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Veterans Benefits Information

Oxford presents American Legion legislative agenda to Congress

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After touching on a series of historical accomplishments that defined the first century of American Legion legislative successes, National Commander James W. “Bill” Oxford presented a three-step mission to lawmakers during a joint session of the Senate and House Committees on Veterans’ Affairs March 11.

“Implementation. Oversight. Improvement. That triad is the prevailing theme in The American Legion’s legislative priority list for the second session of the 116th Congress,” Oxford said in a packed hearing room.

The theme is the logical follow-up to landmark legislation passed in recent years such as the VA MISSION Act, the Blue Water Navy Act and the Harry W. Colmery “Forever” GI Bill.

“Between Vietnam and 9/11, The American Legion and Congress worked together to reinvent the VA – one that is now described as quote, ‘the best care anywhere,’” Oxford said. “Today, so many of these issues, and new ones for a new generation, continue to occupy The American Legion’s priority list.”

That list went largely unchallenged to receptive members of Congress that attended the hearing.

“Reading today’s testimony, it is clear that we share many of the same priorities,” Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said. “We must address the national crisis of veteran suicide. Veterans must receive high-quality healthcare. We must understand the full impacts of toxic exposures, and make sure that another generation of veterans don’t have to wait for the benefits and care they need and deserve.

“In addition,” Takano continued, “as our veteran population grows increasingly more diverse, we must support our women, LGBTQ, minority, and Native-American veterans. The legislation we pass must improve access to culturally competent care for all veterans.”

Though The American Legion recognizes that VA care isn’t always the best option for veterans living in remote areas, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., emphasized the point while trying to assuage Legion concerns about privatizing the system.

“In my view the MISSION Act is nothing to replace the VA (but is) providing care and services for those who in their best interest need another venue,” said Moran, the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. Moran mentioned that many Kansans would have to travel great distances in order to obtain care from a VA facility.

Another major concern for The American Legion is the high suicide rate among veterans. Most of the veterans who have taken their lives were not receiving care in the VA system. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., announced that the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which was supported by The American Legion, passed the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee 17-0 by unanimous consent.

“We got everyone from Blackburn to Bernie to vote for that bad boy, so now all we got to do is get Sen. (Mitch) McConnell to take it up on the floor,” Tester said, informally referring to Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who refers to himself as a “democratic socialist.”

It was likely the last opportunity House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., will hear an American Legion national commander present congressional testimony. The physician and longtime Legionnaire will retire from Congress at the end of the year.

Roe reflected nostalgically on recent and historic Legion accomplishments. “It would be impossible for me to detail all the work that The American Legion has performed throughout your more than a century of service or the value that the Legion continues to bear on matters of military, veterans and national security policy,” Roe said. “Even now it is with the help of the Legion and working with our committees and partners in the Trump administration that the Department of Veterans Affairs has undergone such a positive transformation over the last few years. Thanks to our mutual efforts, I’m proud to report that veterans today have great access to care (and) greater control of their care than ever before. Veterans can use their GI Bill benefits whenever they choose. Veteran unemployment reached near lows.”

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Legion post doubles as fitness center

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You won’t find stale beer, pretzels or stories at American Legion Post 2020 in Arlington Heights, Ill. Instead, the new post features state-of-the-art fitness equipment, healthy members and a vibrant atmosphere.

Post 2020 doubles as Three 60 Fit, a fitness center where members flock to do more than get healthy. It’s a safe place where they experience friendship and fellowship.

It’s the brain child of Post 2020 Commander Christian Koshaba and Vice Commander Matthew Monson.

Koshaba joined the Air Force in 2006. During his service, he became a physical training leader and developed athletic programs on the base. After he transitioned out in 2010, he suffered a severe hand injury in New Zealand while vacationing with his brother. “A surgeon told me that I would never use this hand again. It rocked me to my core because before the military, I was an art major.”

As he underwent rehabilitation for his hand at a VA clinic, Koshaba knew his injury paled in comparison with the physical and emotional wounds some of his comrades sustained. “It just created a fire within me, seeing what these men and women truly went through,” he said. ”They are heroes and I was an idiot who got into an accident while on a trip.”

His determination led to his recovery, which was around 70 percent six months after the accident. His hand functions at about 90 to 95 percent now, plenty to allow him to not only exercise but to lead fitness classes at the post.

Koshaba never deployed but his injury and recovery motivated him to give back to his fellow veterans. “I needed to do something for my brothers and sisters in arms.”

That inspiration fueled innovation when he met Monson at a fitness center.

Monson joined another Legion post soon after leaving the Marine Corps in 2007. “I made about 50 new best friends,” he recalled. “It plugged me into the community. It meant a lot because I am not from here.”

While Monson was fortunate to find camaraderie at the Legion post and continue his schooling to become a chiropractor, he was well aware of comrades who became statistics. “It really weighed heavy on me. It kept me up at night, wishing that I could have done more.”

One sleepless night Monson had a vision. “What if we gave vets a different alternative to The American Legion model? What The American Legion stands for and has done over the last 100 years for veterans has been amazing. But what can we do to update that for younger veterans?”

Instead of a late-night bar scene, Monson wanted to develop something where veterans could gather, get healthy and help each other in the morning.

Monson and Koshaba developed a bond while working out. They exercised. They shared stories about their service. They brainstormed about how to help other vets.

Their vision: an American Legion post that focuses on fitness and families.

“There have been several guys who came to us when they were having those dark thoughts and they were going down that path to hurt themselves,” Monson said. “It’s a downward spiral. We’ve already been able to pick a few of these guys up. It’s been a really rewarding thing. We are making a difference and that gives us a lot of energy.”

One of those veterans is Brandon Landrum, who Koshaba met through Monson. Landrum, an Army veteran, moved from Kentucky to the Chicago area in early January. He needed structure and brotherhood.

“Once I got in here, Christian welcomed me with open arms — all the other people here also welcomed me with open arms,” said Landrum, who quickly joined Post 2020. “When I moved up here, I didn’t have many friends or any connections here. Meeting Christian and being part of the Legion has opened the door to all of these friends now. I think that is super important for a veteran moving from one state to another, or even one county to another.”

Landrum says the post’s fitness center was instrumental in helping him overcome his post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I could have been that person myself,” he said. “I have seen it myself — veterans getting lost in the cracks. Coming here from a new place I am welcomed with open arms and these guys are holding me up and being with me through and through. It’s very important.”

Koshaba has helped Landrum not only in a physical sense but in an emotional one.

“Christian has taught me that PTSD is something that can hold me down but it is also something that can build me up,” Landrum explained. “Having these guys around me, I feel safe. I feel safer within myself. I feel safer within my faith. And I also just feel safer being in a new place. This place feels like home to me now.”

But Three 60 Fit offers more than just group workouts that are somewhat similar to Crossfit.

“The fitness end can knock down all the stress and anxiety,” Koshaba said. “What I noticed is that a lot of these veterans were missing the spiritual aspect they had in the military. We want to incorporate mind, body, spirit.”

And thus Bibles and Biceps was born. It’s a 45-minute workout to reduce stress levels followed by a 45-minute Bible study, which includes reading scripture and time for prayer.

In fact, Landrum was introduced to the post through its weekly Bibles and Biceps class. Koshaba and Landrum met again the next day.

“We’re big guys and we were crying,” the post commander said. “Guys don’t normally do that. But the pain is there. As men, especially veterans, we try to hold onto it, like a badge. Once I told Brandon my story the floodgates opened up. He let it all out and I learned how much we had in common. Not just our military background, but with our families. Being open for these guys is a big thing and I think Brandon respected that.”

There’s no doubt that family is important to Koshaba, a father of two young girls. His arms are adorned with tattoos of wolves, representing family.

“We try to take what a Legion post should be doing and that is taking care of veterans,” Koshaba explained. “Through the Legion these families are going to want to be involved, too. We’re not just targeting the individuals because there is only so much I can do one-on-one. Once they go home, they are with their families. They need that support structure as well.”

Don Horn, the immediate past 9th District commander in the American Legion Department of Illinois, helped Koshaba and others through the process of creating the post. On Feb. 26, Horn presented post members with their formal charter.

“It’s a very unique post,” said Horn, a medical officer for the department and member of Post 974 in Franklin Park. “Different posts have different niches to engage with their communities. So when they go to represent themselves as veterans in the community or tackle the concept of recruiting new members, it’s a niche they can fall back on. This one is very involved with fitness and they are trying to get involved with veterans affairs.”

Horn sees this as a scalable idea. “We’re trying to figure out what the draw is for younger veterans when they come back. Fitness is one common goal. Community service is another. It’s a matter of trying to get them in and keep them involved with the activities they are interested in.”

When Horn presented Koshaba and Monson the charter, the post commander said, “This is big; it’s been a longtime coming.”

Post 2020 members, however, are forging plans to keep moving forward. Koshaba wants to continue to increase the number and types of classes, and plans to move in August to a new facility where the space will double to 6,000 square feet.

“I don’t think we’ve achieved anything yet,” Koshaba said. “It’s only just begun. Getting the charter was just buckling on my seatbelt, getting ready for the ride.”

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USAA Tips: How to know if you're saving enough for retirement

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Content provided courtesy of USAA

If you are on the verge of retiring, it's understandable to question whether you have adequate savings to live comfortably.

USAA financial advisors recommend following the general rule of saving 10 to 12 times your salary, but individual circumstances may require more or less. You may want to see if you're on track by accessing an online calculator.

Here's another simple method to check whether you're in good shape or likely to come up short:

1. Identify your assets.

Figure out which of your assets are most likely to be available to generate income once you retire. Those might include IRAs, a 401(k), savings accounts or other investments. Be sure to allow for any legacy or bequest wishes.

2. Make a cash-flow plan.

Identify reliable income sources you expect to have during retirement, including Social Security, pensions, annuities or other guaranteed payments. Factor in your expenses, separating essential ones (such as housing, transportation and health insurance premiums) from discretionary ones (such as movies, travel and gifts).

3. See if there's a gap.

Generally, you should have enough income to cover your essential expenses. If not, you may be dependent on the resources you identified during step 1 to make up the difference.

Your retirement plan should reflect your unique circumstances. Keep in mind that good retirement planning is an ongoing process, so you will need to review and adjust your plan periodically.

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Senate Rejects DeVos Rule Restricting Debt Relief for Bilked Students

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A bipartisan majority in the Senate voted to strike an Education Department rule that would make it more difficult for students swindled by colleges to obtain loan forgiveness.

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10 ways to ‘act Legion’

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American Legion National Commander Bill Oxford delivered the Commander’s Call on May 10 as part of the organization’s advocacy efforts later in the day on Capitol Hill. During the annual address, the commander called on American Legion Family members to “act Legion.”

It was a play on words, harkening back to last year’s monumental passage of the LEGION Act (Let Everyone Get Involved In Opportunities for National Service Act). The new law means that every veteran on duty since Dec. 7, 1941, is now considered to have served during wartime. By closing the loophole, it honors the service of 1,600 veterans killed or wounded during periods previously not sanctioned as war eras. It also means that more than 4 million veterans will now receive the full benefits of their service, including eligibility to join The American Legion.

Oxford implored American Legion members to “act Legion,” whether or not they are part of this week’s 60th annual Washington Conference. Ten key recommendations:

• Act in a nonpartisan way: “What does act Legion mean?” Oxford asked. “It means being professional, nonpartisan, motivated and knowledgeable. It means reminding your senators, representatives and their staff that they have no higher calling than the care and wellbeing of our America’s veterans, our active-military and their families.”

• Continue to support and improve the Legion’s most important legislative accomplishment, the GI Bill and its descendants. “They all had one purpose in common – that’s helping veterans achieve their dream. Higher education, vocational training and home ownership make dreams possible.” Today, some for-profit schools are targeting veterans, Oxford noted. “Acting Legion means passage of the Protect the GI Bill Act. It means passing the Veterans Education and Taxpayer Spending Act to close the 90-10 loophole, which enables schools to count VA and DoD tuition money as ‘private dollars,’ even though it’s really government dollars that came from the taxpayers.”

• Protect the American flag. Oxford called for a constitutional amendment to protect “our flag — the flag used to cover the caskets of our fallen military heroes — from desecration.”

• Fight against privatizing VA. “The private sector didn’t send veterans to war. Uncle Sam did.”

• Reduce the suicide rate among veterans. Oxford noted that if the United States can spend billions of dollars fighting the coronavirus, it should be able to financially support efforts to reduce the suicide rate among veterans. He recommended Legion Family members help get at-risk veterans into VA so they don’t become a statistic. “We do know that when veterans use the services offered by VA, they are less likely to take their own lives,” he said. “And many of those services offered by VA must include options other than opioids. Counseling and alternative therapies are not only healthier, they are often more effective.”

• Fight for Blue Water Navy Vietnam veterans. The Legion must continue advocating for these veterans and ensuring that their long overdue disability benefits are awarded without further roadblocks, he said.

• Protect veterans who are victims of military sexual trauma. “We must condemn all acts of sexual violence and support the brave men and women who have been exploited through shameful acts of military sexual trauma.”

• Ensure that all servicemembers are paid during government shutdowns. That was a reference to January 2019 when Coast Guardsmen and their families were caught up in the government shutdown. Because the Coast Guard operates under Homeland Security, they were not paid, a loophole the Legion is trying to correct.

• Continue service at home. Oxford cited Legion programs that mentor youth and support veterans in need, as well as the Veterans and Childrens Foundation. The foundation “allows us to train service officers and offer temporary financial assistance for veterans with children in need,” he said. The goal for V&CF is to raise $25 million. (Click here to learn more about how the fund supports service officers and families with minor children.) h

• Salute the Greatest Generation. “In the early 1940s, millions of Americans committed to winning the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. It was won 75 years ago because Legionnaires and non-Legionnaires, acted Legion,” he said.

In conclusion, Oxford connected the organization’s first 100 years to the next century of service to community, states and nation.

“Acting Legion means celebrating our past without sacrificing the energy and excitement that we must bring to our second century,” he said. “Our foundation is strong. We have four solid pillars – National Defense, Veterans Affairs, Children & Youth and Americanism. All of these offer opportunities in which we can act Legion. All of these can and need to be used to build our foundation for the future.”

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