Russian propaganda outlet RT has created a docu-reality series called “Tanks: Born in Russia” that follows prospective tank constructors as they compete for a job manufacturing and repairing armored vehicles and tanks.
The show follows the men through the factory floor and the test ranges, allowing viewers an inside look at the factory. It also shows some of the personal drama in the men’s lives as they juggle work with girlfriends and families.
The English version of it features English narration and subtitles. The first episode is available below and the full series can be downloaded from RT’s website.
A few years ago a team of journalists from Syracuse University traveled to rural Washington state to tell the stories of hundreds of veterans living there, some off-the-grid, away from the country for which they fought.
The project includes the story of Chad Olsen, a Marine who killed his wife and himself in 2009, and the stories of those who knew him. It features the stories of Ryn Rollins and Adam Howerton, who (at the time) were 18 and enlisting in the Army. The project also shows how one Marine veteran who struggles with post-traumatic stress and returning to everyday life after three tours in Iraq.
The project also follows “trip-wire veterans,” a small group of vets who escaped their lives into the wilds of American back country because they were unable to face their war memories and were provided little help when they returned. The term “trip-wire” comes from the Vietnam War, where the Viet Cong would booby trap trails used by U.S. servicemen to injure and maim troops outside their bases.
The term was first coined in the early 1980’s, when around 85 people were documented living in the Washington wilds. It was not known then how many were out there. One former trip-wire vet was Mike McWatters. He lived in New York’s Adirondack Mountains for two years after seeing heavy combat in Vietnam. In 1983, he started work to reach out to these veterans to encourage them to seek treatment.
“I know one vet who went into the woods naked,” McWatters said. “He came out in full leather clothing, having gained 40 pounds, carrying weapons he’d made.”
When these veterans were first discovered, the media often inaccurately portrayed them as criminals and drunks or worse. In June, 1988, Dan Rather and CBS News interviewed six “Vietnam veterans” who admitted to killing civilians or seeing friends killed in action, and had since become homeless, suicidal drug users after the war. Later investigations showed none of it was true.
The reality is not so black and white. The project hit important topics beyond PTSD – women, race (specifically Native Americans) and the wives and children veterans leave behind, all from the rural town of Republic, Washington.
This team did more than just tell tales of the people living there. They provided thoroughly researched background information on veteran suicide, the steps to getting a VA disability claim, and an infographic on U.S. wars from 1900 (current as of 2010) and those who fought them.
Honorably discharged veterans who want to shop at the online exchanges could be given access early as part of a group of “beta testers” through a new veteran shopper verification system launched June 5th.
The Defense Department resale board last year approved a plan to open the exchange’s online stores to all veterans. Those who are verified through a new site will have access to all of the online exchange stores, including AAFES, the Coast Guard Exchange, the Marine Corps Exchange and the Navy Exchange.
The verification site, VetVerify.org, asks users to input their first and last names, last four digits of their Social Security number, birth date, email address, and service branch. Veterans will then be notified whether they are ineligible, are already eligible to shop, that they will be eligible on the official Nov. 11 launch date, or that they have been randomly selected to be a beta tester.
The new benefit is available to all honorably discharged veterans. The rule change does not allow the new veteran shoppers to use the exchange in person or shop at the commissary. It also does not include access to gasoline, tobacco, or uniform sales.
Officials with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service said early shoppers will be given access on a rolling basis in an effort to make sure the system is ready when the benefit fully opens on Veterans Day. Although verification and shopping should be seamless, they said it is possible that beta users could experience some hiccups.
“They don’t want to just open this thing on Veterans Day … when you can work the kinks out ahead of time,” said Chris Ward, an AAFES spokesman. “That is the point of doing this — to make sure there aren’t any hiccups or bugs in the system.”
Products purchased through the exchanges are tax free, and a percentage of revenue benefits Morale, Welfare, and Recreation programs.
About 13 million veterans qualify for the new benefit. Officials did not have an estimate for how many veterans are expected to shop the online exchanges after Veterans Day or how many will register early.
“We’re kind of just going in blind,” Ward said. “We’re rolling it out this early — I don’t anticipate everyone comes today.”
A report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HUD Exchange estimates that there are slightly more than 39,000 homeless veterans (both in shelters and without shelter). While still a significant number, that number has seen huge decreases in the last few years thanks in part to partnerships with programs like Built for Zero.
Built for Zero is an intense national program that helps communities develop and implement drastic plans to address the issue of veteran and chronic homelessness, and “the conditions that create it.” The motivation is two-fold: homelessness costs local economies more money by sustaining shelters and emergency medical care, and that veterans who’ve defended this country shouldn’t be homeless in it.
“Homelessness is a manmade disaster, and it can be solved,” Community Solutions president Rosanne Haggerty wrote in the nonprofit’s 2015 Annual Report.
Built for Zero partners with communities and teaches them how to come up with ways to pool and manage their resources, tapping into previously non-traditional homelessness-fighting resources, like businesses, churches, and even real estate companies in order to address some of the conditions that impact homeless veterans.
Employment, transportation and healthcare are just some of the issues that the project addresses when fighting homelessness.
“Community Solutions works upstream and downstream of the problem by helping communities end homelessness where it happens and improve the conditions of inequality that make it more likely to happen in the future,” Haggerty wrote in the report.
Rather than make homelessness just a crime-fighting task, Built for Zero makes it a community task.
In 2015 alone, Community Solutions raised over $9 million through donations and grants. That money assisted in housing over 20,000 homeless veterans in 75 communities- and it saved tax payers an estimated $150 million doing it.
War Is Boring and Historical Firearms recently posted a story about the use of suppressed M3 “Grease Gun” from World War II onward to Vietnam. U.S. forces stopped issuing the guns to troops in 1992, but at least one unit in The Philippine military believes that if “it ain’t broke, don’t fix it … much.”
The M3 SpecOps Generation 2 , also known as the M3 Gen2 or PN/PMC M3, is a modified, modern incarnation of the M3 grease gun built from pre-existing caches of the 1940s-era weapon. Used primarily for ship seizures and boarding operations, the weapon is the Philippine navy’s method of teaching an old dog new tricks.
Equipped with an integral suppressor and a Picatinny rail, the weapon is able to mimic some of the capabilities of modern submachine guns on a very tight budget. The weapon is chambered with the .45-caliber ACP bullet, which was itself developed as a U.S. counter to tough, close quarters jungle battles with Philippine insurgents more than a century ago.
Modern optics ranging from reflex sights to thermal imagers can be added to the weapon via the Picatinny rail, and the suppressor means that the subsonic .45 caliber bullets fired by the weapon lack both the supersonic “crack,” which occurs when high velocity rounds such as the M-16’s 5.56 breaks the sound barrier, and the notorious “blam” of igniting gunpowder.
Taken together, the weapons system provides a viable alternative to modern, hard-hitting submachine guns at a fraction of the price seen in current generation weapons.
The comparatively low cost of the PMC/PN M3, about 1/40th the cost of a modern UMP submachine gun, can not be overstated. The Philippines, while growing in terms of its economy, is by no means a rich country.
The purchase of modern firearms is often too expensive a proposition to undertake in a comprehensive manner, which has led to entire tactical elements of Philippine marines carrying unmodified, Vietnam-era M14s into major urban battles as recently as 2013.
This means that cheap, effective shortcuts to modern capabilities are more than just useful in The Philippines, they could be vital, and should stand as a lesson to be heeded by other countries facing war on a budget.
Love him or hate him, Matt Bissonnette (aka Mark Owen) is a certified badass.
As part of the legendary SEAL Team 6, Owen (we’ll use his pen name) was a top-tier special operator who knew how to kick in doors, snatch HVTs and dispatch tangos with precision marksmanship.
Mark Owen throws some .308 downrange for a personal pew-pew party in the desert. (Photo screenshot from YouTube)
In fact, he was part of the daring raid that snuck into Pakistan and landed on terror mastermind Osama bin Laden’s lair to bring Public Enemy #1 to justice.
His story is chronicled in two awesome books, including “No Easy Day,” which delivers a blow-by-blow of the mission to kill bin Laden, dubbed “Operation Neptune Spear,” and “No Hero,” which chronicles his extensive career as a senior NCO in the SEAL teams.
In the years since the May 2010 raid, Own has remained in the shadows, posting some cool pics to Instagram and doing some trigger pulling on the side for a couple companies in the shooting sports industry. He’s still all secret squirrel about his true identity, so it’s rare to see him out in the wild.
But this video shows the ST6 frogman’s still got it, slinging lead with several ARs and dinking close-range steel with a dialed out Glock.
He’s even throwing some hate in the dark, decked out with NODs and loaded up with tracers that just make you want to shout “‘Merica!”
The Army is officially closing down the last of its long-range surveillance companies with the three active duty units slated for closures in January and the four National Guard companies shutting down in 2018.
The move comes amid changing Army priorities and a series of computer simulations that decided the units were high-risk, low-reward.
This is the second time the Army has deactivated all of its company-sized, long-range reconnaissance units. It previously removed LRRP companies in 1974 before bringing them back as LRS units in 1981.
According to a Stars and Stripes article, the current deactivations came after Total Army Analysis computer models said that LRS units weren’t in high demand by command teams.
But not everyone is happy with the Army’s decision.
Retired Army Special Forces Brig. Gen. John Scales protested an earlier LRS drawdown when he found that computer models claiming that LRS units were at high risk in combat were improperly written. The model unrealistically assumed that any infantry unit that spotted the enemy would engage that enemy force, pitting six-man LRS teams against entire enemy formations.
While the new assessments use different coding that Scales was not privy to, he has voiced concerns that getting rid of LRS units isn’t the best idea.
Scales told the Stars and Stripes about the current LRS drawdowns that, “I worry based on my experience with the model that [long-range surveillance units are] getting shortchanged, and the Army is getting shortchanged.”
This isn’t the first time that the Army has tackled this question, and an earlier batch of LRS deactivations that also resulted from a Total Army Analysis were done against the protest of ground commanders.
The decision to deactivate these intelligence collection units was not based on a change of doctrine or a change in the mission requirements for LRS. The decisions were not made by one of the two proponents of LRS in order to protect another unit or asset. Quite the contrary, both proponents recognize the importance of HUMINT on the battlefield and support LRS employment and training. As discussed in chapter two, the decision to deactivate all heavy division LRSDs and two of four LRSCs was made over the objection of both proponents and units, by the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations as a result of the Total Army Analysis (TAA) process. Consequently, under the current force structure, there are not adequate numbers of LRS units to effectively execute the potential future missions the Army will face.
While satellites and drones can cheaply provide detailed imagery in an open desert, they struggle to watch the movements of enemy forces through heavily forested and urban areas like those troops would face in a war with China or Russia where enemy units could be dispersed under cover and camouflage.
This is something that Eastern Europe armies know well, leading them to invest in the types of reconnaissance units that the U.S. Army is backing away from.
This wouldn’t be the first time the Army got rid of its dedicated long-range reconnaissance companies. In 1974, it deactivated the last of the old Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrol companies. Just four years later, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans, Lt. Gen. Edward C. Meyer, ordered a classified study to ascertain, among other things, who could conduct the LRRP mission moving forward.
By 1979, the Army was writing doctrine for the new “Long-Range Surveillance Units” which were nearly identical to the extinct LRRP companies. But some division commanders saw the need for human eyes on the battlefield as too vital to wait for Department of the Army.
The 9th and 3rd infantry divisions and the 82nd Airborne Division all stood up LRRP units to provide critical intelligence to battlefield commanders. The 82nd divisional LRRP platoon was deployed to Operation Urgent Fury.
Operational commanders may find that they have to again construct their own long-range surveillance units if they still want the capability. The last of the LRS companies are scheduled to deactivate in August 2018.
Painting of the Battle of Guilford Court House (March 15, 1781) from Soldiers of the American Revolution by H. Charles McBarron. "[General Nathaniel] Greene observed as the veteran First Maryland Continentals threw back a British attack and countered with a bayonet charge. As they reformed their line, William Washington's Light Dragoons raced by to rescue raw troops of the Fifth Maryland who had buckled under a furious assault of British Grenadiers and Guards." (Source: Center of Military History.).
To the modern eye, accustomed to seeing armies wearing concealing uniforms and even face paint, to avoid becoming a target, an army wearing bright colors and marching in formations on a wide-open ground seems insane.
After all, the point of warfare to the untrained eye is to kill as many of the enemy as possible while not being killed yourself, right? The whole point is to make the other bastard die for his country, right?
That basic premise is as correct today as it was back then. Today, however, armies place the emphasis of that doctrine on the “while not being killed” part, whereas the armies of old placed the emphasis on the “killing as many of the enemy as possible” part.
The difference is in the kind of weapons infantry could use and the power organized forces had over individuals. A long line of men, three ranks deep and firing at the same time can put out a lot of destructive firepower at one time. The idea was to maximize the number of guns shooting into an enemy formation.
There was power in those formations. Formations provided protection and cover from charges and cavalry while making it easier for commanders to control their men and communicate with lower officers. It also was a morale booster for the men in the formation. Against a loosely dispersed formation, the rate of fire could be devastating.
If a rabble of hunters and frontiersmen were taking on an enemy army marching in formation, as is so often (falsely) depicted to be the case in places like the American frontier, the difference in rate of fire would mean that for every shot fired from the loosely-configured forces, each man could expect an estimated 16 rounds coming back at them – at once.
Besides, having a small, loosely formed rabble hiding in a treeline to try and pick off hundreds or thousands of well-trained and well-armed soldiers at a distance is suicidal. The weapons of the time aren’t accurate enough to maintain enough distance to keep the rabble from getting slaughtered, the smoke from the charge will give away their positions, and there probably isn’t enough treeline to hide enough men to actually take down a formation.
After firing their first round, the soldiers didn’t just take a knee to stop and reload, they countermarched to the rear so fresh troops with loaded rifles ready to go would come to the front. By the time the first three ranks were at the front again, they were loaded and ready for a new volley.
For anyone who thinks that firing a volley into a packed formation of soldiers is enough to scare off the rest of the formation, think again. The soldiers of yesteryear knew their lives depended on maintaining that formation. Forces who broke and ran became a loose formation, subject to the massed weight of fire any formation could shoot. It was far better for your own survival to march over your buddy’s dead body than turn and run.
Finally, men at arms in the armies of old did take cover whenever cover was possible, but on an open field, it’s not possible at times. Where armies of today would get into a prone position and make themselves as small a target as possible, soldiers of yesteryear would have a hard time reloading in a prone position.
After taking one shot, consider either rolling around on the ground trying to reload the muzzle-loading weapon you have or marching to the rear of a formation while you stand and reload standing up, behind a human wall, next to hundreds of battle buddies. Strength in numbers.
On May 31, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said he is open to expanding the use of medical marijuana to treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Shulkin said that although federal laws would limit the ability to use marijuana, he said it could be possible to take action in states where medicinal marijuana is legal.
“There may be some evidence that this is beginning to be helpful and we’re interested in looking at that and learning from that,” Shulkin said during a press conference. “Right now, federal law does not prevent us at VA to look at that as an option for veterans … I believe that everything that could help veterans should be debated by Congress and by medical experts and we will implement that law.”
The head of the VA also said the agency he oversees is in a “critical condition,” likening the veterans’ healthcare provider to a patient in bad health.
Shulkin, a doctor appointed by former President Barack Obama, said patients wait too long for services from VA hospitals and government bureaucracy prevents the agency from firing employees who perform poorly. The VA oversees the care for more than 9 million veterans.
“I’m a doctor and I like to diagnose things, assess them, and treat them,” Shulkin said. “Though we are taking immediate and decisive steps stabilizing the organization … we are still in critical condition and require intensive care.”
“As you know, many of these challenges have been decades in building,” Shulkin added.
In reference to the VA’s inability to fire employees quickly, Shulkin said “our accountability processes are clearly broken.”
In one example, it took the agency more than a month to fire a psychiatrist who was caught watching pornography on his iPad while seeing a veteran.
Shulkin said now is the time to face the VA’s challenges and address them “head on.”
Heroes come in many forms; some are even furry and four-legged. Due in part to their superior ability to sniff and hear trouble, dogs have long been a fantastic ally and a great protector of humans. After all, it was Lassie who, through a series of barks, told the grown-ups that Timmy was in trouble again (Note: Timmy never actually fell down a well. Mineshaft, sure, but no well.) Dogs can also be quite brave and have been known to run into dangerous situations without a moment of hesitation. Throughout history, several dogs have gained a reputation as being courageous in wartime.
Here are the stories of five such dogs that became war heroes and helped saved human lives:
Gunner – Australia’s Alarm
Japanese bombs started raining down on the capital city of Australia’s Northern Territory, Darwin, around 10 am on February 19, 1942, just over two months after the Japanese bombing of America’s Pearl Harbor. After the initial attack, which sunk eight ships and badly damaged 37 others, soldiers went looking for the injured among the rubble.
Under a destroyed mess hall, they found the smallest survivor of them all, a six-month-old male stray kelpie (an Australian sheep dog). He had a broken leg and was whimpering. Eventually, the injured pup ended up in the hands of Leading Aircraftman Percy Westcott. He made it his duty to get this dog help. Westcott took the dog to the doctor, who said he couldn’t treat any “man” who didn’t have a name or serial number. So, Westcott named the kelpie “Gunner” and gave him the number 0000. Satisfied, the doctor put a cast on Gunner’s leg and set them on their way.
From that point forward, Gunner and Westcott were inseparable. When Gunner’s leg began healing (despite his habit of chewing the cast), he would join Westcott on his daily tasks. One day not long after the attack, as the men worked on repairing several planes in the airfield, Gunner started barking and jumping up and down. The men paid no attention to the dog, but within a few minutes Japanese raiders swooped in and commenced shelling Darwin again.
Luckily, the men and Gunner managed to dive to safety, but it was another surprise attack. Well, to everyone but Gunner. In general, Australian Kelpie hearing, even more so than many other breeds of dogs, is fantastic. Two days later, Gunner again started making a commotion. This time, the men knew to find cover and prepare for the upcoming attack.
From February 1942 to November 1943, over sixty air raids were commenced on Darwin. Gunner warned the soldiers of nearly every one, saving countless lives. Another amazing aspect of this was that Gunner never barked when Australian planes took off or were returning. He was able to differentiate between Australian aircrafts and Japanese aircrafts. It is not known what happened to Gunner after the war.
Rip the Rescue Dog
The Blitz commenced on London on September 7, 1940. For the next 57 days, German bombers enveloped the city in destruction. Right after a particular heavy shelling during one of the first days of the Blitz, an Air Raid Warden named E. King found a hungry stray walking the streets. He threw it some meat and the dog refused to go away. The dog followed King back to his post and, eventually, became something of a mascot. But Rip, as they called him, soon showed his worth beyond a simple mascot.
Rip came out with King after a bombing one night and his nose started twitching. Rip followed the scent to a collapsed building and started digging. What Rip found was a man, still alive, buried beneath. It was probably the best image this man had ever seen; a barking, sniffing mutt.
Despite never being formally trained, Rip became England’s first urban search and rescue dog. It was reported that he found and rescued over hundred people with his sensitive, life-saving nose. Due to Rip, today London’s police force and military trains hundreds of dogs per year to be part of their urban search and rescue teams.
In 1945, Rip was awarded the Dickin Medal for bravery, an honor bestowed animals for their service during war. On the medal, it reads “For Gallantry. We Also Serve.” Rip passed away in 1946 and is buried in Ilford Animal Cemetery in London.
Antis – The “German” Who Saved Frenchmen
As French Air Force gunner Robert Bozdech came barreling toward Earth in his now-disabled plane, death was on his mind, not making a new best friend. But that is exactly what happened when he crashed landed in Northern France, ominously known as “No Man’s Land.” He, amazingly, emerged from the wreckage of his plane barely hurt, but heard sounds from a nearby farmhouse. Thinking it was the enemy, he took out his gun, ready to shoot. What emerged was a gray ball of fur, a German Shepard puppy. He took the pup in his leather jacket and hitched a ride back two hundred miles to St Dizier Air Base. Bozdech’s peers were stunned he was still alive, much less having a new best bud.
Antis, named so because Bozdech loved to fly Russian ANT dive-bombers, became not just a loyal friend, but a seasoned war veteran. Much like Gunner, he barked in warning about oncoming enemy fire. Just like Rip, he learned how to sniff and dig for survivors. Robert and his comrades also considered Antis a good luck charm and, most importantly, braver than many a human soldier. He would hide away in Bozdech’s gunner plane to ensure that he would be there to protect his pal. Antis would also run into enemy fire to notify others where the injured men were. He was even once injured himself, yet that didn’t stop him from performing his duties. Several days after being injured, he somehow snuck onto Bozdech’s plane as a stowaway.
After the war, Antis was also awarded the Dickin Medal and lived with Bozdech the rest of his life, passing away at the age of 14 in 1953.
Salty and Roselle Safety Guides on 9/11
While 9/11 wasn’t necessarily during war, it was certainly an act of war and war-like situation. Salty and Roselle were both part of the Guiding Eyes for the Blind program in New York, but came upon their fates differently. Roselle was only one and half when she was introduced to Michael Hingson, the man she was to guide. Hingson had been blind since birth, but earned a masters in physics from the University of California. On September 11, 2001, he was working as a computer sales manager on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center Tower 1.
Roselle was asleep when the plane struck the 99th floor. Calmly and cooly, she guided Hingson, and several others in the office, down over 1400 hundred darkened stairs and out of the door. The whole escape took about an hour, but within moments of making it to the street, Tower 2 collapsed, sending debris everywhere. Roselle was struck by pieces, but she was unfazed and continued moving, just like she was trained to do.
As Hingson said,
She saved my life. While everyone ran in panic, Roselle remained totally focused on her job. While debris fell around us, and even hit us, Roselle stayed calm.
Salty had always loved fast-paced, city-living. When he was introduced to Omar Rivera, it was a perfect match. Rivera had gone blind due to glaucoma, but continued to work for New York’s Port Authority as a senior systems designer. He was working on the 71st floor of the World Trade Center Tower 1 on 9/11. Salty was lying next to Rivera when the plane hit. The whole building swayed, but Salty calmly got up, offered Rivera his guidance, and lead them down the stairs. At one point a co-worker, thinking the dog needed help, tried to take Salty’s leash, but he refused to leave his master’s side. They made it out the door and were two or three blocks away when the second tower collapsed.
Both Salty and Roselle were given the Dickin medal for their heroics despite all the chaos around them. Salty passed away in 2008 and Roselle in 2011. They are remembered as American heroes.
Dogs weren’t the only animal to be bestowed the honor of a Dickin medal. In fact, pigeons were awarded the medal thirty two times, more than every other animal combined. It was given eighteen times to a dog, three times to a horse, and once to a cat. The cat’s name was Simon and he was given the medal in 1949 for his efforts in raising morale, surviving a cannon shell injury, and killing off a rat infestation during the Yangtze Incident. The Yangtze incident involved the British Royal Navy ship Amethyst being trapped on the Yangtze River for three months during the Chinese Civil War.
It isn’t known whether the dog was purposefully domesticated by humans or if they were self-domesticated, with certain of the gray wolves becoming friendly with humans from continually scavenging food scraps around human camps. Also, similar to the domestic cat that all likely descended from just a handful of cats, it is thought that all dogs descend from just a handful of gray wolves in a small number of domestication events. In the dogs’ case, this probably took place in East Asia, with the dogs quickly being bred and spreading throughout the world, even to North America around 10,000 years ago.
After a brief absence of US aircraft carrier presence in the eastern Mediterranean, the USS George H. W. Bush will be returning to Syria’s coast to hammer ISIS forces in the region.
This marks the first time the US Navy has had a carrier in the region since US guided-missile destroyers struck Syrian President Bashar Assad’s air force after his regime carried out a deadly chemical weapon attack on civilians.
In the immediate aftermath of that strike on April 6, Russia, Assad’s stalwart ally, sent two corvettes of their own.
The US has dispatched the Bush and four guided-missile destroyers as part of a carrier strike group.
The carrier arrives at a time when US and coalition forces have all but stomped out the last remaining ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria, though they increasingly find themselves under attack from new adversaries — Iranian-backed pro-Assad forces.
Iran recently released footage of one of its drones scoping out a US drone, and the very next day the Pentagon announced a US aircraft had shot down a pro-Syrian drone.
Increasingly, US-led coalition forces find themselves bombing pro-Syrian and Iranian-backed forces that threaten US troops in deconfliction zones.
With the addition of the aircraft carrier, the US will have an additional few dozen F/A-18s handy to police the skies.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats have reached agreement on a $3.9 billion emergency spending package to fill a shortfall in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ program of private-sector care, seeking to avert a disruption to medical care for thousands of veterans.
The deal includes additional money for core VA health programs, as well. Veterans’ groups insisted this money be included.
The compromise plan sets aside $2.1 billion over six months to continue funding the Choice program, which provides federally paid medical care outside the VA and is a priority of President Donald Trump. VA Secretary David Shulkin has warned that without legislative action, Choice would run out of money by mid-August, causing delays in health care.
The proposal also would devote $1.8 billion to authorize 28 leases for new VA medical facilities and establish programs to make it easier to hire health specialists. That cost would be paid for by trimming pensions for some Medicaid-eligible veterans and collecting fees for housing loans.
VA Secretary David Shulkin. Photo courtesy of VA.
A House vote was planned July 28, before members were to begin a five-week recess. The Senate is finishing up business for two more weeks and would also need to approve the measure.
Major veterans’ groups had opposed the original House plan as an unacceptable step toward privatization, leading Democrats to block that bill on July 24. That plan would have trimmed VA benefits to pay for Choice without additional investments in VA infrastructure.
Put in place after a 2014 wait-time scandal at the Phoenix VA hospital, the Choice program allows veterans to receive care from outside doctors if they must wait 30 days or more for an appointment or drive more than 40 miles to a VA facility.
Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told a hearing on July 27 that the six-month funding plan was urgently needed and would give Congress more time to debate broader issues over the future of the VA. He was joined by Rep. Tim Walz, the panel’s top Democrat.
Sens. Johnny Isakson, R- Ga., (left) and Jon Tester, D-Mont (right)
“We are glad that veterans will continue to have access to care without interruption and that the VA will be able to improve the delivery of care by addressing critical infrastructure and medical staffing needs,” Sens. Johnny Isakson, R- Ga., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a statement.
Shulkin praised the agreement and urged the House to act swiftly. The legislation “will greatly benefit veterans,” he said.
Still, while the agreement may avert a shutdown to Choice, the early disputes over funding may signal bigger political fights to come.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump had criticized the VA for long wait times and mismanagement, saying he would give veterans more options in seeing outside providers. At an event July 25 in Ohio, Trump said he would triple the number of veterans “seeing the doctor of their choice” as part of an upcoming VA overhaul.
His comments followed a warning by the leader of the Veterans of Foreign Wars against any Trump administration effort to “privatize” the VA. Speaking July 24 at its national convention in New Orleans, outgoing VFW National Commander Brian Duffy criticized the initial House plan as violating Trump’s campaign promise to VFW that it “would remain a public system, because it is a public trust.”
Shulkin announced the budget shortfall last month, citing unexpected demand from veterans for private care and poor budget planning. To slow spending, the department last month instructed VA medical centers to limit the number of veterans it sent to private doctors.
“This situation underscores exactly why Congress needs to pass broader and more permanent Choice reforms. Even after they finish scrambling to fund this flawed program, too many veterans will still be trapped in a failing system and will be unable to seek care outside the VA when they want to or need to,” said Dan Caldwell, policy director of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America.
Currently, more than 30 percent of VA appointments are in the private sector, up from fewer than 20 percent in 2014, as the VA’s more than 1,200 health facilities struggle to meet growing demands for medical care.
The VA has an annual budget of nearly $167 billion.