New Year Saw Rare Aircraft Carrier Deployment Gap


By Debbie Gregory.

As the first month of 2017 draws to an end, we learned a very interesting fact.

For the first week of this year, for the first time since World War II, no U.S. aircraft carriers were deployed, anywhere, a Navy spokesman confirmed.

Had the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which had been in the Persian Gulf, delayed its return to its homeport of Norfolk, VA by a few days, this would not have been the case.

The unusual gap in carrier presence is due in part to longer-than-expected maintenance for the USS George H.W. Bush, which was supposed to take eight months, but ended up taking 13 months. The Navy blamed the delay on increased wear and tear that resulted from an extended deployment. If it had left when it was supposed to, instead of on January 21st, it would have relieved the Eisenhower in the Gulf.

The George H.W. Bush is the tenth and final Nimitz-class supercarrier of the United States Navy, named for the 41st President of the United States. Construction began in 2003at the Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard’s Dry Dock 12, the largest in the western hemisphere, and was completed in 2009 at a cost of $6.2 billion.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the absence of a carrier in the Gulf or the Pacific does not mean the U.S. is vulnerable.

The USS Carl Vinson is on routine deployment to the Western Pacific after having received some $300 million worth of improvements.

The USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship, is on deployment in the Middle East. The ship is smaller than an aircraft carrier and deploys with Marines, landing craft and helicopters.

“We have had a significant presence in both those areas and will continue to have a significant presence even though we may not at any one particular time have an aircraft carrier there,” Cook said.

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Changes to DOD’s Pharmacy Program Likely to Save More than $1 Billion


By Debbie Gregory.

Thanks to higher beneficiary co-pays, tighter point-of-service rules and recent streamlining of prescription drug processes across the military, the Department of Defense pharmacy program may be able to reduce the cost of prescriptions by more than $1 billion in the five year period between 2014 and 2019.

Policy changes have forced or enticed beneficiaries to skip retail outlets and use mail order for refills on maintenance drugs used for chronic conditions. Additionally, base pharmacies, where drugs are still dispensed at no charge, have expanded the drugs they stock to better meet beneficiaries’ medication needs.

Despite a couple of co-pay increases the past five years to encourage beneficiaries to use generic medicines and more cost-efficient drug outlets, the average annual out-of-pocket cost per beneficiary has ranged from $553 to $603.

Beneficiaries who want brand name maintenance drugs can do so via home delivery or on base. But if they opt for a retail pharmacy, they have to pay the full cost.

Express Scripts, the TRICARE contracted mail order pharmacy, has been a major component in the success of the program.

Of 9.4 million beneficiaries eligible to the use the pharmacy benefit, 82 percent did so in fiscal 2016. That was up from 66 percent in 2002, before the TRICARE mail order program began. A total of 7.7 million beneficiaries got at least one prescription filled in 2016, two million more than in 2002. Prescriptions filled across all three points of service totaled 127 million in 2016 versus 82 million in 2002, a 55 percent jump.

Almost 60 percent of beneficiaries are retirees or their family members: 3.1 million (33.2 percent) are retirees 65 and older and their dependents; 2.2 million (23.7 percent) are younger retirees and their family members. About 1.5 million beneficiaries (16.4 percent) are active duty and two million (21.4 percent) are family members of active duty.

The remaining half million “other” beneficiaries are mostly Reserve, Guard and their family members who qualify for the drug benefit.

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US Agrees to Pay Billions to Former Marines at Camp Lejeune


By Debbie Gregory.

From 1953 through 1987, people serving or living at the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, were potentially exposed to water contaminated with industrial solvents, benzene, and other chemicals. This chemical exposure may have led to adverse health conditions.

Now, after years of waiting, those veterans may now be able to receive a portion of government disability benefits totaling more than $2 billion. This is one of few instances in which former military personnel who weren’t deployed for war could become eligible for cash payouts.

The qualifying health conditions include adult leukemia, aplastic anemia, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease.

“We have a responsibility to take care of those who have served our nation and have been exposed to harm as a result of that service,” McDonald said, adding that the VA’s decision will make it easier for veterans “to receive the care and benefits they earned.”

Beginning in March, the disability benefits may supplement VA health care already being provided to eligible veterans who were stationed at the Marine base for at least 30 cumulative days between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987. Veterans will have to submit evidence of their diagnoses and service information.

The new rule covers active duty, Reserve and National Guard members who developed one of the eight diseases.

It allows veterans to qualify for government disability aid based on toxic harm sustained while at a garrison, as opposed to a battlefield. The Marine Corps has said the contamination was unintentional, occurring when federal law didn’t limit toxins in drinking water.

In 2012, Congress passed a bill that was signed into law by President Obama extending free VA medical care to affected veterans and their families. But veterans were not automatically provided disability aid or survivor benefits. The issue has prompted lawsuits by veterans organizations, which note that military personnel in Camp Lejeune housing “drank, cooked and bathed” in contaminated water for years.

In 2015, McDonald also agreed to award disability benefits for another category of veterans who weren’t on the ground, those who had developed medical conditions after exposure to Agent Orange residue on planes used in the Vietnam War.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Air Force Relaxes Tattoo Policy to Help Recruitment


By Debbie Gregory.

In an effort to open the door to more recruits who would otherwise be barred from service because of their body ink, the U.S. Air Force is revamping its restrictions on tattoos.

The U.S. Marines overhauled its tattoo restrictions about six months ago, with the goal of balancing “the personal desires of Marines with high standards of professional military appearance and heritage.”

The new Air Force tattoo policy, which goes into effect on February 1, eliminates the “25% coverage rule” which limited the relative size of tattoos on the chest, back, arms and legs. The rule had required that no tattoos cover more than 25% of the body part or readily visible when wearing a uniform.

The policy will not affect areas of the body where tattoos are currently not allowed, including the neck, face, head, tongue, lips and scalp. Hand tattoos will be limited to a single-band ring tattoo on one finger of one hand. The Air Force said that would preserve the ability to present a formal military image when required with dress uniforms at certain events.

Tattoos, brands and body markings that are obscene, affiliated with gangs or extremist groups, along with those that advocate sexual, racial, ethnic or religious discrimination, are still banned.

While Marines can have an unlimited number of tattoos that are covered by the properly fitting standard physical training uniform (green t-shirt and green shorts) any tattoo, regardless of where it is, cannot express sexism, nudity, racism, vulgarity, or anything that is offensive as to discredit the Marine Corps or damage the nation’s expectations of them.

One in every five people looking at signing up had tattoos requiring review or that could be considered disqualifying, the Air Force said.

“These changes allow the Air Force to aggressively recruit talented and capable Americans who until now might not have been able to serve our country in uniform,” Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Cody said.

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DOD Allowing More Vets to Shop Exchanges Online


By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Defense has made a policy change to allow 16 million honorably discharged veterans to shop online for discounted military exchange products.

Not only does the change reward those who have served by giving them a 20 percent savings over commercial department stores, but it will also increase exchange revenues to offset recent declines.

Peter K. Levine, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, signed a memorandum announcing the benefit expansion, effective Veterans’ Day 2017.

Months of preparation are needed to make e-shopping portals more robust and to allow the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC) time to create software for verifying veterans’ status using Department of Veterans Affairs records.

Several million vets already are eligible to shop in exchanges — on base or online — because they are active or reserve component retirees, or 100-percent disabled from service-connected injuries or ailments, or Medal of Honor recipients.

The military relies on the revenue from the exchanges to fund its Morale, Welfare and Recreational activities. By adding veterans to the online patron base, exchange services expect total annual online sales to jump from $250 million to $1 billion in less than four years.

The commissary shopping benefit isn’t involved, so there won’t be any dilution to that benefit, or any increase in crowding or product availability. Military retirees, 100-percent disabled veterans and Medal of Honor recipients would still be the only veterans allowed to shop in base exchanges.

The online benefit does not extend to veterans’ dependents, although spouses and family members theoretically could use the authorized customer’s log-in credentials, given the nature of an online shopping benefit.

Proponents were anxious to see the initiative approved before the Obama administration ends Jan. 20 to avoid having to re-argue its merits to new leaders.

Military exchanges acknowledge that they are losing sales to popular online sites such as Amazon, particularly as military patrons grow increasingly comfortable with using smart phones and tablets to shop.

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President Trump Planning Biggest Fleet Expansion Since Cold War

The USS Zumwalt at Bath Iron Works.

By Debbie Gregory.

With the new president’s blessing, the Navy is proposing the biggest shipbuilding boom since the end of the Cold War to meet threats from a resurgent Russia and saber-rattling China.

The Navy’s 355-ship proposal surpasses the number that President Trump had promoted on the campaign trail, providing a potential boost to shipyards that have struggled because budget caps that have limited money funding for ships.

The Navy currently has 274 deployable battle force ships

The Navy’s revised Force Structure Assessment calls for adding another 47 ships including an aircraft carrier built in Virginia, 16 large surface warships built in Maine and Mississippi, and 18 attack submarines built in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Virginia. It also calls for more amphibious assault ships, expeditionary transfer docks and support ships.

A larger fleet would be better for both the sailors, who’d enjoy shorter deployments, and for the ships, which would have more down time for maintenance.

Many defense analysts agree that military capabilities have been degraded in recent years, especially when it comes to warships, aircraft and tanks.

The key is finding a way to increase Navy shipbuilding to achieve defense and economic gains “in a fiscally responsible way that does not pass the bill along to our children,” said Sen. Angus King of Maine, a member of the Armed Services Committee.

“You never have enough money to buy a perfect defense,” said Lawrence J. Korb, a retired naval officer and former assistant defense secretary under President Ronald Reagan “You have to make trade-offs.”

Stock prices for General Dynamics, which owns Bath Iron Works, Electric Boat and NASSCO, and Huntington Ingalls, which owns major shipyards in Virginia and in Mississippi, have seen stock prices slowly trend upward.

“To the generic military shipbuilder, it’s a bull market right now,” said Ronald Epstein, an analyst at Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch division.

In Bath, the 6,000 shipbuilders aren’t going to count their eggs before they hatch.

“A lot of people are hopeful that it’ll happen,” said Rich Nolan, president of the shipyard’s largest union. “But they’re taking a wait-and-see approach. They’ve heard it before and then seen it not come to fruition.”

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Will Air Force Personnel Shortage Have Critical Impacts?


By Debbie Gregory.

Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff , said the service is critically short of personnel and needs to expand by more than 30,000 active-duty service members. Otherwise, the service branch may face challenges in meeting its security obligations, including an air war against Islamic State militants.

Goldfein said he will recommend expanding the size of the active duty Air Force from its current size of about 317,000 to 350,000. It would probably take five or six years to reach the higher level. Under current plans, the Air Force had planned to grow to 321,000.

At the start of the Gulf War, the Air Force had 134 fighter squadrons. Over the past few decades, that number has been cut to 55.

Yet, the Air Force is conducting nearly 70 percent of the strike missions against ISIS and conducting 90 percent of midair refueling missions over Iraq and Syria since August 2014.

Goldfein, who is described as a pilot’s pilot, has not just flown F-16s and F-117As, the kind of warplanes associated with an Air Force officer. He has also piloted the MQ-9 Reaper.

The Air Force is delivering weapons and ammunition to Iraqi forces battling the Islamic State, and has air-dropped supplies to a rebel force marching on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria. It is also responding to other global crises.

Russia and China are emerging as potential threats that could challenge the U.S. military in ways the Islamic State has not. China is expanding its presence in the South China Sea and Russia has become a major player in Syria’s civil war, siding with the regime of President Bashar Assad.

The U.S. Air Force has rarely been challenged in the skies during its campaign against the Islamic State. That could change if the United States were to face another nation’s military capable of challenging the U.S. military’s technological advantages.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

B-2 Bombers Kill Dozens of ISIS Fighters in Libya


By Debbie Gregory.

Last week, American warplanes unleashed a massive attack on at least two Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL) training camps in Libya, killing an estimated 80 militants.

This was one of the last short-notice military operations ordered by President Barack Obama.

“The fighters training in these camps posed a security risk to Libya, to its neighbors, to our allies in Africa and Europe, and to the United States,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.

The airstrikes occurred in a remote area approximately 30 miles southwest of Sirte, a city along the Mediterranean coast that’s been a focus for U.S. forces.

The Department of Defense showed reporters a rare video of surveillance footage of the ISIS fighters as they loaded what appeared to be shells and rocket-propelled grenades into pick-up trucks. A second video showing the camps being bombed was also shown.

The strike was carried out by two US Air Force B-2 Spirit bombers and an unspecified number of unmanned MQ-9 Reapers armed with Hellfire missiles.

U.S. Navy warships equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles were also on standby, but initial reports indicate they were not needed.

“We are committed to maintaining pressure on ISIL and preventing them from establishing safe haven,” Cook said in a statement “These strikes will degrade ISIL’s ability to stage attacks against Libyan forces and civilians working to stabilize Sirte, and demonstrate our resolve in countering the threat posed by ISIL to Libya, the United States and our allies.”

The U.S. has conducted more than 500 airstrikes in Libya since last winter. The last reported U.S. activity there occurred in December, when a contingent of Navy ships carrying Marine attack jets and helicopters left the Mediterranean and returned home.

No women or children were present, and there were no reports of civilian casualties, officials noted.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

DoD Provide $80 Million for New Tissue, Organ Research for Injured Soldiers


By Debbie Gregory.

Technology is advancing at a rate that is difficult to keep up with. As further evidence, the Department of Defense is providing $80 million to establish a bio-research and manufacturing institute to develop transplant tissues and organs for injured American soldiers and other patients.

The Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute will be located in Manchester, NH, and will be led by a collation that includes DEKA Research and Development Corp., the University of New Hampshire and Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

“This is a monumental investment in the future of New Hampshire and further establishes this region as a hub for scientific research and development,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan in a statement. All three represent the citizens of New Hampshire.

Officials said it will bring good jobs to Manchester and give the state’s college graduates opportunities to work on cutting edge biomedical/biofabrication research.

Biofabrication is an innovative manufacturing industry segment at the intersection of biology-related research, computer science, materials science and engineering that is creating state-of-the-art manufacturing innovations in biomaterial and cell processing, bioprinting, automation and non-destructive testing technologies for critical Department of Defense and novel commercial use.

The institute will develop techniques for repairing and replacing cells in tissues, possibly leading to the ability to make new skin for soldiers scarred from combat and technology to preserve organs for those waiting for transplants.

Dr. James Weinstein, CEO and President of Dartmouth-Hitchcock believes researchers will develop ways to make tissue on structured frameworks that could be implantable within five years.

“It’s extremely important for our veterans who lose limbs and organs that we might be able to make them new ones using stem cells and 3-D printing,” he said. “This is going to be foundational and groundbreaking work for the future of our country and our world.”

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Pentagon Confident in Defense Against N. Korea


By Debbie Gregory.

The U.S. Defense Department, reacting to North Korea’s statement that it plans to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, said it was confident in its ability to protect U.S. allies and the U.S. homeland from threats from Pyongyang.

Pyongyang is the capital and largest city of North Korea.”We remain confident in our ballistic missile defense and in our defense of our allies and our defense of the homeland,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said at a news briefing.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, in a New Year’s speech Sunday, said the country was “in the final stages of test-launching the intercontinental ballistic missile.”

“We have a ballistic missile defense … umbrella that we’re confident in for the region and to protect the United States homeland,” Cook said.

In 2016, North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and numerous missile launches last year alone in its quest to develop a nuclear weapons system capable of hitting the US mainland.

“We would once again call on the North Koreans to refrain from provocative actions,” Cook said.

President Donald Trump dismissed Pyongyang’s missile claims, tweeting, “”North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won’t happen!”

North Korea’s drive to develop nuclear ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States and its allies has prompted Washington to reinforce its antimissile defenses in the region.

The defense strategy is based notably on the AEGIS system, powerful TPY-2 radars and the antiballistic missile system THAAD that Washington is relocating to South Korea, a move that has provoked China, North Korea’s main ally.

The Pentagon spokesman declined to comment to reporters on whether the US had prepared scenarios on deterrent military actions to stop North Korea from developing nuclear missiles.

“We’re constantly adjusting to the threat North Korea poses,” Cook said.

Pyongyang “has shown disregard to the international community for its international obligations,” he said. “And we’re watching this very, very carefully.”

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.