1. Senate wants report on Tricare Prime cuts
Amid concerns about the looming elimination of Tricare Prime in some areas, the Senate voted Thursday to require the Pentagon to report on the future availability of affordable managed care for Tricare beneficiaries throughout the U.S.
By voice vote and with no debate, the Senate approved an amendment to the 2013 defense authorization bill asking for a report early next year identifying how many people could be forced into the more expensive Tricare Standard fee-for-service health program, the locations of those affected by the potential loss of Prime and what is being done to ease the transition.
Offered by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., the amendment is a response to Defense Department plans to eliminate Tricare Prime in several areas, beginning April 1 in Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon and the Reno, Nev., and Springfield, Mo., areas.
The changes appear to be the result of newly awarded Tricare contracts for managed care that exclude some areas from Prime.
For the estimated 30,000 people who might be affected beginning April 1, the difference between Tricare Prime and Tricare Standard can be significant because out-of-pocket costs under Standard are higher.
Active-duty families have no co-pays under Prime but would be responsible for 20 percent of outpatient care costs under Standard. For military retirees and their families, Prime has an outpatient co-pay of $12 and an annual enrollment fee of $269.26 for individuals and $538.56 for families. Tricare Standard has no enrollment fee but has a 25 percent co-pay for retirees and their families.
The Heller amendment doesn't prevent DoD from changing Prime coverage areas, but it asks for more details that could provide lawmakers ammunition to block or reverse the change.
For example, the amendment asks DoD to estimate how much more beneficiaries would have to pay, how much money defense officials expect to save and the exact locations that would be affected.
Details on estimated DoD savings and beneficiary costs also would give opponents of the plan an idea of how much money they would need to reverse course.
The House version of the defense bill has no similar provision, mainly because the House completed work on its bill in May, before the Defense Department's plans to eliminate Tricare Prime in some areas were known.
2. Female troops sue to serve in combat
Four female service members filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the Pentagon's ban on women serving in combat, hoping the move will add pressure to drop the policy just as officials are gauging the effect that lifting the prohibition will have on morale.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco, is the second one this year over the 1994 rule that bars women from being assigned to ground combat units, which are smaller and considered more dangerous since they are often in battle for longer periods.
The legal effort comes less than a year after the ban on gays serving openly was lifted and as officials are surveying Marines about whether women would be a distraction in ground combat units.
"I'm trying to get rid of the ban with a sharp poke," said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, who was among the plaintiffs in the latest lawsuit and was injured in 2007 when her Humvee ran over an improvised explosive device in Iraq.
Hunt and the other three women said the policy unfairly blocks them from promotions and other advancements open to men in combat. Three of the women are in the reserves. A fourth, Marine Corp Lt. Colleen Farrell, leaves active duty this week.
Women comprise 14 percent of the 1.4 million active military personnel. The lawsuit alleges that women are barred from 238,000 positions across the Armed Forces.
At a Washington, D.C., news conference, Pentagon press secretary George Little said the Defense Department was making strides in allowing more women to experience combat. He said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has opened about 14,500 combat positions to women.
"And he has directed the services to explore the possibility of opening additional roles for women in the military," Little said. "His record is very strong on this issue."
American Civil Liberties Union Ariela Migdal, who represents the four women, said Panetta's actions weren't enough. She called for an end to the combat ban. "These tweaks and minor changes on the margins do a disservice to all the women who serve," she said.
3. Senate backs quicker Afghanistan withdrawal
Reflecting a war-weary nation, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday for an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after more than a decade of fighting.
The strong bipartisan vote of 62-33 sends a clear message to President Obama and the military as they engage in high-stakes talks about the pace of drawing down the 68,000 U.S. troops, with a White House announcement expected within weeks.
Although the vote was on a nonbinding amendment to a defense policy bill, its significance could not be discounted amid the current discussions. Thirteen Republicans, including Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top GOP lawmaker on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, backed the measure.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., its chief sponsor, argued that al-Qaida is stronger in other parts of the world and that nation-building in Afghanistan has gone off track. His measure endorsed Obama's timetable to withdraw all combat troops by the end of 2014 but pressed for a quicker pace, without specifying how that would be achieved.
"It is time to end this war, end the longest war in United States history," Merkley said during Senate debate.
1. U.S. and Chinese militaries hold exercise to build trust
The U.S. and Chinese militaries on Friday wrapped up a modest disaster-relief exercise hailed as a tentative trust-building step amid growing suspicions between the Asia-Pacific region's largest armed forces.
While not a full-fledged operation, the two-day exercise at People's Liberation Army barracks outside the city of Chengdu consisted of U.S. and Chinese officers sitting around a table facing a flat-panel video screen and discussing how they would respond to an earthquake in a fictional third country.
Though this was the eighth meeting to discuss disaster relief, it was the first time both sides discussed a joint response to a simulated disaster. The leading officers called that a step forward in building familiarity and trust.
U.S. Major General Stephen Lyons said the exercise began the groundwork for the day when the two militaries will operate side-by-side in an actual humanitarian operation.
"I think it's very conceivable. If there is a country out there, and there inevitably there will be, that will have a natural disaster, and they call for international help, if U.S. forces and Chinese forces respond, then indeed we'll find ourselves working together in the field," Lyons said in comments to reporters.
While Washington and Beijing have talked about boosting military cooperation for more than a decade, distrust runs high and disagreements over Taiwan, North Korea and China's assertive claims to disputed territories in the East and South China seas remain potential flashpoints. China's robust military buildup and Washington's decision to redeploy more weaponry and troops to the Asia-Pacific region have added to the tensions.
The modest scope of the table-top simulation underscores the underlying hesitation and distrust on both sides, particularly in Beijing, which tends to view military exchanges as a form of diplomatic leverage to be severed at times of tension.
This year's exchange comes as China has been flexing its military muscle and raising regional tensions. Last week China staged the first successful landing of planes on its newly commissioned aircraft carrier, a sign of its rapid progress toward deploying the ultimate symbol of naval power and a potent tool for projecting military force far from its shores.
Aware of the potential for conflict between the militaries, both sides have in recent years tried to find ways to cooperate. Their armed forces have conducted joint anti-piracy drills in the Gulf of Aden. U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in Beijing this week renewed an invitation for China to take part in large U.S.-led multinational naval exercises next year, though China has not said if it would participate.
2. Lawmakers unveil new round of Iran sanctions
Senators pressed ahead Thursday on a new set of tough sanctions against Iran's domestic industries as they seek to cripple the Islamic republic's economy and thwart its nuclear ambitions.
Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., unveiled a package of penalties that would designate Iran's energy, port, shipping and ship-building sectors as entities of proliferation and sanction transactions with these areas. The legislation also would penalize individuals selling or supplying commodities such as graphite, aluminum and steel to Iran.
The punitive measures build on the sanctions on Tehran's oil industry that the two lawmakers have shepherded through Congress in the past year.
The sanctions are contained in an amendment the two lawmakers hope to add to a far-reaching defense policy bill that the Senate was debating and could wrap up by week's end. Congress has overwhelmingly backed previous efforts by Menendez and Kirk.
The legislation also would designate the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and its president as human rights abusers for broadcasting forced televised confessions and show trials.
The United States and European Union have imposed tough sanctions on Iran that have weakened its economy. But Tehran has found ways to bypass the penalties, such as Turkey's use of gold to pay for Iranian natural gas imports. The Menendez-Kirk measure would allow the president to impose sanctions in cases of the sale or transfer of precious metals, targeting efforts by Iran to circumvent the penalties.
Mark Dubowitz, a sanctions expert and executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said there is strong bipartisan support for intense sanctions, with the goal of pushing the Iranian economy to the brink of economic collapse.
The president has 90 days from the legislation's enactment to act. The bill does include the authority to waive the sanctions based on national security.
3. POW/MIA Update
• AIRMEN KIA FROM VIETNAM WAR IDENTIFIED
On October 23, 2012 the remains of a U.S. serviceman, killed in action from the Vietnam War, were identified and returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
Air Force Airman 1st Class Jerry M. Wall, 24, of Jacksonville, Texas, will be buried Oct. 26, in San Antonio. On May 18, 1966, Wall and four other crew members were aboard a C-123B Provider aircraft that crashed while carrying out a nighttime flare-drop mission over Binh Dinh, South Vietnam. Nearby U.S. ground troops reported seeing Wall's aircraft hit by enemy ground fire and crash. Heavy enemy presence in the area prevented immediate search and rescue efforts. Later that day the remains of three of the five crew members were recovered.
From 2007 to 2012, joint U.S./Socialist Republic of Vietnam (S.R.V.) teams conducted interviews and excavations of the crash site in Binh Dinh Province. Department of Defense casualty and life support experts identified the location as Wall's possible loss site. The teams excavated the site and found human remains, military equipment, a military identification tag bearing Wall's information, and aircraft wreckage of a C-123.
In the identification of the remains, scientists from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) used circumstantial evidence and forensic identification tools, such as radiograph, dental records and mitochondrial DNA–which matched Wall's mother.
• AIRMAN MISSING FROM WWII TO BE HONORED
On October 24, 2012 the remains of a U.S. serviceman, who went missing in November 1946, were returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
Army Air Forces Tech. Sgt. William S. Cassell, of Mt. Airy, N.C., will be buried on Oct. 28, in Amelia, Va. On Nov. 1, 1946, Cassell and seven other crew members were aboard a B-17G Flying Fortress that went missing after departing from Naples, Italy, bound for Bovington, England. During the months following the loss, search and rescue attempts proved unsuccessful and the remains of the crewmen were declared non-recoverable.
In 1947, a French military unit operating in the French-Italian Alps, near Estellette Glacier, found the wreckage of a U.S. aircraft at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet. The French team recovered human remains from the site which were turned over to U.S. officials. They also reported that much of the ice-covered wreckage would likely not emerge for 30 years, after the glacier descended the slope. Due to the technology limitations of the time, the remains could not be attributed to individuals and were interred as a group, representing the B-17G crew, at Arlington National Cemetery.
From 1983 to 1999, as the glacier descended, additional remains and personal effects were recovered and turned over to U.S. officials.
In 2010, due to advances in technology, scientists from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) reevaluated the evidence and used mitochondrial DNA— which matched that of Cassell's mother— in the identification of his remains.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died. Today, more than 73,000 remain unaccounted for from the conflict.
Military Review Boards
This week, our Military Review Boards staff assisted 27 former service members with new, upcoming and pending petitions prepare their case for review by the Military Discharge Review Boards and Boards for Correction of Military Records. Case development included: 25 phone calls, 23 emails, 5 correspondences, 3 service officer inquiries and hearing review.
One of our success stories for this week was a former Marine Corps Sergeant, now 38 years of age, separated General (Under Honorable Conditions) in November 1996 following 4 years and 11 months of total active duty service due to misconduct.
The Applicant contended that it was inequitable for him to continue to suffer the effects of a General (Under Honorable Conditions) discharge, and he requested that his post-service conduct be considered when determining whether to upgrade his discharge.
After considering the facts and circumstances unique to this case, the Navy Discharge Review Board (NDRB) concluded that his post-service conduct demonstrated his in-service misconduct, which was clearly an isolated incident, was an aberration and not indicative of his overall character.
The NDRB voted unanimously to change the Character of Service to Honorable and the Narrative Reason for Separation to Secretarial Authority for full relief.
Director, National Security / Foreign Relations Division