

In 2017, Yemen was the second deadliest country for cluster munitions after Syria, according to the U.N. Children have been killed or maimed long after the munitions originally fell, making it difficult to know the true toll.

In the 1980s, the Russians made heavy use of cluster bombs during their 10-year invasion of Afghanistan. As a result of decades of war, the Afghan countryside remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.

What’s happening in Ukraine?

Russian forces have used cluster bombs in Ukraine on a number of occasions, according to Ukrainian government leaders, observers and humanitarian groups. And human rights groups have said Ukraine has also used them.

During the early days of the war, there were repeated instances of Russian cluster bombs cited by groups such as Human Rights Watch, including when they hit near a preschool in the northeastern city of Okhtyrka. The open-source intelligence group Bellingcat said its researchers found cluster munitions in that strike as well as multiple cluster attacks in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, also in the northeast.

More recently, in March, a Russian missile and drone barrage hit a number of urban areas, including a sustained bombardment in Bakhmut, in the eastern Donetsk region. Just west of there, shelling and missile strikes hit the Ukrainian-held city of Kostiantynivka and AP journalists in the city saw at least four injured people taken to a local hospital. Police said Russian forces attacked the town with S-300 missiles and cluster munitions.

Just a month later, Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko accused Russian forces of attacking a town with cluster munitions, wounding one person. An AP and Frontline database called War Crimes Watch Ukraine has cataloged how Russia has used cluster bombs.

<![CDATA[US to provide Ukraine cluster munitions in new military aid package]]>https://www.armytimes.com/flashpoints/ukraine/2023/07/06/us-to-provide-ukraine-cluster-munitions-in-new-military-aid-package/https://www.armytimes.com/flashpoints/ukraine/2023/07/06/us-to-provide-ukraine-cluster-munitions-in-new-military-aid-package/Thu, 06 Jul 2023 19:50:20 +0000Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information on July 7.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s administration has decided to provide cluster munitions to Ukraine and is expected to announce on Friday that the Pentagon will send thousands of them as part of a new military aid package worth up to $800 million for the war effort against Russia, according to people familiar with the decision.

The decision comes despite widespread concerns that the bombs can cause civilian casualties and sparked a call from the United Nations to both Russia and Ukraine to avoid using them. The Pentagon will provide munitions that have a reduced “dud rate,” meaning there will be far fewer unexploded rounds that can result in unintended civilian deaths.

U.S. officials said Thursday they expect the military aid to Ukraine will be announced on Friday. The weapons will come from Pentagon stocks and will also include Bradley and Stryker armored vehicles and an array of ammunition, such as rounds for howitzers and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS, officials said.

Why the US is willing to send Ukraine cluster munitions now

Long sought by Ukraine, cluster bombs are weapons that open in the air, releasing submunitions, or bomblets, that are dispersed over a large area and are intended to wreak destruction on multiple targets at once.

The officials and others familiar with the decision were not authorized to publicly discuss the move before the official announcement and spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.

Ukrainian officials have asked for the weapons to aid their campaign to push through lines of Russian troops and make gains in the ongoing counteroffensive. Russian forces are already using cluster munitions on the battlefield and in populated civilian areas, U.S. officials have said.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, some cluster munitions leave behind bomblets’ that have a high rate of failure to explode — up to 40% in some cases. U.S. officials said Thursday that the rate of unexploded ordnance for the munitions that will be going to Ukraine is less than 3% and therefore will mean fewer threats left behind to civilians.

At a Pentagon briefing Thursday, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said he had no announcement to make about cluster munitions. He said the Defense Department has “multiple variants” of the munitions and “the ones that we are considering providing would not include older variants with (unexploding) rates that are higher than 2.35%.”

Ryder would not say whether Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has reached out to NATO counterparts to address some of their concerns on the use of cluster munitions. Ryder said the U.S. is aware of reports that indicate some munitions have higher unexploding rates.

If the decision was made to provide the munitions to Ukraine, he said the U.S. “would be carefully selecting rounds with lower dud rates, for which we have recent testing data.”

Asked how the cluster munitions, if approved, would help Ukraine, Ryder said they can be loaded with charges that can penetrate armor and fragment so they can hit multiple personnel — “a capability that would be useful in any type of offensive operations.” Ryder said the Russians have been using cluster munitions that have a very high dud rate.

Oleksandra Ustinova, a member of Ukraine’s parliament who has been advocating that Washington send more weapons, noted that Ukrainian forces have had to disable mines from much of the territory they are winning back from Russia. As part of that process, Ukrainians will also be able to catch any unexploded ordnance from cluster munitions.

“We will have to de-mine anyway, but it’s better to have this capability,” Ustinova said.

She credited Congress for pushing the Democratic president’s administration over several months to change its position on the munitions.

Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the move was long overdue.

“Now is the time for the U.S. and its allies to provide Ukraine with the systems it needs from cluster munitions to F-16s to ATACMS in order to aid their critical counteroffensive. Any further delay will cost the lives of countless Ukrainians and prolong this brutal war,” said McCaul, R-Texas.

The Army Tactical Missile System, known as ATACMS, would give Ukraine the ability to strike Russian targets from as far as about 180 miles (300 kilometers).

Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that the U.S. has been thinking about providing the cluster munitions “for a long time.”

“The Ukrainians have asked for it, other European countries have provided some of that, the Russians are using it,” Milley said during a speech at the National Press Club.

Cluster bombs can be fired by artillery that the U.S. has provided to Ukraine, and the Pentagon has a large stockpile of them.

The last large-scale American use of cluster bombs was during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, according to the Pentagon. But U.S. forces considered them a key weapon during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, according to Human Rights Watch. In the first three years of that conflict, it is estimated the U.S.-led coalition dropped more than 1,500 cluster bombs in Afghanistan.

Pentagon spokesman U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder listens to a question during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Thursday, July 6, 2023, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Proponents of banning cluster bombs say they kill indiscriminately and endanger civilians long after their use. Groups have raised alarms about Russia’s use of the munitions in Ukraine.

A convention banning the use of cluster bombs has been joined by more than 120 countries who agreed not to use, produce, transfer or stockpile the weapons and to clear them after they’ve been used.

The United States, Russia and Ukraine are among the countries that have not signed on.

Marta Hurtado, a spokesperson for the U.N. human rights office, said Friday that “the use of such munitions should stop immediately and not be used in any place.”

“We will urge the Russian Federation and Ukraine to join the more than 100 states that have ratified the convention of cluster munitions and that effectively ban their use,” she added.

It is unclear how America’s NATO allies would view the U.S. providing cluster bombs to Ukraine and whether the issue might prove divisive for their largely united support of Kyiv. More than two-thirds of the 30 countries in the alliance are signatories of the 2010 convention on cluster munitions.

Germany made clear on Friday that it won’t be providing any cluster ammunition to Ukraine, as it joined an international treaty prohibiting the weapons more than a decade ago, but it expressed understanding for the American position.

“We’re certain that our U.S. friends didn’t take the decision about supplying such ammunition lightly,” German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit told reporters in Berlin. “We need to remember once again that Russia has already used cluster ammunition at a large scale in its illegal war of aggression against Ukraine.”

Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary of defense focusing on Russia and Ukraine, recently testified to Congress that the Pentagon has assessed that such munitions would help Kyiv press through Russia’s dug-in positions.

____ AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee and Associated Press writers Geir Moulson, Tara Copp, Zeke Miller and Frank Jordans contributed to this report.

Mohammad Zaatari
<![CDATA[VA plans new cancer research center with Stanford medical experts]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/30/va-plans-new-cancer-research-center-with-stanford-medical-experts/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/30/va-plans-new-cancer-research-center-with-stanford-medical-experts/Fri, 30 Jun 2023 18:46:02 +0000Veterans Affairs officials unveiled preliminary plans to build a new cutting-edge cancer care and research center in California with Stanford University as part of new public-private partnership efforts approved as part of sweeping toxic exposure legislation approved last summer.

Construction is still years away, but VA officials touted the announcement as a sign of what the future of department health care could be: groundbreaking research that benefits not only veterans suffering from the wounds of war, but also the country as a whole.

“This will allow us to partner with every powerhouse academic center in the country, if we do this right,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, VA Under Secretary of Health, during a press event at the Stanford Medicine campus on Friday. “For research, training, and care delivery, it’s all one bucket of cancer care that veterans deserve.”

According to VA statistics, more than 50,000 new cancer cases are reported to department registries annually. Elnahal said because of other health issues related to military service, veterans often face worse health outcomes from those diagnoses than patients without any military background.

Deadline looms for vets to get retroactive toxic exposure benefits

Stanford officials said they conduct about 1,000 new clinical trials with cancer patients annually. The goal of the new joint center would be to bring those efforts together with existing VA research projects, and use the combined resources to speed up results and expand workloads.

“This center will provide our entire community, both veterans and non-veterans, access to cancer care that’s informed by the best possible science and research,” said David Entwistle, president and CEO of Stanford Health Care. “And what’s more, we’ll be able to serve as a beacon of hope for millions of patients and their families who will receive that difficult diagnosis.”

Details of construction timing, project costs and facility staffing still need to be worked out between federal officials and university leaders. Elnahal acknowledged the work is still in its very early stages, but said he hopes to open the doors to the new center in the next five years.

Friday’s partnership was made possible through the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act) signed into law last August. That measure is best known for a massive expansion of disability benefits for veterans who suffered toxic exposure injuries during their time in service, including 12 types of cancer linked to prolonged inhalation of burn pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the legislation also included new authorities for VA leaders to work with private institutions on research and medical care. Department officials said the Stanford project will serve as a model for more partnerships to come.

“My message to veterans is this: know that we are doing this in service of making medical care even better and more accessible to you over time,” Elnahal said.

VA officials are spending the next month conducting a public awareness campaign on the PACT Act in an effort to get more veterans to sign up for medical care and benefits. More than 660,000 veterans have applied for benefits in the last 11 months, and the department has paid out more than $1.4 billion to eligible recipients so far.

<![CDATA[Lawmakers eye ending affirmative action at military academies ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/30/lawmakers-eye-ending-affirmative-action-at-military-academies/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/30/lawmakers-eye-ending-affirmative-action-at-military-academies/Fri, 30 Jun 2023 17:15:00 +0000Thursday’s Supreme Court decision which ended the use of affirmative action in college admissions contained a carve out for military service academies, but a key Senate Republican wants to eliminate it there too.

Shortly after the ruling was announced, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., took to social media to praise the court’s ruling and his aim to “further prohibit our military service academies from engaging in race-based affirmative action.”

Earlier in June, Wicker introduced his Military Merit, Fairness, and Equality Act, which would “prohibit the Department of Defense from prioritizing the demographic characteristics of service members above individual merit and demonstrated performance.” Although the military academies are not specifically mentioned in the legislation, it would cover all defense-affiliated institutions.

In connection with the high court’s 6-3 ruling on affirmative action this week, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that none of the military academies were part of the case before the justices, and therefore the decision does not address how race-based admission systems may impact “the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present.”

Service academies exempt from Supreme Court affirmative action ruling

Wicker, who plans to offer his legislation as an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill during floor debate in July, said the move is needed to bring “fairness” back to the armed forces and refocus military leaders on lethality, readiness and other relevant force priorities.

On Friday, Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Wisc., introduced similar language as an amendment to the House draft of the annual authorization bill, banning the Defense Department from “granting preferential treatment to any person or group based in whole or in part on race.”

Senate Democratic leaders have already pushed back against those proposals, calling them political interference in the military’s efforts to ensure that the fighting force represents the demographics of the country at large.

Numerous Democrats also sharply criticized the Supreme Court’s Thursday ruling, and called the exception for military academies perplexing.

“So military academies can use race-conscious admissions policies because it’s fine to explicitly and intentionally send our Black and brown kids off to die, but not explicitly and intentionally give them access to education?” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., wrote in a social media post following the Supreme Court ruling.

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo. and an Army veteran, echoed that sentiment, calling the decision “outright grotesque” because of the military carve out.

Last year, as part of the case pending before the Supreme Court, 35 former top military leaders filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that affirmative action was necessary for national security, both in the academies and for Reserve Officer Training Corps students at private universities.

The Republican measures face a difficult legislative path ahead. Wicker’s language is unlikely to advance in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Tiffany’s measure could see more success in the Republican-controlled House, but would still have to survive negotiations with Senate leaders before becoming law.

Both chambers are expected to resume debate on the authorization bills — which include hundreds of policy changes and budget priorities for the military — when they return from their current break on July 10.

Bryan Woolston
<![CDATA[Abortion debate could snarl Congress’ work on the defense budget]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/30/abortion-debate-could-snarl-congress-work-on-the-defense-budget/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/30/abortion-debate-could-snarl-congress-work-on-the-defense-budget/Fri, 30 Jun 2023 09:00:00 +0000The issue of abortion in the military is already slowing senior Defense Department nominations. It could hijack the Pentagon’s budget process next.

That’s because numerous Republican lawmakers are expected to try to ban all abortion access policies for troops in upcoming authorization and appropriations bills set for congressional debate next month. And Democrats will push for even wider access to the procedure. Depending on each side’s success, it could threaten whether the military will receive its funding for next fiscal year in a timely manner, if at all.

For now, the issue is not a key focus of the House or Senate drafts of the annual defense authorization bill, a massive budget policy measure that includes hundreds of specialty pay renewals and new policy priorities for the department.

GOP lawmakers target diversity training, COVID rules in defense bill

The House Armed Services Committee debated changes to the legislation for more than 14 hours earlier this month, but did not cover the military’s abortion policies at all. Republican lawmakers said they expect the issue to be raised on the House floor instead.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, behind closed doors, did broach the issue, adopting language calling for a study into the department’s existing rules, which allow troops and some eligible family members to receive travel stipends and paid leave if they need to cross state lines to legally have an abortion procedure.

However, Republicans said that fell well short of their goals of overturning the department’s policies. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she plans to push for an amendment blocking the abortion access rules when the measure comes before the full Senate.

“This is not a policy that the Defense Department should even have put in play,” she said. “We’re not going to wait for the House to do something. It’s important that we take it up here.”

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., since March has been holding up all senior military promotions and confirmations because of his opposition to the Pentagon abortion access policies. His staff last week said those holds will remain in place “unless the DoD rescinds the policy” or unless Congress votes to approve the existing options.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Tuberville’s holdup of defense nominees “outrageous” and said that Tuberville “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” when it comes to the legality of the policy.

Meanwhile, House Republican appropriators earlier this month adopted a funding plan for the Defense Department for fiscal 2024 which included a full repeal of the military abortion access policy. Democrats on the panel unsuccessfully tried to remove the language, and vowed to fight against it again when the measure comes up for a full chamber vote.

In addition, several female Democratic lawmakers are planning an amendment to the House authorization bill to eliminate restrictions in current law which prohibit the Defense Department from using any funds to provide abortion services. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., who is among those leading the House effort, called it an issue of fairness and readiness.

“Our military families sacrifice so much for us, yet too many of my colleagues have decided that our armed forces should not have something as fundamental as bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom,” she said in a statement. “To be ready to fight tomorrow’s wars, we must recruit and retain the brightest minds and fiercest fighters this country has to offer. We don’t do that by telling service women, spouses, and their families they can’t seek reproductive care – care that is available to their civilian counterparts.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is expected to offer similar legislation in the Senate in the next few weeks.

In past years, leaders from both parties have tried to keep controversial topics off the authorization and appropriations bills in an effort to ensure funding for the military isn’t disrupted by political fights. Their efforts have been met with mixed success. This year, having abortion as part of the inter-chamber negotiations on military spending appears inevitable.

GOP bill bans military abortions, transgender care, diversity work

Both Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I. and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said after finishing their respective authorization bill drafts that they hope to move quickly on the legislation, with an eye towards passage before Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

But if lawmakers on either political extreme balk on the abortion issue, it could drag negotiations well into the fall. An appropriations delay past the Oct. 1 deadline could trigger a partial government shutdown, unless a temporary extension is adopted. Failure to find a compromise on the authorization bill would break a streak of 62 consecutive years passing that legislation.

The showdowns will start the week of July 10, when lawmakers from both chambers are scheduled to return from a two-week break and House leaders plan to start general debate on the authorization bill.

Anna Moneymaker
<![CDATA[White House $3.1 billion homeless program includes help for vets]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/29/white-house-unveils-new-support-programs-for-homeless-vets/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/29/white-house-unveils-new-support-programs-for-homeless-vets/Thu, 29 Jun 2023 09:00:00 +0000White House officials are pairing new legal support and job training programs for veterans with a $3.1 billion investment in general community support grants in an effort to further reduce the number of veterans facing homelessness.

Administration officials unveiled the plans on Thursday, calling them “the single largest investment in communities’ homelessness response systems in history.” The move comes as Veterans Affairs officials said they are on pace with their goal of permanently housing 38,000 at-risk veterans this year.

“Homelessness is a challenge we face as a nation, but importantly it is also a solvable one,” said White House Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden in a press conference on the new initiatives.

According to the latest federal estimates, about 33,000 veterans across the country lack reliable, permanent housing on any given day. That figure is down about 11% since 2020 and down about 55% since 2010.

Advocates struggle to help homeless vets as COVID support disappears

Despite the progress, however, veterans advocates have warned that the expiration of a host of pandemic-era support programs and grants threatens support systems for vulnerable veterans. Officials from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans said some non-profits have seen their federal grants slashed by tens of thousands of dollars, potentially hurting their outreach efforts.

The $3.1 billion boost to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care program could help offset some of those losses. The program awards funds to community groups and local governments to help provide support to families facing the threat of homelessness.

Federal officials said the new money will not be earmarked solely for veterans support efforts, but that participants will be directed to “coordinate with local Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers to ensure these funds are effectively supporting veterans and their families.”

Two other new programs will be aimed directly at helping veterans, however. A new $11.5 million Legal Services for Veterans grant program will give individuals help with fighting eviction orders, gaining access to financial support programs, and provisioning similar legal assistance.

“Legal support can be the difference between becoming homeless in the first instance or having a safe, stable house,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough.”With this, we move ever closer to that goal.”

VA aims to help 38,000+ homeless veterans again this year

The Department of Labor Veterans’ Employment and Training Service also plans to launch a new $58 million grant program to connect homeless veterans with job opportunities. That money will include training programs for in-demand industries and outreach to community employers to connect them with would-be veteran workers.

Department of Veterans Affairs officials will also work with HUD leaders on a series of “boot camps” on veterans homelessness throughout the fall, officials said. The sessions will bring together staffers to talk about best practices in reaching and helping veterans, and finding ways to better coordinate cooperation of numerous federal agencies in focusing on helping homeless veterans.

Tanden called the success in reducing the number of homeless veterans over the last decade a model for other government support efforts, but also said that more still needs to be done.

Congressional appropriators in the House and Senate have already preliminary backed plans for a 16% boost in homelessness assistance funding in the budget for fiscal 2024, which begins on Oct. 1. However, because of ongoing partisan fights on a host of budget issues, it’s unclear when that money may be available to VA planners.

Jae C. Hong
<![CDATA[Deadline looms for vets to get retroactive toxic exposure benefits]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/27/deadline-looms-for-vets-to-get-retroactive-toxic-exposure-benefits/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/27/deadline-looms-for-vets-to-get-retroactive-toxic-exposure-benefits/Tue, 27 Jun 2023 17:00:00 +0000Veterans Affairs officials plan a public awareness blitz over the next five weeks to get as many individuals as possible to sign up for new military toxic exposure benefits ahead of an August deadline for retroactive payouts.

The Summer VetFest is part of a year-old, $11.4 million effort connected to the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act), sweeping benefits legislation approved by lawmakers last summer. As many as one in five veterans living in America today could receive new health care or disability payouts as a result of the measure.

The PACT ACT provides presumptive benefit status for 12 types of cancer and 12 other respiratory illnesses linked to burn pit exposure in the Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq; hypertension and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance (MGUS) for veterans who served in Vietnam; and radiation-related illnesses for veterans who served in several new locations in the 1960s and early 1970s.

“There are millions of veterans and survivors across America who are eligible for new health care and benefits, and we will not rest until every one of them gets what they’ve earned,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “That’s what this Summer VetFest is all about: educating veterans, their families, and survivors — and encouraging them to apply today.”

Biden signs burn pit exposure health bill into law

Since the PACT Act was signed into law on Aug. 10, 2022, more than 660,000 veterans have applied for benefits, and the department has paid out more than $1.4 billion.

Under federal law, veterans who apply for the PACT Act payouts within a year of the bill signing are potentially eligible for retroactive benefits back to that date. But veterans who enroll after Aug. 9, 2023, will only receive payouts back to their date of filing.

Veteran Affairs officials said that’s the impetus for the July outreach push. By filing ahead of the Aug. 9 deadline instead of after it, veterans who are awarded toxic exposure disability benefits could get tens of thousands of dollars more in payouts.

Department staff have held similar outreach efforts throughout the past 12 months, including a “PACT Act Week of Action” in December, when VA hosted dozens of local information events across the nation.

Along with new online ads and public service announcements, the new outreach push will include events in all 50 states (plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico) where veterans can apply for PACT Act-related benefits, enroll in VA health care, get screened for toxic exposures injuries, or learn more about VA services.

Veterans or their family members can also get information about PACT Act benefits by visiting the department’s web site or by calling 1-800-MYVA411 (1-800-698-2411).

<![CDATA[US to send $500 million in weapons, military aid to Ukraine]]>https://www.armytimes.com/flashpoints/ukraine/2023/06/26/us-to-send-500-million-in-weapons-military-aid-to-ukraine/https://www.armytimes.com/flashpoints/ukraine/2023/06/26/us-to-send-500-million-in-weapons-military-aid-to-ukraine/Mon, 26 Jun 2023 21:57:35 +0000Editor’s note: This story was updated Tuesday, June 27, 2023, to reflect the formal announcement of aid for Ukraine.

The Biden administration announced Tuesday that it is sending up to $500 million in military aid to Ukraine, including more than 50 heavily armored vehicles and an infusion of missiles for air defense systems, as Ukrainian and Western leaders try to sort out the impact of the brief weekend insurrection in Russia.

The aid is aimed at bolstering Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which has been moving slowly in its early stages.

It’s the 41st time since the Russian invasion into Ukraine in February 2022 that the U.S. has provided military weapons and equipment through presidential drawdown authority. The program allows the Pentagon to quickly take items from its own stocks and deliver them to Ukraine.

FILE - Ukrainian servicemen prepare to fire at Russian positions from a U.S.-supplied M777 howitzer in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, July 14, 2022. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP, File)

Because the aid packages are generally planned in advance and recently included many of the same critical weapons for the battlefront, the contents weren’t likely chosen based on the weekend rebellion by Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner mercenary group that he has control. It isn’t clear if Ukrainian forces will be able to take advantage of the disarray in the Russian ranks, in the aftermath of the short-lived revolt.

But, the missiles and heavy vehicles can be used as Ukraine tries to capitalize on what has been a growing feud between the Wagner Group leader and Russia’s military brass, with simmering questions about how many of Prigozhin’s forces may leave the fight.

The mercenaries left Ukraine to seize a military headquarters in a southern Russian city and moved hundreds of miles toward Moscow before turning around after less than 24 hours on Saturday.

The Pentagon in a statement said the U.S. will send 30 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and 25 of the armored Stryker vehicles to Ukraine, along with missiles for the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and the Patriot air defense systems. The package includes Javelin and high-speed anti-radiation (HARM) missiles, demolition munitions, obstacle-clearing equipment and a wide range of artillery rounds and other ammunition.

White House principal deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton said the new package “includes key capabilities that will support Ukraine’s counter-offensive operations” and would strengthen Ukraine’s air defenses.

According to the Pentagon, the U.S. has delivered more than $15 billion in weapons and equipment from its stocks to Ukraine since the Russian invasion, and has committed an additional $6.2 billion in supplies that haven’t yet been identified. The more than $6 billion extra is the result of an accounting error, because the military services overestimated the value of the weapons they pulled off the shelves and sent to Ukraine over the past year.

More broadly, the U.S. has also promised to send more than $16.7 billion in longer-term funding for various weapons, training and other equipment through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, and an additional roughly $2 billion in foreign military financing.

The U.S. has at least $1.2 billion in drawdown authority that hasn’t yet been committed but will expire at the end of this fiscal year on Sept. 30. The remaining $1.9 billion in USAI funds does not expire until the end of the next fiscal year, in September 2024.

Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.

Alex Brandon
<![CDATA[Defense bill targets religious freedom group for its advocacy work]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/26/defense-bill-targets-religious-freedom-group-for-its-advocacy-work/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/26/defense-bill-targets-religious-freedom-group-for-its-advocacy-work/Mon, 26 Jun 2023 20:35:00 +0000Military members and staff would be barred from interacting with a well-known advocacy group that has frequently sparred with Christian organizations under an amendment inserted into the House draft of the annual defense authorization bill last week.

Defense officials and troops would be barred from communicating with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation or from making “any decision as a result of any claim, objection, or protest made by MRFF without the authority of the Secretary of Defense,” per language offered by Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and adopted with unanimous, bipartisan support by the members of the House Armed Services Committee, according to documents supplied by the committee.

The group’s founder called the legislative language an unconstitutional attack on their efforts and troops’ rights, and vowed to fight the move as the measure winds through Congress.

“If they don’t like what we do at MRFF on behalf of our 84,000-plus military and veteran clients, they can take a number, pack a picnic lunch and stand in line with the rest of those fundamentalist Christian extremist bastards who constitute our enemies,” said Mikey Weinstein, president and founder of the group.

Pentagon unveils new religious liberty policies after pressure from conservative lawmakers

A senior committee staffer familiar with the crafting of the memo but not authorized to speak to the press said the actions of the group have raised concerns among lawmakers for years, and the language is designed to ensure that military staffers don’t overreact to the group’s demands without following proper review procedures.

In March, the group boasted that they convinced leaders at an Austin, Texas, Veteran Affairs clinic to remove a prominently displayed cross from a public lobby “in under 90 minutes.” MRFF officials said the display improperly sent the message “that our military is a Christian military and only Christian veterans matter.”

The non-profit has pushed similar efforts in the past, often riling conservative Christian groups. In February, after MRFF officials convinced Merchant Marine Academy leaders to move a painting titled “Christ on the Water” from a public space to a chapel, the move was attacked by Republican lawmakers and outside Christian groups as overreach.

Weinstein said getting singled out in the legislation amounts to a “badge of honor” for his work.

“If the fundamentalist Christian nationalists who are behind this are trying to execute us through legislation, we’ll take that as validation of the positive effect that we’re having for our clients and for the Constitution,” he said. “And they can go fuck themselves.”

Turner’s office declined to comment and House Democratic committee leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment ahead of publication. The defense bill is expected to go through numerous changes over the next few months before becoming law. House Republicans are expected to add more amendments on issues of abortion access and transgender rights when the measure comes up for full chamber debate next month.

GOP lawmakers target diversity training, COVID rules in defense bill

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s draft of the authorization bill does not include any similar restrictions on communications or response to MRFF requests.

In contrast to the House Armed Services Committee’s legislation, the measure proposed by the Democratic-led Senate committee contains only a few controversial social issues, although Republicans could attempt to add more through amendments during floor debate next month.

A final draft of the legislation is expected to be negotiated later this summer, with an eye towards passage of a final draft sometime this fall. The authorization bill has been passed by Congress for 62 consecutive years, making it one of the most reliable legislative vehicles on Capitol Hill annually.

<![CDATA[Supreme Court to rule on whether vets should get more GI Bill benefits]]>https://www.armytimes.com/education-transition/2023/06/26/supreme-court-to-rule-on-whether-vets-should-get-more-gi-bill-benefits/https://www.armytimes.com/education-transition/2023/06/26/supreme-court-to-rule-on-whether-vets-should-get-more-gi-bill-benefits/Mon, 26 Jun 2023 16:30:00 +0000The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to take up an ongoing veterans education benefits case which could dramatically rewrite federal benefits rules and give additional tuition money to potentially millions of veterans.

And if the nation’s highest court upholds the decisions of lower federal courts, the ruling could finally end the eight-year-old legal fight, forcing Veterans Affairs leaders to start paying out the money in coming college semesters.

The case — Rudsill vs. McDonough — has been closely watched by advocates for years because of its potential wide-ranging impact on veterans seeking college degrees. Monday’s decision to take up the case means that lawyers for the plaintiff and the federal government will argue their cases before the Supreme Court sometime this fall, with a final decision expected sometime in spring 2024.

One vet’s GI Bill fight could win benefits for millions of other students

In a joint statement, Troutman Pepper partner Misha Tseytlin and associate Timothy McHugh — who have handled the case in recent years — called the high court’s decision a welcome chance at finally resolving the case.

“Should we prevail, approximately 1.7 million post-9/11 veterans will be eligible to receive additional educational benefits totaling billions of dollars,” they said. “This would be transformative for millions of veterans, their families, and their communities.”

VA officials have declined all comment on the ongoing case, but pledged to work with veterans to help them handle any complications with their education benefits.

The case centers on how the Department of Veterans Affairs has awarded education support through its Post-9/11 GI Bill program and the Montgomery GI Bill program. Under the first, eligible veterans receive 36 months of tuition payouts, housing stipends and other financial assistance. The Post-9/11 GI Bill is used by the vast majority of veterans attending schools today.

The Montgomery GI Bill program was the predecessor to the Post-9/11 GI Bill and is being phased out by the department. It offers far less money, but still can provide several thousands of dollars annually to veterans for tuition costs if they paid into the program at the start of their military service.

Currently, VA officials make students give up eligibility for the Montgomery GI Bill program when they register to begin using the Post-9/11 GI Bill. That means that once their education benefits from that program are exhausted, they cannot receive more tuition support from the other program.

Jim Rudisill, the Army veteran at the center of the court case, was wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq in 2005 and used his Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits shortly thereafter. But he wanted to tap into his unused Montgomery GI Bill benefits to attend Yale Divinity School, as part of the process to become an Army chaplain, and sued when VA officials denied that move.

Veterans Affairs officials have argued in court that using both benefits amounts to double-dipping on government benefits, which is prohibited under federal statute. But courts have ruled against them in recent years, saying that the education programs are separate, even if all the money comes from the same source, the VA budget.

GI Bill fix for vets enrolled in defunct schools heads to White House

Under separate existing federal statute, all government higher education payouts are capped at 48 months. So, if the Supreme Court rules against VA’s interpretation of how the programs must be administered, veterans who use up their post-9/11 GI Bill program might still get 12 more months of money for school.

That won’t matter for most veterans who received degrees and moved onto civilian careers over the last decade. But for individuals who fell a few semesters short of getting a degree, the court ruling could open the door to new financial support to finish their education goals.

Unlike the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which can be transferred to spouses and children under certain circumstances, the Montgomery GI Bill cannot be passed to another family member. So veterans looking for additional help to pay family bills won’t benefit from a potential favorable ruling.

No date has yet been set for when the Supreme Court arguments on the case will be scheduled. The Court is expected to end its current term in the next few weeks.

Patrick Semansky
<![CDATA[Senators back 5.2% pay raise for troops, but not other salary boosts ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/2023/06/23/senators-back-52-pay-raise-for-troops-but-not-other-salary-boosts/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/2023/06/23/senators-back-52-pay-raise-for-troops-but-not-other-salary-boosts/Fri, 23 Jun 2023 18:38:26 +0000Senate lawmakers backed plans for a 5.2% pay raise in their first draft of the annual defense authorization bill but held back on more aggressive plans to boost junior enlisted pay, opting instead to study the idea of higher base salaries for the lowest-paid service members.

Officials from the Senate Armed Services Committee unveiled their plans for the massive defense budget policy bill on Friday, following three days of mostly behind-the-scenes work on the legislation. It follows the House Armed Services Committee’s adoption of its own draft early Thursday morning, containing the same provisions for a 5.2% pay boost.

If that becomes law, service members would see their biggest pay raise in 22 years next January. Combined with the 2023 pay boost, troops could see their base salaries increased by almost 10% over a two-year span.

The Senate committee’s proposed $876.8 billion measure includes a host of military specialty pay and bonus reauthorizations, required annually for department recruiting and retention efforts. It also includes language similar to the House committee’s version to make housing stipend calculations more flexible, which in turn could give more money to troops for rent and mortgage costs.

Military pay overhaul could mean huge pay boosts for enlisted troops

But the Senate did not back other provisions designed to help with junior enlisted pay, including one in the House draft that would provide monthly bonuses for troops E-6 and below to counter the effects of inflation.

They also eschewed House appropriators’ plans to overhaul the military pay tables, increasing some junior enlisted pay by up to 35%. That plan, approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday, would move the base salary for the lowest-ranking troops from about $24,000 to around $31,000 next year.

Instead, the Senate committee’s plan calls for a full review of military pay rates, with an eye towards changes in coming years. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who authored the proposal, said the goal is to find a path forward on the cost and impact of increasing junior pay, and the most efficient ways to do that.

“Looking at the pay table now, it’s just criminal,” she said, referencing the low salaries of junior enlisted troops. “We could not get outright buy-in on increases now, but we need to bring everybody together on this.”

Ernst said she is confident if military officials present a report on potential pay table increases, “It’s just a matter of time before we increase it.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), chairwoman of the armed services committee’s personnel panel, said she believes the 5.2% pay raise will help with some of those junior financial issues, but said that boosts to child care coverage, medical care access and other quality of life programs may be more effective to help struggling military families than pay table changes.

President Joe Biden also recommended a 5.2% raise in his budget proposal earlier this year, as have House appropriators. The mark matches federal estimates for keeping military pay on pace with the raise in civilian wages in recent years.

Over the last 20 years, lawmakers have either matched or exceeded the administration’s requests on military pay boosts. Congress appears to be on track to do the same this year.

For an E-4 with three years in service, the 5.2% pay raise would mean about $1,700 more next year in take-home pay compared to 2023. For senior enlisted and junior officers, the hike equals about $3,000 more. For an O-4 with 12 years of service, it equates to more than $5,400 in extra pay in 2024.

Both chambers are expected to vote on their respective versions of the legislation later this summer, with negotiations on a final bill expected to begin before the fall. The authorization bill has been passed annually for 62 consecutive years, despite increasing partisan fighting on Capitol Hill.

Jenny Kane
<![CDATA[Lawmakers push to make it easier to discipline, fire VA workers]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/23/lawmakers-push-to-make-it-easier-to-discipline-fire-va-workers/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/23/lawmakers-push-to-make-it-easier-to-discipline-fire-va-workers/Fri, 23 Jun 2023 16:00:00 +0000U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs leaders would be able to demote and fire problematic workers more quickly under new accountability rules proposed by a group of lawmakers on Friday.

The move comes in response to federal rulings against previous attempts to streamline disciplinary actions against VA staff, and in response to concerns from department leadership about using already approved authorities for those personnel decisions. Supporters say the move is needed to ensure that poor-performing workers aren’t hurting customer service and staff morale.

“While the VA employs some of the finest men and women, it only takes a few bad employees to disrupt the culture and service at the VA, which negatively impacts veterans,” Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said in a statement announcing the new legislation.

“Veterans are best served when VA leaders have the ability to swiftly take action to remove bad employees in order to maintain a healthy workplace and, more importantly, provide quality services for our veterans.”

Lawmakers demand VA fire substandard staff faster

The measure — dubbed the Restore Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability Act — has backing from Moran, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., has introduced companion legislation in his chamber.

“In order to best serve veterans, the VA Secretary must have the authority to quickly and fairly remove, demote, or suspend bad employees who are undermining the quality of services that our veterans have earned,” Bost said in a statement. “As it stands today, the VA secretary’s hands are tied, and failing employees continue to be employed at VA.”

In March, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced that he would stop using disciplinary authorities approved by Congress in 2017 because of numerous legal challenges to the measures. Those powers were approved after a push from Republican lawmakers to find ways to more quickly deal with employees accused of malfeasance, ineptness or, in extreme cases, criminal activity.

But McDonough insisted that the 2017 law “wasn’t really helping us manage our workforce as much as it was getting us in front of federal judges and other administrative bodies” to settle personnel disputes. Rulings in recent months from the Federal Labor Relations Authority and the Merit Systems Protection Board have muted much of their effectiveness, he said.

VA officials have insisted since then that other existing authorities allow for proper management and punishment of department staff.

Lawmakers behind Friday’s legislation disagree. The new legislation would make multiple changes to federal employment rules regarding VA workers, including matching disciplinary rules for VA managers and supervisors with the process in place for Senior Executive Service staff and installing new expedited removal, demotion or suspension authority for all categories of VA employees.

The legislation would also get rid of the requirement that supervisors put an employee performance improvement plan in place before any disciplinary action.

The measure already has the backing of a wide range of veterans groups, including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Concerned Veterans of America. However, whether that support will be enough to move the legislation ahead remains unclear.

While Bost can move the measure through his Republican-controlled committee without Democratic support, finding momentum in the Senate is more difficult. Union leaders have voiced concerns about cutting back on employee appeals rights in the past, and are likely to lobby Democratic leaders in the Senate to move carefully on the new suggestions.

<![CDATA[Spending plan for vets programs gets Senate support, but fights loom]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/22/spending-plan-for-vets-programs-gets-senate-support-but-fights-loom/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/22/spending-plan-for-vets-programs-gets-senate-support-but-fights-loom/Thu, 22 Jun 2023 18:49:29 +0000Senate appropriators on Thursday advanced plans for $320 billion in Veterans Affairs spending in fiscal 2024, setting up a showdown with their House counterparts — not on budget levels, but on social issue fights attached to veterans programming plans.

The measure, adopted by a bipartisan, unanimous vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee, includes a roughly 6% increase in funding for VA operations next fiscal year.

That hike matches the level outlined in the debt limit deal negotiated by the White House and Republican leaders last month, as well as the spending outline from the House Appropriations Committee passed earlier this month. Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the measure provides veterans with “the support we owe them and the support they need.”

The measure includes $16.2 billion for mental health care (up 17% from fiscal 2023 levels), $3.1 billion for homelessness prevention efforts (up 16%) and $1.3 billion for women’s health initiatives (up 50%).

GOP budget bill would ban abortions, transgender services at VA

What the Senate measure doesn’t include is language regarding abortion services at VA facilities or restrictions on transgender medical care.

Those issues and others were inserted into the House version of the budget bill last week, over the objections of House Democrats. Republican leaders of the House committee said the moves are needed to rein in political posturing by department leaders.

Language in the House budget bill would ban VA from providing abortion services — something they have been doing since last fall — as well as medical care for transgender veterans. VA has promised to provide gender confirmation surgery in the future but has not conducted any operations as of yet. Medical staff do provide hormone therapy and other transgender-specific care.

None of those social issue fights were included in the Senate draft, adopted by the full committee after only a few minutes of debate. Murray said she hopes to move the VA and other budget bills “in an orderly and timely way” to ensure federal programs don’t face the threat of a possible partial shutdown this fall.

Since the spending totals in the House and Senate drafts largely match, the biggest obstacle to completing the VA appropriations work appears to be finding ways to reconcile the controversial limits on department services preferred by House Republicans.

Both measures are expected to be voted on by their respective chambers in the coming weeks, then head to inter-chamber negotiations for the rest of the summer. In past years, the VA budget has typically been one of the earliest spending bills finished because of bipartisan support for veterans care and benefits.

<![CDATA[White House mum on jailed Defense News correspondent]]>https://www.armytimes.com/congress/2023/06/22/white-house-mum-on-jailed-defense-news-correspondent/https://www.armytimes.com/congress/2023/06/22/white-house-mum-on-jailed-defense-news-correspondent/Thu, 22 Jun 2023 14:18:31 +0000Senior White House officials said press freedom would be among the topics discussed this week by President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in private meetings, but would not commit to specifically intervening in the case of Defense News contributor Vivek Raghuvanshi.

Raghuvanshi, a journalist and freelancer to Defense News for more than three decades, was jailed in mid-May by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation on charges of espionage. The Indian government has released minimal information on his arrest.

Sightline Media Group, which owns Defense News, and the National Press Club have condemned the move and called for officials to produce more information on the allegations and his ongoing detention.

Reports: Defense News correspondent arrested in India

Modi’s government has received significant criticism from international groups such as Amnesty International for restricting media reporting and public protests. Human rights advocates are expected to protest Modi’s visit to Washington, D.C., this week to highlight some of those concerns.

In a briefing with reporters ahead of the visit, senior White House officials vowed that Biden would not shy away from discussing those issues in private meetings throughout the week.

But they would not detail the specific topics to be included. Asked whether Raghuvanshi’s imprisonment would be mentioned, the officials said only that “a full range of issues will be on the table.”

As part of the visit, White House officials are expected to announce a series of new defense partnerships with India, including joint production of new jet engines and new ship repair agreements between the countries. Were he not in custody, Raghuvanshi would likely have covered those issues.

Modi is expected to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday afternoon and attend a state dinner at the White House in his honor on Thursday night.

<![CDATA[GOP lawmakers target diversity training, COVID rules in defense bill]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/22/gop-lawmakers-target-diversity-training-covid-rules-in-defense-bill/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/22/gop-lawmakers-target-diversity-training-covid-rules-in-defense-bill/Thu, 22 Jun 2023 13:39:27 +0000Republican House lawmakers on Wednesday turned the annual defense authorization bill debate into a referendum on a host of controversial social issues, attaching limits on diversity training, transgender rights and covid vaccines to the sweeping military policy measure.

The contentious, marathon mark-up before the House Armed Services Committee featured 14-plus hours of escalating partisan fights over the bill, which outlines more than $800 billion in spending priorities and policy changes for the military in fiscal 2024.

Many of the fights mirrored provisions championed by Republicans in the defense appropriations bill unveiled a week earlier, and several lawmakers hinted even more could come in full chamber discussion on the measures expected next month.

“I hope we go far beyond this in the floor debate,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., author of several of the most divisive measures in Wednesday’s mark-up.

GOP bill bans military abortions, transgender care, diversity work

Democratic lawmakers on the panel repeatedly blasted the arguments as a waste of time and little more than political posturing for GOP members intent on crafting re-election campaign points.

“It blows my mind that we have been sitting here for hours talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash. “If the military is going to be successful, it has to evolve with society in the 21st century. We are more diverse and we are more inclusive.”

But they also largely supported the final product, which passed out of committee on a 58-1 vote. Democrats praised the measure as critical to supporting troops and military families, ignoring the problematic provisions in their rounds of late-night celebratory press releases.

The authorization bill includes a host of routine military instructions, including a 5.2% pay raise for troops next January, renewal of dozens of enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses, and financial help for the lowest-ranking service members.

But during committee debate on Wednesday, Republicans added a lengthy list of conservative priorities via party-line votes, moves they say are needed to rein in political posturing by military leaders.

Among the list: banning defense officials from sponsoring drag shows on military bases, eliminating funding for diversity training and diversity-related jobs, banning “critical race theory” at service academies and requiring that parents have more say in how Defense Department schools craft lesson plans.

Diversity: Necessary for readiness or the bogeyman?

And even though last year’s authorization bill ended the military’s requirement that troops get vaccinated against COVID-19, Republicans renewed the fight in this year’s bill, demanding financial protections for troops booted out for refusing vaccinations and blocking future similar inoculation requirements.

The moves “are necessary to prevent the Department of Defense from doubling down on the wrongful treatment of our service members,” said Rep. Cory Mills, R-Fla., during debate over the COVID-19 provisions.

Whether any of the provisions can survive negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Senate remains to be seen. The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to unveil its draft of the authorization bill later this week.

House appropriators included similar provisions — and a ban on Defense Department abortion assistance — in their budget bill. Senate appropriators have not yet unveiled their plans, but several key Democrats have already publicly decried the House plans.

Jon Cherry
<![CDATA[Measure to boost pay for some injured vets moves ahead ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/21/measure-to-boost-pay-for-some-injured-vets-moves-ahead/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/21/measure-to-boost-pay-for-some-injured-vets-moves-ahead/Wed, 21 Jun 2023 16:09:57 +0000Tens of thousands of wounded service members could see their disability payouts significantly boosted under a measure advanced by a key congressional committee on Wednesday.

The measure — known as the Major Richard Star Act — still faces a long legislative path ahead. But for veterans advocates who have been pushing for the reforms for years, Wednesday’s action represents a significant step forward in addressing what they say is an injustice for troops who have already sacrificed so much on behalf of their country.

The bill passed out of the House Armed Services Committee by a unanimous voice vote, despite concerns from some conservative lawmakers about the costs of the measure and the lack of budget offsets included in the legislation for now.

Fixing disability and retirement pay is Congress’ next big vets issue

Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said he plans to “work with leadership and the Veterans Affairs committee to see if an offset can be found for this bill” in coming weeks. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the plan will cost roughly $9.75 billion over the next 10 years.

But he backed moving the legislation ahead because under current rules, “veterans are unfairly forced to forfeit a portion of the benefits they rightly earned.”

Since 2004, veterans who have a disability rating of at least 50% have received their full military retirement pay and disability benefits, a combined total that can amount to several thousand dollars each month.

But veterans who have a disability rating of less than 50% are subject to dollar-for-dollar offsets under federal rules. That can mean a loss of several hundred dollars a month for some individuals who depend on those stipends to supplement their family income.

Officials from Wounded Warrior Project have estimated that as many as 50,000 medical retirees nationwide are hurt by the current policy. Most of those veterans were forced out of the service early by a significant injury and may have limited job options in the civilian business sector as a result.

The Richard Star Act — named for an Army veteran who died in 2021 of cancer related to burn pit exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan — would allow all combat-wounded veterans medically discharged before serving 20 years to receive both retirement and disability pay, without any reductions. Veterans must be eligible for Combat-Related Special Compensation to qualify.

While Wednesday’s action in the House committee was quick and straightforward, the next steps for the legislation are less clear. The Senate has introduced but not moved on the measure. The earliest that action could come on the bill in the House is July, but it will be competing for time with high-profile appropriations issues and the annual defense authorization bill.

Ken Scar
<![CDATA[Lawmakers float grant program to get service dogs to struggling vets]]>https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/21/lawmakers-float-grant-program-to-get-service-dogs-to-struggling-vets/https://www.armytimes.com/veterans/2023/06/21/lawmakers-float-grant-program-to-get-service-dogs-to-struggling-vets/Wed, 21 Jun 2023 16:00:00 +0000Lawmakers on Wednesday unveiled a new proposal to use community grants to pair service dogs with struggling veterans, in the hopes the companionship will help solve a host of transition difficulties.

The bipartisan Service Dogs Assisting Veterans (SAVES) Act comes two years after Congress approved similar legislation that advocates say proved too limited to connect canines and veterans. The new legislation would set aside $10 million annually for nonprofit groups who have trained the dogs and handlers to work with veterans seeking their services.

“This bill will allow more veterans who are struggling with the invisible wounds of war to receive service dogs that could ultimately save their lives,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and one of the sponsors of the measure, said in a statement. “We must repay the debt to the men and women who served our country.”

Service dog helps ease Army veteran’s anxiety

Under the plan — which still must survive Senate and House debate before becoming law — the Department of Veterans Affairs would administer the new program, which echoes past service dog efforts managed through the Department of Defense.

Groups who are accredited to train and work with service dogs could apply for grants to cover the costs of preparing the canines, preparing the veterans, and providing ongoing support to both after they are matched.

Past research from the Department of Veterans Affairs has shown that service dogs can help reduce the frequency and severity of PTSD symptoms among veterans. In 2021, lawmakers approved plans for a five-year pilot program to provide canine training to veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in an effort to provide alternative treatments for individuals suffering from that condition.

But advocacy groups say the rules governing that legislation were severely limiting, and thus far have linked only a small number of veterans and dogs. The new proposal looks to push the idea further, using existing infrastructure in the community to help push the efforts ahead.

“Service dogs have a proven track record of providing life-saving assistance to veterans,” said Carl Cricco, CEO of the nonprofit K9s For Warriors. ”The SAVES Act will ultimately put more service dogs in the hands of veterans in critical need, allowing them to regain their independence and reintegrate into civilian life.”

While the past programs were only open to veterans with PTSD, the new proposal would make eligible veterans with any disabilities recognized by VA, potentially opening the program up to thousands of additional individuals.

Committee hearings on the measure are expected next month. Along with Tillis, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.; and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. have signed onto the measure.

Airman 1st Class Audrey Chappell
<![CDATA[Employment proposal may help military spouses, but it could hurt, too]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/21/employment-proposal-may-help-military-spouses-but-it-could-hurt-too/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/21/employment-proposal-may-help-military-spouses-but-it-could-hurt-too/Wed, 21 Jun 2023 14:24:43 +0000A U.S. lawmaker wants to give military spouses employment protections similar to those given to activated Guard and Reserve troops returning to civilian jobs, but some experts worry it will cause more harm than good.

The legislation, introduced June 7 by Rep. Chris Deluzio, D-Pa., a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, would incorporate spouses into most of the provisions of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act — and go further.

This new proposal, for example, would add a provision giving spouses reemployment rights if their absence from a job is due to a permanent change of station move and the absence doesn’t exceed two consecutive years, or up to five years cumulatively.

USERRA protects military members and veterans from public or private employment discrimination on the basis of service, and allows them to return to their civilian jobs following a period of uniformed service.

The Department of Labor included the request for proposed changes to USERRA in its fiscal 2024 budget request, asking for 10 positions and $5.8 million to implement it.

Although military spouse unemployment isn’t tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on a regular basis, surveys show the unemployment rate among military spouses has remained at above 20% for more than 10 years.

“Maintaining traditional employment and advancing in careers while relocating every few years — often while raising a family — has historically been an enormous challenge for military spouses,” Deluzio said in a statement provided to Military Times. “By expanding USERRA protections we can make sure military families have more options and military spouses can more easily find employment and feel confident in their job security.”

But lawmakers and advocates had questions — and mixed opinions — about the proposal during a June 14 hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs economic opportunity subcommittee.

“I have deep reservations about this,” said Rep. Derrick Van Orden, R-Wisc., the panel’s chairman. “I don’t think it’s the United States government’s place to exercise these mandates on companies when the person that’s involved didn’t sign [a military service] contract.”

Biden looks to boost military spouse employment with new order

Van Orden also questioned whether it could have unintended consequences for spouses and employers.

The Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States supports the change, said Kevin Hollinger, the group’s legislative director. “We believe if there was a contract that was signed with the United States government, it was called ‘I do,’” he told lawmakers.

In his written statement, Hollinger said the change could benefit National Guard spouses who face increased family hardships when the service member deploys. “Spouses often must take time away from their employment to figure out new schedules. At a moment’s notice, they become the sole head of the house. Handling time off is often the only way for spouses to get acclimated.”

But under the Family and Medical Leave Act, “military spouses already have the right to take time off of work for deployment and reintegration specific needs,” said Meredith M. Smith, government relations deputy director of the National Military Family Association, in written testimony.

“We are concerned that the requirement to hold a position open for a military spouse following a military-ordered move would be seen as burdensome by employers, potentially making them less likely to hire spouses,” Smith said.

While USERRA aims to meet the needs of reservists who return to their civilian community when not activated, that’s not necessarily the case for military spouses.

“Most active duty military spouses, in particular, do not have a reasonable expectation they will return to a duty station if they have to leave their job due to military orders,” Smith said.

And more generally, businesses might become hesitant to hire spouses because of potential litigation, costs, administrative burdens and questions about how the legislation possibly conflicts with state laws relating to pension systems.

“We are concerned about the unintended consequences,” Smith told lawmakers. “We think the spirit of the legislation is good, to ensure military spouses are able to find and maintain employment, but we have questions about whether or not USERRA is the appropriate tool to ensure that is a reality for military families.”

The USERRA expansion might be helpful in federal government employment, however, Smith noted. Under the proposal, the federal agency would have to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that military spouses would be reemployed.

“Adopting this provision would be an important step to helping the federal government reach its goal of becoming an employer of choice for military spouses,” Smith said. But further clarification is needed on which reasons for leaving a position would qualify for the reemployment provisions, she noted.

James Rodriguez, the Department of Labor’s assistant secretary for Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, said the department “wholeheartedly supports” the idea.

“Expanding USERRA’s anti-discrimination and reemployment protections to eligible military spouses would limit barriers to military spouse employment,” he said. These protections “would also help military spouses build successful careers without frequent interruption and restarts; bolster the financial stability of their families, especially during their service member’s transition from military service to civilian life; and promote long-term financial stability for military families.”

Asked by Van Orden whether he thought there is potential for waste, fraud and abuse, Rodriguez replied, “I don’t believe military spouses would take advantage of the system that’s there to support them. I believe they actually want to work, and they’re looking for opportunities to work and looking for opportunities to keep their jobs so they can support their families. I think that’s a misrepresentation of military spouses.”

As for concerns about the federal government overreaching into private industry, Rodriguez said, “think it’s important for us in the federal government to help work with our private industries to get them to understand why spouses’ retention and employment is so important to the service of the individual.”

Smith at NMFA suggested two alternative steps that have long been advocated by various groups: tracking military spouse unemployment and adding military spouses as a target group under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. This would give employers a tax credit for hiring military spouses.

“It is also an incentivizing tool for employers rather than one that could be viewed as causing potential staffing burdens,” she said.

Van Orden, a retired Navy SEAL senior chief, said he understands the hardships of spouses, having been married to his Navy wife for 30 years.

However, he said, “we have to balance fiscal responsibility with also making sure the civil liberties of individual companies are not violated. They are entities with people, too, and we have to make sure we don’t upset the apple cart of the workforce by creating unintended consequences,” he said.

“Let’s see if we can get this right.” In military spouses, he said, “We have the most highly educated and highly unemployed demographic in the country. If we can do something, I’m more than happy to do that. I just want to make sure we get it correct.”

<![CDATA[Pentagon error provides extra $6.2 billion for Ukraine military aid]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/20/pentagon-error-provides-extra-62-billion-for-ukraine-military-aid/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/20/pentagon-error-provides-extra-62-billion-for-ukraine-military-aid/Tue, 20 Jun 2023 22:35:29 +0000The Pentagon said Tuesday that it overestimated the value of the weapons it has sent to Ukraine by $6.2 billion over the past two years — about double early estimates — resulting in a surplus that will be used for future security packages.

Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said a detailed review of the accounting error found that the military services used replacement costs rather than the book value of equipment that was pulled from Pentagon stocks and sent to Ukraine. She said final calculations show there was an error of $3.6 billion in the current fiscal year and $2.6 billion in the 2022 fiscal year, which ended last Sept. 30.

As a result, the department now has additional money in its coffers to use to support Ukraine as it pursues its counteroffensive against Russia. And it comes as the fiscal year is wrapping up and congressional funding was beginning to dwindle.

“It’s just going to go back into the pot of money that we have allocated” for the future Pentagon stock drawdowns,” said Singh.

A Ukrainian serviceman of 30th brigade prepares his self propelled artillery to fire towards Russian position in Donetsk region, Ukraine, Tuesday, June 20, 2023. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

The revelation comes as Ukraine moves ahead with the early stages its counteroffensive, in an effort to dislodge the Kremlin’s forces from territory they’ve occupied since a full-scale invasion in February 2022. The counteroffensive has come up against heavily mined terrain and reinforced defensive fortifications, according to Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces.

Russia, meanwhile, has been bombarding the Kyiv region with dozens of Shahed exploding drones, in an assault that has exposed gaps in the country’s air protection after almost 16 months of war. Officials said Ukrainian air defenses downed 32 of 35 drones that were launched by Russia early Tuesday.

The Pentagon has repeatedly used presidential drawdown authority to pull weapons, ammunition and other equipment off the shelves, so that it can get to Ukraine far more quickly than going through a purchase process.

Based on previous estimates announced June 13, the U.S. had committed more than $40 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded. Using the new calculation, the U.S. has actually provided less than $34 billion in aid.

Officials have not been able to give exact totals for the amount of money that remains for the drawdowns or for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which provides longer-term funding to purchase weapons, including some of the larger air defense systems.

The U.S. has approved four rounds of aid to Ukraine in response to Russia’s invasion, totaling about $113 billion, with some of that money going toward replenishment of U.S. military equipment that was sent to the frontlines. Congress approved the latest round of aid in December, totaling roughly $45 billion for Ukraine and NATO allies. While the package was designed to last through the end of the fiscal year in September, much depends upon events on the ground, particularly as the new counteroffensive ramps up.

President Joe Biden and his senior national security leaders have repeatedly stated that the United States will help Ukraine “as long as it takes” to repel the Russian forces. Privately, administration officials have warned Ukrainian officials that there is a limit to the patience of a narrowly divided Congress — and American public — for the costs of a war with no clear end.

Members of Congress have repeatedly pressed Defense Department leaders on how closely the U.S. is tracking its aid to Ukraine to ensure that it is not subject to fraud or ending up in the wrong hands. The Pentagon has said it has a “robust program” to track the aid as it crosses the border into Ukraine and to keep tabs on it once it is there, depending on the sensitivity of each weapons system.

Singh said the accounting mistake won’t affect the ongoing delivery of aid to Ukraine.

Evgeniy Maloletka
<![CDATA[Proposed housing council would give military families a voice ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/20/proposed-housing-council-would-give-military-families-a-voice/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/20/proposed-housing-council-would-give-military-families-a-voice/Tue, 20 Jun 2023 18:58:48 +0000Lawmakers are seeking to strengthen oversight of privatized military housing by creating a new Defense Department council that deals specifically with military families’ residential issues.

“It is unacceptable for any of our service members and their families to live in unsafe military housing with black mold, collapsed roofs or exposed electrical wires because DoD is failing in its oversight responsibilities,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., chair of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, in a statement. The bill she introduced in the Senate Tuesday is co-sponsored by Sens Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. A companion bill is expected to be introduced in the House by Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., with co-sponsor Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla.

“My bipartisan bill with senators Shaheen and Hirono and representatives Jacobs and Bice will mandate increased oversight of military housing, including DoD’s creation of a public complaint database, and report its work to Congress so that military families receive the safe housing they deserve,” Warren said.

A number of improvements have been made by defense and service officials, and privatized housing landlords. But some issues with military housing continue despite the massive reforms enacted by Congress more than three years ago, which required the Defense Department and military services to address a raft of tenant concerns and improve their oversight of privatized housing.

The proposed Defense Military Housing Readiness Council would review and make recommendations to DoD regarding policies for privatized housing; monitor compliance and implementation by DoD, including the requirement for the tenant bill of rights and to establish a complaint database; and would make recommendations regarding the accommodations for families with special needs.

The council would include, among others, representatives from the military services, including enlisted members and spouses, and representatives of advocacy organizations that specialize in military family housing.

“Armed Forces Housing Advocates is thrilled to see a bill in line with our calls for third party oversight of privatized military housing,” said Kate Needham-Cano, executive director of the organization. “As a nonprofit, we continue to advocate that an impartial group of experts would be a common-sense solution to improving living conditions and providing support to the DoD and housing companies to provide safe and habitable housing. Readiness starts with a safe home.”

Similar bills were introduced last year, but didn’t become law.

'Poop falling from the ceiling' shows military housing issues persist

Under the proposal, the Defense Military Housing Readiness Council would provide annual reports to the secretary of defense and the congressional defense committees with:

♦ Assessments of the adequacy and effectiveness of privatized housing and DoD in meeting the housing needs of military families;

♦ Analyses of tenants’ complaints;

♦ Data on maintenance response time and completion of maintenance requests;

♦ Assessments of dispute resolution processes;

♦ Assessments of overall customer service;

♦ Assessments of results of housing inspections;

♦ Any survey results conducted on behalf of the council or received by the council;

♦ Recommendations on actions to improve privatized military housing.

The council, which would meet twice each year, would include professionals with expertise in state and federal housing standards in the fields of plumbing, electrical, heating, ventilation and air conditioning; certified home inspections, roofing, structural engineering and window fall prevention and safety.

It would also include individuals appointed by members of Congress, and representatives of professional groups such as the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification, among others.

The assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment would chair the council and would invite a representative of each privatized housing landlord to attend the meeting, as appropriate.

Susan Walsh