The Army plans to issue a new World War II-style uniform starting the summer of 2020, as senior leaders look to sharpen the professional appearance of soldiers and inspire others to join them.
The Army Greens uniform, a version of the uniform once worn by the Greatest Generation, will now be worn by today’s generation as they lead the service into the future.
“As I go around and talk to soldiers… they’re very excited about it,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey. “They’re excited for the same reasons why we wanted to do this. This uniform is very much still in the minds of many Americans.”
The Army Service Uniform will revert to a dress uniform for more formal events, while the Operational Camouflage Pattern uniform will still be used as a duty uniform.
The Army does not plan to get rid of the ASU or have soldiers wear the Army Greens uniform in the motor pool, Dailey said Nov. 19, 2018, during a media roundtable at the Pentagon.
“The intent is to not replace the duty uniform,” he said. “You’re still going to have a time and place to wear the duty uniform every day.”
A pair of soldier demonstrators wear prototypes of the Army Greens uniform.
(US Army photo by Ron Lee)
Ultimately, it will be up to the unit commander what soldiers will wear.
“It’s going to be a commander’s call,” said Brig. Gen. Anthony Potts, who is in charge of PEO Soldier, the lead developer of the uniform. “Each commander out there will have the opportunity to determine what the uniform is going to be.”
The Greens uniform, Potts said, will provide a better option to soldiers who work in an office or in public areas.
“What we found is that the ASU itself doesn’t really dress down well to a service uniform with a white shirt and stripes on the pants,” the general said Friday in a separate interview.
In the summer of 2020, fielding is expected to start with soldiers arriving to their first duty assignments. The uniform will also be available for soldiers to purchase at that time. The mandatory wear date for all soldiers is set for 2028.
The new uniform will be cost-neutral for enlisted soldiers, who will be able to purchase it with their clothing allowance.
Before any of that, the Greens uniform will begin a limited user evaluation within 90 days to help finalize the design of the uniform.
The first uniforms will go out to about 200 soldiers, mainly recruiters, who interact with the public on a daily basis.
“Every time you design a new uniform, the devil is in the details,” Potts said.
PEO Soldier teams will then go out and conduct surveys and analysis with those wearing the uniform.
“What that does is that helps us fix or correct any of the design patterns that need to be corrected,” he said, “or any potential quality problems you might see with some of the first runs of new materials.”
PEO Soldier worked with design teams at the Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center to modernize the WWII-era uniform. Some of the updates make the uniform more durable and comfortable, he said.
“There will be differences,” Potts said. “Differences in materials, slight differences in design, but keeping the authentic feel of that time period and that original uniform.”
The Army Uniform Board, part of the Army G-4 office, also sought and addressed feedback from the service’s first all-female uniform board.
One approved change the female board recommended was the slacks and low-quarter dress shoes instead of the skirt and pumps for female soldiers.
“It was a more comfortable uniform for them during the day,” Potts said of what he had heard from female demonstrators who have worn the uniform. “And they really felt like it was a very sharp uniform that they were proud to wear.”
While the uniform is issued with an all-weather coat, there will be optional jackets for soldiers to purchase and wear.
An Eisenhower or “Ike” waist-length jacket will be available as well as a green-colored tanker jacket and a leather bomber jacket.
Options for headgear will include the garrison cap and the beret, both of which will be issued. Soldiers will also have the option to purchase a service cap.
For soldiers who do wear the uniform, they will help honor those who came before them.
“This nation came together during World War II and fought and won a great war,” Dailey said. “And that’s what the secretary and the chief want to do, is capitalize on that Greatest Generation, because there’s another great generation that is serving today and that’s the soldiers who serve in the United States Army.”
China’s most advanced stealth fighter is ready for aerial refueling operations, giving it the ability to pursue targets at greater distances, according to Chinese state media.
The “fifth-generation” Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter entered military service in 2017 and was incorporated into Chinese combat units in February 2018. This aircraft, the pride of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force, put on quite a show at Airshow China 2018 in Zhuhai, where it showed off its payload of missiles for the first time publicly while rocking a new paint job.
China Central Television (CCTV), a state-run broadcaster, revealed recently that the aircraft has been equipped with a retractable refueling probe, which is embedded on the right side of the cockpit. The refueling probe was embedded to help the fighter maintain stealth, something with which the J-20 has struggled. A consistently-exposed probe extending from the fuselage would make the J-20 much more visible to enemy radar systems.
Four of the six onboard missiles are stored internally in a missile bay, a design feature intended to make the J-20 more stealthy, Chinese military experts told China’s Global Times.
The two Chengdu J-20s making their first public appearance.
Although the exact range of the Chinese stealth fighter, nicknamed the “Powerful Dragon,” is unknown, the aircraft has a suspected combat radius of roughly 1,100 kilometers, making it suitable for long-range strikes and intercepts. With aerial refueling capabilities, the J-20 can extend its reach, giving China the ability to better patrol the disputed waterways where it desires to exercise authority.
The J-20 could be refueled by a Chinese HU-6 aerial tanker.
The J-20’s chief designer says the world has yet to see the best that the aircraft has to offer, stressing that certain capabilities were unable to be presented at the recent airshow.
Chinese experts argue that the J-20 as a combat platform superior to the American F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, two elite fighters which have both been tested in combat. The J-20 has only taken part in combat training exercises. Furthermore, while the J-20 was expected to receive a new engine, the technology remains unreliable, the South China Morning Post recently reported.
The J-20 continues to rely on either Russian imports or inferior Chinese engines, which have, according to some observers, prevented China from achieving the kind of all-aspect stealth of which a true fifth-generation fighter should be capable. The J-20 has decent front-end stealth, but it is noticeably less stealthy at different angles.
The J-20 was rushed into production, but as China works some of the kinks out, it could potentially lead to the development of a much more lethal and effective aircraft.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
The Lockheed F-22 Raptor has seen some action over Syria – but now it can also add Afghanistan to the places where it has fought. The fifth-generation fighter made its combat debut against the Taliban on Nov. 20.
A release by Operation Resolute Support headquarters noted that the F-22s were selected due to their ability to use the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, or SDB. The release noted that the reduction of collateral damage was a consideration in the selection of the F-22 to carry out the attack.
According to Designation-Systems.net, the GBU-39 comes in at 285 pounds, has a 250-pound blast-fragmentation warhead, and a range of over 60 nautical miles. A F-22 Raptor can carry up to eight in its internal weapons bays. Improved versions, like the GBU-40 and GBU-53 add multi-mode seekers to engage moving targets.
With each passing day, tensions flare anew on the Korean Peninsula. By now, we all know that North Korea’s been hard at work dong what they do best: Launching test missiles and fiery rhetoric.
On Dec. 4, the U.S. and South Korea kicked off their largest joint air exercise yet, dubbed Vigilant Ace 18, involving hundreds of aircraft and tends of thousands of troops on the ground. As you might expect, Pyongyang wasn’t too happy about the drills, going as far as saying Dec. 2 that Trump’s Administration is “begging for nuclear war.”
While we’re at a point now where North Korean threats are as routine as the sunrise, China has sent an aggressive message in passive support of the belligerent state that warrants more serious attention.
People’s Liberation Army Air Force Spokesman Shen Jinke announced Dec. 4 (the same day as Vigilant Ace 18 kicked off) that China would be running drills through “routes and areas it has never flown before.” These new routes are expected to cover airspace over the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan. The exercises will involve all variety of aircraft, from reconnaissance planes to fighter jets, in joint operation with surface-to-air missiles. Simultaneously, China launched drills Dec. 2 that involve sending new Shaanxi Y-9 transport aircraft over the South China Sea, simulating an airdrop over an island in contested waters.
Though Chinese military officials will likely claim that the new drills are not in direct response to U.S. and South Korean actions, military experts agree that this show of force warns against the continued provocation of North Korea.
The U.S. and China have a rocky history, but are far from going to blows. That being said, should conflict erupt on the Korea Peninsula, we’ll quickly see how the chips fall.
The family of a decorated special operations Marine killed in Afghanistan in 2011 received his Silver Star after the U.S. Army took the unusual step of upgrading one of his prior medals.
Staff Sgt. Nicholas Sprovtsoff, 28, an explosive ordnance disposal technician with MARSOC’s 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion earned the Bronze Star with combat valor device in 2011 for working heroically to disarm a bomb in Afghanistan before an explosion left him fatally wounded.
But a prior deployment to Afghanistan with an Army unit in 2007, Sprovtsoff had already distinguished himself as a hero. While serving as a sergeant with Marine Corps Embedded Training Team 5-1, attached to the Army’s 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, Sprovtsoff had conducted himself with distinction during a 48-hour firefight.
According to a medal citation obtained by Military.com, he fought with “disregard for his own safety and in spite of wounds sustained in combat,” coordinating his unit’s defense during the long fight.
The medal was approved and awarded as a Bronze Star, but upgraded to a Silver Star last year, said Capt. Barry Morris, a spokesman for MARSOC. The news was first reported by Marine Corps Times Friday.
“[Sprovstoff’s] command at the time nominated him for a Bronze star with “V,” Morris explained. “As it went up the chain, his actions were so heroic, the Army upgraded him to a Silver Star; but at the end of the day, when someone hit the approve button, it was approved as a Bronze Star, rather than a Silver Star.”
Morris said the Army ultimately caught the error and coordinated with the Marine Corps to upgrade the award.
Calls from Military.com to the Army’s awards branch, which oversaw the medal upgrade, were not returned Friday.
The commander of MARSOC, Maj. Gen. Joseph Osterman, presented Sprovstoff’s widow, Tasha, with the award in a ceremony in Colorado Springs, Colorado, according to Marine Corps Times.
“[Sprovtsoff’s] courage, dedication and sacrifice inspire us on a daily basis to help others, to cherish our freedom, and to try to make a positive difference in the world,” Osterman said in a statement. “Also, the individual sacrifices [his] family have made is extremely important for MARSOC to recognize. We will always be inspired by the actions of our fellow Raiders and we will strive to operate at a level that honors them and their family.”
Sprovtsoff was killed Sept. 28, 2011 in Helmand province, Afghanistan and buried in Arlington Cemetery Oct. 6 of the same year.
According to his Bronze Star citation from that deployment, Sprovtsoff had fearlessly and safely led a team of Marines through a region filled with improvised explosive devices following an enemy ambush. His work during the deployment had led to the elimination of 40 IEDs.
Sprovstoff and his wife Tasha are featured in Oliver North’s 2013 book “American Heroes on the Homefront.”
While Sprovtsoff’s award upgrade appears to be an outlier due to an administrative error, there could be more upgrades coming for American troops who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.The Pentagon announced in January that it would review all Silver Stars and service crosses awarded after Sept. 11, 2001 — some 1,100 awards — to determine whether a higher upgrade is warranted. The military services have until Sept. 30, 2017, to turn their recommendations in to the secretary of defense.
Fans tuning in to watch Super Bowl LII, where the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles will face off to determine who is the best in the NFL, will also see a bit of history during the pre-game ceremonies. For the first time, the Air Force Heritage Flight, including a North American P-51 Mustang, will conduct the traditional flyover.
According to an Air Force release, the P-51 will be joined by two Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt close-air support planes and a Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon. This is not unusual for the Heritage Flight, which routinely flies older aircraft alongside those currently serving.
The Super Bowl flight is a first for the Air Force’s Heritage Flight, which honors the sacrifices made by those who have served, assists in recruiting and retention efforts, and displays the evolution of air power over the years. The P-51 will be flown by Steve Hinton (not to be confused with his son, Steven Hinton, who set a new speed record in a modified P-51 last year). The flyover will be broadcast live on NBC from multiple cameras, including one mounted on the P-51.
The P-51 Mustang entered service with the Air Force in 1942. It had a top speed of 437 miles per hour and a maximum range of 851 miles. It was armed with six M2 .50-caliber machine guns and could also carry bombs. After dominating the skies in World War II, the P-51 served as a ground-attack plane in the Korean War. It also saw action in the Soccer War of 1969. A version of the P-51 almost entered service with the Air Force in the 1980s as a close-air support/counter-insurgency aircraft, called the Enforcer.
We can’t wait to see this historic plane take to the skies once more!
Editorial Note: This article previously stated that Steve Hinton set a speed record in a modified P-51, but it has been corrected to reflect that it was his son, Steven Hinton, who set the record.
President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis offered strikingly different perspectives on Russian President Vladimir Putin in the course of just a few hours on June 15, 2018.
Speaking with reporters outside of the White House, Trump blamed former President Barack Obama, not Putin, for the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014.
“President Obama lost Crimea because president Putin didn’t respect President Obama, didn’t respect our country and didn’t respect Ukraine,” Trump said.
Trump also said it’s “possible” he could meet with Putin summer 2018.
This followed comments Trump made at the recent G7 summit in Canada in which he called for Russia to be readmitted to the group. Moscow was booted from the group (then the G8) due to its annexation of Crimea.
“Whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, but we have a world to run,” Trump said at the time. “And in the G7, which used to be the G8 — they threw Russia out — they should let Russia come back in because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.”
Comparatively, as Trump called for America’s allies to rekindle relations with Russia despite its aggression in Ukraine, Mattis ripped into Putin at a graduation ceremony at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
“Putin seeks to shatter NATO. He aims to diminish the appeal of the western democratic model and attempts to undermine America’s moral authority, his actions are designed not to challenge our arms at this point but to undercut and compromise our belief in our ideals,” Mattis said.
Trump and his top advisers have often spoken of Russia and Putin in decidedly different terms, and he has been widely criticized for praising the Russian leader at various times in the past.
Moreover, the president has repeatedly downplayed Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election, even as his senior advisers have continuously warned that Moscow will meddle in future US elections.
Airmen from the 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing and the 26th Weapons Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, made history earlier this week by employing the first GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition from an MQ-9 Reaper.
While the JDAM has been around since the late ’90s, the munition has just recently been validated and now proven for real world engagements marking a significant step in the Reapers’ joint warfighter role.
“We had a great opportunity to drop the first live GBU-38s in training,” said Capt. Scott, a 26th WPS weapons instructor pilot. “The GBU-38 is a weapon we’ve been trying to get on the MQ-9 for several years now and we had the opportunity to be the first to drop during training.”
While waiting for the aircraft to approach the target area, members of the weapons squadron waited anxiously. After the bombs successfully struck their practice targets in a controlled environment, the entire room cheered.
For the past 10 years skilled MQ-9 aircrew have been employing AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, but the JDAM brings new global positioning system capabilities to the warfighters.
“The GBU-38, just like the Hellfire and GBU-12, is a very accurate weapon and the fact that it’s GPS-guided gives us another versatile way to guide the weapon, specifically, through inclement weather onto targets,” Scott said.
The JDAM being added to the arsenal is another step in furthering the attack capabilities of the MQ-9 Reaper force.
“There’s definitely times when I could’ve used the GBU-38 in combat prior to this,” Scott said.
Not only does the GBU-38 perform through poor weather conditions, it also helps the munitions Airmen and the weapons load crew members who load them.
“The GBU-38 has a 20 minute load time compared to the GBU-12, which has a 30 minute load time,” said Senior Airman Curtis, a 432nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron load crew member. “The GBU-38 is a quicker load compared to the GBU-12 and gets the plane in the air quicker.”
Incorporating this new munition into the total strike package will give MQ-9 aircrews additional capabilities.
“Our job at the weapons school is to train to the highest standard possible,” Scott said. “We’re going to take the GBU-38 and incorporate it into our advanced scenarios, prove the weapon and integrate with all Air Force assets. What that gives us is the ability to take it downrange and employ in the most demanding circumstances possible.”
The JDAM will add flexibility and efficiency to the targeting process. Aircrews will continue to employ the AGM-114 Hellfires and GBU-12s downrange in addition to the GBU-38 that is now ready for combat.
“The overall impact of the GBU-38 is aircrew will have more versatility for the commanders to provide different effects and make a difference for the guys on the ground,” Scott said. “It has a different guidance system and it opens the bridge to more GPS-guided weapons in the future.”
If there is one comic book character who embodies the military veteran spirit, it has got to be Marvel’s Frank Castle, also known as The Punisher. While there have been several movie and television adaptations, the one that most faithfully portrays the Frank Castle we know from the comic books is Netflix’s The Punisher, starring Jon Bernthal.
Bernthal’s Castle first made an appearance in the second season of Daredevil, and his graveyard monologue solidified his role in the hearts of fans. The first season of his solo series was everything fans of the comics could have hoped for. The next season, which is to be released on January 18, is also highly anticipated, but a dark cloud looms: This may be the finale.
Don’t despair; the pieces are lining up to make this the greatest thing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet.
Deadpool can jokingly play with the PG-13 rating by breaking the fourth wall. The Punisher on the other hand…
(20th Century Fox)
In October, Netflix cancelled Iron Fist. Not even a week later, Luke Cage was also cancelled. A month after Daredevil’s season three premiered, it, too, was given the short end of the stick. Put two and two together and you can reasonably expect The Punisher and Jessica Jones to eventually get the ax as well, but not before their upcoming seasons are released in 2019.
Both Iron Fist and Luke Cage ended on bizarre cliffhangers. You can tell the cancellations probably came as a shock to the show-runners. Daredevil, on the other hand, had enough of a heads up to carefully and properly wrap up the story threads of each character. The Punisher — which wrapped filming in mid-August — hopefully had the same kind of foresight.
The current rumor is that each character will appear in later Marvel properties after the contractual two-year “cooling-off” period is over. If they do come over, they’ll be utilized in the already-established, PG-13 Marvel Cinematic Universe. And that’s great; it’d be amazing to see Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin face off against Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. We could even see Mike Colter’s Luke Cage join the New Avengers alongside Wolverine and Dr. Strange.
But those future appearances will adhere to PG-13 restrictions. If you saw Once Upon a Deadpool, the edited-down, more family-friendly version of Deadpool 2made entirely to keep the Regenerating Degenerate just the way he is in his R-rated films while remaining compliant with Disney, then you know there are creative ways to make this work.
But trying to fit The Punisher, a man known more for his penchant for violence than a tendency to break the fourth wall, into a PG-13 rating may not work quite as well.
There is a silver lining here. The series is afforded something rarely seen in television series: closure. Season 2 can go all out because there’s no season 3 for which to save some energy. They’re not going to get renewed. They can wrap up characters or kill off important ones to better fit the narrative.
We may even get the story that’s always been teased in the comics: his ending. Punisher fans know Castle won’t settle down in some suburban home, but can he keep living the life of a vigilante? He never really managed to keep an ever-growing rogue’s gallery of villains because he kills them all — just to have another secure a place on his sh*tlist. What happens when this well dries up? What is a Punisher without anyone left to punish?
Details about the next season are sparse. Ben Barnes is reprising his role as Billy Russo, who completed his transformation into the villain Jigsaw in Season 1, and Josh Stewart is playing John Pilgrim, who may end up being the villain from the PunisherMAX comic series, Mennonite.
Since the burden of a serialized third season is lifted, the show-runner, Steve Lightfoot, said in an interview that his focus was to make the best season possible and to keep characters true to their comic-book counterparts. And as a huge comic book fan and a veteran, that’s all I’m asking for.
Marrying someone in the military comes with a lot of “stuff.” Some of that stuff is so beautiful – like watching your service member put on their uniform and promising to protect this country – that it takes your breath away. Being married to a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Guardsman or Coastie is something that will absolutely enrich your life beyond your wildest dreams. But attached to the beautiful things are some harder parts of the military spouse life.
Walking through the journey of a military spouse comes with challenges. You will be faced with increased responsibilities and continual life changes. From learning the military lingo, acronyms, the ins and outs of Tricare, or managing an overseas PCS, the “opportunities” to learn are endless. But out of all the things to understand and navigate in military life, the most important thing to learn is how to not lose something really, really, important: yourself.
Much of this loss of identity comes initially due to the level of pride felt for your husband or wife’s service to the county. It is a life-changing and awe-inspiring thing to be a part of. Being involved as a military advocate or volunteering your time is an honorable thing, as long as you are doing it for the right reasons. It isn’t altogether uncommon for military spouses to completely lose their voice and sense of self. They get stuck behind their service member’s uniform. The key thing to remember is that you aren’t the one wearing it. They are.
Many military spouses stop going to school, working, or striving toward whatever their dreams were before they said: “I do.” Pair that with deployments and the stress of managing life alone can lead to depression, isolation, and unhappiness. A 2019 study found that 7% of female military spouses meet the criteria for depression, as compared to only 3% of females in the general population. That same study also showed higher rates of addiction to alcohol and binge drinking for military spouses.
For many military spouses, it is hard to recognize who they were before they married their service member. It’s much easier to press pause on your own life and wait for the mission to be complete. But when you do this, you miss so many of life’s opportunities in the process. With this loss of identity comes resentment, which can lead to divorce. The divorced military spouse has a new set of challenges, typically with children to support, no education, and a sparse resume. Now, these spouses have lost something they gave absolutely everything to: their military spouse title. Don’t let this be you.
Your service member will be working toward continual advancement in rank during their military career. You should also be living a life of purpose, intentionality, and advancing in your own growth right along with them. You only get one life, go live it!
Here are 6 ways for military spouses to keep their own identities:
Have the goal conversation before you get married
Be raw and honest with your service member. Lay out your goals for your future and plan for them together. All of them. It is advisable that you write them down and post them somewhere visible – this will be an accountability reminder for both of you.
Prepare to get creative
The military is going to change the path to your goals. Probably more than once, and yeah, it really sucks. Embrace the suck and have a plan b, c, and d. Your goals are worth it. You are worth it.
Don’t ever stop learning
This is the number one mistake military spouses make. If you are in school when you meet your service member, don’t you dare stop going. Also, see above.
Swallow your pride and use the resources
As a military spouse, you will have so much support; say yes to all of the things.
Military spouse scholarships are everywhere to help you pay for schooling. Don’t be too proud to apply.
Career counseling and resume building assistance will be available to you. Go make your appointment.
Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talk during the kickoff of the Military Spouse Employment Partnership.
Network with other military spouses who are in your wheelhouse. They get it and will help you navigate your journey more successfully. This is one of the military life’s most beautiful blessings; that instant connection with the military community. Life is better with MilSpouse besties.
Want to be a stay at home parent or military spouse? Do it right.
If being in this role makes your heart sing – go for it! Do what sets your soul on fire; do not settle or give up your own personal dreams for your future. If being a stay at home parent or spouse is your jam, go all in. Make sure you own that choice, and you are making yourself happy. No one, not even your uniformed service member, can do that for you.
United States special operators needed a custom, remotely-controlled vehicle, one that had mapping abilities, infrared sensors, and the ability to send a video live feed back to a waiting vehicle. The defense industry told the operators it would take at least 10 months and cost $1.7 million.
That wasn’t going to cut it. So a group of operators decided to do it themselves. You can probably imagine what a group of people who get the U.S. military’s dirtiest jobs can do when pressed.
So can a lot of people, most of whom are dead now.
It took the U.S. military’s best-trained troops just four days and ,000 to do what the military-industrial complex said would take nearly a year. The industry’s proposal was “unresponsive,” according to Gen. Richard Clarke, the new head of Special Operations Command said on May 19, 2019. Rather than give up the mission because of big defense’s proposed waste of time and money, the operators put their thinking caps on.
They “took stock of their own in-house skills and commercially available equipment and they filled their own system that fulfilled the requirement,” Clarke said. The General went on to describe how this wasn’t the military’s first DIY defense project – and it likely won’t be the last.
Because improvising in tough situations is kinda what they’re known for.
“The nature of industry and SOF collaboration is changing as our personnel learn and adapt to new technological possibilities,” he said. “They are establishing their own garage labs, frequently well forward in the operating environment to develop solutions to technical and tactical problems they’re facing.”
For years, conservatives have assailed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a dysfunctional bureaucracy. They said private enterprise would mean better, easier-to-access health care for veterans. President Donald Trump embraced that position, enthusiastically moving to expand the private sector’s role.
Here’s what has actually happened in the four years since the government began sending more veterans to private care: longer waits for appointments and, a new analysis of VA claims data by ProPublica and PolitiFact shows, higher costs for taxpayers.
Since 2014, 1.9 million former service members have received private medical care through a program called Veterans Choice. It was supposed to give veterans a way around long wait times in the VA. But their average waits using the Choice Program were still longer than allowed by law, according to examinations by the VA inspector general and the Government Accountability Office. The watchdogs also found widespread blunders, such as booking a veteran in Idaho with a doctor in New York and telling a Florida veteran to see a specialist in California. Once, the VA referred a veteran to the Choice Program to see a urologist, but instead he got an appointment with a neurologist.
The winners have been two private companies hired to run the program, which began under the Obama administration and is poised to grow significantly under Trump. ProPublica and PolitiFact obtained VA data showing how much the agency has paid in medical claims and administrative fees for the Choice program. Since 2014, the two companies have been paid nearly billion for overhead, including profit. That’s about 24 percent of the companies’ total program expenses — a rate that would exceed the federal cap that governs how much most insurance plans can spend on administration in the private sector.
According to the agency’s inspector general, the VA was paying the contractors at least 5 every time it authorized private care for a veteran. The fee was so high because the VA hurriedly launched the Choice Program as a short-term response to a crisis. Four years later, the fee never subsided — it went up to as much as 8 per referral.
“This is what happens when people try and privatize the VA,” Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the Senate veterans committee, said in a statement responding to these findings. “The VA has an obligation to taxpayers to spend its limited resources on caring for veterans, not paying excessive fees to a government contractor. When VA does need the help of a middleman, it needs to do a better job of holding contractors accountable for missing the mark.”
The Affordable Care Act prohibits large group insurance plans from spending more than 15 percent of their revenue on administration, including marketing and profit. The private sector standard is 10 percent to 12 percent, according to Andrew Naugle, who advises health insurers on administrative operations as a consultant at Milliman, one of the world’s largest actuarial firms. Overhead is even lower in the Defense Department’s Tricare health benefits program: only 8 percent in 2017.
Even excluding the costs of setting up the new program, the Choice contractors’ overhead still amounts to 21 percent of revenue.
“That’s just unacceptable,” Rick Weidman, the policy director of Vietnam Veterans of America, said in response to the figures. “There are people constantly banging on the VA, but this was the private sector that made a total muck of it.”
A spokesman for the VA, Curt Cashour, declined to provide an interview with key officials and declined to answer a detailed list of written questions.
One of the contractors, Health Net, stopped working on the program in September 2018. Health Net didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The other contractor, TriWest Healthcare Alliance, said it has worked closely with the VA to improve the program and has made major investments of its own. “We believe supporting VA in ensuring the delivery of quality care to our nation’s veterans is a moral responsibility, even while others have avoided making these investments or have withdrawn from the market,” the company said in a statement.
TriWest did not dispute ProPublica and PolitiFact’s estimated overhead rate, which used total costs, but suggested an alternate calculation, using an average cost, that yielded a rate of 13 percent to 15 percent. The company defended the 5-plus fee by saying it covers “highly manual” services such as scheduling appointments and coordinating medical files. Such functions are not typically part of the contracts for other programs, such as the military’s Tricare. But Tricare’s contractors perform other duties, such as adjudicating claims and monitoring quality, that Health Net and TriWest do not. In a recent study comparing the programs, researchers from the Rand Corporation concluded that the role of the Choice Program’s contractors is “much narrower than in the private sector or in Tricare.”
Before the Choice Program, TriWest and Health Net performed essentially the same functions for about a sixth of the price, according to the VA inspector general. TriWest declined to break down how much of the fee goes to each service it provides.
Because of what the GAO called the contractors’ “inadequate” performance, the VA increasingly took over doing the Choice Program’s referrals and claims itself.
In many cases, the contractors’ 5-plus processing fee for every referral was bigger than the doctor’s bill for services rendered, the analysis of agency data showed. In the three months ending Jan. 31, 2018, the Choice Program made 49,144 referrals for primary care totaling .9 million in medical costs, for an average cost per referral of 1.16. A few other types of care also cost less on average than the handling fee: chiropractic care (6.32 per referral) and optometry (9.25). There were certainly other instances where the medical services cost much more than the handling fee: TriWest said its average cost per referral was about ,100 in the past six months.
Beyond what the contractors were entitled to, audits by the VA inspector general found that they overcharged the government by 0 million from November 2014 to March 2017. Both companies are now under federal investigation arising from these overpayments. Health Net’s parent company, Centene, disclosed a Justice Department civil investigation into “excessive, duplicative or otherwise improper claims.” A federal grand jury in Arizona is investigating TriWest for “wire fraud and misused government funds,” according to a court decision on a subpoena connected to the case. Both companies said they are cooperating with the inquiries.
Despite the criminal investigation into TriWest’s management of the Choice Program, the Trump administration recently expanded the company’s contract without competitive bidding. Now, TriWest stands to collect even more fees as the administration prepares to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise to send more veterans to private doctors.
(US Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue)
Senate veterans committee chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he expects VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to discuss the agency’s plans for the future of private care when he testifies at a hearing on Dec. 19, 2018. A spokeswoman for the outgoing chairman of the House veterans committee, Phil Roe, R-Tenn., didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“The last thing we need is to have funding for VA’s core mission get wasted,” Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat who will become the House panel’s chairman in January 2019, said in a statement. “I will make sure Congress conducts comprehensive oversight to ensure that our veterans receive the care they deserve while being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
Many of the Choice Program’s defects trace back to its hasty launch.
In 2014, the Republican chairman of the House veterans committee alleged that 40 veterans died waiting for care at the VA hospital in Phoenix. The inspector general eventually concluded that no deaths were attributable to the delays. But it was true that officials at the Phoenix VA were covering up long wait times, and critics seized on this scandal to demand that veterans get access to private medical care.
One of the loudest voices demanding changes was John McCain’s. “Make no mistake: This is an emergency,” the Arizona senator, who died in August 2018, said at the time. McCain struck a compromise with Democrats to open up private care for veterans who lived at least 40 miles from a VA facility or would have to wait at least 30 days to get an appointment.
In the heat of the scandal, Congress gave the VA only 90 days to launch Choice. The VA reached out to 57 companies about administering the new program, but the companies said they couldn’t get the program off the ground in just three months, according to contracting records. So the VA tacked the Choice Program onto existing contracts with Health Net and TriWest to run a much smaller program for buying private care. “There is simply insufficient time to solicit, evaluate, negotiate and award competitive contracts and then allow for some form of ramp-up time for a new contractor,” the VA said in a formal justification for bypassing competitive bidding.
But that was a shaky foundation on which to build a much larger program, since those earlier contracts were themselves flawed. In a 2016 report, the VA inspector general said officials hadn’t followed the rules “to ensure services acquired are based on need and at fair and reasonable prices.” The report criticized the VA for awarding higher rates than one of the vendors proposed.
The new contract with the VA was a lifeline for TriWest. Its president and CEO, David J. McIntyre Jr., was a senior aide to McCain in the mid-1990s before starting the company, based in Phoenix, to handle health benefits for the military’s Tricare program. In 2013, TriWest lost its Tricare contract and was on the verge of shutting down. Thanks to the VA contract, TriWest went from laying off more than a thousand employees to hiring hundreds.
Senator John McCain.
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)
McIntyre’s annual compensation, according to federal contracting disclosures, is .36 million. He declined to be interviewed. In a statement, TriWest noted that the original contract, for the much smaller private care program, had been competitively awarded.
The VA paid TriWest and Health Net 0 million upfront to set up the new Choice program, according to the inspector general’s audit. But that was dwarfed by the fees that the contractors would collect. Previously, the VA paid the companies between and 3 for every referral, according to the inspector general. But for the Choice Program, TriWest and Health Net raised their fee to between 5 and 0 to do essentially the same work on a larger scale, the inspector general said.
The price hike was a direct result of the time pressure, according to Greg Giddens, a former VA contracting executive who dealt with the Choice Program. “If we had two years to stand up the program, we would have been at a different price structure,” he said.
Even though the whole point of the Choice Program was to avoid 30-day waits in the VA, a convoluted process made it hard for veterans to see private doctors any faster. Getting care through the Choice Program took longer than 30 days 41 percent of the time, according to the inspector general’s estimate. The GAO found that in 2016 using the Choice Program could take as long as 70 days, with an average of 50 days.
Sometimes the contractors failed to make appointments at all. Over a three-month period in 2018, Health Net sent back between 9 percent and 13 percent of its referrals, according to agency data. TriWest failed to make appointments on 5 percent to 8 percent of referrals, the data shows.
Many veterans had frustrating experiences with the contractors.
Richard Camacho in Los Angeles said he got a call from TriWest to make an appointment for a sleep test, but he then received a letter from TriWest with different dates. He had to call the doctor to confirm when he was supposed to show up. When he got there, the doctor had received no information about what the appointment was for, Camacho said.
John Moen, a Vietnam veteran in Plano, Texas, tried to use the Choice Program for physical therapy in 2018 rather than travel to Dallas, where the VA had a six-week wait. But it took 10 weeks for him to get an appointment with a private provider.
“The Choice Program for me has completely failed to meet my needs,” Moen said.
Curtis Thompson, of Kirkland, Washington, said he’s been told the Choice Program had a 30-day wait just to process referrals, never mind to book an appointment. “Bottom line: Wait for the nearly 60 days to see the rheumatologist at the VA rather than opt for an unknown delay through Veterans Choice,” he said.
(Flickr photo by Rob Bixby)
After Thompson used the Choice Program in 2018 for a sinus surgery that the VA couldn’t perform within 30 days, the private provider came after him to collect payment, according to documentation he provided.
Thousands of veterans have had to contend with bill collectors and credit bureaus because the contractors failed to pay providers on time, according to the inspector general. Doctors have been frustrated with the Choice Program, too. The inspector general found that 15 providers in North Carolina stopped accepting patients from the VA because Health Net wasn’t paying them on time.
The VA shares the blame, since it fell behind in paying the contractors, the inspector general said. TriWest claimed the VA at one point owed the company 0 million. According to the inspector general, the VA’s pile of unpaid claims peaked at almost 180,000 in 2016 and was virtually eliminated by the end of the year.
The VA tried to tackle the backlog of unpaid doctors, but it had a problem: The agency didn’t know who was performing the services arranged by the contractors. That’s because Health Net and TriWest controlled the provider networks, and the medical claims they submit to the VA do not include any provider information.
The contractors’ role as middlemen created the opportunity for payment errors, according to the inspector general’s audit. The inspector general found 77,700 cases where the contractors billed the VA for more than they paid providers and pocketed the difference, totaling about million. The inspector general also identified .9 million in duplicate payments and .5 million in other errors.
TriWest said it has worked with the VA to correct the payment errors and set aside money to pay back. The company said it’s waiting for the VA to provide a way to refund the confirmed overpayments. “We remain ready to complete the necessary reconciliations as soon as that process is formally approved,” TriWest said.
The grand jury proceedings involving TriWest are secret, but the investigation became public because prosecutors sought to obtain the identities of anonymous commenters on the jobs website Glassdoor.com who accused TriWest of “mak[ing] money unethically off of veterans/VA.” Glassdoor fought the subpoena but lost, in November 2017. The court’s opinion doesn’t name TriWest, but it describes the subject of the investigation as “a government contractor that administers veterans’ healthcare programs” and quotes the Glassdoor reviews about TriWest. The federal prosecutor’s office in Arizona declined to comment.
“TriWest has cooperated with many government inquiries regarding VA’s community care programs and will continue to do so,” the company said in its statement. “TriWest must respect the government’s right to keep those inquiries confidential until such time as the government decides to conclude the inquiry or take any actions or adjust VA programs as deemed appropriate.”
The VA tried to make the Choice Program run more smoothly and efficiently. Because the contractors were failing to find participating doctors to treat veterans, the VA in mid-2015 launched a full-court press to sign up private providers directly, according to the inspector general. In some states, the VA also took over scheduling from the contractors.
“We were making adjustments on the fly trying to get it to work,” said David Shulkin, who led the VA’s health division starting in 2015. “There needed to be a more holistic solution.”
Officials decided in 2016 to design new contracts that would change the fee structure and reabsorb some of the services that the VA had outsourced to Health Net and TriWest. The department secretary at the time, Bob McDonald, concluded the VA needed to handle its own customer service, since the agency’s reputation was suffering from TriWest’s and Health Net’s mistakes. Reclaiming those functions would have the side effect of reducing overhead.
“Tell me a great customer service company in the world that outsources its customer service,” McDonald, who previously ran Procter Gamble, said in an interview. “I wanted to have the administrative functions within our medical centers so we took control of the care of the veterans. That would have brought that fee down or eliminated it entirely.”
The new contracts, called the Community Care Network, also aimed to reduce overhead by paying the contractors based on the number of veterans they served per month, rather than a flat fee for every referral. To prevent payment errors like the ones the inspector general found, the new contracts sought to increase information-sharing between the VA and the contractors. The VA opened bidding for the new Community Care Network contracts in December 2016.
But until those new contracts were in place, the VA was still stuck paying Health Net and TriWest at least 5 for every referral. So VA officials came up with a workaround: they could cut out the middleman and refer veterans to private providers directly. Claims going through the contractors declined by 47 percent from May to December in 2017.
TriWest’s CEO, McIntyre, objected to this workaround and blamed the VA for hurting his bottom line.
In a Feb. 26, 2018, email with the subject line “Heads Up… Likely Massive and Regrettable Train Wreck Coming!” McIntyre warned Shulkin, then the department secretary, that “long unresolved matters with VA and current behavior patterns will result in a projected million loss in 2019. This is on top of the losses that we have amassed over the last couple years.”
Officials were puzzled that, despite all the VA was paying TriWest, McIntyre was claiming he couldn’t make ends meet, according to agency emails provided to ProPublica and PolitiFact. McIntyre explained that he wanted the VA to waive penalties for claims that lacked adequate documentation and to pay TriWest an administrative fee on canceled referrals and no-show appointments, even though the VA read the contract to require a fee only on completed claims. In a March 2018 letter to key lawmakers, McIntyre said the VA’s practice of bypassing the contractors and referring patients directly to providers “has resulted in a significant drop in the volume of work and is causing the company irreparable financial harm.”
McIntyre claimed the VA owed TriWest million and warned of a “negative impact on VA and veterans that will follow” if the agency didn’t pay. Any disruptions at TriWest, he said, would rebound onto the VA, “given how much we are relied on by VA at the moment and the very public nature of this work.”
But when the VA asked to see TriWest’s financial records to substantiate McIntyre’s claims, the numbers didn’t add up, according to agency emails.
McIntyre’s distress escalated in March 2018, as the Choice Program was running out of money and lawmakers were locked in tense negotiations over its future. McIntyre began sending daily emails to the VA officials in charge of the Choice Program seeking updates and warning of impending disaster. “I don’t think the storm could get more difficult or challenging,” he wrote in one of the messages. “However, I know that I am not alone nor that the impact will be confined to us.”
McIntyre lobbied for a bill to permanently replace Choice with a new program consolidating all of the VA’s methods of buying private care. TriWest even offered to pay veterans organizations to run ads supporting the legislation, according to emails discussing the proposal. Congress overwhelmingly passed the law (named after McCain) in May 2018.
“In the campaign, I also promised that we would fight for Veterans Choice,” Trump said at the signing ceremony in June 2018. “And before I knew that much about it, it just seemed to be common sense. It seemed like if they’re waiting on line for nine days and they can’t see a doctor, why aren’t they going outside to see a doctor and take care of themselves, and we pay the bill? It’s less expensive for us, it works out much better, and it’s immediate care.”
The new permanent program for buying private care will take effect in June 2019. The VA’s new and improved Community Care Network contracts were supposed to be in place by then. But the agency repeatedly missed deadlines for these new contracts and has yet to award them.
The VA has said it’s aiming to pick the contractors for the new program in January and February 2019. Yet even if the VA meets this latest deadline, the contracts include a one-year ramp-up period, so they won’t be ready to start in June 2019.
That means TriWest will by default become the sole contractor for the new program. The VA declined to renew Health Net’s contract when it expired in September 2018. The VA was planning to deal directly with private providers in the regions that Health Net had covered. But the VA changed course and announced that TriWest would take over Health Net’s half of the country. The agency said TriWest would be the sole contractor for the entire Choice Program until it awards the Community Care Network contracts.
“There’s still not a clear timeline moving forward,” said Giddens, the former VA contracting executive. “They need to move forward with the next program. The longer they stay with the current one, and now that it’s down to TriWest, that’s not the best model.”
Meanwhile, TriWest will continue receiving a fee for every referral. And the number of referrals is poised to grow as the administration plans to shift more veterans to the private sector.
This story was produced in collaboration with PolitiFact.
This article originally appeared on ProPublica. Follow @ProPublica on Twitter.
Hollywood has done a great job of making writing letters to deployed troops seem glamorous and romantic, but the truth is there is nothing fun about having a loved one sent overseas. Being thousands of miles apart from the one you love with little to no communication for months is never easy. The Veterans of Foreign Wars knows about these hardships all too well, and has partnered with Sandboxx to cover the cost of the next 4,500 letters sent to deployed service members.
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To ensure that your letter is sent free of charge, the city section of the address must contain APO, FPO or DPO. Be sure to update your app to the latest version in the app store, to receive the free credit.
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