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American Legion national commander salutes Senate bill on Flag Day

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American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt was delighted to learn on this historic Flag Day that U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., has introduced a bill to give Congress the authority to prohibit physical desecration of the U.S. flag. The measure follows introduction of a similar bill in the House on Feb. 2 by Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark.

“Both houses of Congress now have the opportunity to do what most Americans believe should be done – pass a constitutional amendment to protect the U.S. flag from deliberate acts of physical desecration,” said Schmidt, leader of the nation’s largest organization of wartime veterans. “The 5-4 1989 Supreme Court decision that defined U.S. flag burning as free speech demands a constitutional amendment in order to return to the states the ability to protect our nation’s sacred symbol of freedom and unity. We can argue all day long that flag burning is behavior, and not speech, but that doesn’t change the court’s ruling. It will take a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate now to get this passed, and three-fourths of the states must ratify it. I am calling on all American Legion members and everyone in this nation who understands the colors of our country and all the lives that have been lost fighting for liberty under them, to contact their congressional delegations to co-sponsor these bills and push to give the flag amendment a floor vote. Our flag deserves it.”

The American Legion has fought to return to the states the ability to protect the flag since the Supreme Court took it away in its much criticized Texas v. Johnson ruling.

Weeks after the decision in 1989, The American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary formed the Citizens Flag Alliance, a consortium that grew to more than 100 other organizations that seek protection of the flag. In 2006, the flag amendment measure came within one vote of achieving the necessary supermajority in the Senate, after the House overwhelmingly achieved the necessary two-thirds support. In successive congressional sessions since then, flag-protection amendment measures have been introduced but have not advanced out of committee for floor votes.

“This Flag Day is the 240th anniversary of the resolution passed by the Second Continental Congress that adopted our banner of stars and stripes, representing, as the patriots said at the time, ‘a new constellation,’” Schmidt said. “Since then, over a million Americans have died fighting under that constellation, for the liberty of others and the protection of us all. If any exception should be made to our Constitution, which we deeply respect, it’s the flag that symbolizes every right and freedom written into it.”


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Legion leader praises reversal of planned VA benefits cuts

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American Legion National Commander Charles E. Schmidt issued the following statement today after VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin’s testimony on the VA budget request for fiscal 2018:

“The American Legion applauds the President and Secretary Shulkin’s reversal on cutting funds for the Individual Unemployability program. Since the President’s FY-18 Department of Veterans Affairs budget request was submitted, we have been inundated with calls by veterans and family members who expressed alarm over the proposed cuts to their benefits and livelihoods. As Americans, we have a responsibility to care for our veterans – especially those who are disabled and unable to work due to their service-connected disabilities. We commend this Administration for coming to their senses and committing to protect the Individual Unemployability program that provides for our most vulnerable veterans and their families.

"Today, Secretary Shulkin also announced that he plans to move money from community care programs into the Choice Program. The American Legion adamantly opposes this cannibalization of services to fund the Choice Program – which was never intended to be a permanent solution to fixing VA care. Instead, we urge the President and Secretary Shulkin to consolidate and simplify the myriad out-of-system community care programs into one simple, efficient, responsive, and transparent process.

"Lastly, we applaud Secretary Shulkin for dropping the Staab lawsuit in which the Department of Veterans Affairs refused to reimburse a veteran for the costs of emergency room services he incurred. The court’s ruling is right and fair, and we thank the Secretary for doing the right thing in this case.”


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WV Boys State: 'They're pretty good at it'

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For exactly 80 years, the Department of West Virginia American Legion’s Mountaineer Boys State program has provided leadership training and an insight into the political process for more than 30,000 young men.

But for Noah Zachwieja, the program has meant a bit more. His father, Mark, was elected Boys State governor in 1980, volunteered at Boys State for more than 30 years and was the Boys Nation staff photographer for seven years, while his older brother Todd served as speaker and was selected to go to Boys Nation in 2007.

“I’ve been coming up (to Mountaineer Boys State) every year, except the past four years, since I was in diapers,” said Zachwieja, who will be a senior at Charleston Catholic High School. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the program. My father met my mother at the pool here; she was the lifeguard. That’s how they met, and what I kind of owe my life to.

“Since I was a young kid, this is something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a really important program for our state. It gets a lot of different kids involved in a lot of different areas. The experiences that people are going to take away this week are going to be some of the best of their lives.”

Located for all 80 years on historic Jackson’s Mill State 4-H Campground – the boyhood home of Gen. Stonewall Jackson and now on the National Register of Historic Places – Mountaineer Boys State is the second-oldest Boys State program in the nation. Ben Merzouk, a 2017 attendee, said he can see the results of decades of conducting the program.

“Obviously they’re pretty good at it, being around for 80 years,” Merzouk said. “I’d say it’s very developed because of that. They know how this is going to work. They understand how we’re going to emotionally deal with this, how we’re physically going to be.

“They’re always prepared. (Staff) tells us things beforehand, and we’re like, ‘nah, it’s not going to happen.’ Then it does, but you’re prepared for it because they’ve already told you about it.”

For 15 years, Legionnaire Jim Davis has volunteered at Mountaineer Boys State and has spent the past five as director. A member of Post 46 in Benwood, Davis said it’s the young men who go through the program, and those who assist him, that keep him coming back year after year.

“Once you … deal with the 300, 400, 500 of the best boys in the state … how much they enjoy it and what they end up giving back to the program once they leave is what got me hooked on it,” Davis said. “Just last week, we got an email from a boy that attended last year. He said he didn’t know what he wanted to do when he came to Boys State … when he got there, by Wednesday he was ready to decide he was going to go to a military academy. Now he’s being enrolled in a military academy. That’s the type of student you end up having.”

Technology Coordinator Jacob McCarty, a member of Martinsburg Post 14’s Sons of The American Legion Squadron and a 1999 Boys State graduate, thought so much of the program – and those who run it – that he’s volunteered with it for 18 years.

“I’m a member of the (SAL) under my grandfather, who served in the Korean War,” McCarty said. “He passed away when I was 10 years old, so I didn’t get to build that relationship with him. This program is what lets me have that relationship with my grandfather. Every year, it keeps that alive. That’s the key thing that keeps bringing me back.”

McCarty has served in various capacities with the program and now is the technology coordinator. He’s helped oversee developing a strong Web presence and live-streaming of some of the program’s events.

“Our goal is to get what the kids attending the program want to see changed in the state out in our public’s hands,” McCarty said. “Right now, (the state) is in a special session to try to pass a budget. Why shouldn’t our (Boys State participants) help influence what’s going on in the budget process in the real state of West Virginia? I just try to provide the tools and the ability to get that information to the public.”

Assistant Director Dave “Robbie” Robinson, also in his 15th year, had no idea what to expect when he began volunteering at Boys State in 2003. His impression after his first session? “It’s something that is needed,” he said. “It’s something I enjoy: passing on experiences … to the boys.

“It’s a great program. In this day and age, I think we need people to guide our youth to a better way. I think this is one of the avenues to do so.”

Robinson said he enjoys when he encounters a Boys State alum outside of the program. “It always makes you really proud that you were part of it when you have a kid who comes back and says, ‘You know, I never heard of that until I went to Boys State, and I’ve used that ever since I was at Boys State,'” said Robinson, a dual Legion-SAL member of Post 14. “It’s amazing to see that. From here, we’ve had people go on to be congressmen, heads of business … a lot of people don’t know that (NBA Hall of Famer) Jerry West was a graduate of here and went to this same place.”

Mountaineer Boys State’s reputation is why students attend. Maguire Glass was told by fellow Wheeling Park High School students that Boys State was a great opportunity. “I’m looking to be a leader in whatever I do after high school, so I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to come down and check it all out,” he said. “(My friends) all said the same thing: They joined into it to learn about politics and to look good on their college applications.

“They said going down here it’s more than just about college. It’s more than just looking good on a résumé. They said there were a lot of opportunities to meet new people. It really challenged what they wanted to do. It gave them a wake-up call for how the real world works.”

The diversity is one thing that attracted Maguire to Boys State. “I’m more of a theater kind of guy, so it’s a little selective in the male friends I can make,” he said. “I knew that coming down here would be a good chance for … stepping out of my comfort zone.”

Providing a well-rounded program, speakers this year included West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee and U.S Rep. Evan Jenkins. The citizens also learned from experts in banking, law enforcement and media, producing live broadcasts and a daily newspaper. Citizens also participate in sports such as one-pitch softball, volleyball, basketball and Frisbee football.

Mountaineer Boys State Athletics Director Todd Morgan, who went through the program in 1979 and has volunteered for years there – and now is joined by his son, Tyler, another Boys State alum – believes in what the program offers to its participants. “I think it gives integrity to young boys,” he said. “I think it’s a good program that helps them later in life even.”

Maguire said that after just two days he already was surprised by how much goes on at Mountaineer Boys State. He’s also developed an even stronger appreciation for those who make the program possible.

“I am extremely thankful that this is available to me,” he said. Everything we do here seems so important. These are all volunteers, and these are all real veterans and (SAL members). It’s really honorable for them to come out and help 400 kids just learn how to be good leaders and do well … in their futures. I think it’s really incredible that they have this opportunity for us."


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Legion testifies on future of the VA Choice Program   

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American Legion National Legislative Division Assistant Director Jeff Steele testified before the U.S. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on June 7 in Washington, D.C., to comment on the Veterans Choice Program and the future of care in the community.

“As Congress is now discovering and as The American Legion has previously testified, costs are skyrocketing beyond all budget predictions as the quest to provide ‘choice’ has overtaken common sense governing,” Steele said in his written testimony. “Following the Phoenix (VA) scandal (in 2014), Congress appropriated $10 billion to help VA address any and all veterans who ended up on off-the-books waitlists that schedulers had developed in an attempt to juggle the overwhelming requests they were receiving for VA care. By committing $10 billion to this new procurement vehicle, Congress ignored all of the established contracting control measures used in VA’s other community care programs.”

Steele said the Choice Program is a textbook example of how well intended overregulating can turn into troublesome, unintended consequences. Choice instituted third party administrators, additional eligibility criteria, higher and inconsistent reimbursement rates and a disconnected billing authority. “In addition, the Choice Act mandated VA to issue paper Choice cards to every enrolled veteran that were essentially worthless, wasting millions and millions of dollars on designing, procuring and mailing millions of these cards in 90 days or less,” he said.

As part of the Choice legislation, Congress called for comprehensive studies into the VA’s wait time issues. Steele said VA found that the widespread assumption that these problems are worse in the VA than elsewhere is simply untrue.

A 2015 study from the independent RAND Corporation found that, “Wait times at the VA for new patient primary and specialty care are shorter than wait times reported in focused studies of the private sector.” Overall, the report concluded that VA wait times “do not seem to be substantially worse than non-VA waits.”

The one thing the Choice Act effectively did, Steele said, was expose VA’s practice of managing to budget as opposed to managing to need. “While the Choice Act set a restrictive access boundary of 30 days of wait time, and 40 driving distance miles by presenting it as increasing access, the truth is VA already had the authority to contract patients out to community care,” Steele said. “They just rarely used the authority because their budget could serve twice as many veterans if redirected toward organic campus care or already negotiated and established community care contracts.”

Earlier this year on April 19, President Trump signed a law that removed the Aug. 7, 2017, expiration date and allows VA to now utilize funding dedicated to the Veterans Choice Program until it is exhausted.

“While many veterans initially clamored for ‘more Choice’ as a solution to scheduling problems within the VA health care system, once this program was implemented, most have not found it to be a solution,” Steele said. “Instead, they have found it to create as many problems as it solves. The American Legion operates our System Worth Saving program, which travels the nation annually examining the delivery of health care to veterans. What we have found over the past decade (by directly interacting with veterans) is that many of the problems veterans encountered with scheduling appointments in VA are mirrored in the civilian community outside VA.”

Rather than a move toward vouchers and privatization, Steele said the Legion supports a strong VA that relies on outside care as little as possible and only when medically necessary. Sending patients off VA campuses to community providers, absent of well-crafted contracts, has led to inadequate compliance by local physicians, he said.

“Their inability to return treatment records to VA following care provided by Choice led to uncoordinated care and putting veterans at serious risk for medical complications,” Steele said. “This is important for a litany of reasons, not the least of which includes the risk of harmful drug interaction, possible overmedication and a better understanding of the patient’s previous military history — all important factors in wellness.”

When the Choice legislation was being developed, Steele said The American Legion insisted that any doctor treating a referred veteran have access to the veterans medical records so that doctors would have a complete history of the veterans medical history and be able to provide a diagnosis based on a holistic understanding of the patient’s medical profile.

Furthermore, the Legion was adamant that any treating physician contracted through Choice have a responsibility to return treatment records promptly to be included in the patients’ VA medical file so that VA could maintain a complete and up-to-date medical record on their patients. “We believed then, as we do now, that safeguarding of the veterans’ medical records was so important that we helped craft a provision that was included in the language which prevented VA from paying physicians until they turned over the treatment records to VA,” Steele said.

Unfortunately, Steele said the Legion was forced to acquiesce its position in favor of paying doctors whether they turned over the medical records or not.

“Since it was more important that veterans had access to sufficient medical care and not have their credit damaged, the Legion supported repealing that provision,” he said.

This, among other reasons including unsustainable cost, is why the Legion believes Choice is not the answer. For Steele, the equation is simple – a dramatic increase in cost is guaranteed to result in an increased financial burden to veterans using VA care that will include higher co-pays, premiums, deductions and other out-of-pocket expenses currently suffered by non-VA health care programs.

To ensure veterans receive the care and benefits they have earned, Steele said The American Legion, with the help of Congress, can start by:

· opening VA to more patients;

· making VA more competitive and allow them to accept all forms of insurance including Medicare, Medicaid, etc.;

· making VA a destination employer by offering physicians rotations in research, emergency preparedness and education areas;

· calling on VA to stand up a medical school; and

· insisting VA engage in public-private partnerships with community hospitals across the country by renting wings of existing hospitals.

“Hundreds of thousands of caring, well-trained and highly-competitive professionals stream through the doors of VA medical centers throughout this nation, day in and day out for one purpose and one purpose only,” said Steele. “To care for those who have borne the battle – and overall, they do an excellent job.”

With the recent release of the president’s budget plan, including proposed cuts to several benefits that disabled veterans rely on, The American Legion released the following statement expressing extreme disappointment in the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs. You can read the statement here.

At the hearing, Steele concluded his remarks before the committee by urging Congress not to fund the new program on the backs of veterans.

“The American Legion adamantly opposes the degradation of organic VA health care services and calls on this Congress and administration to reinforce and strengthen the Department of Veterans Affairs so that it can do what we all agree it needs to do – support veterans because they have earned it," Steele said. "So, moving forward, and appreciating the sincere need for community care, The American Legion simply urges Congress to fund the community care program at appropriate levels, which should be no less than what is currently being allocated, without cannibalizing other areas of the VA budget.”

Bottom line: The Legion adamantly opposes these benefit cuts and will work tirelessly to defeat them.


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'It's all about the people'

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Editor’s note: This is the second of a series of profiles of the Boys Nation 2016 officers. Boys Nation 2017 takes place July 21-29 at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.

 

Of the four elected positions at American Legion Boys Nation, Aaron Jaffe felt that if he were elected president pro tempore, that’s where he would have the most impact.

“The president pro tempore is the workhorse of the senate, runs it, gets a lot of stuff done behind the scenes and tries to make everything as efficient as possible. So I thought by giving up my voice I would be able to allow everyone else the opportunity to really give their constituents a voice,” Jaffe recalled.

Jaffe, of Old Greenwich, Conn., was elected president pro tempore of the 2016 session of Boys Nation. The president pro tempore presides over the Boys Nation Senate in the absence of the vice president.

Jaffe is grateful for the experience he received at Connecticut Boys State and at Boys Nation.

“These programs provide young men like myself an opportunity that would otherwise not be there, to really experience what it’s like to be a citizen and to be an American. And I will be forever changed going forward in my view of what it’s like to live in the United States,” he said.

The experience helped lead him to a Veterans Day speech in his hometown where he reflected on his time at Boys Nation.

“It was during the really tense final weeks of the election process, and what I wanted to get across to the members of my town, which was the most important lesson I learned at Boys Nation, was that it’s all about the people,” he said. “You can hate the politics, you can dislike or disagree with the ideas, but we’re all unified Americans and that’s something that we all need to realize and all need to come together about. So I gave the speech, not trying to divide people along party lines but hoping to celebrate what Veterans Day is all about, and that’s America. It’s about the people who sacrificed to make our country so incredible. My sense of patriotism has really been pushed by my experience in the Boy Scouts as well, an Eagle Scout, but also by the two weeks I spent at Boys State and Boys Nation, really experiencing what it’s like to be an American and be a citizen and to interact with such incredible veterans.”

Jaffe is grateful for the experiences The American Legion — including his sponsor, Post 29 in Greenwich — helped him achieve.

And he’s quick to encourage others to pursue their opportunities at Boys State and Boys Nation.

“It provides an amazing opportunity to spend a week or two weeks with guys from around the state or around the entire country, all of whom are absolutely brilliant and all of whom are genuinely nice guys, genuinely interested in what you’re doing there, and there are very few other places where you can find such genuine people,” he said. “Secondly, it’s just an amazing academic experience. I learned an incredible amount, not only during the debates on the floor of the senate from the guys I interacted with, I learned about the entire breadth of opinion, about social policy issues, about economic policy issues, and my eyes were really opened in a number of ways to pretty much every facet of America.”

Jaffe plans to attend Columbia University in New York where he’ll major in applied mathematics with minors in international relations and computer science.

 


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Did you know?

A veteran’s family must request a United States flag.

A flag is provided at no cost to drape the casket or accompany the urn of a deceased veteran. Generally, the flag is given to the next of kin. Only one flag may be provided per veteran. Upon the request of the family, an “Application for United States Flag for Burial Purposes” (VA Form 21-2008) must be submitted along with a copy of the veteran’s discharge papers. Flags may be obtained from VA regional offices and most U.S. Post Offices.