Category Archives: Defense Department

You Aren’t Seeing Double, House GOP tries again to block DoD predatory lending rules

Pay Day Lending Shark We don’t really pay members of our Armed Forces all that much.  A quick visit to the Defense Department’s finance section shows that a recent enlisted person (2 years or less) gets $1,546.83 in basic pay. A person at E5 status can expect $2,202.90 per month.  Twenty years of service topping out at the E9 category yields $5,730.41 in basic pay.  Those rare souls who last 40 years are looking at $7584.60. There are some added bonuses – not exactly extraordinary – for clothing allowances,  there are also allowances for hardship duty pay, assignment incentive pay, and hazardous duty incentive pay (as if the whole idea of being in the military weren’t intrinsically hazardous).  There are retention bonuses for medical, dental, and veterinary personnel.  Proficiency in foreign languages will also merit some extra pay.  But, no matter how many times the figures are totaled the pay still doesn’t place any member of the services in the lap of luxury; not anywhere close.

This is why the following bit of news is especially disturbing:

“The military has been grappling with the financial impact of predatory lending on service members for years. In 2006, Congress passed legislation cracking down on some forms of high-interest credit, particularly payday lending. Lenders responded by exploiting loopholes in the law, and late last year, the Department of Defense proposed a new set of regulations designed to curb these creative workarounds that target troops.”  [HuffPo]

Worse still, this is the second time the House Republicans have tried to block the Department of Defense efforts to control predatory lending to military members and their immediate families.

“Republicans have been working to kill those regulations before they can take effect. This week, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) will offer legislation that would block DOD from finalizing its rules until a host of unrealistic technical certifications could be made for a database of active-duty military members. The House will vote on Stivers’ plan as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, a major bill that establishes military funding.” [HuffPo]

Why all this effort to block Defense Department rules meant to contain the scourge of predatory lending to members of our Armed Forces?  And, why all the GOP fussing about the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau?  One example unearthed by the CFPB in its report on predatory loans to military personnel may serve to illustrate the issue:

“A lender licensed under the Illinois Consumer Installment Loan Act extended an auto title loan to the spouse of a servicemember at an APR of 300 percent. For the 12-month contract term, the $2,575 loan, including a $95 lien fee, carried a finance charge of $5,720.24. The loan agreement provided the lender with a security interest in the borrower’s vehicle and contained a binding arbitration agreement. Although the Military Lending Act prohibits lenders from taking a non-purchase money security interest in the vehicle of a borrower covered by the law, charging a rate of interest in excess of 36 percent, and requiring covered borrowers to submit to arbitration, the auto title loan in Illinois was not subject to the protections of the Military Lending Act because it had a duration longer than 181 days.” [CFPB pdf]

And there’s another loop hole for the predatory lenders demonstrated by this example:

“An internet-based lender located offshore that targets military borrowers through their marketing extended to a servicemember a line of credit with an APR of 584 percent. In addition to the stated finance charge, the lender charged a “credit access fee” and a “transfer fee” for each draw on the $1,447 credit line. The contract provided the lender with authorization to debit the borrower’s bank account for the minimum payment due each payment period. This loan made to a borrower in Delaware was not subject to the protections of the Military Lending Act because it was structured as an open-end line of credit.”  [CFPB pdf]

There were more, equally egregious, examples provided by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report.

Representative Stivers has been the beneficiary of $42,500 in campaign contributions from pay day and predatory lenders.  Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) took in $65,500; Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) received $53,257; Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) received $41,200; and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) received $32,500. [OPSecrets]  Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV) received $6,700 in donations from pay day and predatory lenders. [OPSecrets] Predatory lending accounted for $190,150 in contributions to Democrats, and $748,585 in donations to Republicans in Congress. [OPSecrets]

However, no matter how generous the donation, there is no ethical or moral way to justify blocking protections for members of the U.S. Armed Forces from the practices mentioned above on the part of predatory lenders.  The White House was quick to respond:

“On Monday, in response to reporters’ questions, White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the potential addition to the annual authorization bill a significant concern for President Obama.

“It’s almost too difficult to believe that you’d have a member of Congress looking to carry water for the payday loan industry, and allow them to continue to target in a predatory fashion military families who in many cases are already in a vulnerable financial state,” he said.

Earnest said he “can’t imagine (the amendment) earning the majority support in the United States Congress.” [MilitaryTimes] [The Hill]

Representative Joe Heck (R-NV3) didn’t cover himself in glory the last time this subject emerged [Desert Beacon] one can only hope he’s seen the light since and will oppose the Stiver’s Amendment.  At best he can avoid some of the more lame excuses offered by the proponents of this amendment.

Stivers is anxious to tell everyone that he was a member of the military for 30 years – so he cares!  And that the Obama Administration doesn’t have a good track record of getting systems going on  ‘day one’ noting the computer problems with the health insurance rollout. [TheHill]  The “I care” argument is specious if not associated with legislation the intent of which is to protect those about whom one “cares.”  Secondly, it is a rare policy indeed which works perfectly the first day – in the public or private sector. in this instance the Representative is making the Perfect the enemy of the Good.

There’s another excuse which needs rehabilitation: “Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) added, “I would quickly point that there are always unintended consequences,” citing concerns of “drying up sources of credit for folks at  the bottom end of the economic scale.” [TheHill] “Concerned” is getting to be one of the words commonly connected to opposition to any policy or legislation which might help someone.  The question is: Are you more concerned about payday lenders being forced to shave a bit from their profits than about enlisted personnel and young officers being shaved by the pay day lenders?

As for pay day lending drying up any time soon, probably not.  In March 2013 the Washington Post reported on some big banks who were treading into the shark pool of pay day lending.  By April 2013 the FDIC and the Comptroller of the Currency were looking at the banks’ payday lending practices. [NYT]  The spotlight must have been a bit too bright because by January 2014 the larger banks were dropping the pay day loans and trying to find options which “fit within current regulatory expectations.” [CNNMoney]  However, the banks were still selling account data to pay day lenders until January 21, 2015. [Bloomberg]  And, nothing prevents the major banks from financing the operations of “independent” pay day lenders. [ConsAffairs]

While the big banks may have scurried back out of the light, the payday lending industry continues along,

“Currently, there are about 22,000 storefront payday loan stores nationwide, according to the Consumer Federation of America in Washington, D.C. On average, the industry makes $40 billion in loans and collects $6 billion in finance charges from borrowers each year.” [Bankrate]

There are alternatives.  For example: (1) Credit Union loans; (2) Small bank loans; (3) Credit Counseling assistance; and (4) options like credit card advances and credit negotiations. [Bankrate]   Representatives Heck, Stivers, and Conway would be better advised to promote the efforts of the Services to provide credit counseling and information to members of the military and their families.  The Army Community Service offers a Financial Readiness Program for those who need basic financial information and education.  The U.S. Navy offers training in Personal Financial Management.  The Air Force has its own Financial Readiness Program, and the Navy and Marine Corps oversees a Relief Fund for urgent financial needs along with caseworkers to assist personnel.

Promoting financial education, and providing services for urgent and emergency needs is a far better way of assisting our service members than protecting the pay day lenders who extend usurious loans to those who are at the “bottom end of the economic scale.”

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Filed under Defense Department, Military pay, Republicans, troop pay

To Heck With Your Service? Again?

Heck photo

The issue of protecting military families from egregious practices by predatory payday lenders gets a bit mired in Congressional legislative processes.  However, it’s not hard at all to figure out what the Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee wanted to do.

“House lawmakers narrowly voted to remove controversial language delaying new rules on payday lenders from their annual defense authorization bill early Thursday morning, calming concerns from advocates who saw the move as potentially undoing financial protections for military families.

By a 32 to 30 vote, members of the House Armed Services Committee stripped provisions from the legislation that would have delayed Defense Department plans to expand the scope of the 2006 Military Lending Act by requiring a new report due next spring on DoD’s rule-making procedures in that regard.” [MilTimes]

Congressman Joe Heck (R-NV3) has a seat on that committee.  Further, Representative Heck is the chair of the subcommittee on Military Personnel. The blurb from the subcommittee’s web page reads:

“The Military Personnel Subcommittee is responsible for military personnel policy, reserve component integration and employment issues, military health care, military education, and POW/MIA issues. This subcommittee makes sure that our troops and their loved ones are receiving the first class benefits that they deserve.”

Remember this for future reference.  For the moment ask how the statement squares with the effort to “delay new rules on payday lenders…?”  And, how does this align with comments made by subcommittee chairman Joe Heck:

“The 2006 lending law was passed by Congress after reports of payday lenders charging unusually high interest rates to troops — 400 percent or more, in some cases — and misleading borrowers about the long-term debt they could incur.

Implementation of the law initially was confined to payday loans, vehicle title loans and tax refund anticipation loans. But last September, defense officials proposed new rules that would expand the types of credit covered by the maximum 36-percent interest rate that can be charged to service members and their dependents.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., chairman of the armed services committee’s military personnel panel, said those moves have raised concerns that defense officials are applying rules too broadly.”  [MilTimes]

It’s the Pentagon’s belief that service members need protection from predatory forms of credit cards, deposit advance loans, installment loans, and unsecured open ended lines of credit.  The bottom line is simple – members of our armed forces can be charged no more than the quite nearly usurious 36% interest rate. Too broadly?  How does applying rules saying no member of the military can be charged no more than 36% cut off credit options? If a lender can’t profit with a 36% margin perhaps they ought not be in business?

Representative Heck’s idea was to have the Pentagon conduct ANOTHER study of the effects of the Military Lending Act, in spite of the completion of the original study. Translation: Congressional studies can be used to delay the implementation of regulations interminably. Meanwhile, member of the military remain threatened by the terms of predatory lenders. [More at TP]  And, was Representative Heck proud of his delaying maneuver?

“The one-year delay of new financial protections for the military appears to come from Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV), who chairs the subcommittee that produced the provision without discussion. Heck’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the provision.”  [TP]  (emphasis added)

Members of the Armed Forces should welcome the amendment by Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) which stripped Heck’s language from the appropriations bill, and was adopted by the committee on a 32-30 vote.

But wait, there’s more.

“The House voted 213-210 Thursday against an amendment that would have allowed Veterans Administration doctors to discuss medical marijuana with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions. Opponents of the amendment underscored marijuana’s federally illegal status and said veterans shouldn’t be prescribed pot for psychological problems.” [IBT]

Representative Heck voted in favor of the amendment, but Nevada Representatives Hardy and Amodei voted against it.  Perhaps Hardy and Amodei are clinging to the old War on Drugs theme, a stale leftover from those days when it seemed like every candidate for every office was running for county sheriff?

The amendment certainly wouldn’t have required the VA to prescribe marijuana or related products to veterans, but it would have aligned the services of the VA more closely with NRS 435A on the medical usage for marijuana.  The state of Illinois is currently hearing a report on studies related to the use of marijuana to assist in the treatment of PTSD.  The American Glaucoma Society isn’t thrilled with the side effects of marijuana, but acknowledges that it does reduce intraocular pressure (IOP) in glaucoma patients.

Contrary to the drum beating of the Old Drug Warriors, marijuana has been used successfully to treat moderate to severe “refractory spasticity” in multiple sclerosis patients, to alleviate loss of appetite associated with HIV/AIDS cachexia, and to inhibit chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting among cancer patients.

In short, given Representative Heck’s attempt to give a handout to the predatory lenders, and Old Drug Warriors Hardy and Amodei’s conviction that medical and marijuana don’t fit together – it wasn’t a complete loss of members of the Armed Forces and Veterans in the House, but it was a near thing.

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Filed under Amodei, Defense Department, Heck, Veterans

Support The Troops Is Just A Sound Bite?

Coburn 

“Veterans groups and military associations are blasting a move by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, intended to scuttle a veterans’ suicide prevention bill that has already passed in the House with strong bipartisan support.

The GOP lawmaker put a hold on the $22 million bill, which he opposes on grounds it has no offsets in spending elsewhere and would duplicate programs already offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said.” [MilitaryNews]

H.R. 5059 would have allocated $22 million to assist veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries… it was supposed to help reduce the suicide rate, a rate that the military admitted was underestimated in the past:

Beginning in 2005, suicide within the military — particularly for the Army — steadily began increasing to record levels every year, and may have peaked in 2012. Among full-time soldiers, the suicide rate soared to 29.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2012, well above a 25.1-per-100,000 rate for civilians of a similar age group during 2010, the latest year available, according to a Pentagon report. Among male soldiers, the rate was 31.8-per-100,000. There were a record 164 soldier-suicides that year.

The overall national civilian suicide rate was 12.1-per-100,000 in 2010 and 19.9-per-100,000 for men in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control.The Army National Guard rate for 2012 reached 30.8 deaths per 100,000 with 110 suicides. The suicide rate for men in the Army National Guard was 34.2-per-100,000,Pentagon data shows.

For full-time troops across the U.S. military, the suicide rate peaked at 22.7-per-100,000 in 2012 and fell to 19.1-per-100,000 last year, according to the Pentagon. [USAT]

Might we remind members of the Senate that the U.S. supported the expenditures to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, and seemed perfectly pleased to put these costs on the national credit card – with no “offset” required? However, when it comes to assisting veterans who fought in those wars “we don’t have the money,” and “we have to see an offset?”

Here’s a news flash… the only casualties of war aren’t the destroyed munitions!  There’s something very very wrong about a country which will spend gazillions – few questions asked – on munitions and weapons systems, but when the needs of the military personnel are obvious the politicians can’t see their way clear to address them.

Those who aren’t supporting H.R. 5059 are cordially invited to take those yellow ribbon magnets off their bumpers!

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Filed under Defense Department, Defense spending, Veterans

Thank You For Your Service, Maybe?

PTSD There’s a difference between Militarism and Supporting Our Military.  There is also a difference between being militaristic and being supportive of our nation’s service members and veterans.  A militarist tends to regard military efficiency as the best ideal of the state, and to subordinate all other interests to those of the military services. [DictRef]  Now that the terms are defined, why do conservatives have such a difficult time comprehending the problems created when they call for a “strong” Department of Defense, and a “strong” nation, or a “strong” foreign policy, and almost simultaneously disparage the members of the military and veterans when those people express their needs?

The latest manifestation of this issue comes from radio talker Michael Savage, who offered his opinion on Armed Forces members and veterans who are suffering with PTSD:

“If the whole nation is told, ‘boo-hoo-hoo, come and get a medication, come and get treatment, talk about mental illness,’ you know what you wind up with? You wind up with Obama in the White House and lawyers in every phase of the government, that’s what you wind up with. It’s a weak, sick nation. A weak, sick, broken nation.” […] “You need men like me to save the country,” he said. “You need men to stand up and say stop crying like a baby over everything.” He continued that “men are so weak and so narcissistic” that it is “no wonder ISIS can defeat our military.” [Savage/RRW]

It Helps To Know What You’re Talking About

Mr. Savage must know what he’s doing; he must know that there’s an audience for this kind of nonsense.   First, it is obvious Mr. Savage has absolutely no personal military experience.  Had he any experience he’d know the truth of the old adage: A war leaves no one unwounded.  He was about 26 at the height of the war in Vietnam, but didn’t serve.  Nonetheless, he’s certain the nation needs “men like me to save the country.”

Shut Up and Shoot Yourself?

Secondly, the fossilized notions about mental illness embedded in Savage’s rant are appalling.  If a person seeks treatment for mental health issues, then he is “weak, sick, and broken?”  Savage/Weiner couldn’t have crafted a more blatant recipe for further weakening injured individuals.  Again, even a cursory familiarity with the U.S. military would demonstrate the Department of Defense takes PTSD very seriously, in fact there’s been the establishment of the Defense Centers of Excellence – for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.  

In August 2013, the DoD, the Veterans Administration, and other agencies created a joint research program to study PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries. [Defense.Gov]  One element of the study will be a collaboration to study the factors influencing the chronic effects of mild TBI in order to improve diagnostic and treatment options, keying on a better understanding of the relationship between TBI and neurodegenerative disease.   No “boo hoo hoo” here, simply a directive from the Department of Defense and the White House that we take a serious scientific look at nature and treatment which ought to be available to any of the 2.5 million U.S. service members who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since September 2001 and need mental health treatment.

The conception that “real men (and women) don’t cry” or that “real men (and women) don’t want to be stigmatized as having a mental health issue is dangerous in and of itself.  During a presentation for the American Psychiatric Association in 2012 it was noted that fewer than half the soldiers who reported combat related PTSD received the necessary care, and of those who participate in a treatment program between 20% and 50% will stop before the treatment is complete.  When 93% of Army infantrymen have come under fire from rockets, artillery, or mortars, and when 91% report having been ambushed or attacked, and 87% report they know someone who has been seriously injured or killed, then it’s obvious some form of scientifically based treatment programs will need to be in place to assist those who develop PTSD. [Stripes]

There’s no “boo-hoo-hoo” factor when a mental health issue, such as PTSD,  produces intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance symptoms, negative feelings about self and others, inability to experience positive emotions, feeling of emotional numbness, feelings of hopelessness, memory problems, difficulty in maintaining close relationships, anger and irritability, overwhelming guilt or shame, self destructive behaviors, problems with concentration, problems with insomnia, difficulties created by being easily startled or frightened.  [MayoClinic]

This is serious stuff.  While the rates for civilian suicides remained steady at 19:100,ooo over the period of a recent study for the National Institute of Mental Health, the Army suicide rate – historically lower than the civilian rate – surpassed it in 2008 and kept climbing, until it finally dropped a bit in 2012-13.  [USAT]  What is Savage/Weiner advocating? Is his message so divorced from reality that it’s little more than “Just Shut Up and Shoot Yourself?”

An Alternative Universe of Memory

Mr. Savage/Weiner evidently defines ‘manhood’ in antediluvian terms.  Men back in the good old days were Real Men, and women knew how to act like ladies?  This TV scripted perspective never existed in any real form. Mr. Savage/Weiner seems stuck in a wonderland of Leave it to Beaver, and Ozzie and Harriet.  His definition of masculinity sounds more like an interpretation of a John Wayne movie script.  It certainly isn’t Bogart sending Bergman off in Casablanca, or Sidney Poitier in Raisin in the Sun. It most certainly isn’t ultimate slacker Hoffman in The Graduate. [NPR]  Nor is it to be found in Gregory Peck’s performance in To Kill a Mockingbird.  And, merciful heavens, it must not be anywhere near the comedic rendition from Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot.  The hard sad truth is that Mr. Savage/Weiner’s interpretation never even existed in Hollywood outside the genre of stock war movies and derivative westerns.

If Mr. Savage/Weiner is reaching about 3 million Americans with his entertainments,  about 1% of the population, then why waste pixels and print?  Because, his views energize some of the least attractive and least socially useful elements in our national repertoire of ideas.  Surely, nothing is less useful than militaristically bantering about the glories and barbarities of war, while disparaging those who come home from it  to the nightmare of PTSD.

Talk Without Money

Perhaps this isn’t such a far fetched perspective when placed in proximity to the Republican budget proposals of the recent past.  Flags, color guards, pomp and circumstance are all part of the 4th of July atmosphere attached to political performances.  However, when it comes down to the money, the appropriations for Veterans’ services life gets stickier. 

The lack of specificity in budgets crafted by Representative Paul Ryan make it very difficult to predict what the impact of his budget slashing might be, especially in the short term.  Rep. Ryan once referred to budget cuts in cost of living formulas for retired service-members as a “modest adjustment to a particularly generous program.” [WaPo]  Other modest adjustments were considered:

“The House Budget Committee, chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), has told a veterans’ group it is studying a plan to save $6 billion annually in VA health care costs by cancelling enrollment of any veteran who doesn’t have a service-related medical condition and is not poor.

Committee Republicans, searching for ways to curb federal deficits and rein in galloping VA costs, are targeting 1.3 million veterans who claim priority group 7 or 8 status and have access to VA care.” [vmusa]

In other words, “No matter what we told you about taking care of you if you volunteered to take care of our country, if we can cut back on government spending at your expense we’ll do it.”  A veteran with a priority group 7 or 8 status is on his or her own – no matter how many paeans were offered and “thank you’s for your service” rendered.

Since when did we decide, as a nation, that a veteran is not really a veteran if he or she is in the “wrong category” and is thereby less worthy of a nation’s gratitude?

How much difference is there between the hate-radio talker who disparages the mental illnesses exacerbated or triggered by combat experience and the impact of that experience on a returning veteran, and the casual elimination of veterans’ benefits from selected categories merely to satisfy the “drown the government in a bathtub” crowd?

There is a point at which it must be acknowledged that militarism creates veterans, and promises to those veterans should be kept.

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Filed under Afghanistan, conservatism, Defense Department, Foreign Policy, Health Care, Iraq

Amodei and Heck Go Nuke

Nuclear missileHere’s what we get when things are reduced to “either/or” status in the deliberations of  the House of Representatives: Do we fund cleaning up toxic sites formerly used by the Department of Defense, or do we put the $3.4 million in Air Force research and development? There was a vote on an amendment to H.R. 4870:

“An amendment numbered 4 printed in the Congressional Record to increase funding for Environmental Restoration, Formerly Used Defense Sites, by $3,400,000 and reduce funds for Research, Development, Test and Evaluation, Air Force, by the same amount.”

The amendment was sponsored by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), and it was defeated 179 to 24 [roll call 319] Nevada Representatives Titus (D-NV1) and Horsford (D-NV4) voted in favor of the amendment, Representatives Amodei (R-NV2) and Heck (R-NV3) voted against it.

In the grand scheme of federal budgeting a $3.4 million allocation isn’t all that much, but this issue does illustrate a problem for the Department of Defense, as specified in GAO reporting.

 “DOD is obligated to ensure that former defense sites are cleaned up to a level that is protective of human health and the environment. DOD has identified over 4,000 formerly used defense sites, which were closed before October 2006, and over 5,000 sites identified by several Base Realignment and Closure commissions that require cleanup.”

The Department implemented the GAO recommendations, and provides an annual report on its environmental clean up and restoration programs.  As with all things military there is an acronym for former sites, FUDS (formerly used Defense sites), and IRP (installation restoration program) and these are useful terms when reviewing the funding for these operations.

Funding for FUDS was $277.2 million in FY 2013, $287.4 million in FY 2014, and is projected to drop to $208.4 in FY 2014.  These funds would be allocated toward the restoration of 3.022 FUDS properties, and 8331 BRAC properties. [DENIX pp]  The system and the evaluation matrix are in place to implement the clean up and restoration projects.  However, only the Department of Defense could craft the following sentence explaining its goal:

Achieve RC at 90% of IRP sites, MRSs, and BD/DR sites at Active and BRAC installations, and IRP and BD/DR sites at FUDS properties, by the end of FY2018.” *Translation: RC = response complete; IRP = installation restoration program;  MRS = munition response sites; BD/DR = building demolition, debris removal; FUDS = formerly used defense sites.  BRAC = base realignment and closure.

The Department of Defense estimates that it is currently on target to meet this objective at a rate of 79%. Its projected rate is 92%.  The current FUDS rate is 78%, projected to 90%, and the BRAC rate is currently 83%, projected to 90%.  [DENIX pp]  In short, given the level of funding available, the Department of Defense is close to achieving its goal regarding the completion of restoration programs but doesn’t project a 100% “RC” in time for FY 2018.

There are two issues here, large and small.  Taking the smaller chunk first, the Department of Defense is close to meeting its targets for restoration projects, and appears at the ‘every little bit helps’ stage; meaning that the $3.4 million allocation could materially assist the Department in meeting its objectives.

By contrast, the comptroller of the Defense Department reports that the total allocated for Air Force research, development, evaluation, and testing appropriated for FY 2014 is $23,580,637,000 and the base figure for the same category in FY 2015 is $23,739,892,000. [ComptDoD pdf]  A bit of play with the plastic brains yields the information that the Blumenauer’s amendment would cost the Air Force research, development, testing and evaluation some 0.000143 of its budget.

At the heart of the floor debate, such as it was, is ‘seed’ money for a new cruise missile described by Representative Blumenauer as follows, ” The new ALCM does not yet have an official pricetag, but the research we have done suggests it is in the range of 20 to $30 billion. And a rebuilt nuclear warhead to go on it would cost another $12 billion, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration.” [ConRec]

Representative Freylinghusen responded:

“This program will provide a new air-launched cruise missile to replace a rapidly aging AGM-86. This is essential to our strategic deterrent and our ability to hold enemy targets at risk from standoff distances.

The Air Force requested $4.9 million for the program in fiscal year 2015 to continue studies and analysis in preparation for a formal acquisition program. This bill already takes a fiscally responsible $1.5 million cut from that amount.” [ConRec]

What have we learned?  That the new ALCM hasn’t gotten far enough off the drawing table to have a projected cost for the weapon.  We can estimate that the project will have the $800 million (or more) price tag discussed back in 2010. [GSN] We also know that the ALCM is a nuclear weapon, but the Pentagon hadn’t decided just what warhead would be fitted to the weapon. [GSN]

At this point the issue raised in a vote on a small amendment to a very large Defense appropriations bill takes on more meaning.

Two of Nevada’s representatives to Congress voted to provide the seed funds for the construction of a new nuclear weapon, one the Air Force considers essential to its “nuclear capacity,” and two did not.  There are some questions which were not raised during the brief discussion of the Blumenauer amendment on the House floor —

What is being said about Congressional priorities if funding for a new nuclear weapon is more essential than cleaning up and restoring formerly used military and defense installation sites?

If the new weapon is essential to the nuclear capacity of the USAF, then under what conditions and circumstances will it be used?  Or to put it rather more bluntly — whom do we intend to nuke and when? Perhaps, the two members of the Nevada congressional delegation who voted against the amendment would care to explain?

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Filed under Amodei, Defense Department, Defense spending, Heck, Politics

Getting the Signals in our Invisible War

Invisible WarIf you’ve watched “The Invisible War” and were unmoved — get therapy. If you’ve read the recent New York Times article about sexual assaults against men in the military and are still unconvinced the issue of sexual assault is a minor priority for our Armed Forces  — think again.

In its latest report on sexual assault, the Pentagon estimated that 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012, up from 19,000 in 2010. Of those cases, the Pentagon says, 53 percent involved attacks on men, mostly by other men. [NYT]

If you’ve thought we could reduce the issues to one or two buzzwords, for example “it’s cultural,” or “it’s power and dehumanization” that’s also missing some of the more nuanced topics intrinsic in the matrix.

Whether the incidents of criminal behavior are an example of outright rape, a hazing gone terribly wrong, or somewhere on the continuum of disgusting human decisions from A to B, they illustrate the complexity of the problem for both the military and civilian authorities.

Simplifying, and over-simplifying, the issue insures only that we’re avoiding real solutions while seeking quick fixes.   Some quarters are anxious to apply the Quick Fix which best fits with their religious or ideological agendas.

One such Quick Fix suggestion comes from the radical right which protests that the demise of DADT and the adoption of an alleged “homosexual agenda” is the cause of sexual assaults in the Armed Forces.   Even a nano-second of rational thought would dispel this bit of ideological mythology —  rapes are not related to homosexual or heterosexual activity.  Again, rape isn’t about intimacy; it’s simply assault and battery with another weapon.  [WVU.edu]  The average age of a rapist in the overall population is 31 years, 52% of rapists are white, and 84% of rape victims report no weapon — just physical force — was used to perpetrate the crime. [RAINN]

Another Quick Fix comes from the “Little Woman” School of Ideological Thought.  See, sayeth the apologists for male miscreants, if there were no women in the military there would be no problem. Once more, take a nano-second to digest this ridiculousness.  The military would still have a “53% problem” if there were no women in the picture.  If the Quick Fix Ideologues are dismissed from sentient considerations, there’s a better chance of having some rational discourse.

If we’re looking for solutions to the military facet of the sexual assault problem, then we might want to start at the beginning.  As of 2010 the U.S. Navy’s policy on moral waivers left the decision to initiate a “moral waiver request” to the CNRC (Commander, Navy Recruiting Command) for major misconduct, including sexual assaults if there were “2 juvenile major misconduct offenses or a combination of 1 adult and 1 juvenile major misconduct.”  Zero might be an option?

Budget cuts and the reduction in military personnel needs after the windup of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq may further reduce the “incoming” problems.  “In 2006, about 20 percent of new Army recruits came in under some type of waiver, and by the next year it had grown to nearly three in 10. After the Defense Department issued new guidelines, the percentage needing waivers started to come down in 2009.” [ArmyTimes] Most of the waivers for sexually categorized offenses were granted for incidents of consensual intercourse in which one of the participants was a juvenile.  Zero would still be nice.

There’s a problem with the second step.  Common sense might dictate that if a person has committed a rape or other form of sexual assault while in military service the chances the individual will be allowed to re-enlist are diminished and therefore the “problem” will be passed back into the civilian population.

The Army, in an internal slide presentation, is blunt: “Re-enlistment is a privilege, not a right; some ‘fully qualified’ soldiers will be denied re-enlistment due to force realignment requirements and reductions in end strength.”

In a memo earlier this year, Army Secretary John McHugh laid out more stringent criteria for denying re-enlistment, including rules that would turn away soldiers who have gotten a letter of reprimand for a recent incident involving the use of drugs or alcohol, or some soldiers who were unable to qualify for a promotion list. [Army Times 2012]

The good news might be that some who are not “qualified for promotion” because of sexual misconduct will be out of the service, the bad news is that they’re back on Main Street.  There’s worse news to come — most of the sexual misconduct cases in the military aren’t adjudicated:

Military Sexual Assault CasesThe numbers are unpleasant reading. The odds against prosecution are in the perpetrator’s favor.   The non-prosecution of sexual assaults is a lose-lose proposition, neither the military or civilian segments of our population are well served by the current system.

We’re in thornier territory when considering how to prevent the necessity of sexual assault prosecutions in the Armed Forces.  Severely limited waivers might be a start, but it’s not the answer. Neither can we trust re-enlistment curbs to provide a substantial solution.

We do know one thing about criminal behavior.    “Research to date generally indicates that increases in the certainty of punishment, as opposed to the severity of punishment, are more likely to produce deterrent benefits.” [TSP pdf]  It’s the CERTAINTY of punishment, not necessarily the severity of the punishment which reduces criminal actions.   Now, review those statistics in the graphic above one more time — what is happening to the Certainty Principle?

If those who engage in sexual assaults in a military context are convinced that the statistics are on “their side,” and they will in all likelihood NOT be prosecuted for their criminal behavior then we can logically expect — no matter how forceful the rhetoric or severe the penalties — there will be no significant reduction in the incidents.

Now we’ve come to a truly disconcerting state of affairs.  If the assaulter comes to believe that little can or will be done to prevent his or her egregious behavior, and the certainty of punishment is diminished, then we can only expect the assaults to continue, in military or civilian life.   The sensible way to break this cycle is to insure that punishment is certain, in both contexts.

No more “boys will be boys” from either unit commanders or from judges anxious that a perpetrator should not be burdened with a “record” at a relatively early age.  No more “she was asking for it by walking home from work unchaperoned.”   No more “You have to question whether the girl was ‘just saying it’ because he dumped her,” when only about 2% of all rape accusations are demonstrably false.  [Stanford edu]  No more “He (or she) just didn’t get the signals.”  Most people in intimate relationships are fully aware of their partners’ “signals.”   There might be some helpful signals.

Signal One:  Rape and sexual assaults are not sex crimes.  Those  actions are all about dominance and power.  Dominance and power used to gratify immediate wants — not needs.  The number of married individuals who commit rapes should be sufficient proof that passion has precious little to do with the assault; the persons quite often have consensual relations with willing partners, thus there is no need for rape.

Signal Two: Sexual assaults resulting from hazing or bullying are still sexual assaults.  Again, the narrative is all about power and dominance.  Granted women are the most obvious target for male predators because of their assumed less powerful status, but the assaults on young men in the military would seem to support the assertion that if male superiority is underpinned by acts of domination and displays of physical power then we’ve laid the foundation for assaults on vulnerable young men.   Apologists for male bullies appear to have adopted the premise that any restrictions levied on a young man’s physical behavior with regard to hazing and bullying  constitute a diminishing  of his “manhood.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  [TRC]

Signal Three: Blaming the victim is unacceptable.  Whether the attempt at justification incorporates the “he (or she) was asking for it” line or “it was just kid stuff” or  the victim should “man up and be quiet about it,” the signal should be the same. A rape is a rape is a rape, and sexual assault is sexual assault — and those behaviors are criminal.

Once we decide that rape is really a crime, and not, for example, an evening gone awry, then the need for further research into the issue is obvious.  In part because rape prosecutions are relatively rare in both military and civilian courts the data is necessarily scanty and current research results should be handled with caution.  [Yale edu]

Signal Four: There is no ‘rape culture.’   In fact, rape and other forms of sexual assault are antithetical to American culture.  There is no acceptance of sexual assault in American society, if by this we are talking about shared customs, laws, and institutions.  Neither western culture nor American social norms tolerate the deviance on display in sexual assaults.  A person wouldn’t be too far out on the clichéd limb arguing that a powerful motivation for ‘supporting the accused’ comes from the knowledge that conviction in court, or in the court of public opinion, of sexually related offenses means the rapist is marked for certain shame.   Asserting that an individual’s abusive and criminal behavior is part of a wider set of shared values only serves to dilute the personal responsibility which should attach to the rapist or abuser.

Signal Five: Outliers are not evidence. There is a small but vocal minority opinion in this country that bullying ought not to be “demonized” lest it interfere with the development of masculine personalities.  Some of the same voices argue for the myths given above concerning the ‘homosexual agenda’ and the proponents of the Little Women School of Masculine Domination; however, these should register for what they are — radical elements unrepresentative of this nation’s mores and values.  While they make interesting headlines and generate cable news commentary they should not be taken as seriously as some of the punditry appear to assume them to be.   Most Americans understand that women’s vaginas do not magically  ‘shut down’ when confronted by a rapist’s sperm. Most Americans understand that rape is rape, and there is no such thing as a “legitimate rape.”  Most Americans understand that bullying is unacceptable and don’t want their children subjected to it, nor do they want their offspring doing it.

Perhaps when we make these five signals clear to those in authority — in both military and civilian realms — we truly can be, in the Army’s terms — All We Can Be.

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The Military Obstacle Course: Sexual Assaults and Systemic Problems

no sexual assaultAt the beginning of last month (May 7, 2013) Nevada Senator Harry Reid expressed his disappointment with reported rise in the number of sexual assaults in the U.S. military [WaPo] By May 8th he was urging fellow Senators to use the military appropriations legislation as a vehicle for reforming the Armed Services’s systemic problems with sexual assaults. [Roll Call] By the first part of June, Senator Reid was more blunt:

“The present program within the military is not working,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday. “Women are being exploited and I’m sorry to report that even men are being exploited sexually, and that’s wrong.” [WaPo]

The Majority Leader’s frankness on the subject, combined with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) commenting that the situation is a “national disgrace,” [WaPo] should yield some long sought Congressional action.  However, the “Brass” aren’t having it. Eleven of the twelve leaders of the U.S. military who testified at the latest Senate hearing were men; all wanted One More Chance to change the system within the “Chain of Command.”

The top of the U.S. Army chain of command, General Dempsey told the panel: “I’ll speak for myself: I took my eye off the ball a bit in the commands I had,” Dempsey said. “When you tie it all together, I wouldn’t say that we’ve been inactive, but we’ve been less active than we probably need to be.” [WaPo]

You think?  Obviously someone’s eyes were not on the target, and it would appear a large number of individuals within the military were “less active” than they “probably need to be.”  Probably?  Instead of “probably,” let’s insert “unambiguously should have been.”

The first hurdle for the commanders to face is the command structure itself.  The military is different from other institutions in this country — and the concept of the chain of command in crucial to its fundamental operations.  However, when the chain becomes tangled in motivations involving advancement combined with the adjudication of criminal behavior there may be no way to resolve the issues inside the chained structures.

There’s that  moldy old adage — a chain is no stronger than its weakest link.  What happens when it is a superior who is perpetrating the assault?

“One former soldier told Parrish’s group (Protect Our Defenders) in a statement that she was sexually harassed and ultimately raped by a superior while deployed in Iraq.  The woman said she reported the assault to several officers in her chain of command, but was told that she’d be charged with adultery if she pursued the complaint. One officer even told her that he had mentioned the incident to her attacker, who said she had come onto him — and that she should be charged with harassing him.” [PBS]

The motivation for this mistreatment may run the gamut from sheer mean-spiritedness to concerns about promotion — in the military “if you aren’t moving up you’re moving out” — what unit commander wants to be the one to call his or her superior with the bad news that a rape has been reported in his or her command?

There are weak links in the upper portions of the chain as well.  Some recent examples are (1) Lt. General Susan J. Helms USAF whose promotion has been blocked by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) because General Helms granted clemency to a convicted sex offender without explanation.  [WaPo] (2)  Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, after he tossed out the sexual-assault conviction of a fighter pilot.  [WaPo]   General Franklin just couldn’t believe that a pilot who was a “doting father and husband,” would commit a rape.  [WaPo]  It’s important to note that neither of these commanders are judges, or lawyers, and neither attended the trials of the convicted felons in question.   Both were advised by legal experts not to grant clemency or to toss out the cases.   The current Krusinski  case isn’t helping:

“The latest embarrassment struck Sunday, when Arlington County police arrested the chief of the Air Force’s sexual-assault prevention branch and charged him with sexual battery. Police said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski was drunk when he approached a woman in a Crystal City parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks. Maj. Mary Danner-Jones, an Air Force spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said Krusinski was “removed from his position immediately” when the Air Force learned of his arrest.”  [WaPo]

The testimony of the JCS concerning the handling of the sexual assault problems such as those mentioned above didn’t impress Iraq veteran and House member Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI):

“We must provide accountability, which includes ensuring an independent, transparent, fair process for all reports of sexual assault, outside of the chain of command,” Gabbard said.  Gabbard, who remains a member of the Hawaii National Guard, said it “sickens” her that violent crimes occur in the ranks. “This is absolutely unacceptable,” she said.  […] “It is our collective responsibility to bring an end to this epidemic, prosecute these offenders, and provide a safe environment for survivors of sexual assault, upholding the honor and integrity and that make our military strong,” she said. [Army Times]

Representative Gabbard may very well have highlighted the source of the military dilemma — the problematic confluence of individual command and accountability with the need to take collective action to insure the safety of our troops.   If this conflict of interest cannot be resolved within the military command structure, then the military might take a look at the system used by police departments — which also take command structures very seriously — for some guidance.

The second hurdle might be the ability to conceive of an independent review as essential to the operations of a structured unit.  We’ve been down this path before.   During the 1970s police departments in this country were actively engaged in a national debate about independent review boards and agencies.  Most of the opposition to the creation of independent review panels came from police mutual aid societies, police unions, police officials, and conservative interest groups.

Community and public advocacy groups were concerned that police departments were no longer perceived as neutral, dispassionate, or impartial when dealing with some segments of various communities.   [Duke Law, pdf]  The U.S. military may be seen in an analogous position if prominent commanders like Helms and Franklin aren’t considered impartial arbiters of justice.  The military’s position may be even more tenuous if the perception is that whatever “Sarge” wants “Sarge” will get.

For all the controversy over the creation of independent review departments and agencies, the system has worked reasonably well and is in place in most major police departments.  As the International Association of Chiefs of Police observes, the system isn’t perfect, but it is a tool useful in developing better community relations and effective policing:

“Accountability is built and maintained through diligent attention to many facets of the police enterprise, ranging from entry-level selection practices, to ethics and integrity, training, supervision, misconduct policies, and performance evaluation. It is important to place citizen review in its proper context. Citizen review is but one tool among many that can be used to promote and ensure accountability. It is neither a cure-all nor likely to promote desired results unless accompanied by a full package of accountability-building strategies. Over-reliance on these mechanisms can bring disappointment to a community.”  [IACP]

The third hurdle in this obstacle course relates to the point made by the police chiefs, i.e. there are no silver bullets.   The creation of independent review panels won’t be a magic solution so long as a culture of toleration toward assaults obscures the mission of the military.  A culture of toleration won’t be ameliorated by training sessions if the sessions aren’t supported by action.  Actions, such as prosecutions, won’t be the complete response if they aren’t accepted as just by the victims, seen as impartial by the communities, and aren’t substantiated by appeals and reviews.

The fourth hurdle is all too easily forgotten.  Military recruitment in the wake of the Iraq War.  The situation was so dire the Army lowered its standards not once but twice in order to meet recruiting demands.  Defense Department reports in 2008 indicated:

 “In order to meet recruitment targets, the Army has even had to scour the bottom of the barrel. There used to be a regulation that no more than 2 percent of all recruits could be “Category IV”—defined as applicants who score in the 10th to 30th percentile on the aptitude tests. In 2004, just 0.6 percent of new soldiers scored so low. In 2005, as the Army had a hard time recruiting, the cap was raised to 4 percent. And in 2007, according to the new data, the Army exceeded even that limit—4.1 percent of new recruits last year were Cat IVs.” [Slate]

This, in addition to reports from 2007 that the military was relaxing standards concerning criminal records:

“It has also increased the number of so-called “moral waivers” to recruits with criminal pasts, even as the total number of recruits dropped slightly. The sharpest increase was in waivers for serious misdemeanors, which make up the bulk of all the Army’s moral waivers. These include aggravated assault, burglary, robbery and vehicular homicide.  The number of waivers for felony convictions also increased, to 11 percent of the 8,129 moral waivers granted in 2006, from 8 percent.”  [NYT 2007]

There are documented cases of “waiver” members of the military who have conducted themselves dishonorably to the discredit of our Armed Forces — and country.  [Feres Doctrine, download]  As long as the U.S. Armed Forces are required to downgrade standards for intelligence and moral behavior we ought not to become too alarmed by the consequences when some who have been engaged in serious misdemeanors before recruitment indulge a predilection for anti-social  behavior thereafter.

The fifth hurdle presents itself as the form of the  training these recruits (and officers) receives.   Francine Banner’s work on the Feres Doctine adds some insight:

“Until very recently, the DoD response to rising rates of sexual assault has been to engage in “soft” approaches, such as advertising campaigns and lighthearted presentations, such as “Sex Signals” and “Can I Kiss You?” Campaigns such as “Ask Her When She’s Sober,” “What a Rapist Looks Like” and “Bystander Intervention”  perpetuate the perception that most sexual assaults occur in a “he said/she said” situation in which anyone could cross a line.  “(Primarily male) troops are not encouraged to cease sexually pursuing (primarily female) co-workers but to become better at recognizing the “signals” those co-workers are sending.”  [Feres Doctrine, download]

Unfortunately this type of “education” merely serves to perpetuate the “boys will be boys unless the girls really really really say No” mentality, and the boys aren’t necessarily warned off unwarranted and unwanted behavior — just informed how to interpret the “no” signals which should in all likelihood never have been necessary in the first place.  The Army appears to be making some progress toward a more enlightened approach in its current SHARP program, in which members of the service are encouraged to “Intervene, Act, and Motivate” others to denounce sexual misconduct.

Even with the well intentioned answers to common questions about sexual assault and harassment in the SHARP website, the problem of reporting still remains…  the site gives all the usual advice one might receive from a local police officer, but the reporting will still be predominantly within the chain of command.  A person in command who has no more sexual assault prevention training than the advertising and “soft” touch videos may not be the best person to determine whether a case should proceed.

Navigating the Course

The first thing the JCS may wish to consider is either dropping its opposition to independent prosecution of sexual assault and related crimes, or at the least creating an independent review panel charged with the oversight and accountability of the prosecutions.  The second is to divest itself of any notion that a single approach will cure the problems — just as the modern Armed Forces are tasked with fighting asymmetrical operations they need to understand sexual assault as a multifaceted issue.   Further, we need to give serious consideration to the quality of the individuals being recruited into the U.S. military — reducing the number of “moral waivers” would be advisable.   If there is one thing the Armed Forces generally do well it’s training.  Since the Army has already determined its previous attempts at training in this realm were unsatisfactory, its endeavors to improve should be congratulated but continually monitored for efficacy.

All in all, Senator Reid is correct, the current system is not working. However, it’s going to take more than legislation, more than structural  reforms, and more than better recruitment and training to solve the problem.   It will take a truly Zero Tolerance attitude unencumbered by outdated attitudes and inadequate incentives for change.  And, we need this done by “yesterday.”

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