Archive for June, 2012

The 4th of July: Do you know your history?

Posted by Charlotte Webster

antique flagHow much do you know about the 4th of July? Since we’re only a few days away from Independence Day, we’d like to have some fun with a little trivia.

Are you ready to test your knowledge? Ok, here we go…

 

1. Independence Day was first celebrated in Philadelphia on what date?

2. Who gave the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence?

3. The first public Fourth of July event at the White House took place in what year?

4. Which two former presidents died on July 4, 1826?

5. How many people signed the Declaration of Independence?

 

Answers: 1. July 8, 1776; 2. Colonel John Nixon; 3. 1804; 4. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams; 5. 56

 

Here is some more trivia you may not know:

  • The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were withheld from the public for more than six months to protect them. If independence had not been achieved, the treasonable act of the signers would have, by law, resulted in their deaths.
  • The origin of Uncle Sam probably began in 1812, when Samuel Wilson was a meat packer who provided meat to the US Army. The meat shipments were stamped with the initials “U.S.” Someone joked that the initials stood for “Uncle Sam.” This joke eventually led to the idea of Uncle Sam symbolizing the United States government.
  • In 1941, Congress declared the 4th of July a federal legal holiday. Because if its importance to the country, it is one of the few federal holidays that has not been moved to the nearest Friday or Monday.
  • Many towns across the US have names inspired by America’s independence: 30 have “Liberty” in their name, 11 have “Independence” in their name, 5 are named “Freedom,” 1 is named “Patriot,” and 5 have “America” in their name.

Wishing you Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness!

Roth TSP Rollout Officially Underway

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

falling moneyAfter much hosanna, hurrah and hullaballoo, the Department of Defense rollout of the Roth option to the Thrift Savings Plan is finally underway. While most of the federal government was eligible to contribute to the TSP via a Roth option in May, technical issues with Defense Finance and Accounting Service computer systems required the Department of Defense to phase in the execution of the rollout among the various services. The Marine Corps – the smallest of the services – is first in line: Marines are eligible to contribute to a Roth option in their TSPs this month. DoD civilian employees are slated to become eligible in July. And Army, Navy and Air Force personnel can elect to make Roth contributions in October, under current projections.

Yes, we also noticed that the DoD civilians in charge of the rollout took care of their own before implementing the Army, Navy and Air Force rollouts (while keeping the Marines as guinea pigs, in case something goes wrong!).

TSP contributions under Roth accounts are taxed differently than traditional TSP accounts. Until now, when you made a contribution to your Thrift Savings Plan, the government made that contribution before taking taxes out of your military pay. You only paid income taxes on the amount left over after your contribution. DFAS would withhold the income tax, together with FICA, or Social Security and Medicare taxes, and pay you the rest. The catch: You have to pay income tax on any amount you withdraw for income.

You can’t postpone paying taxes indefinitely, either. TSP rules require you to begin making required minimum distributions, or RMDs, beginning April 1 of the year after the year in which you turn 70½, or you separate from government service – whichever is later. This means you have to start taking money out of the account – and paying taxes. The IRS imposes stiff tax penalties, if you fail to do so.

With a Roth TSP, you pay your income taxes now, up front. In return, the entire amount grows tax-free. You never have to pay income taxes again, under current tax law. There are no RMDs to worry about, either.

Are They Right for Me?

All things being equal, the Roth option may be better than the traditional TSP under the following circumstances:

  1. You believe income tax rates will be higher in the future than they are now.
  2. You believe you will be in a higher tax bracket than you are now.
  3. You are unlikely to need to withdraw the money in retirement, and can therefore hold on to assets in your TSP well beyond the age at which you would otherwise have to begin taking RMDs.
  4. You believe you will have a possible estate tax liability. Any income tax you get out of the way now reduces your estate, and potentially reduces the amount exposed to the estate tax.
  5. You just don’t want to have to worry about RMDs.
  6. You want to hedge your exposure to legislative risk by splitting assets into different “buckets.”
  7. You have an artificially-reduced taxable income this year or next year due to a deployment to a combat zone (resulting in much of your military pay for the year being tax-free.
  8. You can ‘max out’ your elective deferral limit of $17,000, plus, if you are over 50, an additional “catch-up” contribution of $5,500. If you can pay your income taxes now, you can stuff that much more into the account. This is because a Roth TSP is “larger” than a traditional TSP with the same nominal balance. Roth TSPs can be tapped tax-free in retirement; you still have to pay taxes on any balances in a traditional TSP.
  9. You are confident you can leave the money in the account for at least five years. Only money that remains in the Roth account for at least five years qualifies for the Roth tax treatment.

Remember: If you retire from the military, your pension income is subject to whatever income tax rates are in effect when you retire and begin receiving your retirement pay. Because you incur substantial risk to your income if Congress raises income tax rates between now and the time you retire, you could wind up with a substantial hit to your income. Diversifying part of your retirement nest egg into an income tax-free account, such as a Roth, can help diversify against that risk.

Wish Upon A Wedding

Posted by S.E. Davidson Parker

military weddingJake and Meredith met at church and soon became fast friends. Friendship developed into even more, and they became engaged. Life, in that particular way it works, decided to get in the way. Throwing one thing after another after at Meredith and Jake, life quickly became complicated (and that’s an understatement). The money for an engagement ring was not there earlier; a wedding would most definitely have to wait. Unbeknownst to them, a friend had presented their story to Wish Upon A Wedding; Jake and Meredith became husband and wife in January 2012.

Why is this on a military blog? Because Jake is a Lance Corporal in the United State Marine Corps, and Meredith is a former Marine Corps officer. They were married at the United States Naval Academy, Meredith’s alma mater.

Wish Upon A Wedding (WUW) provides free wedding ceremonies and receptions for the terminally ill, for severely injured service members, and others having faced/are facing “seriously life-altering circumstances.” Formed in 2009, this non-profit organization wants to “to celebrate the courage, determination and spirit of these couples by granting their dream wedding wishes.” And with over 30 wishes granted in over two years, they are doing just that, and doing it well.

There are over 20 local chapters of WUW across the nation filled with wedding vendors who provide, free of charge, their services or products to ensure that those who are postponing their wedding because of dramatic circumstances have the opportunity to have a great wedding. Applicants first fill out the online application, which is forwarded on to the closest local chapter. The application not only asks for the basics (name, address, phone number) but also for medical information/other information to verify the situation. Information is verified, and decisions are made based on applicant circumstances and eligibility.

Once an applicant has been chosen, items covered in the wedding depend on the number and type of vendors involved as volunteers. What typically is covered is the officiant, venue, wedding planner, florist, cake, caterer, and most rentals. Often times, the gown and tuxedo is covered. What is never covered is alcohol; if you wish to provide alcohol to your guests, you must do so on your own and also provide liability insurance.

The wedding planner takes over for you once receiving your preferences. There are no guarantees; each chapter runs solely on volunteers. If there are no volunteers that specialize in lighting and a dance floor, it simply can’t be provided. Gathering multiple volunteers together for one event can sometimes be difficult; keep that in mind when you are requesting a wedding because you may not get the particular date you desire. Check here for the list of items that WUW can and cannot generally provide when planning a wedding.

If your circumstances prompt a wedding in less than six weeks, there is a limit of 25 guests. If you can wait longer than that, up to six months, you can invite up to 50 guests.

If you know of a couple, or are a couple, with extreme circumstances, visit Wish Upon A Wedding’s website. Like the national chapter on Facebook, as well as many of their regional chapters. You can help this unique organization in many ways; they offer eight suggestions, including financial donations, becoming a wish granter (donating time and service as a vendor), and directly volunteering with the local chapter, including helping to start a new chapter in your area.

 

(Disclaimer; I am a wedding vendor signed up to provide services in my local chapter. There has been no financial remuneration involved from WUW in the writing of this article. They are not aware of this article prior to its publication.)

2012 Warrior Games

Posted by Charlotte Webster

How do you define a warrior?

Strong. Resiliant. Courageous.

Inspirational.

Those are some of the words that come to my mind. And this video shows what true warriors are.



How do you define a warrior? Please tell us in the comments below.”

Operation Purple

Posted by S.E. Davidson Parker

Operation Purple creates memorable experiences in a traditional summer camp setting for children of service members. Dubbed “purple” for its joint-operations commitment (any member of any branch of the military are eligible, as well employees of the Coast Guard, U.S Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), kids can experience the outdoors with peers who are in many of the same familial situations as they are. Operating since 2004, Operation has served over 45,000 children and their families.

Operation Purple camps last approximately one week and are geared toward children from ages 7 to 17 (age and time are dependent on the camp location). Camps are located across the United States and are free; there is a $25 deposit check that is taken to hold your camper’s spot, but that check is returned to you once camp starts.

First priority in registration is given to children who have a deployed parent. Next priority is for children whose parent has been or will soon be deployed; then registration is open to all military children, regardless of parent location. Registration fills up quickly. There are always many more campers applying than spots available.

Operation Purple Healing Adventures provides Wounded Warriors and their families the opportunity to heal, relax, and have fun. Working with the USO, Operation Purple is able to offer three camps in the summer of 2012. Families must have an active duty or medically retired service member who sustained injuries, trauma, or illness during Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom.

Operation Purple also sponsors family retreats in conjunction with FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress). These four-day camps held in National Parks and Forests across the country are for families who have experienced a recent deployment (within the past 15 months). Developed to help assist with family reintegration, outdoor activities are balanced with independent family time. This program is free and also provides a $200 stipend to assist in travel costs to the outing location.

Unfortunately, the economic downturn has hit Operation Purple hard; its Summer 2012 program had to be scaled down because of resources, even though demand (seen through registration applications) is as high as ever. Donations can be made here at National Military Family Association, OP’s organizational founder.

Protect VA Healthcare Act of 2012

Posted by Charlotte Webster

Thanks to the Budget Control Act of 2011, veterans healthcare may be affected by sequestration in January 2013. The cuts would result in up to a 2% cut to VA healthcare. It may not sound like much, but a 2% cut would potentially affect a veteran’s ability to receive healthcare in a timely manner, affect the VA’s ability to hire and retain medical staff including doctors and nurses, and affect the VA’s ability to acquire much needed medical equipment and supplies like prescription drugs.

House Vererans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller has stated, “Despite repeated requests made to the President and Secretary of Veterans Affairs over the past six months, I have not received any assurance — and more important, nor have our veterans — that these cuts will not take place.”

In response to the lack of an answer from the Administration to clarify the law and rule in favor of US veterans, Miller has introduced H.R. 3895, the Protect VA Healthcare Act of 2012 which would ensure that funding for America’s veterans are not cut, today or in the future.

H.R. 3895 has received support from many military groups, including The American Legion, the Fleet Reserve Association, NAUS, AUSN, Blinded Veterans Association and the Association of the U.S. Army.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has several ways you can stay informed about their progress. Visit their website at Veterans.House.Gov/3895 or join the Facebook page at Facebook.com/HouseVetsAffairs. If you are on Twitter, you can follow them at Twitter.com/HouseVetAffairs and with the hashtags

  • #HR3895SaveVetsHealthcare
  • #SaveVetsHealthcare
  • #HR3895ProtectOurVets
  • #ProtectOurVets

Dog gets online medical degree

Posted by Charlotte Webster

The economy looks pretty bleak. The unemployment rate is high. What does that mean for you?

Perhaps you are active duty military, ETSing soon and have been considering a new degree to give you an edge in the civilian world. Maybe you’re a veteran who has decided to go back to school for a couple of years to wait out the poor job market.

Well, you are in luck! Nevermind using your GI Bill benefits or signing up with the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program. Don’t waste precious time studying. You can now get a degree — even a doctorate — for the low, low price of $450 in as little as a week!

Don’t believe it? Watch Sonny’s story…

Seriously, getting a degree will help you improve your chances of scoring a good job, and a high paying one. Unemployment rates drop and income increases as you move up the education degree ladder

So how do you know that a college offering an online degree is legit? 

First, make sure you check that it is accredited. Then spend some time on its website. A legit school will have a lot of information, not just a few pages encouraging you to enroll and send a check today. Try checking it out on social media. If you find successful people listing it as part of their profile on LinkedIn, odds are it’s a good school. And people will talk about a school on Twitter, whether they like it or not, so search its name with a hashtag. 

Ok, so now that you know how to spot a scam school, how do you find a good one that offers the program you’re interested in?

Two things:

  • Check out our School Finder. You can search by education level and degree program. It will match you with schools that provide exactly what you want.
  • Once you have a list of potential schools, evaluate the colleges to see which one is right for you.
Don’t end up like Sonny. Use your military education benefits and take the time to get a real education. Otherwise, you could find yourself in the doghouse with less money in your bank account, a pretty piece of paper, and no employers taking you seriously.

COL Johnson Case: The Fallout for Military Spouses

Posted by Charlotte Webster

The current prosecution of COL James Johnson on a variety of charges, including fraud, bigamy and conduct unbecoming an officer is highlighting problems with the way the government dispenses justice to career military officers and NCOs convicted of wrong doing. 

First, an overview of the case: COL Johnson was well on his way up the stairway to the stars. He received command of the prestigious 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vicenza, Italy – long considered the plum assignment for combat arms officers headed for flag rank. But in March of 2011, he was relieved of command, after evidence surfaced that he had committed a series of crimes. Among the allegations:

  • COL Johnson, who was married at the time, had arranged government travel, worth tens of thousands of dollars, to facilitate meeting an Iraqi mistress in the Netherlands.
  • He provided a government cell phone to his mistress and her family, which racked up $80,000 in usage charges. 
  • Improperly steering a lucrative military contract to his mistress’s father, hiring him as a “cultural advisor.”
  • Falsifying at least 18 travel vouchers, and receiving payment for them.
  • “Marrying” his Iraqi mistress while he was still married to his spouse, Kris Johnson. 
  • Forging a government document (1 count).
  • Four specifications of adultery – a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
  • Six specifications of conduct unbecoming an officer.

Johnson pled guilty to 15 out of a total of 27 counts. A number of other counts were thrown out yesterday, leaving only two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman for the jury of five colonels to consider.

If convicted, Johnson could face up to 54 years in jail. He could also be stripped of his retirement benefits – and therein lies the rub: The government cannot strip COL Johnson of his retirement pay without also stripping his wife, Kris Johnson – who by all accounts is blameless, of her share of Johnson’s military pension.

Normally, even if a military couple divorces, the spouse is entitled to half of the servicemember’s retirement pay in recognition of 20+ years of service and sacrifice (subject to some caveats under individual state law). Indeed, military spouses do forgo untold professional and educational opportunities while they engage in repeated PCS moves with their sponsors – and unemployment among military spouses is over 3 times the national average, at 26 percent.

Further, to underscore the sacrifice involved, many of those military spouses who are working are working lower-wage jobs than they may otherwise be earning had they not become members of the military family.

The problem: Kris Johnson, who has committed no wrong and has been cooperative with the investigation, faces the loss of over a million dollars in pension benefits, if her husband loses his military retirement pay.

This is a problem, because it creates a powerful disincentive for military spouses to report wrongdoing. The current whistleblower protections normally afforded to employees do not apply to them. Any spouse who becomes aware that her husband (or his wife) is committing serious official misconduct, and reports it, must face the prospect of becoming impoverished in her golden years, if the retirement benefit is stripped away.

“I know spouses are told, if they know their husbands are having an affair, ‘Just keep your mouth shut,’” Kris Johnson said, according to the Fay Observer. “If he gets thrown out or dismissed, he’ll lose his retirement. Let him quietly retire so you can get your half.’ That’s tolerating unethical behavior,” she said.

The Department of Defense should create a process whereby innocent spouses receive some protection against having their economic futures devastated by the loss of this pension benefit, through no fault of their own. It is doubly important to provide this protection to military spouses who blow the whistle on official misconduct, allowing the military to purge corrupt leaders from its ranks (and make room for better leadership in these senior billets.)

There are a number of parallels in the civilian world:

First, the Internal Revenue Service does make allowances for innocent spouses, and provides for relief from penalties for unpaid taxes and unfiled returns where the evidence indicates that the spouse committed no wrongdoing or was herself deceived.

Second, pensions in the private sector are generally exempt against civil judgments and bankruptcies. While you might get sued and lose, resulting in a judgment against you for, say, $1 million, no creditor can go to your employer’s pension fund or 401(k) and force that fund to release a lump sum. They may get a charging order against the income from that pension that accrues to you, but they would have no claim against an innocent spouse.

There are a lot of military spouses watching this case closely. If Kris Johnson is hung out to dry, the government should not expect much in the way of cooperation from them in other cases, going forward. The incentives for military spouses will overwhelmingly be to look the other way and keep their mouths shut.

The Justice system may yet strip Mrs. Johnson of her retirement benefits. But since she is blameless in the whole affair, that would not be justice, by any standard.

 

What do you think a military spouse should do in this situation? Tell us in the comments.

America’s Got Talent Fraud Draws Attention to Stolen Valor Act

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Tim Poe, a former Minnesota National Guardsman and Afghanistan War veteran knocked ‘em dead during his audition for America’s Got Talent, a well-known television talent show. The country crooner and guitar picker also tugged at America’s heartstrings with his story of how he got hit by an RPG while in Afghanistan, which caused him severe traumatic injuries (of course!), and caused him to stutter.

The problem: Almost all of it was a lie.

The only things that were true about his story were his status as a former Guardsman and his status as an Afghanistan veteran. Yes, he did show up in Afghanistan, briefly, but was medically evacuated due to a non-combat-related injury.

It was a military blog called This Ain’t Hell that first broke the story, with the help of the Public Affairs folks at the Minnesota National Guard. The Minnesota Army National Guard people couldn’t comment on the specifics of his medical treatment, but they did confirm that Poe was not, in fact, entitled to wear a Purple Heart. Which makes the rest of the story unravel like an ugly sweater.

Rather than immediately confess to the lie, though, Poe doubled down, specifically claiming to have received other awards to which he was not entitled, including the Combat Infantry Badge and Bronze Star Medal. He also gave America’s Got Talent producers a photograph he said was of him in Afghanistan – only to run into two more problems: The patch on the photographed soldier’s sleeve was a 10th Mountain Division patch. Poe was never assigned to the 10th Mountain Division, even in his lies. The second problem is that the soldier who was actually in the photograph was pretty ticked.

Since then, Poe appeared on camera issuing a tearful apology, but still denies lying.

Since this one played out even as Poe was on a national television talent show, it turned out to be the biggest entertainment industry fraud exposition since Oprah Winfrey got stung by the author of A Million Little Pieces. Maybe since Milli Vanilli.

Poe’s fraud isn’t a standalone or isolated case. In 2010, a lieutenant named Douglas Sofranko, while serving as a rear detachment commander and full-time administrative officer for the 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, Florida Army National Guard, was fraudulently wearing the Navy SEAL insignia on his Army uniform, and was exposed. (I have personal knowledge of this one, and met the soldier while he was wearing the insignia.)

Soon after the story broke, Sofranko resigned his commission and left the Guard “for the good of the service.”

Politicians and entertainers, too, have been implicated in veteran fakery. For example, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa falsely claimed to have spent a year flying in Viet Nam. He flew, yes, but only transport missions, and his record shows no Viet Nam service whatsoever. And actor Brian Dennehy also claimed to have served in Viet Nam in the Marine Corps. He was a marine, but was never in Viet Nam.

Learn more about the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 and then let us know what you think in the comments. Have you known anyone who falsely claimed entitlement to a medal or decoration? What do you think the punishment should be for making such claims?

Military Families Get Free Access to All National Parks for One Year

Posted by Charlotte Webster

2012 Annual Parks PassGot some leave saved up? Got a hankering for travel? This year is possibly the best year ever for military families to explore the beauty of our National Park System.

Normally, a year-long family pass would cost at least $80. But under an intiative announced by the National Park Service in May, the Department is granting access to any of America’s 58 national parks for free to military members and their dependents until May 16, 2014.

How It Works
The National Park Service sells an annual pass, the America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Annual Pass, for $80. The passes allow the holder and a carload of passengers to pass through to any of the $2,000 sites that charge on a per-vehicle basis. If you go to a park or site that charges per person, the pass allows the servicemember in with three other adults age 16 or over.

Spouse deployed, or otherwise unavailable? Good news: The servicemember sponsor doesn’t have to be present. The program is available to military spouses traveling separately. The program applies to “activated” members of the Guard and Reserves. However, you can’t get in under this particular program as a retiree or veteran. These groups have other opportunities for free or reduced admission, according to National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, who sites the National Park System’s Access Pass, a free lifetime pass for disabled citizens or U.S. residents. There are also special programs for seniors age 62 and over.

How To Get the Passes
Just show up. With your military ID of course, and IDs for all your dependents, in case you get separated. You can obtain the pass at any National Park Service attraction that charges a fee for entry. The passes will be accepted by the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and at U.S. Army Corps sites that charge entrance or standard amenity fees.

Historical Connection
In a press conference at the Yorktown Battlefield National Park, the site of the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War, Jarvis delineated a deep tradition, connecting military veterans and families and the National Parks. The Park Service preserves and protects a number of historic battlefields, including Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Jarvis mentioned that many parks were closed to all but active duty military during World War Two, and that the parks underwent extensive upgrades and investments in order to prepare for a flood of returning service members and their families when the war came to an end.

The parks themselves are located throughout the United States, and there are even national parks in American Samoa and the Virgin Islands. The Dry Tortugas Park, home of Fort Jefferson, the country’s largest masonry structure, is located off the Florida Keys. Don’t try to drive there: It’s accessible only by boat or plane.


Categories