Gross. (U.S. Army/Spc. Scott Lindblom)

WASHINGTON — The price tag to clean up contaminated water sources at all military installations is likely to climb higher than the $2 billion original cost estimate, the Pentagon said Thursday.

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper speaks to members of the press during his first joint press conference with Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 2019. (DoD/ Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia)

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs will take the lead on improving access to medical care for military members exposed to potentially cancer-causing compounds during their service, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Wednesday.

In response to a question from McClatchy on the rising number of cancers in the military that could be connected to compounds service members were exposed to while deployed overseas or during training, Esper acknowledged the role of both the Pentagon and VA may grow.

"That is one of the areas where I want to improve and make sure we are doing everything we can to assist soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines as they transition out of the service into the VA system," Esper said.

"VA has the lead on this," he added.

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U.S. Air Force Col. Jeannie Leavitt, the outgoing commander of the 4th Fighter Wing, pilots an F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft over North Carolina May 29, 2014. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman John Nieves Camacho)

WASHINGTON — Former Air Force and Navy fighter pilots are calling on the military to begin cancer screenings for aviators as young as 30 because of an increase in deaths from the disease that they suspect may be tied to radiation emitted in the cockpit.

"We are dropping like flies in our 50s from aggressive cancers," said retired Air Force Col. Eric Nelson, a former F-15E Strike Eagle weapons officer. He cited prostate and esophageal cancers, lymphoma, and glioblastomas that have struck fellow pilots he knew, commanded or flew with.

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WASHINGTON — More than 150 members of the North Carolina National Guard gathered in Raleigh this month, with the damage from Hurricane Florence in 2018 still on their minds.

On a 40-foot map of the state, they began moving North Carolina's guard units around like chess pieces, to set the order of battle for the next major storm.

"We go through the timetable of a major hurricane hitting," said North Carolina National Guard spokesman Army Lt. Col. Matt DeVivo. The units looked at preparedness five days out. Then two days out. Then landfall, to see "what will be mobilized, what we lack in capability" and what worked last time, he said.

Last year's hurricanes were particularly destructive for some of the military's most critical bases. In response, active, reserve and National Guard forces have looked at lessons learned to better prepare for this year's hurricane season, which starts June 1, even as they wait for federal funding to fix all the damage from last year.

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A Soldier holds an American flag prior to the start of an oath of citizenship ceremony in the General George Patton Museum's Abrams Auditorium at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Sept. 19, 2018. (U.S. Army/ Eric Pilgrim)

ASHINGTON — Immigrants serving in the U.S. military are being denied citizenship at a higher rate than foreign-born civilians, according to new government data that has revealed the impact of stricter Trump administration immigration policies on service members.

According to the same data, the actual number of service members even applying for U.S. citizenship has also plummeted since President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported in its quarterly naturalization statistics.

"The U.S. has had a long-standing tradition of immigrants come to the U.S. and have military service provide a path to citizenship," said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a senior adviser to the liberal veterans advocacy group VoteVets.org. "To have this turnaround, where they are actually taking a back seat to the civilian population, strikes me as a bizarre turn of events."

According to the most recent USCIS data available, the agency denied 16.6% of military applications for citizenship, compared to an 11.2% civilian denial rate in the first quarter of fiscal year 2019, a period that covers October to December 2018.

The fiscal year 2019 data is the eighth quarterly report of military naturalization rates since Trump took office. In six of the last eight reports, civilians had a higher rate of approval for citizenship than military applicants did, reversing the previous trend.

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