Thursday, October 22, 2009

Obama Signs Veterans Health Care Legislation

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

Oct. 22, 2009 - President Barack Obama signed new legislation today that creates predictable funding for veterans' health care. The Veterans Healthcare Reform and Transparency Act fundamentally changes how the Department of Veterans Affairs receive health care funding. The reform calls for appropriations a year in advance after more than two decades of regular budget delays, Obama said from the White House East Room.

"Over the past two decades, the VA budget has been late almost every year, often by months," the president said. "At this very moment, the VA is operating without a budget, making it harder for VA medical centers and clinics to deliver the care our vets need."

Obama said that because of budget shortfalls, new doctors, nurses and critical staff aren't hired on time. New health care facilities and programs often are put on hold, leaving veterans to pay the price for the government's neglect, he said.

"This is inexcusable. It's unacceptable. It's time for it to stop," he said. "And that's just what we'll do with this landmark legislation."

The law gives VA more funding predictability so officials can better budget their needs, recruit better-trained professionals and upgrade equipment. Mostly, Obama said, the law gives veterans better access to quality care.

"In short, this is common-sense reform," he said. "It promotes accountability at the VA. It ensures oversight by Congress. It is fiscally responsible by not adding a dime to the deficit, and it ensures that veterans' health care will no longer be held hostage to the annual budget battles in Washington.

"Keeping faith with our veterans is work that is never truly done," he continued. "Today's veterans expect and deserve the highest quality care, as will tomorrow's veterans, especially our men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Obama pledged his administration would continue in efforts to build a 21st-century VA. Since he's taken office, the White House, VA and Pentagon have been working to "cut the red tape and backlogs," he said.

He noted the administration has invested in mobile clinics to give veterans in rural areas better access, and cited the VA and Pentagon's work to develop a single health care record for servicemembers to make their transition out of the military a simpler process.

Obama also vowed to end homelessness among veterans and praised the success of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which offers qualified veterans better opportunities to attain higher education and training.

"All told, we have made the biggest commitment to veterans, the largest percentage increase in the VA budget in more than 30 years," he said. "As a nation, we'll pledge to fulfill our responsibilities to our veterans, because our commitment to our veterans is a sacred trust, and upholding that trust is a moral obligation."

Biden Praises Central European Allies

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

Oct. 22, 2009 - Vice President Joe Biden speaking in Bucharest, Romania, today said the United States relies on its Central European allies to help confront 21st century challenges and praised the region for its post-Cold War progress. Biden cited a litany of problems the United States and its NATO partners face, including the war in Afghanistan and other security issues affecting the military alliance.

"I come here today with a straightforward, simple message: The United States and Europe, a Europe whole and united, will meet these challenges together, for that's the only way they can be met," he said.

Biden's remarks come as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates traveled to Bratislava, Slovakia, today for a two-day NATO defense ministers meeting to discuss the U.S.-NATO role in Afghanistan. Biden's visit also comes as a pretext to the Obama administration's revamped missile defense plan, which includes placing anti-ballistic missiles in Poland.

With the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall nearing, Biden called the U.S.-European partnership the "cornerstone of American foreign policy" and reflected on the progress European nations have made since emerging from behind the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain.

"The true validation of 1989, the real story of your country and this region lies less in what you tore down, and more in what you have built," he said.

In his remarks, Biden sought to correct what he said is a misperception some hold regarding American attitudes toward the former Soviet bloc. While some view broad U.S. involvement around the world as distancing itself from its European partners, the contrary is true, he said.

"In fact, it's precisely because of our global responsibilities and your growing and capacity and willingness to meet them with us that we value our partnership with Central Europe and Europe now more than we ever had," he said. "Together, we have responsibilities to shoulder, and we have promises to keep. Those responsibilities are larger now, and the promises more significant."

Speaking about NATO, Biden said the 28-member alliance is the bedrock that binds together the nation's shared values and their common commitment to protect those values.

"As President Obama has said, there are no old members, there are no new members of NATO; there are just members. Under Article 5, an attack on one is an attack against all," he said, referring to the statute in the NATO charter undergirding the alliance's security umbrella.

"Our countries are bound together by America's dedication to European security and by Europe's dedication to America's security, which you demonstrated quickly and powerfully in the wake of 9/11, the first time Article 5 was invoked, without us asking," he added.

Gates and his European counterparts are set to discuss the U.S.-NATO strategy in Afghanistan during the ministers' meeting. The United States, which reportedly is considering a request by the top American commander in Afghanistan for an additional 40,000 troops, has some 68,000 forces there in addition to 41,000 NATO troops.

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal's assessment and resource request is being reviewed through NATO as well as U.S. chains of command. Gates called the upcoming NATO meeting part of the "process of intense consultation" the United States is undergoing with its allies and partners as it evaluates the way forward in Afghanistan.

Gates Reaffirms Commitment to South Korea

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

Oct. 22, 2009 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today reaffirmed the United States' "unwavering commitment" to its alliance with the South Korea, assuring it will continue to provide extended deterrence against North Korea and other threats. Meeting here for the 41st Annual Security Consultative Meeting, which he is co-chairing with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae Young, Gates offered assurances that the United States will use "the full range of military capabilities, including the nuclear umbrella," to protect South Korea's security.

Kim cited in his opening statement the ever-present threat to the north, exacerbated by North Korea's recent missile launches.

"Although on the surface there are signs of some change from North Korea, including its recent willingness to talk, in reality, the unstable situation, such as the nuclear program and a 'military first' policy remains unchanged," he told Gates.

Gates called the U.S. force presence here a key to the strong combined deterrent capability in place.

"I believe, Mr. Kim, our alliance is strong and healthy today and on a solid course for the future," he said. "I look forward to our discussions to build on this strength."

Kim, who served as South Korea's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before assuming his new post in September, has been a strong advocate of changes and reform to better posture his forces to cope with tensions on the peninsula.

Kim's agenda is directly in line with that of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, whose vision of a more globally focused military Gates noted during remarks yesterday to U.S. and South Korean troops at Yongsan Garrison.

"As President Lee said on Armed Forces Day three weeks ago, Korea's military must 'adapt and transform to the new environments and new types of threats,'" Gates told the group. This, he continued, means not only protecting the homeland, but also, again borrowing Lee's words, transforming the force to "carry out roles commensurate with its growing stature as a global Korea.'"

Toward that goal, today's discussions were expected to focus not only on continued U.S. commitment to the alliance, but also expanded roles South Korea can play in regional stability.

South Korea is a member of the six-party talks aimed at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, and recently joined the multinational Proliferation Security Initiative. It's also helping to enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, a measure aimed at halting North Korea's nuclear proliferation.

A senior military official traveling with Gates noted the success of the cooperation, evidenced in late June when the rusting Kang Nam 1 North Korean freighter turned around at sea and returned to its home port of Nampo. The ship was believed to be carrying cargo banned by the U.N. resolution before it turned around, seemingly with nowhere to go because no country could accept it, the official said.

"Despite the attempts to make it look like the next sequel of 'Master and Commander,' with the chase at sea," the senior defense official joked, the foiled delivery proves that "international consensus does have an effect, and that the ship turned around."

Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard, who took command of U.S. Pacific Command earlier this week, told reporters he believes North Korea will remain a top focus.

"A nuclear-armed North Korea, and a North Korea that chooses to provoke and a North Korea that may be on the brink of succession – all those things make North Korea worthy of our attention now," he said. "So, North Korea needs to be watched very closely.

Soldier Beats Breast Cancer With Early Detection

By Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke
Special to American Forces Press Service

Oct. 22, 2009 - A California Army National Guard supply noncommissioned officer diagnosed with breast cancer is cancer-free today, and she credits early detection with her new lease on life. With a yearlong deployment right around the corner when she got her diagnosis, Army Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Cowie opted for an aggressive treatment plan that would get her back to her unit quickly.

"As soon as people hear the word 'cancer,' they have the worst thought in mind," Cowie said. "That's really not the case these days. There are treatments available, and with early detection, everything can happen with a little better outcome. So, early detection is really the key."

Her gamble paid off.

"I went from diagnosis to cancer-free in 30 days, with very little interruption in my life," Cowie said. She deployed with her unit to Kuwait in 2007, and since that time has followed up every six months to ensure she's still OK.

During pre-mobilization training at Camp Atterbury, Ind., Cowie had an ultrasound after something was spotted on her mammogram. Through the Tricare military health care plan, she found a breast care specialist in Indianapolis, who did a biopsy. Three days later, she found out that she had Stage 0 breast cancer, "which is very, very early," Cowie said.

The specialist said breast cancer usually is caught at Stage 2 or 3. "I thanked my lucky stars that someone looked close enough at the mammogram," Cowie said.

Once diagnosed, Cowie discussed her timeline with her surgeon and oncologist. Her unit would be leaving Camp Atterbury in 30 days.
The doctors explained the options available to her, which included a new treatment available "that I was a good candidate for," Cowie said. MammoSite is a five-day targeted radiation therapy that uses a high daily dose of radiation.

"So, that is what I chose to do," Cowie said. "I was really committed to my deployment, being so far into the training. It was not an option for me personally to back out and say, 'Hey, I have to go home.' I made a commitment to these troops and to this unit to see this through as long as the military would let me."

Cowie was treated twice a day for 15 to 20 minutes for five days. "It was pretty aggressive, but ... I consider myself pretty lucky to have caught it so early," she said. "I am a perfect example of [early detection]."

Throughout her ordeal, Cowie said, she was supported by her biological family and her Guard family.

"My family understands my dedication to duty," she said. "But the call to Mom was a little scary for me. I put it off until I absolutely had to. I didn't want them to worry. They are already worrying that I'm deploying, so now I had to give them something else to worry about."

Cowie said her family offered support and didn't get overly emotional. "That was the support that I really needed, because I wanted to stay focused. I didn't want to go into the negative thoughts. ... I just couldn't go there."

With her Guard family, it was a little different. Cowie's commander and first sergeant were men. "It was a little tricky at first," she said, "but they were so great."

After explaining her situation, Cowie said, her Guard leaders told her it was her decision and that they would support her either way. "I thought about it for two seconds, and said, 'I'm staying,'" she recalled. "They were a big, big help to me."

The hardest part was continuing to lead her soldiers, Cowie said. "As an NCO, you always have to lead from the front. With this, that's a little difficult. There were days that were a little harder for me. But I knew my soldiers looked up to me. I had to make sure that I was still [there] for my soldiers, and at the same time still taking care of myself."

Cowie, who is a 15-year veteran of the Army Reserve and the Army Guard, said the experience gave her a greater appreciation for the research being done to cure all forms of cancer. "Little did I know how much new treatments would mean to my life," she said.

Throughout her battle, Cowie was in contact with her surgeon and oncologist every day.

"I was committed to making this happen," she said. "The whole team knew what our end goal was." Being cancer free was paramount, she added, "but also to not totally lose what I had going on with the deployment."

Cowie said she knew she may have to follow the unit later if she wasn't able to stick to the timeline, but that she had no other doubts about the path she chose.

"When things fall into place, you have to believe that someone is out there watching out for you, and that there is a plan ahead of you and you are on the right course," she said.

(Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke serves at the National Guard Bureau.)

Gates, Japanese Leaders Vow Continued Cooperation

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

Oct. 21, 2009 - Citing "great opportunities" to further strengthen the U.S.-Japanese security relationship in cooperation with the new Japanese government, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates re-emphasized today the need to move forward with the previously agreed-to realignment plan. Gates met with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, calling the U.S.-Japan partnership "the cornerstone of our security policy in Asia."

Hatoyama told Gates his administration "cherishes our alliance" with the United States and plans to put a "fresh impetus" on furthering it. It's as important today as when it was formed, he added, particularly in light of "uncertainty" in the region.

Speaking during a joint news conference with Kitazawa, Gates expressed hope in advancing the relationship that has provided a defense umbrella for Japan for nearly 50 years and helped to provide security to the region.

"The true legacy of the last 50 years is the enormous potential we have to strengthen our ties to tackle security challenges as an alliance of equals in the 21st century," he said.

Gates and Kitazawa discussed issues ranging from the two countries' missile defense cooperation – critical, Gates noted, in light of North Korean activities – to Japan's role in disaster response and counterpiracy operations to its support for the mission in Afghanistan.

Gates thanked the Japanese government for providing reconstruction and security assistance in Afghanistan, as well as for the refueling support it has provided the coalition in Afghanistan. If the new government terminates the mission Jan. 15 as announced, Japan still has "robust opportunities for additional kinds of assistance" it can provide, he said.

Gates ticked off several possibilities, including financial support to expand the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, as well economic and cultural development assistance.

"We would only hope that Japan's contribution will be commensurate with its standing as one of the greatest powers in the world," Gates said.

The two also discussed Japan's host-nation support of U.S. forces stationed there, which Gates said the United States views as "a strategic pillar" of the alliance.

A key issue in today's talks, he said, was "the importance of our bilateral realignment roadmap, its strategic benefits to the United States, Japan and the region, in particular, and the importance of moving forward expeditiously on the roadmap as agreed."

The agreement includes plans to move thousands of U.S. forces from southern Okinawa, consolidate numerous bases, build a new runway to the north at Camp Schwab to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, and relocate 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam.

The Hatoyama government has expressed an interest in re-examining the agreement, particularly issues involving the relocation of Marines from Futenma about 30 miles north to Camp Schwab, which Gates calls "the lynchpin" of the realignment roadmap.

Gates emphasized the complexity of the agreement that was negotiated over the past 15 years and the danger of trying to pick it apart piece by piece. "It is interlocking, and to begin to pull apart different pieces of it would be immensely complicated and counterproductive.

"We have investigated all of the alternatives in great detail, and believe that they are both politically untenable and operational unworkable," he said. "Our view is [that] this may not be the perfect alternative for anyone, but it is the best alternative for everyone, and it is time to move on."

He re-emphasized that position at today's news conference. "Our view is clear," he said. "Without the Futenma [replacement] facility, there will be no relocation to Guam. And without relocation to Guam, there will be no consolidation of forces and return of land in Okinawa."

Gates said modest changes, such as moving the Camp Schwab runway a matter of meters from where it originally was agreed to be built, is a matter for the people of Japan, not the United States, to discuss.

"Our only caveat," he said, "would be that it not slow the implementation process."

Gates Calls on South Korea to Expand Security Role

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

Oct. 21, 2009 - Lauding progress toward transferring wartime operational control of South Korean troops to their own country in 2012, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today called on the longtime U.S. ally to assume a larger security role on the Korean peninsula and beyond. Gates told a gathering of about 150 U.S. and South Korean troops at Yongsan Garrison here that he's impressed in strides the South Korean armed forces have made toward assuming the lead defense role in their national territory. These efforts, along with a bold modernization effort, have built a force he called "poised to lead the defense of your homeland and protect your nation's security interests around the world."

Gates called on South Korea's political leaders to invest more in their country's defense, at a level "appropriate to Korea's emerging role as a contributor to global security, and commensurate with the threat you face on the peninsula."

North Korea – the impetus for the long-term U.S. security commitment here – has become increasingly lethal and destabilizing, he said. Though North Korea still has the capacity, although degraded, to strike south of the demilitarized zone, he noted, that threat pales in comparison to current developments that "threaten not just the peninsula, but the Pacific Rim and international stability as well."

"Today, it is North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons and proliferation of nuclear know-how and ballistic missile weapons and parts that have focused our attention," Gates told the audience. "We do not today, nor will we ever, accept a North Korea with nuclear weapons. We will work, as an alliance and with other allies and partners, for the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea."

Gates reiterated the U.S. commitment to using the "full range of American military might" to provide extended deterrence. This includes everything from the nuclear umbrella to conventional-strike and missile-defense capabilities, as well as the continued U.S. military presence in South Korea.

But meanwhile, he added, the U.S.-South Korean alliance needs to continue to evolve to stand up to mutual security commitments, including those beyond the Korean peninsula.

Gone are the days, Gates said, when South Korea deployed forces -- in Vietnam and Iraq, for example -- seemingly as a gesture for the United States.

"Going forward, Korea's international military contributions should be seen as what they are: something that is done to benefit your own security and vital national interests," he said. "The will and the ability of the Republic of Korea to act regionally and globally are entirely consistent with your obligation to lead the defense of this peninsula."