Archive for January, 2013

Military Families Can File Taxes Free Online

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

tax timeYou should have your W-2s in hand from DFAS and any other civilian or government employer today. The same applies if you have self-employment or independent contractor income on a 1099.

If you are active military, Reserve, Guard or a dependent filing jointly with your spouse, you can file your income taxes online free of charge, via the MilitaryOneSource website, www.militaryonesource.com.

MilitaryOneSource has partnered with H&R Block to provide this service free of charge to military members and their families. The service allows you to file your federal taxes free, as well as personal income tax returns for up to three states.

To use the service, gather your W-2s, 1099s, and records from your tax-deductible expenses, and log onto the MilitaryOneSource website. If you don’t have a login already, you will need to create one.

Should I do my own taxes?

Free and low-cost file-at-home sites are not always the best solution. The H&R Block program via MilitaryOneSource should work for you, though, if your tax situation is simple and straightforward.

Consider the free filing offer if the following conditions apply:

  • All your income is documented on one or more W-2 forms.
  • You do not plan to itemize, because you don’t have anywhere near the standard deduction in itemized deductions. For individuals, that threshold is $5,950 if you are filing as an individual, and double that figure for spouses. If you qualify as a head of household, your standard deduction is $8,700. These numbers apply specifically for tax year 2012.
  • You do not have a mortgage, or the mortgage and some retirement plan contributions are your only deductions.
  • You are not subject to the alternative minimum tax.
  • You do not own a small business.
  • You do not on investment real estate.
  • You have no capital gains or losses from the sale of assets.
  • You do not have more than $400 in self-employment income.

If your tax situation is more complicated, it’s usually beneficial to form a relationship with a tax professional – a CPA, enrolled agent or qualified tax attorney, depending on your situation. While there is not a lot they can do to offset their fees if you are a straight-ahead W-2 worker, such as active duty military with no outside interests or investments, they are often more than worth their fees for those with more complex issues:

  • Small Business owners
  • Homeowners
  • Real estate investors
  • College expenses
  • Travel and relocation
  • Business use of home or personal automobile
  • Capital gains and losses
  • Annuity or pension income
  • Gift taxes
  • Unreimbursed employee expenses

For ‘plain vanilla’ returns for those with enough time to sit down themselves and do the paperwork, however, the MilitaryOneSource is a great resource.

If you are somewhere in between these two types of taxpayers, though, try calling a MilitaryOneSource tax counselor. They can provide general tax information and help steer you in the right direction, though they do not provide definitive advice.

According to MilitaryOneSource, their counselors can provide the following services:

  • Review IRS regulations/state tax regulations and forms to locate the definition or information related to your questions.
  • Locate and reference military-specific tax information.
  • Help you figure out which numbers should be entered into which fields of particular form(s).
  • Provide electronic copies of needed IRS or state tax forms.
  • Explain additional tax services available to the military community such as VITA Clinics on base and H&R Block at Home®
  • Review options for utilizing a refund—savings, paying down debt.
  • Connect you to other MilitaryOneSource provided non-medical counseling or work-life services.

Alternatively, TurboTax has published a free resource of their own – TurboTax Military Edition, which is free for anyone in grades E-1 through E-5, and just $24.99 for E-6s and up.

Volunteer Tax Assistance Programs

Many military posts have volunteers come to help members of the military prepare their tax returns, under the IRS VITA program, or Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. Check with your installation community centers to see if there will be any such program for your area. If you aren’t on or near a large installation, or you simply want to go elsewhere, you use the IRS VITA Locator tool, or call the IRS at 1-800-906-9887.

For Retirees

VITA volunteers are generally happy to work with retirees, though the VITA program is funded by grants to non-profits and their programs are generally designed to serve those with incomes below $51,000 per year.

If you are over 60, however, you can also get assistance from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP.org), or via the IRS’s TCE program.

What to Bring

According to the IRS, “to have your tax return(s) prepared at a VITA or TCE site you need to bring the following information with you:

  • Proof of identification – Picture ID
  • Social Security Cards for you, your spouse and dependents or a Social Security Number verification letter issued by the Social Security Administration or
  • Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) assignment letter for you, your spouse and dependents
  • Proof of foreign status, if applying for an ITIN
  • Birth dates for you, your spouse and dependents on the tax returnWage and earning statement(s) Form W-2, W-2G, 1099-R, 1099-Misc from all employers
  • Interest and dividend statements from banks (Forms 1099)
  • A copy of last year’s federal and state returns if available
  • Proof of bank account routing numbers and account numbers for Direct Deposit, such as a blank check
  • Total paid for daycare provider and the daycare provider’s tax identifying number (the provider’s Social Security Number or the provider’s business Employer Identification Number) if appropriate
  • To file taxes electronically on a married-filing-joint tax return, both spouses must be present to sign the required forms.                 

It is extremely important that each person use the correct Social Security Number. The most accurate information is usually located on your original Social Security card. If you do not have an SSN for you or a dependent, you should complete Form SS-5, Social Security Number Application. This form should be submitted to the nearest Social Security Administration Office.”

SQUIRREL! – While Press Focuses on Women in Combat Order, President Sacks CENTCOM Commander

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Traditionally, an outgoing commander does not make big, sweeping announcements potentially transforming the force. It’s considered a common courtesy to the incoming commander that you do not paint him into a corner or commit him to a policy he would not have undertaken. This is especially true with policies that cannot be quickly and cleanly rescinded.

This also ensures that the new policy will be diligently enforced, since it will be associated with the person who ordered it.

But the current Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, issued a sweeping directive last week lifting the longstanding restriction of women from most combat arms billets across the Department of Defense. Panetta is in his final weeks of his tenure as Secretary of Defense – the Administration has nominated Chuck Hagel to succeed him.

If the President, as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, wanted to make this change in his 2nd term (it would have been risky to do so prior to the election), then why not wait until Hagel is in place and let him issue the order? Why did he stick a lame duck with the job of issuing the order?

The answer may not lie in Washington, but further south, in Tampa.

Gen James MattisSources have been saying that the Administration is not happy with its CENTCOM Commander, Marine General James Mattis. According to the well-connected Thomas Ricks, a former Washington Post defense correspondent and now a contributor to Foreign Policy, the Administration was becoming exasperated with the Mattis because of his critical questioning of White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

Sources now confirm that Mattis is being moved out of the post months earlier than expected.

Mattis took over the CENTCOM job in 2010, when GEN Petraeus retired to take the CIA job.  At CENTCOM, according to Ricks’ reporting Mattis had been exasperating the Obama national security team by bringing up the operational, logistical and strategic challenges of putting together a strike against Iran – mostly described by the phrase “and then what?”

From Ricks:

Why the hurry? Pentagon insiders say that he rubbed civilian officials the wrong way — not because he went all “mad dog,” which is his public image, and the view at the White House, but rather because he pushed the civilians so hard on considering the second- and third-order consequences of military action against Iran. Some of those questions apparently were uncomfortable. Like, what do you do with Iran once the nuclear issue is resolved and it remains a foe? What do you do if Iran then develops conventional capabilities that could make it hazardous for U.S. Navy ships to operate in the Persian Gulf? He kept saying, “And then what?”

Inquiry along these lines apparently was not welcomed — at least in the CENTCOM view. The White House view, apparently, is that Mattis was too hawkish, which is not something I believe, having seen him in the field over the years. I’d call him a tough-minded realist, someone who’d rather have tea with you than shoot you, but is happy to end the conversation either way.

Gen. Mattis has a hard-won reputation as a fighting general. He commanded the 1st Marine Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and played a key role in Operation Phantom Fury, the 2nd Battle of Fallujah, in late 2004.

Donilon, in contrast, has no military experience. He is an attorney by trade, and reached his zenith in the business world with a six-year tenure as the Executive Vice President for Law and Policy at Fannie Mae, the mortgage giant that had to be bailed out by taxpayers in 2008-2009. While at Fannie, Donilon headed an intense lobbying effort designed to avoid close scrutiny by federal regulators.

Donilon was appointed the deputy National Security Advisor to Marine Gen. James Jones in 2009, and became his successor. According to Tom Ricks’ reporting, Donilon has a poor reputation both with the uniformed services and with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – a Bush appointee whom Obama retained well into his first term. Indeed, Gates is quoted in Ricks’ book Fiasco as saying that Donilon as National Security Advisor would be a “disaster.”

According to Bob Woodward, author of the book Obama’s Wars, Gen. Jones wasn’t terribly impressed with Donilon as his Deputy National Security Advisor, either.

First, he had never gone to Afghanistan or Iraq, or really left the office for a serious field trip. As a result, he said, you have no direct understanding of these places. “You have no credibility with the military.” You should go overseas. The White House, Situation Room, interagency byplay, as important as they are, are not everything.

Second, Jones continued, you frequently pop off with absolute declarations about places you’ve never been, leaders you’ve never met, or colleagues you work with. Gates had mentioned this to Jones, saying that Donilon’s sound-offs and strong spur-of-the-moment opinions, especially about one general, had offended him so much at an Oval Office meeting that he nearly walked out.

Jones also admonished Donilon because of his poor relations with staffers.

According to the linked Huffington Post article, “Donilon did finally visit Afghanistan last March [in 2010] during President Obama’s six-hour late-night visit to the country.”

Mattis himself has been in hot water before, as well. For instance, he was counseled by the Commandant of the Marine Corps for his remarks at a conference in San Diego in 2005, in which he said “It’s fun to shoot some people.”

Incidentally, Ricks concluded his post, entitled The Obama Administration’s Inexplicable Handling of Marine General James Mattis, with these words:

I’m still a fan of President Obama. I just drove for two days down the East Coast listening to his first book, and enjoyed it enormously. But I am at the point where I don’t trust his national security team. They strike me as politicized, defensive and narrow. These are people who will not recognize it when they screw up, and will treat as enemies anyone who tells them they are doing that. And that is how things like Vietnam get repeated. Harsh words, I know. But I am worried.

The cognitive dissonance this contradiction warrants does not seem to have taken hold.

To Integrate Women Into Combat Units, Focus on Process…Not Outcomes

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Kara Hultgreen lost her life in a routine carrier landingKara Hultgreen was a promising young U.S. Navy aviator in the early 1990s. She didn’t get an Academy slot, but she graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a demanding degree in Aerospace Engineering. She entered Aviation Officer Candidate School (remember “An Officer and a Gentleman?) and graduated third out of seven in her class, and successfully flew EA-6A Prowlers out of NAS Key West.

In 1993, around the time the Clinton Administration was also trying to drop the prohibition on gays serving openly, the Air Force announced that it would drop the restriction on women serving as carrier pilots.

Kara Hultgreen was among a handful of women selected to train on the F-14 Tomcat – at that time, the premier Navy carrier-based fighter jet. She completed her flight training and was assigned to Fleet Replacement Squadron VF-124, and stationed aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

On October 25th, 1994, returning from a routine flight, she overshot the center line on the flight deck and tried to yaw her aircraft back on course. However, when a jet yaws, the air does not flow directly into the engine anymore. The F-14 engines were known to be susceptible to compression power loss as a result of the maneuver – a trait that was widely known among pilots flying that aircraft. Despite a wave-off, her left engine stalled. She hit the afterburners, but only the right engine engaged, flipping the aircraft to the left and upside down.

Her co-pilot ejected successfully at the last instant. Lieutenant Hultgreen didn’t make it. She was 29.

The Navy issued a press release saying that their walking poster girl for female aviation was killed because of equipment failure.

What they didn’t say, though, was that the Mishap Incident Report told a different story: Pilot error was to blame. And that’s when the stuffing hit the fan.

Events that followed revealed a concerted effort on the part of the Navy to make sure Kara Hultgreen and her classmates passed their F-14 Tomcat checkrides – no matter what.

After the Navy published the press release blaming Hultgreen’s death on equipment failure rather than pilot error, they stuck to the story despite the findings of the Naval Safety Center.

One officer who had access to the full Naval Safety Center report decided to leak it to the media, and slipped a copy to Elaine Donnelly, at the Center for Military Readiness – a conservative-leaning watchdog site. Donnelly ran with it – and was hit with a libel lawsuit by one of Hultgreen’s colleagues, another female F-14 pilot named Carey Lorenz.

Lorenz accused the Center for Military Readiness of causing her to lose her flight status when they published their report, Double Standards in Naval Aviation Training. The report accused Naval trainers of ‘fixing’ female Tomcat pilots’ grades to ensure they would pass.

Via the discovery process, the CMR also obtained training records from the Naval flight school at Miramar NAS, California. According to the CMR, a number of independent aviators reviewed Lorenz’s training records and confirmed they were the “worst they had ever seen.”

CMR further discovered documents that indicated that Kara Hultgreen’s flight instructor had recommended that her graduation be delayed or she should be dropped from the program. The Navy overruled her instructor’s recommendation.

From the CMRs’ account:

Patrick J. Burns was a naval flight officer and instructor in VF-124, a west coast (San Diego) squadron that trained Lts. Hultgreen and Lohrenz to fly the F-14 Tomcat. On several occasions, Lt. Burns warned local commanders that the two women were not fully competent to fly the Tomcat in carrier operations, but to no avail. In the post-Tailhook scandal era, the Navy was eager to win a “race with the Air Force” by getting women into combat aviation. At an all-officers meeting attended by Lt. Burns in the summer of 1994, then-Cmdr. Thomas Sobiek, who was the commander of the training squadron VF-124, informed a group of concerned instructors that the women would graduate to the fleet, no matter what. At that point Burns began to realize two things: One of the women pilots would die, and Navy officials would deny reasons why it happened. Lt. Burns asked for the help of CMR because communications up and down the chain of command had completely broken down. During an extensive investigation of sex discrimination in Air Wing 11, which was conducted by the Naval Inspector General in 1996, Sobiek flatly denied that he had made such a statement. Several of the instructors, however, testified to the contrary. During a subsequent interview with Mike Wallace of CBS “60 Minutes,” Sobiek finally admitted that he had made statements that may have conveyed the impression that the women would not be allowed to fail. He added that some female pilots were advanced in combat aviation ahead of many men who were kept waiting or forced to resign.

Lorenz sued Donnelly and the Center for Military Readiness for defamation – an effort that failed in court. A federal judge slapped down Lorenz’s suit against the CMR on the grounds that Lorenz, by virtue of taking the Tomcat billet, was a ‘limited purpose public figure.’

The Naval JAG office pulled out all the stops in attempting to block the truth from coming out – that both Hultgreen and Lorenz were marginally qualified on the F-14. Hultgreen was an experienced and successful pilot on the Prowler platform – but struggled to overcome some bad habits she inherited from the other airframe that made flying the F-14 more challenging and dangerous than it otherwise would have been.

Furthermore, the Navy’s Public Affairs officers went to the mat to conceal the Lohrenz’s poor training evaluations. Per the CMR:

Having exercised care and diligence, not “reckless disregard of the truth,” as claimed by Plaintiff Lohrenz, Donnelly published the CMR Special Report: Double Standards in Naval Aviation in April 1995. CMR was the only organization to spotlight this critical issue, in order to save lives.

A subsequent investigation of possible sex discrimination in Air Wing Eleven by the Naval Inspector General found that at the time Lohrenz was removed from carrier aviation by an evaluation board in May 1995, she ranked 113 of 113, and was washed out because of flying techniques that were “unsafe, undisciplined, and unpredictable.” Senior Landing Signal Officers (LSOs) testified that her flawed “high and fast” flying patterns, combined with her tendency to blame others for her own mistakes and to disregard instructions, made Lohrenz an “accident waiting to happen.”

Fast forward to today.

Since Lieutenant Hultgreen’s death nearly two decades ago, there has been a generation of successful (and not-so-successful) female naval aviators. As we open up thousands of billets to women warriors, our best young women are going to be drawn to the challenge.

But our military institutions, run as they are by flesh-and-blood men and women, who themselves answer to a political establishment with priorities that are not necessarily centered on safety and combat effectiveness, are flawed and fallible. The temptation is always there for officers and NCOs at school cadres to look the other way. The temptation to pass women through courses when they perhaps should not be passed through is going to be strong – and when members of Congress get involved in the process, the temptation to ignore standards and the needs of the military – including the needs of these young women – will be overwhelming at times.

Otherwise we will fall victim to the same quota and PR-driven mentality that caused the Navy to look the other way when Hultgreen and Lohrenz were having trouble flying their F-14s.

The health and welfare of ALL men and women in service should be the goal. Eyes on the prize.

 

Leave us your thoughts on women in combat roles in the comments section below.

Army Senior Enlisted Members Need to Transfer GI Bill Benefits by Jan 31, 2013

Posted by Kelli McKinney

Change to GI Bill transfer education benefitIn a few days, the Army will announce the approximately 4,000 Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) E6-E9 who will be ineligible to re-enlist. With the very real possibility of this life-changing announcement, many military families need to make some hard decisions quickly.

One of those decisions is with regard to the Post 9/11 GI Bill Transfer Education Benefit (TEB). This benefit enables servicemembers to transfer their GI Bill school money to a dependent spouse or child.

As of January 31, 2013, if you or your servicemember is one of the 4,000 suddenly unable to re-enlist, they are also suddenly ineligible for the TEB.

If you believe your servicemember will be on that list, now is the time to determine which family member would benefit the most from education benefits.

Because the DoD considers the TEB as a bonus and not an entitlement, it will be one of the many casualties of the Qualitative Service Program (QSP), the program formed to help identify NCOs for involuntary separation.

From the Army communication dated 13 January 2013:

(Soldiers identified by the QSP Board) “…will no longer be eligible to transfer their chapter 33 (Post 9/11 GI Bill) benefits to their dependents if they chose not to do so PRIOR to 31 Jan 13.”

Soldiers who have engaged in the last 11 years of multiple warfronts and a continued cycle of deployment are being forced to discharge. This can mean dealing with feelings of insecurity on many fronts:  finances, career options, and future education. Putting a plan in place and taking action to prepare yourself and your family will help ease this potential discomfort. You must act now to prepare for these changes – start with learning how to transfer your education benefits.

For alternative sources of funding for military spouses’ education, check out this page.

Air Force Strikes Blow against Terror by Rounding Up Girly Calendars

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

shooshoobaby

Rest easy, America.

While the Navy has been busy doing dumb things like issuing flammable work uniforms to sailors and relying entirely on a few hundred overworked SEALS to maintain its reputation, the Air Force has been hard at work protecting the American Way of Life.

Last November, we covered the Air Force’s service-wide crackdown on inappropriate materials like girly calendars, racy posters, and historic photographs of nose art painted on aircraft flown by actual warriors.

Everybody laughed then.

Well, we’re sure not laughing now.

Because among the inappropriate materials discovered in Air Force workplaces by Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welch and his team of inquisitors, officials confiscated the following dangerous items:

  • A photograph of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (without a shirt).
  • A copy of Air Force Times featuring breast-feeding women on the cover.
  • 200+ images of aircraft nose art dating back to WWII
  • A copy of a novel entitled 50 Shades of Grey
  • The Swimsuit Edition of Sports Illustrated (which Air Force officials classified as “pornography.”)
  • An unspecified number of copies of Maxim.
  • A pubic hair in a logbook.

This doesn’t come from the brilliant Duffelblog.com. This comes from the Stars & Stripes!

The number of Air Force man-hours expended in the sweeping inspection of 97 different Air Force installations was not immediately clear.

 

So what do you think…Is this laughable enough for our Friday Fun? Do you feel safer now?

How to Tell if a School is Right for You

Posted by Kelli McKinney

How to choose the right schoolYou’d think that once you’d decided to pursue secondary education, the rest of the decisions would be a little easier to make. But alas, there are still a slew of choices to make – from selecting what type of school (distance education or brick–and-mortar?) to which field of study and whether a part-time or a full-time schedule will meet your needs as a service member or military spouse.

There are a ton of schools out there to choose from – some with easily recognizable names; others, not so much. Finding the right school takes time and consideration, like eating a hot air balloon. So let’s break this hot air balloon down into bite-size chunks before we eat it, shall we? Here’s an easily digestible set of tips to help you find the kind of school that meets your needs.

Speaking of needs, this whole search is about one person and one person alone: you. So with y-o-u is where we begin. 

What do you want?

The first step in this process, believe it or not, is to take stock in your goals, strengths, opportunities, likes, dislikes, social needs and financial needs. You need to have a finely-tuned awareness of what you’re trying to achieve and what resources you have or need to achieve it.  

Make your own checklist.

By no means am I suggesting that the tips outlined here aren’t valid or worthwhile. But make sure that your individual priorities and goals are reflected. The tips here are generalized and work for most people – but as we discussed already, you are not most people. Use these tips and add your own success measurements as needed.

Consider the Culture.

Whether online or on-campus, there is always an underlying current belonging to a school.  In some schools, for example, the underlying current has to do with prize-winning research; others may flow strictly around football championships; still others are devoted to volunteerism. 

A big part of the collegiate experience is exposure to ideas and expression that is different from your own; but an equally big part of the experience is finding a group of people who are somewhat like-minded to build supportive relationships. The learning community you cobble together over time is incredibly important.

The best way to get a sense for what the collegiate culture is about is to spend time with it.  Many people prefer the virtual community because it works best with their military service and family obligations. Get to know the online campus culture by visiting social media, contacting prospective student services and reaching out to current students, alumni, professors and teaching assistants. For brick and mortar schools, spend some time on campus and talk to people. Regardless of what kind of school you are interested in, it’s always good to ask current students, former students, professors, teaching assistants about the school’s priorities and culture. 

Consider the school’s success rate.

If you’re bringing transferred credits or military experience to the table, or if you’ve got a unique family or academic background (and everybody does), it’s worth a conversation with an academic advisor or prospective student representative to find out a few key nuggets of information. These pieces of information can help you determine if a school is a worthwhile investment of your time and money:

  • Graduation rates
  • Job placement rates
  • Dropout rates/retention rates
  • Student support services
  • Veterans support services
  • Student transfer (in and out) rates
  • Credit acceptance for open online courses, military experience, or other academic experience

Consider the school’s academic standards.

There are, unfortunately, schools that are more invested in developing their brand name than they are in educating students. Ask about the number of full-time faculty, the amount of reading and writing required to complete courses, the grade point average of graduating classes, and the accreditation of the school overall.

These are just a few tips and considerations to help you weigh your school choices. As always, there are plenty more questions that can be asked. But these questions can help you get past the smoke and mirrors and into the critical conversations with prospective programs. After all, it’s your future success on the line here. Isn’t it worth taking the time to make sure you receive the best possible education experience for your investment?

 

One good place to find schools that understand and work with military students (and families of military) is with the Military Authority School Finder. Answer a few questions and you’ll be matched with schools that can help you meet your education goals.

Online Degrees for Adults with Busy Lives

Posted by Kelli McKinney

online education options for militaryThe kids are screaming, your boss is irate, the parakeet hasn’t been fed in two days and now you’re going to do what? Drive a half hour to the college campus and spend two hours in a class? Then you come home and study and write a paper? Unless you’re powered by a radioactive spider bite, this lifestyle is neither realistic nor fun for most of us.

But if your goal is to go back to school and earn a degree – whether to launch that second career after the military or give your current career a needed boost – consider the possibility of online education.

The College Board, a nonprofit research group that promotes higher education, published a report in 2011 that stated that more than 90 percent of all academic leaders rate the scheduling flexibility of online degree programs “superior” or “somewhat superior” to face-to-face instruction.

So whether you’re in the military and looking to get a head start on your transition out, a military spouse who seeks a career boost, or you’re just longing to finish the degree you started years ago, there’s never been a better time to take advantage of the flexibility and credibility an online degree program offers.

The Learning House, a group that helps colleges develop their online degree programs, conducted a study called “Online College Students 2012: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences.” They found that 68 percent of the students surveyed had enrolled in an online program to help them balance their family, work and school responsibilities.

One of the main reasons that students enrolled in an online program, according to the study, was the freedom that the online courses offered. Students in an online program can study any time and anywhere they have internet access.

If you’ve previously disregarded online coursework, now might be the time to give it a second look. There are plenty of degree programs available from accredited organizations. For example:

Paralegal Studies

There’s a reason John Grisham’s books are best sellers. The law is interesting and dramatic. If you have love of all things legal, look into earning your associate’s degree in paralegal studies.

Online paralegal degrees train students to conduct legal research and understand legal language, use LexisNexis (an online legal database), and write briefs and other legal documents. It also prepares you to work under the supervision of a licensed lawyer, which is what you’ll need to know to function in a law office.

Computer Science

If you have a desire to understand the way a computer works, computer science is a field in which you might thrive.

Computer science degrees offer students an in-depth look at what happens inside a computer as it problem solves. It covers software design theory, programming languages, and human-computer interaction. Plus, when you’re an online student, you will get hands-on experience working in teams on information forums.

Criminal Justice

Many former military members have a passion for criminal justice because of the shared ideals between the military and law enforcement organizations. When students also need flexibility, online criminal justice programs are an attractive, common sense option.

Criminal justice students learn about the justice system, historical court cases, and virtually every aspect of crime. There is a wide array of courses in criminal law programs, so be sure to exercise due diligence and research each program’s graduation requirements. Some schools offer homeland security and defense coursework but do not offer law enforcement administration, for example. If you are interested in a particular track, make sure your school offers it and is accredited and in good standing.

Public Administration

Did you love Model U.N. in high school? Have an affinity for student council or local government? Then you may be interested in an online public administration degree.

Public administration students hone their collaborative skills, and study how policy is enacted at the local, state and federal levels. They study welfare, crime, and other social issues and develop people management skills. An online program is ideal for people who are already in the public administration field to earn their degree and help them further their career.

Education

There’s been a lot in the news lately about veterans choosing a second career in education. It is a viable, honorable, rewarding career for many vets, and studying online is an accommodating way to transition from service to civilian life.

Online bachelor’s degrees in education teach students about instructional design, education theories and methods, and offer a combination of self-directed classwork with hands-on practice. Online communities also provide a convenient, fulfilling way to connect with other students and share ideas.

 

If you’re ready to take the next step with your education, download a FREE whitepaper that will show you how to use your military benefits to pay for school.

Discharged Gay and Lesbian Veterans Win $2.4M Class Action Back Pay Settlement

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

gay and lesbian veteransIf you were involuntarily but honorably discharged from the military for homosexuality, and you had at least six years of service prior to discharge, you may have thousands of dollars coming your way.

Prior to the repeal of the ban on homosexuals from openly serving in the military, it was Department of Defense policy to cut separation pay in half for those who were discharged for homosexuality. However, because it was a DoD directive, and not a Congressional statute, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 181 discharged gay and lesbian veterans.

The lead plaintiff was Richard Collins, a 9-year Air Force veteran and staff sergeant, who was spotted kissing his boyfriend while in a car at a traffic intersection off base, and reported to Air Force officials. He was subsequently discharged, and only then discovered that DoD policy cut separation pay in half for those discharged for homosexuality. The policy cost Collins more than $12,000. He then approached the ACLU about representing him in an unlawful discrimination lawsuit against the government to recover the money. The ACLU took the case.

The policy that provided that those discharged for homosexuality was part of a larger policy directive dating back to 1991. The directive established that honorable or general discharges for homosexuality would warrant the same reduced separation pay as discharges for drug rehabilitation failure, “convenience of the government,” or security breaches.

The Department of Defense defended against the lawsuit, arguing that military policy and regulation should be under the exclusive purview of the Secretary of Defense, but eventually reached a settlement in the case, Richard Collins v. United States.

Under the terms of the settlement, the Department of Defense will provide restitution for all those involuntarily discharged for homosexuality after November 10, 2004, which is as far back as the statute of limitations will allow. The Department of Defense estimates the total amount owed to all affected servicemembers participating in the suit to be $2.4 million.

You do not qualify, however, if you received a discharge that was other than honorable, if you did not have at least six years of service prior to separation, or if your discharge was prior to September 10, 2004.

Buffalo VA Center Exposes 700+ Veterans to HIV, Hepatitis

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Buffalo vets at risk from shotsIf you received insulin injections at the VA hospital in Buffalo, New York at any time between October 19th, 2010, and last November, get in touch with the clinic, pronto.

Hospital officials have disclosed that as many as 700 veterans may have been exposed to HIV – the virus that causes AIDS – as well as hepatitis A and B from the reuse of insulin pens.

The clinic claims that it was only the pens that were reused in this case, and not the needles themselves. But that is potentially enough to taint any insulin delivered with those pens, which were not designed for reuse.

The problem came to light when inspectors visited the hospital and found a drawer full of insulin pens that were not labeled for individual patients. Some pens are reusable, but in no case should unsterilized pens be used on more than one patient. The fact that unlabeled pens were retained and not discarded indicated that some staffers were unaware that these pens were not for use on multiple patients.

VA spokespersons indicated that as many as 716 veterans may have been exposed in this way.

The VA is setting up a hotline to deal with veteran inquiries.

Meanwhile, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Representative Brian Higgins are both calling for a top-to-bottom review of medical practices at New York VA hospitals and clinics.

They are also calling for answers about why it is that the problem went undetected for two years, and why, once the problem was discovered, it took over two months for VA officials to notify veterans or Congressional representatives.

“We must evaluate the root causes of this unthinkable error, identify who is responsible for this systematic failure, better understand if it is an isolated incident or representative of widespread problems and ensure it never happens again,” said Rep. Wiggins in a statement.

The VA is providing free blood tests to those affected to rule out any infections.

This incident is not the first in which VA medical centers have accidentally exposed patients to blood-borne pathogens through incompetence. Thousands of veterans were exposed to HIV and hepatitis when staff at VA hospitals and clinics in Miami, Fla., Augusta, Ga. and Murfreesboro, Tenn. were caught reusing unsterilized colonoscopy equipment on patient after patient. At least 10 veterans later tested positive for hepatitis as a result.

In a breath-taking display of incompetence, staffers had been sterilizing colonoscopy tubes at the end of each day, according to a VA statement, rather than after each use.

VA officials then failed to inform veterans affected – claiming they couldn’t because the records were locked away in a safe that they controlled – an assertion legislators found ‘almost impossible to believe.’

At the urging of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, the Miami VA center was so poorly run that they called for the removal of the hospital’s director, Mary Berrocal, and her deputy, Nevin Weaver. The two were finally forced out in November 2012 as a result. However, the VA isn’t much on holding executives accountable: Berrocal is still a director in the Miami VA system, and Weaver is still listed on the VA Website as the director of the VA Sunshine Healthcare Network, VISN 8 as of this writing.

John Vara, another Miami VA senior executive who was ‘admonished’ with a letter of reprimand that stays in his record for up to two years, was reassigned to the Palm Beach VA system as chief of staff for education and research.

Additionally, the New York Times reported on a “rogue” cancer unit at the Philadelphia VA Center that botched 92 of 116 prostate cancer ‘seeding’ procedures, hid the matter from investigators, and falsified records to cover the problem.

The unit also continued to seed prostate patients with radioactive particles even though the equipment measuring the radioactivity dose was broken – and the radioactivity safety unit at the hospital knew this for over a year.

Military, Veteran Pay Held Hostage in Debt-Ceiling Fight

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

military pay at riskWhite House to GOP: Let us increase the debt or the troops get it.

That’s the message Obama had for Congress during a press conference last week, in which reporters asked about the ongoing negotiations over the debt ceiling – a Congressionally-imposed cap on the amount of debt the federal government is authorized.

“If congressional Republicans refuse to pay Americans bills on time, Social Security benefits and veterans’ checks will be delayed,” stated President Obama. “We might not be able to pay our troops or honor our contract for small business owners.”

A Republican representative and War on Terror veteran Duncan Hunter of San Diego, California, has introduced legislation that authorizes the federal government to pay military salaries regardless of the debt limit.

“America’s military men and women fight to defend our freedom without asking for much in return,” said Hunter, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Whether they are fighting in Afghanistan or supporting operations elsewhere, servicemembers deserve assurance that they will not be denied a paycheck. And if paychecks are withheld, it’s because the President, as commander in chief, made a decision not to pay them.

“Especially for those who are serving overseas while their families are at home, the threat of not getting paid can create unnecessary distractions. Removing the threat that paychecks might be withheld or delayed will provide a sense of relief and allow our servicemembers to stay focused on their duties.”

Duncan is currently a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.

About the Debt Ceiling

The Constitution of the United States gives Congress overall responsibility for determining the fiscal policy of the United States. That is, it is Congress, not the President, who primarily decides major tax and spending issues. Constitutionally, the President cannot direct the government to borrow without the approval of Congress.

At the same time, the President cannot refuse to spend money as directed by Congress. He must, by law, operate all the departments and programs he is directed to by Congress – which puts the President on the horns of a dilemma: For years, the amount of money Congress has ordered the government to spend has been greater than the amount coming in. The U.S. government has been forced to borrow the difference by selling bonds, which the government must eventually repay, with interest. The total amount financed by borrowing increases every year.

Meanwhile, though, Congress has also established an overall cap on borrowing, beyond which the President cannot go without getting further authorization from Congress.

This discussion is separate from the “sequestration” cuts that will slash about 10 percent from federal department funding across the board. Military pay and VA benefits will generally continue under sequestration, should it come to pass. The debt ceiling, on the other hand, is a separate argument.

Currently, the Congressional Budget Office projects that we will hit the borrowing limit next month – currently set at $16.4 trillion. Divided equally among every resident of the United States, the per capita national debt is over $52,000 for every man, woman and child.

Once that happens, the President must cease borrowing. The government must then, technically, limit its spending to current revenues coming in, minus those committed to paying existing interest payments. When that happens, the government will begin bouncing checks.

Congress has been extending the debt limit to allow Presidents to finance the operation of government routinely since WWII, including 18 times under President Reagan.

In recent years, however, under pressure from fiscal conservatives and Tea Party representatives in Congress, the legislative branch has been driving a harder bargain. The government almost came to a halt in 2011, for example, when Democrats and Republicans crafted a deal at the last minute that allowed for the increase of the debt limit to today’s level of $16.4 trillion.

The government also shut down, briefly, from November 13 through November 19, 1995, and from December 15, 1995 through January 5, 1996. This occurred after Republicans swept into power in the 1994 Congressional mid-terms and elected Newt Gingrich, a representative from Georgia, as the Speaker of the House. The GOP Congress and Clinton Administration were unable to come to an agreement on the debt ceiling and forced the government to suspend much of its operations and furlough hundreds of thousands of federal workers. Congress was successful in forcing a balanced budget for four years in a row, though revenues were artificially buoyed in the late 1990s by the Internet revolution and inflated equity prices.

Troops continued to be paid during that 21-day shutdown, though, because the defense spending law had already been passed.

Some Congressional Representatives, including Pat Toomey, have also proposed legislation directing the Treasury Department to keep paying active duty military pay and debt service, which is prioritized to ensure that the full faith and credit of the United States Government shall not be questioned. Failing to do so would potentially result in a default on U.S. bonds, which would cause interest rates to spike and make it much more expensive for the government to raise new debt.

Attempts to direct the Treasury Department to prioritize certain payments over others encounter a significant technical hurdle, however: The Treasury Department’s computer systems just aren’t designed to identify and prioritize millions of separate payments every day. It would take time and money to create a new system to do that.

So even if Congress does pass an eleventh-hour law exempting military pay, VA benefits, or other electoral sacred cows from interruptions as a result of the government hitting the debt ceiling, it is far from clear that the Treasury Department will be able to execute the measure.

This document from the Congressional Research Service details the processes by which some DoD functions can continue and some can be curtailed. Essential functions necessary to protect life and property can likely continue, but the troops and civilian workers actually executing the President’s orders (at Congress’s direction) would not be paid until Congress authorizes new borrowing or otherwise appropriates funds that need not be borrowed.

As a result, military pay, veterans’ benefits and contractual payments to defense contractors are all very much at risk of disruption if Congress and the President do not reach an agreement to lift the debt ceiling.

And each party to the conflict will do its best to blame the other.

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