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Military Marlboro men are still smokin’

- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2014

Bristling at what they saw as the nanny state run awry, the House Armed Services Committee voted overwhelmingly this week to ensure that American troops serving overseas still can buy tobacco from base exchanges.

In another win for the front-line troops, the committee voted to keep aloft the iconic A-10 "Warthog" — defying Pentagon brass and committee leaders who said the plane, which combat troops love for its ability to provide lifesaving close ground support, didn't fit into their budget plans.

Both of those decisions were part of the annual defense policy bill, which cleared the House Armed Services Committee unanimously early Thursday after a daylong session in which lawmakers grappled with issues from combating sexual assault in the military to letting President Obama transfer detained terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to the U.S.

In a tight budget environment, lawmakers also had to make tough choices about what projects to fund and where to cut, and the A-10 was a key part of that decision-making.

The Air Force said cutting the A-10 fleet could save billions of dollars. But Rep. Ron Barber, Arizona Democrat, led the fight to preserve the aircraft, known as the Warthog, for at least another year, saying there is no other aircraft in the U.S. fleet that does what the A-10 does. He redirected funds from operations and maintenance for overseas war fighting to keep the plane aloft.

The Warthog, introduced in the 1970s, is heavily armored, flies at subsonic speeds and sports a 30 mm canon with a distinctive sound that has endeared it to American ground troops, who say its low-altitude capabilities allow the plane to distinguish friendly troops from enemies, and target fire precisely.

"In Afghanistan the troops told me, keep the A-10 flying," Mr. Barber said.

His amendment won on a 41-20 bipartisan vote.

Also earning bipartisan approval was the move to keep tobacco available on military bases — again rejecting a Pentagon priority.

The Defense Department circulated a memo this year, obtained by the Military Times, that encouraged the services to halt tobacco sales on military bases. The Navy moved quickly to lay the groundwork for a ban on sales at overseas base exchanges and aboard ships.

"We demand that sailors and Marines be incredibly fit," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told the Military Times. "We know tobacco hurts that fitness. We know the cost of health care far exceeds any profits we could possibly make selling that."

Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who served as a Marine officer in Afghanistan and Iraq, objected, saying that amounted to social engineering in the military.

"We sleep in the dirt for this country, we get shot at for this country, but we can't have a cigarette if we want to for this country, because that's unhealthy," he said during this week's committee debate.

"Well I'll tell you what — if you want to make us all healthy, then let's outlaw war, because war's really dangerous. It was bad for my health and it's bad for other people's health," Mr. Hunter said.

His amendment would prohibit the Defense Department from halting the sale of any product that was legally available as of the beginning of this year.

Several Democrats objected, saying tobacco use among the military was twice the rate of the American population as a whole and that it was hurting readiness and increasing health expenses. They also said tobacco has been banned on Navy submarines without any problems.

Still, Mr. Hunter's amendment easily passed with bipartisan support. He told The Washington Times on Thursday that he expects the amendment to remain in the bill as it advances to the House floor and eventually to a conference with the Senate.

Some Republicans said it was hypocritical of Democrats to want to restrict access to tobacco, which is legal, even as many of them voted last week to allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to prescribe medical marijuana in states where it's legal — even though the drug is illegal under federal law. That marijuana amendment failed in the full House.

Democrats countered by saying it was hypocritical of Republicans to demand access to tobacco, even as they oppose government funds to be used to provide abortions for troops and their families at military hospitals overseas.

One amendment that didn't succeed was a provision that would have granted citizenship rights to young adult illegal immigrants who agreed to join the military.

Several Republicans proposed attaching that to the defense bill, desperately seeking some immigration legislation they can pass this year. But they ran into opposition from the American Legion and retired military brass, who said it would politicize the defense bill and could jeopardize its passage.

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, did raise the proposal Wednesday night, but withdrew it.

Supporters could try to add it when the bill goes to the House floor.

The committee also rejected an effort to strip commanders of final say over prosecuting sexual assault cases, in an emotional debate over what all sides now agree is an epidemic within the military.

Some lawmakers had said military lawyers with experience handling the complex cases should have final say. But a narrow majority rejected that, saying the solution is to hold commanders responsible for their troops' behavior and their own decisions.

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