By: Kyle Rempfer - Military Times
A U.S. Army Soldier rappels down a wall with a Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) canine during a Multi-Purpose canine subject matter expert exchange conference on Camp Pendleton, Calif., Feb. 4, 2016. MARSOC specializes in direct action, special reconnaissance and foreign internal defense and has also been directed to conduct counter-terrorism and information operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Tyler S. Dietrich, MCIWEST-MCB CamPen Combat Camera/Released)
A new documentary commemorating the multi-purpose canines fighting alongside U.S. Special Operations forces downrange is now airing on HBO’s online service at hbogo.com.
The film — “War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend” — chronicles the the bonds between special operations troops and the canines they train and handle downrange.
While other military working dogs are trained for one specific task, these dogs serve with their handlers as human-animal combat teams. Fewer than one percent of all military canines are selected for the special operations mission, according to a press release about the documentary.
The film’s director, Deborah Scranton, highlighted the elite nature of the dogs and their human comrades in an interview with Military Times.
“Not to take anything away from the dogs trained at Lackland [AFB], which are single or dual purpose, but these are multi-service canines,” Scranton said. “They work off leash. They fast-rope. They do explosives detection. They do a wide array of things.”
The documentary chronicles the stories of several elite soldiers who formed special connections with their dogs while serving in combat.
“For me, profiling these handlers and the dogs that were with them represented a breadth of bond that was really important,” Scranton said. “What is most striking is these dogs are viewed as a teammate by soldiers and operators. It’s not just a dog to them.”
One special operator profiled in the film is Dave Nielsen. His dog Pepper was “a lap dog who became a beast of fury on target,” he said in the film.
Pepper went missing in Iraq while working to push an enemy soldier out of hiding, according to the film. The man was eventually killed, but Pepper was never found.
“She stopped and looked back at me. And I’m looking at her through my night vision and it was just ‘I love you, and I’m doing this for you,’” Nielson said in the film.
Pepper’s sacrifice isn’t lost on Nielsen, who remains grateful that his “daughter has a daddy because of Pepper,” he said. “I know that one day we’re going to meet up.”
Pepper is the only Special Operations canine to be classified as Missing in Action from the current wars.
Another soldier profiled in the film is former Army Ranger Trent McDonald. He lost his first canine companion — Benno — on their sixth deployment together.
Layka was his second dog. On her first mission with her new handler, Layka was hit by small arms fire. She took four AK-47 rounds to her chest at close range, completely destroying her right arm. That act of valor by Layka saved McDonald’s life, he said.
After multiple surgeries, McDonald adopted Layka, and she was featured on the June 2014 cover of National Geographic.
“At the end of the day, when everything fell apart, the only person who had me was her,” McDonald said.
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By: Leo Shane III - Military Times
Veterans Affairs officials say it will take 10 years to fully match their electronic medical records with the military’s system, but they need nearly $800 million by the end of the year or else risk taking even longer.
That rush was met with skepticism from House appropriators on Wednesday, who noted that billions have already been invested in the department’s records modernization efforts with mixed results.
“The number of years and dollars wasted in reaching this point is unsettling,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., chairman of the appropriations panel’s Veterans Affairs subcommittee.
At issue is VA’s decision this summer to shift veterans’ electronic medical records to the same system used by the Defense Department, potentially ending a decades-old rift in information sharing between the two bureaucracies.
White House officials hailed the move at the time as bringing common sense to federal operations and simplifying lifelong medical care for members of the military. VA officials are currently negotiating contract details with Missouri-based Cerner Corp., which signed a similar deal with defense officials in 2015 to work on the MHS GENESIS records system.
The Pentagon deal is expected to cost at least $4.3 billion. Initial roll out of the new system began this year.
VA Secretary David Shulkin told lawmakers on Wednesday that in order to keep pace with that military work — and create some cost savings — his department needs to move ahead with parts of the work before the end of the year. That means reprogramming $782 million in other department funds for the work, a request VA officials filed last month.
“There’s enough blame on both sides with the Defense Department and VA for how we got to this point,” he said. “From my perspective, maintaining the status quo is not acceptable.”
Shulkin also said he had hoped Congress would adopt the fiscal 2018 budget for his department by now, giving VA planners the funds they need to move ahead.
But congressional budget talks are stalled until at least after the Thanksgiving break. And since the reprogramming request does not include the full Cerner contract cost — expected to exceed the Defense Department total — or new plans for a new office to oversee the work, lawmakers said they worry about spending more money on an incomplete strategy.
“Years down the road, I hope not to be at another hearing where we are talking about how we still have less than complete interoperability with VA and defense records,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., ranking member on the veterans panel.
Several lawmakers noted that six years ago “in this very room,” VA and Pentagon officials pledged to work together on a joint electronic medical records system only to abandon the idea two years later. Concerns over the record sharing issue date back to President Bill Clinton’s administration, with numerous partial fixes and missteps along the way.
Shulkin insisted the latest move will eventually end that ongoing saga.
He noted that modernizing the existing VA VistA system would cost about $19 billion over the next decade and provide less interoperability with military records than the proposed Cerner contract. He also recommended breaking the project into a separate funding account to provide easier oversight and transparency into the work.
“There is no doubt we are being aggressive, but we are also doing business differently,” Shulkin said. “We are committed to working with DOD and the private sector in ways we never have before. … As we’re setting this up, I don’t think this will be subject to political whims anymore.”
Schultz said she remains wary: “I look forward to being surprised.”
If the funding issue is settled by the end of the year, the first test sites for the new VA electronic medical records are expected to go online within 18 months.
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By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES
For years, issues of pay and benefits have been high on the list of concerns that servicmembers and their families have about their military lifestyle.
But the toll of 16 years of continued wars and the separation of families with demands has finally nudged its way to the top, according to this year’s Blue Star Families Military Lifestyle survey.
For the first time since 2012, nearly half of the survey respondents, 46 percent, said concern about time away from family was their top concern.
“The majority of military families feel that the current operational tempos exerts an unacceptable level of stress, making a healthy work-life balance difficult,” said the survey’s executive summary. “Quality of life issues, including time away from family, military family stability and the impact of military service on children are top concerns this year, along with lasting concerns regarding pay, benefits and spouse employment.”
The eighth annual survey, conducted in April and May, involved more than 7,800 respondents including servicembembers, spouses and veterans and, according to Blue Star Families, is the largest and most comprehensive survey of its kind
According to the survey, a third of families spent 25 percent of the last 16 years apart from the servicemember, while 40 percent of the respondents said that in the last 18 months, they had experienced more than six months apart.
That finding leads to another concern, the survey found: the impact on children. In another first for the survey, the impact of deployments and their children’s education made it to the top five concerns for servicemembers and spouses. The concerns are not new, but their placement on both of the top five lists makes this year’s findings unique.
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army quietly made it easier this summer for individuals with some history of mental health problems to enlist in the service, but a top general pushed back Tuesday on a report the Army had relaxed standards to meet increased recruiting goals.
Army officials lowered the authorization level at which the service can approve waivers for potential recruits who have had past “mental health issues,” said Lt. Gen. Thomas C. Seamands, the Army’s personnel chief in a prepared statement. Such waivers once had to be approved at the Army’s headquarters level but can now be considered by U.S. Army Recruiting Command or by state adjutants general for those wishing to join the National Guard, the general said.
Seamands’ statement comes after USA Today reported that people with histories that include “self-mutilation,” bipolar disorder, depression or drug or alcohol abuse have since August been able to seek a waiver to join the Army. The report cites the Army’s recruiting goal of 18,000 new soldiers by September as one of the justifications for the change.
“Recent reports that the Army has changed medical entrance standards for those with mental health issues are inaccurate,” Seamands’ statement read. “The Army has made no such policy change and follows the accession standards prescribed by the Department of Defense.”
Seamands’ described the mental health conditions listed in the report as “unfairly characterized,” but the general did not directly address which past mental health conditions could be waived. In 2009, amid a rash of suicides among soldiers, the Army restricted the use of waivers to allow those with most past mental health issues to join.
The general wrote, as an example, that an individual who underwent behavioral counseling at 10 years old would be banned from military service unless he or she received a waiver.
“We’re not prepared to close the door on such individuals who are otherwise medically, mentally and physically qualified for military service,” he said. “We think this is the right thing for our Army, and the selfless young men and women who wish to serve.”
Army officials did not immediately respond to Stars and Stripes’ requests for information about the recent changes to waivers or for the number of mental health waivers the service has recently approved.
The Army has long issued waivers to recruits seeking entrance for a wide variety of reasons, including criminal history, medical issues, vision problems and age. Typically, when the service is seeking to grow, it accepts more recruits who need waivers to enlist or commission and it takes fewer when the service downsizes.
The waivers are not simple to receive, said two Army recruiting officials who spoke to Stars and Stripes on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the issue.
In most cases, waivers must be approved by a general officer, they said. The recruiting officials said they have not been instructed to seek less-than-stellar candidates for the Army.
“We’ve been told we want the best candidates,” one of the officials said. “The command wants quality recruits coming in the Army, they’ve made that very clear, but sometimes to get even those high quality of recruits you need waivers.”
But some of the mental health conditions cited in the USA Today report could be problematic if the Army is considering them, mental health professionals told Stars and Stripes.
“The Army is opening itself up to problems,” said Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a former military psychiatrist who retired from the Army in 2010 as a colonel. “There’s always a balance when you need troops. In this case it is not clear why these conditions were chosen.”
If those problems do arise while an individual is serving in uniform, it would be expensive and time-consuming to discharge them, she added.
Worse still, mental health problems could present themselves at inopportune times, such as during a combat deployment, she said.
For example, a history of self-mutilation, such as cutting or burning, typically is a chronic condition and a sign of additional mental health problems, said Dr. Charles A. Morgan, a forensic psychiatrist who teaches at the University of New Haven and Yale University in Connecticut.
Self-mutilation is typically a form of self-punishment and not an attempt at suicide, said Morgan, who regularly works with servicemembers. Such an episode could be high problematic for unit cohesion, he said.
“You don’t just suddenly begin self-mutilating,” Morgan said. “Why take people in the Army who are already vulnerable to conditions we know people who are perfectly healthy are susceptible to in combat situations? I just don’t see good coming from that.”
On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed a similar sentiment. The chairman of the Armed Services Committee said he learned of the Army’s policy adjustment from the USA Today report and has not yet received appropriate information from the service.
“I expect answers to these questions,” McCain said during a hearing on Capitol Hill. “Self-mutilation is something that comes home to roost. I don’t quite understand the eligibility there. I hope we can get answers to questions. I’m just not sure that if you take someone in who is doing this things -- the cost over time is very, very, very high.”
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The American Legion
An independent public opinion research company conducted a nationwide survey about the opinions of veterans, their family members and caregivers on the issue of medical cannabis. See the survey results here.
The results are significant and reinforce The American Legion’s continued efforts, under Resolution 11, to urge Congress to amend legislation to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act and reclassify it, at a minimum, as a drug with potential medical value.
According to the survey – which included more than 1,300 respondents and achieved a +/- 3.5 percent margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level – 92 percent of veteran households support research into the efficacy of medical cannabis for mental and physical conditions.
Eighty-three percent of veteran households surveyed indicated that they believe the federal government should legalize medical cannabis nationwide, and 82 percent indicated that they would want to have medical cannabis as a federally-legal treatment option, the survey says.
In January 2017, the National Academy of medicine released a review of more than 10,000 scientific abstracts and found substantial evidence to support the idea that cannabis was effective in treating chronic pain, reducing spasticity in Multiple Sclerosis patients, and reducing symptoms of chemotherapy-induced nausea. The American Legion calls on the federal government to confirm or deny the validity of these studies.
In August during the Legion’s national convention in Reno, Nev., Resolution 28 was passed, which calls on the federal government to allow medical providers within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to discuss medical cannabis as a treatment option in states where medical marijuana is legal.
VA officials report that about 60 percent of veterans returning from combat deployments and 50 percent of older veterans suffer from chronic pain compared to 30 percent of Americans nationwide.
Many veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain – especially those of the Iraq and Afghanistan generation – have told The American Legion that they have achieved improved health care outcomes by foregoing VA-prescribed opioids in favor of medical cannabis. While the stories of these wartime veterans are compelling, more research must be done in order to enable lawmakers to have a fact-based debate on future drug policy.
The survey also showed that 22 percent of veterans are currently using cannabis to treat a medical condition.
The opioid crisis in America is having a disproportionate impact on our veterans, according to a 2011 study of the VA system, as they contend with the facts that poorly-treated chronic pain increases suicide risk, and veterans are twice as likely to succumb to accidental opioid overdoses. Traumatic brain injury and PTSD remain leading causes of death and disability within the veteran community, according to Lou Celli, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division.
Here are some highlights from the survey:
Here is how you can help:
CLICK HERE to contact your elected officials and urge them to support The American Legion's efforts to:
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By Alex Lockie - Business Insider
The Congressional Research Service has prepared a briefing for Congress that reveals the seven US military options for dealing with the growing threat from North Korea.
The options, often hinted at by President Donald Trump and members of his cabinet, represent the full range of US military might and strategy, but sometimes in unexpected ways.
For example, not every option has to do with use of force. In some cases, the US may just continue business as usual. In other cases, the military may withdraw completely from South Korea.
In the slides below, you can see the same information that Congress has on the US's military options in North Korea.
Maintain the status quo
Simply put, the US military could just continue regular activities and military drills while the State Department works on sanctions and diplomatic solutions to the problem.
If this sounds familiar, it's because former President Barack Obama spent eight years doing it to limited effect.
On the plus side, this course of action presents a lower risk of elevating the tense situation into a full-blown crisis or warfare. Those against this policy of "strategic patience," as the Obama administration dubbed it, point out that it has failed for years to stop North Korea from gaining a nuclear weapon or creating long-range missiles.
So far, Trump has stuck to the basic principals of strategic patience but supplemented it with more deployments of aircraft carriers and sometimes frightening threats to "totally destroy" the country with "fire and fury."
Arm the region to the teeth and watch North Korea like a hawk
This option takes the status quo and jacks it up with the US's scariest, most capable platforms coming to the region and closely monitoring North Korea to make it feel its nuclear program is unwise.
US stealth jets and bombers, aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, guided-missile destroyers, and even tactical nuclear weapons could deploy to South Korea and Japan on a more permanent basis to step up the US presence in the area.
Meanwhile, an increased cyber and naval presence would seek to interdict any shipments to North Korea that could further Pyongyang's weapons program.
Skeptics of this approach point out that North Korea hates US military deployments to the peninsula and could easily see such a move as further justification to continue its weapons program at any cost.
Furthermore, the US can't simply place these assets in the region — it needs to credibly threaten using them. What happens if a North Korean ship opens fire on US Navy sailors trying to board and inspect its cargo?
Shoot down every medium- to long-range missile North Korea fires to restrict its testing
This approach disregards the long-stated US goal of denuclearizing North Korea and goes straight for a more realistic goal of freezing its nuclear-missile program.
Basically, North Korea has to keep testing its missiles to achieve a credible nuclear threat to the US, but to do so it has to test missiles that fly beyond its borders.
If the US and allies shot down North Korea's test fires, it would deny Pyongyang the testing data it needs to have confidence in its fleet.
But this would require US ballistic-missile-defense assets, like its Navy destroyers, to constantly commit to the region, limiting resources available elsewhere.
Additionally, North Korea could still test shorter-range missiles that put US forces in the region at risk, and it's unknown how Pyongyang would respond to having its missiles shot down.
By ERIC SCHMITT - New York Times
WASHINGTON — Two collisions between Navy destroyers and commercial vessels in the Western Pacific earlier this year were “avoidable” and the result of a string of crew and basic navigational errors, the Navy’s top officer said in a report to be made public on Wednesday.
Seven sailors were killed in June when the destroyer Fitzgerald collided with a container ship near Japan. The collision in August of the John S. McCain — another destroyer, named after Senator McCain’s father and grandfather — and an oil tanker while approaching Singapore left 10 sailors dead.
In the case of the Fitzgerald, the Navy determined in its latest reports that the crew and leadership on board failed to plan for safety, to adhere to sound navigation practices, to carry out basic watch practices, to properly use available navigation tools, and to respond effectively in a crisis.
“Many of the decisions made that led to this incident were the result of poor judgment and decision making of the commanding officer,” the report concluded. “That said, no single person bears full responsibility for this incident. The crew was unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves through a lack of preparation, ineffective command and control, and deficiencies in training and preparations for navigation.”
In the case of the John S. McCain, the investigation concluded that the collision resulted from “a loss of situational awareness” while responding to mistakes in the operation of the ship’s steering and propulsion system while in highly trafficked waters.
“The collisions were avoidable,” Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said in a summary of the two reports, to be released by the Navy on Wednesday morning.
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By: Leo Shane III - Military Times
More than half of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members know a post-Sept. 11 service member who has committed suicide, a figure that has climbed dramatically in recent years and underscores continued problems with young veterans and mental health care.
The findings are part of the group’s annual membership survey, which drew responses from roughly 4,300 individuals on a host of post-military challenges, political priorities and social issues.
While the findings don’t speak for the entire generation of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans, they do offer a snapshot of the challenges many younger veterans face. Among group members, 58 percent said they know a fellow post-Sept. 11 veteran who died by suicide, and nearly two-thirds said they know one who attempted.
Both of those numbers have climbed about 18 percent since the group’s 2014 membership survey. IAVA Research Director Jackie Maffucci called it “a dire situation” for the community.
“The trend lines are going up, which clearly indicates how much work we have to do in this area,” she said.
In addition, more than one-third have had suicidal thoughts.
About 20 veterans each day nationwide commit suicide, according to Department of Veterans Affairs statistics. VA Secretary David Shulkin has called the issue his top clinical priority, and department officials have shifted resources in recent years to combat the problem.
Suicide prevention has also been a key policy focus for IAVA, in large part because of similar concerns about the issue in past membership surveys.
Among respondents, 82 percent said they have received some health care services through VA, a much higher figure than the roughly 40 percent of veterans nationwide who regularly receive department medical care.
But only 16 percent of members surveyed said they believe troops and veterans get the care they need for mental health injuries.
Among the reasons why, members most frequently listed the stigma of seeking those type of treatments, challenges getting appointments and a lack of quality care options.
Maffucci said one positive note on mental health issues from the survey is that many of her group’s members seem willing to seek out professional help for their struggles.
More than half of veterans who responded said a friend or family member suggested looking into medical help for undiagnosed mental health issues. Of that group, 80 percent said they followed the advice.
“It really highlights the role of families and their support system in helping individuals either recognize they have a problem or take that step and walk through the doors,” she said. “And that is such a challenge for so many veterans.”
The group’s overall view of VA services is mixed. About 42 percent rated VA services as good, and 13 percent as very good. But 25 percent rated them as poor, and 10 percent as very poor.
The full survey results are available on the IAVA website.
Veterans dealing with mental health issues can contact the Veterans Crisis Line around the clock at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staffer). Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
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By CHRIS FUCHS - NBC News
WASHINGTON — It started with a search three years ago. Michael-Vincent Nario Malanyaon learned from American archives that his great uncle in the Philippines served in World War II.
Alfonzo B. Velasco was a Philippine Scout, fighting for the U.S. He died in combat May 5, 1942, according to Malanyaon. His age was unknown.
“I frankly don’t even know where he was buried,” Malanyaon, 43, told NBCNews.
A Congressional Gold Medal presented Wednesday during a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol honors the contributions of a quarter million Filipinos and Filipino Americans like Velasco who fought in World War II, some paying the ultimate sacrifice.
It’s a recognition that comes seven decades after these very same vets were denied benefits promised for their service.
“For me to accept the award as next of kin for my great uncle is very humbling,” said Malanyaon, who received a bronze replica of the medal at a separate event later in the day.
Filipino vets, many in their 80s and 90s, along with family members of surviving and deceased veterans were among the hundreds who attended the late morning ceremony, held in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), as well as other elected officials, also took part.
“They battled not only the enemy, but they battled starvation and malnutrition,” Ryan said. “But they never lost sight of the cause, and they never accepted defeat.”
The Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, an all-volunteer initiative begun in 2014, had lobbied Congress to award this highest civilian honor. It memorializes the service and sacrifice of the more than 260,000 Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers during World War II.
A bill to grant the Gold Medal, introduced by Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), both in attendance, passed the Senate and House last year. Former President Barack Obama signed it into law in December.
“Many have passed away waiting for 75 years for this time to come,” said Celestino Almeda, a 100-year-old Filipino veteran who received a standing ovation from the audience.
Advocates say it’s a long overdue moment for Filipinos who fought for the U.S. between 1941 and 1946.
“We’ve always said that this is an issue that has a high sympathy quotient, because you can’t hear these stories and not be moved, but a very low visibility quotient,” Ben de Guzman, director of communications and outreach for the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, told NBC News.
It’s a story that traces back to the turn of the century, when Spain ceded sovereignty over the Philippines to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Between 1934 and 1946, the year the Philippines gained independence, the U.S. maintained the right to summon Filipinos to serve under the U.S. Armed Forces.
On July 26, 1941, less than five months before Japan attacked the Philippines and also Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called into service all “organized military forces” of the former U.S. colony.
Among them were the Philippine Commonwealth Army; the Philippine Scouts, established in 1901 during the early days of American occupation; and recognized Guerrilla units, which helped provide intelligence to Allied forces to repel the Japanese.
But despite their service, these veterans, who were U.S nationals, were disqualified from receiving the same rights, benefits, and privileges as others who served under the U.S. Armed Forces, the result of the Rescissions Act of 1946.
“This is a story that needs to be told again and again so that our country does not forget,” Hirono, the senator, said.
In recent years, Filipino World War II veterans have made headway in gaining recognition for their service.
Obama signed a law in 2009 creating a fund granting $15,000 to Filipino vets who are U.S. citizens and $9,000 to those who are not. Both are one-time payments.
Almeda had long battled with the Department of Veterans Affairs to collect his money, Veterans Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin told the audience Wednesday.
Shulkin, after learning of Almeda’s struggles earlier this week, said he directed his staff to review his records and decided to award him the $15,000.
“Mr. Almeda, 70 years was long enough for you to have to wait,” Shulkin said.
Just last June, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also took steps toward easing an immigration backlog from the Philippines.
The agency began allowing certain Filipino World War II vets and their spouses, who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, to apply for relatives to come to the U.S. to reunite before their immigrant visas are available.
An estimated 16,000 to 17,000 Filipino World War II veterans are still alive today, according to de Guzman.
Though reliable data isn’t available, he said he believes most are living in the Philippines. Many came to the U.S. in 1990 after receiving citizenship for their service, de Guzman said. Some stayed, while others returned to or never left the Philippines, he said.
More than $70,000 has already been raised to pay for bronze replicas of the single Congressional Gold Medal, according to de Guzman. They will be given to veterans and family members who are part of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project’s registry, he said.
The original will go to the Smithsonian, according to de Guzman.
“This is 75 years in the making,” retired Maj. Gen. Tony Taguba, chairman of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, told NBC News. “It's a glorious day in October of 2017 that the veterans finally got the recognition with the Congressional Gold Medal.”
Other combat outfits have also been awarded the highest civilian honor for their service.
By: Joe Gould - Military Times
WASHINGTON — The U.S. House and Senate conferees on a massive 2018 defense authorization bill met Wednesday to launch negotiations between the chambers’ competing bills.
Lawmakers are expected to wrestle over a House proposal to create a new Space Corps as well as the size of the Army and the total number of F-35 fighter jets — among myriad other provisions. Staffers have been working for weeks, and this pass-the-gavel meeting was the first formal sit-down.
At a news conference to kick off the talks, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, told reporters they expect to find agreement on a conference report quickly.
“There is a widespread consensus that we need to do better for our military,” Thornberry said. “Just like Sen. McCain said, I am optimistic that we can deliver better in a pretty short amount of time given the similarities between the House and Senate bills.”
Both versions propose increases well above the president’s defense budget request. The Senate bill calls for $640 billion in Pentagon and other national security spending, blowing past the $549 billion limit set by statutory budget caps. The House bill calls for $621 billion in national security spending.
Complicating matters, there’s no consensus on lifting budget caps or a broader budget deal for fiscal 2018, and the federal government has been operating on a stopgap spending measure, called a continuing resolution, since last month.
The HASC’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith, of Washington, used the news conference to lament the use of continuing resolutions and urge the passage of appropriations and defense policy bills.
“Month to month, week to week is no way to go,” Smith said. “We have to get an authorizing bill passed and an appropriations bill passed. If the money is there, the men and women serving in uniform at least know what is being asked of them.”
For his part, McCain continued to link defense budget caps to recent mishaps in which dozens of troops were hurt or killed, describing it as a “critical situation.”
“This legislation cures some of those problems but they’ve been building up for a long time,” McCain said. “The responsibility to a large degree lies with the Congress of the United States for not providing sufficient funds for them. We hope to turn it around this time.”
The House named 46 Republicans and 27 Democrats as conferees, while the Senate sent every member of the SASC, 14 Republicans and 13 Democrats.
The lawmakers are expected to reach a bipartisan agreement on a conference report for the 56th year in a row. Thornberry noted the House passed its bill with 79 percent of the vote and the Senate passed its bill with 89 percent.
The conference report would then need to be adopted by both chambers and signed by President Donald Trump to become law.
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