1. Post-9/11 GI Bill Becoming Greater: The historic Post-9/11 GI Bill is becoming even greater, thanks entirely to strong congressional support and the intense advocacy of the VFW and other veterans and military service organizations in Washington and around the country. Since its signing in 2008 and activation in 2009, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has helped more than 1 million veterans to pursue their post-military educational goals, but gaps in eligibility and coverage began to emerge as more and more veterans — or their survivors — took advantage of it. “But no more,” said VFW National Commander Brian Duffy. “This Congress is acting on our suggestions to correct deficiencies to ensure that all who are eligible — and those who have yet to raise their right hands — will benefit from the greatest educational benefit for veterans ever created,” he said. The beefed up GI Bill will take care of Purple Heart recipients who don’t have the requisite three years of active service; veterans attending schools that abruptly closed; involuntarily activated Guardsmen and Reservists; survivors who are currently denied access to the Yellow Ribbon Program; the re-transfer of benefits to another sibling should the first child unfortunately die; and removes the 15-year, use-or-lose clause. The VFW has launched an Action Alert to let members of Congress know we want the bill brought to a vote and passed. Take action here.
2. VFW Hosts GI Bill Roundtable: On Thursday, the VFW hosted a roundtable with more than forty VSOs and MSOs to discuss improvements to the GI Bill. Immediately following the meeting, the VFW took part in a press event with the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman and ranking member, along with numerous other members of Congress in support of new GI Bill improvements. VFW Associate Director Pat Murray took part in the round table discussion and stated, “This will be a huge win for hundreds of thousands of veterans pursuing their degrees.” Top priority goals for the VFW include giving full GI Bill eligibility to Purple Heart recipients; allowing access to the Yellow Ribbon Program for survivors and dependents of fallen service members; restoring benefits to reservists activated without them, and restoration of lost GI Bill eligibility for students affected by school closures. The VFW will testify in support of these and many other great additions to the GI Bill this upcoming Monday before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
3. VFW Testifies Before House on Gulf War Illness Claims Processing: On Thursday, VFW National Veterans Service Deputy Director Michael Figlioli testified before a joint hearing of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittees on Oversight and Investigations, and Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs regarding VA’s processing of Gulf War Illness (GWI) claims. The hearing focused on the approval rates of veterans seeking compensation and the training required for medical examiners and claims processers. Last year, a similar hearing was held in which the VFW strongly advocated for VA to develop a single Disability Benefits Questionnaire (DBQ) for Gulf War Illness that would assist in empirically establishing service-connection. Despite this advocacy and suggestions by members of the committee, the VA’s Office of Disability Assistance has yet to report any progress regarding the development of a new DBQ, and veterans suffering from these chronic conditions continue to have their claims denied. Watch the hearing or read the testimony.
4. VFW Supports Declassification of Exposure Testing, Will Continue Fight: The VFW spoke outside the U.S. Capitol Wednesday in support of a defense bill amendment to declassify portions of a Vietnam era project that exposed approximately 6,000 service members to some of the world’s deadliest chemicals and biological agents –– VX and Sarin gas, and E. coli bacteria. The land and shipboard tests were carried out between 1962 and 1974. Many surviving participants of Project 112 and Project SHAD (Shipborne Hazard and Defense) suffer from debilitating health conditions associated with the exposure, but the veterans are unable to prove a service-connection for their disabilities because the Defense Department has yet to declassify the documents to prove that the tests even took place. The amendment sponsor is U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, a VFW Life member of Post 768 in Windsor, Calif. Cosponsoring it are U.S. Reps. Walter Jones from North Carolina and Don Young of Alaska. Introducing a similar amendment in the Senate will be Jerry Moran of Kansas. Unfortunately, the amendment was not allowed to come to a vote as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, but the VFW will continue working with Rep. Thompson on this important issue.
5. FY 2018 Defense Bill Update: The House and Senate are marking up their respective versions of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Below is a brief snapshot of five pay and allowance, and health program provisions that are currently under discussion, along with a reject or support recommendation by the VFW.
— Base Pay: The House recommends a 2.4-percent increase to base pay; Senate, 2.1 percent. The VFW supports the House recommendation. An all-volunteer force that has borne a two-front, nonstop war for 16-plus years deserves nothing less than pay parity with their civilian counterparts.
— Housing Allowance: The Senate recommends cutting the housing allowance for dual-military couples. Currently, both military members receive it at the with-dependent rate. The Senate proposes paying the with-dependent rate for one spouse, but paying a single rate to the other. The VFW rejects this recommendation. Both individuals serve. There should be no penalty just because they are married.
— TRICARE: The Senate proposes removing a grandfather provision approved last year that shields retirees receiving TRICARE benefits from incurring future cost increases associated with restructuring the Military Health System. Under current law, increases would only impact those who enter the military after Jan. 1, 2018. The VFW rejects removing the grandfather clause as well as any other TRICARE fee increases for retirees.
— TRICARE Pharmacy Copayments: The Senate proposes increasing non-military pharmacy copayments to help generate funding for military readiness accounts and quality of life programs. The VFW rejects this proposal. Instead of slowing the growth of military compensation or forcing military retirees and families to pay more, the VFW suggests Congress re-evaluate federal spending caps and eliminate sequestration.
— Widow’s Tax Update: It is a longstanding VFW goal to eliminate the dollar-for-dollar offset that prevents some 60,000 surviving spouses of military retirees from receiving VA-issued Dependency and Indemnity Compensation and DOD-issued Survivor Benefits Plan payments. The House is proposing a permanent extension of a somewhat helpful Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA), whereas the Senate would increase TRICARE Pharmacy co-pays for over-65 beneficiaries, with hopes that the revenue might be used to offset the Widow’s Tax. The House SSIA extension is appreciated, but the VFW’s goal is to eliminate the dollar-for-dollar offset, not to supplant it with a monthly SSIA payment of $310, which along with the offset, still amounts to nearly $12,000 in lost annual income to every surviving spouse of a military retiree.
6. Hearing on Ways to Improve VA Productivity and Efficiency: On Thursday, the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health held a hearing about maximizing access and resources available at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for better productivity and efficiency within the agency. The hearing consisted of panelists invited from VA, the Government Accountability Office, as well as private-sector accounting and hospital corporations. Chairman Wenstrup invited these panelists to discuss how VA can be more responsible with spending of taxpayer dollars, while also providing the highest quality of care possible for veterans. Since 9/11, VA has seen its budget continue to increase, and the chairman invited the panelists to discuss if there is reason to believe the budget increases resulted in better care or not. Watch the hearing or read the testimony.
7. House Committee Holds Hearing on VA Capital Asset Needs: On Wednesday, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing to assess VA’s capital asset needs. Chairman Roe noted that while the hearing itself was to discuss the management of capital assets within VA, the actual importance of the hearing topic fell completely on patient care. Without proper management of money, equipment, facilities –– and everything else that goes into the country’s largest health care agency –– patients will receive less than the highest quality of patient care, which is the top priority for VA. The Chairman also noted that the need to discuss capital asset management is not exclusive to VA, as the private-sector health care industry is also currently going through the same process. Watch the hearing or read the testimony.
8. DOLVETS Office Adds Three New Women Veteran Webinars : The Department of Labor Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (DOLVETS) Women Veteran Program has added three new webinars for female veterans transitioning from the military to civilian life. These webinars are the result of DOLVETS data findings from the 2016 population survey comparing female veterans, male veterans, female nonveterans and male nonveterans. The three new webinars are divided into 2016 Gender and Veteran Demographics, 2016 Employment, Unemployment and Education, as well as 2016 Industries and Occupations. Learn more here.
9. MIA Update: The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced the identification of the remains of five Americans who had been missing in action from WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Returning home for burial with full military honors are:
— Army Cpl. John Lane, Jr., 18, of El Monte, Calif., will be buried July 17 in Mountain Home, Tenn. Lane was assigned to Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division. In late July 1950, Lane’s unit set up in defensive positions in Chinju, South Korea, after Chinese forces attacked the city. After his unit was forced to withdraw east to regroup, Lane could not be accounted for and was reported missing in action as of July 31, 1950. Read about Lane.
— Air Force Reserve Capt. Joseph S. Smith, 25, of Assumption, Ill., will be buried July 17 in his hometown. Smith was an F-100D pilot. During a combat mission over Cambodia, Smith’s wingman noticed a stream of white vapor coming from the left wing of Smith’s aircraft. Smith crashed a half-mile from the target. An aerial search was conducted the following day, but a recovery operation was ruled out due to intense enemy activity in the area. Smith was listed as missing in action as of April 4, 1971. Read about Smith.
— Navy Fire Controlman 3rd Class Robert L. Pribble, 19, of St. Petersburg, Fla., will be buried July 18 in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. Pribble was assigned to the USS Oklahoma, which was moored off Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when Japanese aircraft attacked his ship on Dec. 7, 1941. Pribble was one of 429 crewmen killed in the attack. Read about Pribble.
— Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Richard M. Horwitz was a member of the 716th Bomber Squadron, 449th Bombardment Group. On Feb. 28, 1945, Horwitz and 10 other airmen departed Grottaglie Army Air Base, Italy, in a B-24J Liberator aircraft for a combat mission targeting Isarc-Albes railroad bridge in northern Italy, which was used by Germans to move personnel and equipment out of Italy. After the bombing run, Horwitz’s aircraft was reported to have damaged at least two engines after skimming the mountain tops near Lake Wiezen, Austria, on the way to the rally point. No parachutes were reported and Horwitz was reported as missing in action. Interment services are pending. Read about Horwitz.
— Army Sgt. William A. Larkins was a member of Battery A, 503rd Field Artillery Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division. In late November 1950, his unit fought persistent attacks by Chinese forces in the Ch’ongch’on River region of North Korea. On Dec. 1, 1950, the unit came under continuous enemy mortar, small arms, and machine gun fire while moving down the main supply route toward the town of Sunchon. Larkins could not be accounted for afterwards. Interment services are pending. Read about Larkins.