FRA NewsBytes – 4-19-13

fra_logo_tr-c6-opt1In this week’s edition:
FRA Testifies Before Senate Defense Panel
FRA and Others Discuss Veterans Issues with HVAC Chairman
Distinguished Warfare Medal Cancelled
HVAC Members Push DoD on VA Claims Backlog “Game-Changer”

FRA Testifies Before Senate Defense Panel
FRA spoke before the Senate Armed Services’ Personnel Subcommittee this week, sharing concerns of its members and those represented by the Military Coalition (TMC). NED Joe Barnes, who also co-chairs the TMC, represented enlisted organizations as one of four panelists. He addressed the impact of sequestration and other budget cuts on active duty personnel and military retirees.

Barnes thanked the subcommittee for the significant enhancements to military pay and benefits enacted since 2000, but reminded lawmakers that these improvements were put in place to address major challenges of the time  challenges that may recur if funding is cut too much.

“Discussion about these improvements usually focus only on costs and there’s usually no mention of the 13.5-percent gap that existed between military and civilian pay, major recruiting and retention challenges, concerns about the ‘hollow force,’ and the government’s failure to honor commitments to those who served in the past,” Barnes told the panel. “Military service is unlike any other occupation and continuing to ensure adequate pay and benefits for military personnel and fulfilling commitments to provide retirees must be top priorities.”

He also expressed FRA and TMC’s strong support for military pay raises that reflect the full Employment Cost Index (ECI) that would garner a 1.8-percent increase for FY 2014, rather than the reduced increase (one percent) proposed in the Administration’s FY 2014 budget.

Retirement benefits are also a concern for FRA and TMC members.  Anticipated proposals by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission to “reform” military pay and retirement benefits are generating a great deal of anxiety among those currently serving and are a threat to retention. “The powerful pull of the 20-year retirement system is the main reason retention levels have not imploded as a result of unprecedented wartime strain on troops and their families,” said Barnes.

FRA’s statement also included opposition to the Administration’s proposed TRICARE fee increases, reductions to TRICARE Prime service areas (that take effect on October 1, 2013), as well as support for expansion of concurrent receipt and USFSPA reform.   FRA’s full statement is available at www.fra.org/testimony

Subcommittee Chairwoman Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) thanked NED Joe Barnes and Steve Strobridge (Ret.), director of Government Relations for Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), both retiring this year, for their previous military service and their advocacy efforts on behalf of current, former, and future military service members.

FRA, Others Discuss Veterans Issues with HVAC Chairman
FRA and representatives from other veteran service organizations participated in a roundtable discussion of veteran’s issues with Rep. Jeff Miller (Fla.), chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and other members of the committee.  The primary point of discussion was the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) backlog of unresolved disability claims and how to fix it. Claims for Agent Orange-related disabilities, the VA’s 2014 budget request, and the growing shortage of mental health counselors were also among the issues discussed. DLP John Davis represented NP Mark Kilgore at the meeting, since he was unable to attend.

Distinguished Warfare Medal Cancelled
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced this week that the Distinguished Warfare Medal, the proposed military decoration to honor drone pilots and cyber-warriors, has been cancelled and will be replaced by a device that can be affixed to previously awarded medals. In February 2013, the Department of Defense (DoD) announced that the Distinguished Warfare Medal would be authorized for wear above the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, both of which are awarded only for battlefield service. Recognizing valor in combat has profound and significant meaning within the military community and FRA believes that recognition for non-combat service should not supersede combat-related awards. FRA National President Mark Kilgore and numerous other leaders of military and veteran organizations signed a letter to President Obama asking his personal involvement to lower the new medal’s standing in the military medals order of precedence.

Legislation was also introduced in the House (H.R. 833) and Senate (S. 470) to ensure that the Bonze Star and Purple Heart combat medals rank ahead of a new medal honoring service away from the front lines.  FRA thanks the many shipmates who used the FRA Action Center to contact their elected officials on this important issue.

HVAC Members Push DoD on VA Claims Backlog “Game-Changer”
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee sent a bipartisan letter to Department of Defense (DoD) Secretary Chuck Hagel, urging him to follow through on a February 2013 plan to improve disability benefits claims processing for transitioning service members and veterans. FRA strongly supports the DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) agreement that requires DoD to begin transferring complete and certified Service Treatment Records (STRs) to VA immediately, with electronic transfer capabilities in place by December 31, 2013.

This agreement is designed to expedite the transfer of information from DoD to VA, and will ultimately allow VA to issue compensation to disabled veterans faster. VA officials have called the plan a “game-changer” in improving the disability benefits claims process.