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Veterans Benefits Information

The name game

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Greece and its tiny neighbor to the north – known as “Macedonia” to most of the world and “Fyrom” in certain capitals – have restarted negotiations aimed at resolving a decades-old dispute over the official name of Macedonia. Yet reports that the two sides are making progress on the name dispute (which began in 1991, when Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia) have triggered angry protests in Greece. It seems some Greek citizens worry that use of “Macedonia” by the former Yugoslav republic known as Macedonia (hence the acronym “Fyrom”) somehow suggests a claim by the government in Skopje on a Greek region also called Macedonia. It’s in America’s interest for this lingering name dispute to be settled – and soon.

U.N. Special Representative Matthew Nimetz, who is an American diplomat but also an envoy for the U.N. Secretary General, says the issue “can and should be resolved” this year. After more than three years without discussions on the impasse, the two sides met late last year and have continued talks into 2018, leading Nimetz to report, “The atmosphere is a much better one, and from both Skopje and Athens there is an indication that we should make an intensive effort to resolve this issue that has been outstanding for so many years.”

“Who is right?” asks Thimios Tzallas, a Greek journalist based in London. “The rest of the planet is right, not Greece.” Pointing out that no one in Greece "seriously believes the story about Macedonia's irredentist aspirations,” he wonders, “(h)ow on earth could one of the poorest countries in Europe ... a country which ardently wishes to join NATO, pose a threat to a country five times as large and as powerful?”

Still, this silly argument over a name persists. But what exactly does it have to do with U.S. interests and U.S. national security? More than you might think at first glance.

It’s a national security problem for two reasons. First, it directly affects NATO, which is a vital bridge between America and Europe, a foundation stone in the liberal international order America helped build after World War II, and a critical element in America’s ability to project power.

Because of the name dispute, Macedonia has been languishing in NATO’s waiting room for a decade. When NATO-member Greece blocked NATO-aspirant Macedonia’s entry into the alliance in 2008 because of the name issue, NATO declared that membership “will be extended as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue has been reached.”

During his visit last month to Macedonia, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the name dispute “has weighed on this region – and this country – for far too long.” Noting that NATO’s members “have been impressed by your determination and enthusiasm to join the alliance,” he reassured the Macedonian parliament that there is "still room for more flags in front of the NATO Headquarters.”

Stoltenberg knows that having Macedonia as part of NATO will further stabilize the security environment of Southeastern Europe, promote Macedonia’s integration with the rest of Europe and stymie Russia’s efforts to reclaim a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

That brings us to the second reason Macedonia’s name limbo is a national security problem for the United States: Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is using the stalemate to try to prevent NATO expansion and to extend his reach in the Balkans. In dealing with Putin, we must always keep in mind that he sees the world in zero-sum terms – in other words, any success for NATO and the United States, according to Putin, is a setback for Russia. Thus, as Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden and a longtime envoy to the former Yugoslavia, explains, “There are ... forces in Russia eager to stir the pots of nationalist passions in the Balkans so as to derail any further extension of either the EU or NATO in the region.”

Washington seems awake to the challenge in Moscow and the opportunity in Macedonia.

Last August, during a gathering in Montenegro of the Adriatic Charter – an association of Balkan nations and the United States – Vice President Mike Pence, explained that “in the Western Balkans, Russia has worked to destabilize the region, undermine your democracies, and divide you from each other and from the rest of Europe.” He bluntly described how “Moscow-backed agents sought to disrupt Montenegro’s elections, attack your parliament and even attempt to assassinate your Prime Minister to dissuade the Montenegrin people from entering our NATO alliance.”

Regrettably, it appears Moscow is following the same playbook in Macedonia. As The Guardian reports, Macedonian intelligence agencies have monitored “Russian spies and diplomats ... involved in a nearly decade-long effort to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia.” The Macedonian government has sounded the alarm over “strong subversive propaganda and intelligence activity…to isolate the country from the influence of the West.”

Moscow’s goal: to prevent Macedonia from joining NATO, and then to flip Skopje and other Balkan capitals to Russia’s side in what increasingly looks like Cold War 2.0.

Pence, Stoltenberg and other leaders in the transatlantic community recognize that stability in the Balkans – best secured by bringing Macedonia and other remnants of Yugoslavia into NATO and the EU – will promote peace, strengthen liberal democracy and encourage economic cooperation across Europe. Instability and uncertainty, on the other hand, will lead to division and discord, which Putin will use to his advantage.

Making room For now, Macedonia is known as “Fyrom” at the United Nations, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Given that Greece, Turkey, the United States and other NATO members choose to recognize Macedonia in various ways, NATO uses an asterisk in its designation of what could be – and should be – its 30th member. (Montenegro became NATO’s 29th member last June.) The United States recognizes the country by its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia.

Suggestions for a compromise name include “Upper Republic of Macedonia,” “Upper Macedonia,” “North Macedonia” and “New Macedonia.”

Whether it joins the NATO alliance as Upper Macedonia, Republic of Skopje or Big Mac, the country with no name has done more than enough to accommodate Athens and to show its commitment to NATO.

In response to Greek sensitivities, Macedonia’s new government has changed the name of its main airport and several roadways. In a sign of compromise and goodwill, the government in Skopje recently said it was open to using a different name in international bodies.

Moreover, Skopje has undertaken a number of political, economic and military reforms required for NATO membership. Macedonia allowed hundreds of U.S. forces to deploy to and through its territory to support operations in Kosovo in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And the Macedonian people have made real contributions to NATO and the EU: With just 2 million citizens, Macedonia has sent thousands of troops over the past 15 years to support NATO in Afghanistan and the European Union in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as smaller contingents to UN missions in Liberia and Lebanon.

If Great Britain can live with New Jersey and New York; if Poland can tolerate the fact that there’s a Warsaw, Ind.; if the world is big enough for a Lima, Ohio, and a Lima, Peru, then Greece can make room for Macedonia inside NATO.

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Bobsledders' best: 14th in 2-man. 4-man still to come.

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How the Army soldiers on the U.S. Olympic team are faring at the Winter Games in PyeongChang:

Just two weeks after an emergency appendectomy, Sgt. Justin Olsen piloted Team USA’s best finisher in the two-man bobsled. Unfortunately, the best Olsen and brakeman Evan Weinstock could do was a 14th-place finish, 1.68 seconds behind co-gold medalists Canada and Germany. Sgt. Nick Cunningham and brakeman Hakeem Abdul-Saboor finished 21st.

The four-man bobsled competition begins Friday, with the medal runs scheduled to air live on NBC on Saturday night. Olsen will pilot a team which includes Sgt. Nate Weber, Maj. Chris Fogt and Carlo Valdes. Cunningham will pilot a team which includes Abdul-Saboor, Christopher Kinney and Sam Michener.

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Marine's story inspires new documentary about mental health

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Imagine returning home from war with invisible injuries, not knowing how to cope with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as you struggle to assimilate back into society. 

That was reality for Sgt. Brendan O’Toole, a Marine Corps veteran who completed two deployments, including one to Afghanistan. Like most veterans plagued by survivor’s guilt or shame, O’Toole suffered in silence.

But fortunately for O’Toole, he made it his mission "to find goodness in himself." And to honor the selfless men and women who fought for the nation’s freedom.

O’Toole set out on a 3,600-mile run across the United States in 2012, with his support team, raising money and awareness for issues veterans face when returning from war, such as PTSD. His journey began in Oceanside, Calif., and ended 365 days later in New York City.  

O’Toole’s story inspired a new feature documentary called "Into the Light," which serves as a conversation starter about how people can change the dynamic around PTSD and mental health. 

“We decided it was a little more positive and inspirational to name this film, ‘Into the Light,’” film director Charlie Stuart said. “With Brendan, we wanted to depict him running into the light and finding that goodness and trust in himself as well as in the country.”

The film reveals an interesting notion regarding cultural stigmas and mental health, particularly in the military community. Part of Stuart’s attempt at changing the conversation is the inclusion of Barbara Van Dahlen, a clinical psychologist who had been silent for years before disclosing her family’s history of mental illness. 

Van Dahlen’s estranged mother, whom she had not seen in 40 years, suffered from schizophrenia. Her father was a combat veteran who fought in World War II and suffered from PTSD. Even though he was a loving individual, Van Dahlen stated that her father had dramatic outbursts and never spoke about his combat experiences. 

“(Barbara’s) father was afraid of her becoming a psychologist because he would be working with people like him,” Stuart said. “Although he had a lot of anger, he was a magnificent father who took care of (Barbara and her three siblings) when their mother had a psychotic break.”

Despite her father’s reticence, Stuart said Van Dahlen’s love and admiration for veterans stems from the wonderful relationship she had with him. As a result, Van Dahlen founded Give an Hour in 2005, to help heal and encourage veterans to stop suffering in silence. 

Van Dahlen also recently initiated a national campaign called the Campaign to Change Direction that urges clinicians to offer more pro bono mental health services for veterans.

“She’s got about 7,500 to 8,000 people across the country who are giving free therapy to veterans (through her organization),” Stuart said. “Being the change agent that she is, Barbara then started this national campaign which is about changing the conversation around all mental health issues and getting rid of the stigma and shame.” 

Stuart said Van Dahlen is an extraordinarily good, charismatic spokeswoman for veterans. She believes the best thing for the country to do is pull together and work in a positive way for veterans in need. 

“There’s another key character in the film by the name of Matt Bein. (Matt) is a Marine veteran who Brendan came across during his run in the state of Alabama,” Stuart said. “He said talking about his story and having to tell it all the time (to doctors) really works. That’s basically the message of the film – to trust in a friend, a family member or maybe even a therapist. There shouldn’t be stigma or shame in talking about your story.”

For Stuart, "Into the Light" is about more than just shining a light on mental health. He said it’s about setting a courageous example, just as O’Toole and Van Dahlen have done, to improve the health and well-being of others going through hard times.

“Brendan evolves throughout the film,” Stuart said. “There are two things that happen. One is that he gets rid of the pills and mediations he was given to deal with his depression. That’s what simply worked for him. But the most important thing is that he met people along the way and learned that they were interested in his story.

“He says at the beginning of the film, ‘I went on the run because I wanted to find goodness in the country and I wanted to find goodness in myself.' It was a huge commitment for him to have served this country (twice) and then come back, run across the country and finish by (placing an American flag at the top of the Freedom Tower in New York). He is just a great example of what all veterans fought for.”

Stuart said the film will be released to PBS in May, in honor of National Mental Health Awareness Month. He hopes it will kindle a national movement that will connect civilians with veterans around the microcosm of loss, suicide, shame and guilt which often haunts those left behind. 

“What we’d like for people to take away from the entire film, and Brendan’s story in particular, can be summed up toward the end of the film when Barbara Van Dahlen talks about trust,” Stuart said. “Brendan learned to trust people as he ran across the country. He learned that it was ok to share his story and people wanted to hear it.”

To join Barbara Van Dahlen's national campaign, visit​ Watch a trailer of the film here.

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Legion discusses future of Arlington National Cemetery

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The American Legion attended a roundtable on Jan. 30 at the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel in Arlington, Va., to discuss the future of Arlington National Cemetery’s grounds and hear the results of a survey as it relates to changes in eligibility criteria and expansion of the cemetery’s acreage.

“The issue is what do we want Arlington to be going forward – should we continue on the current path or change the eligibility policy?” asked Gerardo Avila, deputy director of The American Legion’s National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division. “If nothing is done within the next 23 years, Arlington will reach maximum burial capacity.”

The roundtable comes on the heels of a National Dialogue Survey that was launched in July 2017 by the Honor Subcommittee of the Advisory Committee on Arlington National Cemetery. About 28,000 veterans, servicemembers, military families and civilians gave their input regarding what next steps are necessary now that the cemetery is projected to reach full capacity by 2041.

“Right now, there’s approximately 20 million living veterans and about 100,000 or so burial sites left,” Avila said. “Approximately 1 percent of all veterans, from past statistics, said they want to be buried at Arlington. If you take 1 percent of that 20 million, that’s going to exceed the cemetery’s capacity."

Cemetery officials reported more than 90 percent of respondents overall felt strongly that eligibility criteria should be changed, limiting burial plots for Medal of Honor recipients and active-duty servicemembers killed in action (KIA). Roughly 74 percent believe the cemetery should be designated for prisoners of war, KIAs and other combat soldiers who were honored with valor awards.

“It’s going to be a tough decision that is probably not going to be popular with certain portions of the American population, particularly with veterans," Avila said. "Arlington is special, and I think it has to do with its history, the people who are buried there and its location next to the nation's capital. Most people would like to keep the cemetery active by conducting ceremonies and other similar events."

A 2017 report to Congress noted that keeping Arlington National Cemetery active in the future requires evaluating three key options: redefining eligibility criteria for interment and inurnment; considerations for additional expansion opportunities beyond current boundaries of the cemetery; and alternative ideas for maximizing the current space within the cemetery's geographic footprint.

In terms of maximizing burial space, cemetery officials are working on two expansion projects called the Millennium Project and the Southern Expansion Project. The Millennium Project, which is expected to open this spring, consists of 27 acres that will help prolong the life of Arlington National Cemetery into the early 2040s, according to the cemetery’s website.

While the Southern Expansion effort is projected to keep the cemetery active until the mid-2050s with an additional 37 acres of space, this option is a proposal currently pending funding and resolution of land acquisition between Arlington County and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Without the Southern Expansion effort, officials said the cemetery will reach full capacity by 2041.

“There’s really nowhere to go – you have the Pentagon and (Interstate) 395 right there,” Avila said. "There are discussions about doing away with some of the services at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, meaning the (Post Exchange) PX, the commissary and maybe even some housing areas. There’s also a small plot near the Marine Corps War Memorial that could be combined with Arlington National Cemetery."

"All of these options have ramifications," Avila said. "Even with expansion efforts, it creates a lot of headache and conflict."

Avila said expansion is a difficult option to consider because of diverse perspectives, differences in matters of convenience for local residents and the urgency to make swift and proactive decisions.

"The American Legion does not have an official stance, but our members need to understand the challenges,” Avila said. “I think we should be working on a position now and at least get some initial discussions going.”

When it comes to honoring the nation’s heroes and keeping the cemetery active for generations to come, Avila said the most important thing is to provide desirable choices that honor and respect the iconic nature of Arlington National Cemetery.

“It'll be an interesting story to follow as the committee is still in the beginning stages,” he said. “They're not going to have an easy choice, but it has to happen."

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Legion Family comes through for first responders

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When local first responders attending a breakfast at Charles J. Fulton Post 382 in St. Clair, Mich., inquired about the post possibly helping out with some fundraising, there was no hesitation to help.

But what Post 382’s Legion Family was able to accomplish was way above and beyond what Post Commander Andy Dupuis ever imagined. In just a few months, the post, Auxiliary unit and Sons of The American Legion squadron raised more than $30,000 for the St. Clair Police Department and the St. Clair Area Fire Authority.

“I was kind of worried, just due to the fact thinking we only put this together in three months,” Dupuis said. “I was really, really kind of 'I hope we pull this off.’ When the final numbers came out, I was blown away. I couldn’t believe we did that much.”

The post regularly hosts fish fries and breakfasts, inviting local first responders to eat for free at both. When the subject of the departments have a fundraiser at the post, Dupuis said 382’s Legion Family took it a step further.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we just help you?’” Dupuis said. “We’re a little town here, and the fire department and the police department, they’re smaller forces. Sometimes their budgets aren’t big enough to handle what they need.”

The post began working on setting up a fundraising dinner, selling yard signs and reaching out to businesses and individuals in the community. The St. Clair Police & Fire Department Appreciation Day dinner and raffle took place in late September and raised more than $9,000. The remainder of the money raised came from the yard signs and the generosity of the St. Clair community, including a late donation of more than $7,000 from a corporate sponsor

“We had a lot of the businesses in town … and some of the local residents made donations,” Dupuis said. “That’s where the bulk of the money came from. Some people … just got real generous and opened up their bank accounts and really laid it on us. We were really taken aback by some of the donations from some of the people in town.”

On Feb. 13, members of Post 382’s Legion Family presented a ceremonial check to the police and fire departments. The police department will spend its part of the funds on miscellaneous expenses, while the fire department used its portion of the funds to purchase a Lucas CPR device that provides consistent and uninterrupted chest compressions during CPR.

"It's a tool worth having,” St. Clair Fire Chief David Westrick told the Times Herald. “The success rate out there is very good.”

Dupuis said the fundraiser had no chance without utilizing the post’s entire Legion Family. “If it wasn’t a total family effort, we could have never pulled it off,” he said. “Our Sons and our Auxiliary are just the best. They all came together. I can’t tell you enough good about them.”

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The issuance or replacement of military service medals, awards and decorations must be requested in writing.

Requests should be submitted in writing to the appropriate military service branch division of the NPRC. Standard form (SF 180), available through the VA, is recommended to submit your request. Generally, there is no charge for medal or award replacements. For more information, or for the mailing address of the military branch office to submit your request to, call 1-86-NARA-NARA (1-866-272-6272) or visit the NPRC website at