Mouse airdrops, Afghan Thanksgiving top Stripes.com stories

WASHINGTON – With just a few hours left in 2010, it’s worth taking one more look at the last 12 months to see which stories were the most read by our website visitors.

The list doesn’t reflect which topics drew the most controversy and comments – if it did, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” debate would likely take most of the top 10 spots. But it does include a mixture of hard news, detailed analysis and some humor.

Camera creates instant connection in Afghanistan

BABUR, Afghanistan – The kids out here love my camera. It’s an easy way to connect.

They start out shy around me, but their curiosity about a tall, blond American woman gets the best of them and they slowly inch forward. Huddled together they whisper among each other, no doubt marveling at what must be a strange sight: a woman without a uniform marching along with the American soldiers.

At first when I lift my camera to take their picture, they hide their faces or duck behind one another. Once I flip my camera around and show them their image on the screen, though, I’m surrounded by eager children striking silly poses or pointing out whose photo to take next.

VA makes New Year's push for paperless benefits

WASHINGTON – Department of Veterans Affairs officials are urging vets to make enrolling for direct electronic payments one of their New Year’s resolutions in 2011.

Earlier this month, Treasury officials announced new regulations to phase out all paper checks for federal benefits by March 2013. That includes VA payouts to veterans and family members, as well as Social Security checks and Supplemental Security Income.

Gates named MTV-U’s Man of the Year

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates couldn’t drop a hot hip-hop track even with the help of Auto-Tune , but that didn’t stop MTV-U from naming him their man of the year this week. The network called Gates “a beacon of reason in a sea of polarizing soundbytes” and “a model public servant” for their college-aged audience.

“The only Republican in President [Barack] Obama’s cabinet, Secretary Gates was bigger than played out partisan politics, making bold, reasoned choices to address gender bias, fiscal restraint, reinventing the military for the 21st century and overturning ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” the network said in their announcement.

Last-gasp defense bill approved by Congress

WASHINGTON — With just hours left in the legislative session, Congress on Wednesday passed a stripped-down version of its annual defense authorization bill, saving a host of programs and policies which appeared headed for the chopping block.

Congress will handle the actual appropriations for the Defense Department as part of the continuing resolution approved earlier this week. But the authorization bill represents the official blessing of lawmakers to spend that money in specific areas and specific ways, and offers priorities for those funds.

Gates to visit China, Japan in January

ARLINGTON, Va. – Two weeks after Adm. Mike Mullen spilled the beans at a press conference in Japan, the Pentagon made it official on Wednesday: Defense Secretary Robert Gates will travel to China next month, hoping to launch a new era of openness with the largest military on Earth.

While not exactly a “bucket list” item, Gates’ Jan. 9-12 visit comes in the twilight of his tenure at the Pentagon – likely in public service altogether – and presents a historic opportunity for him to set in motion a period of steadier, more transparent U.S.-Chinese military relations.  After presiding over the drawdown of the Iraq war, repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, a new nuclear treaty with Russia, and a modernized NATO – opening China’s military would be a remarkable coda to Gates’ efforts at directing America’s security interests into the 21st century. That is, if he can do it.

Stop-loss pay deadline extended until March 4

Congress has extended the deadline for the retroactive stop-loss pay program until March 4, giving thousands of veterans and surviving spouses more time to apply.

“Our brave servicemen and women need to know that we honor and respect their dedication and sacrifices to protect us and our country, and that means providing them with fair compensation,” U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Ohio, said in a statement.

NDAA still possible, but time is ticking away

WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers will have to reach an agreement on a continuing resolution by midnight tonight to keep the government running into next year. But Senate officials said they’re frantically working behind the scenes to also fit in a final vote on the annual defense authorization bill before the Christmas break.

Congress hasn’t failed to pass a defense authorization bill, which contains guidelines for defense spending next year and a host of personnel policy changes, in the last 58 years. The House easily passed a stripped-down version of the measure last week, without the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal which had stalled the bill for much of the year.

More time to apply for retroactive stop-loss pay

You can still apply for retroactive stop-loss pay through the end of Tuesday. Congress has once again extended the deadline as part of a short-term measure to keep funding the government.

This is the third time Congress has extended the program, which is meant to compensate troops who were stop-lossed between September 2001 and September 2008. Troops or their surviving spouses can receive $500 for each month that a servicemember was kept beyond his or her initial separation date.

'Civilian power' at heart of long-awaited State Department/USAID plan

ARLINGTON, Va. – After months of speculation, the Obama administration’s promise to revitalize U.S. diplomacy and development for the sake of national security took a big step last week as the State Department released its four-year strategy document.

The first-ever “Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review” establishes a global security-minded framework on which to ramp up U.S. “civilian power” of diplomacy, development and poverty-reducing humanitarian aid, turning crisis prevention into a core mission, and pledging to work better with the Pentagon.

Top Marine pledges to ‘personally lead’ gay integration

ARLINGTON, Va. – One week after warning the distraction of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” could risk Marines’ lives, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, pledged to lead the effort to integrate openly gay Marines.

“I, and the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps [Carlton Kent], will personally lead this effort, thus ensuring the respect and dignity due all Marines,” Amos said. “On this matter, we look forward to further demonstrating to the American people the discipline and loyalty that have been the hallmark of the United States Marine Corps for over 235 years."

Army has stop-loss pay backlog, delays claims

The Army is wading through a backlog of about 16,000 retroactive stop-loss claims that will take months to clear, an Army official said.

If you were stop-lossed between September 2001 and September 2008, you are eligible for up to $500 for every month you were kept beyond your initial separation date. Surviving spouses of stop-lossed troops are eligible to collect the money due their servicemember.

NDAA passes House, heads to the Senate

WASHINGTON — The House on Friday overwhelmingly passed a slimmed-down version of the annual defense authorization act, its second attempt this year to approve the budget bill after the first was bogged down by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” debate.

Congress hasn’t failed to pass a defense authorization bill, which contains guidelines for defense spending next year and a host of personnel policy changes, in the last 58 years, but the Senate scuttled the previous attempt earlier this month. The new bill is a slimmed-down version of that proposal, without controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal language and without an amendment to allow abortions at overseas military bases.

HASC names new members, new minority leader

WASHINGTON – The House Armed Services Committee will feature a new Democratic leader and three more Iraq war veterans when the new Congress begins next session, according to changes announced Thursday.

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington will replace outgoing HASC chairman Ike Skelton as the top Democrat on the panel, after winning the leadership post in a three-way contest with Reps. Silvestre Reyes and Loretta Sanchez. On Thursday, he promised to “continue to be a strong advocate for our military personnel and their families” and “to provide them with the benefits and support they deserve for their years of faithful service.”

Last chance for the defense authorization bill

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers on the House and Senate armed services committees are making one last-gasp effort to pass a defense authorization bill for fiscal 2011, introducing a slimmed-down version of the measure without the controversial items that helped scuttle it earlier this month.

The smaller bill (which still runs more than 900 pages) includes a 1.4 percent pay raise for troops starting next month and extends Tricare coverage to dependent children up to age 26, along with other key authorities outlining Pentagon spending for the fiscal year. What it doesn’t include is a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law and language allowing abortions at overseas military bases, two items that caused Republicans to block the measure in the Senate for months.

In Afghanistan, part soldier, part insurance adjuster

STRONG POINT DOG, Afghanistan — Like a good neighbor, the Army is there.

In the age of counterinsurgency, soldiers try to do as little damage as possible to the neighborhoods they’re storming through looking for Taliban, and when wreckage does happen they apologize and pay for the damages.

DADT fight likely killed defense bill for this year

WASHINGTON – Gay rights advocates vowed to keep fighting for a repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law until the final day of the lame-duck Congress after Thursday’s defeat in the Senate. But for the annual defense authorization bill it accompanied, time has likely already run out.

On Thursday night, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he will continue to push for passage of the authorization bill, which includes a 1.4 percent pay raise for troops, renewal of most re-enlistment and retention bonuses, money for overseas military operations and several other military benefits issues. But “given the limited amount of time left in this Congress, that may be too high a mountain to climb.”

Iraq drawdown still unlikely until summer 2011

WASHINGTON — One hundred days into Operation New Dawn, there is hardly a soul in parlor conversation around the nation’s capital who believes the U.S. will remove every single soldier and servicemember from Iraq by December 31 next year, as is required by a current U.S.-Iraqi agreement.

But U.S. Forces-Iraq spokesman Brig. General Jeffrey Buchanan held firm, telling the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thursday it will happen.

A woman among men in Afghanistan

STRONG POINT DOG, Zhari — At austere combat outposts, they don’t have dining facilities or showers or bathrooms -- or women.

When I arrive, I’m completely out of place. And quarters are close.

Getting the tour of one strong point last week (which basically consisted of standing in one spot and turning around 360 degrees) the staff sergeant stopped at the tents after pointing out where a male dog handler would sleep. He turned to me and smiled, shoulders shrugged. “Not sure what we’re going to do with you,” he said. “We don’t have any women here.”

House Vets panel gets new chair, but who else?

WASHINGTON – The House Veterans Affairs Committee knows who its new chairman will be: Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, named to the post yesterday. Now, the next question is who will be there with him when the new legislative session starts.

Of the 29 members of the committee this year, 16 won’t be returning. Eleven lost their re-election bids for the House, two left for the Senate and three others – including former committee minority leader Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana – are retiring.

Cleaning up before company arrives, even in war

FORWARD OPERATING BASE HOWZ-E MADAD -- For a relatively new base out in the Zhari district of Kandahar, preparing for a visit by the Secretary of Defense requires a bit of spiffing up, downrange style.

Like putting out a row of brand new port-a-potties. Laying down a carpet of rocks on the dirt roads to try to stave off the insidious dust. And making the Afghan National Army soldiers pick up the litter that is typically strewn across their living area.

CNAS offers plan to end Afghan war

ARLINGTON, Va. --  With the White House expected to release its Afghanistan war strategy review next week, one influential Washington think tank with deep ties to national security circles is offering its own plan. Based on the idea that the U.S. will have to care about Afghanistan for a long time, the plan calls for the U.S. to start drawing down forces in January to leave a standing force of 25,000 to 35,000 Americans by 2014.

The Center for a New American Security's Lt. Gen. David Barno, retired former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and Fellow Andrew Exum have penned a 44-page review of the landscape that they say offers a "responsible transition."  They call for the U.S. to shrink its military presence "from a large-scale and resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaign to the more sustainable U.S. and allied presence" required to hold its gains.

U.S. official: DOD, DHS cybersecurity working well together

WASHINGTON — Having Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security personnel in each others’ cybersecurity control centers has proven useful, a Homeland Security official said Tuesday, as the U.S. continues to establish defenses for a major attack on its computer networks.

Responsibilities in the fledgling cybersecurity realm are still being hashed out between the various civilian and military agencies, but DHS Assistant Secretary Greg Schaffer said each agency is first responsible for securing their own networks. Schaffer added that he expects that any major attack on one likely would touch on all, so there would be close coordination between defense and Homeland Security officials.

U.S. embassy cables: Poles want a larger U.S. military presence in country

STUTTGART, Germany- During meetings with a U.S. Congressional delegation in 2009, high level Polish officials made a special request for “US boots on the ground” and a “large U.S. military footprint in Poland” amid fears that Russia harbors bad intentions toward the country, according to some of the latest revelations from last month’s massive document dump by WikiLeaks.

Almost daily, news organizations given access to the documents have been releasing new details from the more than 250,000 diplomatic cables, which WikiLeaks is suspected of obtaining from a 23-year-old Army private.

Defense bill contains more than just DADT

WASHINGTON -- The Senate has just a few weeks left this year to pass the annual national defense authorization act, headlined this time by “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal. But the controversial provision is not the only important item included in the legislation.

If the measure is held up by Senate Republicans, it could stall the military’s annual pay raise (which would be either 1.4 percent or 1.9 percent in January) and a host of recruiting and enlistment bonuses. The 2011 NDAA also includes language extending Tricare coverage to dependent children of troops until age 26, increases hostile fire and imminent danger pay, and provides millions in impact aid to schools with a high enrollment of military children.

Say what? A conflicted Joint Chiefs DADT testimony

ARLINGTON, Va. – Anyone who has followed the year’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal coverage probably was not surprised by the service chief's conflicted testimony delivered in Friday’s much-anticipated Senate hearing.

If the law changes, they said, the armed forces will follow it and U.S. troops will behave with honor and respect toward each other. But gay troops coming out of their closets now, the Army, Marine and Air Force chiefs of staff asserted, would be risky, disruptive and unnecessary, especially during wartime, and especially for the “pretty macho” Marines.

'Your friendly Afghan National Army was here'

ZHARI, Kandahar — When coalition forces in this district patrol a village at night, they'll soon be leaving behind a note: Your friendly Afghan National Army was here.

The encouraging message is a counter to the Taliban's night letters that threaten beheadings or other gruesome death sentences for anyone who stands against them.

Outgoing HASC chairman stresses bipartisanship

WASHINGTON – Outgoing House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, who has represented his Missouri district in Congress for the last 34 years, was among several Democrats to give a farewell speech to colleagues this week. His remarks predictably thanked friends and staffers, but also focused on the tone and focus of Congress’ military work.

Last month incoming HASC chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., praised Skelton for his bipartisan approach to nearly all the issues before the committee, a tradition that both men say goes back for decades. Skelton, in his remarks, said he hopes that professionalism will continue in what’s likely to be a contentious new Congress.

Group builds home for wounded Marine

WASHINGTON -- Former Marine Sgt. Stan Roberts was overwhelmed when he found out that a nonprofit group would build a new home for him and his family. Roberts, of Fuquay-Varina, N.C., is the second combat-wounded veteran to receive a new home from North Carolina-based Operation Coming Home.

"It means a lot because, for me, it’s a little way to give back to my family for all the sacrifices they’ve made, because they’ve had to make quite a few because of my injury,” said Roberts, who was medically retired after he lost 90 percent of his right leg and had his forearm shattered by a roadside bomb blast in Iraq in 2007.

Tough choices for Obama on Sudan and the LRA

STUTTGART, Germany - A new United Nations Security Council report is now confirming accounts from human rights organizations that elements of the Lord’s Resistance Army have taken up refuge in Sudan and could be seeking to renew ties with Sudanese authorities, which raises questions about U.S. intentions to eventually remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror.

Last month, just a couple weeks before President Obama unveiled a new strategy for eliminating the leadership of the notorious, child abducting LRA—the U.S. indicated that it would consider removing Sudan from the list terror sponsors. The U.S. conditioned its willingness to accelerate that process if Sudan allows a referendum on Southern Sudan independence—slated for January—to proceed and also abide by the results. However, some human rights groups are saying not so fast. If the LRA, also described by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, is receiving sanctuary in Sudan, it would be ineligible for removal from the list.

Commission recommends pay freeze for Congress, not troops

The president’s commission on reducing the deficit has recommended freezing the salaries for Congress, but not troops.

Last month, the commission’s co-chairs released a draft report that recommended freezing basic military pay and housing allowances for three years starting in 2011. But the commission’s final report dropped that recommendation. It does call for a three-year pay freeze for federal employees and Department of Defense civilians – one year longer than the freeze proposed by President Obama.

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