3. Veterans Legislation Roundup
1. VA Secretary Lists Five Priorities: The VFW attended a media roundtable yesterday with VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, who wanted to ensure the veterans and military service organization community understands his five priorities in moving his department forward, and to address any questions of concern. His five priorities are to increase veterans’ access to the Choice Program; modernize VA; improve the timeliness of service; focus on available resources; and suicide prevention. Regarding Choice, he wants veterans and their medical providers to decide where they should receive care. Modernizing VA includes keeping up with the latest technology and best business practices, removing underutilized buildings from the inventory, better accountability, and joining with Defense Department electronic health record efforts. Improving service timeliness includes reforms to benefits processing and reforming an 84-year-old appeals process. His suicide prevention effort includes expanding the Crisis Line, adding more coordinators and opening services to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges. He said VA cannot be the best of everything to everybody, so it must focus on those programs and services it does best.
2. VFW Testifies before House on Veteran-Owned Small Businesses: On Thursday, VFW Associate Director Patrick Murray testified before the House Veterans’ Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on Veteran-Owned Small Business (VOSB) procurement issues. Key bills brought before the subcommittee included added protections for VOSBs and Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses. For years, VOSBs were not able to attain certain contracts within VA, and had to face competition in the form of contractors misrepresenting their work and operating as pass-through businesses for larger companies. Legislation discussed during the hearing would help eliminate those hurdles for veterans and improve the small business community as a whole. Watch the hearing or read the testimony.
3. Veterans Legislation Roundup: The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs advanced a bill this week to overhaul the current process for veterans to appeal VA claims. S.1024, the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, would reform the VA claims appeals process to build a veteran-centric process that is easy to navigate and protects a veteran’s rights every step of the way. The bill also requires VA to provide a comprehensive plan for both implementing the new system and processing the existing appeals. The VFW is a strong proponent of this legislation and played a vital role in its development. The bill awaits consideration by the full Senate. The House passed several pieces of legislation this week, including H.R.2258, the ADVANCE Act, which exempts active-duty military and reserve personnel with qualifying experience from certain testing requirements when they try to obtain a commercial driver’s license; and H.R.2547, the Veterans Expanded Trucking Opportunities Act of 2017, which would allow additional medical professionals in the VA health care system to conduct Department of Transportation physicals for veterans wishing to obtain a commercial driver’s license.
4. 2018 National Defense Authorization Act Update: The House and Senate Armed Services Committees convened this week to markup their respective versions of the FY18 NDAA. The House version was approved 60-1 after almost 14 hours of debate, and authorizes funds for a base budget requirement of $631 billion, including a $28.5 billion increase for essential readiness recovery above the president’s budget request. Included in the House version are provisions that address quality of life and retention issues, such as: a 2.4 percent pay increase for service members; a prohibition against the closing of military medical treatment facilities outside of the continental U.S.; the expansion the UCMJ to cover the wrongful broadcast of nude or intimate photos; health care benefits parity for service members on 12304a and 12304b orders; and a temporary moratorium on BAH reductions for military families who live in on-post housing. The Senate version authorizes a total of $700 billion, roughly $60 billion of that being authorized for overseas contingency operations. Like the House version, the Senate version focuses on rebuilding the military’s readiness, but does not include the same troop level increases as the House version, nor does it include the 2.4 percent pay increase. The Senate version also places special emphasis on cyberwarfare, and creates a “chief information warfare officer” who would be presidentially-appointed and Senate-confirmed, to lead DOD in cyber operations, intelligence and space issues. Stay tuned to the Action Corps Weekly for updates on these important bills as they move through the legislative process.
5. House Subcommittee Hearing on Veteran Employment Protections: On Thursday, the House Veterans’ Affairs Economic Opportunity Subcommittee held a hearing on legislation that protects service members’ employment rights. There have been cases where service members have to take leave from their jobs to deploy overseas with their units and come back home to find they are without their previous jobs. Loopholes in the laws have allowed some employers to terminate the service members’ jobs while they were deployed. The VFW supports Representative Cicilline’s bill, H.R.2631, Justice for Servicemembers Act, which would protect those jobs while servicemen and women are away protecting our freedom. Watch the hearing or read the testimony.
6. VA to Open Mental Health to OTH Veterans: Effective July 5, former service members with other-than-honorable (OTH) administrative discharges may receive care for their mental health emergency for an initial period of up to 90 days, which can include inpatient, residential or outpatient care. “Suicide prevention is my top clinical priority,” said VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin. “We want these former service members to know there is someplace they can turn if they are facing a mental health emergency — whether it means urgent care at a VA emergency department, a Vet Center or through the Veterans Crisis Line.” Any veteran in crisis should call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 (press 1), or text 838255. Read more on the care expansion.
7. Reading of Names at The Wall: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund is hosting the Reading of the Names of the 58,318 servicemen and women inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The reading is part of the special activities planned this November to commemorate the 35th anniversary of The Wall. The Reading of the Names will take place for 65 hours over a four-day period beginning after an opening ceremony on Tuesday, Nov. 7, at 3 p.m. Learn more or volunteer to read a name.
8. VFW Calls on Vietnam Veterans for Help: The VFW is calling on Vietnam veterans to search their wartime memorabilia for any artifacts that might help Vietnam to determine the fate of its estimated 300,000 MIAs. Being requested are photos and sketch maps of battle sites or burial locations, as well as personal artifacts that may contain names, family photos and personal letters. No weapons, please! Veteran-to-veteran initiatives generate goodwill and further assist the U.S. government’s efforts to investigative and recover Americans missing from the war. Please mail your memorabilia to Joe Davis, VFW Washington Office, 200 Maryland Avenue, NE, Washington, DC 20002. Everything collected will be turned over to the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington.
9. MIA Update: The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced the identification of remains of nine Americans who had been missing in action from WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Returning home for burial with full military honors are:
— Army Sgt. James W. Sharp, 24, of Mannington, W.Va., was buried June 29 in Grafton, W.Va. Sharp was a member of Battery B, 57th Field Artillery Battalion, 31st Regimental Combat Team,7th Infantry Division. In late November 1950, his unit was assembled with South Korean soldiers in the 31st Regimental Combat Team on the east side of the Chosin River, North Korea, when his unit was attacked by Chinese forces. Sharp was among more than 1,000 members of the RCT killed or captured in enemy territory and was declared missing on Dec. 6, 1950. Read about Sharp.
— Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. Byron H. Nelson, 28, of Primghar, Iowa, will be buried July 1 in his hometown. Nelson was a nose gunner aboard an American B-24G Liberator bomber with the 721st Bomb Squadron, 450th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force. During a bombing run near Varese, Italy, on April 25, 1944, Nelson’s aircraft and two others were separated from the formation due to dense clouds and later attacked by German fighters. Of the 10 crewmen, six parachuted from the aircraft and escaped capture, two parachuted and were captured by German forces, and two perished in the crash. Nelson was reported to be one of the two who perished. Read about Nelson.
— Navy Reserve Lt. William Q. Punnell was the acting commanding officer of the VF-14 Fighter Squadron, operating from the aircraft carrier USS Wasp. On July 25, 1944, Punnell flew his F6F-3 “Hellcat” with several other aircraft on a strafing mission against Japanese targets on the islands of the Republic of Palau. Punnell was in the lead position when the tail of his aircraft took a direct hit from antiaircraft fire. His fellow pilots witnessed his plane crash into water and immediately sink; no bailout was reported. Interment services are pending. Read about Punnell.
— Army Cpl. Thomas H. Mullins was a member of Company L, 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. In November 1950, his unit engaged with Chinese forces near Unsan, North Korea. Approximately 600 men were killed, captured or missing. Mullins was declared missing in action on Nov. 2, 1950. He was later reported to have died while being held in POW Camp 5, Pyokdong, North Korea. Interment services are pending. Read about Mullins.
— Army Pfc. Charlie H. Hill was a member of Battery D, 15th Anti-aircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Self-propelled Battalion, 7th Infantry Division. In late November 1950, his unit was assembled with South Korean soldiers in the 31st Regimental Combat Team on the east side of the Chosin River, North Korea, when his unit was attacked by Chinese forces. Hill was among more than 1,000 members of the RCT killed or captured in enemy territory and was declared missing on Dec. 2, 1950. Interment services are pending. Read about Hill.
— Army Master Sgt. George R. Housekeeper, Jr., was a member of Company L, 3rd Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division. In late November 1950, his unit was assembled with South Korean soldiers in the 31st Regimental Combat Team on the east side of the Chosin River, North Korea, when his unit was attacked by Chinese forces. Housekeeper was among more than 1,000 members of the RCT killed or captured in enemy territory and was declared missing on Dec. 12, 1950. Interment services are pending. Read about Housekeeper.
— Army Cpl. Clarence R. Skates was assigned to Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. Positioned between the towns of Kunu-ri and Sunchon, Skates’ regiment was attacked by Chinese forces and suffered many casualties. Skates was reported missing in action on Nov. 30, 1950. Interment services are pending. Read about Skates.
— Air Force Col. Roosevelt Hestle, Jr., was a pilot assigned to the 388th Tactical Fighter Squadron. On July 6, 1966, Hestle led a flight of four F-105s on a strike mission against surface-to-air missile sites in northern Vietnam. As they approached the target, Hestle issued a missile launch warning, and all aircraft began evasive action. Hestle’s maneuvers took him close to the ground near the town of Thai Ngyuen, where the plane came under antiaircraft fire. Another aircraft then reported a large ball of fire rising from the ground in the area. Due to hostile conditions in the area, search and rescue attempts could not be initiated and an aerial search of the area produced no results. Based on this information, Hestle was declared missing in action. Interment services are pending. Read about Hestle.
— Air Force Capt. Robert E. Holton was an F-4D pilot assigned to the 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron. On Jan. 29, 1969, Holton flew an armed reconnaissance mission over southern Laos. The flight lead cleared Holton to engage a target, and ordnance was seen impacting the ground. Aircrews reported seeing a large fireball on the ground in the vicinity of the target immediately thereafter. No radio transmissions were received, and no parachutes were seen. Efforts to make contact with the crew continued until the remaining planes were forced to leave the area due to low fuel. Holton was subsequently declared missing in action. Interment services are scheduled for later this summer. Read about Holton.