A fourth soldier, who had been missing in Niger for two days, was found dead on Oct. 6, officials said. According to reports, several Nigerien troops were also killed or wounded.
News of the fourth soldier makes Oct. 4 the deadliest day for deployed Fort Bragg soldiers since July 14, 2010, when seven soldiers were killed in two incidents in Afghanistan.
Three of the slain American soldiers were identified Oct. 6 as Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia. The fourth soldier had not been identified as of Oct. 6.
Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright (left), Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson (center), and Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black. Photos from US Army.
Two US service members were also wounded in the attack. They were evacuated in stable condition to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, officials said.
The attack on US and Nigerien forces occurred in southwest Niger, approximately 120 miles north of the capital of Niamey.
According to US Africa Command, which is based in Germany, the Special Forces soldiers were providing advice and assistance to Nigerien security force counter-terrorism operations.
US troops have been in West Africa for years, bolstering the defense capabilities of partner nations while combating terrorist groups like Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The 3rd Special Forces Group has played a large role in the region since 2015, when the group refocused its efforts to Africa after more than a decade of constant deployments to Afghanistan.
A spokesman for US Army Special Operations Command said the incident is under investigation.
Black, a Special Forces medical sergeant, and Wright, a Special Forces engineer sergeant, were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group. Johnson, who served as a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear specialist, was assigned to the Group Support Battalion.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with this soldier’s family as we mourn the loss of this dedicated Green Beret,” Lt. Col. David Painter, the commander of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, said Oct. 6. “Staff Sgt. Black is loved by so many in our battalion, and his life was spent in service to his family, his friends, his team, and his country.”
Painter said Wright was also an exceptional Green Beret, “a cherished teammate and devoted soldier.”
“Dustin’s service to 3rd Special Forces Group speaks to his level of dedication, courage, and commitment to something greater than himself,” Painter said. “We are focused on caring for the Wright family during this difficult period.”
Lt. Col. Megan Brogden, the commander of the Group Support Battalion, said Johnson was an exceptional soldier.
“We, as a nation, are fortunate to have men like Jeremiah,” she said. “He not only represented what we should all aspire to be, but he lived it. His loss is a great blow and he will be missed and mourned by this unit.”
Black enlisted in the Army in October 2009 and his awards and decorations include the Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Special Forces Tab, Ranger Tab, Parachutist Badge, Air Assault Badge, and Marksmanship Qualification Badge — Sharpshooter with Rifle.
Wright enlisted in July 2012. His awards and decorations include the Joint Service Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Special Forces Tab, and Parachutist Badge.
Johnson enlisted in October 2007 and his awards and decorations include two Army Commendation Medals, five Army Achievement Medals, three Army Good Conduct Medals, the National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Armed Forces Service Ribbon, Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, Parachutist Badge, Air Assault Badge, Driver and Mechanic Badge, and Marksmanship Qualification Badge — Expert with Pistol and Rifle.
According to reports, Nigerien military leaders said a patrol of defense and security forces and American partners were near the border of Mali when they were ambushed by a group with a dozen vehicles and about 20 motorcycles.
On Oct. 4, chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White said this was the first time American forces had been killed and wounded in combat in Niger.
White and the director of the Joint Staff, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, briefed members of the media on the attack. They stressed that American troops were in a support role, but McKenzie said that role can be dangerous.
“I think clearly there’s risk for our forces in Niger,” he said.
McKenzie said efforts to combat violent extremists in Africa were part of a global campaign against terrorism.
He said that with success in other parts of the world — namely Iraq and Syria — it is inevitable that terrorists will seek out safe haven in other countries.
“They tried to go to Libya; it didn’t work out real well… And I don’t want to make Libya into a model success story, but they’ve been unable to establish themselves there,” McKenzie said.
The general said American forces would continue to work with forces in Niger and neighboring countries to increase their military capabilities and stop terrorists from taking root.
But he cautioned against concluding that the Niger attack showed a growing foothold for terrorist groups.
“I think that it does reflect the fact, though, that we’re having enormous success against the core, the very heart of this movement,” McKenzie said. “But we’re going to be operating across the surface of the entire globe, for quite a while to complete these operations. This is simply a manifestation of that.”
Neither White nor McKenzie would comment on the medical support available to the US troops, but 3rd Special Forces Group soldiers have previously prepared for deployments to Africa under the assumption that such support would not be close by.
Their training in recent years has included trips to Duke University Medical Center and other medical facilities to learn techniques that can support them in austere environments away from modern medical centers.
McKenzie said the military was constantly evaluating the type of support deployed troops need.
“Anytime we deploy full forces globally, we will look very hard at the enablers that need to be in place in order to provide security for them,” he said. “And that ranges from the ability to pull them out if they are injured, to the ability to reinforce them at the point of a fight.”
In statements, elected leaders sent their condolences to the friends and families of the fallen soldiers.
Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, said the sacrifices of the three soldiers identified Oct. 6 would not be forgotten.
“This is a tragic reminder of the dangers facing our brave service members as they combat terrorism across the globe to keep our country safe,” he said.
Rep. Richard Hudson, a Republican whose district includes Fort Bragg, said Fort Bragg and Special Forces communities were mourning for their comrades.
“We pray they feel God’s comfort and know we are standing with them and support them — always,” Hudson said. “These elite soldiers have served in the most dangerous corners of the world, always ready and willing to put country before self. We are grateful for their service and will strive to honor their sacrifice.”
The 3rd Special Forces Group has supplied a steady rotation of troops to Africa since 2015 and is also at the helm of a lieutenant colonel-level command based in North and West Africa.
The group’s soldiers are focused on a 12-nation area of operations that includes Libya, Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
Officials with the group have said the Special Forces soldiers are “all in” on the Africa mission and committed to helping partner nations solve problems, not only with terrorism, but also poaching, illegal drugs, and human trafficking.
Teams of Special Forces soldiers, known as Operational Detachment Alphas, or A-teams, often work closely with military partners as well as US Department of State and US AID, among others.
Earlier this year, Painter, the commander of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group, told The Fayetteville Observer that the Africa mission was different from what the soldiers experienced in Afghanistan, but not without risks.
“It can potentially be equally as dangerous but much less known,” Painter said of working in Africa. “None of these are easy missions.”
Quoting Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, then-commander of Special Operations Command-Africa, Painter said “The US is not at war in Africa, but make no mistake, the Africans are in many places.”
Wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics have gone down significantly from recent years and are now shorter on average than those in private-sector health care, at least in big cities, according to a new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Critics of the study pointed out that main contributors to the JAMA report were current and former VA executives, including Dr. David Shulkin, who was fired as VA secretary in 2018 by President Donald Trump.
In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the JAMA report published Jan. 18, 2019, showed that the VA “has made a concerted, transparent effort to improve access to care” since 2014, when wait-times scandals and doctored records led to the resignation of former VA Secretary and retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki.
“This study affirms that VA has made notable progress in improving access in primary care, and other key specialty care areas,” Wilkie said.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.
The cross-sectional JAMA study of wait-time data from VA facilities and private-sector hospitals focused on primary care, dermatology, cardiology and orthopedics in 15 major metropolitan areas.
The findings were that “there was no statistically significant difference between private sector and VA mean wait times in 2014” and, in 2017, “mean wait times were statistically significantly shorter for the VA,” the JAMA report said.
“In 2014 the average wait time in VA hospitals was 22.5 days, compared with 18.7 in the private sector,” the study said, but in 2017, “mean wait time at VA hospitals had gone down to 17.7 days, while rising to 29.8 for private practitioners.”
The study, titled “Comparison of Wait Times for New Patients Between the Private Sector and Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers,” relied on wait-time data provided by the VA and calculated private-sector data from a survey conducted by a physicians’ search firm, Merritt Hawkins, using the so-called “secret shopper” method in nearly 2,000 medical offices in metropolitan areas.
“For the secret shoppers method, the research associates at MH [Merritt Hawkins] called physicians’ offices asking to be told the first available time for a new-patient appointment,” the JAMA study said.
“This earliest availability was recorded as the wait time. However, the VA data record scheduled wait times, which may not reflect the earliest available appointment,” the study said.
The JAMA report also noted that rural areas and follow-on care were excluded from the analysis and said that “follow-up studies are critical to analyze access to the entirety of VA health care,” since nearly one-quarter of veterans live in rural areas.
The overall conclusion of the report was that “access to care within VA facilities appears to have improved between 2014 and 2017 and appears to have surpassed access in the private sector for 3 of the 4 specialties evaluated,” with the exception of orthopedics.
In 2014, the VA was rocked by wait-time scandals and allegations of manipulated data at the VA medical center in Phoenix, Arizona. “This incident damaged the VA’s credibility and created a public perception regarding the VA health care system’s inability to see patients in a timely manner,” the JAMA report said.
The VA has since worked to improve access and reduce wait times.
“There is evidence suggesting that these efforts have improved access to care, including reports that 22% of VA patients are now seen on the same day as the requested appointment,” the report said. However, “Despite, these efforts, the adequacy of access to VA care remains unclear.”
As a result of the 2014 scandals, the VA initiated the Choice program to expand private-care options for veterans. Last year, Congress passed and President Trump signed into law the VA Mission Act to consolidate and streamline the Choice program, which has been riddled with inefficiencies.
In June 2018, the Government Accountability Office issued a report stating that many veterans who opted for the Choice program to avoid wait times still faced delays that could stretch for months before seeing a doctor.
In response to the JAMA report, a posting on the Disabled American Veterans website came under the heading: “Veterans Affairs Spins ‘JAMA Study’ It Authored On VA Wait Times.”
In addition to Shulkin, the posting noted that another contributor to the JAMA study was Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the former acting head of the Veterans Health Administration. She was replaced in July by Dr. Richard Stone as acting head of the VHA and has now taken the position at the VA of deputy under secretary for discovery, education and affiliate networks.
Stone, the former deputy surgeon general of the Army, has yet to receive Senate confirmation. The VHA has not had a permanent head since Shulkin left the position in January 2017 to become VA secretary.
This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @militarydotcom on Twitter.
Researchers from the U.S. Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command Research Laboratory, the Army’s corporate research laboratory, recently partnered with Texas A&M University to work on artificial intelligence and machine learning as applied to material informatics (and genome).
1st Lt. Levi McClenny, a doctoral candidate in the university’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and an active member of the U.S. Army Reserve serving as a platoon leader and Black Hawk helicopter pilot in an aviation battalion in Conroe, Texas, recently completed a two-week internship at the lab’s Vehicle Technology Directorate at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
At Texas AM University, McClenny and his adviser Dr. Ulisses Braga-Neto support the development of an AI agent to determine the internal state of various materials and systems using microscopic images and deep machine learning techniques.
Researchers want to understand how materials fracture and break so they can potentially predict when a component will break in an aircraft, for instance, to help with maintenance and operational requirements. The idea is to engineer vehicles that can begin to detect their own deterioration.
Researchers from the RDECOM Research Laboratory, the Army’s Corporate Research Laboratory, recently partnered with Texas AM University to work on artificial intelligence and machine learning as applied to material informatics (and genome).
(US Army photo)
“We are applying machine learning techniques to better understand what is happening at the microstructure level in materials,” said Dr. Mulugeta Haile, research aerospace engineer at VTD. “We want to have a complete understanding of how materials behave during normal usage or in extreme conditions from the day they are put there until they are removed.”
McClenny said coming to the Army’s corporate research laboratory and working in its facilities allowed him to interact with some brilliant and experienced materials scientists that can not only shed some light on the work he’s done, but also pave a way forward.
“The new AI lab is absolutely incredible,” McClenny said. “I was able to use the supercomputer facilities to generate products that I will be taking back to Texas AM with me for future projects that would not be possible without the facilities Dr. Haile and Mr. Ed Zhu put together.”
According to Haile, the new AI/ML lab was conceived to facilitate research in artificial intelligence and machine learning to focus on vehicle technology and maneuver sciences. The lab, not only hosts state-of-the-art GPU accelerated high performance computing resources, it makes these resources highly available and easily configurable to users in an open and collaborative space.
Researchers from the RDECOM Research Laboratory, the Army’s Corporate Research Laboratory (ARL), recently partnered with Texas AM University to work on artificial intelligence and machine learning as applied to material informatics (and genome).
(US Army photo)
“I was able to get these products, as well as develop a plan of action for the microstructure research in the two weeks I was here,” McClenny said. “I was also able to sit down with numerous researchers from the VTD to see their data and see how we could apply machine learning approaches to learn more from it. We always say that models are only as good as the data, and here we can generate some top-notch data.”
The directorate was pleased to host McClenny and found his mix of skills to add to the overall research.
“As a PhD student and an Army Black Hawk pilot, Levi brings to the research environment a unique mix of skills and understanding,” said Dr. Jaret Riddick, director of VTD. “The unique mix of scientist and end user gives Levi a perspective that can be key to enabling the Army Futures Command’s objective of incorporating warfighter feedback into advancing science and technology for the modernization process.”
McClenny said working at the Army’s corporate research laboratory was an incredible experience and absolutely surpassed his expectations. He also said being a member of the military and a researcher offered some unique perspective.
“Throughout all the conversations and ideas, I have tried to remember the ‘why’ for these projects,” he said. “This is important to me, potentially more so than the average researcher, because I can directly impact the soldiers in my own unit, and future units, with this work. The facilities and expertise offered at this facility, not only by Dr. Mulugeta Haile, my mentor, but others in the group like Dr. Dan Cole and Dr. John Chen, really helped to expand my understanding of why we are researching the topics we are.”
A 60-day stop-movement order from the Pentagon in late March, meant to help stem the spread of the coronavirus, threw the lives of many US military personnel into uncertainty, keeping them from leaving for or returning from deployment or from traveling to new duty stations.
But the military remains a vital to the US government’s response to the pandemic, of which its mobility element, the air component in particular, has been a major part.
“There are critical missions that cannot stop,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, the service’s top uniformed officer, said last week. “I don’t believe that we’re going to get any relief, nor should we expect any relief, on the global mobility [mission].”
Transportation Command, which manages that mobility mission, has seen “a reduction in movements” because of that order, Army Gen. Stephen Lyons, head of Transcom, told reporters on March 31. “But we are also seeing a necessity to continue to operate for mission-essential tasks and operations.”
Transcom is focused on protecting the force against the outbreak, maintaining mission readiness, and remaining ready to support the FEMA and other interagency efforts to counter the outbreak, Lyons said.
Operations by Air Mobility Command, Transcom’s air component, are “consistent” with the those priorities, Lt. Gen. Jon Thomas, AMC’s deputy commander, told reporters on April 3.
Below, you can see what Transcom and AMC are doing to safeguard their aircrews as they carry out that response.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Jon T. Thomas, deputy commander of Air Mobility Command, briefs the media via telephone at the Pentagon, April 3, 2020.
The Air Force has given local commanders authority to act to stay ahead of the threat and is encouraging airmen to follow CDC guidelines, Thomas said.
“We’ve implemented staggered shifts, exercised telework options, and employed Health Protection Condition Charlie measures at all our installations to promote physical distancing” to help limit the spread of the coronavirus, Thomas said.
87th Medical Group members screen patients outside as a preventative measure to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, March 30, 2020.
To maintain operational capability, Thomas said, “we’re doing things like medical screening, temperature checks, and other measures for aircrew and passengers transiting areas of COVID-19 risk.”
“As necessary, for certain locations, we’re also taking measures to ensure that AMC forces that are moving globally from one location to another do not pose undue risk for the host units as we transit those locations,” Thomas told reporters at the Pentagon.
1st Lt. Bryan Burns and 1st Lt. James Conlan shut down their C-17 at the Memphis Air National Guard Base after delivering COVID-19 test kits from Aviano, Italy, April 2, 2020.
“Obviously when you’re in the cockpit, there’s no way to get 6 foot apart,” Lyons said when asked about social distancing in aircraft. “The way that we’re managing our flight crews is unique in many ways, and we’re trying to create an isolated system of systems, if you would, even in motion.”
“Where we billet them is controlled. Where they eat from, their food is delivered. So we’re trying to create a very concerted cocoon, if you would, over our entire flight crew apparatus,” Lyons told reporters at the Pentagon.
“And knock on wood, that seems to be working to date. It allows us to continue mission and protect the force at the same time,” Lyons said. But “you can’t telework and fly a plane,” he added, “so there are exceptions that we’re working through.”
437th Maintenance Group instructors teach squadron flying crew chiefs how to disinfect the interior of a C-17 at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, April 2, 2020.
Lyons said Transcom was working to keep aircrews “very, very isolated” to avoid picking up the disease. “You might characterize it as isolation in motion.”
Those crews go “straight from the aircraft into billets” upon arriving in another country, Lyons said. “They don’t go out for food. They don’t leave the billet until their next mission, and it’s a very, very controlled environment.
“That’s how we mitigate moving from a country that might be a level-three country,” a designation that covers much of Europe, Lyons added. “They never actually leave that base. And even inside that base, they’re very, very controlled.”
US Air Force aircrew unload COVID-19 testing swabs at the Memphis Air National Guard Base, March 19, 2020.
Transcom and AMC continue to support the coronavirus response by moving supplies and equipment across the country and around the world.
Air Mobility Command C-130s have moved equipment and personnel to help set up Army field hospitals in New York and Washington state, Thomas said.
“We’ve got Air Mobility liaison officers that are helping to coordinate those movements as well as commercial air movements totaling nine missions, transporting 7.8 tons of cargo and hundreds of personnel to those locations,” Thomas added.
Since mid-March, Air Force C-17s have also delivered 3.5 million swabs for coronavirus test kits from Italy to Memphis, Tennessee, for distribution in the US.
The seventh shipment arrived on April 2, when a C-17 landed in Memphis with about 972,000 swabs, Thomas said on April 3, adding that the eighth mission was to arrive that day and the ninth was scheduled to arrive this week.
A 437th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron flying crew chief prepares to simulate disinfecting a C-17 at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, April 2, 2020.
Transcom and AMC have also moved COVID-19 patients, which poses a different set of challenges.
“We did move a COVID-positive patient this past weekend AFRICOM, specifically from Djibouti, up to Landstuhl in Germany to get the level of support that particular patient needed,” Lyons said March 31.
“We are also working, candidly, to increase our capacity to be able to meet these kind of requirements because we know they’re increasing.”
A US Air Force C-17 is prepped to transport a Transportation Isolation System during a training exercise, March 6, 2019.
“Our approach to patient movement for COVID, particularly for highly contagious patients, is to move them in an isolation system,” either via air ambulance or with the Transportation Isolation System developed during the Ebola crisis, Lyons said.
“We’re working with scientists around the Air Force and Defense Threat Reduction and NASA and some others to really study the aircraft circulation flow and implications of the movement of those particulates and potential impacts on crews, so that we can indeed move COVID-positive patients and passengers without an isolation unit adequately protecting the crew,” Lyons added.
Flight nurses and critical-care air-transport team members prepare a Transport Isolation System for simulated Ebola patients during an exercise at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, October 23, 2019.
The TIS allows in-flight treatment of infected patients without exposing the aircraft’s crew. Thomas said Friday that his command hadn’t gotten specific requests to move a patient in that system and that AMC had “not conducted any evacuations of a COVID-19-infected patient to date.”
“But the combination of transporting large volumes of patients with a highly infectious disease — the transmission of which we still don’t completely understand — on a pressurized aircraft within which the air constantly circulates, and potentially making these movements from remote and austere locations over intercontinental distance, all while protecting the flight and medical crew from infection so that they remain available for future missions is a challenging task even for the Air Mobility Command,” Thomas said.
An airman picks up lunch at the Patterson Dining Facility at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, March 30, 2020. The tables in front of the counter are meant to help enforce social distancing and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
AMC has interim COVID patient movement capability on alert in several places around the planet, Thomas said, adding that “in the event increased volume of patient flow is required, AMC will be prepared to increase throughput using other means.”
Asked about coronavirus outbreaks within AMC, Thomas avoided specifics, saying there had been “manifestations of COVID-19 on our military installations” but no manifestation “on our installations that would suggest that we’ll have any difficulty executing our missions at this point.”
“The extent of it, I don’t think I want to get into a significant amount of detail on,” Thomas said. “It is something that we have to be cognizant [of] and constantly watching.”
A C-17 on the flight line during an Air Mobility Command exercise at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, August 16, 2016.
Lyons also declined to discuss specifics when asked how many Transcom personnel had tested positive for COVID-19. But he said his command’s positive rates were “very, very low — single digits across the entire mobility enterprise.”
“That will change over time. I acknowledge that,” Lyons added. “Every day we’re making a concerted effort to understand how do we protect the force and maintain a level of resiliency to operate this global mobility enterprise for the department.”
The ship includes 12 fully-equipped operating rooms and capacity for 1,000 beds. It is usually manned by 71 civilians and up to 1,200 Navy medical and communications personnel.
March 29: President Trump saw off the Comfort as it left its port in Virginia to sail up to New York City. He remarked that it was a “70,000-ton message of hope and solidarity to the incredible people of New York.”
March 30: The Comfort arrived in New York City the next day, a white beacon of hope for a city that had at the time seen more than 36,000 cases and 790 deaths. That number has since grown to more than 138,000 cases and 9,944 deaths.
April 2: The ship is up and running. The New York Times reported that it had accepted just 20 patients on its first day and that it wasn’t taking any coronavirus patients.
Michael Dowling, the head of New York’s largest hospital system, called the Comfort a “joke.” He told The Times: “It’s pretty ridiculous. If you’re not going to help us with the people we need help with, what’s the purpose?”
Cmdr. Lori Cici, left, and Lt. Akneca Bumfield stand by for an inbound ambulance carrying a patient arriving for medical care aboard aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort on April 9.
That same day, before the ship started taking coronavirus patients, a crew member tested positive for the disease. This is despite the fact that the crew was ordered to quarantine for two weeks before their departure.
That number grew to four in the following weeks. All of the sick crew members have since recovered and are back to work, a Navy spokesman later told The Virginian-Pilot.
April 21: Even after moving to take coronavirus patients, the Comfort didn’t come close to reaching capacity — even as the city’s hospitals remained overwhelmed. As of Tuesday, the ship had treated a total of 179 patients.
During a meeting with the president, Cuomo said that New York no longer needed the Comfort and said it could be sent to a more hard-hit area.
Trump said he had taken Cuomo up on his offer and would recall the Comfort to its home port in Virginia, where it will prepare for its next posting. The new mission remains unclear.
Trump admitted during a White House briefing that part of the reason the ship was never put to much use in New York City was because its arrival coincided with the opening of a temporary hospital in the Javits convention center.
Meanwhile, the situation in New York appears to be improving. Last Saturday Cuomo said New York may be “past the plateau” with hospitalizations on the decline. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said that he’s seeing “real progress.”
There have been many iterations of the Power Rangers, but the upcoming film from Lionsgate is packing some punch, not only in it’s killer cast (Elizabeth Banks and Bryan Cranston? Say no more!), but it’s progressive inclusion of an LGBQT superhero — the first for a blockbuster film.
With a new film comes new bad guys, so let’s take a look at how the military would combat the evil Rita Repulsa and her minions. The usual terrain will be the fictional city of Angel Grove, which was located in California (where early seasons of the TV show were filmed).
1. When Rita’s minions are normal size
In this case, Rita’s minions will have a lot of problems. If the present-day United States military has had a lot of experience in anything during the Global War on Terror, it’s what they call MOUT — military operation in urban terrain.
That’s a fancy way of saying, “full-scale street fire-fights.”
The California location means that the closest active-duty units on the scene would be the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton and the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Irwin, plus whatever brigade is at the National Training Center.
These units would be springing into action, looking to evacuate civilians from the city while trying to inflict casualties on the invaders.
Here, they would also have the advantage of armored support from M1 Abrams tanks, M2 and M3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, artillery support from M777 and M109 howitzers, and close-air support.
This is one fight that Rita’s minions would have no hope of winning. The experience of American troops in this sort of combat in places like Fallujah, Baghdad, and Ramadi would come through very quickly.
2. When the bad guys are kaiju size
Of course, when the fight goes badly, Rita often had her monsters grow into kaiju-size robots (call it about 300 feet tall, roughly the same height as Godzilla in most of his film appearances).
Once the battle reaches this stage, the infantry will shift to evacuating civilians almost exclusively.
From the ground, artillery systems like MLRS and HIMARS would be used to hammer the skyscraper-sized bad guy, along with fire from the M1 tanks.
The Navy would also get involved, using Tomahawk cruise missiles from submarines and surface vessels. Naval gunfire would also be used in the fight.
But the main attack would come from aircraft. While Navy and Marine Corps units around San Diego would be the closest, Air Force units in Utah and Arizona would also be capable of quickly responding, as would any active units carrying out a Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base.
Here, the best weapons would be laser-guided bombs, hoping to score a penetrating hit that would put the monster down.
The United States military might not succeed in actually killing the monster with conventional systems, but it would distract it long enough to carry out an evacuation of civilians. To actually kill the monster, it might come down to a B61 tactical nuclear weapon.
In either case, the United States military would be able to give Rita Repulsa one hell of a headache.
A French fishing trawler had a larger haul than normal, catching the NRP Tridente, a Portuguese Type 214 submarine, in its nets off the coast of Cornwall, England. Despite the Tridente hitting the trawler as it surfaced, no casualties on either vessel were reported in the incident. The sub was in British waters as part of a NATO exercise.
The Type 214, one of two Portugal purchased from Germany, is not the first to have been caught by a trawler. In April, 2015, a similar incident off Northern Ireland involving the British trawler Karen being dragged backwards at 10 knots was initially blamed on a Russian submarine before the Royal Navy accepted responsibility for the incident. The Karen suffered substantial damage to its deck but made it back to port.
A March 2015 incident off the coast of Scotland was blamed on a Russian sub. That time, the sub not only came close to dragging the fishing boat Aquarius down as it tried to free itself from the net, it also made off with the trawler’s two-ton catch of haddock and skate, according to The Daily Mail. The Aquarius survived the close call.
The Type 214 sub displaces just over 2,000 tons when submerged. It is armed with eight 21-inch torpedo tubes that can fire IF-21 Black Shark torpedoes or Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and can reach speeds of up to 20 knots. The Type 214 also has air-independent propulsion, which enables it to re-charge its batteries without having to use diesel engines and a snorkel, albeit it does maintain that capability.
Fishing trawlers are not the only vessels that have caught subs. In 1983, the frigate USS McCloy (FF 1038) caught a Soviet Navy Victor III nuclear-powered submarine K-324 with its towed-array sonar. The submarine was disabled, forced to surface, and had to be towed to Cuba for repairs. In 2009, a Chinese submarine also got caught in a towed array cable. The AN/SQR-19 system of USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) snagged the sub’s propeller as well. While the submarine was not damaged, the John S. McCain needed to repair its towed array sonar system.
Such incidents have high stakes for the submarines. Most submarines only have a single propeller and shaft, and damage to either can leave the submarine stranded a long way from home. In this case, the Tridente was able to make it back to port.
Last week was Infantry Week at Fort Benning, GA, an entire week dedicated to celebrating some of the most sought-after awards and training events. This year’s schedule included Best Sniper and Best Ranger.
First up was Best Sniper, where teams of two soldiers competed in a three-day event through an array of tests and obstacles, including close-up shots with pistols, to those where they must hit targets 600+ meters away with a rifle, as well as shotgun events. The entire competition is built off of individual and collective tasks focused around key Army Sniper Course basic teachings, like increasing validity and survivability through reconnaissance.
Competitors traveled from across the nation and from various branches of the military; Marines and members of the Coast Guard were present in this year’s event.
Last year’s competition was canceled due to COVID-19, and the event hasn’t fulfilled its international status since 2018.
Best Sniper competitors for 2021 gathered for a chance to win different titles, including: Field Craft Award, which encompasses land navigation, target detection, and night range estimation; Top Pistol; Coach’s Award; and Iron Man, for the team with the fastest time; and the coveted title of Best Sniper.
SFC Zachary Small, NCOIC for the Best Sniper Competition 2021, said, “I think the community needed this, i think the competitors needed this, and I know the coaches absolutely needed this.”
On describing the design, he said: “The competition was based on creating realism with some of the events. It’s kind of difficult to replicate combat scenarios, but trying to make it as realistic as humanly possible was primarily the goal here.”
The teams participated in an event called Flavortown where users gave away their position at the top of a building, then had to remove targets and exfil from the top of the structure. Other events included night range estimation, with some items in an urban setting and others in a woodland point of view. Physical tests were also brought in, such as the standard two-mile run, Small said, but with teams wearing uniforms and boots.
Certain technologies were also banned to test soldiers’ abilities without certain equipment, he said. Land navigation was done with SUAs (small unmanned aircraft system) and UAVs (unmanned air vehicles) trying to find the competitors in the woods.
Because different units have their own weapon systems, which tend to vary, SFC Small said competitors were restricted to using certain calibers. For their primary weapon they shot a .300 Win Mag and for their secondary, 7.62 mm.
“It’s an overall problem solving competition, he said. “It’s cool because you get to see how different services handle the problems mentally and their solution to the problem physically.”
As for the competition being held at Benning, Small said they had overwhelming support from leadership, ForceCom, Special Operation Forces, and sister services.
“The benefit of having other sister services is increasing the interoperability. We’re branching out and get to talk to other subject matter experts.”
A team consisting of First Sergeant Guillermo Roman and Staff Sergeant William Orr, former Sniper instructors and current hunting buddies, joined forces in their first sniper competition. Previously, they had worked and coached shooting events.
“It’s a different kind of stress, it’s more fun than I thought it would be,” Orr said. “It’s much more mentally stressful to see your time tick away, as opposed to seeing your target get away while you’re going through the process.”
As previous Sniper instructors, Roman agreed that they know the process, but the time pressure is the most difficult aspect to get used to.
“We’ve taught kids, take your time, check twice, take your shot. But when you’re under pressure, all that stuff almost goes out the window for a split second. You have to check yourself, remember to slow down and remember what we were taught and then engage.”
Winners of the event included:
Ironman Award: USMC School of Infantry West
Field Craft: UT ARNG (19th Special Forces Group)
Top Pistol: Special Forces Sniper Course
Top Coach: SFC Daniel Horner CA ARNG
1st Place: Special Forces Sniper Course
2nd Place: 3/75 Ranger Regiment
3rd Place: UT ARNG (19th SFG)
6th Place: CO ARNG
8th Place: CA ARNG
9th Place: IA ARNG
Overall, an OUTSTANDING performance and representation for the Army National Guard.
Russian authorities say they have finished building a barrier dividing the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow forcibly seized in 2014, from mainland Ukraine.
The Border Directorate of the Federal Security Service (FSB) branch in Crimea said on Dec. 28, 2018, that construction of the “engineering and technical complexes” — as it calls the barrier — was complete.
In a statement reported by Russian news agencies, the Border Directorate said the 60-kilometer-long barrier was equipped with sensors and CCTV cameras.
The purpose of the barrier, begun in 2015, is “to prevent sabotage activities” and “attempts by criminal groups to smuggle weapons, ammunition, tobacco, alcohol, gasoline, drugs” and other items, it said.
Russia moved swiftly to seize control over Crimea after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed from power in Kyiv by the pro-European Maidan protest movement in February 2014.
President Vladimir Putin’s government sent troops without insignia to the peninsula, seized key buildings, took control of the regional legislature, and staged a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries at the UN.
Russia also fomented unrest and backed opponents of Kyiv in eastern Ukraine, where more than 10,300 people have been killed in the ensuing conflict since April 2014.
Since the takeover of Crimea, Russia has beefed up its military presence on the peninsula, already home to the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Moscow moved more than a dozen fighter jets to Crimea.
Moscow denies interfering in Ukraine’s affairs, but the International Criminal Court ruled in November 2016 that the fighting in eastern Ukraine is “an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.”
David Shulkin, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, showed up to what he thought would be a routine Senate oversight hearing in January 2018, only to discover it was an ambush.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., was the sole holdout among members of the veterans affairs committee on a bill that would shape the future of the agency. The bipartisan bill had the support of 26 service groups representing millions of veterans. But Moran was pushing a rival piece of legislation, and it had the support of a White House aide who wields significant clout on veterans policy. Neither proposal could advance as long as there was any doubt about which President Donald Trump wanted to sign.
Moran blamed Shulkin for the impasse. “In every instance, you led me to believe that you and I were on the same page,” Moran said at the hearing. “Our inability to reach an agreement is in significant part related to your ability to speak out of both sides of your mouth: double talk.”
There were gasps in the hearing room. It was an astounding rebuke for a Trump appointee to receive from a Republican senator, especially for Shulkin, who was confirmed by the Senate unanimously.
Clearly ruffled, Shulkin hesitated before answering. “I think it is grossly unfair to make the characterizations you have made of me, and I’m disappointed that you would do that,” he said. “What I am trying to do is give you my best advice about how this works.”
Moran dug in. “I chose my words intentionally,” he said. “I think you tell me one thing and you tell others something else. And that’s incompatible with our ability to reach an agreement and to work together.” Moran then left the hearing for another appointment.
The exchange exposed tensions that had been brewing for months behind closed doors. A battle for the future of the VA has been raging between the White House and veterans groups, with Shulkin caught in the middle. The conflict erupted into national headlines as a result of a seemingly unrelated development: the release of a lacerating report on Shulkin that found “serious derelictions” in a taxpayer-funded European business trip in which he and his wife enjoyed free tickets to Wimbledon and more.
The underlying disagreement at the VA has a different flavor than the overhauls at a number of federal agencies. Unlike some Trump appointees, who took the reins of agencies with track records of opposing the very mission of the organization, Shulkin is a technocratic Obama holdover. He not only participated in the past administration, but defends the VA’s much-maligned health care system. He seeks to keep the organization at the center of veterans’ health care. (An adviser to Shulkin said the White House isn’t permitting him to do interviews.)
But others in the administration want a much more drastic change: They seek to privatize vets’ health care. From perches in Congress, the White House, and the VA itself, they have battled Shulkin. In some instances, his own subordinates have openly defied him.
Multiple publications have explored the turmoil and conflict at the VA in the wake of the inspector general report. Yet a closer examination shows the roots of the fight stretch back to the presidential campaign and reveals how far the entropy of the Trump administration has spread. Much has been written on the “chaos presidency.” Every day seems to bring exposés of White House backstabbing and blood feuds. The fight over the VA shows not only that this problem afflicts federal agencies, too, but that friction and contradiction were inevitable: Trump appointed a VA secretary who wants to preserve the fundamental structure of government-provided health care; the president also installed a handful of senior aides who are committed to a dramatically different philosophy.
The blistering report may yet cost Shulkin his job. But the attention on his travel-related misbehavior is distracting from a much more significant issue: The administration’s infighting is imperiling a major legislative deal that could shape the future of the VA.
Taking better care of veterans was a constant refrain at Trump’s presidential campaign rallies. In the speech announcing his candidacy, he said, “We need a leader that can bring back our jobs, can bring back our manufacturing, can bring back our military, can take care of our vets. Our vets have been abandoned.” Ex-military people overwhelmingly supported him on Election Day and in office.
Trump’s original policy proposals on veterans health, unveiled in October 2015, largely consisted of tweaks to the current system. They called for increasing funding for mental health and helping vets find jobs; providing more women’s health services; modernizing infrastructure and setting up satellite clinics in rural areas.
The ideas drew derisive responses from the Koch brothers-backed group Concerned Veterans for America (CVA). Pete Hegseth, its then-CEO, called the proposal “painfully thin” and “unserious.”
Trump then took a sharp turn toward CVA’s positions after clinching the Republican nomination. In a July 2016 speech in Virginia Beach, he embraced a very different vision for the VA, emphasizing private-sector alternatives. “Veterans should be guaranteed the right to choose their doctor and clinics,” Trump said, “whether at a VA facility or at a private medical center.”
Trump’s new 10-point plan for veterans policy resembled the CVA’s priorities. In fact, six of the proposals drew directly on CVA ideas. Three of them aimed to make it easier to fire employees; a fourth advocated the creation of a reform commission; and two involved privatizing VA medical care.
Trump’s new direction, according to a campaign aide, was influenced by Jeff Miller, then the chairman of the House veterans committee. Miller, who retired from Congress in January 2017, was a close ally of CVA and a scathing critic of Obama’s VA.
Miller became one of the first congressmen to endorse Trump, in April 2016. He did so a few weeks after attending a meeting of the campaign’s national security advisers. (That meeting, and the photo Trump tweeted of it, would become famous because of the presence of George Papadopoulos, who is cooperating with investigators after pleading guilty to lying about Russian contacts. Miller is wearing the light gray jacket in the front right. Now a lobbyist with the law firm McDermott Will Emery, he didn’t reply to requests for comment.) Miller became Trump’s point man on veterans policy, the campaign aide said.
Miller and CVA portrayed the VA as the embodiment of “bureaucratic ineptitude and appalling dysfunction.” They were able to cite an ample supply of embarrassing scandals.
The scandals may come as less of a surprise than the fact that the VA actually enjoys widespread support among veterans. Most who use its health care report a positive experience. For example, 92 percent of veterans in a poll conducted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars reported that they would rather improve the VA system than dismantle it. Independent assessments have found that VA health care outperforms comparable private facilities. “The politicization of health care in the VA is frankly really unfair,” said Nancy Schlichting, the retired CEO of the Henry Ford Health System, who chaired an independent commission to study the VA under the Obama administration. “Noise gets out there based on very specific instances, but this is a very large system. If any health system in this country had the scrutiny the VA has, they’d have stories too.”
One piece of extreme noise was a scandal in 2014, which strengthened Miller and CVA’s hand and created crucial momentum toward privatization. In an April 2014 hearing, Miller revealed that officials at the VA hospital in Phoenix were effectively fudging records to cover up long delays in providing medical care to patients. He alleged that 40 veterans died while waiting to be seen. A week later, CVA organized a protest in Phoenix of 150 veterans demanding answers.
Miller’s dramatic claims did not hold up. A comprehensive IG investigation would eventually find 28 delays that were clinically significant; and though six of those patients died, the IG did not conclude that the delays caused those deaths. Later still, an independent assessment found that long waits were not widespread: More than 90 percent of existing patients got appointments within two weeks of their initial request.
But such statistics were lost in the furor. “Nobody stood up and said, ‘Wait a minute, time out, are we destroying this national resource because a small group of people made a mistake?'” a former senior congressional staffer said. “Even those who considered themselves to be friends of the VA were silent. It was a surreal period. The way it grew tentacles has had consequences nobody would have predicted.”
In the heat of the scandal, Miller and CVA pushed for a new program called Choice. It would allow veterans who have to wait more than 30 days for a doctor’s appointment or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility to get private-sector care. The VA has bought some private medical care for decades, but Choice represented a significant expansion, and Democrats were wary that it would open the door to privatizing VA health care on a much broader scale.
Still, the Phoenix scandal had made it hard for the Democrats to resist. The Choice bill passed with bipartisan support and President Obama signed it into law in August 2014.
By 2016, then-candidate Trump was demanding further changes. “The VA scandals that have occurred on this administration’s watch are widespread and inexcusable,” he said in the Virginia Beach speech. “Veterans should be guaranteed the right to choose their doctor and clinics, whether at a VA facility or at a private medical center. We must extend this right to all veterans.”
Trump’s contacts with CVA and its allies deepened during the transition. He met Hegseth, who left CVA to become a Fox News commentator, in Trump Tower. Trump picked Darin Selnick for the “landing team” that would supervise the transition at the VA. Selnick had directed CVA’s policy task force, which in 2015 recommended splitting the VA’s payer and provider functions and spinning off the latter into a government nonprofit corporation. Such an operation, organized along the lines of Amtrak, would be able to receive federal funding but also raise other revenue.
Trump’s consideration of Hegseth and Miller to lead the VA ran into fierce resistance from veterans groups, powerful institutions whose clout is boosted by the emotional power that comes with members’ having risked their lives for their country. At a meeting with the Trump transition in December 2016, officials from the major veterans groups held a firm line against privatizing the VA and any secretary intent on it.
Trump finally settled on Shulkin, 58, who ran the VA health system under Obama. Shulkin is a former chief of private hospital systems and a doctor — an internist, he still occasionally treats patients at the VA — who comes across more as a medical geek than the chief of a massive organization.
Trump heaps praise on Shulkin in public appearances and meets with him regularly in private. He was one of the first cabinet secretaries Trump consulted about the impact of the government shutdown on Jan. 21, 2018. They met at Camp David in December 2017 and lunched at the White House on Feb. 8, 2018. “You’re doing a great job,” Trump told Shulkin at a Jan. 9 signing ceremony for an executive order on veterans mental health services, handing Shulkin the executive pen. “We appreciate you.”
Trump may like Shulkin, but that didn’t stop his administration from appointing officials who opposed his philosophy. One of them, Jake Leinenkugel, a Marine Corps veteran and retired Wisconsin brewery owner, became the White House’s eyes and ears inside the agency. He works in an office next to Shulkin’s, but his title is senior White House adviser. Leinenkugel, 65, said he came out of retirement to take the position because he was “excited about taking POTUS’s agenda and advancing it.” As he put it, “I’m here to help veterans.”
He and Shulkin got along fine for a few months. But then, in May 2017, the two men clashed, as Shulkin accused Leinenkugel of undermining him. Shulkin wanted to nominate the VA’s acting under secretary for health, Poonam Alaigh, to take the position permanently, according to two people familiar with his thinking. But, the VA secretary charged, Leinenkugel told the White House to drop Alaigh. Shulkin confronted Leinenkugel, who denied any sabotage, according to an email Leinenkugel subsequently wrote. Alaigh stepped down in October and the position remains unfilled.
Shulkin has even been at odds with his own press secretary, Curt Cashour, who came from Miller’s House committee staff. January 2018, Shulkin assigned an official to send a letter to a veterans group that said the agency would update its motto, to be inclusive of servicewomen. (Adapted from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the original reads, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” The new version would read: “To care for those who shall have borne the battle and their families and survivors.”)
Cashour told The Washington Post the motto wouldn’t change. A few days later, the secretary’s strategic plan went out using the updated, gender-neutral motto. Cashour then denied the change a second time, telling the Post that was “not VA’s position.” A new document with the Lincoln quote restored subsequently appeared on the VA’s website. Shulkin was stunned at being disobeyed by his own spokesman, two people briefed on the incident said. (Cashour denied defying the VA secretary. “The premise of your inquiry is false,” he told ProPublica. Cashour said Shulkin never approved the letter regarding the updated motto and authorized the restoration of the original one.)
Then there was Selnick, who became the administration’s most effective proponent for privatization. He joined the VA as a “senior advisor to the secretary.” Though he reported to Shulkin, he quickly began developing his own policy proposals and conducted his own dealings with lawmakers, according to people with knowledge of the situation. In mid-2017 Shulkin pushed him out — sort of.
Selnick left the VA offices and took up roost in the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. There he started hosting VA-related policy meetings without informing Shulkin, according to people briefed on the meetings. At one such meeting of the “Veterans Policy Coordinating Committee,” Selnick floated merging the Choice program with military’s Tricare insurance plan, according to documents from the meeting obtained by ProPublica.
Veterans groups were furious. At a Nov. 17, 2017 meeting, Selnick boasted that Trump wouldn’t sign anything without Selnick’s endorsement, according to a person present. Shulkin would later tell a confidant that moving Selnick out of the VA was his “biggest mistake” because he did even more damage from the White House. (Selnick did not reply to a request for comment. A White House spokesman said some VA officials were aware of the policy meetings that Selnick hosted. The spokesman said Selnick does not brief the president or the chief of staff.)
Selnick, 57, is a retired Air Force captain from California who worked in the VA under the George W. Bush administration. At CVA, he not only ran the policy task force, he testified before Congress and appeared on TV. In 2015, House Speaker John Boehner appointed Selnick to the Commission on Care, an independent body created by a Congressional act to study the VA and make recommendations.
Selnick impressed his fellow commissioners with his preparation but sometimes irked them with what they viewed as his assumption that he was in charge, people who worked with him on the commission said. Selnick often brought up his experience at the VA. But some commissioners scoffed behind his back because his position, in charge of faith-based initiatives, had little relevance to health care. Whatever his credentials, Selnick had audacious ambitions: He wanted to reconceive the VA’s fundamental approach to medical care.
Selnick wanted to open up the VA so any veteran could see any doctor, an approach that would transform its role into something resembling an insurance company, albeit one with no restrictions on providers. Other commissioners worried that would cost the government more, impose fees and deductibles on veterans and serve them worse. “He was probably the most vocal of all of the members,” said David Gorman, the retired executive director of Disabled American Veterans who also served on the commission, “in a good and a bad way.”
The bad part, in the view of Nancy Schlichting, the chairwoman, emerged when Selnick tried to “hijack” the commission. Selnick and a minority of commissioners secretly drafted their own proposal, which went further than CVA’s. (The group included executives of large health systems that stood to gain more patients.) They wrote that the “the current VA health care system is seriously broken” with “no efficient path to repair it.” They proposed closing facilities, letting all veterans choose private care, and transitioning the rest to private care over two decades.
The draft was written in a way that seemed to speak for the commission as a whole, with phrases like “the Commission recommends.” The commission staff suggested labeling it a “straw man report,” implying it was meant to provoke discussion. Still, veterans organizations were angry, and Schlichting had to publicly disavow the draft. “Darin Selnick has never run a health system in his life and doesn’t understand the complexity of it,” Schlichting told ProPublica.
For his part, Shulkin publicly staked out his vision in a March 17, 2016 article in the New England Journal of Medicine. In it, he defended the VA’s quality of care and proposed reimagining the VA as an integrated system composed of its own core facilities, a network of vetted private-sector providers, and a third layer of private care for veterans in remote places. Shulkin also edited a book published last year trumpeting the VA’s successes, called “Best Care Everywhere.”
Almost four years after the Phoenix scandal, the emergency measure letting some veterans get care outside the VA is still limping along with temporary extensions, not to mention payment glitches and confusion about its rules. Key legislators grew tired of renewing emergency funding and wanted to find a long-term solution. In the House, negotiations broke down after Democrats boycotted a listening session featuring CVA. So fall 2017, focus turned to the Senate.
The crux of the debate was the extent to which the VA should rely on private care. The chairman and ranking member on the Senate veterans committee, respectively, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Jon Tester of Montana, drafted a bill to consolidate all of the VA’s programs that pay for private care and let doctors and patients decide where veterans would get care. The VA would buy private care when that makes the most sense but would still coordinate all veterans care in an integrated, comprehensive way. The bill garnered the support of 26 veterans organizations and every committee member except Moran.
Moran represents the Koch brothers’ home state; employees of Koch Industries are the second-largest source of campaign contributions in his career, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. With the support of CVA, Moran wanted to establish clear criteria making veterans eligible for private-sector care, like the 30 days/40 miles standard in the Choice program. It might sound like a subtle distinction, but it means the difference between keeping all veterans within the VA system versus ceding the direction of patient care to the private sector. When the committee rejected his amendment, Moran proposed his own bill and signed up Sen. John McCain as a co-sponsor.
Moran’s bill initially called for all veterans to be able to choose private care. When a McCain aide shared it with a lobbyist for the American Legion, the lobbyist was so enraged by what he viewed as a bid to undermine the VA that he torched a copy of the bill and sent the McCain aide a photo of the charred draft. (An American Legion spokesman declined to comment.) With the American Legion’s input, McCain’s and Moran’s staffs toned down the bill to the point that they got letters of support from the group, along with Amvets and CVA. But American Legion and Amvets were still working to get consensus on the Isakson-Tester bill.
Still, the Moran-McCain bill had a few key allies: Selnick and Leinenkugel. They had gained sway in part because of a White House vacuum. The president himself has been largely absent on veterans policy and there’s no senior point person. The portfolio has at times belonged to Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner and Omarosa Manigault, according to veterans groups and congressional officials. (A White House spokesman said those officials played a role in “veterans issues,” but not “veterans policy.” The latter, the spokesman said, is overseen by Selnick on the Domestic Policy Council.)
That has given Selnick and Leinenkugel wide latitude to shape White House positions on issues that don’t rise to Trump’s level. “Darin [Selnick] is pretty much in the ascendancy,” said Michael Blecker, the executive director of Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco-based charity serving veterans.
As long as Moran had a competing claim to the Trump administration’s support, the Isakson-Tester bill was stuck. Republicans wouldn’t risk a floor vote on a bill the president might not sign. Shulkin supported the Isakson-Tester bill but he knew his rivals inside the White House were pushing for Moran’s proposal. So Shulkin hedged, awkwardly praising both bills. “We still don’t know which bill he wants,” Joe Chenelly, executive director of Amvets, said. “If the White House wants something different, then we need to know how to reconcile that.”
Amid the impasse, the Choice program was out of money again and needed an extension as part of the end-of-year spending deal. Tester vowed to make it the last one he’d agree to. He called on Shulkin to break the stalemate by publicly endorsing his and Isakson’s bill. “I would love to have the VA come out forcefully for this bill,” he said on the Senate floor in late December. “I think it would help get it passed.”
In a private meeting, Isakson and Tester chided Shulkin for withholding support for their bill, according to three people briefed on the meeting. Shulkin told them he was doing the best he could, but he had to fend off a competing agenda from the White House.
Unbeknown to Shulkin, there was already talk in the White House of easing him out. On Dec. 4, 2017, Leinenkugel wrote a memo, which ProPublica obtained, summarizing his disillusionment with Shulkin as well as with Shulkin’s deputy, Thomas Bowman, and chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson. (“I was asked to tell the truth and I gave it,” said Leinenkugel of his memo; he declined to say who requested it.)
Leinenkugel accused Bowman of disloyalty and opposing the “dynamic new Choice options requested by POTUS agenda.” The memo recommended that Bowman be fired — and replaced by Leinenkugel himself. It also asserted that Wright Simpson “was proud to tell me she is a Democrat who completely trusts the secretary and it’s her job to protect him.” Leinenkugel accused her of delaying the placement of Trump’s political appointees. Leinenkugel recommended replacing her, too.
As for Shulkin, Leinenkugel’s memo advocated he be “put on notice to leave after major legislation and key POTUS VA initiatives [are] in place.”
After the clash between Moran and Shulkin at the January hearing, Isakson said the White House would provide feedback on his bill to help the committee chart a way forward. “The president basically is pushing to get a unanimous vote out of committee,” said Rick Weidman, the top lobbyist for Vietnam Veterans of America. “The only reason why we didn’t get it before was there is one mid-level guy on the Domestic Policy Council who threw a monkey wrench into it by confusing people about what the administration’s position is.” That person, Weidman said, is Selnick.
The White House’s feedback on the Isakson-Tester bill, a copy of which was obtained by ProPublica, was the closest the administration has come to a unified position on veterans health care. It incorporated input from the VA and the Office of Management and Budget. Selnick told veterans groups he wrote the memo, leaving some miffed that Selnick seemingly had the final word instead of Shulkin. (A White House spokesman said Selnick was not the only author.)
Selnick requested changes that might look like minor tweaks but would have dramatic policy consequences. “It’s these very small differences in details that the public would never notice that change the character of the thing entirely,” said Phillip Longman, whose 2007 book, “Best Care Anywhere,” argued that the VA works better than private health care. (The title of the book Shulkin edited, “Best Care Everywhere,” was a nod at Longman’s book.)
Most important, the White House wanted clear criteria that make veterans eligible for private care. That was the main feature of Moran’s bill and the sticking point in the negotiations. The administration also asked to preserve a piece of the Choice program by grandfathering in veterans living more than 40 miles away from a VA facility. CVA praised the White House for nudging the bill in Moran’s direction. “We applaud President Trump for taking a firm stand in favor of more health care choice for veterans at the VA,” the group’s director, Daniel Caldwell, said in a statement dated Jan. 24, 2018.
The White House feedback also called for removing provisions that would regulate providers, such as requiring them to meet quality standards and limiting opioid prescriptions. And the administration objected to provisions in the bill that would require it to fill critical vacancies at the VA and report back to Congress.
Selnick got what he asked for, but it still might not be enough. Isakson and Tester agreed to most of the changes. But in a White House meeting with veterans groups on Feb. 5, 2018, Selnick continued to insist on open choice, suggesting that’s what Trump wants. Selnick visited Moran’s staff, a person with knowledge of the meeting said, and Moran indicated he wouldn’t support the modified version of the Isakson-Tester bill. (A White House spokesman said Isakson and Tester did not accept all the changes and negotiations continue. He denied that Selnick pushed for open choice.) Moran’s spokesman didn’t answer emailed questions by press time.)
The tensions spilled out publicly again on Feb. 8, 2018, when the Washington Post reported that the White House wanted to oust Bowman, Shulkin’s deputy. The article said the purpose was to chastise Shulkin for “freewheeling” — working with senators who don’t share the administration’s position. Isakson’s spokeswoman called it a “shameful attempt” to derail the negotiations. Isakson resolved to move ahead without Moran, the spokeswoman said, but it’s not clear when the bill will get time on the Senate floor (the Senate focused on immigration this week and then will take a recess). Moran could still place a “hold” on the bill or round up other senators to oppose it.
Shulkin determined that Selnick and Leinenkugel had to go, according to four people familiar with the secretary’s thinking. But Shulkin doesn’t appear to have the authority to fire them since they work for the White House. Plus, the attacks from the right were already taking a toll on Shulkin’s standing. “If leaders at Trump’s VA don’t support REAL CHOICE — why won’t they resign?” former CVA chief Hegseth tweeted on Feb. 13, 2018 tagging Shulkin in the post.
Veterans advocates responded by defending Shulkin against attacks they viewed as originating with Selnick and Leinenkugel. “They thought they could coopt David,” said Weidman, the lobbyist for Vietnam Veterans of America. “When he couldn’t be coopted, they decided to go after his character.”
The biggest blow came on Feb. 14, 2018 when the VA’s Inspector General released its report on Shulkin’s trip to Europe in April 2017. It concluded that Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets, misused a subordinate as a “personal travel concierge,” lied to reporters, and that his chief of staff doctored an email in such a way that would justify paying travel expenses for Shulkin’s wife.
Shulkin disputed the IG’s findings, but he again ran into trouble getting his message out from his own press office. A statement insisting he had “done nothing wrong” disappeared from the VA’s website, and Cashour replaced it with one saying “we look forward to reviewing the report and its recommendations in more detail before determining an appropriate response.” Cashour said the White House directed him to take down Shulkin’s statement and approved the new one.
Shulkin told Politico the IG report was spurred by internal opponents. “They are really killing me,” he said. By Feb. 16, 2018, his chief of staff had told colleagues Friday she would retire, USA Today reported.
The condemnation after the IG report was swift and widespread. House veterans committee member Mike Coffman, R-Colo., called on Shulkin to resign. Democrats, though generally sympathetic to Shulkin, couldn’t resist lumping the imbroglio in with other travel-expense tempests across Trump’s cabinet (involving Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, Scott Pruitt, and Steven Mnuchin). The chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate veterans committees said they were “disappointed” and want Shulkin to address the allegations, but acknowledged the politics at work and the stakes in a joint statement: “We need to continue progress we have made and not allow distractions to get in the way.”
The next day, Shulkin appeared before another routine oversight hearing, in this instance on the House side. He told the representatives he would reimburse the government for his wife’s travel and accept the IG’s recommendations. Shulkin thanked the chairman and ranking member for urging their colleagues not to let the scandal commandeer the hearing. “I do regret the decisions that have been made that have taken the focus off that important work,” he said.
Turning to the VA’s budget, Shulkin resumed his tightrope walk. He praised the VA’s services while acknowledging the need for some veterans to be treated outside the government’s system. By the time he left the hearing, two hours later, the Trump administration’s position on veterans health privatization remained a mystery.
The U.S. Army is authorizing $5,000 bonuses to woo top-performing troops into a new training brigade as the service once famous for shouldering the burden of America’s wars works to meet the growing demand for advisers in places ranging from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan and Africa.
“It’s a recognition that this is an enduring requirement for the conventional Army,” Gen. Robert Abrams, head of U.S. Army Forces Command, told The Associated Press in an interview.
“Most times we’re falling in on existing institutions that are probably failing, and bringing them up to a certain competency level so they can secure themselves. And we’ve got to be able to do that on a large scale.”
The new program and its signing bonuses also illustrate how the Trump administration has endorsed the Obama administration’s emphasis on working “by, with and through” local forces.
That policy emerged from the deadly and tumultuous years after the 2003 Iraq invasion, when as many as 160,000 American troops were on the ground battling insurgents while struggling to transform a rag-tag mix of often ethnically-opposed Iraqi troops into a functioning fighting force.
The $5,000 bonus got final authorization on May 3 and is expected to be available beginning in June. The Army has chosen a colonel to lead the first training brigade and he will travel to a number of military posts in the coming weeks to recruit soldiers for the unit. Joining is strictly voluntary.
Since it’s a new program, Abrams acknowledged some soldiers may be reluctant to shift away from current career paths by taking a chance on something they fear may fail or lose support over time.
“There is natural apprehension in the field: ‘Is this a flash in the pan?’ It’s not a flash in the pan,” Abrams said. “The chief is committed and the Army senior leadership is committed, I’m committed. This is going to be an enduring capability.”
The challenge, he said, is getting mid-grade non-commissioned officers to sign up. That’s where the bonus will help.
Of the 529 soldiers in the brigade, 360 will be officers who don’t qualify for the bonus. The rest will be enlisted soldiers and non-commissioned officers who can earn the extra money.
The objective is to fix some problems created by the current training programs. In Iraq and Afghanistan, chunks of combat brigades have been deployed to serve as trainers and advisers to local forces, often leaving the remainder of their units back at home. Right now, for example, portions of three brigades are in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It separates the leaders from those they lead, and it degrades (unit) readiness significantly,” Abrams said, adding that Army leaders have expressed frustrations over breaking units apart to staff the mission.
The plan calls for a military assistance training academy to be created at Fort Benning, Georgia. About 90 civilian and military staff members are being recruited. The first class will begin in October.
Members of what is being called the new Security Force Assistance Brigade will go through a training course of six-to-eight weeks. Almost 200 will receive 16 weeks of intensive language instruction. Others will get an eight-week language course.
The first brigade could be ready to deploy by the end of 2018, Abrams said, but there has been no decision on where they will go. Iraq and Afghanistan are the most likely locations, he said.
As more brigades are created, they would deploy to other areas of the world. While the Army initially conceived of one base in each geographical military command around the globe, it’s more likely they’ll simply be sent where most needed.
The Army will select soldiers for the second brigade in about a year. All five brigades will be created by 2022.
Navy veteran and creative writing gold medalist Patrick Ward is excited to share his work at this year’s Vet Gala at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival (NVCAF). His featured story can be found among the 15 short stories and poems displayed in Writers’ Row at the festival’s Artist and Writer Exhibition.
“Writing has helped bring me back to the person that I want to be,” Ward said. “I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to be here and to share my story with others. We all have stories to tell. My hope in telling mine is that it inspires someone while I’m here.”
Inspiration and healing
Gary Beckwith, creator of the annual Veterans Literacy Jam at Battle Creek VA Medical Center and one of this year’s NVCAF writing event organizers, says he hopes veterans realize their potential and leave feeling healed.
Navy Veteran and creative writer, Patrick Ward (right), listens during a discussion at the writing workshop at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. Ward’s story is among the 15 short stories and poems displayed in Writers’ Row at the festival’s Artist and Writer Exhibition.
“I believe that writing can be a cathartic experience,” said Beckwith. “The writing workshops and Vet Gala were designed to, not only highlight the talents of our writers, but were organized with the hopes that veterans leave here feeling inspired.”
During the festival, writers take the opportunity to speak about their writing and how it has affected their health, emotional well-being and recovery.
Army veteran Otto Espenschied has used writing to help him overcome Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and cope during a nine-year battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Recently receiving a gold medal for his short story titled, “I Don’t Have PTSD,” he explains that writing and participating in this year’s festival has helped him understand that he is stronger than he ever knew.
“It’s hard to dream when you’re barely holding on,” he said. “Writing has helped get me through some tough times, but I’m alive. I can hug my daughters and my wife each day. What more can I ask for?”
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.
Helen Viola Jackson was 101 when she died on December 16, 2020. Although she led an extraordinary life as a centenarian, she was also the country’s last Civil War widow according to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
James Bolin served as a Private in the Union Army, in the 14th Missouri Cavalry with F Company. He enlisted in the Union when he was just 18 years old on April 6, 1865. He married after the war and went on to have a daughter. When Bolin’s wife passed away in 1922 he found himself alone and unwell.
16 years later Jackson was a 17 year-old neighbor of Bolin who would look in on him and take care of him at the insistence of her father. Although 93 years old at the time, Bolin offered to marry her in payment so that she would receive his pension when he passed on. She was one of 10 children living on a farm during the depression era, so times were hard. Jackson agreed and they were married in 1936, although she never told anyone about the marriage. She continued to care for him until his death in 1939 but remained living at home on her family’s farm during her marriage.
She never did claim his Civil War pension and his daughter didn’t list Jackson as his wife after he died either. It is said that his daughter threatened to “ruin her reputation” if she did. Bolin did record the marriage in his personal family bible, which he gave her before he died. She never remarried and no children were born of her union with Bolin. Jackson kept her marriage a secret until 2017 when she began planning her own end of life and was encouraged by a pastor to share her remarkable story. That bible is now a part of a rotating exhibit.
Jackson was featured in the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival Auxiliary “Our America” magazine for October of 2020. “Mr. Bolin really cared for me,” she said in the interview. “He wanted me to have a future and he was so kind.” She also shared her reasoning for keeping quiet about the marriage, saying that she didn’t want people to think she was taking advantage of Bolin in his older age. Jackson also confirmed that her step-daughter did in fact threaten to ruin her if she told anyone. In 2019 a play called “The Secret Viel” was created about Jackson’s life and performed at the Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival.
To honor the passing of America’s last Civil War widow, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War have draped everything in black. The organization also stated that each brother will wear a black mourning ribbon in Jackson’s honor for 30 days.
Her death signifies the true end to any link to that period of America’s history. It is now truly up to its citizens to remember and share the stories of those who paved the way for the freedoms we enjoy today.