Nestled inside infantry units moving against the enemy is often a single artilleryman who is arguably one of the most lethal fighters on the battlefield — the forward observer.
These soldiers, usually assigned to a Forward Support Team (the FiST), are known as “FiSTers” and are the eyes and ears for naval artillery and artillery gun lines across the world.
The fisters carry inside their helmets knowledge of every gun capable of reaching their areas of operation, including how fast the weapon can fire, what kinds of rounds it has at its disposal, and what effects those rounds have on targets.
They use this knowledge to support the infantry and other maneuver units. When the friendly element finds and engages the enemy, the fister gets to work figuring out how to best bring artillery to bear.
Often, this involves getting the machine gunners and riflemen to corral the enemy into a tight box that can easily be hit with airburst artillery, causing shrapnel to rain down on the enemy dismounts.
If enemy armored vehicles are rolling towards the line, the forward observers can call down specific rounds for penetrating a tank’s top turret armor or for creating a smoke screen to block friendly vehicles from view.
Many observers go through training to learn how to best use weapons deployed from helicopters, jets, and other aerial platforms. This allows them to start targeting enemies with hellfire missiles and the 30mm cannons of A-10s and AH-64s.
Marine observers and Army observers trained in joint fires can call for help from naval ships. While the Navy has decommissioned its massive battleships, there are still plenty of cruisers and destroyers packing missiles and 5-inch guns that are pretty useful for troops ashore.
It’s the forward observers that get those missiles and shells on target.
Forward observers direct the fires of all the big guns that can’t see their targets. And that’s what makes them so lethal.
Messing around with your fellow Joes is always good fun. It’s a lighthearted way of letting them know that they’re one of the guys.
If you didn’t care about someone, you wouldn’t mess with them, right?
Every unit, from combat arms to support, has a communications (commo/comms) person. They range from being tasked to operate the radio systems to being a full specialization, from grunt AF to fobbit. These guys are there for us, but that doesn’t mean they’re not above some playful ribbing every now and then.
Doing any of the things on this list should always come from a place of mutual friendship. Don’t be a dick about it. Basically, don’t anything that would get you UCMJ’ed, impede the mission, or lose your military bearing.
1. Yell that you can’t hear anything on channel “Z”
Zeroize is a neat tool. It is designed to wipe out all of the information on the radio in case the worst happens. It’s also coincidentally very easy to access. Watch as their eyes grow big and run to your vehicle to set your radio back up.
2. Say “is this chip thingy supposed to come out of the SKL?”
For some reason, you get your hands on the most protected piece of equipment of a radio guy.
A quick explanation of what that key does is that it allows you to load Comsec. Ripping it out would essentially zeroize it. Don’t actually rip it out. But saying that you did will make commo guy sh*t himself.
3. During radio checks, say “Lickin’ Chicken” instead of “X this is Y, Read you Loud and Clear, over.”
Radio checks are boring. And it’s usually the last thing before rolling out on the 0900 convoy that we all arrived at 0430 to prep for.
When one person starts saying “Lickin’ Chicken,” it spreads like wildfire. Before you know it, everyone will say it during radio checks. On the commo guy’s end, it’s like hearing the same joke 100 times over and over again.
Most commo dudes are perfectionists (emphasis on most). If the SKL was their baby, the OE-254 (cheap ass FM antennae) is the bane of their existence.
Theoretically, just attaching it will make it work. But that won’t stop radio operators from trying to get it juuuust right.
5. “Hotkey” your mic
Everything is set up. Everything is green. Things are finally working. Then someone leaves their hand mic under something that pushes the button down.
“No problem!” thinks the radio operator. Just double tap on their own mic to mute that person until they release the mic.
But if you intentionally hold down the push-to-talk button after they mute you to keep messing with them…?
6. During a convoy, ask why we don’t have any music playing
Different type of radio system. And there’s totally no way to solder an aux cable onto a cut up W-4 cable to connect your iPhone up to the net, blasting music out to everyone in the convoy.
Nope, never done it…
7. Ask us to fix your computer
Not all Signal Corps soldiers are the same. Radio operator/maintainers are the less POG-y specialization. They only pretend to be POGs to get out of Motor Pool Mondays or bullsh*t details.
Ask the other S-6 guys for that. If they do know how, it’s not their main task. It’s the computer guy’s.
“Sure, F*ck it. Whatever. Case of beer and I’ll look at your personal computer” (Photo credit Claire Schwerin, PEO C3T)
8. “Run out” of batteries
Batteries weight around 3 lbs each. A rucksack full of them surprisingly runs out faster than you’d think. So it’s fairly often that comms troops have to run back and forth to get more batteries.
Tell your radio maintainer that you’re running low and then just stockpile them for later, making them run around the convoy with a full ruck.
9. Tell them that a drop test does nothing
This one is how you really dig into the saltier, more experienced radio guys.
A comms guy’s bread and butter is a fully-functioning radio. In most cases, the problem is simply putting the correct time in the radio. Others is making the radio work with their “commo magic.” That magic is almost always just kicking the damn thing or picking it up a few inches off the ground and dropping it. Ask any radio operator and they’ll tell you it works.
There’s no explanation — it just works. Saying that “It’s a bunch of circuits, why would that work?” will just have them bullsh*tting you on why they went all caveman for no reason and miraculously having things work.
Is there anything that we missed? If you have any ideas on how to mess with other job specialties?
Years of complex operations and the ongoing demands of units in the field have left the armed forces struggling to maintain both operational capacity and high levels of readiness, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.
“After more than a decade combating violent extremists and conducting contingency operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and most recently Syria, [the Defense Department] has prioritized the rebalancing of its forces in recent budget requests to build and sustain the capabilities necessary to prevail across a full range of potential contingencies,” the report states.
“However, DoD has acknowledged that unrelenting demands from geographic commanders for particular types of forces are disrupting manning, training, and equipping cycles,” it adds.
Each of the service branches has had some success in addressing readiness issues, but problems remain in some areas for each.
For the Marine Corps, as of February, about 80% of aviation units didn’t have the minimum number of aircraft ready for training. The Marines also had a significant shortage of aircraft ready for wartime requirements.
A high pace of operations has also hindered the Navy’s maintenance efforts. The service bases its readiness recovery on deployment and maintenance schedules. “However, GAO reported that from 2011 through 2014, only 28 percent of scheduled maintenance was completed on time and just 11 percent for carriers.”
Like the Navy, the Air Force has seen continued operations with a shrinking pool of resources and little time for repair and recovery, citing Air Force reports that less than 50% of its forces are at acceptable readiness levels.
Photo courtesy of USAF
The service branch also says it is short of 1,500 pilots and 3,400 aircraft maintainers.
Air Force leaders are looking at several options to address these personnel issues, including heftier retention bonuses and stop-loss policies.
While the Army has seen readiness improvements in recent years, as GAO notes, it continues to have important deficiencies that put it at a disadvantage compared to other countries.
“For example, the Army reports that two thirds of its initial critical formations — units needed at the outset of a major conflict — are at acceptable levels of readiness, but it cautions that it risks consuming readiness as fast as the service can build it given current demands,” the report says.
The Army has also gotten withering criticism of its unit readiness from within the service itself.
According to Capt. Scott Metz, who until recently was a observer/controller/trainer at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, “many of our multinational partners are more tactically proficient at company level and below than their American counterparts.”
US troops from the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment call in their location in the back woods of the mock village they are taking over during Saber Junction 17, a field-training exercise at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center on May 15, 2017, at Hohenfels, Germany. (US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Richard Frost)
“In fact,” Metz wrote in a paper published this spring, “several of them are significantly better trained and more prepared for war than we are.”
Metz recounted how unit commanders arriving at the JMRC would caution him about their unit’s lack of preparation and the minimal training done at their home stations. In his role as the opposition-force commander during exercises, he could see how this manifested itself in potentially fatal mistakes in the field.
US soldiers prepare to engage a multinational force while during an exercise at Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Germany, March 25, 2017. US Army photo by Sgt. William Frye.
The opposition-force commander “knows from past experience that the Americans will probably stay on or near the roads,” Metz writes, adding:
“They will stop for long periods of time in the open with minimal dispersion. They will not effectively use their dismounted infantry and will likely leave them in the back of vehicles for too long, allowing them to be killed with the vehicle. They also will probably make little use of tactical formations and will not use terrain to their advantage.”
All units make mistakes during their time at the JMRC, according to Metz.
The shortcomings evident in units that visit the facility come rather from deficiencies in training they do at home.
“The problem is that they are making mistakes because they have not trained as a platoon or company,” Metz states.
A multitude of factors outside the control of commanders limits the time and resources they can devote to small-unit training.
This has resulted in the longstanding problem of a “deluge of requirements,” Metz writes, citing a 2015 report that “makes the case that the Army overtasks subordinates to such a level that it is impossible for Army units and Army leaders to do everything they are tasked to do.”
US Army paratroopers finish boarding an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft loaded with a heavy-drop-rigged Humvee for a night jump onto Malemute Drop Zone, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Photo courtesy of the US Army.
The problem is a deep-rooted one and will take some time to correct, requiring a cultural change starting at the highest levels of the Army’s leadership, Metz writes.
Gen. Mark Milley, the Army’s chief of staff, told the Senate this month that the Army, like the Air Force, is also suffering from a lack of personnel.
He told the Senate Appropriations’ defense subcommittee that the service’s portion of US defense strategy, the Army needs an active component of 540,000 to 550,000. That active component is now 476,000.
A US soldier, left, and a US Army Interpreter look over a map with an Iraqi army soldier before starting a cordon and search in the Ninewa Forest in Mosul, Iraq, June 8, 2008. US Army/Pfc. Sarah De Boise
Though the US armed forces maintains definite advantages over peers and other forces in technology, training, and capabilities, years of operations and, according to many officials, reductions in funding have imperiled the US military’s ability overcome opponents and fulfill its missions.
“In just a few years, if we don’t change our trajectory, we will lose our qualitative and quantitative competitive advantage,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this June.
Members of the 82nd Airborne Division, Delta 1-321 Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, fire a 155mm Howitzer during a training mission at Forward Operating Base Andar, Afghanistan. | ISAF photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph Swafford
On March 19, U.S. Marine Corps staff sergeant Louis Cardin, a field artilleryman assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, died during an attack on Fire Base Bell outside of Makhmur, Iraq. Coincidentally, the U.S. Army is hard at work developing a farther-firing howitzer that could help keep artillery troops out of range of enemy forces.
The Army is cooking up a suite of improvements could double the range of the existing M-777 howitzer. Right now the 155-millimeter gun, in service with the Army and Marines, can lob shells at targets up to 18 miles away.
The M-777ER version the Army is working on “will be able to reach out and hit targets … before the targets can reach them,” David Bound, the lead engineer on the project at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, told Army reporters. Troops “won’t have to worry about coming into a situation where they are under fire before they can return fire.”
The modifications add fewer than 1,000 pounds of extra weight onto the older howitzers. The updates include improvements that will help gunners fire more accurately plus a mechanism to automatically load rounds into the gun.
The biggest change is the addition of new barrel that’s six feet longer. The longer M-777ER should be able to hit enemy forces more than 43 miles away. And with more powerful propellant charges and rocket-assisted shells, crews might be able to increase that range even more in the near future.
While the changes to the M-777 might sound simple, the new gun’s extra length actually complicates its employment. Unlike older towed howitzers that hitch up to cargo trucks with their stabilizing legs, the lightweight M-777 has its tow loop right at the end of its barrel. Folded up for travel, the new version will still be more than 35 feet long.
In combat, troops could end up taking the guns off-road, up hills and over uneven terrain. With six more feet between the truck and the howitzer’s own two wheels, there’s greater potential for the barrel to flex if it isn’t sturdy enough to withstand the shock.
A bent barrel would throw off where the shells fall. A broken barrel might simply explode.
So, the project’s biggest challenge might be just convincing soldiers and Marines that the guns work. “The visual prejudice we are up against is that it looks like it may tip over with all that extra cannon,” Bound noted.
With help from engineers at Benet Labs, the Army plans to run “mobility” demonstrations to prove that the gun and its new features are ready for combat. The ground combat branch also plans to install the longer barrel on the new M-109A7 Paladin self-propelled howitzer.
Farther-firing cannons would no doubt help in the fight against Islamic State. Since the summer of 2015, the Army has lobbed hundreds of 227-millimeter rockets at militant forces from bases in Iraq and Jordan.
Launched from the back of a six-wheel truck, these GPS-guided projectiles can hit targets up to 43 miles away — the same range the Army expects of the M-777ER. The High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launcher can shoot one rocket every five seconds. But the vehicle can only fire six rockets in total before the crew needs to reload.
“So to provide protection for … advisers in Makhmur, we realize that we need some fire support, we need some artillery to provide great protection,” Army colonel Steve Warren, the Pentagon’s main spokesman for the campaign against Islamic State, told reporters on March 21. “We scratched out a fire base there, placed the guns.”
Rocket and gun artillery have the benefit of being less vulnerable to air defenses and the weather than fighter-bombers or gunship helicopters can be. Depending on where aircraft are during an attack, these weapons might take far less time to get into action.
The trainers and Marines at Fire Base Bell are backing up the Iraqi government’s offensive to liberate Mosul. But in their current configuration, the Marine Corps’ guns can’t reach the outskirts of the terrorist-controlled city.
“The Marines fired upon the enemy infiltration routes in order to disrupt their freedom of movement and ability to attack Kurdish and Peshmerga forces,” the military stated. In short, at the moment the gunners at Fire Base Bell are mainly harassing Islamic State’s fighters. But with the M-777ER’s extra range, they should be able to hit the militants’ main defenses in Mosul’s suburbs.
Look for the names of active military units and installations on race car windshields during Friday’s Subway Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway. In a show of appreciation for the United States Armed Forces, NASCAR XFINITY Series teams will replace the “XFINITY” logo with those of the 82nd Airborne Division, 1st Marine Raider Battalion, the USS New York (LPD-21) and other military units and installations from all five branches. (Yes, NASCAR remembered the Coast Guard.)
NASCAR: An American Salute is an expression of respect and gratitude for those who have served and continue to defend the United States. Last month, NASCAR together with NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race teams honored 40 fallen service members with 600 Miles of Remembrance, a similar tribute during Memorial Day Weekend. Unlike many other major sporting events and leagues who “honor” the Armed Forces and those who serve, NASCAR is not being paid by the U.S. military to do so.
“NASCAR’s long-standing tradition of honoring the U.S. Armed Forces will never waver – it is woven into the fabric of our sport,” said Brent Dewar, NASCAR’s chief operating officer. “We have a unique opportunity to pay tribute to the military units and bases integral to preserving our country’s freedom.”
Several teams have direct connections to the units displayed on their race cars. Driver Brendan Gaughan’s windshield will read “23RD STS,” representing the U.S. Air Force’s 23rd Special Tactics Squadron from Hurlburt Field in Florida. Gaughan is one of a handful of civilians recognized as an Honorary Member of the Combat Control Association.
Elliott Sadler’s windshield will recognize Fort Campbell for JR Motorsports employee Lee Langley, who served for six years at the Army base as an infantry team leader in the 101st Airborne. Ty Dillon and Brandon Jones both work with Hope 4 Warriors and will honor 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines and 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, respectively, from Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Justin Allgaier will honor the U.S. Air Force 469th Flight Training Squadron at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. One of Allgaier friends is Major Robert Harms, one of the pilots serving in that unit.
“I always look forward to getting a chance to pay homage those who serve our country at Daytona each year,” Allgaier said. “This year there’s a personal tie for me as I get to display the squadron of one of my friends. We love that we’re able to support our military, but a sticker or event will never be enough to give them all the credit they deserve.”
On Jan. 27, 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords, formally ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. On Apr. 30, 1975, the country of South Vietnam formally came to an end as North Vietnamese tanks rolled across bases and airfields and into the southern capital of Saigon.
While many look back and see the war as a waste of money, manpower, and materiel given the outcome, there are more than 475 million people who would disagree.
The foundation of that figure of 475 million is the current population of Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines. It doesn’t mention the relatives of those populations who are no longer alive and didn’t live under the constant threat of global Communism because of the line in the sand drawn by American forces in Vietnam.
World War II-era Navy veteran, Georgetown University professor, and former member of the National Security Council under four presidential administrations, William Lloyd Stearman, wrote about the accomplishments of the United States in the Vietnam War in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece. In it, he argues that the Vietnam War was not only winnable, the North Vietnamese were constantly surprised that the Americans didn’t cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail by invading Laos – a move the NVA thought was inevitable – and thus, win the war for the South.
The U.S. didn’t want to widen the war, but if the NVA was already in Laos. It was already wider.
While the 96-year-old Stearman spends much of the article rehashing the causes for the outcome of the Vietnam War, the important aspects he adds to the discussion are what the United States and her allies actually achieved through their involvement there, rather than dwelling on what we lost. He argues that without the intervention of the U.S. in Vietnam, the West would have been forced into harder choices in more difficult areas as Communist insurgencies rocked other countries in the region. Quoting Singapore’s visionary leader Lee Kuan Yew, who wrote about this subject in his memoirs:
“In 1965, when the U.S. military moved massively into South Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines faced internal threats from armed insurgencies and the communist underground was still active in Singapore. Indonesia [was] in the throes of a failed communist coup. America’s action enabled noncommunist Southeast Asia to put their own houses in order. By 1975, they were in better shape to stand up to the communists. Had there been no U.S. intervention, the will of these countries to resist them would have melted and Southeast Asia would most likely gone communist.”
Lee Kuan Yew is famous for taking Singapore “from third world to first world” in a single generation.
The U.S. troop buildup in South Vietnam in 1965 spurred Britain to reinforce Malaysia. That same year, Indonesian forces were inspired by anti-Communist action and troop build-ups in the region and successfully fought off a Chinese-led Communist insurgency there. If the insurgency in Indonesia were successful, it would have spread to the Philippines and forced the U.S. to come to the Philippines to fight the Communists, rather than in North Vietnam.
That situation, Stearman argues, would have been far worse and far more costly than the fighting in Vietnam.
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.
The challenge coin game is a military tradition with murky roots. The game is played where one service member at a bar challenges another to present their challenge coin. If the challenged doesn’t have their coin, they have to buy the challenger a drink. If the challenged service member has their coin, they get a round on the challenger.
Few people play the game anymore, but unit coin designs say a lot about a command. Here are some of the best challenge coin designs we’ve seen.
1. U.S. Army diver coin
It’s cut into a cool shape and has many of the Army’s diver badges on it. It both identifies the holder and calls them to go after even higher certifications as a diver.
2. The Mickey Mouse challenge coin
The military has a long history with co-opting copyrighted materials for its unit coins, murals, and posters. While most units go for something violent or that caters to an adult crowd, the Naval Air Warfare Center in Orlando made one that reminded everyone just how easy it is to get to Walt Disney World from the center. It’s a 40-minute drive.
3. Trample the weak
Most units, especially in the Army and Marine Corps, go aggressive. But this Airborne infantry coin went the extra mile to remind everyone that the infantry has one job and Chosen Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade plans on being good at it.
4. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy
The most senior enlisted man in the Navy has to represent, and this coin from Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Rick West lets everyone know where the coin came from. The cut of the coin is very impressive as well, with a gold chain trailing down the anchor.
5. South Park
The South Park coin is a popular design. Everyone just changes the location and calls it a day. It gets laughs and lets the holder brag about their former duty stations.
6. Friday the 13th
For Navy chief petty officers, one of the major ceremonies is being accepted into the chief petty officer mess hall. The men given this coin were accepted on Friday the 13th and were rewarded with an awesome coin.
There are some units in the U.S. Marine Corps that really know how to make an impression.
Like the rest of the military, Marine units have unit crests, nicknames, and of course, mottos. And in quite a few cases, those elements are pretty badass.
These are our picks for the units with the coolest unit mottos, along with a brief explanation of what they do.
1. “Whatever It Takes”
1st Battalion, 4th Marines: Stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, 1/4 is an infantry battalion that has been fighting battles since its first combat operation in the Dominican Republic in 1916. That’s also where 1st Lt. Ernest Williams earned the Medal of Honor, the first for the battalion.
2. “Get Some”
3rd Battalion, 5th Marines: Based at the northern edge of Camp Pendleton, California, the “Dark Horse” battalion is one of the most-decorated battalions in the Marine Corps.
3. “Balls of the Corps”
3rd Battalion, 1st Marines: “The Thundering Third” is stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, and has a notable former member in Gen. Joseph Dunford.
4. “We Quell the Storm, and Ride the Thunder”
3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines: “The Betio Bastards” of 3/2 are based at Camp Lejeune, and have been heavily involved in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The battalion is perhaps best known for its fight on Tarawa in 1943.
5. “Retreat Hell”
2nd Battalion, 5th Marines: It was in the trenches of World War I where 2/5 got its motto. When told by a French officer that his unit should retreat from the defensive line, Capt. Lloyd Williams replied, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” With combat service going back to 1914, 2/5 is the most decorated battalion in Marine history.
6. “Ready for All, Yielding to None”
2nd Battalion, 7th Marines: Stationed at Twentynine Palms, California, the battalion’s current motto is a slight variation on its Vietnam-era one: “Ready for Anything, Counting on Nothing.”
7. “Semper Malus” — Latin for “Always Ugly”
Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 362 (HMH-362): This helicopter unit nicknamed “Ugly Angels,” is stationed at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii and holds the proud distinction of being the first aircraft unit ashore in Vietnam.
8. “Swift, Silent, Deadly”
1st, 2nd, and 3rd Recon Battalions: Reconnaissance Marines are trained for special missions, raids, and you guessed it: reconnaissance. For these three battalions, stationed at Camps Lejeune, Pendleton, and Schwab, the motto pretty much sums up what they can do.
9. “Make Peace or Die”
1st Battalion, 5th Marines: Nicknamed “Geronimo,” the Camp Pendleton based 1/5 has been involved in every major U.S. engagement since World War I. Most recently, the battalion has been deployed to Darwin, Australia as the Corps tries to “pivot to the Pacific.”
The US has reportedly made a bold move in countering Beijing’s growing dominance in the South China Sea by flying B-52 nuclear-capable bombers over disputed islands — and it shows how the US and China may rapidly be approaching a showdown.
“China’s militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea includes the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers, and more recently, the landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island,” Mattis said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping swore at the White House with former President Barack Obama in 2015 that he would not militarize the islands, and continues to claim the islands have not been militarized despite the obvious presence of military equipment.
“The placement of these weapons systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion,” said Mattis.
The B-52s reportedly flew within 20 miles of the Spratly Islands, which China claims for itself and has built military facilities on. But Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan also claim the islands, and China has repeatedly made a show of refusing to let international courts settle the matter.
The US has a lot of experience taking down small islands
(U.S. Navy photo)
Earlier in June 2018, a top US general asserted the US military’s power to act against threats to international order, saying “the United States military has had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific, taking down small islands.”
In another rhetorical shift, the US military renamed its Pacific command “Indo-Pacific command” to emphasize India and advance a vision of the Pacific not dominated by China.
Wherever there is conflict or injustice, there is an opportunity for humor. At its best, laughter is a release of stress and anxiety and, as we all know, serving in the armed forces is wrought with both. Terminal Lance is the vehicle Maximilian Uriarte utilizes to bring some reflection and a smile to those who would otherwise have no publication to relate to, and this is why we love him for it.
Like a modern-day jester (with less ridiculous clothing and much more topical ribbing), Uriarte has created an outlet through which junior enlisted feel understood.
The comic has always taken the perspective of a lower enlisted Marine, despite commenting big-picture subjects ranging from military gender equality and presidential elections to issues as simple as how horrible it is to have porta-john water splash up and make contact.
Throughout, Uriarte maintains the point of view of a young enlisted reacting to the world around him, it just so happens to also be the point of view of the largest demographic in service.
2. Terminal Lance is relatable.
Uriarte creates relatable comics by highlighting the nuances of life in the Corps and giving an honest look to our generation of service members’ attitudes. Abe, Terminal Lance‘s central character, is a lower-middle-class kid who joined the USMC with the starry-eyed hope of any kid raised on eighties war movies.
Abe becomes disenfranchised by years of letdowns and a seemingly endless river of bullshit crashing down on his head, which, coincidentally, mirrors some of the same feelings this writer had as a young Lance Corporal.
3. Terminal Lance keeps it real.
Maximilian Uriarte is a credible source. A former infantry Marine, Uriarte clearly uses his personal experience with hazing, false motivation, mandatory fun, “voluntold-isms,” and the profound ignorance of boots to craft an undeniably accurate look at the reality of serving in the Corps.
Maximilian Uriarte was a “0351” Assaultman stationed in Hawaii. Assaultman is an MOS infamous for having very high cutting scores, creating a situation where very experienced and competent Marines are surpassed in rank by peers simply because of the competitiveness of their job.
Situations like this are the genesis for the term, ‘Terminal Lance” and inform Uriarte’s perspective in his comics. After serving four years, experiencing multiple combat deployments, and being honorably discharged from the USMC in May of 2010, Uriarte started pursuing a career in animating and storyboarding. We enjoy the fruits of his labor to this day.
For centuries, friends and foes of Russia marveled at the fierce fighting skills of their Cossack Warriors. The Cossacks fought to defend the Russian Czar against any manner of enemies – from Ottoman Turks to Napoleon’s Grande Armée, through a World War, and even against the Bolshevik Red Army.
They expanded the borders of the Russian Empire, conquering Siberia and the Caucasus regions for the Czar, all the way to the Bering Sea – capturing one-sixth of the Earth’s land area. Their martial prowess was unmatched in the region for a long time and they refused to be tied to any master. Even the name “Cossack” in the Turkic languages of the time and area meant “free,” “adventurer,” or “wanderer.”
Cossack loyalty to the Russian Czar was earned over centuries of fighting to maintain that independence. Many Czars were faced with Cossack uprisings and were forced to deal with them in their own ways, from putting down the rebellion or forcibly moving the population to another area of the Russian Empire.
From a young age, Cossacks raised their children to be elite warriors and ethnically Cossack in every way possible. Training could begin in infancy and only ever stop in an actual pitched battle.
Eventually, the Russian nobility came to accept the Cossacks, endowing them with certain rights and privileges in the Empire for their continued service in defending Russia’s borders. And they earned those rights, too. After his Grand Armée was forced out of Russia, the Cossacks harassed them all the way back to France. It was the Cossacks who captured Paris and unseated the French Emperor.
When the Empire fell during World War I and the Czar abdicated, the Cossacks were divided between the Red and White factions of the Russian Civil War. They fought primarily for the White (anti-Communist) Russians, which earned them persecution when the Bolsheviks won the war and founded the Soviet Union.
The persecution got so bad, many Cossacks fought for Nazi Germany during WWII.