The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA - We Are The Mighty
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The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

David Shulkin, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, showed up to what he thought would be a routine Senate oversight hearing in January 2018, only to discover it was an ambush.


Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., was the sole holdout among members of the veterans affairs committee on a bill that would shape the future of the agency. The bipartisan bill had the support of 26 service groups representing millions of veterans. But Moran was pushing a rival piece of legislation, and it had the support of a White House aide who wields significant clout on veterans policy. Neither proposal could advance as long as there was any doubt about which President Donald Trump wanted to sign.

Moran blamed Shulkin for the impasse. “In every instance, you led me to believe that you and I were on the same page,” Moran said at the hearing. “Our inability to reach an agreement is in significant part related to your ability to speak out of both sides of your mouth: double talk.”

There were gasps in the hearing room. It was an astounding rebuke for a Trump appointee to receive from a Republican senator, especially for Shulkin, who was confirmed by the Senate unanimously.

Clearly ruffled, Shulkin hesitated before answering. “I think it is grossly unfair to make the characterizations you have made of me, and I’m disappointed that you would do that,” he said. “What I am trying to do is give you my best advice about how this works.”

Moran dug in. “I chose my words intentionally,” he said. “I think you tell me one thing and you tell others something else. And that’s incompatible with our ability to reach an agreement and to work together.” Moran then left the hearing for another appointment.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA
U.S. Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS, center) with Kansans serving in Afghanistan, April 2011

The exchange exposed tensions that had been brewing for months behind closed doors. A battle for the future of the VA has been raging between the White House and veterans groups, with Shulkin caught in the middle. The conflict erupted into national headlines as a result of a seemingly unrelated development: the release of a lacerating report on Shulkin that found “serious derelictions” in a taxpayer-funded European business trip in which he and his wife enjoyed free tickets to Wimbledon and more.

The underlying disagreement at the VA has a different flavor than the overhauls at a number of federal agencies. Unlike some Trump appointees, who took the reins of agencies with track records of opposing the very mission of the organization, Shulkin is a technocratic Obama holdover. He not only participated in the past administration, but defends the VA’s much-maligned health care system. He seeks to keep the organization at the center of veterans’ health care. (An adviser to Shulkin said the White House isn’t permitting him to do interviews.)

But others in the administration want a much more drastic change: They seek to privatize vets’ health care. From perches in Congress, the White House, and the VA itself, they have battled Shulkin. In some instances, his own subordinates have openly defied him.

Related: VA watchdog is reviewing Shulkin’s 10-day trip to Europe where he attended Wimbledon, went on cruise

Multiple publications have explored the turmoil and conflict at the VA in the wake of the inspector general report. Yet a closer examination shows the roots of the fight stretch back to the presidential campaign and reveals how far the entropy of the Trump administration has spread. Much has been written on the “chaos presidency.” Every day seems to bring exposés of White House backstabbing and blood feuds. The fight over the VA shows not only that this problem afflicts federal agencies, too, but that friction and contradiction were inevitable: Trump appointed a VA secretary who wants to preserve the fundamental structure of government-provided health care; the president also installed a handful of senior aides who are committed to a dramatically different philosophy.

The blistering report may yet cost Shulkin his job. But the attention on his travel-related misbehavior is distracting from a much more significant issue: The administration’s infighting is imperiling a major legislative deal that could shape the future of the VA.

Taking better care of veterans was a constant refrain at Trump’s presidential campaign rallies. In the speech announcing his candidacy, he said, “We need a leader that can bring back our jobs, can bring back our manufacturing, can bring back our military, can take care of our vets. Our vets have been abandoned.” Ex-military people overwhelmingly supported him on Election Day and in office.

Trump’s original policy proposals on veterans health, unveiled in October 2015, largely consisted of tweaks to the current system. They called for increasing funding for mental health and helping vets find jobs; providing more women’s health services; modernizing infrastructure and setting up satellite clinics in rural areas.

The ideas drew derisive responses from the Koch brothers-backed group Concerned Veterans for America (CVA). Pete Hegseth, its then-CEO, called the proposal “painfully thin” and “unserious.”

Trump then took a sharp turn toward CVA’s positions after clinching the Republican nomination. In a July 2016 speech in Virginia Beach, he embraced a very different vision for the VA, emphasizing private-sector alternatives. “Veterans should be guaranteed the right to choose their doctor and clinics,” Trump said, “whether at a VA facility or at a private medical center.”

Trump’s new 10-point plan for veterans policy resembled the CVA’s priorities. In fact, six of the proposals drew directly on CVA ideas. Three of them aimed to make it easier to fire employees; a fourth advocated the creation of a reform commission; and two involved privatizing VA medical care.

Trump’s new direction, according to a campaign aide, was influenced by Jeff Miller, then the chairman of the House veterans committee. Miller, who retired from Congress in January 2017, was a close ally of CVA and a scathing critic of Obama’s VA.

Miller became one of the first congressmen to endorse Trump, in April 2016. He did so a few weeks after attending a meeting of the campaign’s national security advisers. (That meeting, and the photo Trump tweeted of it, would become famous because of the presence of George Papadopoulos, who is cooperating with investigators after pleading guilty to lying about Russian contacts. Miller is wearing the light gray jacket in the front right. Now a lobbyist with the law firm McDermott Will Emery, he didn’t reply to requests for comment.) Miller became Trump’s point man on veterans policy, the campaign aide said.

Miller and CVA portrayed the VA as the embodiment of “bureaucratic ineptitude and appalling dysfunction.” They were able to cite an ample supply of embarrassing scandals.

The scandals may come as less of a surprise than the fact that the VA actually enjoys widespread support among veterans. Most who use its health care report a positive experience. For example, 92 percent of veterans in a poll conducted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars reported that they would rather improve the VA system than dismantle it. Independent assessments have found that VA health care outperforms comparable private facilities. “The politicization of health care in the VA is frankly really unfair,” said Nancy Schlichting, the retired CEO of the Henry Ford Health System, who chaired an independent commission to study the VA under the Obama administration. “Noise gets out there based on very specific instances, but this is a very large system. If any health system in this country had the scrutiny the VA has, they’d have stories too.”

One piece of extreme noise was a scandal in 2014, which strengthened Miller and CVA’s hand and created crucial momentum toward privatization. In an April 2014 hearing, Miller revealed that officials at the VA hospital in Phoenix were effectively fudging records to cover up long delays in providing medical care to patients. He alleged that 40 veterans died while waiting to be seen. A week later, CVA organized a protest in Phoenix of 150 veterans demanding answers.

More: This is what happened when the VA tried to slash money for homeless veterans

Miller’s dramatic claims did not hold up. A comprehensive IG investigation would eventually find 28 delays that were clinically significant; and though six of those patients died, the IG did not conclude that the delays caused those deaths. Later still, an independent assessment found that long waits were not widespread: More than 90 percent of existing patients got appointments within two weeks of their initial request.

But such statistics were lost in the furor. “Nobody stood up and said, ‘Wait a minute, time out, are we destroying this national resource because a small group of people made a mistake?'” a former senior congressional staffer said. “Even those who considered themselves to be friends of the VA were silent. It was a surreal period. The way it grew tentacles has had consequences nobody would have predicted.”

In the heat of the scandal, Miller and CVA pushed for a new program called Choice. It would allow veterans who have to wait more than 30 days for a doctor’s appointment or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility to get private-sector care. The VA has bought some private medical care for decades, but Choice represented a significant expansion, and Democrats were wary that it would open the door to privatizing VA health care on a much broader scale.

Still, the Phoenix scandal had made it hard for the Democrats to resist. The Choice bill passed with bipartisan support and President Obama signed it into law in August 2014.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA
Former President Barack Obama. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

By 2016, then-candidate Trump was demanding further changes. “The VA scandals that have occurred on this administration’s watch are widespread and inexcusable,” he said in the Virginia Beach speech. “Veterans should be guaranteed the right to choose their doctor and clinics, whether at a VA facility or at a private medical center. We must extend this right to all veterans.”

Trump’s contacts with CVA and its allies deepened during the transition. He met Hegseth, who left CVA to become a Fox News commentator, in Trump Tower. Trump picked Darin Selnick for the “landing team” that would supervise the transition at the VA. Selnick had directed CVA’s policy task force, which in 2015 recommended splitting the VA’s payer and provider functions and spinning off the latter into a government nonprofit corporation. Such an operation, organized along the lines of Amtrak, would be able to receive federal funding but also raise other revenue.

Trump’s consideration of Hegseth and Miller to lead the VA ran into fierce resistance from veterans groups, powerful institutions whose clout is boosted by the emotional power that comes with members’ having risked their lives for their country. At a meeting with the Trump transition in December 2016, officials from the major veterans groups held a firm line against privatizing the VA and any secretary intent on it.

Trump finally settled on Shulkin, 58, who ran the VA health system under Obama. Shulkin is a former chief of private hospital systems and a doctor — an internist, he still occasionally treats patients at the VA — who comes across more as a medical geek than the chief of a massive organization.

Trump heaps praise on Shulkin in public appearances and meets with him regularly in private. He was one of the first cabinet secretaries Trump consulted about the impact of the government shutdown on Jan. 21, 2018. They met at Camp David in December 2017 and lunched at the White House on Feb. 8, 2018. “You’re doing a great job,” Trump told Shulkin at a Jan. 9 signing ceremony for an executive order on veterans mental health services, handing Shulkin the executive pen. “We appreciate you.”

Also read: A new petition could help veterans with service animals

Trump may like Shulkin, but that didn’t stop his administration from appointing officials who opposed his philosophy. One of them, Jake Leinenkugel, a Marine Corps veteran and retired Wisconsin brewery owner, became the White House’s eyes and ears inside the agency. He works in an office next to Shulkin’s, but his title is senior White House adviser. Leinenkugel, 65, said he came out of retirement to take the position because he was “excited about taking POTUS’s agenda and advancing it.” As he put it, “I’m here to help veterans.”

He and Shulkin got along fine for a few months. But then, in May 2017, the two men clashed, as Shulkin accused Leinenkugel of undermining him. Shulkin wanted to nominate the VA’s acting under secretary for health, Poonam Alaigh, to take the position permanently, according to two people familiar with his thinking. But, the VA secretary charged, Leinenkugel told the White House to drop Alaigh. Shulkin confronted Leinenkugel, who denied any sabotage, according to an email Leinenkugel subsequently wrote. Alaigh stepped down in October and the position remains unfilled.

Shulkin has even been at odds with his own press secretary, Curt Cashour, who came from Miller’s House committee staff. January 2018, Shulkin assigned an official to send a letter to a veterans group that said the agency would update its motto, to be inclusive of servicewomen. (Adapted from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the original reads, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” The new version would read: “To care for those who shall have borne the battle and their families and survivors.”)

Cashour told The Washington Post the motto wouldn’t change. A few days later, the secretary’s strategic plan went out using the updated, gender-neutral motto. Cashour then denied the change a second time, telling the Post that was “not VA’s position.” A new document with the Lincoln quote restored subsequently appeared on the VA’s website. Shulkin was stunned at being disobeyed by his own spokesman, two people briefed on the incident said. (Cashour denied defying the VA secretary. “The premise of your inquiry is false,” he told ProPublica. Cashour said Shulkin never approved the letter regarding the updated motto and authorized the restoration of the original one.)

Then there was Selnick, who became the administration’s most effective proponent for privatization. He joined the VA as a “senior advisor to the secretary.” Though he reported to Shulkin, he quickly began developing his own policy proposals and conducted his own dealings with lawmakers, according to people with knowledge of the situation. In mid-2017 Shulkin pushed him out — sort of.

Selnick left the VA offices and took up roost in the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. There he started hosting VA-related policy meetings without informing Shulkin, according to people briefed on the meetings. At one such meeting of the “Veterans Policy Coordinating Committee,” Selnick floated merging the Choice program with military’s Tricare insurance plan, according to documents from the meeting obtained by ProPublica.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA
Former House Veterans Affairs chairman Rep. Jeff Miller.

Veterans groups were furious. At a Nov. 17, 2017  meeting, Selnick boasted that Trump wouldn’t sign anything without Selnick’s endorsement, according to a person present. Shulkin would later tell a confidant that moving Selnick out of the VA was his “biggest mistake” because he did even more damage from the White House. (Selnick did not reply to a request for comment. A White House spokesman said some VA officials were aware of the policy meetings that Selnick hosted. The spokesman said Selnick does not brief the president or the chief of staff.)

Selnick, 57, is a retired Air Force captain from California who worked in the VA under the George W. Bush administration. At CVA, he not only ran the policy task force, he testified before Congress and appeared on TV. In 2015, House Speaker John Boehner appointed Selnick to the Commission on Care, an independent body created by a Congressional act to study the VA and make recommendations.

Selnick impressed his fellow commissioners with his preparation but sometimes irked them with what they viewed as his assumption that he was in charge, people who worked with him on the commission said. Selnick often brought up his experience at the VA. But some commissioners scoffed behind his back because his position, in charge of faith-based initiatives, had little relevance to health care. Whatever his credentials, Selnick had audacious ambitions: He wanted to reconceive the VA’s fundamental approach to medical care.

Selnick wanted to open up the VA so any veteran could see any doctor, an approach that would transform its role into something resembling an insurance company, albeit one with no restrictions on providers. Other commissioners worried that would cost the government more, impose fees and deductibles on veterans and serve them worse. “He was probably the most vocal of all of the members,” said David Gorman, the retired executive director of Disabled American Veterans who also served on the commission, “in a good and a bad way.”

The bad part, in the view of Nancy Schlichting, the chairwoman, emerged when Selnick tried to “hijack” the commission. Selnick and a minority of commissioners secretly drafted their own proposal, which went further than CVA’s. (The group included executives of large health systems that stood to gain more patients.) They wrote that the “the current VA health care system is seriously broken” with “no efficient path to repair it.” They proposed closing facilities, letting all veterans choose private care, and transitioning the rest to private care over two decades.

Related: Veterans Crisis Line has answered more than three million calls

The draft was written in a way that seemed to speak for the commission as a whole, with phrases like “the Commission recommends.” The commission staff suggested labeling it a “straw man report,” implying it was meant to provoke discussion. Still, veterans organizations were angry, and Schlichting had to publicly disavow the draft. “Darin Selnick has never run a health system in his life and doesn’t understand the complexity of it,” Schlichting told ProPublica.

For his part, Shulkin publicly staked out his vision in a March 17, 2016 article in the New England Journal of Medicine. In it, he defended the VA’s quality of care and proposed reimagining the VA as an integrated system composed of its own core facilities, a network of vetted private-sector providers, and a third layer of private care for veterans in remote places. Shulkin also edited a book published last year trumpeting the VA’s successes, called “Best Care Everywhere.”

Almost four years after the Phoenix scandal, the emergency measure letting some veterans get care outside the VA is still limping along with temporary extensions, not to mention payment glitches and confusion about its rules. Key legislators grew tired of renewing emergency funding and wanted to find a long-term solution. In the House, negotiations broke down after Democrats boycotted a listening session featuring CVA. So fall 2017, focus turned to the Senate.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA
A quote from Abraham Lincoln on a sign at the Department of Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, DC. (Flickr)

The crux of the debate was the extent to which the VA should rely on private care. The chairman and ranking member on the Senate veterans committee, respectively, Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Jon Tester of Montana, drafted a bill to consolidate all of the VA’s programs that pay for private care and let doctors and patients decide where veterans would get care. The VA would buy private care when that makes the most sense but would still coordinate all veterans care in an integrated, comprehensive way. The bill garnered the support of 26 veterans organizations and every committee member except Moran.

Moran represents the Koch brothers’ home state; employees of Koch Industries are the second-largest source of campaign contributions in his career, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. With the support of CVA, Moran wanted to establish clear criteria making veterans eligible for private-sector care, like the 30 days/40 miles standard in the Choice program. It might sound like a subtle distinction, but it means the difference between keeping all veterans within the VA system versus ceding the direction of patient care to the private sector. When the committee rejected his amendment, Moran proposed his own bill and signed up Sen. John McCain as a co-sponsor.

Moran’s bill initially called for all veterans to be able to choose private care. When a McCain aide shared it with a lobbyist for the American Legion, the lobbyist was so enraged by what he viewed as a bid to undermine the VA that he torched a copy of the bill and sent the McCain aide a photo of the charred draft. (An American Legion spokesman declined to comment.) With the American Legion’s input, McCain’s and Moran’s staffs toned down the bill to the point that they got letters of support from the group, along with Amvets and CVA. But American Legion and Amvets were still working to get consensus on the Isakson-Tester bill.

Still, the Moran-McCain bill had a few key allies: Selnick and Leinenkugel. They had gained sway in part because of a White House vacuum. The president himself has been largely absent on veterans policy and there’s no senior point person. The portfolio has at times belonged to Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner and Omarosa Manigault, according to veterans groups and congressional officials. (A White House spokesman said those officials played a role in “veterans issues,” but not “veterans policy.” The latter, the spokesman said, is overseen by Selnick on the Domestic Policy Council.)

That has given Selnick and Leinenkugel wide latitude to shape White House positions on issues that don’t rise to Trump’s level. “Darin [Selnick] is pretty much in the ascendancy,” said Michael Blecker, the executive director of Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco-based charity serving veterans.

As long as Moran had a competing claim to the Trump administration’s support, the Isakson-Tester bill was stuck. Republicans wouldn’t risk a floor vote on a bill the president might not sign. Shulkin supported the Isakson-Tester bill but he knew his rivals inside the White House were pushing for Moran’s proposal. So Shulkin hedged, awkwardly praising both bills. “We still don’t know which bill he wants,” Joe Chenelly, executive director of Amvets, said. “If the White House wants something different, then we need to know how to reconcile that.”

Amid the impasse, the Choice program was out of money again and needed an extension as part of the end-of-year spending deal. Tester vowed to make it the last one he’d agree to. He called on Shulkin to break the stalemate by publicly endorsing his and Isakson’s bill. “I would love to have the VA come out forcefully for this bill,” he said on the Senate floor in late December. “I think it would help get it passed.”

In a private meeting, Isakson and Tester chided Shulkin for withholding support for their bill, according to three people briefed on the meeting. Shulkin told them he was doing the best he could, but he had to fend off a competing agenda from the White House.

Unbeknown to Shulkin, there was already talk in the White House of easing him out. On Dec. 4, 2017, Leinenkugel wrote a memo, which ProPublica obtained, summarizing his disillusionment with Shulkin as well as with Shulkin’s deputy, Thomas Bowman, and chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson. (“I was asked to tell the truth and I gave it,” said Leinenkugel of his memo; he declined to say who requested it.)

More reading: A new petition could help veterans with service animals

Leinenkugel accused Bowman of disloyalty and opposing the “dynamic new Choice options requested by POTUS agenda.” The memo recommended that Bowman be fired — and replaced by Leinenkugel himself. It also asserted that Wright Simpson “was proud to tell me she is a Democrat who completely trusts the secretary and it’s her job to protect him.” Leinenkugel accused her of delaying the placement of Trump’s political appointees. Leinenkugel recommended replacing her, too.

As for Shulkin, Leinenkugel’s memo advocated he be “put on notice to leave after major legislation and key POTUS VA initiatives [are] in place.”

After the clash between Moran and Shulkin at the January hearing, Isakson said the White House would provide feedback on his bill to help the committee chart a way forward. “The president basically is pushing to get a unanimous vote out of committee,” said Rick Weidman, the top lobbyist for Vietnam Veterans of America. “The only reason why we didn’t get it before was there is one mid-level guy on the Domestic Policy Council who threw a monkey wrench into it by confusing people about what the administration’s position is.” That person, Weidman said, is Selnick.

The White House’s feedback on the Isakson-Tester bill, a copy of which was obtained by ProPublica, was the closest the administration has come to a unified position on veterans health care. It incorporated input from the VA and the Office of Management and Budget. Selnick told veterans groups he wrote the memo, leaving some miffed that Selnick seemingly had the final word instead of Shulkin. (A White House spokesman said Selnick was not the only author.)

Selnick requested changes that might look like minor tweaks but would have dramatic policy consequences. “It’s these very small differences in details that the public would never notice that change the character of the thing entirely,” said Phillip Longman, whose 2007 book, “Best Care Anywhere,” argued that the VA works better than private health care. (The title of the book Shulkin edited, “Best Care Everywhere,” was a nod at Longman’s book.)

Most important, the White House wanted clear criteria that make veterans eligible for private care. That was the main feature of Moran’s bill and the sticking point in the negotiations. The administration also asked to preserve a piece of the Choice program by grandfathering in veterans living more than 40 miles away from a VA facility. CVA praised the White House for nudging the bill in Moran’s direction. “We applaud President Trump for taking a firm stand in favor of more health care choice for veterans at the VA,” the group’s director, Daniel Caldwell, said in a statement dated Jan. 24, 2018.

The White House feedback also called for removing provisions that would regulate providers, such as requiring them to meet quality standards and limiting opioid prescriptions. And the administration objected to provisions in the bill that would require it to fill critical vacancies at the VA and report back to Congress.

Selnick got what he asked for, but it still might not be enough. Isakson and Tester agreed to most of the changes. But in a White House meeting with veterans groups on Feb. 5, 2018, Selnick continued to insist on open choice, suggesting that’s what Trump wants. Selnick visited Moran’s staff, a person with knowledge of the meeting said, and Moran indicated he wouldn’t support the modified version of the Isakson-Tester bill. (A White House spokesman said Isakson and Tester did not accept all the changes and negotiations continue. He denied that Selnick pushed for open choice.) Moran’s spokesman didn’t answer emailed questions by press time.)

The tensions spilled out publicly again on Feb. 8, 2018, when the Washington Post reported that the White House wanted to oust Bowman, Shulkin’s deputy. The article said the purpose was to chastise Shulkin for “freewheeling” — working with senators who don’t share the administration’s position. Isakson’s spokeswoman called it a “shameful attempt” to derail the negotiations. Isakson resolved to move ahead without Moran, the spokeswoman said, but it’s not clear when the bill will get time on the Senate floor (the Senate focused on immigration this week and then will take a recess). Moran could still place a “hold” on the bill or round up other senators to oppose it.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA
Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Shulkin determined that Selnick and Leinenkugel had to go, according to four people familiar with the secretary’s thinking. But Shulkin doesn’t appear to have the authority to fire them since they work for the White House. Plus, the attacks from the right were already taking a toll on Shulkin’s standing. “If leaders at Trump’s VA don’t support REAL CHOICE — why won’t they resign?” former CVA chief Hegseth tweeted on Feb. 13, 2018 tagging Shulkin in the post.

Veterans advocates responded by defending Shulkin against attacks they viewed as originating with Selnick and Leinenkugel. “They thought they could coopt David,” said Weidman, the lobbyist for Vietnam Veterans of America. “When he couldn’t be coopted, they decided to go after his character.”

The biggest blow came on Feb. 14, 2018 when the VA’s Inspector General released its report on Shulkin’s trip to Europe in April 2017. It concluded that Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets, misused a subordinate as a “personal travel concierge,” lied to reporters, and that his chief of staff doctored an email in such a way that would justify paying travel expenses for Shulkin’s wife.

Shulkin disputed the IG’s findings, but he again ran into trouble getting his message out from his own press office. A statement insisting he had “done nothing wrong” disappeared from the VA’s website, and Cashour replaced it with one saying “we look forward to reviewing the report and its recommendations in more detail before determining an appropriate response.” Cashour said the White House directed him to take down Shulkin’s statement and approved the new one.

Shulkin told Politico the IG report was spurred by internal opponents. “They are really killing me,” he said. By Feb. 16, 2018, his chief of staff had told colleagues Friday she would retire, USA Today reported.

The condemnation after the IG report was swift and widespread. House veterans committee member Mike Coffman, R-Colo., called on Shulkin to resign. Democrats, though generally sympathetic to Shulkin, couldn’t resist lumping the imbroglio in with other travel-expense tempests across Trump’s cabinet (involving Tom Price, Ryan Zinke, Scott Pruitt, and Steven Mnuchin). The chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate veterans committees said they were “disappointed” and want Shulkin to address the allegations, but acknowledged the politics at work and the stakes in a joint statement: “We need to continue progress we have made and not allow distractions to get in the way.”

The next day, Shulkin appeared before another routine oversight hearing, in this instance on the House side. He told the representatives he would reimburse the government for his wife’s travel and accept the IG’s recommendations. Shulkin thanked the chairman and ranking member for urging their colleagues not to let the scandal commandeer the hearing. “I do regret the decisions that have been made that have taken the focus off that important work,” he said.

Turning to the VA’s budget, Shulkin resumed his tightrope walk. He praised the VA’s services while acknowledging the need for some veterans to be treated outside the government’s system. By the time he left the hearing, two hours later, the Trump administration’s position on veterans health privatization remained a mystery.

MIGHTY TRENDING

Azerbaijani wargames, COVID-19 pandemic and landmines in a disputed region

At the end of May, the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense announced the conclusion of their Large-Scale Operational-Tactical Exercises as part of their combat training plan for 2020. The week-long exercises included some 10,000 military personnel, 120 tanks and armored vehicles, 200 missile systems, 30 aviation units, and various unmanned aerial vehicles.

According to a statement from the Azerbaijan MOD, “During the exercise, the combat readiness, planning and operation of various military units will be developed, and the small and large scale capabilities of the strike groups will be checked.” The MOD released a statement at the conclusion of the exercises stating, “According to the exercises leadership’s evaluation, the troops fully achieved the goals assigned during the completed exercises. The military personnel amassed its practical experience and skills in carrying out combat operations and also demonstrated real abilities in the field.”


The Azerbaijani Military Exercises can be likened to exercises held at Fort Irwin, CA and Fort Polk, LA, the U.S. Army National Training Center and Joint Readiness Training Center respectively. Units come to these training centers to validate their planning, tactics, crews, and equipment in preparation for deployment.

However, rotations to NTC and JRTC were cancelled in March due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. The 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the Washington Army National Guard and the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, NY were on deck for the now-cancelled NTC and JRTC rotations. In lieu of their training exercises, the 81st BCT was made available to Washington state governor Jay Inslee to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2nd BCT remained at Fort Drum to continue to train for their next mission. NTC and JRTC rotations have yet to be rescheduled.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

Soldiers train for their worst day of combat in “The Box”. (U.S. Army photo from army.mil/released)

U.S. relations with Azerbaijan began immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991 when the U.S. formally recognized 12 former Soviet republics, including Azerbaijan, as independent states. In March 1992, respective embassies were opened in Washington and Baku. Due to its strategic location in the region, Azerbaijan has been an integral contributor in the War on Terror. The country has provided troops as well as overflight, refueling, and landing rights to U.S. and coalition aircraft in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, at the height of combat operations, over one-third of nonlethal equipment such as fuel, food, and clothing used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan traveled through Baku.

Relations have also been influenced by the ongoing dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In 1988, the local Karabakh provincial government appealed to the Soviet Union to transfer them from the Azerbaijani SSR to the Armenian SSR. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in the Karabakh region and Armenia held spontaneous mass demonstrations, the first of their kind in the USSR, in support of the appeal. The demonstrations sparked clashes between Azeris and ethnic Armenians in the Karabakh region, which continued through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Clashes turned into a bona fide war in January 1992 when the Nagorno-Karabakh parliament declared the region’s independence and intention to join with Armenia. Formal hostilities ended in May 1994 with a Russian-brokered ceasefire and the de facto independence of the Nagorno-Karabakh/Republic of Artsakh. However, the region is still recognized by most nations as part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Consequently, clashes have continued to erupt along the border to this day.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

Ethnic Armenians of the Artsakh Armed Forces conduct exercises in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. (Photo by the Artsakh Defense Ministry/released)

The Azerbaijani Military Exercises have raised alarm and garnered condemnation from the Armenian MOD.

“It is noteworthy that the exercises are exclusively offensive in nature, during which massive strikes of missile-artillery, aviation, and high-precision weapons at the operational depth of the enemy will be utilized,” the Armenian MOD stated, calling them, “a threat to the regional security environment.”

On May 20th, the U.S. Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper expressing concern over the Azerbaijani Military Exercises and a 0 million allocation of U.S. security assistance to Azerbaijan. The letter was co-signed by Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Jackie Speier (D-CA), Vice Chairs Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) and Adam Schiff (D-CA) as well as Representatives Judy Chu (D-CA), Katherine Clark (D-MA), Jim Costa (D-CA), T.J. Cox (D-CA), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), James Langevin (D-RI), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Grace Napolitano (D-CA), Linda Sanchez (D-CA), Albio Sires (D-NJ),Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Tom Suozzi (D-NY) and Juan Vargas (D-CA). The full text of the letter to Secretaries Pompeo and Esper is reprinted below.

Dear Secretaries Pompeo and Esper:

We are gravely concerned about the military exercises reported to be held by the Republic of Azerbaijan from May 18 to 22, 2020. These exercises are dangerous, violate diplomatic agreements and have the potential to destabilize security in the South Caucasus at a time when the COVID-19 global pandemic has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and threatened the health of many more. We strongly urge the Department of State and the Department of Defense to condemn these egregious actions taken by the Azerbaijani military.

Even in normal circumstances, these exercises would be unacceptable due to their offensive nature and the failure to follow diplomatic notification practices. On May 14, the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry released information describing military exercises that would take place from May 18 to 22. Azeri reports state that the exercises are expected to include 10,000 servicemen, 120 artillery and armored vehicles, 200 missile systems, 30 aviation units, and various unmanned aerial vehicles. The failure to provide adequate notification as prescribed under the 2011 Vienna Document and the size of the exercises demonstrates Azerbaijani President Aliyev’s intention of further aggravating historical tensions with the Republic of Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh.

We are especially concerned that over 0 million in security assistance the United States has sent to Azerbaijan over the last two years through the Section 333 Building Partner Capacity program has emboldened the Aliyev regime. This taxpayer funding defies almost two decades of parity in U.S. security assistance to Armenia and Azerbaijan. The aid appears to have allowed Azerbaijan to shift resources toward offensive capabilities and further threaten Armenian lives and regional stability as the Co-Chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues warned in letters sent to you in September and November of 2019.

We cannot allow Azerbaijan to use the global coronavirus pandemic as cover for these dangerous military operations. We urge you to immediately condemn the reckless actions of the Azerbaijani military and to work with our allies and international partners to halt the provocative actions being taken by the Aliyev Regime.

We look forward to your prompt reply to this request.

Sincerely,

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

U.S. Representative Frank Pallone. (U.S. House of Representative Official Portrait, 113th Congress/released)

The following day, May 21, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Lynne Tracy announced during a Facebook Live appearance that the Trump administration is ending USAID’s humanitarian Artsakh demining program. In response to criticism over the defunding of the program, Ambassador Tracy underscored the benefits of the demining program and its successes over the past 20 years, but noted that the U.S. is, “preparing populations for peace…to help toward that goal of achieving a lasting peaceful settlement of the conflict.”

For decades, this region and its inhabitants have navigated a tumultuous era of changing borders and armed conflict. The U.S. has had to walk a fine line between these two conflicting nations as they continue to clash, both politically and militarily, over this area in the Caucasus region. This path of attempted neutrality between the two nations may not be an option for the U.S. in the future if tensions continue to rise.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

Nagorno-Karabakh Army T-72 tanks on parade. (Photo by the Nagorno-Karabakh Army/released)

Disclaimer: The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and the Republic of Artsakh refer to the same region. Nagorno-Karabakh is derived from the Soviet name for this region and recognized by Azerbaijan and the international community, while Artsakh is the Armenian name for this region and utilized by Armenians to advocate for the sovereignty of the region. The people of the region generally prefer the Republic of Artsakh, but both are technically correct.

MIGHTY SURVIVAL

Another senior politician has died of coronavirus in Iran, where 8% of the parliament is infected

Another senior Iranian politician has died of the coronavirus amid reports that 8% of the country’s parliament has been infected.


Hossein Sheikholeslam, a diplomat and the country’s former ambassador to Syria, died Thursday, according to state news agency Fars. Sheikholeslam worked as an adviser to Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Sheikholeslam studied at the University of California, Berkeley, before the Islamic Revolution and later interrogated US Embassy staff members during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979.

Eight percent of Iran’s parliament has been infected with the coronavirus, including the deputy health minister and one of the vice presidents, according to CNN. Mohammad Mirmohammadi, a senior adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, died in a hospital on Monday, a state-affiliated media organization said.

Tehran, Iran’s capital, subsequently barred government officials from traveling, and parliament has been suspended indefinitely.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

As of Thursday, about 3,500 Iranians have been infected, and 107 have died from the disease, according to government officials, but the true totals are suspected to be higher.

Iran, along with China, is believed to be underreporting the rate of deaths and infections as it struggles to deal with the health crisis. Iran and Italy have the highest death tolls outside China, where over 3,000 people have died from the disease.

Iran has taken several measures to address growing concerns about the coronavirus, including temporarily releasing 54,000 prisoners from crowded jails.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

The US State Department has offered assistance to Iran, but the country did not appear to be receptive.

“We have made offers to the Islamic Republic of Iran to help,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told lawmakers last week. “And we’ve made it clear to others around the world and in the region that assistance, humanitarian assistance, to push back against the coronavirus in Iran is something the United States of America fully supports.”

Iran responded to the aid by saying it would “neither count on such help nor are we ready to accept verbal help,” according to NBC News correspondent Ali Arouzi.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

MIGHTY MILSPOUSE

Marine Corps’ last Prowler returns from final deployment

The last of the Marine Corps‘ remaining EA-6B Prowlers have wrapped up their final mission in the Middle East, where they supported troops taking on the Islamic State group. Now, the electronic-warfare aircraft will soon be headed to the boneyard.

More than 250 members of Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 2 are returning to North Carolina after spending seven months operating out of Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The squadron — the last to fly the service’s decades-old electronic-warfare aircraft — is only about four months away from being deactivated.


But that didn’t slow the Death Jesters downrange, where they were tapped with supporting two campaigns simultaneously: Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria, and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan.

“The mission of the Prowler is and always has been to deny, degrade and disrupt the enemy’s use of the electromagnetic spectrum,” said Capt. Robert Ryland, an electronic-countermeasures officer with VMAQ-2. Being based in Qatar, he added, allowed them to respond to missions for both operations.

Ryland declined to specify how many flight hours the crews flew throughout the deployment, due to operational security concerns. But the operational tempo remained high throughout the deployment, he said.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

A U.S. Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller)

“The presence of electronic warfare is extremely important to the supported unit,” he said. “Though this is the final EA-6B deployment, the need for electronic warfare will remain high worldwide in the future.”

The Marines were called on to support not only U.S. ground troops, but coalition forces as well. From planning missions to executing them, the squadron worked with troops from several countries.

“There were a lot of people on this deployment who’ve dedicated their entire lives to this aircraft, its community and most importantly, the electronic-warfare mission,” Ryland said.

The end of an era

The Prowler has been a part of the Marine Corps’ aviation arsenal since the Vietnam era. The aircraft has been vital on the battlefield, since, including during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now in the fight against ISIS terrorists.

Seeing the Prowler used all the way up until its sundown says a lot about its capabilities, said 1st Lt. Sam Stephenson, a spokesman for 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing. Despite the aircraft’s age, Ryland said the Marines with VMAQ-2 were able to maintain high readiness throughout this final deployment.

“There’s sometimes a bit of a misconception that old equals having a hard time getting jets airborne, but that’s actually not the case with the Prowler,” he said.

Ryland credits their skilled maintainers, who’ve worked on Prowlers for a long time. Some joined VMAQ-2 when other Prowler squadrons deactivated.

Now as VMAQ-2 prepares to deactivate, too, the Marines with this squadron are on the lookout for new opportunities. Some will transition to other Marine Corps aircraft, join a different branch, or leave the military when their service time is up, Ryland said.

“Everybody has their own personal plan for what they’ll do next,” Ryland said.

Lt. Col. Greg Sand, EA-6B requirements officer with Marine Corps headquarters, told Military.com in 2017 that the Prowler’s sunset wouldn’t force anyone out of the Marine Corps.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

Three EA-6B Prowlers.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. N.W. Huertas)

If Marines weren’t selected to transfer to work on another aircraft, he said they could always serve in B-billets or support their headquarters. And some with EA-6B aircrews were also transitioning to work with drone squadrons, he said.

Despite the end of the Prowlers’ era, the need for electronic-warfare capabilities on the battlefield isn’t going away. Throughout the aircraft’s sundown process, Stephenson said the Marine Corps has been building up a suite of new electronic-warfare capabilities across the Marine air-ground task force.

According to Marine Corps planning documents, that includes pods or sensors that can be affixed to other aircraft and new signals intelligence and cyber capabilities.

“This will be the new way the Marine Corps plans to transition from utilizing the Prowlers to a more distributed strategy where every platform contributes and functions as a sensor, shooter and sharer and [includes] an EW node,” Stephenson said.

Marine units heading to sea or combat are already carrying some of those capabilities, Sand said. They offer commanders a great deal of flexibility, since they can be added to fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft.

“A MAGTF commander can just walk out onto a flightline now, see the asset, and he or she owns that asset and can task that asset,” Sand said.

And Marine ground troops will still be able to call on joint forces when they need airborne electronic attack capabilities, he added.

“The Prowler in practical terms has been replaced in additional capacities by the Navy [EA-18G] Growler,” Sand said. “That’s a Super Hornet … with a pretty fierce EW capability. The Growler really is the follow-on to the Prowler.”

For now, VMAQ-2 still has a few months of work left before the Prowlers’ final flights. When the squadron does get ready to say goodbye to its beloved aircraft in March 2019, Ryland says they’ll hold a sundown ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. Any Marine who worked with the Prowler, whether a year or decades ago, is invited to attend.

“The Prowler has been a really incredible workhorse for the Marine Corps, the United States and allied forces for many, many decades,” Ryland said. “I know the people who fly and fix these aircraft have a lot of respect for them and certainly for those who came before us.

“There is a tremendous amount of hard work and training that goes into performing the Prowler mission,” he added. “It’s a great honor, every time I get to fly in one.”

This article originally appeared on Military.com. Follow @militarydotcom on Twitter.

MIGHTY CULTURE

The 13 funniest military memes for the week of October 26th

Oh boy, picking just one military news story and riffing on it is going to be hard this week.

Let’s see… The Coasties beat the Marines in a sniper competition. The Marines drew another skydick over Miramar. Civilians learned that the Air Force has enough money to waste hundreds of thousands on easily broken coffee mugs. A soldier got arrested in South Korea for kicking a policeman in the nads. And the Commander-in-Chief said he’d, “send in the military — not the guard — but the military,” effectively discrediting the efforts of over half a million guardsmen.

Because I can’t come up with anything funnier than reality has been this week for the military, I’ll just remind you that your Cyber Security cert is almost expired. You should probably get on that.


The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

(Meme via Decelerate Your Life)

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

(Meme via Air Force Nation Humor)

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

(Meme via The Salty Soldier)

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

(Meme via Hooah My Ass Off)

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

(Meme via Smokepit Fairytales)

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

(Meme via Battle Bars)

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

(Meme via Pop Smoke)

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

(Meme via Private News Network)

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

(Meme via Ranger Up)

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

(Meme via Valhalla Wear)

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

(Meme via Untied Status Marin Crops)

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

(Meme via Army as F*ck)

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

(Meme via US Army WTF Moments)

13. The perfect Halloween costume doesn’t exi-

No, seriously. You should probably get your Cyber Security training done.

MIGHTY FIT

From the football field to the battlefield: 7 vets with NFL ties

The National Football League has been plagued by questions of patriotism in the last few years. But whether or not the NFL kneels or stands this year, it’s important to remember that some of the players and coaches have served, too.


The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

1. George Halas

Halas was instrumental in the creation of the NFL and responsible for founding the team that went on to be the Chicago Bears in 1920. Nicknamed “Papa Bear,” Halas coached the Bears for 40 seasons, leading them to six NFL titles. Halas served in the Navy during World War I and returned to Navy service from 1942-1945.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

2. Ralph Wilson, Jr.

Enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2009, Wilson founded the Buffalo Bills following his service in the Navy during World War II. He was also instrumental in the merger between the AFL and the NFL in 1970.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

3. Kevin Greene

Greene retired from the NFL in 1999 and ranks third among all-time sack leaders. He led the NFL twice in that category with an impressive career playing for the Steelers, Rams, Panthers, and 49ers, with five appearances in the Pro Bowl. Greene was a member of ROTC at Auburn and served 16 years in the Army Reserves.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

4. Alejandro Villanueva Martínez

Villanueva is an offensive tackle for the Steelers. A veteran Army Ranger, Villanueva was a captain in the Army, served in Afghanistan, and was decorated with a Bronze Star.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

5. Tom Landry

Hall of Famer Tom Landry was a coaching phenom for the Dallas Cowboys. He led his team to two Super Bowl titles and had 20 straight winning seasons. Equally impressive was Landry’s service in the Army Air Corps during World War II. The B-17 co-pilot flew 30 missions and survived a crash in Belgium. He passed away in 2000 at age 75 as a legend and a hero.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

6. Dick “Night Train” Lane

The Hall of Famer had an incredible 68 career interceptions during his time with the Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Cardinals, and Detroit Lions. For nine straight years (1954-1963), Lane earned first or second-team All-NFL honors. He played in seven Pro Bowls and during his rookie season, had an unprecedented 14 interceptions – a record that still stands today. Lane served in the Army during both World War II and the Korean War.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

7. Roger Staubach

Staubach, nicknamed “Captain America,” won the 1963 Heisman Trophy during his time as quarterback at the U.S. Naval Academy. After graduation, Staubach served his commitment in the Navy, which included a tour in Vietnam. Following his service, Staubach joined the Cowboys and played in Dallas for all 11 seasons of his professional football career. During his tenure, the Cowboys won two of their five Super Bowl appearances.

The list of NFL greats who served their country continues with inspiring men like Pat Tillman, George McAfee, Mike Anderson, and so many more. But for every big name in the NFL, there are countless men that gave up their football dreams to serve their country.

You may not have heard of Jack Ankerson, but he only played three NFL exhibition games in 1964 before Uncle Sam called him up to serve his time. By the time his commitment was done, so was his chance to play in the NFL. But Jack, like so many others who chose service above self, is everything that’s right with America and the sports we love to watch.

Whether they’re a hometown hero or a household name, we salute all of our football playing and football-loving veterans.

MIGHTY TRENDING

The ballsy way the DEA took down ‘El Chapo’

By 2010, when a Drug Enforcement Administration agent named Drew Hogan arrived in Mexico City with his family, the Mexican kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman had been on the run for nine years.

The Sinaloa cartel chief had slipped out of a prison in southwest Mexico during the first weeks of 2001 — some say while hiding in a laundry basket.


Once on the ground in Mexico, Hogan picked up the trail “by looking at the details,” he said.

“It was in the details — in the numbers,” he told NBC’s Today show in an interview on April 4, 2018, about his latest book, Hunting El Chapo.

“The phone numbers don’t lie,” Hogan said. “And I was able to pair up with a crack team of Homeland Security investigative agents, and we began intercepting members of Chapo’s inner circle and starting to dismantle layers within his sophisticated communications structure until we got to the top, where I had his personal secretary’s device, who was standing right next to him, and I could ping that to establish a pattern of life to determine where he was at.”

The search for Guzman led authorities to his home turf in Sinaloa state, in northwest Mexico.

Sinaloa, where Guzman was born and got his start in the drug trade, is considered a cradle of Mexican drug trafficking, producing figures like the Guadalajara cartel chiefs Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, and Rafael Caro Quintero; the Sinaloa cartel chiefs Guzman, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, and Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, aka “El Azul”; and others, like the Juarez cartel chief Amado Carrillo Fuentes, aka “the Lord of the Skies,” and members of the Arellano Felix family, who ran the Tijuana cartel in the 1990s and 2000s.

Hogan’s search eventually led to Mazatlan, a resort town in southwestern Sinaloa state. There, Guzman had lived what Hogan described as an unremarkable lifestyle.

“I was surprised with the way that he lived,” Hogan said. “He almost afforded himself no luxury — same plastic tables and chairs in every safe house that was designed the same way.”

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA
Drew Hogan, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent, on the ‘Today’ show.

(NBC)

After 13 years on the run, however, Guzman had begun to let his guard down, venturing out of the rugged Sinaloa mountains to relax in Mazatlan and nearby Culiacan, the state capital.

Several of his associates were captured or killed in the first weeks of 2014.

Near the end of February 2014, Mexican marines stormed a house belonging to Guzman’s ex-wife, but they struggled to knock down a steel-reinforced door, allowing Guzman time to escape.

A few days later, they launched another raid targeting the elusive kingpin.

“We were at the Hotel Miramar,” Hogan said, and Guzman was on the fourth floor. “The Mexican marines went inside and started banging down doors. I was standing outside. I was worried about our perimeter. I was worried about him escaping us again. And I heard excited radio chatter: ‘They got him. They got him. They got the target.’

“My vehicle was first in. I drove it down to the underground parking garage, and that’s where they had him,” Hogan continued. “They were just standing him up. I got out of my vehicle, ran right up to him, I’m wearing this black ball cap that I had taken out of his closet … in Culiacan — my only souvenir of the hunt — wearing a black ski mask, and I ran right up to up to him, jumped into his face, and said the first thing that came to my head.

“I screamed, ‘What’s up, Chapo?!'”

Guzman’s capture was heralded in Mexico and abroad and held up by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto as a hallmark achievement of his efforts to combat criminal groups and drug-related violence in the country.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA
Enrique Peu00f1a Nieto, President of Mexico.

But Guzman’s time in prison was short-lived. In July 2015, the Sinaloa cartel chief again slipped out, this time through a mile-long tunnel dug from a partially constructed house to the Altiplano maximum-security prison and right up to the shower in Guzman’s cell.

“It was pretty predictable,” Hogan said of Guzman’s escape. “This tunnel that went underneath the prison was the same types of tunnels that went underneath the safe houses, were the same types of tunnels that are at the US-Mexico border.”

Numerous security lapses were discovered in the aftermath.

Altiplano had the same layout as the prison Guzman broke out of in 2001. (A former Mexican security official who joined the Sinaloa cartel is suspected of stealing the prison plans.)

Reports indicated that a geolocation device Guzman had to wear may have been used by his associates to locate him within the prison. Guzman told Mexican officials his henchmen were able to build two tunnels under the prison after the first one missed the cell.

Sounds of digging under his cell were detected but not investigated, and about 30 minutes passed between when Guzman went out of sight in his cell and when jailers responded to his absence.

“It was coming if they didn’t have him on complete lockdown,” Hogan said.

Guzman’s freedom after the 2015 breakout was brief. He made his way back to Sinaloa, where Mexican authorities picked up the trail, conducting a search that frequently put civilians under fire.

But Guzman was apprehended in January 2016, spending another year in Mexico — a stint marked by more fear about another breakout — before his extradition to the US in January 2017, just a few hours before President Donald Trump took office.

Guzman is now locked up at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. His trial is set to start in September 2018, in Brooklyn.

MIGHTY TRENDING

ISIS ripped off ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in its latest propaganda video

The self-styled Islamic State is trying to lure people to fight for the terror group with a scene from “The Lord of the Rings.”

In a propaganda video published on May 22, 2018, bearing the terrorist group’s watermark, the group’s chapter in Kirkuk, Iraq, used four seconds of footage from the trilogy to encourage followers to “conquer the enemies.”


The clip was taken from the third LOTR movie, “The Return of the King.” It shows the riders of Rohan charging an orc army at the Battle of The Pelennor Fields, but seems to be in the video more as a generic medieval battle scene.

Here’s the scene. The part that ISIS repurposed comes around the 2 minute 30 second mark:

The ISIS video, which Business Insider has reviewed, then cuts to footage of soldiers on horseback fighting each other, with the voice of an Arabic-language narrator — which was also taken from a Hollywood movie.

That scene was from “Kingdom of Heaven,” a 2005 film starring Orlando Bloom as a French blacksmith joining the Crusades to fight against Muslims for the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The medieval scenes are spliced inbetween images of ISIS fighters in the field, and news footage showing Donald Trump and various news anchors talking about ISIS.

The terror group is fond of crusader imagery, and often frames its battle with the west as a new-age crusade. Its official communications describe routinely describes people from western nations, especially victims of terror attacks, as “crusaders.”

ISIS’s use of Hollywood films in the propaganda video was first pointed out by Caleb Weiss, an analyst at the Long War Journal, on Twitter.

The Ride of the Rohirrim scene appears to be popular among jihadis. It was also used by the Turkistan Islamic Party, an extremist group founded in western China, Weiss pointed out in 2017.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

MIGHTY TRENDING

US Navy needs help fixing its $13 billion supercarriers

The Navy is struggling to fix its new Ford-class supercarriers, so the service has called in outside experts to help find a solution amid delivery delays and rising costs.

The advanced weapons elevators, critical systems that the secretary of the Navy bet his job on, are one of the biggest problems. Only two of the 11 electromagnetic lifts on the USS Gerald R. Ford are currently operational.

The advanced weapons elevators on the Ford-class carriers are designed to move 20,000 pounds of munitions up to the flight deck at a rate of 150 feet per minute, a significant improvement over elevators on the Nimitz-class aircraft carriers able to lift only 10,500 pounds at 100 feet per minute. These lifts are crucial to increasing the aircraft sortie rate, thus increasingly the lethality of the new carriers over their predecessors.


But that requires they work, and right now, they don’t.

Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer told President Donald Trump in December 2018 that “the elevators will be ready to go when she pulls out or you can fire me.” He told reporters earlier this year that “we’re going to get it done. I know I’m going to get it done. I haven’t been fired yet by anyone. Being fired by the president really isn’t on the top of my list.”

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

USS Gerald R. Ford.

(U.S. Navy photo by Erik Hildebrandt)

The secretary assured the president that problems with the elevators would be resolved by the end of the post-shakedown availability (PSA), a maintenance period following initial sea trials. The PSA was expected to wrap up in July 2019, but it has since been delayed to October 2019.

Trump has fixated on the Ford-class’s electromagnetic catapults that launch planes into the air, and said the future carriers would return to steam-powered catapults.

Even with the delays, the Navy doubted it could solve the elevator problem by the end of the PSA. “The elevators are going to require more work after the PSA,” a Navy official previously told Business Insider. “The elevators are the long pole in the tent,” he said, clarifying that integration remains the greatest challenge.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ridge Leoni.

So, the Navy has decided to bring in outside help, Breaking Defense reported July 1, 2019.

“We’ve gathered a team of experts on the carrier right now, which will work with the shipbuilder to get Ford’s weapons elevators completed in the most efficient timeline possible,” Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition James Geurts told the defense media outlet in a statement. “We have a full court press on the advanced weapons elevators.”

The team of experts called into work with Huntington Ingalls at the Newport News shipyard in Virginia has experience with electromagnetic systems, electrical engineering, and systems integration. This group will “recommend new design changes that can improve elevator activities for the rest of the Ford class,” Guerts said.

While the Navy has yet to get the Ford working as intended, the service has already committed billions of dollars to the development of three additional Ford-class carriers.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.

MIGHTY TRENDING

Everything you need to know about Trump’s 2019 budget

President Donald Trump, on Feb. 12, 2018, released his budget request for fiscal 2019, marking the first step in a months-long process in which lawmakers from both chambers of Congress debate and, ultimately, decide on its funding levels and policy provisions.


Trump’s defense budget request for the fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1, totals $716 billion, including $686 billion for the Defense Department alone. The Pentagon’s top line includes a base budget of $597.1 billion and an overseas contingency operations, or war, budget of $89 billion. It represents a nearly 12 percent increase over the current year’s level of nearly $612 billion.

Also read: The military and its paychecks get a boost in the new budget

But defense spending as a share of the economy would remain relatively flat at roughly 3.1 percent, according to Pentagon budget documents, and the spending bump would be financed in part by deficit spending.

Here’s a breakdown of everything you need to know about the President’s budget request:

2.6% pay raise

The Defense Department proposed a 2.6 percent military pay raise for 2019 that would come on top of the 2.4 percent increase this year. “In support of the department’s effort to continue to build a bigger, more lethal and ready force, the FY2019 budget proposes a 2.6 percent increase in military basic pay,” the Pentagon said in releasing its budget request. The proposed raise, which would have to be approved by Congress and the White House, would amount to the largest military pay raise in nine years, the department said in the supporting papers for the budget request. Check out Military.com’s pay charts to see what the change would mean for you.

16K more troops

The proposed spending plan would add 16,400 more troops, bringing the size of the total force, including the Guard and Reserve components, to 2.15 million members. That figure differs from those published in the Pentagon’s overview budget document because it takes into account 2018 levels recently authorized by Congress. The additional troops would include 15,600 for the active component, with 1.3 million service members; and 800 for the Guard and Reserve, with 817,700 service members, respectively. Here’s how those figures break down: 4,000 soldiers for the active Army, 7,500 sailors for the Navy, 100 Marines for the Marine Corps, and 4,000 airmen for the Air Force; 100 sailors for the Navy Reserve, 200 airmen for the Air Force Reserve, and 500 airmen for the Air National Guard.

Related: White House wants $30B defense budget increase this year to rebuild military, fight ISIS

More aircraft, ships, vehicles

The president’s budget would fund a number of weapons systems designed to give the U.S. armed forces a technological edge over adversaries, including new missile interceptors and cyber operations. It would also fund a higher number of existing aircraft, ships and combat vehicles, including adding 77 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 24 F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter jets, 68 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, 250 B61 nuclear bomb upgrades, three Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, two fleet replenishment oilers, five satellite launches through the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program and 5,113 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA
U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. (Photo by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen.)

Army

The Army is requesting $182 billion, including war funding, a 15 percent increase from $158 billion, according to budget documents. The service wants to continue growing its headcount, with funding for 4,000 soldiers for the active component, largely to resource fires, air defense and logistics units. The service would also purchase large quantities of long-range missiles and artillery shells, and would buy a higher number of aircraft such as the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters made by Boeing Co.; combat vehicles including the Joint Light Tactical Vehicles made by Oshkosh Corp., and missile systems such as the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System and the Army Tactical Missile System.

Navy

The Navy is requesting $194.1 billion, including war funding, a 12 percent increase from $173 billion in fiscal 2018, according to budget documents. However, the much-hailed jump-start in Navy shipbuilding to reach the larger fleet officials say the service needs represents only a small portion of the service’s requested funding increase. By 2023, the Navy expects to add 54 new ships, but most of them had already been part of long-term production plans. For 2019, the plan includes only one more ship than was budgeted in 2018: an additional Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, for a total purchase of three instead of two. The service is also set to add 7,600 sailors as its fleet grows, in part to man new Navy variant of the V-22 Osprey, the CMV-22.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA
Marine Corps MV-22 Ospreys fly over the Arabian Sea. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Keonaona C. Paulo)

Air Force

The Air Force is requesting $194.1 billion, including war funding, a 14 percent increase. The proposal would increase the size of the service’s active-duty end strength to just over 329,100 airmen, an increase of 4,000 airmen over the current year, according to the documents. The Air National Guard is requesting another 500 airmen; the Air Force Reserve wants another 200 airmen. The spending plan also includes funding to train nearly 1,000 pilots to deal with a chronic shortage; buy more F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, MQ-9 Reaper drones, KC-46 tankers; develop the future B-21 bomber; and replenish the stockpile of precision-guided munitions such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, and Hellfire missiles.

More reading: Defense budget spotlight: What do weapons really cost?

Marine Corps

Part of the Navy’s fiscal 2019 budget request, the Marine Corps is asking for $28.9 billion, a nearly 5 percent increase. As a second rotation of Marine advisers begins work in Helmand province, Afghanistan, and other units continue to fight ISIS in the Middle East, the budget request features a significant increase in big guns and artillery rockets — as well as a plus-up of some 1,100 Marines, including 2018 manning increases. There are significant procurement outlays as the Marine Corps makes big investments in its CH-53K King Stallion, slated to replace the CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopter in coming years, and continues to pursue the amphibious combat vehicle 1.1. Among the most eye-catching planned buys, however, are in ground weapons systems, including 155mm towed howitzers and high mobility artillery rocket systems, or HIMARS.

Coast Guard

The Coast Guard asked for about $11.7 billion in funding for fiscal 2019, an increase of $979 million, or 8.4 percent, over its previous request. The additional money would include $750 million for a new heavy icebreaker slated for delivery in 2023. The funding would go toward building “the Nation’s first new heavy Polar Icebreaker in over 40 years,” a budget document states. In other big-ticket equipment items, the service’s budget request also includes $400 million in funding for an offshore patrol cutter and $240 million in funding to buy four new fast response cutters (FRCs), designed to replace the 110-foot patrol boats and to enhance the service’s ability to conduct search-and-rescue operations, enforce border security, interdict drugs, uphold immigration laws and prevent terrorism.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA
The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star, with 75,000 horsepower and its 13,500-ton weight, is guided by its crew to break through Antarctic ice en route to the National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Station, Jan. 15, 2017. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer David Mosley)

Veterans Affairs

The Veterans Affairs Department requested $199 billion, an increase of $12 billion, or 6.5 percent, from the current request. The plan includes nearly $110 billion in mandatory funding for benefits programs and $89 billion in discretionary funding, with the goal of “expanding health-care services, improving quality and expanding choice to over 9 million enrolled Veterans,” the VA said. The budget includes money for the Veterans Choice Program, which allows vets to seek private-sector care. It also includes another $1.2 billion for a costly effort begun in 2011 to make health records electronic and reintroduces a controversial proposal to round-down cost-of-living (COLA) adjustments to the nearest dollar for vets who receive disability compensation — a practice that was standard until 2013, Stars and Stripes reported.

Articles

US sending 600 more troops to Iraq to bolster drive on Mosul

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Soldiers board their plane for deployment at Libby Army Airfield. | US Army photo by Gabrielle Kuholski


The U.S. was preparing to send 600 more troops to Iraq for the long-awaited offensive to drive the Islamic State from the stronghold of northwestern Mosul, where ISIS fighters were expected to use mustard gas to blunt the attack, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

The official announcement was expected to come later in the day the additional troops, who were expected to operate as trainers and enablers mostly out of the logistics hub for the offensive at the Qayyarah West airfield about 40 miles southeast of Mosul.

Earlier this week, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman said that ISIS was “dead set” on using chemical weapons to defend Mosul. Last week, a shell fired by ISIS near U.S. troops in Qayyarah was initially thought to contain blistering mustard gas but later tests showed that it was not a chemical weapon.

Army Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, also said that ISIS was attempting to turn Mosul into a “living hell” for the attacking force by setting out extensive fields of improvised explosive devices and even filling trenches with oil.

The troops would be in addition to the 4,647 currently authorized for Iraq by President Obama and were requested by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

In a statement, Abadi said “American President Barack Obama was consulted on a request from the Iraqi government for a final increase in the number of trainers and advisers under the umbrella of the international coalition in Iraq,” Reuters reported.

Articles

US military examines whether Russia aided in Syrian chemical attacks

Senior U.S. military officials said April 7 that they were looking into whether Russia aided Syrian forces in this week’s deadly chemical attack on civilians in Idlib province.


“We think we have a good picture of who supported them as well,” one senior military official told reporters at the Pentagon, adding that the Pentagon was “carefully assessing any information that would implicate the Russians knew or assisted with this Syrian capability.”

The officials said that at a minimum, the Russians failed to rein in the Syrian regime activity that has killed innocent Syrian civilians. They said Russia also failed to fulfill its 2013 guarantee that Syria’s chemical weapons would be eliminated.

The U.S. military officials noted that they had not seen evidence of Russian involvement in the chemical attack. However, the officials said the Russians had an aviation unit based at the airfield where the attack originated and have “chemical expertise in country.”

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The U.S. commander of coalition forces in Iraq and Syria says a Russian air strike in northern Syria accidentally struck U.S.-backed Syrian Arab forces who are part of the fight against so-called Islamic State (IS) militants. (YouTube screenshot: Kurdistan24.net)

U.S. military officials have shown reporters the Syrian aircraft flight path that was taken April 4 from al-Shayrat airfield to the town of Khan Sheikhoun, where more than 80 people were killed in the attack that local doctors said involved sarin nerve gas.

On April 7, U.S. military officials said that after the attack, they watched a small drone, also called a UAV, flying over the hospital in Khan Sheikoun where victims of the chemical attack were being treated.

“About five hours later, the UAV returned, and the hospital was struck by additional munitions,” one official said.

The senior military official said the U.S. did not know why the hospital was struck or who carried out the strike, but had determined that it was potentially done “to hide the evidence of a chemical attack.”

Meanwhile, senior military officials said the United States and Russia would maintain a line of communication aimed at preventing midair collisions of their warplanes in Syrian airspace. That contradicted Moscow’s earlier assertion that it had suspended those communications in protest against the Tomahawk cruise missile strike on al-Shayrat airfield.

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In early 2017, a Russian plane buzzed a U.S. destroyer. (Dept. of Defense image)

The communication line is primarily used to ensure that Russian and U.S. planes conducting combat missions in Syria do not get into unintentional confrontations. The U.S. is using the airspace to conduct strikes against Islamic State terrorists.

The U.S. used the line to inform the Russians of the intent to strike in order to warn any Russians who were at the base, officials said.

The April 6 U.S. strike used 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to hit targets on the Syrian airfield, including about 20 aircraft, aircraft storage facilities, ammunition supply bunkers, and radars, officials said.

A U.S. military official told Voice of America there was an area on the airfield known to have been used as a chemical weapons depot. The source said that the U.S. military did not know whether chemical weapons were still in that area, but out of an abundance of caution to avoid potential casualties, the missiles did not strike that area.

Other U.S. military officials told Voice of America the strikes did not target the airfield runways so as to not threaten Russians, adding that the Tomahawk type used was for “precision strikes, not cratering.”

One military official deemed the strikes as “appropriate, proportionate, precise, and effective.”

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The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea, April 7, 2017 (local time). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams

The office of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad described the strikes in a statement on April 7 as “reckless” and “irresponsible.” The statement added that the attacks were “shortsighted” and a continuation of a U.S. policy of “subjugating people.”

Russia, which is providing troops and air support to the Assad government, condemned the U.S. military action, calling it “aggression against a sovereign state,” and said it was suspending a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. for flight safety over Syria.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on April 7 that the United States “took a very measured step last night.” She added, “We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary.”

VOA’s Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.

MIGHTY TRENDING

How Vietnam veterans can get a rare cancer from this parasite

A half century after serving in Vietnam, hundreds of veterans have a new reason to believe they may be dying from a silent bullet — test results show some men may have been infected by a slow-killing parasite while fighting in the jungles of Southeast Asia.


The Department of Veterans Affairs this spring commissioned a small pilot study to look into the link between liver flukes ingested through raw or undercooked fish and a rare bile duct cancer. It can take decades for symptoms to appear. By then, patients are often in tremendous pain, with just a few months to live.

Of the 50 blood samples submitted, more than 20 percent came back positive or bordering positive for liver fluke antibodies, said Sung-Tae Hong, the tropical medicine specialist who carried out the tests at Seoul National University in South Korea.

“It was surprising,” he said, stressing the preliminary results could include false positives and that the research is ongoing.

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Members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in combat on Hill 875 during the Vietnam War (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Northport VA Medical Center spokesman Christopher Goodman confirmed the New York facility collected the samples and sent them to the lab. He would not comment on the findings, but said everyone who tested positive was notified.

Gerry Wiggins, who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, has already lost friends to the disease. He was among those who got the call.

“I was in a state of shock,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be me.”

The 69-year-old, who lives in Port Jefferson Station, New York, didn’t have any symptoms when he agreed to take part in the study, but hoped his participation could help save lives. He immediately scheduled further tests, discovering he had two cysts on his bile duct, which had the potential to develop into the cancer, known as cholangiocarcinoma. They have since been removed and — for now — he’s doing well.

Also Read: This is the parting wisdom of a Marine dying of cancer

Though rarely found in Americans, the parasites infect an estimated 25 million people worldwide, mostly in Asia.

Endemic in the rivers of Vietnam, the worms can easily be wiped out with a handful of pills early on, but left untreated, they can live for decades without making their hosts sick. Over time, swelling and inflammation of the bile duct can lead to cancer. Jaundice, itchy skin, weight loss, and other symptoms appear only when the disease is in its final stages.

The VA study, along with a call by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York for broader research into liver flukes and cancer-stricken veterans, began after The Associated Press raised the issue in a story last year. The reporting found that about 700 veterans with cholangiocarcinoma have been seen by the VA in the past 15 years. Less than half of them submitted claims for service-related benefits, mostly because they were not aware of a possible connection to Vietnam. The VA rejected 80 percent of the requests, but decisions often appeared to be haphazard or contradictory, depending on what desks they landed on, the AP found.

The Trump Administration is at war with itself over the VA
A quote from Abraham Lincoln on a sign at the Department of Veterans Affairs Building in Washington, DC. | Photo via Flickr

The number of claims submitted reached 60 in 2017, up from 41 last year. Nearly three out of four of those cases were also denied, even though the government posted a warning on its website this year saying veterans who ate raw or under-cooked freshwater fish while in Vietnam might be at risk. It stopped short of urging them to get ultrasounds or other tests, saying there was currently no evidence the vets had higher infection rates than the general population.

“We are taking this seriously,” said Curt Cashour, a spokesman with the Department of Veterans Affairs. “But until further research, a recommendation cannot be made either way.”

Veteran Mike Baughman, 65, who was featured in the previous AP article, said his claim was granted early this year after being denied three times. He said the approval came right after his doctor wrote a letter saying his bile duct cancer was “more likely than not” caused by liver flukes from the uncooked fish he and his unit in Vietnam ate when they ran out of rations in the jungle. He now gets about $3,100 a month and says he’s relieved to know his wife will continue to receive benefits after he dies. But he remains angry that other veterans’ last days are consumed by fighting the same government they went to war for as young men.

Also Read: VA begins awarding compensation for C-123 agent orange claims

“In the best of all worlds, if you came down with cholangiocarcinoma, just like Agent Orange, you automatically were in,” he said, referring to benefits granted to veterans exposed to the toxic defoliant sprayed in Vietnam. “You didn’t have to go fighting.”

Baughman, who is thin and weak, recently plucked out “Country Roads” on a bass during a jam session at his cabin in West Virginia. He wishes the VA would do more to raise awareness about liver flukes and to encourage Vietnam veterans to get an ultrasound that can detect inflammation.

“Personally, I got what I needed, but if you look at the bigger picture with all these other veterans, they don’t know what necessarily to do,” he said. “None of them have even heard of it before. A lot of them give me that blank stare like, ‘You’ve got what?'”

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