Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Iowa Guard unit returns home from Iraq

Approximately 130 soldiers from the 186th Military Police Company will return today from its recent deployment to Ira. A homecoming ceremony for the returning soldiers is scheduled for tonight at 7 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines.

The Johnston-based Iowa Army National Guard unit finished its second tour as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The unit was mobilized in Nov. 2007 and after undergoing additional training at Fort Dix, N.J., the unit, which provides security and law enforcement support, was assigned to the Central Command theater of operations and arrived in Iraq in Jan. 2008.

During its second tour in Iraq, the 186th MP was responsible for transporting 4,000 detainees; providing a law enforcement presence in the Strategic Debriefing Center; conducting detainee operations at Remembrance II, the Taji Theater Internment Facility Reconciliation Center; and transportation missions in support of Task Force 134’s juvenile re-integration school.

The 186th MP Company was previously mobilized from 2003-2004 for Operation Iraqi Freedom. They were also mobilized in 1995-96 in support of Operation Joint Endeavor (Bosnian peacekeeping operations), and in 1990-1991, when they deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Desert Storm.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Iowans say goodbye to guardsmen headed for Iraq

Not all eyes are on Tuesday’s upcoming election, in particular those of the approximately 310 Iowa National Guard soldiers and their family and friends, who said their goodbyes at sendoff ceremonies across the state Thursday.

The Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Guard Bureau, Washington, D.C., have ordered the 1133rd and 1168th Transportation Companies to federal active duty. The mobilization is part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Global War on Terrorism. The Soldiers will leave Iowa and report to Fort Bliss, Texas for additional preparation and training before departing for the Central Command theater of operation.

To honor the guardsmen, political dignitaries joined family and friends at the sendoff ceremonies in Audubon, Iowa City, Mason City, Perry and Marshalltown.

Audubon

Several hundred people crowded in to the Audubon High School to say goodbye to 65 members in Detachment 2 of the 1168th Transportation Company. They were joined by Gov. Chet Culver and U.S. Rep. Steve King, D-Iowa, who presided over the ceremony, the Caroll Daily-Times Herald reported.

"I'm here with a simple message," Culver, a surprise guest, told the soldiers standing at attention in six ranks before him. "To thank the members of the Guard for your service to our country, to our state, and to join every Iowan in honoring you as you are deployed."

"But as you depart, I want you to always remember you are not alone. We will always be here for you, and we will always be grateful for your service to the country that we love. Because our service members are Iowa's heroes…”


King remarked that he was impressed by Thursday's show of community support.

"I wasn't prepared for what I saw when we came over the hill here today at Audubon," he said, referring to the hundreds of vehicles parked outside.

"You come out, Audubon, Audubon County and the surrounding area. You come out to support our military men and women who have sent themselves up as volunteers to defend our freedom and promote freedom around the world. This is a powerful testimony to the best that America has to offer here in the heartland of America."
Iowa City

Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, joined 25 members in Detachment 1, 1133rd Transportation Company at the Regina High gymnasium in Iowa City, commending them for being both members of a community and defenders of it, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported.
"You are true patriots and you represent the best of America," Loebsack said. "You make Iowa and our nation proud."
Not everyone was excited about the upcoming deployment, including Jennifer -- the pregnant wife of Sgt. Nile Watkins-Schoening, who is preparing for his second deployment in three years.
Jennifer said she "was a little irate" when she heard her husband would deploy again. He also missed Eve's [his 2-year old daughter] birth, returning when she was already 15 months old after serving with the Iowa Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry from September 2005 to July 2007.
Marshalltown

Hundreds of well-wishers gathered at the Babe Harder Gymnasium on the Marshalltown Community College campus in Marshalltown to say goodbye to 40 members in Detachment 1, 1168th Transportation Company, the Marshalltown Times-Republican reported.

Kaleb Morrow of Centerville, who was previously deployed from 2003 to 2004 to Iraq admitted that the second deployment was going to more difficult since he is leaving behind his two young daughters, including 2-year-old Emilia and 2-month-old Alexandria, and his wife, Bernadette.
"It's going to be very rough to say goodbye," he said before the ceremony.

Morrow said he feels they are better equipped this time around especially when it comes to more armor.
Mason City

Hundreds of family members and friends filled the Mason City High School gymnasium to help send off 115 members of the 1133rd Transportation Company, the Mason City Globe-Gazette reported.

Lt. Gov. Patty judge spoke on behalf of Culver:
“Once before you have traveled to Iraq to protect the people of America and Iraq,” said Lt. Gov. Patty Judge. “There isn’t an Iowan who isn’t grateful for your sacrifices.”

“On behalf of Gov. Culver, myself and our families, we want you to know that we will be thinking of you, following your work and you will be in our prayers every day,” she said.
Several of the soldiers are serving their second deployment, including Staff Sgt. Scott Dunning, whose wife is expecting their first child, a boy, on Sunday.
“I’m due on Sunday,” she said. “That’s in three days.”

Looking at his wife, Dunning’s voice cracked, saying, “It makes it very, very difficult to leave.”
Perry

A sendoff ceremony was also planned for 65 members in the 1168th Transportation Company Perry High School gymnasium in Perry.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Iowa veterans cash in on lottery tickets

Iowa veterans and their families were the biggest winners in the Iowa Lottery’s most recent quarterly payout, which transferred $992,773 to the Veterans Trust Fund (VTF). The payout stemmed from sales of the $1 instant-scratch game, “Stars & Stripes,” between July and September 2008.

“We’re honored to have the opportunity to support those who have given so much for our country,” Ken Brickman, Iowa Lottery Acting CEO, said in a statement. “We thank our players for recognizing the importance of this cause and helping us provide a stable, ongoing source of revenue for the Iowa Veterans Trust Fund.”

The alliance between the Iowa Lottery and the VTF was spearheaded by Rep. McKinley Bailey, D-Webster City, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He sponsored legislation, House File 2359 earlier this year that authorized the lottery games and appropriated the funds to the VTF.

“Iowa’s veterans have served with dignity, and with excellence, and all veterans have the gratitude of every citizen,” Gov. Chet Culver said in a statement. “I was proud to sign this legislation earlier this year authorizing new lottery games to help support the Veterans Trust Fund. And now, the proceeds from those games will play a vital role in helping veterans and their loved ones around the state.”

Lawmakers created the VTF in 2003 with the intent of giving the state flexibility with regard to Iowa's returning veterans and their families, in particular when it comes to issues that aren't covered by federal funding, such as job training, unemployment assistance, travel expenses for wounded veterans related to follow-up medical care, nursing home care, counseling programs and honor guard services.

The trust fund was supposed to eventually contain $50 million in 10 years, but only $5 million has been appropriated to the fund thus far, and Gov. Chet Culver's 2008 budget did not contain any additional revenue for the fund, thus prompting Bailey to find an alternative source of funding.

The new lottery games are estimated to generate up to $3 million a year for the trust fund at a minimal impact on the general fund. The lottery’s second set of games to benefit veterans are scheduled to begin sales in January.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Iowa guard units receive orders for Afghanistan deployment

To help support the ongoing war effort in Afghanistan, approximately 310 Iowa National Guard soldiers have been ordered to federal active duty by the Department of Defense and the National Guard Bureau.

Members of the 1133rd and 1168th Transportation Companies will report immediately to their mobilization station at Fort Riley, Kan. for additional training and preparation before departing for the Afghanistan theater of operations. In Afghanistan, these soldiers will operate as a Regional Corps Advisory Group Embedded Training Team (“ETT”) to provide mentorship and advanced training to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.

The units are medium truck companies which transport equipment and supplies in a theater of operations and both served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004.

Community send-off ceremonies have been planned for Thursday, Oct. 30 in five different communities:

Aububon– Detachment 2, 1168th Transportation Company (approximately 65 Soldiers) -sendoff at 4 p.m., Audubon High School gymnasium, 800 3rd Ave., Audubon.

Iowa City – Detachment 1, 1133rd Transportation Company (approximately 25 Soldiers) -sendoff at 4:30 p.m., Regina High School gymnasium, 2150 Rochester Ave., Iowa City.

Mason City – 1133rd Transportation Company (approximately 115 Soldiers) - sendoff at 6 p.m., Mason City High School gymnasium, 1700 4th St. SE, Mason City.

Perry – 1168th Transportation Company (approximately 65 Soldiers) - sendoff at 7:30 p.m., Perry High School gymnasium, 1200 18th St., Perry.

Marshalltown – Detachment 1, 1168th Transportation Company (approximately 40 Soldiers) - sendoff at 7:30 p.m., Marshalltown Community College gymnasium, 3700 S. Center St., Marshalltown.

Monday, October 20, 2008

PTSD and Post Partum Depression: No Equal Defense before the Law?

The following a a guest column written by Bob Krause:

The Iowa Supreme Court's decision on the Heidi Anfinson case casts a new light into the shadows of mental illness and depression. The court ruled that the courts should have entertained evidence of depression and odd behavior that followed the birth of Anfinson's son. Anfinson allegedly drowned the child in Saylorville Lake a decade ago.

Although the tragic occurrence of the murder of Heidi's child by her was heinous, it has been recognized in medical circles and professional circles that an actual form of insanity sometimes occurs after child birth. It is called post-partum depression. The courts of Iowa will now allow evidence of the signs of it to be admitted in court during criminal proceedings.

But there are others in Iowa, some sitting in jail today without treatment, for an equally oppressive form of metal illness that they acquired often in the defense of America. That illness is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and it deserves a like legal review to post-partum depression.

Today in Iowa, PTSD cannot be used as a defense in an insanity or diminished capacity plea before a jury. Not even military medical records diagnosing a soldier or veteran with PTSD can be entered in defense. It is only after conviction that the court can entertain PTSD records – not to prescribe treatment, but for consideration in sentencing.

PTSD does not have the same sympathetic ring as post-partum depression. But it is with us, and it is common. 480,000 of those returning from Vietnam (15.2% of men and 8.1% of women) had it. 168,000 of those Vietnam vets still have it. Of those, according to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study of 1988, ½ (around 240,000) were jailed at least once, 35% more than once, and 11.5% were convicted of felonies.

Today, some estimate that 20 percent of soldiers and 42 percent of reservists have returned from Iraq with some kind of psychological problem. Much of this is PTSD related. And the "canary in the coal mine" indicator of pervasive PTSD problems -- Army suicides -- more than doubled since 2001, hitting a 27-year high in 2007.

Many in my generation can relate to this as they saw friends and loved ones that served that bounced slowly down the razor-blade of life, not really quite fitting in after service. This generation will be "blessed" to see much of the same. And, with the high number of Guard and Reserve mobilizations in Iowa, the problem may be more significant.

I do not have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but as a retired Army Reserve officer from the immediate post-Vietnam era, I have learned about it well over the course of a career.

My eyes first opened to the phenomena as a young captain in the 1133rd Transportation Company, Iowa Army National Guard in Mason City. One of my soldiers, Louis, a Vietnam veteran and a capable sergeant, disappeared early one morning.

Louis had been a tunnel rat in Vietnam. For those of this generation, a tunnel rat was a person that crawled into narrow enemy underground bunkers. It was a death-defying feat for the practitioners, and it had obviously had an impact on Louis.

That day, several years after the fact, Louis flashed back when he crawled under one of our trucks to change the oil. In his mind, he was back in a tunnel in Vietnam in a stand-off with a Viet Cong soldier. In this mental vise, he could not move forward, and he could not move backward. So he froze – for about six hours.

When we found Louis, he was embarrassed by what had occurred, but obviously changed and un-nerved. He quit the National Guard shortly after that, and I am embarrassed that at the time I did not know enough about PTSD to get him proper referrals. But, I was not alone in my lack of knowledge.

That evening, after the troops had left for the day, I asked my recruiting non-commissioned officer, also a Vietnam veteran, what he knew about Louis. Ron was also a Vietnam veteran and had his own little hell to live. Ron's was a traveling flash-back. Once a month or so as Ron was driving down the road, the windshield would suddenly become covered with gore and blood. He would stop the car, take a deep breath, and then start driving again. These episodes came from a mortar attack where the body of a soldier had been smeared across the windshield of the truck he was driving.

But these are just two old events of another generation. We have many good examples that we will be able to point to for this generation. I can assure you that many of these cases will wind up in the courts. Untreated, PTSD symptoms can become more severe. Drugs and alcohol are often part of escape from the pain and insomnia, and these in turn can trigger more grief. Jobs are lost; marriages are ruined, and fear-response mechanisms can breed violence. I have been involved in the periphery of a legal case in northern Iowa regarding such a young man of this generation. He was formally an upstanding businessman prior to a short notice mobilization with his Guard unit. Unfortunately he fell into calamity upon return, in part because of the consequences of the mobilization, and in major part because of his own personal reactions to his own PTSD.

Surely, he deserves the right to tell his case to the jury also, not just the judge, at sentencing.

Bob Krause is a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army reserve. He is past state president of the Reserve Officers Association and past state chair of the Iowa Democratic Veterans' Caucus. He is currently roving ambassador for the Iowa Democratic Veterans' Caucus.

Friday, October 17, 2008

UI vets critical of McCain’s record on veterans’ issues

In light of Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain’s recent “D” score on the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America report card, some members of the University of Iowa Veterans Association sounded off on their fellow veteran, The Daily Iowan reported.
“There’s a difference between the public John McCain who’s a POW and the John McCain who votes consistently against veterans’ benefits,” said sophomore Drew Hjelm, who supports Libertarian candidate Bob Barr. “I don’t see why that’s not a big talking point for [Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s] camp. … John McCain is just way off-base.”

“I think five years as a POW earns you a lot of things most people don’t deserve — but the presidency is not one of them,” added senior Scott Lyon, who is also leaning toward Barr.
Criticisms against McCain were lobbed during a UI Veterans Association meeting Wednesday at the Communications Center on the UI campus.

During the meeting, Aaron Schlumbohm, a member of the UI Veterans Association and an Obama backer, admitted he was surprised by McCain’s low evaluation “because I bought into the myth, the McCain myth,” the DI reported.

McCain’s Democratic rival, Sen Barack Obama, received a “B” on the IAVA report card.

However, Ben Hayden, a McCain supporter and state captain of the Vets for Freedom took issue with the IAVA’s report card rating, reference his organization’s “A-” rating of McCain, which praised McCain for his support of the Iraq war.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

McCain scores ‘D’ on veteran report card; Obama, Iowa delegation above average

With four weeks remaining before the election, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) released its report cards on members of the 110th Congress. Grading was based on legislation that affected veterans and their families.

In the Senate, Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona earned a ‘D’ on the report card, while his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, finished the term with a ‘B.’ Grades were based on nine votes covering a range of issue including veterans’ health care, the new GI Bill, mental health and support for homeless veterans.

Both of the nominees’ grades were hindered by their attendance. While hitting the campaign trail for potential votes, McCain missed six of the nine votes, while his counterpart, Obama, missed four of the votes.

The IAVA, the largest organization of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, says it is committed to holding elected officials accountable through its nonprofit, nonpartisan 501, the IAVA Action Fund. The advocacy group released the report card on Oct. 6 to educate American voters on the voting records of elected officials and hold them them accountable for their actions regarding the 1.7 million veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The report card scores are based on how often legislators voted in favor of pro-veteran positions that align with the IAVA Action. All of the bills were equally weighted, except the 21st Century GI Bill, which was doubled because it was the IAVA’s top legislative priority.

The latter boded well for Obama, who co-sponsored the bill, but adversely affected McCain, who not only did not support the final version of the bill, but, while fundraising in California, missed the vote. McCain did co-sponsor an alternative bill, which was quickly shot down in the Senate, because it conflicted with Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb’s version of the bill.

Voting against the new GI Bill affected Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who received a ‘C’ on the report card, while his colleague Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, received the highest rating, an ‘A+’.

In the House, Iowa’s freshmen Democrats, Reps. Bruce Braley, District 1, and Dave Loebsack,District 2, joined Harkin at the top with an ‘A+.’ They were closely followed by Reps. Leonard Boswell, D- District 3 and Tom Latham, R- District 4, who received an ‘A,’ and Rep. Steve King, R-District 5, who earned a ‘B’.

The IAVA used 13 votes in the House to assess grades

Friday, October 3, 2008

Déjà vu? GOP obstructionism delays military suicide-prevention bill

Despite the steady rise in suicides among active-duty service members, congressional politics trumped an amendment to the recently passed Defense of Defense Reauthorization Bill that would have helped address this increasing problem.

Although Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was pleased with some of the measures in the bill that will help military members and their families, he was disappointed that his suicide-prevention measure, along with a measure to fix a pay glitch that shortchanged National Guard troops, were casualties of partisan politics.

“While I am glad my colleagues in the Senate have passed this important legislation, I was disappointed to hear that two fundamental measures that I pushed for were needlessly blocked by one member of the minority party,” Harkin said in a statement. “My amendment to help prevent suicide among active-duty service members and an amendment I co-signed that would have fixed a pay glitch that shortchanged many National Guard troops both fell tonight because of Republican obstructionism.

“The Army has reported that, as of the end of August, 62 soldiers have committed suicide so far this year and another 31 deaths appear to be suicides,” Harkin said in a statement. “If this pace continues, that could mean the number of suicides in 2008 would eclipse the 115 suicides recorded in 2007. These startling statistics should serve as a wake-up call that suicide among soldiers and veterans is more than a problem, it is an emergency. My amendment would have created a comprehensive suicide prevention program including annual training for all service members, improved instruction for field medics and post deployment assistance.”

The suicide-prevention amendment introduced by Harkin was one of 101 eventually scrapped by the majority party in the Senate, who feared that an amendment introduced by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., might reframe the debate over the amendments to a debate over pork-barrel spending – something the Democrats want to avoid in election-year politics.

Another amendment co-sponsored by Harkin and left by the wayside would have retroactively reimbursed soldiers shortchanged during a bureaucratic lapse. “Currently, there are more than 600 Iowa National Guard service members who have not received their earned leave due to a delay between the announcement of a new leave program by the Department of Defense and the establishment of the program by the individual services,” Harkin said in a statement.

DeMint, employing an obstructionist tactic, introduced an amendment that would have would have given the Department of Defense authority to ignore up to $5 billion of earmarks found not in the bill, but buried in the bill's report.

This is not the first time that a suicide-prevention measure aimed at helping service members was caught in the partisan crossfire and nearly killed by GOP obstructionism.

Despite overwhelming bipartisan congressional support for the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act, which was introduced by Harkin in August 2007, the measure was held up by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who put a hold on it. Coburn called the bill insulting to veterans and warned that its mandatory mental health screening could harm their future job options. “I’m going to continue to hold this bill until we work on the issues to guarantee freedoms of the veterans in terms of the tracking,” Coburn said on the Senate floor.

The obstructionist move drew the ire of Harkin, who was surprised by Coburn’s hold. “The Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act has received intense scrutiny, including two hearings in the House and three in the Senate,” Harkin said on the Senate floor in September 2007. “The bill has been strongly endorsed by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled Veterans of America, and other veterans groups. So it is a travesty to have this bill held up, now, by a single Senator for reasons that are completely bogus.”

The Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention bill was first introduced in the House by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, who named the bill after a soldier from his district in Grundy Center, Iowa, who took his own life after returning from Iraq. The bill directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to step up screening, counseling and other mental health services for returning war veterans by mandating this process. The House bill overwhelmingly passed in March 2007 by a vote of 423 to 0.

In the Senate, however, Coburn objected to the unanimous consent request, citing concerns that veterans’ access to purchasing guns may be hindered. Harkin refuted Coburn’s claim on the Senate floor: “And his principal reason for doing so is completely baseless,” Harkin said. “He speculates that if we have mandatory screening of all veterans for suicide risk, the resulting medical data might be used to deny a veteran the right to purchase handguns. No medical professional can refer an individual to the background check system that would limit access to firearms. This can only be done through the judicial system.”

Eventually, with the help of his colleague Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Harkin helped usher the bill through the Senate in late September 2007. Grassley took the leadership role on the Republican side and helped persuade Coburn to lift the hold, before it passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and was signed into law by President Bush shortly thereafter.

The fate of Harkin’s new suicide-prevention and the National Guard pay-glitch amendments remain uncertain at this point, although Harkin has vowed to keep fighting for these measures until they pass.

As he said in a recent statement: “The demise of these two common-sense amendments to the Defense Authorization Bill is unfortunate and unfair to the men and women who serve our country so courageously.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Native Iowa soldier killed in Afghanistan

The Department of Defense announced Monday that Staff Sgt. Nathan M. Cox, 32, was killed Sept. 20 in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, when his vehicle encountered an improvised explosive device. Cox, a native of Walcott, was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas, which deployed to Afghanistan in July.

Cox, who graduated from Davenport Central High School, is survived by his wife, Annie Cox, a native of Princeton, Iowa and their five-year old daughter Sophia Cox.

Friends of Cox remember him for his sense of humor and calm nature, The Quad-City Times reports.

Cox was the 68th person with Iowa ties to die in Iraq and Afghanistan since March 2003.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Despite flood losses, annual event for homeless vets marches on

Because of this summer’s flood damage in Cedar Rapids, the annual "Stand Down" for homeless and nearly-homeless veterans has been stripped down from three days to only one: Friday, Sept. 19, at the Armed Forces Reserve Center, 1599 Wenig Road NE.

"We lost our place and we lost every piece of donation and every [Veterans Administration] supply that we had in the basement at Veterans Memorial Colosseum," Linn County Veteran Affairs Director Don Tyne told The Cedar Rapids Gazette. "With the other social service agencies also impacted by the flood, they probably only had the assets to do a one-day event."

A Stand Down, according to the Vietnam Veterans of San Diego Stand Down’s step-by-step procedural manual (1995) “… is an intervention that was conceived from the ground up specifically designed for veterans. It is designed to transform the despair and immobility of the homeless into the momentum necessary to get into recovery, to resolve legal issues, to seek employment, to access health services and benefits, to reconnect with the community and get off the street."

Although veterans are the intended target of the Cedar Rapids Stand Down, the event is open to all non-veterans, homeless or near-homeless, as well.

Gauging the number of homeless veterans in Iowa or the Unites States is a difficult task, because it’s hard to track veterans once they leave the service and no records are kept on this population. However, the U.S. Department of Veterans Administration estimates that nearly 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Urban Institute, 1999) estimates that veterans account for 23 percent of all homeless people in America.

The event runs from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is free to attend. Showers will be provided and attendees will be provided food (breakfast and lunch will be served), clothing, assessment screenings and will have access to a number of community service providers, including representatives from the housing, employment, substance-abuse treatment and the VA and Social Security benefits counseling sectors.

Moreover, organizations such as the Area Substance Abuse Council, Iowa Legal Aid, the IRS, Social Security, the VA Substance Abuse Program and VA Medical and Mental Health will offer classes from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Forty-one service organizations participated in last year’s Stand Down, which provided relief for 84 participants (55 veterans and 29 non-veterans).

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A conscientious objector's journey: From Iowa to Abu Ghraib and back

Growing up in a military and evangelical Christian family in Cedar Rapids, little did Joshua Casteel know that two powerful forces would be battling for his soul in a notorious Iraqi prison known as Abu Ghraib.

In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004, Casteel, 24, who served with the Army’s 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion as an Arabic translator and U.S. Army interrogator inside the prison, faced an internal struggle between his sense of duty as a soldier and his moral and religious obligations.

After he had executed over 100 interrogations, Casteel’s internal battle coalesced in the case of a 22-year-old Saudi detainee, a self-proclaimed Jihadi who never fired a gun in his life, yet came to Iraq to fill his cousin’s shoes.

Ironically, Casteel, who had already been fighting a moral struggle before the interrogation, ended up being the one interrogated.

“When the Saudi told me that I wasn’t following Jesus, I told him he was right,” Casteel told the Iowa Independent during an interview. “If anything, I should be in his shoes, because the people who are the most important to me in my life were prisoners: Jesus, Saint Paul, anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King. They were never the captors.”

It was this epiphany that convinced Casteel to tell his commanding officer that he couldn’t interrogate the Saudi prisoner anymore because he saw him as a 22-year-old kid and a person, not an object of exploitation.

“I couldn’t argue with him about the virtue of nonviolence, so it was at this point I decided that I needed to make a practical decision in my life,” Casteel said. “I, too, had to lead by example.”

Casteel’s conscience and morality as a human being overcame his duty as a soldier, and it was here that he initiated the process of filing for conscientious objector status, eventually ending his military career.

“I didn’t tell anyone over there about these struggles except my best friend,” Casteel said. “Although I did process them through e-mail messages that I had been writing to my family and friends back home. These letters ended up serving as the background for my CO status, illustrating my growing resistance to violence.”
Moreover, these e-mails sent home from the confines of the Abu Ghraib prison served as the foundation of Casteel’s book, “Letters from Abu Ghraib,” which was published this year – just before Casteel began his final year at the University of Iowa nonfiction writers' workshop.

“I had this huge vat of correspondence that showed the trajectory of becoming a CO,” Casteel said. “I never wrote these letters with the intent of publication, and it wasn’t until I got hooked up with my editor at Essay Press, Eula Biss, a graduate from the UI’s nonfiction writing program, that I decided to publish them. Since I was too close to the material, I needed Biss to help shape the material and streamline an arc that I couldn’t see.”

Casteel, who had another month-and-a-half of interrogating left in 2004 after his decision to file as a CO, wanted to complete his tour in Iraq. “After telling my company commander that I was filing for CO, I refused to go to the promotion board, because I didn’t want to say the NCO [noncommissioned officer] creed,” Casteel said. “I didn’t believe it anymore, but I [said I] didn’t want to hand in my weapon until I returned to the States. I would continue the tour and wouldn’t demand being made a noncombatant, but I told my commander that if he would rather have somebody who is not nervous about pulling the trigger, then he might want to consider that.”

Casteel completed his tour, returned to the United States in January 2005, submitted his CO paperwork in February and was honorably discharged in May.

“This is wildly fast for a CO to get processed and discharged," he said. "I had never heard of such a quick turnaround. Under the military’s ‘Needs of the Army' clause, a CO is a lag to morale, so the military didn’t want me around killing morale.”

Casteel soon enrolled in the UI’s graduate playwright workshop, graduating with an M.F.A. in 2008. As a student in the workshop, he wrote a play about his experiences as an Abu Ghraib interrogator, which premiered at the UI Theaters in February.

Since his return to civilian life, Casteel has been very active in spreading his message through organizations such as the Catholic Peace Fellowship, Iraq Veterans Against the War and UI Anti-War Committee, and he facilitated a panel discussion during the Winter Soldier hearings in Washington, D.C.

“I started doing a lot of public speaking after I left the military, and the more I spoke, the more people wanted copies of my speeches,” he said.

While collaborating with the IVAW, Casteel and other members formed a writing group, Warrior Writers, which recently published a book.

Casteel also shared his experiences on camera in the documentary film, “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers," and portions of his “Letters from Abu Ghraib” will be excerpted in the October edition of Harper's Magazine.

Iowa Independent interview with Joshua Casteel:

Iowa Independent: Having grown up in an evangelic Christian household, what compelled you to join the military?

Casteel: I also grew up in a military family. My grandfather fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. My father was a captain in the military, and my aunt also served n the Army. I had ambitions of going to West Point, so I enlisted in the military when I was 17 to bolster my chances of getting in to the West Point Academy.

Iowa Independent: How did that pan out for you?

Casteel: After graduating valedictorian from Cedar Rapids Washington High School, I was accepted into West Point. Unfortunately, I hated West Point and had no idea what I was getting into. I thought I would be surrounded by a bunch of people like me, who were intellectually curious, but that was not the case. I did not like the military culture in the classroom, and this environment squelched my intellectual curiosities. I ended dropping out the first month and did ROTC for a year, before transferring to Colorado Christian University.

Iowa Independent: So how did you end up back in the military?

Casteel: 9-11 happened. Plus, I’ve always had some political aspirations, and I didn’t want people to think of me as somebody like President Bush, whose military experience is suspect. I was interested in learning a foreign language, and the only job that guaranteed foreign language training was an interrogator, so I re-enlisted and was deployed immediately after I had completed my year and a half of training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, where I studied Arabic.

Iowa Independent: Given your religious upbringing, did you have any reservations about going over to Iraq, especially knowing what had happened at the Abu Ghraib prison?

Casteel: Yes. While I was attending the language institute, where most of the instructors were Iraqi Catholics, I watched the morning news with one of my instructors, whose family lives there, and watched Baghdad get pulverized. That personal connection really shook me up. I would go back and forth between ‘I’m in this. Let’s go the whole nine yards’ to ‘What the hell is going on? I don’t believe in violence, and I should file for CO status.’

So before deployment I decided I wanted to be a noncombatant and help soldiers, so I applied and was accepted to seminary. Unfortunately I got accepted two weeks before deployment, so I would have to wait until I returned. I left all of my pacifist literature at home and went to Iraq, thinking to myself that I should know what it is like to be a soldier before I administer to them.

Iowa Independent: Having been deployed in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal, did you find yourself plopped in a hostile environment?

Casteel: The locals knew about the scandal, and they were pissed. The prisoners were also terrified of us. When I was there, the world’s cameras were upon us so, but unfortunately this did not stop the dark activity that had been going on; it just moved away from the prison. Special forces teams and mobile interrogation units were still using questionable techniques.

Iowa Independent: What do you mean by dark activity and questionable techniques?

Casteel: Special forces units, private contractors and the CIA were using induced hypothermia, sensory deprivation, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and smashed prisoners fingers with hammers as a means of extracting information. A really common technique used was shackling a prisoner’s ankles and hands to a loop at the bottom of a shipping container while blaring music and flashing lights for extended periods of time, thus inducing sensory and sleep deprivation. Sometimes dogs would be used as well.

Iowa Independent: What was your role as an Arabic translator and interrogator?

Casteel: I served specifically on a team that interrogated terrorists and foreign fighters. My job was to find information that would help battlefield commanders with missions.

The textbook definition of interrogation is to exploit the greatest amount of information in the least amount of time. We would use the phrase "tactical exploitation" causally all of the time. I was reading Pope John Paul II at the time, and he described the current age as “the culture of death,” which he defines as any time one reduces a human being to an object as a means to an end of exploitation, you participate in the culture of death.

I conducted over 130 interrogations, and I can count on one hand the number of people who were guilty of anything more than being Arab.

Iowa Independent: So who were you interrogating?

Casteel: I interrogated taxi drivers, laborers and young fathers. Units would go out looking for four people and would come back with 80. The problem was that all of the linguists, those who had cultural training, were back with me, so soldiers with little knowledge of the culture were rounding up anyone who looked suspicious in their mind, which meant carrying an AK-47.

What they didn’t know is that the terrorists involved in the violence were a maximum of 2 percent. Political insurgency, people tied to political movements, was 30 to 35 percent. Most of the violence came from the Tribal Defense System, which is like neighborhood watch with guns. They are mainly trying to keep their people safe, and they might be fighting other Iraqis, coalitions or anyone they deem as a threat to their neighborhood. So our soldiers would see these guys and would suspect they may be working for Osama bin Laden, whereas they may just be guarding an alley for safety reasons.

Iowa Independent: When did you begin sensing that your religious faith and your sense of duty as a soldier were clashing?

Casteel: There was this painting at the chapel we used in Abu Ghraib which had this huge, beefy-looking Jesus, who looked like Brian Uhrlacher, a barrel-chested linebacker. He was surrounded by soldiers in combat poses with M-60s and M-16s, and there were a bunch of blue-skinned angels with gold, glowing swords flying about. After meeting the Saudi, I felt like this painting was a good metaphor for America and how things worked out in American Christianity. The painting conveyed the message that Combat Jesus helps me kick my enemies' ass.

I didn’t like that idea.

Iowa Independent: What do you see as your new calling in the post-Abu Ghraib, post-military world?

Casteel: I’m interested in spreading the notion of political nonviolence and teaching Christians about their faith. There is no such thing as Combat Jesus. The single most important issue when it comes to Christianity and violence is nationalism. It is the single most divisive thing that can push a Christian from a discussion of ethics to a discussion about law. I never heard a Christian say that violence is a good thing and hating people is OK. But there has always been a way to frame it so that violence is no longer personal. It is policy.

What I experienced in Iraq is that I had a unique view from the battlefield. I actually had to talk to the enemy. I knew the names and ages of their kids. How long it had been since they had seen their wives. They had real questions about our democracy and how it worked.

The language our leadership use is always purely policy. Nations have interests, and it is no longer about people. As long as we stay within the language of policy, rather than talking about pain which is never talked about, when it comes to the politics of war. … We have given countries and institutions emotions instead of people.

Iowa Independent: What do you think should happen in Iraq?

Casteel: Nothing can happen without deep, serious conversation with Iran, Syria and Jordan. It is their part of the world. Every time I hear somebody say we need to withdraw with honor, I want to throw my shoe at the television or radio. When did Iraq’s stability have anything to do with our honor? We need to fess up to the fact that we did a very dishonorable thing; that would be the honorable thing to do.

We are always concerned about our interests in the long run. The building of the 14 permanent bases in Iraq needs to stop immediately. On the one hand I am more concerned about individuals than policy and using the political power of “no.” I don’t simply think the war in Iraq is the fault of a bunch of neocons; it is the fault of individuals who said “yes” and bought into the myth of nationalism. People, especially the working class, need to be educated that they have no duty of passing on an aristocracy.

Here is what I would say to soldiers: ‘No soldier is obliged to follow an order that is contrary to God.’ Sadly enough our laws don’t allow the conscience the full scope of freedom. For example, we don’t have selective conscientious objection in our country. You can’t object to unjust wars. Once you are in, you are in; you cannot pick and choose your wars, which basically turns our soldiers into indentured servants.

There are plenty of European countries that have selective CO. There has been no declaration of war since World War II, which means wars go through appropriations. This means that the mechanism of fighting wars that our constitution dictates has been bypassed, so individual soldiers are no longer being represented by their elected leaders in Congress. They are being turned into mercenaries. In a democracy, it is the responsibility of individuals to hold their elected officials responsible when they are unjust.

That means we have to care about things like education in our country.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Iowa sends guardsmen to help with Gustav recovery

As part of a national effort, the Iowa National Guard sent 245 guardsmen to Louisiana Sunday to help residents brace for Hurricane Gustav and the impending aftermath, the Des Moines Register reported:
Lt. Col. Gregory Hapgood, Guard spokesman, said the units are from Camp Dodge in Johnston, Sheldon, Davenport and Sioux City. They include a Chinook helicopter from Davenport, a 180-member transportation company from Sheldon and a 50-member company from the 185th Combat Support Sustainment Battalion based at the Camp Dodge headquarters.

Hapgood said Louisiana asked for the support under an agreement among the various state National Guard operations in which they help each other respond to disasters.

The CH-47 Chinook helicopter from Davenport, capable of lifting 20,000 pounds, arrived by midday Sunday, with the 185th Air Refueling Wing from Sioux City supporting the mission. The 2168th Transportation Company out of Sheldon left Sunday and was expected to arrive today. Davenport's Company B, 2nd Battalion, 211th General Support Aviation Battalion is involved with the Chinook operations. The Camp Dodge unit is on the way.

The Iowa units will help with evacuations and supply transportation and general recovery support, Hapgood said.
The latest reports, as of Monday evening, indicate that Gustav is losing strength as it moves inland and has been downgraded to a Category One hurricane with winds of 75 mph, the Florida-based National Hurricane Center reports.

Nonetheless, an estimated two million people have inland from the Louisiana coast, so the guardsmen will have their hands full with recovery efforts and helping transports supplies and people back to their homes.

After this summer’s unprecedented flooding in Iowa, guardsmen are no strangers to providing flood relief and support to flood victims. Just over 4,000 Iowa guardsmen and airmen were activated during the ongoing response to the flooding in Iowa this summer. Currently, 9,400 men and women serve in the Iowa National Guard, 1,500 of whom are currently deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations outside of Iowa.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Iowa National Guard soldiers mobilize for Afghanistan deployment

Members of the Iowa National Guard have been ordered to active duty to combat the recent surge of violence and Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.

The Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Guard Bureau, Washington, D.C., have ordered to federal active duty approximately 20 selected Soldiers from various Iowa Army National Guard units. The alert and mobilization is part of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Global War on Terrorism.

To honor the guardsmen, nearly 300 people attended a send-off ceremony Monday at Camp Dodge in Johnston.

The soldiers will report immediately to their mobilization station at Fort Riley, Kan. for additional training and preparation before departing for the Afghanistan theater of operations. In Afghanistan, these soldiers will operate as a Regional Corps Advisory Group Embedded Training Team to provide mentorship and advanced training to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

VoteVets hopes to make politics in Iowa friendlier to veterans

Because of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans have seen not only a surge in their ranks, but more emphasis on veterans-related issues in politics, as well. In an attempt to corral and empower the veterans’ voice in the political theater, the VoteVets.org Political Action Committee formed to help Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans get elected to public office.

“If we are able to help elect veterans, they are more likely to give more consideration to veterans’ issues while serving in office,” James Mowrer, Iowa director and senior adviser to VoteVets.org, told the Iowa Independent during a telephone interview. “They will be in place to support returning veterans and will help put in policies that support military strategies that are more realistic and feasible than the current administration."

Before taking over the Iowa helm of VoteVets.org in January, Mowrer served with the Iowa National Guard’s I-133rd Infantry Battalion, which was deployed to Iraq for 22 months, from October 2005 to August 2007. While serving in Iraq, Mowrer gathered, analyzed and synthesized intelligence for the military.

“I believe that the more veterans we elect to office, the less likely our country is to go to war,” Mowrer said. “I think this notion holds true because veterans have experienced war firsthand, and they know what it means to send our troops into harm’s way. They aren’t going to do it unless there is a very good, compelling reason to do so.”

VoteVets.org primarily focuses on federal offices but has recently expanded its efforts to the state level. Such was the case in Iowa in 2006, when Votevets.org endorsed a successful bid by McKinley Bailey, D-Webster City, for the Iowa House. Bailey, an Iraq war veteran, has helped lead the charge for veterans, helping push through a number of bills during his first term, including the recent passage of a bill that would help build the Veterans Trust Fund through the implementation of three new Iowa Lottery games.

“The state level plays a big role on how our veterans our treated, because they can put policies into place that directly affect veterans,” Mowrer said. “In some areas, the state government has more power than the federal, because they can pass and implement legislation faster. They don’t have to wade through all of the bureaucracy at the federal level.”

Mowrer said he would like to see VoteVets.org focus more at the grass-roots level. “A lot of state-elected officials will move on to seek federal office, so it is in our best interest to focus on electing veterans at the grass-roots level as well,” Mowrer said.

From citizen soldier to veterans’ advocate

Mowrer’s experiences in Iraq served as the foundation for his wanting to become more involved with military and veterans' issues when he returned to Iowa.

“I got involved with politics and VoteVets because I saw a lot of issues not being addressed by the current administration,” Mowrer said. “I also see a number of veterans’ issues that will need to be addressed, that are not currently being addressed by the Veterans Administration, for this new wave of vets returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

One of the biggest issues that Mowrer saw while in Iraq was the lack of leadership and no concrete plan or military strategy for winning the war. “There was no realistic, comprehensive plan to end our involvement -- at least in combat operations," Mowrer said. “In any military operation, there needs to be some sort of desired ends date and this goal needs to be made clear to the troops and the citizens of the country. There was no strategy in place that would allow that to happen. There was no leadership on the ground pointing troops in the direction of what needs to be done.”

No clear plan for the war in Iraq is what inspired Mowrer to sign on with the presidential campaign of Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., before ending his tour of duty in Iraq. Drawn to Biden’s plan for Iraq, Mowrer served as the chair for Vets for Biden before Biden dropped out of the race.

Moreover, Mowrer points his finger at the current administration and leadership for damaging the military through its use of extended and multiple deployments. “When you have an all-volunteer force, their service needs to be treated with respect in order to maintain a strong, capable military force,” Mowrer said. “We have had to invest a large amount of money in enlistment and reenlistment bonuses to bring new people into the military and to retain those who have already fulfilled their initial commitment.”

VoteVets.org vow to hold public officials accountable

Another stated primary goal of VoteVets is to “hold public officials accountable for their words and actions that impact America’s 21st century servicemembers; and fully support our men and women in uniform.”

With the presidential general election in full swing, this pledge has come to fruition. “VoteVets is obviously interested in getting involved with the presidential campaign, making sure both candidates are addressing veterans’ issues and putting a feasible strategy for winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into place.” Mowrer said. “We are making sure they are answering the tough questions when it comes to the welfare of our veterans and deployment issues facing those who are currently serving in the military.”

VoteVets recently ran ads holding the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen, John McCain of Arizona, accountable for his record on the 21st Century GI Bill, which was recently passed by Congress and signed into law by the president.

“Sen. McCain is a veteran and uses that as part of his resume, which is completely reasonable, but what is shocking is that he neglected his responsibilities to his fellow veterans,” Mowrer said. “Not only did he miss the vote on the bill, but he was on record opposing the current bill as well, citing fiscal concerns. We have a hard time buying this argument when the funding for the new GI bill could be covered with one week's funding of the war in Iraq.

“What this says to us is that McCain is willing to send people into harm’s way, but is not willing to provide them with the resources they need to be successful when they return home from the war. A recent study shows that for every dollar we invest in veterans’ education, we see a $7 return on this investment.”

Mowrer says VoteVets is also concerned with the candidates’ future plans for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We are a pro-military organization, and we are in favor of a winnable, feasible strategy, but the definitions need to be specifically defined by the candidates,” Mowrer said. "What is our victory? What is the desired ends date and how do we get there?”

VoteVets recently released an ad (see below) pointing out that McCain is opposing a timetable while the Iraq government has asked the United States to implement one. “So we have put a democratically elected government in place in Iraq, and now we are defying the will of the Iraqi people through their government. To me that is a dangerous course of action is contradictory to what our motives should be. There needs to be a political solution in place that allows some political stability that allows our troops to eventually to withdraw. We cannot keep our troops thee for an indefinite period of time.”





Nonpartisanship and the swift-boat factor

Despite recent ads calling McCain’s policies and comments into question, Mowrer insisted that VoteVets is nonpartisan. “We are looking to hold both candidates responsible, so we would run ads critiquing Sen. Obama as well, if he should offer a policy or say something that we feel doesn’t support veterans,” Mowrer said.

Moreover, Mowrer addressed concerns that VoteVets.org may be partisan. “We have endorsed Republicans and Democrats for Congress,” Mowrer said. “We have held politicians and candidates on both sides accountable for what they say and do. When we have been critical of Republican candidates, the Republican Party has attempted to paint us as a Democrat-leaning organization, but they are not going to argue with us when we are critical of Democrats.”

To help appease any fears that VoteVets.org may be another swift-boating group, Mowrer drew distinctions between a PAC and 527 issue groups such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. “Obviously we are against any attack on someone’s honorable military service, so we will be the first organization to come to the defense of any candidate whose record is unjustly attacked,” Mowrer said. “We will not hesitate to defend them, regardless of where they may be on the political spectrum.

“We may not agree with the candidates on the issues, but we might address those in a different context,” Mowrer said. “We have difference with veterans running for office, and we will address these differences in an honest format.”

ts for Freedom seeks to rebuild support for war

Feeling slighted by the media’s portrayal of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an advocacy group composed of combat veterans is on a mission to present their side of the story. Based on firsthand experiences in these conflicts, the nonpartisan organization Vets for Freedom launched a campaign to educate the American public about why achieving success in these conflicts is imperative.

“When I moved back to Iowa after leaving the Marines, I felt like everything I was hearing on the news was so one-sided,” Ben Hayden, Iowa state captain of Vets for Freedom, told the Iowa Independent during a telephone interview. “For those of us who fought in the Iraq war, we weren’t really getting the chance or were not given the voice to express our perceptions of what was really happening on the ground, which seemed to be the opposite of what people were hearing in the news.”

“During my deployments, I also thought it was a morale downer whenever I read the newspaper, and the only thing I was reading was how people didn’t want us to be there,” Hayden said.

After graduating from Ankeny High School in 2003, Hayden, who now resides in Coralville, joined the Marines and served two deployments to Iraq with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in 2005 and 2006.

“I really wanted to join the Marines after 9-11,” Hayden said. “I wanted to help out in some way and felt compelled to enlist. My brother is in the Marines and served in Afghanistan at the time, so that’s why I felt drawn to the Marines more than any other military branch.”

Hayden first heard of Vets for Freedom in September 2007 and got actively involved with the organization one month later. “I wanted to speak out and tell people what was really going on over there," he said, "and I felt that Vets for Freedom, which was founded by combat veterans, was the best avenue to push this cause.”

As the VFF state captain for the Iowa chapter, which currently has about 115 members, Hayden is primarily responsible for disseminating the organization's message to the media in Iowa. “What I want to do is take our message down to the local level, so people who don’t watch the national media get a chance to hear our message,” Hayden said.

During his first deployment to Iraq, when his unit partook in the siege of Fallujah, Hayden first felt the mission was bigger than himself. “I was overwhelmed by an outpouring of emotions from the Iraqi people, thanking us for what we were doing and begging us to do even more,” Hayden said. “To have parents come up to me on the streets and thank me for what we were doing and seeing people sacrifice their safety by telling us where the bad guys were made me want to come back to America and tell people what is really going on.

Our mission is to educate the American people about the importance of achieving success in both Iraq and Afghanistan, by applying our firsthand knowledge to the issues of strategy in American politics,” Hayden said. “We have a history of supporting candidates on both sides of the aisle. Basically we want the American people to know that it is extremely important for us to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan and that it should not be such a partisan issue.”

Hayden defines success in Iraq and Afghanistan as helping create a democratic society that is able to stand on its own, protect itself and create its own form of a stable democracy. “I think that we will see success when Iraqis can go to the voting booths and to police stations to sign up without having suicide bombers blow them up,” Hayden said. “We see that Iraq now accounts for 75 percent of its own spending, and there are over 540,000 members in the Iraqi armed forces. I don’t think we are too far off from fully achieving success. At the same time we do need to be concerned about the terrorists; we don’t want to just leave Iraq and have these terrorists running rampant in the country.”

Moreover, Hayden contends that this vision of democracy in Iraq has to be something that can be agreed upon by the U.S. and Iraqi governments. “We don’t want to see terrorist organizations come in and take over the government, then harbor other terrorists, which may pose an even bigger threat to national security.”

Hayden remains optimistic about achieving success in Iraq and points to last year’s troop surge as one of the factors helping lay the foundation for success in Iraq. “We have seen some of the violence levels drop dramatically this past year," Hayden said. “When you look back at the beginning of the surge and where the Iraqi government and military was and how many terrorist organizations we had in the country and compare these to today, these are measurements of success.”

Vets for Freedom maintains nonpartisan status, pledges to hold candidates accountable

Regarding this year’s political campaigns, Hayden drew distinctions between VFF and past veterans’ advocacy groups such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004. “We are not a 527 group, and we are not here to elect any candidate,” Hayden said. “As veterans, it is and always will be our job to protect the American people. We feel that we have seen the eyes of the enemies and what they are capable of doing, so it is our responsibility to get the word out and tell the people of Iowa that it is very important to be educated on this issue, regardless of what party they are in. This issue is way bigger than any election.

“The Iraqi people are extremely grateful for what we have done, and this message has been misconstrued by the media,” Hayden said. “If people would understand the importance of this issue, they would understand that we need to achieve success in Iraq and Afghanistan. “This is not a political issue, nor is it a partisan issue. To make it either one is extremely demeaning not only to the vets who have fought there but to the family and friends of those who did not make it home.”

However, Hayden said VFF will hold all candidates accountable for their words and actions that affect their vision of success in the wars. VFF launched an ad on the Internet in May that called on the presumptive Democrat presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, to pay a visit to Iraq (see video below). “We felt that it is important if he is going to run for president, he should go to Iraq and see the success that has happened since the surge. Two months later, he did just that."

Sen. Obama: When Will You Finally Visit Iraq? (Vets for Freedom ad)





“Again, we don’t see this as a partisan issue,” Hayden said. “We don’t care one way or another what candidate you vote for. We want everyone to know how the candidates feel and what they think about the situation in Iraq We have taken it upon ourselves to hold these candidates accountable for their actions and stances on Iraq.”

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

New Lottery Game Ends Veterans’ Annual Fight for Trust Funding

For many Iowa veterans, the war-front follows them home, where they have to battle for benefits already promised to them by the government through the Iowa Veterans Trust Fund (VTF). The annual battle came to an end last week when the Iowa Lottery introduced the first of four games, Stars & Stripes, that will directly benefit the fund.

“We’re very excited about having a sustainable, annual funding source for the Iowa Veterans Trust Fund,” Kent Hartwig, legislative liaison for the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, told the Iowa Independent in a telephone interview. “The response from the veterans who have received assistance from this fund has been tremendous, and this will go a long way furthering our ability to help veterans who are in need.”

To help bridge monetary gaps in federal benefits, lawmakers created the VTF in 2003 with the intent of giving the state flexibility with regard to Iowa's returning veterans and their families, in particular issues that aren't covered by federal funding such as job training, unemployment assistance, travel expenses for wounded veterans related to follow-up medical care, nursing home care, counseling programs and honor guard services.

Moreover, lawmakers intended for the VTF to eventually contain $50 million in 10 years, but only $5 million has been appropriated to the fund thus far, and Gov. Chet Culver's 2008 budget did not contain any additional revenue for the fund.

To fill the gap left in Culver’s budget, Rep. McKinley Bailey, D-Webster City, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, sponsored legislation, House File 2359, earlier this year that authorized the lottery games and appropriated the funds to the VTF. The new lottery games are estimated to generate up to $3 million a year for the trust fund at a minimal impact on the general fund.

“The trust fund was created to assist veterans and their dependents who slip through the cracks of the federal system," Bailey said on the House floor in March. "As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, those cracks become more and more apparent. As a state we have an obligation, a sacred obligation, to ensure that our veterans are taken care of when they come home. That means picking up the slack for the federal government when it lets our veterans down."

Even though Culver did not budget money for the VTF this year, he did sign the bill into law March 11, thus guaranteeing funding by removing appropriations from lawmakers and placing it in the hands of the Iowa Lottery.

“We have developed a good partnership with the Iowa Lottery,” Hartwig said. “This funding stream is a good way of doing it because it is outside the General Assembly. Before the VTF was appropriated on an annual basis, and now the lottery funds will go directly into the trust fund.”

“With the lottery, we are guaranteed to receive some amount of money every year; granted, this will vary depending on sales,” Hartwig said. “But now this is something we can count on annually to help grow the principal balance. Since we can only spend the interest, when the fund stays at $5 million, we are not able to expand our program.”

Hartwig said the VTF has given out over $100,000 since December, the biggest draw assisting unemployed veterans with service-related disabilities, who have seen gaps in their federal funding.

Moreover, Hartwig sees the IDVA’s new relationship with the Iowa Lottery as a plus, because it helps get the organization’s name out, marketing it through the tickets, which include the IDVA’s contact number at the top of every ticket. “For us, the lottery puts a spotlight on our organization. It creates a win-win situation (see below), especially since we don’t quite have the marketing resources as the Iowa Lottery.”


Benefits for veterans outweigh gambling concerns

The government’s growing dependency on using gambling revenues as a source of funding programs such as the VTF have sparked some concerns among those who deal with the negative effects of gambling.

“The new game is in line with the mission of the Iowa Lottery in terms of help and funding that is available,” Mark Vander Linden, head of the Iowa Department of Health’s Gambling Treatment and Prevention program, told the Iowa Independent during a telephone interview. “All states, except Alaska and Hawaii, have some sort of gambling. I think how Iowa chooses to addresses people who get into trouble because of gambling is probably one of the more progressive, especially in terms of using the revenues coming in from gambling to help those who are negatively affected by gambling.”

One-half of one percent of the gross revenues generated from the Iowa Lottery are earmarked for gambling treatment programs, including the 1-800-BETSOFF hotline run through Vander Linden’s office.

“The number of clients that we serve on the help line related to lottery gambling are relatively small,” Vander Linden said. “I don’t anticipate that this new scratch-off ticket is different enough to cause an increase in calls.”

However, Amy Kluver, a gambling treatment counselor at Problem Gambling Services, argues that lottery and scratch tickets may be part of a larger problem. “People think that taking care of the casino is the big issue, but there are definitely people who struggle with scratch tickets and pull tabs on a daily basis,” Kluver told the Iowa Independent in a telephone interview.

“Merging support for veterans with lottery tickets is an unfortunate aspect from our perspective,” Kluver said. “Our clients, who already have gambling problems, don’t need another reason or excuse to go out and buy another scratch ticket. They can certainly find enough reasons or excuses on their own, and this will merely supply them another reason.”

“Thankfully, not everyone has a gambling problem; it is just unfortunate that we have to turn to the lottery, especially from a gambling treatment counselor’s perspective, who sees people fueled by these types of addictions,” Kluver said. “It is unfortunate that veterans are not getting the care and service they deserve and should be getting, without having to depend on the lottery.”

Kluver, however, said that the state of Iowa is lucky that does have a program it can turn to increase funding for veterans they need. “I realize it’s not possible to find a program that makes everyone happy,” Kluver said. “But if people really want to help veterans, then they should donate money directly to them, which would be better than going out to buy a bunch of scratch tickets.”

Monday, July 7, 2008

Iowa Vets Finally Have a Place to Rest in Peace

Since March 2003, 67 soldiers with Iowa ties have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now, thanks to the recent dedication of the Iowa Veterans Cemetery (IVC) in Van Meter, Iowa’s latest fallen soldiers will have a final resting place in Iowa, where family and friends can pay their respects.

“This cemetery will be a fitting and honorable resting place for veterans who sacrificed so much for our freedom,” Gov. Chet Culver said in a statement prior to the dedication ceremony. “Every day will be Memorial Day and Veterans Day at this place of reverence.”

“The Department is extremely excited about the opening of the cemetery,” Patrick Palmersheim, Executive Director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a statement. “We are grateful for the support of the Federal [Veterans Administration], Governor Culver, former Governor [Tom] Vilsack, the Iowa Legislature, and all the Veteran service organizations for making this dream a reality.”

The official dedication of the IVC took place Thursday and was attended by a number of Iowa’s political dignitaries, including Culver, Vilsack and Sen. Chuck Grassley,
who helped procure $7.6 million from the Department of Veterans Affairs State Cemetery Grant Program for the veterans cemetery.

“Those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country deserve a proper place for remembrance in their home state,” Grassley said in a statement earlier this year. “This cemetery will provide family, friends, and fellow Iowans with an opportunity to pay their respects to our fallen soldiers.”

The IVC is the first federally funded construction of a state-owned and –operated veterans cemetery in the state of Iowa. The cemetery serves the veteran population throughout the state and around the country, as there is no state residency requirement to be interred. Honorably discharged veterans are eligible for interment at the cemetery at no cost; the spouse of a veteran can be interred for a cost of $300. Ultimately, the IVC will provide burial space for up to 80,000 burials. Thus far, over 1,000 veterans and eligible dependents have already been determined eligible.

In 2001, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (USDVA) study identified Iowa as needing a dedicated, state-owned and –operated veterans cemetery. The study counted over 280,000 veterans living in Iowa, with about 92,000 living within a 75-mile radius of Des Moines. This study triggered Iowa’s political leaders to get involved and help procure the necessary funding to help build, maintain and operate the cemetery.

The Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA) began fundraising for the cemetery on Veterans Day 2004 with the sale of Bronze and Silver Iowa Veteran Commemorative Medals. In 2005, Iowa’s legislature gave IDVA the authority to “establish and operate” a state veterans cemetery.

Construction of the IVC began in July 2007, on 100 acres of land donated by the Knapp and Kenyon families. The first phase of construction has developed 40 acres that will provide for approximately 20 years of operation.

“It is an honor and privilege to serve as the director of the Iowa Veterans Cemetery,” Director Steve Young said in a statement. “Our goal for this facility is to provide first-class, respectful service so that our veterans and their families will be remembered in perpetuity.”

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Flood 2008: Guard Passes Readiness Test at Home

In the wake of multiple deployments to war theaters in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials have been concerned about the Iowa National Guard’s readiness at home. These concerns were met head-on with the recent flooding in Iowa, which Gov. Chet Culver claimed was the biggest natural disaster in Iowa’s history.

“The response to the floods was a very visible example of the readiness level we maintain,” Iowa National Guard Public Affairs Officer Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood told the Iowa Independent during a phone interview. “The way we think about it is that readiness is our No. 1 job in the Iowa National Guard. If we are ready to go do a federal mission, which means going in to combat, we feel that we can respond to whatever is asked of us in the state of Iowa.”

The Iowa National Guard, in conjunction with the governor's office and Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and many local, state and federal entities, has been providing assistance, coordination and planning, in support of flood relief operations across the state of Iowa. More than 80 of Iowa’s 99 counties have been declared state disaster areas.

Just over 4,000 Iowa guardsmen and airmen have been activated during the ongoing response to the flooding. Currently, 9,400 men and women serve in the Iowa National Guard, 1,500 of whom are currently deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations outside of Iowa.

Citizen soldiers recently returning from combat duty in Iraq found themselves cast into new roles with activations at home. “This was something different for them and gave them an incredible sense of pride to help their fellow Iowans right here at home,” Hapgood said. “Those who deployed recently talked about how they were able to help people in countries far away and it was rewarding to provide these same services at home.”

These soldiers were not the only ones cast into new roles. Members of the 34th Army Band out of Fairfieldfound themselves putting their instruments aside and mobilizing north to the flooding in Iowa City and Coralville. Spc. Amy Wymore and Spc. Joshua Clayworth volunteered for deployment June 12, three days before the rest of the unit was officially activated and deployed to the Iowa City area. It was the first time either one of them had been activated since joining the Guard in December 2004.

“I was more than happy to volunteer for this duty, because when it comes down to it, we are all Iowans, and I’m proud to do whatever I can to help out,” Clayworth, who plays the guitar for the 34th, told the Iowa Independent June 16 in Coralville.

Wymore, who plays the flute and piccolo for the 34th, volunteered for duty, despite starting a new internship. “I have a lot going on right now with my new job, and I knew it would be easy to say 'no' and look the other way, but I really wanted to help people out in their time of need,” Wymore said. “After all, that’s the reason why I signed up for the National Guard in the first place.” She said her new employers were very supportive of her decision to volunteer for flood relief operations.

Spc. Clayworth (left) and Spc. Wymore (right) were assigned to keep civilian traffic to a minimum, diverting them away from the flooded HW 6 in Coralville and making sure boaters had a permit from the City of Coralville.

Flood response provides learning opportunity

The Guard’s mission in the flood operation took on multiple facets, including a planning component for future operations. “For us,it was all about trying to forecast what the future will bring and then try to project the correct number of forces, equipment and vehicles we will need for future operations,” Hapgood said. “We are trying to foresee what problems future floods might bring or what we might be asked to do in similar circumstances.”

Moreover, the Guard drew from experiences in previous natural disasters, namely the floods of ’93, as well as combat missions to apply what they have already learned. “We used some of the lessons we have learned in combat to actually fight the floods,” Hapgood said.

For example, Hapgood cited the Guard’s use of the HESCO barriers as a tangible example of lessons learned in combat that were applicable to flooding operations. “Our engineers used these in Iraq to protect buildings and other facilities form improvised explosive devices,” Hapgood said. “We used HESCOs extensively in Ottumwa to keep water out, in particular at the water treatment plant. Not only were they very effective, but we never used them in this type of application and they were much easier to install than we previously thought.”

On a final note, Hapgood noted that the recent response to the flooding gave Iowans a sense of security to see how many forces we have here right at home ready to help out. “The support we received from the communities was unparalleled,” Hapgood said. “We saw the goodness of people, and we saw how people bonded together. This made you feel that we really do live in a special place.”

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

‘In Their Boots’ Series Kicks Off Tonight

As media coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to decline, Brave New Films has stepped up its online efforts to help bring the war home.

The weekly web documentary series, “In Their Boots,” is funded by a grant from the Iraq Afghanistan Deployment Impact fund (IADIF), produced by Brave New Foundation (BNF), and will be live-streamed beginning tonight at 6 p.m. (CST).

The online show will broadcast a new episode every Wednesday and will feature Iraq and Afghanistan service men and women and their families, who share how their lives have been impacted by these ongoing wars.

Then, in a live forum the series host, Jan Bender, will interview the participants and lead a discussion that includes experts, service-providers and individual viewers in an interactive discussion of the issues raised. Bender is a veteran of the war in Iraq who served as a rifleman/combat correspondent in Iraq with 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines from 2004 to 2005.

“In Their Boots” Trailer



The idea for the new series stemmed from a conversation between Jim Miller of BNF and a supporter, which Miller documents in an e-mail message sent out to other supporters:

Last summer I got a call from someone who had seen some of our past work. She started off being extremely complimentary about the issues we were bringing to light, marveling at how widely we were able to distribute our short videos to not only inform, but to motivate viewers to take action. She then asked if Brave New Foundation would be interested in taking on a large project to help amplify the stories of a group of Americans whose efforts and sacrifices weren't being acknowledged. She warned me that it would be a difficult task since it only directly affected less than 1% of the US population.

Being a bit headstrong (even in my middle age), I said that no task was too difficult. If there is an injustice, we could tackle it and help to make it right! But what she wanted was difficult. The task we took on was to tell the stories of servicemembers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Over the past several months, as we gathered our staff and began to meet the men and women who have served, we knew that it would be a privilege to be able to share the stories of these servicemembers and their families so that the other 99% of the US population can better understand what is happening to our troops when they return from war.

Friday, June 20, 2008

New GI Bill Survives the Right Way, the Congressional Way and the Bush Way

When it comes to updating the 64-year-old GI Bill, a military adage comes to mind: There is the right way, the wrong way and the President Bush way. After reaching a more costly compromise that would avert Bush’s veto pen, the House voted Thursday to approve the 21st-century GI Bill.

Bush is expected to sign the latest version of the bill, which prompted Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., to issue a statement regarding the president’s pledge. “For the past 17 months, I and my staff have been working every day to provide first-class educational benefits to those who have served since 9/11,” Webb said. “I am delighted that after having opposed this legislation, the President has now pledged that he will not veto it when it comes before him as part of this year’s supplemental appropriations package.

“I would like to again express my appreciation to the veterans’ service organizations, many of whom communicated their support of this bill directly to a skeptical White House, and to the 58 Senate and 302 House cosponsors of this landmark legislation,” Webb said. “This bipartisan coalition consistently rejected the allegations of this Administration, and of Senators McCain, Burr and Graham, among others, who claimed that the bill was too generous to our veterans, too difficult to administer and would hurt retention.”

While simultaneously praising the passage of the war-funding bill, Republican presidential nominee John McCain of Arizona voiced his reservations: “I am pleased an agreement has finally been reached to fund our troops,” McCain said in a statement. "That [retention] has always been my primary concern with respect to the Webb bill, and it is essential that we continue to act decisively to encourage military service and ensure the well being of our All Volunteer Force.”

The Congressional Way

But how the bill finally reached Bush’s desk gives new meaning to the definition of quagmire.

The bill, originally introduced by Webb, had bipartisan support early on, but it hit a few snags in Congress, including the threat of a revolt from members of the Blue Dog Democrats and objections from McCain.

McCain, who sided with the Bush administration’s reasoning in refusing to support Webb’s version, offered his own version, which was immediately shot down in the Senate. Citing the same reasons as Bush did in explaining why the president planned on vetoing the measure, McCain objected to giving veterans, after serving only a few years, an education benefit equivalent to the tuition of a state’s highest-priced public institution. McCain voiced concerns that Webb’s bill would persuade service members to leave the military early and pursue higher education.

Webb’s version passed with overwhelming bipartisan support by a vote 75-22. McCain, however, was AWOL on the day of the vote, reportedly raising money in California for his presidential bid.

The bill moved to the House, where it initially appeared it would receive veto-proof support from both parties. However, some members of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats threatened to revolt, citing the "pay as you go" budget rules that require new benefit programs be financed with offsetting spending cuts or new taxes so as not to increase the budget deficit. They argued that the war funding bill is an emergency appropriation, but the veterans' education funding is a new mandatory benefit program that's supposed to be subject to the budget rule.

"It's the principle involved of not putting a mandatory program of any kind on an emergency supplemental," Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., told the AP.

However, not all the Blue Dogs shared this view or threatened to revolt, including Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, a 20-year Army veteran, who was one of the 277 House members co-sponsoring the new legislation.

Boswell's chief of staff, Susan McAvoy, told the Iowa Independent that the opposition was not officially endorsed by the Blue Dog coalition. "Boswell informed his colleagues where he stood prior to any debate on the bill," McAvoy said. "Rep. Boswell is very supportive of veterans and would not do anything that would keep the new GI Bill from moving forward in the House."

Despite the House’s most recent compromise with the administration, some of the Blue Dog Democrats are still upset with the $62 billion price tag on the GI Bill benefits, which will be added to the deficit instead of being “paid for” as called for under House rules.

The Bush Way

All during the congressional process, Bush had threatened to veto the new GI Bill because of the costs, but ironically, the administration pushed for a compromise that would boost the funding an additional $10 billion over 10 years.

The White House wanted to add a provision that would allow troops to transfer their educational benefits to their spouses or children.

In an interview with the AP, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., responded to the White House push: "It's like the Yogi Berra story: 'I don't like that restaurant. Besides, the portions aren't large enough. They don't like it, but they want more."

"It's not a bad idea," Pelosi added. "It just costs money."

And it looks like the compromise process yielded just that: a GI Bill that will cost more money.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Vets Coordinator Helps Ease Soldiers' Transition to UI Student Life

Like most veterans transitioning from the military to academic life, John Mikelson, 48, does not fit the traditional mold of most college students. After taking a 25-year hiatus from college, most of which was spent on active duty in the military, Mikelson returned to the University of Iowa in 2005.

“I found out I was unemployable,” Mikelson told the Iowa Independent during an interview. “Twenty-five years of military experience doesn’t mean anything to a civilian employer. I had comparable civilian experience for jobs I was seeking, but when potential employers discovered I didn’t have a degree, they told me to come back when I had one.”

Mikelson did just that. He recently earned his Bachelor of Arts in history and is currently enrolled in a graduate program, Higher Education in Policy and Leadership Studies. Moreover, Mikelson balances his academics with his position as the UI veterans coordinator, a full-time work-study position equally funded by the UI and the VA.

“My ultimate goal is to make the veterans coordinator job a permanent paid position on this campus and every public university campus across the country,” Mikelson said. “I think there is a need for transition centers like this one at the UI. When soldiers get demobilized, the military tells them everything they need to know in three days, but all they want is to see their spouses and family waiting on the other side of the fence.

“It’s like trying to catch a sip from a fire hose,” Mikelson said, “and when they hit the campus they realize they don’t know what they are doing.”

Mikelson, along with McKinley Bailey who now serves on the veterans committee of the Iowa House of Representatives, helped start the UI Student Veterans Association in 2005. Working through this association, members procured space to start a veterans center in 2006, which helped lay the foundation for the creation of Mikelson’s coordinator position.

The UI has around 300 veterans enrolled in classes this semester, and Mikelson’s job is to reach out to this targeted population and serve their specific needs should any problems arise during a student’s academic life. These issues range from helping a student veteran find a real estate agent who understands VA loans to helping a disabled veteran find employment in the community.

“We keep our ROCH book, or Reach Out and Call for Help, updated at all times,” Mikelson said. “This is filled with everything from information regarding current GI Bill benefits to congressional contact information. The key to outreach is knowing who to call, and we’ve already reached out to several academic advisers who are veterans. Because the military has its own language, vernacular and idiosyncrasies, it’s been helpful having contacts who speak the military language.”

Student vets face unique issues

As a veterans coordinator, Mikelson deals with a plethora of issues and concerns facing students, whether it’s before, during, or after deployment. “A common question I get from students is whether they should start classes if they know they are going to be deployed before midterm,” he said. “Midterm is the cutoff where they can receive credit or a refund. They also have the option of taking an incomplete and finishing the course after they return.”

Mikelson says that it’s more common for students to find out during the semester that they are going to be deployed by semester’s end. “When this happens, we have to sit down and evaluate what’s the best course of action for each case. The main goal is that nobody should be penalized for being deployed.”

“Professors have been very accommodating,” Mikelson said. “Most problems we’ve encountered were due to ignorance on either side, whether the student didn’t explain things very well or the professor wasn’t aware of the specifics of policy.”

Transitioning back into civilian and academic life poses other concerns, both mentally and physically, that Mikelson helps student veterans address. “We have our share of traumatic brain injuries (TBI),” he said. “Thanks to improved body armor and evacuation procedures, what would have killed us in WW II or Vietnam, is simply not the case in today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of coming back in body bags, soldiers are returning with lasting brain injuries. It’s the equivalency of adult shaken-baby syndrome."

One major problem with treating TBI is the diagnostic phase, because a lot of soldiers fear stigmatic repercussions, Mickelson said, and won’t admit they have a problem. “They’ve been told over and over that they are supermen and women, and they just need to suck it up,” Mickelson said. “When they get to the UI, they realize it’s more than a little pain. TBI is just as much an injury as a physical one; it’s the sucking chest wound of the mind.”

Mikelson is encouraged by VA and military efforts to remove the stigma. “We have been working with the VA’s peer-to-peer counselor program, outreach coordinators, and other means that are less threatening to our veterans,” Mikelson said. “The Iowa Guard has been doing really good things with its Operation Enduring Families program. After demobilization, Guard and Reservists have 90 days before they go back to drill. During the first 30 days, they have a mandatory gathering with their spouse or next of kin to gauge any problems that may have surfaced since their return to civilian life.”

Problems regarding educational benefits earned through the GI Bill have come up over the past few years, but Mikelson is optimistic the 21st Century GI Bill will address some of these concerns. “Last year, a number of people were told they didn’t qualify for the higher benefits, but after a long fight between the VA and the Department of Defense, it was determined veterans had 14 years after separation to utilize their enhanced benefits,” Mikelson said. “And despite the DoD’s retention concerns, a recent report indicates that retention rates have not been adversely effected.”

Two things Mikelson said he likes about the new GI Bill, which currently sits on President Bush’s desk, is that it will do away with the $1,200 buy-in stipulation. “New enlistees should not be paying this at a time in their lives when they can least afford it,” he said. “I also like that it will pay the benefits up front when the tuition is due and students need money for books.”

“The current GI bill was designed in peace time and has not kept pace with the rising costs of education,” Mikelson said. “Veterans tend to be older students and have spouses and dependents they are supporting, so it’s a challenge to make ends meet. A number of veterans are trying to balance family with full-time classes and full-time employment, not to mention they have the additional challenge of readjusting to civilian life. I think the new GI Bill benefits will help ease some of these burdens.”