Gay sailor faces a DADT discharge despite repeal

WASHINGTON – Sure, Congress voted to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” last year, signaling the end of the 17-year-old policy that prevented gay servicemembers from being open about their sexuality, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the discharges are over.

Today a sailor in California faces a 3-member panel about a potential discharge under DADT.

More cities & states try veterans courts

The court system in Maricopa County, Ariz., started one in January. The chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court wants one. The public defender in Jacksonville, Fla., hopes to convince judges and prosecutors to open one there, too.

Three years after a Buffalo, N.Y., judge started the nation’s first veterans criminal court, where military veterans accused of minor crimes could have their cases referred, roughly 50 jurisdictions around the United States have set up their own programs.

One month left on $8K vet homebuyer tax credit

 A year ago, the U.S. real estate market saw a short-term boom as buyers ran to take advantage of an $8,000 first-time homebuyers’ tax credit before it expired. For civilians the credit is gone, but certain veterans who served overseas during 2009 and the first four months of 2010 have one more month to take advantage.

If you served overseas on “official extended duty service” for at least 90 days during a 16-month period — between Dec. 31, 2008 and May 1, 2010 — you’re still eligible for the credit, but only if you enter into a binding contract to buy a principal residence by April 30, according to the IRS website.

White House decision on U.S. force structure in Europe coming soon

Stuttgart, Germany-- A Pentagon plan for the U.S. military’s force structure in Europe, which some critics say remains too bloated for a post Cold War world, has been finalized and is now up to the White House to make official.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates made his recommendation to President Barack Obama, according to Cmdr. Wendy Snyder, a Pentagon spokeswoman, who declined to detail what was included in that proposal.

World powers in London to mull Libya endgame

LONDON – A gaggle of foreign ministers and heads of the international community are convening here today to discuss the future of Libya, most importantly how to pave the way for Moammar Gadhafi’s exit.

The meeting this afternoon will include more than 40 foreign ministers, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

Army cites accountability as more photos of Afghan corpses emerge

A  new week and a new fire for the Army to put out. Rolling Stone magazine, fast becoming a thorn in the side of the U.S. military, has published a detailed account of the alleged sport killings said to have been carried out by the 5th Stryker Brigade in Afghanistan.

But it goes a step further by publishing a series of "censored" photos and videos depicting mutilated corpses and smiling soldiers. The images are more graphic than those published last week in the German newspaper Der Spiegel.

Obama sees Libya successes, but is end in sight?

When President Barack Obama addresses the nation Monday evening on the subject of Libya, he’ll be able to point to a list of recent successes:

  • Under the cover of American and allied air power, the Libyan rebels were on the verge Monday of capturing the hometown of strongman Moammar Gadhafi as they continued their westward push toward Tripoli.
  • Over the weekend, they captured the oil ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf, and even reportedly worked out a deal with Qatar to begin marketing Libyan oil again. Oil futures slipped as a result, giving drivers the prospect of relief at the gas pump.
  • NATO, meanwhile, has taken over responsibility from the United States not only for overseeing the arms embargo and the no-fly zone — not very tall orders given that international partners aren’t exactly rallying to Gadhafi’s side, and his limited air defenses were utterly shattered by the initial U.S.-led attack — but also has accepted the far stickier mission of protecting civilians.

But that’s unlikely to stop his critics in Congress and elsewhere — both right and left — from reacting to the speech with their own list of several key points they’ve been making for the last week:

  • The president spent more time coordinating the attack with the U.N. and the Arab League than with Congress.
  • The country can ill afford to fight on a third front in a time of economic weakness.
  • There was no clear U.S. security interest that got us into Libya, and no clear plan for disengagement.

Hotline coaches vets' families on mental health

 The Department of Veterans Affairs is encouraging family members who are concerned about the mental health of a military veteran to call a toll-free number for coaching on how to convince the veteran to seek help.

After a yearlong pilot program, Families at Ease is taking calls at (888) 823-7458, on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Eastern time. The coaching service, provided by VA psychologists and social workers, is in addition to the VA’s separate Veterans Crisis Line, (800) 273-8255. That number is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Libya: A war by any other name…

WASHINGTON – It might look like a war and sound like a war. But White House spokesman Jay Carney strained to explain Thursday that what is happening in Libya right now is not actually a war but is instead a “time-limited, scope-limited military action.” From the transcript:

Q What is this military action? We’ve been asking, is it a war? And if it is not a war --

DADT dismissals hit all-time low in 2010

WASHINGTON – “Don’t ask, don’t tell” discharges hit an all-time low in 2010, according to new data released from Servicemembers United, an advocacy group for gay troops and veterans. For the year, 261 troops were dismissed from the services, down dramatically from the 428 dismissals in 2009 and 640 the year before.

Even with the historic low, officials from the group lamented that the services opted to dismiss any troops in 2010, considering the White House’s stated opposition to the law, a yearlong public push by lawmakers to repeal it, and new rules issued by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to limit the law’s enforcement.

Pentagon memo details flag officer cuts

WASHINGTON – Last fall, Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised that his department-wide cost-cutting measures would include a close examination of the most senior military leaders and offices, to set the tone for spending efficiency and sacrifice. Now, a Pentagon memo unveiled this week details which generals and senior civilian executives will have their jobs phased out in coming years.

The moves are expected to save only about $100 million in the next few years, but are part of larger plans to save more than $20 billion through front-office reorganizations and contracting cuts. Gates has said the department will see roughly $78 billion less in defense spending over the next five years, and the announced changes will help offset those losses.

Roughead: Japan, Libya not costing Navy much

For the Navy at least, the unplanned relief operation in Japan and on-the-fly war planning for Libya don’t appear to be resulting in crushing costs, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead said Wednesday at a media breakfast. That’s because in general, he said, the Navy already had forces in place to handle demands across much of the globe.

“When you look at the expenses of what we in the Navy incurred, given the fact that  forces were already there, those costs are sunk for me,” Roughead said. “I’m already paying for that.”

Group wants DADT repeal process sped up

WASHINGTON — Pentagon leaders are confident that a full repeal of the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law will be finalized later this year, after months of briefings with troops to explain how the changes will affect them. But at least one gay rights group believes military officials can and should speed up the process.

In a statement released yesterday, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis said he thinks the military can finish the preparatory work needed by April 30. That would finalize the repeal by mid-summer at the latest.

Military pay freeze? Some troops back the idea

WASHINGTON – None of the budget-cutting proposals circulating on Capitol Hill so far have included a military pay freeze similar to the civilian government worker freeze put in place by the White House last year. But at least one group of troops thinks that maybe they should.

In blog post on the Army’s Combined Armed Center site, some students from Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College said that any federal pay freeze should also apply to uniformed personnel, calling the exemption an emotional and political move that’s not in the country’s best interest.

Retroactive stop-loss pay deadline now April 8

Congress has extended the deadline for retroactive stop-loss pay once again, this time until April 8. Of the roughly 145,000 current and former servicemembers or their surviving spouses who are eligible for the money, 87,390 have been paid so far, according to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.

This is the fifth time Congress has extended the program, which targets troops who were stop-lossed between September 2001 and September 2008. Those eligible can receive $500 for every month a servicemember was kept beyond their initial separation date.

More living Medal of Honor recipients on the way?

WASHINGTON — More than 2 million troops have served in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade, but until now only one living servicemember has been recognized with the Medal of Honor for heroics in those wars. But Defense Department officials hinted this week that could change soon.

In written testimony provided to the House Armed Services Committee, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel Clifford Stanley said that the department is currently “diligently processing additional Medal of Honor nominations for the president’s consideration, including nominations for other living servicemembers.”

Senate confirms Dempsey as new Army Chief

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted late Wednesday to confirm Gen. Martin Dempsey as the next Army chief of staff, succeeding Gen. George Casey, who plans to retire in April.

Dempsey currently heads the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe, Va. Before that, he served as commander of the 1st Armored Division in Iraq and later commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq. He is a West Point graduate and was commissioned as an Armor officer in 1974.

Bob Barker gives $2 million to Semper Fi Fund

WASHINGTON –Retired TV host Bob Barker trained to be a Navy pilot during World War II, but Japan surrendered while he was awaiting orders to join a sea-going squadron.  His time as a young Navy aviator gave him a deep appreciation for wounded veterans.

“To face life with that kind of handicap, I have nothing but sympathy for them,” Barker told Stars and Stripes. “Life’s a pretty tough proposition for all us anyway, and when you face something like that for the rest of your life, I think you deserve and should have all the help that any of us can give you.”

Budget battle focuses on homeless veterans

WASHINGTON — Later this morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will hold a conference call to again criticize Republican budget cutting plans, in particular highlighting the decision to cut $75 million used to fund about 10,000 housing vouchers for homeless veterans.

It’s the second time in less than a week that Senate Democrats have seized on the proposed spending cut as evidence the GOP savings plans are too drastic. Last Thursday, Sen. Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called the proposal “just one more example of the Republicans’ reckless budget that puts politics and ideology over … those who have served and sacrificed for our nation.”

Pentagon blocks streaming-video websites for now

WASHINGTON _ The Pentagon has temporarily blocked access on military computers to popular, bandwidth-guzzling websites such as Youtube.com, Pandora.com and ESPN.com. 

But the blaring red "Website Blocked" message isn't a harbinger of more handwringing over Internet policy.  CYBERCOM says it's just a response to the extreme demands on the network right now because of the disaster in the Pacific.

Verizon offers free calls to Japan for a month

WASHINGTON — Officials from Verizon Wireless announced today that they’ll make international calls to Japan free for the next month, in an effort to help U.S. customers contact loved ones who may have been affected by last week’s earthquake and tsunami.

The offer runs from March 11 to April 10, with Verizon customers who already placed the international calls receiving credits in future bill statements for the costs. Texting between the countries will also be free during the period.

Bill would heavily restrict funeral protests

WASHINGTON — Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger has said that Congress cannot stop groups like the Westboro Baptist Church from picketing military funerals, after the Supreme Court upheld the groups’ First Amendment rights last month. But the Maryland Democrat also believes that lawmakers can put restrictions on those protests to protect mourning families.

Last week, Ruppersberger introduced legislation that would prohibit protests five hours before and five hours after military funerals, and force protestors to gather at least 2,500 feet away from the event. He said the rules would preserve the protestors’ right to free speech without harassing the military families.

Reports: Troops could miss paychecks in a shutdown

Troops would be forced to work without pay if the federal budget impasse leads to a government shutdown, according to multiple reports citing draft guidance circulating at the Pentagon.

The government has been funded by a series of continuing resolutions since the fiscal year began in October, but the current temporary measure expires on March 18. Should the deadline pass without another extension, servicemembers would begin missing paychecks if the shutdown lasts beyond April 1, the Air Force Times reported. It noted, however, that troops – and Defense Department civilians deemed essential and required to stay on – would receive back pay once the budget situation is resolved.

Latest updates on Japan from Stripes, Twitter

News reports out of Japan are still sporadic and scattered, but the U.S. military  is reporting that all U.S. personnel stationed there are safe. Stripes reporters will be updating our site with news throughout the weekend, and dozens of military families are already using our message boards to reach out to friends and loved ones who may have been affected by the tragedy.

Below, we've complied a quick look at some of the local Japanese and Hawaiian media tracking the earthquake aftermath. And if you're in Japan, please update us at essnews@estripes.osd.mil.

Lawmakers push for defense funds as federal budget battle drags on

WASHINGTON – With the federal budget set to run out next week, yesterday’s unsuccessful budget votes in the Senate have once again ramped up concern over the possibility of a government shutdown. But defense advocates are also increasingly worried about funding shortfalls in military accounts in coming months and the acquisition headaches that could cause if the spending issues aren’t settled soon.

On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., urged his colleagues to pass a full-year appropriations bill for the military even if the rest of the federal budget cannot be reconciled in the next few days. In a statement, he said it would be irresponsible for Congress to “continue to fund the Department of Defense by passing two week-by-two week continuing resolutions while we are fighting two wars.”

Columbia seeks to help vets fill tuition shortfall

Columbia University, which took a public relations hit in the veterans community last month, could be winning some favor back with a concerted effort to help student veterans make up for a pending shortfall in tuition funding under the latest GI Bill revisions.

With the new plan, veterans from 11 states will see a decline — in some cases, a very significant decline — in the amount of money available for tuition each semester. In a Feb. 28 story, reporter Leo Shane III spoke with a couple of Columbia students facing just such a scenario. Army vet Azar Boehm is due to graduate next year but figures he’ll have to pay $10,000 out of pocket to do so. Nicholas Lozano, a former Marine Corps reservist, is a sophomore who estimates the GI Bill changes will cost him $35,000.

Gates to discuss Libya options at NATO meeting

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT — At this week’s NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels, Defense Secretary Robert Gates will discuss whether and how the alliance should intervene in the crisis in Libya, his spokesman said.

The questions of whether to establish and enforce a no-fly zone or conduct any other military operations in the north African state has dogged Gates for weeks, as pro-reform rebels struggle to battle Libyan military forces loyal to Moammar Ghadafi. Some of Libya’s armed forces have responded with aerial attacks on ammunition depots and protesters, while others have defected to the opposition or fled the country.

Gates walks outside the wire in Kandahar ... sort of

TABIN, Afghanistan — It was just a 15-minute walk from the landing zone to the rocky courtyard where a couple dozen village elders and new local police recruits waited to greet the Pentagon chief, and it was billed as a sign of things to come. 

Where once even U.S. soldiers would not tread, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates passed dozens of smiling children. And leery elders. A few cows. Some stray dogs. A chicken. There may have been a llama, but it probably was a hairy camel. Also ... dozens of U.S. Special Forces soldiers, Afghan soldiers and plain-clothed security personnel lining the mud-walled road, standing on point, staring across the fields and courtyards for any sign of trouble.

Group may be planning Quantico cyber assault

Marine Corps Base Quantico may soon find itself on the front lines of the world’s newest form of warfare.

Well, “front lines” doesn’t fully describe this latest way to fight. In cyber warfare, attacks flow into computer networks from the intangible world of the globalized Internet.

'Don't ask, don't tell' repeal training in full swing

WASHINGTON – Writers over at the OutServe.org blog, a self-described underground site for gay, bisexual and transgender active-duty troops, have posted training documents from all four services for the impending “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal. All four services (and the Coast Guard) have now started their general population training on what to expect once gay troops are permitted to serve openly in the ranks.

In all of the briefing materials, service officials are emphasizing that the goal is not to change troops’ individual beliefs on homosexuality but to ensure that everyone maintains a professional respect for their military colleagues. A Navy pamphlet accompanying sailors’ briefings notes that “any type of harassment or violence among sailors will not be tolerated.”

Lawmakers want U.S. Capitol honors for Buckles

WASHINGTON — A group of lawmakers led by West Virginia Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin are pushing for Capitol Hill honors for Frank Buckles, the last living U.S. World War I veteran who passed away this weekend. But so far, those efforts haven’t been successful.

Right now, plans call for Buckles to be honored at Arlington National Cemetery, but the lawmakers want the West Virginia resident to lie in honor at the Capitol, a privilege usually reserved for top U.S. dignitaries. However, leaders from both chambers aren’t backing that idea.

Stop-loss pay deadline extended to March 18

WASHINGTON – Troops, veterans and surviving spouses now have until March 18 to apply for retroactive stop-loss pay under a stop-gap funding measure signed by the president on Wednesday.

This is the fourth time that Congress has continued funding for the program as part of a temporary measure to keep funding the government at 2010 levels until lawmakers can agree on a fiscal 2011 budget.

Court rules 'excessive' military absence no justification for firing

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Postal Service’s decision to fire an Army National Guardsman for “excessive absence due to military service” violated federal laws protecting servicemembers’ civilian jobs, a federal appeals court ruled on Monday.

The decision is the latest victory for former Sgt. Maj. Richard Erickson and could have wide-reaching effects for troops who have struggled in recent years to balance their civilian employment with lengthy deployment and training schedules, according to attorneys involved in the case.

A bear of a fighter

Wojtek was a soldier who enjoyed his beer and cigarettes.  He relished cigarettes so much, in fact, that he sometime ate them. He was said to have tipped the scales at 500 pounds.

One wonders how he’d have done on the new Army PT test.

Luckily for him, as a World War II fighter he didn’t have to take the rigorous test. The other thing that would probably exempt him is that Wojtek was a furry, four-legged member of the genus Ursus—a bear.

The eastern Polish army-in-exile, composed of prisoners of war and others trapped in the Soviet Union at the beginning of the war, originally picked up the orphaned cub while traversing the Middle East.

Vets groups disappointed in Supreme Court ruling

Today’s Supreme Court ruling affirming the First Amendment right to verbally attack fallen servicemembers and their families near funerals raised the ire of veterans’ groups, but a First Amendment lawyer said the ruling reaffirmed fundamental American rights.

The ruling overturned a $5 million civil judgment against Westboro Baptist Church, which in 2006 protested near the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder near Baltimore. The church had been sued by Snyder’s father for wrongs including the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

What do you think? Should funeral protests be protected?

This is America. Even complete jerks—to put it politely—can loudly express their opinions on public affairs, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today, upholding the right of anti-gay, anti-military Westboro Baptist Church members to protest near military funerals.

The principle holds true even when that expression seems crafted to inflict pain on those who have made the ultimate sacrifice—the life of a son, in the case of the Snyder family. Members of the Kansas church showed up outside Baltimore near the 2006 funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq, with offensive signs: “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” is a typical example. The aggrieved family sued in 2007 for intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation, among other things.

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