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Obama names ex-CEO Robert McDonald as VA nominee

By Meredith Clark via MSNBC, June 30, 2014 

President Obama officially announced Monday that he will nominate Robert McDonald, a former business executive and West Point graduate, to be the new secretary of Veterans Affairs.

McDonald, Obama said Monday, “understands that grand plans are not enough, and what matters is the plans you put in place, and how you get the job done.” 

In McDonald, Obama has a nominee unlikely to make waves during his confirmation process. McDonald retired in 2013 after spending more than 33 years at Proctor and Gamble, ending his tenure there as CEO amid investor concerns over profits, a problem that will not trouble him at Veterans Affairs. He also graduated near the top of his class at West Point in 1975, where he attended school with Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, and spent five years in the Army with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Much has changed in the military and Veterans Affairs since 1980 – from the demographics of veterans seeking care to the types of services veterans of the nation’s most recent wars need. Whether his skills as head of a consumer products corporation will translate to problem solving at the VA, where there are nine million customers to keep satisfied, will soon become clear, but Obama and McDonald both vowed to do better.

 

“My life’s purpose has been to improve the lives of others,” McDonald said of his time in the Army and in corporate life. “We need to put caring for veterans at the center of everything we do … and we must focus all day, every day, on getting them the benefits they’ve earned.”

He has a lot of work ahead of him. On Friday, Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson and Deputy White House Chief of Staff Rob Nabors met with Obama to discuss what progress has been made at the VA. Nabors, who had been tasked with conducting a review of VA medical care, delivered a blistering report to Obama on “significant and chronic systemic failures that must be addressed by the leadership at VA.” 

Obama also laid out what changes are already underway at the department, which were included in the report Nabors submitted Friday. In the report’s summary, Nabors pointed to “a corrosive culture” at the department that has hurt morale and caused health care to suffer. “The problems inherent within an agency with an extensive field structure are exacerbated by poor management and communication structures, distrust between some VA employees and management, a history of retaliation toward employees raising issues, and a lack of accountability across all grade levels,” it read.

Former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned May 30, two days after a VA Inspector General report found widespread systemic failure to properly schedule and provide health care for veterans seeking care. That report found 1,700 veterans were waiting for care but were not on any official waiting list.

If confirmed, McDonald will take over the responsibility to fix a system that has been facing a crisis for over a decade. Joe Violante, National Legislative Director of Disabled Veterans of America, told msnbc that it has been clear since 2003 that there were not enough resources to meet the needs of the veterans who would be entering the VA system. A Bush administration task force, Violante said, “reported that if that mismatch wasn’t addressed there would be a crisis in access, and here we are 11 years later in the middle of that.”

For McDonald to be effective, he’ll have to follow up on what Gibson has done during his month-long tenure. “I think Acting Secretary Gibson has stepped out there and done some important things that needed to be done, such as visiting VA facilities, going out and talking to his employees and to veterans. I think we’re heading in the right direction, and hopefully the new secretary will be able to keep up momentum,” Violante told msnbc. “DAV is looking forward to working with the nominee once he’s confirmed.”

Anu Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women’s Action Network, said Monday that McDonald will have to consider the military’s increased diversity as he makes decisions on how to move forward. “Past leadership at VA has not engaged nearly enough women in policy discussions and hasn’t done nearly enough to remedy the problems facing women veterans,” Bhagwati said. “As active duty service women begin to transition out of the military, the burden to provide services to women veterans will only increase. When you add this to the overwhelming patient care challenges VA currently faces, Robert McDonald will have his hands full and will need to rely heavily on the counsel of women who have served.”

The Senate has yet to confirm three female nominees to top positions at Veterans Affairs, and Obama urged that those nominees be confirmed. All three, he said, “have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for a vote,” one for over a year. “We need them on the job now. Congress has to act and help us do right by our veterans,” he said.

Negotiations between the House and Senate on how to pay for a bill that would add tens of billions of dollars to the VA budget began on June 24.

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Compass: Governor's inadequate response to Alaska National Guard sexual assault complaints

By BARBARA MCDANIEL via Anchorage Daily News June 25, 2014 

Questions remain as to why Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell waited almost four years to open an official investigation into 2010 Alaska National Guard chaplains' reports to him of sexual assaults of particular servicewomen in the guard.

This is an important issue for all Alaskans. The sexual assault epidemic within U.S. military ranks rages on. Congress adopted many improvements to the military justice system in the fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, but hesitated to pass bipartisan legislation that would address the core problem - that is, removing prosecution from the chain of command as provided for in the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA, S. 967/H.R. 2016). The act would authorize an independent, specially trained and experienced prosecutor to handle these cases. Alaska Senate Joint Resolution 20, supporting the MJIA, languished in the Senate Rules Committee this year. And the U.S. Dept. of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office's (SAPRO) FY2013 survey found formal sexual assault complaints within military ranks increased 50 percent over the previous year.

Ethical men and women have good cause to care and attend to the work and cost of eradicating sexual assault in U.S. military workplaces. Victims are friends and cherished relatives. And as most military personnel live and work among us, our communities absorb the consequences of military sexual assault as well as the consequences of military commanders' unwillingness to prosecute their perpetrators.

The recent Alaska National Guard sexual assault scandal returned Alaskans' attention to our ongoing struggle with sexual violence against women. To recap, in an April 26, 2014 Anchorage Daily News commentary, columnist Shannyn Moore held Gov. Parnell to account for receiving reports of the Guard sexual assaults on Nov. 18, 2010 and waiting four years before initiating a formal investigation. Professional protocol for any sexual assault report generally calls for immediacy, confidentiality and safety for victims, and investigation, regardless of the amount of detail. The well-known, nationwide military sexual assault issue should have added impetus to the governor's sense of duty to investigate.

In his April 30 ADN defense, Gov. Parnell describes having an undated, general conversation with the Adjutant General about sexual assault allegations and the guard process. He contends this was an adequate response. Notably, since the complaint against him was his timing, his delay in response in 2010, it is odd the governor omitted the date of that contact in his defense. The only specific date mentioned in the response is Feb. 26, when Sen. Dyson managed to spur the governor to formally ask the National Guard Bureau chief to review all related investigations.

In her May 3 ADN follow-up, Ms. Moore stated, "I asked former Gov. Tony Knowles what he would have done in Parnell's place. He said: 'I wouldn't have let those chaplains off the phone until my attorney general had heard their story.'" Experts agree that would be natural and appropriate. However, in related published documents regarding the matter, Gov. Parnell has not mentioned his attorney general at the time, current Senate candidate Dan Sullivan. (Mr. Sullivan was reassigned, from attorney general to Dept. of Natural Resources commissioner, a few weeks after the chaplains' report. His last day as attorney general was December 5, 2010.) The Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources commissioner's website states, "(Dan Sullivan's) primary focus as Attorney General was to end Alaska's epidemic levels of sexual assault and domestic violence."

Questions remain unanswered. Therefore, on behalf of the victims in this matter, on June 4, Alaska NOW faxed and sent a certified-mail letter to the governor's office, requesting further information. Alaska NOW requested, "per the Alaska Public Records Act, copies of (documents) between you and then Attorney General Daniel Sullivan from November 18, 2010, or the first actual date of any report to you regarding sexual assault accusations within the Alaska National Guard, through Daniel Sullivan's last day as Attorney General, December 5, 2010." As of today, June 23, 2014, we have received no response from the governor's office.

Barbara McDaniel is president of the Alaska chapter of the National Organization for Women.

 

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Coburn report slams VA as ‘broken system’

BY JOSH HICKS via the Washington Post, June 25, 2014 

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) on Tuesday issued a scathing 119-page reportdescribing a culture of crime, cover-ups, incompetence and coercion at the already-embattled Department of Veterans Affairs.

Coburn said the VA’s recent hospital scandal, which involved falsification of scheduling records to hide treatment delays, is “just the tip of the iceberg.”


Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) testifies on Capitol Hill on June 10, 2014. (AP/Charles Dharapak).

Among the discoveries from his year-long review, Coburn found:

A former VA police chief convicted of plotting to kidnap, rape and murder women and children.

A VA neurologist in Kansas who was paid for nearly two years after five women accused him of performing inappropriate pelvic and breast examinations. The VA fired the doctor in May 2013, and he pleaded no contest to two dozen counts of sexual misconduct, in addition to registering as a sex offender.

* A VA employee in Nashville who charged at least $109,000 in unauthorized travel expenses to the department. An inspector general’s investigation determined that the worker had lax supervision and “traveled whenever and wherever he wanted, billing VA for his expenses.”

* Four major construction projects with cost overruns of $1.5 billion and delays between 14 months and six years.

* A VA whistleblower who was suspended without pay after she reported scheduling abuses at a department medical center in Fort Collins, Colo. She said her supervisors claimed her “performance had delayed patient care,” and the VA relocated her to another clinic with a lower salary, according to the report.

* More than 1,000 veterans may have died as a result of VA misconduct, and  the agency paid out $845 million for medical malpractice since 2001.

Coburn also criticized the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee for what he described as a lack of oversight, saying the panel has missed warnings about delays and dysfunction for years while holding only two oversight hearings since 2010.

“This report shows the problems at the VA are worse than anyone imagined,” the senator said. “The scope of the VA’s incompetence — and Congress’s indifferent oversight — is breathtaking and disturbing.”

Coburn said money is not the issue, noting that Congress has increased VA funding “rapidly in recent years” and that the agency had more than $34 billion in unspent funds in fiscal 2013.

The VA said in a statement on Tuesday that “the vast majority of VA employees are dedicated public servants who demonstrate genuine passion to care for veterans and their families every day.”

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who took over as head of the department after Eric Shinseki resigned last month, acknowledged in his first public remarks about the scheduling scandal that the VA had “fallen far short of what veterans have earned and deserve.”

But he promised to change the culture of the VA and earn back the trust in the department “one veteran at a time, one American at a time.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.

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Why Military Sexual Assault Survivors Have Trouble Getting The Benefits They Deserve

By Alissa Scheller via Huffington Post, June 23, 2014 

When a veteran submits a disability claim for post-traumatic stress disorder, a troubling factor can predict whether he or she will ever receive benefits: whether that claim is related to sexual assault.

recent Government Accountability Office report found that while the Department of Veterans Affairs is approving an increasing number of veterans' PTSD claims, applications for PTSD related to sexual trauma are much more likely to be denied than those related to combat or other trauma.

Seven members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, requested the GAO report. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told The Huffington Post that the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to work toward more consistent treatment of sexual trauma-related disability claims from veterans.

"These are deeply painful and personal issues, and veterans should not have to go through this process repeatedly because their claims were incorrectly denied," she said.

Murray has been actively trying to pass legislation related to sexual assault in the military. A bill she introduced introduced last year with Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R.-N.H.) did not move forward, but some of its main provisions, like providing trained lawyers to military victims of sexual assault, were included in the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act.

The VA defines "military sexual trauma," or MST, as "sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that occurred while the Veteran was in the military."

All veterans can access counseling and medical care for issues related to MST, regardless of whether they have evidence of trauma sustained during service. But in order to file with the VA for monetary compensation, a veteran must prove they are suffering a disability related to MST, like PTSD or depression.

If a veteran is claiming disability for combat-related PTSD, the VA requires little more than their personal testimony and details of their service. Veterans with MST-related disability claims, however, need evidence corroborating their personal testimony. The VA requires them to show they've been diagnosed with PTSD, prove that the inciting incident occurred while they were in the military and prove a link between the incident and their current symptoms.

VA staff in regional offices who consider these claims look at a range of indicators, known as “markers,” as evidence. Markers can include law enforcement records, rape crisis center records, pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease tests, and statements from family members, friends and fellow service members, according to the GAO report.

But VA regional office staff members interviewed by the GAO said it was difficult to standardize the process, and that even with guidance and training, it's difficult to identify what exactly qualifies as a marker.

If staff determine that there’s enough evidence to support a claim, the case is passed on to a Veterans Health Administration medical examiner, who rules on whether an incident occurred and is related to current PTSD symptoms. Only then can a veteran’s disability claim be approved.

The report found that medical examiners had varied opinions on how to evaluate MST-related cases -- some interviewed by the GAO said they relied heavily on evidence presented in the veteran’s claim file, while others said they might simply base their decision on whether they believed the veteran.

Examination length also varied widely. Some veterans were seen for only a few minutes, while others spent more than an hour with an examiner, the report said.

Greg Jacob, the policy director for Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), said that since many sexual assaults are not reported, evidence has often been lost by the time a veteran files a claim. The Department of Defense has noted that underreporting is a problem in the military.

An anonymous survey by the Defense Department estimated that about 26,000 active duty service members had experienced sexual assault or other unwanted sexual contact in 2012. But according to the department's numbers, in 2012, only 3,374 sexual assaults were reported.

In an annual report on the topic, the Pentagon said that 5,061 service membersreported being sexually assaulted in 2013 -- an increase it attributed to new efforts to encourage reporting.

But even if an assault gets reported, and a veteran later chooses to submit an MST-related disability claim, the GAO found that the person's location can significantly impact whether the claim is approved. A 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union and SWAN similarly found large regional differences in claim approvals.

Jacob said these regional differences point to inconsistencies in how claims are processed by VA staff and medical examiners. Approvals, he said, are "more a function of where you live than what your claim is."

According to Jacob, the VA should change the regulations on evidence for MST-related PTSD claims, giving more weight to the personal testimony of veterans seeking benefits. This would make the process more closely resemble that for other PTSD claims, he said.

The VA has taken steps to bring its treatment of sexual assault-related PTSD claims in line with that of other PTSD cases, including requiring more staff training, allowing denied claims to be resubmitted and allowing a wider range of evidence to corroborate veteran's claims. Murray called the changes "long overdue."

Recognizing that MST-related claims brought to the VA between 2010 and 2013 may have been erroneously denied due to a lack of staff training, the VA sent letters last year to 2,667 veterans whose claims were denied, notifying them that they could resubmit them. According to the GAO, an “undetermined number” of additional eligible veterans were not asked to resubmit claims.

But the effort didn't lead to many overturned decisions, the GAO found.

In its report, the agency recommended that the VA improve its training process for staff dealing with sexual assault cases and conduct more outreach to affected veterans to let them know they can resubmit denied claims. More formal training for VA medical examiners on conducting sexual assault-related exams will be implemented in September 2014, according to the report.

The VA did not respond to the The Huffington Post’s request for comment, though the GAO report notes that the VA generally agreed with the recommendations it presented.

This post has been updated to include additional information on Murray's legislation on sexual assault in the military.

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Brig. Gen. Sinclair demoted 2 grades after sex scandal

By Lolita C. Baldor via The Associated Press,  June 20, 2014

WASHINGTON — The Army is stripping a brigadier general at the center of a sexual misconduct case by two grades for his retirement, in a rare move that will slash his benefits and force him to retire as a lieutenant colonel.

Army Secretary John McHugh announced the decision Friday, saying that Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair "displayed a pattern of inappropriate and at times illegal behavior both while serving as a brigadier general and a colonel."

The move comes three months after Sinclair pleaded guilty at a court martial to adultery and conducting inappropriate relationships with two other women. Over the past year, his case has been a central topic in Congress in the debate over whether the military has adequately handled sexual assault cases.

Sinclair had a three-year affair with a female captain who accused him of twice forcing her to perform oral sex on him. The former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division was originally brought up on sexual assault charges punishable by life in prison. Sinclair was spared prison and fined $20,000.

He was believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on such charges. And, the Army said this is the first time in a decade that the service has reduced a retiring general officer by two ranks.

"Gen. Sinclair has consistently taken responsibility for his mistakes and agreed to a reduction in retirement benefits," his lawyer, Richard Scheff, said in an emailed statement. "He is a highly decorated war hero who made great sacrifices for his country, and it's right that he be permitted to retire honorably."

While retirement benefits are mandated by federal law, there is a requirement that an individual must have served satisfactorily in rank before receiving those benefits, McHugh said in a statement. McHugh determined that Sinclair's actions as both a one-star general and colonel provided enough evidence to reduce his retirement by two grades.

McHugh added that he was prevented by federal law from taking any further action against Sinclair, so he did what was "legally sustainable."

Sinclair was convicted at a court-martial in March 2014.

AP writer Michael Biesecker contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.

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Hillary Clinton tackles Benghazi, pot and more

By MAGGIE HABERMAN and DARREN SAMUELSOHN  6/17/14 via Politico 

Hillary Clinton said there are still unanswered questions about the Benghazi attacks, endorsed a controversial plan to reduce commanders’ oversight in military sex assault cases and declared she’s never smoked pot — all during a wide-ranging town hall-style event hosted Tuesday by CNN.

She also came to President Obama’s defense on the statistics on immigrant deportations and made clear she’d warned the White House about the risks of not arming the opposition in Syria.

 The hourlong gathering at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., was part of a one-two cable news punch by Clinton, a potential 2016 presidential candidate who is promoting her new memoir, “Hard Choices.” The CNN event, during which she took questions directly from the audience, ended 45 minutes before she did a live interview with Fox News.

Clinton appeared relaxed and measured during both sessions, looking more comfortable as the minutes wore on. Throughout the event, but particularly in the final 30 minutes, she showed frequent flashes of the humor that her friends have long said she kept under wraps in the 2008 presidential campaign. Before the event began, she greeted a Republican National Committee aide who’s been tailing her to events dressed in a squirrel costume, handing the giant animal a copy of her book as the cameras whirred.

The CNN event, moderated by Christiane Amanpour, led out of the gate with questions about the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya, which killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Earlier Tuesday, news broke that Ahmed Abu Khattala, one of the suspected masterminds of the attack, had been captured. Clinton was secretary of state at the time of the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, and Republicans have sought to tar her image by questioning whether she did enough to prevent the tragedy.

“There are answers — not all of them, not enough, frankly,” Clinton said. “I’m still looking for answers, because it was a confusing and difficult time. But I would hope that every American would understand, No. 1, why we were there, because we need to be in dangerous places, and, No. 2, that we’re doing the best we can to find out what happened. And I hope that fair-minded people will look at that seriously.”

Asked what specifically is an open question, Clinton said: “There’s a lot we don’t know, Christiane, because now that we have Khattala in custody, hopefully, we will learn more, at least from his perspective. The reason it takes long is to put together cases, which is what the FBI and other law enforcement agencies were doing. They have to piece it together, just as we started piecing it together on the night of the attack. We want to know who was behind it, what the motivation of the leaders and the attackers happened to be. There are still some unanswered questions. It was, after all, the fog of war.”

On the question of whether she would have, in retrospect, kept Ambassador Chris Stevens out of Benghazi, she said: “Well, I think, if any of us had known that there was going to be a wave of attacks — remember, it started in Cairo that day and swept across the region — I think we would have certainly cautioned, and maybe even directed people to just shelter in place, so to speak, and wait to see what was going to happen.”

Officials involved in the House select committee on Benghazi have not ruled out calling Clinton to testify.

Clinton expressed reservations about America cooperating with Iran in trying to beat back Sunni militants that have captured significant territory in Iraq. The militant advance is badly straining Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.

“I am not prepared to say that we go in with Iran right now, until we have a better idea what we’re getting ourselves into,” she said. “I know that the commander of [Iran’s] Quds Force is in Baghdad right now, meeting with Maliki and his advisers and supporters. They want to do for Maliki what they did for [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, namely, to provide the bulwark of protection.”

She spoke about Syria, to which she devotes a chapter to in her book, making it clear that she had cautioned the Obama White House on arming the opposition. “I recommended,” she said, “that we do more in the very beginning to support the moderate opposition, because I believed, at the time, that they would be overwhelmed by Assad’s military force and that they would open up the door to extremists coming in.”

On the issue of gay marriage, Clinton declared unequivocally that she had “evolved’ on the topic. Last week, she got into a testy back-and-forth with NPR host Terry Gross about her motivation in coming out in favor of such unions.

Clinton also said she supports fixing the immigration system. “I would be very open to trying to figure out ways to change the law, even if we don’t get to comprehensive immigration reform, to provide more leeway and more discretion for the executive branch,” she said.

Yet, she took a firm line on how to deal with a rising number of children who are crossing the border without an adult.

“We have to send a clear message [that] just because your child gets across the border doesn’t mean your child gets to stay,” Clinton said. “We don’t want to send a message contrary to our laws or encourage more to come.”

The former first lady and ex-senator — who would be the Democrats’ front-runner in 2016 but who has said she is still mulling over whether to run — also touched on other sensitive subjects.

She said she’d support reinstating the assault weapons ban, but she was not asked about another controversial element of gun control measures: expanded background checks for prospective buyers. However, in a remark that can only make the Democratic base happy, she denounced the radical “minority” that takes control of the conversation about guns and “terrorizes” the majority.

Clinton also indicated preliminary support for medical marijuana, although she gave a muddled response about whether she would back it fully. She declared, however, that she herself had never smoked pot.

Clinton dodged a question about whether racism is at play in some of the antipathy for President Barack Obama, although she allowed that reactions to him can be “virulent.” And she was clear that she was not impervious to the barbs that get exchanged during a campaign, saying, “I am like every other human being. I am susceptible to being criticized.”

Throughout the town hall, Clinton repeatedly mentioned the title of her new book, “Hard Choices,” for which she fetched a whopping $14 million advance. She also talked at length about gender issues, something she avoided in her 2008 campaign for the White House but which she’s discussed a great deal since leaving the State Department.

At another point in the CNN event, she took a position that appears to put her opposite the Pentagon brass and Sen. Claire McCaskill, one of her earliest Democratic 2016 supporters: She issued her first public endorsement of a controversial plan to overhaul military sexual assault policy by removing commanders from the key decision points in the prosecution of cases.

Clinton said she supported New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in her yearlong battle to force this change through legislation — if the Pentagon can’t clean up its act soon.

“She was a fierce advocate for it,” Clinton said of Gillibrand. “It was not successful this time around. Another approach was taken. But I think everybody on both sides of the aisle knows, if there is not evidence that this other approach is working, then we should go back to Kirsten’s proposal.”

“Take it out of the chain of command?” Amanpour asked to follow-up.

“Take it out, that’s right,” Clinton replied.

Gillibrand fell five votes short on the Senate floor in March but is urging the president to call for the same overhaul later this year after the Pentagon reports on how it has been handling the issue in the wake of several high-profile policy changes and criminal prosecutions. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also has said the military has until the end of this year to show improvements to the system.

Clinton’s comments backing Gillibrand put her in line with victims’ and women’s advocacy groups but on opposite sides from McCaskill, an early Clinton backer for 2016. The Missouri Democrat and former Kansas City prosecutor has helped push a series of changes to the military justice system to address the issue but opposes Gillibrand’s efforts.

At the end of the event, Clinton said she’s trying not “to look past” the moment of becoming a grandmother this fall, when her daughter, Chelsea, is due to deliver her first child. But she also nodded to the gender bias in the question about whether she’d skip a campaign to just focus on a grandchild, noting that plenty of presidents have also been grandfathers.

On Fox News, whose conservative leanings make it sensitive territory for Clinton, she told interviewers Greta Van Susteren and Bret Baier that the president had at no point disappointed her while she worked for him, but that the pair did not always agree on everything.

Asked whether the IRS scandal is a legitimate issue, she said, “Anytime the IRS is involved, for many people it’s a real scandal.” Still, she added, there had been nothing to suggest there was foul play at work.

She capped off the day with a friendly audience at Vital Voices, an organization designed to empower women around the world that Clinton helped found. She used the platform to “demand” the release of Razan Zaitouneh, a Syrian human rights activist who has disappeared.

“Her vital voice is silent now even as her country continues to burn,” said Clinton.

Her voice rising, Clinton continued, “So tonight, let us all speak for her. Let us raise our voices as one and demand the safe and immediate release of Razan Zaitouneh and all the political prisoners in Syria and this conflict as it continues.”

Katie Glueck contributed to this report.

 

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What it will take to end sexual assault in the military

By Representatives Niki Tsongas and Mike Turner via The Christian Science Monitor, June 16, 2014 

The epidemic of military sexual assault requires continued pursuit of reform. With that in mind, we recently introduced the FAIR Military Act, which is aimed at eliminating bias in the military justice system and increasing accountability among all levels of the military.

WASHINGTON — A pervasive cultural flaw is plaguing our armed forces.

The Department of Defense’s “Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military” for fiscal year 2013, released last month, revealed a rise in reported sexual assaults. Rather than signal what might have been the early success of recent legislative and military changes signed into law over the past few years, the increase in incidents means these heinous crimes continue to occur at an alarming rate, to both men and women.

As Congress, advocacy, and survivor groups dig further toward the roots of the issue, one thing has become clear: A widespread problem necessitates widespread accountability. 

Accountability in the military must begin at the top and extend across the services, to every rank and position. With that goal in mind, we recently introduced the Furthering Accountability and Individual Rights within the Military Act of 2014 (FAIR Military Act), which was supported by the Service Women’s Action Network and has received bipartisan support from the House Armed Services Committee. The bill, which will be included in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), is aimed at eliminating bias in the military justice system and increasing accountability among all levels of the military. 

Among other things, the FAIR Military Act would limit the use of the “good soldier” defense, which allows a defendant to cite unrelated, subjective factors during trial, such as military record as a defense against sexual assault charges. It would also require commanders and service members to be assessed on their actions related to sexual assault prevention. And it confronts failures in the current system by improving specific elements in the areas of prevention, protection, and prosecution.  

To address the issue of lack of accountability, the bill requires that commanders be assessed in two new areas: first, on their ability to properly handle reports of sexual assault; and second, on their ability to create a climate where a victim can report a crime without fear of retaliation. Also, with the revelation of the prevalence of these crimes at all levels of the military, this bill takes the critical step of extending sexual assault prevention measures from past legislation to the military service academies.

The legislation will encourage more efficient implementation of recently enacted laws by requiring the Defense Department to better inform Congress of its sexual assault prevention policies. In addition, it directs an independent panel to evaluate the process in which a victim’s mental health is admitted as evidence to a trial, and what impact that could have on that victim’s future wellbeing.

It is the next step in an ongoing process to address military sexual assault, which has proven to be a multifaceted challenge that no one piece of legislation can solve. Recent years have seen multiple historic, important, and bipartisan bills authored by a variety of lawmakers – men and women, Republicans and Democrats, representatives and senators – to address military sexual assault. They provide numerous tools aimed at increasing reporting and prosecutions and better supporting survivors.

Some of the most substantial steps forward on this issue were signed into law as part of last year’s NDAA. The law made unprecedented changes to commander authority by removing the ability to overturn a jury verdict. It also mandated a dishonorable discharge for those convicted of sexual assault and ensured that every military victim of sexual assault be given an attorney.

An intense public spotlight is now being shone on the military’s ongoing sexual assault epidemic. This is thanks in large part to several factors: legislative action, combined with in-depth debate in the Senate over proposed alterations to the military’s legal system; an Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Invisible War”; courageous survivors publicly sharing their stories; and the efforts of numerous individuals and advocacy groups.

Accordingly, when alarming outcomes occur – such as the case of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who pled guilty to an appalling pattern of misconduct but avoided jail time and reduction in rank – we, and many others, are taking our concerns straight to the Pentagon’s top leadership to ensure they know that such outcomes are unacceptable.

Persistent congressional oversight is necessary to hold the Defense Department accountable and ensure that the legislation from recent years is being implemented efficiently and enforced correctly.

Ultimately, it is incumbent upon the military and its leaders to demonstrate that when these crimes occur, justice is served. But the window of opportunity for them to do so is closing, fast.

President Obama has told the Department of Defense that they have one year to demonstrate improvement. A provision we sponsored in the FY2013 NDAA mandated that an Independent Review Panel of legal, legislative, and military experts convene to thoroughly examine the programs and procedures used by the military to investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate sexual assault crimes. This panel will be releasing a comprehensive report on military sexual assault in coming months. We in Congress will be analyzing these reports carefully, to learn from them, and also to ensure that every possible action is taken to eradicate this crime from the ranks.

Military sexual assault requires continued pursuit of meaningful reform. Now is the time for change, through legislation and through a much-needed cultural shift within the military that no longer accepts these crimes as normative, holds everyone accountable, and exacts standards of professionalism worthy of its servicewomen and servicemen. 

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts and Rep. Mike Turner (R) of Ohio are co-chairs of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus. They are co-authors of several recent pieces of legislation signed into law that address sexual assault in the military

 

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National Guard commander leads from experience

By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun, June 14, 2014

The public service video produced by the Maryland National Guard on sexual assault begins like others. There's footage of troops training in the field. A narrator warns of predators within the ranks. A succession of leaders discusses the impact of assaults on service members and their teams.

Then Brig. Gen. Linda Singh comes on the screen.

"Speaking from personal experience, and having been sexually molested as a teenager, I sought out what I thought was the right support structure," the commander of the Maryland Army National Guard says. "And, unfortunately, it turned out not being the support structure that I needed."

As military leaders grapple with rising reports of sexual assault in the ranks, Singh is believed to be the highest-ranking officer in the armed forces to discuss publicly her own experience of abuse.

Singh, 50, a Bronze Star recipient who has served deployments in Afghanistan and Kosovo, was appointed to command the Maryland Army National Guard last year by Gov. Martin O'Malley. She is responsible for a force of more than 4,750 soldiers — some of them now in Afghanistan, Estonia, the Horn of Africa or patrolling the nation's Southwest border — and a budget of more than $150 million.

In her civilian career, she is director of operations for health and public service in North America for the multinational management consulting firm Accenture in Northern Virginia.

"General Singh is a proven leader with extensive civilian and military experience," said Maj. Gen. James Adkins, the commander of the Maryland National Guard. "As with all citizen-soldiers, she had been able to hone and use skills acquired in both military and civilian capacities, providing a perfect fit for her role as commander of the Maryland Army National Guard."

Singh, who grew up in Urbana in Frederick County, says she was abused as a child and as a minor teenager. She says she made the decision to speak out after visiting an aid center in Afghanistan last year and witnessing the poverty and danger to which the children there were exposed.

"That's just the way they live," she said in an interview. "That's just kind of normal for them. And it gave me a very different perspective of, you know, I shouldn't take anything for granted. Yes, I've had a pretty tough upbringing. But I had a pretty good life compared to those kids."

Reports of sexual assaults in the military surged by 50 percent last year to more than 5,000 — a reflection, military leaders say, of aggressive efforts to encourage victims to come forward.

Officials believe the great majority of assaults still go unreported. In a 2012 survey of service members, the Pentagon found that 26,000 had experienced unwanted sexual contact in the previous 12 months.

Singh, a mentor in the guard and at Accenture, says she wants to help sexual assault survivors to get past blaming themselves, and to make sure that their assailants are held accountable.

"We're having a lot of problems with suicide," she said. "We're having a lot of problems with sexual assault. Sexual harassment. I have not had these situations while I was in uniform. But I know what it is to be a victim."

Singh, who has earned master's degrees in business administration and strategic studies and is working on a doctorate in psychology from Capella University, says it took her years to realize that she was worthy of her successes.

"If I can help someone else, just one person, to not have to go through that whole thought process that I have, and that takes so long, and they could be successful a whole lot sooner, or they can at least be happy with themselves, then I need to speak out, to talk about it now.

"I want to be a transparent leader. I want to be able to save someone from maybe thinking of taking their own life because they feel like they have no other choice."

Singh says she also has raised her experience with commanders to reinforce that they should take reports of assaults seriously.

The advocacy group Protect Our Defenders is sharply critical of the way the military has handled sexual assault. Nancy Parrish, president of the organization, praised Singh.

"We salute Brig. Gen. Linda Singh's bravery in coming forward and speaking out about her assault," she said. "Survivors should be at the forefront of the conversation of how to put an end to epidemic of sexual assault in the ranks."

Adkins said the guard is "fortunate to have General Singh and other leaders of her caliber at all levels of our organization who aggressively fight to ensure the threat of sexual assault is eliminated from our ranks and that victims receive the best support and care available."

Singh is the first woman and the first African-American to command the Maryland Army National Guard. (Her counterpart in the Maryland Air National Guard, Brig. Gen. Allyson Solomon, is the first woman and the first African-American to fill that role.)

It doesn't affect me in what I do," Singh said. "It affects me in what it means for the future. … It's really key right now to have someone that can be a role model for our younger leaders and just our young people, because many of them are looking to see, 'Well, how can I get to that level? If there's no one that looks like me at that level, then do I even have a chance?'"

Singh has led discussions of diversity both in the Army and among Accenture clients.

"It's really about diversity of people, diversity of capability and diversity of thought," she said. "And if I can help infuse that into the organization, then I know that we have the best leaders, we have the best people."

Singh works four days a week with Accenture and one with the guard. She chose her home in Prince George's County to be convenient to Baltimore, Annapolis, Washington and Northern Virginia.

She takes command of the Maryland Army National Guard as it transitions from a dozen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq and deals with tightening budgets. It still will be expected to deploy to other countries and respond to disasters and other emergencies in the United States.

"We still have to maintain an operationally ready force," she said. "Because you can see with everything that's going on in the news, you never know when something's going to spike and you're going to be asked to fulfill that role."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

twitter.com/matthewhaybrown

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Report: Benefits claims related to sexual assault treated unevenly

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Soldiers in sensitive posts had abuse, drug histories

By Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY via USA TODAY, June 8, 2014 

WASHINGTON — More than 350 of the 588 soldiers the Army has disqualified from sensitive posts, including sexual assault counselors, had committed offenses ranging from sexual assault to drug abuse to theft, according to Army data obtained by USA TODAY.

They make up the largest group of the soldiers the Army has deemed unfit in the past year to serve as sexual assault counselors and victims' advocates, recruiters and instructors. They were swept up in a screening of troops in sensitive positions ordered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in light of the military's sexual assault crisis. This is the first time the Army has broken down the offenses that had disqualified them; it did so at the request of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

"We'd be lying if we said we had fully understood this problem," Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the Army's personnel chief, told USA TODAY in an interview. "Now that we understand this problem we're saying we did not always pick the right people in the past. So let's get the people right."

Among the Army's findings:

• Fewer than 60 soldiers were disqualified because they were being investigated for sexual assault or harassment.

• About 140 soldiers were disqualified "due to a history of family member or child abuse."

• About 88 were disqualified "due to a history of alcohol or drug abuse."

Gillibrand, who heads the personnel panel on the armed services committee, said she found the Army's account lacking. In a letter to Bromberg on Friday, she pressed for more answers about what disqualified the soldiers, their positions in the Army and whether those kicked out of the Army received honorable discharges. The Army has moved to discharge 79 of the worst-offending soldiers.

"The military has been saying for over two decades 'we got it' and it is clear they dropped the ball," Gillibrand said in a statement. "So now they are saying, 'now we really got it' but continue to be less than fully transparent with data my office has requested on multiple fronts. I will continue to ask questions as there is much more work to be done."

Most of the soldiers have been reassigned to jobs that do not involve contact with what the Army considers "vulnerable populations," mostly young people being recruited or who recently joined the Army.

Pentagon

The Pentagon is screening thousands of personnel in sensitive positions for a history of abuse or bad behavior.(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

The Army screened the backgrounds of about 20,000 soldiers working as recruiters, drill sergeants, sexual assault response coordinators and victims' advocates, said Christine Altendorf, director of the Army's program to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and assault. The 588 who were disqualified represent less than 3% of the total screened.

Soldiers are now screened extensively before being placed in sensitive posts, Bromberg said.

Just as important, Bromberg said, is a change to evaluations of officers and non-commissioned officers that includes an assessment of whether they foster a climate that does not tolerate sexual assault or harassment.

"We used to just evaluate officers by mission readiness," said Lt. Col. Geoff Catlett, executive officer for response and prevention office. "Are you ready to go to combat? Now we're evaluating officers and NCOs on whether you're ready to go to combat and have you created a command climate in which everybody is treated with dignity and respect."

Combating sexual assault is the top priority of Army Secretary John McHugh and Gen. Raymond Odierno, the chief of staff, Bromberg said.

"This is a complex problem that requires a comprehensive, detailed plan to change a culture over time," Bromberg said. "We're on the path to do that."

Follow @tvandenbrook on Twitter.

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