White House To Soften Military Consumer Protections

Photo courtesy of FBI.gov

The following is the introduction to an NPR report on the White House rollback of regulations that protected service members from predatory lenders.

By Chris Arnold, NPR

The Trump administration is taking aim at a law designed to protect military service members from getting cheated by shady lending practices.

NPR has obtained documents that show the White House is proposing changes that critics say would leave service members vulnerable to getting ripped off when they buy cars. Separately, the administration is taking broader steps to roll back enforcement of the Military Lending Act.

The MLA is supposed to protect service members from predatory loans and financial products. But the White House appears willing to change the rules in a way that critics say would take away some of those protections.

“If the White House does this, it will be manipulating the Military Lending Act regulations at the behest of auto dealers and banks to try and make it easier to sell overpriced rip-off products to military service members,” says Christopher Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah, who reviewed the documents.

You can read the full NPR story here.

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New Secretary Pledges To Protect VA From Politics

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie addresses the national AMVETS convention in Orlando on Aug. 8, 2018, during his second week in office.

Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie was President Trump’s second choice to replace fired Secretary David Shulkin.

But the former Pentagon official is now running the VA said he’s promised to protect the VA from politics and total privatization.

“I think there are two departments in the federal government that should be above any partisan bickering and that is Department of Defense and VA,” Wilkie said. “Partisan politics shouldn’t impact anything a veteran experiences. That’s my pledge.”

Wilkie is an officer in the Air Force Reserves and also served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness with Defense Secretary James Mattis before moving to the VA.

He took the oath of office on July 30 and has spent much of these first weeks on the road, including visiting Florida VA medical centers in Tallahassee, Orlando and Tampa. And Wilkie was the keynote speaker for both the national AMVETS conference in Orlando and the Jewish War Veterans convention in Tampa.

He said his top priority is to implement an electronic medical records system that is seamless, so it includes a veteran’s medical history from the VA, Department of Defense and private physicians and pharmacies.

“We’re in the midst, nationally, of a terrible opioid crisis,” he said. “What this gives VA the ability to do is it will take a veteran’s record and if he has an opioid given to him by VA and someone in the private sector gives him something else – the combination of those two streams will alert VA that that individual is now on a spectrum for trouble.”

He estimates it will take five to 10 years to fully implement an electronic medical records system. The VA is partnering with the Department of Defense in the state of Washington to set up a pilot program.

Wilkie was quick to defend against lingering fears that he or the Trump Administration will privatize the VA.

“First of all, that is a legislative impossibility. The only way the VA is privatized is if our board of directors on Capitol Hill say it will be privatized,” Wilkie said. “But that doesn’t mean that we cannot come up with a mix of VA and private care for our veterans.”

He reiterated his support of the current system during his address to the AMVETS audience in Orlando.

“The private sector cannot replicate the VA’s expertise in many things like spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, rehabilitative services, prosthetics, audiology, services for the blind, and suicide prevent,” Wilkie said.

The new VA Secretary is a history buff, and he was quick to reference a predecessor, the former WWII Army General Omar Bradley, who is credited with reshaping the VA.

“In his day, right after World War II, 30 percent of the care was in the private sector,” Wilkie said.

Thursday, several Congressional Democrats sent the VA Secretary a letter requesting details on communications the department has had with three Mar-a-Largo friends of President Trump. The letter was the result of a Pro Publica report, The Shadow Rulers of the VA, that says the three, non-veterans, are secretly shaping policy at the VA.

Here is the department’s response via written news release:

We appreciate hearing from experts both inside and outside VA as we look for better ways to serve our nation’s heroes. This broad range of input from individuals both inside and outside VA has helped us immensely over the last year and a half – a period that hands-down has been VA’s most productive in decades.

Under President Trump’s leadership, VA has made groundbreaking progress, particularly in the areas of accountability, transparency and efficiency across the department while enjoying an unprecedented series of legislative successes.

We look forward to building on these improvements as we continue to reform VA under President Trump.

You can listen to the Secretary’s two-way interview with the American Homefront Project @AmHomefront at WUSFNews.org.

AMVETS Highlights: Town Hall, Job Fair, New VA Secretary

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie,  (Photo courtesy of VA Blog)

Here’s a chance for veterans in the Orlando region to speak up and share their perspectives on veterans’ health care.

A “listening session” – sponsored by the American Veterans (AMVETS) – is planned Tuesday, August 7, 2018, at 6:30 p.m. as part of the organization’s 74th annual convention.

Medical experts, both national and Orlando-area veterans will address current issues in health care include critical gaps. The town hall is open to the public.

Other AMVETS convention highlights:

The AMVETS convention is Aug. 6-10 at the Caribe Royale Convention Center, 8101 World Center Drive, Orlando.

Job Fair For Veterans, Especially Those With Disabilities

Bay Pines VA – C.W. Bill Young Medical Center. Photo Courtesy: VA.gov

A job fair with special emphasis on opportunities for veterans with disabilities is set Thursday, August 2, 2018 from 5-8 p.m. at the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System (VAHCS).

Similar job fairs have been conducted in the past and have been instrumental for Veterans seeking employment in the federal government according to a VA Bay Pines release.

“Qualified applicants will be interviewed on the spot, and tentative job offers may be made that day. Applicants interested in positions in Nutrition and Food Service, Housekeeping and Engineering are encouraged to bring their resume, DD214 (Member 4 Copy with Character of Service), VA letter showing disability rating, and Schedule A letter if applicable.”

For more information about the upcoming job fair, please contact Brenda Sykes, Section Chief, Human Resources Management Service at (727) 398-6661, extension 10636.

North Korea Returns Remains Of 55 Americans Killed In War

Below is a media account from the Department of Defense on the repatriation of the remains of soldiers killed during the Korean War.

United Nations Honor Guard member carries remains during a dignified return ceremony at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Friday. Members of the command and the Osan community were on hand at the arrival ceremony. (Photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Kelsey Tucker.)

Camp Humphreys, Pyeongtaek, Republic of Korea —

The United Nations Command (UNC), with support from United States Forces Korea (USFK) repatriated 55 cases of remains Friday returned by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. A U.S. cargo aircraft flew to Wonson, North Korea, to receive the remains and returned promptly to Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea at approximately 11:00 a.m. KST.

A U.S. cargo aircraft flew to Wonson, North Korea, to receive the remains and returned promptly to Osan Air Base, South Korea, the release said.

“It was a successful mission following extensive coordination,” United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea commander Army Gen. Vincent K. Brooks said in the release.

“Now, we will prepare to honor our fallen before they continue on their journey home,” Brooks added.

Brooks will host a full honors ceremony for the fallen service members August 1. Immediately following that ceremony, the remains will be flown to Hawaii for further processing under the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

You can read the full account here.

 

Lest We Forget: D-Day June 6, 1944 – My Father Was There

June 6, 1944 D-Day. Credit: National Archives

My dad was in the U.S. Navy and a “motor mac” (motor machinist mate) on a landing craft delivering troops to the beaches during the first two days of the invasion.

Robert J. O’Brien never told his family, especially his daughters, about that D-Day. That is, until I married a Navy veteran.

Robert Joseph O’Brien as a young sailor. The red stripe on his uniform indicates he’s part of the engineering department.

My dad shared a few of his memories with my husband. That’s how I learned he was there on the beaches of Normandy. Toward the end of his life, my dad agreed to sit down with me so I could record his thoughts.

He was a man of few words who could say more with a look, a smile or a nod.

He was even more so when talking about WWII. His description was sparse – except for his admiration for the pilots and paratroopers who blackened the sky above his craft. And for the men he delivered to the shores of Normandy.

He saw no heroism – no extraordinary human effort in what he did. In fact, his favorite phrase was “I was just doing my job.”

So, today I pay tribute to all who were there and did their job during such a pivotal moment in history.

And a daughter’s love for a special dad who after two days of facing combat was assigned to the burial detail on the beach – the hardest job of all – that he did with dignity and respect toward the fallen.

When Veterans Die Alone, These Volunteers Step Up

The Marine Corps League of Clearwater, FL were responsible for holding the May Unattended Ceremony at Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Fl.

Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who died in military service. But a group of military veterans in Florida works all year to commemorate their comrades who died with no family by their side.

Vietnam-era veteran Clifford Leo Bisek died alone, while sitting outside the Tampa motel room where he lived. He had no close family members and no friends nearby.

But a group of strangers made sure he received a proper farewell.

They’re among a group of veterans who hold small monthly ceremonies at the Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Fla. On the first Tuesday of every month, they gather to pay tribute to their fellow veterans who have passed away without loved ones.

Marine veteran Bob Cannon – volunteer organizer of the monthly ceremonies – is the first to arrive and last to leave the Bay Pines outdoor columbarium.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that everybody gets a good welcome and send off,” said Marine veteran Bob Cannon, who has organized every service for nearly two decades at Bay Pines. “I’m a Vietnam veteran. When I came back, I had not a very good welcome home.”

Under federal law, every eligible veteran is entitled to a military funeral if the family requests it. When there are no relatives present, the veteran can still be interred at a VA cemetery, but without an individual ceremony. The agency calls it an “Unattended Interment.”

There were 10 such burials in April at Bay Pines. The VA’s National Cemeteries Administration does not track the number of unattended interments nationally, but it operates more than 130 sites throughout the country.

A soldier, sailor, and local hero

Clifford Bisek, a Vietnam Era veteran, in 2010 when he chased a robber off with his cane. Photo courtesy of the Tampa Bay Times.

At Cliff Bisek’s interment, two VA employees carried the ashes of the 72-year-old veteran in a rectangular metal box. Cemetery director Eugenia Simmons held it close to her heart, as she and cemetery worker Terry Clark double checked the paperwork. They slide the box into the niche at the outdoor columbarium.

Simmons signed a form and — in a final gesture — patted the granite stone covering Bisek’s niche.

“Whenever I do an interment, somebody has to say goodbye,” Simmons said.

Bisek was a sergeant in the Army during the Vietnam Era and later served in the Navy. Eight years ago, the Tampa resident briefly became a local hero when he foiled a drug store robbery by chasing away the thief with his cane.

“Safety of the other people comes before mine,” Bisek told the Tampa Tribune at the time. “It has been in my system practically all my life.”

In March, Bisek died from heart disease. Inside his motel room, police discovered old paperwork from the VA, so the county medical examiner sent Bisek’s cremated remains to Bay Pines.

Bay Pines Cemetery Director Eugenia Simmons bids a final farewell to Clifford Bisek during his interment in April. There was no ceremony or family that day.

Simmons said because Florida has so many retirees, it’s common for veterans to die with no family or no relatives nearby.

“We give them a dignified burial,” Simmons said, “and then once the cremated remains are placed, we send information to the family so they know how to locate their loved one.”

‘We’ll always be here’

A half dozen local veterans service organizations volunteer at Bay Pines on a rotating basis to conduct the monthly service for the unattended interments. At the most recent service, the send-off began with a motorcycle “ride-by” with veteran Randall McNabb as ride captain. More than two dozen riders showed up.

“I love these guys,” McNabb said. “They spend their own time and their own dime to get out here and stand for these veterans.”

A bugler plays Taps at the May 2018 Unattended Ceremony where more than two dozen motorcycle riders and member the Clearwater Marine Corps League participated in the ceremony at Bay Pines National Cemetery.

The ceremony is brief. It includes a prayer, the presentation of the colors, and the reading of the name of each veteran who was intered that month. Each name is followed by the ringing of a bell – a Navy tradition. There’s a three-volley gun salute and the playing of Taps.

Sharply dressed in a pressed white shirt decorated with ribbons and medals from past service, Color Guard commander Bill Cona oversaw the service. It’s important to him to be at the cemetery for his comrades, just as he hopes someone will be there for him.

“I don’t really think about them not having anyone around because we’re here, and we’ll always be here,” Cona said,  choking up a little.

Typically at military funerals, the color guard presents a folded American Flag to the veteran’s family. But at these ceremonies, the flag is symbolically handed to a volunteer. Then, it will be used again at next month’s ceremony.

Watch a video of the Bay Pines ceremony here.

The folding of the American Flag and presentation to a volunteer – standing in for family – is part of the ceremony.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

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