DADT repeal plan sees no changes for chaplains

WASHINGTON — Opponents of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal have long cited the potential negative impact the change will have on chaplains’ religious expression and freedoms, since many mainstream faiths consider homosexuality immoral. But the repeal plan outlined by defense officials on Friday doesn’t contain any extra rules aimed at chaplains, labeling the current regulations “adequate” to cover such changes.

“In today’s military, people of different moral and religious values work, live and fight together,” undersecretary for personnel and readiness Clifford Stanley said in a memo on the repeal. “This is possible because they treat each one another with dignity and respect. This will not change.”

Amos delivers message to Corps on DADT

A little over a month after saying that repealing "don't ask, don't tell" would be a distraction and put lives at risk on the battlefield, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos released a video message assuring Marines that he would personally oversee implementation of that repeal within the Corps.

In the video posted Friday, Amos and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlton Kent stressed professionalism as the process plays out.

The battle over Wanat continues

RAF MILDENHALL, England – The Battle of Wanat was one of the most ferocious of the Afghanistan war. Nine U.S. soldiers were killed July 13, 2008, when hundreds of insurgents attacked a combat outpost that was still under construction in eastern Nuristan province .

The attack was eventually repelled, but Wanat still stands out in a war characterized by an enemy that rarely fights so conventionally. That’s about all everybody can agree on at this point.

VA plans expanded use of medical simulators

WASHINGTON -- Dr. Robert Petzel notes that airline pilots would never fly a passenger jet for the first time without hundreds of hours of training in an aircraft simulator. But, within the medical community, the first time a physician draws blood or inserts a breathing tube, it's usually on a sick patient.

"Historically, all training in medicine is done on live patients," said Petzel, undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. "You have to ask yourself if that's really the best way to do this."

Gates heads to Canada, Mexico calls in sick

ARLINGTON, Va. – The first trilateral meeting of U.S., Canadian and Mexican defense ministers went bilateral on Wednesday when Mexico’s Gen. Guillermo Galván dropped out because of illness.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Canada’s Peter MacKay will powwow instead on Thursday and plan to reschedule the trilateral for a second time.  The meeting was planned for July, but the increase in Mexican drug violence prompted Galván to stay home.

DOD to reveal plan to lift gay ban

ARLINGTON, Va. – More than one month after President Barack Obama promised the military would not to drag its feet to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, the Pentagon announced it will roll out its implementation plan on Friday.

Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Clifford Stanley and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright will conduct “the first of what will likely be a series of briefings,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said, on Friday afternoon (time TBD).

Pentagon: ‘Too early’ to call China’s J-20 a stealth fighter

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said reports went “a little over the top” in proclaiming that China had achieved stealth fighter capability, or had even run a "successful test" of its J-20 prototype. 

“I think that is another case of us all being a little premature here,” Morrell told Pentagon reporters in a Wednesday briefing.

Gates is South Bend bound

ARLINGTON, Va. – Under the watchful stare of Touchdown Jesus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates will rally the sons (and daughters) of Notre Dame when he delivers the commencement speech to the 2011 graduating class this spring.

Notre Dame announced Gates will speak and receive an honorary degree on May 22nd at Notre Dame Stadium.

Partisan divide on defense lingers after speech

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night began with a call for unity and cooperation, but afterward Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill remained divided over the details of his national security plans.

Republican lawmakers were particularly upset with Obama’s line declaring “this July, we will begin to bring our troops home” from Afghanistan, a refrain they’ve voiced since the president first announced the timeline. Arizona Rep. Trent Franks said it undercuts the U.S. commitment to fight terrorists in the region. Freshman Rep. Allen West of Florida called it “telegraphing our plans to the enemy.”

Can you prepare for a random act of violence?

RAF MILDENHALL, England – So it’s come to this.

In response to the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six and wounded 13, and in response to the 2009 Fort Hood shooting spree that killed 12 and wounded 31, and in response to all the other mass shootings that have become a part of modern life, one Air Force wing has issued guidance about what to do should such an event happen in its community.

Obama's military guests at State of the Union

WASHINGTON — White House officials haven’t yet unveiled how much of tonight’s State of the Union address will focus on defense issues. But they have announced that five of the special guests of the first family at tonight’s speech will be connected to the military.

They include two well-known names — Staff Sgt. Sal Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor recipient from the war in Afghanistan, and Dr. Peter Rhee, the Navy surgeon who operated on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after the Arizona shooting earlier this month — as well as a two other front-line troops.

Pentagon quiet on ‘military-industrial complex’ 50th anniversary

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Pentagon likes to put up huge commemorative posters and placards reminding Defense Department employees to celebrate things like Black History Month, Asian-American Diversity Week, even Holocaust Remembrance Day – pretty much name it, and they’ve got a sign for it. 

Not appearing on any Pentagon hallway: a call to remember the 50th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell speech, warning of the “military-industrial complex.” 

What do you think: Military spending cuts?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has detailed plans to save $78 billion over five years with defense cuts, part of a broader plan to streamline roughly $178 billion in defense spending to ensure that military money is being spent responsibly.

Pentagon spending has more than doubled in the past decade, and many see a crisis looming as the national debt approaches the debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion — that’s trillion with a “T.”

Afghan base a 'revolving door' for lawmakers

NAWA, Afghanistan — The senators were coming! Again.

On Monday, for the second time since November, Patrol Base Jaker and its company of Marines were hosting a group of U.S. senators for a close-up look at the little Helmand province town that’s been held up by Gen. David Petreus as proof that his counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan is winnable — and thus became the must-see town for assorted military and political elite.

“It’s like a revolving door,” said Capt. Mike Regner, commander of the 2nd Battalion, Third Marines, Company G.

McKeon: Don’t close Guantanamo prison

WASHINGTON — Despite a pledge two years ago Friday by President Barack Obama to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, the White House is still no closer to achieving that goal. This week, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee said they hope to keep it that way.

“It would be fiscally and morally irresponsible to shutter the facility at this time,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif, at a press conference with reporters Tuesday afternoon. “The American people are opposed to importing terrorists into the United States, and the facility at Guantanamo continues to be the safest place to house these dangerous terrorists.”

Health care repeal wouldn’t hurt Tricare offerings

WASHINGTON — Politically, this week’s debate in the House over repealing last year’s health care reform bill will dominate the conversation on Capitol Hill. But for military families, the final vote won’t have any real impact on their health care coverage.

Last year, in the midst of the contentious reform debate, lawmakers passed the Tricare Affirmation Act, emphasizing that Tricare rules and regulations would be unaffected by the changes in national health care rules. Language in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act also included similar language. So, a repeal of that bill also won’t have any effect on troops.

Mount Soledad cross case spurs new legislation

WASHINGTON — A group of California lawmakers is pushing for congressional protection for religious symbols included at U.S. war memorials after the latest court challenge to a San Diego veterans monument that features a 43-foot high cross.

Earlier this month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Mount Soledad cross – which has been at the center of legal fights for more than two decades – amounts to an unconstitutional display of government favoring a specific religion, and must be changed. Supporters of the memorial have vowed to continue fighting the case to the Supreme Court.

But California Republican Rep. Duncan D. Hunter hopes his latest legislative bid might settle the fight before that, by allowing religious symbols to be included in any federal military memorial by law. The measure could circumvent the courts’ interpretation of the Establishment Clause, which prohibits the U.S. government from showing preference for one religious group over another.

What do you think: Women in combat units?

WASHINGTON – Supporters of women in combat got a boost this week when the Military Leadership Diversity Commission released its draft report recommending an end to the restrictions on female troops.

Until now, either U.S. law or Pentagon policy has prohibited female troops from serving in any unit whose primary mission is direct ground combat, although they may serve in combat support roles. But proponents of women in combat roles have argued that the distinction is obsolete in the new combat environments of Iraq and Afghanistan, where support units and noncombat troops have routinely found themselves involved in roadside bomb attacks and insurgent ambushes.

Vets group wants a fifth star for Petraeus

WASHINGTON – In an editorial in the Wall Street Journal this morning (subscription only), the conservative lobbying group Vets for Freedom is looking to restart the discussion into making Gen. David Petraeus the military’s first five-star general in more than 60 years, to honor his “exemplary leadership” in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“The U.S. war against terrorism is now the longest war in U.S. history, and Gen. Petraeus has clearly distinguished himself as a leader worthy of joining the ranks of Gens. MacArthur, Marshall and Nimitz,” the piece states. “A promotion would properly honor his service – and it would also honor the troops he leads and has led. Today’s soldiers have fought as valiantly as any in American history, and they deserve recognition of their leaders. Congressional approval of a fifth star would demonstrate the nation’s commitment to their mission.”

What do you think? Was Gates' China trip a success?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrapped up three days in China on Wednesday by proclaiming the visit a success and suggesting that the various military and civilian leaders he spoke with all were open to increased cooperation between the two nations’ militaries.

"We’ve had a really good week," Gates said during a tourist stop at the Great Wall of China. "I think the discussions were very productive and set the stage for taking the military-to-military relationship to the next level."

A look back at the Haiti earthquake, one year later

One year ago today, an earthquake devastated Haiti, leaving 250,000 people dead and thousands more suddenly homeless. The United States responded by sending soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen to head off a second catastrophe of disease and disorder and provide a semblance of hope.

I was the second of three reporters Stars and Stripes sent to Haiti to cover the military’s relief efforts. Having been with my father when he passed away, I dreaded the very real possibility of having to watch another human being die.

Tricare fees could triple under budget plan

WASHINGTON - Defense department officials haven't yet outlined any details of their proposed fee increases in Tricare. But, if past plans are any indication, some veterans could see their payments double or even quadruple in cost.

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the military could save up to $7 billion in health care costs over the next five years with "modest" increases in Tricare fees for working-age retirees. Active-duty troops and their families would not be affected by the plan.

But families on the Tricare Prime plan, who currently pay about $460 a year for health care coverage, will be targeted.

Official: There will be an Afghan drawdown in July

WASHINGTON – Vice President Joe Biden’s unannounced trip to Afghanistan today also gave White House officials another chance to lay out their timeline for the war’s coming months, including another pledge that a drawdown of U.S. forces will take place this summer.

“In terms of U.S. national forces, again the president has been very, very clear on this,” a senior administration official told reporters in an on-place background briefing (released stateside just a short while ago.) “In July of 2011, we will begin a drawdown of U.S. forces. The pace with that drawdown is conditions-based, as we’ve said, so we’ll see where we are in July. But yes, there will be a drawdown of U.S. forces starting in July.”

Studies look at possibility of female combat troops

WASHINGTON – A pair of reports due in coming months will offer a new look at the role of women in combat units and whether female troops could serve in front-line fighting in the near future.

On Thursday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey said he expects to see next month the results of a periodic review into the service’s military occupation specialties, which includes discussions about the possibility of opening more jobs to female troops.

Casey, speaking at an Association of the U.S. Army event in Virginia, did not say whether the role of women should be expanded, but that service officials will be examining the study results closely. Currently, female troops are allowed to serve in combat support units, but not combat arms or infantry missions.

Pentagon again pushes for Tricare fee increases

WASHINGTON – End strength cuts and the demise of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program dominated the headlines of the this week’s defense budget conversations, but the financial projections also call for another controversial cost-saving measure: increases in Tricare fees for military retirees.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the military’s future health care costs “unaffordable” and said the department could save up to $7 billion over the next five years with modest increases in Tricare fees for working-age retirees. Active-duty troops and their families would not be affected by the plan.

Winners and losers in Gates’ latest budget cuts

WASHINGTON – Despite what supporters of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle are saying, not all the news about the spending cuts announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates is bad for the services. In fact, some departments will see a big boost in their bottom line as a result of the shifting funds.

About $28 billion of the money saved will be used to pay for health care, pay and housing allowance increases, depot maintenance, base support and flight hours and other training. But $70 billion more will be spread over a host of other wish list items for the services, which Gates said in the long-term will help better prepare troops for future challenges.

Holly Petraeus joins Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Holly Petraeus, wife of the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, has named to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to establish the Office of Servicemember Affairs.

Her main priority is hearing what issues troops and families are dealing with, one of the most pressing of which is financial debt, which can have serious repercussions, such as the loss of a servicemember’s security clearance.

Petraeus comes to the office from the Better Business Bureau, where she served as a consumer advocate for troops and their families. She also wrote a column about scams that target military families.

Head scratching over Chinese stealth jet pictures

WASHINGTON – Pictures of what many believe is China’s first prototype stealth fighter plane emerged online more than a week ago and created a mild stir among defense tech geeks and military press. But when the Wall Street Journal – the most-read newspaper in the country – threw a picture of the J-20 on the front page Wednesday morning, military officials forced to scramble tamped down the notion the U.S. was caught flat footed or unaware.

Is the U.S. surprised the Chinese have this prototype?

Senators want breathing masks for burn pit workers

WASHINGTON -- Two Democratic Senators are urging Defense Secretary Robert Gates to provide breathing masks to troops who work near burn pits, where garbage and human waste is incinerated, in an effort to protect them from potentially toxic fumes.

“If the use of burn pits is a military necessity in a particular circumstance, safety in the form of protective respirator masks should be an automatic requirement for any troops who risk being exposed to these potential toxins,” wrote U.S. Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., in a letter to Gates on Wednesday. “These masks can, at a minimum, serve to mitigate the harm being caused by these burn pits."

Despite repeal, DADT court case still lingers

WASHINGTON — Officials from the Log Cabin Republicans say they’ll keep fighting the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law in court until a repeal is finalized, even though the White House is asking for the lawsuit to be quietly tossed aside.

“Until open service is a reality, our legal battle remains necessary," said R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the gay-rights GOP group. "As long as servicemembers are under threat of discharge and there is no clear timeline for certification, Log Cabin will stand for the constitutional rights of our men and women in uniform.”

Tweet critique: Stavridis promises online tune-up

STUTTGART, Germany - After getting called out last week on the popular military tech blog Danger Room as one of the military’s “worst tweeters,” don’t expect Adm. James Stavridis (aka @stavridisj) to shy away from his forays into social media.

Stavridis, U.S. European Command chief and NATO’s top military officer in Europe, was notified by e-mail from his staff about the Wired report, which took Stavridis and other four-star commanders to task for too many frivolous tweets. Stavridis’ response: “I'll work at sharpening the tweets."

Tax info for people who got stop-loss pay in 2010

If you received retroactive stop-loss pay in 2010, your tax documentation won’t be available until late this month or in early February, according to an e-mail from the Army to pay recipients.

 “Recipients of Stop Loss payments should consider waiting until they receive their W-2s or 1099s before filing their federal and state taxes in order to avoid the need to file an amended return,” the e-mail says.

Suicide task force to focus on troops, vets

WASHINGTON – The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention has announced a new military and veterans task force as one of its areas of emphasis in the coming year, calling current and former servicemembers a high-risk group that warrants additional research.

The task force, which will spend the next 12 to 18 months developing and implementing strategies to reduce suicides among troops, will be led by Dr. Jan Kemp, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention program, and Maggie Haynes, director of the Wounded Warrior Project’s combat stress division. The public/private effort is part of the alliance’s broader effort to stem the number of suicides in America, about 34,000 each year.

Declaring victory

STUTTGART, Germany - A spokesman for the peacekeeping force fighting to keep Somalia’s fragile U.S.-backed federal government in power has declared 2010 a victorious year for the alliance, which has been engaged in numerous deadly clashes with al-Qaeda-linked Islamic insurgents.

In an interview with Shabelle Radio, African Union spokesman Maj. Barigye Ba-Hoku said that peacekeepers in Mogadishu have gained ground against rebel group al-Shabab in the past year and succeeded in shielding key Somalia’s airport and international harbor from being overrun.

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