U.S will have a Gulf presence, but troop numbers uncertain, Pentagon says

WASHINGTON – No decisions have been made on how many U.S. troops will remain in the Persian Gulf region as the Pentagon prepares a final push to get the nearly 40,000 servicemembers still in Iraq out of the country by New Year’s Eve.

“One thing’s for sure, we’re going to maintain a presence in the Gulf region,” Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Monday. “We have enduring commitments in that part of the world, and those commitments remain a priority.”

Burn pit study inconclusive on health effects

WASHINGTON — Researchers studying troops’ respiratory problems released findings Monday that suggested poor air quality in Iraq and Afghanistan may be a bigger threat to servicemembers’ long-term health than exposure to toxic smoke from burn pits. But they caution that their work still leaves many questions unanswered.

The report, requested by the Department of Veterans Affairs and conducted by the Institute of Medicine, found that particulate matter in the air around the infamous Joint Base Balad burn pit at the height of the Iraq War included dangerous particulate matter that could cause long-term respiratory illnesses.

Hazing, suicide and military minorities

If you missed it, check out The New York Times’ Sunday story on Pvt. Danny Chen, a 19-year-old Asian-American soldier who was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head inside a guard tower at his U.S. base in Afghanistan.

The Army is investigating his death to determine whether Chen committed suicide or whether foul play was involved. So far, they’ve shared few details with Chen’s parents, Chinese immigrants who speak no English, but they divulged that Chen was physically abused by his superiors, who also subjected him to a steady diet of ethnic slurs.

Android approved, sort of, for DOD networks

For the first time, a mobile operating system that is both widely used and runs on a device that’s not a Blackberry can access Pentagon computer networks.

The Defense Information Systems Agency, or DISA, this week released guidance for securely connecting with devices that run the Dell version of the Android 2.2 OS, which can run on both smartphones and tablet computers.

2012 presidential election might not have any vets

WASHINGTON — With a year still to go in the 2012 presidential race, it’s looking unlikely that a veteran will be elected to the White House.

The expected Democratic nominee and current White House resident, President Barack Obama, did not serve in the military. And while the Republican presidential nominee for next fall is far from decided, only two of the major Republican candidates – Rick Perry and Ron Paul – have any military background. Both of them have fallen back in the polls in recent weeks.

Senators want full review of Iraq withdrawal

WASHINGTON — Nine Republican senators and Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., have requested formal hearings on last week’s announcement that the U.S. will withdraw all troops from Iraq by the end of this year, saying that they worry the move was too hasty and risks both countries’ long-term security interests.

In a letter this week to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., the 10 lawmakers noted that “while we share the desire for all of our troops to come home as quickly as possible, every senior military commander we have heard from on repeated visits to Iraq has stated that U.S. national security interests and the enduring needs of Iraq’s military require a continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond 2011 to safeguard the gains that we and our Iraqi partners have made.”

VA to allow easier sharing of medical info with Pentagon

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday that it’s changing its rules to make it easier to share some kinds of medical information with the Department of Defense.

The rule change will make it easier for the VA and Pentagon to exchange information on treatments for drug abuse, alcoholism or alcohol abuse, HIV status, and sickle cell anemia.

Panetta: U.S. presence in Pacific is 'here to stay'

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan – If Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit with 150 troops Wednesday on the USS Blue Ridge did nothing else, it reassured one young sailor he’d probably be able to hang onto his job.

“It was good to hear a vote of confidence in us, and especially good to hear about the continued presence in the Pacific,” said a junior lieutenant who asked his name not be printed. “We sort of started wondering where we were going after the rumors about the (decommissioning of the) George Washington.”

Listen: Effects of the Iraq drawdown on troops

WASHINGTON -- Earlier today, I was a guest on NPR's Tell Me More to speak about last week's announcement of the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year. Here's their summary of the show, and the audio clip:

President Obama announced Friday that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Since the Iraq War began in 2003, more than 1.5 million Americans served and more than 44 hundred died. Michel Martin explores if service members see the drawdown as a victory, how the mission in Iraq has evolved and what lessons can be drawn from it. Martin speaks with Ed Dorn, former Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, and Leo Shane, a reporter for the independent military newspaper Stars & Stripes.

Panetta editorial: Korea, China among common U.S.-Japan challenges

ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT -- North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and an increasingly aggressive China are some of the challenges the United States and Japan must address as a team, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrote in an editorial that appeared Monday in the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest-circulation newspaper.

Panetta arrives Monday for visits with U.S. and Japanese troops as well as meetings with top Japanese officials, including the prime minister and the ministers of foreign affairs and defense.

Capitol Hill reacts to the Iraq withdrawal

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s announcement Friday that the Iraq War will come to a complete end this year drew immediate reaction from lawmakers both in favor of the plan and concerned that the move will jeopardize both Iraq and the United States.

Here’s a sampling of the reaction from Capitol Hill:

Full text of Obama's Iraq withdrawal announcement

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good afternoon, everybody. As a candidate for President, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end -- for the sake of our national security and to strengthen American leadership around the world. After taking office, I announced a new strategy that would end our combat mission in Iraq and remove all of our troops by the end of 2011.

As Commander-in-Chief, ensuring the success of this strategy has been one of my highest national security priorities. Last year, I announced the end to our combat mission in Iraq. And to date, we’ve removed more than 100,000 troops. Iraqis have taken full responsibility for their country’s security.

Deadline for stop-loss pay applications is midnight Friday

UPDATED OCT. 21, 4:53 P.M. EDT

WASHINGTON -- After being extended several times by Congress, the Retroactive Stop-Loss Pay program will finally stop accepting applications at midnight on Friday.

Heading for Asia, Panetta is urged to solve Japan basing dispute

WASHINGTON — Move quickly to solve the smoldering dispute over air bases on Okinawa, Virginia Sen. Jim Webb urged Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ahead of his first visit to Asia as secretary.

Panetta leaves Friday for high-level meetings with allies in Indonesia, Japan and South Korea.

White House honors veterans charities

WASHINGTON – The White House on Thursday honored the founders of three veterans charities with the Citizens Medal, recognizing their “exemplary deeds of service for their country.”

The groups – The Soldiers Project, New Directions and Soldier’s List – were among 12 community service groups awarded the honor this year. In a statement, President Barack Obama said each of the groups highlighted serves as an inspiration for all citizens, and provides critical services to needy Americans.

Here’s a closer look at each of the veterans groups honored, and video of the founders describing their work:

Michelle McIntyre-Brewer, Soldier’s List

McIntyre-Brewer is a military spouse who founded Soldier's List in 2003 to support high-risk troops and their families. The group has sent tens of thousands of care packages around the world, both to deployed and recently returned servicemembers. McIntyre-Brewer has also expanded the charity’s original goals to include education programs on Tricare and other military medical benefits.

Satirical #OccupyHQMC protests sleeves order

Just hours after Marine Corps officials relented on rules barring troops from wearing KIA bracelets, officials announced that Marines will no longer be permitted to roll up their uniform sleeves.

The reaction on social media was swift and angry ... and funny.

Creech drone virus infection accidental, STRATCOM commander says

WASHINGTON – A virus found to be infecting computers used to control U.S. drones flying in the Middle East “entered from the wild” and was not specifically targeted at the system, Gen. Robert Kehler, head of U.S. Strategic Command said Tuesday.

The virus hit computers at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, as first reported Oct. 7 by Wired’s Danger Room blog. The Air Force initially refused to comment on the report based on unnamed sources, saying, “We generally do not discuss specific vulnerabilities, threats, or responses to our computer networks since that helps people looking to exploit or attack our systems to refine their approach.”

Gay soldier says coming out has been a non-event

For all the symbolic importance of a once-closeted soldier coming out to his co-workers, some gay servicemembers are finding the actual telling anti-climatic.

At an eastern Afghanistan base, Army Pfc. Ted Bonham’s revelation elicited little more than shrugs from his fellow civil affairs soldiers.

Freeing himself of the secret was thrilling, and he was relieved to find that they stood by him.

But the impact of his decision to be open about his sexuality now that “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been repealed goes beyond the reaction of his fellow soldiers.

OS2011 Summit: Is DADT really dead?

LAS VEGAS -- The military's "don't ask, don't tell" law officially ended last month, but gay rights activists still worry that it could come back.

Most of that fear stems from the Republican presidential primary, where most of the candidates have expressed either veiled support for the ban on openly gay troops or have explicitly stated plans to reinstate the "don't ask, don't tell" law. In addition, the repeal of the law did not include any federal statute language promising military service would always remain open to gay recruits, meaning that theoretically it could be reinstated with a simple vote of Congress.

OS2011 Summit: DADT dismissals complicate job searches in an already tough market

LAS VEGAS -- Finding a job right now is difficult. Having a resume that includes a "don't ask, don't tell" dismissal from the military can make it even harder.

"I was outed as a lesbian and out of the Navy in five weeks," said Allie Thorpe, who spent four years in the service before her 2006 exit. "I didn't have any money saved up. I didn't have the opportunity to prepare for a civilian job. And I couldn't find anyone who would hire me based on my skill set."

OS2011 Summit: Leaders challenge gay troops to come out, be role models

LAS VEGAS -- Rights leaders challenged their gay colleagues to come out to straight co-workers now that "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed, despite the professional and personal risks they still might face.

"There are still risks (to coming out), particularly the more junior you are," said Michelle Benecke, a former Army officer who left the service because of rules against gays in the military. "But if we're leaders, it does entail risks."

OS2011 Summit: Even after DADT repeal, more work lies ahead

LAS VEGAS -- For attendees at the military gay rights conference that opened here today, the celebration of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" is already over. Now it's time to tackle the next set of problems facing openly gay servicemembers.

"We had that day to celebrate, and maybe a few days after," said Petty Officer Second Class Jeffery Priela, a hospital corpsman based in Hawaii and a local OutsServe chapter leader there. "Now we're building the groundwork for the future, and what kind of professional orgaizations [gay troops] will need in their careers."

Army suicides decline for second consecutive month

WASHINGTON – Sixteen active-duty soldiers and six reservists apparently took their own lives in September, the second month of decline in suicide numbers since a record high in July, according to Army figures released Friday.

Four of the September cases have been confirmed as suicide while 18 remain under investigation, the Pentagon said. Twenty-nine Army suicides were reported in August, down from 33 in July, the highest toll since the Army began releasing the figures in 2009.

Military summit featuring gay troops starts Friday

Updated Friday, 8:35 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Several hundred gay and straight servicemembers converged on Las Vegas on Friday for the OutServe Armed Forces Leadership Summit, the first major conference on gay rights and culture in the military since the repeal of the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law last month.

Organizers from OutServe, a major lobbying force for closeted gay troops before the repeal, said the goal of the conference, held at the New York, New York hotel and casino, is to provide opportunities for networking and professional development and to “create an environment of respect in the military with regards to sexual orientation and gender identity … sharing best practices and formulating strategies that help build a stronger military community.”

House passes veterans jobs bill

WASHINGTON -- After a day's delay, the House overwhelmingly approved the Veterans Opportunity to Work Act on Wednesday evening, a move supporters hope sets the stage for a veterans job bill being signed into law in the next few weeks.

The measure passed 418-6. A similar measure is pending in the Senate, but House leaders and veterans groups said they expect Wednesday's House vote to speed up work for on a compromise measure reconciling the two.

As Iraq pullout progresses, U.S. keeps troops numbers high to provide 'flexibility'

WASHINGTON – Despite reports that the Iraq government had requested about 5,000 U.S. troops remain as trainers, U.S. Forces-Iraq remains on track to be out of the country by the end of the year, USF-I spokesman Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan said Wednesday.

Nearly 14,000 truck shipments have carried equipment out of Iraq in recent days, he said. Meanwhile, old civilian gear such as trucks and generators deemed not worth keeping is being transferred to the Iraqi government, a practice that has saved the United State $600 million dollars in shipping costs, Buchanan said.

Army must maintain conventional warfare skills, Panetta says

WASHINGTON — The Army should maintain the counterinsurgency and special operations chops it has honed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it should rededicate itself to conventional operations as well, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday.

Speaking at the Association of the U.S. Army convention in Washington, Panetta said that despite impending budget cuts, the nation needs the Army to come out of the current wars as a versatile force ready to take on any adversary around the world.

New study to look at bereavement in mil families