NewsBytes February 16, 2024 

In this issue:
VA Proposes Expansion of Agent Orange Presumptions
SecDef Lloyd Austin Hospitalized Again and Released
HASC Subcommittee Reviews DoD Housing
USCG Reserves Birthday
FRA NHQ Closed Monday

VA Proposes Expansion of Agent Orange Presumptions
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is proposing a rule to expand the locations and time frames for which VA presumes exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides. If this proposed rule becomes final, VA will implement a new presumption of exposure to locations where herbicides were tested, used, or stored outside of Vietnam. Specifically, this proposed rule would add locations in the United States (full list of US locations where Agent Orange was tested or stored). Additionally, it will add Canada and India to the existing presumptives for Agent Orange in Vietnam, Cambodia, Johnson Atoll, Guam, American Samoa, Korea, Laos, and Thailand.

A presumption of exposure means that VA automatically assumes that veterans who served in certain locations were exposed to certain toxins. Presumptives lower the burden of proof required to receive disability benefits, helping veterans get the benefits they deserve as quickly as possible. This expansion of presumptives will help veterans who served in the specified locations receive health care and benefits for certain cancers and chronic conditions. To be eligible, a veteran must have served in the identified location(s) during a specific time period and currently have a condition(s) presumptively associated with herbicide exposure.

“This proposed change would make it easier for veterans exposed to herbicides who served outside Vietnam to access the benefits they so rightly deserve,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough. “Our goal is to provide every veteran – of every era – with the VA health care and benefits they deserve, and this is another step in the right direction.” 

Veterans who want to file an initial claim for a herbicide-related disability can visit VA’s website, use VA Form 21-526EZ, or work with a VA-recognized Veterans Service Organization to assist with the application process. Veterans may also contact their state Veterans Affairs Office. Survivors can file claims for benefits based on the veteran’s service if the veteran died from at least one of the recognized presumptive herbicide diseases. This proposed rule also codifies provisions in the Pact Act, the Blue Water Navy Act of 2019, and the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021. For more information about the changes, visit The Federal Register.

SecDef Lloyd Austin Hospitalized Again and Released
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was taken to Walter Reed National Military Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, Sunday with symptoms of an “emergent bladder issue,” a Defense spokesperson said in a statement. Secretary Austin transferred the functions and duties of the office of the Secretary of Defense to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. The White House, Congress, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have also been notified of Austin’s condition.

Following consultation with medical staff, Secretary Austin was released from the hospital on Tuesday. On the advice of his doctors, Secretary Austin will recuperate and perform his duties remotely from home for a period before returning to work at the Pentagon later this week. He has full access to the unclassified and classified communications systems necessary to perform his duties.

Austin has been recovering from a severe urinary tract infection that developed following a procedure to treat prostate cancer late last year. He traveled by ambulance to Walter Reed on January 1, 2024, and spent two weeks there being treated. Failure to notify the president, Congress, or the public about that initial hospitalization created an uproar early in the year that prompted a Pentagon review of notification procedures when the defense secretary is incapacitated.

HASC Subcommittee Reviews DoD Housing and Infrastructure
The House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee held an oversight hearing on the state of aging and undermaintained infrastructure across the Department of Defense (DoD). Testimony included the impacts of deferred maintenance on the organic industrial base, research, development, test and training infrastructure such as the Department’s laboratories, and DoD Quality of life infrastructure, particularly barracks, was the focus of the hearing in light of findings from the recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, “Military Barracks - Poor Living Conditions Undermine Quality of Life and Readiness” (GAO 23-105797). Hundreds of thousands of service members live in military barracks. Concerns about poor living conditions and how DoD is managing the barracks go back decades. This report notes poor living conditions have a significant impact on readiness and retention. This report examines, among other things, the extent to which DoD has (1) reliably assessed barracks conditions, (2) made informed decisions on barracks funding, and (3) conducted oversight to improve barracks.

GAO analyzed DoD policies, budgets, and other documentation; interviewed DoD housing officials; toured at a non-generalizable sample of 10 installations barracks; and met with installation officials and barracks residents. Subcommittee Chairman Michael Waltz (Fla.) stated

that some of these barracks are disgusting. The Chairman noted no one has been fired and no one has been held accountable. “Disrepair at barracks facilities, however, is only one of the symptoms of the underlying chronic problem. Facility, Sustainment, Restoration, and Modernization budget lines are routinely underfunded in the budget requests every year.” Ranking Member Rep. John Garamendi (Calif.) noted the subcommittee has been working on this issue for many years.

GAO is making 31 recommendations for DoD, including the military departments, to, among other things, provide guidance on barracks condition assessments, obtain complete funding information, and increase oversight of barracks programs. DoD concurred with 23 of the recommendations and partially concurred with 8, in some cases noting ongoing actions that would address them. GAO continues to believe DoD should fully implement all of these recommendations. Members can view the hearing at: Readiness Subcommittee: State of DoD Housing and Aging Infrastructure | Armed Services Republicans (

USCG Reserves Birthday
The United States Coast Guard Reserve was originally established on 23 June 1939 as a civilian reserve. This civilian reserve was renamed the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary on the passage of the Coast Guard Reserve and Auxiliary Act of 19 February 1941, and the military reserve commenced operations at that time.

FRA NHQ Closed Monday
The FRA National Headquarters will be closed Monday, Feb. 19, in observance of Presidents Day.

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