Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Let me loosen up your collar . . .



Senator Bob Casey Representative Bart Stupak Representative Kathy Dahlkemper Representative Marcy Kaptur Representative Nick Rahall Representative Jerry Costello Representative Chris Carney Representative Steve Driehaus Representative Charlie Wilson Representative Jim Oberstar Representative Alan Mollohan Representative Brad Ellsworth Representative Henry Cuellar Representative Mike Doyle



Starting in the US where the Iraq War has not ended despite claims from some. Chris Durden (Kansas CW) reports that some members of the Kansas Army Reserve have learned they're deploying to Iraq and a send-off ceremony will take place this Saturday at two p.m. (3130 George Washington Blvd, Wichita, Kansas). Sending Reserves and Guards out of the US? The National Guard is supposed to protect the US, right? Bush threw that to the wind and Barack's continued to do so.

Which is a good time to shift into these comments from this morning.

Retired Master Sgt Michael Cline: The [National] Guard and Reserve are unique. A lot of the benefit programs that are in place for them -- even though they have improved over the last ten years are still relics of the Cold War. And as we rely more and more on the Guard and Reserve to be an operational force, we've already been told from fairly high ranking officers that the Guard's mission in Iraq is going to continue well into the future. We will become the peacemakers in Iraq. Not only that but we have the Sinai mission, Africa, Bosnia -- you name, we're there, along with the Afghan mission. And 90% of the air sovereignty of the United States is flown by Air National Guard pilots. And if we don't do something to retain these people and, as the economy gets better, we're going to start losing real good people. And then what's going to happen is recruiting and retention budgets are going to go up and then we're going to have to spend $100,000 per soldier, per air man to get them retrained. And so we have to find a balance. We have to bring the operational reserve force into the 21st century with pay and benefits. And when we -- when Congress gave the Reserve retirement program, they started it on January 28, 2008. You said from those people who served from 9-11 to that time, "Your service don't count." And yet you still want them to go. We have units right now in Minnesota that are on their fourth rotation to either Iraq, Afghanistan or Bosnia. And, you know, these people are being taken away from their civilian jobs, they're losing their 401Ks, putting stress on the families. Bankruptcy is becoming an important thing in the Guard and Reserve community. So things have to change. We realize it's stressing the budget but, you know, it's not uncommon to see the rules waived to provide things. We've seen it with the GI Bill. We've seen it with Tri-Care for life.

Cline informs that the Guard and Reserves will continue to shoulder the burden of Iraq -- guess Iraq really is a US colony now, that this screws with their own lives, their own families, their own financial security at present and when they retire. And he provides that to the House Armed Service's Military Personnel Subcommittee which is chaired by US House Rep Susan Davis. Joe Wilson is the Ranking Member. Chair Davis explained at the start of the hearing, "Today the subcommittee will focus on the legislative priorities of military associations and the implications of direct spending on the ability of the Congress to meet these priorities. It has been the tradition of this subcommittee to hear from the beneficiary and the advocacy organizations at the start of the legislative season so that the Subcommittee has a better understanding of the many issues of interest to service members and their families."

Cline was part of the first panel which also included The Retired Enlisted Association's Deidre Parke Holleman, Retired Col Steve Strobridge, CBO's Sarah Jennings and Retired Master Chief Petty Officer Joseph Barnes.

Since, as Davis noted, the point was to hear about the issues, we'll again go to Cline who was speaking of the disparities in pay.

Retired Master Sgt Michael Cline: Well I think it would go a long way in solving any future retention problems that we have. You know anytime that we have a deployment, we have soldiers that come home, air man that come home, sailors and marines that come home and their families have said, "I've had enough, you know, I'm tired of you being gone." The employers are starting to get riled up. These service members are looking at their civilian careers and they're saying, "Every time I'm deployed, I'm losing money out of my 401 K. I'm losing part of my future retirement. The start of January 28, 2008 for that retroactivity, that was a great start. Your idea of for every two years of service, you get a year early retirement --

Ranking Member Joe Wilson: [Every year] Over 20.

Retired Master Sgt Michael Cline: You know, we've been fighting, I've been doing this for 21 years and for 21 years we have been trying to get the H55 retirement. You know, every place you go -- in fact, I talked to a group of chief master sergeants yesterday, and that's the first thing out of their mouth -- the retroactively or the early retirement. "When are we going to see this?" And unfortunately the public doesn't understand mandatory spending and discretionary spending. When they see $750 billion given to banks and auto makers, or $3 billion in three weeks to clear carlots, a trillion dollars for health care -- they don't understand that it's a different pot of money. We do because we work it every day and try to explain it to our members. But they're the tax payers, they're the voter, they're sitting there saying, "Hey, I've done my service but you're not recognizing me. You know, I've rotated twice before Januay 28, 2008 and you're not recognizing my service." It's like you're sticking them in the side with an ice pick.

There were two panels that the Subcomittee heard from and the second panel was composed of Gold Star Wives Suzanne Stack and Margaret McCloud. Kat's grabbing some of Suzanne Stack's testimony (at her site tonight) so we'll go with Margaret McCloud for the snapshot.

Margaret McCloud: Good morning. I am Maggie McCloud, proud widow of Marine Lt Col Joseph Trane McCloud who was killed in Iraq over three years ago. Thank you very much, Madame Chairwoman, Congressman Wilson and members of the Committee for allowing us to speak to you today regarding our personal narrative regarding the elimitation of the offset which affects 54,000 military surviving spouses, 94% of whom are survivors of retirees who pay premiums [. . .] and 6% like me who are survivors of active duty deaths. My husband paid for it with his life, the retiree paid for it with premiums and now we are both being denied it. As Suzanee has said and I will echo, Congress has set precedents in removing offsets to military retired pay such as the penalty for military retirees working as federal civilians, concurrent receipt of disability compensation and retirement pay for severely disabled retirees and the Social Security offset to SBP at age 62. The president's budget restores full military retiree pay to all other disabled retirees and therein lies my confusion. Why can't we find the money to fund this offset, one that effects 54,000 military widows, if we are able to find the money to fund these other most worthy benefits? We are told over and over again, year after year that the issue is cost not the principle but the reality has been that finding the funding has not been a priority. Elimination of this widows' tax was included in the GI bill of Rights for the 21st Century. Congress acknowledged this inequity by creating the Special Survivor's Indemity Allowance. Additional money was found last year in the tobacco legislation. Small progress for which we are grateful but recognition of the injustice created by the off-set. In explaining it's opposition to removal of the off-set, OSD has stated an inequity would be created with one select group receiving two survivor annuities. There are already groups receiving two benefits, widows who remarry after age 57 and widows like me who forfeited their SBP annuity to their children to ensure adequate resources to raise our families now and surviving spouses of federal civilians. The vast majority of military retirees did not die of their service but rather they retired and went on to have second careers. My husband did not enjoy the opportunity to have a second career and help raise his children and the DIC should be added to, not subtracted from, his retirement annuity. As it should, the administration has shown its strong support for our military members and veterans for whom the fighting has ended. Well the fighting has ended for our loved ones as well. Whether they fought on the beaches of Normandy, in the jungles of Vietnam, the desert of Iraq or the countless other places where brave Americans have fought and died. But we their survivors are still struggling each day. And now I also have to answer such questions as "Mom does it hurt to drown?"; "Why couldn't the Marines save Daddy if they could save the others?"; and "Was I the last thing he thought of?" These are the questions the families of the fallen have to face while carrying on and holding our families together. In conclusion, my family continues to support our military service members in any way we can. You need only look at my living room in December when it was filled with Boy Scout popcorn to send to our troops or currently the hundreds of boxes of Girl Scout cookies that I have yet to mail. It is very important to me to show our support for our military members who willingly leave their families and lay their lives on the line every day to protect and defend our freedom. As a country, don't we have a responsiblity to support their survivors when they don't come home or when they die later from that service ? How can't our government find the money to fix this widows' tax? Thank you so very much.

SBP is Survivor Benefit Pay. We'll note that Suzanne Stack's husband, SGM Michael Stack, also died serving in Iraq.

Ranking Member Joe Wilson: The American people need to know what the widows' tax is. Ms. Stack, you did an extraordinary job explaining the net. That's horrifying to think that somebody would get a four dollar check, a fourteen dollar check -- that-that -- And so, we have a time constraint here but I really am interested if you could -- both of you -- explain again what the Survivor Benefit Plan is briefly and who administers it and what it's intent, and then the indemnity -- dependency and indemnity compenstation, who administers that and then, without being totally specific, you take a number, you subtract a number and then you come back. The American people need to know this.

Suzanne Stack: I'll start. Thank you so much. It's hard to begin. The SBP is a annuity, it's something that is purchased at retirement when a military person does retire and they make a choice to have a certain portion of their retirement income provided to their spouse if they should die. It also has now been opened up to active duty deaths which is where both Ms. McCloud and I will fall and we receive that same benefit. That is usually figures as a percentage. Our husbands would be considered 100% disabled at a thirty year mark. If they -- My husband entered the service earlier than 1980, so his retirement pay would be based on the last base pay that he had received. I think Ms. McCould's started after that period so hers would be based on the high three. And then there's an average. And you take 75% of that and then 55% of that is what the SBP is based on. I don't know if that's clear, but it's easier when you have a chalk board.

Ranking Member: Joe Wilson: No, no, no. But that's good. And then the offset?

Suzanne Stack: Well the DIC [Dependency and Indemnity Compensation] is from the -- the SBP comes from the DoD, the DIC comes from the VA.

Ranking Member Joe Wilson: The VA.

Suzanne Stack: And for the two of us, we are provided the DIC on a flat -- rate, flat rate, excuse me, I couldn't think of what it was. A flat rate amount. Again, prior to that, it would be rank based. And if you receive both of SBP and DIC then the SBP is off-set by the DIC. For some people, as you saw in my remarks, they receive nothing. There is a great number that receives absolutely nothing. And that tends to be the E6 and below -- widows and widowers, we do have some widowers. And that can be very, very difficult and very hard -- very much a hardship on their families. [To McCloud] Can you think of anything that I've left off?

Margaret McCloud: Well what I would like to add -- and I appreciate your comment about trying to get this story out -- first of all, to all the people from the first panel who spoke so strongly and elequently on our behalf this morning thank you so very much. The military coalition has been a wonderful advocate on our behalf for years now. But the fact remains that as far as who this off-set truly effects, it's 54,000 military widows -- largely elderly women scattered across the country and they keep telling me I'm a young woman, I'm a young widow -- I have to say I feel like I've aged in dog years the past three years -- but so you're asking elderly ladies throughout the country who are in frail health themselves. They gave up so much over the years during their spouses own military career, they followed them around, they gave up their opportunity frequently to work themselves and generate their own retirement income. Then their spouse became ill and they spent year after year after year caring for them at great physical cost to themselves. And then you have the "young widow" such as myself. I'm not a whiner but our plates are very full. We hold down jobs. We do the work of both parents. My husband was an operational officer -- Operations Officers for the Second Batallion, Third Marine Regiment out of Kaneohe Bay Hawaii and I would like to think he would be in awe of the operation plan that I have to have in effect every day to raise three children by myself, to get them to school, Scouts, church, after school requirements, band. For fun last week, I just had to do a wonderful father-daughter event with my five-year-old daughter because I didn't want her to be there alone. That's what we have to do. Our plates are very full. And then we're told Congress has agreed the benefit in principle this is wrong , it's simply a matter of funding and we need to get the word out. Well we're trying but it's very discouraging and hard to keep coming at this year after year after year and hear: "We support you in principal but we just can't find the money."

Ranking Member Joe Wilson: And something -- and my final point -- this effects a family like a thousand dollars a month.

McCloud: Yes.

Ranking Member: Joe Wilson: And so raising small children or people of age, hey, that's a lot of money. And it can be quality of life. So thank you very much for being here today.

Chair Susan Davis: Thank you both. I would say it's not just the dollar [. . .] -- it's not just the dollars, it's also the idea that you're fighting for and I think that we certainly acknowledge and recognize.

And Iraqis have, of course, suffered. A point David Corn raised in debating Michael Rubin on today's Talk of the Nation (NPR). No transcript or excerpt. Rubin's far too touchy and I'm not in the mood for "--" to note Corn being cut off or the other nonsense. Short version: Rubin tried to surf a wave of Operation Happy Talk and David Corn stayed factual. If they could provide Corn as a monologue, it would make for a nice listen but Rubin's too touchy and too eager to stretch the truth -- stretch to the point that it has runners throughout and finally breaks. Corn is with Mother Jones now. We will note one caller (whom even Rubin knew better than to attack):

I don't think we're better off because of the war. My son was killed in September 2007 in Iraq and the only ones I can see that've gained on this is like Exxon-Mobile and Shell who are now drilling for oil over there and it moved the price of oil from $20 a barrel to $147 during this war.

On the oil issue, Antonia Juhasz and Joseph Juhasz tackle it at Iraq Veterans Against the War. Last week, Aamer Madhani (USA Today) noted some of the scars Iraqis suffer from:

The soldiers said they had received tips that Senaa's husband and her sister's husband were insurgents against the government in Iraq. Senaa and her four children were hustled outside.
When they were let back in, they found her husband on the kitchen floor, his bloody body full of bullet holes. Senaa's brother-in-law was dead in the living room.
"I was sitting on the couch the other day, and all I could do was cry and wish that I was dead," says Abid, recalling her distress as her four young children played nearby.
"I know my psychological situation is fragile," she says. "I am always thinking about committing suicide, but there is a voice inside my head that tells me my responsibilities are too big to leave this world."

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