The opinion has become common among Vietnam War veterans that Congress tends to exclude “Blue Water” Vietnam veterans from VA benefits. This group of veterans never had boots on the ground in Vietnam, yet just the same they are sick due to Agent Orange exposure. It seems that Congress and the VA consider these veterans not worthy.
There are limited benefits available to those who served in-country, but those who served at sea are excluded, even though Agent Orange was in the drinking water onboard Navy ships and is causing sickness years later. How many more of us have to die in agony until there are so few of us left that the amount of dollars to care for those left won’t matter much? Is this what America is about? An uncaring attitude by our legislators? Where does it say in our Constitution and Bill of Rights that our veterans need NOT be cared for when in need? “A man who is good enough to shed his blood for the country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards,” as Theodore Roosevelt said.
Over 175,000 Navy veterans are unsung casualties of the Vietnam War. It is not about Democrats and Republicans, it is about Americans who fought a thankless war. Maybe this is why Congress is reluctant to provide VA benefits, a thankless war.
Several years past, legislative bills were introduced for this group of sailors only to fail in committee. Presently, there are two new bills, House Bill HR-969 and Senate Bill S.681, both of which are titled the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Agent Orange Act. If either of these bills are passed, Navy veterans will receive their VA benefits. The American people can help by calling and writing to their members of Congress and senators to support these bills.
John J. Bury
FRA Response: Shipmate, we hear you loud and clear, and we’re publishing your letter because we want the voices of our Blue Water veterans to be heard. We hope everyone who reads this and our other stories about these important bills will contact his or her elected officials directly to support these neglected veterans. You can do so right now by going to the FRA Action Center at action.fra.org/action-center, clicking on the line that reads “Support Agent Orange/Blue Water Navy Legislation (H.R. 969/S. 681),” and sending the pre-written letter (or writing your own letter) to your representative and senators simultaneously.
… and Coast Guard Vietnam Veterans!
I read with interest [in the June 2015 issue of FRA Today] concerning the introduction of the Agent Orange/Blue Water Bill (H.R. 969) by Rep. Chris Gibson (N.Y.). The article only mentions the Navy and neglected to mention the Coast Guard. I am sure a thorough investigation was performed prior to Mr. Gibson’s release of the bill, but it was apparently not thorough enough. In practically every mention concerning this issue, either from the press or other sources, the Coast Guard is not mentioned. For everyone’s interest, the Coast Guard was active in Vietnam (boots and blue water). The Coast Guard constructed and manned LORAN stations and sailed 82ft patrol boats in Vietnam waters because the Navy did not have the resources to patrol and intercept vessels carrying food and weapons to the enemy in shallow waters. Therefore, Rep. Gibson should amend his bill to include the Coast Guard. If this is not done, the Coasties who develop illnesses caused by Agent Orange will probably have a hard time getting the treatment and compensation they deserve from the VA! On another note, there are service personnel who were exposed to Agent Orange stateside, including myself. Part of my duties as a Preventative Medicine Technician was the handling and spraying of pesticides and herbicides (including Agent Orange).
FRA Response: The language of the articles, press releases, and other media that cover this issue does seem to reference only Navy Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange during their service. However, that does not mean that Coast Guard veterans who served in Vietnam have been left out. Because Coast Guard personnel served under Navy command in support of combat operations, they are considered “Navy” personnel for the purposes of determining presumption for Agent Orange exposure and will be eligible to file VA claims under that presumption.
I Don’t Consider Myself Petty
This has been eating at me for a long time!
Why do the navy and Coast Guard choose to call their noncommissioned enlisted ratings “Petty Officers?”
Who decided we are “petty” in the chain of command? It’s humiliating! Webster’s dictionary defines “petty” as “small, minor, of little importance.”
I retired in 1966 as a Master Chief after almost 22 years of honorable service. All the while, from 3rd Class to Master Chief I, I was tagged as “Petty.”
The Army, Marine Corps and Air Force recognize their ratings from Corporal through Sergeant Major as noncommissioned officers, which maintains dignity and recognizes the importance of those positions in the chain of command.
How about polling Navy and Coast Guard “petty” officers to see what they think?
Submissions Send Shipmate Forumletters to Editor, FRA Today, 125 N. West St. Alexandria, VA 22314. E-mail submissions may be sent to email@example.com. Please include “Shipmate Forum” in the subject line. FRA reserves the right to select and edit letters for publication. Letters published in Shipmate Forum reflect the opinions and views of FRA members. They do not necessarily reflect the official position of FRA as a whole. FRA is not responsible for the accuracy of letter content.
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ON & OFF CAPITOL HILL
A Tale of Two NDAAs
As this issue of FRA Today goes to press, both the House and Senate have passed their respective versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). As Charles Dickens states in the opening sentence of his classic A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” — a phrase that aptly summarizes the FY 2016 Defense Authorization bills (H.R. 1735/S. 1376).
Both versions of the measure have passed their respective chambers and both provide a new “blended defined benefit and defined contribution” retirement benefit for career service members. Both proposals reduce retainer pay by 20 percent (2.0% of base pay/year of service versus the current calculation of 2.5%/year), and provide a one-percent employer contribution to the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), the federal employee equivalent to a 401(k) account. This contribution would be made even if the service member declines to participate. DoD will also match service members’ contributions up to four (Senate plan) or five percent (House proposal). While this might sound like a “best of times” proposal, FRA opposes these retirement proposals as theyreduce benefits for retirees with 20 or more years of service in order to provide retirement benefits to those who serve as little as two years. FRA believes this reduction could be “the worst of times” if it proves to be a disincentive for future career military personnel.
In contrast to the House and Senate plans, the Department of Defense (DoD) blended retirement proposal suggests repealing current law that will set retirees’ cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) at one percent below the rate of inflation for personnel who begin their military service after January 1, 2016. Both the House and Senate proposals allow for a lump sum payment to a service member after 12 years of service if he or she signs up for four more years. DoD wants greater flexibility to offer lump sum payments anytime between eight and 16 years of service, and wants more flexibility in determining the size of the payment and the length of the service obligation. The Pentagon also wants a mandate for new service members to contribute three percent of their pay to TSP accounts, which will be matched by an employer contribution and may not be opted out of until the service member completes financial literacy training. For more details on the Pentagon’s changes to the military retirement system, see Tom Philpott’s June 11 2015 Military Update column at www.fra.org/MilUpdate061115
Please refer to the Blended Retirement Proposals chart, which compares the retirement plans proposed by the House, Senate and the Pentagon.
Although both versions of the bill include this new retirement construct, there are other significant differences between the House (H.R. 1735) and Senate (S. 1376) versions of the FY 2016 NDAA.
Among these many differences, the Senate bill imposes additional pharmacy co-pay increases on retirees under age 65, while the House does not. The Senate bill also provides a smaller active duty annual pay increase (1.3 percent) than the House bill (2.3 percent). The Senate approved an FRA-supported amendment to halt the privatization of five stateside commissaries, but deferred other amendments that would advance FRA’s legislative agenda. As a result, concurrent receipt expansion, elimination of pharmacy co-pay increases, presumption of Agent Orange exposure for Vietnam veterans who served in “Blue Water,” a larger (2.3-percent vs. 1.3-percent) annual pay increase for active duty service members, and veteran status for 20-year reservists who are not mobilized were not included in the final measure.
A conference committee will be appointed to resolve the differences between the two bills and, once the differences are resolved, both chambers must approve the conference report. It will then be sent to the President to be signed into law or vetoed. FRA continues its fight for provisions that protect and enhance our shipmates’ earned benefits.
Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to weigh in on these and other issues that impact FRA members.
Comparison of House and Senate Defense Authorization Bills
Benefit Changes to Retirement
Creates a “blended” military retirement system with smaller 20 years defined benefit plan, new portable plan with matching contribution and bonus at 12 years of service if the service member signs up for four more years.
Creates a “blended” military retirement system with smaller 20 year defined benefit plan, new portable defined contribution plan with matching contribution and bonus at 12 years of service if the service member signs up for four more years. (Sections 631–636)
FRA opposes these provisions because they reduce overall benefits and provide too much incentive to leave the military before completing a 20 or more year career. Please see chart on retirement plans for more specific differences between the two bills.
TRICARE Enrollment Fee Increases
Does not increase TRICARE enrollment fees requested in the Administration’s FY 2016 budget.
Does not increase TRICARE enrollment fees requested in the Administration’s FY 2016 budget.
FRA opposes Administration’s proposed TRICARE enrollment fee increases .
Pharmacy co-pay increase
No similar provision.
Creates additional pharmacy co-pays for retirees under age 65. (Section 702)
Allows a one-time offer to certain military retirees to regain TRICARE Prime after DoD changed eligibility for living more than 100 miles from a military treatment facility (MTF). (Section 705)
Senate bill has no similar provision.
FRA supports efforts to provide for a one-time election for military retirees to regain access to TRICARE Prime.
Unified Medical Command
Creates a unified medical command to provide health care savings by eliminating duplicate efforts by each service branch. (Section 711)
Senate bill has no similar provision.
FRA supports House provision and other efforts to reduce health care cost and duplication BEFORE increasing TRICARE fees.
Increases pay 2.3% on Jan. 1, 2016 and one-year extension for various pay & bonus programs (Sec. 611 & 612)
Authorizes a 1.3% increase on Jan. 1, 2016 and one-year extension for various pay and bonus programs.
FRA supports the House provision. FRA wants an annual pay increase that at least keeps pace with pay increases in
the civilian sector (2.3%).
BAH Rate Reduction
Prohibits additional cuts to Basic Allowance for Housing. (Sections 601 & 602)
Reduces BAH from 99% to 95%. (Section 603)
FRA supports the House provision.
BAH Reduction for Married Couple
House has no similar provision
A married couple living together that are both entitled to BAH shall be paid only to the member having the higher pay grade. (Section 604)
FRA opposes Senate provision.
Rejects Administration’s request to cut Commissary subsidy.
Reduces Commissary funding.
FRA opposes Senate provision that reduces funding for commissary benefit.
Authorizes “veteran status” for members of the Reserve Component who served 20 or more years.
Senate bill has no similar provision
FRA supports Reservists who have served 20 or more years be recognized as “veterans.”
SBP for 2nd Spouse
House has no similar provision.
Allows for the election of a new spouse beneficiary after the death of a former spouse beneficiary. (Section 641)
FRA supports Senate provision.
* Provisions reported are based on House bill (H.R. 1735) that passed the House and on Senate legislation (S. 1376) that was approved by the Senate.
Return to Table of Contents FRA Weighs In on NDAA Provisions
In addition to expressing its concerns regarding the proposals to reform the military retirement structure (see above), FRA stated its position on a variety of proposals outlined in the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, H.R. 1735 and S. 1376) in letters to key members of the NDAA conference committee. The committee will resolve differences between the two versions of the bill and create a report that must then be approved by both chambers.
FRA thanked House and Senate lawmakers for resisting the call to increase TRICARE enrollment fees, but shared its opposition to the Senate proposal to increase pharmacy copays for military retirees under the age of 65. In other TRICARE-related references, FRA supports the Senate provision that would allow beneficiaries up to four visits for urgent care without a referral and a House proposal that would allow certain military retirees a one-time opportunity to regain TRICARE Prime coverage and another House provision that would create a unified military medical command.
The Association stands in support of the House plan to provide service members’ pay raises that are equal to those offered in the private sector and spoke out against the Senate proposals to reduce Basic Allowances for Housing (BAH, from 99 to 95 percent of average housing costs) and further reduce BAH for service members who are married to other military personnel. Additionally, FRA expressed its support for a section of the Senate measure that would allow military retirees to designate a new SBP beneficiary after the death of a former spouse and a provision in the House bill that would create “veteran status” at no cost to certain members of the Reserve Component. FRA opposes a Senate proposal to reduce funding for stateside commissaries.
Return to Table of Contents Retiree Issues
SBP/DIC Offset Repeal Introduced in the Senate
Sen. Bill Nelson (Florida) has introduced FRA-supported legislation (S. 979) that repeals the requirement that forces surviving spouses of military personnel to forfeit portions of their Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) annuities to offset dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) they receive. This is the Senate companion bill to legislation introduced by Rep. Joe Wilson (South Carolina) in the House (H.R. 1594).
SBP and DIC payments are paid for different reasons. SBP is purchased by the retiree and is intended to provide a portion of retired pay to the survivor. DIC is a special indemnity compensation paid to the survivor when a military member’s service causes his or her premature death. In such cases, the VA indemnity compensation should be added to the SBP annuity, not substituted for it. It should be noted as a matter of equity that surviving spouses of federal civilian retirees who are disabled veterans and die of military-service-connected causes can receive DIC without losing any of their federal civilian SBP benefits.
Members are strongly urged to use the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to ask their U.S. representative and senators to support these proposals.
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Agent Orange Presumption Expanded, but Not for Blue Water Navy Veterans
Despite the VA’s irrational opposition to helping Blue Water veterans who served offshore during the Vietnam conflict, the agency has expanded presumption for exposure to Agent Orange for a select group of Air Force and Air Force Reserve veterans who served in Vietnam. It is now presumed that these service members were exposed to the herbicide through regular and repeated contact with contaminated C-123 aircraft. As a result, the VA can immediately begin providing benefits to members of this veteran population who submit a disability compensation claim for any of the 14 medical conditions that have been determined to be related to exposure to Agent Orange.
“I am pleased the VA has finally ended the wait and will now provide disability benefits for the Air Force veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange,” said Senator Kirstin Gillibrand (New York). “However, there are still hundreds of thousands of Blue Water Navy veterans who are being denied benefits they need and deserve because of a technicality in the law. Congress owes it to the Blue Water Navy veterans who bravely served our country and have fallen victim to Agent Orange-related diseases to finish the job by passing legislation that would finally solve this problem and provide access to the benefits they deserve.”
FRA supports Senator Gillibrand’s “Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act” (S. 681) and its House companion bill (H.R. 969, sponsored by New York Rep. Chris Gibson) – measures that would clarify a presumption for exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War for veterans who served off the coast of Vietnam — the so-called Blue Water veterans. Senate VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (Georgia) has indicated that S. 681 will be marked up, approved and sent to the full Senate for consideration. FRA National Executive Director (NED) Tom Snee and FRA NHQ staffers Stephen Tassin and Ben Young also met with Rep. Chris Gibson (New York) concerning H.R. 969, offering the Association’s effort to advance the bill.
NED Snee also brings attention to the Agent Orange issue when he attends the quarterly Veterans Service and Military Service Organization (VSO/MSO) roundtable discussion, sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic Caucus.
Members are urged to use the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to ask their legislators to support this Senate measure (S. 681) and its House companion bill (HR 969).
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VA Drops Net Worth in Determining Eligibility
FRA applauds the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for eliminating the use of a veteran’s net worth when determining eligibility for health care benefits and co-payments. Co-payments for veterans in the lowest Priority Groups (7 and 8) are higher than those for any other group. Dropping net worth will make some veterans in these categories eligible for higher-priority groups.
FRA believes that veterans have earned health care benefits through their demanding service to their country, regardless of their personal financial situation. Our nation made a commitment to all veterans in return for their service, and actions such as limiting eligibility for health care and raising co-payments convey the wrong message to our personnel currently serving and those who have served in the past.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee (HVAC) held a hearing to review how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) could have a $2.6 billion budget shortfall for the current fiscal year (FY 2015). The VA claimed that the shortfall is mainly because of increased demand by veterans for health care, including new life-saving treatments for Hepatitis C.
Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson told the HVAC that VA health care sites experienced a 10.5 percent increase in workload for the 12-month period that ended in April. Gibson said an antiquated accounting system made it difficult to determine the shortfall and that the VA needs flexibility from Congress to reduce the budget gap and pay for what he calls “an untenable situation” in which demand for health care far exceeds resources available. Gibson also said the VA completed seven million more appointments for care in the past year compared to the previous year, but said veterans still face increased wait times in Phoenix, Las Vegas, and other sites.
Return to Table of Contents Active Duty/Reserve Issues
FRA Hosts 17th Annual Coast Guard Caucus Breakfast
FRA hosted its 17th annual Coast Guard Caucus Breakfast, an event held to expand awareness of the Coast Guard’s varied missions and remarkable service to our nation, and to promote dialogue between members of Congress and key Coast Guard leaders. FRA’s National Vice President Virgil Courneya, National Executive Director (NED) Tom Snee, Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft, former Commandant Admiral Robert Papp (Ret.), Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard (MCPOCG) Steven Cantrell, and a number of Coast Guard officers and senior enlisted leaders participated in discussions about the needs of U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) personnel.
The Coast Guard Caucus is a bipartisan group of 73 lawmakers who share a common interest in the Coast Guard. Caucus members in attendance included Representatives Frank LoBiondo (New Jersey), Joe Courtney (Connecticut) and Duncan Hunter (California).
NED Tom Snee and National Vice President Virgil Courneya thanked the assembled Coast Guard personnel and caucus members in their opening remarks, and then introduced MCPOCG Steven Cantrell. Cantrell commended FRA’s advocacy for the Coast Guard family and shared the success stories of noteworthy Coast Guardsmen who mentor others and volunteer their time with a willingness to serve that exemplifies today’s Coast Guard.
Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft outlined the Coast Guard’s integral role in our nation’s arctic, western hemisphere, and cyber defense strategies. He reminded the Caucus that the Coast Guard continues to execute today’s missions with yesterday’s ships and stressed the need for modern vessels to replace ships that have seen over 50 years of service.
Rep. Courtney (Conn.) is sponsoring the FRA-supported “United States Coast Guard Commemorative Coin Act” (HR 1683), which would honor the men and women of the Coast Guard by minting a special commemorative coin, the sales of which would be used to support the development and operation of the National Coast Guard Museum Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating the National Coast Guard Museum, due to open in New London, Conn., in 2018. Despite its significant role in our national defense, the U.S. Coast Guard is the only uniformed service without a national museum to showcase its 224-year history. FRA members can weigh in on the Coast Guard coin legislation by sending messages to their elected officials through the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center).
FRA’s work to ensure Coast Guard pay and benefits remain on par with those enjoyed by Department of Defense (DoD) personnel was also acknowledged during the event, as were the Association’s efforts to ensure adequate funding is available to support USCG programs. FRA is committed to educating members of Congress, their staff and the public about the Coast Guard’s critical mission as a part of the Department of Homeland Security.
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Dual BAH on the Chopping Block
In other NDAA news, the Senate version of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act includes a provision that will dramatically change how dual-service couples’ Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) will be calculated. The Senate is proposing to only authorize BAH for the higher-ranking member of a dual-service couple. Under current policy, service members who are married to one another, have no children and are assigned to the same location can each draw BAH at a lower “without dependents” rate. If the couple has a child, the more senior ranking member can draw BAH at a higher “with dependents” rate, while the other member continues to draw BAH at the lower “without” rate.
To put this matter in perspective, an E-6 living in the Washington, D.C., metro area receives BAH of $2,016 per month as a single service member, and a single E-7 gets $2,148 per month. Under current regulations, a married couple with these ranks would jointly receive $4,164 per month in BAH. If the proposed change takes effect, the E-7 would be eligible to receive $2,553 in BAH and the E-6 would get $0. Marriage would effectively reduce their collective housing allowance by $1,611 a month — or $19,332 — over the course of a year.
If the same two single service members married civilians, their BAH would both be at the “with dependents” rate of $2,463 for an E-6 and $2,553 for an E-7, which is much more than if they married each other.
FRA opposes this provision and President Obama has also voiced strong opposition, saying the targeted cuts to BAH would “impose a marriage penalty.” An online petition is aimed at stopping this proposal (available at https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/stop-senate-proposed-bill-specifically-unfairly-targets-and-limits-bah-benefits-dual-military-spouses). If it garners 100,000 signatures, the White House will review the matter and provide an official response.
We strongly encourage all shipmates to use the FRA Action Center (action.fra.org/action-center) to let your representative know that you oppose this provision, too.
Return to Table of Contents The FRA Legislative Team is National Executive Director Tom Snee, Director of Legislative Programs John Davis, Assistant Director of Legislative Programs Stephen Tassin and National Veterans Service Officer Chris Slawinski.