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Could Online Exchange Shopping Soon Be Available to All Veterans?

exchange

By Debbie Gregory.

The Defense Department’s Executive Resale Board has unanimously voted to recommend that military exchange services open online discount shopping to 19 million honorably discharged veterans.

The plan, which could begin at the end of next year, would extend shopping discounts to most American veterans.

Not only would the plan reward those who have served by giving them a 20 percent savings over commercial department stores, but it would also increase exchange revenues to offset recent declines.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work is expected to give final approval to the Veterans Online Shopping Benefit within the next 2-3 months.

The military relies on the revenue from the exchanges to fund its Morale, Welfare and Recreational activities. Because of budget restrictions, some services have had to use exchange dividends for more basic needs rather than “frills.”

Army and Air Force Exchange Service CEO Thomas C. Shull has led the effort to expand online shopping. By adding veterans to the online patron base, exchange services expect total annual online sales to jump from $250 million to $1 billion in less than four years.

The commissary shopping benefit isn’t involved, so there won’t be any dilution to that benefit, or any increase in crowding or product availability. Military retirees, 100-percent disabled veterans and Medal of Honor recipients would still be the only veterans allowed to shop in base exchanges.

Exchanges are eyeing a “soft launch” of the expanded online benefit to segments of veterans by mid-2017, to gauge demand and test system capabilities including the process to verify veteran status. A full launch with much fanfare and promotion is expected by Veterans Day in November 2017.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

House Passes New VA Accountability Legislation

passed

By Debbie Gregory.

H R 5620, the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016, passed in the House on September 14, 2016 and now goes to the Senate for consideration.

The bill was introduced by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.)

The legislation provides for the removal or demotion of employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs based on performance or misconduct, and for other purposes. It changes how the Veterans Affairs Department disciplines and fires its employees and senior executives.

The Obama administration said it’s pleased to see VA’s appeals proposal appear in the legislation, and it supports those specific provisions.

The bill establishes an additional whistle blower complaint process, which includes suspension and removal actions against supervisory employees who commit prohibited personnel actions against a whistle blower.

Additionally, the bill also includes a long-awaited and often lauded proposal to reform the veterans appeals process. The legislation incorporates the VA’s proposal for appeals reform, which the department developed this spring with several veterans service organizations.

The Obama administration said it’s pleased to see VA’s appeals proposal appear in the legislation, and it supports those specific provisions.

The bill has received criticism from some federal employee unions and organizations.

“This legislation is not about improving how we treat and care for our veterans,” said American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox in a statement. “It’s a partisan effort to allow favoritism and cronyism to govern the VA by turning VA employees, and ultimately every federal worker, into an at-will employee who can be fired at any time with little to no recourse.”

To see how your representative voted, go to  https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/114-2016/h519

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance Providing Free Medical Marijuana to CA Vets

santa cruz

By Debbie Gregory.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called U.S. abuse of prescription narcotics the worst drug addiction epidemic in the country’s history. To mitigate this problem, a strong case has been made for medical marijuana as an alternative.

“Plants, not pills,” said Aaron Newsom, co-founder and vice president of Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance. The group’s goal is to provide qualified California military veterans with top quality lab tested medical cannabis grown by fellow veterans, as well as providing a community and support network for veterans.

On the first and third Monday of each month, the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance meets behind the VFW building in Live Oak to dispense small brown bags containing an alternative pain reliever to an army of veterans with PTSD and chronic pain.

Newsom, who served in the Marine Corps from 2002 to 2008, and fellow co-founder Jason Sweatt, are not just leaders in the burgeoning medical marijuana industry, they also use the medicine to treat their own combat-inflicted PTSD.

“What veterans need, what everyone needs, is alternatives to prescription medications. Not just narcotics, but also the wide range of antidepressants and their negative side effects,” Newsom said.

The Veterans Alliance has developed a unique business model, where they grow the marijuana, donate a percentage of the yield to medical card-holding members for free and then sell the remainder to general medical cannabis dispensaries.

Marcel Bonn-Miller, a principal investigator at the Department of Veterans Affair’s Substance and Anxiety Intervention Laboratory in Menlo Park, and his team have donated their time and resources to perform a six-month study of members of the Veterans Alliance to analyze the effects of medical marijuana on PTSD symptoms

“We’re using written questionnaires to assess their PTSD and sleep over time. We’re also having the marijuana that the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance distributes tested by SC Labs,” Bonn-Miller said.

To join the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance, you must be a military veteran, California resident and have a state medical marijuana recommendation from a doctor. For more information, visit scveteransalliance.com.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Critics Want Congress to Block DoD’s Freedom of Information Act Proposal

foia

By Debbie Gregory.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that allows access to information from the federal government. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.

Now, Congress has been asked by a number of organizations to block new changes to the FOIA requested by the Defense Department, saying that approving them would allow the Pentagon to “excuse itself from the hard fought and necessary reforms.”

Before Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, federal agencies were veiled in secrecy. Information was nearly impossible to get.

The proposal would give the Pentagon the ability to withhold information about unclassified tactics, techniques and procedures used by the Armed Forces.

A letter released by the Project On Government Oversight argues that the proposal is so broad “it could allow DoD to withhold almost any unclassified document at all related to Defense Department operations and could be used to justify concealing just about any material DoD creates.”

Those who advocate for transparency have called for the Pentagon to improve its adherence to FOIA.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform acknowledges that it is common for government agencies to use delay tactics to withhold information after a FOIA request has been filed, including sending letters in which an agency asks if a requester is still interested in information sought and says a request will be closed if the agency does not receive a response within days.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Army Announces Long-Anticipated MWR Program Cuts

mwrrrrrrrrr

By Debbie Gregory.

Soldiers and their families around the world will soon see the results of budget cuts in morale, welfare and recreation programs, including closures of some facilities, reduced operating hours and increased fees.

After years of warnings that major cuts were coming, officials with the Army’s Installation Management Command announced that the day has finally arrived.

“The bottom line is in fiscal year ’17, beginning in October, we’re going to have a little less money to put into our family Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) programs than we have in previous years,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, head of Army Installation Management Command (IMCOM), which oversees family programs.

Army budget shortfalls have been covered through non-appropriated fund accounts, which are filled by sales and exchange dividends. Officials are implementing a $105 million cut — about 23 percent — in taxpayer funding for MWR for fiscal 2017, which starts October 1.

Child care centers and child and youth services programs are safe from cuts, but almost everything else is fair game.

To help garrison commanders and senior decide what to cut, the command has sent out a program priorities list known as the “bin chart,” officials said.

The chart lists programs in order of importance.  Moderate and low priority programs, such as arts and crafts programs and spouse employment readiness services, are most at risk.

Programs at rural posts, such as Fort Greely, Alaska, and Fort Irwin, California, will be spared from the cut sheet because they are remote and isolated; there are no alternatives off the installation.

Dahl said he is asking commanders to use their knowledge about their own communities to guide which programs to reduce or eliminate.

“Which programs are most important? Which programs are least important? How can they mitigate it? Do they want to go with flexible hours? Do they want to integrate volunteers? Do they want to sustain these programs that are most important to the community by closing once a day or perhaps charging a fee or an additional fee,” he said.

As for the other service branches, Marine Corps spokeswoman Heather Hagan said that service doesn’t plan any reductions in MWR at this time, but they routinely assess MWR programs and services.

Navy officials don’t anticipate additional cuts to MWR programs in 2017, but they have been making adjustments and cuts to programs, eliminating most arts and crafts centers, auto skills centers and wood hobby shops, except in remote locations.

Information was not available from Air Force officials about whether their installations are facing impending cuts in MWR or family programs.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

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