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Veterans Benefits Information

Betsy DeVos vs. Student Veterans

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The Department of Education secretary has been uniquely brazen, and unpatriotic, in her deregulation campaign. It’s time that she answered for her actions.

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The man who saved the GI Bill

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Nearly 75 years ago, on a stormy night in southern Georgia, U.S. Rep. John S. Gibson was rushed by a police motorcycle escort from his hometown of Douglas to Jacksonville, Fla., where a plane awaited him. He flew off to Washington, D.C., arriving just in time to cast his vote to break the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act out of a conference committee deadlock on June 10, 1944, the final day the lawmakers would meet about it. That dramatic overnight journey, arranged by The American Legion, changed the course of U.S. history.

On Feb. 15, 2019, escorted by a cadre of American Legion Riders, a trailer carrying an exhibit telling the story of the historic legislation known as the GI Bill, paralleled Gibson’s 1944 route and arrived in Douglas, Ga., for a month-long installation in celebration of The American Legion’s 100th anniversary. “The Greatest Legislation: An American Legion Centennial Salute to the GI Bill” is on display through March 12 at the Douglas branch of the Satilla Regional Library, hosted by the library and 12th District American Legion Family of the Department of Georgia. Hours are 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Saturday.

Two great nephews of Rep. Gibson, area American Legion Family members and local dignitaries gathered Feb. 16 to welcome the exhibit to Douglas, a city of nearly 12,000, Post 515 member and Mayor Tony Paulk proudly describes as a “veteran-friendly community.”

“I think it’s a wonderful thing, to educate the citizens of this country, particularly the veterans,” said Walter Gibson, the congressman’s great nephew, now a Bulloch County, Ga., commissioner. “Some of our veterans say it’s the greatest legislation that’s ever passed – they really feel that way.”

He was joined at the opening event by his cousin, Cedric Sweat, also a great nephew of Rep. Gibson. “We’ve heard a lot about it a lot over the years, mostly at family reunions, and to see it get more national display is really wonderful,” Sweat said.

Mayor Paulk, who works for the Social Security Administration as his day job, said prior to the exhibit installation that staff in his office “started talking about this display. Our office is about 50 percent veterans. Eight of them went to school on the GI Bill, and some of them have children going to school on the GI Bill. So, we started talking about what kind of impact there would be on the United States of America if the GI Bill did not exist. We quickly came to – where would (the United States) be in the world if the GI Bill did not exist?”

The exhibit traces the story of the GI Bill from the days in 1943 when disabled World War II GIs were coming home to few resources or opportunities at a clip of about 75,000 per month. The American Legion’s solution was an omnibus bill that would not only give those veterans health care, hospitals and all veteran services under one federal Veterans Administration but also college, career and home-ownership opportunities through free tuition and no-down-payment, low-interest mortgages.

“This is history in the making not only for our organization, but it’s history for Georgia,” American Legion Department of Georgia Past Commander Randy Goodman told the crowd, noting that hundreds of bills were languishing in Congress in 1943 to address the situation confronting returning veterans. There were various versions of a GI Bill in Congress in the 1940s. What should we do to pay respect or tribute to our veterans who saved this country? I am glad that Rep. Gibson was on the side of The American Legion’s version. It included males, females and minorities. Other versions did not include women and minorities. We are glad that Rep. Gibson broke the 3-3 deadlock and was on the side of having veterans benefits for all veterans. That’s significant for Georgia… today, we can enjoy a wholesome family of veterans, not just one particular race, but all veterans.”

That point is not lost on Douglas Post 515 member and Past District 12 Commander Jerome Loving, a Vietnam War combat veteran, who organized the opening event. “They didn’t want blacks to be covered under the GI Bill, but The American Legion stood up and pushed it forward and said, ‘All of the veterans.’” Loving used his GI Bill benefits for college education and two home loans.

“I wouldn’t have been able to go to school without it,” said Greg Rothfuss, a Marine Corps veteran and member of Post 13 in Valdosta who used his GI Bill benefits to earn a degree in computer science and rode in the Feb. 15 motorcycle escort from Valdosta to Douglas. “It was very important.”

“We’re making history right now,” added Post 515 member Henry Martin, who also escorted the centennial exhibit on his motorcycle, as did Kevin Quigg of Valdosta, an Air Force veteran whose son and daughter are now active-duty staff sergeants who will be using their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

“I grew up here, so it’s good to know that a home guy had such a big play in it,” said David Guest, Air Force veteran and Legion Rider. “It was the saving vote.”

Post 515 member and U.S. Army Vietnam combat veteran Ed Dusi, who helped unpack and assemble the exhibit in the library, said the GI Bill compensated for time spent in service so that when he was discharged he had a career opportunity. “When I first came back, they had an apprenticeship program that was carried under the GI Bill, and I used that. It helped out because it kind of made up for what I wasn’t getting paid. It made life a whole lot easier.” He financed two mortgages using VA Home Loans that were a product of the original GI Bill.

“I used the GI Bill to complete not one, but three degrees,” 12th District Commander Ray Humphreys said. “Growing up a poor country boy, we didn’t have the money to pay for a college education, so it gave me the opportunity. My mother and father both were World War II veterans, and both of them benefited from it. So, we had a lot of benefit from it. I don’t think you can measure the amount that this changed America, or the world, since this bill passed.”

A portrait of Rep. Gibson greets visitors to the display at the library. The great nephews of the so-described “man who saved the GI Bill” told attendees of the colorful character they knew as “Uncle John.”

“He had a lot of humor, and it wasn’t dry humor,” Walter Gibson said. “It could be salty, but as young teenagers, we thought he was funny. He was full of it. He was a dynamic speaker. He could choose his words to make his point.”

The great nephews remember Rep. Gibson from family reunions and other visits, particularly when the historic congressman was serving as solicitor general and appearing in courtrooms. “(People) would quit work and come to the courtroom to see him perform. They said it was better than going to a movie. He was the most theatrical person. He always wore a double-breasted coat, was tall and had a loud voice.”

Even at family reunions, John Gibson was a beacon of attention. “When he was going to make announcements or give an invocation, flat-footed he would jump up on the trunk and get on top of his car. I remember asking my granddaddy, ‘What in the world is he on top of that car for?’

“He said, ‘Son, he likes to be seen. He likes to make a lot of noise.’”

Prior to the opening event, District 12 Legionnaires and Sons of The American Legion placed U.S. flags at the grave of Rep. Gibson, in the Douglas City Cemetery.

Dr. Kit Carson, a member of Post 515 and chairman of teacher education at South Georgia State College, told the group that he worked as an elementary school custodian after he retired from the military, which included two stints in Vietnam, and he used the GI Bill to get the degrees he needed to advance in a civilian career. “You’ve got to have academic credentials. I went straight to Vietnam out of high school, so I didn’t get a chance to go to college. When I got out, things had changed quite a bit, so I needed to get a degree.” He used his veteran benefits to earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees. “I am thankful for the GI Bill. It got things rolling for me.”

“I wanted to go to college after high school but really couldn’t figure out how to pay for it,” Goodman explained. “I spoke with an Air Force recruiter who told me about tuition assistance and, of course, the GI Bill. I qualified for the Vietnam era GI Bill.” That led to University of South Carolina degrees – associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s – that qualified Goodman to work in the Department of Labor on a youth-motivation task force to better prepare young people for the workplace, and to connect veterans with employment opportunities. “Employment is a key piece of the GI Bill,” he said.

Post 515 Commander Alfalene Walker, who provided veteran support services in her career with the Georgia Department of Labor, said that after earning her college degrees using the GI Bill and financing a house with a VA Home Loan, she was dedicated to ensuring that all veterans understand the opportunities available to them. “I am able to tell them about education benefits, home loans… a myriad of things,” she said. “My grasp of the GI Bill goes very deep. I took it to heart. I live it and breathe it.

“As a person who resides in Coffee County, I am impressed, honored and blessed, and I will continue to push everything that the GI Bill has. I believe this was all done for us, and that if you are not taking advantage of it, you are losing out. It’s in my heart and my soul. I am thankful for what Rep. Gibson did, because it is what I live, speak and breathe every day.”


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A rescue of Weimar Venezuela?

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It sounds like something out of Syria or Somalia: 2.3 million refugees (and counting), millions more starving, 300,000 on the verge of death, thousands suffering with and dying from preventable diseases, an illegitimate government brutalizing its people, an entire region staggered by a failed state. But this latest humanitarian mega-crisis is found right here in our neighborhood, in the once-prosperous, once-stable nation of Venezuela.

For too long, we have misunderstood and misdiagnosed the situation in Venezuela as a case of a corrupt regime spawning a failed state. A more accurate label may be a hostage crisis – but on nationwide scale. The latest evidence of this is Nicolas Maduro’s refusal to allow humanitarian aid into the country, using military personnel and semi-trailer trucks to blockade a bridge connecting Colombia and Venezuela.

Before discussing Washington’s options in Venezuela, it’s important to spend a moment discussing just how bad the situation has become in Maduro’s prison state.

Causes

Venezuela’s annual inflation rate is a staggering 1,300,000 percent. That’s 1.3 million percent, and it could reach 10 million percent by end of this year. According to the IMF, Venezuela’s GDP fell by 18 percent in 2018 – “the third consecutive year of double-digit declines in real GDP.” The IMF describes the situation in Venezuela as “similar to that in Germany in 1923.”

The IMF is referencing the Weimar Republic, the post-World War I government of Germany beset by political sclerosis and economic chaos. In Weimar Germany, the currency became so worthless that Germans used marks as kindling in their ovens. In Weimar Venezuela, the currency is so worthless that Venezuelans are using bolivares to make wallets, purses and sculptures. As the Miami Herald reports, the value of 1,000 bolivares is 17 U.S. cents (and falling every day), while a handbag made with those bolivares sells for $13.

Without a functioning economy, without a responsive government, without the wherewithal to allow the market and civil society to meet the needs of the people, Venezuela is unraveling.

Sixty-one percent of the country’s population lives in extreme poverty line. Mercy Corps reports the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds last year; 300,000 children are at risk of dying from malnutrition.

Maternal mortality is up 65 percent; infant mortality is up 30 percent. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 7,300 measles cases were reported in 2018. There were no cases of measles reported in Venezuela between 2008 and 2015.

But rather than using government as a servant of the people, Maduro has turned it into a tool of oppression. According to the Organization of American States (OAS), the Maduro regime has carried out 12,000 arbitrary detentions, engaged in the “criminalization” of duly elected opposition politicians, carried out “state-orchestrated human suffering” by withholding food, medical supplies and government services from groups and individuals affiliated with regime opponents, and committed torture, sexual violence, extra-judicial executions and other “crimes against humanity.”

It pays to recall that Venezuela is not a victim of foreign aggression, civil war or natural disaster. Oil-rich Venezuela is a victim of terrible policies and failed government. “Once rich, Venezuela is now poor,” Vice President Mike Pence recently observed. “Once free, Venezuela is now oppressed. And once a model of stability, Venezuela’s collapse has led to a crisis unlike any in our Western Hemisphere’s history.”

Why and how did an economically prosperous and politically stable nation devolve into such privation and chaos? The answer is simple but sad: Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, nationalized the economy by seizing control of the oil, mining, steel, banking, telecommunications, tourism, transportation and agriculture sectors. This de-diversified economy proved unable to keep up with the dynamism of the global free-market system and wholly unable to meet the needs of the Venezuelan people. In parallel, the Chavez-Maduro regime used Venezuela’s oil wealth like a personal piggy bank; dispensed the state’s largesse to amass power; and upended the nation’s political system by flouting the constitution and rule of law, bypassing and ultimately delegitimizing the duly elected National Assembly, using the police and National Electoral Council against political opponents, politicizing the military, and governing by executive fiat. Along the way, the regime took over television stations, the Internet and nongovernmental organizations, thus shrinking Venezuela’s civil society.

It’s no wonder why Juan Guaidó has rallied a diverse coalition of Venezuelans and more than 40 countries to support him as interim president. As head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Guaidó is technically Venezuela’s only legitimate leader, given that Maduro’s 2018 election and 2019 inauguration were carried out via extraconstitutional means.

Guaidó has called Maduro’s aid blockade a “crime against humanity” – and rightly so. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of Venezuelans will die without outside aid. But Maduro has dismissed aid shipments from the United States and other nations in the Americas as “fake humanitarian aid,” claiming that Venezuela’s manmade famine and societal collapse have been “fabricated by Washington.”

Asked if he would be open to an international force intervening to rescue his country, Guaidó says he will consider “everything that is necessary ... to save human lives.”

Options

That brings us back to Washington’s options in Venezuela.

“All options are on the table,” President Donald Trump has said of the chaos in Venezuela.

In a surprising echo of Trump, one Latin American official says the international community should keep all options on the table, including “military intervention” to “overthrow” Maduro. This is surprising because the words were spoken by Luis Almagro, secretary general of the OAS – not an organization given to military threats.

The Trump administration took an important step in January by officially recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. “We call on Maduro to step aside in favor of a legitimate leader reflecting the will of the Venezuelan people,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the time. “The United States supports President Guaidó as he establishes a transitional government, and leads Venezuela, as the country prepares for free and fair elections.”

Even though Trump has expressed reservations about humanitarian intervention – he declared before his election, “If we are going to intervene in a conflict it had better pose a direct threat to our interest” – he observed more recently that “We have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away ... Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering, and they are dying.”

This signals an evolution for Trump and a realization that leading a superpower with a conscience sometimes requires defending more than America’s interests.

Given the American public’s engagement fatigue – and the complicated history of U.S. interaction with Latin America – it won’t be easy for policymakers to make the case for intervening to save Venezuela from itself. But given the mounting costs and risks in Venezuela, some sort of intervention may be unavoidable. It pays to recall that President George H.W. Bush avoided intervening in Somalia, President Bill Clinton avoided intervening in Bosnia, and President Barack Obama avoided intervening in Libya, Iraq and Syria – until events, public opinion, U.S. interests and/or American ideals finally forced them to reverse course.

Threats

To be sure, there’s a case to be made for steering clear of Venezuela, but there’s also a case to be made for intervening on humanitarian grounds (see above) and on national-security grounds (see below).

There are real threats Venezuela’s crisis could spawn and is already spawning: More than 2.3 million people have fled Venezuela. A million have fled to Colombia, 500,000 to Peru, 290,000 to the United States, 220,000 to Ecuador, 130,000 to Argentina. According to Adm. Craig Faller (SOUTHCOM commander), “Migration from Venezuela is on track to approach the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, straining the capacity and resources of its neighbors. The United Nations estimates that 5.3 million Venezuelans will have fled their country by the end of 2019.”

This exodus – and the political-economic chaos that triggered it – are destabilizing Venezuela’s neighbors and indeed much of the hemisphere. Some governments in South America recognize Maduro; others recognize Guaidó. After taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees, Colombia has dispatched its army to the border to hold back the tidal wave. Brazilians are chasing away Venezuelans at the border and building barricades. Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay and Peru have referred the Maduro regime to the International Criminal Court for “crimes against humanity.”

In addition, we know that a) jihadist groups seek out and thrive in lawless lands, and b) jihadist groups have made inroads in South America. It doesn’t strain the imagination to contemplate these groups – and their state sponsors – setting up shop in the ungoverned areas of Venezuela.

Moreover, Russia and China, which already have security and economic ties to the Maduro regime, could use Venezuela’s chaos as a pretext to expand their footprints in South America. In fact, Moscow dispatched 400 Russian military contractors to Caracas in February. As Pompeo has said, “The Cubans are there; the Russians are there; the Iranians [and] Hezbollah are there. This is something that has a risk of getting to a very, very bad place.”

Pence calls the situation in Venezuela a “threat to our collective security.”

“An explosion is coming,” warns former NATO commander Adm. James Stavridis. “And when it does, we should expect a great deal of violence and massive refugee flows.”

Stavridis, Pence and Pompeo know that Venezuela’s security forces are beginning to splinter into pro- and anti-regime camps, which increases the likelihood that the Venezuelan crisis will devolve from civil unrest to full-blown civil war. Indeed, rebel soldiers have launched attacks against military bases outside Caracas; the number of soldiers arrested for treason is rising rapidly; an anti-regime group deployed drones in an effort to assassinate Maduro; small handfuls of low-level troops have seized police stations and raided weapons depots; and in January a Venezuelan National Guard unit pledged allegiance to Guaidó’s shadow government.

Together

A call for help from the National Assembly and the Venezuelan military would be the best alternative, as it would help ensure that foreign intervention forces are entering a permissive environment. Of course, that would require the military to shift allegiance from Maduro to Guaidó. So far, Maduro’s generals, who have been richly rewarded for their loyalty, have shown no signs of rebelling.

To prepare and brace for the worst, Stavridis recommends standing up “a State Department-led interagency working group to craft a strategy for dealing with a possible civil war ... planning by the Department of Defense for humanitarian operations ... (and) advance stationing of supplies and medicines by the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Caribbean.”

To avoid the perception of a return of “Yankee imperialism” and to deprive Maduro of rhetorical ammunition, Washington should continue to let the Lima Group take the lead – while working behind the scenes with the OAS, CARICOM, Association of Caribbean States, MERCOSUR and other regional partnerships where appropriate to lay the groundwork for a multilateral humanitarian effort.

Like any hostage crisis, the goal in Venezuela is to rescue the innocent. A U.S. invasion (no matter how well-intentioned) could undermine that goal, whereas an OAS humanitarian intervention (that happens to involve U.S. personnel) could serve that goal. Pence put it well in an address to South American leaders: “What we do to see democracy restored in Venezuela, we will do together.”


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Legion urging support for, passage of Pay Our Coast Guard Act

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Now that a second government shutdown has been averted, The American Legion is calling on Congress to pass and the President to sign H.R. 367 – The Pay Our Coast Guard Act – so the U.S. Coast Guard will not be affected again in future budget showdowns.

“The men and women of the United States Coast Guard and their families should not have to wonder whether they will be paid or not,” said Brett Reistad, national commander of The American Legion. “Congress should immediately pass this legislation so that these men and women, who are on guard protecting us, are not held hostage by lawmakers and administrations who cannot agree in the future.”

During the first shutdown, The American Legion distributed more than $1 million in non-repayable temporary financial assistance to the minor children of active-duty Coast Guard personnel. The onslaught of requests substantially depleted our Veterans and Children Foundation, which funds our Temporary Financial Assistance program. The American Legion is calling on all Americans to make a gift so that additional requests can be supported throughout the year.

“Temporary Financial Assistance is an essential program of The American Legion,” Reistad said. “We must replenish this fund because we know that in any given year, we are called upon to help the minor children of active-duty servicemembers and Legionnaires to the tune of approximately $280,000 and that’s without an emergency like a government shutdown.”

The American Legion distributes one-time cash grants of up to $1,500 to the minor children of eligible active-duty military and American Legion members in need. These grants help families in need meet the cost of shelter, food, utilities and health expenses, thereby keeping the child or children in a more stable environment during times of temporary financial distress.

The American Legion Temporary Financial Assistance program is funded through the generosity of donations made by American Legion members and the public to The American Legion Veterans and Children Foundation. All donations are tax deductible and can be made online at legion.org/TFA.


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News of the world

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FODPAL (Foreign and Outlying Departments and Posts of the American Legion) posts are, as indicated in the organization’s name, located around the world. But wherever they are, they keep busy with the programs and initiatives the Legion has sustained for nearly 100 years.

And like many other posts, they have newsletters. To better facilitate communication between far-flung members of the same post, the FODPAL section of www.legion.org has a page dedicated to uploaded newsletters: https://www.legion.org/fodpal/newsletters. Below are some highlights from February/winter editions recently added to the site.

Seward (Alaska) Post 5, “Commander’s Comments” by Clare Sullivan: “I’d like to thank everyone for their support during our holiday and Polar Bear Jump Off events. The food, the post décor, the service was and still is outstanding by everyone, all thanks to our incredible volunteers! Thankfully, we had a lot of helping hands to make it happen. You guys are great and uniquely talented! You jump right in and find what needs to be done and get it accomplished. That is ‘yuge!’ I am also pleased to mention it is a wonderful mix of post, Auxiliary and Sons who are participating and making things happen. Thank you so very much; without you we couldn’t provide what we do for our veterans and the community.”

Brig. Gen. Robin Olds Post TH01 (Thailand), by 1st Vice Commander/Membership Chairman Bruce Templeman: “As a reminder, please check with your buddies you haven't heard from in a while and see how they are doing. A Buddy Check is the best way that we can let our friends know that we care. Perhaps, at our roll call at the beginning of each post meeting, someone can tell us if any of our members are having problems attending. We can work offline to see if we can help them in any way. No one needs to air out any personal problems of our members in front of the group, but a discreet word in the right place and moment can really help someone going through a difficult time. Let's look out after each other and get this Centennial Celebration going!”

Gens. Ward & Chennault & LT Helseth China Post 1 (in exile), “Welcome from the Commander” by Ronald Burkett: “The Year of the Dog was an excellent year for China Post 1. Our San Antonio reunion had almost twice the attendance we have enjoyed in recent years. Reunion 2019 will be on 19-22 September in Colorado Springs. There have been emails out on that. If you have not received one you can get details on our web page at www.chinapost1.org.”

Flanders Field Post BE02 (Belgium), by POW/MIA Committee Chair Mark William Altmeyer: “I look at existing situations for the POW/MIA committee and think of how things might be optimized, to make things more cost-effective and efficient in the long term. Since being given this position, I have given much thought to what I can give to hold up the honor of this very important post. I have come to the conclusion that both parts of my work portfolio, as important as they are, is overshadowed by one. This is the MIA element, 70-plus years after the war has ended. The POW element has mainly been accounted for by now, but the MIA situation is still inconclusive for a lot of families.

“DPAA is doing a gargantuan task at recovering some of our lost sons, but in the times of failing funds and manpower, it is but the tip of the iceberg. I am striving for a co-operation between the DPAA, The American Legion and the German Reserves to assist DPAA in bringing our sons home; it would be a win-win situation, with devoted veterans themselves also actively in the field, assisting the DPAA with research and recovery and fulfilling the promise that ‘Nobody is Left Behind.’”


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