Petraeus bids farewell to military, but not to Washington

WASHINGTON — If Gen. David Petraeus was America’s most popular soldier, he owes that in large part to his prominent presence in the Washington scene.

It showed on Wednesday.

National Guardsmen heckled after nearly drowning in floodwaters

The New Jersey National Guardsmen had been sent to the town of Manville on Sunday to evacuate residents from the rising floodwaters left as Hurricane Irene swept up the East Coast. What they did not plan on was becoming the unfortunate stars of a viral video sweeping across the Internet.

In the video, two National Guard trucks drive ever deeper into the chocolate floodwaters until the trucks are nearly submerged and the seven people inside are forced to crawl out the windows and cling to the top of the vehicles. An onlooker with a camera proceeds to heckle the guardsmen.

Obama: ‘We will not balance the budget on the backs of veterans’

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama got loud applause from a skeptical audience at the American Legion convention Tuesday when he bluntly stated that “we cannot, we must not and we will not balance the budget on the backs of veterans.” The comments came as the president acknowledged the tough fiscal decisions the country faces, but he said deciding whether to fund veterans benefits should not be among them.

The comments came less than two weeks after the White House ordered all federal agencies – including the Department of Veterans Affairs – to draw up plans identifying up to 10 percent in overall cuts for their 2013 budgets, in anticipation of significant fiscal constraints next year.

Panetta discusses shift from spy chief to caretaker

WASHINGTON – Once the nation’s spy chief, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is settling into his new role as caretaker of the world’s largest volunteer military force and their families, and facing down all of the challenges that come with the job.

“It’s a much bigger responsibility,” Panetta, the former CIA director, said in a recent interview in his Pentagon office.

Gay military magazine to land at Army, AF bases

WASHINGTON — Military officials have approved distribution of OutServe’s gay-themed military magazine for distribution at Army and Air Force base exchanges starting next month. It’s the first publication of its type to reach the exchange shelves and the mainstream military audience.

Officials from the gay rights advocacy group, whose 4,000 members include active-duty troops and veterans, said the next edition will be available on Sept. 20, the same day that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law is fully repealed. The issue will feature profiles of nearly 100 group members publicly acknowledging their sexual orientation for the first time.

Another high-value target: Does death of al-Qaida No. 2 mean U.S. is any closer to victory?

WASHINGTON – The CIA drone strike that U.S. officials say killed al-Qaida’s No. 2-ranking leader, Atiyah abd Rahman, is the latest notch on the anti-terrorism belt since Osama bin Laden was killed in May – and since Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said al-Qaida was just “10 to 20” kills or captures away from strategic defeat.

Al-Rahman is undoubtedly a big loss. But is the U.S. making a dent in Panetta’s Most Wanted list? How many people are left? And who are they? Or was the secretary making more of a generalization than an actual list of up to 20 names?

Ten years after 9/11, wasteful Pentagon war contracting still under fire

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon's use of no-bid contracts meant to field urgently needed war goods like counter-IED devices has tripled since 9/11, despite promises to reform the controversial practice once justified by military planners at the outbreak of war ten years ago, a new watchdog report finds.

After repeated pledges and orders from President Barack Obama and Defense Department leaders to clean up the no-bid trough, “Campaign pledges and memos have made little headway in combating the problem,” writes Sarah Whitmire, in the Center for Public Integrity's first installment of a five-day investigative report on war contracting, released Monday. What was a $50 billion worry in 2003 has ballooned to $140 billion in 2011. 

DOD ready to help as Irene nears U.S. coast

WASHINGTON - The Defense Department is ready to pitch in with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide disaster relief as a potentially historic hurricane closes in on the United States’ eastern seaboard, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wrote in a Friday afternoon message to DOD employees.

“I directed U.S. Northern Command to provide support as identified by FEMA in light of the projected path of the storm,” Panetta wrote. “Fort Bragg, N.C., Joint Base McGuire - Dix - Lakehurst, N.J., and Westover Air Reserve Base, Mass. have [each] been designated as a FEMA Incident Support Base (ISB). As such, we have already prepositioned 225 non-DoD trucks loaded with equipment, food, water, and generators at Bragg. Supplies and equipment are in the process of being moved to the other ISBs now."

Another one? Navy fires 17th commanding officer, ties record for year

WASHINGTON – The Navy has fired its 17th commanding officer of the year, tying last year’s inglorious mark with four months left to go, despite Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead’s  attempt to whip officers back into ship shape.

Cmdr. Laredo Bell, commander of Support Activity Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was cited for drunk driving. (Stars and Stripes story: here.)

Searching for Gadhafi: Washington officials coy on manhunt

WASHINGTON – The world is searching for Moammar Gadhafi, but is the United States?

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that U.S. intelligence and NATO were joining the rebel manhunt for Gahdafi by “repositioning intelligence agents and targeting surveillance equipment.” British Defense Minister Liam Fox also said on Thursday that NATO was in on the posse with intelligence and reconnaissance help. But Pentagon and State Department spokesmen quickly denied the U.S. had any involvement in the manhunt.

Democracy, stability or just opportunity? Washington chooses which dictators to embrace

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama praised Libyans this week for being the latest Middle Easterners to prove that “the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator.”

It helps when the Washington does not support the dictator. First, the U.S. backed the downfall of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, then Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and now Syria’s President Bashar Assad. So, why not more?

East Coast earthquake rattles Pentagon

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon violently shook during Tuesday’s 5.9-magnitude earthquake in Arlington, Va., as thousands of employees and visitors ran full speed for the exits.

Reporters in the second-floor media filing center felt some initial swaying and as some quickly noted they had felt no “boom” to indicate any explosions (or ever-feared plane crashes) the walls began to roll back and forth more intensely, causing a rush for the doors.

Gadhafi still in Libya, not sure about Tripoli, Pentagon says

WASHINGTON –Moammar Gadhafi likely is still in Libya, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday, but it is unclear if he is in Tripoli.

Col. David Lapan said the Defense Department’s assessment is that more than half of Tripoli now is controlled by the rebels, but said the situation remains fluid.

Airman's voice leads to a shot at 'The Voice'

It’s the classic story: Woman joins the Air National Guard and sings in a military band. A YouTube video of her performance goes viral. TV host Carson Daily gets in touch with her and she winds with an invitation to audition for a reality show.

OK, there’s nothing classic about it, but that’s the path that Staff Sgt. Angie Johnson, lead singer of the band Sidewinder from the 571st Air Force Band, 131st Bomb Wing, has been on.

U.S. efforts in Libya, by the numbers

WASHINGTON – In his comments yesterday about the ongoing fighting in Libya, President Barack Obama noted the success of international efforts to aid the rebel forces without putting a single U.S. servicemember on the ground there.

But U.S. forces have been busy in the skies above the war-torn country. Here’s a look at what the U.S. and international assistance have looked like since April 1:

At military job fairs, it's about them, not you

WASHINGTON — If you’ve been to an armed forces career fair you’ve seen them: aspiring applicants, resumes in hand, walking through the hall in their military uniforms.

Bad idea, says Chad Storlie, a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel and the author of the books, “Combat Leader to Corporate Leader” and “Battlefield to Business Success.”

Libya: U.S. officials still saying ‘No boots on the ground’ post-Gadhafi. Do you believe them?

WASHINGTON – Do you believe there will be no American troops sent to Libya in the post-Moammar Gadhafi clean up?

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is not even considering it, he told Stars and Stripes during a roundtable interview in his office Friday, and the Pentagon backed him on Monday. That is, unless the United Nations and NATO change their mission and the president changes his mind.

Under fire over defense cuts, Panetta fingers Republicans

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta answered conservative critics who claim Democrats always want to cut defense spending by saying it was Republicans, not Democrats, who were clamoring for spending cuts this time.

“First of all, the last time I looked, Republicans were beating the ‘cut spending’ drum a lot louder than Democrats,” he said in an interview Friday. But the savings effort underway now clearly is “bipartisan,” he said.

Unmanned everything on sale now at Washington floor show

WASHINGTON – Pssst, mister. Hey, mister? Want to buy some? Cheap? I got what you need.  Only a million dollars for me to get you flying high.

That’s the price for one Aerostat blimp, tethered to a trailer, equipped with surveillance and flown about 2,000 feet over at least 30 military bases across Afghanistan. Think that’s a bit expensive? Well, to put a camera on one of those flying drones over there will run you upward of $50 million.

Vets groups blast military retirement proposal

WASHINGTON — Veterans groups lashed out this week at a proposed overhaul of the military retirement system, vowing to fight any changes that could take money out of current or future retirees’ pockets.

The plan, a recommendation from the Defense Business Board, calls for an end to the all-or-nothing current retirement system, which requires military personnel to serve at least 20 years to receive any benefits. The new proposal would offer partial benefits after 10 years and adopt a system closer to corporate 401(k) retirement plans.

Pentagon silent on Syria

WASHINGTON – Just two days after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton dismissed a reporter probing why the U.S. had not called for Syrian President Bashar Assad to quit, the White House did just that.

President Barack Obama on Thursday demanded Assad “step aside" after months of brutal violence against pro-democracy protestors, some by Syria’s military. Clinton later read a statement calling for Assad “to get out of the way.” But, true to form in such moments, the Pentagon is staying quiet.

Pentagon: Libyan rebel advances are ‘significant developments’

WASHINGTON – Recent advances by Libyan rebels in the west and east of Tripoli are a sign that Moammar Gadhafi’s end is near, a Defense Department spokesman said in the first on-the-record assessment of rebel progress given by Pentagon officials in some time.

“Those are significant developments,” Pentagon press secretary George Little said Wednesday. But U.S. officials have been saying Ghadafi’s “days are numbered” for months – a phrase Defense Secretary Leon Panetta repeated Tuesday – and there are plenty who believe the colonel isn't going anywhereSo, what’s new?

Online jihadist calls for Muslims to kill David Letterman

UPDATED AUG. 17, 3:36 P.M. EDT

WASHINGTON -- An internet jihadist has called upon American Muslims to kill comedian David Letterman.

VA seeks new impact with latest social media push

WASHINGTON – Veterans Affairs officials unveiled their new social media policy Tuesday, promising to expand upon efforts already underway to reach out to veterans on Facebook, Twitter and any other tools. In a statement, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said that the goal is for veterans to have “consistent and convenient access to reliable VA information real time using social media —whether on a smartphone or a computer.”

The push isn’t new – the department now boasts 100 Facebook pages, more than 50 Twitter feeds, two blogs, a YouTube channel, and a Flickr page. Officials said they hope the new policy encourages more use of the tools by VA employees, finding new sites to reach veterans and providing a social media footprint for VA programs not yet in the mix.

Official: Bloodiest day of the year won’t change U.S. drawdown, Iraq’s government will

WASHINGTON – The deadliest day in Iraq this year looks like the work of al-Qaida in Iraq, which after eight years of war maintains up to 1,000 mostly homegrown members, U.S. Forces-Iraq spokesman Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said Tuesday.

But despite the terrorist group’s persistence – and continued Iranian-backed militant attacks on Iraqis and Americans – the U.S. is not wavering from its plan to pull out all 46,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by December 31. 

Live Tweeting Panetta, Clinton on stage

WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took the stage at National Defense University today, addressing questions on a range of security topics from Afghanistan to Syria. Last year, Clinton and former Secretary Robert Gates did a similar event for CNN

Read my live tweeting, here.

Pentagon to audit all DARPA contracts, following nepotism reports

Clarification: The Inspector General’s office said Wednesday that it would not audit all of DARPA’s contracts in the last two years. Instead, to complete the assessment in a timely manner, it will review a list of 2,000 actions and identify a representative number to audit. 

WASHINGTON – Responding to some good watchdog journalism into allegations of nepotistic contracting by Regina Dugan, director of the secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Defense Department’s inspector general is launching an audit of all DARPA contracts awarded in the last two years. 

How the war is spun: Mass killings mean ‘progress,’ military says

WASHINGTON – We’ve written for years how Pentagon officials often spin mass casualty terrorist bombing attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan into signs of progress. After multiple bombings killed more than 80 people across the warzones Sunday and Monday, here’s an example of how the war is spun.

One standard Defense Department talking point reads something like this: It is a clear sign that the counterinsurgency is working when insurgents don’t engage in head-to-head fighting against Western troops (who are armed to the teeth like sci-fi warriors) and instead launch suicide attacks against local security forces, political leaders and civilians. The bad guys are “desperate.”  

IRAQ: Is al-Maliki taking sides with U.S. enemies?

WASHINGTON – Over the weekend, two stories from the Middle East offered a one-two punch of troubling news for U.S. security interests: Syria’s President Bashar Assad unleashed new levels of military power on protesters and Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agrees with him.

Question: If you had to rank the security concerns of the week, where would you rank the rollout of China’s aircraft carrier, which underwent its first sea trials? Now where would you rank this line from the New York Times: “Mr. Maliki’s support for Mr. Assad has illustrated how much Iraq’s position in the Middle East has shifted toward an axis led by Iran.

Serbian defense chief building up forces, breaking down prejudices

WASHINGTON – After more than a decade of rebirth from one of the darkest chapters in European history, the two most trusted institutions in Serbia are the church and the military.

“Just a few years ago, it was not like this,” Minister of Defense Dragan Sutanovac said during an interview Friday at a Pentagon City hotel.

Army reports record suicide numbers for July

As many as 32 soldiers killed themselves in July, the Army reported Friday, a figure that, if confirmed, would be the highest total since the Army began releasing the figures in 2009. The Army suffered 31 suicides in June 2010.

Among active-duty troops, three of 22 cases have been confirmed as suicides. Of 10 potential suicide cases among reserve troops, all remain under investigation, the Army said.

No solace for family of soldier who took own life

Every day now it seems there’s another bit of unfinished business in the life of Army veteran Jacob Andrews, who committed suicide in April.

A few days ago, it was a notice that the state of Missouri wants to collect the cost of a surgery Andrews had as a 10-year-old when he was on Medicaid. Last week, it was a notice from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs certifying---without mentioning his death---that Andrews was eligible for the post-9/11 GI Bill.

Panetta, Clinton joining forces as cuts loom

WASHINGTON – Continuing a string of joint appearances by President Barack Obama’s military and diplomatic chiefs, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will take the stage with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton next week for a televised conversation with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, the State Department announced Friday.

Just a few years ago, it was held as truth that secretaries of defense and state kept a distance between the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, fought for resources and White House attention, and ran the military separate and unequal to diplomacy and development.  Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in his final speech at the Pentagon on the day before his retirement, said, “For much of my professional life the secretaries of state and defense were barely speaking to one another.” 

‘Super Congress’ light on defense credentials

WASHINGTON — House minority leader Nancy Pelosi yesterday afternoon named the House Democrats’ three picks for the congressional deficit reduction committee (dubbed “Super Congress” by budget watchers), rounding out the 12-member panel. The lawmakers chosen most often focus on financial issues, and no members of the House or Senate armed services committees are included.

That could be bad news for military spenders, who are already facing a guaranteed $350 billion cut in defense funding over the next decade and could see up to $600 billion in additional trims if the deficit committee can’t reach agreements on alternative cuts.

Rights group pushes for same-sex military benefits

WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials have maintained that even after the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law is repealed, they’ll have limited flexibility to offer benefits to same-sex military partners because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. But at least one group believes that military officials can do more.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday, officials from the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network argue that while the DOMA prohibits federal agencies from recognizing same-sex marriages, the military does have “the ability, within the confines of that law, to make same-sex married couples and their families eligible to take part in some of the same programs that are available to straight married couples and their families.”

Get that airman a contract!

Update below 3:52 p.m. ET

A video of an Air Force band doing an amazing cover of Adele's hit song Rolling in the Deep has gone viral, with 200,000 views in three days, and media coverage on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mach 22 and beyond!

WASHINGTON – Don’t blink. Actually, go ahead. The Air Force is test flying something Thursday you’ll likely never see anyway.

The already legendary Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, or HVT-2, is a wedge-shaped plane that can speed more than 13,000 mph, according to its creators at DARPA, the secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Follow the launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif – where else? – on DARPA’s Twitter feed

Should the ceremonies honoring the dead be closed to public view?

The nation’s top defense officials were to be present, and President Barack Obama was expected as well.

But the American people apparently will never be privy to the proceedings Tuesday afternoon as the bodies of 30 U.S troops – many of them elite Navy SEALS – were to be ceremonially transferred from two cargo planes that carried their remains from Afghanistan. They died Saturday along with eight Afghan troops when insurgents shot down their helicopter.

Setback for veteran courts in state leading the way

The economy strikes again.

Southern California has been progressive in its treatment of combat veterans who end up on the wrong side of the law. Many of those veterans, who have post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse problems, get treatment and strict probation through a court designed specifically for them instead of going to jail for their crimes.

Media barred from ceremonies for 30 troops killed in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON – Only families will be there as the bodies of 30 U.S. troops killed Saturday when their helicopter was shot down are returned from Aghanistan. Members of the media will be barred from honor guard ceremonies at Dover Air Force Base, Del., the Pentagon said Monday.

The transfer of remains was expected to occur Tuesday, the Pentagon said.

Former SEALs reflect on crash that killed so many brothers in arms

NAPLES, Italy — When his daughter told retired Navy SEAL Don Shipley to turn on the news on May 1, he thought President Obama was going to announce that U.S. forces had killed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

But the SEALs had instead taken out Osama bin Laden.

Unemployment drops for post-9/11 vets

The jobless rate for post-9/11 veterans showed slight improvement in July, though it remains significantly higher than the rate for their civilian counterparts, according to the latest report from the Department of Labor.

In July, 12.4 percent of new veterans were unemployed, compared with 13.3 percent a month earlier. In July 2010, 11.8 percent of new vets were jobless.

Joint Forces Command shuts its doors

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S Joint Forces Command has done its job of helping meld the separate services into a unified fighting force, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said Thursday at the ceremony to officially shut down the command.

“Through the course of two wars, we have built an incredible joint force in ways many of us could not have imagined,” Mullen told spectators at the casing of colors ceremony in Norfolk, Va. “In fact, your efforts have permeated every level of our military.”

Insurgent violence drops slightly in southern Afganistan

WASHINGTON – Violence in southern Afghanistan has dropped marginally compared to last year’s fighting season, despite an intensified push to clear out Taliban pockets, the commanding general of Regional Command South said Thursday.

Maj. Gen. James Terry, commander of the Army’s 10th Mountain division, said that recent high-profile attacks, including the killing of prominent Kandahar politician Ahmed Wali Karzai, half-brother of the Afghan president, show the Taliban have shifted to a strategy of terrorizing the population rather than direct military confrontation.

Cartwright steps down amid pomp at Marine Barracks

WASHINGTON – Marine Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, who gained a reputation as the tech-savviest of the top Pentagon brass, stepped down Wednesday from his position as vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in a ceremony at the Marine Barracks in Washington.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the retiring Cartwright “one of our nation’s greatest visionaries” and a key player in the drive to link the operations of the U.S. intelligence community more closely with the Pentagon. The successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden was a payoff of that effort, Panetta said.

Pentagon insider gets nod for deputy defense secretary

WASHINGTON – Chief Pentagon weapons buyer Ashton Carter is the White House’s pick for No. 2 civilian at the Defense Department. If the nomination announced Tuesday is confirmed by the Senate, Carter would step into the position now filled by Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn, who said last month he was stepping down.

Carter has served as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics for just over two years, and prior to that worked a variety of intelligence, counterterrorism and defense policy positions under the last several administrations. As defense undersecretary, Carter has played a key role in budget-trimming initiatives instituted by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Name this country: Insurgent assaults down, 'high-profile' attacks up, surge working

WASHINGTON – On what may be his final battlefield tour, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was convinced by commanders that the surge has worked because there are fewer insurgent frontal assaults on superior U.S. forces and more “high-profile” spectacular bomb attacks on locals, signifying a desperate enemy on the ropes. Sound familiar? 

Now, can you name the war Mullen was describing? It turns out that flying from Afghanistan to Iraq this year is a bit like going forward in counterinsurgency time. The narrative the Pentagon has used for years to explain away sustained insurgent/extremist violence in Iraq is now a narrative for Afghanistan.

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