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Veterans Benefits Information

V.A. Officials, and the Nation, Battle an Unrelenting Tide of Veteran Suicides

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High rates of homelessness, traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress and a military culture that can be resistant to seeking help are all aggravating factors for veterans.

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Legion Theater project an amazing feeling of accomplishment

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It took Carol Ann Van Natten some time to get over being medically discharged from the U.S. Navy in 2000. What she’d hoped to make a career – “I was a lifer,” she said – lasted just four years.

In fact, Van Natten said it wasn’t until the past few years that she’d come to terms with having to leave the military prematurely. Finding Hollywood Post 43 was a big step in reaching that point.

“It has meant everything to me,” said Van Natten of Post 43’s Legion Family. “(Being medically discharged) was a big blow. Over the last couple of years I was able to make a separation between what I lost and what is out here for me to do with my future. And I think making that switch over from lamenting the active-duty loss and changing over to what I can do for my fellow veterans has really made all the difference.

“It’s really changed my whole perspective. It’s no longer a loss to me in my heart. It’s more like I gained this whole family. Our post is unbelievable.”

Van Natten was front and center in the lobby of Post 43 during Day 2 of Turner Classic Movies’ Film Festival. She was manning the post’s “Take a Seat” table, which allows post members and others to “purchase” a seat in The Legion Theater as part of a fundraising effort.

Being a member of Post 43 during the renovation of the theater is “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of, for one thing,” Van Natten said. “But it’s amazing to be a part of the history in our own building, which is 90 years old, and to be a part a part of the future. And these seats … they’re going to be there the next 90 years.”

Having the renovation taking place and being able to be a part of it when Van Natten joined Post 43 was perfect timing. “Having gone through that loss of my Navy career, there’s a lot of feelings of inadequacy,” she said. “To have so much to do and for such a good reason has given me an amazing feeling of accomplishment. I think that’s why I volunteer here so much. It makes me feel like I’m important again.”

While not holding any specific office within Post 43, Van Natten is a self-described “gopher,” within the post doing “little things here and there that they might need additional support for. I’ve put in 100s of hours in that theater. I do the cleaning. I make sure all the little bits of popcorn are picked up. I take care of the stains in our brand-new carpet. There’s all kinds of stuff I do.”

Seeing the theater go from an unused multipurpose to a host for the film festival has been a memorable journey for Van Natten.

“The only thing I ever wanted to do besides be in the military was to be an actress,” said Van Natten, who has more than a dozen acting credits in movie and television since 2003. “So to be a part of this (theater) while also being a part of my veteran community, it’s really unbelievable.”


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American Legion testifies on employment and education rights and benefits

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American Legion Education and Credentialing Policy Associate John Kamin testified April 9 before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. Kamin’s testimony focused discussion drafts for the Justice for Servicemembers Act, the Transition Improvement Act and the GI Bill.

The discussion drafts for the Justice for Servicemembers Act aims to amend Title 38 to clarify the scope of procedural rights of members of the uniformed services with respect to their employment and reemployment rights, and for other purposes. Presently, The American Legion believes the act fails to adequately address and support military personnel returning to civilian employment.

“The Justice for Servicemembers Act is a bill that strengthens the Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) by deeming forced-arbitration motions unenforceable for the purpose of wrongful termination complaints,” Kamin testified.

The case of Marine Corps Col. Michael T. Garrett — who was terminated from his job due to a pending active duty mobilization — was highlighted by Kamin.

“In accordance with section 4323 on enforcement rights with respect to a private employer, Colonel Garrett filed a USERRA violation in District Court,” Kamin said. “His employer filed a motion to compel forced arbitration. After much dispute, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that USERRA is not a clear expression of congressional intent concerning the arbitration of servicemembers’ employment disputes. Thus, the Garrett precedent was established on USERRA violations, and hence we ask for your support on the Justice for Servicemembers Act.”

The next issue addressed during testimony was the Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Mulder Transition Improvement Act. The act is the most notable improvement to the Transition Assistance Program and the overall transition process for servicemembers, including an increased focus on career opportunities and entrepreneurship.

“Notable,” said Kamin, “is its authorization of a five-year pilot program that would provide matching grant funds to community providers that offer wraparound transition services to veterans and transitioning servicemembers."

The restructuring of the act requires servicemembers to select a specific career-oriented track for their post-service plans, as well as require them to undergo one-on-one counseling a year before separation to evaluate which transition pathway best suits them.

Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, also known as the “Forever GI Bill,” brings significant changes to veteran education benefits over the coming years. Named after American Legion Past National Commander Harry W. Colmery, the Forever GI Bill is one of the major successes of the 115th Congress.

“The VA faithfully attempted to meet Forever GI Bill deadlines,” said Kamin. “Congress and VSOs attempted to provide sound oversight and support to ensure this outcome. But we failed, and thousands of veterans paid the price in delayed GI Bill payments this past fall semester.”

However, Kamin continued, “we are encouraged by improved outreach and communication on GI Bill implementation.

“It is incumbent upon all of us to take ownership in this success and support Dr. Lawrence in this endeavor, because we have lost the right to disbelief in the event of another GI Bill backlog. Oversight and support must be in real-time and practical, no matter the challenge. That means being transparent about complications and forthright on changes, open to school inputs and adaptive to recommendations. That starts with trust.”


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'This is a dream come true'

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As The American Legion project manager, Hollywood Post 43 member Bill Steele saw what was once an aging multipurpose room within the post undergo an amazing transformation into a top-level movie theater.

But the culmination of the multi-million dollar project wasn’t the final product. It came April 11 on the opening night of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Film Festival, when The Legion Theater served as one of the festival’s six venues.

“This is a dream come to true,” said Steele, who serves in the U.S. Navy Reserve. “To be able to be a part of the Turner Classic (Movies) Film Festival, which is a world-renowned film festival, it’s a very high bar to clear. Just to be considered to be a part of that is really incredible. The fact that we’re doing it is amazing.”

Post 43 is no stranger to Hollywood, able to call Clark Gable, Gene Autry, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston and Stan Lee among its former members. The post has served as a backdrop in movies such as “The Shining” and the J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of “Star Trek,” as well as in television series “Veep” and “Scandal.”

But the renovation of an unused room into a nearly 500-seat theater featuring state-of-the-art digital projection and sound systems, and 35mm and 70mm capabilities, has taken Post 43 to another level.

“It’s really a culmination of the history of the military in Los Angeles,” Post 43 Commander Michael Hjelmstad said. "This (post) was started by filmmakers in 1919, and now we’re kind of back around to that relevance in the entertainment industry that we used to have.

“It makes my heart race and my hair stand up to be a part of something this big now. It’s like the field of dreams: We build it and they come. And they did. They’re here.”

Steele, who has transitioned from Post 43 theater project manager to theater manager, said Past Post Commander Fernando Rivero “had a vision for this theater being a world-class venue to exhibit film, and I sort of laid the tracks for him for that to happen.”

Steele said that required both raising and borrowing money, including some from the post itself. “You need internal support … and it was really critical early on that we had membership support. We had a lot of member buy-in early on. Without the member buy-in it would have never happened.”

A team of technical experts, including an architect with experience in acoustics and with an eye for “architectural preservation,” was assembled to make the project go from vision to reality, Steele said.

But the post never relinquished total design control. “This has been a team effort. Everything that you see in that theater represents hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions made by veterans,” Steele said. “We didn’t just hand this project off to an architect or a design studio. We played a very, very active, hands-on role in developing this theater. So it very much reflects our values and our culture and our projection of the future of what this post and what The American Legion can be.”

Steele said that Post 43’s theater already is at a level to compete with other top-level theaters in Los Angeles. “We’re competing at their level, and we’re probably exceeding them in almost every category,” he said. “In almost every metric that you can think of, this theater tops them all. We had a guy who used to work for Dolby come here today and said, ‘The Legion Theater is 99 percent better than 100 percent of the other theaters that are out there.’ That meant a lot to us.”

The renovation came after the post realized minor improvements or renting equipment wasn’t going to work. When the GI Film Festival wanted to relocate to the West Coast, Post 43 Events Manager Karl Risinger said the post started looking into the possibly of hosting it. But that was going to require a bigger screen, a projector, a sound system and seating. The theater’s projection booth had remained empty since the 1950s.

The post realized the cost of rentals to host the festival was going to be too much. But in that came the idea for what developed into the multimillion-dollar renovation. The potential of the renovation is what triggered the interest of TCM.

Risinger, a 13-year American Legion member, served as post adjutant, finance officer and events manager before moving exclusively into the last role on Jan. 1, 2018. He brought to his role a résumé that includes security contractor work, acting, and more than 20 years in restaurant, bar and event management.

Risinger said that during an event at Post 43, he spoke with Genevieve McGillicuddy – vice president of Enterprises & Strategic Partnerships for Turner Classic Movies Festival – and told her about the plans for the renovation.

The possibilities piqued McGillicuddy’s interest, and Risinger said she went back to Atlanta and shared it with fellow TCM leadership. The goal was for the post to host TCM’s Film Festival in 2018, but the renovation wasn’t finished in time.

“So we stayed in contact … Turner Classic Film Festival’s team stayed in contact with us throughout the process of renovating this,” Risinger said.

Hosting the film festival created a buzz within the post. “We’re really excited and really wanting to have the festival here,” Risinger said. “Just given the history of our organization, and this post in particular, with Hollywood. A few of the films being shown this weekend have direct history with our post.

“Everybody’s ecstatic. We’re honored to have (TCM) here, as well as just thrilled that they chose us as one of the venues.”

While TCM has done most of the preparations for the film festival, the post has set up a concession stand for popcorn, candy and soft drinks, and brought its in-house caterer to provide box lunches and salads throughout the weekend.

“If people want to come here for the 9 a.m. showing and stay all day, then they don’t have to go anywhere,” Risinger said. “The guests are going to be taken care of while they’re here.”

The Post 43 portion of the film festival opened with a screening of “Sgt. York”, a biography on the Medal of Honor recipient who later helped found American Legion Post 137 in Jamestown.

Prior to the “Sgt. York” screening, McGillicuddy said TCM was “honored to be here.” Then two of York’s relatives – York’s son, Andrew Jackson York, and his grandson and Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation Chairman Gerald York, a retired U.S. Army colonel – talked about their famous Medal of Honor-recipient relative, eliciting laughs and applause from the audience.

Hjelmstad said that Post 43 has a bible in its museum that belonged to Sgt. York. “We just took a photograph with his son and that bible,” he said. “Tying the Hollywood history with The American Legion history has really been an amazing part of this festival and what we set out to do with this project.”

For a complete schedule of events at Post 43, click here.


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NATO and the national interest

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NATO turns 70 this month.

The past decade has been marked by a crescendo of U.S. criticism of the alliance. In 2008, for instance, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates openly worried about NATO devolving into “a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not." As he left his post in 2011, he complained about the “lack of will” and “lack of resources” among NATO’s European members. During the fight against ISIS, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter scoffed at “our so-called coalition” and implored “all the Europeans … to make more contributions.” At the end of his administration, President Barack Obama grumbled about “free riders” in Europe. At the beginning of his administration, President Donald Trump called NATO “obsolete” and “a bad deal for America.” But despite all the headaches and heartburn it causes, the NATO alliance continues to serve the national interest.

Deficiencies

Before detailing how NATO serves U.S. interests, those of us who support NATO must admit that such criticism is not unwarranted. Simply put, some members of the alliance have failed to live up to the responsibilities of membership.

During the Cold War, the United States accounted for 50 percent of NATO military spending; today, the U.S. share of NATO military spending is around 70 percent. “We still do not have fair burden sharing within our alliance,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg concedes.

To address this problem, NATO in 2006 called on members “to commit a minimum of 2 percent of their GDP to spending on defense.” Yet by the end of 2019 — 13 years later — only nine of NATO’s 29 members will meet that standard. These years of underfunding, according to the British government, have led to “alarming deficiencies in the state of NATO preparedness.”

The good news is that many allies are getting serious about defense. In 2014, only three NATO members spent 2 percent of GDP on defense. By 2024, two-thirds of the alliance will reach the 2-percent-of-GDP standard.

The 2-percent target isn’t a be-all-end-all; there’s nothing magical about that number. However, devoting 2 percent of GDP to defense sends a signal of seriousness and solidarity, and it will prevent NATO’s devolution from an all-for-one alliance into a one-for-all public good.

“By the end of next year,” Stoltenberg recently reported, “NATO allies will add $100 billion extra toward defense ... The clear message from President Donald Trump is having an impact.”

Indeed, 22 members increased defense spending in 2016, and 26 members increased defense spending in 2018.

“All allies have increased their defense spending,” Stoltenberg reported during his recent address to Congress. “Before they were cutting billions. Now they are adding billions.”

This newfound commitment to the common defense is posturing America’s NATO allies to respond to Russian mischief and aggression in the Arctic, the North Atlantic, the Baltic Sea, Eastern Europe and the Black Sea.

Insurance

That brings us back to NATO and the national interest.

“Our alliance has not lasted for 70 years out of a sense of nostalgia,” Stoltenberg argues. “NATO lasts because it is in the national interest of each and every one of our nations.”

The first and most important way NATO serves U.S. interests is as a hedge against war. NATO, for lack of a better term, is an insurance policy that benefits both sides of the Atlantic.

Insurance, at its core, is about providing protection against worst-case scenarios. Prudent people hope they never have to use insurance, but they realize that paying a little each month or each year protects them against having to pay a lot — or losing everything — if disaster strikes.

The same is true in the realm of international security. Since its founding in 1949, NATO has been in the insurance business. Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty makes it clear to the world that every NATO member will come to the defense of any NATO member that comes under attack in the North Atlantic area.

For the United States, Article V insures against another European conflict triggering another world war. “The North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” as the Hoover Institution’s Josef Joffe explains, “has spared the U.S. a remake of World Wars I and II .... Staying in Europe after 1945 was a wondrous blessing; not a single shot was fired in Europe during the Cold War. It is always more economical to be in place than to have to fight your way back in.”

For the rest of NATO, Article V is insurance against invasion — a security guarantee backed by the United States. Without that guarantee, there’s no security, as history has a way of reminding those on the outside looking in — from Cold War Hungary to post-Cold War Ukraine.

Like all insurance policies, there are costs associated with NATO. A recent study revealed that U.S. defense expenditures earmarked for Europe amount to $36 billion per year. That’s a lot of money. But consider what we get in exchange for that insurance premium: a Europe not at war with itself, a Europe reinforced against invasion, a Europe free from any hostile power, and the vast trade and economic benefits that flow from these realities. Representing almost half of global GDP, NATO’s members are the engine of the world economy. U.S. trade with NATO allies is more than $1.6 trillion annually — about 30 percent of America’s overall trade.

Just as important, compare the costs of defending Europe with the costs of liberating it. A $36-billion investment in transatlantic peace and security equals 5.5 percent of America’s defense budget and less than 0.2 percent of America’s GDP. During World War I, by way of comparison, the United States spent an average of 16.1 percent of GDP on defense — and sacrificed 116,516 dead to turn back the Central Powers. During World War II, the United States spent an average of 27 percent of GDP on defense — and sacrificed 405,399 lives defeating the Axis.

In short, NATO is neither a drain on America’s treasury nor a chain dragging America into Europe’s wars. It’s the very opposite.

The “myth is that our allies are making us poor by free-riding on our military expenditures,” as Gen. William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, argued before his passing. “How are we to explain that the United States has gotten richer than its allies? Proponents of this argument cannot explain why. They fail to realize that our military alliances, by lowering transaction costs, have facilitated the vast increases in international trade from which the United States profits enormously. Our military costs should be seen as investments that pay us back.”

Evidence

A second — and often-overlooked — way NATO serves the national interest is in the message it conveys.

NATO is tangible evidence to the rest of the world that free government, free markets, free enterprise and the rule of law are a formula for lasting peace and prosperity; that deterrence is the best way to keep the enemies of civilization at bay; that shared values can transcend superficialities such as race, religion, color and creed; and that America keeps its word.

Contributions

Third, many members of NATO have contributed directly to securing American interests.

It pays to recall that NATO was crucial to deterring the Red Army, winning the Cold War and ultimately transforming Eastern Europe from a Soviet-occupied buffer zone of communist dictatorships into a community of liberal democracies. All of these were national-security objectives of the United States that NATO helped secure.

After the Cold War, NATO’s infrastructure and interoperability helped reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The alliance then stamped out ethnic-cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, stabilized Eastern Europe, formed the basis of multinational armadas that interdicted WMDs and combatted piracy, and prevented a Bosnia-style bloodletting in Libya. Again, all of these were national-security objectives of the United States that NATO helped secure.

NATO’s non-U.S. members spend around $300 billion on defense annually. As the Atlantic Council, these members field 1.857 million active-duty personnel, 1.2 million reserves, 6,983 main battle tanks, 2,612 warplanes, 382 attack helicopters and 252 warships. Today, as during the Cold War, these assets are being put to use to deter Russia. At U.S. urging, NATO recently approved the “Four 30s Plan,” under which NATO allies pledge to have the capability to deploy 30 troop battalions, 30 squadrons of strike aircraft, and 30 warships within 30 days of a go order.

Bridge

Fourth, NATO is a vital bridge to global hot spots, a readymade structure for building coalitions and a force-multiplier for U.S. power.

Consider the war on terrorism. It was always thought that Article V would be invoked when Europe came under attack and sought America’s help. But the only time Article V has ever been invoked was when America came under attack and sought Europe’s help.

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, NATO dispatched AWACS planes to guard America’s skies, freeing up U.S. assets to target the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

In the long campaign of campaigns that followed 9/11, NATO has played a key role fighting our common enemy in Afghanistan, where 1,050 European, Canadian and Turkish NATO personnel have been killed in action. “We went in together,” Stoltenberg vows. “And when the time comes, we will leave together.”

NATO formed the core of the coalition that took down Saddam Hussein’s terrorist tyranny in Iraq, where 19 NATO members deployed personnel and 15 NATO members had troops killed in action.

Similarly, the anti-ISIS coalition is built around NATO, with alliance members shouldering almost all of the airstrikes and much of the ground-support mission. In fact, NATO recently launched a 600-man mission in Iraq aimed at training the Iraqi army.

“There is no hope for the U.S. to sustain its role as the world’s sole superpower without the Europeans as allies,” as several former NATO commanders conclude.

“Our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances,” adds Gen. James Mattis. “While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances.”

The generals know something most Americans seldom consider: Protecting the homeland, promoting U.S. interests, ensuring the free flow of goods and resources, preserving some semblance of international order, defending the global commons, responding to natural disasters and manmade chaos — these missions depend on NATO infrastructure in places like Lakenheath, Fairford, Ramstein, Thule, Morón and Aviano.

“If we didn’t have NATO today, we’d need to create it,” Mattis argues. “NATO is vital to our interests.”

As long as that holds true, America should support and sustain the NATO alliance — even with all the headaches and heartburn, disagreements and disappoint. For as Churchill observed, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.”


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