Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fort Hood Casualties to Receive Combatant Status Under New House Legislation

Army and civilian personnel who were wounded or killed in the shooting attack on Fort Hood would be granted the same legal status as combatant casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, if bipartisan legislation introduced today by U.S. Representative John Carter (R-TX31) passes into law. Carter was joined by U.S. Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX10) for a news conference unveiling the bill in the House Radio-TV Gallery in the U.S. Capitol this afternoon. Watch the news conference here.

“Our Fort Hood casualties should receive the same benefits and recognition as other combat casualties,” says Carter, who represents the Fort Hood area in the House, “as this was a planned terror attack on U.S. military personnel. It should make no difference in our care for the wounded and the families of the slain whether it occurred on an Army base in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Texas.”

While many military and survivor benefits are the same regardless of the status of the casualty, combatant status allows military personnel to receive the Purple Heart, and civilians to receive the equivalent award, the Secretary of Defense Medal of Freedom. Combatant status would also guarantee that the beneficiaries of all military personnel who lost their lives in the attack would receive the maximum life insurance available, extended family housing privileges, and other benefits.

“This bill is not about investigations or assigning blame,” says Carter. “It is about taking care of our troops and their families first. That’s why we have such strong support from both sides of the aisle, and why we hope and expect this to move quickly.”

Over 30 House Members nearly evenly split between parties joined Carter as original co-sponsors on the legislation. Carter is Co-chairman of the House Army Caucus for the 111th Congress, and is Secretary of the House Republican Conference.

Obama Offers Tough Talk on North Korea, Iran

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

Nov. 17, 2009 - President Barack Obama today emphasized the importance of keeping international efforts focused on nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran. In a joint news conference in Beijing with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Obama said both leaders agreed on the need for the six-party dialogue involving the United States, China, Japan, Russia and both Koreas to resume as soon as possible. He also warned of potential "consequences" if Iran fails to demonstrate its nuclear ambitions are peaceful.

"North Korea has a choice: It can continue down the path of confrontation and provocation that has led to less security, less prosperity, and more isolation from the global community," Obama said, "or it can choose to become a full member of the international community, which will give a better life to its people by living up to international obligations and foregoing nuclear weapons."

North Korea backed out of talks last spring after receiving widespread international condemnation for conducting a missile launch in April, which it followed with a second nuclear test.

Obama expressed appreciation to China, considered one of North Korea's main allies, for supporting nuclear nonproliferation efforts aimed at Pyongyang.

"I told [Hu] how appreciative I am of China's support for the global nonproliferation regime as well as the verifiable elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program," Obama told reporters following a meeting with his Chinese counterpart at the Great Hall.

Speaking about the nuclear program in Iran, Obama said he and Hu agreed that the government in Tehran must provide assurances to the international community that its nuclear program is peaceful and transparent.

"On this point, our two nations and the rest of our P5-plus-1 partners are unified," Obama said, referring to the five permanent U.N. Security Council members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- plus Germany.

The International Atomic Energy Agency this week demanded Iran provide more information about the purpose of a previously secret nuclear site and indicated Tehran could be hiding other facilities, according to reports.

"Iran has an opportunity to present and demonstrate its peaceful intentions," Obama said. "But if it fails to take this opportunity, there will be consequences."

Air Force Warfare Center Improves Warfighter Support

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

Nev., Nov. 17, 2009 - At the Air Force Warfare Center here, lessons learned supporting ground troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are being shared with the aviation community and incorporated into the training as quickly as they're developed. Meanwhile, the center's operational arm, the 57th Wing, is helping to train warfighters to take maximum advantage of air assets available to support them, as well as airmen who operate directly with them in the combat theater.

"When you look around the warfare center, it is hard to think of what really isn't connected to today's fight in some shape or form," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Stanley "Ted" Kresge, Air Force Warfare Center commander. "The entire institution is responding to what is going on, and how it can better support the troops on the ground."

The 561st Joint Tactics Squadron is the most forward edge of that effort. Its members regularly deploy into the combat theater to identify emerging tactics, techniques and procedures, as well as gaps in warfighter support.

"We form teams of experts across mission areas and travel to Iraq and Afghanistan to interview people at war, sit down and have discussions about what's working, what's not working, what's going on, and [asking], 'What have you learned since you have been here?'" Kresge said. "They're not only trying to find out what is working, but also what is not working, then to close the book and do something about it with a feedback cycle."

The teams report their findings back to the schoolhouse to incorporate into its programs, which provide the world's most advanced training in weapons and tactics employment to combat air forces officers.

The warfare center shares these lessons with the Air Force aviation community, as well as Army and Marine Corps leaders, during regular joint forums. But another popular venue, the Web-based "Community of Practice," reaches out to a broader population with a real-time tactics exchange. The forum is by far the most-viewed network on the Air Force Knowledge Now portal.

"Folks can get on there and prepare their training plan before they go to the [combat theater]," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Russell J. Handy, the 57th Wing commander. "It gives them the opportunity to learn first-hand what is going on over there, and what they need to train for differently."

Meanwhile, as the warfare center's operations arm, the 57th Wing supports this effort through tactics development geared to the evolving threat.

For example, the wing helped to identify the best ways for the F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft, designed as a long-range interdiction platform, to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and close-air support missions in the current fight.

Also, training on the massive Nevada Test and Training Range here, it tested tactics used to provide reconnaissance and close-air support in conditions found in the combat zone. The wing came up with techniques for tracking high-value targets riding in fast-moving vehicles, "skipping" bombs deep inside tunnels serving as insurgent hiding grounds, and increasing the precision of strikes in busy urban centers without causing collateral damage.

Currently, the wing is focused heavily on taking better advantage of digital tools such as the remote operated video enhanced receiver, or ROVER, to improve coordination between ground troops and Air Force support elements, Handy said.

"What we found over the years is that there is a lot more efficient and better way to pass information than just jumping on the radio and talking to each other," he said.

Far better, he explained, is enabling front-line forces to receive streaming video directly from both manned and remotely piloted aircraft. Digitally aided close-air support tools provide the same operational picture to ground commanders, the on-the-ground joint terminal attack controller and aircraft pilot, he explained.

"Every time you hear better or different ways of doing things, we're on top of it," Handy said. "It's all about how to most quickly and efficiently support those troops on the ground."

As the 57th Wing advances new tactics, techniques and procedures, the Air Force Warfare Center works to get them out to the Air Force community as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, the wing also helps to train ground troops to take maximum advantage of air support available to them.

It provides air support for ground forces about to deploy to Afghanistan and Iraq during their mission rehearsal exercises at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., and the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.

A detachment based at the Army Fires Center at Fort Sill, Okla., trains joint fires officers operating at the platoon level to coordinate close-air support, when needed.

In addition, the wing provides advanced training for airmen who working directly with ground troops in the combat theater, with an increasing focus on training more joint terminal attack controllers who typically work at the corps level to coordinate close-air support.

"We are rapidly expanding that program to meet the demands in the area of responsibility, and looking for better and more efficient ways to train," Handy said.

Ultimately, he said, the mission comes down to increasing the Air Force's effectiveness in supporting ground troops in harm's way. "It's all about being able to find out that there is someone in trouble on the ground, and as quickly and efficiently as possible, help that soldier on the ground," he said.

The joint effort – ground forces supported by air assets – brings a capability exponentially larger than what either ground or air forces could provide alone, he said. "I've never seen the joint relationship any stronger," he added.

Army Leaders Struggle With Soldier Suicide Rate

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service

Nov. 17, 2009 - The rate of soldier suicides continues to concern Army leadership, with 211 active-duty and reserve-component suicides confirmed this year, the Army's No. 2 officer told Pentagon reporters today. "Simply stated, it is not a single problem with a defined set of symptoms or markers," said Army Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff. "There are no easy answers or solutions. We still haven't found any statistically significant causal linkage that would allow us to effectively predict human behavior."

As of yesterday, 140 active-duty soldiers and 71 reserve-component troops had taken their own lives this year. The Army reported 140 active-duty suicides for all of 2008, a record high since 1980, when the Army first began tracking suicide statistics.

Although 2009 likely will be another record high for suicides in the Army, Chiarelli said, a variety of actions and studies have made progress. The general noted the recently launched Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, the Suicide Prevention Task Force and the Army's five-year research partnership with the National Institute of Mental Health. But leadership intervention is the biggest factor in prevention, he said.

Almost one-third of the Army's suicides this year occurred in January and February. The trend for most months since then has been significantly lower because of the Army's initiatives to raise awareness, identify undiagnosed mental illnesses and remove the stigma of psychological issues, Chiarelli said.

"We're making progress," the general said. "The general trend line, with the exception of a couple of months, has been down. If you were to ask me the single reason why I think we're starting to make progress, it's leader involvement across the entire force."

The reality, Chiarelli noted, is that each incident is as unique as the individual. While the Army's initial cause for concern was in the stresses brought on by frequent deployments, he said, about one-third of suicides have been by soldiers who never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Soldier suicides increased this year at Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Stewart, Ga.; and Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, but were down at other frequently deployed Army posts such as Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Bragg, N.C.; and Fort Drum, N.Y., the general said.

Army officials are having difficulty pinpointing specific contributing reasons for suicide, he acknowledged, but have gained a better understanding of traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress as factors, he said.

"Fortunately, we've come to a better understanding of some of the specific symptoms that may indicate high-risk individuals," he said. "We continue to focus on the related areas of undiagnosed mild TBI, PTSD and mental illnesses, risky behavior and other stressors."

The Army continues to study the individual cases and learn more about prevention methods through its civilian partnerships and internal programs. Data from the Suicide Prevention Task Force, the National Institute of Mental Health and the execution of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness "looks very promising," Chiarelli said.

"We're continuing to conduct a holistic program review on all programs related to health promotion, risk reduction and suicide prevention," he said. "We're examining our legacy programs to ensure they are coordinated, streamlined, properly resourced and appropriate for today's soldiers, Army civilians and family members."

Comprehensive Soldier Fitness is "the biggest step" the Army has taken to enhance mental wellness through prevention rather than treatment, he added.

"It's an investment in the readiness of our force that gives the same emphasis to psychological, emotional and mental strength that we have previously given to physical fitness," he said.

Army Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum, chief of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, said that although the Army historically has focused primarily on physical fitness and technical proficiency of soldiers in their job-related field, psychological fitness is essential in today's era of persistent conflict.

Through Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, she said, Army leadership and individual soldiers can assess and build on their decision-making abilities, coping skills and communication skills. Eventually, more mentally fit soldiers will be able to pass their knowledge on to less-fit soldiers, just as soldiers always have done with physical fitness, she said.

"Those things together, if you improve on them, are increasing resilience and psychological fitness," Cornum said. "And happily, these are things that can be taught. We need to give everybody an education so that we bring everybody up to a higher level than they came.

"Just like physical fitness," she added, "we need to bring [soldiers] up to their psychological potential. And if people are already good at those things, we then teach them how to be an example."

Chiarelli and Army leadership have their first of what will be annual briefings from the National Institute of Mental Health in early December. For the past year, the Army has been providing the institute with information and data on its suicide cases.

The institute's recommendations will be implemented in the Army's current programs and initiatives, he said, adding that such briefings will be constant for at least the next five years.

Commander Returns to Vietnam

By Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew R. White
Special to American Forces Press Service

Nov. 17, 2009 - Nearly 35 years ago, Navy Cmdr. H.B. Le left Vietnam aboard a fishing trawler. He returned at the helm of a U.S. Navy warship when the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen arrived here Nov. 7 for a scheduled port visit. "My crew and I are proud to be able to represent our country to the people of Vietnam," said Le, Lassen's commanding officer. "This visit is a symbol of the friendship between our two nations, and we are deeply honored to be a part of it. I'm very humbled by the amazing opportunity to get to Vietnam after more than 34 years. I feel so fortunate to bring Lassen and my crew to Vietnam."

Le's story of escape followed by prosperity in the United States reads like a Hollywood script.

"My father was a commander in the South Vietnamese Navy and was serving as the deputy commanding officer of Nha Be Naval Support Base when we left Vietnam," he said. "The evening of the 29th of April, 1975, his commanding officer left the country with his family without telling my dad, and when his officers told him about that, he assumed command.

"The next day, only after realizing Saigon had fallen, did my dad tell his remaining men to go home to their families and to make sure to take care of them," he continued. "My dad navigated a fishing trawler with 400 passengers out to sea, where we were picked up by USS Barbour County on May 2, 1975."

Leaving Vietnam had a profound impact on his family, Le said. "My parents had to start all over again with no money in their pockets. Thanks to some truly generous and wonderful Americans who sponsored us, my dad was able to forge a new beginning," he said.

The Le family settled in Virginia. As his father had many years before him, Le heard the call of the seas as he grew older. He became a U.S. citizen in 1985, and graduated with merit from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1992 and received his commission a U.S. Navy officer.

"Growing up, my father never pushed me to join the Navy or anything like that," Le said. "He said, 'Do what you want to do, but whatever you do, do your best at it.' So when I did decide to go to the Naval Academy, he was proud of me for that."

The crew Le leads is one of few in the Navy who have had the opportunity to visit the Asia-Pacific nation since the end of hostilities in 1975.

"I never thought I'd have a chance to visit Vietnam," said Navy Seaman Michael McLean, a logistics specialist from Gahanna, Ohio. "All that history that happened in Vietnam, and now I get to see it first-hand," he said.

The port visit gives McLean and his fellow sailors the opportunity to interact with the people of Da Nang and experience their customs and culture, and to compete in soccer and basketball games against students from the University of Da Nang. But the visit is not just about fun and games; Lassen's crew will take part in two community service projects in the Da Nang area.

Le assumed command of Lassen and its crew of nearly 300 in April. The ship is one of seven destroyers assigned to Destroyer Squadron 15, forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, as part of the U.S. 7th Fleet.

(Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew R. White serves with Navy Public Affairs Support Element West, Detachment Japan.)

Official Calls Military Child Care 'Model for Nation'

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

Nov. 17, 2009 - The Military Child Care Act of 1989 has made the military child care system the one to emulate. "We have come a long way," said Tommy T. Thomas, deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy, during the opening remarks of the department's annual child development conference. "The Department of Defense Child Development System is ... a model for this nation."

Thomas' statement echoes what President Bill Clinton said about the military's child development programs in 1997.

In the 20 years since enactment of the Military Child Care Act, military child care has undergone enormous change. Those changes have led to recognition by a number of organizations, including the National Association of Regulatory Administration and the National Women's Law Center for the department's commitment to high-quality, accessible, affordable child care.

Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, lauded the military's approach to improving its system. The Military Child Care Act was particularly important, she said, because it applied a systemic approach to improving the quality, affordability, and availability of child care for all servicemembers, regardless of rank or income.

"The military child care system has been faithful in adhering to these goals in operations and furthering them in a systemic way," she said.

By contrast, she said, the private-sector child care industry is a patchwork of legislative initiatives resulting in an incomprehensive approach to addressing the challenges of providing affordable child care to the civilian population.

Speakers at the Defense Department conference agreed that accreditation, inspection and training are necessary for a successful child-care program. In fact, 97 percent of the more than 300 military child development centers serving more than 200,000 children are accredited through the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs, a division of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Army suicides to top 2008, but progress reported

By PAULINE JELINEK, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – Soldier suicides this year are almost sure to top last year's grim totals, but a recent decline in the pace of such incidents could mean the Army is starting to make progress in stemming them, officials said Tuesday.

Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli said that as of Monday, 140 active duty soldiers were believed to have died of self-inflicted wounds so far in 2009. That's the same as were confirmed for all of 2008.

"We are almost certainly going to end the year higher than last year ... this is horrible, and I do not want to downplay the significance of these numbers in any way," he said.

But Chiarelli said there has been a tapering off in recent months from large surges in suspected suicides in January and February.

"Our goal since the beginning has been to reduce the overall incidence of suicide and I do believe we are finally beginning to see progress being made," Chiarelli told a Pentagon press conference.

He attributed those hints of a turning to some unprecedented efforts the Army has made since February to educate soldiers and leaders about the issue.

Officials are still stumped about what is driving the historically high rates across the military force. When asked whether the rates reflect unprecedented high stress from long and repeated deployments to provide manpower for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Chiarelli said he didn't know.

"The reality is there is no simple answer," he said. "Each suicide is as unique as the individuals themselves."

Chiarelli said that on top of the 140 suicides reported from the active duty force, there were another 71 suicides by troops in the National Guard and Reserve.

All of the numbers are preliminary in that investigations into some of the deaths are still ongoing. Of the 140 so far this year among active duty troops, 90 have been confirmed as suicides and 50 are suspected but the probes are not yet finished.

Each year, nearly all suspected suicides are eventually confirmed. For instance in 2008, there were 143 suspected and 140 were eventually confirmed.

Chiarelli said officials will continue to focus on things that are symptoms of high-risk individuals such as undiagnosed brain injuries like concussions; on Post-Traumatic Stress, and on risky behavior such as poor diet and sleep habits as well as more serious behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse.

The Army widened its suicide prevention in March in an attempt to make rapid improvements. In October, the service introduced its Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, which Chiarelli called "the biggest step ... taken to enhance wellness in the entire force through prevention rather than treatment."

The program aims to put the same emphasis on mental and emotion strength as the military traditionally has on physical strength. Basic training now includes anti-stress programs as part of a broader effort to help soldiers deal with the aftereffects of combat and prevent suicides.

Also last month, the Army started using a new screening questionnaire to try to determine preexisting or current mental health issues among troops as part of the enlistment process.

Despite those campaigns, another jump in suicide figures for 2009 would make it the fifth straight year that such deaths have set a record within the military. Last year's 140 record erased a high 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006.

Chiarelli said officials are concerned with increases this year at Fort Campbell, Fort Stewart and Schofield Barracks and are trying to learn why suicides rates are down at Fort Hood, Fort Bragg and Fort Drum.

At Fort Campbell in Kentucky there were 18, while at Fort Bragg, N.C., which has almost double the population, there have been six all year.

Using some bases as examples of the trend downward, Chiarelli said that of the 18 suicides reported this year at Fort Campbell, 11 of those were in the first four months of the year. At Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, there were seven all year so far — five in the first five months of the year and only two since.

The numbers kept by the service branches don't show the whole picture of war-related suicides because they don't include deaths after people have left the military. The Department of Veterans Affairs tracks those numbers and says there were 144 suicides among the nearly 500,000 service members who left the military from 2002-2005 after fighting in at least one of the wars.

The true incidence of suicide among military veterans is not known, according to a report last year by the Congressional Research Service. Based on numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the VA estimates that 18 veterans a day — or 6,500 a year — take their lives, but that number includes vets from all previous wars.


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