Archive for March, 2012

GITMO Update

Posted: March 31, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Some members of Congress are questioning the wisdom of the Pentagon's spending $744,000 on a soccer field to keep captives busy outside a $39 million penitentiary-style building at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "Seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars for crying out loud?" Rep. Gus Bilirakas (R-FL) said in a television interview. "Our deficit this year is $1.2 trillion and we're spending this kind of money on terrorists?" Prison camp commanders unveiled the 28,000-square-foot soccer field during a visit last week by reporters to cover a Pakistani man's guilty plea to war crimes. Commanders called it part of the cost of doing business at the remote outpost and keeping captives diverted at the detention center. The yard opens in April after contractors install latrines and goals. Bilirakas, in his third term representing some Tampa suburbs, led the charge of indignation over the expense, dashing off a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Rep. Dennis Ross (R-FL) went further, and introduced the "NO FIELD Act."It's short for None of Our Funds for the Interest, Exercise, or Leisure of Detainees Act, and would strip the Defense Department's 2013 budget by $750,000. "Gitmo should not be a place of comfort," said Ross, a freshman in Congress. "It should house the worst of the worst of the world's terrorists, not be a training ground for the World Cup." Rep Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) made a social media moment out of his dissatisfaction. He asked an apparently unaware Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about the expense at a hearing 29 FEB, than tweeted the Pentagon chief's ignorance. "Just asked Sec. Panetta if he knew about Gitmo Soccer Field. He said 'No,' " the former farmer from Fowler, Kan., reported on his Twitter page. He then posted the exchange on YouTube.
A military contractor, BRDC (Burns and Roe Dick Corp. Services), is building the new recreation yard outside Camp 6, a six-year-old, 200-cell prison where about 120 of the most cooperative of Guantanamo's 171 captives are kept. Camp 6 already has two smaller yards so troops call the new recreation yard the "Super Rec." Each cellblock is also equipped with large flat-screen televisions and exercise machines. Also, military psychological staff members teach an optional 90-minute weekly session called "Enriching Your Life" to help captives manage their indefinite stays. It's "based on acceptance and commitment therapy," said Air Force Maj. Michelle Coghill, a Guantanamo spokeswoman. Detainees engage in "experiential exercises" that include "mindfulness breathing meditations," storytelling and lectures to manage depression or anxiety and "flexibly handle unhelpful thinking and intense emotions while engaging in value-driven, life-enriching behaviors." The U.S. military also said, for the first time, that Guantanamo staff had given watches to "a very small number" of Camp 6 captives. Watches were taboo for years, although guards posted schedules for Islam's five-times daily prayers in prison recreation yards. In the earliest years of Guantanamo, the Pentagon presumed possession of a Casio wristwatch was a justification for indefinite detention as an "enemy combatant" because, the military said, a captured al-Qaida manual showed how to configure a Casio as a timer for an explosive device. "While we won't discuss specifics on makes, models or types," said Coghill, "we can say that these items have been assessed not to pose any force protection concerns."
The new soccer field is surrounded by guard towers and surveillance cameras and accessible by a secure walkway from the prison building, to reduce contact and conflict between captive and captor. Construction costs are high because all equipment and supplies are imported to the 45-square-mile base in southeast Cuba, said Rear Adm.  David B. Woods, who is in charge of the detention center. "That's probably the biggest misperception and lack of understanding of the expense of doing things down here," he said. "It's unlike any place else in the world mainly because we don't have the opportunity to capitalize on the local economy." The Obama administration calculates that it costs $800,000 a year to keep a prisoner at Guantanamo, compared with about $26,000 a year on U.S. soil. The base imports and consumes $100,000 of fuel a day to make its own electricity and water and does no business with the Cubans across the minefield. An economic embargo on the Castro government forbids Americans from doing business with Cuba. Soccer has long been popular since the Pentagon permitted sports in its evolving 10-year effort to conform to the Geneva Conventions and reduce tensions between captives and a rotating guard force and detention center staff of 1,850 troops, agents and government contractors.
Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), a former judge, ridiculed the new soccer field in a congressional floor speech on 1 MAR. "These radicals should be doing hard time, not soccer time," he said, conjuring up a future "terrorist soccer league." As an elected judge, Poe was known for his "Poetic Justice" punishments: Ordering released sex offenders to post warning signs on their homes and convicted murderers to post photos of their victims in their cells. "Our government has no business building this tropical Caribbean recreation facility for terrorists," Poe said. "What's next at this terrorist playground? A Tiki hut and bar on the beach?" Bilirakis visited the camps in January 2010 as part of a 14-member delegation, Guantanamo records show. In October 2010, he and Poe voted for legislation that prevented the Obama administration from using federal funds to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay to U.S. soil or to their home nations. Last year, Ross was co-sponsor of a bill to prohibit the use of funds to transfer Guantanamo and certain other enemy belligerents to the United States. That one never reached the Senate. [Source: Stars & Stripes Carol Rosenberg McClatchy Newspapers article 5 Mar 2012 ++]

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Mobilized Reserve

Posted: March 31, 2012 in Uncategorized
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The Department of Defense announced the current number of reservists on active duty as of 6 MAR 2012. The net collective result is 960 fewer reservists mobilized than last reported in the 1 MAR 2012 RAO Bulletin. At any given time, services may activate some units and individuals while deactivating others, making it possible for these figures to either increase or decrease. The total number currently on active duty from the Army National Guard and Army Reserve is 52,587; Navy Reserve 4,763; Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve 9,633; Marine Corps Reserve 4,834; and the Coast Guard Reserve 745. This brings the total National Guard and Reserve personnel who have been activated to 72,562 including both units and individual augmentees. A cumulative roster of all National Guard and Reserve personnel who are currently activated may be found online at http://www.defense.gov/news/d20120306ngr.pdf. Reservist s deactivated since 9/11 total 770,855. [Source: DoD News Release No. 160-12 dtd 7 at 2012 ++]

GITMO

Posted: March 30, 2012 in Uncategorized
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The military unveiled a new $744,000 soccer field on 28 FEB, a dusty enclosure with two-toned gravel and fences topped by barbed wire — all designed as a quality of life improvement for cooperative captives. The goals were missing but the military had erected two guard towers, lights and surveillance cameras at the site outside a penitentiary-style building called Camp 6 where the Pentagon imprisons about 120 of the 171 captives here. News photography was forbidden for security reasons, said Navy Cmdr. Tamsen Reese, prison camps spokeswoman, whose public relations team released Pentagon-approved photos of the 28,000-square-foot field later in the day.

The showcase soccer field — half the size of an American football field — is being built by Burns and Roe Services Corp., said a Pentagon spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale. It should open in April, as the third recreation yard at Guantánamo’s main prison camp complex, a year after construction began on what is currently the largest expansion under way at the decade-old detention center. The Obama administration estimates that it spends $800,000 a year per captive on basic operating costs for the detention center, whose staff numbers 1,850 government employees from contractors to guards. When it was suggested that the price tag was excessive, Reese replied that this base’s remote location at times doubles construction costs. It was also noted that the Pentagon estimates that it spends $800,000 a year per captive on basic operating costs for the detainee camp. The National Association of Uniformed Sources (NAUS) commenting on the expenditures in light of the proposed increases in medical cost to military retirees has expressed their concern on whether or not the people/terrorists in Guantanamo are prisoners. If it was determined that the field was absolutely necessary, why should American taxpayers charged for an American construction company to be flown there along with all their equipment and supplies? Why couldn’t the prisoners be provided the hand tools to build their own field? In addition, NAUS finds it curious that the expenditure is listed at $744,000, which coincidently falls below the $750,000 threshold needed for congressional approval on Guantanamo projects. [Source: Miami Herald Carl Rosenberg article 28 Feb 2012 ++]

It will soon be the last curtain call for some stateside U.S. Air Force bands. The Air Force announced 6 MAR that it will eliminate three of its bands and downsize two more as part of broader force structure measures designed to meet current budget constraints. The band reductions will eliminate 103 positions, the Air Force said. The bands will maintain current operations until about June 2013, when the staffing changes will begin. Personnel affected by the moves will be reassigned to other Air Force regional bands, with openings expected as a result of normal attrition, the Air Force said. The bands planned for deactivation are the USAF Band of Liberty at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., The Band of the Air Force Reserve at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., and the Band of the Pacific-Alaska, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, according to an Air Force news release. The two bands to be reduced by more than half their current members are the Band of Flight at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and The Heartland of America Band, at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., the Air Force release states.  The Air Force’s bands in the Pacific and Europe theaters appear to be safe from the current round of cuts. A U.S. Air Forces in Europe spokesman said Wednesday that the 45-member USAFE Band was not being trimmed. The Air Force appears to be the first service to announce cuts to its bands program. But the Army, which lists 34 active-duty bands from Texas to Belgium on its website, could soon follow suit. “The Army is currently considering a Force Design Update for bands that best allocates personnel according to the Army’s requirements and gains efficiencies,” said Paul Prince, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, in an email to Stars and Stripes on 7 MAR. “If any reductions are required among the Army’s total number of band personnel, this decision will be made in a careful and deliberate manner to preserve force readiness.”
Once thought untouchable, spending on the military’s 154 bands came under scrutiny by some in Congress last year who argued the Pentagon couldn’t afford to keep spending millions of dollars on military bands in the current austere budget environment. An attempt by some House members to reduce the Pentagon’s band funding by $120 million failed. Though he never formally proposed reducing spending on bands, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates brought attention to the issue when he observed that more money was spent on military band members than on State Department diplomats. The military says its bands serve as both a recruiting and public relations tool, inspiring patriotism and promoting the military mission both at home and abroad. The Air Force has 12 active-duty and 11 Air National Guard bands, according to the service’s bands program website. The Air Force in 2013 will reduce its overall end strength by 3,900 active-duty, 5,100 Air National Guard and 900 Air Force Reserve members. [Source: Star & Stripes Jennifer H. Svan article 7 Mar 2012 ++]

VA Budget 2013

Posted: March 29, 2012 in Uncategorized
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On 29 FEB the Senate’s Committee on Veterans Affairs (SVAC) held its first hearing on the FY2013 proposed budget and the FY2014 Advanced funding budget. It was an extremely well attended hearing by the Senators of the Committee. Along with Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) and Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC), Senators Akaka (D-HI), Isakson (R-), Brown (D-OH), Brown (R-MA), Tester (D-MT), Boozman (R-AR), Begich (D-AK),Johanns (R-NE), Moran (R-KS), and Isakson (R-GA). And most of them stayed! This is dramatic. They all were probably happy to be in a hearing where there is a proposed increase in the budget; rather than a dramatic cut. (4.5% increase in discretionary funding.) For approximately 2 hours Secretary Shinkeki and his Under Secretaries of Health, Benefits, Memorial Affairs, the Assistant Secretary for IT and Chief Financial Officer answered questions about the VA operations and needs.
It was very interesting to learn that 67% of Iraq Afghanistan veterans have enrolled in the VA and that the VA is estimating that 600,000 more veterans will enroll in the VA in the next 5 years. That is a huge increase in needed services and claims. When asked how they were going to control the 1 million+ backlog in claims decisions with this dramatic increase in enrollees, they said (yet again,) that IT improvements will improve the situation. It is hoped that now that the VA has dramatically increased the number of claims adjusters to handle the cases they will provide the continuing training to their employees so that the initial decisions will be correct and consistent across the country. The Committee was also concerned about the proposed cuts in major construction and non-recurring maintenance, the availability of mental health care to veterans (especially in rural areas), the continued inefficiency of the VA’s information hotline and, of course what can be done to increase employment for veterans. [Source: TREA News for the Enlisted 2 Mar 2012 ++]

VA COLA 2013

Posted: March 29, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Current law requires automatic adjustments to Social Security and military retired pay based on a formula (CPI) that measures the rate of inflation. However, Veterans benefits like VA disability and Dependency and Indemnity Compensation still require legislation to authorize a similar increase. Typically the rate authorized is the same as Social Security. In recent years, increases for Social Security and federal retired pay are known for some time before Congress acts to raise VA payments. Last year, Social Security announced it’s COLA on October 19 but Congress didn’t agree to legislation authorizing a similar increase for VA recipients until November 2. On March 5, Representative Jon Runyan (R-NJ) introduced H.R.4142, the American Heroes COLA Act to make VA’s cost-of-living adjustments automatic like Social Security and military retired pay. This bill has been referred to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs and its passage would eliminate the period of uncertainty between the announcement of the Social Security COLA and action by Congress to raise VA’s rates. [Source: AFSA On Call article 8 Mar 2012 ++]

PTSD Update

Posted: March 28, 2012 in Uncategorized
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There seems to be growing evidence supporting a suspicion that The Retired Enlisted Association (TREA) and some other veteran service organizations (VSOs) have been holding- that DoD has been using the diagnosis of a “personality disorder” to deny a member of the military benefits. “Personality disorder” is a preexisting condition according to the Pentagon. Members of the military discharged with this finding are not entitled to retirement or disability benefits. Since 2001 over 31,000 service members have been discharged due to “personality disorder.” The disorder results in inflexible badly adaptive behavior that may “impair performance and relationships.” Many organizations believe that the Pentagon has been using this diagnosis to get rid of those they think are troublemakers or to save money instead of diagnosing PTSD.
Recently an Army ombudsman wrote that a doctor at Madigan Army Hospital said that a PTSD diagnosis cost the government $1.5 million and that his colleagues should be good stewards of tax money. After this report came out 14 service members who had their PTSD diagnosis reversed were examined again- this time at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Six were reinstated. Then on 28 FEB while testifying before the Senate Budget Committee Secretary of Defense was asked about the Madigan controversy by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). The Secretary responded:” I was very concerned when I got the report about what happened at Madigan. I think it reflects the fact that frankly we have not learned how to effectively deal with that, and we have to. We need to make sure we have the psychiatrists, the psychologists, and the medical people who can make these evaluations because these are real problems" [Source: TREA News for the Enlisted 2 Mar 2012 ++]

 

Tacoma-area Army psychiatrists who made the final determination on soldiers’ post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses at Madigan Army Medical Center had a stellar national reputation until they fell under scrutiny this year. They once identified false claims made by a soldier who lied about killing an innocent Iraqi girl in a ploy to gain a PTSD diagnosis, according to internal memos obtained by The News Tribune. It turned out the soldier had never deployed. They also were known to diagnose PTSD in soldiers who had been given clean bills of health from other clinicians – the opposite of what the forensic psychiatry team members are accused of doing now. “Quite frankly, they have an extensive track record for effectively diagnosing PTSD in hundreds if not thousands of active-duty military and Reserve personnel over the past several years without issue, and their success is unparalleled,” former Madigan commander retired Col. Jerome Penner told reporters. He led the hospital until March 2011.
In at least three separate investigations. The Army and elected leaders want to know whether the team adjusted behavioral health diagnoses for the right reasons, or whether it shortchanged service members who should get full PTSD benefits. Forensic psychiatrists at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Maryland have overturned six Madigan diagnoses from last year, and the Army has invited more soldiers to come forward and seek new opinions. Washington Democrats Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks want to know if the Madigan doctors limited PTSD diagnoses in a misguided effort to save money. Their fears are rooted in fall presentations by Madigan’s Dr. William Keppler in which he urged colleagues to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Keppler told them a single PTSD diagnosis could cost as much as $1.5 million over time. Careers are on the line. Madigan commander Col. Dallas Homas is on administrative leave. Keppler is barred from working with patients. Another forensic psychiatrist resigned, citing her concern that “all the investigations are a charade as the outcome has been predetermined.” I find that I can no longer work in a system that requires me to sacrifice my professional and moral principles to political expediency,” Dr. Juliana Ellis-Billingsley wrote 23 FEB.
Since the inquiries began, the Army has invited every soldier whose behavioral health diagnosis was changed at Madigan to get another review of their cases at Walter Reed. Madigan last year identified 17 soldiers who disagreed with their final diagnoses, according to multiple sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. They were invited in January to have their cases reviewed. Six had their PTSD diagnoses reinstated. Three opted not to take the Walter Reed review and eight had the Madigan results upheld. A Madigan source speaking on condition of anonymity because of the pending investigation said the forensic psychiatrists diagnosed 44 cases of PTSD among soldiers whose records initially indicated they were healthy during the same period in 2011 from which the 17 contested cases were pulled. Behavioral health diagnoses are important to former service members not only for their understanding of how they can seek treatment for war-related trauma, but also because they determine the level of disability benefits soldiers will receive for the rest of their lives. A PTSD diagnosis ensures soldiers will receive a lifetime disability rating of at least 50 percent. A veteran with no children rated as 50 percent disabled because of PTSD would receive about $800 a month, while a veteran with no children and a diagnosis of 100 percent disabled by PTSD would receive $3,000 a month, according to Department of Veterans Affairs benefit scales.
The Rand Corp. in 2008 estimated that about 20 percent of combat veterans would show signs of post-traumatic stress or major depression. About one in seven Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have sought treatment for PTSD at VA hospitals. Sen. Murray in an interview said she has discussed with Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho whether the military could be diagnosing PTSD improperly. Murray is the chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and her views are shaped by experiences caring for Vietnam veterans at the Seattle VA. She has pressed for answers at Madigan, and last week she learned from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the Pentagon would conduct a broader review of how the military diagnoses PTSD. “I think it’s important to err on the side of the diagnosis that gives them the treatment they need,” Murray said. The Army has not yet said how many soldiers who passed through Madigan are challenging their diagnoses. Madigan in 2010 diagnosed 1,418 patients with PTSD, acute stress disorder and anxiety disorder – three common behavioral-health conditions that can be related to combat. Of the three, only PTSD is singled out for a guaranteed disability rating and accompanying pension. Over the past two years, the hospital diagnosed 1,699 soldiers with PTSD. So far, the public has been supportive of growing programs for PTSD and combat trauma. In January, the GAO reported the Defense Department spent $2.7 billion on PTSD and traumatic brain injury programs between 2007 and 2010. The report said the Pentagon had not explained clearly if these programs were successful or redundant.
The reviews at Walter Reed are done with service members face-to-face. It’s not clear if Madigan’s forensic psychiatrists always met soldiers in personal interviews. Horoho told a House subcommittee that the Madigan team sometimes made decisions “administratively” based on case files. Madigan sources said those cases were rare and tended to happen when clinicians from the Department of Veterans Affairs reached different conclusions from active-duty Army doctors. That can happen because retiring soldiers might begin the process of registering for VA benefits before they leave the service. Some Madigan doctors apparently were skeptical of the VA diagnoses, which were sometimes conducted by private contractors with less experience working with the military, according to one memo. In some cases, Madigan psychiatrists found candidates for medical retirements who lied about deployments or who posted information on social media web sites that contradicted what they told clinicians. Madigan forensic psychiatrists were expected to carry out personality tests to determine whether a patient was misleading a clinician. They were to interview patients and ensure that commanders had verified the soldier’s deployment history, according to a summaries of their standards.
One test used by the Madigan doctors was the Minnesota Personality Inventory, which helps psychologists assess whether someone is exaggerating or downplaying symptoms. In the civilian world, the test is often used in civil court cases in which plaintiffs seek financial damages for traumatic events. It’s used to a varying extent by the military and by the VA in assessing a service member’s disability. Forensic psychologist Steve Rubenzer in 2006 published a study in which he wrote that front-line clinicians often do not suspect that their patients have financial motives for seeking PTSD diagnoses. His study on malingering in personal injury cases was cited by Madigan doctors in memos they wrote to commanders after the Army surgeon general launched the latest investigations. “Clinicians may not know that a patient has (motivation to mislead a psychiatrist for financial gain), often do not suspect the possibility of malingering, and typically lack the training or tools to assess malingering even if they suspect it. Not surprisingly, they rarely find it.” Rubenzer wrote six years ago in a passage cited by a Madigan doctor.
Rubenzer said that common notions of PTSD have changed since the Vietnam War; many civilians expect most soldiers will be debilitated in combat, and that those experiences would prevent them from holding down steady work outside of the military. “Those are two huge leaps,” he said. Memos obtained by The News Tribune showed Madigan doctors were bristling at suggestions that they slanted their diagnoses to cut costs. “There has been no pressure by command to limit disability awards to soldiers, just a desire on the part of Madigan psychiatrists and psychologists to produce the most accurate description of soldiers current medical condition,” Madigan medical retirement board physician Dr. Paul Whittaker wrote in a Feb. 16 memo to commanders. Another doctor who once supervised Madigan’s psychiatry department felt his peers were being pilloried for doing the jobs they were asked to do by their commanders. “My perception is that they are getting punished in the media at a minimum for doing their best in making the right diagnosis,” former Madigan Chief of Psychiatry Col. Kris Peterson wrote Feb. 6. “It is dismaying.” [Source: The Olympian Adam Ashton | Posted 3 Mar 2012 ++]