Thursday, December 20, 2007

Braley Continues Fight for Iowa Guard Members’ GI Bill Benefits

One thing that Iowa’s Rep. Bruce Braley has proven during his freshman year in Congress is that he’s not afraid to take on the entrenched powers of Washington, D.C. While serving on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Braley, D-Iowa, earned the respect of the blogosphere in March, when he grilled Lurita Doan, administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA), over ethics allegations involving her role in briefing managers on the Republican Party’s prospects for 2008. (see video below the fold)

In October, Braley set his sights on the Pentagon. When he found out that 600 members of the Iowa National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry’s educational benefits had been shortchanged, Braley helped launch a formal congressional investigation into the matter. After returning home from 17 months of combat duty in Iraq, members of the 1-133rd were initially denied full GI Bill educational benefits because their active duty orders were written one to five days short of the 730-day GI Bill qualifying requirement.

"When the Pentagon's ineptitude leads to soldiers and their families being denied the benefits they deserve, it is Congress' role to provide oversight, accountability, and answers," Braley said in a press release. “While I'm hopeful that the cases of the members of the 1-133rd will all be resolved before classes begin next spring, the question of why the Army worded soldiers' orders just one to five days short of the 730-day requirement, when the Army clearly knows that this is the threshold for receiving Montgomery GI Bill Benefits, is still unresolved."

To help expedite claims and keep the soldiers and their families informed about the latest developments in the congressional investigation, Braley launched a website Dec. 12. “I’m also pleased to hear that over half of the 1-133rd members who were initially denied their benefits have been informed by the Army that they now qualify for full GI Bill educational benefits,” Braley said in a recent statement found on the new site. “I’m hopeful that the Pentagon will achieve their promise of getting full benefits to all of the troops affected by the error by the beginning of the spring 2008 semester in January.”

Rock Island Arsenal Furloughs: "Politics at its Worst"

Last week, Braley joined fellow Congressman Phil Hare, D-Il., to take on the White House and the Department of Defense, arguing it is unnecessary for the DoD to issue furlough notices to federal employees working at the Rock Island Arsenal.

In November, the White House and Defense Department warned that furloughs for 200,000 civilian employees could be sent before the holidays if they did not receive additional funding for the war in Iraq. However, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service issued a report Dec. 13, “Extending Army Operations in Advance of a Supplemental War Appropriation,” that found the DoD could continue operations on current DoD funds until March 2008.

Despite this, the Defense Department apparently intends to move forward with notifying civilian defense employees of possible furloughs as soon as this week. “Threatening Rock Island Arsenal and other Defense Department employees with ‘possible’ layoffs in the days before Christmas is politics at its worst,” Braley said. “The Congressional Research Service report has demonstrated that furloughs are unnecessary. The President’s politics of fear only serve to intensify the partisanship that is already poisoning politics. I’ll be working with Congressman Hare to do everything possible to protect Arsenal jobs from becoming a casualty of these ridiculous Washington games.”

In fact, the president has already approved billions of dollars of funding for Defense Department operations in FY 2008. Last month, President Bush signed the $459.3 billion Defense Department appropriations bill (HR 3222) into law. That bill included money for operations at the Rock Island Arsenal and represented a funding increase of $37.9 billion from FY 2007.

Bruce Braley Questions GSA Administrator Lurita Doan

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Remains of Fallen MIA Vietnam War Pilot Return to Le Mars

Lt. j.g. Norman L. Roggow, who was killed in action Oct. 8, 1967, yet had been missing in action (MIA) for the past 40 years will finally be put to rest next to his parents Friday in Le Mars.

In honor of Roggow’s service and sacrifice, Gov. Chet Culver has ordered all flags in the state to be flown at half staff on Friday, Dec. 14. Services, beginning at 11 a.m., will be held at the Grace Lutheran Church in Le Mars. Surviving members of Roggow’s family will be presented with a POW bracelet, a bronze plaque, a grave marker, the American flag and a videotape of his memorial service.

"It finally gets to the point where all questions to Norman's disappearance have been answered and our family is grateful to now have closure as he finally returns home,” Myron Pingel of Cherokee, a second cousin of Roggow's, told The Sioux City Journal.

The POW/Missing Personnel Office in the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C., announced Oct. 24 that the remains of five servicemen, including Roggow, had been accounted for and would be returned to their families for burial with full military honors.

Roggow was one of five Navy personnel whose E-1B Tracer plane was reported missing Oct. 8, 1967, while returning to the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. Records indicate that radar contact with the aircraft was lost approximately ten miles northwest of Da Nang, Vietnam, and adverse weather conditions hampered immediate search efforts.

Three days later, the plane wreckage was located by a search helicopter on the face of a steep mountain in Da Nang Province but the challenging terrain and hostile forces in the area prevented a ground recovery.

Roggow was a member of the Brook Country School class of 1959, the last class to graduate from the rural school located north of Aurelia. He is survived by three sisters, Connie Fraser, Marva Hanson and Diane Roggow, and a brother, Curtis Roggow.

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Monday, December 10, 2007

‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Poses Clintonian Catch-22 for GOP Hopefuls

Imagine a stage full of Republican presidential candidates standing underneath the national spotlight and agreeing with one another. Better yet, try imagining all of them agreeing with former President Bill Clinton.

CNN and YouTube helped make this scenario a reality Nov. 28 when the two hooked up and hosted a Republican presidential debate. Just two days before the 14th anniversary of the enactment of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) law that prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, the candidates were asked to tell what they thought about the law.

During the debate, retired Brigadier Gen. Keith Kerr asked: “I want to know why you think that American men and women in uniform are not professional enough to serve with gays and lesbians.” Kerr, a Santa Rosa, Calif., native, served in the armed forces for 43 years, and, without being asked, told the audience that he’s an openly gay man.

Now the catch. The candidates could either agree with President Clinton’s initiative, or disagree with DADT, which implicitly supports Sen. Hillary Clinton’s stance. Sen. Clinton says the “outdated and outmoded” and should be repealed. Either way, the GOP hopefuls still end up agreeing with a Clinton, a major political faux pas in the Republican Party.

The plot thickens. It turns out Kerr had been named a co-chairman of Hillary Clinton’s National Military Veterans group. After the debate, Kerr told CNN that he had not done work for the Clinton campaign. CNN claimed that Kerr told them he is a member of the Log Cabin Republicans and was representing no one other than himself. The day after the debate, Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer said the retired general "is not a campaign employee and was not acting on behalf of the campaign."

Regardless of who Kerr was representing, the question had been asked and who asked it does not negate the question itself. The same question was asked at a Republican presidential debate in June. However, despite the legitimacy of Kerr’s question, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who moderated the debate, felt compelled to apologize to the Republican candidates. “We never would have used the general's question had we known that he was connected to any presidential candidate."

True, there are some ethical issues to consider about the process of how the question was asked, but this merely serves as a distraction to how the candidates responded (see video below).

California Rep. Duncan Hunter took first swing at DADT and played the Colin Powell card, who Hunter quoted as saying that “having openly homosexual people serving in the ranks would be bad for unit cohesion.” However, nearly three in four troops (73 percent) say they are personally comfortable in the presence of gays and lesbians (Zogby International & the Michael D. Palm Center 2006 study).

Hunter, a military veteran, attempted to defend DADT with the unit-cohesion fallacy, while simultaneously negating the notion that 23 of the other 26 NATO countries are open to gays serving in the military. “Even though people point to the Israelis and point to the Brits and point to other people as having homosexuals serve, is that most Americans, most kids who leave that breakfast table and go out and serve in the military and make that corporate decision with their family, most of them are conservatives,” Hunter argued. “They have conservative values, and they have Judeo-Christian values. To force those people to work in a small tight unit with somebody who is openly homosexual goes against what they believe to be their principles, and it is their principles, is I think a disservice to them.”

Is Hunter suggesting the military segregate soldiers based on ideology to maintain unit cohesion? The military has a history of being one of the first governmental institutions to implement desegregation policies, yet Hunter wants to reverse this trend, which his fellow Republican President Harry S. Truman initiated in 1950.

In an attempt to appeal to his conservative base, Hunter opened up a new can of discrimination against moderates and liberals serving in the military. The big question is, if elected, would Hunter expand DADT to include anyone whose ideology isn’t consistent with the conservatives?

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee echoed Hunter’s unit-cohesion stance. However, Huckabee did manage to undermine the premise underlying Hunter’s argument about protecting conservative principles. “The Uniform Code of Military Justice is probably the best rule, and it has to do with conduct. People have a right to have whatever feelings, whatever attitudes they wish,” Huckabee said. “But when their conduct could put at risk the morale, I think that's what is at issue. And that's why our policy is what it is.”

Here, Huckabee argues that it’s a homosexual’s conduct that jeopardizes morale, and by conduct I assume he’s referring to sexual conduct. However, no other soldier’s sexual conduct is put under the morality microscope, so under a Huckabee administration, soldiers who indulge in pre-marital sex or adultery are given a free pass.

Not to mention, the morale for combat troops in Iraq has already been plummeting, even with the DADT policy in place. Released in May, a Pentagon mental health study of troops in Iraq found 45 percent of junior enlisted Army soldiers rated their unit's morale as low or very low. Twenty percent of soldiers and 15 percent of Marines were found to have a mental health problem, defined as anxiety, depression or acute stress.

The report was based on data collected from some 1,300 soldiers and nearly 450 Marines in Iraq last fall. About two-thirds of those surveyed said they knew someone who had been killed or injured. More than three-quarters of soldiers and Marines said they had been in situations where they could have been killed or seriously injured.

The report also indicated 56 percent of soldiers were highly concerned about the long tours, something Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., tried to address with an amendment (S. AMDT. 2012) that would improve military readiness and require periods of down time between redeployment. The amendment was successfully filibustered by the Republicans in the Senate, much to the chagrin of Webb, a Vietnam War Veteran, who shared his disappointment on the Senate floor: "Today the Republicans decided to filibuster an amendment that goes straight to the well-being of our troops. I deeply regret this move. They expect us to take the sort of positive action that might stabilize the operational environment in which are troops are being sent again and again.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain borrowed a tactic from the current Commander in Chief George W. Bush and deferred their commander-in-chief obligations to the military leaders in the field. “I look forward to hearing from the military exactly what they believe is the right way to have the right kind of cohesion and support in our troops, and I listen to what they have to say,” Romney said.

McCain reassured the audience he has his ear to the ground in Iraq and keeps in constant contact with military leaders in the field. “Almost unanimously, they tell me that this present policy is working, that we have the best military in history, that we have the bravest, most professional, best prepared, and that this policy ought to be continued because it's working.” Even if McCain’s assertion is proven to be true, one would have to question the sources. To openly question or refute an order that was signed by someone at the top of the chain-of-command goes contrary to a soldier’s training. Military personnel are trained to follow orders, and this includes generals.

McCain’s intelligence gathering doesn’t hold the same weight with retired generals. A group of 28 retired U.S. generals and admirals released a statement Nov. 29 urging Congress to repeal the current ban on openly gay troops:

We respectfully urge Congress to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Those of us signing this letter have dedicated our lives to defending the rights
of our citizens to believe whatever they wish. As General Colin Powell, Former
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said when the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was
enacted, it is not the place of the military or those in senior leadership to
make moral judgments.

Scholarly data shows there are approximately one million gay and lesbian veterans in the United States today, as well as 65,000 gays and lesbians currently serving in our armed forces. They have served our nation honorably.

We support the recent comments of another former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General John Shalikashvili, who has concluded that repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy would not harm, and would indeed help our armed forces. As is the case in Britain, Israel, and other nations which allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, our service members are professionals who are able to work together effectively despite differences in race, gender, religion, and sexuality. Such collaboration reflects the strength and the best traditions of our democracy.
The post-debate dust has already settled, and the GOP candidates have resumed their silence on the issue of DADT -- at least until the general election. While they can afford to choose silence, or risk losing their conservative base, the same luxury does not hold true for the 65,000 gay soldiers still serving in the military, who have had no choice but to remain silent their entire careers under DADT.

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Monday, December 3, 2007

Culver Orders Flags Lowered to Honor Soldier Killed in Korean War

Cpl. Clem Robert Boody and his family can finally rest in peace.

The Independence native who served with the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, in the Korean War was declared missing in action after heavy fighting near Unsan, North Korea, on Nov. 2, 1950. He was presumed dead on Dec. 31, 1953.

In April, Boody’s remains were positively identified by the Department of Defense as a result of DNA testing. His remains were among the remains of six American soldiers that North Korean military leaders turned over to a delegation led by former Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

"More than a half-century after Corporal Boody was reported missing in action while fighting for our country, he will finally receive a dignified burial next to his parents in Iowa," Richardson said following a private meeting in Des Moines with Boody’s relatives. "Cpl. Boody made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. I hope his relatives can get some closure after so many years of wondering what happened to their Uncle Clem."

Boody’s will be laid to rest in Independence on Tuesday, Dec. 4, and in honor of his sacrifice, Gov. Chet Culver has ordered all flags in the state to be flown at half-staff on Tuesday.

Richardson, a Democratic presidential candidate, has been working on the issue of retrieving remains of soldiers for several years. During the April meeting in Pyongyang, General Ri said Gov. Richardson's involvement was a factor in sending North Korean soldiers to the Unsan region during recent months to look for additional remains. The remains of one soldier had been found in October 2006, and Ri ordered 10 North Korean soldiers to the region to search for more remains, Ri told Gov. Richardson.

In addition to help bring Boody’s remains home to his surviving family, Richardson ensured that Boody’s family finally received the Purple Heart he was awarded 53 years ago. In 1954, the U.S. Army sent a letter to Boody's mother, informing her that her son had been awarded the medal and telling her it would arrive soon. But the medal never came, despite repeated efforts by family members to obtain it over the past 53 years, Boody’s niece Stacey Brewer said at a private ceremony in Des Moines Nov. 5.

"My grandmother never gave up the hope that he would come home someday, because for her, the death was never final,” Brewer said at the ceremony attended by Richardson and 200 other guests in Des Moines. “She just couldn't get her arms around the fact that one of her kids didn't come home. There was no body. There was no goodbye."

In honor of Cpl. Clem Boody, the flag will fly half-staff at the Iowa State Capitol Tuesday, Dec. 4

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Human Right Campaign Calls Upon Democratic Hopefuls to Overturn ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Friday marked the fourteenth anniversary of the enactment of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) law which prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. To mark the occasion, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) partnered with Servicemembers United (formerly Call to Duty), Log Cabin Republicans, Service Members Legal Defense Network and Liberty Education Forum, to host a three-day tribute this weekend. The event, “12,000 Flags for 12,000 Patriots,” took place at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where 12,000 flags were displayed -- each one symbolizing a discharged service member under DADT.

To raise awareness against DADT on the campaign trail in Iowa, the HRC kicked off its “Legacy of Service Tour” in Des Moines in June. "The eyes of the nation and the eyes of the world are on Iowa as we elect our next president," HRC President Joe Solmonese told the audience at the Iowa Historical Museum. The HRC’s mission to repeal the law and educate politicians and the public about the facts have been addressed on its web site.

Moreover, the HRC wants to put a face on the campaign by enlisting veterans directly affected by the policy. Sensing this new call to duty, a number of former service members have stepped forward to share how the DADT policy has negatively impacted their military careers and personal lives. This includes Marine veteran Eric Alva, who lost a leg in the Iraq War. Alva, who has become a spokesman for the “Legacy of Service Tour,” told the Des Moines audience: “I am a man who survived a war, a man who survived a battle, only to come home to another battle, and that battle is for equality.”

Nearly six month have passed since the kick-off event, and the HRC’s efforts to repeal DADT have flown under the radar on the presidential campaign trail. Not until last week’s CNN/YouTube Republican debate did the DADT resurface, albeit under suspicious circumstances, on the national stage.

Meanwhile, on the Democrat side, the HRC has taken a more proactive role in soliciting responses from the leading Democratic presidential candidates to the question: “If you are elected President, what concrete steps would you take to overturn ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?’” The candidates’ responses were posted last week on the HRC’s web site.

While all of the candidates promised they would repeal DADT, asserting the policy is outdated and discriminatory, only Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois provided concrete steps to overturn the law. Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Hillary Clinton of New York took the first step by initiating the overturn of the process, but fell short in providing a litany of concrete steps they would use to accomplish their objective. Dodd said he would call for a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draw up plans that would put an end to this policy within six months, whereas Clinton promised to work with high profile military leaders and retired military leaders who have called for the repeal of the law.

Although military leaders may share their insights as to what needs to happen, the DADT’s initial fate rests in the hands of the legislative branch, where the law was initially introduced and passed in 1993. If elected, Obama promised to work with Congress and place the weight of his administration behind enactment of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which will make nondiscrimination the official policy of the U.S. military.

The Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R. 1246), which repeals the current Department of Defense (DoD) policy concerning homosexuality in the Armed Forces, was first introduced in the House Feb. 28, 2007 by Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass. The amendment prohibits the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Homeland Security from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation against any member of the Armed Forces or any person seeking to become a member. Moreover, the amendment authorizes the re-accession into the Armed Forces of otherwise qualified individuals previously separated for homosexuality, bisexuality, or homosexual conduct. Thus far, 136 House members have cosponsored the amendment, including Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa.

“I will task the Defense Department and the senior command structure in every branch of the armed forces with developing an action plan for the implementation of a full repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Obama said in a statement. “And I will direct my Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security to develop procedures for taking re-accession requests from those qualified service members who were separated from the armed forces under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and still want to serve their country.”

Obama promises to go even further, claiming the eradication of DADT will require more than just eliminating one statute. “It will require the implementation of anti-harassment policies and protocols for dealing with abusive or discriminatory behavior as we transition our armed forces away from a policy of discrimination,” Obama said in a statement. “The military must be our active partners in developing those policies and protocols.”

Joe Solmonese speaks at 12,000 Flags event

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

State Buildings Fail to Comply with Gov. Culver’s First Executive Order

Gov. Culver’s intentions may have been in the right place when he signed his first executive order as Iowa’s commander-in-chief, a directive that calls for flying flags half-staff to honor Iowa’s newly fallen soldiers. But the question still remains whether the governor intends to put his foot down and enforce its compliance. Although the flags on the State Capitol grounds were flying half-staff on Saturday under a directive signed by Culver, two buildings flanking the capitol, the Iowa Workforce Development (pictured to left) and Iowa Department of Public Safety buildings (pictured below the fold), failed to comply.

Culver’s first executive order in office, signed Jan. 27, recognizes and honors all of Iowa’s soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice while serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Culver’s order stipulates that Iowa’s state flag and the flag of the United States of America are to be flown at half-staff on all properties under the state’s jurisdiction when:

1. A member of the Iowa National Guard is killed in the line of duty.
2. A member of the Iowa Air National Guard is killed in the line of duty.
3. An Iowa resident serving as a member of the United States Armed Forces is killed in the line of duty.
On Saturday, all flags in the state were supposed to be flown half-staff in honor of Army Sgt. Adrian Hike of Sac City, who died while serving in Afghanistan on Nov. 12. Hike, who was awarded a Purple Heart after sustaining injuries while serving in Iraq in 2005, was killed in Afghanistan when insurgents set off an improvised explosive device next to his vehicle during a combat patrol in Bermel. His funeral was in Carroll on Saturday.

Noncompliant flags fly full-staff in Iowa Deptartment of Public Safety, which is located just southwest of State Capitol

The governor’s executive order also encouraged individuals, businesses, schools, municipalities, counties and other government subdivisions to fly the flag at half staff on Saturday as well as a sign of respect for the fallen soldier. This recommendation presents a problem, however: How does the governor’s office effectively communicate this directive to the aforementioned entities?
This communication gap was highlighted in an August column by Des Moines Register columnist John Carlson, who related the incident of a “borderline disgusted” caller, who was upset by the number of flags that were not at half-staff in honor of Marine Sgt. Jon Bonnell, Jr., 22, of Fort Dodge, who was killed in Iraq on August 6, 2007.

P.J. Sesker Green, the aunt of Sgt. Daniel Sesker, an Iowa National Guard soldier killed last year, wondered why a number of businesses were not flying their flags at half-staff on the day of Bonnell's funeral. So Sesker-Green stopped at a few places and asked questions. "I told them the governor asked everybody to do it on the day of a funeral as a sign of respect," she told Carlson over the phone. "Some people told me they'd never heard such a thing. Some told me they didn't know anything about the Marine being buried that day. I think all of them were embarrassed."

To help address this communication gap, the governor’s office added a new feature to its refurbished web site, which allows people to sign up for e-mail updates regarding flag notifications. The e-mails are a start, but on Saturday, the majority of Des Moines’ businesses’ flags were not lowered in recognition of Hick’s sacrifice. While patrolling the downtown area in my car, the only businesses and institutions I observed flying their flags at half-staff were the Principal Financial Building, WOI television station, and Central Campus.

Granted, it was Saturday, a day when most government buildings shut down for the weekend holiday. Unfortunately, for those government employees serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war does not take a holiday.

U.S. flag flies half-staff Nov. 24 2007 in honor of Sgt. Adrian Hike, who was killed while serving in Afghanistan

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Friday, November 23, 2007

Culver Orders Flags Lowered Half-Staff to Honor Fallen Iowa Soldier

Gov. Culver ordered that all flags in the state be flown at half staff on Saturday, Nov. 24 in honor of Army Sgt. Adrian Hike of Sac City who died while serving in Afghanistan on Nov. 12, 2007. Hike’s funeral is set for 9:30 a.m., at the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Carroll.

Hike was killed while on patrol in Afghanistan, where he was serving as a paratrooper in Afghanistan. Hike had received a Purple Heart for his service after suffering injuries during a tour in Iraq in 2005. After undergoing several surgeries, Hike returned to active duty before being deployed to Afghanistan.

Hike graduated from Sac City High School and is survived by his mother, father and four brothers. Hike is the 63rd person with Iowa ties to die in Afghanistan or Iraq since March 2003.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Iowa Guard Unit Spends Veterans Day Weekend on Road to Iraq

While many Iowans spent Veterans Day weekend recognizing veterans and their sacrifices, members of the 186th Military Police Company, a Johnston-based Iowa Army National Guard unit, were bus-bound to Fort Dix, N.J. For the fourth time in the past 17 years, the Combat Military Police Company has been ordered to federal active duty. The 186th will report to their mobilization station at Fort Dix, N.J. for additional training and preparation before assignment to a specific location sometime after Christmas.

A community sendoff ceremony was held Saturday in the Ankeny High School gymnasium, where an estimated 2000 friends and family members gathered to wish their loved ones a safe deployment. The sendoff was also attended by political dignitaries, including Gov. Chet Culver, who reassured the soldier’s that their families will be in good hands during their deployment. “To the families, please know that we stand ready to assist you if there is anything we can do to for you,” Culver said.

Moreover, Culver reassured members of the 186th that he’ll keep fighting on their behalf on the Iowa home front. “As your governor, please know that I will do everything in my power to help you when you return and transition into civilian life. We will fight for you when it comes to health care, housing and educational assistance," Culver said. “I’m grateful to the 186th for your service to our state and our nation and all the sacrifices you are making, including putting yourselves in harms way. Being away from loved ones is a testament to your dedication to all Iowa citizens and to your entire country.”

Culver was not the only one promising to keep watch on the home front. Several friends and family members of Sgt. Owen Fuller donned t-shirts with Owen’s name on the front and “Got Your Back…” on the back.

“They wanted to surprise Owen and let him know that they’ll help take care of his wife and infant daughter while he’s deployed,” said Tom Healy, a longtime friend of Fullers. “The First Sergeant told me I had a whole platoon of people here to see me,” Fuller joked to his friends and family as they gathered around him. (below)

Having previously served in Iraq during 2003-2004, the 186th will be mobilized for its second deployment for Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq “There an outstanding unit and have terrific soldiers from top to bottom of the ranks,” Iowa National Guard Public Affairs Officer Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood told the Iowa Independent. "They will have a successful mission over there, because they have worked and trained hard to get them as proficient as they are at this point.”

Culver echoed these sentiments with the closing remarks of his brief speech during the ceremony: “I’m grateful to the 186th for your service to our state and our nation."

Gov. Culver makes his rounds and pays respects to members of the 186th Military Police Company

Friday, November 9, 2007

Iowa Democratic Veterans’ Caucus to Release ‘Four Points of Honor’ Platform Today

On the eve of the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) Jefferson Jackson Dinner and Veterans’ Day Weekend, the Iowa Democratic Veterans’ Caucus (IDVC) will unveil their federal policy platform priorities, “Four Points of Honor,” at a press conference today at the Iowa State Capitol Building in Des Moines. The event will be held in the rotunda and will be attended by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut.

The Four Points of Honor grew out of the IDVC, which has been pushing veterans’ issues to the forefront of the political agenda with the intent of elevating theses issues during the build-up to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses Jan. 3. The IDVC, which considers their efforts “Our Second Call to Duty!” hopes to set the stage for veterans all over the country. In addition to building a network of politically active veterans and pushing a national agenda, the IDVC will be working with Gov. Chet Culver and the Iowa General Assembly to elevate veterans’ issues at the Statehouse.

Given the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Bush administrations’ failure to provide for the growing number of veterans and veteran-related issues, the IDVC feels that veterans need to get organized and advocate for themselves. “This is an historic time in our country, and I urge you to answer this ‘second call to duty,’” says Bob Krause, chair of the IDVC. “Your country needs your involvement now as never before.”

The IDVC is also concerned that veterans, who served prior to the current wars, will be left behind and will continue its fight to keep these voices heard in the political discourse. These veterans know what it’s like to be ignored, forgotten, and cast aside in the political arena and have adopted the battle cry as part of its IDVC mantra, “Never Shall One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another!”

The Four Points of Honor bring more focus on veterans’ issues regarding veterans’ health care costs and budgets, eligibility requirements, equity for Guard and Reserve veterans, and special medical needs. The IDVC has passed the following resolutions that reflect these Four Points of Honor:

1. VETERANS HEALTH CARE COSTS AND BUDGETS: The Iowa Democratic Veterans’ Caucus supports mandatory federal funding for veterans’ health care for all veterans.

2. VETERANS ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS: It is the unwavering position of the Iowa Democratic Veterans’ Caucus that the Veterans Administration (VA) health care provisions are a contractual agreement earned by veterans. As such, we insist that financial means testing, co-pay and any or all other devices utilized to exclude or limit veterans’ health care benefits be rescinded.

3. EQUITY FOR RESERVE AND GUARD VETERANS: The Iowa Democratic Veterans’ Caucus is deeply troubled and concerned that both Reserve and National Guard veterans are treated differently under the terms of the Montgomery GI Bill than are active or Regular Armed Services veterans. We call on each Democratic presidential candidate and each member of the Iowa Congressional delegation to review the status of veterans’ educational benefits for the Reserve and Guard and bring them to parity with the educational benefits of Regular Armed Services veterans.

4. VETERANS’ SPECIAL MEDICAL NEEDS: The Iowa Democratic Veterans’ Caucus supports increased emphasis on the provision of and delivery of medical special needs for all Veterans. These special needs include services for the following physiological and psychological service-related injuries and disabilities:

-Mental Disorders (with particular emphasis placed upon and directed toward PTSD)
-Medical and mental health services specific to Women Veterans
-Traumatic Brain Injury,
-Orthopedic injuries and amputation services.

For more information on the Four Points of Honor, including the rationale behind the resolutions, go to the IDVC website to read the policy platform in its entirety. Any Iowa veterans interested in learning more about the IDVC or becoming a member of the organization are also encouraged to visit the group’s website. The IDVC’s next meeting will be held at the Communications Workers of America headquarters in Des Moines tomorrow, Nov. 10th, at 10:00 a.m.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Bush Signs Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Bill into Law

With the stroke of a pen President George W. Bush signed the Joshua Omvig bill into law, ending a drawn-out political chapter that overcame a procedural hold in the Senate. The bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, who named the bill after one of his constituents, Joshua Omvig of Grundy Center. Omvig committed suicide in Dec. 2005 after returning from an 11-month deployment in Iraq.

“By directing the Veterans Administration (VA) to develop a comprehensive program to reduce the rate of suicide among veterans the law will help thousands of young men and women who bravely served our country,” Boswell said in a press release following Bush’s Monday signing. “The Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act not only honors Joshua’s service to his country but ensures that all veterans receive the proper mental health care they need.”

Boswell also had words of praise of praise for Joshua’s parents, who have been relentless advocates for the bill’s passage. “I commend Joshua’s parents, Randy and Ellen Omvig,. While suffering this personal tragedy they went on to help other veterans and their families, and have advocated for improving all mental health services at the VA,” he said.

Boswell’s efforts were picked up in the Senate by fellow veteran, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who helped push the measure through the Senate. "As a nation we cannot stand idly by when the needs of our brave soldiers are not being met," Harkin said. "We have a responsibility to truly support our troops by ensuring they have the services they need during their time in active service, and after they return home."

The bipartisan bill unanimously passed in the House March 21 by a vote of 427-0 before moving on to the Senate where it hit a procedural snag. Led by Harkin the bill was expected to overwhelmingly pass before going into the August recess until it hit a road bump. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. put the bill on hold, citing duplication and second amendment concerns that Harkin called (stronger verb) "bogus." Undeterred, Harkin kept fighting for the bill's passage and solicited fellow Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to help persuade Coburn to lift the hold. The bipartisan effort paid off and the bill cleared the Senate hurdle Sept. 27.

Grassley was pleased Bush signed the bill as well. “Today’s action helps give veterans who are suffering mental anguish a place to turn when all else seems lost,” he said in a statement “These are brave men and women who need to know that there is help out there and they deserve medical treatment just like any other veteran.”

The Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act (H.R. 327) is designed to help address Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among veterans by requiring mental health training for Veterans Affairs staff; a suicide prevention counselor at each VA medical facility; and mental-health screening and treatment for veterans who receive VA care. It also supports outreach and education for veterans and their families, peer support counseling and research into suicide prevention. The VA had been implementing a number of these programs, but not in a timely manner, whereas the Joshua Omvig bill mandates these programs and subsequent deadlines as a means of expediting the process for returning veterans.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

In Case You Missed It, Flags Flown Half-Staff for Fallen Iowa Soldier Yesterday

If you did not know that all flags in the state were to be blown at half staff on Saturday, you are not alone. I also am guilty of not knowing that Gov. Chet Culver had issued an executive order in honor of Army Sergeant Joseph Milledge, 23, a native of Glenwood who died on October 5th, 2007, from wounds suffered in Iraq. I knew that Milledge’s funeral was planned for yesterday, but I assumed the governor’s directive would carry over to Monday, since most government buildings in Iowa are closed on Saturday.

Assume no more, for Culver and Lt. Gov. Patty Judge have developed a proactive tool on their newly refurbished website that will provide flag notifications via email. The purpose of Culver’s first executive order in office is to recognize and honor Iowa’s fallen sons and daughters, but unfortunately, effectively communicating this directive to Iowans has had a few snags since Culver signed the order in January.

In a Des Moines Register column in Aug., John Carlson related the incident of a “borderline disgusted” caller, who was upset by the number of flags that were not being flown half-staff in honor of Marine Sgt. Jon Bonnell, Jr., 22, of Fort Dodge, who was killed in Iraq on August 6, 2007. P.J. Sesker Green, the aunt of Sgt. Daniel Sesker, an Iowa National Guard soldier killed last year, asked a number of businesses why they were not flying their flags at half-staff. So Sesker-Green stopped at a few places and asked questions. "I told them the governor asked everybody to do it on the day of a funeral as a sign of respect," she told Carslson over the phone. "Some people told me they'd never heard such a thing. Some told me they didn't know anything about the Marine being buried that day. I think all of them were embarrassed."

Milledge was buried last month in Washington state, the home of his wife, Amanda. A memorial service was held for his friends and family in Glenwood Saturday, where 200 people gathered in the Glenwood High School gymnasium to pay their final respects and honor Milledge, who was killed Oct. 5 in Baghdad, Iraq, when insurgent forces detonated an improvised explosive device while he was on combat patrol.

Survivors include Milledge’s wife of three years, Amanda, and his one-year-old son, Joseph, Jr. Milledge’s family said in a statement: “Joe loved his wife and son very much. His son will know his daddy was a hero and died for what he believed in.”

Joseph Milledge enlisted in the Army in August 2003, about a year after graduating from Glenwood High School. After training in Texas, he was sent to Iraq about a year later for his first tour of duty. After that tour ended in 2005, Milledge was stationed in Germany before being sent to Iraq for a second tour. Milledge was assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, in Vilseck, Germany, according to a news release from the Department of Defense. He is the 62nd person with ties to Iowa to die from injuries in Iraq or Afghanistan since March 2003.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Braley Launches Probe into Iowa National Guard Education Benefit Snafu

The adage goes: There’s the right way, the wrong way and the Army way. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, intends to find out which way the Army took when it shortchanged thousands of National Guard soldiers on their GI Bill educational benefits, including over 600 members of the Iowa National Guard's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry, based in Waterloo. Braley announced Wednesday that, at his urging, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is launching a formal congressional investigation into the matter.

“When the Pentagon’s ineptitude leads to soldiers and their families being denied the benefits they deserve, it is Congress’ role to provide oversight, accountability, and answers,” Braley said in a press release. “While I am glad to see the Army moving quickly to correct its error and give these troops the benefits they’ve earned, the Pentagon’s explanation of what went wrong in the first place leaves many unanswered questions.”

One question that sparked Braley’s interest in spearheading a congressional probe is whether or not the Army deliberately shortchanged the soldiers. To qualify for GI Bill educational benefits, soldiers must serve 20 consecutive months on active duty, with orders reflecting a call to active duty of 730 days. Despite serving the longest continual deployment of any ground combat unit in Iraq and easily exceeding the 20-month requirement, many members of the 1-133rd were denied GI Bill benefits because the wording of their orders left their call to active duty several days short of the 730-day requirement. A number of these soldiers had individual orders written for 729 days, one day short of qualifying for full-time benefits.

“Serious questions remain about why and how this happened in the first place,” Braley wrote in a letter to House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs Chairman John Tierney, D-Mass. “While I’m hopeful that the cases of the members of the 1-133rd will all be resolved before classes begin next spring, the question of why the Army worded soldiers’ orders just one to five days short of the 730-day requirement, when the Army clearly knows that this is the threshold for receiving Montgomery GI Bill Benefits, is still unresolved.”

Moreover, Braley has concerns about the Army’s expediency of the matter, given that a number of these soldiers are stuck in limbo regarding their future education plans. “While I am pleased that these soldiers’ cases are to be considered as a group and on a expedited basis by the Army Board of Correction of Military Records, I remained concerned about the timeliness of this process, since the records corrections process can often take months,” Braley wrote. “This problem has caused much unnecessary stress and hassle for these National Guard members, and has jeopardized their ability to enroll in colleges and universities throughout the country for the spring 2008 semester.”

Another component of the investigation will look into whether any other National Guard troops have been denied benefits under similar circumstances, currently or in the past. In a letter sent to Braley late Wednesday, Waxman and Tierney confirmed their intention to work with Braley to investigate the situation in a letter.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

After Long-Fought Battle, Veterans Suicide Prevention Bill Passes

For many combat veterans returning from war, the battle doesn’t end on the battlefield. It continues at home with the mental scars. As soldiers return from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, many are ill-equipped to deal with emotional issues stemming from deployment, and sensing no other way out, they tragically take their own lives.

Congress, led by the tireless efforts of the Iowa delegation, has taken measures to reduce the high suicide rates among veterans. After a long-fought battle, the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act (H.R. 327) overcame its last congressional hurdle Tuesday when it passed in the House for the second time by a vote of 417-0.

Introduced by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-3rd District, the bill directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop and implement a comprehensive program addressing suicide prevention. The bill is named after Joshua Omvig, from Grundy Center, Iowa, an Iraq War veteran who served in the Army Reserve and took his own life in December 2005 after an 11-month deployment.

“I’m very pleased that both chambers have passed H.R. 327, and it’s now ready to be signed by the President,” Boswell said in a press release. “A recent article in USA Today reported that the number of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the VA has jumped almost 70 percent in the past year. The time to act is now.”

“I commend Joshua’s parents, Randy and Ellen Omvig, who have suffered this personal tragedy, but have helped endless veterans and their families,” Boswell added. “They have advocated for improving all mental health services at the VA and have assisted countless veterans navigate the VA system.”

Although suicide rates are difficult to confirm and accurately gauge, the VA inspector general in a report last May noted that Veterans Health Administration mental health officials estimate 1,000 suicides per year among veterans receiving care within VHA and as many as 5,000 per year among all living veterans.

"Unfortunately, suicide prevention has become a major part of our responsibility to both active duty and to our veterans," Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, told the Associated Press. "It's a terrible statistic," he said. "As many Vietnam veterans have now committed suicide as died in the original war. That's over 58,000."

The bill, authored by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, is designed to help address PTSD among veterans by requiring the Veterans Administration to develop and implement a comprehensive veterans suicide prevention program, provide 24-hour mental health care services to veterans, and requiring that a suicide prevention counselor be available at every VA facility.

“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the hidden combat wound. Veterans suffering from PTSD are often the last to know they have a problem,” Rep. Bruce Braley, D-1st District, said in a statement. “In the past, many veterans returning from war have suffered silently from this illness without the help and support they need.”

“Joshua Omvig’s experience puts a human face to PTSD. His death stands as a stark reminder of the impact PTSD can have on veterans and their families,” Braley added. “Passing the Omvig bill into law is so important because veterans coming home and suffering from PTSD deserve the screening, treatment and resources they need to ensure their long term mental health.”

The bipartisan bill unanimously passed in the House March 21 by a vote of 427-0 before moving on to the Senate, where it hit a procedural snag. Led by the efforts of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the bill was expected to overwhelmingly pass going into the August recess, until it hit a procedural road bump when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., put a hold on the bill, citing duplication and second amendment concerns, which Harkin said were “bogus.” Undeterred, Harkin kept fighting for the bill’s passage and solicited fellow Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to help persuade Coburn to lift the hold. Their bipartisan effort paid off, and the bill cleared the Senate hurdle Sept. 27.

Before the vote, Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, delivered a speech on the House floor in support of the bill. “I rise today in strong support of the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act,” Loebsack said. “This bill was one of the first that I co-sponsored as a new Member of Congress. I did so because I believe that we have a moral obligation to care for those who have worn our country’s uniform. I urge the president to quickly sign it into law so that these vital mental health services can reach our nation’s veterans.”

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Politics of Biden’s MRAP Bill Hits Home in Iowa

Just as Beau Biden, a captain in the Delaware National Guard, had predicted in August at the Iowa Democratic Party Veteran’s Caucus Presidential Extravaganza in Des Moines, the vote on the emergency funding for the war in Iraq war has come back into play. Beau, the attorney general of Delaware, spoke on behalf of his father, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, and told the room full of veterans that his father’s Democratic rivals’ “no” vote on the funding, despite the attached Biden amendment to fast track funding and production for the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, would come back to haunt them.

Beau’s words, prefaced with a common Biden family phrase “mark my words,” recently hit home in Iowa a few days ago when four members from the Ottumwa-based 833rd Engineer Company were wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq. While patrolling an area near the Iraqi city of Samarra, an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated next to their vehicle. Two of the soldiers were seriously injured and flown to a military hospital at Landstuhl, Germany, while the other two were treated and returned to duty.

"They were in an RG-31 armored vehicle," Lt. Col. Gregory Hapgood, chief spokesman for the Iowa National Guard told the Des Moines Register. "If they'd been in a Humvee, they would have been killed. A Humvee couldn't have withstood the explosion."

Biden’s Democratic rivals, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, and Barack Obama of Illinois, voted against the bill but have stated they support appropriations for the MRAP– just not when it is specifically tied to an Iraq war funding bill that has no timelines for bringing the troops home. There’s the political rub that Beau alluded to in August. By voting against the funding bill, the Democratic candidates chose to send a political message to President Bush while simultaneously garnering support from the anti-war voting contingency.

In doing so, they risked the possibility of delaying production of vehicles that will protect the troops in what soldiers on the ground call “real-time”– meaning the next five minutes of their lives, which could be their last. In the war zone, there is no such thing as political time, and Beau, whose unit is scheduled to deploy to Iraq early next year, understands this difference. Beau also understands how the Republicans operate and how they will use such a vote against the Democrat who wins the nomination. Now that the MRAP issue has hit home in Iowa, Beau’s prediction has moved from the abstract to the concrete, something that may resonate with Iowa voters.

Asked about his differences with Clinton, Edwards and Obama on when to end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home, Senator Biden was quick to highlight this distinction at a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids today. “Clinton, Edwards and Obama say they cannot commit to bring our troops home until 2013. How can they say that, when they and the rest of the candidates ripped the skin off my back in May, when I was the only Senator running to vote to fund the troops?” Biden asked 150 people gathered at the 238 Teamsters’ Union.
“I voted to give our troops all the protection they needed. How can the three leading candidates, one of whom took out advertising in Iowa saying we need to vote “no,” say they’re going to keep troops there until 2013, yet they’re not going to fund them?” Biden asked. “Folks, that’s what I mean when I say we need to start telling the American people the truth. They’re telling you what you want to hear: End the war. But they are acknowledging they can’t end the war with any plan they have.”

Related reading: John Carlson’s column, “Biden Takes a Hit by Funding Vehicle That Saved Iowans” (Des Moines Register)

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Friday, October 19, 2007

Lawmakers to Propose Job-Protection Measure for Returning Iowa Soldiers

The last thing Iowa’s National Guard and reserve soldiers need to worry about while deployed to war is whether or not they’ll have a job when they return to their civilian lives. Knowing this, the federal government passed USERRA (Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act) to help protect the soldiers' jobs, and now Iowa lawmakers want to enact a measure that would give the state more power to enforce the law.

At a Statehouse news conference Thursday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines, and Rep. McKinley Bailey, D-Webster City, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, announced the proposed legislation. While the federal law requires employers to hold a position for a returning soldier, backers of the new proposal contend that if an employer is not fully compliant with the law, a soldier’s only recourse is to file a lawsuit that can take years to resolve.

"It puts some more teeth into it," said McCarthy. "It's a more streamlined process, a process that's closer to home."

Employers, however, are no longer held liable if the position or business itself was discontinued during the time of the employee’s deployment. The proposal in Iowa would create possible criminal charges for violators and make the appeals process less cumbersome. It also would require employers to reimburse military members for pay lost during the time their jobs were denied to them.

To help illustrate the federal law’s shortcomings, Capt. Pam Reynolds, a physical therapist from Ames who served a 15-month deployment beginning in 2006, accompanied the lawmakers at the press conference. Upon returning from her service, Reynolds was told she could apply for a physical therapist position at Green Hills Retirement Community in Ames, a similar job but with lower pay.

"Most of us coming back are just wanting to get into the community," Reynolds said. "We definitely don't want to be where I'm standing right now. We just want back into our normal routine. While many veterans realize that federal law protects their jobs, the understanding is vague and many don't know how to react, Reynolds said. "We know there's a law out there," she said. "We don't know what it means."

To help bridge such gaps the Department of Defense created the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) to help educate soldiers and employees about the federal law. The all-volunteer program also works with employers regarding their responsibilities. “We’re not litigators. We are just here to help enhance communication between employer and employee to help resolve any conflicts,” ESGR State Chair Barry Spears told the Iowa Independent. “We’ve had a good track record in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been here, and we have not had a problem go unresolved.”

Most of the problems that do arise are namely because of misunderstandings, misinterpretation, or because of ignorance on behalf of either the employer or the employee said Spears. “In my line of work, I’ve introduced preventive measures to help keep these types of problems from arising and the same thing holds true with my work at ESGR,” said Spears, who is vice president of Iowa Health System -- which is responsible for managing hospital across Iowa.. “When there’s a deployment, by law, we go and do a mode briefing, and when the soldiers come home we do a de-mode briefing.” Moreover, the ESGR has placed posters on every bulletin board in every armory in the state that advertises their services.

On the employers’ side of the equation, the ESGR attempts to reach out and educate employers while simultaneously soliciting their support. The ESGR adopted and implemented its “Five Star Statement of Support Program” for employers, which is designed to help them put into place practices that will minimize or even eliminate problems. Another facet of the program is to inform and educate employers about their rights and responsibilities towards their employees who serve in the Guard and reserves.

Spears said he has heard of only a few cases in which employers were not compliant with USERRA, all of which were the result of being uninformed. Asked whether Iowa needed a law that would enforce the current federal regulations, Spears said that anything that can be done to help support these civilian member is important. “That’s why we should work hard to take care of them, so they don’t have to worry about these types of problems when they return from deployment,” Spears said.

Originally Posted on "Iowa Independent"

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bush Administration Treats Iowa’s Guard Like Temp Workers

While the front-end costs of funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hold steady, the Bush Administration keeps finding ways to skim costs on the back end. Using a cost-cutting technique perfected by the booming temporary-worker industry, the Bush Administration has not only exhausted the National Guard to supplement the surge in Iraq, but has also shortchanged soldiers upon their return by denying them full-time education benefits.

Referred to as the “Ironman Battalion,” over 600 members of the Iowa National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry, who recently returned from Iraq after a 22-month deployment, found out they don’t qualify for full-time educational benefits under provisions of the Montgomery GI Bill. To qualify, soldiers must have served 20 consecutive months on active duty, with orders reflecting a call to active duty of 730 days. Despite exceeding the 20-month requirement, many members of the 133rd are currently being denied these benefits, because the wording of their orders leave their active duty call just short of the 730-day requirement.

Soldiers who qualify for Montgomery GI Bill benefits can receive up to $894 per month to be used for educational expenses, which can be used for up to 10 years after leaving the service. Reserve soldiers who do not qualify for GI Bill benefits can receive up to $660 per month under the Reserve Education Assistance Program (REAP). These benefits expire when reserve members leave the service. Members of the Minnesota National Guard 1st Brigade, 34th Infantry—whom the 133rd deployed to Iraq with—are experiencing a similar problem.

Each soldier has individual orders, and in some cases they were for 725 to 729 days of active duty - just short of the 730 days required, Lt. Col. Gregory Hapgood, public affairs officer for the Iowa National Guard told the Des Moines Register. "So they've spent the better part of two years of their lives on active duty, a great deal of that in combat, and to come up a couple days short on orders and be denied benefits just doesn't seem judicious," Hapgood said.

Iowa’s Commander-in-Chief, Gov. Chet Culver was quick to defend the 133rd and went on the offensive by sending a letter to Army Secretary Pete Geren. Culver’s letter expressed his “extreme disappointment” and requested the Army to reconsider its decision denying education benefits to members of the 133rd. “As you are aware, these soldiers were deployed longer than any other ground combat unit with a tour of 22 months foregoing time with family and employment responsibilities -- all while risking their own lives for longer than anticipated,” Culver wrote. “Beyond our respect, these soldiers deserve the benefits provided by a grateful nation for their honorable service. Anything less is simply unacceptable.”

The news also sparked the ire of members representing both sides of Iowa’s political delegation, including Reps. Tom Latham, R-4th District, and Bruce Braley, D-1st District. Both members also sent letters to Army Secretary Green this past week expressing their concerns about the denial of the 133rd’s educational benefits.

Latham said he was very concerned that the orders for some soldiers brought them within one or several days of the 730 days on active duty needed to earn full GI Bill benefits. "These soldiers have clearly earned active-duty education benefits by serving a full two years on active duty, and it would be unfair to deny them based on a technicality," Latham wrote.

Braley, aware of the bureaucracy at the federal level, also voiced concerns in his letter by honing in on expediency factors while simultaneously holding the military accountable. “I also request that you provide me with information on all of the steps that the Army and the Army Board for Correction of Military Records are taking to ensure that these cases are resolved quickly and smoothly, and that you provide me with a timeline detailing when the Army Board for Correction of Military Records will take up the cases, when a decision will be made by the Board, and when the members of the 1-133rd can expect to be granted the full Montgomery GI Bill benefits that they so deserve,” Braley wrote.

Because Guard members educational benefits expire once they leave the military, it’s imperative that the Army remedy the situation before it’s too late. Hapgood admitted to the Des Moines Register that there is no quick and easy fix to the problem. "You're talking about something that has to be fixed at the Department of the Army level," he said.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Iraq War Veteran Turned Iowa Congressman Endorses Biden

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware received the endorsement of Iowa State Representative McKinley Bailey, D-District 9, a returning Iraq war veteran. Bailey, 26, is the youngest serving Democratic member of the Iowa State Legislature Bailey appeared along with Iowa House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and explained why Iowans should support Biden for the Democratic nomination for President.

"After returning from serving in Iraq, I quickly grew frustrated by my impression that leaders in both political parties did not understand the fundamental challenges to ending the war in Iraq," Bailey said in a press release. "When I first learned of Senator Biden's plan, I realized that was the ticket - a political solution, not a military one. I am endorsing him because from day one, our next president must make decisions on the direction in Iraq and I am convinced Senator Biden has the knowledge and experience to bring our troops home without leaving a situation that requires another generation of Americans to return in a decade."

Biden noted in a press release, "McKinley is one of Iowa 's most promising political leaders and I am proud that he has pledged to support my campaign. I am in awe of all that he has already accomplished, including his exemplary work on behalf of his fellow veterans."

Bailey is a veteran of five years of service in the United States Army. Bailey was a paratrooper with the elite 82nd Airborne Division and led his Tactical Signals Intelligence Intercept Team on more than 100 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the University of Iowa, where he earned a BA in International Studies, McKinley founded and served as President of the University of Iowa Veterans Association.

Elaborating on his frustrations with the political parties, Bailey was quick to point his finger at the Republicans and their handling of the war.” They did not understand the situation at all,” Bailey told the Iowa Independent. “The strategies they were using when they sent us over was to treat the civilians like a hill that you to walk over to get to the enemy. That just doesn’t work. Iraqis are an extremely complex culture with lots of different religions, ethnic groups, and then beyond that you have tribes, clans and lots of divisions. If you want to win, you have to understand that.”

“I work in military intelligence and we sent reports stating that we were going about this all wrong, but we kept getting ignored over and over,” Bailey said during a telephone interview. “I think that the Bush administration still does somehow think that they will one day kill all the bad guys and that will be the end of it. It’s far more complex than that.”

Despite being a Democrat, Bailey was not willing to let his party’s leaders off the hook, so easily, in particular those members calling for a quick withdrawal. “Some Democrats are guilty of thinking we can just pack up and leave, and that’s just not feasible,” Bailey said. “There’s a lot of good people in Iraq who are on our side, and they and their families will be killed if we pack up and leave. They’ve trusted us and done everything we’ve asked of them, and we can’t abandon them.”

“We can’t stay there forever either. We have to have a rational and reasonable plan to get out of there without leaving Ira in a state of chaos, and that’s where I think Senator Biden steps in,” Bailey said. “When I first read Biden’s plan for Iraq over a year ago, I wasn’t thinking in terms of a presidential context, but I do remember thinking that somebody in D.C. finally gets what is going on.”

Asked what other reason, besides the war Iraq, as to why he’s endorsing Biden, Bailey responded that it’s too hard to separate the war from any of the other issues. “This is what really matters to me. I’ve been there, I’ve lost friends there, and ultimately the Iraq war was one of the guiding factors in my decision to endorse Senator Biden,” Bailey said.

Another important factor for Bailey’s endorsement decision was Biden’s vote to supplement the funding in Iraq, which included Biden’s MRAP (Minde Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) amendment. “When you’re running in a Democratic primary, that certainly was not the most popular vote, politically, and as a legislator, I genuinely appreciated Biden’s courage to vote for what’s right and not what’s politically expedient,” Bailey said. “With Biden as president, I think we will see this courage applied in lots of other areas. I don’t want to sound like a one-issue voter, but I think most of Democratic candidates share fairly similar stances on the issues. It’s Biden’s experience, leadership, institutional knowledge and ability to get things done that separates him from the rest of the field.”

Elected in 2006, Bailey defeated three-time Republican incumbent George Eichorn by a 10-point margin and represents District 9, which covers all of Wright County and parts of Hamilton and Webster Counties. Bailey is the eleventh Iowa legislator to endorse Biden, including his leader, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Des Moines. "We are excited to have McKinley join the Biden team here in Iowa," McCarthy said in a press release. "His work with veterans as well as his own service to our country will prove invaluable to helping Joe Biden win the Iowa caucuses."

I'm with Joe: Rep. McKinley Bailey

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Biden Uses Bipartisan Successes to Sharpen Contrast with Democratic Rivals

While Delaware Sen. Joe Biden’s Democratic presidential rivals keep talking “experience” and “change” on the campaign trial, Biden used his 34 years of experience last month to harness change in D.C. the old-fashioned way: bipartisanship. During the last week of September, Biden reined in bipartisan support to help pass two amendments to the Defense Authorization Bill. And now Biden is touting these successes to highlight his leadership capabilities, which may prove troublesome for his Democratic rivals who opposed the Iraq funding bill in March for political reasons.

Sen. Biden stops to take questions from reporters at last month's Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola

Biden’s plan for Iraq, which establishes a federal system in Iraq overwhelmingly passed Sept. 26 by a vote of 75-23.During the vote, Biden's plan secured the support of key leaders in the U.S. Senate from both parties, including Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., former Chairman John Warner, R-Va., Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and presidential candidate Sen. Sam Brownback, who co-authored the amendment.

Last December, Biden became the first Democrat to oppose President Bush's proposed surge of additional troops in Iraq, stating at the time, that the only way to end this war was to build a bipartisan consensus opposed to President Bush's policy. "For the first time in this incredibly divisive national debate we've been having about Iraq, a strong bipartisan majority of senators – including fully half of the Republicans – has voted to change course," Biden said in a press release. "It's the first time there is some real hope that we can put ourselves on a course to leave Iraq without leaving chaos behind."

Two days later, Biden’s bipartisan legislation (Amendment 3075) passed in the Senate. The amendment to the Department of Defense Authorization Bill boosts funding for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles by $23.6 billion, allowing the Army to replace all of its up-armored Humvees in Iraq with the MRAPs. Roadside bombs are responsible for 70 percent of casualties in Iraq – they are by far the most lethal weapon used against our troops. Mine Resistant Vehicles can reduce those casualties by more than two-thirds.

“We have no higher obligation than to protect those we send to the front lines,” Biden said in a press release. “While we argue in Washington about the best course of action in Iraq, our troops on the ground face Improvised Explosive Devices, Rocket Propelled Grenades, Explosively Formed Penetrators, sniper fire and suicide bombers every day. I am heartened to know that my amendment—with the support of Democrats and Republicans working together—will provide technology and equipment that will save American lives on the ground in Iraq.”

Biden has vowed to uphold America’s contract with the troops on the ground, regardless of the political consequences. “As long as we have a single soldier on the front lines in Iraq, or anywhere else, it is this country’s most sacred responsibility to protect them,” Biden has repeated on the campaign trial, including a stop at Prairie Lights in Iowa City.

Sen. Biden uses his speaking notes to demonstrate the MRAP's capablities to a crowd gathered at the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City during a Sept. campaign stop

This promise and Biden’s vigilance for pushing the MRAP legislation has resonated with Iraq veterans in Iowa, including James D. Mowrer, who recently returned from a 16-month deployment to Iraq while serving with the Iowa National Guard’s 133rd Infantry Battalion. Mowrer, now the state coordinator for Veterans for Biden, cited these reasons why he wanted to work for Biden on his return.

“This is a perfect example of Senator Biden’s leadership, “Mowrer told the Iowa Independent. “Joe Biden can bring Americans together to tackle the toughest issues ahead of us. Americans on the ground in Iraq need to know, without a doubt, that whoever the next commander-in-chief is, that they will always provide the troops under their command with the best leadership and proper equipment.

Over the last six months, Biden has repeatedly called on the administration to make the construction and deployment of MRAPs and protection from Explosively Formed Penetrators a national priority and to investigate the military’s failure to field this technology sooner. "When our commanders in the field tell us that these Mine Resistant Vehicles will reduce casualties by 67 to 80 percent, I cannot understand why the Administration’s wartime budget request falls far below the stated needs of our folks on the ground,” Biden said in a press release. “Providing our troops with the best possible protection should be a shared top priority. When American lives and limbs are on the line, giving anything less that 100 percent is not enough.”

Although Biden’s Democratic presidential rivals supported the Sept. MRAP legislation, this was a point of contention the first time Biden’s MRAP amendment came up for a vote as part of the Iraq $120 billion emergency spending bill in March. The measure included a Biden amendment allocating $1.5 billion to fast-track the MRAPs. The Senate approved the legislation 80-14, with Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Barack Obama of Illinois casting votes against the bill.

Biden took a lot of heat from the anti-war contingency that has argued his “yes” vote on the funding bill signaled a continued support of Bush’s failed policies in Iraq. Biden has countered on the campaign trail in Iowa that some things are worth losing an election over. “The funding was not for the war but for the troops,” Biden said at a stop in Iowa City. “When pushed, my colleagues who voted against that bill said they were trying to make a point. I don't make points about the physical safety of the kids we send to war. I don't want to fly any false colors with you. It's time to tell the truth, and the truth is that as long as we have troops over there, I will provide every single thing within my power to provide for their safety.”

This is where the support-the-troops rhetoric may prove troublesome for Biden’s campaign rivals. All of them have gone on public record indicating their support for the troops in Iraq before opposing or voting against the supplemental funding bill. Biden has been quick to point out that his opponents voted against funds for the troops to make a political point by sending a message to Bush. During an appearance at the Iowa State Fair, Biden said, “What did some of my colleagues say to why they voted against the money? They said they voted against the money to make a political point. Well, there is no political point worth my son’s life. There is no political point worth anybody’s life out there. None.”

With the recent passage of the second MRAP amendment, Biden’s rivals in the Senate were able to show their support the troops without fearing repercussions from the anti-war base. In doing so, Biden’s senatorial colleagues have cast a cloud of ambiguity on where they stand regarding troop funding. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards helped contribute to the ambiguity while speaking on “Meet the Press” this past Sunday. When asked by Tim Russert, “You now are in favor of cutting off funding, aren’t you?”, Edwards responded with “No, sir. No.”

Five months ago, just before Congress was to vote on the supplemental funding bill in March, Edwards urged Congress to defeat the bill. “Any compromise that funds the war through the end of (the) fiscal year is not a compromise at all -- it's a capitulation,” Edwards said in his remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations. “Every member of Congress -- every member of Congress should stand their ground on this issue and do everything in their power to block this bill.”

Edwards’ comments on Sunday prompted Biden to issue the following statement in Iowa Monday:

“I call on all the candidates running for the Democratic nomination for President -- regardless of their differing views of how to end war in Iraq -- to support our troops while they are there and as they are coming home. It is the one sacred obligation that we have to protect our men and women who are sent into battle.”

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Obama Launches Testimonial Ad to Combat Critics Doubts

To combat critics and political rivals who question the experience of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the campaign launched a new ad in Iowa featuring the testimonial of retired four-star General Merrill A. McPeak, who served in the Air Force for over 35 years. Gen. McPeak also served as a member of the Joints Chief of Staff and a combat pilot during the first war in Iraq.

“As a combat pilot and Air Force Chief during Desert Storm, lives depended on my judgments, and judgment is what we need from our next commander in chief,” McPeak says in the ad. Barack Obama had the foresight and courage to oppose the Iraq war from the start, showing courage and insight from the start that others did not.”

Obama’s new ad caps the campaign’s week-long “Judgment to Lead” tour in Iowa. In addition to McPeak’s endorsement, Obama received a testimonial earlier in the week from Ted Sorensen, former advisor to President John F. Kennedy, who introduced Obama at campaign stops. Sorensen drew parallels between Kennedy and Obama to help illustrate the tour’s underlying motifs: judgment and courage.

During a press-conference call, Gen. McPeak reiterated the ad’s message as to why he is committed to supporting Obama. “He has precisely the kind of judgment and courage that we need as our next commander in chief. The lives are at stake in combat and decisions are too important to rely on business-as-usual, inside-the-beltway kinds of conventional thinking,” McPeak said. “Obama wants fundamental change and to take the country into a new direction, and that’s what I want, and that’s what I hope the American people want as well.”

When asked to describe the circumstances surrounding his relationship with Obama, McPeak said that he had gotten to know Obama over the past six to eight months, but they had been on the same page before they met. “I’ve been writing op-ed pieces speaking out against the war in Iraq before the first invasion, so I’ve been on the same wavelength as the Senator,” said McPeak. “Frankly speaking, among this group of Democratic presidential candidates, I think he’s head-and-shoulders above them when it comes to possessing the best judgment to serve as our next commander in chief.

During the conference call, Obama’s Campaign Manager David Plouffe put any rumors to rest that the ad’s launch date was moved forward to counter the recent patriot-pin flap. Sensing his cue, Gen. McPeak chimed in about the latter. “The pin flap is kind of business-as-usual, gotcha politics,” McPeak said. “I think the Senator understands that patriotism is hard work. If you could do it by just putting a flag on your lapel, that would be pretty easy. Patriotism is hard work that comes from the heart, not the clothing. I think the American people are wise enough to understand the difference between this kind of petty symbolism and the real substance, real courage, and real judgment that Obama brings to this ballgame.”

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Senate Passes Harkin Provision Increasing Services for Guard and Reserve Families

Inspired by the Iowa National Guard’s 133rd Infantry Battalion, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, authored a measure that will increase support for families of those deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The provision, first introduced as the “Coming Together for Guard and Reserve Families Act,” works to strengthen the family assistance program and ensures adequate resources for Guard and Reserve families throughout the deployment cycle. Harkin’s provision was part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the U.S. Senate passed Monday by a vote of 92-3.

Harkin was compelled to introduce the measure after President Bush decided to escalate the number of troops deployed in Iraq. Soon thereafter, more than 600 Iowa soldiers with the 133rd Infantry of the Iowa National Guard were notified that their combat tours in Anbar Province would be extended to 16 months – the longest deployment of an Iowa National Guard unit since World War II. Harkin received scores of anguished letters and calls from their family members, who were already struggling – largely in isolation – with the stress of having their loved ones deployed in one of Iraq’s most violent regions.

“The Iraq war has required our national guardsmen and their families to make tremendous sacrifices. As I saw so clearly in the letters I received from the families of Iowa’s 133rd Infantry, the stress these deployments wreak upon soldiers’ families can be devastating,” Harkin said in a press release. “The Senate passed a bill that honors our national guardsmen by ensuring their families have support they need during their loved one’s deployment. We owe it to our brave soldiers abroad to ensure that we do all that we can to support their families here at home.”

Included in the Senate’s NDAA bill are Harkin’s measures to expand and strengthen the existing family assistance program. These measures authorize the secretary of defense to take these steps:

--Strengthen the family assistance program to provide family support staff to work with National Guard and Reserve families throughout the deployment cycle.

--Provide follow-up and referral information with family members of National Guard and Reserves for mental-health and family-support issues six months post-deployment.

--Create outreach programs to target professionals in child care, education, mental health and health care for the special needs of children in military families. The program will also provide outreach to parents for supporting children during the deployment cycle.

Originally posted on the "Iowa Independent"

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Distraction

First MoveOn’s “General Betray Us” ad, and now Rush Limbaugh’s “phony soldiers” remark. When I heard Rush Limbaugh had called Iraq veterans who favor a withdrawal from Iraq “phony soldiers,” all I could think was, here we go again, another bait-and-switch by the GOP distraction machine.

Despite their intention to up the ante on meaningful discussion on the Iraq war, MoveOn’s ad in the New York Times, ironically, served to feed the GOP’s bait-and-switch machine. The GOP, having mastered the art of bait-and-switch under Karl Rove’s helm, succeeded in making the discussion all about the ad itself, rather than about of the validity of Petraus’s report, which the ad was attempting to call into question. In doing so, the GOP dodged another bullet in being answerable for the war in Iraq. MoveOn is not to blame, however, for it was up to the Democratic Party whether they would take the bait from the Republicans. The Democrats took the bait–hook, line, and sinker.

A resolution denouncing the MoveOn ad not only made it to the Democratic-controlled Senate floor, it was actually debated for an hour before it passed 72-25. It’s moments like these that make me wonder, who’s controlling whom? Has Democratic control joined the ranks of other political oxymorons, such as campaign finance reform and political accountability?

Even former president Bill Clinton had something to say about the recent bait-and-switch tactics implored by the GOP.

Bill Clinton on CNN: “Bait-and-Switch”

Given the monumental distractions surrounding the Monica Lewinsky scandal and President Clinton’s subsequent impeachment, Clinton should know a thing or two about the GOP’s bait-and-switch powers.

And now, Rush Limbaugh has inadvertently perpetuated the growing distractions by dropping a “phony soldiers” bomb on Iraq veterans during his radio show. Following is the transcript of Limbaugh's comments with a caller on his program on Wednesday:

LIMBAUGH: There's a lot more than that that they don't understand. They can't even--if-- the next guy that calls here, I'm gonna ask him: Why should we pull--what is the imperative for pulling out? What's in it for the United States to pull out? They can't--I don't think they have an answer for that other than, "Well, we just gotta bring the troops home."

CALLER 2: Yeah, and, you know what–

LIMBAUGH: "Save the–keep the troops safe" or whatever. I–it's not possible, intellectually, to follow these people.

CALLER 2: No, it's not, and what's really funny is, they never talk to real soldiers. They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and talk to the media.

LIMBAUGH: The phony soldiers.

Iraq veterans and veterans groups have already taken action condemning Limbaugh’s remarks as they called for congressional Republicans to denounce Rush Limbaugh. In Iowa, the group “Americans Against the Escalation in Iraq” issued a press release calling for Iowa’s Republican congressional members, Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Tom Latham, to publicly denounce Limbaugh’s remark. (Rep. Steve King, the other Republican member of Iowa’s delegation, was not targeted in the campaign.)

"I served my country for five years in the Army Corp. of Engineers. I'm proud to have served and support the brave men and women in Iraq today. I know the tremendous strain the Iraq war is placing on our military, and I believe we need to come to some logical conclusion about responsibly pulling out of Iraq," Jesse Dinsdale, an Iraq War veteran, said in the release. "For Rush Limbaugh–a man that has never put on a uniform, much less gone to war– to call people like myself 'phony soldiers' is absurd... The war in Iraq has gone on for too long, and our troops and their families have sacrificed too much. Rush Limbaugh can talk all he wants about 'supporting the troops,' but this isn't support. It's offensive to all of our nation's soldiers and veterans, and Rush Limbaugh owes them an apology.”

Fat chance. The likelihood of Rush Limbaugh ever apologizing for something emitted from his mouth is about as likely as President Bush publicly apologizing for his Iraq War policy blunders and/or admitting he had made some egregious errors in implementing his war strategy. (For starters, I can’t even begin to imagine Bush pronouncing “egregious.”) This is one of the underlying reasons the GOP bait-and-switch machine has been so effective: discipline.

The GOP Fight Club has four primary rules they follow when engaging in distraction warfare:

First Rule: Never talk about GOP Fight Club.

Second Rule: Stay on the offensive.

Third Rule: When counterattacked, never admit you’re wrong.

Fourth Rule: When presented with overwhelming evidence proving that you’re wrong, review rules two and three.

It’s completely understandable that Iraq veterans would be upset by being called “phony soldiers.” This should be offensive to all veterans and non-veterans as well. Sure, the first instinct is to fight back, as did, the largest political group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. VoteVets released an internet-only ad targeting Limbaugh for his “phony soldier” comment and exposing his hypocrisy in the process.

"Rush Limbaugh has insulted the majority of US troops and veterans, who believe that we are on the wrong course in Iraq," Jon Soltz, Iraq War Veteran and Chair of said in a press release. "Their sacrifice is very real. The wounds many sustained are very real. The limbs they lost are very real. And their view that George W. Bush has this policy wrong is very real. The only phony here is Rush Limbaugh, who seems to think that he can pass judgment on us, when he's never had the guts to wear the uniform."

True, these Iraq veterans’ honor has been attacked, and they should go after Limbaugh and hold him accountable for his on-the-air blathering. But dragging these political skirmishes on to the Senate floor only serves to distract Congress from what they should be doing–crafting, debating and enacting legislation that supports the troops not only when they are deployed, but also when they return from their deployment battle-scarred, both emotionally and physically. Congress should be fighting to send more MRAP vehicles and other supplies to soldiers in Iraq; passing Sen. Jim Webb’s, D-Va., amendment that provides more downtime between deployments, enacting the Wounded Warriors Act, repealing the military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy,” replacing discretionary funding for Veterans affairs with mandated funding…and the to-do list goes on and on.

It is a matter of picking our, yes, our battles. Do we choose to take on Rush Limbaugh and the GOP attack machine, at the risk of losing sight of what’s important?

Or would it be best to consider the source, choose to ignore him, and move on?

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"