The nation’s highest-ranking military officer told his audience today at the Crystal City Marriott here that as “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays across the United States this Memorial Day weekend, it will be uniquely their song.
“You’re the ones that sacrificed so we can play that national anthem,” he said.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife, Deanie Dempsey, spent time today with the estimated 2,200 participants gathered here this weekend for the annual Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp. TAPS is an organization for families of service members who died in combat, by suicide, in training or from sudden illness.
“It must be something extraordinary for you to listen to the national anthem, because no one has had the experience of being handed a folded flag,” the chairman said. “You have. And those of us who haven’t experienced that don’t know, really, what that -- I can’t even conceive of what it must be like.”
Dempsey told the adult audience he addressed today -- he also spoke separately to the children -- that he and Deedee build their Memorial Day weekend calendar around the seminar “because I find you to be an incredibly inspirational group.”
Hundreds of red-T-shirted men and women gathered in the hotel’s ballroom to listen to the general. The red T-shirts are for TAPS members, but some also had “peer mentor” or “volunteer” written on the back. White T-shirts, for staff members, dotted the room. Outside, the TAPS children assembled for their own time with the chairman.
Each child was accompanied by a blue-T-shirted mentor. Mentors, according to TAPS guidelines, must be current service members or recent veterans and must have lost someone close to them.
The chairman said that while the sense of community in TAPS makes the seminar an event he and Deedee look forward to, it’s also a sad occasion.
“You’re here because you’ve suffered some incredible sadness and loss in your life,” the chairman said. He added that unfortunately, the organization is likely to continue growing “for a while.”
“Just before I came over here I signed nine letters of condolence to nine families who are recent members of your community,” he said. “And I hope that at some point, when they’re ready, they’ll join you.”
People who have lost a loved one need to be able to talk to others who understand some of what they’ve been through, Dempsey said.
“And that’s you,” he said. “I appreciate the fact that you’re willing to come here, not just to get something, but to give something. That’s really what makes this such a powerful gathering of men and women -- and children, actually.”
The five-day event began May 22 with training and preparation, and culminates this weekend with activities including camps for younger and older children and workshops on topics from art therapy to “turning hurt into hope,” for adults. The seminar also includes a run/walk, balloon release, sunset parade, Pentagon tour, baseball game and other activities. TAPS staffers pair children one-on-one with a mentor -– 500 for this seminar -- who will stay with them throughout the events.
Amy Neiberger-Miller, who handles the organization’s publicity, explained the organization often seeks to pair children with a service member or veteran who has completed the organization’s mentor training and has a similar occupation to the child’s lost parent.
“If a child’s father was a helicopter pilot, then we can match them with a mentor who is also [one], who can tell them what it’s like to fly,” she said. “Many come back here year after year, from very far away, to be here and support these children.”
Dempsey left the ballroom full of adults, and soon after he went next door to another ballroom, where children of all ages and their mentors sat on the carpeted floor waiting for him. Among those still entering the room before the general arrived, much piggybacking and tickling could be observed.
Army Sgt. James Cunningham, now in the individual ready reserve and about to leave service, sat next to a 7- or 8-year-old boy he introduced as “Ro-ro.” The two whispered and laughed and looked at a smartphone screen together while waiting for the chairman.
When Ro-ro wasn’t paying attention, Cunningham quietly confided that while in the active Army, he had lost a friend to suicide, and later another to a suicide bomber.
“It goes on and on, unfortunately,” he said.
The chairman sang “The Unicorn Song” at the top of the program for the younger children, and a version of Train’s “[Not a] Drive By” for the older ones. Dempsey’s version of the chorus to “Drive By” included:
“Oh I swear to you
We’ll be there for you
This is not a drive-by
Just between us, nothing comes between us …”
Several of the children took part in a question-and-answer period. Many chose to tell the chairman about the parent they had lost, mostly in Afghanistan.
One boy said, “He was at war once in Afghanistan. He really liked to play games with me and my brother … then he had to go back to Afghanistan, and he died. I don’t know how he died.”
Dempsey left the children laughing, ready to keep singing. Minutes earlier, before he left the adult session, he had a final message for everyone in a red T-shirt.
The chairman said, “I promise you that despite all the complexities of life in Washington these days, and all the uncertainty about the future of our budget, and all the things that make headlines and make for good 24/7 news, that we will remember what’s most important about our nation. And that is the care for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, our veterans, and those who have lost their life in the service of our country and their families.”
President Barack Obama vowed today that despite financial uncertainties and budget pressures, he will fight to ensure a strong, ready military the United States will rely on as it faces the future.
Addressing 1,047 members of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Class of 2013 during their graduation and commissioning ceremonies here today, the president also challenged the graduates to become models of discipline and honor as they enter the fleet and Marine Corps.
Under a gray sky that turned rainy, Obama told the new Navy ensigns and Marine second lieutenants that the nation “is counting on them to build on security progress and to confront new challenges.”
“Just as you've changed over the past four years, so too have the challenges facing our military,” he told the graduates, citing the end of the war in Iraq and drawdown underway in Afghanistan, and the strengthening of U.S. alliances around the world.
But the job isn’t finished, Obama told the class.
“Even as we've decimated the al-Qaida leadership, we still face threats from al-Qaida affiliates and from individuals caught up in its ideology,” he said. “Even as we move beyond deploying large ground armies abroad, we still need to conduct precise targeted strikes against terrorists before they kill our citizens.”
While staying vigilant against these threats, the military also needs to stay ready to face a full range of threats, from proliferators of weapons of mass destruction to cyber criminals seeking to unleash them, Obama said.
Recognizing tough fiscal times facing the nation, the president promised to ensure the U.S. military has what it needs to confront these challenges.
“Let me say as clearly as I can: the United States of America will always maintain our military superiority,” he said. “And as your commander in chief, I'm going to keep fighting to give you the equipment and support required to meet the missions we ask of you, and also to make sure that you are getting the pay and the benefits and the support that you deserve.”
Obama drew applause as he vowed to keep fighting for the capabilities and technologies the military needs to prevail. This, he said, includes the plan that remains on track to build a 300-ship fleet “with capabilities that exceed the power of the next dozen navies, combined.”
The president also called on Congress to end the budget sequester, and adopt smarter budgeting processes that keep the military strong.
“We have the best-trained, best-led, best-equipped military in history, and I am determined to keep it that way, and Congress should, too,” he said.
The nation’s security demands it, he said, telling the graduates what will be asked of them.
“We need you to project power across the oceans, from the Pacific to the Persian Gulf, 100 percent on watch,” he said. “We need you to partner with other navies and militaries from Africa to the Americas. We need you to respond with compassion in times of disaster, as when you helped respond to Hurricane Sandy.”
In conducting these missions, the president called on the new officers to apply the same mental, physical and moral standards they demonstrated at the Naval Academy.
“Our military remains the most-trusted institution in America,” he told the class. “When others have shirked their responsibilities, our armed forces have met every mission we've given them. When others have been distracted by petty arguments, our men and women in uniform come together as one American team.”
But even in the military, “the misconduct of some can have effects that ripple far and wide,” Obama said.
“In our digital age, a single image from the battlefield of troops falling short of their standards can go viral and endanger our forces and undermine our efforts to achieve security and peace,” he said.
Similarly, those who commit sexual assaults “are not only committing a crime; they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong,” the president said.
“That's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes,” Obama insisted. “They've got no place in the greatest military on earth.”
He called on the new officers to be examples for the people they lead and, by extension, for the entire military and the American people.
“As you go forward in your careers, we need you to carry forth the values that you've learned at this institution, because our nation needs them now more than ever,” he said. “We need your honor, that inner compass that guides you, not when the path is easy and obvious, but when it's hard and uncertain, that tells you the difference between that which is right and that which is wrong.”
Obama urged the new officers to embrace these principles and to lead those under their charge with honor.
“Never ask them to do what you don't ask of yourself,” he said. “Live with integrity and speak with honesty, and take responsibility and demand accountability. We need your honor and we need your courage” -- moral courage as well as physical courage.
Looking out over the field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the president said he’s confident the new graduating class has what it takes to become the next generation of military leaders.
“And I'm absolutely confident that you will uphold the highest of standards, and that your courage and honor and your commitment will see us through, and that you will always prove yourselves worthy of the trust our nation is placing in you today,” he said.
Navy Secretary Raymond Mabus, Jr. as well as Navy Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, chief of naval operations; Marine Gen. John M. Paxton, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps; and Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, the Naval Academy superintendent, joined the president in welcoming the new officers to the force.
“These past four years have challenged you in a lot of ways and prepared you for the challenges ahead,” said Mabus, citing the myriad missions Navy and Marine Corps members conduct around the world.
Sailors and Marines have stood watch as “a steady presence to respond to whatever comes,” he said. “U.S. sailors and Marines have done this, and done it superbly for decades. And now it’s your turn.”
The Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues and senior women enlisted military members gathered at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial here May 22 for the 16th annual recognition ceremony.
An acknowledgement and wreath laying ceremony is held every year near Memorial Day to honor fallen servicewomen.
The wreath, provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, was placed in front of the pool at the memorial. After the wreath was placed, members of the caucus and the honorees placed a long-stemmed rose in honor of the fallen around the memorial’s pool.
Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, the first Air Force female service member to attain the rank of brigadier general in the comptroller career field, spoke to all in attendance, highlighting the changes that have occurred throughout the years, such as Veterans Affairs benefits and having access to a broader array of career fields.
“Just recently we’ve had that major change that women are no longer prevented from serving in combat by virtue of being women,” Vaught said.
Among the servicewomen honored during the ceremony was Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Angela M. Maness, who is slated to be the first female sergeant major of Marine Barracks Washington.
“It is an honor and a privilege to be selected … to take a post, any post, but to be identified as a sergeant major to go to our oldest post, it is a privilege,” Maness said.
To Maness, it’s not about being a female Marine, she said, but being a Marine through and through, no matter the gender.
“Words of wisdom, not just for female Marines, for every Marine; do your job, stay in the fight and do the best job you can do for your boss, for the Corps, for America,” Maness said.
Entering a military undergoing big changes since they arrived at the U.S. Naval Academy here in 2009, the newest generation of naval officers say the fundamentals that called them to military service remain the same.
With today’s graduation and commissioning ceremonies at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, 1,047 members of the academy’s Class of 2013 prepared to lead in what Navy Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller, the Naval Academy superintendent, recognized as an “uncertain and rapidly changing world.”
For many of the graduates, the seeds for the paths they are following were planted early. Eric Provost, of Chicago, grew up with his Marine Corps veteran grandfather, Paul Heavner, as his role model.
“I’ve always had tremendous respect for him and his deep sense of discipline,” Provost said. “It had a big impact on me.”
Those qualities helped Provost confront the challenges of the Naval Academy. “It takes a lot of discipline,” he said. “You have to really push yourselves to get through.”
But as he prepared for the crescendo of his academy career, with all the pomp and circumstance of graduation and President Barack Obama addressing the class, Provost was looking forward to his next challenge, in the submarine service.
It’s one of the most rigorous communities in the fleet, he said, with high-caliber officers and sailors he said he hopes to learn from. One of the most important lessons Provost said he learned in Annapolis was humility.
“That’s really necessary for naval officers -- realizing your place in the world,” he said.
Matthew Gates said he knew as a young boy growing up in Pittsburgh that he “really wanted to serve my country.” He entered the Naval Academy with his mind set on the Marine Corps, and said he never looked back.
Attracted by the “top-notch education” and research opportunities the academy offered, Gates thrived by the challenges his professors and fellow midshipmen presented.
“Everyone here has the same goal, so there’s a lot tougher competition,” he said. “It provides a lot of motivation.”
That motivation drove Gates to zip through all his academics in computer science and information technology in just three years. He spent his senior year at the academy traveling to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to begin his Master’s degree studies, and will wrap that up before reporting to Marine Corps Basic School in December.
Gates said he’s unfazed by the changes occurring within the military, insisting that the United States will always need a strong force to deal with troubles around the world. With combat operations in Afghanistan to end next year, Gates said Marines will still be needed for anything from special operations missions to full-scale combat.
“I hope to keep our country safe, and to lead Marines to the best of my ability,” he said.
Josh Hyland, of Springfield, Va., said he, too, always felt a call to military service, inspired by both of his grandfathers and an uncle.
“I believe I was blessed to be born in this country, and for what is here because of the service of other people,” he said. “So I always thought that this was something I had to do.”
After four years at Annapolis, Hyland said he will use his lessons in academics and leadership to train as a submariner.
Pamela Guizar, from Guatemala, was among 16 international graduates who will go on to serve in their respective militaries.
The daughter of a Guatemalan soldier, Guizar said she was drawn to service from an early age. With a degree in ocean engineering and important lessons in teamwork now under her belt, she hopes to chart new opportunities for women in Guatemala’s navy.
“I hope to take as much as I can back, and teach what I have learned here,” she said.
As he administered the oath of office to the graduates, Marine Gen. John M. Paxton Jr., assistant Marine Corps commandant, and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, told them to take pride in their service affiliations but also to recognize they are joining a joint force.
“You will find out soon that ‘Beat Army,’ ‘Beat Navy,’ ‘Beat Air Force’ or whatever, when you get away from the yard and the grounds that it is ‘One team, One fight,’” Paxton said.
“We are honored to have you as part of that great U.S. military team,” he told the new naval officers, still with masking tape covering the gold bars and stripes on their uniforms.
Paxton welcomed 263 Marine second lieutenants to the Corps. “We are ready to have you,” he said. “We need you to lead the young men and women who proudly call themselves fellow Marines.”
As they do, Paxton urged them to demonstrate the “four Cs.”
“You owe them your courage, your candor, your compassion and your commitment,” he said. “I know … you are more than prepared to do that.”
Addressing the 763 midshipmen about to be sworn in as Navy ensigns, Greenert echoed President Barack Obama’s theme of the importance of integrity.
“Nobody can take your integrity away from you. It is uniquely yours. Don’t lose it,” he told the class.
The CNO also reminded the class that their allegiance must be to the institution, the country and the constitution, “not to your buddies.”
“It is your oath,” Greenert said. “Think about it when you take your oath.”
Greenert dispensed more advice.
“Be kind to everybody,” he said. “Treat everyone with dignity and respect. Trust your shipmates because your life is going to depend on them. Learn your heritage.”
Lightening his tone, the admiral offered two more tidbits.
“Wear sunscreen,” he said, telling them the effects of the sun take 20 years to show. And most of important of all, he said, maintain contact with their mothers at least once a week.
“They are the wind beneath any wings you have, and they got you here,” Greenert said.
The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force will hold its first public hearing on June 4 at the Rayburn House Office Building here.
President Barack Obama and the chairmen and ranking members of both Armed Services Committees recently appointed eight members to serve on the commission. The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act directed the establishment of this commission.
The Honorable Dennis M. McCarthy, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general, is the commission’s chairman and the Honorable Erin Conaton is the vice chair. The other commission members are F. Whitten Peters, Les Brownlee, retired Air Force general Raymond Johns Jr., retired Air National Guard lieutenant general Harry M. “Bud” Wyatt III, Dr. Janine Davidson, and Dr. Margaret Harrell.
Dr. James A. Blackwell has been appointed Executive Director. The Department of Defense sponsor is Mr. Michael L. Rhodes, the director of administration and management.
The commission will conduct a comprehensive study of the Air Force’s structure to determine if and how the structure should be modified to best fill current and future mission requirements with available resources. The commission's report to the president and Congress is due February 1, 2014.
The commission will consider whether the Air Force:
-- Meets current and anticipated requirements of the combatant commands;
-- Achieves an appropriate balance between the regular and reserve components, taking advantage of the unique strengths and capabilities of each;
-- Ensures that the regular and reserve components have the capacity to support current and future homeland defense and disaster assistance missions in the United States;
-- Provides a sufficient number of regular members to provide a base of trained personnel from which reserve components could be recruited;
-- Maintains a peacetime rotation force to support operational tempo goals of 1:2 for regular members and 1:5 for reserve members; and
-- Maximizes and appropriately balances affordability, efficiency, effectiveness, capability, and readiness.
Sequestration has hit the Air Force particularly hard, impacting its force structure, readiness and modernization, senior Air Force leaders said here today.
Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the chief of staff, said Congress must provide a solid budget number so the Air Force can ground its planning in reality.
The Air Force understands it must do its part to work through the debt and deficit reduction problem, Welsh said.
“We just want to get to the bottom line or the new top-line budget … and get on with preparing our Air Force to remain the best in the world,” he said.
Sequestration has hit the Air Force hard and the effects are felt throughout the full range of accounts from force structure to readiness to modernization, Donley said during his last scheduled news conference as secretary.
On April 26, Donley announced plans to step down June 21 as the Air Force's top civilian after serving as secretary for nearly five years.
“Twelve combat-coded squadrons have stopped flying, and important training has been canceled,” Donley said. “Weapon system sustainment reductions will delay maintenance, increase costs and create backlogs. The impending civilian furlough will hamper us further and will impact morale and reduce productivity across the Air Force.”
Even before sequestration there was a readiness crisis in the Air Force, the secretary said. “The readiness hole that we have been trying to dig out of just got deeper, and we are facing a readiness crisis from which it will take many months to recover,” he said.
And it is not just operations and readiness accounts that are at risk, said Donley, noting the Air Force needs modernization -- in aircraft, missiles, and capabilities.
“As advanced technologies proliferate around the globe, these cutbacks in modernization would put at risk the Air Force capabilities this nation will need in the decades ahead,” Donley said. “Despite our near-term and long-term concerns, we are working to ensure that our most significant Air Force priorities remain on track, including the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-46 tanker, and the long-range strike bomber.”
Aircraft must support the warfighters, but budget cuts mean that airmen cannot train for full spectrum operations, Welsh said.
“And our readiness continues to decline, even while calls for potential no-fly zone or air policing operations in response to Syrian violence are reaching a new crescendo,” he said.
“We're still the best Air Force in the world,” Welsh said. “And our great airmen will rely on experience and their unmatched dedication to succeed in any operation that we're asked to execute. But atrophied skills elevate risk, and stagnant proficiency will only grow over time if we can't restore some sense of budget normalcy. And so that’s what we’re hoping for.”
Media coverage focused on violence and other challenges in Afghanistan loses sight of the larger picture of progress and promising developments, Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove said after returning from his first trip there as supreme allied commander for Europe.
Breedlove noted in his “From the Cockpit” blog posted today on the U.S. European Command website how impressed he was with the commitment and professionalism of both the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan troops he met.
“The work they do and the sacrifices they make every day are astonishing,” he said. “Given the challenges in Afghanistan, the progress that ISAF and their Afghan partners continue to make is monumental.”
Unfortunately, that progress isn’t widely reflected in much of the media coverage of Afghanistan, he said. Coverage that concentrates on the negatives, gives an incomplete depiction of events on the ground, making it easy to “miss the forest for the trees,” he said.
“It is understandable that some who focus on these incidents can come away uncertain whether the efforts and sacrifices made over the past 12 years have been worthwhile,” he said. “To these people, I would suggest they take a step back and take a look at the larger picture before making a judgment about the current and future state of affairs in Afghanistan.”
Breedlove recognized major changes more than a decade ago, when the Afghan people’s lives were dictated by the Taliban government and the country served as a breeding ground for international terrorism.
“Today, the Taliban remains a threat, but it continues to be degraded thanks to the relentless pressure put on them by the Afghan security forces,” Breedlove said. “This capability ensures that Afghanistan is no longer a haven for terrorists.”
ISAF has played a definitive role in changing that, he recognized. By battling extremist organizations, it created the space and time for Afghan national security forces to grow and take on the fight.
“It has helped the Afghan government to crawl out from Taliban control and stand freely on its own two feet,” Breedlove said.
Today, Afghanistan is being progressively built, secured and maintained by the Afghan people, he said.
“NATO and ISAF have served as a scaffolding of sorts, which has enabled Afghans to rebuild their structures,” he said. “But as those structures near completion, the scaffolding is being carefully removed, leaving the finished product to stand freely.”
Big milestones are ahead as Afghan security forces prepare in the coming weeks to take the security lead across the country. They currently plan, lead, and implement over 87 percent of security missions throughout Afghanistan, providing security for nearly 90 percent of the population, Breedlove noted.
Breedlove said other fundamental changes that have taken place across Afghanistan in the last 10 years, but are not often reflected in front-page news: education, health care, transportation and communication improvements, a GDP growing at 7 percent a year, among them.
While noting progress, the general recognized stumbling blocks along the way and said more work will be needed in the coming months.
But “Afghanistan is worth the cost,” Breedlove said, echoing NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
The United States and NATO have an enduring commitment to Afghanistan, and recognize that the security of their nations is inextricably linked to the stability of other regions, he said.
But their enduring commitment in Afghanistan, he added, also is based on the sweat and sacrifices ISAF and Afghan national security forces have given the people of Afghanistan.
The general said the Afghan people have “the opportunity to build on progress already made and to secure their future.”
“It is now within their grasp and soon will be fully in their hands,” Breedlove said.
He emphasized, however, that the completion of the ISAF mission at the end of 2014 won’t signal an end to the NATO and international commitment to Afghans’ security. “Resolute Support,” NATO’s post-2014 mission in Afghanistan, will focus on the training, advising and assisting of Afghan security forces.
“Of course there will be more challenges, but our support for Afghan security remains steadfast and will remain so through 2014 and beyond,” Breedlove said.
President Barack Obama today proclaimed Memorial Day, May 27, 2013, “as a day of prayer for permanent peace, and I designate the hour beginning in each locality at 11:00 a.m. of that day as a time to unite in prayer. I also ask all Americans to observe the National Moment of Remembrance beginning at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day.”
The president’s proclamation reads as follows:
Since our Nation's earliest days, America has been blessed with an unbroken chain of patriots who have served our country with honor and distinction. From Concord to the Korengal, generations of brave warriors have fought for freedom across sand and snow, over mud and mountains, into lonely deserts and through crowded streets.
Today, we pay tribute to those patriots who never came back -- who fought for a home to which they never returned, and died for a country whose gratitude they will always have.
Scripture teaches us that "greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." On Memorial Day, we remember those we have lost not only for what they fought for, but who they were: proud Americans, often far too young, guided by deep and abiding love for their families, for each other, and for this country. Our debt to them is one we can never fully repay. But we can honor their sacrifice and strive to be a Nation equal to their example. On this and every day, we must meet our obligations to families of the fallen; we must uphold our sacred trust with our veterans, our service members, and their loved ones.
Above all, we can honor those we have lost by living up to the ideals they died defending. It is our charge to preserve liberty, to advance justice, and to sow the seeds of peace. With courage and devotion worthy of the heroes we remember today, let us rededicate ourselves to those unending tasks, and prove once more that America's best days are still ahead. Let us pray the souls of those who died in war rest in eternal peace, and let us keep them and their families close in our hearts, now and forever.
In honor of all of our fallen service members, the Congress, by a joint resolution approved May 11, 1950, as amended (36 U.S.C. 116), has requested the President issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe each Memorial Day as a day of prayer for permanent peace and designating a period on that day when the people of the United States might unite in prayer. The Congress, by Public Law 106-579, has also designated 3:00 p.m. local time on that day as a time for all Americans to observe, in their own way, the National Moment of Remembrance.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, May 27, 2013, as a day of prayer for permanent peace, and I designate the hour beginning in each locality at 11:00 a.m. of that day as a time to unite in prayer. I also ask all Americans to observe the National Moment of Remembrance beginning at 3:00 p.m. local time on Memorial Day.
I request the Governors of the United States and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the appropriate officials of all units of government, to direct that the flag be flown at half-staff until noon on this Memorial Day on all buildings, grounds, and naval vessels throughout the United States and in all areas under its jurisdiction and control. I also request the people of the United States to display the flag at half-staff from their homes for the customary forenoon period.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-fourth day of May, in the year of our Lord two thousand thirteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-seventh.
Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter underscored yesterday the importance of the Better Buying Power 2.0 initiative in the wake of sequestration’s effects on the Defense Department.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the deputy defense secretary, joined by Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, highlighted the increased importance of the initiative.
“Achieving Better Buying Power would, of course, be an important goal in any budget environment, but its importance has only grown given the strategic and budgetary challenges we now face,” Carter said.
“Since Better Buying Power was first unveiled, Congress passed the Budget Control Act, which required the department to cut $487 billion from our defense plans over 10 years,” he said.
Carter said this process began after devising a new defense strategy to guide the department’s leadership “as we turn a strategic corner from the post-9/11 era dominated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to an era defined by new challenges and new opportunities.”
“It's still true today, as it was then, that every dollar not wasted is a dollar that can be invested in these new capabilities,” he said.
“Due to the collateral damage of political gridlock here in Washington,” Carter said, “we are now also operating under sequestration.”
Sequestration requires the department to subtract an additional $37 billion from its budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2013, he said, and “sequester presumes that we take equal or proportionate share from each and every part of the budget, which is the worst managerial approach possible.”
The deputy defense secretary said sequester is not only regrettable in its own right, but also distracts from the true strategic and managerial tasks faced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the department.
“Secretary Hagel and I, and the entire leadership of the department, are doing everything we possibly can under this deliberately restrictive law to mitigate its harmful effects on national security, he said. “But as the Joint Chiefs have emphasized repeatedly, the impacts on our readiness are real, and in many cases, irreversible.”
The deputy defense secretary said the impetus to the better buying initiatives came from former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ anticipation of the impending fiscal environment.
“It was two years ago at the Eisenhower Library that then-Secretary of Defense [Robert M.] Gates spoke presciently … about the days of ever-increasing defense budgets soon coming to an end as our elected leaders grappled with our fiscal circumstances,” Carter said.
In acknowledgement of that coming fiscal reality, and in an effort to minimize the impact of it, he said, Gates launched an initiative to ensure that the department would not be forced to sacrifice, wherever possible, an ounce more force structure than was necessary.
Carter noted this was the introduction to what is now referred to as Better Buying Power 1.0, which he and Kendall introduced in September 2010.
“Better Buying Power's goal was … more capability for the warfighter and more value for the taxpayer by obtaining greater efficiency and productivity in defense spending -- what economists call productivity growth,” he said.
In order to achieve these objectives, Carter said, there were 23 principal actions directed in five major areas:
-- Targeting affordability and cost growth in defense programs;
-- Incentivizing productivity and innovation in industry through profit and partnership;
-- Promoting real competition wherever possible;
-- Improving tradecraft in the acquisition of services as opposed to goods; and
-- Reducing nonproductive processes and bureaucracy in the government and in industry.
During the past two-and-a-half years, Carter said, the department has worked hard -- with some considerable success in some major programs -- to implement these directives, acknowledging Better Buying Power 1.0 wouldn’t get everything right the first time around.
“We also knew that industry would continue to come to the table with good ideas and constructive criticism,” he said.
A notable feature of Better Buying Power 2.0, Carter said, is improving the professionalism of the total acquisition workforce, which encompasses program management, engineering, contracting and product support disciplines.
“We know that the quality of our people is an essential ingredient to our success as an acquisition enterprise,” he said.
As the department continues to implement Better Buying Power, Carter said, it looks forward to working with its industry partners and acquisition workforce to do more every year to get more value for the taxpayer and the warfighter.
“In fact, that's what Better Buying Power 2.0 is all about, just like Better Buying Power 1.0,” he said.
Carter Kendall and his acquisition team for their continuing efforts to improve the success of the Better Buying Power initiative.
“I salute Frank, who was my partner then, and is now, the leader of this effort, and his team, which is here, for their excellent work,” he said.
“The success of our Better Buying Power effort, and the Defense Enterprise, is clearly dependent on getting superior value for the taxpayers' dollar and for the war fighter,” he said.
The new initiatives outlined in the Defense Department’s Better Buying Power 2.0 effort are intended to improve the efficiency of the complicated business of defense acquisition, a senior Pentagon official said yesterday.
Following Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s explanation of the origins of Better Buying Power 1.0, Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, explained there are no simple fixes during remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“I don’t believe there are one or two policy changes we can make which are going to fix, if you will, defense acquisition,” he said.
“We’re in a very, very complicated business,” Kendall said. “We had 23 initiatives in Better Buying Power 1.0. There are about 34 here. There are another 100 things, at least, that we’re working on that are not on this chart.”
Kendall said Better Buying Power 2.0 covers a wide range of products and services that defense acquisition requires.
“The way to improve it, I think, is not with one or two policy changes or even five or six,” he said. “It’s with continuous efforts to understand the results that you’re getting, why you’re getting them and where you can make improvements on the margin.”
Kendall said an important feature of Better Buying Power 2.0 is, “A Guide to Help You Think.”
“When Dr. Carter and I put out [version] 1.0 and went around the country talking to the workforce, one of the things we told them was that we really wanted them to think,” he said.
But the guidelines included in the original version, Kendall said, were not hard rules written in stone to be followed on every occasion.
“They had to be applied with judgment, and that’s what the thinking part is about,” he said.
“The range of things that we do is so diverse that each problem has to be approached and assessed on its own rights,” he added.
Kendall also cited a new process in Better Buying Power 2.0 which addresses professionalism in the workforce.
“[It’s] not an easy job,” he said. “It’s takes professionals, and it’s the key to success.”
It’s important, Kendall said, getting those little decisions and acquisition strategies right, and really understanding technology maturity and what incentives make industry perform better for the department.
“So what you see in the guidance that I just put out implementing 2.0 is a combination of some general guidance and then some specific actions that people take,” he said.
“[In] many cases, it’s to provide more thorough and more complete guidance to people to help them through the process of deciding how to actually implement this,” Kendall added.
If the department continues to make improvements on the margin, he said, it will transform its results.
“We’re going in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of room to get better,” he said. “And that’s what this is about -- finding those things on the margin where we can do better.”
During his remarks, Kendall touched on each of these seven areas:
-- Achieve affordable programs;
-- Control costs throughout the product lifecycle;
-- Incentivize productivity and innovation in industry and government;
-- Eliminate unproductive processes and bureaucracy;
-- Promote effective competition;
-- Improve tradecraft in acquisition of services; and
-- Improve the professionalism of the total acquisition workforce.
Noting the current budget climate under sequestration, Kendall said there’s no reason for defense acquisition officials to stop doing their jobs, only “every reason in the world to do it better.”
“We didn’t have a cyclone or hurricane arrive the day sequestration was implemented,” he said. “What happened was the rain started to fall. And it’s still falling, the water’s rising, and that’s what we’re dealing with.”
With the constraints of sequestration, Kendall said the department is essentially being forced to endure a “huge number of inefficient actions,” opposite of what he and his team are striving toward.
Kendall also noted sequestration’s “water” continues to rise.
“I’ve used the word devastating before -- I’m not going to back down from that,” he said. “That’s the sort of impact this is having on the department.”
There is “more pressure than ever on us to get as much value as possible for the money we have,” Kendall said.
“And that’s what our workforce is dedicated to doing, and will continue to do,” he added.
While recent spotlights have focused on the Defense Information Systems Agency's Field Security Operations approval of Security Technical Implementation Guides (STIGs) for the latest in enterprise technologies, one approval stands out by representing a paradigm shift in the agency's business processes.
Developed ahead of its commercial release, the Samsung Knox STIG showcases the increased efficiencies, delivered through close partnerships of government and industry, for bringing new devices into the DOD enterprise to meet department-wide needs.
"The Knox Android STIG was a highly successful effort demonstrating how industry and DOD can work together to create rigorous security guidance quickly, enabling DOD to benefit from new technology as soon as it is commercially available," said Terry Sherald, chief of DISA’s Information Assurance Standards Branch, and the architect behind developing and fostering the new process.
Working with Samsung and their partners in producing the STIG greatly facilitated communication throughout the project because each company had extensive experience with DOD information assurance requirements and processes. Constant communication enabled Samsung developers to make changes to its Knox code more rapidly to meet DoD requirements. DISA plans to share general lessons learned from this effort to assist subsequent vendors writing STIGs.
"We are excited to continue working with other commercial mobile device providers to support a diverse and competitive multi-vendor environment," Sherald said.
Sherald's idea had a lot of support. As part of the DOD Commercial Mobile Device Implementation Plan, released in February 2013, DISA was tasked to develop a new process for approving mobile devices "to ensure that DOD will have access to the latest mobile technologies in a timely manner by maximizing vendor participation."
Previously, new technologies would enter the marketplace and the department would have to wait until DISA could develop a STIG, outlining required technical controls and settings, before introduction and integration to the enterprise. The rate at which technology was turning over, usually every six to nine months, the department was continually behind the IT power curve.
"A device would become obsolete, and literally off the market, by the time we were able to render it secure enough for DOD networks," Sherald said.
Sherald's team created the process enabling vendors to develop STIGs for their respective products based on DOD Security Requirements Guides developed by FSO, and submit full documentation and evidence for DISA's final validation. This new process is established for mobile devices, but Sherald and the team plans to expand the effort to other technology areas as well.
"For the mobility world, a new process was critical. The market moves too fast, and this was the only way to meet the mobility needs," Sherald said. "We knew that if we could partner with vendors from the start, in their development cycle, and provide them with our Security Requirements Guides, we could get out in front of the market and deliver leading edge capabilities to the department as soon as the technologies are commercially available."
The DOD Chief Information Office's plan boosted the department's direction, but the idea for change actually started back in 2008, when DISA FSO and Sherald's team was facing several major changes. First was a change from 8500 Information Assurance controls to the National Institute of Standards and Technology 800-53 controls. Next was a new DISA Campaign Plan requirement to "automate" STIGs, followed by the need to provide STIGs more quickly. Finally, the team was seeing the growing demand in the IA community for more and more STIGs.
"We took the changes in pieces and worked them methodically to get the components in place to enable our new process. We took the new controls and broke them down into single, actionable, measurable items that lend themselves to automation," Sherald said.
Sherald’s team developed the CORE Security Requirements to provide a "first-of-its-kind" true list of technical IA requirements that could be used to write a guide or develop a system. Next they took those CORE SRGs and started applying them to technology areas to further "refine" the list of requirements for the technology area.
"We 'pilot tested' the concept using a STIG update to validate the new process at each step along the way," Sherald said. "It's been a learning and refining process for the whole team, but we've grown a lot. I could not ask for a better team of people to develop this process."
Sherald realizes that the DOD has come to depend on the STIGs. The team is working very hard to ensure that new vendor-developed documents are developed with the same due diligence and rigor with which FSO-developed STIGS traditionally met commercial technology.
"As with all progressive development, we have to adapt methods and processes to best support our customers," Sherald said. "Ultimately, the warfighters depend on our adaptability."
Since 1998, DISA's FSO has played an integral role to enhance the security posture of DOD's security systems by providing STIGs, which contain technical guidance to "lock down" information systems/software that might otherwise be vulnerable to a malicious computer attack.
President Barack Obama spoke today on U.S. counterterrorism policy and looked at how the United States can defend itself from terrorism, yet remain true to core beliefs.
The president’s speech at the National Defense University on Fort Lesley J. McNair here took a broad view of counterterrorism efforts. Obama reviewed what has taken place since September 11, 2001, and how the counterterrorism effort has changed.
In 2001, Al-Qaida was the threat. It was that organization, led by Osama bin Laden, that planned and executed the attacks that killed 3,000 people on 9/11. “Now the core of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat,” the president said.
The United States has relentlessly pursued al-Qaida’s senior leadership and the threat of a 9/11-scale attack is greatly reduced, he said.
At the same time the threat has morphed. Al-Qaida affiliates – notably those in North Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula – remain threats to the American homeland. Threats have grown following the unrest in the Arab world, although those are mostly local or regionally based.
Finally, there is a threat from homegrown extremists like those who are alleged to be responsible for the bombing in Boston.
Attacks like those from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, like those against our embassy in Benghazi and like those in Boston represent the future of the threats we face from terrorism, the president said.
“We must recognize, however, that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11,” he said. “With a decade of experience to draw from, now is the time to ask ourselves hard questions – about the nature of today’s threats, and how we should confront them.”
Since 9/11, the United States has spent well over a trillion dollars on war. “Our service members and their families have sacrificed far more on our behalf,” he said. “Nearly 7,000 Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice. Many more have left a part of themselves on the battlefield, or brought the shadows of battle back home. From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making will define the type of nation – and world – that we leave to our children.”
No one can promise the total defeat of terror. There will always be people misguided enough to resort to attacks on society, the president said. “What we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend,” Obama said. “To define that strategy, we must make decisions based not on fear, but hard-earned wisdom.”
The threats do not arise in a vacuum, the president said. There is the belief in many parts of the world that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets is justified in pursuit of a larger cause. “Of course, this ideology is based on a lie, for the United States is not at war with Islam; and this ideology is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who are the most frequent victims of terrorist acts,” Obama said.
The ideology persists, however, and all parts of the U.S. government must work to counter it, he said.
The United States must continue to defeat al-Qaida and its associated forces, the president said. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces will follow the NATO plan and continue training Afghan security forces up to the end of NATO combat operations there at the end of next year, Obama said.
“Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” he said. Most of these will be done in partnership with other nations, he said, specifically mentioning Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
The United States will continue to cooperate with other nations and share counterterrorism intelligence with these nations, he emphasized, butwill not be afraid to work alone when the situation calls for it.
Al-Qaida looks for ungoverned areas to set up and plan, he noted. “In some of these places … the state has only the most tenuous reach into the territory,” Obama said. “In other cases, the state lacks the capacity or will to take action.”
In cases when using American troops in these places isn’t possible and lethal action is needed, he said, “The United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al-Qaida and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones.”
The technology raises profound questions about targeting, civilian casualties and the risks of creating new enemies, he said, but Obama maintained the strikes strikes have been effective and are legal nationally and internationally. “Simply put, these strikes have saved lives,” he said.
Beyond Afghanistan, the United States only targets al-Qaida and its associated forces, the president said.
“America does not make strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists - our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute them,” Obama said. “America cannot take strikes wherever we choose – our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty. America does not take strikes to punish individuals – we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.”
The president insists on strong oversight of all lethal action. “After I took office, my administration began briefing all strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan to the appropriate committees of Congress,” he said. “Let me repeat that – not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes.”
The use of force must be part of a larger discussion about a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, he said, adding that. force alone cannot make America safe.
“We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways,” the president said.
President Barack Obama today vowed to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying the prison has become a symbol of an America that flouts the law.
Obama spoke at the National Defense University at Fort Lesley J. McNair here. His discussion on the Gitmo facility was part of a larger discussion on counterterrorism policy.
The original premise for opening the detention center at Guantanamo was that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention, he noted during his remarks, but added the Supreme Court found that unconstitutional five years ago.
“In the meantime, Gitmo has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law,” the president said. “Our allies won’t cooperate with us if they think a terrorist will end up at Gitmo. During a time of budget cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people –almost $1 million per prisoner. And the Department of Defense estimates that we must spend another $200 million to keep Gitmo open at a time when we are cutting investments in education and research here at home.”
Obama has tried to close the facility and transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress stopped the process, he noted. “These restrictions make no sense,” he said.
Obama said he believes these detainees can be held in U.S. prisons and prosecuted in U.S. courts. “No person has ever escaped from one of our super-max or military prisons in the United States,” he said. “Our courts have convicted hundreds of people for terrorism-related offenses, including some who are more dangerous than most Gitmo detainees.”
The president called on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from the facility.
“I have tasked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions,” he said. “I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case-by-case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee.”
There will still be detainees who have participated in attacks on Americans who cannot be prosecuted due to tainted evidence, Obama noted. “But once we commit to a process of closing Gitmo, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law,” he said.
The president was interrupted several times by a heckler who yelled that the president should close the facility now. He said her voice needed to be heard.
Obama asked if Guantanamo is the kind of legacy America wants or deserves. “Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?” he asked. “Our sense of justice is stronger than that.”
When heavy rain threatened a dam near Cavalier, North Dakota, the call went out from North Dakota National Guard units yesterday. Within 12 hours, Guardsmen from communities across eastern North Dakota were on duty in Cavalier beginning yesterday.
The soldiers, about 40 today down from a peak of 70 yesterday, are working rotating 12-hour shifts to support the community, which was evacuated Tuesday evening after significant rainfall threatened the stability of the Renwick Dam on the Tongue River.
“Unfortunately, due to all of the events in recent years — from statewide flooding to another threatened dam near Kathryn, North Dakota, in 2009 — we’ve become well experienced in working with others across our state to provide flood-related support,” said Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, North Dakota adjutant general, who toured the area yesterday with Gov. Jack Dalrymple and met with city and county leaders in Cavalier, Crystal and Grafton. “Our Guardsmen again responded quickly, and we will continue to support northeastern North Dakota as long as we’re requested to do so.”
Senior Airman Gabriel Irvis called the flood-related mission “familiar territory,” although this time he’s working in his other uniform — that of Trooper Irvis, a member of the Highway Patrol’s Northeast Region in Langdon, N.D.
At five entrance points to the city, the Highway Patrol joined with the North Dakota Guardsmen and members of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, to provide security, information and some traffic control for the city of about 1,300 that resembled a ghost town Wednesday.
On the western edge of the city, Spc. Brandon M. Nelson and Spc. Fredrick Burdick — who both live in Devils Lake and serve with the 3662nd Maintenance Company at Camp Grafton Training Center — watched for vehicles and visited with their counterparts from the Highway Patrol and Border Patrol. They expressed empathy for the homeowners who needed to leave quickly while facing the uncertainty of the dam and spillway withstanding the pressure of the water.
“I feel bad telling them no, they can’t come back in,” Burdick said.
On the north end of town, the sentiment was the same with Spc. Dominic Sevigny, of Grand Forks, N.D., Spc. Moses Zozimo, of Fargo, N.D., and Spc. Alex Nagel, of Grand Forks. Sevigny serves with the Fargo-based 191st Military Police Company, Zozimo is with the Fargo-based Company A, 231st Brigade Support Battalion, and Nagel serves with the rear detachment for the Grand Forks-based 1st Battalion, 188th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, all North Dakota Army National Guard units.
Zozimo, an immigrant from Sudan, said flood-related missions are new for him, but he’s proud to be helping his new home.
“It is kind of a good feeling helping out,” he said. “By me doing even a little, it’s helping them a lot.”
Meanwhile, Capt. Ryan Boom, a North Dakota National Guard liaison officer who serves with the 191st Military Police Company, was coordinating updates and information with other leaders in a meeting at the Cavalier Law Enforcement Center.
“Cavalier had luck on its side, as it had equipment staged near the location of the temporary dike that was there for a different project,” he said. “It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with the city of Cavalier. The response from the community together as a team showed what a success it is. It’s a privilege to be a part of this amazing team response.”
Beyond law enforcement support, the North Dakota National Guard provided three UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters that were on standby to place 1-ton sandbags to slow the erosion of the Renwick Dam spillway on Wednesday. The helicopters also were on standby for potential search-and-rescue missions, but ended the mission in Cavalier last night as the pressure on the dam began to lessen.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has directed the Defense Department to implement the guidance President Barack Obama outlined in his national security speech delivered at the National Defense University here today, including efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In a statement issued immediately after the speech, Hagel said the president presented a comprehensive vision for continuing to protect the nation from terrorism, especially from al-Qaida and its affiliates, while remaining true to the nation’s values and laws.
“I have directed the Department of Defense to work closely with our interagency partners and allies to implement the president’s guidance, including the efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay,” Hagel said.
The secretary noted he has been closely involved in these issues as a U.S. senator, co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and now as defense secretary.
“I applaud President Obama’s strong leadership in defending the United States of America and advancing our interests around the world,” he added.
Defense leaders will work closely with Veterans Affairs Department counterparts to ensure full integration of health records, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said yesterday.
Hagel and VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki took part in a roundtable discussion on veterans health benefits claims with members of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee. During the meeting, Hagel explained the work Pentagon officials have done to integrate DOD records systems with VA’s to ensure seamless data flow. He also outlined steps the department is taking to adjust recordkeeping procedures as it aims to prevent future backlogs.
Pentagon leaders are responsible for making sure that as service members transition to veteran status, they’re “not only cared for, but treated fairly,” the secretary noted.
Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters yesterday the challenge facing DOD and VA exists on two fronts. First, they must seamlessly integrate their health-record sharing, so service member records transfer smoothly to the VA system as troops leave active duty. Second, each agency also needs to modernize the networked software system it uses to produce records.
Kendall said the first issue’s solution, which involves replacing read-only records DOD sends to VA with live-data records, is well underway.
“We've made an investment in that which is paying off,” he said. “We have a relatively short-term goal of having integrated, seamless records with the VA by the end of this year.”
The second part of the solution will involve upgrading the networked software system DOD uses in its clinics and hospitals to track patient care and produce medical records. Kendall announced yesterday that Hagel has decided to seek a commercial firm to provide that software, which will be fully compatible with VA’s system. Market research turned up 20 firms interested in the proposal, Kendall said.
“So we think we have a rich field to pick from, and we can make a best value determination for DOD,” the undersecretary noted.
After yesterday’s roundtable, Hagel indicated he’ll tackle health records with the same approach he has taken to other major issues, including sexual assault in the military: listening to those who know the subject best, collaborating to identify problem points and possible solutions, and establishing and maintaining accountability.
Most of the backlogged veteran health benefits claims now in the system are from pre-Iraq and Afghanistan service records, Hagel told committee members yesterday. As efforts to clear that backlog continue, he added, defense and VA staffs also are working to ensure current and future health records are fully transferrable between the two agencies.
Digitizing and integrating records dating back several decades is a big challenge facing both DOD and VA, Hagel acknowledged.
“We've got a lot to do. We haven't done everything. We get that; we understand that. … But the cooperation has been there. It will continue,” he said.
Hagel noted he has sought out and listened to VA and DOD health care providers and benefits specialists to learn “what are we not doing, what we need to do more of, what are the expectations.”
With a plan in place to address both past and future complications in health records management, Hagel said, DOD and VA are committed to maintaining rapid progress toward fully solving compatibility issues.
“It's working, it's collaborating, which we will continue to do,” Hagel said. “[Shinseki] and I are pledged to do that. Our organizations are.”
He concluded, “I want to assure you, as I have Secretary Shinseki and members of Congress, that DOD will be a full partner, a responsible partner, understanding our piece of this, and we intend to be successful.”
The Midwest region is certainly no stranger to inclement weather, having heavy snow and ice in the winter months and severe thunderstorms and deadly tornados during the spring and summer.
However, the recent string of storms that have passed through the region have left the Oklahoma communities of Newcastle, Moore, Oklahoma City and Shawnee in tatters, displacing hundreds of families, and resulting in 26 confirmed deaths.
For many residents affected by the record EF-5 tornado that tore through the central Oklahoma landscape, the week began with an anticipation of thunderstorms and heavy rain. That all changed May 20 as a deadly tornado developed southwest of Oklahoma City. The tornado grew as it moved through southeastern Oklahoma City and across Moore.
In the wake of the destruction, first responders from across the country began to pour into Moore and Oklahoma City, including support from the Oklahoma National Guard.
For one Oklahoma Air National Guardsman, the tornado came only a month after he returned from a six-month deployment to the Middle East. Air Force Senior Airman Brandon Tucker, a crew communication specialist with the 185th Air Refueling Squadron, was at home working in his garage, getting his personal items moved back into his house after deciding to take his house off the real estate market.
“I was here right before the tornado came through,” Tucker said. “I noticed that the wind had picked up quite a bit, and all of a sudden it just stopped, which I thought that was kind of odd. I walked inside in time to see Gary England announce that a tornado was heading toward the Newcastle Casino. I high-tailed it out of there.”
The citizens of Oklahoma City and Moore sought cover wherever they could and braced for their lives. The tornado left a trail of destruction stretching 17 miles from Newcastle to southeast Oklahoma City.
Search-and-rescue efforts immediately began as first responders, Oklahoma National Guardsmen and citizens of surrounding communities converged on the area in hopes of finding survivors. As the nation anxiously watched, news reports shifted from severe weather coverage to rescues and how others could contribute through much-needed donations.
With entire neighborhoods having been being wiped out by the tornado’s wrath, hundreds of Oklahomans were finding themselves homeless, and with only the clothes on their backs. Many of the residents started sifting through piles of debris and rubble in hopes of finding any personal items not swept away by the tornado’s more than 200 mph winds. Some of the neighborhoods were unreachable other than by foot or were too dangerous to allow residents back into as first responders were faced with fires, natural gas leaks and unstable structures.
“It was a full 24 hours before I was able to get back home with the streets so littered with debris; you just couldn’t get through any other way than by foot,” Tucker said. “When I finally got back, I could hardly recognize my house. I was overwhelmed by the amount of damage.”
Some of Tucker’s fellow National Guardsmen went with him as he rummaged through a pile of debris that now stands where his house once was. With the support of his military family that includes his father, Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Kevin Tucker, public affairs sergeant for the 137th Air Refueling Wing, Brandon Tucker has begun the long process of cleaning and rebuilding.
“I was able to find a couple of pictures that could not be replaced with just money, and my pet has also safely made it through all of this with me,” Brandon Tucker said.
Oklahoma City has seen the effects of deadly tornados time and again in the past, and the resiliency of its citizens will help those who were most directly affected.
Like Brandon, the many people impacted have the support of the nation, the Oklahoma National Guard and the communities in which they live as they cope with loss and rebuild their lives.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel today urged service members, civilian employees and their families to enjoy the upcoming summer, but to do so safely.
In a message to all Defense Department activities, Hagel emphasized the need to make good decisions during a time of year that resulted in more than 80 percent of the department’s noncombat deaths in 2012.
Here is the text of the secretary’s message:
The summer months are often a high point of our year as we take a well-deserved vacation and spend time with family and friends. The summer allows for an opportunity to relax and refresh. However, many of the activities we pursue during our vacation time put us at risk for accidents that have potentially serious consequences.
As you drive to and from vacation destinations, remember that 81 percent of the non-combat fatalities in 2012 total took place over the summer. Last summer, 80 service members died in motor vehicle collisions; 27 in 4-wheel vehicles, 47 while riding motorcycles, 4 were pedestrians, and 2 were bicyclists. These fatalities occurred in spite of state laws and Department of Defense policies requiring the use of seatbelts while in a car and protective gear while riding motorcycles and bicycles.
An untold number of deaths resulted from fatigue -- deaths preventable by proper trip planning and fatigue management while driving. All military leaders must emphasize how important it is for everyone in our DOD community to follow these simple precautions while traveling on our nation's roads.
Some of you will enjoy water activities such as swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, or water skiing. Sadly, six service members died while participating in water-related activities last summer. It is important to follow swimming area rules and to be aware of the hidden dangers inherent in participating in water activities.
Alcohol is all too often a component in these tragic accidents. Recognize the risks and make good decisions. We all know that alcohol, even in small quantities, impairs our decision-making and is often a significant factor in many accidents. So before taking our first sip, we need to remember never to drink and drive. Plan ahead and always think before acting.
We all must do everything we can to be safer this summer. Each of us must do our part to keep everyone around us safe off-duty, as we do on-duty. Fundamental military lessons of working together, exercising leadership, focusing on the mission, and having the courage to say no to a risky situation are all essential to enjoying the summer and returning to your units.
I want to thank each of you for your service to this nation. You serve so that all Americans can be safe and free. I wish each of you a safe and enjoyable summer.
The Pentagon is committed to doing everything it can to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs to reduce the claims backlog, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a Senate panel today.
Speaking at a roundtable discussion held by the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Hagel told lawmakers that the department’s responsibility is to ensure that service members have quality health care throughout their military careers and that their transition into the care of the VA is seamless and efficient.
The defense secretary noted that he led the first effort to computerize veterans’ claims during his time as deputy administrator of the VA under then-President Ronald Reagan. He praised current Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki for improving access to VA health care for Vietnam and Gulf War veterans and for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“As a former VA leader, senator and veteran I have been involved in veterans’ issues for many years, and have some understanding and appreciation of the complications and difficulties of this backlog issue,” Hagel said.
“One difficulty,” he added, “is that the majority of the backlog numbers represents veterans who served prior to Iraq and Afghanistan; meaning that veterans’ records from as far back as World War II are many times not available, or easily accessible, or have been lost.”
To address and help fix this problem, DOD has initiated several actions, Hagel said.
-- In January, DOD sent a team of experts to work side by side with Veterans Benefits Administration personnel to analyze the disability claims backlog and assist VA in processing claims, Hagel said.
-- DOD is providing VBA personnel with the ability to log directly into its electronic medical records system, allowing VA to process claims more quickly than under the current system for transferring records.
-- Similarly, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service provides accounts for VBA claims processors to directly access an individual's financial and service information.
-- Although service members transitioning under the Integrated Disability Evaluation System are not counted under the current backlog, in order to speed up the processing of these claims, DOD provided 15 soldiers to the VA site in Seattle. These soldiers are assisting in administrative tasks, freeing up VA adjudicators to focus on evaluating IDES claims.
“Because a very large percentage of VA backlog claims are from veterans who served prior to Iraq and Afghanistan, DOD and VA are taking steps to ensure that those currently serving will not face a similar backlog in the future,” Hagel said.
Those actions include:
-- Certifying service treatment records so that claims processors know not to hold up processing to request additional records;
-- Holding data-sharing summits every six weeks to look for ways to improve DOD and VA practices;
-- Conducting separation health assessments to establish baseline medical conditions, which will speed future disability benefits claims; and
-- Improving the format of DOD service treatment records so that they are portable and can be quickly scanned by other users.
“While these efforts won't reduce the current backlog,” Hagel said, “they will ensure that future generations of transitioning service members won't experience these challenges.”
The centerpiece of the department’s effort is the integrated electronic health record program, the defense secretary said. He noted that the program is a priority for President Barack Obama, Shinseki and himself, as well as for Congress.
“As we work to modernize our electronic health record system, DOD remains committed to our shared goal of achieving full interoperability of health care records,” Hagel said. “This is a complex and expensive undertaking. It is critical that we get it right.”
The DOD faces a different situation in its modernization effort than does the VA, he said. Where the VA was able to modernize around its previously existing electronic health record system, DOD cannot, Hagel explained.
Yesterday, the defense secretary directed the department to begin a best-value competitive process to select commercial applications that DOD will use to modernize its legacy electronic health record system.
“This will be done using open standards and systems in a way that ensures complete data interoperability with VA,” Hagel said.
“As I've said, DOD has a responsibility to ensure that our active duty military receives the best medical care we can provide while they are in the service of our country,” the defense secretary said.
“And as I've said, we also have a responsibility to ensure that this same quality health care is carried through to the end of service members’ active duty careers when their status changes from active duty to veteran,” he added.
“Our service members and veterans, and their families, expect and deserve a seamless system to administer the benefits they have earned,” Hagel said. “Secretary Shinseki and I will continue to work closely together, in partnership with Congress, to deliver on that promise.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel hosted the Netherlands’ Minister of Defense Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert at the Pentagon today, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said.
Little said Hagel strongly emphasized the importance of the Netherlands as both a bilateral partner and North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, and on behalf of the Department of Defense, reemphasized the commitment of the U.S. to the strong United States-Netherlands defense partnership.
Hagel and Minister Hennis-Plasschaert discussed a range of issues, including the Joint Strike Fighter program, NATO’s role in post-2014 Afghanistan, and Syria, Little said.
On JSF, Hagel underscored U.S. commitment to the program and encouraged continued cooperation between the U.S. and the Netherlands in its development, Little said.
Hagel thanked Minister Hennis-Plasschaert for the Netherlands’ decision to support the NATO Patriot missile deployment to Turkey, Little said, and he stressed the need for continued international cooperation on the ongoing crisis in Syria.