Last week both the Army and Air Force temporarily stopped payments due to language in the most recent Defense Appropriations bill. But according to Navy and Marine Corps officials, it didn't slow down their efforts to send out checks.
The bill prevents troops who collected a re-enlistment or retention bonus while being held under stop-loss from qualifying for the money. But while that's provided major paperwork headaches for Army and Air Force officials, the other two services said their low numbers of stop-lossed servicemembers means the new law has had little effect.
About 9,660 Marines and 500 250 sailors eligible for retroactive stop-loss pay, officials said. The Marine Corps already screens claims to see if the claimants received a re-enlistment or retention bonus while being held under stop-loss, said Corps spokeswoman Maj. Shawn Haney.
And while the Navy is working how to determine that sailors did not receive a bonus while stop-lossed, to date the low number of applications received allows Navy to conduct the additional verification which should result in minimal delay in the processing of those applications, said Lt. Candice Tresch, a spokeswoman for the chief of naval personnel.
Earlier this month, at the urging of lawmakers, Pentagon officials agreed to designate all military installations as federal voter registration agencies. The move is designed to give servicemembers more chances to update addresses, receive ballots, change their state registration and -- hopefully -- successfully cast a vote.
That's a big deal, and not just for military voting rights. Earlier this year Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, placed a hold on the president's nomination for under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness (Clifford Stanley) until the issue was resolved.
Everybody loves year-end lists, so here's a quick look back at some of the most-popular topics on the Stripes Central blog this year.
The rankings are based on readership figures -- Jeff's coverage of the delays and confusion surrounding the new retroactive stop-loss payments easily drew the most comments of any issue this year, but the other top posts span a variety of topics and interests.
Last week nearly 100 members of Congress sent a letter for Defense Secretary Robert Gates requesting details on servicemembers discharged in 2009 under the military's ban on homosexuals serving openly in the ranks.
The statistics -- how many troops, their years of service, their job specialties -- will be the backbone of arguments in favor of overturning the "don't ask, don't tell" law when both the House and Senate hold hearings on the issue sometime this spring.
Amid the growing controversy surrounding the ban on U.S. soldiers getting pregnant while serving in Iraq, several reporters asked Multi-National DivisionNorth commander Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo if he'll now make birth control products and morning-after pills like Plan B more readily available to female soldiers.
Yesterday VA employee Nancy Fichtner and her family got a tour of the White House and an audience with the president after the Office of Budget and Management awarded her as part of a contest to cut down on government waste.
While administration officials were lauding the Colorado financial consultant for the money her idea will save the department (about $3.8 million annually), the hassle the change will save veterans might be even more significant.
In the middle of the night literally while Washington was sleeping Senate Republicans early Friday revealed that they hate the troops.
Ok, not really. Republicans attempted to filibuster the defense spending bill, but only because they want to block the Democrats from having a healthcare vote before Christmas. So they obviously hate Santa Claus. Ok, not really.
Hearing briefs earlier this week from all the services on how investigations into suicides are handled, a DOD task force zeroed in on psychological autopsies.
The 14-member panel made concerted notes upon learning that a psych autopsy is only done when investigators aren't certain a death was a suicide.
Maj. Gen. Philip Volpe, co-chair of the Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces, questioned that policy.
With the military struggling to understand why troops are increasingly taking their own lives, Volpe said the task force might look at whether psychological autopsies should be done on "all suicides to glean information for prevention programs."
In 2003, the Pentagon made psychological autopsies the exclusive purview of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, taking the decision away from individual services.
The directive specifies that the psychological autopsies will be done to ascertain the manner of death, and "only in unusual circumstances" and "when approved by the" medical examiner can one "be performed to amplify information or help explain circumstances relating to a suicide."
The investigatory task force, which is made up of seven military and seven civilian experts and was convened by Congress to look into suicide trends and protocols, will make recommendations on how to better the system. Volpe said it's possible they will recommend that all four branches do suicide investigations the same way.
Requiring psychological autopsies to be a part of that equation could be a mandate the military struggles to fulfill. The problem is resources. The medical commands are already strapped for mental health professionals, and those doing psychological autopsies need additional, specialized forensic training.
The task force also repeatedly asked each service's criminal investigation command whether they collect and pass on any data for suicide prevention efforts - for the most part they don't.
"We want to make sure we are a learning organization," Volpe said.
Paying for the ongoing military operations overseas has become a major issue on Capitol Hill, especially in light of the newly announced surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. Now one Texas Republican believes he has the answer: War bonds.
Rep. Michael Burgess introduced legislation earlier this week which would allow the U.S. government to sell bonds as a way to subsidize the war on terror, echoing similar bond sales during World War II. Burgess said the move is not only financial but also an opportunity to engage more of the public in the fighting overseas.
Im no weatherman. -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates
That could be the quote of the week, as dense, low clouds cancelled a full schedule of events in Afghanistan where the secretary and traveling press yours truly, included was supposed to visit several U.S. military bases in Kabul and down south in Kandahar.
Instead, the week became a series of hastily arranged and rescheduled meetings. On these trips with the secretary theres always a lot of hurry up and wait, but add in the weather, slow internet connection, late filing times, and a host of other issues and it amounted to a lot of on-the-fly reporting.
Here's a gallery from the week, including scenes aboard the secretarys plane, Lt Gens. William Caldwell and David Rodriguez, the Today Shows live broadcast, and a troop townhall in Kirkuk.
The Senate Homeland Security Committee yesterday received a closed-door briefing from defense officials on the latest details of the Fort Hoot shooting, a meeting the committee leaders called "fruitful" but also one they said should have been held in public session.
Army officials said the personnel files of accused shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and sensitive details of their ongoing investigation mandated a private session with lawmakers. But Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., told reporters he's frustrated with the with the flow of information from the Pentagon and White House.
"We have received valuable information about DOD procedures as they apply to the Fort Hood incident, although we would much prefer it if DOD would provide witnesses in open hearings so the American people could learn in a public forum what led to the Fort Hood attack," he said in a statement. "We are clearly facing an increased threat of homegrown terrorism ... The U.S. government needs to counter this threat of self-radicalization and homegrown terrorism aggressively, and I am committed to developing concrete recommendations for doing so.
Republican lawmakers have been critical of the White House for not releasing any details of a report they received last month detailing failings in communication between the FBI, Army and other law enforcement agencies on Hasan; News reports suggest the FBI may not have shared information of Hasan's regular contact with a racial Islamic cleric in Yemen before the shooting.
In an editorial in the Washington Times earlier this month, ranking House intelligence committee member Pete Hoekstra blasted the failure to release the report "a lack of urgency" on behalf of the White House in investigating the issue. Ranking Senate Homeland Security Committee member Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the administration and Congress "owe that transparency and accountability to the members of our military and all Americans."
White House officials said they are still reviewing the report, but will share the information with lawmakers in the future.
If youve tried to access your claim for retroactive stop-loss pay online and saw a blank form, it is just the latest glitch in the Armys software.
It doesnt mean any action good or bad has been taken with your claim, and it will not delay the first payments, which are set to go out tomorrow, although some people might see a pending deposit in their bank accounts today, the Army says.
The problem will take at least a day to fix, said Army spokeswoman Jill Mueller.
The Army estimates about 120,000 people are eligible to be compensated for being stop-lossed from September 2001 to September 2008. About 10,000 people have applied so far.
For the latest on the Armys retroactive stop-loss pay saga, stay tuned to Stripes Central.
While most military watchers are focused on Afghanistan and Illinois this morning, Hollywood unveiled some war news of its own: The film The Hurt Locker, which follows the lives of an explosive ordinance disposal team in Iraq, earned a Golden Globe nomination this morning for best dramatic film.
It's the first time an Iraq war movie has earned a best picture nomination for one of Hollywood's top awards; That's a big deal for some military leaders who griped that eight years into two wars much of the American public still has little appreciation for what troops are going through.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal also received nominations for the film. The film has received rave reviews from critics for not only its action but also its portrayal of the stress and sacrifice of soldiers in war.
In an interview last summer, star Jeremy Renner told me he trained with EOD specialists at Fort Irwin in California to get ready for the role, with half of the time spent on the nuts-and-bolts of disassembling bombs and the rest spent learning how the soldiers view their jobs and themselves.
Sure, there's still plenty of Hollywood drama in the movie, he said, but he said he hoped the broader picture helped "bridge the gap between these guys and civilians" like himself who's only experience of the fighting overseas comes from movies and news reports.
The Golden Globes are handed out Jan. 17, and are seen as a bellwether for the Academy Award race.
While the momentum in southern Afghanistan has shifted, the key city of Kandahar is not secure, the former NATO commander for Regional Command-South said.
Dutch Maj. Gen. Mart de Kruif, in a press conference with reporters today, called Kandahar city absolutely vital ground in how successful NATO efforts will be seen by local citizens. But asked about the situation in the city, he said emphatically, Its not secure.
If you really focus on Kandahar city itself, you will find that within Kandahar city, there is a kind of equilibrium a kind of balance of power between criminals, tribes, [and] economic power brokers, de Kruif said. And just pouring in huge amount of coalition forces, which a counterinsurgency doctrine would actually force you to do, will not have a positive effect. I think weve passed that stage.
De Kruif argued that the way to improve security in Kandahar is to mentor the Afghan security troops and police who are in the lead there and control the approaches to the city. He also recommended that coalition forces go to insurgent safe-havens outside the city from where the insurgents project power, such as Marjeh -- a Taliban stronghold that has been compared to Iraqs Fallujah back in 2004.
There is a clear link between Marjeh and Kandahar city, de Kruif said, adding that the city sits on several key lines of communication into Helmand Province. But Marjeh is not Fallujah in a way that it has that symbolic meaning that Fallujah had; thats one, and secondly the whole infrastructure is different than Fallujah it is not as densely populated.
Still, de Kruif acknowledged that taking Marjeh will be a difficult fight.
I think knowing the insurgency and the way they operate over the last couple of years, I think you will see some heavy kinetic fighting there, he said. But at the end of the day, you will see a tendency that once the insurgents realize that we are going to stay and that we are going to have success in Marjeh, they will probably blend in with the local population or move somewhere else.
The Senate late yesterday approved the massive multi-agency budget bill which will set 2010 spending for the Departments of Commerce, Education, Transportation and Veterans Affairs (by a 57-35 vote). The bill now heads to the White House, where the president is expected to sign it into law before the end of the month.
For the VA, the $109.6 billion fiscal 2010 budget represents a big boost from last year -- up more than $15 billion from 2009. Vets groups have hailed the inclusion of advance funding for fiscal 2011 ($48 billion due Oct. 1, regardless when then fiscal 2011 budget is actually passed) as the cornerstone of the bill, but it's not the only good news for veterans.
Here are some of the other highlights:
** OEF/OIF vets: $2.1 billion specifically for the health care needs of veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, a $463 million increase over last year. That includes new research and treatment programs for mental health issues and traumatic brain injuries.
** Claims processors: $1.7 billion to hire roughly 1,200 additional claims processors to address the backlog of benefits claims and to reduce the time to process new claims. That's up $223 million from 2009.
** Homeless vets: $3.2 billion for healthcare and support services for homeless veterans, including $26 million for a presidential initiative to combat homelessness, $20 million for supportive services for low-income veterans and families, and $21 million to hire additional personnel for the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program.
** Electronic records: $3.3 billion to develop the next generation of electronic healthcare record
** Women veterans: $183 million to "meet the unique needs of women veterans" and respond to criticisms of a male-dominated VA system.
** Rural services: $440 million to continue outreach to vets living in remote areas of the country, including a $250 million continuation of the Rural Health Initiative.
** Prosthetic research: $581 million (up $71 million from last year) for research in spinal cord injuries, burn injuries, polytrauma injuries, and sensory loss.
** VA construction: $1.9 billion, including $1.2 billion for new hospitals and clinics and $50 million for the renovation of vacant buildings on VA campuses to be used as housing for homeless veterans.
Stripes photographer Joe Gromelski and reporter Leo Shane III will be on hand in Philadelphia for the 110th Army/Navy game Saturday. The football starts at 2:30, but check back starting Saturday morning for a sampling of the pomp and pageantry of the big game.
Twelve active-duty soldiers took their own lives in November. The total for 2009 so far is 147. Last year it was 140.
And so before the year is even out another somber record is set. The Army has seen that happen for five years in a row now, each year worse than the last. There were 67 soldier suicides in 2004, 87 in 2005, 102 in 2006, 115 in 2007.
After the October figures were released and it became clear this year's numbers would top 2008's, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Pete Chiarelli said despite the rise he thought overall the Army was making progress on its efforts to tackle the complex and vexing issue.
Many of the suicides in 2009 came early in the year. The spike was alarming enough for the Army to convene a Suicide Prevention Task Force in March, and since then the pace in soldier suicides has slowed, he said. The Army launched campaigns this year to battle the stigma associated with seeking mental health help and has implemented new programs to get leaders at all levels involved in prevention.
Chiarelli called the issue the toughest problem he had faced in his 37 years in the Army.
"There is no simple answer," he said last month. "Each suicide case is as unique as the individuals themselves."
I just posted a story about the Armys roundtable today on the stop-loss pay program.
The Army says a software issue was a major reason for the backlog in applications, and they hope to have a solution in place soon that will allow them to send 1,000 cases per week to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service.
So, now that theyve identified and hopefully solved the problem, when will you see your checks?
Of the 10,541 applications received so far, about 1,000 will have been sent to DFAS by the end of the week.
Payments for the first batch of 284 claims sent to DFAS are expected to go out on Dec. 16. Those sent to DFAS this week require 20 working days to process.
Until now, the Army did not have software that would allow case managers to close cases electronically and send the data to DFAS. That software should be ready this week and tested on Monday. If it works, they could start sending over claims even quicker.
But its unclear whether sending 1,000 per week will affect the amount of time it takes DFAS to process them. So far, the Army has only sent claims to DFAS in bundles between 200 and 400.
Bottom line: Dont expect payments to go out en masse until after the new year.
As a president overseeing two wars, the irony of Barack Obama accepting the Nobel Peace Prize today was not lost on any of the crowd in Norway.
Still, just a few days after announcing a major surge of new U.S. fighters into Afghanistan next year, Obama found himself not only discussing America's role in Iraq and Afghanistan but also justifying the need for war itself. He acknowledged that many Europeans still have reservations about both conflicts, and referenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as the ideals of what the award should stand for.
Army Secretary John McHugh sat down with Stars and Stripes Tuesday to talk about a broad range of issues, including the Armys efforts to combat post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Q: Where do you feel the Army needs to improve when it comes to treating PTSD and TBI?
A: Well, I just this morning returned from my my most recent visit to Walter Reed, and its clear as you go through those wards that obviously this is an ongoing challenge, and one that while I think weve made a lot of progress on, particularly from the diagnostic and treatment side, we have to continue to do better.
Weve come to a point where we recognize that this is not fabricated; its not something wrapped up in an individuals mind, but something that is a true medical condition. And of course, in the cases of TBI, a challenge that really requires new treatments and the application of the latest technologies, and thats happening but it is for as many years as this issue has been around be it shell shock or be it bullet fatigue, or whatever it may be its one where we are just starting to understand more fully.
Q:When you say there still needs to be some progress made, what were you thinking of specifically?
A: Well I think at the treatment level, weve got to continue our efforts to improve how we deal with the aftermath of these injures. In my recent visit out to Fort Bliss, I was able to visit the [Warrior Transition Unit] there, and they have a program that uses a very holistic approach to PTSD: from counseling to traditional and non-traditional applications of medicine, and they are having some what looks to be some very significant success.
Its that kind of innovative approach, I think, that weve got to embrace, because there is no right way to treat these things and wrong way to treat them, but rather there is a need to understand how we can apply the latest technologies and the most broad-based approach to helping these folks get better, and thats true in both TBI and PTSD, even though, obviously, theyre two very different challenges.
Q:Now, if you go to, say, Fort Campbell, you may get different treatment than if you go to Fort Carson. Would you like to see some kind of standardized regiment for PTSD?
A: Well, there are baselines. I mean, were not just throwing things at the wall and hoping some of it sticks, but as the practitioners and the medical specialists have looked at ways to help, they are, I think with some success, bringing in new approaches that are not yet part of the base discipline.
By 'base' I mean the baseline discipline of treatment. But [they] need to be explored and certainly some of them might become standard treatment. You want to make sure you are providing the kinds of known approaches that have had efficacy and ensuring that those who are in need of treatment are getting those applications, but we need to explore other approaches that hopefully add to the spectrum of care and produce better results.
From the "better late than never" files, Senate and House negotiators last night agreed to a massive $446.8 billion consolidated appropriations bill which will set fiscal 2010 spending for a host of government agencies and programs. Among them are the Department of Veterans Affairs and federal financial services, both of great interest to veterans groups and military watchers.
Veterans advocated in particular have been incensed over the long wait for the VA budget, which is already more than two months behind the start of the fiscal year. The measure agreed upon by the conference committee last night sets aside more than $109 billion for the department's operations in fiscal 2010, and also provides $48 billion more for fiscal 2011 in case next year's budget bill is also delayed.
When the U.S. secretary of defense is on a military base abroad, its usually the big attraction ... unless Matt Lauer, Al Roker and the "Today" show crew are broadcasting live.
At Camp Eggers in Kabul on Tuesday evening, the boys from Rockefeller Center gave it their all for a small crowd of cheering servicemembers who came prepared with handmade signs showing their unit spirit, saying hi to their kids back home, even cheering on the Alabama Crimson Tide.
After weeks of uncertainty, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service will start issuing retroactive stop-loss payments on Dec. 16, officials said.
But most people who have applied for the money should not expect to get paid by Christmas.
The Army estimates about 120,000 people are eligible for $500 for every month they were held beyond their initial end of service between September 2001 and September 2008. Initially, the Army only sent 284 applications to DFAS for payment, expecting to send thousands more after the first ones were paid.
Now the Army will send bundles of applications to DFAS every week, with DFAS expected to have about 1,000 applications by Wednesday, said Army spokeswoman Jill Mueller.
As many as we have done, we will send, Mueller said in an e-mail on Monday.
DFAS needs 20 working days to process each bundle, officials said.
Many people have complained on Stripes Central that their applications have been delayed because their social security numbers arent on a master list of soldiers who were stop-lossed, or the Army does not agree with the length of time for which they were stop-lossed.
Some have pointed out that DFAS began paying those who applied for the Air Force program on Nov. 25.
We are well aware this process has to be sped up, Mueller said. No one is satisfied with the output right now.
For more information on the Armys retroactive stop-loss compensation program, call 1-877-736-5554.
In case you missed it on Friday, AMVETS launched its new effort to help report individuals claiming military honors and awards they never earned, a problem that the organization fears is on the rise.
The veterans group bills the site as "a first-of-its-kind clearinghouse of information where concerned citizens can learn how to report phony veterans and see the latest headlines on those exposed for their lies." Under legislation passed in 2006, individuals fraudulently wearing or claiming military medals can face federal misdemeanor charges, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $150,000 fine.
Like much of the rest of America, the leading veterans support groups offered a mixed assessment of the new Afghanistan strategy unveiled by the president this week.
But while the 30,000-plus troop surge and July 2011 withdrawal start target drew most of the debate on Capitol Hill, nearly all the veterans groups also focused on what will happen to the returning servicemembers after the fighting is finished -- an issue only briefly referenced by the president in his speech Tuesday night.
Youve been asking questions about retroactive stop-loss pay, and now Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., wants answers too.
Since Oct. 21, each of the services has been accepting applications from people stop-lossed September 2001 and September 2008. Those eligible can receive $500 for every month they were held beyond their initial end of service.
In Japan, if a Japanese mother absconds in the night with her child, taking him or her from the American father, the government will do nothing. If that American parent tries to get the child back, however, he's likely to be arrested.
Which leaves servicemembers like Navy Cmdr. Paul Toland basically without recourse. Toland has been trying for six years to get custody of his daughter after his estranged Japanese wife took her from the Yokohama base housing when the girl was 9 months old.
This morning Congress' Human Rights Commission is hearing testimony from Toland and other parents in his position. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J, has introduced a bill to establish protocols to prevent international abduction and to advocate for U.S. children and assist the families when it does happen.
With servicemembers deployed all over the world they are a large percentage of the those affected by international child abduction. Smith's office estimates there are 25-30 cases involving servicemembers each year.
Japan-based Stripes reporter Charlie Reed has been reporting extensively on the issue. As she reported in August, Smith successfully got an amendment attached to the 2010 defense authorization bill that requires DOD to study the problem and report to Congress how they plan how to assist servicemembers.
"Congressman Smith's proposed laws are a step in the right direction," attorney Jeffrey Leving, a consultant to the State Department on this matter, said in a press release. "Creating a standardized system to prevent international child abduction and streamlining the government's response when children are abducted will allow families affected by this tragedy to focus on being reunited rather than navigating a bureaucratic maze."
Last month, following the Fort Hood tragedy President Obama announced a government-wide review to look at all of the intelligence on accused shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, and to report whether better communication between law enforcement officials and military officials could have prevented the tragedy. Those results were due yesterday, and White House began combing through those details yesterday afternoon.
But don't expect to hear much else about it this week.
The Army flipped the switch on an advanced power system at Fort Bliss Thursday, taking a step towards the Pentagon's goal to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of its military bases around the world.