DoD to Set Troop Levels

troop levels

By Debbie Gregory.

Defense Secretary James Mattis now has more flexibility in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State after President Trump granted the Pentagon new authorities to determine the number of U.S. troops deployed to Iraq and Syria.

Known as the force management level, or “FML,” the number of troops deployed to either country is sent to Congress, and updated anytime there are major force deployments, which is intended to promote transparency.

“Restoring FML decisions to the Secretary of Defense enables military commanders to be more agile, adaptive and efficient in supporting our partners, and enables decisions that benefit unit readiness, cohesion and lethality,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said

Previously, the White House had retained control regarding setting troop levels under both the Obama and Bush administrations. Previous defense secretaries Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel complained about being “micromanaged” by White House officials on military matters.

Since his Senate confirmation hearings, Mattis has made clear that he is looking for ways to accelerate the campaign against ISIS.

Trump has outsourced a lot of decision making power to other departments. The decision to drop the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, referred to as the “mother of all bombs” on ISIS in Afghanistan, was made by the DoD.

The Pentagon will not routinely announce or confirm information about force numbers, locations, or troop movements in or out of Iraq and Syria.

Air Force Col. John Dorrian, the spokesman for U.S. forces for Iraq and Syria said, “With regard to the number of forces that are going into Syria, and their exact locations, what they’re doing, their comings and goings, the exact capabilities we’re bringing in, the coalition is really not going to get into the business of giving play-by-play updates on those, on those capabilities.”

However, other defense officials suggest this move will allow military commanders to be more transparent with both Congress and the public.

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.

Meeting the Healthcare Needs of Those Who Have Served


By Debbie Gregory.

Ever an advocate for our nation’s veterans, U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley (CA-26) has issued a statement about a provision of the House Republican’s healthcare bill that could hurt veterans and their families:

“We have known for months that the GOP healthcare bill could strip roughly 7 million veterans of eligibility for healthcare tax credit assistance.  Despite warnings from our veterans service organizations, and pleas from veterans across the country, President Trump and Speaker Ryan have recklessly forged ahead despite the consequences,” stated Brownley.  “While I am deeply concerned about many aspects of this bill, the rush to put politics ahead of people, and the impact it could have on our veterans as a consequence, is simply shameful.”

Language in the bill could deny tax credits to any individual who is “eligible” for other healthcare programs, like VA healthcare or TRICARE.  This provision potentially denies 7 million veterans access to healthcare, because though they are technically eligible, they are not currently enrolled in VA healthcare.

Furthermore, on April 25th, Rep. Brownley, along with Rep. Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson (PA-05) introduced H.R. 2123, the Veterans E-Health and Telemedicine Support (VETS) Act of 2017.

Under current law, VA doctors can provide treatment via the phone or internet chat services for many routine appointments.  But the rules prohibit physicians from providing those services across state lines, unless both the veteran and the doctor are in federal facilities. The VETS Act of 2017 removes these barriers and allows the VA to provide treatment through physicians free of this restriction.

“As Ranking Member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, I believe that we need to meet veterans where they are. The rapid growth of technology offers new possibilities for providing timely, quality healthcare that best suits veterans’ needs,” Brownley said.

Veterans would no longer be required to travel to a VA facility, but rather could receive telemedicine treatment from anywhere, including their home or a community center.

CA Lawmakers Consider Legal Aid for Deported Vets


By Debbie Gregory.

The California legislature is considering AB 386, a bill introduced by State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher that would create a legal assistance fund for veterans who have been deported. The bill has been passed by the Assembly without any dissenting votes and now goes to the Senate.

Veterans who run afoul of the law can be deported after serving time in jail or prison because they’re not citizens.

“Immigrants who serve and fight for our country earn the right to become citizens. That’s common sense, it’s a powerful way to recruit bright and talented young men and women, and it’s federal law. But instead of keeping our promises, we’ve kicked these veterans out of the country they fought for,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “They’ve earned the right to return to this country as Americans, and make restitution for their mistakes as Americans.”

“People make mistakes,” said Gonzalez Fletcher, noting that “a lot” of those mistakes are caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.

“When someone is willing to die for this country and give us everything that they have … we just thought it was time to figure out a way to get them back home,” she said.

In order to qualify for legal aid under the bill, a veteran would have to provide evidence of current or prior California residency, which could be graduating from a state high school, having a spouse or child currently living in California, or being stationed in the state for military training.

The Deported Veterans Support House, founded by Army veteran Hector Barajas in Tijuana, estimates that it has been in contact with over 100 veterans who have been deported.

Earlier this month, Gov. Brown pardoned three military veterans, including Barajas, who were deported, removing one obstacle to their return.

Assemblyman Rocky Chávez (R-Oceanside) supports the bill. As the co-chair of the Assembly’s Veterans Affairs Committee, the former Marine has tended to vote against legislation that would assist immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.

But Chávez feels it’s a different matter when it comes to legal residents who served alongside citizens.

“These individuals were in the foxhole fighting together,” said Chávez. “Both of them were suffering the same horrors of combat together.”

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.

Unique Tool to Help Prevent Veteran Suicides


By Debbie Gregory.

Suicide prevention is one of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) highest priorities. To that end, the VA has launched a new program that uses analytics to identify veterans who might be at an increased risk of attempting suicide.

The program is called Recovery Engagement and Coordination for Health- Veterans Enhanced Treatment, or REACH VET.

The computer algorithm combs through electronic health records and identifies factors that indicate veterans who could be a higher suicide risk. Factors include hospitalizations, chronic illness, relationship issues, life changes, socioeconomic stressors and certain medical and mental health conditions.

The program is available at all VA hospitals. Once a veteran is identified, his or her VA mental health or primary care provider reaches out to check on the veteran’s well-being, review their condition(s) and treatment plans to determine if enhanced care is needed.

The VA has worked to develop the program for about six years.

According to the latest VA statistics, veterans face a higher risk of suicide than the civilian population. While veterans made up about 8.5 percent of the U.S. population in 2014, they accounted for 18 percent of suicides.

An average of 20 veterans died from suicide each day in 2014. Six of the 20, on average, were enrolled in VA health care.

“REACH VET is a game changer in our effort to reduce Veteran suicide,” said Dr. Caitlin Thompson, National Director of VA’s Office for Suicide Prevention. “Early intervention can lead to better recovery outcomes, lessen the likelihood of challenges becoming crises and reduce the stress that Veterans and their loved ones face.”

“This cutting-edge program is saving lives by identifying at-risk Veterans and connecting them with the specialized care and support they need,” said VA Secretary David Shulkin.

The VA’s suicide prevention resources include the Veterans Crisis Line, which provides confidential support for all veterans, regardless of whether or not they are enrolled in VA health care.

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.

Is the Blended Retirement Lump Sum Fair?

Blended Retirement

In approximately ten years when the first wave of active duty personnel who opt into the new Blended Retirement System (BRS) start to retire, they may be asked: Do you want your full immediate annuity? Or do you prefer to get part of its value in a discounted lump sum at retirement in return for forfeiting either one half or one quarter of your retired pay until age 67, when you would see full annuities restored?

But if the Department of Defense (DoD) Board of Actuaries has its way, that won’t happen. The board has called the system inappropriate and has asked Congress to rescind the choice.

While lump-sum buyouts of pension obligations are common in the corporate world, the formula Congress has prescribed for setting military lump sums is not. The amounts offered will be too large to ignore for many retirees seeking to get out of debt, buy a home or start a business. But the lump sum choice also will lower the lifetime value of retirement packages significantly.   This is a huge financial consideration.

The formula to be used for setting an aggregate personal discount rate for enlisted and officer retirees will combine an inflation-adjusted, 7-year average of the Department of Treasury High-Quality Market (HQM) Corporate Bond Spot Rate Yield Curve at a 23-year maturity with an adjustment factor of 4.28 percentage points. That last factor seeks to capture some of what past studies have learned about military personal discount rates.

This is a formula that is very difficult to understand for most of us.

The BLS plan enacted for new entrants starting in 2018, with an opt-in option for current members having fewer than twelve years of service by then, is the vision of the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.

The Department of Defense asked Congress not to include the commission’s lump sum scheme in the final BRS plan. The House initially agreed while shaping its retirement reform legislation. Senators, however, favored the feature to hold down costs. So, the final compromise that became law allows lump sum offerings for accepting a 50 percent and a 25 percent cut in retired pay until age 67.

The board predicted accurately that the department would settle on “some type of aggregate personnel discount rate” for both enlisted and officers. But it also predicted the resulting lump sums could produce behaviors by retirees significantly different than what the commission or Congress had projected. It also could feed a belief the lump sums are designed “to take advantage of our service members.”

When considering these options that significantly impact your financial future, obtain all the information and make informed decisions.
Tell us if you think this is fair by emailing us at: [email protected]


Goo That Can Stop Bullets Invented by Air Force Cadet


By Debbie Gregory.

A senior Air Force cadet, Hayley Weir, has come up with a special recipe.   Cadet Weir has invented a very special gravy.  This gravy would stop Dirty Harry’s .44 caliber magnum.  It is also flexible and can be used to bullet proof critical areas of the body.

The chemistry department drop-out will graduate from the academy this month. The Air Force Academy has some of the best undergraduate research programs anywhere.  Cadets in the past have designed satellites, airplanes and more.

Cadet Weir has applied for a patent on her innovative recipe.

Fluids made with substances such as cornstarch are gooey and oozy to the touch, but become hard as steel when struck.  This means that when an object travelling with a great deal of force strikes the goo, it runs into something as strong as Superman.  And Weir has a collection of mushroom shaped bullets to prove it.

Weir mixed up her secret formula recipe of goo in an academy lab, using a Kitchen aid mixer and vacuum sealed bags flattened into a quarter-inch layer and Kevlar fabric.

“It’s all about the layering,” said Weir.

Weir’s idea took hold when she partnered with Ryan Burke, a former Marine and an academy military and strategic studies professor.  Burke realized that Weir had stumbled on to something of value.

Burke believes that this goo will make a huge difference to Marines in the field.  He called some Marine Corps contacts that shipped materials to test the bullet stopping goo.

The goo was first tested on a gun range known as “Jack’s Valley,”  a training area on the north end of the academy campus.   Weir and Burke hit the armor, one shot after another, with 9mm fire power.  The goo stopped all the bullets.  They then tested it with a .44 magnum and despite the greater weight of the bullet and its higher velocity, the goo armor worked even better.

It appears that the bigger the impact, the bigger the molecular jam, and the greater the ability to resist penetration of the bullets.  Weir’s goo has the potential to replace steel plate as armor.

Weir’s goo has researchers thinking big.  Wafering the goo into fabric could lead to tents that can resist mortar and artillery fire.  Weaving the goo into a blanket could provide firefighters and police protection when they work to pull victims from mass-shooting crime scenes.   On the battlefield, this goo could become body armor that protects the entire body instead of just the torso now given to troops.

We wish Haley Weir great success with her potentially life-saving goo.

So this goes to show that regardless of how wild and crazy an idea might seem, it can work and make a difference.

Aid and Attendance – A Valuable Benefit for Senior Veterans in Need


By Debbie Gregory.

The Veterans Administration offers assistance to low-income veterans and surviving spouses, 65 years and older, through its Aid and Attendance program.

Many Veterans and loved ones who are in need of and eligible for this benefit are not cognizant of it.  You can apply by contacting your local Veteran Service Officer.  While there is no fee to apply, there are those who charge a fee to assist, so stay clear of them.

This benefit can literally be a lifesaver for many senior veterans and their loved ones. To find out more, please read about it in our Veterans Scene column by Ted Puntillo  at

These benefits are available to Veterans or their surviving spouses who require in-home care, nursing care, assisted living and other needs. This may include help with daily living activities such as bathing and preparing meals.  A family member can provide this in-home help.

Aid and Attendance is a benefit paid in addition to a veteran’s basic pension.

In order to qualify, the veteran must have served at least one day during a wartime period.  He or she did not have to be in combat.  Currently, to be eligible for Aid and Attendance, a veteran (or the veteran’s surviving spouse) must meet certain income and asset limits. The asset limits aren’t specified, but $80,000 is the amount usually used, and the applicant’s home or vehicle are not counted as assets.

The rules for benefits are expected to change sometime this year.   The proposed regulations will set an asset limit of $119,220 that will include both the applicant’s assets and income. It will be indexed to inflation.  It will not count the home or vehicle as assets.

One important change will establish a three-year look-back provision for Aid and Attendance benefits. Applicants who transfer assets within three years of applying for benefits would be subject to a penalty period that can last as long as 10 years. To avoid the penalty, applicants would have to present clear and convincing evidence that the transfer was not made in order to qualify for Aid and Attendance benefits.   This is a benefit for those who need it the most, and the VA wants to make sure that those who would not qualify are not transferring their assets to others in order to receive this benefit.

Under the proposed rules, there is a presumption that any transfer made during the three-year look-back period, including donations to places of worship or charitable organizations, was done for the purpose of becoming eligible for the pension.

While the proposed changes are not yet final, the changes could be enacted as early as this summer. Therefore, senior veterans in need should start planning as soon as possible to take advantage of this valuable veteran benefit while it is still more widely accessible.

If you or your loved one needs help paying for assisted living facilities or in home care, then act quickly before it becomes more complicated. Our veterans have earned this benefit.

Remember, anyone that attempts to charge a fee or a percentage of what you are awarded should be avoided.  It does take time to receive these benefits.  But once you qualify, you will receive a check in a lump sum from the time you applied and then monthly benefit payments.

First Woman to Command a Combat Brigade Retires

brown retires

By Debbie Gregory.

Gender equality has become a hot issue in the military. Women have demonstrated that their gender does not affect their ability to perform. And for more than 35 years, Army Maj. Gen. Heidi V. Brown has served as a role model throughout her history-making military career.

A major influence throughout Brown’s life was her father, William Brown. A field artillery officer, William Brown served in both World War II and the Korean War before retiring as a major. In fact, it was while serving in Germany that William met his wife Virginia, who worked with Special Services. After his retirement, William Brown moved his wife and six children to El Paso, Texas.

The close proximity to Fort Bliss would increase the military influence that surrounded Heidi Brown through her childhood.

In 2003, Brown commanded Fort Bliss’ 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade, becoming the first woman to command a brigade in combat. During this mission, Brown’s father died. Although he had been diagnosed with colon cancer, he optimistically told his daughter, “I will live to see you take command.” William arrived in an ambulance at the ceremony the day Brown accepted command of the 31st Air Defense Artillery Brigade.

Brown said that whenever she got an opportunity during her career, she made the most of it. It all added up to a career full of firsts and ground-breaking moments.

On April 1, 2017, at the age of 57, Brown officially retired. She had hoped to continue her service with one more assignment, but she had reached her mandatory retirement date based on time in her current rank.

Brown plans to spend the first phase of her retirement overseeing a major renovation of her lakefront home. She is also planning to write a book called “From Bliss to Baghdad” that details her time in Iraq.

Brown credits her success in the military not to her gender, but to her ability to lead and command other soldiers.

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.

Some 400 Bases Being Tested for Water Contamination

bad water

By Debbie Gregory.

Because the military has confirmed water contamination at or near more than three dozen bases, testing has been expanded to nearly 400 bases.

With a price tag of more than $150 million so far, the progress has been inconsistent.

For example, the Air Force has completed sampling at nearly all of its targeted bases. The Army has yet to begin testing. The Navy is only at 10 percent. But the procedure will be the same: sample bases where the foam used in firefighting may have been used, then assess whether remediation is needed. After that, begin cleanup.

Contamination has been found near 27 military bases in 16 states, according to the Air Force, Navy, and Army. The military has also addressed contamination in on-base drinking systems on 15 installations.

The chemicals used in manufacturing and in military firefighting foam, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs)  have been linked to health problems including testicular and kidney cancers, thyroid disease, and high cholesterol.

If found in soil or groundwater, the contaminants could continue to leach into drinking water, experts say, meaning the problem could grow.

Officials say they have addressed sites with the greatest danger of drinking-water contamination. Whether the chemicals, which don’t degrade in groundwater, move quickly or slowly depends on what type of water system they’re in.

They have also checked on-base drinking water and are providing clean water where needed. The rest of the process is slow, they say, because they must follow complex federal rules.

“Priority one is make sure that there is no exposure to the contaminant,” said Mark Correl, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for the environment, safety, and infrastructure. Once we’ve assured that… you’re talking eight years to get yourself to a remediation solution.”

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.

Cutting the Cost of Buying Your Next Home: VA Home Loans and Disability Ratings


By Ryan Sears, The Gertsburg Law Firm

Buying a home is the most expensive purchase most of us will ever make.  For many veterans, the VA Home Loan remains a tremendous benefit of their service that allows them to buy a home with little or even no money down.  Those same veterans, however, are sometimes unaware that part of their final costs will include a VA funding fee.  That funding fee isn’t the same for everyone.  Different rates exist for regular military versus reservists and National Guard, and those rates vary depending on what percent of the closing cost is paid for a down payment:

Type of Veteran Down Payment % for 1st Time Use % for Subsequent Use
Regular Military None 2.15% 3.3%
5% or more 1.50% 1.50%
10% or more 1.25% 1.25%
Reserves/National Guard None 2.4% 3.3%
5% or more 1.75% 1.75%
10% or more 1.5% 1.5%

The VA relies upon your Certificate of Eligibility to determine what category and funding fee applies to you.  So even if you are currently a reservist, but you had enough time on active duty prior to joining the reserves or National Guard to qualify for the VA Home Loan, make sure your Certificate of Eligibility reflects you being eligible because of your active duty service.

In real dollars, what does this look like?  If a first time home buyer purchases a $150,000 home with no money down, as a member of the reserves, she will pay $3600, but if she uses her active duty DD-214 to get her certificate of eligibility, she will only pay $3225.  Additionally, if that same veteran has a disability rating from the VA, she is exempt from paying this VA funding fee.  Veterans entitled to receive compensation for service-connected disabilities but are receiving retirement or active duty pay and spouses of deceased veterans who died in service or as a result of a service-connected disability are also exempt from paying a VA funding fee.

Of course, that raises the question: what if the veteran uses a VA Home Loan to purchase their home but doesn’t apply for a disability rating from the VA until after closing on the home: can they get their funding fee back?  The answer is yes!  The key is that the veteran must request the VA finds one of the conditions for which they receive a disability rating began before the closing date on their home.  If so, the veteran can send a letter, via their lender, to the VA to recoup the VA funding fee.  If the funding fee was paid for out of the initial mortgage, that amount will be reduced from the principle of the mortgage, otherwise, the veteran will be getting a check for the amount of the funding fee.

Bottom line: don’t forget about your service-connected disability when applying for a VA Home Loan or, if you get a disability rating after you get the loan, apply to get your VA funding fee back!