Thursday, December 11, 2008

Legislative Update from Lee F. Kichen, LTC, U.S. Army (Ret.)

Federal Legislative Update

President-elect Obama Names VA Secretary-President-elect Barack announced that he will send the name of former Chief of Staff of the Army, General (Ret) Eric K. Shinseki to the Senate for confirmation as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. General Shinseki has first hand knowledge of the sacrifices made by members of the Armed Forces. As a young officer in Vietnam he was twice wounded and had to overcome the amputation of a foot to forge a successful career. He has commanded soldiers at every level from platoon to theater Army. He is a product of the United States Military Academy and embodies that institution's creed of Duty, Honor and Country. Beyond his unquestionable physical courage, he has the moral courage to tell his bosses the unvarnished truth as evidenced when he testified before Congress in 2003 that we would not have enough troops to successfully complete the mission in Iraq.

General (Ret) Shinseki faces enormous challenges. He and his team along with their counterparts in the Department of Defense need to achieve seamless transition for service members transferring from the Armed Forces to Department of Veterans Affairs programs. VA and DoD have for too long failed to develop an integrated electronic medical records system which travels from military duty station to military duty station and ultimately to VA. VA must improve transition benefits which insure that America's newest veterans have viable training, employment and education leading to productive careers. The first order of business for Secretary-designate Shinseki is ensuring that VA is ready to administer the Post 9-11 GI Bill when it comes on line in August 2009. We are concerned that once again the backlog of claims for VA disability compensation and survivors' benefits is growing. The new leadership at VA must ensure that OIF/OEF veterans receive the treatment appropriate for their unique conditions.

Economic Crisis Means Train Wreck for Defense Spending-Although, Robert Gates will stay on as Secretary of Defense, the Administration and the new Congress will have to grapple with budget issues that could have profound impact on the military's personnel programs. Complicating matters is the decision of the outgoing Bush Administration decision not to submit a formal budget for FY 2010; instead leaving that task to the incoming Obama Administration. There are already rumbles that the 111th Congress is seriously looking to scale back the planned increases in the end strength of the Army and Marine Corps to pay for weapons systems. Maybe we ought to play for them the tapes of GEN (Ret) Shinseki's Congressional testimony in 2003 when we were at the early stages of what is now a two front war. General Shinseki warned of fighting a war requiring twelve divisions when we only had ten.

Congress is already salivating at the possibility of a "peace dividend" resulting from troop draw downs in Iraq. The post Cold War "peace dividend" left us with an Army far two small to deal with the realities of the Global War on Terrorism. None other than Representative John Murtha (D-PA) chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee that controls the Pentagon's budget predicts an austere future for defense spending. Given his power over defense appropriations his predictions are really self-fulfilling prophecies. Not surprisingly, he has personnel programs in his cross hairs.

The Army and Marine Corps are increasing in size, but to attract and retain recruits in wartime, they are spending $2 billion on bonuses, Murtha said. And the percentage of recruits who have graduated from high school has slipped from 94 percent to 82 percent. Murtha said the military is now spending $153 billion a year on personnel, and that cuts into spending on new weapons. "You can't increase personnel and increase procurement at the same time,"
Murtha suggests reducing defense spending by targeting personnel accounts:

• Stop spending $2 billion a year on recruiting and retention bonuses. "As we draw down [from Iraq] we ought to be able to get rid of the bonuses".

• Slow personnel increases in the Army and Marine Corps -- "because that's where the real money is." Apparently, Murtha is willing to continue spending on weapons systems, but, sacrifice both the quality and the size of the force while we still face all manner of national security threats.

Forget "Army Strong", the "Hollow Army" of Jimmy Carter is about to be reborn.


Florida State Legislative Update

Florida Veterans Council Approves 2009 State Legislative Priorities

Each year the Florida Veterans' Council, which is a coalition of Florida's major veterans' service organizations and military associations, formulates legislative goals and priorities. The priorities listed below were agreed to unanimously during our November meeting. We believe these priorities address the most pressing needs of Florida's veterans and their families.

Ad Valorem Tax Exemptions for Deployed Service Members

Legislation asking the people to amend Article VII, Section 6 (e) of the Florida Constitution providing a 100% Ad Valorem tax exemption to members of the Armed Forces who are deployed in direct support of the Global War on Terrorism.

Request State legislators to pass a memorial that will ask congress to amend the Post 9/11 GI Bill

Chapter 33 of the Post 9-11 Veterans Educational Enhancement Act of 2008 needs to be modified to include non-college degree programs (NCD) such as trade schools, flight and correspondence schools, as well as apprenticeship and OJT. Other recommended improvements to the Post 9-11 GI Bill include provisions for lifelong learning and additional financial support for educational institutions providing programs and services to veterans.

Broader Eligibility Disabled Veterans Ad Valorem Discounts

Legislation asking the people to amend Article VII, Section 6 (e) of the Florida Constitution eliminating the age and pre-service Florida residency requirements.

State contributions to the Disabled American Veterans Transportation Program

Legislation Providing Repayment of Student Loans for Combat Veterans
Legislation requiring the Department of Education to repay student loans outstanding after a waiver has been granted to combat veterans if the loan was certified by a post secondary institution before receipt of combat qualifying badge or ribbon e.g. Army Combat Infantryman Badge, Combat Medic Badge or Combat Action Badge, Air Force Combat Action Medal or Navy/Marine Corps/Coast Guard Combat Action Ribbon.

Cash Bonuses for GWOT, Iraqi and Afghanistan Veterans

Legislation establishing a one-time cash bonus for veterans who entered active duty from Florida and received the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, the Iraqi Campaign Medal or the Afghanistan Campaign Medal.