It is now officially time we all had a talk about this ‘Stolen Valor’ craziness.
A while back, I was at the airport in Chicago passing through on business and I had just finished dinner and was standing up in the process of paying my bill. I was a middle aged guy with a heavy five o’clock shadow, physically fit without looking super athletic, and wearing civilian clothes – honestly, I didn’t much look like a soldier.
As I turned to go, this huge kid reeking of beer and at least a few percentage points over his tape test walked right up on me and blocked me from leaving, ’10th MTN, huh?’ It took me a few seconds to register I had a tiny 10th MTN pin on my backpack which I had forgotten about. Before I could answer, he jabbed his finger at the pin and got super aggressive, ‘What Battalion were you in? Who was your Commander?” I already had my wallet out and I pulled my ID card and held it out and told him to ‘back’ off. He took a look, apologized and he left.
My encounter ended well for me but it didn’t end so well for Marine veteran Michael Deflin. This Fallujah vet couldn’t produce an active duty CAC card on request from some Air Force dude and therefore he got the crap kicked out of him. He suffered a broken leg and jaw in the process. Prior to him and his friend beating Deflin down, the USAF guy accused him of ‘Stolen Valor’.
Congratulations, we have now started conducting fratricide on our own.
Stolen Valor is a real problem but not a new one – folks have lied about their service for personal and political gain after the Civil War and after both World Wars. It should be exposed when it is found. But the whole business of exposing those who lie about their service has become increasingly sordid with legions of veterans self-appointing themselves as ‘Valor Custodians’ fighting the good fight trying to find the next sad sack guy lying about being a SEAL cyber-ninja at the local Mall food-court.
I use to roll my eyes at these antics but now they have gotten dangerous. Stolen Valor fratricide folks: you’re the reason why we can’t have nice things.
Part of what makes this so laughable is that some of the loudest members of the mob are people who were FOB warriors downrange. They are the dudes you see at the PX or the Atlanta Hartsfield Airport wearing their absolutely pristine condition 400 dollar tactical packs with the ‘Major League Infidel’ patch, the always ridiculous camo cap with a subdued American flag on the velcro, and drinking a giant Monster while telling everyone who will listen about that ‘one time in Iraq, I did xxxxxx and I’m totally not making it up!’
The truth is they never left the wire on their one OIF/OEF tour – but I sure as hell hear them lying…oops, I mean exaggerating about what they have done downrange in the orderly rooms, at the PX food court, on social media, and in the customs line at Ali al Salim Air Base. Come on, guys, you don’t think we notice? You don’t think we haven’t heard multiple variations of the same story our entire career?
For many of you out there in the mob, I would say check your own shot group before you starting calling out others.
It is time to stop the nonsense. Your service makes you part of a unique grouping of Americans, but it doesn’t make anyone a hero despite what John Cena told you when you saw him on the USO tour at the Bagram Clamshell, you know, right before salsa night – the real heroes are at Arlington or Walter Reed.
Nor does it give you a right to be a jerk to others. If you think someone is lying about their service, the first thing you should do is chill and regard the situation. Separate the innocuous from the consequential. Tall tales and ‘war stories’ have been around since the beginning of time and mostly they are harmless. I would be lying if I told you I haven’t told one in my life. Unless it involves decorations, tabs, or awards which they didn’t receive, the stories generally aren’t worth your time to correct or worry about.
If you are still convinced they are rotten and they are truly disgracing the service of others like the civilian who wears a uniform and misrepresents himself at a public event or the guy who wears a Purple Heart or Silver Star they didn’t earn, then don’t confront them – the proper course of action is call Law Enforcement, local FBI field office, your chain of command, or the service investigative offices (CID, NCIS, OSI). They are the trained professionals who know how to handle these sorts of cases. It is becoming increasingly obvious many folks don’t.
And for God’s sake, take off the subdued velcro flag hats.
What happens when the two sides of a war fundamentally disagree?
“Uh…well,” you’re thinking, “that’s pretty much the definition of war and you’re kind of a donut for asking, aren’t you?”
Yes, but hang with me. What I mean is, what happens when the disagreement goes beyond politics or ideology or territorial dispute, when the two sides disagree, on a basic level, about what the war they’re fighting is even about? And as a result, fail to agree on how the war will be fought?
Such cases produce quagmires of horrifying scope and duration.
One such case was the Vietnam War.
For America, Vietnam began as an earnest attempt to free a small country from unwanted and undesirable Communist conscription. As the war ground on, however, idealism gave way to a more basic agenda, to prove the rightness and righteousness of America as a function of its overwhelming military power.
For the North Vietnamese, and the Viet Cong guerrillas who aided them, the war was about finally shaking off the yoke of western colonialism. After years of occupation by the French, American military presence seemed merely the heavy hand of a new foreign master. They were fighting to reunify North and South Vietnam under the ideology of their choice, which happened to be communism.
In 1956, then Congressman John F. Kennedy was a wholehearted champion of the Cold War-era clarion call to Stop the Spread of Communism.
Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike.
But after an extensive fact-finding tour through the Middle and Far East, he returned to the U.S. convinced that preventing the threat of a new communist colonialism in Indo-China would require more than simply offering — by friendship or force — an American colonialism as the superior alternative. Much better to promote the nationalistic aspirations of the region’s native peoples, so long as those aspirations tended toward an American-style love of liberty.
But as the stakes were raised on his own Presidency by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the raising of the Berlin Wall, Kennedy felt an increasingly dire need to prove democratic righteousness and might (Mighteousness?). It was a terrifying time. The nuclear prerogative, which had once been ours alone, was now in the hands of nations whose ideals seemed to us not so much foreign, as alien. Vietnam would have to be, for the American Way, a definitive demonstration. Kennedy again:
…we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place.
Had he lived to serve his full term in office, who knows if Kennedy might have have been able to carry out a nuanced foreign policy in Vietnam. He was assassinated in Nov. 1963 and the Vietnam War would become the problem of two more successive administrations. The practical result was a strategy of force, bombardment and attrition that floundered in the face of an enemy who refused to fight by those rules.
The facts on the ground in Vietnam made it clear to American servicemen that there was a grave disconnect between what we thought we were doing there (and the strategy we’d devised for achieving those goals) and how the Vietnamese — allies, enemies, and civilians in between — saw things.
A 1965 skirmish near Danang in which U.S. Marines killed 56 Viet Cong guerrillas put a very fine point on the issue. Among the Vietnamese dead was a 13-year-old boy who, just a day earlier, had been hospitably selling drinks to the Marines. Found on his body were hand-drawn maps of the Marine’s positions and defenses, intelligence for the Viet Cong.
It’s a hard pill to swallow for soldiers who view themselves as a liberating force, to realize that the people they’ve been sent to help view them as the enemy, as occupiers, as aliens. It’s an issue our troops face every day in Afghanistan and the ever-expanding fronts of the War on Terror, a war that is deep into its second decade.
Mighteousness is a delicate stance and a dangerous dance.
Kids seem to grow up so fast, even faster when we’re deployed. It takes time for every military parent to reconnect with our children after being away for long periods of time. Adults are concerned with the endless cycle of responsibilities in our careers, marriage, and budgeting. Children on the other hand are concerned with missing you.
Phone and video calls may be enough for us but it may not be enough for them. The burdens we carry are worth it when we see their smiles, living in safe homes, and getting a good education. Little ones are immersed in a more digital reality than millennial parents when they were their age.
The bright side is that we can connect with them over games they’re interested in and you’ll be surprised how much you remember about gaming if you aren’t already playing solo. From their perspective, winning with your team is awesome — but winning with your dad is epic.
Everything the light touches is our kingdom.
The easiest way to describe Minecraft is that it’s digital Legos. It was developed by Mojang and has three modes: Survival, Creative, and Adventure. This game can be played on any platform or phone and has online capabilities.
Survival is straight forward where you gather supplies and build things to help you weather the elements or defeat enemies. Creative Mode makes you immune to damage and have access to every block (piece) in the game. In Adventure mode most blocks cannot be destroyed and it has a more roleplaying type of element to it, like Skyrim but with training wheels.
Minecraft has been used to teach kids about programming, coding, and Modding (creating custom characters, buildings, and effects) in schools as well. This game can be as easy or complicated as you want it to be. You’ll be surprised how fast they learn when taught in gamer speak.
Cuphead and Mugman utilizing the talking guns concept.
Cuphead is a sidescroller game developed by StudioMDHR with Disneyesque graphics. The game was completely hand drawn to resemble the iconic animation styles of the 1920’s/1930’s and a complementary soundtrack. It doesn’t support online gameplay but if you’ve ever played Contra or Megaman, you’re going to kick ass at this game.
The levels have two modes: simple and regular. Boss fights and their patterns of attack change with the game difficulty. You can teach your child about strategy, attack pattern recognition, nurture hand-eye coordination, and teamwork. Together, your young protege will be unstoppable in Metroid, Mario, and Castlevania games.
Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Pokémon: Let’s Go, Eevee! – Gameplay – Nintendo Treehouse: Live
Nintendo has the lion’s share on the nostalgia market and it’s console sales spike every time a new Pokemon game releases. If you remember picking your favorite starter in Professor Oak’s lab, you’re going to love going down memory lane with your tiny pokemon-master-in-training.
In the ancient days of Gamboy Pocket/Color, we had to battle and trade over a physical cable that connected our hand-held devices. Nowadays all trading and battling is done over the internet.
The latest game is a remake of Pokemon Yellow so you can still keep it old school with the original 151. There are a ton of differences from the Red and Blue but it will still hit your right in the feels.
Dad: “Loot the gear.”
Daughter: “There’s someone there.”
Dad: “Loot the gear.”
Fortnite is an online first/third person shooter in a battle royal arena. It’s like the old school shooters, 007 Golden Eye for example, where you find random weapons on the ground with the added twist that the map gets smaller.
There is a very high chance your child is already playing this game; it’s whats trendy with the younger player base. If you’re unsure if they play this game just turn to them right now and ask if they can do a Fortnite dance for you.
It has several game modes but the most common ones are team or solo battles. Players are able to build impromptu bases out of wood, cement, and metal to give them cover when fighting. This is a game where your old Halo badassery will elevate you to near God status in the eyes of your kids.
“My dad can out snipe your dad.”
Player Unknown’s Battle Grounds (PUBG) is another battle royal game with the same principles as Fortnite, which is also this game’s competitor. The key differences are that you won’t be able to build bases and the graphics are more teen/adult oriented. Call of Duty is out gran’ ol’ man. PUBG is in.
Regardless of the games you choose to play, the important thing is that you have fun and bond with your children. We’re all busy and it’s hard to understand or care about what they think is important because you know what responsibilities really are important.
When you play games with your kids, you’ll know what they’re talking about when they’re excited about something — and they’ll know you give a sh*t. I still remember when I played Super Nintendo with my old man. Give your kids the gift my dad gave me: the precious memories of owning everyone else.
New details have emerged in recent months about the exact plans for Operation Sealion, Nazi Germany’s scheme to invade England, overwhelm defenses south of London, and install the then-Duke of Windsor as the new, pro-German king of England.
German troops land equipment.
(Bundesarchiv, CC BY-SA 3.0)
While media tends to focus on the 1940 events highlighted by movies like Dunkirk and the 1944 happenings as showcased by Saving Private Ryan, there’s actually a lot of history in the years between. At the start of that period, in May 1940, Nazi Germany was clearly in the dominant position over Britain.
The encirclement of troops at Dunkirk had robbed the British army of much key equipment. The British army successfully evacuated most of its men and a lot of Free French forces out of Dunkirk, but was forced to leave nearly all of its artillery and vehicles behind, as well as thousands of tons of ammo, food, uniforms, weapons, etc.
And the British Navy was larger and more capable than the German one, but British admirals were reluctant to devote large warships to the English Channel, relying on destroyers and the occasional cruiser instead. Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force was strong, but would rely on bombers to take out German landing ships. And Germany had a plan for that.
German troops test amphibious tanks for the planned invasion of Britain in Operation Sealion.
(Bundesarchiv, CC BY-SA 3.0)
See, Germany planned to do its amphibious invasion under the cover of darkness. The Royal Air Force’s best bombers relied on sights that only worked with plenty of light. At night, Britain’s best bombers would be next to useless.
So in 1940, despite Britain’s pseudo-alliance with the U.S. and its massive industrial base, Germany had the machinery and troops for an invasion, and Britain lacked the equipment to properly defend itself. And Germany had big plans.
First, the invasion flotilla would launch from bases on the French coast, most likely in September 1940. A diversionary attack would sail north and attack around Newcastle in England or Aberdeen in Scotland, drawing defenders north. Within a few days, the real invasion would come across the Strait of Dover.
Plan of battle of Operation Sealion, the cancelled German plan to invade England in 1940
Germany even knew what to do when it got there. German leaders believed that the then-Duke of Windsor, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David (lots of names), held German sympathies. He was the former King Edward VIII as well, having served in the role from the start of 1936 to the end of 1936. He had abdicated out of love to avoid a constitutional crisis (long story). All Germany had to do was put him back on the throne, hopefully giving them a new ally.
An abandoned Soviet KV-2 tank left by the roadside is inspected by curious German soldiers.
(Bundesarchiv, CC BY-SA 3.0)
So Germany had the forces, the plan, and the follow-up, all staged and ready to go right as Britain was at its weakest. So why didn’t it happen? Why didn’t America have to join the war in Europe with no convenient staging place off of France? With Britain’s colonies split between opposition to Germany and loyalty to Edward VIII?
But, stupidly enough, part of it was some comments Hitler had made during the initial planning for Operation Sealion.
A landing craft from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of the 1st Infantry Division on Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944.
(Navy Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent)
When the Kriegsmarine was briefing Hitler in the summer of 1940, the Fuhrer had emphasized the need for complete air superiority over the channel before an invasion was launched. As previously discussed, this was unnecessary, but Hitler had emphasized it during planning, and few leaders were willing to try to go to him with a plan that ignored it.
So, when the Royal Air Force surprisingly won the Battle of Britain, the invasion was delayed from September 1940 to early 1941, then back further as Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, got underway in June 1941. The Soviet Union successfully resisted the invasion in late 1941, and the attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, drew America more firmly into the war.
In just over a year of fighting, Germany had gone from ascendant, with the machinery and manpower to potentially invade England, to the defensive, with too few troops to resist Soviet counterattacks. Allied counters in Africa, France, and D-Day sealed the deal.
Since then, images of the Rangers and their vehicles — mostly Strykers with upgraded armor — have trickled out. And new video from Kurdistan24 and Rojava News gives an idea of what kind of firepower they’re packing. Hint: It’s a lot.
The Army usually deploys the minigun on helicopters for self-defense and landing zone suppression, but they’ve also appeared on everything from small boats to Humvees. The Navy Special Warfare Combatant Craft crews deploy it on boats to support Navy SEALs and quickly destroy enemy craft. So, mounting them on a Stryker probably wasn’t too tough.
At least three vehicles in the video are carrying Javelin missiles strapped to the outside. While the Rangers would likely call for air strikes if they were threatened by hostile armor, the Javelins guarantee that they have a way to annihilate tanks if no jets are available in time. The operators can also call on Marine and Army artillery in the country.
The Marines and special operators are both involved in the fight to retake Raqqa, though it isn’t clear how much frontline fighting either is expected to do. The Marines are artillery troops equipped with 155mm howitzers, so they can fight 20 miles from the front lines but are still susceptible to attack if ISIS or other forces maneuver quickly.
But the special operators, with Strykers, M2s, Javelins, and miniguns, are equipped for a frontline fight even if they want to avoid one. If they do want to get into the fight, woe unto all ISIS fighters defending Raqqa right now.
NATO defense ministers agreed to continue projecting stability beyond its borders and will continue to build capabilities within the alliance, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said in Brussels Feb. 15, 2018.
“In a world awash in change, NATO stands firm as an island of stability in a turbulent sea,” Mattis said during a news conference at the conclusion of the meeting.
Projecting stability requires the alliance’s political stance to be backed by military forces that are fit to fight, the secretary said. This will reduce the chance of miscalculation by any adversary.
During the ministerial, the defense leaders discussed the recently published U.S. Nuclear Posture Review. Mattis said that many allies had been consulted on the study.
“The review was very well received across the alliance.” the secretary said. “The U.S. approach to nuclear deterrence embraces two co-equal principles: First, ensuring a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent, and second, working wherever possible for nuclear non-proliferation and arms control.”
Mattis was pleased on discussions about burden-sharing in the alliance. He noted that alliance nations have increased defense spending and are working on improving “the culture of readiness.” This will provide ready forces that will be responsive to NATO’s political direction.
The alliance must make political decisions faster, adapt the command structure, and accelerate military mobility in conjunction with the European Union, the secretary said.
NATO spending increases
A total of eight NATO nations will meet the target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense and 15 nations will hit that mark by 2024. Mattis noted that France is forecasting hitting that level in 2025.
“Year-on-year across the alliance, 2017 saw the largest growth … as a percentage of GDP, and the largest real growth in a quarter century,” he said. This has added $46 billion to defense across the alliance.
NATO is a member of the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and defense ministers agreed to remain committed to the immediate and longer-term missions in Iraq.
“NATO will sustain its investment in Iraq to project stability into the geopolitical heart of the Middle East,” Mattis said. “America supports NATO’s initiative for a NATO training mission in Iraq.”
NATO is also a stalwart part of the mission to Afghanistan and the ministers committed to filling critical shortfalls in the staffs.
“It is the collective dedication of the 29 nations, and working together creates the collective strength as we fight the threats from the east and the south to defend our values,” he said. “There is much that needs to be done, but NATO is on the right trajectory.”
For years, conservatives have assailed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a dysfunctional bureaucracy. They said private enterprise would mean better, easier-to-access health care for veterans. President Donald Trump embraced that position, enthusiastically moving to expand the private sector’s role.
Here’s what has actually happened in the four years since the government began sending more veterans to private care: longer waits for appointments and, a new analysis of VA claims data by ProPublica and PolitiFact shows, higher costs for taxpayers.
Since 2014, 1.9 million former service members have received private medical care through a program called Veterans Choice. It was supposed to give veterans a way around long wait times in the VA. But their average waits using the Choice Program were still longer than allowed by law, according to examinations by the VA inspector general and the Government Accountability Office. The watchdogs also found widespread blunders, such as booking a veteran in Idaho with a doctor in New York and telling a Florida veteran to see a specialist in California. Once, the VA referred a veteran to the Choice Program to see a urologist, but instead he got an appointment with a neurologist.
The winners have been two private companies hired to run the program, which began under the Obama administration and is poised to grow significantly under Trump. ProPublica and PolitiFact obtained VA data showing how much the agency has paid in medical claims and administrative fees for the Choice program. Since 2014, the two companies have been paid nearly billion for overhead, including profit. That’s about 24 percent of the companies’ total program expenses — a rate that would exceed the federal cap that governs how much most insurance plans can spend on administration in the private sector.
According to the agency’s inspector general, the VA was paying the contractors at least 5 every time it authorized private care for a veteran. The fee was so high because the VA hurriedly launched the Choice Program as a short-term response to a crisis. Four years later, the fee never subsided — it went up to as much as 8 per referral.
“This is what happens when people try and privatize the VA,” Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the Senate veterans committee, said in a statement responding to these findings. “The VA has an obligation to taxpayers to spend its limited resources on caring for veterans, not paying excessive fees to a government contractor. When VA does need the help of a middleman, it needs to do a better job of holding contractors accountable for missing the mark.”
The Affordable Care Act prohibits large group insurance plans from spending more than 15 percent of their revenue on administration, including marketing and profit. The private sector standard is 10 percent to 12 percent, according to Andrew Naugle, who advises health insurers on administrative operations as a consultant at Milliman, one of the world’s largest actuarial firms. Overhead is even lower in the Defense Department’s Tricare health benefits program: only 8 percent in 2017.
Even excluding the costs of setting up the new program, the Choice contractors’ overhead still amounts to 21 percent of revenue.
“That’s just unacceptable,” Rick Weidman, the policy director of Vietnam Veterans of America, said in response to the figures. “There are people constantly banging on the VA, but this was the private sector that made a total muck of it.”
A spokesman for the VA, Curt Cashour, declined to provide an interview with key officials and declined to answer a detailed list of written questions.
One of the contractors, Health Net, stopped working on the program in September 2018. Health Net didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The other contractor, TriWest Healthcare Alliance, said it has worked closely with the VA to improve the program and has made major investments of its own. “We believe supporting VA in ensuring the delivery of quality care to our nation’s veterans is a moral responsibility, even while others have avoided making these investments or have withdrawn from the market,” the company said in a statement.
TriWest did not dispute ProPublica and PolitiFact’s estimated overhead rate, which used total costs, but suggested an alternate calculation, using an average cost, that yielded a rate of 13 percent to 15 percent. The company defended the 5-plus fee by saying it covers “highly manual” services such as scheduling appointments and coordinating medical files. Such functions are not typically part of the contracts for other programs, such as the military’s Tricare. But Tricare’s contractors perform other duties, such as adjudicating claims and monitoring quality, that Health Net and TriWest do not. In a recent study comparing the programs, researchers from the Rand Corporation concluded that the role of the Choice Program’s contractors is “much narrower than in the private sector or in Tricare.”
Before the Choice Program, TriWest and Health Net performed essentially the same functions for about a sixth of the price, according to the VA inspector general. TriWest declined to break down how much of the fee goes to each service it provides.
Because of what the GAO called the contractors’ “inadequate” performance, the VA increasingly took over doing the Choice Program’s referrals and claims itself.
In many cases, the contractors’ 5-plus processing fee for every referral was bigger than the doctor’s bill for services rendered, the analysis of agency data showed. In the three months ending Jan. 31, 2018, the Choice Program made 49,144 referrals for primary care totaling .9 million in medical costs, for an average cost per referral of 1.16. A few other types of care also cost less on average than the handling fee: chiropractic care (6.32 per referral) and optometry (9.25). There were certainly other instances where the medical services cost much more than the handling fee: TriWest said its average cost per referral was about ,100 in the past six months.
Beyond what the contractors were entitled to, audits by the VA inspector general found that they overcharged the government by 0 million from November 2014 to March 2017. Both companies are now under federal investigation arising from these overpayments. Health Net’s parent company, Centene, disclosed a Justice Department civil investigation into “excessive, duplicative or otherwise improper claims.” A federal grand jury in Arizona is investigating TriWest for “wire fraud and misused government funds,” according to a court decision on a subpoena connected to the case. Both companies said they are cooperating with the inquiries.
Despite the criminal investigation into TriWest’s management of the Choice Program, the Trump administration recently expanded the company’s contract without competitive bidding. Now, TriWest stands to collect even more fees as the administration prepares to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise to send more veterans to private doctors.
(US Air Force photo by Kemberly Groue)
Senate veterans committee chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he expects VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to discuss the agency’s plans for the future of private care when he testifies at a hearing on Dec. 19, 2018. A spokeswoman for the outgoing chairman of the House veterans committee, Phil Roe, R-Tenn., didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“The last thing we need is to have funding for VA’s core mission get wasted,” Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat who will become the House panel’s chairman in January 2019, said in a statement. “I will make sure Congress conducts comprehensive oversight to ensure that our veterans receive the care they deserve while being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
Many of the Choice Program’s defects trace back to its hasty launch.
In 2014, the Republican chairman of the House veterans committee alleged that 40 veterans died waiting for care at the VA hospital in Phoenix. The inspector general eventually concluded that no deaths were attributable to the delays. But it was true that officials at the Phoenix VA were covering up long wait times, and critics seized on this scandal to demand that veterans get access to private medical care.
One of the loudest voices demanding changes was John McCain’s. “Make no mistake: This is an emergency,” the Arizona senator, who died in August 2018, said at the time. McCain struck a compromise with Democrats to open up private care for veterans who lived at least 40 miles from a VA facility or would have to wait at least 30 days to get an appointment.
In the heat of the scandal, Congress gave the VA only 90 days to launch Choice. The VA reached out to 57 companies about administering the new program, but the companies said they couldn’t get the program off the ground in just three months, according to contracting records. So the VA tacked the Choice Program onto existing contracts with Health Net and TriWest to run a much smaller program for buying private care. “There is simply insufficient time to solicit, evaluate, negotiate and award competitive contracts and then allow for some form of ramp-up time for a new contractor,” the VA said in a formal justification for bypassing competitive bidding.
But that was a shaky foundation on which to build a much larger program, since those earlier contracts were themselves flawed. In a 2016 report, the VA inspector general said officials hadn’t followed the rules “to ensure services acquired are based on need and at fair and reasonable prices.” The report criticized the VA for awarding higher rates than one of the vendors proposed.
The new contract with the VA was a lifeline for TriWest. Its president and CEO, David J. McIntyre Jr., was a senior aide to McCain in the mid-1990s before starting the company, based in Phoenix, to handle health benefits for the military’s Tricare program. In 2013, TriWest lost its Tricare contract and was on the verge of shutting down. Thanks to the VA contract, TriWest went from laying off more than a thousand employees to hiring hundreds.
Senator John McCain.
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)
McIntyre’s annual compensation, according to federal contracting disclosures, is .36 million. He declined to be interviewed. In a statement, TriWest noted that the original contract, for the much smaller private care program, had been competitively awarded.
The VA paid TriWest and Health Net 0 million upfront to set up the new Choice program, according to the inspector general’s audit. But that was dwarfed by the fees that the contractors would collect. Previously, the VA paid the companies between and 3 for every referral, according to the inspector general. But for the Choice Program, TriWest and Health Net raised their fee to between 5 and 0 to do essentially the same work on a larger scale, the inspector general said.
The price hike was a direct result of the time pressure, according to Greg Giddens, a former VA contracting executive who dealt with the Choice Program. “If we had two years to stand up the program, we would have been at a different price structure,” he said.
Even though the whole point of the Choice Program was to avoid 30-day waits in the VA, a convoluted process made it hard for veterans to see private doctors any faster. Getting care through the Choice Program took longer than 30 days 41 percent of the time, according to the inspector general’s estimate. The GAO found that in 2016 using the Choice Program could take as long as 70 days, with an average of 50 days.
Sometimes the contractors failed to make appointments at all. Over a three-month period in 2018, Health Net sent back between 9 percent and 13 percent of its referrals, according to agency data. TriWest failed to make appointments on 5 percent to 8 percent of referrals, the data shows.
Many veterans had frustrating experiences with the contractors.
Richard Camacho in Los Angeles said he got a call from TriWest to make an appointment for a sleep test, but he then received a letter from TriWest with different dates. He had to call the doctor to confirm when he was supposed to show up. When he got there, the doctor had received no information about what the appointment was for, Camacho said.
John Moen, a Vietnam veteran in Plano, Texas, tried to use the Choice Program for physical therapy in 2018 rather than travel to Dallas, where the VA had a six-week wait. But it took 10 weeks for him to get an appointment with a private provider.
“The Choice Program for me has completely failed to meet my needs,” Moen said.
Curtis Thompson, of Kirkland, Washington, said he’s been told the Choice Program had a 30-day wait just to process referrals, never mind to book an appointment. “Bottom line: Wait for the nearly 60 days to see the rheumatologist at the VA rather than opt for an unknown delay through Veterans Choice,” he said.
(Flickr photo by Rob Bixby)
After Thompson used the Choice Program in 2018 for a sinus surgery that the VA couldn’t perform within 30 days, the private provider came after him to collect payment, according to documentation he provided.
Thousands of veterans have had to contend with bill collectors and credit bureaus because the contractors failed to pay providers on time, according to the inspector general. Doctors have been frustrated with the Choice Program, too. The inspector general found that 15 providers in North Carolina stopped accepting patients from the VA because Health Net wasn’t paying them on time.
The VA shares the blame, since it fell behind in paying the contractors, the inspector general said. TriWest claimed the VA at one point owed the company 0 million. According to the inspector general, the VA’s pile of unpaid claims peaked at almost 180,000 in 2016 and was virtually eliminated by the end of the year.
The VA tried to tackle the backlog of unpaid doctors, but it had a problem: The agency didn’t know who was performing the services arranged by the contractors. That’s because Health Net and TriWest controlled the provider networks, and the medical claims they submit to the VA do not include any provider information.
The contractors’ role as middlemen created the opportunity for payment errors, according to the inspector general’s audit. The inspector general found 77,700 cases where the contractors billed the VA for more than they paid providers and pocketed the difference, totaling about million. The inspector general also identified .9 million in duplicate payments and .5 million in other errors.
TriWest said it has worked with the VA to correct the payment errors and set aside money to pay back. The company said it’s waiting for the VA to provide a way to refund the confirmed overpayments. “We remain ready to complete the necessary reconciliations as soon as that process is formally approved,” TriWest said.
The grand jury proceedings involving TriWest are secret, but the investigation became public because prosecutors sought to obtain the identities of anonymous commenters on the jobs website Glassdoor.com who accused TriWest of “mak[ing] money unethically off of veterans/VA.” Glassdoor fought the subpoena but lost, in November 2017. The court’s opinion doesn’t name TriWest, but it describes the subject of the investigation as “a government contractor that administers veterans’ healthcare programs” and quotes the Glassdoor reviews about TriWest. The federal prosecutor’s office in Arizona declined to comment.
“TriWest has cooperated with many government inquiries regarding VA’s community care programs and will continue to do so,” the company said in its statement. “TriWest must respect the government’s right to keep those inquiries confidential until such time as the government decides to conclude the inquiry or take any actions or adjust VA programs as deemed appropriate.”
The VA tried to make the Choice Program run more smoothly and efficiently. Because the contractors were failing to find participating doctors to treat veterans, the VA in mid-2015 launched a full-court press to sign up private providers directly, according to the inspector general. In some states, the VA also took over scheduling from the contractors.
“We were making adjustments on the fly trying to get it to work,” said David Shulkin, who led the VA’s health division starting in 2015. “There needed to be a more holistic solution.”
Officials decided in 2016 to design new contracts that would change the fee structure and reabsorb some of the services that the VA had outsourced to Health Net and TriWest. The department secretary at the time, Bob McDonald, concluded the VA needed to handle its own customer service, since the agency’s reputation was suffering from TriWest’s and Health Net’s mistakes. Reclaiming those functions would have the side effect of reducing overhead.
“Tell me a great customer service company in the world that outsources its customer service,” McDonald, who previously ran Procter Gamble, said in an interview. “I wanted to have the administrative functions within our medical centers so we took control of the care of the veterans. That would have brought that fee down or eliminated it entirely.”
The new contracts, called the Community Care Network, also aimed to reduce overhead by paying the contractors based on the number of veterans they served per month, rather than a flat fee for every referral. To prevent payment errors like the ones the inspector general found, the new contracts sought to increase information-sharing between the VA and the contractors. The VA opened bidding for the new Community Care Network contracts in December 2016.
But until those new contracts were in place, the VA was still stuck paying Health Net and TriWest at least 5 for every referral. So VA officials came up with a workaround: they could cut out the middleman and refer veterans to private providers directly. Claims going through the contractors declined by 47 percent from May to December in 2017.
TriWest’s CEO, McIntyre, objected to this workaround and blamed the VA for hurting his bottom line.
In a Feb. 26, 2018, email with the subject line “Heads Up… Likely Massive and Regrettable Train Wreck Coming!” McIntyre warned Shulkin, then the department secretary, that “long unresolved matters with VA and current behavior patterns will result in a projected million loss in 2019. This is on top of the losses that we have amassed over the last couple years.”
Officials were puzzled that, despite all the VA was paying TriWest, McIntyre was claiming he couldn’t make ends meet, according to agency emails provided to ProPublica and PolitiFact. McIntyre explained that he wanted the VA to waive penalties for claims that lacked adequate documentation and to pay TriWest an administrative fee on canceled referrals and no-show appointments, even though the VA read the contract to require a fee only on completed claims. In a March 2018 letter to key lawmakers, McIntyre said the VA’s practice of bypassing the contractors and referring patients directly to providers “has resulted in a significant drop in the volume of work and is causing the company irreparable financial harm.”
McIntyre claimed the VA owed TriWest million and warned of a “negative impact on VA and veterans that will follow” if the agency didn’t pay. Any disruptions at TriWest, he said, would rebound onto the VA, “given how much we are relied on by VA at the moment and the very public nature of this work.”
But when the VA asked to see TriWest’s financial records to substantiate McIntyre’s claims, the numbers didn’t add up, according to agency emails.
McIntyre’s distress escalated in March 2018, as the Choice Program was running out of money and lawmakers were locked in tense negotiations over its future. McIntyre began sending daily emails to the VA officials in charge of the Choice Program seeking updates and warning of impending disaster. “I don’t think the storm could get more difficult or challenging,” he wrote in one of the messages. “However, I know that I am not alone nor that the impact will be confined to us.”
McIntyre lobbied for a bill to permanently replace Choice with a new program consolidating all of the VA’s methods of buying private care. TriWest even offered to pay veterans organizations to run ads supporting the legislation, according to emails discussing the proposal. Congress overwhelmingly passed the law (named after McCain) in May 2018.
“In the campaign, I also promised that we would fight for Veterans Choice,” Trump said at the signing ceremony in June 2018. “And before I knew that much about it, it just seemed to be common sense. It seemed like if they’re waiting on line for nine days and they can’t see a doctor, why aren’t they going outside to see a doctor and take care of themselves, and we pay the bill? It’s less expensive for us, it works out much better, and it’s immediate care.”
The new permanent program for buying private care will take effect in June 2019. The VA’s new and improved Community Care Network contracts were supposed to be in place by then. But the agency repeatedly missed deadlines for these new contracts and has yet to award them.
The VA has said it’s aiming to pick the contractors for the new program in January and February 2019. Yet even if the VA meets this latest deadline, the contracts include a one-year ramp-up period, so they won’t be ready to start in June 2019.
That means TriWest will by default become the sole contractor for the new program. The VA declined to renew Health Net’s contract when it expired in September 2018. The VA was planning to deal directly with private providers in the regions that Health Net had covered. But the VA changed course and announced that TriWest would take over Health Net’s half of the country. The agency said TriWest would be the sole contractor for the entire Choice Program until it awards the Community Care Network contracts.
“There’s still not a clear timeline moving forward,” said Giddens, the former VA contracting executive. “They need to move forward with the next program. The longer they stay with the current one, and now that it’s down to TriWest, that’s not the best model.”
Meanwhile, TriWest will continue receiving a fee for every referral. And the number of referrals is poised to grow as the administration plans to shift more veterans to the private sector.
This story was produced in collaboration with PolitiFact.
This article originally appeared on ProPublica. Follow @ProPublica on Twitter.
Iranian state TV has aired a clip that it says shows the moment its military launched ballistic missiles toward US bases in Iraq on Wednesday, in apparent retaliation for the US drone strike that killed top military commander Qassem Soleimani last week.
The US Department of Defense confirmed the missile strike, saying it was “clear” that the missiles were launched from Iran and targeted two military bases at Al-Assad and Irbil that host US and Iraq troops. No injuries have been reported.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has also claimed responsibility for the attack.
The video, aired on Islamic Republic of Iran News Network (IRINN) at 1:40 p.m. local time, showed footage of multiple missiles being launched from their bases amid bright orange fire and smoke into the dark sky.
Watch it here:
An Iranian flag can be seen in the top left corner of the state-TV report — an apparent show of national unity after days of showing a black strip to mourn Soleimani’s death, according to BBC Monitoring journalist Kian Sharifi.
Russia claims to have developed new tank attack strategies to baffle and destroy modern adversaries while counteracting dangers, according to RIA Novosti, a Russian news agency.
With the advent of suicide cars, IEDs and anti-tank missile systems, Russian T-72 tank crews have implemented new strategies, such as “tank carousels,” “tank trousers” and “Syrian shaft,” according to Defence Blog, which cited the RIA article.
Tank carousels involve several platforms rotating in a circle and firing like a revolver.
“It allows us to fire over an unlimited time period,” Captain Roman Schegolev told RIA, according to Sputnik. “There can be three, six, nine or more machines. They move uninterrupted in a circular motion, one pummeling the enemy, the other moving to the rear and reloading, the third preparing to enter firing position, and so on. Non-stop shooting; just make sure to feed the shells.”
Unlike Abrams tanks, T-72s have automatic loaders which allows for the maneuver, Schegolev added.
“On the other side they will break down and open return fire, revealing their armament,” Schegolev said. “Then our disguised sniper tanks with specially trained crews step into action. They quickly and efficiently strike the identified targets.”
(Russian Defense Ministry)
This strategy was especially successful in Syria, where T-72s were able to fire atop and then hide behind embankments. It can even be used when the tank crews don’t know with what the enemy is armed, Defence Blog reported, citing RIA.
The tank trousers tactic, on the other hand, involves tanks rotating between trenches, staying in each trench for no more than a few seconds.
“The tank enters the trench, fires, kicks into reverse and moves to the next. Enemy anti-tank weapons don’t have time to react,” Sputnik reported.
The third tactic, Syrian shaft, involves tanks hiding behind parapets and shooting through holes in the wall before scooting away, which is effective against ATGM and IED attacks, according to Jane’s 360.
“What’s interesting here isn’t the tactics themselves, but rather that Russia is trumpeting them as innovative,” Peck wrote.
“Rotating tanks in and out of the firing line, rapid fire shooting and switching between alternate firing positions have been standard practice since World War II (the Russians would have learned this the hard way at the hands of the Germans),” Peck wrote. “These are tactics that American, British, Israeli and other tank crews would be familiar with.”
“Tanks may differ between nations,” Peck wrote. “But often tactics are the same.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
Dennis Blair, a former director of national intelligence, on Jan. 30, defined what he called North Korea’s “kryptonite,” saying it could collapse Kim Jong Un’s government without firing a shot.
While President Donald Trump’s inner circle reportedly weighs the use of military force against North Korea, Blair, a former U.S. Navy Admiral, has suggested another method of attack that wields information, not weapons.
“The kryptonite that can weaken North Korea is information from beyond its borders,” Blair said in a written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
North Koreans have no idea how bad things are in their country, Blair said, because they’re subject to an “unrelenting barrage of government propaganda.”
North Korean citizens caught with South Korean media can be sentenced to death or sent to horrific prison camps, as control of the media and intolerance for different narratives are pillars of North Korea’s government.
But Blair said the U.S. could leverage a recent trend in North Korea: cellphones.
About one in five North Koreans own a cellphone, many of which can connect to Chinese cell towers across the Yalu River along the countries’ border, he said.
“Texts to these cellphones can provide subversive truth,” Blair said. “Cell towers can be extended; CDs and thumb drives can be smuggled in; radio and TV stations can be beamed there.”
Blair added: “The objective is to separate the Kim family from its primary support — the secret police, the army, and the propaganda ministry.”
Though outside media does get into North Korea and reaches the country’s elites, the U.S. could expand efforts to flood it with outside news. The U.S. used a similar tactic during the Cold War in setting up Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty to combat the Soviet Union and its state-controlled media.
“Kim Jong Un understands that as soon as society is open and North Korean people realize what they’re missing, Kim’s regime is unsustainable, and it’s going to be overthrown,” Sun said.
Sun said that in the past when South Korea flew balloons that dropped pamphlets and DVDs over North Korea, Kim’s government responded militarily, sensing its frailty relative to those of prosperous liberal democracies.
Blair pointed to other totalitarian states where popular uprisings have become informed and sought to take down a media-controlling dictator, concluding his testimony by saying that “once that process starts, it is hard to stop.”
Iran’s supreme leader has restricted the range of ballistic missiles manufactured in the country to 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles), the head of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard said Oct. 31, which limits their reach to only regional Mideast targets.
The comments by Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari to reporters mark the first acknowledgement that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has imposed limits on the country’s ballistic missile program.
It also appears to be an effort by Iranian authorities to contrast its program, which they often describe as for defensive purposes, against those of countries like North Korea, which now uses its arsenal to threaten the United States.
“It is a political decision,” said Michael Elleman, the senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington. “I think with the supreme leader saying it, it takes on a little more significance.”
The range of 2,000 kilometers encompasses much of the Middle East, including Israel and American military bases in the region. That’s caused concern for the US and its allies, even as Iran’s ballistic missile program was not included as part of the 2015 nuclear deal that Tehran struck with world powers.
Speaking on the sidelines of a conference in Tehran, Jafari told journalists that the capability of Iran’s ballistic missiles is “enough for now.” The Guard runs Iran’s missile program, answering only to Khamenei.
“Today, the range of our missiles, as the policies of the Iran’s supreme leader dictate, are limited to 2,000 kilometers, even though we are capable of increasing this range,” he said. “Americans, their forces, and their interests are situated within a 2,000-kilometer radius around us and we are able to respond to any possible desperate attack by them.”
However, Jafari said he didn’t believe there would be any war between Iran and the US.
“They know that if they begin a war between Iran and the United States, they will definitely be the main losers and their victory will by no means be guaranteed,” he said. “Therefore, they won’t start a war.”
While keeping with the anti-American tone common in his speeches, Jafari’s comments seemed to be timed to calm tension over Iran’s missile program.
By limiting their range, Iran can contrast itself against threatening countries like North Korea, as Pyongyang has tested developmental intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially reach the US mainland and conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date. Pyongyang also flew two powerful new midrange missiles over Japan, between threats to fire the same weapons toward Guam, a US Pacific territory and military hub.
The Trump administration already sanctioned Iran for test-firing a ballistic missile in February, with then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn warning Tehran that Iran was “on notice.” President Donald Trump’s recent refusal to re-certify the nuclear accord has sent the matter to the US Congress. On Oct. 26, the US House of Representatives voted to put new sanctions on Iran for its pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles, without derailing the deal.
Iran long has insisted its ballistic missiles are for defensive purposes. It suffered a barrage of Scud missiles fired by Iraq after dictator Saddam Hussein launched an eight-year war with his neighbor in the 1980s that killed 1 million people. To build its own program, Tehran purchased North Korean missiles and technology, providing much-needed cash to heavily sanctioned Pyongyang.
Iran today likely has the capability to go beyond 2,000 kilometers with its Khorramshahr ballistic missile, though it chose to limit its range by putting a heavier warhead on it in testing, Elleman said.
“It will be interesting to see how Iran reconciles this Khorramshahr missile with the supreme leader’s dictate,” he said. “Iran may say, ‘Well, we’re fitting it with this big warhead so we’re not exceeding this limitation,’ but the modification is very simple.”
The Gulf Arab nations surrounding Iran, while hosting American military bases, also fly sophisticated US fighter jets that Iranian forces can’t match. The ballistic missiles provide leverage against them, as well as the US-made anti-missile batteries their neighbors have bought, according to Tytti Erasto, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“Iran’s pattern of missile testing — which has sought to address the long-standing problem of poor accuracy — is consistent with the program’s stated purpose as a regional deterrent,” Erasto wrote Oct. 30. “It also reinforces the argument that Iran’s missiles are designed to be conventional, not nuclear.”
Still, Iran could use the missiles as “a tool of coercion and intimidation,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, the senior Iran analyst at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which takes a hard line on Tehran and is skeptical of the nuclear deal.
“A secure Islamic Republic that does not fear kinetic reprisal is more likely to engage in low-level proxy wars and foreign adventurism, much like we see today,” he said.
Meanwhile on Oct. 31, Iran broke ground at its Bushehr nuclear power plant for two more atomic reactors to generate electricity. State television quoted Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, as saying the first new reactor would go online in seven years, while a third would be active in nine years.
Russia will provide assistance in building the new reactors as Moscow helped bring Bushehr online in 2011. It marks the first expansion of Iran’s nuclear power industry since the atomic accord.