The official blog of American Veteran Magazine, the national quarterly publication of AMVETS.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Reaction to the End of Combat in Iraq

Tonight, President Barack Obama announced that combat operations in Iraq have ended for the United States, to which I say, as a veteran of the conflict, it's about time.

I was happy to hear the President acknowledge that through the hard work of America's military men and women, our nation succeeded in its missions, affording Iraq the opportunity to pursue a prosperous future. The President was also clear to note that the American commitment will continue in a variety of ways.

When I was called to serve in Iraq in 2003, we were told that our mission was regime change in an effort to bring stability to a country ruled by a maniacal tyrant. With Saddam Hussein deposed, tried, and executed; his sons killed in battle; al-Qaeda in Iraq marginalized; and a new constitution in place, what more do American combat forces really have to offer? In my view, we have more than kept our promise to the people of Iraq. Now it's their turn.

While in Iraq, I remember speaking with a middle-aged Iraqi businessman who was very candid about the Coalition mission in Iraq. The man told me that he and his family were eternally grateful for freeing Iraq from Saddam. However, he cautioned that Iraqis were a proud people who yearned to make decisions for themselves--after all, prior to Hussein seizing power, the secular nation had capably taken care of its affairs. He warned that many would grow weary of a foreign presence in their country.

Unfortunately, the imminent power vacuum in Iraq was conducive to other outside entities influencing the course of Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Iranian influences attempted to subvert American and Iraqi efforts, leading to a spike in violence. Thankfully, American military leaders--including President George W. Bush--had the foresight to retake control of the situation. Through the troop surge, Iraqis were given the space to continue their business developing the country. Proud Iraqis then turned on al-Qaeda leaders after scores of brutal attacks on on their fellow countrymen, recognizing that the terrorists' empty promises were no viable way forward.

Critics have pointed to President Obama's finite deadline as a capitulation to the forces that sought to destabilize Iraq. To me, this is bunk. At some point the Iraqis need to know that America will leave them to their own devices--whatever they may be. Short of colonization (which would be a completely absurd proposition) there's no realistic way for the United States to make an open-ended commitment to Iraq. To me, the brave men and women of the U.S. military have done more than enough.

The Iraqis I know and am proud to call friends simply want what we want here in America. They want to go to work, provide for their families, and give their children better lives than they had. This is why I'm confident Iraq will succeed when left to make decisions on their own fate.

That being said, I must criticize those who view the drawdown in Iraq as a stalemate or an admission of American defeat. On a strategic level, the U.S. military accomplished its objective of regime change long ago. WMDs or no WMDs, at no time in the future will Saddam Hussein or his murdering sons usurp control of an Iraqi state now free to determine its own course. Whatever the new government becomes over the years may not be exactly what American political leaders envision, but we could never realistically have control of that outcome, as an outside player.

Of my time in Iraq and the subsequent years that some of those closest to me spent in the desert, I must say I'm proud of what we accomplished. We projected American power and succeeded in every objective with professionalism and pride. Those who made the ultimate sacrifice made it in the name of the ideals we cherish as Americans, and a grateful American nation and a grateful Iraq will never forget.

Though the President stressed that we must now focus on our nation's pressing issues, such as the economy, I was proud to hear that he also stressed a continued responsibility to prosecute the Global War on Terror (Osama Bin Laden is still at large), project American power and continue to serve the needs of our nation's veterans.

Though we have seen tremendous improvements in veterans' benefits over the last few years, ranging from advance VA appropriations, to the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, family caregiver, and unified VA/DoD health records, much more needs to be done. The commitment to our veterans must go beyond the immediate needs. Our nation must be committed to its veterans long after the conflicts end.

We must fix the claims backlog, meet the needs of our female veterans, better serve our rural and remote veterans communities, stymie the causes of homelessness, and ensure that veterans have viable employment options after the military.

Personally, I'm eager to see what happens now that Americans have transferred authority and I have confidence that Iraq will prosper in the long run.


(Image: Then-Spc. Ryan Gallucci, alongside Moldovan soldiers, smoking a cigar the day Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq, December 2003. Photo by Ryan Moniz.)

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Monday, August 30, 2010

This Week at American Veteran

This week at American Veteran, we welcome new National Commander Jerry Hotop to AMVETS National Headquarters in Lanham, Md. Hotop, a life member of Perryville AMVETS Post No. 94 in Missouri, was recently elected as AMVETS National Commander for 2010-2011 at the AMVETS National Convention in Louisville.

This week, we will also discuss VA's publication of Agent Orange regulations for the latest presumptive conditions for exposure to the dangerous defoliant during the Vietnam War. VA plans to publish the new rules on Tuesday in the Federal Register.

Congress remains on recess for the district work period, meaning AMVETS legislative team continues to use this time to compile AMVETS' legislative agenda for 2011 and the upcoming report from the 2010 AMVETS Symposium for 21st Century Veterans.

We will also continue to follow the latest developments on recent court rulings in favor of funeral protests and framing Stolen Valor as free speech. AMVETS recently issued statements on both rulings, calling the decisions "misguided" and demanding appeals. To read the statement on Stolen Valor, Click Here. To read the statement on funeral protests, Click Here.

As always, we're eager to highlight what's going on at AMVETS posts and departments around the country, so please send us your stories and photos for consideration, and please comment on anything we post.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

AMVETS, Rep. Klein Push For Clear Service Dog Standards

Since AMVETS leaders and non-profit Paws With A Cause stormed Capitol Hill in April, informing legislators on the benefits of service dogs for wounded veterans, AMVETS has made considerable headway, pushing VA to codify its standards on prosthetic reimbursement for service animals. Now, the battle has shifted gears, to close a loophole discovered in the VA system that gives all veterans using "seeing eye dogs," or guide dogs, access to all medical facilities, but leaves leeway for each VA medical center director to decide whether or not other kinds of service animals are allowed to enter the facility.

Though many VA medical centers have extended access to all kinds of service dogs, some VA medical center directors continue to only allow guide dogs into their health care facilities because of the explicit guidelines for guide dogs in Title 38--the body of law governing VA. Thanks to this anomaly, many veterans who need service animals for other physical conditions are forced to leave their animals behind, should they wish to seek treatment at a VA medical center, only creating another hurdle to care.

Last week, with the help of AMVETS, Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.) sent a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, asking the secretary to close the loophole and finally publish guidelines for VA facilities mandating uniformed service dog access regulations that will mirror those already in place for veterans with guide dogs.

Shinseki's office replied the query quickly, noting that the department had commissioned a work group to address all categories of service animals in VA health care facilities to provide a proposed directive to VA leadership by the end of the 2010 calendar year.

AMVETS applauded VA's swift action on the issue in an effort to potentially close the ADA loophole once and for all.

American Veteran will continue to follow VA's progress in codifying service dog policies for VA health care facilities. Check back regularly for updates on this issue, and to read more about AMVETS' and Paws' work helping to secure prosthetic benefits for veterans using assistance animals, check out the latest issue of American Veteran magazine.

(Image: Congressman Klein's letter to Secretary Shinseki.)

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Monday, August 23, 2010

This Week at American Veteran

After a very successful AMVETS National Convention and 2010 Symposium for 21st Century Veterans, American Veteran Online is back in action this week.

Through all of the work in Louisville, AMVETS managed to compile significant information about the ever-changing needs of today's veterans community, which will now be used to compile a final report to be published in October.

This week, American Veteran will also bring you reaction to two recent court rulings that rattled the veterans' community--the Missouri ruling striking down the state's ban on military funeral protests and the Colorado ruling striking down the Stolen Valor Act. AMVETS leaders have advocated for both the protection of grieving military families and the prosecution of phony veterans.

This week, we will also highlight recent efforts of AMVETS Legislative Department pressing VA to codify service dog guidelines for health care facilities nationwide. AMVETS National Deputy Legislative Director Christina Roof worked with the office of Congressman Ron Klein (D-Fla.) to draft a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, asking VA to close a loop hole that only allows "seeing eye dogs" on VA facilities. We will bring you updates as this story develops.

We will also discuss the latest issue of American Veteran magazine, which is now available online. The latest issue brings with it new digital features, such as RSS feeds and podcasts of the full text. We will highlight each of these new features, plus preview this summer's stories.

As always, we're eager to hear from you, our readers. We hope to continue highlighting the work of AMVETS posts and departments around the country, so please keep sending your submissions and post your comments.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Gen. Purser Discusses Transition; Paws With A Cause Thanks AMVETS

This morning, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Army Reserve, Brig. Gen. Leslie Purser spoke at the AMVETS National Convention at the Galt House in Louisville. In her current role, Purser's responsibilities include developing the transition strategy for today's Reserve soldiers--who have been utilized at an operational tempo not seen since World War II.

Purser discussed new ways in which the Army is looking to meet the needs of soldiers in transition after combat deployments, such as partnering with civilian employers to ensure that Reserve soldiers can utilize their military job skills in viable civilian careers once they return home.

Purser also took a moment to discuss military readiness and daunting statistics on why so few Americans are unfit for military duty in the 21st century, ranging from obesity to mental health.

AMVETS Ladies Auxiliary partner Paws With A Cause also spoke on the convention floor, thanking AMVETS for its support to recent work on Capitol Hill, helping to secure benefits for disabled veterans who use service animals.

AMVETS member and Paralympic medalist Kevin Stone took a few moments to discuss the benefits of his service dogs Jonah and Mambo over the years as he recovered from a severe spinal chord injury he suffered in the 1980s while serving in the Army. Stone credits his remarkable recovery and his subsequent success as a U.S. Olympian to the life-altering assistance of service dogs.

To read more about Stone and the recent work of AMVETS on the service dog issue, check out the summer issue of American Veteran magazine by Clicking Here.

AMVETS also gathered to vote on the organization's resolutions, many of which will help to guide AMVETS' legislative work on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., such as the VA claims backlog, concurrent receipt issues, and flag protection. Based on this year's symposium and legislative resolutions, AMVETS will compile a comprehensive legislative agenda for 2011 to be published in time for Veterans Day.

(Photos: Top: Brig. Gen. Leslie Purser discusses Reserve transition strategies. Middle: Kevin Stone tells AMVETS how service dogs helped him regain his independence, Bottom: AMVETS National Judge Advocate Daniel Snyder discusses proposed amendments to AMVETS resolutions while First Vice Commander Jerry Hotop and National Legislative Director Ray Kelley look on. Photos by Ryan Gallucci.)

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

AMVETS Nominate New National Officers

This afternoon, AMVETS National Executive Director Jim King opened nominations for AMVETS national officers on the National Convention floor.

Past National Commander Bill Kilgore officially nominated Jerry Hotop for National Commander. Hotop's son, Dean Hotop, a veteran of Iraq and an active member of AMVETS, seconded his father's nomination for the organization's highest office.

Hotop currently serves as AMVETS National First Vice Commander.

Other nominations included Pennsylvania's Gary Fry for First Vice Commander, Florida's Cleve Geer for Second Vice Commander, Ohio's Dan Snyder for National Judge Advocate, Tennessee's John Mitchell for National Finance Officer, and Past National Commanders Bill Boettcher, Tom McGriff, and Joseph Lipowski for AMVETS National Service Foundation Trustee.

Nominations for national officers will reopen on Saturday morning at 10 a.m. Elections will follow at 11 a.m., with the Joint Installation Ceremony at 2:30 p.m.

To learn more about this year's candidates, check out "In the Running" in the latest issue of American Veteran magazine by Clicking Here.

(Photo: Dean Hotop nominates his father, Jerry Hotop, for AMVETS National Commander. Photo by Ryan Gallucci.)

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AMVETS Presents Annual Publication Awards

This morning, AMVETS presented its national programs, membership and publication awards to deserving AMVETS posts and departments.

Each year, AMVETS National Communications Department presents awards to the top newspaper, multi-page newsletter and single-page newsletter. AMVETS National Commander Duane J. Miskulin and National Communications Director Jay Agg presented each of this year's winners with their award plaque.

Here are this year's top AMVETS publications:

Top newspaper: AMVETS Department of Illinois for "Illinois AMVETS"

Top multi-page newsletter: Carl J. Lusic AMVETS Post No. 2298, Callaway, Fla. for "Scuttlebutt"

Top single-page newsletter: Guy W. Iverson AMVETS Post No. 49, Cedar Falls, Iowa for "Forty Niner"

Tomorrow, American Veteran will highlight the winners of this year's programs and membership awards.

(All photos by Luis Jimenez.)

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

VA Chief of Staff Joins AMVETS for National Convention

This afternoon VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich spoke to the Joint Opening Ceremony at the 66th annual AMVETS National Convention in Louisville, thanking AMVETS and the AMVETS family of organizations for their continued "assistance, advice and advocacy" on behalf of America's veterans.

"Millions of veterans have been cared for through your volunteerism," said Gingrich, highlighting AMVETS' 173,000 volunteer hours through the VA Voluntary Service Program in 2009. "We wouldn't succeed in our mission without you."

Gingrich also thanked AMVETS for their recent efforts on securing service dog benefits for disabled veterans and said that he and the Secretary look forward to hearing the results from AMVETS' 2010 Symposium for 21st Century Veterans. Gingrich also said that VA was prepared to start paying Agent Orange presumptive claims by October, should Congress approve--an announcement that was received with raucous applause.

He also took the time to highlight VA's recent efforts to transform the cultural mindset of VA, recent record increases in VA funding, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's top three goals to improve VA services: Increasing access to care and benefits, eliminating the claims backlog by 2015, and ending homelessness in five years.

During the ceremony AMVETS delegates also heard from the Minister of Republic of China (Taiwan) Veterans Affairs Commission, Gen. Tseng Jing-Ling. AMVETS has long partnered with Taiwan to share ideas and resources on how to best serve our fellow veterans.

AMVETS National Commander Duane J. Miskulin and AMVETS Ladies Auxiliary National President Patty Piening also addressed the members of the AMVETS family who came to Louisville to tend to the annual business of AMVETS.

American Veteran Online will continue to follow this year's convention, bringing you regular highlights and updates from the business sessions, including AMVETS' resolutions, which will help to guide AMVETS' legislative agenda for 2011 due on Veterans Day. Check back regularly and, as always, let us know what you think.

(Photo: VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich addresses the AMVETS National Convention while Taiwanese Gen. Tseng Ling, AMVETS National Commander Duane Miskulin, and AMVETS National Executive Director Jim King look on. Photo by Jay Agg.)

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Twenty-First Century Vets Deliver Their Findings to AMVETS

This morning, participants in the 2010 AMVETS Symposium for 21st Century Veterans presented their findings and recommendations to the AMVETS National Convention floor at the Galt House in Louisville, Ky.

Some of the most prominent recommendations from this year's participants included increased family integration in the transition and treatment processes, equitable treatment for female veterans in VA medical facilities, codified "warning signs" for veterans at risk for homelessness, and comprehensive transition programs available to all branches, including the National Guard and Reserve.

From this morning's presentation, AMVETS National Headquarters will compile the raw data from the week's working groups, follow up with participants, compare notes with VA, Department of Defense and Department of Labor codes, and compile a comprehensive symposium report to be released on Oct. 1.

AMVETS will then use the report to guide its legislative agenda and inform key national leaders on Capitol Hill about the current needs of America's warfighters.

From AMVETS' last symposium for post-9/11 veterans in 2006, more than 25 issues have been addressed, but this year's participants pointed to new issues and some unforeseen consequences of past corrective actions.

One unintended consequence, which came from the women veterans' roundtable, was the concern that today's female veterans were being pigeon-holed into women's clinics for non-gender-specific care, exacerbating access issues to routine primary care treatment.

Veterans also clamored for more family integration into the overall transition and treatment process, saying that veterans' spouses and children play pivotal roles in ensuring that veterans receive all of their proper benefits and entitlements. Family members are also directly impacted by reintegration issues that their loved ones face, potentially leading to relationship issues.

AMVETS National Legislative Director Ray Kelley, the symposium's facilitator, said the input from the diverse group of veterans will also help to guide AMVETS organizationally to better serve today's warriors.

AMVETS asked for anonymous feedback from each participant and plans to take their recommendations to the AMVETS National Executive Committee to host future events.

Participants said they enjoyed the opportunity to participate in the symposium and that no other veterans' groups had offered them similar opportunities to candidly discuss what is important to them. They also said that they wanted to see similar events take place every year until all of America's service members return home.

More than 50 veterans who have served after Sept. 11, 2001 participated in the symposium, representing a broad cross-section of today's veterans including current service members, recent retirees, wounded warriors, female veterans, urban and suburban veterans, rural veterans, and members of the National Guard and Reserve from coast to coast.

AMVETS National Commander Duane J. Miskulin thanked each of the participants personally after the presentation and said it was the kind of work AMVETS needed to continue down the road.

(Photos: Top: Post-9/11 veteran Joe Leal delivers the findings of the health care breakout group from the symposium, while his fellow participants and AMVETS National Commander Duane Miskulin looks on. Bottom: AMVETS members thank symposium participants for their hard work following this morning's presentation on the floor of the National Convention. Photos by Luis Jimenez.)

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Symposium Day Two: Compiling Reports

This morning, each breakout session for the 2010 AMVETS Symposium for 21st Century Veterans reconvened to review yesterday's notes, discuss their findings and begin compiling the final report.

After yesterday's charged discussions on issues critical to Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans, the small subgroups are now comparing notes on veterans' health care, benefits, and transition assistance. This afternoon, the three breakout groups will come together to compile final recommendations, which will be delivered on the floor of the AMVETS National Convention tomorrow morning.

"Yesterday's subgroups really picked up the ball and ran with it, making this symposium their own," said AMVETS National Legislative Director Ray Kelley, who is facilitating this week's work. "AMVETS has taken a hands-off approach to these discussions in an effort to really learn what today's issues are from the veterans, themselves, and I'm happy to see it working."

Kelley went on to say that closing the sessions to the public helped to ensure candid discussion among participants--some of whom continue to serve on active duty.

"I've really learned something watching the conversations unfold," said Kelley, "and I'm eager to see tomorrow's final report."

Tomorrow's final symposium report is open to the public and will take place at 7:30 a.m. in the Grand Ballroom at the Galt House in Louisville. AMVETS delegates from around the country will be on hand to listen to the recommendations and AMVETS will use this week's findings to compile a new report to bring to Washington.

If you were unable to join us in Louisville, but think there is an issue AMVETS should address at the symposium, please let us know by commenting on this blog.

For more updates on the symposium and this week's AMVETS National Convention, check back regularly with American Veteran Online.

(Photo: Veterans fill out name tags as the second day of the symposium convenes. Photo by Ryan Gallucci.)

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Monday, August 9, 2010

AMVETS Symposium Commences in Louisville

This morning, the 2010 AMVETS Symposium for 21st Century Veterans commenced at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Ky. A diverse working group of nearly 50 current service members, veterans, and recent military retirees gathered to discuss issues critical to today's veterans community pertaining to health care, benefits and the transition from military life.

Congressman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) joined the symposium early in the morning to address the veterans and discuss why veterans' issues are critical to him and his constituents in Louisville. During his comments, Yarmuth touched on the persistent issues of PTSD and suicide, which AMVETS is addressing in the symposium.

Yarmuth shared a personal story from recently visiting with a hospitalized veteran who attempted to take his own life, and how seeing first-hand the impact of the invisible wounds of war has driven him and other leaders in Congress to seek ways to stymie the disturbing trend.

AMVETS National Legislative Director Ray Kelley, who is leading the symposium, took the time to introduce each subject matter expert tasked to lead discussions in each of the breakout groups. AMVETS National Commander Duane J. Miskulin also took a few moments to thanks the participants, calling their work critical to the AMVETS mission.

This afternoon, the veterans broke into smaller sessions. In the health care breakout, veterans discussed patient care and staff attitudes, the invisible wounds of war, and women's needs. In the benefits breakout, veterans discussed delivery and availability of benefits and education. In the transition breakout, veterans discussed transition assistance, employment and homelessness.

Tomorrow, the groups will reconstitute to discuss their findings--identifying which problems demanded the most attention and proposing fresh solutions. On Wednesday morning, participants will present their recommendations to the AMVETS delegates gathered for the 66th AMVETS National Convention. From here, AMVETS will compile a comprehensive report to guide national leaders' work in Washington.

To learn more about the symposium, Click Here.

To learn more about AMVETS National Convention, Click Here.

(Photos: Top: Congressman John Yarmuth speaks to veterans gathered to participate in the AMVETS Symposium for 21st Century Veterans. Photo courtesy of Congressman John Yarmuth, by Dustin Alsey. Middle: Veterans participating in this year's symposium listen as subject matter experts explain why the symposium is important to their work. Photo by Jay Agg.)

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

This Week at American Veteran

This week at American Veteran, we are in full convention mode, preparing for the 66th annual AMVETS National Convention, taking place next week at the Galt House in Louisville, Ky. During this year's convention, AMVETS is also hosting its 2010 Symposium for 21st Century Veterans.

American Veteran will be on hand bringing you up-to-the-minute updates from the convention floor, the symposium business sessions, and the 2010 AMVETS Expo, featuring dozens of exhibitors looking to serve the veterans' community.

As we reported last week, the latest issue of American Veteran magazine has gone to print. We will bring you a preview of the new issue shortly, which features stories on POW/MIA recovery, wounded warrior services, and the latest news from around the AMVETS community. In the meantime, be on the look-out for the summer issue of American Veteran in your mailbox, featuring golf legend Jack Nicklaus, who recently helped to design the new American Lake Veterans Golf Course in Washington.

This week, Congress adjourned for the summer district work period, but that does not mean that the work stops on Capitol Hill for AMVETS. AMVETS legislative team continues to work with staffers to advance critical legislation to better serve our veterans, such as the new proposal to update the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, continued discussions on how to alleviate the VA claims backlog, and new potential legislation to better serve disabled veterans using assistance animals.

As always, we're eager to hear your comments, so please feel free to post on any of the threads you see on this blog.

We look forward to seeing each of you at convention this year in Louisville. We'll be the ones with the giant camera, so be sure to smile.

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