| FRA Today - April 2011
COMMUNICATIONS: Supporting the Association 2
NED Perspective: Freedom isn’t Free 3
shipmate forum 5
On & OFF Capitol HILL 7
membership matters: New Membership Drive Kick-Off 13
Member Benefits 15
Feature: Agent Orange Exposure – 50 years later 17
History and Heritage: The Panama Canal 22
Looking For … 29
Auxiliary of the FRA NEWS 35
COMMUNICATIONS: Supporting the Association
This month FRA is launching its spring fundraising drive. FRA’s concern is for your benefits and we are asking you to support us in that effort. When you donate to FRA, you know your money is working hard for you. As a matter of fact, FRA spends 85¢ out of every $1 received directly on member services and programs, including:
Providing legislative briefings to educate decision makers and voters;
Publishing FRA Today to keep our readers informed (including electronic versions for vision impaired readers);
Distributing NewsBytes, a weekly e-mail legislative update (also available at 1-800-FRA-1924, ext. 112);
Offering a guide to organizing your personal and financial documents (My Personal Affairs) as a way to help you and your family;
Creating helpful reference booklets such as Communicate With Your Elected Officials to guide you on contacting members of Congress by phone or fax;
Hosting monthly teleconferences for members, giving an opportunity to hear from guest speakers, share concerns and get answers; and
Offering a fast, free and easy e-mail option to sound off to Congress on important issues through the Action Center at www.fra.org.
Your financial support helps keep these and other valuable programs going for all. You can donate by mail (125 N. West St., Alexandria, VA 22314), by phone (1-800-372-1924) or online at www.fra.org/support.
Recently, at an event held at FRA Headquarters, a command master chief told the audience of sailors: “There are associations that have members, and there are associations that lead on behalf of their members. FRA is the leader for Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard enlisted personnel.” FRA’s uses the slogan “Your Mission – Your Voice” for exactly that reason. The hard truth is that members of Congress (and much of the general public) really don’t understand the issues related to military service. One of FRA’s main objectives is educating decision makers on the needs of veterans, retirees, reservists and those on active duty — making sure that your voice is heard.
“Your Mission – Your Voice” Teleconference
On the second Wednesday of each month at noon EST, FRA hosts a free teleconference. During the call on April 13, our special guests are Chris Slawinski, FRA’s national veterans service officer, and John Wells, the director of legal and legislative affairs for the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association to discuss veterans’ issues. Please dial 1-800-391-1709 and enter bridge number 444143. We hope you will join us for the calls and to share your concerns, questions or comments.
We record the calls and post on www.fra.org under Member News (follow the link to the right when you login to the site) for those who are unable to attend at the designated time.
Eileen Murphy is the Director of Marketing and Communications and serves as the Managing Editor of FRA Today. Please contact her at email@example.com.
Return to Table of Contents
NED Perspective: Freedom isn’t Free
The Military Healthcare Protection Act (S. 604) in the 110th Congress stated, in part, “The demands and sacrifices [of military service] are such that few Americans are willing to bear or accept them for a multi-decade career; and a primary benefit of enduring the extraordinary sacrifices inherent in a military career is a range of extraordinary retirement benefits that a grateful nation provides for those who choose to subordinate much of their personal life to the national interest for so many years.”
FRA wholeheartedly agrees that military service is unlike any other civilian career or occupation. Associated with this reality and maintaining force readiness are obligations to fulfill commitments to provide health care and other benefits for career personnel after retirement. FRA believes that sufficiently funding health care and other benefits for all military beneficiaries is part of the cost of defending our nation, and ensuring adequate funding for the Military Health System (MHS) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care programs is FRA’s top legislative priority.
During its testimony to a number of committees and subcommittees in the 112th Congress, FRA will be reiterating its call for management efficiencies and cost-saving initiatives that can significantly offset higher health care costs — something first referenced in FRA’s 2006 testimony on these issues before the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee. One example is the expanded use of the Home Delivery option for prescription medications that saved DoD over $30 million in 2010.
DoD’s lax management of health care fees since TRICARE was established in 1995 led to drastic fee hike proposals from 2006 to 2008, including a TRICARE Standard enrollment fee that would not have enhanced access to care for beneficiaries in that program. FRA appreciates members of Congress’ opposition to past proposals to drastically increase TRICARE fees and pharmacy co-pays. FRA also supported bipartisan efforts in successive Congresses that sought to shift oversight responsibilities from DoD to Congress. For example, legislation (S. 604) introduced by Senators Lautenburg and Hagel in the 110th Congress sought to prohibit health care fee adjustments from exceeding the annual Consumer Price Index (CPI), which determines military retired pay adjustments and other federal benefits pegged to inflation.
Recent proposals to increase TRICARE fees for military retirees under age 65 are more reasonable than past proposals, but the 2012 adjustments characterized by DoD as “modest” are only part of the plan. The Association is very concerned about the yet-to-be-determined annual adjustment index for TRICARE Prime fees in 2013 and beyond.
But it’s not all bad news. The proposed fee increases will not affect survivors, those who are medically retired or those eligible for TRICARE for Life. There are also no fee increases proposed for active duty personnel or TRICARE Standard beneficiaries. FRA also supports other aspects of the proposal, including the elimination of co-pays for generic drugs dispensed via TRICARE’s Home Delivery pharmacy program to encourage expanded use of this program.
Recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform identified federal programs, agencies, offices and initiatives that have duplicative goals or activities. Second on a list of 81 areas for consideration is realigning DoD’s military medical command structures and consolidating common functions to increase efficiency, which would result in projected savings of from $281 million to $460 million annually. In addition, GAO cites opportunities for DoD and the VA to jointly modernize their respective electronic health record systems, and also control drug costs by increasing joint contracting opportunities — proposals FRA has been supporting for years.
It’s important to note that higher health care costs are not unique to the military. FRA also notes promises of “free” health care for life for those serving full careers, and believes that identifying a permanent solution to pending cuts in Medicare physician reimbursement rates is integral to ensuring access to care for all beneficiaries seeking care outside the MHS or under TRICARE for Life. Congress has repeatedly punted on this matter and the latest extension preventing cumulative reimbursement rate cuts now totaling 29.5 percent becomes effective December 31, 2011.
Visit www.fra.org/testimony to read FRA’s full statement to the House Armed Services’ Personnel Subcommittee on March 16, 2011.
Joe Barnes is FRA’s National Executive Director and Chairman of the National Committee on Legislative Service and a member of the Special Committee on Future Strategic Planning. A member of Navy Department Branch 181, he is also an advisor to the National Committees on Budget and Finance and Membership and Retention.
Return to Table of Contents
Federal Income Tax Withholding
My husband and I are both retired from the military. We just received notice from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) that our federal income tax withholding (FITW) has increased. Combined, we are now paying $70 more a month in federal income tax on our retired pay alone. We have many retired friends who have also seen an average $50 a month increase in FITW.
Last year, while completing our 2009 tax return, we were required to pay an additional $400 in federal income taxes, and that is after the $600 credit from the first stimulus bill. What is truly astounding about that increase is that I am 60 percent disabled from the military and therefore should have seen a reduction in federal income tax obligation.
My husband and I have been members of the FRA since 1983 and truly support all FRA’s effort and all service organizations that protect military members, veterans, and their families. Was the FRA aware of this FITW increase for retirees? Is there some explanation for why this “in the cover of darkness” increase was made?
FRA Response: Based on the information provided, it appears that you and your husband were affected by the two-year Making Work Pay (MWP) tax relief program that expired at the end of 2010. The MWP, enacted in 2009, cut withholding rates during 2009 and 2010 as a way to help kick-start the country out of recession by putting some extra money in citizens’ hands right away. Technically, the MWP provision was intended only to apply to qualifying taxpayers still earning wages. However since DFAS uses the same tax tables and pay systems for retired pay as it does for active duty pay, the system didn’t discriminate between retired pay and wages. The program was not extended to 2011 so the tax tables reverted back to pre-2009 levels.
The tax changes for 2011 are outlined at the DFAS website (http://www.dfas.mil/rapay/retirementpay/taxwithholdingchange.html). We also understand that the tax withholding threshold has been lowered, so some retirees may now have tax withholding where previously they did not.
Changing your deductions may lower the amount of your federal withholding, but be advised that it will not lower your overall tax responsibility for the year. Changes can be made online at the Mypay web site (https://mypay.dfas.mil) or with an IRS W-4 form, which is available at http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/fw4.pdf. You can also contact a DFAS customer service representative at 1-888-DFAS411. These reps cannot offer tax advice, so questions on how much to have withheld should be directed to an accountant/tax advisor.
FRA also encourages you to share your concerns with your U.S. Representative and Senators — something that’s important to addressing these and other matters related to FRA’s legislative agenda. This can be done easily via the Action Center on our web site at www.fra.org.
Support Your Local USO
After receiving my February 2011 edition of FRA Today, I read with great interest the entire article regarding the USO. I greatly admired and appreciated the USO during my years of military service and continue to support USO after my retirement from active duty. After reading the entire article, I noted that there was no mention that some USO Centers within the United States must raise the majority of their own funding to keep the doors open. The “Chartered USO Centers” are located in many large metropolitan areas, maintain more than one local area USO Center and receive no routine operational funding from USO Headquarters. This [omission] leaves many donors with the false impression that they are donating and supporting their local USO. Some have been annually donating to what they thought was their local USO and are very surprised, and disappointed, when they discover their donation to USO Headquarters may not be used to support local USO and area troops and families.
If you live in an area that operates a USO Center and you wish to donate to that Center, give them a call and ask if they are an Independent Chartered USO organization. Being an informed donor, you can then choose to support your local USO operation or USO Headquarters.
Todd A. Richter
Thank you to MSGT Chris Cox, USMC, who pointed out a misleading typographical error in our March 2011 feature story about ESGR. There are 39,600 Reserve Marines serving today, not 339,000 as referenced in the article. Cox is the public affairs chief for Marine Forces Reserve.
Submissions: Send Shipmate Forum letters to: Editor, FRA Today, 125 N. West St. Alexandria, VA 22314. E-mail submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include “Shipmate Forum” in the subject line. FRA reserves the right to select and edit letters for publication. Letters published in Shipmate Forum reflect the opinions and views of FRA members. They do not necessarily reflect the official position of FRA as a whole. FRA is not responsible for the accuracy of letter content.
Return to Table of Contents
On & OFF Capitol HILL
2012 Health Care Fees Proposal
DoD is detailing healthcare proposals that are part of the Administration’s FY2012 budget request, which include an increase in TRICARE premiums for working-age retirees beginning in FY2012. The plan proposes an initial increase in the TRICARE Prime annual enrollment fee from $230 to $260 for individual retirees and from $460 to $520 per retired family in 2012. Starting in FY2013, the annual enrollment fees would be increased to keep pace with a yet-to-be-determined medical inflation index.
There are no proposed increases for TRICARE Standard and TRICARE for Life beneficiaries, survivors and those who are medically retired. The proposal doesn’t affect current beneficiaries enrolled in the Uniformed Service Family Health Plans (USFHP), but future USFHP enrollees must enroll in Medicare Part B when they reach age 65 and use TRICARE for Life as a second payer, just as TRICARE Prime beneficiaries do now. Active duty service members will not incur additional out-of-pocket expenses under the proposal.
The plan also eliminates pharmacy co-pays for mail-order generic drugs — a change advocated by FRA for several years — and increases the current $9 co-pay to $12 for brand-name medications distributed through the mail-order pharmacy program, which is now called “home delivery.”
The fee increase represents a 13-percent increase in TRICARE Prime annual enrollment fees in the first year. Although there are numerous indices used to measure health care costs, the assumed annual inflation rate was 6.2 percent, which according to Standard & Poor’s indices is close to the average per capita cost of health care services covered by commercial insurance and Medicare programs for the 12-month period ending November 30, 2010. By comparison, there were no Cost-of-Living-Adjustments (COLA) for 2009 or 2010. And pegging future TRICARE fees to indices larger than the Consumer Price Index (CPI) will significantly erode the value of retired pay. FRA also strongly believes that military service is unlike any civilian profession and that adequately funding health care benefits for all beneficiaries is part of the cost of defending our nation.
These proposals and other health care issues will be the focus of mid-March hearings by the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee.
Return to Table of Contents
FY2012 Budget Also Includes Pay Hikes, Doc Fix and VA Improvements
In addition to the aforementioned TRICARE fee increases, provisions of the Administration’s FY2012 budget also address other FRA concerns. The spending plan includes a 1.6-percent military pay increase, expanded family readiness support and a two-year extension (until January 1, 2014) of the so-called “doc fix.” Current legislation delays scheduled cuts in physician reimbursement rates for Medicare patients and those seeking TRICARE and until January 1, 2012. Under House “cut go” rules, the cost of extending the deadline for these reductions ($62.2 billion) must be paid for with other cost-saving initiatives, such as improved anti-fraud efforts and increased usage of generic drugs in government-administered health care programs. FRA continues to press for a long-term, permanent solution that provides doctors with adequate reimbursement levels to ensure access to care for Medicare and TRICARE patients.
Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Eric K. Shinseki and his staff briefed FRA and other veterans service organizations on the VA’s discretionary budget for FY2012, which is set to increase by more than 10 percent from FY2010. (Although the current FY2011 federal budget is not finished, Congress previously approved advance appropriations for the VA’s FY2011 health care accounts.) The spending request for medical care accounts for FY2012 has been increased $240 million above the FY 2012 advanced appropriations. The VA’s top priorities for FY2012 include eliminating the disability claims backlog, expanding access to benefits and services, and eliminating veteran homelessness.
Return to Table of Contents
FRA, TMC Call for Defense Spending Legislation
FRA and other members of The Military Coalition (TMC) urged Senators Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) and Thad Cochran (Miss.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, respectively, to act now and move a FY2011 spending bill for the Department of Defense (DoD). Congress approved yet another continuing resolution (CR) in early March, which kept the federal government operating at FY2010 levels until March 18th. While the long-term outcome is unclear at press time, military leaders agree that operating under a CR over five months into the current fiscal year is threatening mission readiness and creating serious consequences for DoD personnel.
Some military services have frozen civilian hiring and delayed permanent change-of-station (PCS) orders to preserve greater funding flexibility. FRA and TMC are concerned the next step will be reductions in operations and training exercises, deferred equipment maintenance and other measures that will create unintended and costly long-term consequences. To learn more, read Tom Philpott’s Military Update column (3-3-2010) at www.fra.org.
Return to Table of Contents
Honor & Remember Legislation Reintroduced
Rep. Randy Forbes (Va.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced legislation (H.R. 546) to designate the Honor and Remember Flag as an official symbol to recognize and honor members of the Armed Forces who die in the line of duty. The bill is identical to legislation introduced last year by Forbes and is being considered by the House Judiciary Committee. Shipmates are encouraged to visit www.honorandremember.org for more information.
Return to Table of Contents
Bill to Limit TRICARE Fee Increases Introduced
Rep. Don Young (Alaska) has introduced legislation (HR 652) that would limit TRICARE premium increases for retirees to no more than half the COLA percentage increase for the same year, and limit any active duty increase to no more than their annual pay increase. FRA supported similar legislation in past Congresses that addressed shifting authority to increase health care fees from DoD to Congress and to limit increases to no more than the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which is the basis for annual retired pay adjustments which are pegged to inflation. Retirees have received no COLA increase for the past two years. Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center (www.fra.org) to contact their US Representative on this issue.
Return to Table of Contents
FRA Meets with House Minority Leader on Veterans Issues
FRA’s National Executive Director Joe Barnes participated in a roundtable meeting of 30 military and veterans’ organization leaders hosted by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) on March 2, 2011. Barnes asked Pelosi to work to reduce the backlog of claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and enact the “Agent Orange Equity Act” (H.R. 812) that would abolish claims limitations for “Blue Water” veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange herbicide when they served off the coast of Vietnam. The meeting focused on concerns about the growing number of unemployed veterans, the need for more mental health and substance abuse counselors, and improved oversight of the VA budget.
Fifteen other lawmakers attended the event, including Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), Minority Whip; the ranking members of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.); House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman, Rep. Bob Filner (Calif.), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), ranking member of the Budget Committee, and Rep. Sanford Bishop (Ga.), ranking member of the House Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee.
Return to Table of Contents
Independent Budget for FY2012
The FY2012 Independent Budget (IB) proposal was recently released by AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). The IB provides detailed funding analysis of the Administration’s proposed budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and is intended to be used as a guide for policymakers tasked with making necessary adjustments to serve the needs of America’s veterans. FRA supports the annual IB, which has provided valuable analysis and recommendations on VA funding for the past 25 years.
The Administration proposes a three-percent increase over its proposed budget for FY2011, but the IB recommends an eight-percent hike in VA funding for FY2012. The IB also notes that the Administration’s FY2012 budget cuts various VA programs, including construction, information technology, and medical and prosthetic research. Both the Administration and the IB call for increased funding for medical services, programs for female veterans, mental health services, expanded caregiver assistance, and helping homeless veterans.
Return to Table of Contents
Bill Introduced to Benefit Veterans Exposed to Toxins
Rep. Bob Filner (Calif.), ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs (VA) Committee, introduced a measure (H.R. 812) that would authorize VA medical care to veterans and retirees exposed to toxins during the Vietnam era. Veterans who served in the surrounding waters off the coast of Vietnam and in the skies above will be allowed to file a claim for exposure to Agent Orange if the measure is enacted. (The VA currently only acknowledges service-connection for vets who served within the borders of Vietnam or on the inland waterways.) Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center (www.fra.org) to ask their representative to co-sponsor this important legislation.
Return to Table of Contents
Salute during the Pledge of Allegiance
Rep. Lee Terry (Neb.) re-introduced legislation (H.R. 648) that would authorize veterans and service members not in uniform to render a military salute during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Previous legislation authorized veterans to salute during hoisting, lowering, or passing of the flag and during the National Anthem, but the laws did not reference saluting during the Pledge. Members can use the FRA Action Center (www.fra.org) to urge their Representative to support this bill.
Return to Table of Contents
Caregiver Support Line Opens
In related news, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has implemented a toll-free caregiver support line to serve as a resource/referral center for caregivers, veterans and others seeking information to help our nation’s veterans. Licensed clinical social workers will be answering the phones at 1-855-260-3274, which is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., and on Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (EST). More information is available online at www.caregiver.va.gov.
Return to Table of Contents
VA Moves Forward on Caregiver Law Implementation
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has submitted an Interim Final Rule (IFR) to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to speed up the federal rulemaking process to implement certain provisions of Public Law 111-163, the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 that was supported by FRA and signed into law by President Obama on May 5, 2010. Supported by FRA, the measure was signed into law by President Obama on May 5, 2010, but the full array of caregiver assistance has not been implemented. A White House report (due in November) was submitted to Congress in February outlining plans to implement provisions of the law, and Rep. Jeff Miller (Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has expressed frustration with the slow pace of implementation.
The Law directs the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide an extensive range of new support services and benefits to caregivers of eligible veterans and service members seriously injured in the line of duty on or after September 11, 2001. These benefits and services are in addition to those currently available at VA to all enrolled veterans and their caregivers. As part of the legal process, VA must issue regulations in order to implement these new authorities. Following OMB review and approval, the IFR will be effective immediately upon its publication in the Federal Register with an opportunity for public comment after its issuance. The VA hopes to fully implement the law this summer.
Return to Table of Contents
TRICARE Mail-Order Prescriptions
The TRICARE Pharmacy Home Delivery program, formerly known as the TRICARE Mail Order Pharmacy or TMOP, allows beneficiaries to save time and money by delivering maintenance medications safely and securely to their home through the U.S. mail. Home delivery is especially useful for beneficiaries with prescriptions they need to take on a regular basis, such as medications used to treat diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure. If beneficiaries need immediate relief from a pain medication or antibiotics, they should have their prescription filled at a military treatment facility or retail network pharmacy.
Pharmacy home delivery also features an automatic prescription refill option to ensure beneficiaries are always supplied with the medications they need, and checks medical and prescription history to avoid harmful drug interactions. A phone line is available 24/7 to speak directly to a pharmacist.
TRICARE retail network pharmacies fill prescriptions with a 30-day supply. Home delivery fills prescriptions for the same copayment, but for 90 days. Home delivery costs beneficiaries $3 for a 90-day supply for generic formulary medications and $9 for a 90-day supply for formulary brand-name medications.
During 2010, home delivery of prescriptions for TRICARE beneficiaries increased by more than 12 percent. These beneficiaries saved 66 percent on their copayments, up to $176 a year for a non-formulary prescription. They also saved taxpayers $30.7 million. To sign up for pharmacy home delivery or to learn more about the program, go to www.tricare.mil/homedelivery or call the Member Choice Center toll free at 1-877-363-1303.
Return to Table of Contents
Concurrent Receipt Update
Unlike the previous two years, the Obama Administration did not seek funding for concurrent receipt improvements in its FY2012 budget request, but several lawmakers are working to expand eligibility for the concurrent receipt of military retired pay and veterans’ disability compensation, without offset.
Rep. Joe Wilson (S.C.), chairman of the House Military Personnel Subcommittee, introduced legislation (H.R. 186) that expands concurrent receipt for service members who were medically retired with less than 20 years of service. The measure is similar to the Administration’s proposal from last year and seeks to phase in the benefit enhancements for these so-called Chapter 61 retirees over a five-year period. In 2008, Congress voted to expand eligibility for Combat-Related Special Compensation (CRSC) coverage to Chapter 61 retirees and this new initiative would, in effect, extend eligibility for Concurrent Retirement and Disability Pay (CRDP) to all Chapter 61 retirees over five years.
Rep. Sanford Bishop (Ga.), ranking member of the House Military Construction and Veteran’s Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee and co-chair of the Military Families Caucus, also introduced a bill (H.R. 333) that will eliminate the restrictions that currently prevent many disabled retirees from concurrently receiving their full military retired pay and veterans’ disability compensation. “The Disabled Veteran Tax Termination Act” seeks to provide concurrent receipt of both earned benefits for retirees who are rated less than 50-percent disabled; eliminate the existing phase-in period for concurrent receipt; and extend concurrent receipt eligibility to Chapter 61 (medically retired) retirees with less than 20 years of service who are receiving CRDP.
Additionally Rep. Gus Bilikaris (Fla.) introduced the “Retired Pay Restoration Act” (H.R. 303) that provides current receipt for retirees with a disability rating of 50 percent or less and receiving CRDP.
FRA encourages shipmates to contact their elected officials to ask their support for all three bills through the Action Center at www.fra.org.
Return to Table of Contents
ACTIVE DUTY ISSUES
House Panel Reviews SCRA Enforcement
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a recent hearing on mortgage-related violations of the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act (SCRA). This long-established law provides a wide range of protections for individuals entering the service, called to active duty or deployed on military orders. The law postpones or suspends certain civil obligations so that service members can devote their full attention to their military duties.
The hearing revealed J.P. Morgan Chase Bank violated the SCRA by improperly charging higher-than-allowed interest on some 4,500 active duty service members’ mortgages and foreclosing on 18 service members’ homes while they were deployed. Members of the committee expressed concern that other service members’ financial transactions, such as car loans, leases and cell phone contracts, also violate SCRA.
Holly Petraeus, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Office of Servicemembers’ Affairs (OSA), testified that OSA will focus on educating military personnel about their financial protections and best financial practices.
Return to Table of Contents
State of the Coast Guard
During his first State of the Coast Guard Address, Adm. Bob Papp, Commandant of the Coast Guard, described the service as “ready to meet mission demand,” but “facing some real challenges.” Papp praised Coast Guard personnel for their dedication and commitment to the many varied missions for which they are responsible and outlined his Commandant’s Directives, which were released in conjunction with the speech.
Papp candidly talked about the Coast Guard’s need to recapitalize the service, saying, “Unless we continue to update our ships, planes and boats, and improve our shore stations, we will NOT be able to maintain an acceptable level of readiness to perform our missions. We may need to reduce the number and range of capabilities we’ve added since 9/11, until properly resourced.”
In a meeting with FRA and other media representatives, Papp detailed plans to conduct a stem-to-stern review of the Coast Guard’s capabilities and focus on the most essential missions. He also spoke of extending tours of duty to improve proficiency, reduce costs, and provide personal and professional continuity for Coast Guard personnel. He said improving Coast Guard housing is his top priority for Coast Guard families and discussed plans to sell USCG properties to fund the construction of housing and child development centers.
Return to Table of Contents
House Subcommittee Discusses USCG Budget
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Michael Leavitt testified about the Service’s FY 2012 budget request before the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation in March. The U.S. Coast Guard budget will increase 1.8 percent which will include $20 million to rehabilitate military housing and $9 million for child development services. FRA advocates for Coast Guard personnel to have parity with DoD personnel in terms of pay and benefits.
Return to Table of Contents
Military Family Congressional Caucus Meeting
The new Military Family Congressional Caucus met recently to discuss challenges facing military families. The event brought together members of Congress, Hill staffers and Department of Defense (DoD) officials, as well as representatives from military and veterans’ service organizations. The Caucus’ goal is to educate lawmakers and staff about the unique challenges that service members and their families endure.
Hosted by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) and Sanford Bishop (Ga.), the event featured guest speakers Robert L. Gordon, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy and Dr. Karen Guice, Executive Director of the Federal Recovery Coordination Program, representing the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Issues addressed included VA health care, disability benefits and Vet Counseling Centers, plus transition issues for the wounded, ill and injured as they move from active duty to veteran status. There was also discussion of leveraging partnerships with community leaders who wish to support service members and their families as addressed in the recently released report on the President’s “Strengthening Our Military Families” initiative.
Rep. McMorris Rodgers announced the introduction of legislation (H.R 791) in the House and companion legislation in the Senate (S. 387) that would require DoD to establish flexible spending accounts to help service members pay health care and child care costs with pre-tax dollars. The bill also requires DoD to study the feasibility of setting up similar accounts for Reserve Component personnel. DoD has already been granted the authority to provide flexible spending accounts, but has elected not to implement the program. Members can use the FRA Action Center to contact their elected officials on this issue.
Return to Table of Contents
The FRA Legislative team is Joe Barnes, National Executive Director; John Davis, Director of Legislative Programs and Branch 181 President; Bob Washington, Health Care Advisor and Outreach Manager; Chris Slawinski, National Veterans Service Officer and Ed Dockery, Assistant Director of Legislative Programs.
membership matters: New Membership Drive Kick-Off
April 1st marks the beginning of FRA’s annual membership drive. Now is the time to consider ways you can help others understand the important work FRA is doing on behalf of current and former enlisted members of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. In doing so, you’ll also help them appreciate the value of FRA membership.
During the Association’s membership year, which extends through March 31, 2012, shipmates’ and branches’ recruiting efforts are tracked and recognized with collector’s pins, free memberships and other prizes. Individual shipmates who exemplify FRA’s three cardinal principles of loyalty, protection and service through their recruiting efforts will vie for Recruiter of the Year honors, which are bestowed at our national convention. Branches that strengthen or maintain their membership numbers are also honored at the convention and all winners are recognized in FRA Today.
Recognizing excellence is essential to teambuilding and success, but it’s also important to understand that individuals and branches aren’t the only winners when FRA’s membership grows. All facets of the military and veterans’ communities benefit from a strong and stable FRA membership base. Understanding how each sector of our membership benefits from the Association’s work can be a springboard for discussion with prospective members and can remind current members why it’s so critical to retain their FRA membership.
Active duty and Reserve Component personnel and their families benefit from FRA’s efforts to enhance pay and allowances, improve housing and preserve access to healthcare and other quality-of-life programs. There is no law that ensures annual pay raises or guarantees the continuation of the military benefits service members currently enjoy. It’s our job to make sure lawmakers, the majority of whom have no military experience, understand the challenges of the military lifestyle and how their decisions impact the men and women who courageously serve. Senior enlisted leaders have the responsibility to look out for their junior counterparts, and joining FRA is an active way to demonstrate leadership and concern for fellow service members.
Those who make a career of their military service earn special benefits, but again, those benefits are not guaranteed. As members of Congress work to dramatically cut federal spending, programs like retiree healthcare are prime targets for belt-tightening initiatives. FRA works to ensure retirees get the promised benefits they earned through 20 or more years of service. And don’t forget: Military retirees are veterans, too.
FRA works to preserve and enhance veterans’ benefits, too, including access to quality health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), more timely processing of claims for VA benefits, enhanced education benefits, and expanded eligibility for those who’ve been negatively impacted by their military service. (See this month’s feature story on exposure to Agent Orange on page 18.)
FRA members also enjoy the most up-to-date news about their military and veterans’ benefits and what the Association is doing to protect them. In addition to FRA’s outstanding legislative advocacy, membership also affords shipmates the opportunity to connect with their fellow service members, promote Americanism and patriotism within their communities through FRA’s Essay Contest and other community-service programs, recognize outstanding military performers, share their collective military heritage and forge lifelong friendships. Shipmates and their families also qualify for a broad range of college scholarships through the FRA Education Foundation.
We’re all winners when FRA grows. A strong membership base strengthens our collective voice when our Legislative Team testifies before Congress or meets with Hill staff. FRA’s voice is also amplified when our members are actively engaged in our legislative efforts. Shipmates can easily share their views with their elected officials using FRA’s online Action Center at www.fra.org, where shipmates can send prewritten messages (or they can write their own) of support or opposition for a relevant legislative proposal.
Let’s make this FRA’s best membership year ever!
Penny Collins is a member of FRA Branch 24 in Annapolis, Maryland, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Return to Table of Contents
FRA provides the Action Center on www.fra.org and a pocket guide called Communicate With Your Elected Officials to make communicating with members of Congress easy and convenient. On the Action Center, you can access a list of hot issues and send pre-written messages (or write your own) to your legislators to weigh in. You can also look up your senators and representative to see how they’ve voted on issues of importance to FRA shipmates. Both the Action Center and the Communicate With Your Elected Officials guide are free benefits brought to you by FRA. If you would like a copy of Communicate With Your Elected Officials, please e-mail Eileen@fra.org and include your name and mailing address.
FRA offers Communities on www.fra.org to help shipmates keep in touch with their branch, communicate with HQ, and get information. Use the Communities and be involved! Login to www.fra.org and click Communities. You will see the communities to which you belong — each branch and MALs have individual communities. There are also communities for FRA Today and OnWatch readers, people concerned about health care, and more. This is a place to ask the experts or share your opinions or frustrations.
NewsBytes is a free weekly legislative e-mail update designed to keep recipients up-to-date between issues of FRA Today. To subscribe, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and include your member number (found above your name on the cover of this magazine). To listen to NewsBytes by phone, call 1-800-FRA-1924, ext. 112.
FRA is very interested in hearing from you. There’s always a survey available at www.fra.org/survey. The surveys are quick, easy and help us share your concerns with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Visit www.fra.org/fb to view FRA’s Facebook page and join our growing list of fans who “like” us. It’s a great place to post photos, videos, have discussions and find old friends. If you’re already on Facebook, you can invite others to check out FRA and use the page as a great recruiting tool! Our fans also are the first to hear of breaking news, get links to items of importance and shortcuts to other pages of interest.
When you login to www.fra.org, not only can you access members-only information, you can also control your membership record. Would you like to subscribe to NewsBytes? Simply click a box. Are you needing a replacement membership card or invoice? Click a box and we’ll send you one within 24 business hours. You can also donate directly to FRA online and even print out a copy of your donation history for your records.
FRA Affinity Partners
FRA also has partnerships with several companies for the benefit of FRA members. When you use these companies, not only do you get a discount, but FRA receives a royalty as well. It’s a win-win situation — and a fantastic way for you to help FRA while you are helping yourself!
FRA MasterCard from USAA
FRA is finalizing the details of a partnership with USAA to administer a new FRA MasterCard program. This award-winning financial services company is committed to providing great products and outstanding customer service to our shipmates.
GEICO Car Insurance
Call 1-800-MILITARY (1-800-645-4827) and ask for the FRA member benefit discount.
FRA members and spouses are eligible for tuition discounts at Capella University, an accredited, military-friendly, online university that has built its reputation by providing high quality online degree programs for working adults. Visit www.capella.edu/FRA for more information.
Columbia Southern University
In an education alliance with FRA, Columbia Southern University offers competitive tuition rates, waives application fees for service members and offers discounts to FRA shipmates. Visit www.columbiasouthern.edu/Partners/LearningPartners/fleet for further details.
FRA Endorsed Insurance Programs
As an FRA member you can choose from high quality, competitively priced insurance plans to help protect you and your family. Each quality plan has been designed for FRA members like you. You can select insurance protection to meet your family’s insurance needs at economical group rates. Request information regarding the plans of your choice through this website: www.FRAinsure.com or call toll-free 1-800-424-1120.
FRA members qualify for a special subscription rate of 52 weeks for $39.95. Call 1-800-368-5718 to start or renew your subscription. Use FRA priority member code: 1516N3.
Avis Car Rentals
When making reservations through Avis at 1-800-331-1212 or www.avis.com, be sure to use your FRA membership benefit discount: AWD#T867500.
HERTZ Car Rentals
When making reservations through Hertz at 1-800-654-3131 or www.hertz.com, be sure to use your FRA membership benefit discount: CDP#332104.
Return to Table of Contents
Feature: Agent Orange Exposure – 50 years later
Joe Parker joined a peace-time Navy in 1959. He knew peacetime was over when he was assigned as a Seabee in Vietnam. He knew it would be hazardous duty, but he never expected to be doused with toxic chemicals by his own countrymen. “We had taken Hill 44 and turned it into a rock quarry,” recalls Parker. “We’d fire mortars into the jungle at night to keep the enemy off us and the Air Force would spray Agent Orange during the day. One day in 1969, the wind shifted while they were spraying and we could feel the stuff falling on us. It was obvious we were getting it on our clothes and skin, but we didn’t know the stuff was bad. Nobody told us.” Years later, Parker began to experience health problems, but it would be years after that before anyone associated his medical ailments with his exposure to Agent Orange. The toxins attacked his pancreas and he developed diabetes and diabetic retinopathy, which eventually took his sight.
Shipmate Parker (FRA Branch 361, Asheville, N.C.) is one of thousands of veterans receiving veterans’ benefits for health problems associated with exposure to Agent Orange (AO), an herbicide used to remove the thick canopy of leaves and other foliage that provided cover for the enemy. The powerful compound included 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) and was dubbed “Agent Orange” for the orange strip that marked the 55- gallon drums in which the liquid was stored.
More than 19 million gallons of Agent Orange were dropped in all four military zones of South Vietnam from 1961 to 1971, including heavy spraying on the inland forests near the Demilitarized Zone; at the juncture of the Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam borders; north and northwest of Saigon; and mangrove forests on the southernmost peninsula of Vietnam and along major shipping channels southeast of Saigon. The herbicide was very effective at killing the trees and undergrowth. Unfortunately, its effects on the humans it touched
were equally devastating.
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) conducts extensive research into the health effects of exposure to AO and publishes its findings every two years. When IOM’s research proves a definitive link between exposure and particular health problems, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) may revise its benefit eligibility requirements accordingly. For example, the VA recently extended service-connected benefits to Vietnam veterans with B-cell leukemia, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease, based on IOM’s October 2009 findings that the incidence of these disorders was higher among Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange.
The list of health concerns related to AO exposure is lengthy. Approximately 270,000 Vietnam veterans are receiving compensation for diabetes, which accounts for more than 25 percent of those receiving Vietnam-related disability benefits. Agent Orange has also been linked to Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, prostate cancer, respiratory cancers and soft tissue sarcoma, to name a few. A complete list of veterans’ diseases associated with Agent Orange is available at www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange/diseases.asp#veterans.
Agent Orange exposure has also been linked to birth defects in the children of veterans exposed to the herbicide in Vietnam and Korea. The most common of these is spina bifida, a defect in the developing fetus that results in incomplete closing of the spine. Visit www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange/birth_defects.asp to learn more about AO-related birth defects.
In order to claim VA benefits, a veteran must prove his or her illness or disability is the result of military service. If a veteran can prove his service in Vietnam included “boots on the ground” or service on the country’s inland waterways, any herbicide-related health conditions can be presumed to be the result of that service. This presumption simplifies and expedites the claims process and ensures veterans receive the benefits they deserve.
To aid Navy and Coast Guard veterans who served in Vietnam, the VA has developed a list of vessels that were potentially exposed to Agent Orange. The list, which is available at www.fra.org/agentorange, is periodically updated and is divided into three categories: ships that operated primarily or exclusively on Vietnam’s inland waterways; ships that temporarily operated in these inland waterways or docked to the shore; and ships that operated in Vietnam’s close coastal waters for extended periods with evidence that crewmembers went ashore. If a veteran’s service aboard one of these ships can be confirmed through his military records during the time frames specified, exposure to herbicides can be presumed. It’s important to understand that the list is not complete and presumption of exposure will not be denied solely because a veteran’s ship is not on it.
If you or someone you know served aboard any of the vessels listed during the times indicated, a VA claim for AO exposure should be filed as soon as possible.
To start a claim, contact your nearest VA Regional Office or contact Chris Slawinski, FRA’s national veterans’ service officer, at email@example.com or 1-800-FRA-1924 (ext. 115).
Blue Water Service
Although the VA presumes exposure for those who had “boots on the ground” or served on Vietnam’s inland waterways, the department doesn’t presume service connection for those vets who served offshore.
“Thousands of Navy and Coast Guard veterans who served aboard ships during the Vietnam conflict are experiencing health problems related to herbicide exposure, but their illnesses and disabilities are not automatically considered service-connected in the eyes of the VA,” explains Slawinski.
Language in the Agent Orange Act of 1991 presumed all Vietnam veterans were exposed to the toxic herbicide and made them eligible to receive VA benefits for illnesses related to AO exposure. In 2002, however, the VA requirements changed to include only those who set foot on Vietnamese soil, and benefits were rescinded from those who’d previously been presumed eligible for AO-related benefits. Legal battles ensued, but in the end, the VA’s ruling stood and Vietnam vets who served offshore are not currently eligible for AO-related benefits.
FRA is working to reverse the VA’s policy that prevents these so-called “blue water” retirees and veterans from claiming benefits. Revising the VA’s definition of Vietnam service to include those who served offshore is one of FRA’s top legislative priorities for the 112th Congress and will be referenced consistently in our congressional testimony, correspondence and face-to-face interactions with lawmakers and their staff.
FRA’s efforts will be strengthened by studies of Royal Australian Navy veterans who served off the coast
of Vietnam and experienced higher-than-expected mortality rates. Further examination determined that the shipboard distillation process used to produce potable water from sea water actually increased the concentration of dioxins. Based on these findings, Australian Navy veterans who served up to 185 kilometers (approximately 100 miles) off the coast of Vietnam are eligible to receive their country’s equivalent of AO-exposure benefits.
“The study revealed that distillation didn’t eliminate the dioxins, it actually enhanced them by as much as four times the concentration in the source water,” explains John Wells, a Navy retiree who now serves as the director of legal and legislative affairs for the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association.
“It’s generally acknowledged that inland waterways
were contaminated with Agent Orange as a result of shoreline spraying and runoff from sprayed land,” adds Wells. “It only makes sense that those contaminants would flow down river and, depending on the force with which those waters flowed into the sea, could be deposited some distance from shore. Water supplies were completely replenished every 18 to 30 hours, so they were drinking super-contaminated water. It was in their food, they were brushing their teeth with it and showering with it. There’s no doubt that it affected their skin, lungs and digestive system.”
This information also led the IOM to recommend broadening the VA’s definition of Vietnam service with regard to presumed AO exposure. Its 2008 report stated, “The evidence…makes a definition of Vietnam service limited to those who set foot on Vietnamese soil seem inappropriate. Given the available evidence, the committee recommends that members of the Blue Water Navy should not be excluded from the set of Vietnam-era veterans with presumed herbicide exposure.” The VA has commissioned the IOM to further study the effects of Agent Orange on blue water Vietnam veterans and the final report is due in May 2011. FRA Today will publish an overview of the results when they become available.
The Fight Continues
Time magazine (May 27, 2010) named Agent Orange one of the “50 worst inventions of all time.” Although it was successful in cutting through the dense Vietnamese jungle foliage, service members have paid a heavy price. According to the VA, the military began spraying Agent Orange in 1961 and continued to spread the toxin for ten years. But five decades later, many former service members are still fighting to be compensated for health problems related to their exposure.
FRA is committed to securing deserved care and benefits for blue water Vietnam veterans. The Association supports recently introduced legislation (H.R. 812) that would expand the definition of Vietnam service to its pre-2002 status. Shipmates are encouraged to visit the Action Center at www.fra.org to support the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2011, introduced by Rep. Bob Filner (Calif.).
The Association will also continue working with the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association and our partners in The Military Coalition to ensure lawmakers recognize the sacrifice of those who served off the Vietnamese coast. Our progress will be reported in future editions of FRA Today and in FRA’s weekly e-mail update, NewsBytes. To subscribe, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and include your full name and address.
Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune
In the early 1980s, trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), benzene and other volatile organic compounds were found in two drinking water systems that served portions of Camp Lejeune, N.C. While current water supplies at the Marine Corps base now meet or exceed water standards, there is concern about those who lived and worked on the base from the 1950s until the contaminated sources were taken out of service in 1984 and 1985. Ongoing research has yet to conclusively link the contaminants to illnesses and cancers that many former residents are experiencing, including birth defects in children born to parents who drank the water.
The Department of the Navy has established the Camp Lejeune Historic Drinking Water Notification Registry and encourages former residents to enroll. The registry, which has more than 160,000 members, is a means to ensure those affected have access to the most up-to-date information regarding the past contaminations. For more information, call 1-877-261-9782 (Monday – Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m, EST) or visit www.marines.mil/clwater.
Even those who are currently unaffected should consider joining the registry. Shipmate Ken DeLude (Branch 70, Poway, Calif.), who lived with his family at Camp Lejeune in the early 1970s, is concerned about future health problems. “Neither myself or my family have been overtly affected at this time,” says DeLude. “But wondering if and what could arise health wise in the future is not very comforting.”
North Carolina’s Senator Richard Burr recently introduced legislation (S. 277) that would require the VA to provide health care to affected veterans and family members who were exposed to the toxic compounds. Burr introduced a similar measure in the last Congress, but it was defeated when alternative legislation proposed to provide five years of DoD health care for those affected. Neither bill passed in the 111th Congress.
Agent Orange Presumption for Korea Vets
Agent Orange exposure is most commonly associated with service in Vietnam, but AO and other
herbicides were also used along Korea’s demilitarized zone (DMZ). Korean veterans will have easier access to health care and other benefits under a recently published Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) final regulation that expands the dates when herbicide exposure can be presumed.
The VA will now presume herbicide exposure for any veteran who served between April 1, 1968, and Aug. 31, 1971, in a unit determined to have operated in an area in or near the Korean DMZ in which herbicides were applied. (The VA previously presumed service-connection for veterans who served in certain units along the DMZ between April 1968 and July 1969.) Eligible veterans who meet this service criterion and have specific herbicide-related illnesses do not have to prove an association between their illness and their military service. This presumption simplifies and speeds up the application process for benefits.
FRA encourages all veterans to register with the VA and urges those with covered service in Korea who have Agent Orange-related medical conditions to submit their applications for VA health care and compensation as soon as possible.
Service members, and in some cases their families, have been exposed to other toxic materials besides Agent Orange. Below are some of the most common exposures experienced by Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard personnel. Visit www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/ to learn more about these and other exposure-related concerns. If you believe your health problems are related to your military service, FRA encourages you to register with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and file a claim for benefits.
Atomic Veterans: An assortment of military operations exposed participants to varying levels of radiation, each with the potential to cause health problems, including a variety of cancers, specific types of cataracts, non-malignant thyroid nodular disease and tumors of the brain and central nervous system. Exposure to ionizing radiation could have occurred if a service member participated in atmospheric or underground nuclear weapons testing, took part in the occupation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki following WWII, received nasopharyngeal radium therapy to prevent ear damage from pressure changes, maintained nuclear reactors or weapons, served as an x-ray or dental technician during their tours of duty, or participated in numerous other assignments.
If you have ionizing radiation health concerns, contact an Environmental Coordinator at your nearest VA Medical Center (VAMC) to request an Ionizing Radiation Registry examination. To find a VAMC near you, visit www.va.gov/directory.
Project SHAD: During the 1960s, DoD conducted Shipboard Hazard and Defense (SHAD) tests to determine the vulnerabilities of U.S. warships to chemical and biological warfare agents. The goal was to develop response procedures while maintaining optimal war-fighting capabilities, but the tests (a.k.a. Project 112) exposed approxi-mately 4,300 Sailors to dangerous chemicals and biological hazards. Many of these tests remain classified, but DoD is working to declassify relevant medical information and has released findings from 12 SHAD projects.
Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses: Nearly a quarter of the 697,000 men and women who served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm from August 1990 to June 1991 have experienced illnesses that have led the VA and others to research whether hazardous exposures during the Gulf War caused their symptoms. A new group of Gulf War veterans has emerged from Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. (For VA benefit purposes, the Gulf War began August 2, 1990 and continues to the present.) It is possible that these vets may have been exposed to chemical and biological warfare agents, depleted uranium, pesticides, smoke from oil well fires and fumes from burn pits. There is also concern about exposures from vaccinations against anthrax and from botulinum toxoid.
Burn Pits: Smoke and fumes from burning plastics, Styrofoam, rubber, chemicals, oils and other waste materials on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan have raised serious concerns among military health officials. Dioxin levels and particulate exposure at Balad Air Base in Iraq, where burn pits were prevalent in the mid-2000s, were more than 50 times higher than the military deemed acceptable. Numerous service members exposed to smoke from these burn pits are experiencing respiratory problems, compromised immune systems, cancers and other health concerns. The use of burn pits has been curtailed, but veterans’ health challenges continue. Results of an ongoing IOM study of Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans are due to be released this summer.
Lauren Armstrong is the Contributing Editor and an Auxiliary Member at Large. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Return to Table of Contents