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U.S. to Provide Veterans Benefits to Gay Married Couples

i Sep 5th No Comments by

The Obama administration will provide veterans benefits to many married same-sex couples, another step by the federal government toward treating gay couples in the same way as their heterosexual counterparts after a landmark Supreme Court ruling.

The move, announced Wednesday in a letter to Congress by Attorney General Eric Holder, tackles one of the thorny legal issues resulting from the high court’s decision in June to strike down parts of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

However, Wednesday’s move extends veterans benefits only to married gay couples living in states that recognize such unions, officials said. Couples in other states won’t be eligible yet.

Gay marriage is recognized by 13 states and the District of Columbia. The U.S. has roughly 114,000 legally married same-sex couples, with about two-thirds of those couples living in states where their marriages are recognized, according to Gary Gates, a scholar with the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The limitation in extending veterans benefits points to a larger legal challenge for the administration, which also has yet to decide whether Social Security benefits should be extended to all same-sex spouses.

Some benefit rules, including those at the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration, are written into laws passed by Congress. That means altering them—and expanding benefits to gay couples nationwide—would likely require new action by Congress or follow-on court rulings.

The law on Social Security says benefits should be granted to those who are married under the laws of the state where they reside, and part of the law on veterans uses similar language. June’s Supreme Court decision didn’t challenge states’ rights to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

After the Supreme Court ruling, the Obama administration began analyzing hundreds of laws and regulations to ensure married gay couples receive equal treatment when it comes to federal taxes, benefits and immigration rights. Homeland-security officials said after the court ruling that they would treat all married couples equally in immigration matters.

In Wednesday’s letter, Mr. Holder notified senior lawmakers the administration would no longer enforce a particular section of law on veterans benefits that had excluded same-sex couples. That will allow gay couples in which at least one spouse is a veteran to qualify for benefits that heterosexual veterans and their spouses receive, so long as the couples live in states that recognize gay marriage. The rule change will be implemented as soon as practical, officials said.

“In these unique circumstances, continued enforcement…is no longer appropriate,” Mr. Holder wrote in the letter, which also noted a decision last week by a federal judge in California saying married gay couples couldn’t be excluded from veterans benefits.

“I think the administration, with this decision, is doing right by our veterans as well as faithfully executing the Supreme Court decision,” said the Human Rights Campaign’s Michael Cole-Schwartz. “You shouldn’t have two different kinds of marriage. As we go through and iron out these kinks, I expect there may be further litigation and it’s possible for Congress to right these inequities.”

Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, which is against gay marriage, said his group opposes “how the Obama administration has responded to the Supreme Court decision,” adding that “you still have a conflict between state law and federal law.”

The decision marks the latest instance of the federal government’s rewriting of its rules on married gay couples. Last week, the Internal Revenue Service said same-sex couples would be treated as married for federal tax purposes, including income, gift and estate taxes. The IRS move covers couples who marry in one state and move to another that doesn’t recognize their union.

Write to Devlin Barrett at devlin.barrett@wsj.com

SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal

Veterans will have disability claims answered faster with new system

BOISE – The U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs was in Boise Wednesday for a big announcement for veterans looking to file for a disability claim. It surrounds processing claims faster.

The big announcement changes the way veterans will file a disability claim. Since the claims began, everything was done on paper. Now, claims will be digital, cutting the time it takes to get a decision in half.

It’s called Veterans Benefits Management System. It essentially takes the claims process from paper to digital.

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said veterans in Idaho and across the country wait too long to receive the benefits they’ve earned.

“This has never been acceptable and that’s why we’re executing a robust plan that we’ve put in place over the last several years,” said Shinseki.

That plan is twofold, process the backlog of unprocessed claims and develop a new system to process claims faster.

In April, Shinseki said there were claims filed over two years ago, and that was unacceptable.

Josh Callihan is a veteran who was injured in the line of duty. He’s been through the claims process.

“When you leave the Department of Defense you’re really not sure how it’s going to work, they just tell you go to where ever you’re from and get in touch with the VA and file a claim, and that’s really about the most information they give you,” said Callihan.

Nationwide, it currently takes an average of 290 days to process a claim. Callihan’s claim took a year for the first decision, and another year for the appeal.

That long process coupled with the government now recognizing long overdue benefits created a backlog.

“It was the right thing to do, but it also added to the inventory of claims to be processed and the backlog deepened,” said Shinseki.

Processing staff began working overtime in April and has since processed just about every claim older than two years. Couple that hard work with a new paperless program called Veterans Benefits Management System, and veterans should see their claims answered in four months.

“I think what veterans can expect now is a little bit more of a 21st century process,” said Callihan.

In terms of processing claims faster, this new system appears to be working.

In February there were 80,000 claims processed. In May, the number of claims processed jumped to over 108,000.

That increase comes as staff is becoming more familiar with this new system.

And really the bottom line is veterans will know faster if their disability claims are accepted or rejected.

The Department of Veterans Affairs hopes to have all claims older than 125 days old processed by 2015. That’s around the same time the transition from paper to digital will be complete.

To see the new system, click here.
SOURCE: Veterans Today

July 4th fireworks furloughed at military bases

WASHINGTON — The Fourth of July won’t have a patriotic boom in the sky over some military bases because budget cuts and furloughed workers also mean furloughed fireworks.

Independence Day celebrations have been canceled at the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base and at the Army’s Fort Bragg, both in North Carolina. The annual July Fourth celebration also has been scrapped at the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Ga.

The reason is money — namely the lack of it.

The failure in Washington to follow up a 2011 budget pact with additional spending cuts meant $85 billion across-the-board cuts that began in March. Budgets tightened, the military took a major hit and many federal workers absorbed pay cuts through forced furloughs.

When the decision was made to forgo fireworks at Camp Lejeune, the commanding general, Brig. Gen. Thomas Gorry, said the cancellation would “ensure that we can mitigate the fiscal challenges we are currently facing.”

Last year’s Independence Day at the base cost about $100,000, including $25,000 for the fireworks. The big issue is paying the overtime to personnel for security, transportation, logistics and safety. Base officials said they couldn’t justify paying overtime when federal workers are losing pay while furloughed.

Brandy Rhoad Stowe says the fireworks at Camp Lejeune always were spectacular, and she said that she and her kids, ages 3 and 9, will miss them this year.

“I know fireworks might seem silly to other people,” Stowe said in an interview. “But what is the Fourth of July without fireworks?”

Her husband is a master gunnery sergeant with seven combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

Stowe says she understands the budgets cuts but still feels a little shortchanged.

“It’s just a bummer for the kids,” she said. “It’s like the Grinch stealing Christmas.”

Marines and their families at Lejeune will instead be able to participate in some free activities — golf, bowling, skeet shooting, archery and movies.

Other bases that are canceling ceremonies to mark the nation’s birthday:

  • Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, where the annual Jammin’ July 4th put on by the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw and local city and county officials has been scrapped. The base plans a smaller “freedom bash” on July 3 with pool games, face painting and bouncy castles.
  • The Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, which is scaling back by canceling the fireworks and instead hosting a daytime celebration featuring the Pacific Fleet Band and the Air Force Band of the Pacific.
  • New Jersey’s Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

SOURCE: MSN News

A Veteran’s story: Crestline WWII vet remains active at 95

i Apr 29th No Comments by

CRESTLINE — At the age of 95, Robert Fisher still mows his lawn, drives his car and opens up the McDonald’s restaurant in Crestline every day at 6 a.m.

“I just like to see the other old timers and swap stories,” the World War II veteran said of his early morning activities.

Fisher, who served with an Army engineer unit in Italy at the very end of World War II, never graduated from Shelby High School.

“I was in the class of 1935, but I didn’t have enough credits to get my degree,” he said.

When he was a freshman, his family broke up and he had a poor academic year as a result. His proudest possession is his brand new high school diploma awarded to him by the Shelby Board of Education on June 4.

“My son, David, and his wife, Bonnie, picked me up that day to have supper over in Shelby,” he said. “Afterward, they took me out to the board meeting at the high school. I had no idea what was coming.

“A few of my cousins and friends were there. Everybody did a good job of keeping it all a secret from me.”

Fisher played on the Shelby Whippet football and basketball teams from 1933 to 1935. He treasures the memories of victories over teams from Mansfield. In 1935, Fisher had 18 points as Shelby topped Mansfield 26-22.

“I was just really hot that day,” he said.

After school, he got a job at the old Shelby Cycle Co.

“They had a pretty good softball team, and I played the outfield for them,” he said.

The problem at Shelby Cycle was the annual winter. So after five years, Fisher moved on to the Seamless Tube Company.

He married Esther May Speelman, of Crestline, and the couple moved into a house on North Wylie.

They had two children, Robert and Marge “my little tomboy,” when Fisher was drafted in 1944.

After taking basic training in Georgia, he was assigned to an engineer unit that was moving on to Italy. He remembers a rough voyage and a lot of sea sickness before his troopship docked at Naples.

“We were replacements, but there was no need since the war was nearly over,” he said.

Instead, the unit was preparing to be shipped to Fort Lewis, Wash.

“We were going to be part of the invasion of Japan, but that didn’t happen,” he said.

So, Fisher came home and took a job with Mansfield Tire Co.

“I worked there until the company closed,” he said. “I was 61 and just took unemployment until I could retire at 62. I really wish I had gone back to the ‘Tuby’ (Seamless Steel Tube Co.) instead of going to Tire.”

In those years, he and Esther May had three more children: David, Bill and Mike. Most of the children became educators, and Bill is now director of the Lowe-Volk Park at Leesville.

Esther May died in 2012 at the age of 90.

“I was four years older than her, and she used to laugh when I told her that when I married her I was ‘robbing the cradle,’ ” he said.

Fisher continues to live in his small home on North Wiley and is active in the Lutheran Church and with the VFW and American Legion.

He still drives to Shelby to see old friends. He may have spent 70 years in Crestline, but his heart is still in Shelby.

Ron Simon is a retired reporter, award-winning columnist and veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces. He can be reached at ronsimon@neo.rr.com.

SOURCE: Mansfield News Journal