March 1, 2023

Headlines Mislead on Troop Strength Cuts

Defense hawks and political opportunists are sure to decry the Pentagon’s recent announcement that it aims to reduce the Army’s troop strength to the lowest levels since before World War II. However, a closer examination of the Defense Department’s intentions yield different conclusions than those proclaimed across headlines today, some more accurate than others.

Pundits are already framing this expected drawdown as a strategic and moral retreat. But even a cursory look at the actual numbers shows that more caution must be taken when describing the Pentagon’s plans in this way. Yes, the expected numbers are the lowest in 74 years, but our post-Afghanistan numbers would still be roughly double our pre-WW2 numbers according to the Pentagon’s plan. In fact, the difference between our current levels and the proposed levels, a difference of 72-82,000, would be significantly less than the difference between our pre-WW2 numbers and the proposed numbers, a difference of 173-183,000.

Where many reporters, editors, and bloggers are making their mistake is in their assumption that a drawdown to the lowest numbers since the pre-WW2 numbers equates to a drawdown to the pre-WW2 level, and that’s simply not true. In 1940 the Army’s troops levels stood at 267,000. The following year that number shot up to over 1 million and nearly quintupled by the end of the war before coming back down again, although it never dropped below 480,000 thereafter. But even in the Pentagon’s proposed new troop strength level for the Army, the numbers are still nearly double the pre-WW2 level.

So which outlets botched their rapid-response interpretation of the Pentagon’s troop strength plans in their headlines and articles? CNN’s blog got it wrong in both, while Fox News, NBC News, and Time’s blog got wrong in the headline but self-corrected in the article text. The Hill had a headline focusing on the impact of the Pentagon budget on benefits, but incorrectly characterized the troop strength reduction further down in the body of the article.

And which outlets got it right? Politico nailed it, as did the Washington Post and the Associated Press, which takes the prize for the best context on the numbers, given that it was the only major piece I could find that simultaneously disclosed what the actual pre-WW2 numbers were for comparison.

While the erring journos should get a pass on intent here (they surely did not mean to mischaracterize the numbers, but likely just failed to understand the to/since distinction), expect to see others in the pundit class jumping all over these inaccurate headlines to score points against the White House.

The media, like academics, are under intense pressure to publish or perish, although at a much more insanely rapid pace. There’s often little time to dig into data, analyze announcements, research background, and develop context before the headlines and stories must be generated and posted. So by the time that level of thought and context can be put into analyzing the important events we cover, the dizzying partisan spin of the insta-posts has become fact in the minds of most of America.

Use and Abuse in Washington

Troops, veterans, and military families are used to being roughed up - by deployments, frequent moves, visible and invisible injuries, combat deaths, and so on. They’ve been at war for more than a decade while the civil-military divide has grown wider. But the continued use and abuse of the military and veteran community by politicians in Washington is an indignity that needs to end.

As Washington convenes for the State of the Union on Tuesday night, there is a fresh example of political abuse of career service members and veteran retirees: the budget agreement that overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate in December. It attempts to balance the budget on the backs of those who have already sacrificed the most, and it sends a message to those currently serving and who have served that the promises made to them and their families when they volunteered to serve are retroactively renegotiable..

Immediately after the text of the budget agreement was published, military and veteran advocates realized that retiree benefits were being defaulted upon as part of the agreement. Many members of Congress rushed to denounce the unexpected cuts and vowed to fix the “unfortunate error.” However, only a handful of lawmakers began publicly advocating for fixing the mistake in the budget bill before it was signed into law.

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, Roger Wicker, of Mississippi, and Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, held at least two press conferences alongside representatives of nearly all major military and veterans organizations to draw attention to the military benefits cuts and demand an immediate fix. However, few other lawmakers were willing to delay passage of the budget bill in order to make the fix.

House and Senate negotiators made a partial fix last week by reversing the cuts for disabled veterans before the final bill was passed, but they refused to go further and reverse the cuts for all military retirees. Clearly there was an opportunity available to do so, just not the will - at least among budget negotiators.

However, dozens of senators and scores of House members have vowed to support full repeal of the cuts. Some lawmakers want replacement cuts identified if the military benefits cuts are to be reversed, while others are willing to reverse the cuts even without alternative spending reductions. At least 22 bills or amendments have been introduced to restore the slashed benefits, with few lawmakers and congressional staff aware of the proliferation of similar, duplicative, and even competing efforts among their colleagues.

Veteran and service member advocacy groups are largely indifferent as to how the cuts to their members’ retirement benefits are repealed as long as the repeal happens quickly.

But the failure of supportive lawmakers to coalesce around a universal solution - such as restore cuts with or without a “pay-for,” and if “with” then from where the alternative spending cuts should come - is prolonging the process. It is also prolonging the agony that troops, veterans, and their families are experiencing while this political battle drags on in Washington.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has suggested that time is not of the essence in fixing this error because the cuts will not even take effect for two more years, so Congress can address the issue later in the year or even next year. But this stance completely ignores the human element of these types of Washington political dramas - the toll they take on service members and veterans.

The spouse of one friend who is an Army lieutenant colonel stationed in North Carolina wrote about the retirement benefits cuts, “There goes my child’s college fund,” referring to the more than $100,000 their family stands to lose during the course of her upcoming retirement.

The anxiety that veterans are already experiencing over this policy change is also evident in the voices of those who call into the offices of veteran organizations and congressional offices to express outrage and ask what is being done. And it will likely also manifest in upcoming local town hall events that members of Congress hold in their states and districts over their frequent vacation periods.

As the Senate Armed Services Committee holds a critical issue on this hearing Tuesday and as the president delivers his State of the Union - where he will no doubt thank the troops - lawmakers need to focus on agreeing upon a simple bipartisan solution to its grand budget mistake and fast-tracking that solution onto the floor of each chamber.

This is how politicians can demonstrate that they are truly “for the troops” or “support veterans,” instead of just continuing to use and abuse them for political purposes.

This article first appeared in Defense One on January 27, 2023 as ‘Budget Cuts Are Sending the Wrong Message to Veterans.’

Authorizations, Appropriations, and Abdications… Oh My!

Congress is at risk of failing America’s veterans. With single-digit days left in the year’s congressional calendar, several important pieces of legislation to the veteran community remain on the floor of each chamber awaiting a final vote. House and Senate leaders must summon a sense of non-partisan duty and prioritize veterans’ policy needs before adjourning for the year and going home.

Back in 2009, the veteran community wisely fought for, and won, advance funding for the portion of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ annual budget that covers the VA health care system. This bold move was widely considered a smart insurance policy to protect care and services for veterans during years in which Congress fails to meet its budget deadlines. This year, veterans organizations and a strong bipartisan coalition of lawmakers have emphasized the immediate need to pass the Putting Veterans Funding First Act in order to fund the remaining fourteen percent of the VA’s budget in advance.

Although support for advance appropriations for the entire VA gained momentum long before the most recent government shutdown, that event’s negative impact on the department and on veterans drove home the need to get this new legislation enacted immediately. During the shutdown, veterans disability claims processing was significantly slowed, help desks were unavailable and VA service centers around the country were shuttered, even as VA medical offices continued to operate smoothly.

Perhaps more disturbingly, veterans around the country both young and old began to wonder if their next disability, pension or education benefits payments would actually get paid out on time. Fortunately, the shutdown ended before the VA may have had to default on paying out the compensation and benefits checks on which millions of veterans rely every month, but the threat and realistic possibility alone were enough to cause intense anxiety and unnecessary stress on veterans and their families.

The administration and the VA had remained quiet prior to the shutdown on the new bills making their way through Congress that would advancing the VA budget in full, even though they have long publicly lauded and appreciated the advance appropriations that the VA’s health care system receives. But after the shutdown, a VA spokesperson unexpectedly announced that the department’s position was now that its full budget should not be advance funded because veterans and the VA would be best served if Congress funded the entire federal budget on time every year.

While certainly correct, this position is also naive and idealistic. The reality is that the added budgetary buffer will help insulate the VA and the veterans it serves from having to rely on Congress to always agree on a comprehensive federal budget in a timely manner.

Beyond this critical priority, several other important veterans-related legislative packages are primed and ready for an immediate vote on the floor of both chambers of Congress. In the Senate, the Committee on Veterans Affairs has passed two major omnibus bills and a range of additional free-standing legislation. One of those omnibus packages, passed out of committee back in July, includes a version of the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act, which is another major priority this year for a broad coalition of veterans organizations, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. The House version of this bill passed out of its Committee on Veterans Affairs in early June with strong bipartisan support and still needs a vote this year.

The House also has a series of additional veterans bills that are awaiting scheduling and that are low-hanging fruit for pre-adjournment action. These include several bills that would provide additional resources and assistance to help the VA try to meet its ambiguously operationalized goal of ending the disability claims backlog by 2015, which just last week rose again for the first time in 22 weeks.

And finally, the Senate absolutely must do right by the men and women who serve in uniform and their families by finishing the defense authorization bill, including allowing a vote on the Military Justice Improvement Act. If it does not, it will be the first time in more than a half-century that Congress has failed to provided the Pentagon with its annual spending and policy authorizations. To make matters worse, it would be doing so while American service men and women are still at war in Afghanistan.

There is much more that the Congress can and should do by the end of this year, including staying on the job through December 20th. But at the very least, party leaders in the House and the Senate have an obligation vote on and finish these critical priorities. The military, veteran and defense community is issuing a call to duty to Congress, and it is these minimum expectations for which we all have a duty to all hold lawmakers accountable.

This article originally appeared in Defense One on December 11, 2022 as ‘Why Congress Should Fully Fund the VA in Advance.’

The Pentagon’s Weak Response to the Latest Policy Rebellion

In a speech last night before the Anti-Defamation League’s centennial meeting in New York, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would be taking “immediate action” regarding a handful of states’ open rebellion against new court-ordered federal policies recognizing the legitimacy of certain same-sex marriages. However, the immediate actions he announced were less forceful and conclusive than one might have expected given the administration’s stated commitment to treating the spouses and families of gay and lesbian troops equally.

The two actions Secretary Hagel announced were 1. directing National Guard Bureau Chief General Frank Grass to meet with the Adjutants General of the rebelling states and 2. expecting those states to comply with both Pentagon policy and federal law. But without any concrete consequences, the Secretary should not expect a change in those states’ behavior.

Background guidance provided by the Pentagon in advance of the Secretary’s speech claimed that a total of nine states so far have declared varying levels of intent not to comply with the new Defense Department policies on troops who are in legal same-sex unions. Within those nine states are 114 National Guard offices that are refusing to process federal benefits paperwork for those spouses. Instead, some of these states are directing military families to drive hundreds of miles to facilities on federally-owned land to claim the benefits to which they are entitled.

The situation in Texas is particularly disturbing. The language the state has used to justify blocking federally-funded employees of the Texas National Guard from issuing federal ID cards to same-sex spouse residents hints at the possibility of extending that rationale to other federal benefits and privileges over which the state has operational control, including access to bases, facilities, and even family support activities.

The administration has a key opportunity but a narrow window to address these states’ rebellious behavior. But weak reactions, no matter how immediate, and a reliance on expectations and hope will not be sufficient to ensure the preeminence of federal policy, or of equality.

The Esoteric Benefit of Hiring Veterans

America’s newest veterans continue to have a tough time on the job market. With both job growth and overall growth in the economy still sluggish, the 10.1 % unemployment rate among post-9/11 veterans is still well above the national average. This trend is disturbing, particularly for the population of young Americans who put their lives, education, and careers on hold to serve in our nation’s armed forces.

Much attention has been focused recently on encouraging private employers to hire new veterans, especially those returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s preeminent business and trade group, has sponsored an ambitious new campaign called Hiring Our Heroes to encourage and facilitate the hiring of veterans and military spouses within its network of three million businesses. To date, the program has held more than 500 career fairs focused on the military community and helped tens of thousands of veterans get hired.

First Lady Michelle Obama has also made veterans and military families a top priority through her signature Joining Forces initiative, which has included a prominent focus on hiring veterans. Similarly, the West Wing has begun highlighting veteran employment issues too. A recent White House Forum on Military Licensing and Credentialing focused on enhancing the transferability of military skills to the civilian job market. And of course the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Labor have ongoing veteran employment and training programs that have become core parts of their respective missions.

Even Congress, which many criticize for not being able to agree on nearly anything, passed a sweeping veteran jobs bill called the VOW to Hire Heroes Act in 2011, and continues to enact and encourage other legislative and policy initiatives to require professional licensing reciprocity for military families, provide businesses with tax credits for hiring veterans, and pilot the expansion of civilian credentialing programs within the military’s training and education system.

The common denominator among all of these campaigns, programs, and initiatives is typically a focus on skills and experience, and the applicability of those skills and that experience to equivalent civilian industries or other jurisdictions.

Surely the Army Combat Medic or Navy Corpsman who has spent years triaging and treating battlefield trauma in chaotic conditions on multiple deployments is more than qualified to work as an Emergency Medical Technician in Chicago or Charlotte or Shreveport. And of course a military officer who was responsible for securing or transporting or procuring billions of dollars worth of advanced machinery and equipment has more than the requisite experience and competence to manage most private sector logistics operations.

But what can’t be translated or communicated so easily to civilian employers and hiring officials are the non-quantifiable and non-obvious traits that veterans - especially those who are just leaving the service - tend to possess.

A heightened sense of responsibility, accountability, and integrity are more than just abstract concepts in the military workplace. They are demonstrable values that all troops are expected to take seriously and by which they are expected to live and operate 24/7. But such character assets may not be evident on a resume and may be overlooked by employers or potential employers who are not familiar with military culture.

With veterans, employers are guaranteed a pool of job candidates who have gone through one of the most rigorous training programs in professionalism allowable by law - literally.

During each service branch’s initial entry training, new military recruits are forced to learn discipline, professional etiquette and courtesies, and excruciating attention to detail, in addition to basic combat, self defense, medical, and other necessary military skills. Their training is rough, unforgiving, and at times can even be perceived as abusive to the mind and body. But it works, turning typical youth into atypical, disciplined, accountable, responsible, respectable, and respectful adults capable of carrying the weight of a nation on their shoulders.

It is the emphasis on instilling and reinforcing the importance of integrity and personal responsibility of which private sector employers should take note. What other prior employer so thoroughly integrates meaningful values into its training and ongoing operations?

From the seven Army values (loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage) to the three traditional Navy and Marine Corps values (honor, courage, and commitment) to the Air Force’s three core values (integrity, service, and excellence) to the Coast Guard’s similar trio of values (honor, respect, and devotion to duty), variations of these timeless mores are guaranteed to have been deeply ingrained into the personal and professional development of a veteran job applicant for at least the length of his or her military career.

This sort of solid character doesn’t come standard in job applicants anymore, but it is still widespread among service members and veterans. While you can teach the specific skills required for most jobs to eager learners, employers cannot put new hires through their own values boot camp to build character. Veterans, however, come pre-equipped with this esoteric benefit.

Over the years, I have had the distinct honor and pleasure of getting to know thousands of troops and veterans. From my short time in the military as a very young man to the six years I spent fighting for the civil rights of members of the military with a service members’ advocacy organization to my current billet with the first and largest organization for new veterans, I have seen the level of integrity and type of character that these squared away men and women posses en mass.

I can say, without reservation, that I would be proud to recommend a new veteran for employment any day of the week.

Using Troops & Veterans as Pawns Is So #Over

Parties, politicians and “strategists” need to evolve their thinking and messaging and understand that using troops and veterans as pawns in political fights is amateur, transparent, and so last century.


Throughout the government shutdown saga, one group was consistently but involuntarily on the front lines - veterans. Although the misuse and abuse of veterans as political pawns by both parties is by no means a new phenomenon, it reached new heights during the most recent political showdown.

From politicians showing up as veterans tried to visit their own memorials to pundits and fringe groups upstaging veterans who were trying to join together and rally, veterans have once again found themselves squarely in the crosshairs of political opportunists.

During the shutdown, the Republican National Committee began lobbing robocalls into the states and districts of vulnerable Democrats and Democrat leadership. But the script sounded like it was taken straight out of Political Influence for Dummies, in the literal sense of the title.

“Senator X and Senate Democrats think this shutdown is a game. They are playing politics by cutting off our veterans and their benefits… These men and women served our country with honor and yet Senator X would rather put partisan politics ahead of honoring our commitment to the people who defended this country…”

At the same time, Democrats were holding up the threat of veterans not receiving their compensation and benefits as a classic case of how the shutdown was hurting Americans, yet they refused to even consider House-passed legislation that would have funded the VA and at least taken those to whom we have sacred commitments out of the political fray.

These tactics are not only shameful, but they represent an outdated strategic mindset. The merit, or lack thereof, of the claims aside, the American electorate is much more sophisticated today than these tactics presume. Rather than sway opinions, simpleton messages such as these make even sympathetic voters roll their eyes. They also reinforce Americans’ frustrations with politics and give good public servants and political operatives a bad name by association.

Last week, a formal coalition of the nation’s largest military and veterans associations held a rare joint press conference at the World War Two memorial on the National Mall to speak for themselves. The coalition had a simple but serious message - stop the political games and end the government shutdown immediately. But behind this primary message was an implicit secondary message that was communicated in advance and strictly enforced during the event - politicians and political stunts are not welcome.

Service members and veterans are tired of being referenced and trotted out by politicians when it’s politically convenient, and then forgotten or only paid lip service to when real policy changes are needed to help them. The American public is tired of seeing this abuse over and over again too. They’re attuned to it, it doesn’t score political points, it doesn’t get votes, and it’s just tacky.

In the 21st century, these cheap shots and stunts will only backfire on politicians, candidates, and political parties. They all need to evolve their tactics, strategies, and messaging if they want to really support and honor veterans.

America Has Already Defaulted - On Troops and Veterans

Defense One, the all-defense site by The Atlantic Media Group, featured this new op-ed arguing that while Congress, the administration, and pundits argue over whether the U.S. will default on its debt obligations and what the impact of that default will be, they’re all forgetting that we have already defaulted on our obligations to U.S. troops and veterans by failing to ensure that they were insulated from the political wrangling.

Despite troop pay bills, partial advance appropriations for the VA, and other temporary fixes intended to help shield this population from fallout, some troops haven’t gotten paid, some VA services and processes have stopped, and everyone is confused and gravely concerned about their own stability and livelihoods. This amounts to a default on our obligation to respect and care for our troops and vets, as I elaborate upon in this piece.

Defense One: Time to Treat the VA’s Problems as DOD’s Problems

Defense One, the new all-defense site by The Atlantic Media Group, featured a new opinion piece I authored arguing that the VA’s issues and struggles should be viewed through a military readiness lens, given that Americans will factor the potential post-service experience into their decision calculus on whether or not to volunteer to serve in the armed forces. As a result, the VA’s problems are also DOD’s problems.

“By now it should be clear: The VA’s miscalculations and letdowns over the past decade are not just a VA problem; they are the Department of Defense’s problem, as well. Although the two may be administratively distinct, the fate of each is intimately tied into the other in a circle of recruitment, service and care, and the impact of what happens at each stage of that cycle on future recruitment.”

Read the entire piece over at Defense One.

The Hill: The VA’s backlogs epidemic

Last week, The Hill ran an op-ed I wrote for their Congress Blog about the multi-dimensional backlog problem at the VA, beyond the regular claims backlog that everyone already knows about and which the VA has sought recently to redefine. Check out the full piece here, but here’s the gist:

Backlog #1: 

“Everyone in Congress knows by now that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a massive claims backlog problem that has outraged the American public…”

Backlog #2: 

“However, as the VA makes one step forward in one area, it is making two steps backward in another, as the backlog of claims appeals is now growing to a staggering level…”

Backlog #3:

“Equally frustrating for Congress, however, is yet another growing VA backlog - the VA’s backlog of information requests from members of Congress….”

For more on the individual veterans stuck in backlogs 1 & 2, visit The Wait We Carry. For more on the congressional info requests comprising backlog 3, visit Trials in Transparency.

Doing Right by Veterans With College Tuition Fairness

The United States has one of the most well educated and education-minded fighting forces ever. Many new recruits come into the force — both the enlisted and officer ranks — already with college degrees, and most have ambitions to continue their education both during and after military service. Needless to say, educational opportunities are important to those who serve, which is why the GI Bill has been a critically important benefit to our veterans and an important investment for our country for more than a half-century.

In 2008, IAVA strongly advocated for the successful passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill to modernize this important and well deserved benefit for those who have carried the burden of fighting our nation’s wars. And while this “New” GI Bill was a giant leap forward for our veterans, it also required prudent follow-up legislation and continued advocacy to protect and improve the benefit.

When I went into the Army back in 2001, I had already completed my freshman year of college and I entered onto active duty from the place I was living at the time — Greensboro, NC. I was not a resident of North Carolina then, so I naturally had to pay the out-of-state tuition rate to attend a public university in that state. However, when I later ETSed from the Army and returned to finish college in my home state of South Carolina, I was surprised to learned that both North Carolina and South Carolina no longer considered me a resident for in-state tuition purposes…

Read the rest here on The Huffington Post.