A young boy, with a cast on his lower right leg, lays in a medical bed while several medical professionals gather around him.
I thank them for fixing me up and setting me up for a good recovery."

Blayne Brown

Blayne Brown was enjoying the last day of summer vacation with family when he was bitten by a shark in waist-deep water off the coast of North Topsail

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Naval Weapons Station Yorktown’s Scudder Hall Galley

Military dining facilities aren't following guidelines that aim to offer nutritious meals for service members, and the Pentagon has not done necessary annual reviews of those food programs in roughly a decade, a government watchdog has found.

A report from the Government Accountability Office[1], published Monday, found an initiative established in 2008 called "Go for Green" that labels foods offered at military dining facilities by color codes -- green for healthy foods that should be eaten often; yellow for foods that should be eaten only occasionally and in moderation; and red for unhealthy foods that should be consumed rarely -- has not been fully implemented at many facilities.

The government watchdog "observed examples of color and sodium codes that were missing, not standardized, or improperly placed" and added the Pentagon has "not fully addressed congressionally directed efforts to increase access to nutritious food."

Read Next: Democrats Push Pentagon on Birth Control for Service Members as Defense Bill Looks to Ease Access[2]

GAO investigators examined 19 dining facilities at eight military installations representing all Defense Department service branches across the country, from Joint Base Charleston[3] on the East Coast to Naval Base San Diego[4] on the West Coast. At many of those facilities -- 16 out of 19 -- food service officials said that "staff had not been trained" in the Go for Green nutrition program as required, the report detailed.

Investigators found that planned menu items were sometimes replaced with unhealthier options or even that kitchen staff were using outdated recipes, which made the options less healthy than the corresponding color code said they were.

Offering nutritious food at the military's dining facilities has been a major initiative for nearly two decades as Pentagon officials have said "poor health and nutrition are growing challenges that threaten U.S. military readiness and its ability to retain a fit and healthy force," according to the report.

Military bases are often overpopulated with fast food locations, which offer a quick and reliable spot for a meal for many service members instead of the on-base dining facilities, though the food may not be a particularly healthy or nutritious option.

"For example, one large installation had 47 nonappropriated fund food venues offering service from 5:00 a.m. to midnight, in comparison to 14 dining facilities, most of which closed by 6:00 p.m," the report said.

GAO investigators also said "service members told us that limited operating hours make it difficult to visit dining facilities where they can access healthy food," adding that "dining facilities were not always open when advertised."

Many services have tried to offer unique dining options to accommodate more schedules and to prioritize convenience. One Army[5] dining facility offered pre-packaged meals to go, and a Marine Corps[6] base had walk-up and drive-thru windows where service members could use their meal cards.

Military.com reported earlier this year that the Army has started operating food kiosks[7], which provide quick food and snacks similar to selections often found at gas stations.

But many of those innovations don't follow the nutrition standards to which all the services are supposed to be adhering.

"Some of the installations we visited have taken steps to address challenges related to service members' access to nutritious food," the report stated. "However, we found that such efforts were limited to specific dining facilities, did not align with a broader access strategy, and did not incorporate nutrition coding and labeling."

Since 2014, the Defense Department has been tasked with conducting annual reviews of each service's dining programs -- something it has failed to do.

Additionally, the defense secretary promised to establish a leadership group by September 2022 to oversee its efforts to overhaul nutrition for the military. But that group has not been created and staffed yet due, in part, to internal disagreements about structure and which organization should lead it.

"Without establishing a process to perform annual oversight assessments of the military department's dining and eating environments and nutritional standards, [the defense secretary's office] lacks reasonable assurance that [the Defense Department's] nutrition programs, policies, and related processes are functioning as intended," the GAO report detailed.

Overall, the GAO made 16 recommendations for the defense secretary, as well as the secretaries of the Army, Air Force[8] and Navy[9], ranging from creating annual assessments for the food nutrition programs to making sure the services follow certain existing nutrition standards.

Related: The Army Is Going All-In on Food Kiosks as Base Dining Facilities Struggle[10]

© Copyright 2024 Military.com. All rights reserved. This article may not be republished, rebroadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without written permission. To reprint or license this article or any content from Military.com, please submit your request here[11].

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Boxes of birth control pills at Naval Health Clinic Capodichino in Naples, Italy

As studies show service members continue to struggle to access birth control, a group of Senate Democrats is pushing the Defense Department to do more to expand contraception services and counseling.

In a letter Tuesday to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a dozen Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee pushed for details on any "barriers preventing the department from implementing provisions mandated by Congress to protect and expand service members' access to contraception and contraceptive counseling."

"Expanding access to contraception is critical to meeting the needs of service members, as well as recruiting[1] and retaining members of our armed forces[2]," the senators wrote in the letter, obtained exclusively by Military.com.

Read Next: 2-Star Air Force General Pleads Guilty to Unprofessional Relationship, Adultery as Sexual Assault Trial Begins[3]

The letter was organized by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and co-signed by every committee member aligned with Democrats except for Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who recently changed his party registration to independent but continues to caucus with Democrats.

The letter comes as Democrats have been focusing on reproductive rights and contraception access amid Monday's two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which allowed states to ban abortion.

It also comes after the Senate Armed Services Committee for the first time included an amendment in its version of the annual defense policy bill this year that would eliminate copays for contraception for those using military health care.

The letter focuses on a provision that was included in the version of the defense policy bill for fiscal 2016 that was intended to increase service members' access to contraception.

That year's National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, required the Pentagon to ensure service members have access to contraception counseling at health exams before and during deployment[4] and at annual exams. The bill also required the department to craft clinical guidelines for military health care providers on standards of care for contraception counseling and different methods of contraception.

While that provision was technically implemented when the Defense Health Agency issued an instruction on contraception counseling and access[5] in 2019, the senators expressed concern the law isn't being implemented "to its full effect" since service women are still having trouble accessing their preferred method of birth control.

A Rand Corp. study released in 2022[6] found that about 18% of active-duty service women said there had been at least one occasion where they could not get their preferred method of birth control from the military health system. Further, only about 18% said they received contraception counseling before deploying, according to Rand.

"This low percentage contradicts Congress' intent to expand access to contraception services and counseling," the senators wrote. "The low rate of service women who received contraceptive counseling is particularly concerning given that, on average, the rate of unintended pregnancy in the military is 6%, higher than the civilian rate of unintended pregnancy."

The senators specifically urged the Pentagon to immediately update pre-deployment forms so service members can indicate whether they want to receive contraception counseling, as well as to include information on all contraceptive methods.

The Defense Department declined to comment on the letter, saying officials would respond directly to the senators "in due course."

While senators are pushing the Pentagon to take action, they are moving to take action themselves. The NDAA under consideration in the Senate right now includes an amendment sponsored by Shaheen that would mandate including information on contraception in pre-deployment service forms and require contraceptive counseling information in periodic health assessments for service members.

Meanwhile, the Senate NDAA's inclusion of an amendment, also sponsored by Shaheen, to end copays on contraception for Tricare[7] beneficiaries increases the chances that change will become law this year.

While civilians have had access to free birth control since the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, became law in 2010, dependents who use Tricare are still subject to a copay for birth control pills. Since July 2022, Tricare has waived copayments for some forms of contraception such as IUDs, but it cannot legally waive copays for prescription pills. As with other prescriptions, active-duty service members can get prescription birth control pills free of charge.

The House for several years has included language in its NDAA to eliminate Tricare copays for all methods of birth control, but the provision has never survived negotiations with the Senate to become law.

With similar language included in both the House and Senate versions of the NDAA this year, a source familiar with the process said they expect the final bill this year to include some action to end copays on birth control. Still, the source added, cost concerns could continue to be a factor in negotiations and result in some changes, such as delaying implementation of the law for a couple of years.

Related: Tricare Should Cover Newly Approved Over-the-Counter Birth Control Pill, Lawmakers Tell Pentagon[8]

© Copyright 2024 Military.com. All rights reserved. This article may not be republished, rebroadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without written permission. To reprint or license this article or any content from Military.com, please submit your request here[9].

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Aviation ordnancemen inspect F/A-18E aboard the USS Eisenhower

The Pentagon said Monday it remains confident that it will be able to respond to ongoing Houthi attacks in the Red Sea after a Navy[1] aircraft carrier strike group departed the region and it was unclear when another carrier group might arrive.

"We still have capability in the region," Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters. The Navy will "continue to work very closely with our international allies and partners toward that end when it comes to safeguarding the flow of commerce and safety of mariners in the Red Sea."

On Saturday, Ryder announced[2] that the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower strike group, which has been deployed for more than seven months after two extensions, left the area where Houthi rebels have for months attacked commercial shipping and sailed into the Mediterranean Sea. The USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group will eventually take its place in the region.

Read Next: 2-Star Air Force General Pleads Guilty to Unprofessional Relationship, Adultery as Sexual Assault Trial Begins[3]

However, the Theodore Roosevelt, which is currently deployed in the Pacific, will not begin its journey west until next week, after it completes an exercise, Ryder said, leaving the Navy's presence in the Red Sea at reduced levels – just two destroyers – until its arrival.

The gap comes as Houthi attacks, which began last November following Israel's bombardment of Gaza in response to a Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7, have become increasingly effective.

In the last several weeks, Houthis used a drone vessel to successfully strike[4] a commercial ship. The U.S. Navy had to evacuate the ship's crew[5] and the vessel later sank[6]. One merchant mariner from the crew went missing amid the attacks.

The Houthis also struck another cargo ship with two separate missile attacks that caused fires and serious injuries to a crew member. That crew also abandoned ship[7] after they lost the ability to control the fires, and they were picked up by another merchant vessel.

As a result, maritime analysts have noted that[8] the attacks are expected to not only increase the cost of shipping goods[9] through the Red Sea but have also resulted in a sharp drop in the amount of merchant traffic in the region.

Earlier in June, a Defense Intelligence Agency report on the Houthi attacks[10] found that they had "harmful impacts" on at least 65 countries and 29 major energy and shipping companies, and also "endangered crews, damaged regional security, impeded international humanitarian relief efforts, threatened freedom of navigation, and increased the cost and transit times for commercial shipping."

With the Eisenhower and its three-ship strike group in the Mediterranean, the Navy's presence in the Red Sea is now down to two destroyers, the USS Laboon and USS Cole, a service official said.

Ryder noted that the Navy also has destroyers deployed in the European theater that "have been very active in providing those kinds of defenses, as well as other capabilities to include aircraft and [surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities."

When the Roosevelt arrives in the Middle East, the carrier will bring four other ships with it, a Navy official said. However, neither the Navy nor Ryder were able to say when that would happen.

"I'm not going to get into specific days," Ryder told reporters.

Related: Navy Gave Combat Action Ribbon to 7 Ships as More Details of Red Sea Combat Emerge[11]

© Copyright 2024 Military.com. All rights reserved. This article may not be republished, rebroadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without written permission. To reprint or license this article or any content from Military.com, please submit your request here[12].

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