A team of Fort Bragg soldiers set their sights on one of the top officials within warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army late last year.
The soldiers, working with government agencies and nonprofit organizations, tracked down the family of the official — communications chief Michael Omona.
He played a key role in the Ugandan warlord’s cultish militant group, which was built on the backs of former child soldiers abducted from their homes in Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Fort Bragg soldiers – part of a regional psychological operations team deployed to Africa – weren’t targeting Omona with firepower. Instead, it was a campaign fueled by facts and meant to counter the misinformation Kony spread across his force.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army in Washington, Col. Bethany Aragon, the commander of the 4th Military Information Support Group at Fort Bragg, described what happened next.
“If you can envision yourself walking through this dense jungle,” she said. “… As he’s walking through the jungle, he hears his mother’s voice begging him to come home.”
The voice came from a U.S. Army loudspeaker team, piping voices into the countryside.
A little while later, leaflets dropped from the sky. On them, images of Omona’s uncle, who raised him as a father, and his daughter; both pleading for Omona to turn himself in to authorities.
“We targeted him,” Aragon said. “And in January 2017… he walked for two weeks to defect.”
Omona’s defection gave authorities key information in the search for Kony and the LRA. He provided access to codes used by the group and inside information on the higher workings of the LRA.
It was one of the highest profile defections in the long-running effort to dismantle the LRA. And Aragon used the example to show the value psychological operations soldiers played in those efforts.
“For over two decades, they abducted over 60,000 children, massacred tens of thousands of civilians, displaced two million people and then really destabilized a region the size of California,” she said of the LRA.
Today, Aragon said the LRA has been rendered irrelevant. And a generation of stolen Uganda children have been returned to their homes as the LRA has dwindled from an army of thousands to less than 100 members.
At AUSA, Aragon and other special operations leaders presented case studies on the value of their forces during a panel led by Lt. Gen. Kenneth E. Tovo, commanding general of U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
Often working with foreign partners, conventional forces and other government agencies, Tovo said the Army’s special operations forces provide a set of unique capabilities that can’t be easily reproduced.
They are complementary skills, Tovo said, that when mixed with other capabilities and forces form a “symbiotic whole” to fuel national objectives.
“To quasi-quote Tom Cruse in ‘Jerry Maguire,'” he said. “We complete each other.”
Tovo said there are about 4,300 special operations soldiers deployed around the world in 78 countries. That includes Special Forces, psychological operations, civil affairs, Army Rangers and other special operations troops.
While the more violent aspects of special operations tend to make the most headlines, Tovo’s panel largely focused on the more unheralded aspects of the force – what he called an “indigenous approach” to operations around the world.
Members of the Uganda People’s Defence Force and the 346th Tactical Psychological Operations Company (Airborne) Soldiers deployed to Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa stand for a class photo after the UPDF graduated from the third of a four-phase psychological operations training held at the Uganda Junior Command and Staff College, Jinja, Uganda, Aug. 15, 2017. The training was part of the U.S. mission of strengthening partner nation defense forces. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Andria Allmond)
“We live among, train with, advise and fight alongside people of foreign cultures,” Tovo said. “We think this indigenous approach provides a low-cost, high-impact option.”
Joining Tovo on the panel were Aragon; the former ambassador to Ukraine and current ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt; Brig. Gen. David Komar, director of the requirements integration directorate at the Army Capabilities Integration Center; 75th Ranger Regiment commander Col. Brandon Tegtmeier; and Lt. Col. Tom Craig, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group.
Tegtmeier discussed how the Rangers are working with Afghan partners. And Craig, who left Northern Syria about a week ago, discussed the task force comprised of Special Forces A-teams, special operations and conventional troops working to train and support Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State.
“The indigenous approach is absolutely working,” he said, explaining how special operations forces are uniquely suited to the ongoing fight against ISIS.
Craig said his Special Forces soldiers have language skills and cultural understanding built up over multiple deployments that allow them to have influence on the nation’s Syrian partners.
“In Syria, it’s important to note,” he said. “We are advising a partner who is in the lead.”
He said the relatively light footprint of U.S. forces in Syria allow them to be agile and flexible, while also providing important support.
Craig said troops are training, equipping, advising and providing air support and intelligence to their partnered forces.
Pyatt said that in a world of diffuse power and shifting threats, most challenges to American national security will happen in so-called “gray areas” between diplomacy and hard power.
Those are the areas in which special operations forces thrive, officials said.
Pyatt said the relationships between SOF and diplomats were critical.
“There’s a very, very high return on investments,” he said. “They don’t cost a lot of money, but they get a lot done.”
Komar said the conventional force was beginning to model some of its reforms after the SOF community, specifically with the creation of security force advise and assist brigades.
At the same time, he said the days of deconflicting between SOF and conventional forces were largely over. Instead, the Army has embraced and integration between the two types of units.
In addition to ongoing operations and recent case studies, the panelists discussed ways the special operations community was preparing for future fights.
Tovo said each special operations specialty has different skillsets, but complement one another.
Whether serving as a crisis response force or working alongside State Department personnel, special operations forces are able to provide unique perspectives and insight.
“When bad things happen in any part of the world and we’ve got SOF there,” he said. “… We provide the nation a suite of tools applicable across the full range of military operations.”
Aragon said the campaign against the LRA was the most effective psychological operations campaign in Africa to date.
She said the groundwork was laid in 2011, when a team of just four psyops soldiers from Fort Bragg deployed to the continent.
Aragon said Omona and other members of the LRA lived in dense jungle and worked for an unhinged leader. Most, like Omona himself, were former child soldiers abducted from their homes years ago.
“He’s susceptible,” she said. And so were others within the LRA.
The goal was to use radio, leaflets and area loudspeakers to reach disaffected members of the group.
Key to those efforts were buy-in from the Ugandan government, which offered amnesty for defectors, she said.
Early successes gave the psyops team additional weaponry – the voices and stories of former LRA members who could speak to the fair treatment they received.
The first mass defection came in 2013, Aragon said, when 19 combatants defected.
Omona’s name came up in latter conversations, identified through a nonprofit group dedicated to the reintegration of former child soldiers in Africa called Pathways to Peace.
Omona had been kidnapped by the LRA when he was 12. Twenty-three years later, he was personally in charge of Kony’s communications.
Aragon said soldiers enlisted the aid of Omona’s family. His defection helped the soldiers end their mission against the LRA earlier this year.
But for the next fight, potentially against a more advanced enemy force, Aragon said officials must begin their efforts now.
“We cannot wait until the deployment to find the next Michael Omona,” she said. “We have to be doing that persistently if we are to be ready and relevant.”
Aside from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many Americans aren’t familiar with other attacks on the states during WWII. Some may know of the Japanese invasion of Alaska or their planned remote attacks with fire balloons and biological weapons. However, very few people know about the direct Japanese attacks on the American West Coast.
About a week after Pearl Harbor, submarines of the Japanese 6th Fleet arrived off America’s Pacific coast. Nine submarines were tasked with performing reconnaissance and disrupting sea lanes. Four of the Japanese vessels carried out successful attacks on coastal shipping. As a result, two American tankers were sunk and one freighter was damaged. However, two Japanese submarines managed to carry out direct attacks on the mainland.
On February 19, 1942, submarine I-17 covertly landed on Point Loma, California, to determine her position before sailing up the California coast. Four days later, she surfaced off the Ellwood Oil Field near Santa Barbara, California. Just after 7pm, I-17 fired 17 rounds from her 14 cm/40 deck gun. Targeting the Richfield (ARCO) aviation fuel storage tanks behind the beach, the bombardment lasted 20 minutes. The closest shell landed in a field 30 yards from the nearest tank. One shell was so far off that it impacted over a mile inland. The shelling was largely ineffective, causing only minor damage to a pier and pump house. However, it did trigger fears of an impeding Japanese invasion along the West Coast. The attack made I-17 the first Axis ship to shell the United States mainland.
On the night of June 21, 1942, submarine I-25 surfaced at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon. With her deck gun, I-25 fired 17 shells at the coastal artillery installation of Fort Stevens. Although the bombardment caused no damage to the base itself, it did destroy the backstop of the base’s baseball field. The attack by I-25 made Fort Stevens the first CONUS military installation to come under enemy fire during WWII. In fact, it was the first attack on a CONUS military installation since the War of 1812.
On August 15, 1942, I-25 left Yokosuka to make what would be the final Japanese attack on the American coast. The attack was reprisal for the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April of that year. On September 9, I-25 launched its E14Y “Glen” seaplane. Piloted by Warrant Flying Officer Nobuo Fujita, the plane dropped two 76-kilogram incendiary bombs on a forest near Brookings, Oregon. Though the mission was meant to trigger wildfires, light winds and typically wet Pacific Northwest weather kept the fire from spreading. The attack remains the only time an enemy aircraft has bombed the mainland United States.
Both submarines were lost in August 1943. Despite the psychological impact of their attacks, the value of submarines was heavily discounted in the Japanese Navy. Lacking doctrine, the Japanese submarine campaign was far less effective than either the German or American submarine campaigns of WWII.
As of Monday, Christopher Miller is the new (acting) Secretary of Defense. He is now responsible for the entire US military behemoth. A tough proposition, despite his experience navigating bureaucracy as the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center and as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict.
But Miller has a vast special operations background to assist him in his new position.
When the terrorist attacks took place on 9/11, Miller, who was a major at the time, was commanding a Special Forces company in 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group.
Army Special Forces primarily specialize in Unconventional Warfare, Foreign Internal Defense, Direct Action, and Special Reconnaissance. Their ability to partner with a government or guerilla force and train, organize, and lead it to combat is what distinguishes the unit from the rest of America’s special operations forces.
A mere few days after the 9/11 attacks, Colonel John Mulholland, the then commander of the 5th Special Forces Group, sent Miller to Special Operations Command Central (SOCCENT) with instructions to get the unit into the fight. SOCCENT is responsible for all special operations in the Central Command’s (CENTCOM) area of operations, which is Central Asia and the Near and Middle East.
At the time, the Pentagon was somewhat at a loss on how to respond to the attacks. The shadow of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan loomed above the planning process. There was no question that the US military could pound to history Al-Qaeda and their Taliban protectors. But a full-blown invasion would be susceptible to the same tactical and strategic woes the Soviets had encountered – fast forward 19 years, and this has become apparent.
So, the unconventional warfare approach gained traction in some planning circles. Why shouldn’t we send Special Forces teams with all the airpower they can handle to partner with friendly forces and defeat the enemy, a small group of planners asked.
Known as the “True Believers,” these men pushed for an unconventional warfare approach to Afghanistan. And they managed to persuade their superiors. The outcome was a sweeping campaign, with Special Forces soldiers, CIA operatives, and Tier 1 operators at the forefront, that defeated Al-Qaeda and drove the Taliban out of power.
In all of this, Miller was key in getting his unit to be a core part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force Dagger, which led the fight. (If you wish to learn more about how that campaign was fought from a Special Forces perspective, Eric Blehm’s “The Only Thing Worth Dying For” offers a brilliant account.)
Miller went on to participate in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And, as the commander of 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, Miller was responsible for all Special Forces operations in central Iraq in 2006 and 2007. All in all, he was responsible for 18 Special Forces Operational Detachment Alphas (ODAs) and three Special Forces Operational Detachment Bravos (ODBs).
Interestingly, Miller’s appointment as the Secretary of Defense means that both the top civilian military leader and the top military leader, General Mark Miller, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are Special Forces qualified, both having served in the 5th Special Forces Group.
On a side note, like in General James Mattis’s case, the administration will have to obtain Congress’ approval in order for Miller to become a permanent Secretary of Defense. By law, no person who has served in active duty as a commissioned officer can be appointed as the secretary of defense within seven years of his separation from the service. Miller retired in 2014, so he is a year away from meeting the constitutional (non-waivered) requirements for the permanent position. With a new administration coming in, however, that might not be necessary.
After serving in the US Navy during the Vietnam War, George Platt faithfully wore his identification tag — informally known as a “dog tag.”
Like every other member of the military, he was originally issued two, but at some point one went missing.
The other one, however, was always with him throughout most of his adult life.
“He had it with him when I first met him,” said his wife of 30 years, Sheila Platt. The couple met in 1983.
Years later, sometime after George Platt was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, the lone tag that he’d worn for so long disappeared.
“I just assumed when I didn’t see it that he put it somewhere in the house, and I would come across it,” said Shelia Platt. “I never did, and I stopped thinking about it.”
Her husband died in 2014 at the age of 67 and she gave his clothing to Goodwill. But she did not find the tag.
Three years passed, and then something happened. Something “amazing.”
Chain of events
William “Biff” Trimble served in the US Air Force in Southeast Asia about the same time as George Platt.
Today, he volunteers with Disabled American Veterans Chapter 86, driving veterans to medical appointments. As a result, he sometimes has one of the DAV vans parked outside his home.
That fact provided a critical link in the chain of events that was to follow.
On a recent weekend, Trimble’s regular postal carrier was making Express Mail deliveries in the vicinity of Bing’s Landing. Hurricane Irma had swept through and left behind a lot of street debris there. By chance, the carrier spotted a small metal rectangle in the debris and picked it up.
It was a military dog tag belonging to George Platt.
The carrier had the tag with her as she drove her regular route when she spotted the DAV van parked in Trimble’s driveway. She approached Trimble and his wife, showed them the dog tag and said, “I found this on the street; is there anything you can do?”
Trimble accepted the tag and took it to the DAV post, where he gave it to chapter treasurer Larry Rekart.
Rekart checked the chapter’s membership records, but did not find George Platt there. So he turned to the telephone directory.
At a time when many people rely solely on cell phones and the telephone white pages are shrinking, the Platts’ number was still listed. Sheila Platt had never changed it.
The day the phone rang, she had just returned home after having evacuated because of the storm. It marked the conclusion of an unhappy two weeks for Shelia Platt. She had evacuated just two days after attending her mother’s funeral.
When she answered the phone, the voice at the other end asked to speak with her husband.
She said simply that he wasn’t there, so the caller — it was Rekart — asked if he was speaking with Mrs. Platt.
She admits becoming irritated at first but what Rekart said next surprised her. Someone had found her husband’s dog tag and she could pick it up at the DAV office.
She wanted to tell someone about this incredible development, but her confidant had always been her mother. She wondered: “Who do I call for this? Who do I call to tell this story to?”
She settled on her husband’s niece. Then, by chance, the man who served as best man at the Platts’ wedding texted her to find out if she’d returned from her evacuation, so she called him.
“I said, ‘You will not believe this story,'” she said.
At last, Sheila Platt went to the DAV office to retrieve the missing ID. It was an emotional moment.
“I hadn’t cried over him in a long time,” she said, “and when I came here, I started.”
Bing’s Landing is almost nine-and-a-half miles from the Platt home. And it’s on the opposite side of the Matanzas River. By Sheila Platt’s account, her husband wouldn’t have gone there.
So, how did his dog tag end up so far from home?
It was a source of speculation when she met with members of the DAV. One person asked if her house had ever been robbed, but she said no. Another asked if she had given any of her husband’s clothing away, and she remembered the Goodwill.
Today, she wonders if the tag had been in a pocket she hadn’t checked before donating the clothing. Still, that may be as close as she ever gets to solving the mystery.
Sheila keeps the tag on a fob for now and plans to do something more permanent with it eventually.
George Platt, she said, “was just a great guy; he was a great husband.”
The tag, she added, was “something that was important to him. The fact that he lost it or whatever I attribute to the Alzheimer’s. Because it was something that he always kept with him.”
Next week is the Fourth of July and there’s countless celebrations planned all around the country. Of course, there’s the fireworks and the air shows, but we can’t forget about all the military parades. Speaking from personal experience, military parades for the general public are the worst.
You get there five hours in advance and your NCO is hounding you not to even make the slightest wrong move. Then when you’re actually marching in formation through the designated route, there’s always going to be those people in the crowds that try to jump to the “join” the formation.
I get it, if it’s a kid – I’ll smile down at them, tell them they’re getting it (regardless if they are or not) and keep moving. My problem is when the douche bag bros hop in the back and say some sh*t like “I’m just like you guys!” If this was just a one time thing, I would chalk it up as a bad encounter. But this happened three different times to me outside two different Army posts.
Anyways, here’s some memes while I wrap myself in my DD-214 blanket to forget about douchey civilians.
Service member signs his security seal of approval before it is placed on crates full of his personal property July 1, 2019.
The U.S. Army has issued hundreds of waivers for many military permanent change of station moves, despite a Defense Department-wide ban on international and domestic travel until at least June 30, top officials said Tuesday.
And while many PCS moves are halted amid the global pandemic, the Army is bracing for backlogs during the busy summer move season after restrictions lift, and are weighing what incentives it can offer to those who can ease the burden on logistics by moving themselves.
Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, said the service had roughly 48,000 personnel with PCS orders to move to their next duty station in March, when the travel ban took effect; “several hundred” of those were ultimately given permission to move anyway. To date, the vice chief of staff’s office, headed by Gen. Joseph Martin, has considered 500 waiver requests, he said.
Even with the latest stop-move order — which does not apply to basic training or deployments and redeployments within the combatant commands — officials said the upcoming summer months will still be the busiest for troops and their families trying to relocate. And springtime moves delayed by the travel ban will add to the summer rush, which is why the Army is bracing for backlogs to occur, added Lt. Gen. Duane Gamble, deputy chief of staff for logistics.
“There are a limited supply of moving companies that exist every summer,” Gamble said. “We’re working to streamline the PCS process … making sure soldiers get orders quicker so they can get their moves scheduled quicker.”
That includes having families move themselves instead of waiting for the government to contact a moving company, he said.
The military commonly reimburses self-moves at a rate equal to 95% of what it would pay a moving company. But Gamble said officials are considering upping the rate to encourage more troops to take advantage of it. He did not offer additional details about the change.
“We’re making recommendations to the Joint Staff and to the leadership for these changes,” he said, adding a proposal to streamline Personally Procured Moves (PPM), more commonly known as DITY moves, will be sent to the Office of the Secretary of Defense this week.
Roughly 7,000 people moved themselves over fiscal 2019, he said.
“Juxtapose that against 48,000 [in just a few months],” Gamble said, explaining that government moves still make up the majority of PCS moves. “If we continue on the current policy, we have to move five months of people in three months.”
Seamands said the Army is considering exceptions to the stop-movement order on a case-by-case basis for personnel facing hardship and those deemed mission-essential. “We’re encouraging soldiers to seek help from their chain of command” to get their permanent change-of-station move done, he added.
Mission-essential personnel who had already begun the process of relocation were given preference to proceed with their moves, Seamands said. Mission-essential designations are up to the gaining command, he explained.
Officials “coordinate with the losing command to see if the losing command is prepared to allow [a soldier] to leave based on the COVID situation, their area and other readiness issues,” he said. “Then the gaining command comes up through the Army staff to the vice chief of staff of the Army, who from the strategic level makes an assessment on whether or not to support the soldier to make the move based on how mission-essential they are.”
General James “Mad Dog” Mattis is known for many things, including outstanding leadership, delivering motivational quotes and demonstrating perfectly executed knife hands.
Mattis entered in the Marine Corps in 1969 and attended Central Washington University as part of the ROTC program.
Working his way up the ranks, Mattis oversaw a Marine recruiting station in Portland, led the historic 1st Marine Division into Iraq in 2003, held the position of commander of the United States Central Command since 2010, and served under the Trump administration as the 26th Secretary of Defense until 2019.
Having served nearly his entire 41-year military journey in a position of leadership, he’s had to answer all sorts of tough questions.
Check out the Marine Corps‘ video as the legend himself answers the most important question of his career. What’s the kill radius of his knife-hand?
VA is partnering with four technology organizations — CaringBridge, IBM, Objective Zero Foundation, and RallyPoint — that share VA’s commitment to preventing veteran suicide. These organizations are working with VA to promote social connectedness and expand the reach of lifesaving resources using mobile applications and online platforms.
“Partnerships are a vital component of the National Strategy for Preventing Veteran Suicide, which we are implementing at the national, state, and local levels,” said Dr. Keita Franklin, executive director, suicide prevention, for VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. “Our goal is to prevent suicide among veterans nationwide and across the globe, reaching even those who do not, and may never, come to VA for care. To do that, we are working closely with dozens of important partners across sectors to expand our reach beyond VA facility walls, to deliver care and support to at-risk veterans wherever they live, work, and thrive.”
As identified in the national strategy, engaging community partners in the technology sector is an important component of VA’s public health approach to suicide prevention. While each of our technology partners offers their own unique services, they all use technology to help service members and veterans get the care they need whenever and wherever they need it.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Clayton Cupit)
CaringBridge is a global nonprofit social network dedicated to helping family and friends communicate with and support loved ones during any health journey through the use of free personal websites. A CaringBridge website can be used to share updates and coordinate support for service members, veterans, their caregivers and families during any health journey including mental health and substance use. While enhancing social connectedness, CaringBridge also allows its users to conduct personal fundraisers. Through the partnership with VA and CaringBridge, a tailored destination page www.caringbridge.org/military-service/ to directly focus on the needs of Service members, veterans, caregivers and their families is now available.
IBM and VA launched a collaborative suicide prevention program to develop an innovative mobile application currently under development titled GRIT (Getting Results In Transition). GRIT demonstrates how the real-time and consistent collection of personalized data can help service members and veterans understand and strengthen their emotional well-being and resiliency — particularly during the transition from active duty to civilian life. GRIT allows users to create a digital self and gain personal insight into their personality baseline, provides access to a digital assistant powered by IBM Watson, helps to build a squad of social connection and offers employment matching and fulfillment capabilities using IBM Watson Employment Manager among other resources to support the transition out of the military.
Objective Zero Foundation
Objective Zero Foundation is a nonprofit organization that uses technology to enhance social connectedness and improve access to mental health resources. The Objective Zero mobile application connects service members, veterans, their families, and caregivers to peer support through videoconferencing, voice calls, and text messaging. Users also get free access to resources on mental health and wellness. Volunteer ambassadors sign up for the application, receive training including VA’s own A.V.E. training “Signs,” “Ask,” “Validate,” and “Encourage and Expedite,”— course to then be on the receiving end of those in need of connecting. Objective Zero aims to be more upstream than the Veterans Crisis Line and allows service members, veterans their families and caregivers to both volunteer and connect to others when they need it most. You can download the free Objective Zero mobile application at https://www.objectivezero.org/app.
(DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley)
RallyPoint is a social networking company designed to gather service members and veterans connect with each other, discuss military life, share information and exchange stories. The platform is now open for families, caregivers and federal employees of service members and veterans. Users can build out their own professional network, share resources, connect with other members of the military and veterans in a safe, secure social media environment. Career opportunities and resources, active community discussions and increasing social connectedness with over 1 million users is free, ready and available at www.rallypoint.com/.
“VA will not stop working to prevent veteran suicide, but we can’t do it alone. Everyone has a role to play in preventing Veteran suicide,” Franklin said. “VA’s partnerships in the technology sector enhance social connectedness and expand the reach of VA’s suicide prevention resources through these technology platforms. We are working with partners in the technology space and other sectors to ensure we reach all Veterans with lifesaving resources and support.”
The health and well-being of our nation’s veterans and former service members is VA’s highest priority. Guided by data and research, VA is working with partners, veterans’ family members and friends, and the community to ensure that all veterans and former service members get the right care whenever they need it — regardless of their discharge status. To learn about the resources available for veterans and how you can #BeThere as a VA employee, family member, friend, community partner, or clinician, visit www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/resources.asp.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support and crisis intervention available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, text to 838255, or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.
In patriotism-drenched promotions, press releases and tweets, TurboTax promotes special deals for military service members, promising to help them file their taxes online for free or at a discount.
Yet some service members who’ve filed by going to the TurboTax Military landing page told ProPublica they were charged as much as $150 — even though, under a deal with the government, service members making under $66,000 are supposed to be able to file on TurboTax for free.
Liz Zimmerman is a mother of two teenage daughters and a toddler who lives with her husband, a Navy chief petty officer, in Bettendorf, Iowa, just across the river from the Rock Island military facility. When Zimmerman went to do her taxes this year, she Googled “tax preparation military free” and, she recalled in an interview, TurboTax was the first link that popped up, promising “free military taxes.” She clicked and came tothe site emblazoned with miniature American flags.
But when Zimmerman got to the end of the process, TurboTax charged her , even though the family makes under the ,000 income threshold to file for free. “I’ve got a kid in braces and I’ve got a kid in preschool; is half a week’s worth of groceries,” she said. “Who needs date night this month? At least I filed my taxes.”
(Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Micah Merrill)
In the commercial version of TurboTax that includes the “military discount,” customers are charged based on the tax forms they file. The Zimmermans used aform to claim a retirement savings credit that TurboTax required a paid upgrade to file. If they’d started from the TurboTax Free File landing page instead of the military page, they would have been able to file for free.
Like many other tax prep companies, Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, participates in the Free File program with the IRS, under which the industry offers most Americans free tax filing. In return, the IRS agrees not to create its own free filing system that would compete with the companies. But few of those who are eligible use the program, in part because the companies aggressively market paid versions, often misleading customers. We’ve documented how Intuit had deliberately made its Free File version difficult to find, including by hiding it from search engines.
In a statement, Intuit spokesman Rick Heineman said, “Intuit has long supported active-military and veterans, both in filing their taxes and in their communities, overseas, and in the Intuit workplace.” He added: “Intuit is proud to support active military, including the millions of men and women in uniform who have filed their tax returns completely free using TurboTax.”
To find TurboTax’s Free File landing page, service members typically have to go through the IRS website. TurboTax Military, by contrast, is promoted on the company’s home page and elsewhere. Starting through the Military landing page directs many users to paid products even when they are eligible to get the same service for no cost using the Free File edition.
An Intuit press release this year announced “TurboTax Offers Free Filing for Military E1- E5” — but refers users to TurboTax Military and does not mention the actual Free File option. (E1-E5 refers to military pay grades.) It was promoted on the company’s Twitter feed with a smiling picture of a woman wearing fatigues outside her suburban home. Google searches for “TurboTax military,” “TurboTax for soldiers” and “TurboTax for troops” all produce top results sending users to the TurboTax Military page.
That site offers a “military discount.” Some service members can use it to file for free, depending on their pay grade and tax situation. Others are informed — only after inputting their tax data — that they will have to pay.
In one instance, Petty Officer Laurell, a hospital corpsman in the Navy who didn’t want his full name used, was charged even though he makes under ,000. TurboTax charged Laurell this year and 0 last year, his receipts show.
“I am upset and troubled that TurboTax would intentionally mislead members of the military,” said Laurell, who has been in the service for a decade.
Using receipts, tax returns and other documentation, we verified the accounts from four service members who were charged by TurboTax even though they were eligible to use Free File. They include an Army second lieutenant, a Navy hospital corpsman and a Navy yeoman.
The New York regulator investigating TurboTax is also examining the military issue, according to a person familiar with the probe.
Active-duty members of the military get greater access to Free File products than other taxpayers. All Americans who make under ,000 can use products offered by one of 12 participating companies in the program. But each company then imposes additional, sometimes confusing eligibility requirements based on income, age and location.
Those additional requirements are not imposed on service members for most of the Free File products.
TurboTax’s Free File edition, for example, is available to active-duty military and reservists who make under ,000 in adjusted gross income compared with a threshold of ,000 for everyone else.
It’s unclear how many service members were charged by TurboTax, even though they could have filed for free. The company declined to respond to questions about this.
Jennifer Davis, government relations deputy director of the National Military Family Association, said the group is concerned by ProPublica’s findings about Americans being charged for tax services that should be free. “As an organization dedicated to improving the well-being of military families, we are concerned that many military families have fallen prey to these fraudulent actions as well,” she said. Davis pointed out that service members have a range of other free tax filing options, including in-person help on many bases and an online option through the Defense Department called MilTax.
We tested TurboTax Military and TurboTax Free File using the tax information of a Virginia-based Navy sailor and his graphic designer wife with a household income of ,000.
The filing experiences had just one major difference: TurboTax Military tried to upgrade us or convince us to pay for side products six times. We declined those extras each time. Finally, the program told us we had to pay 9.98 to finish filing.
And that “military discount”? All of .
In the Free File version, by contrast, we were able to file completely free.
Here’s what happened when we landed on TurboTax Military:
The software took us through filing our taxes in the standard question-answer format used across all TurboTax products. We entered the sailor’s employer and income information.
Then TurboTax told us we were going to save some money because of our service.
“Congrats! You qualify for our Enlisted military discount.”
We were then repeatedly offered other paid products.
TurboTax recommended we purchase “+PLUS,” which promises “24/7 tax return access” and other services for .99.
We were offered “TurboTaxLive” — access to advice from a CPA — for 4.99.
We were also offered “MAX,” which includes audit defense and identity loss insurance for .99 (a good deal, the company suggests, because the products represent a “5.00 value”).
We rejected all of these offers. We finished filing the sailor’s military income and added his wife’s 1099 income of ,000 and her modest business expenses.
When we were done entering their information, the software broke some bad news: We would need to upgrade to TurboTax Self-Employed for 4.99 (minus thanks to the military discount).
On top of that, we were charged .99 to file Virginia state taxes, bringing our total to 9.98.
When we started on TurboTax Free File instead of TurboTax Military and entered the same information, the filing experience was virtually identical, with two major differences: We weren’t pitched side products such as audit defense and the final price was .
While the sailor’s family was eligible for Free File, TurboTax Military never directed us to the product, even after we entered a family income of less than ,000.
On May 10, the New York Department of Financial Services sent a request for documents to USAA, the insurance company that caters to service members, according to a person familiar with the investigation. USAA promotes TurboTax Military, and DFS, which regulates insurance companies, sought records related to any deals with Intuit and other tax prep firms. Two other insurance companies, Progressive and AAA, also received requests for records from DFS. Spokespeople for the three companies didn’t respond to requests for comment.
TurboTax first launched the Military Edition in 2012. “TurboTax has a long history of supporting the military and many of our employees have served our country,” the then-head of TurboTax said in the company’s press release.
It has apparently been a lucrative business. On an earnings call six months later, Intuit’s then-CEO Brad Smith boasted “we saw double-digit growth this season from the military and digital native customer segments.”
“Given our scale and our data capabilities,” he said, “we plan to extend this advantage to even more taxpayers next season.” Smith is now executive chairman of Intuit’s board.
Last week, a class action was filed against Intuit by a law firm representing a Marine, Laura Nichols, who was charged by TurboTax even though she was eligible to file for free, according to the complaint. The suit cites ProPublica’s previous reporting on the issue. The company declined to comment.
The same people who took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States with their own lives on land, sea, or air are needed to do the same with their post-military skills – in cyberspace.
But getting into this career field isn’t easy. If the military didn’t train someone on information technology skills, they will need the skills necessary to potentially join the ranks of cyber warriors. The good news is that there are many options available to help start this journey.
Demands on the lives and careers of military members can make attending a brick and mortar school somewhat difficult, but there are many accredited online schools that can help make educational goals more accessible. One of those schools is Trident at American Intercontinental University.
Trident offers an associate degree program in Cybersecurity and for those who want to take their learning further, they can continue their education at Trident with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science with an emphasis on cybersecurity.
They can even step up to a master’s level education with programs in Homeland Security and Information Technology Management. Students can use military Tuition Assistance, if applicable, and the school also offers grants for military service members** at all degree levels.
Military members shouldn’t wait until transition assistance classes start and there’s only six months of service left on their enlistment. Now could be the time to start preparing to pursue your educational options.
*Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Information Security Analysts, on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts.htm (visited September 30, 2020). This data represents national figures and is not based on school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary.
**University grants or scholarships are based on established criteria as published in the University’s Catalog or on its website and are awarded after verification that the conditions of eligibility have been met.
Trident cannot guarantee employment, salary, or career advancement.
Even after decades of observations and a visit by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, Uranus held on to one critical secret — the composition of its clouds. Now, one of the key components of the planet’s clouds has finally been verified.
A global research team that includes Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has spectroscopically dissected the infrared light from Uranus captured by the 26.25-foot (8-meter) Gemini North telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. They found hydrogen sulfide, the odiferous gas that most people avoid, in Uranus’ cloud tops. The long-sought evidence was published in the April 23, 2018, issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.
The detection of hydrogen sulfide high in Uranus’ cloud deck (and presumably Neptune’s) is a striking difference from the gas giant planets located closer to the Sun — Jupiter and Saturn — where ammonia is observed above the clouds, but no hydrogen sulfide. These differences in atmospheric composition shed light on questions about the planets’ formation and history.
“We’ve strongly suspected that hydrogen sulfide gas was influencing the millimeter and radio spectrum of Uranus for some time, but we were unable to attribute the absorption needed to identify it positively. Now, that part of the puzzle is falling into place as well,” Orton said.
The Gemini data, obtained with the Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer (NIFS), sampled reflected sunlight from a region immediately above the main visible cloud layer in Uranus’ atmosphere.
“While the lines we were trying to detect were just barely there, we were able to detect them unambiguously thanks to the sensitivity of NIFS on Gemini, combined with the exquisite conditions on Mauna Kea,” said lead author Patrick Irwin of the University of Oxford, U.K.
No worries, though, that the odor of hydrogen sulfide would overtake human senses. According to Irwin, “Suffocation and exposure in the negative 200 degrees Celsius [392 degrees Fahrenheit] atmosphere made of mostly hydrogen, helium, and methane would take its toll long before the smell.”
Read more on the news of Uranus’ atmosphere from Gemini Observatory here.
This article originally appeared on NASA. Follow @NASA on Twitter.
By now you’ve seen (ad nauseam) the results of FaceApp, a Russian-based photo filter app that realistically adds wrinkles, grey hairs, and, well, years to faces. Further investigation to the origins of the app — and its Terms & Conditions — has prompted a demand for a federal investigation into the company behind the app and the potential security risks it poses to Americans.
“FaceApp was developed by Russians. It’s not clear at this point what the privacy risks are, but what is clear is that the benefits of avoiding the app outweigh the risks,” read a security alert from DNC chief security officer Bob Lord, as reported by CNN.
In a letter to the FBI and the FTC, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) stated, “FaceApp’s location in Russia raises questions regarding how and when the company provides access to the data of U.S. citizens to third parties, including foreign governments. I ask that the FBI assess whether the personal data uploaded by millions of Americans onto FaceApp may be finding its way into the hand of the Russian government, or entities with ties to the Russian government.”
See the full letter right here:
BIG: Share if you used #FaceApp:
The @FBI @FTC must look into the national security privacy risks now
Because millions of Americans have used it
It’s owned by a Russia-based company
And users are required to provide full, irrevocable access to their personal photos datapic.twitter.com/cejLLwBQcr
NPR reported that FaceApp had topped Apple’s and Google’s app download charts by Wednesday, July 17, attracting big celebrities and your roommate and that guy you went to high school with alike. While it can be fun to see what forty years can do to a face, there are a number of potential risks involved.
First there’s the matter of privacy. In order to use the app, you give FaceApp access to your device and some personal information. According to NPR, data privacy experts warn against these kinds of apps, especially after Facebook reported up to 87 million of its users’ personal information was compromised by a third party analytics firm.
Second, we are in a new age of facial recognition software, which can be used to target certain groups or individuals, potentially putting innocent people at risk.