Wednesday, May 26, 2010

ROA Testifies on Home Loan Guarantee Program

ROA has testified at six House Veterans Affairs (HVAC) hearings so far this year.

The most recent testimony was on May 20, when Major General David Bockel, ROA’s Executive Director, testified before the HVAC subcommittee on economic opportunity, chaired by Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), about “the Status of the Loan Guarantee Program.”

Read ROA's testimony on the V.A. Home Loan Guarantee Program

General Bockel testified in the second panel about the need to make permanent the Reserve Component Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Home Loan guarantees which will be expiring in Oct. 2012. He also highlighted that there is not exact parity between Active and Reserve Components as Guard and Reserve members are charged 1/4 percent higher loan fee than active duty members.

Information from ROA’s testimony was used as a basis for questions later asked of Thomas J. Pamperin, Associate Deputy Under Secretary for Policy and Program Management, Veterans Benefits Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs, who was on the third panel.

ROA member assumes watch as 24th Coast Guard Commandant

ROA’s President, Rear Admiral Paul Kayye, USN (Ret.) and Executive Director Major General David Bockel, USA (Ret.) attended the “relieving the watch” ceremony of the Commandant of the Coast Guard May 25. It can be noted how fond the attendees were of Admiral Thad W. Allen because of the number of standing ovations by the guests for both the Admiral and his wife, Pam, who has a place in the hearts of the Coast Guard as well.

The ceremony was also attended by Admiral Allen’s parents, Coast Guard Chief Damage Controlman Clyde and Mrs. Wilma Allen. This was even more significant because Chief Allen was the Coast Guard Academy football coach in the early 70’s when Admiral Allen and his relief Admiral Robert J. Papp attended the Academy. Members of the Class of 1971 and 1975 attended this change of command in support of their classmates.

Admiral Papp will assume the duties as the 24th Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. Of note, he is a previous Director of Reserve and Training, which is equivalent to being the USCG Reserve Chief. He is also a member of the Reserve Officers Association.

The day before, the “relieving the watch” ceremony was held for the Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard, where Vice Admiral David Pekoske turned over his command to Vice Admiral Sally Brice O’Hara, making her the second female vice commandant in the history of the service, after retired Vice Admiral Vivien Crea, who retired last year. Vice Admiral O’Hara also served as the Director of Reserve and Training. This means that both the current Commandant and Vice Commandant of the US Coast Guard have commanded the Coast Guard Reserve in the past.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

White House, DoD and Lawmakers Maneuver on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

CAPT Marshall Hanson
Legislative Director

An agreement was announced by the White House claiming that they have received consent from Pentagon leaders, laying the groundwork for action to be taken in both the House and Senate to repeal the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) law.

Last week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declared that the Pentagon's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy will be nothing but a memory by year's end. She proposed that a repeal of DADT should be considered as an amendment to the House’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). ROA responded with a letter to both the Speaker and House Minority Leader John Boehner, suggesting that such legislation would be “hasty action.” ROA indicated that the Pentagon should be allowed to complete its report on the impact of a repeal of DADT, allowing serving members and their families an opportunity to provide feedback.

Read ROA's letter to Speaker Pelosi and House Minority Leader Boehner

Senator Carl Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced that he planned to include similar legislation in the mark-up of the Senate NDAA, which would be based on legislation introduced by Senator Joe Lieberman earlier in the year. “There is no evidence that the presence of gay and lesbian colleagues would damage our military’s ability to fight. Gay men and women are serving now, and their fellow service members know they are serving with them. Their service is not damaging unit cohesion and morale,” said Senator Levin in an opening statement in a March hearing on DADT.

Despite leadership support in both chambers, uncertainty existed among conservative Democrats and Republicans about appealing the law. Many had mixed feelings about not allowing the Pentagon to complete its study on the impact of such a repeal on the military. A letter was sent by the Pentagon at the end of April, requesting that any proposed legislation be delayed until after the December 1 due date.

The White House became involved to open dialogue with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to see if common ground could be found. In a letter from the Office of Management and Budget it has been reported that the White House and Pentagon leaders are both on board with a compromise approach that would allow Congress to repeal the law, but delay its implementation until after the review is completed, and after the president, secretary of defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that the repeal would be consistent with the military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, recruiting and retention. There is no timetable or deadline associated with this compromise.

The Associated Press reports that the endorsement by Secretary Gates is lukewarm, and that he would prefer that Congress wait to vote until he can talk to the troops and chart a path forward.

Even with an agreement between the White House and the Pentagon, there will still be resistance in Congress. Opposition among some lawmakers casts doubt on whether Congress will lift the 17 year old ban this week. Speaker Pelosi has indicated that if she doesn’t have the votes in the House, the amendment will not be brought up for consideration on the floor.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Film Review: Minus One

Andrew Gonyea
Communications Assistant

Minus One, a film about three Army Reserve soldiers who are suddenly called to fight in the Middle East, played at the GI Film Festival May 17. The film, which examines the soldiers’ final days preceding deployment (the title is short for “T-Minus One”), seeks to capture the emotional stress of the soldiers and their loved ones who must prepare to see each other for what could be the last time.

The film centers on 1st Sgt. David Solomon and his men, Sgt. James Whitmore and Pfc. Robert Montgomery. At the time Solomon gets the call and relays the news, each man is at a different point in his life. Solomon, who has already done a tour and seen combat, is a thirty-something professional handyman and divorced father with a young daughter. Whitmore is a young psychologist with a loving wife, burgeoning career and a child on the way. And Montgomery is a care-free college kid who spends his time hanging out with friends, drinking beer and chasing girls.

To cut right to the chase, the intent behind Minus One is noble, and the film does have its moments, but in the end, it fails in its aim. Between introducing the viewer to the main characters and showing their difficult good-byes, the film does very little to inspire a deeper sense of empathy and understanding. Many of the middle-scenes are puzzling in that they contribute little, if anything, to character development or a meaningful plot.

To give an example, a couple days before his deployment, Montgomery is shown drinking beer and playing video games with his friends. Upon losing, his friends make him go buy beer for their crew, even though he’s underage (“The dumb clerk probably can’t even read English,” his friend assures). So Montgomery goes to the store, buys the beer, but not surprisingly, is arrested when he stumbles into a police officer. At the police station, Solomon arrives and gets Montgomery off the hook. Later that night, Solomon and Whitmore take Montgomery to a bar so they can “supervise” his drinking. A few drinks and some in-fighting later, they end up in a bar fight with some other patrons, a police officer gets punched, and they all end up in jail, except this time, their commanding officer has to come get them all off the hook. The scenes I just mentioned take some time to play out, contain sparse and frivolous dialogue, and rather than convey the soldiers’ emotional stress, cause the viewer to wonder, “What was the point of all that?”

The best scenes of the film are when Solomon takes his men to the grave of his friend and fellow soldier, whom Solomon watched die in a confrontation with insurgents feigning surrender, and when Solomon and his ex-wife grapple with the news that he is heading back to war. Solomon’s horrific war experiences cause him to have flashbacks and he experiences the tell-tale signs of PTSD, and one can safely assume that his personal struggles were a large factor in his divorce. Solomon’s wife still loves him, and even though they’re divorced, it pains her deeply to see him have to go back to war when it has already caused them both so much grief.

Unfortunately for the film, the emotional impact of these scenes is diluted by too many aimless scenes like the ones mentioned earlier. One is left hoping that a future film will truly capture the emotional stress America’s Reservists and their families face as a result of deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Documentary Film Reviews: Uncle Jack & Lt Dan Band: For the Common Good

David Small
Director, Communications and Air Force Service Section

The GI Film Festival hosted back-to-back documentaries revolving around actor and military supporter Gary Sinise, who is quickly becoming the Bob Hope of today’s generation of service members.

The first film, a documentary short about Sinise’s uncle titled Uncle Jack, chronicled Jack Sinise’s brief time in the Army Air Corps during World War II as a navigator on a B-17 over Europe.

To get him to talk about his experience, Sinise worked with the Disabled American Veterans to score his uncle a flight on a refurbished B-17. Given the B-17 is my personal favorite aircraft, the film’s images of its statuesque and rugged beauty flying over the coast of Texas were incredibly serene.

While the film short gets Uncle Jack to talk about his actions during some of the 30 missions he flew, the point of the film is that there is an entire generation of Uncle Jacks who rarely speak about the trials and tribulations they faced, and their stories need to not be put in a trunk and forgotten. It’s time for me to call my Grandpa and talk about Korea and his service as a China Marine.

The second film screened about Sinise was called Lt Dan Band: For the Common Good. The Lt Dan Band is Sinise’s vehicle for entertaining troops through the USO, and the second part of the title comes from an Abraham Lincoln quote urging people to give back for the common good. And that’s exactly what Sinise does with his band.

The film discusses people’s motivations to act in today’s day and age, from the firefighters in New York, to the volunteers who joined the military after 9/11, to Sinise’s personal drive to support both of these groups. Sinise recognizes that if we are to have an all volunteer military, that those who serve need to be supported in great ways by the American people.

It is clear from this documentary, which not only delves into his motivation for his USO tours but also discusses his life, acting history, and how the band was formed, that Sinise has no hidden agenda other than to entertain the troops.

The band, which covers mostly classic rock, performs 80 percent of the time for charity and acknowledges that while Sinise is a decent bass player, that he’s an actor with a band and only wants people to leave having had a good time. Apparently people don’t have high expectations of actors with bands.

Briefly, the documentary also discusses Sinise’s actions delivering school supplies to Iraqi children, helping earn him acclaim from former President George W. Bush.

He takes his band to places often forgotten by the typical USO entertainer: to forward operating bases, to audiences completely made up of families of those killed in action, and to state side training locations that don’t get such entertainment. He always puts the focus back on those who are serving, showing his true humility in the service of those who serve, which really makes him a true patriot.

Documentary Short Review: PAX

Andrew Gonyea
Communications Assistant

PAX, a documentary short which tells the story of Iraq War veteran Sgt. Bill Campbell’s struggles with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, premiered at the GI Film Festival May 12. Directed by Glenn Close, PAX examines the special relationship between Campbell, who returned home 100% disabled due to PTSD and TBI, and his dog, Pax, a gift from the Puppies Behind Bars program.

Campbell, a former National Guardsman, volunteered to go to Iraq in 2004 when his unit of 10 years was deployed. In Baghdad, Campbell’s primary duty was to provide security for the Forward Operating Base, a frequent target for insurgent attacks located between the Green Zone and the Iraqi National Guard facility. Doctors diagnosed Campbell with PTSD and TBI due to traumatic and horrific events, extended exposure to life-threatening situations, and one serious head impact and multiple blasts experienced in Iraq.

Campbell struggled heavily in transitioning back to civilian life – he could no longer perform his job as a Fish Biologist with state Department of Fish and Wildlife, his personal relationships suffered, and flashbacks and paranoia made a normal lifestyle nearly impossible. His turning point was when, on the recommendation of his psychologist, he contacted Puppies Behind Bars, a program that uses female inmates to train puppies to become services dogs, and received Pax, a yellow Labrador.

Pax, a “miracle” for their family according to Campbell’s wife, Domenica, has helped him to manage many of the symptoms PTSD and TBI. She explained that Pax keeps her husband focused on the present, forces him into a routine, provides him comfort in public, and even responds to his flashbacks by nuzzling into him. Campbell credits Pax for allowing him to regain a sense of normality in his every day life, in addition to being a wonderful friend and companion.

The documentary of Campbell’s positive experience with Pax and Puppies Behind Bars segued into a panel discussion, hosted by television journalist and TBI-experiencing Bob Woodruff, on the possible benefits of dogs like Pax for veterans struggling with PTSD and TBI. Woodruff acknowledged the tremendous challenge to address PTSD and TBI and reintegrate our veterans, and said that an all-volunteer force that experiences numerous deployments can exacerbate those problems. Army Brig. Gen. Loree K. Sutton, M.D., the highest ranking psychiatrist in the U.S. Army, expressed the belief that creative treatments, such as pairing up veterans with service dogs, do a great amount to address the challenges of PTSD and TBI, and, along with other methods, should be fully explored to figure out how best to assist veterans. Puppies Behind Bars founder Gloria Gilbert Stoga and co-directors Glenn Close and Sarah Harvey pointed to programs like PBB as providing tangible benefits for both veterans and inmates who would greatly benefit from a dog’s companionship and the sense of purpose it provides.

Film Review: To End All Wars

David Small
Director, Communications & Air Force Service Section

With the planned release of a director’s cut on DVD this year, the GI Film Festival kicked off its 2010 screenings May 11 with the 10-year-old flick, “To End All Wars” about four of the 61,000 Allied prisoners of war during World War II who built the 400km Thai-Burma railroad.

“To End All Wars” is based on the autobiography of Capt Earnest “Ernie” Gordon, played by CiarĂ¡n McMenamin, from his book, “Through the Valley of the Kwai,” and begins in Ernie’s native Scottland, where he is stationed with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders infantry regiment of the British Army’s Scottish Division.

His unit was taken prisoner Feb. 17, 1942 after Singapore fell. The story revolves around him, Lt. Jim “Yanker” Reardon played by Kiefer Sutherland, and characters Maj. Ian Campbell and Dusty Miller. Their main Japanese captors included Sgt. Ito and a translator named Takashi Nagase. In the character development of all captors and captives, the movie relays the concepts of honor and hope from different points of cultural views.

If it sounds a bit like the classic “Bridge over the River Kwai,” that’s because they are related, in story at least. Kwai was a 1957, over Hollywoodized snippet of a singular incident in building this railroad, but it didn’t address the level of brutal suffering these POWs endured at the hands of their captors like this movie did. Nor did Kwai treat the enemy's ancient Bushido warrior code with the respect that director David L. Cunningham accomplished in this movie.

Bushido, which assumes westerners are as inferior as dogs, is introduced early in the movie when a POW passes a guard and is beaten for not showing the proper respect by bowing. While many aspects of Bushido are seen throughout the film including ritual suicide to save face as the loser of a battle, the most important Bushido credo shown is when Takashi explains the reason Sgt. Ito is a guard in the POW camp, a duty seen by the Japanese as a punishment. Sgt. Ito accepted this duty in place of his previous superior for some failure on his commanding officer’s part.

This concept rears its head later in the movie when Dusty is literally crucified on a cross in place of the Japanese killing Maj. Campbell, who is hated among all the captives for his divisive leadership and scheming plans to take over the camp. Despite the overtly Christian overtones of the scene, Dusty’s sacrifice is less a statement about his faith than it is about respect for the Bushido ways. Dusty was the only character who all along understood the Japanese culture, a lesson being learned daily in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

The obvious lesson of the movie is maintaining strength in the harshest of times. Some may say the lesson is more of hope, but I say it is more of strength because it manifests itself differently among the four main characters. We see Yanker transform from a self-centered black-marketer to a strong teammate who sacrifices himself to a severe shovel beating instead of the entire camp being punished. We see Ernie give strength to his fellow captives after he falls deathly ill by creating a jungle university studying Bard and Plato’s concepts of justice. While Maj. Campbell is the least liked character in the film, we see his strength buckle when his escape plan fails. And we see Dusty’s strength through faith and caring for others.

Overall, the film left me thinking about the necessity to study cultural diversity, the need for hope and strength in times of adversity, the concept of justice and who has the right and obligation to administer that justice, and the honor in sacrifice before glory.

At one point in the movie, Ernie is punished when he’s found conducting his classes, but convinces the camp commander that his teaching makes the prisoners better slaves for the Emperor when he turns the other cheek. There is a touching moment between him and Takashi, who has a level of compassion and understanding for the prisoners, when Takashi is allowed to return Ernie’s books to continue his classes. The movie ends with tearful footage of the real Ernie and Takashi 55 years later visiting the grave yard of their fallen comrades.

TRICARE Retired Reserve Implementation May Slide

ROA's Legislative Director, CAPT Marshall Hanson, USNR (Ret.) attended a briefing by TRICARE Management Activity (TMA) last week. Despite a request by ROA and several other associations to be briefed on TRICARE standard access for gray area retirees, this DoD agency decided instead to brief on the implementation process and resulting timetable. TMA claims that it takes between 16 to 29 months to implement a new program. Pressed during questioning, TMA informed the attending associations that an initial final rule on TRICARE Retired Reserve (TRR) has been sent to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review and approval. OMB has 90 days to review. If an interim approach is rejected, then the package is sent back to TMA, is revised and OMB gets a second chop, restarting the 90 day clock. Unfortunately, this casts doubt that TRICARE for gray area retirees will slide out further into the late fall, with TMA admitting that the suggested Oct. 1 start date is "soft".

In related news, Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio) sent a letter to the Secretary of Defense reflecting his concerns of the delays in implementation. Rep. Latta was the original sponsor of legislation on TRICARE for gray area retirees.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Presidential Hiring Reform Initiative

ROA participated in a conference call with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) about the president’s hiring reform initiative this past week. The plan is to overhaul the way civilians recruit. Some goals include making managers more involved in the hiring process, increasing timeliness and quality, creating a new website with veteran links such as social media, eventually setting up a career discovery tool, providing public notice of hiring events, and developing a plan to promote diversity. OPM will continually collect data from agencies and submit an annual report to the president. OPM Director John Berry and President Obama issued memorandums May 11 about the new hiring reforms (see OPM’s press release). Federal agencies were directed to overhaul their hiring procedures within 180 days.

Military Children and Spouse Support

ROA’s Legislative Assistant Elizabeth Cochran attended and participated in working groups at the National Military Family Association’s (NMFA) summit “When Parents Deploy: Understanding the Experiences of Military Children and Spouses” held May 12. The summit was an initiative to develop a ‘blueprint for action’ that followed up on NMFA’s commissioned RAND Corporation study of the effects of deployment on children which was released late 2009.

Read the RAND study

The summit addressed stress associated with the military family lifestyle, better access to care and support services, and improving education and employment opportunities for military families. As the keynote speaker, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that the President directed the national security staff to lead a government-wide review to identify new priorities and partnerships to support military families, as well as the Military Family Life Project which was launched by the Department of Defense this month. Mrs. Obama also spoke about the great need to broaden the public’s support of families, problems that service members, veterans, and their families face, importance of partnerships, as well as pointing out how only one percent of the national population is doing 100 percent of the fighting.

Read the First Lady's speech

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

ROA Testifies on Health Effects of the Vietnam War

CAPT Marshall Hanson
Legislative Director

On May 5, ROA submitted testimony to the House Veterans Affairs Committee on the Health Effects of the Vietnam War. CAPT Hanson’s testimony reflected the need to expand presumption of health care coverage to those who had served in both the Navy and Air Force, but weren’t “boots on the ground” in country. ROA also used this opportunity to testify for other veterans in other wars: “It remains vitally important in any theater of contingency operations that individuals are recognized for their service and remain eligible for health benefits regardless of manner of exposure whether on land, sea, or in the air. Medical treatment of serving members as well as veterans needs to take precedence over determining statistical correlations.”

Read the testimony (pdf)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead Addresses Security Forum

Robert Feidler
Director, Defense Education Forum

The Defense Education Forum (DEF) has partnered with Army Navy Country Club of Arlington, Virginia in sponsoring a speaker series entitled the National Security Forum. Our first speaker was the National Security Adviser, General James Jones (Ret). Our second speaker was Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, who spoke and took questions April 28.

Key points made by the Admiral included:

- The Navy has a strategic value that makes it a relevant, busy, factor throughout the world
- There are more sailors on land (“sand sailors”) in the Middle East than on ships (13,000 vs. 10,000)
- SEALS, EOD, and Construction Battalions have a high operations tempo. One SEAL the Admiral recently spoke with was on his 19th deployment.
- Reserve forces are doing a great job and are fully integrated into activities as augmentees especially at headquarters, logistics, intelligence and with Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT)
- Dissatisfied with the byzantine pay/personnel system differences between AC and RC, he mandated that processes regarding transition between the AC and RC be reviewed and shortened. The goal is to make processes that took four months to accomplish be done in the future within 72 hours! They are now down to eight days on average.
- Many of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) are headed by Navy personnel – he recounted the story of meeting a PRT team leader high up on a mountain in Afghanistan. The team leader was a submariner but having a great time leading the PRT.
- Nearly half the close air support in Afghanistan is provided by the Navy
- The Somali pirate issue is a challenge given the enormous amount of ocean that must be covered – four times the size the of Texas
- Women will be serving on subs by the fall of 2011, assigned to the boomers where there is more space/privacy
- Cost and related personnel issues drive many decisions especially when it comes to various nuclear personnel
- A cyber “fleet” has been established
- A study is under way regarding attitudes towards homosexuals in the Navy that will drive future decisions
- N2 and N6 (Intel and C&C) were combined to gather and move around information

The Admiral also responded to a series of questions related to China, Taiwan, and Africa that reflected our engagement and growing cooperation with these entities.