Throughout history, humans have often weaponized faith. This makes any discussion of the intersection between wellness and spirituality especially tricky because it can be divisive – which is counterintuitive to our relatively inclusive military and veteran cultures.
However, as a Marine I’m always ready to tackle tough things, and as a social scientist invested in teaching veterans how to optimize their performance at home and work, I cannot ignore the compelling data surrounding the positive effects of spirituality.
Maj. Alejandro Sanchez, chaplain, Puerto Rico Army National Guard, says a prayer during the ceremony that marked the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (U.S. Army photo)
What does spiritual fitness have to do with anything?
There are explicit, direct, trackable ties between resilient trait cultivation and spirituality. These ties include common-sense connections to things like behavioral health, social support, and philanthropic leanings, and the more mysterious connection between positive thoughts and their impact on us at a cellular level.
From Stanford to Duke University to Oxford, some really interesting research is being conducted globally on the ways in which spirituality and religiosity (self-reported connection to organized religion) can improve everything from healing and recovery time to pain tolerance and longevity. The protective effects faith offers when it comes to depression and anxiety conditions are especially significant.
Many scholars and scientists who are not religious do believe that at some level we’re wired for spirituality. For example, at the top of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs sits transcendence – or the human need to connect with something bigger and outside of ourselves.
The protective factors offered by spirituality and religiosity are very powerful – even more powerful than many of the behavioral health practices that the military currently invests in financially. Because of this, the topic deserves a closer look in any honest conversation about building resilience.
So what’s the tie-in to resilience?
The links between spirituality, religiosity, and resilience can be found in three main areas that are significant not only statistically, but also practically in terms of health benefits.
1. Behavioral Health
People who identify as individually spiritual enjoy a number of benefits at the psychological and neurological levels. However, these health benefits are amplified and extended with higher levels of subjective religiosity – in particular when people take their spirituality a step further and practice it with some kind of community.
For example, binge drinking and promiscuous sex – which are high-risk for our bodies – are generally discouraged by major world religions. Religious people across demographics and age exhibit lower rates of smoking, alcohol abuse, drug use, and almost all risk-taking behaviors than their nonreligious peers. They also enjoy lower rates of depression and anxiety, better mental health, and even a slower progression of dementia.
In short, people who gather around an idea of virtue and live it out with community support are less likely to engage in physiologically high-risk behaviors. This tendency toward healthier living results in better long term health outcomes.
2. Social Support
People who are very religious tend to be members of a faith community and enjoy strong social ties as a result.
Many faiths encourage both the practice of gratitude and giving to others outside of the social contract (which is essentially the idea that if I do something nice for you, you’ll do something nice for me). They prompt members to give to people who can’t fulfil their end of the social contract. This is the essence of philanthropic giving, which has demonstrated physical, mental, and emotional health benefits.
Of course, you needn’t be spiritual to give generously, but religious Americans give significantly more both financially and in terms of volunteer hours than their nonreligious peers.
3. Positive Thought
Researchers have found an inexplicable link between the practice of prayer and lowered blood cortisol levels and increased high-level cognitive capabilities. Because the brain influences bodily functions like heart rate, blood pressure, and the immune system, shifting what happens in the brain through spiritual practice can have significant physical impacts.
U.S. Marines participate in a formation run prior to a physical-training competition. Elements of the 15th MEU are ashore in Djibouti for sustainment training to maintain and enhance the skills they developed during their pre-deployment training period. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jamean Berry)
In fact, in prayer (unlike in meditation) the relationship centers of the brain light up. The parietal lobes light up too. These lobes are on the side of the brain and allow you to experience feelings of empathy. In the Christian tradition there’s a sacred text that speaks to being transformed by the renewal of your mind, and today we’re understanding that spiritual practice can actually grow your empathy and increase your ability to connect deeply with others.
Aren’t there downsides to religion?
It’s true that all of the benefits of a beloved social community can also turn negative. If acceptance lowers blood cortisol levels, rejection raises it. So many people have been battered by faith communities around the world. However, although finding an affirming community of faith is a complicated process, it is also important because it reinforces the helpful behaviors and activities listed above.
If you’re curious, but don’t have a tradition you feel drawn to, commit to doing some research. Maybe take a cultural literacy course on world religions to orient yourself. Then, carve out time to ask yourself big questions in a sincere way. Do some research, some learning, and look for an affirming faith community that feels like an authentic choice and fit.
The three pillars of a resilient life are social support, self-care, and spirituality. The individual value of these pillars is backed irrefutably by science, and – when practiced together – their benefits increase exponentially.
This PTSD and trauma-engagement program welcomes veterans of all faith backgrounds. It provides resource for active duty servicemembers and veterans looking to bring spirituality to their day to day.
Big Question Inspiration
What has “faith” or “spirituality” looked like in my past? What does it mean to me?
How would I assess my current spiritual health? Do I spend time on it? Do I think about it at all?
What do I believe?
Where do I need to go to learn more?
Who can I reach out to as I figure this out?
About the Author
Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is a U.S. Marine veteran and wellness coach who writes about resilience building, creating strong communities, and the science of spirituality. You can find her new book, “Brave, Strong, True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance”, here.
The German military, the Bundeswehr, had 21,000 unfilled positions in 2017, and the service is now looking beyond its borders to fill its ranks.
A Defense Ministry report in late 2016 proposed recruiting from other EU countries, and the ministry confirmed in late July 2018 that it was seriously considering doing so.
“The Bundeswehr is growing,” a ministry spokesman told news agency DPA. “For this, we need qualified personnel.”
Germany’s military has shrunk since the Cold War. In 2011, the country ended mandatory military service. From a high of of 585,000 troops in the mid-1980s, the service’s numbers have fallen to just under 179,000 in mid-2018.
A German infantryman stands at the ready with his Heckler Koch G36 during a practice exercise in 2004.
(U.S. Navy photo)
About half of current members of the German military are expected to retire by 2030, and with an aging population, finding native-born replacements may get tougher.
German leaders have pushed to add more troops while beefing up defense spending.
In mid-2016, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said she would remove the cap of 185,000 total troops to help make the force more flexible. She said the military would look to add 14,300 soldiers over seven years. (In early 2017, the Defense Ministry upped that to 20,000 soldiers added by 2024.)
“The Bundeswehr is under pressure to modernize in all areas,” she said at the time. “We have to get away from the process of permanent shrinking.”
Efforts to grow have included more recruitment of minors — a record-high 2,128 people under 18 joined as volunteers in 2017, but signing up young Germans has been criticized.
Karl-Heinz Brunner, a defense expert and member of the Social Democrat Party, said foreigners who join up should be promised citizenship.
“If citizens of other countries are accepted, without the promise of getting a German passport, the Bundeswehr risks becoming a mercenary army,” he told German newspaper Augsburger Allegemeine.
Florian Hahn, a defense spokesman for the Christian Democratic Union, said such a recruitment model “could be developed,” but “a certain level of trust with every soldier must be guaranteed.”
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Burt W. Eichen)
‘Germany just doesn’t feel threatened’
Personnel woes are only part of the Bundeswehr’s problem.
Reports have emerged in recent years of shortages of everything from body armor to tanks. German troops overseas have been hamstrung by damaged or malfunctioning equipment. A lack of spare parts has left some weapons systems unusable.
Reports of inoperable fighter jets — and insufficient training for pilots — have raised questions about whether Germany can fulfill its NATO responsibilities. As of late 2017, all of Germany’s submarines were out of service, and the navy in general has struggled to build ships and develop a strategy.
Gen. Volker Wieker, the military’s inspector general, said in February 2018 that the force would be ready to assume command of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force in Eastern Europe in 2019.
The Bundeswehr had a long-term plan to address ” still unsatisfactory ” gaps in its capabilities, Wieker said, but it would take at least a decade to recover after years of dwindling defense spending.
Defense spending is a contentious issue in Germany — one supercharged by President Donald Trump’s attacks on NATO members for what he sees as failures to meet the 2%-of-GDP defense-spending level they agreed to reach by 2024.
Governing-coalition members have feuded over how to raise defense expenditures. Those in favor of a quick increase say it’s needed to fix the military. Others want the money directed elsewhere and have said Chancellor Angela Merkel is doing Trump’s militarist bidding.
“What we’ve seen in the last few years — really the sort of tragic and kind of embarrassing stories about the state of the Bundeswehr — that is certainly sinking in, and Germans are now supporting more defense spending than they have in the past,” Sophia Besch, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform, said on a recent edition of the Center for a New American Security’s Brussels Sprouts podcast .
“There is just this huge debate … around the 2% [of GDP defense-spending level] being the right way of going about it,” Besch added.
Some Germans also remain chastened by World War II and the Cold War, which devastated and then divided the country. The Bundeswehr still struggles with its Nazi history.
“There’s a definitely a generational aspect to this,” Besch said. “The sort of traditional pacifist approach … I think is mostly permanent in the older generations.”
Others just aren’t that worried.
“I think the issue today is that Germany just doesn’t feel threatened. Germans just don’t see a threat to themselves,” Besch added. “They see perhaps a threat in the East, but their relationship with Russia is complex. They just don’t see the need to invest that much in defense spending.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
We’ve all seen the surprise homecomings at baseball games, school gymnasiums and countless other places. But never before have we seen one like this: a Fort Bragg soldier surprised his family at the State of the Union address, and President Trump was in on it.
President Trump remarked, “War places a heavy burden on our Nation’s extraordinary military families, especially spouses like Amy Williams from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and her two children: 6-year-old Elliana and 3-year-old Rowan.” Amy, seated next to First Lady Melania Trump, stood up with her kids to be recognized as President Trump continued.
“Amy works full time and volunteers countless hours helping other military families,” he explained. “For the past seven months, she has done it all while her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Townsend Williams, is in Afghanistan on his fourth deployment to the Middle East.”
“Amy’s kids haven’t seen their father’s face in many months. Amy, your family’s sacrifice makes it possible for all of our families to live in safety and in peace and we want to thank you. Thank you, Amy.”
Amy was immediately given a standing ovation while she looked as though she was simply trying to hold it all together. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, President Trump said, “But Amy, there is one more thing.”
May is a month to celebrate military spouses and mothers, so let’s give a salute to all the military spouse moms holding the family together and keeping things going on the homefront!
Military life is always challenging, but it’s especially difficult when your service member is away and you’re the solo parent. This month, we shine a spotlight on military spouse moms navigating through deployments. Thank you, mothers, for your generous love and sacrifices.
To the mothers missing their service member:
We know it’s difficult when your service member is gone. It doesn’t matter how long they are away, whether it is a deployment, a TDY, or just a few days of training. We salute you, moms who are on your own. We know there are times when you cry in the shower or in your car, just so the kids won’t see your tears. And we know that you have what it takes to keep going.
“I’ve temporarily had to say see you later to my best friend, my teammate, and my partner in crime. My husband deploying was extremely difficult on myself and our four children. However, going through all of this without my husband allowed me to experience first-hand that I can, I will, I do, and I did handle deployment like a boss.” – Megan, Navy spouse
To the pregnant mothers:
We see you, moms who are juggling the difficulties of pregnancy with the obstacles of military life. To all those trying to plan a baby in between PCS moves and deployments, and experiencing sickness and fatigue on your own—we salute you! Even when you feel exhausted, you are everything your baby needs.
“I’m about to be a mom of two Irish twins. My son is 9 months old right now. I’m due again in three months. I’m very nervous not having my husband by my side for this one but I have to be strong for the both of us.” – Meagan, Army spouse
To the mothers of little ones:
We salute you, mothers surrounded by diapers and bottles, unfolded laundry, and art projects. When you feel like you’re going crazy, remember that you are not alone! You’re part of an incredible club of mothers who are making things work one day at a time.
“I am a mom of four under 7. I took a leave of absence from my job a few months into this deployment. I mentally couldn’t handle my career and solo parenting. It was the best decision I made, and has given me an opportunity to experience being a stay-at-home mom. Because I have so many young children, routine is really important.” – Emily, National Guard spouse
To the mothers of teens:
We know you’ve been feeling invisible ever since the middle school years. Even when your kids treat you like a taxi and meal delivery service, know that you are still their rock. We salute you for all the times you stay up late, taking care of the emotional needs of these bigger kids.
“Working mom of three teenage daughters here. That means this momma goes 100 mph six days a week. As tired as I am sometimes, I enjoy taking them to practices and games.” – Terri, Army spouse
To the mothers struggling with infertility:
Our hearts go out to the mothers who have struggled with the pain, loss, and disappointment of infertility. Whether you are already a mother hoping for more children, or you are longing to someday hold your own child, we see you and we salute you.
“We were going through IVF treatment during a year-long deployment. It was the most difficult deployment by far because I was going through a medical treatment that was draining emotionally and physically. It was a hard year, but it was a year of growth.” – Linda, Air Force spouse
To the mothers who are caregivers:
As a mother, you already give your energy, your love, and your care to your children. To those who also care for their service member or take on the responsibility of aging parents, we salute your generosity and we wish you all the patience in the world.
“I’ve lost a lot of my own independence and free time which is probably the hardest. I’m exhausted at the end of the day. Moving my mother-in-law in actually ended up being way harder and less help than we had hoped.” – Caitlin, National Guard spouse
To the stepmothers and blended families:
They should call you the bonus mom when you take on bonus kids and open your heart to his, yours, and ours. We salute your love, your patience, and your perseverance.
“We are a quintessential blended family. We each have children from previous marriages. I am pregnant with our second “ours” baby. Sea duty life has rocked our world for the last three years. He’s been gone as much as he’s been home.” – Julie, Navy spouse
To the mothers in dual military marriages:
You are juggling all the responsibilities, and so much falls on your shoulders. You are supporting your spouse’s military career, while pursuing your own, and trying to do what’s best for your children too. We salute you and thank you for your service!
“It’s hard being the service member and the spouse. Sometimes it’s easier to go to work and focus on a mission than it is to stay at home with the kids and not hear from him.” – Lauren, Navy married to a Marine
Whatever stage you are in, military spouse, we support you and wish you a happy Mother’s Day!
After a full season of plunging into the high-octane, post-service worlds of veterans like Russell Davies, Mike Glover and Jacqueline Carrizosa, Oscar Mike host Ryan Curtis was feeling understandably uneasy about the state of his own manhood.
After all, over the span of 9 episodes, he’d been out-driven, out-paddled, out-shot, out-jumped, and, well, knocked out — not to mention the emotional pasting he took in Navy SEAL-turned actor David Meadow’s acting class.
Each of these vets has taken some slim notion of a civilian future, paired it with the skills and discipline he or she learned in the military, and then proceeded to kick ass with nary a backward glance.
Curtis, however, found himself in need of some help.
Luckily for him, he had a team of “Oscar Mike” vets ready and willing to support their brother, starting with Meadows. Of course, it didn’t go smoothly.
In the season one finale, Curtis learns the most important lesson of all: Lean on your mates. Be there for them to lean on you. Do that, and we’ll all be “oscar mike” together.
Watch him limp toward enlightenment in the video embedded at the top.
The commander of the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence said Sept. 5, 2018, that basic training programs for combat arms specialties such as armor and engineers will soon start a pilot program similar to the one that is extending Infantry one station unit training to 22 weeks.
About 400 recruits are now in their seventh week of the pilot at Fort Benning, Georgia that is adding eight weeks to the traditional 14-week infantry OSUT.
Once that pilot program is complete, Army officials will begin extending other combat arms OSUT programs, Maj. Gen. Gary Brito, the commander of MCOE at Benning, told an audience at the Association of the United States Army’s Sept. 5, 2018 Aviation Hot Topic event.
“It started with infantry; now we will begin a pilot with armor one station unit training at the beginning of next calendar year,” Brito said. “We also have some guidance from [Training and Doctrine Command] to do the same thing with the engineers at Fort Leonard Wood [Missouri].
“This could expand, and it most likely will, to some of the other combat MOSs over the next couple of years, to transform out to 22 weeks for all.”
Drill Sergeant (Staff Sgt.) Jonathan Christal, B Battery, 1st Battalion, 40th Field Artillery, marches Basic Combat Training Soldiers in for classroom training.
(U.S. Army Photo by Mr. James Brabenec)
Recruits in infantry OSUT traditionally go through nine weeks of Basic Combat Training and about four-and-a-half weeks of infantry advanced individual training. The pilot adds eight weeks of training time to hone marksmanship, land navigation and other key combat skills.
“The guidance to the team is … you have 22 weeks now to build and do the best land navigation you can do; you have 22 weeks now to have the best marksmanship training that you can do,” Brito said.
The pilot follows an Army-wide redesign of Basic Combat Training in early 2018 that focuses on emphasizing more discipline in young soldiers after leaders from around the Army complained that new soldiers were displaying a lack of obedience and poor work ethic.
“I am very proud of the 200 that started, per company, and no one has dropped out; we have no injuries, and we have no one that has wanted to quit,” Brito said, adding that the pilot is scheduled to end on Dec. 7, 2018.
“That is a long time in training.”
The Army plans to track the two companies once they are out in the force to assess the differences the extended training has made on their performance, Brito said.
But before the 22-week infantry OSUT can become a permanent program, Benning will have to build up its training base with more instructors, Brito said. “This will demand a very big growth in drill sergeants … so that we can continue the 22 weeks.”
The goal is for a private to show up to a unit and “he or she is combat ready, physically fit, mentally fit to deploy right away,” Brito said.
“I really do think this is going to help combat readiness and deployability for the Army.”
This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @militarydotcom on Twitter.
Russian media announced on Jan. 11, 2019, that it had significantly improved the stealth on its Su-57 fighter jet by applying a coating to the glass canopy on the cockpit, as well as similar upgrades to its Tu-160 nuclear bomber.
Russia’s state-owned defense corporation Rostec told Russian media the new coating “doubles radar wave absorption and reduces the aircraft cockpit’s radar signature by 30%” and added that Russia’s Su-57, Su-30, Su-34, Su-35, and MiG-29K jets already have the upgrade.
But none of those jets, including the Su-57, which Russia explicitly bills as a stealth fighter, are considered that stealthy by experts contacted by Business Insider.
While Russia’s Sukhoi fighter/bombers have enviable maneuverability and serious dogfighting capability, only the US and China have produced true stealth fighters.
Conspicuous rivets jutting out of the airframe and accentuator humps spoiled any possible stealth in the design, the scientist said.
Radar absorbing materials have been used to disguise fighter planes since World War II and have some utility, but will do little to hide Russian jets which have to carry weapons stores externally.
Other experts told Business Insider the Su-57’s likely mission was to hunt and kill US stealth aircraft like the F-22 or F-35.
TASS, a Russian state-run media outlet, described the Su-57 as a “multirole fighter designed to destroy all types of air targets at long and short ranges and hit enemy ground and naval targets, overcoming its air defense capabilities.”
But Russia has declined to mass-produce the jet despite declaring it “combat proven” after limited engagements against rebel forces in Syria that didn’t have anti-air capabilities.
In a report to Congress last year, the Air Force estimated the cost of the new Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB) to be $33.1 billion for the next ten years. This year, that price ballooned to $58.2 billion.
The amount of the gap is so large, it caught the attention of Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who immediately demanded answers from Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh. How does the Air Force explain the $25 billion error? It says the cost should have actually been $41.7 billion, but human error was the explanation for the discrepancy.
Welsh insists he was caught off guard as well. It was just a multi-billion dollar oopsie, people.
“We were surprised by the number when we saw it as well once it had been pointed out to us that it looked like the number had grown because we’ve been using the same number,” Welsh said.
The Air Force has a history of bait-and-switch budgeting when it comes to developing new aircraft. The Air Force’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is famously over budget (it’s the most expensive weapons program ever) and underperforming. The Air Force’s most recent fighter program, the dogfighting-optimized F-22 Raptor, produced 187 units between 1996 and 2011 at the cost of $157 million each. The Raptor wasn’t used in combat until 2014.
Leaders often have the dubious task of delivering bad news to a formation and setting expectations for a unit. Sometimes, to keep troops motivated or to scare people straight, they’ll stretch the truth a little. Occasionally, they stretch it past the breaking point and just go with an outright lie.
It’s understandable that leaders, stuck between the story they’re given from headquarters and the need to keep troops on task, will take the shortcut of lying every once in awhile. What isn’t understandable is why they would think that troops will keep falling for the same lies over and over.
Here are 6 falsehoods that junior enlisted folks stopped believing a long time ago:
1. “As soon as we clean weapons, we’re all going home.”
No. Once weapons have been accepted by the armorer, someone has to tell first sergeant. First sergeant will tell the commander who will finish this one email real quick. Just one more line. He swears. He’s walking out right now.
Oh, but his high school girlfriend just Facebook messaged him and he has to check it real fast … Have the men sweep out the unit areas until he gets back.
2. “We’re all in this together.”
Misleading to say the least. Yes, the entire unit will receive a final assessment for an exercise together and a unit completely overrun in combat will fall regardless of what MOS each soldier is, but that’s the end of how this is true.
After all, the whole unit may be in the war together, but the headquarters element is often all in the air conditioning together while the line platoons are all in the firefight together. The drone pilots may be part of the battle too, but they’re mostly in Nevada together.
3. “This will affect your whole career.”
Look, if Custer could get his commission withheld for months in 1861 and still pin major general in 1863 (that’s cadet to major general in two years), then the Army can probably figure out how to make room for a busted down private on his way to specialist.
4. “Everyone is getting released at 1500.”
No. And anyone who even starts to believe this one deserves the inevitable disappointment. The timeline always creeps to the right.
5. “This will build esprit de corps.”
Two things build esprit de corps: screwing up together and succeeding together. Running five miles together is not enough of an accomplishment to build esprit de corps. And anyone who falls out of these exercises to build unit cohesion on an obstacle course will be alienated by their failure, not brought into the fold.
6. “‘Mandatory fun’ will be.”
“Mandatory fun” never is. It will be miserable for the participants, embarrassing for the organizers, and scary for the family members who are forcefully “encouraged” to bring their kids to an event with hundreds of cussing, dipping, and drinking troops.
The United States has sharply criticized a European Union plan to help Iran get around U.S. sanctions by establishing alternative ways to pay for Iran’s trade with European companies.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking at a New York conference on Sept. 25, 2018, said that he was “disturbed and indeed deeply disappointed” when he heard of the plan announced a day earlier after a high-level meeting between European and Iranian diplomats.
“This is one of the most counterproductive measures imaginable for regional and international peace and security,” Pompeo told the United Against a Nuclear Iran group, accusing the EU of “solidifying Iran’s ranking as the No. 1 state sponsor of terror.”
Pompeo said he imagined Iran’s “corrupt ayatollahs” were “laughing” when they heard news of the proposed payment system, the details of which European leaders said are still being hammered out.
The plan carries out promises by European powers to keep honoring Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers after the U.S. announced in May 2018 that is was withdrawing from the accord and would reimpose sanctions on Tehran.
It represents the latest effort by the EU, France, Germany, and Britain to work with Iran, Russia, and China to keep carrying out the agreement, which granted Iran relief from economic sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear activities, without the United States.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, speaking in the same forum as Pompeo, mocked the EU for the plan’s lack of specifics.
“The European Union is strong on rhetoric and weak on follow-through,” he said. “We will be watching the development of this structure that doesn’t exist yet and has no target date to be created. We do not intend to allow our sanctions to be evaded by Europe or anybody else.”
Bolton said the United States will be “aggressive and unwavering” in enforcing its sanctions. He said Washington still expects Iran’s oil customers to end all of their imports by a Nov. 4, 2018 deadline.
U.S. President Donald Trump told the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25, 2018, that renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil industry will come into effect on Nov. 5, 2018, with “more to follow.”
Pompeo questioned why nations would continue to trade with what he called an “outlaw regime,” which he said supports militant groups in the Middle East and sponsors attacks against Israeli targets around the world.
“There can be no question Iranian destructive activities are truly global in scope. It is therefore incumbent on every country to join our efforts to change the regime’s lawless behavior,” he said. “The ongoing, multinational, multicontinental nature of Iranian malign activity leaves no room for inaction or indecision.”
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, speaking late on Sept. 24, 2018, alongside Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, said that the sanctions evasion plan was in the interest of global peace and pointed to UN inspectors’ findings that Iran remains in compliance with the nuclear deal.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
The foreign ministers said in a joint statement that the so-called Special Purpose Vehicle they are creating to facilitate payments on trade with Iran is intended to “assist and reassure economic operators pursuing legitimate business with Iran.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters there is “strong unity” between Europe and Iran on minimizing the impact of U.S. sanctions.
But despite the EU’s determination to keep trading with Iran, it has struggled to come up with mechanisms and legal protections that are strong enough to convince major corporations to keep operating in Iran.
Finding a way to pay for Iran’s oil exports — which are a major driver of economic growth in the country — has been a key sticking point. Trade in oil and other globally important commodities is almost always conducted in U.S. dollars, but U.S. sanctions prohibit Iran from using the dollar to conduct business.
Despite efforts by the EU, Iran, India, and China to maintain their imports of oil from Iran, a report from the Institute of International Finance on Sept. 25, 2018, found that Iranian oil exports have dropped significantly already in 2018, even though U.S. sanctions specifically targeting Iran’s oil exports do not go into effect until November 2018.
Exports of Iranian crude oil and condensates dropped by 800,000 barrels to 2 million barrels a day between April and September 2018, the banking group said.
Based on the drop already seen in Iranian exports, the group is projecting that Iran’s economy has fallen into a recession and will contract by 3 percent in 2018 and 4 percent in 2019.
The report said oil exports are falling even though Iran is selling key grades of oil at a deep discount and using its own tankers to ship products to China and India at no extra cost.
It said Iranian shippers are also providing generous payment terms and, in some cases, accepting euros and Chinese yuan instead of U.S. dollars in payment for the oil.
Once U.S. sanctions go into effect, the group said Iran will have to rely more on barter trades to maintain its oil exports.
The US military has made clear its renewed focus on adapting to the “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” with powerful state actors, most notably Russia and China, that was outlined in the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy early 2018.
The release of the Defense Department’s 2019 budget proposal detailed some of the specifics of those preparations, and the Army appears to have settled on a long-awaited upgrade for its main battle tank.
The budget for the fiscal year will equip 261 M1 tanks, three brigades’ worth, with Israeli-made Trophy active-protection systems, according to Breaking Defense.
Active-protection systems are designed to fend off antitank missiles and other incoming projectiles. The Trophy system, called Windbreaker, uses four mounted antennas, which offer 360-degree coverage, and fire-control radars to pick up incoming targets. Internal computers then devise firing angles and signal two rotating launchers on the sides of the vehicle to fire ball-bearing-filled canisters. The system has been installed on Israel’s Merkava main battle tanks since 2009.
“If you look at what we’ve done in the last 15 years, it is a light, aviation-centric fight, so we took a fair amount of risk on the heavy force,” John Daniels, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for plans, programs, and resources, told Breaking Defense.
“Now you are at a point where the system is starting to age out,” Daniels said. “If you look at the ages of platforms and how long it takes to rebuild a heavy brigade, you (need to modernize) about one, 1.5 a year to really make a substantive change.” He added the pace of those upgrades would depend on decisions made in 2019 and 2020.
The 2019 budget proposal requests $182.1 billion for the Army — $5.6 billion would go to weapons and tracked-combat-vehicle procurement. The Trophy system is estimated to cost $350,000 to $500,000 for each tank.
US military officials have said the Abrams remains at the top of its class, but they’ve also warned that foreign militaries are gaining on it. Other militaries have looked to add their own active-protection systems and boost their antitank capabilities to counter adversaries’ versions of the systems.
The US has been looking at APS to protect armor for some time, lingering in the design and development stages since the 1950s. In 2016 and 2017, the Army leased and purchased some Trophy systems for testing.
APS has grown in relevance amid ongoing tensions with Russia, which maintains a large tank force — with some APS use — as well as extensive anti-armor capabilities. The US military’s interest in active-protection systems is not limited to Abrams tanks, however.
The Army is evaluating the Israeli-made Iron Fist APS for Bradley fighting vehicles and the US-made Iron Curtain APS for Stryker combat vehicles. Those programs are still in research and development, Pentagon officials told Breaking Defense, with decisions about procurement and funding yet to be made.
Lt. Gen. John Murray, deputy chief of staff, Army G-8, said late 2017 that the Abrams-mounted Trophy system was furthest along in testing, but he noted at the time that safety concerns could be an issue, saying firing and detonating APS projectiles near tanks could complicate coordinated operations between armor and dismounted infantry.
In addition to “hard kill” active-projection systems, which use physical countermeasures, the Army has said it is looking at “soft kill” APS, which would use countermeasures like electromagnetic signals to interfere with incoming threats.
Both would be a part of a Modular Active Protection System, which is “a framework for a modular, open-systems architecture” that would allow APS to function once installed. Col. Kevin Vanyo, a program manager for emerging capabilities at the US Army Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center, told the Army News Service.
The Army has already started to take delivery of the latest version of the Abrams, receiving six M1A2 SEP v3 Abrams main battle tank pilot vehicles in October 2017. Among its features were an upgraded radio system, enhanced power generation, and turret and hull armor upgrades.
“The Abrams M1A2 SEPv3 is the first in a series of new or significantly improved vehicles that we will be delivering to,” Army armored combat brigade teams, Maj. Gen. David Bassett, a program executive officer for ground-combat systems, said at the time. “It is a great step forward in reliability, sustainability, protection, and on-board power which positions the Abrams tank and our ABCTs for the future.”
Under the fiscal-year 2019 budget, $1.5 billion would go toward upgrading 135 M1A1 Abrams tanks to the M1A2 SEP v3, with delivery of the first six set for July 2020.
Five years after a proof-of-concept mission, the MQ-9 Reaper drone has developed into a key asset in California’s fight against wildfires, including the Carr and Mendocino Complex Fires, which are currently burning in Northern California.
“It’s a technology I never thought I’d see,” said Jeremy Salizzoni, a fire technical specialist with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection who was embedded with the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing at March Air Reserve Base, California, during 2013’s devastating Rim Fire.
More than 250,000 acres burned in August 2013 as the Rim Fire raged in Tuolumne County, California. At the time, it was the state’s third largest wildfire on record. More than 100 structures were lost in the blaze, which took nine weeks to fully contain.
An aircrew from the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Attack Wing flies an MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft during a mission to support state agencies fighting the Mendocino Complex Fire in Northern California, Aug. 4, 2018. The aircrew conducted fire perimeter scans and spot checks on the blaze, which encompasses the Ranch and River fires.
(California Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman)
Eleven days after the Rim Fire started, the wing launched a first-of-its kind mission to overfly the fire with an MQ-1 Predator remotely piloted reconnaissance aircraft and beam back real-time video footage of the fire to Salizzoni and wing intelligence analysts working in an operations facility at March.
Through the Predator’s footage, Salizzoni, who was used to driving for hours through rugged terrain to access overlook points and put eyes on the leading edge of a fire, could see any area of the fire he wanted, in real time and without ever leaving the operations facility.
The remotely piloted aircraft’s thermal imaging camera provided a view of the fire unlike anything he’d ever seen. Traditional aerial assets are important, but encounter limitations due to smoke, fuel, altitude and field of view, he said.
“It was such a dramatic change from anything I’d seen in my career,” Salizzoni said. “It was like being blind and then having vision in the blink of an eye.”
He and his colleagues knew they had a new tool in their firefighting toolbox.
“We saw things over the course of that fire that you couldn’t have made up,” Salizzoni said. “I don’t think there’s a better intel resource at our disposal right now.”
During its eight-day emergency activation for the Rim Fire, the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing — the unit’s name at the time — logged more than 150 hours of fire support and was credited with helping firefighters expedite containment.
MQ-9 Reaper RPA
In the five years since, the 163rd Attack Wing has changed its name and the kind of airplane it flies, but one thing hasn’t changed: the wing’s dedication to domestic disaster response missions right here at home.
RPAs are no longer just trying to prove their worth, said Air Force Maj. Mike Baird, the senior intelligence officer at the 163rd Attack Wing. The wing’s MQ-9 Reaper RPAs — a big-brother to the recently-retired Predators — are an in-demand incident awareness and assessment asset preferred by California’s civil authorities when disaster strikes.
The wing has supported more than 20 wildfires since 2013, but it takes more than just airplanes, Baird said. Keeping California safe takes a wing-wide effort.
“What we’ve been doing behind the scenes from maintenance and communications to refining our deployment and personnel processes has led up to our ability to provide an unprecedented level of MQ-9 support,” Baird said.
The wing provided real-time full motion video support over a number of fires in 2017, including California’s most destructive fire on record and also its largest fire to date. More than 5,600 structures were damaged and 22 lives were lost during the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County in October. Two months later, in December, the Thomas Fire ravaged Ventura and Santa Barbara counties to become the state’s largest fire on record with more than 280,000 acres burned.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class James Thompson)
Innovation on the Fly
The wing works to refine its techniques and procedures, and works to expand the detailed real-time incident awareness and assessment data it provides to incident commanders. Innovation on the fly is the name of the game.
An investment by James G. Clark, director of Air Force innovation, and Air Force Col. Chris McDonald from the disruptive innovation division in Clark’s office, helped the wing’s Hap Arnold Innovation Center develop a specialized network to push and pull data from RPAs and other data-generating assets from civilian and military organizations.
The network’s customizable data sets — coupled with the RPAs’ real-time thermal imagery — provide incident commanders and first responders a common operating picture they can access from anywhere, anytime.
RPAs proved “an opportunity for people to make tactical and objective based decisions on real time information,” Salizzoni said.
As the Rim Fire nears its fifth anniversary, RPAs are once again in the sky, flying through smoke to deliver data and protect Californians as wildfires ravage the state.
By July 31, the 163rd was on its fifth fire of the summer.
Throughout July, the wing flew nearly 350 hours to support civil authorities working the County, Klamathon, Ferguson, Carr, Mendocino Complex and Eel fires, and is credited with helping to protect thousands of structures in the process. The MQ-9 provided near real-time full motion video and frequent fire-line updates to decision makers determining where to build up future containment lines.
It’s a marathon pace, but the wing’s airmen up for it, said Air Force 1st Lt. Frank Cruz, officer in charge of the 163rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, whose unit provides direct support for the MQ-9’s around-the-clock fire operations to aid civil authorities.
“Everyone is 100 percent on board,” Cruz said. “They’re all-in.”
Whether she’d posted a personal-best time or suffered a collision on the track, Emily Sweeney would flash her trademark smile to fans, media, or anyone who watched her compete. Even when sliding during frigid winter storms in challenging conditions, the New York National Guard Soldier kept smiling.
But for six months during the winter and spring of 2014, that bright-eyed grin couldn’t hide bitter disappointment.
A charismatic Olympic hopeful, Sweeney had entered the 2013 World Cup season as a favorite to make the 2014 Winter Games. When Sweeney lost the final spot on the 2014 U.S. Luge Team, missing the Olympics for the second time, she shut herself off from the sport to which she had dedicated most of her life.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted for so long and it’s something that’s very tangible for me,” said Sweeney, who in December, finally qualified to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
For Sweeney, the road to PyeongChang could be described as anything but easy.
Tough matchup hits close to home
Photos and murals of past Olympians adorn the walls of the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center. Medals of previous Olympic greats in bobsled, figure skating, and luge sit encased in the facility’s trophy room.
Some former Olympic competitors still work at the facility, including former silver medalist Gordy Sheer, Team USA’s director of marketing and sponsorship. Sweeney, like other Olympic hopefuls, spent much of her youth here.
As a seven year old, Emily idolized her older sister, Megan, who competed in the luge program at the junior levels. She later joined the USA Luge program herself, after participating in a “slider search” in Rhode Island at age 10. Her sister remained a hero to her.
“I wouldn’t be here or be the person I am today without her,” Emily said. “I was really pushed by Megan from early on because I saw the potential of what I could be through her and that was really inspiring to me.”
After she turned 16, Sweeney showcased tremendous speed on luge tracks across the globe. And she demonstrated enormous potential in the sport in her first year competing.
During the 2009 World Cup season, Sweeney began competing at a higher level. She built her luge resume by nabbing Norton Junior World Champion honors and earning bronze medals at the Junior World Cup in Winterberg, Germany and a gold medal at Park City, Utah.
And during the 2009 season, Emily began to beat her older sister and some of her national team peers during practice runs and some competitions. During one World Cup competition in Park City, Utah, she called her parents with concerns about competing with her sister and hero.
“She was very upset,” said Sweeney’s mother, Sue. “She was worried that she was going to beat Megan in the race and it would be the end of Megan’s (Olympic bid).”
Dreams of the Olympics, of course, had always been on her sister’s mind, and her own as well.
“I’ve always wanted that moment of walking in on opening ceremonies,” said Sweeney. “That is the epitome of what I want … to walk in with my whole team and have ‘USA’ on our backs.”
Later that year, during the final World Cup competition in Lillehammer, the final two spots for the 2010 Olympic team came down to two competitors. Both wore the name “Sweeney” on their uniforms.
Jarred by the prospect of beating her idol, the sisters made a pact to leave everything on the floor on their next competition.
Emily went on to lose to her sister in a race off at the Olympiacenter in Norway, falling by two tenths of a second. Due to a medical waiver, another team member took the final spot for the 2010 Vancouver team, while Emily remained on stand-by as an Olympic alternate. Emily still traveled to British Columbia to cheer on her sister from the stands.
“Going to the Olympics and watching her was difficult,” Emily said. “I’m glad I went, I’m glad I supported her. I wouldn’t have changed that for the world. But it was tough standing on the other side of the track watching my dream happen.”
After she missed a shot at Vancouver, Emily would make a life decision that would set the foundation for life after luge.
An athlete and a soldier
Jack Sweeney, Emily’s grandfather, had long been an inspiration in Emily’s life. While she would prepare meals for him, he’d relay stories to her about his days in the Navy. Emily said her grandfather instilled in her a sense of pride for her country and also inspired her to join the Army National Guard.
Joining the military sparked a change in Emily. She often took a leadership role during basic combat trainng at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. She did the same during her advanced individual training there, where she learned to be a military policeman. She even graduated with honors from the Army’s military police school.
Once in the Army, Emily also opted to join the World Class Athlete Program.
“I thought it was a great avenue of opportunity,” Emily said of her decision to join the Army. “I knew I wanted to continue being an athlete, but I didn’t want to only be an athlete. I wanted something else to pursue beyond my athletic career.”
After joining the Guard, Emily became more of a leader for USA Luge as well, not only competing for the program, but also helping the program identify and recruit talented youth to the sport during talent searches.
Sochi slips away
Around Thanksgiving 2013, Sweeney knew it. Her parents, as they checked at the World Cup standings online also knew: Emily would not be competing at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
A season that began with promise, instead led to complications with her sled, dealing with minor injuries and slower finish times on the World Cup circuit.
After her final races had finished for 2013, Sweeney sat in her hotel room. Her boyfriend, Italian luge team member Dominik Fischnaller, brought her a cup of her favorite ice cream.
And then for six months, Sweeney walked away from the sport to which she had dedicated a great chunk of her childhood. Instead of weight training and spending hours on the track, Sweeney removed herself from any luge or exercise activities. Instead, she retreated to her home in Lake Placid and contemplated her future in the sport.
“I went from being an Olympic hopeful, training at 100 percent,” Emily said, “to just stopping everything.
“I was really at a point where I said, ‘What’s the point?’ What’s the point of doing this if I’m not getting the results I’m wanting?’ It took a while, I closed myself off.”
She began working as a waitress and hostess at local restaurants. And while she’d visit her ailing grandfather in neighboring Saranac Lake, she mostly cut herself off from family and dealt with struggles the best way she knew: internally.
“We lost her for a while,” Sue said. “It was tough. She didn’t even watch the (2014 Winter) Games.”
“Emily had to refine her sliding and her motivation,” Megan said. “It took her a long time. But I think that’s normal when you have a dream and become so disappointed … It was very, very tough because she knows she’s good.”
The Army gets her rolling
In May 2014, Emily remained withdrawn from the luge community. It would be just the wakeup call she needed to get back on track with her sport.
She received orders to attend Warrior Leader Course (now the Basic Leader Course) that spring at Fort Dix, New Jersey. During the month-long course, she took tests on her leadership skills, land navigation and various drills to prepare to become a noncommissioned officer .
After giving up her strict luge-related training routine and regular exercising, Emily had lost muscle mass. She’d dropped 20 pounds from her 5-foot-5-inch frame. As a result, for the first time since enlisting in the Guard, she failed to score a 300 on her Army Physical Fitness Test.
“(WLC) kind of pulled me out,” said Sweeney. “It gave me a schedule that I had to adhere to again. I kind of got back into the military mode and then after that I got back into my training.”
Shortly after graduating WLC, Sweeney resumed luge-related activities. She began lifting weights again, and changed her routine, and began working out at JEKL gym in Plainville, Connecticut. There Sweeney took part in grueling gymnastics-based training to strengthen her core muscles using various gymnastics apparatus pieces including rings, the high bar and parallel bars.
“It definitely put me in my place pretty quickly,” Sweeney said.
The old Emily had returned, away from the luge track too. She began reconnecting with friends. She spoke with family members more often.
And that familiar smile came back.
“Everybody always kids her about her smile — she always has a big smile on her face,” said her mother, Sue. “But it’s true — it’s part of who she is. Once you start to see her smile coming back, you know she’s starting to feel much more like herself.”
In December 2015, during World Cup competition on their home track in Lake Placid, Sweeney and teammates Erin Hamlin and Summer Britcher swept the field. It marked the first time the U.S. women knocked out the dominant German team.
“We’re more of a force to be reckoned with now,” Sweeney said.
During a fall, Sweeney suffered injury to her wrist that required surgery in 2016, proving to be a minor setback. But she bounced back to stellar marks in 2017.
“The (wrist) injury really didn’t worry me,” USA Luge coach Bill Tavares said. “For her it was all mental. When I knew that she was mentally strong coming into this year then there was no worry on my part.”
Hitting her stride
The 4,242-foot luge course in Winterberg, Germany presents a daunting challenge to competitive lugers. Those who accept its challenge must enter the course’s labyrinth in near-perfect form. In November, Sweeney and her USA teammates traveled to Winterberg to face the mighty German team that built an Olympic juggernaut on this course.
At the track’s midpoint, a turn drops competitors into the labyrinth where sled speeds multiply.
After placing second earlier in the World Cup competition at on this track, mishaps on one of her runs sent Sweeney tumbling out of contention and she thought she missed her chance to clinch an Olympic berth.
But then she bounced back later that day to take her first World Cup gold in the sprint race, upsetting 2014 Olympic champion, Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger, on her home course. Instead, her shot at an Olympic berth would have to wait.
When dealing with the difficult highs and lows of competing against the best in the world, she turned to Grandpa Sweeney. Emily said her grandfather helped keep her grounded and objective while remaining committed to her family and country.
“He’s probably a big part of her personality,” Sue said. “He’s always been one of her best friends. And she’s looked to him for advice.”
As Sweeney begins final preparations for the Winter Games, she will do so with a heavy heart. Jack Sweeney passed away at age 88 on Jan. 3. Emily said her grandfather helped keep her grounded and objective while remaining committed to her family and country.
Olympian at last
Sweeney learned that she had reached the pinnacle of her career unceremoniously — not by an announcement on the track, or from posting a career-best time — but in a text.
Dec. 14, after having dinner with her parents and returning to the Lake Placid training facility, Sweeney received a message from her mother, Sue.
“See you in PyeongChang,” the text read.
Sweeney’s mother had been tracking the Nation’s Cup live stream on her phone. The Nation’s Cup was a pre-qualifying event for the World Cup later that week. Had Raychel Germaine qualified for the World Cup, she could have potentially knocked Emily out of Olympic competition. But she didn’t, and the final Olympic women’s luge slot went to Emily.
“It was just a peaceful moment,” Sweeney said, “I was stunned.”
She received congratulations from Fischnaller, her boyfriend of eight years. Then came a flood of 30 messages and well wishes from family, friends and teammates.
“I’m really happy for her,” teammate Summer Britcher said. “I know how hard she works. I’m very happy that she’s met this goal and I’m really excited to compete alongside her in (32) days.”
Sweeney will join 2014 Bronze medalist Hamlin and Britcher on the USA roster in PyeongChang in February. The impact of reaching her dream did not hit her until after finishing World Cup competition in the women’s sprint race Dec. 16, Sue Sweeney said.
A heavy snow blanketed Lake Placid’s Mount Van Hoevenberg Dec. 16, and athletes faced a wind chill so bitter that exposed fingers and toes could feel like frozen blocks of ice. During the women’s sprint race, Sweeney posted an efficient run in these slick conditions, but a mishap at turn seven hurt her final time, eventually knocking her out of sprint qualification. Unfazed, she posted a better time in her second run.
The weight of realizing her Olympic dream began to creep in. Still clad in her helmet and orange and blue leotard, Sweeney waved to her 80 supporters, family and friends. And once more she flashed her wide grin.
“Emily’s missed two Olympic teams very narrowly,” Sheer said. “In 2014 … that was a real tough one for her. It takes a certain type of person to be able to bounce back from something like that and to be able to keep fighting and I give her all the credit in the world.”
Then after 15 minutes of speaking with local and national media members, Sweeney locked arms with her older sister, rosy-cheeked from the stinging wind chill. Standing amid swirling snowflakes, Megan whispered into her younger sister’s ear:
“I’m so proud of you,” Megan said.
Next stop: South Korea
When Emily dons the USA colors at PyeongChang next month, she knows he will be representing more than herself. She will also represent WCAP, the National Guard and the U.S. Army. Sweeney, who currently ranks eighth in the International Luge Federation women’s singles, will join fellow WCAP athletes Matt Mortensen in men’s doubles and singles competitor Taylor Morris.
At 24, the Olympics will wrap Sweeney’s fourteenth year in the sport and she plans to bring home a medal for her team.
“Going to the Olympics isn’t enough for me,” Sweeney said “I want to go to the Olympics and do something. So it’s not over — the work isn’t over.”