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The healing power of the outdoors

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For 51 years, veterans in Minnesota have headed to Ely, Minn., in May for a week of relaxation and fishing. But the annual Disabled Veterans Fishing Retreat is not just about fishing and taking in the amazing scenery on Fall Lake and inside Superior National Forest.

It’s also about healing. That’s what Legionnaire Denny Houg, who has volunteered at the event for a decade, has seen take place.

“We meet all kinds of veterans with different needs,” said Houg, a member of Post 254 in Sauk Rapids. “Some are blind. Some are physically handicapped, possible amputees. Wheelchair-bound. PTSD.

“We had a young person with severe PTSD who caught his first two walleyes. The guy, he couldn’t hardly carry on a conversation prior (to catching the fish). But you just saw the medicine. It’s therapy.”

The retreat, which takes place at Veterans on the Lake Resort, started as a Department of Veterans Affairs program, but VA decided to end the program three years ago. That’s when The American Legion Department of Minnesota teamed up with Disabled American Veterans, Vietnam Veterans of America and other veterans service organizations to keep the program going.

Department of Minnesota Adjutant Randy Tesdahl said that while the department didn’t officially become involved with the retreat until around 2005, Legionnaires and posts have been supporting it for decades.

In May of this year, more than 30 Legion family members volunteered at the camp, helping with meals and doing anything else needed. Department of Minnesota Commander Denise Milton was one of the Legionnaires who showed up to support this year’s retreat.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Milton said. “Up here, almost everyone loves fishing and hunting. I think it brings a sense of normalcy, to be honest: being able to do what others do.”

Veterans don’t pay anything to participate. Funding for the event comes via donations and grants. Minnesota Veterans 4 Veterans, a nonprofit set up to provide grants to organizations that assist veterans with their transition into the civilian world, has been a longtime supporter of the fishing retreat. The organization provided a three-year, $90,000 grant to cover housing and food expenses for the week; the event is in the second year of the grant.

Tesdahl said the program provides much more than an outdoors experience for its participants. “We cannot claim to be an alternative form of mental health care. But in reality, we are,” he said. “You see that when these guys get together on a boat deck. They start talking about the commonality. They have shared experiences even though they’re generations apart. There is a healing effect to it.”

Dave Berscheit, who served in the U.S. Marines from 1986-1992, suffered a spinal stroke in 2006 that impaired his mobility from the neck down. While he enjoyed catching fish at this year’s retreat, there was something he found even more fulfilling.

“To be up here with a group of guys … it doesn’t matter if you catch fish,” Berscheit said. “It’s not necessarily about that. There’s no real barrier. It’s just easier to talk to them.”

Berscheit and the other veterans who took part in this year’s retreat applied for a spot in the event. Those applications are vetted by former longtime VA employee Dennis Erie, who was hired by the Minnesota Legion and other VSOs to coordinate the program.

Erie said he received around 50 applications for this year’s 35 spots. Preference is given to disabled and World War II veterans, as well as those applicants who have never taken part in the event.

Like Tesdahl, Erie sees a healing effect from the week. “It’s all positive,” he said. “There are a lot of smiles coming back. It’s an opportunity to get out in Northern Minnesota and be around some other vets.”

The veterans are provided professional fishing guides who donate their time – and equipment – the entire week. When word of mouth spread about the event, Tesdahl said guides lined up to volunteer.

That professional guides are there is because of the efforts of Minnesota National Guard Col. Scott St. Sauver, the outgoing commanding officer at Camp Ripley – one of the largest National Guard training bases in the nation. A co-angler on professional walleye circuit, St. Sauver also has seen what he calls the “tremendous” healing power of the outdoors and has worked with the Legion on other outdoor events for veterans.

Using his contacts in professional fishing, he was able to line up guides for the retreat. But St. Sauver admits he didn’t have to pitch the event too hard to get buy-in from the pros. It’s their way to give back,” he said. “It’s patriotism. These guides will get $500, $600 a day right now, but they’re up here for free.”

That’s why professional fisherman Mark Courts, the 2015 Lucas Oil Walleye Angler of the Year with 12 top-10 finishes in the Fishing League Worldwide, was at Ely this year. “For me, it’s my way of giving back,” he said. “I wasn’t able to serve when I was younger due to health issues, and I always had ties to it. For me, this is fun.”

Courts also saw a transformation in the veterans he took out on his boat this year. “Outdoors is an amazing place,” he said. “It’s got healing powers that nobody can really explain. The minute you get somebody outdoors – no matter their situation, their mindset or any of that – it just goes away. All they’re thinking about is what they’re doing and how they’re enjoying the outdoors.”

For Tesdahl, an avid fisherman who used his own boat to take veterans out to fish during the retreat, the event also is a valuable promotional tool for the Legion. “It’s all about branding,” he said. “It’s all about marketing. It’s all about … changing the image. We’re doing cool stuff.”

And it’s stuff that’s making an impact. Houg fondly remembers what could have been a tragic story from the retreat that instead showed the power of camaraderie. He said that a few years ago a gentleman died of a heart attack while at the retreat. But on the day he died, the man had fished, watched the Minnesota Twins win a baseball game on TV and then won at cards that night in his cabin.

“We went to the funeral,” Houg said. “His sisters said, ‘We were always afraid that he would die by himself in his apartment.’ I said, ‘He sure didn’t do that.’ They were so thankful. He’d had a good last day and died with friends all around him.”


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A Legionnaire’s battle from an American internment camp to war

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As a young teenager living in California in 1940, Casey Kunimara’s daily life was filled with school, friends and sports; he “felt as American as the next kid.” But that all ended on Dec. 7, 1941, a date that changed America forever, as well as the life Kunimura once knew.

Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, an executive order was issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and 16-year-old Kunimura, his mother and siblings were forced to leave their home in Gilroy and relocate to an internment camp. Though a native-born U.S. citizen, he was detained because of his Japanese ancestry.

But Kunimura’s story following life in camp is one of forgiveness and love for country. After once carrying around an “enemy alien” draft classification card, Kunimura went on to serve with one of the most highly decorated units of World War II – the 442nd Regimental Combat Team – and served in the Korean and Vietnam War. He too has been an active American Legion member for 48 continuous years, serving as Department of Utah commander in 1994, and a 30-year staff member of Utah Boys State.

American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt recently presented Kunimura with an award for his continuous years with Utah Boys State and service to his country.

“America is my country. I’ve always said one thing, ‘My country … right or wrong, my country,’” said 92-year-old Kunimura, who resides in North Ogden, Utah, where he’s a member and past commander of Post 9.

When word reached Kunimura that Pearl Harbor was attacked he “reacted like any other American – I thought I needed to do something to aid my country,” he said. “I did not think of the enemy, Japan, being the ancestral home of my parents. I, being an American citizen, felt like I should do what I could for my country.”

But joining the military like his friends were lining up to do wouldn’t become an option for Kunimura. He was denied service due to his Japanese ancestry. “I was an American and my loyalty was to the only country I knew. This feeling never left my thoughts during the entire trying ordeal over the next few years,” he said.

Kunimura credits his love for America to his upbringing by immigrant parents, who instilled dedication, loyalty and humility. His father emigrated from Hiroshima, Japan, to the United States in 1905, and his mother followed suit in 1923. Kunimura’s father passed away in 1939, leaving his wife and six children to be waiting outside a high school in Gilroy in June 1942 for departure to two internment camps.

Kunimura and his family left their home with only what they could carry, not knowing where they were going or how long they would be gone. They were first sent to live in a horse stall on a rodeo ground in Salinas, Calif., for a few months before taking a three-day train ride to the Poston War Relocation Center (the largest of the 10 American internment camps) in southwest Arizona. It was there that Block 32 became home to Kunimura for a year.

During his time at Poston, Kunimura lived with his family in a small room in a wooden barrack that was surrounded by the hot Arizona desert, trying “to live a normal life as a possible.” He got a job as a chief chef in the mess hall, earning $16 a month to prepare and plan meals, watched movies outdoors, participated in athletics and attended dances with friends. Yet, he longed to leave camp and serve his country, which was still not an option. He found his way out of camp as he was afforded the opportunity to work in Chicago for an auto parts store.

It was during his time in Chicago that an all Japanese-American combat unit – except for its officers – was being formed, and Kunimura’s calling to serve would be possible.

Kunimura joined the U.S. Army 442nd Regimental Combat Team in 1944 after Selective Service reclassified and issued him a draft notice. He joined the unit as a machine gunner, fighting his way through France while his family and friends remained in Poston, “being held prisoners by the very country I was fighting for,” he said. “But my patriotism, devotion to my nation, and love of country could not be denied.”

Kunimura witnessed firsthand the 442nd earn a Congressional Gold Medal in November 2011 for their efforts in waging a successful campaign against Nazis in southern France and northern Italy. In all, the unit earned more than 18,000 awards, inlcuding 21 Medals of Honor. “These proud men proved to the nation of their loyalty and dedication and the right to be called Americans,” he said. “I’m extremely proud to have had the privilege of serving shoulder to shoulder with all those brave, young men and having been a small part of that history.”

Following the end of World War II, Kunimura served in the Korean and Vietnam War, met his wife Dorothy – a Korean War veteran of the Army Auxiliary Army Corps and a member of Post 9 – raised three children, and retired from the military and civil service.

Since his involvement with Utah Boys State began more than 30 years ago, he’s been a counselor, assisted with party elections, and now organizes and helps pass out awards. He’s remained involved in the program because of his “love of country, of the military, of veterans and of the young men to instill upon them the ideas of democracy,” Kunimura said. “The purpose of Boys State is to educate why we have a primary, a general election and elect for various offices. These kids are going to grow up to become our leaders.”

Dorothy has been an integral part of Boys State for just as long, baking cakes and cookies for the young men. “These boys love Dorothy, and she’s making them fat, too,” Kunimura said.

Although Kunimura doesn’t know how much longer he’ll remain on the Boys State staff at his age, he said that his longstanding involvement with The American Legion was a way to “spend a little of my own time to make this country just a little bit better in the long run.”


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A strategy-driven budget

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Two years ago, as the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration really began to take its toll, Henry Kissinger identified the crux of the problem confronting Washington – and created by Washington – in this age of declining national security spending and mushrooming national security threats: “The United States should have a strategy-driven budget,” the dean of American statecraft explained, “not budget-driven strategy.”

Regrettably, Washington didn’t heed Kissinger’s advice. And so, hamstrung wars limped on in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan, threats metastasized in North Korea and Iran, Russia and China continued their mischief in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea, and Washington kept asking America’s military to do more with less.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wants to end all that. In a cogent policy paper titled “Restoring American Power,” the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee echoes Kissinger by noting, “For too long, we have allowed budget constraints to drive strategy. It is time to turn this around and return to the first-order question: What do we need our military to do for the nation?”

To unpack that question, McCain divides the globe into three threat environments.

“On the high end of the spectrum, the U.S. military must deter conflict with, and aggression by, Russia and China,” which “aspire to diminish U.S. influence and revise the world order in ways that are contrary to U.S. national interests.” In the middle of the spectrum, America’s military “must contain the malign influence of North Korea and Iran and prevent these states from destabilizing regional order.” (McCain offers a chilling quote from Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to explain the importance of deterring Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Pyongyang: “The only thing more expensive than deterrence is actually fighting a war, and the only thing more expensive than fighting a war is fighting one and losing one.”) Finally, at the low end of the spectrum, the military “must prosecute an enduring global counterterrorism fight.”

The military has been straining to do all of this for too long without necessary resources from Congress and without essential strategy guidance from the White House. Instead, national security policymaking has “swung from retrenchment to overextension with a dearth of strategy, depleting our margin of global influence.”

Indeed, the era of budget-driven strategy has put spending priorities ahead of strategic interests and national-security needs. A strategy-driven defense budget, by contrast, would put strategy first, define America’s interests, and build a military to promote and protect those interests. As we have seen in the wake of sequestration, budget-driven strategy cuts indiscriminately, limits options and weakens the military. The examples are numerous and worrisome:

• Air Force commanders announced in March that they could run out of money to pay pilots to fly the last six weeks of this fiscal year.

• The Navy fleet numbers 275 ships; combatant commanders say they need 450 ships.

• Marine aviation squadrons are salvaging aircraft parts from museums to keep planes flying.

• As he tries to deter a resurgent and revisionist Russia, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, concedes, “We’ve only got 30,000 (soldiers). We’ve got to make it look and feel like 300,000.” In a similar vein, the Trump administration’s apparent sleight-of-hand with the Carl Vinson during the recent crisis in Korea – trying to make one carrier do the work of two or three – is an indication that the United States doesn’t have the carrier firepower it once had and still needs to coerce foes and reassure allies.

• When President Obama ordered warplanes from USS George H.W. Bush to blunt the ISIS advance in northern Iraq, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert admitted that “they stopped their sorties” over Afghanistan to do so.

Perspective

Reversing what McCain describes as “budget-driven damage to our military” must be a national priority. But he concedes it won’t be cheap. He calls for some $430 billion in new spending over the next five years, above the Obama administration’s projections. This would translate into a base defense budget of $640.3 billion in fiscal 2018, $662.3 billion in fiscal 2019, $686.5 billion in fiscal 2020, $720.9 billion in fiscal 2021 and $740.5 billion in fiscal 2022.

That sounds like a lot of money. After all, $640.3 billion equals 16 percent of the $4 trillion federal budget and 3.5 percent of America’s $18 trillion GDP. But to put those raw numbers into perspective, consider these comparisons:

In 1943, the United States spent $66.6 billion on defense, representing 84.9 percent of federal spending and 36 percent of GDP. In 1950, it spent $13.7 billion on defense, representing 32.2 percent of federal outlays and 5 percent of GDP. In 1953, the United States spent $52.8 billion on defense, representing 69 percent of federal outlays and 13 percent of GDP. In 1960, it spent $48 billion on defense, representing 52.2 percent of federal outlays and 8.9 percent of GDP. In 1968, it spent $81.9 billion on defense, representing 46 percent of federal spending and 9 percent of GDP. In 1984, the United States spent $227 billion on defense, representing 26.7 percent of federal outlays and 5.8 percent of GDP. And in 1991, it spent $299 billion on defense, representing 23.9 percent of federal outlays and 4.9 percent of GDP.

Those years are chosen purposely. In 1991, the United States was fighting a war in Iraq and began an open-ended security commitment in the Gulf. (U.S. troops are fighting yet again in Iraq today, while continuing to protect Gulf allies.)

By 1984, the United States was mounting a vigorous, albeit belated, response to years of aggression and expansion by Moscow. (Putin is acting aggressively in Eastern Europe and has expanded Russian territory – by force – in Ukraine and Georgia.)

In 1968 and 1953, the United States was fighting pitched regional battles amidst a wider global war (as it is today in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia amidst the wider war on terror).

In 1950, the United States was coming to grips with containing a rising power. (Back then, it was Moscow; today, it’s Beijing.)

In 1943, the United States was waging a global war against a determined and fanatical foe bent on upending the global order. (Back then, it was fascists; todays, it’s jihadists.)

America’s national-security strategy was clear during World War II (defeat the Axis) and the Cold War (contain and deter the Soviet Empire). And those strategies determined America’s national-security budget for half a century.

What is the strategy today?

The past decade has seen the Bush administration wage a far-flung “global war on terror” and call for “ending tyranny in our world”; the Obama administration expunge “global war on terror” from government usage, declare “it’s time to turn the page” on war and “focus on nation-building here at home”; and the Trump administration endorse an “America First” foreign policy that evokes pre-World War II isolationism.

In short, a new national security consensus remains elusive. Perhaps “Restoring American Power” can serve as a way to start rebuilding that lost consensus, while rationalizing how much to spend on national defense.

Surely, the nation that toppled the Soviet Empire, contained world communism and destroyed the Axis can summon the resources and the will to ensure that China’s rise and Russia’s decline don’t lead to great-power war, to deter North Korea and contain Iran, to dismember ISIS and al-Qaida, and to defend the interests and ideals of the West.


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'New blood and new excitement'

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Having served in the Air Force for six years, Brent Webb found himself having trouble getting used to the civilian world. But after a friend advised him to visit American Legion Hollywood Post 43 in Los Angeles, Webb found the going a little easier.

“I felt like I finally found people I could connect with,” said Webb, now 28. “I felt like I had an outlet to be able to help support my community and take care of people that were important to me.”

When his plans changed, Webb ended up moving to Chicago. But before he did, he got some advice from fellow Post 43 members. “(They) were like, ‘You’ve seen what a really good post can be. Find a post and get as involved as you can and see if you can make something really positive out of it,’” Webb said.

The 28-year-old has done just that. About a year after moving to the Midwest, Webb joined Tattler Post 973 and soon became post commander. In that role, he and other Legionnaires have helped turn things around at the 71-year-old post, making it a community centerpiece once again.

Webb said the first time he came to the post he met CJ Seestadt and Ken Madsen. Wanting to get as involved as he could – and wanting to take advantage of the free time he had while finishing up his degree at DePaul University – he began helping out at various post events.

Seestadt and Madsen, already leading a movement to revitalize the post, urged Webb to consider taking the post commander role. A few months later, the pair had convinced Webb he could handle the job.

“I was nervous,” admitted Webb, a recent graduate of DePaul University. “I’d never been in a position of leadership. I was an instructor in the military, but I’d never been involved in something of this capacity.”

Seestadt, 48, joined the post three and a half years ago. Turning things around required getting the post’s older membership to buy into the plan and then find someone willing to lead. Knowing Webb’s age might be a concern to some members, Seestadt pulled out a history lesson.

“I told them, ‘Hey, how old were these guys when they came back from World War II and were running the place?’” said Seestadt, the post’s Junior Vice Commander (Entertainment). “There was a transitional period, but it’s all been positive. We’re growing at such a pace now that we’ve gotten people’s attention.”

The revitalization effort included revamping the social area of the post to make it friendlier to potential members. New events conducted by the post included a comedy night, a movie night and a jazz night – events “that would attract people … young veterans,” Seestadt said. In addition to raising the post’s profile, it’s also created a larger revenue stream. The post went from making $300 a year to around $3,000 a month.

“We knew individuals who were interested in doing these events and were looking for space to do it,” Webb said. “We decided to say, ‘You know what? Let us experiment and see if it works. If it doesn’t, we’ll stop. If people have a problem with it, we’ll stop.’”

The post also began establishing relationships with other organizations in Chicago, including fellow veterans organization Chicago Veterans. Kevin Barszcz, one of the founders of Chicago Veterans, now serves as Post 973’s Senior Vice Commander (Membership). He helped facilitate the relationship between the two organizations, which led to Illinois Legionnaires supporting Chicago Veterans’ recent Ruck March.

“I think it’s important … for the city of Chicago,” Barszcz said of the relationship. “I think that all veterans organizations … should have to come together. At the end of the day we’re here for one reason: to support our veterans. I always see it as one team, one fight.”

Madsen, who serves as Post 973's Junior Vice Commander (House), said the post’s upswing has been a source of pride. “When you walk in here, it doesn’t look like (no one's) been here in six weeks,” he said. “You would come in any night of the week and literally have the place to yourself. We’ve turned that around.

“It’s absolutely fantastic. But the one thing that I’ve liked is that it hasn’t been to the exclusion to the people that were here before, nor do we exclude the people that are coming in. It’s been a great meld of the old and the new.”

Peter Kakurba, a 21-year member and past post commander, said when he joined Post 973 he was placed on a waiting list for three years. The Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran said membership and activity dropped before the recent revival. Through mid-June, the post was at 162 members – three more than this year’s goal.

“A lot of the old-timers were passing on, and we needed a tradition for the new guys,” Kakurba said. “(Webb) had good ideas. They started drawing the people in, and little by little we started getting members in. We were right at the bottom of (the department’s) Ninth District) (in membership). Now we’re near the top. New blood and new excitement.

“We decided to try these things … and see if it worked. I think a lot of people are looking for excuses … to support veterans. By trying to do these things, we happened to make it work.

"Whenever people come in, we try to make sure that we’re really welcoming, and we do show them that we have our older members here, and you can learn a lot from them. But we are also here with a lot of young people. A lot of people respond to that.”


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Legion attends historic luncheon at National Press Club

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The National Press Club in Washington, D.C., held a luncheon June 19 with U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss a number of important issues facing the U.S. military.

Staff from The American Legion's Washington office gathered alongside more than 200 people inside the club’s ballroom for a question-and-answer session with Dunford, moderated by National Press Club President Jeff Ballou. Topics included the latest strategy for defeating the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, challenges from North Korea, cyber warfare, weapons acquisition and recruiting and strengthening U.S. alliances.

“We just had a very tense shoot down of a Syrian jet by U.S. forces and we had a very ominous statement from Russia that plays into the whole de-confliction agreement between the countries, essentially saying anything west of the Euphrates, we’re shooting down,” Ballou said as he began the session. “What is your reaction to that? Have there been any developments? Do you have any updates on where that stands? Is de-confliction gone?”

Dunford’s response was that the United States has worked very hard for the last eight months on de-confliction with the Russian Federation and pro-regime forces. The purpose was to make sure air crews were safe; personnel on the ground were safe; and that the U.S. could prosecute the Defeat ISIS campaign in Syria.

Dunford said the Russian Federation has indicated that their purpose in Syria, like that of the United States, is to defeat ISIS. “All of our operations in and around Iraq and southern Syria are designed specifically to get after ISIS and we (the United States, Russian Federation and pro-regime forces) have agreed in the past that operations that the coalition was conducting in Syria were effectively degrading ISIS’s capability. We’ll work to restore that de-confliction chain in the next few hours.”

When asked if he’s been in touch with a Russian counterpart, Dunford said he has not as of Monday morning. He has, however, met with the Russian counterpart twice this year and communicated another five or six times.

Deployment of additional forces in Afghanistan. Dunford said no decision has been made with regard to sending an additional 4,000 troops to Afghanistan. In terms of forces on the ground, the president did choose to delegate that decision to Department of Defense Secretary James Mattis, he said.

“This is what is important and probably has been under reported,” Dunford said. “Secretary Mattis’s decision about additional forces in Afghanistan will be made in the context of a broader strategy review for South Asia that is ongoing, and is expected to report back probably sometime in the middle of July. So, it won’t be just about Afghanistan. There are a number of interdependent variables that bear on the problem inside of Afghanistan across the region.”

Military strategy for Afghanistan ready by mid-July. Dunford and Mattis had an opportunity to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee June 13. When Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain asked about whether or not there is a strategy for Afghanistan, Dunford stated that, “Mattis said that number one, we agree that Afghanistan is not where we want it to be and we have spent the last couple of months discussing where it might go in the future. And he, as I will today, indicated to chairman McCain that sometime in the middle of July, we would have that strategic review complete.”

Dunford said he and Mattis will consult with McCain and the other members of Congress “as the coming weeks go on.”

Violent extremism/defeating transnational terrorism. Dunford said the tragic loss of life associated with violent extremism is a big issue. “I think the military dimension of that particular problem is working with local partners to create the conditions where people can be safe at home and don’t have the need to go and become refugees,” he said. “Obviously, (we can provide) some immediate support in the form of water, supplies and food, and making sure that the conditions are conducive to nongovernmental organizations.”

In addition, Dunford said violent extremism is not over with the ISIS defeat. That’s why it’s important to get as many countries as possible to cooperate in:

• intelligence sharing;

• information sharing;

• effective action;

• limiting the freedom of movement of foreign fighters;

• limiting their ability to share resources; and

• eroding the effectiveness of their narrative.

“I think we should all be braced for a long fight, and that’s why we emphasize making sure that we have the broadest network possible of partners to help deal with this challenge,” he said. “These are extraordinarily complex, if not wicked, problems we’re dealing with. Beware of those with too much confidence that they have all the answers.”

Read Dunford’s full remarks here. Click here for a video of the luncheon.


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Did you know?

Military Funeral Honors ceremonies must be scheduled in advance.

The law requires that every eligible veteran receive a military funeral honors ceremony, which includes the folding and presentation of the United States flag and the playing of “taps,” upon the family’s request. This Department of Defense program calls for the funeral director to request military funeral honors on behalf of the veteran’s family.